Wednesday, 5 February 2014

The Recognitions by William Gaddis

This book was not for me. I was frustrated by it, but stuck with it in hopes that it would come together in some amazing way and justify its inclusion in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. It didn't, relying on literary tricks and vagueness instead of characters or plot. I don't mind if an author focuses on characters but not plot, or plot but not so much characters (if the books are well-written.) But neither? You'd have to have something damned impressive to make me like a book that meanders aimlessly and rarely bothers to introduce me to the characters.

Particularly when it takes 900 pages and at the end, I still don't get it. Maybe it's me. But oh, I found this book frustrating.

Primary reason I found it frustrating? Gaddis' steadfast refusal to let me know which bloody character he's talking about. For the vast majority of the book, he eschews character names, referring to them as only he or she, or using a description such as "the tall woman" to signify who he's talking about. In a novel with a cast of dozens, this drove me crazy. I spent more time trying to figure out who the hell he was talking about than I did to the story he was telling. This is not a good sign. Names are sort of there for a purpose, you know?

Maybe that's a clever play on the title - the reader is forced to "recognize" the characters without the help of names. But that doesn't really work as a thing - in real life, if I didn't know someone's name, I'd still have their face to go by. And the problem is that the characters are introduced en masse, with tons of description, and if you fail to remember that one detail by which he's going to refer to the character for the rest of the novel, well, god help you.

As for what this novel is about, well, I can tell you some impressionistic themes, but also should state that I felt that most of them drifted by, and few were capitalized upon. Religion is a huge one, with one (main?) character's father being a Protestant minister who seems to convert to Mithraism, an Agnes Deigh, a couple of characters who self-flagellate over their perceived lapses in Catholicism. But while religion permeates the book, damned if I know what Gaddis is trying to say about it. Most of the references would be challenging even for a historian of religion, which I am some of the time, and although I got most of them, I had no idea what he was trying to say. Gaddis, obliqueness doesn't not necessarily equal depth. Sometimes it's just being obtuse.

And then there's art, and counterfeiting, and plagiarism. There's a nod to the title in the insight that great art makes people recognize it as though they had created it themselves. (If that's the case, I would have to say that I recognized absolutely nothing about this book.) It's about the New York art scene after World War II, and its superficiality and rampant artistic bankruptcy. Some people can make great art, but are sucked into painting fakes. Some can't make art worth a damn, but plagiarize the words of others. Some get away with plagiarizing. One guy actually counterfeits money, and later, the corpse of a saint. (Yeah, I don't know either. I don't think the plan comes off, but it's expressed in such vague terms I'm not really sure.)

And that's the major problem. The prose is so dense, so impressionistic, so steadfast in its refusal to give me anything to latch on to or follow in any way that I was frequently lost. And I spent over a month reading this book, hoping to find solid ground. I never did.

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