James and Gaddis – Equally Unreadable for Completely Opposite Reasons

I’m in the midst of reading Henry James, The Wings of the Dove.  I’ve read Daisy Miller, The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl (twice!), The Portrait of a Lady (twice!), and the Turn of the Screw.

I must be a glutton for punishment.

Don’t get me wrong.  I understand that he’s a great writer.  It’s why I read him.  I admire the prose.  I admire the psychological depths that he plumbs with each of his characters.  I admire how well he describes the friction and the interplay between late 19th century tradition-poor nouveau-riche Americans and the tradition-rich stone-broke Europeans. He nails the pre World War One relationship between England and America perfectly.

But seriously…I’m begging here…Just a wee bit more dialog please?? All of his characters are so high born, intelligent and sensitive.  They know what each other says and they know what each other thinks, all without saying a word.  One glance between two of James’ characters and we’re onto ten more pages of introspective navel gazing.

Can’t one person in one of his books actually just express a simple thought with no subtext?

Apparently not.

In fact, some of his characters are almost post-verbal.  They’re so refined that they’re almost sterile in action.  They are so sensitive to action and words that they are almost beyond action and words.

Take The Golden Bowl.  It’s like 800 pages.  There are four characters.  Two marriages. Two past lovers (not married, you do the math).  One Golden Bowl that almost gets bought, later does get bought, and finally shatters.  One couple ends up going to America. The other stays in Europe.

The end.  No one dies.  Everyone (on the surface) gets along famously.  800 pages.  I love how even the plot summary on its Wiki page is like maybe ten lines long.  800 pages.

And then, on the opposite end of the scale lies William Gaddis.  Specifically, the novel J R. The plot revolves around an 11 year old boy (that would be J R), who manages through a complex web of machinations to build a fraudulent phantom financial empire.

J R is a novel that is told almost completely in dialog.  There is no omniscient narrator.  There is no “the couple enters the bedroom”.  There is no “he said” or “she shouted” or “she whimpered tearfully”.

There is just dialog.  Conversation on a page.  You literally have no clue who’s talking. You have no idea where the conversation is taking place.

Basically, you’re almost constantly desperately searching for context.  From the conversation, you’re trying to figure out who’s talking, who they’re talking to, and what the subject is.

This would be bad enough, but then on top of that Gaddis exactly mimics speech.  Even writers that write in dialect clean it up a little so that it makes sense on the page.

Not here.  Every um, uh, you know, is included.  Every run-on sentence is included.  Every cryptic sentence fragment is included.

In normal speech, our amazing brains have no trouble deciphering all of this linguistic chop suey (obscure Nora Joyce reference, good luck finding it!).  Reading it as words on the page is a completely different story.  He actually does an amazing job doing this.  He really does have an ear for language, or I don’t know, maybe a good tape recorder that he used to transcribe random conversations taking place on the street.

As a work of literature, it really is remarkable.  At 726 pages, it also requires an almost masochistic determination to finish.  I finished, but I think that I read a Harlequin romance after.

This too shall pass.  I will finish the Wings of the Dove.  I will (and actually currently do) admire it.  And when I’m finished, then I’m going to pick up Lee Child’s latest and read about Jack Reacher kicking some serious ass.


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