I recently finished reading William Gaddis's 956-page The Recognitions and feel a similar sense of achievement to that I experienced on finishing James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), Lionel Britton's Hunger and Love (1931), David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest (1996) and Alexander Theroux's Laura Warholic: or, the Sexual Intellectual (2005). It's not just that all of these novels are extremely long, but that they can all also be described as 'experimental': they resist being fitted into the conventional pattern of the novel. Although in 2005 Time recognized The Recognitions as one of the best one hundred novels published since the magazine began in 1923, the novel famously had a poor critical reception – famously because the lower case jack green, a pseudonym for the actuary Christopher Carlisle Reid, wrote a much quoted and oddly punctuated article about it in his magazine newspaper. Called 'Fire the Bastards!', jack green analyzed the initial fifty-five reviews of Gaddis's first novel and found most of them lazy and clichéd: he considered only two of them to be 'adequate'.
Gaddis originally intended a much shorter work based on Goethe's Faust, but the idea of forgery came in and expanded it. It is also based on a third century religious publication, the Clementine Recognitions, which Gaddis calls 'the first Christian novel', and originally thought of his first novel as the last Christian novel. The search for salvation, authenticity, and the idea of redemption are of central importance in a world shot through with falseness.
In this book, one of the main characters, Wyatt Gwyon, is a forger of paintings, and another, Otto Pivner, is a playwright looking for a plot amid suggestions that he has borrowed from other works. And Gaddis piles on the falsehoods, copies, lies, substitutes, pretences, impersonations, etc.
We learn, of instance, if we didn't already know it, that the tune of the popular song 'Yes, We Have No Bananas' was actually taken from the Halleluja chorus of Handel's Messiah; Frank Sinisterra (whose name Gaddis himself has largely borrowed, of course) makes counterfeit money and impersonates a ship's captain at the beginning, and a Romanian called Yák near the end, of the book; Mr Feddle falsely signs books for fun; Otto pretends to have been wounded in a non-existent Central American revolution and wears a sling to brag about it: the degree of the falsehood can be small or little, but it is recognized throughout this novel.
Gaddis is fond of drawing up lists, and among one of them a number of objects appear, of which I've selected several (sometimes surreally) false things: 'decorative wooden easel and palette', 'a dusty imitation ink-blot', a dusty imitation dog spiral', 'a talking doll', 'Venus de Milo with a clock in her belly', 'a sewing kit (resembles quality bone china) figurine', 'a false face, mounted on a false face'. Tropes of falseness are often layered in Gaddis's world, and the word 'palimpsest' (which I think it is apt in this book to see as a multiplicity of re-cognitions) is mentioned a number of times.
Esoteric references (often religious) abound; humorous (sometimes punningly scatological) names (Agnes Deigh, Recktall Brown, Dr Weissgall, the 5 Jones brothers ('los cinco-jones')) are relished; a long suicide letter by Esme is a reproduction of a non-suicidal letter Gaddis received from 'muse' Sheri Martinelli, on whom the character is based.
This is just some of the fun that Gaddis has with language in this very serious novel, which beyond any doubt holds an important place in the history of literature, hovering as it does between the modernist and postmodernist periods. But it is undoubtedly a difficult book, as everyone who comments on it points out. The link below to Stephen Moore's 'A Reader's Guide to William Gaddis's The Recognitions' contains synopses of all the chapters, and numerous annotations.
'A Reader's Guide to William Gaddis's The Recognitions', by Stephen Moore
'Fire the Bastards!' (1962), by 'jack green' (Christopher Carlisle Reid)
Paris Review, 24 January 2012: 'Mistaken Identity', by Jenny Hendrix
'Mr. Difficult: William Gaddis and the Problem of Hard-to-Read Books', by Jonathan Franzen
Paris Review, 4 November 1986: 'William Gaddis, The Art of Fiction No. 101' – Interviewer Zoltán Abádi-Nagy