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The Author in Hiding : On William Gaddis

March 28, 1993|William Gass | Excerpted from William Gass' introduction to a reissue of William Gaddis' "The Recognitions," to be published in May. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking Penguin. Gass is a novelist and critic. He teaches philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis

He had been a floorwalker at Bloomingdale's. That was one rumor. He was presently writing under the nom de plume of Thomas Pynchon. That was another. He had had to pay Harcourt Brace to publish "The Recognitions," and then, disappointed and peeved by its reception, he had the unsold stock destroyed. He died of dysentery or some similarly humiliating and touristy disease at 43 and had been buried stoneless-in-Spain under a gnarled tree. Among the more absurd was the allegation that he had worked as a machinist's assistant on the Panama Canal and served as a soldier of fortune for a small war in Costa Rica. He had no visible means. What he did do was traipse. He became a character in books that bore a vagrant's name. No. He worked for the army and wrote the texts of field manuals. No. He scripted films. They told you/showed you how to take apart and clean your rifle. A rather unkind few suggested he had been a fact checker at The New Yorker. Not at all, argued others, he was born a freelance. And became a ghost who moved corporate mouths while gathering material for a novel he would write one day about America and money. When John Kuehl and Steven Moore edited a collection of essays about him, the honored author turned artist and, for the title page, self-drew himself suitably suited and bearing a highball glass. The figure has no head.

In 1975, when his second novel, "JR," won the National Book Award, his admirers, confused by William Gaddis' previous anonymity (very like the chary pronouns above), by the too sensibly priced fume blanc and by the customary babble at celebrational parties, frequently miscaught his name, often congratulating a fatter man. Even The New York Times, at one low point, attributed his third novel, "Carpenter's Gothic," to that selfsame and similarly sounding person. Yes. Perhaps William Gaddis is not B. Traven after all, or J.D. Salinger, Ambrose Bierce, or Thomas Pynchon. Perhaps he is me.

When I was congratulated, I was always gracious. When I was falsely credited, I was honored by the error.

These mistaken identifications turned out to belong in William Gaddis' book where reality already had been arrested; for what can be true in a world made of fakes, misappropriations, fraud and flummery? Only this: that if we had two doorsteps, on one would stand a hypocritical holy man, on another a charlatan dressed as a statesman; that among our most revered relics, if we had some, we'd find out our local saint's pickled thumb belonged originally to a penniless neighborhood drunk, that our museum's most esteemed painting was a forgery, thatthe old coins we'd collected were inept counterfeits, and the fine car we'd just bought a real steal. What Rainer Maria Rilke wrote of Auguste Rodin is certainly true of the man in that headless sketch: "Rodin was a solitary before fame found him, and afterward perhaps he became still more solitary. For fame is finally only the sum of all those misunderstandings which gather round a new name." In our oddly clamorous yet silent times, to be a famous author is to be unknown all over the world. Similarly, "The Recognitions," the work which wrapped William Gaddis in the cloud of its carefully adumbrated confusions, remains widely heard about, reverently spoken of, yet narrowly read. It seems to lead, like an entombed Pharaoh, an underground life, presumably surrounded by other precious things and protected by a curse.

Like Malcolm Lowry's great dark work, "Under the Volcano," "The Recognitions" needed devotees who would keep its existence known until such time as it could be accepted as a classic; but a cult following is not the finest one to have, suggesting something, at best, beloved only by special tastes--in this case, the worry was, a wacko book with wacko fans. In fact, a cult did form, a cult in the best old sense, for it was made of readers whose consciousness had been altered by their encounter with this book; who had experienced more than its obvious artistic excellence, and responded to its neglect not merely with the resigned outrage customarily felt by those who read well and widely and wish that justice be accorded good books; it was composed of those who had felt to the centers of themselves how much this novel was indeed a recognition and could produce that famous shock; how it revealed the inner workings of the social world as though that world were a nickel watch; how it combined the pessimisms of its perceptions with the affirmations of the art it, at the same time, altered and advanced; more, how its author, though new to the game, had cared enough about himself, his aims, his skill, to create greatness against the grain, and, of course, against the odds.

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