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William Gaddis: J R

Twenty year after his first novel, Gaddis’ second was published, confirming his reputation as a difficult novelist. It wasn’t quite as long as its predecessor – a mere 726 pages, though virtually all in dialogue. It is a superb satire of the US financial system, telling the story of J R Vansant, an eleven-year old boy, who builds a vast financial empire, using the public phone next to the boys’ toilet at his school to conduct his transactions. As the novel is told almost entirely in dialogue and with no chapter breaks, it is often difficult if not impossible to know who is speaking, though, at times, it is not very important. Just as virtually everyone in Recognitions is, in some way, subject to questions about their identity and authenticity, so virtually everyone in this novel is touched by money and, more particularly, corrupted by money. J R’s music teacher, for example, Edward Bast, has arrived at the school with musical ambitions, specifically to write an opera, but his involvement in J R ‘s schemes as J R’s front man (J R needs an adult to sign papers), kills his ambitions. A Gaddis-like character, who has written a book like Recognitions, has now, like Gaddis himself, become a corporate speechwriter, while another teacher has abandoned his attempt to write a book called Agapē Agape, a title Gaddis himself will later use. In short, money corrupts.

Gaddis is certainly not the first writer to attack capitalism and all of its works and won’t be the last. His take is not even necessarily original, except for the use of a child. Stories of huge fortunes built solely on paper and then crashing down are not uncommon. But, as with his earlier work, his approach is original, even if difficult to follow much of the time. It is not as great a work as its predecessor but it is still worth reading, as the real world, whenever you may read this, allows stories just as fantastic.

Publishing history

First published 1975 by Knopf