“Thank God there was the gold to forge!”
I finished William Gaddis’ 953-page novel The Recognitions for three main reasons:
- It’s on the TIME 100, which I am trying to finish. (Just three left!)
- Two people whose opinions I respect, Will Leitch and Michael Schur, both recommended it highly.
- I am stubborn.
So I pushed through it over the course of about three weeks, using the online annotations and chapter synopses to get me through. I could be facile about it and say that the book went largely over my head, but that would avoid responsibility – the truth is that I didn’t read slowly or carefully enough to grasp every nuance and every reference, because that’s just not how I enjoy reading. This is a book to be studied and pondered; even when I read literature, or other difficult works, though, I still read for pleasure, and appreciating the brilliance of The Recognitions – for it is brilliant – requires more work than I was willing to put into it.
Several people asked me over the last few weeks what The Recognitions is about, but the question has no single answer. There is a main character, but his narrative is jumbled with many subplots and he often is the vehicle for other stories or themes beyond his own quest for identity. That character, known as Wyatt when the novel begins, is the son of a Protestant minister and intends to take orders but ends up pursuing a career in drafting and copying architectural drawings that devolves into a vocation as an expert forger of paintings, notably works by Dutch masters. Wyatt’s quest leads to Gaddis dropping his name entirely before the novel is halfway through; he doesn’t obtain a new name of any sort until the final hundred pages or so, when he’s dubbed Stephan because that’s the name on his new, fake Swiss passport. Wyatt’s father, meanwhile, descends into madness while increasingly confusing his Christian faith with its onetime competitor, Mithraism, eventually dying one of the first of the book’s many bizarre, seriocomic demises.
As for the rest of the characters and subplots … Wyatt marries a woman named Esther, then abandons her as he loses his sense of identity, only for her to hook up with a confused writer named Otto who spends much of the novel walking around with a sling for an injury he never sustained. She also ends up having an affair with Ellery, who works in advertising with Benny, who previously worked with Wyatt in the drafting business. Wyatt’s forgery business involves him with the art critic-alchemist-spy Basil Valentine, and the odious collector and smuggler and scatologically-named Recktall Brown, who eventually dies while showing off a centuries-old suit of armor he owns by wearing it, only to have it noticed after his death that a portion of the armor is fake. Otto’s group of acquaintances also includes his college classmate Ed Feasley (who always says “Chr-ahst”), the poet Max, the failed poet Feddle, the frail Esme, the anguished Catholic Stanley, the irascible poet Anselm, the magazine editor Don Bildow (always in the midst of a sexual misadventure), an unnamed art critic in a green shirt, the closeted gay man Arny Munk and his baby-stealing wife Maude, and even “Willie,” the author himself in print – a laundry list of caricatures and pathetic figures swapping drinks and beds while living circular lives without apparent direction or meaning, often losing their identities by pretending to be something they’er not or by selling their souls for material gain.
The twin themes of self-doubt (identity) and forgery (fraud) are about the only things tying the entire novel together, other than the glue in the binding. Wyatt spends the entire novel on a quest for an identity, first losing one and then searching for another. He has one in childhood, imprinted on him by a domineering, puritanical aunt and a befuddled, widowed father, but sheds it when he realizes it’s merely a covering placed on him by external forces. His drift into a forger’s lifestyle leads him into his own madness, mirroring his father’s, because he’s replaced a lost identity with one tied entirely to fakes, leading him to doubt the possibility of any kind of authentic life or meaning in the world. He sees originality as an irreducible equation – everything is a copy of something else, and often the ‘experts’ in a field can’t distinguish the real thing from a perfect forgery. He ends by scraping down a fresco to get to the stone underneath, the one original part that can’t be copied, at least not by man.
The secondary characters, as a group, nearly all collapse in search of false identities or meanings. Most attempt to find them through money, with one character proclaiming it the “Age of Advertising” (which, in the ontology of The Recognitions, is a falsehood wearing another falsehood), while others giving up their bodies, their gods, or their countries for want of a little more cash. Several characters struggle with religious conflicts and doubts, ranging from the obsessive Catholic Stanley (whose death might be the most comic, even with the heavy-handed metaphor involved) to the seemingly anti-Catholic Anselm (who purifies himself in grotesque manner, then becomes a publicity man for a monastery). Otto is supposed to meet his father for the first time, but ends up in a meeting with a counterfeiter where both men mistake the other’s identity, after which Otto leaves with $5,000 in fake bills, which leads to him fleeing the country and assuming a new identity (and acquiring a real reason to wear a sling) to avoid prosecution. The one point all of these side characters have in common is that their quests, conscious or otherwise, for identity and meaning come to naught, with the possible exception of the writer Ludy, who may (it’s deliberately left unclear) actually find meaning in religion because he wasn’t explicitly looking for it.
I think the greatest value I found in The Recognitions was validation of my decision to similarly force myself through Ulysses several years ago, because I have no doubt that this is Gaddis’ response to Joyce’s work. Wyatt’s new name of Stephan, alludes to Joyce’s alter ego Stephen, while the lengthy epilogue harkens in form and style to Molly Bloom’s rambling soliloquy. The book has nearly as many references as Joyce’s did, and similarly pushes the boundaries of language, utilizing sentences or passages in at least six beyond English. Both novels rely on humor of various stripes, including black humor, bathroom/bedroom humor, and the occasional bit of slapstick to advance the story and keep things from becoming too dense or philosophical – not that I’d say I actively enjoyed the experience, but there were certainly parts of The Recognitions, and Ulysses, that had me laughing out loud.
But Gaddis’ work is, undeniably, an arduous experience for the reader. He dispenses with quotation marks, setting off dialogue with a – instead. Speakers are often left unidentified, and Wyatt goes nameless for about 700 pages. The allusions are fast and thick and often quite obscure, beyond the usual Bible-and-Shakespeare stuff present in most literature of this ilk. The anfractuous plot left me reliant on the chapter synopses online to figure out who was doing what and where. Gaddis even introduces half of a joke on page 66, about Carruthers and his horse, referring to it again a few times throughout the novel, delivering the punch line on page 941. I can respect the cleverness of the gambit while also being highly irritated by the assumption that I was sufficiently focused and reading the book quickly enough to remember the joke when the payoff – not even that funny – finally came. And that’s The Recognitions in a nutshell for me: Brilliant, clever, insightful, but too damn much work.