It’s curious, given all my false starts with books like Gravity’s Rainbow and Ulysses — which share with J R long passages of rambling, essentially contextless prose — that the first time I read J R years ago, I made it through without major impediment. Oh, sure, bits of it were rough going, and I was lost a lot of the time, but I never hit the sort of wall that I did with these other books.
This’ll be my third full time through J R, and I’ve done a partial read at least once before, so there’s a lot of distance between my current impressions and how I received the book as a new reader. For years (pre-Ulysses), I think I labeled J R the hardest book I had ever read, but now I’m thinking it’s not so hard after all. Maybe that’s just experience and familiarity talking. At any rate, having now read Joyce’s novel (which Gaddis purports not to have read, though I have trouble believing it, especially given echoes both allusive and quoted outright of other Modernist writers like Yeats and Eliot that appear in J R), I’ve developed a little theory as to why I managed to get through it the first time.
While Gaddis rapidly changes voice and context time after time in J R, he maintains a consistent method of story-telling throughout the book. Once you’ve begun to get a feel for how the book works and have begun to suss out the various voices, it goes down a lot more easily than when you first encounter the book’s cacophony. By a third of the way through the book (if not before), you’re probably pretty comfortable with how the book operates, so that the mechanics of understanding it require much less effort and you can absorb the voices.
I had something similar to say about the Ulysses a couple of years ago:
When I started reading “Ithaca,” I flipped forward after just a couple of pages because I feared that all of the 70+ pages in this batch would follow the question/answer format that opened the episode. I may have groaned audibly when I saw that they would. It was a cute trick, I thought, but who needed 70 pages of it? Who needed 20 pages of it? But as I read on, a neat thing happened that has happened several (though by no means all) times for me in this book: However unsettling the form of the episode was at the beginning, I internalized it somehow and found a way to read past the form, or maybe to embrace it. What had at first seemed an obstacle or a cutesy-pie trick turned into maybe a sort of prism through which to read the content of the episode.
Of course, Joyce switches modes on you every few dozen pages, so that once you’ve begun to learn how to read a given section, you have to start over and adapt to a new method of storytelling. Pynchon does something similar, though with less clear demarcation than Joyce provides. So Gaddis, for all that he may be considered antagonistic to his reader, is actually in some ways gentler to his reader than these other difficult authors, requiring endurance more than malleability once you’ve settled in.
As you read on and on, the effect is pretty amazing. You learn to determine very quickly who’s speaking what unattributed line of dialogue and when you’ve moved from the school to the train station to the old Bast house. You begin to hear the voices intuitively more than to read and parse them, and a real world begins to emerge. It turns out that Gaddis had something similar to say about Wagner on page 111:
— Yes but that’s what you mean isn’t it, about creating an entirely different world when you write an opera, about asking the audience to suspend its belief in the . . .
— No not asking them making them, like that E flat chord that opens the Rhinegold goes on and on it goes on for a hundred and thirty-six bars until the idea that everything’s happening under water is more real than sitting in a hot plush seat with tight shoes on and . . .
If you’re having trouble getting used to Gaddis’s storytelling, stick it out a bit longer. The noise begins to make sense over time, and there’s reward aplenty.