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