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Report from the middle of The Recognitions

(First post on The Recognitions)

In the middle of this wonderful book, many characters are running around trying to one up most everyone else–most significantly the character Recktall Brown (yes, Recktall Brown) has the forger Wyatt making false masterpieces of 500 year old Flemish Art. But Otto, the failed and flailing playwright, in love with a willowy heroin addict Esme, takes on more of a pivotal role in the middle of the book.

On page 462, two pseudo friends, Max and Otto have a conversation about Otto’s writing prospects. What makes Otto’s denial of reading The Sound and the Fury so hilarious is that 300 pages earlier, in order to look good at a party, he claimed to have read it when asked. Right before this scene Max has told him that an editor Otto gave a story to for a friend thinks Otto wrote the story and just gave it to her under a different name.  To add to this Otto has been accused of plagiarizing his play before, now he is reeling. The first line of dialogue is Max’s:

–Nobody resents you more than somebody who’s loved you.

Otto twisted away from him, but unsteadily as though trying to retain the hand on his shoulder, but turn his face to hide the trembling lip. –Why do I. . . why do people have to be so. . . so. . . he mumbled brokenly as detailed fragments of expressions broke over his face one after another until he grabbed with a whole hand round the eyes and drew the hand down, as though to wipe away these abrupt strokes on the surface which mocked the clear image of his anger beneath. Then he brought out a cigarette, and caught both lips round it.

–Forget it, Max said, and patting his shoulders before he removed his hand went on as cordially, –Say, I’ve meant to tell you again how much I liked your play, Otto . . . Otto mumbled something without looking up. –Because when other people have said they didn’t like it, I’ve told them . . .

–You’ve told them what! Otto broke out. He looked up to see Max smiling at him.

–Don’t be so touchy, Max said to him.

–It’s just . . . all this . . . damned . . . Otto hunched again, looking down before him. –And when people say I stole it, that I plagiarized.

–Somebody, I can’t think, who was it, Max appeared sympathetically thoughtful, –said they thought you’d lifted parts of The Sound and the Fury.

–The what?

–Faulkner’s novel, The Sound and the Fury, that you’d plagiarized . . .

–I’ve never even read it, I’ve never read The Sound and the Fury damn it, so how the hell . . . Otto looked over to see Stanely look troubled and start to speak. –I mean, damn it . . .

–What’s the difference? Max laughed. –I noticed a couple of little things you’d picked up, but what’s the difference.

–What do you mean, what little things?

–Little things, lines here and there. That line of Ben Shahn’s, “You cannot invent the shape of a stone” for instance.

–But . . . who the hell is Ben Shahn? That line, a friend of mine, a long time ago, somebody I used to know, said . . .

–What’s the difference. Max smiled. –As Stevenson says, we all live by selling something. He raised a hand to Otto’s shoulder again. –What’s the difference. The money? You have a real complex about money don’t you Otto, a real castration complex without it.

–Yes, the money, Otto murmured, –but, damn it . . .

Indeed, what is the difference? The novel asks again and again, Who is going to take some responsibility? I picked the above passage for it’s booksome references and because it touches on that hot button topic of today, intellectual property. Ben Shahn was a Lithuanian-born American painter, a very social-minded artist. The Robert Louis Stevenson reference, ‘We all live by selling something,’ kind of sums it up and echoes a line in the 2007 Sidney Lumet film Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead when the father realizes his son engineered a robbery that killed his wife. An old nemesis of the father’s tells him:”The world is an evil place, Charlie. Some of us make money off of that, and others get destroyed.”

Then on page 525, Gaddis continues the running joke of Ernest Hemingway’s appearances in the novel to round out touching on the twin dynamos of 20th Century American fiction writers:

–Say, is that really Ernest Hemingway behind me?

–What if it is, what would that make you?

–He, I . . . I’d like to meet him, I think he’s great writer.

–You think some of it will wipe off on you? You’re still a salesman. Did you ever read Cummings’ poem, a salesman is an it that stinks to please . . and you want to write?

–I do in my spare time, I’ve taken a course . . .

–Go stink to please somewhere else.

–Yes, I . . . all right, all right . . . He turned two hundred dollars’ worth of tweed on her, and said, –Mister Hemingway? My name is George . . .

–Glad to see you, George, said the Big Unshaven Man. –What are we drinking?

6 thoughts on “Report from the middle of The Recognitions

  1. And this section is a great example of how excellent Gaddis is at dialogue. And yes, I agree that this novel’s intertwining themes of authenticity, individuality, and creativity are incredibly relevant today.

  2. Greg, thanks so much for the revisit, especially by means of such a splendid, telling selection. Enjoy — if that’s the word — all the RECOGNITIONS that follow, & note how the dialog, spot-on yet rich in reference, keeps delivering that ever-more-haunting refrain: “Is Christ watching?”

    1. Thanks John. Reminds me of Anselm talking on p.534 about people he envies (Tourettes, Hodgkin), then says, “I envy Christ, he had a disease named after him.”

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