on April 14, 2000
Gaddis' 'JR' has my nomination for the best American novel of the last half of the 20th century. It is also one of the two or three funniest American novels I can remember reading, right up there with 'Lolita'. It is composed entirely in dialogue, without any breaks at all, and it is sometimes difficult to tell who is talking, but once into the rhythm of the talk, it becomes clearer. It also helps to have an MBA or some business background, as the business deals it describes, to hilarious effect, are sometimes very intricate. It is the story of an 11-year old school kid wheeler-dealer who builds a gigantic paper empire 'bubble' from some army surplus items ordered from a comic book. He manages to involve various adults, including his teacher, in his capitalist schemes. It is a savage and entirely prescient view of America, foreseeing much of the present stock market madness (and it fact its comic hyperbole does not seem so wild now in light of our own real world stock market 'irrational exuberence'). It is unequalled as a depiction of the warping influences in people's lives caused by the capitalist ethic, where serious artists are devalued by the dictates of the market. If you enjoy Pynchon, Barth, or Joseph McElroy (another undeservedly unknown American writer) you will like Gaddis. This is a book to come back to again---read it now before our stock market bubble bursts!
on March 22, 2000
There's no denying it; Gaddis's JR is a hard book to get into. But once you've got into it, it's even harder to get out of. For a book that takes place entirely during the first half of a school year someplace on Long Island during the 70's, the diversity of characters, situations, and social circles is staggering. Characters include foul mouthed and foul minded sixth graders, failed intellectuals/alcoholics hiding out as school teachers, attorneys both earnest and corrupt, mid-level corporate bureaucrats, vicious corporate power brokers -- and that's only a partial catalog. As for the situations, just imagine the above types thrown against each other as a result of a sequence of wild, hilarious but ultimately plausible securities manipulations, and the end result is a portrait of our society in all its breadth and depth, with no wart unexamined. The book is as funny as it is frightening, especially considering how prophetic it is. Although the corporate vogue of the seventies was diversified conglomerates, Gaddis saw beyond that to the leveraged buyout schemes, vulture capitalism, and downsizing of the 80s and 90s. But it's not just a book about the culture of business; it's also about the business of culture. Gaddis makes composers, novelists, painters indirect accomplices in his comedy of horrors, despite their intentions and asprirations. But enough description; just read it, read it, read it.
on October 11, 1998
A masterful foray into what makes American great (and grate), by a novelist who has amply earned his stripes as an underappreciated, even obscure presence in American literature. People often give up on "JR"--both letters capital--because this horrifyingly funny book requires that you spend time learning how to read it, all in the name of intensifying your reading experience. Most of "JR" is dialogue; there are no chapter or section breaks to speak of; speakers are only rarely identified. Still, the book sings, and the overall power of its chorus obscures the fact that you don't always know who the soloists are. In simple terms, it is a book about counterfeiting that pretends to be a host of other things--as of course it should. And Enormous and complex pleasures await readers new to Gaddis. Readers wanting more information about this wonderful novelist would be well-advised to investigate Steven Moore's book on Gaddis for Twayne Publishers, entitled simply "William Gaddis." Moore makes Gaddis's plenty seem manageable, and he writes extraordinarily beautiful criticism. While I cannot speak to this novel's greatness, and wouldn't want to, I can say that of the hundreds of novels I have read down the years, this is my favorite, as well as the second-funniest book to which I have been privy.
on June 8, 2000
JR is a work of genius that ranks just below the greatest novels in English in this century. As other reviewers have said, it is a comic and satiric masterpiece. It also has passages of lacerating sadness--for example, Gibbs, Eigen and, one senses, Bast are profoundly depressing examples of youthful promise turned or turning very sour. For all its undeniable brilliance of insight and technique, however, I think JR falls slightly short of the best work of authors such as Joyce, Conrad, or Faulkner. Its major points about American capitalism and culture, though convincing, are not revelatory, and the book does not illuminate, explain or express human experience in quite the transcendent way that, say, Ulysses, Heart of Darkness or Absolam, Absolam (sp?) do. Still, after a little tough sledding early on, JR is an absolute joy to read and fully deserves all the praise accorded it.
on May 8, 2000
Scathing. Funny. Horrific. Brilliant. Gloriously Gaddis. What we have here is a systematic dissection of capitalist culture that has all the grotesquerie, fascination,and humor of your 9th grade biology class. What I found truly enlightening was Gaddis's subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, examination of the effects of a free market economy on the psychological makeup and ethical systems of us humans: at once the only impetus and the most lowly cog in the great capitalist machine. The characters are fascinating and utterly believable, even in their complete eccentricity-I swear I had some of those teachers in high school. What with the unique subject matter and the fact that it is written entirely in dialouge, getting into JR is rather like riding a camel-a very weird rhythm at first but just utterly fabuluous en fin.
on January 24, 2000
The man has a perfect ear for talk. The catch is, it's talk of the stupidest, most insipid kind, betraying in its every word the breakdown of community between men and women that Gaddis sees.
Everything wrong with mainstream American society is exposed: the pomposity of the law, the vapidity of the educational system, and above all the corrupting and distancing power of money. And his characters do their best to cope, but it isn't enough.
Not against this 700+ page verbal monstrosity of continual patter that reads like a distillation of every journalist, TV news anchor, Hollywood celebrity, high school cheerleader, politician, scientist, lawyer, doctor, CEO, and fool in the land.
This book may be the most exhausting ever written by an American author. Nonetheless it is continually and nervously funny.
on July 4, 1997
JR is, and I think will come to be seen as, one of the greatest works of literature. Like the world¹s other masterpieces, it rewards persistence magnificently. Like them, it takes some adjustment, for it is a sort of parallel world with a structure and complexity mirroring ours so well that one may mistake it, as one may take our world, for random chaos (the novel contains, in fact, a scene of pandemonium unequaled in literature). But the more one reads it, the more formal excellence it discloses: both in its overall plan and in its detail. JR is a book of voices, written mostly in dialogue. Among other things, it is the greatest novel of New York and environs ever written. Head and shoulders above any other American novel of this century. Buy it, and just keep reading
on June 24, 1997
You need to set aside your pride to read anything by William Gaddis, because at first you'll think he makes no sense. As you get used to his singular style, however, it becomes apparent that the man has caught more of the rhythm and cadence of American life than anyone this century. He understands the transactional mindset that is so singular to American myth, the constant reassessing of worth in the marketplace of ego and ideas. Moreover, he's figured out a way to translate this unquantifiable belief structure to paper. Only Wallace Stevens has as clear and true a vision of this gorgeous and awkward Arcadia we call America
on March 18, 1999
I was heartened to see other reader comments on this intensely subversive, fabulously funny and amazing novel of commerce, art and the American Century. Once you get that it READS like LISTENING - to say, a radio play - it is not at all hard to follow. I could not put this book down when I first read it. Maybe there isn't such a thing as the Great American Novel, but this book (and Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow) comes the closest.
on May 19, 1998
As in his "Recognitions", Gaddis has shown himself the true successor to Joyce. In wonderful verve he displays his understanding of America with the usual acute insight, humour and relish. He also examines the superficiality and materialism that comes with an established free-enterprise economy. Art has its saving graces but cannot save society (only perhaps the handful) in an imperfect world.