I have just done something that few readers of literary fiction will ever do: I have finished The Recognitions. The book that I have referred to for years as my Penguin Classics Bad Conscience will trouble me no more. (Excuse me while I reset my shoulder; I just dislocated it patting myself on the back.) At the end of this first reading, I conclude that it's a book worth reading once, but probably not twice. And even as I type this, I remind myself that I sometimes don't recognize (pun intended) the greatness of a book until my second reading. My first reading of Ulysses left me bewildered and nonplussed; I've now read it 7 or 8 times and it's at the top of my 'favorite novels' list. On the other hand, the overwhelming greatness of some books (Tristram Shandy, The Master and Margarita, Jacques the Fatalist) was readily apparent to me during my first reading. I don't think The Recognitions belongs in that exalted company, and the reasons are several.
While the book begins very strongly, with a brilliant and beautifully written (and long, but it's so good the length doesn't bother me) first chapter describing Wyatt Gwyon's childhood in a narrative voice that surprisingly echoes the bitter ironies of Mark Twain's late style, the novel then very quickly goes off the rails. To mix metaphors, it's as though Gaddis puts his novel in a centrifuge and forces us to watch as the parts fly off in various directions. I also (and perhaps more appropriately given the book's repeated references to the atomic bomb) thought of those diagrams of the results of atom smashing experiments, with subatomic particles flying off on various trajectories. (This analogy probably fits Gravity's Rainbow better than The Recognitions.) While all of these analogies might be used to justify Gaddis's structure, none of them can explain away the book's biggest structural and conceptual flaw: with only a few surprising exceptions (Stanley, Mr. Pivner) the other characters Gaddis introduces are less interesting and original than Wyatt. The Wyatt Gwyon narrative is the book's strongest and strangest. The novel's big Dickensian world of other people and stories ultimately broadens Gaddis's themes without substantially deepening them.
I also think that about 300 pages could be cut from this novel without harming it a bit. There are too many cocktail parties, too many scenes at the bohemian cafe where Return to Sorrento is always playing on the jukebox, too many pages devoted to annoying minor characters who add little or nothing to the book, too much...well, just too much--of everything.
A perhaps subconscious motive for this overabundance may lie at the heart of the novel's strength, in the Wyatt Gwyon story itself. The Wyatt narrative is so original that it threatens to undermine the novel's major theme: the impossibility of authenticity and originality in the modern world. Here at the center of his own novel, Gaddis has constructed a solid (albeit highly ironized) answer to his novel's argument, a brilliant example of original, authentic artistic creation in the age of Dale Carnegie and Geritol. On some level Gaddis must have sensed the danger that the Wyatt narrative posed to his larger project, and this realization might have led to the desire to 'conceal' Wyatt behind a screen of cardboard cut-out characters, to bury his story under a flood of fakes and fakery. (Gaddis, were he still alive, might object that this was all exactly his point and that I've missed a level of irony. This is entirely possible. Even the Wyatt narrative, after all, is finally just like all the others: a bit of Gaddisean fakery built from the abracadabra of the author's words--and not entirely his words, come to think of it, for some of them were taken from J.G. Frazer and T.S. Eliot and...)
That said, there is some truly gorgeous and remarkable stuff in this book, even outside the Wyatt story. The Mephistophelean Recktall Brown is a wonderful creation with a perfectly crappy name. ("Recktall Brown is reality" says a character at one point.) The Stanley narrative at times comes close to the Wyatt storyline in terms of sheer religious weirdness, and Stanley's death is a near-perfect closing note, the church collapsing on top of him because he's an American and doesn't bother to learn Italian before traveling to Italy. (A nice little cautionary tale for Ugly Americans abroad.) Gaddis's characterization of Mr. Pivner, a man who takes Dale Carnegie as his textbook and ends up lobotomized in a prison for a crime he didn't commit, contains a few brief passages that are as close as the novel ever comes to moments of truly earned pathos. There are also a few passages that read like pitch-perfect predictions of the prose of Thomas Pynchon.
And therein lies a possible problem for Gaddis in literary historical terms. If nothing else, reading this book shows me a novel that Thomas Pynchon almost certainly read in college or shortly thereafter. (I detect a Recognitions influence as early as V.: Pynchon's New York characters seem to be twisted descendents of Gaddis's pseudo-intellectual pseudo-bohemians. And Gaddis's joke names [Agnes Deigh, the aforementioned Mr. Brown] must have licensed Pynchon's own occasionally awful puns.) The problem for Gaddis here is that the pupil (Pynchon) has so far outpaced his one-time master that the older writer might be relegated by literary history to the Marlovian shadows cast by Pynchon's "Shakespeherian" sunlight. Time is rarely kind to writers who show others the way to greater things. Have you read anything by Edouard Dujardin lately?
I began this post by saying that my Penguin Classics Bad Conscience would trouble me no more. That was perhaps a bit overly optimistic. It would be more correct to say that The Recognitions will henceforth bother me in a different way. Instead of mocking me with the fact of its unreadness, it will now nag me to read it again, to pick up on the things I inevitably missed the first time through. I probably will read this novel again, but not soon. I'll probably return to it sometime during the next decade. But before I do, I intend to read J.R., a book that I suspect might be better than this one.