Decade by decade, William Gaddis has taken the powerful organisms of our society and metastasized them into monstrosities. In the 1970s, "JR" turned the world of business into a nonstop gibbering nightmare. In the '80s, "Carpenter's Gothic" did something similar for the interlocking agencies of foreign policy, intelligence and international finance. Now, with "A Frolic of His Own," Gaddis makes the institutions and practices of the law into a cancer devouring the tissues of American life.
I counted at least 18 lawsuits going on in the latest of Gaddis's massive verbal tours de force, and I am sure to have missed some. So sparked and choked with language as to stand swaying between brilliant satire and an epileptic fit, it suggests "Bleak House" in a rewrite by James Joyce. The wit is as obsessive and implosive as in Gaddis's earlier books; at the same time, it is funnier, more absurdly believable, and more pointed in its attack. Perhaps this is because lawsuits and lawyers are more concrete and immediately recognizable to readers than the larger and more shadowy villainies Gaddis wrote about before.
Oscar Creavis, an egocentric professor and author of an unpublished Civil War play, sues a Hollywood studio for making an epic that somewhat resembles his drama. Oscar's pursuit of his case, which is the book's central motif, suggests a fat fly strutting into a spider web and being meticulously sucked dry. As with Dickens' Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, by the time the lawyers have finished with it they have it all, and their victorious client has nothing, or less.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 16, 1994 Home Edition Book Review Page 15 Book Review Desk 1 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
In our review of "A Frolic of His Own," two characters' names were misspelled: Oscar's family name is Crease; his mistress is Lily.
Around this main display flares a galaxy of far-fetched legal constellations. Oscar was run over by his own car while he stood in front of it and tried to hot-wire it. An incompetent contingency lawyer manages to have him sue himself. The Episcopal Church sues Pepsi-Cola for hundreds of millions of dollars on the grounds that the soft drink's name is an exact anagram of its own. A society woman harassed by an abortion protester sues him for endangering her fetus; after getting the abortion, she is sued by her lover for infringing his paternity rights. A sculptor, who erected an angular steel art-work in a Southern town-square, takes out an injunction to stop the authorities from removing a section after a boy's dog wanders into it and can't get out. When lightning hits the art-work and kills Spot, the dog, the boy sues the town. He also demands royalties from the manufacturers of a Spot board game and "Save Spot" T-shirts.
As for Oscar, he funnels all his frustrations and grandiose expectations into his plagiarism suit. Confined to a wheelchair in his dilapidated Long Island mansion and surrounded by a chaos of papers and unattended bills, he drinks heavily, and obsessively watches fish documentaries on PBS. He is tended by Lila, his flaky young mistress, who keeps borrowing money while awaiting the outcome of a couple of lawsuits of her own; and by Christina, his long-suffering sister. The only fully human character in this bestiary of Gorgons and faces-turned-to-stone, Christina is torn in concern for her brother and for her workaholic, pill-swigging lawyer husband. His posh firm, Swyne & Doar, just happens to represent the studio that Oscar is suing.
All of Gaddis's writing conveys, by a mix of bludgeon and subcutaneous shock treatment, an America gone bad or mad. Oscar is of the mad variety; by lineage he is a piece of American history, by temperament he is the artist/intellectual blinded by foolishness and vanity as much as by the corruption around him.
His grandfather, a Confederate veteran, was a Supreme Court justice whose fiery idealism fought Oliver Wendell Holmes's cool insistence that the Court's business was law, not justice. The grandfather had seen what law could do. For a complicated series of reasons he left the Confederate Army, sent a substitute in his place--this was legal--and later, in the North, hired a substitute to serve in the Union Army. At Antietam, the two substitutes met and killed each other. The story is told in Oscar's play and jazzed up in the film.
Oscar's father, a 90-year-old Federal District judge, has made generational war against his own father. Out-Holmesing Holmes, his elaborately elegant opinions are legalistic to the point of scandal. Presiding over the sculpture suits, he rules against both dog and boy; and prompts his state's Jesse Helms-like senator to demand his impeachment for announcing that God has no place in the courtroom.