It is that time in life when everyone is opening up the big books. They have Infinite Jest in one hand, and something by Pynchon in another, and they have to pick something quick before they get too much of a forearm workout. Plus they need one to be a door holder for family moving in.
Yes although we each may have one of these famoustest of authors, it is difficult to ever find the time to read them. American living is not very conducive to, I don’t know, the deep thought. We are a pragmatic bunch, and we hardly ever take kindly to the loquacious academic, preferring instead the plainspeak of the working man. Do not make it so difficult, just give me a straight answer.
Esther Perel remarks that the cultural differences go even as far as affairs, where Americans want everything out there, where honesty is king. For the French, they do not want to know: the secret getting out is worse than the secret itself. Discretion is Queen…or in this case the mistress.
But I digress!
So if you happen to have a literate education and if you have the patience to turn off Netflix and if you have a penchant for something duller than Pynchon and more reactionary than Franzen, you may end up going for The Recognitions by William Gaddis. I have tried probably three times to start this novel (and this time I am really sure!), and I have not caught on, even when I found myself fully a third of the way through the book and sailing in deep shit. Franzen himself wrote an essay on Gaddis (which was far more fun) where he found himself much like his character Patty in Freedom, reading the book as a desperate attempt to escape out of psychological terror, reading like drinking water in an oasis: face fully immersed underwater. The title of that essay, if you’re curious to know, was “Mr. Difficult.”
Why am I reading it now? Well certainly I could just read, I don’t know, six other books in the time it will likely take for the 976 pages I have to contend with Gaddis to finish up. And hopefully by now you understand that, like Franzen, clearly we are in a place where certain truths we held dear to our lives are up for debate. Coronavirus made sure of that.
But I will say that it was the reminder of the synopsis of the book that really shed light on what I was drawn to, and I will paste it here:
“The book Jonathan Franzen dubbed the ‘ur-text of postwar fiction’ and the ‘first great cultural critique, which, even if Heller and Pynchon hadn’t read it while composing Catch-22 and V., managed to anticipate the spirit of both’—The Recognitions is a masterwork about art and forgery, and the increasingly thin line between the counterfeit and the fake. Gaddis anticipates by almost half a century the crisis of reality that we currently face, where the real and the virtual are combining in alarming ways, and the sources of legitimacy and power are often obscure to us.“
Nothing has hit me quite like this moment that we are taking part in a vast circus. Or at least the backstage, or the room “where the sausage is made,” has briefly opened up. For a time you might be blindly living your life, but there comes a time when the absurdity of life arrives, where all planets are aligned, and you bear witness to the silliest things. Coronavirus has been that way for Americans especially, and all the business with “Plandemic,” with yet another conspiracy theory, with protestors and ignoramuses of information, it made me really ponder the question of authenticity, of what we feel to be legitimate in our lives.
Okay, so let’s get one thing out of the way. In no way am I suggesting that Gaddis was onto something new or original, nor am I somehow immune to stupidity. If you want the history of stupidity, you can go as far back as The Anatomy of Melancholy from the 16th and 17th centuries, and still further. And as for me, there is a game I love to play about our generation, which is to ask, “What practice do you believe will be seen as ridiculous 100 years later?” It is a sobering trick, because no generation can escape its cultural baggage. I am sure just by eating goldfish I invite mockery.
But with all those preliminaries out of the way, I found the first pages of The Recognitions so much more intellectually engaging than the previous readings. Before I thought, “This is turgid,” and I think there’s still a bit of that. Plenty of name dropping, if you must know (worse than Joan Didion’s house parties). But while I read it in the past for a more poetic ear, this time I actually tuned into the layers of the theme. MORE THAN ANY BOOK, you need to know the theme of the book. You need to have the back of the book in your mind at all times. Or, you just need to keep the question of:
How do we know something to be authentic and legitimate?
Once you have that, the whole book opens itself up. Reverend Gwyon’s wife dies to a surgeon who is not really a surgeon, but used counterfeit papers to pretend. Camilla’s ears bleed from hoop earrings (Mean Girls reference?) because she claims she can wear them (14). A figure of Christ is made not from human skin but from buffalo hide (15). Fake news surrounding having sex with a virgin curing a horrible disease has a man sexually assaulting a young girl (16). Reverend Gwyon, a Protestant, performs the Eucharist, much to the glee of Spanish citizens (who view him to be more reliable) (11). Gwyon in flashbacks reflects on Camilla’s clothing worn by many as an example of mechanical reproduction (18). Gwyon’s son, Wyatt, conflates his father as also the Lord God (20). Aunt May (Wyatt’s informal teacher) claims that his use of “darn” and “heck” are blasphemous (21). Wyatt doubts the veracity of Christianity (21). People respect Reverend Gwyon from his long line of inherited trust of religious leaders (22). Gwyon manages to find wine instead of grape juice for a more authentic communion (24). Wyatt asks Aunt May “How does a hero know what to fight for?” bringing into question the ethics of fighting (32). And Aunt May claims that Wyatt has the “prospect of sin” about him, one step removed from actually sinning (33).
Each of these moments is a case study positively dripping with the kind of intellectual questions we still face today. How can we really tell the value of medical professionals besides history and value of institutions? What is religion and how do we know it to be true? How far removed can art or fashion be from its “original” creation and still maintain its context? Does Van Gogh’s sunflowers still mean as much when they’re found in every artistic household? How can we equate perceptions of sin, which go from the buried but condoned, or the constantly punished and strung out in public?
With this cipher or lens in mind, the book suddenly became very easy: here we are discussing what is real, and in a world where even our basic intuitions about things as fundamental as light are very far from “truth,” but are instead a method of “fitness” for reproducing ourselves, I feel myself strapping a seat belt on. This will be a real treat.
Like relationships, books are all about timing. Maybe I will bounce off again, but maybe it takes a world on the brink in just such a way that it invites a kind of epistemological doubt. And that is the ground that is ripe for discovery.