William Gaddis Occupies Wall Street in JR

Dalkey Archive Press has just reissused two of the most important texts of the past sixty years–William Gaddis’s The Recognitions and JR. Introductions are by William H. Gass and Rick Moody.

Here is a scene from early in the book. A teacher, Mrs. Joubert, takes her sixth-grade class on a field trip to the New York Stock Exchange to buy a share of Diamond Cable. In one of the rare descriptive passages in the book, Gaddis outlines their route from the subway to the storied piece of real estate nor more than a short jaunt away (they exited the subway at the Wall Street stop on what would be the 4 or 5 green line today). Gaddis details the landmarks on that route before dropping the needed forked words on that hustle of bustle, before letting the “boxed” voice and the children who could care less, take over. One exception is little JR, a boy who asks about stock warrants ahead of his turning his penny stocks into an Empire, the JR Family of Companies.

…engulfed in the roar of the subway until they burst from the pavement where the sun cut a path across Trinity Church . . .

—Hey look at the graveyard . . .

—Boys and girls? yes look at the tombstones some of them are over two hundred years old oh look, look at that one with the weeping cherub carved on it isn’t it dear . . . and they gaped obediently at the bird dropping coursing down that weathered angel’s cheek until the light changed and released them across Broadway and down Wall in disheveled Indian file staggered seriatim by a stench rising from the sidewalk grating at No. 11 until George Washington’s extended hand flung their attention fragmented round the corner into Broad where the lofty pediment at No. 20 threatened to spill its stone comedy of naked labor yoked, high above their heads, to the lively dominion seething within, buffeted by the anxiety of lifetimes’ savings adrift in windbreakers and flowered hats toward the visitors’ gallery where football field hyperbole addressed them in a voice strategically boxed along the rail.

—on the Exchange Floor which is made of solid maple . . .

—Boy what a mess.

—Hey I thought we’re going to the Museum of Natural History.

—thousand brokers who have the privilege of trading stocks on the floor . . .

—We getting tested on this Mrs Joubert?

—that look like hieroglyphics on the ticker tape band you see running high above the . . .

—See that little guy waving down there hey? I bet if I spit . . .

—stock of companies that provide jobs for millions of Americans in every walk of . . . (81)

Seriatim – Latin for “in series”

To say that this book, written in the late 60’s and early 70’s, foretold the coming corporatizing of our souls is like saying . . . well, I can’t say it. No one can “say,” can orchestrate the tweedy Ivy League or the penny ante American voice like Gaddis. Today, the New York Stock Exchange is hardly accessible and I don’t think many classes are allowed there. The temple of our God is well protected by those who protect and serve. As a stockbroker tells Edward Bast, the musician who JR gets to help him in his scheming (and the “associate” of the following passage):

     —Stay in music Mister Bast. Stay in music and advise your, your associate here to stay in whatever in the name of God he’s in, where neither of you will ever have to know the value of anything. (201)

On The Recognitions, as well as a rare Gaddis TV interview

12 thoughts on “William Gaddis Occupies Wall Street in JR

  1. What good news that these two masterpieces are being recovered for a new generation. Gaddis’ genius is perhaps even more obvious now that his literary inventions have become reality, psychic and social. He knew who we were becoming before anyone else. For those who have not encountered him yet: read, laugh, cry, worry and let him enlighten and change you.

  2. This book was insanely prescient! Not just in terms of the financial aspects of obvious places like banking and brokerage and whatnot, but also in how we’ve found ways to turn educational institutions into the same cynical places where the profit motive can reign on high. It’s an amazing book, my favorite of the Gaddis I’ve read so far (which admittedly and regrettably does not include The Recognitions).

  3. Great post Greg. I have really been eyeing up these new editions. They look so beautiful. I’m sure I’ll read them by the end of the year, perhaps during the summer. Great ‘beach reads’, right?

    • Thanks Michael. Yes, “beach reads” in a way, ha. But maybe more like a beach, the long, long expanse of scenes, especially the party scenes in The Recognitions and the oral, half-time neurotic arguments that fill JR.

      • I’m from way down south NJ, and one of the nearby beaches was Wildwood, where the walk from the boards to the water felt like half a mile. Seems a fitting beach for these books.

        Then, again, maybe not, because the walk was so long, it would be too uncomfortable to carry anything but a towel, so we would never bring chairs, umbrellas, etc. I don’t know if my arms would be up to lugging this brick of a book.

        Wildwood Aerial postcard

  4. Greg, thanks so much for this revisit to a bracing, breathtaking, obdurate, & essential work — news that stays news, as EP reminds us. No recording angel caught the roaring in America’s head quite so perfectly as Gaddis.

  5. Not sure I should give away too much, then. Still, I’m haunted by a scene in which the tragic 6th-grader JR, shortly after he’s started playing the stock market (brilliantly, heartlessly) over the phone, wonders aloud to his teacher Miss Joubert whether she’s ever realized that “there’s a millionaire for everything.” Everywhere you look, says JR, there’s another millionaire: for a golf course, a hardware chain, a drugstore….
    Miss Joubert, something of the novel’s conscience, grabs the boy & points to what she believes is the rising moon.
    “Is there a millionaire for that?” she cries.
    But JR sees a different sky. He sees the arches of McDonald’s. He chides Joubert that she’d better believe there’s a millionaire for them.

    • Thanks John. That gives me chills.

      One of my favorites so far is when the school superintendent says to the principal: “Don’t tell me things I don’t want to know and I won’t bother you.

      I’m starting to latch onto to Miss Joubert as that conscience, definitely. I also have a soft spot for Gibbs – who I believe is the Goddamn Man. He is so angry and in so much pain, one hopes he can break out of it.

  6. I kept putting off reading THE RECOGNITIONS for decades, “until I was ready.” Well, I was finally ready in my mid-fifties, and can honestly say it is one of the best novels I’ve ever ready (I have degrees in English and Philosophy, and a Masters in Humanities, so I’ve ready my fair share of books). It is so gloriously well-written, reflective and funny at the same time, and thought-provoking in strange and imaginative ways, I found myself upon finishing it thinking I was somehow blessed to have had the opportunity to work my way casually and deliberately through this magnificent book. And I didn’t do it at the beach, but over the course of two months going to and from work on the bus!

    • Great to hear Craig. I’m fantasizing about reading it again–I know it will be an even richer experience. On the bus–I seem to have only been about to concentrate on non-fiction on public transportation, but have been chipping away at JR on the subway, a medley of voices without and on the page.

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