#OccupyGaddis: –Hey! Women wrestling in a tub of eels hey!

–Like a novelist? Only problem is a novelist has to understand women.

–You don’t?

–Apparently not, from all the…turned full to share her smile he found it gone, only her eyes wide through the lenses. –What’s the matter.

–I wish you hadn’t said that, she said looking away as quickly.

Does William Gaddis understand women? Are the women in J R living characters drawn with the same depth as the male characters or are they caricatures and plot devices for the men in the novel? The first difficulty we face in answering this question is the fact that the novel is completely devoid of psychological interior. Gaddis reveals nothing of the characters’ interior lives; readers must discern each person’s character exclusively through their words, and the few actions that other characters may remark on. In a comic novel such as J R, without an indication of what is happening inside a character’s mind, it can be difficult to create a fully rounded, complex character. Yet, because Gaddis is a capable artist, many of the characters in the novel transcend the sea of talk and become fully fleshed and alive. We believe Gibbs’s rage and Bast’s failure and J R’s naïve ambition. They are not just  targets for Gaddis’s spleen, but are human and demand our sympathy, or at least our understanding. Is Gaddis able to bring any of the women in the novel to life in the same way?

As I mentioned previously, Amy Joubert exists at the center of J R’s many noisy worlds. She teaches at J R’s school and is the daughter of the head of Typhon International. She is acquainted, by my reckoning, with most of the novel’s major characters. When she isn’t present, other characters often refer to her, and to her breasts in particular. Much like J R himself, Amy Joubert is a character around which many of the novel’s characters revolve.

In the scene where she wakes to find her husband and child gone, Amy Joubert becomes real. Prior to this moment, she has simply served as a component of Gaddis’s savage commentary on the ruination wrought by money. With her championing of “buying a share in America” and pushing the students toward an understanding of America a nothing more than a collection of corporations, Amy Joubert has been heretofore a two-dimensional parody; someone to be made fun of. And yet, in a span of two pages, in one of the novel’s few extended scenes of narration, Gaddis suddenly brings her to life. We see her broken marriage. We learn about her worry that her husband will take their son to Geneva. The feeling of sadness and loneliness when she wakes and they are gone is overwhelming. When she reads the goodbye note from her son three times in the taxi, we can feel her heartbreak and loss.

Previously, her size of Mrs. Joubert’s breasts has been something of a running joke. Mrs. DiCephalis accuses her husband of sabotaging her tele-class so that the men could stare at Amy Joubert, calling her “Miss Moneybags” with the “bazooms.” Principal Whiteback, among others, makes oblique references to her body. Yet, when she rides the elevator up to the Typhon International offices that morning, it is through the nameless young man with the open shirt that all of these people staring at her suddenly become extremely threatening.

In the short transitional moments of narration, Gaddis changes from the direct and ultra-realistic mode of the dialogue to a languid and poetic style. He deploys this style for nearly a page, the longest use of it to this point in the novel, to describe the elevator ride and this technique lends the scene a dreamy and surreal feel. A young man, with a shirt unbuttoned to the waist, gets on and stares at Mrs. Joubert’s chest for two floors, then gets off and pushes all of the buttons so the elevator will stop on every floor. She gets off and tries another elevator, only to end up on the elevator with the youth again, after he sticks his hand in and stops the doors from closing. She tries not to look at his sweaty chest, but he puts his arm by her waist and asks –You like to give head?

Gaddis initially lures us into seeing Amy Joubert through a very male point-of-view. At first, we see her in these broad, comic terms—peppy pro-corporations teacher, hot young woman that all the men want gawk at and talk about. Between the serious critiques of capitalism and art and education, the humor related to Amy Joubert seems light. But in that scene, he turns it on us. Suddenly, the woman we’ve thought of as less than a real person becomes a wounded human with unhappiness that we can understand. We become uncomfortably aware that what had prior seemed like nothing more serious than common male comic bravado about her body is something that is terribly uncomfortable for her; something she has to deal with on a daily basis in a world where she probably gets called “little lady.”

It is interesting that Gaddis has to change his technique here to make this point. This scene is not one that Amy Joubert could describe in a passage of dialogue. Though she talks to Beaton about her worries about her son, she isn’t going to tell him that she reread the boy’s letter several times in the taxi. She isn’t going to tell someone about the man in the elevator, and even if she did, it wouldn’t have the same power to unsettle as Gaddis’s own narration. By departing from the novel’s primary style for that scene, it is clear that Gaddis wants to make us feel sympathy for Amy Joubert and to share in the discomfort that she feels. It is in this moment that he makes us reconsider what we’ve seen, and perhaps chuckled at, previously.

The creeping creepiness of the obsession with women’s body parts is underscored by the novel’s repeated references to women’s body parts. On a couple of occasions, someone remarks on J R’s catalogs, which contain adult advertisements, and J R responds –What. That tit? (J R, being who he is, seems to care little for the flesh on display.) When the children are on their class trip to Manhattan and Edward Bast accidentally leads them past several adult movie houses, the students marvel at the parade of nudity around them. At first, Gaddis presents these moments in a humorous light. While everything everyone in the novel says is a critique of itself, these moments start off seeming lighter—closer to sitcom style humor than a serious criticism of misogyny and the objectification of women.

What makes this work so well, for me, is that many of the criticisms of the novel are easy for me to avoid feeling implicated in. I am not the director of a corporation. I am not on a school committee that values the budget over the students. I am not an artist allowing my work to be ruined by money. Yet, I am a man and I do laugh at these jokes. Gaddis draws me in and when he changes the perspective and suddenly shows me Amy in the elevator with the sweating, bare-chested man, I am implicated. After the terrifying elevator ride, Gaddis casts the characters’ obsession with Amy Joubert’s body in a new light. He casts that new light on me as well.

But what of the other women in the novel? Do the Bast Sisters rise above their dotty misunderstandings? Does Mrs. DiCephalis rise above her nagging and complaining? Does Stella Angel becomes something more than just Norman’s wife and Thomas’s daughter? Did Gaddis breathe the breath of life into them as well?

15 thoughts on “#OccupyGaddis: –Hey! Women wrestling in a tub of eels hey!

  1. Paul Debraski July 12, 2012 / 10:59 am

    Excellent observation!
    I was thinking about the role of women in this story, kind of in relation to the women of Mad Men. And I wondered if Gaddis was guilty of misogyny (rejecting the life of women’s lib) or just reporting reality–that women were more or less excluded from this life in 1975. Most of the women are secretaries (even in my write ups of the story I don’t mention them and I can’t keep them straight), who do little more than direct (and sometimes mishandle) the flow of the men’s conversations.
    At the same time, all of the scenes in NY and all of the ads for the 38’s that JR gets show the mind of the boys with regard to sex. And at the same time, the Polaroids and Leo’s comments about Terry’s ass, show that the men aren’t very different from the boys.
    There’s a comment (and this may be ahead of the spoiler line, but it is due for the end of this week) that Tom (I think it’s Tom) asks his wife how he’s going to like working for a woman. And Tom’s wife Marian also gets to stand up for herself a little bit coming up.
    Maybe there are signs of feminism to come?

    • DC Nahm July 12, 2012 / 12:13 pm

      Yeah, up to the elevator scene, I felt like the treatment of women was an attempt at a natural depiction of the time, but was not a major concern of the novel. The scene with Norman, Leo and the photographs of Terry makes the men seem really unlikable, but it wasn’t until Amy’s scene that I really felt like Gaddis was making the dehumanization a point.

  2. Roman July 12, 2012 / 12:13 pm

    Amy also has a big heart. When talking to Beaton and signing legal paperwork, she says, regarding Bast and Gibbs, “And they wouldn’t mind the money either of them honestly, I’d almost marry them both just for that …” (p.213).

  3. Daryl L. L. Houston July 12, 2012 / 3:00 pm

    This is a really great post. One thing I’ll suggest (kind of a tangent and not exactly on the topic of humanization of the women) is that while on the one hand Gaddis tends to put women in the background, he also gives us a number of pretty sexually frank or aggressive women. Marian and Stella, for example. Rhoda is also later sort of open about it all. Terry clearly has transcended prudishness. Compare these women to the objectified Amy Joubert, who projects innocence, etc. I won’t pretend I know exactly what Gaddis is doing with all this, but your post made me think of it.

    • DC Nahm July 12, 2012 / 3:26 pm


      I completely agree with you. While the women perhaps have background rolls in life (they aren’t in leadership positions generally), I think they are far from background in the novel. They are important characters and what they do matters.

      The answer, for me, the questions I pose at the end is “Yes.” I think the Bast Sisters are a hoot and I have a sympathetic feeling toward Mrs. DiCephalis.

  4. J P July 13, 2012 / 11:14 am

    Are the pictures really of Terry? How come she doesn’t recognize herself in them?

    • DC Nahm July 16, 2012 / 3:54 pm

      It is unclear. Norman and Leo seem unsure themselves (it is interesting that they are only able to identify her by the separate parts of her body). She doesn’t recognize herself, if it is her, but she may not get a good look at them when she catches Norman looking at them.

  5. Bo Bigelow July 13, 2012 / 9:01 pm

    I agree with Daryl L. — this *is* a great post, and also, yes, Stella stands out for me as one of the strong ones. Not sure why, but I’m fascinated with how she–not Norman–controls the radio in the car, right around p143, turning it on and off to suit her tastes.

    • DC Nahm July 16, 2012 / 4:18 pm

      Thanks. For whatever reason, Stella stands out to me less than some of the other characters. I wish there was more of her.

      • Paul Debraski July 16, 2012 / 4:27 pm

        I think I’d be really surprised if they were her in the photos. She got a good look at one of the men (hung like Kenny). I would think if she had done something similar situation, she would know it right away (Polaroids aren’t quiet). And I would assume if she was in them, she wouldn’t be casually talking about it. But then I’m not a novelist 🙂

      • DC Nahm July 16, 2012 / 4:37 pm

        Yeah, I think you are probably right. Between Norman and Leo not really being sure it is her and her non-recognition (and non-reaction), it probably isn’t.

  6. Sonia July 16, 2012 / 12:02 pm

    Excellent post (and interesting discussion). I’ve been thinking and reading and writing about gender in Gaddis for I guess five years off and on now and this is the only direct discussion I’ve seen of feminism and women. I’m not totally sure why this is. I think maybe there’s been an assumption that if you did do a feminist analysis it would be expose Gaddis as evil and sexist and that would sink his hopes of fame and canonization?

    Women’s liberation is oddly absent from J R (not as strange an omission as leaving both world wars out of The Recognitions though, I guess). I think you can see some of it coming though in Ann DiCephalis’ rhetoric about being a woman who’s never been allowed to do anything and in that bit that Paul mentions about working for a woman. It’s not really a central thing though, although I suspect that might be because of the conservative institutional settings that most of the novel takes place in. It may have to with the when the novel is set too – the events in Eigen’s life map onto Gaddis’ life c. 1962-4 and you see evidence of the sexual revolution and hippies so perhaps it’s slightly too early for the kind of feminist presence you’d expect in a mid-1970s novel?

    That said, one thing I’ve worked out is the attention to gender in J R and the later novels isn’t the result of feminist consciousness raising, as I initially expected, or at least not solely. He’s doing this stuff in The Recognitions too, although not as prominently. That dates his critical awareness of gender back to the 1940s at least. I think this explains why Gaddis’ criticisms of misogyny and objectification don’t map well onto second wave feminist agendas of sexual assertiveness, employment equality etc.

    I suspect that Gaddis is more invested in exposing the socially constructed nature of gender roles as impediments to authentic selfhood – more like Simone de Beauvoir’s existential feminism. This makes sense in terms of the intense gender-policing of the early cold war era. Tracing it back to postwar conformity anxieties also makes of why gender isn’t an exclusively female issue in Gaddis’ novels. There are also criticisms of masculinity throughout – Major Hyde’s blustering homophobia is obviously a target of satire.

    One thing I like a lot about Gaddis’s treatment of women is that he doesn’t really have a specific way he treats all women. There’s none of that weird quasi-anthropological rhetoric about what “a woman” is or does or likes – except in Gibb’s dialogue, where I think we’re meant to look at it critically. So some of the women are likeable, some aren’t; some are central characters, some aren’t. There’s no agenda to position “women” as a category in any particular way, I don’t think.

    The exteriority of the novel’s style does make a big difference, too, as you point out. I think we’re left to read in sympathy, depth etc according to our predispositions. Personally, I hate Ann DiCephalis – I think she’s monstrously selfish and shallow, albeit sad insofar as she’s understandable. Having read Carpenter’s Gothic before J R, which has a main character a lot like Amy Joubert, I immediately read her as having depth. Then again, my reactions to the characters keep changing each time I read as I feel like I know more about them. The other factor that changes all of this is, of course, that I am a woman myself. I wonder if this makes me more likely to read depth into the women characters.

    One of the things I really admire about J R is that it supports a number of different readings so well. So, for example, I can see how the apartment and elevator scene would work to call out a straight male reader in the ways described here. But I can also read that without ever having objectified Amy and still find the scene meaningful in other ways – mostly through my discomfort at identifying with her learned helplessness. I’d compare that to the Bianca scene in Gravity’s Rainbow that’s supposed to also implicate and then call out the (straight, white, male) reader on their racist pedophile rape fantasies. When I read that scene, there’s nothing there for me – I’ve never had that fantasy (how many of Pynchon’s readers did??) nor did I enjoy Pynchon’s rehearsal of it (again, who did??). I guess I could feel morally superior about that? I think it is the absence of any narrational commentary that makes J R mean in more ways.

    • DC Nahm July 16, 2012 / 4:17 pm

      1. I am surprised to hear that there isn’t more written about the women in “J R.” When I was re-reading it this time, I was surprised by how important and developed the women are. There are many books I love where I have to sort of hang my head and admit that the book either mistreats women or ignores them (or puts them on a pedestal). But “J R” isn’t one of them.

      2. I like your point about the variety of women. I hadn’t thought of it this way, but you are exactly right.

      3. I am a Pynchon fan and I love “Gravity’s Rainbow,” but I promise you nothing in that novel maps any real emotion, fantasy or idea I’ve ever had. I am always surprised when people compare Gaddis to Pynchon–they are as different as you can get. “J R” is extremely real and “G R” is extremely un-real.

      4. I like Ann DiCephalis. I can see why you would not like her, but some about her strikes me as sympathetic. I feel like she missed out on something in her life, perhaps put it aside for her husbands career, and she feels let down. Yes, she seems selfish and shallow, but she seems really real to me and I feel like there is a story about how she got to where she is in life, so I don’t judge her too harshly. But I like that Gaddis isn’t afraid to make her unlikable.

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