Today’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Zach Falcon. Falcon’s debut short story collection, Cabin, Clearing, Forest, was recently published by University of Alaska Press. In sharp and lyrical writing, Falcon’s collection explores the interior lives and domestic relations of people shaped by Alaska, in all its isolation, beauty, and brutality. Here, Falcon shares his love of William Gaddis’s JR.
I am oppositional. Confronted with a task, I buck and tug like a willful puppy introduced to the leash. For instance, at the time of this writing, I have three pressing deadlines, and I just spent the last two days unnecessarily painting our bathroom. It’s a character flaw; I’m not proud of it. But it once led me to read JR by William Gaddis, for which I am grateful. It was during the fall exam period in my first year of law school, when I should have been reading anything but fiction.
After a full semester, attending every class and taking copious notes, I had no idea what I was doing or what the hell the law was even about. The worst of it was civil procedure, a subject which, near as I could figure, concerned postal regulations. On the off chance I was mistaken (I was), I elected to spend a leisurely afternoon in a bookstore searching out an easy-to-read study guide. Instead, I found myself in the fiction section. I noticed a paperback with an inch-and-a-half-thick spine. JR. I eased it off the shelf: 826 pages. The book was a very large bathroom to paint while deadlines loomed. “You should read that,” I told myself. “It won the National Book Award in 1976. You should finish that, and then study.”
Perhaps the sole benefit of an oppositional temperament is that you can make real headway on a project so long as you are ducking something more pressing. And a reader needs to make quick headway to enjoy JR. Much has been made of JR’s impenetrability (one reviewer dismissed it as “unreadable”), but it’s not actually difficult. It is written primarily in unattributed dialogue, without chapter breaks, and it takes about forty pages to find your feet. Before that, the reader may feel at sea. After, you can lock in and make sense of what the book is about, which is America. And Wall Street. And entropy. It is a bleak Long Island satire concerning business and education and culture and art. The title character is JR Vansant, an 11-year-old boy who hustles surplus plastic forks and penny stocks into an unhinged financial empire. It crystalizes the difference between the disingenuous and the naïve, and rages against the relentless debasement of the authentic. As compelling as its subjects are, however, the genius of JR does not lie in its content. That’s not why I love it, anyway.
I love JR because of what happened to me after those first forty pages. After I locked in. The book is a carnival of voices, dozens of voices, tumbling over each other, each with their own tics and patterns and echoes and repetitions. There is Miss Flesch: “PRwise it can’t hurt us educationwise.” And Mr. Whitbeck, “Yes well ahm, yes of course that does make things simpler.” JR: “Hey wait, I mean you’re not mad are you hey?” And the ranting Jack Gibbs: “God damn it listen!” The book is built of ellipses, interruptions, dissembling, babbling, hemming, and hawing. Here is the chaos of a crowd, including a school field trip, exiting a subway:
— Okay look what do you want for it, look I’ll . . .
— We can’t hey, we’re there . . .
— Boys and girls? Let’s wait till everyone gets out . . .
— Boy this train should have had a wreck hey look at all the lousy teachers on it . . .
— When we can’t even get room in the cafeteria for driver training because they took the Senior Citizens’ painting class out of the gym when they started the prenatal care program there what’s going to happen to the adult hobby show?
— For the kind of evaluative criterions you find in these kind of environmental settings . . .
— With the educational discount a lawnmower like that should be about forty-two dollars, so I said. . .
— When they tried to tell me I didn’t know enough math to teach it I showed them enough units for the certificates and you should have seen their faces . . .
— Like they do in Russia, so I said . . .
— Nine, eleven twelve are there? thirteen? You didn’t happen to count them Mister Bast?
The genius of Gaddis is that he absolutely trusts the reader to participate, to remember, to pay attention. His sentences resist passive consumption; they invite collaborative engagement. The voices become recognizable and familiar. They play in your head like old-time radio, immediate and three-dimensional. By the time one reaches the subway scene above, it is as clear as overhearing family in the kitchen. Unique among novels, JR leaves an exquisitely designed space for the reader to occupy—the text is incomplete until it’s read. As one character, a composer, explains: “I mean there are some things you can’t really write down especially simple things, they just have to be left for the performer and till the music is actually performed it doesn’t really exist at all.” Collaborating with JR, calling it into existence through thought, remains one of the most giddily thrilling reading experiences of my life.
I consumed JR in a three-day fever, almost without stopping. When I did occasionally set the book aside, it was often to look up a word, usually a legal one. Several subplots concern the litigation that sprawls from JR’s schemes. Many of the voices belong to lawyers, arguing about trusts, corporate law, and yes, even the finer points of civil procedure. “There is no question of justice, or right and wrong,” I learned from Mr. Coen. “The law seeks order.” Which turned out to be a fine thing to know when I finally returned to my studies, oppositional fit extinguished, forever changed by Gaddis’s brilliant chaos.
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