by Vincent Czyz
The first book William Gaddis published, at the age of 32, was his 956-page masterpiece The Recognitions. Unfortunately, reviewers weren't quite ready for a multi-layered work of genius from an author making his literary debut and, one after another, they wrote reviews that were generally incompetent, cribbing both from each other and from the book's flap copy. In fact, the critical ineptitude that surrounded The Recognitions was so flagrant, it inspired a book of its own, Jack Green's riotously incisive Fire the Bastards!
The commercial failure of The Recognitions was largely responsible for the fact that nothing was heard from Gaddis for a full two decades when he reemerged with the publication of JR, for which he won the National Book Award. He took another National Book Award with his fourth book, A Frolic of his Own. Now, four years after Gaddis's death, Viking has released Agape Agape.
"No but you see I've got to explain all this because I don't, we don't know how much time there is left ..." So begins this slender volume of 96 pages (with a 13-page afterword). Although to all appearances complete, there is a sense of urgency in the work all the more compelling for its real-life parallel: Gaddis knew, while writing it, that it was to be the final fiction he would bequeath to the world.
Agape Agape is not so much a novel or even a novella as it is a dramatic monologue in which many of the concerns first expounded in The Recognitions-the question of authenticity in particular-once again surface. The reader is addressed by the voice of an age-ravaged, bed-ridden writer who resembles Gaddis himself in a number of particulars, including an obsession with the player piano.
The player piano? Think of the punched roll of paper that determines which strings are struck as software, and the rest of the piano, which doesn't require anyone to sit at it to produce music, as hardware , and you have the beginnings, in 1876, of the computer. A point of no small significance to the unnamed narrator who insists the player piano is "at the heart of the whole thing, of the frenzy of invention and mechanization and democracy and how to have art without the artist and automation, cybernetics ..."
The player piano, however, is only a point of departure. On a larger scale, the narrator warns of "the collapse of everything, of meaning, of language, of values, of art, disorder and dislocation wherever you look, entropy drowning everything in sight, entertainment and technology and every four year old with a computer, everybody his own artist where the whole thing came from, the binary system and the computer where technology came from in the first place, you see?"
With staples rusting in his leg, and skin "like parchment that's the prednisone, turns the skin into dry old parchment," it seems the narrator is becoming the paper that was his medium-which strikes a note of irony since the narrator suggests that Glenn Gould "wanted to be the Steinway because he hated the idea of being between Bach and the Steinway because if he could be the Steinway he wouldn't need Glenn Gould..." While the rambling, run-on rhythm of his soliloquy suggests senility, it is, in fact, an entrancing kaleidoscope in which motifs and concepts-the artist demoted to entertainer, the cheapening of the arts through technological reproduction, the wasting of talent and "the self who could do more"-appear, reappear, merge and mutate. When, for example, the narrator conflates apparently disparate topics ("Over fifty thousand out there waiting for these organ transplants, the first interchangeable parts made for guns by this same Eli Whitney two hundred years ago getting a little but mixed up here...") Gaddis is, in actuality, artfully tying them together.
The voice roves from the innovations of Willard Gibbs, who "showed us the tendency for entropy to increase...when he pulled the rug out from under Newton's compact tightly organized universe with his papers on statistical physics in 1876," (the same year, oddly enough, the player piano hit the scene) to Philo T. Farnsworth's first public demonstration of television; from Plato's Republic from which the artist was banished to Flaubert's elitist view of the masses as a contemptible, detestable herd.
By turns nostalgic, frustrated, bitter and howlingly funny, Gaddis's narrator most often reaches the pitch of a shrill lament: "Authenticity's wiped out when the uniqueness of every reality is overcome by the acceptance of its reproduction, so art is designed for its reproducibility."
Here Gaddis returns to one of his lifelong themes, the false democratization of art, in which, technology, like a minor god intoxicated with powers not of creation but of recreation, has flooded the world with cheap imitations, whether they be concertos translated into holes punched in a paper roll and played by "phantom hands" or "The Mona Lisa and the Last Supper reduced to calendar art to hang over the kitchen sink."
Hand in hand with this degradation of art comes the eviction of the artist, who is a threat because he doesn't conform; he is that element of the irrational, the bit of entropy that cannot be purged from the machine. Ironically, the very "technology the artist created" is being used against him "and the piano, the player piano and its offspring the computer barricades against this fear of chance, of probability and indeterminacy that's so American ..."
Gaddis, however, intimates that there is a loss greater than that of either the artist or art and that is the loss of self, "the self who could do more." In a culture of mass production and reproduction in which even human body parts are becoming interchangeable, the "individual is lost, the unique is lost...authenticity is lost not just authenticity but the whole concept of authenticity."
Throughout the book we come across quotes from a repertoire of thinkers and scientists as if their words were found objects glued to the canvas of a painting; among the quotes is this one from a Tolstoy short story: "...music carries you off into another state of being that's not your own, of feeling things you don't really feel, of understanding things you don't really understand, of being able to do things you aren't really able to do..." By the time you've read the last line of Agape Agape, it is clear that literature, in the hands of someone like William Gaddis, has precisely this effect.