This is the best place to start with William Gaddis, and yet, it's not.
On the odd chance that I'm writing this to someone who has wandered onto this page by accident and has no clue who Gaddis is (it's okay if you weren't aware of him previously, he's a tad obscure . . . but I'm still impressed you made it here somehow), he was a man known for writing lengthy, complex and erudite novels, so lengthy and complex that he only managed to write about five in his lifetime, of which this is one. Most of the others have something that would scare off the casual reader, whether it's because it's nine hundred pages ("The Recognitions"), completely comprised of dialogue ("JR" - probably my favorite and the best primer for writing dialogue as cacophony that still advances the narrative . . . just like real life) or uses mounds of legalese ("A Frolic of His Own") it's not that he intentionally made things difficult, it's just that he was going to do it his way and he really didn't care about waiting around to see if you were going to catch up.
He passed away in 1998, and this was published several years later. Its genesis lies in extensive notes that were taken over the years for a history of the player piano but have now been folded into an extended shifting stream of consciousness monologue from a dying writer who is sorting through the disposition of his property and boxes of information about player pianos that he's gathered over the years. There's no dialogue and only one paragraph so once it starts there's no stopping it, not unlike the raspy old man at the bar that twenty minutes into his long, rambling story you realize that everyone else has moved away and left you alone, it's just you and him. And honestly, he doesn't even really need you.
Its length makes its by far the most accessible of his works. Even if you simply power through it'll probably take a little over an hour or so to skim all ninety some odd pages. But there's no true narrative here, no real rising or falling action in the literal sense, and no momentum except for the ceaseless rhythm of a dying voice throwing everything against the wall in the hopes that something will stick and in that sticking won't get washed off right away. Its the sound of someone trying to leave a mark and realizing that everything blends into the color of oblivion eventually. The question is: is it worth trying? The fact that I just finished a ninety page rant suggests that perhaps it is.
People looking for a plot are going to be sorely disappointed but if you came here looking for convention you're definitely in the wrong place. The style comes across as Beckett mixed with Thomas Bernhard (who I've never read but is referenced here and in the helpful forward and afterword), never disjointed but choppy, shifting from one idea to another and then back again with all the speed of whiplash as the narrator rails against the dissolution of civilization, of creativity, of his own body, has imaginary conversations with the old writers and philosophers he admires, all coming at you in prose so tightly compressed that its not until you start looking up references and come up for air that you realize how much is packed in here. Its the sound of a man acutely aware of his mortality, aware that time is running out, and who isn't happy about it and will not accept it, and in that knowledge has become determined to cram in everything he ever thought important, to create something in a world where creativity has ceased to exist, where people are willing to simply plug in the machine and let it play the fruits of other peoples' labors. Art should inspire us to create more of our own, not allow us to simply sit back and passively admire it. In that sense it comes across as less cranky rant than muted scream, desperate to get people to pay attention when even he's lost the ability to even focus. Better people than me can tell you how autobiographical it all is, but you don't need to be an academic scholar to start seeing the parallels. It's not a last will and testament, it's a last ditch effort, and its all too aware of the odds.
It's an easy book to read but not an easy one to digest. The topics shift with all the hyperactivity of a toddler let loose in the Shiny Things Museum and in what has to be an unintentional homage to hip-hop, the narrative drops in quotes from the writers he admires, Bernhard and Tolstoy among others, often addressing their characters directly (Tolstoy gets referenced a lot, unfortunately for me just about every novel but "War and Peace", completely negating my pride at having finished that behemoth). It's the kind of work that becomes more meaningful when you understand the context of what he's referencing, and its almost designed to keep a certain Internet encyclopedia handy if you're so inclined. And if you're not the kind of person who immediately tries to look up stuff he's not familiar with in a work he's enjoying, its quite possible that William Gaddis isn't the author for you.
But even if you don't know your Tolstoy from your Toy Story, what comes across this work is both the passion and the desperation. He puts the invention of the player piano at the heart of everything that's gone wrong, separating people from each other and leaving it unnecessary to make art anymore. He comes across as acutely worried for the world that's to come, and while the specter of death circles the edges of the novel, it never becomes harrowing. He's frustrated that he can't get through and doesn't want to run out of time, but its us poor saps that get left behind that are in for it eventually. He'll be past all concerns. It shows how we're the culmination of all that matters to us, not only what we like but our dislikes as well, the proof that we don't do enough when we could do more. It attacks the spiraling fear that we could say all the best things, if we only had enough time, and lets us watch as he lays too slow, and all the rest remains out of reach. It's the kind of book where every page is the kind of page where you'd underline perfectly said phrases, spectacular in their improvised splatter, and all the more remarkable because they aren't improvised.
At least once per year it seems I read a work where an awareness of mortality lays as close as the condensation from our breath on the bathroom mirror. It's not a story as much as a channeling of one man's emotions about death and dying into a narrative where that nearness is omnipresent, while the author is aware that the slide he feels is the slide into the inevitable. It skirts along the honest edge without ever becoming pitying or maudlin but lays out all the rancor and fear, all the missed opportunities and the hope. It snarls without teeth because that's what you do when you've poured it all in and have nothing left and makes it even more surprising when you look down and see the bite marks. It's everything he ever did and would have done, compressed until its black and hard and impossible to shatter, and departs while daring. It walks with us right up to the border of all things and pauses just long enough to look back and say "I've done all I can, now what can do you do?" before vanishing into a place where only immortality goes. It begs us to do something other than disintegrate and if you think that's not possible, know that there is success and there is proof. Here. Here it is. It has no weight. And it'll last as long as words do.