Stalking the Behemoth: “The Recognitions,” by William Gaddis

The Recognitions, by William Gaddis
The Recognitions
By William Gaddis, 1955
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
Those who have followed my “Stalking the Behemoth” series might’ve noticed a few massive gaps in chronology, namely in my leap from Don Quixote to Moby-Dick, but release dates grow a little more consistent from here on out. After all, this is where we enter my favorite period, postmodernism, and who better to kick postmodernism off than Gaddis? I’d get more into where The Recognitions sits historically, but this is a book review and not a history lesson; suffice it to say that it was influential and that its influence is probably not done taking shape. I’m also going to leave it as a given that The Recognitions is difficult, since nine-hundred-page postmodern novels aren’t exactly known as beach reading. Besides, that would be such a perfunctory way to review this book, wouldn’t it? Check off the acknowledgment of its influence, mention that it’s no walk in the park, obligatory reference to how despite its difficulty there’s beautiful language and narrative entropy and all of that other good stuff, and hey-hey! I’ve reviewed The Recognitions. Check it off the list, onto the next review. Let’s not do that.
The story at the heart of this book is pretty simple, and compelling enough to be one of the most common we’ve got in literature: the earnest protagonist, who often stands in for the author whether we as readers like it or not — Gaddis’ protagonist, Wyatt Gwyon, even shares his author’s initials — struggles toward self-realization and -actualization in a world determined to deny them that. So, as Jonathan Franzen pointed out in his own review of this book, it’s sort of like Catcher in the Rye. But in case Holden Caulfield puts you off, Wyatt isn’t a teenager. Rather, he’s an adult determined to become a painter but forced by financial strain into selling forgeries for the unforgettably slimy Recktall Brown and his smooth-maneuvering associate Basil Valentine.
Now, I grant, there’s a lot you have to cut through to get to this basic story, and I’ll be up-front and say that The Recognitions would not be a good fit for a “just the plot, please” type reader; but again, postmodern, 900-plus pages, you probably knew that. As Gaddis is wont to do, it’s hard to tell what among it is essential to getting the plot and what’s just there to be there, but what matters is how well Gaddis makes it all work. He sells us on his playwright whose dreams of glory keep him from greatness, his musician who really just wants to play, and Wyatt’s overbearing Christian grandmother who discourages his painting because she feels it’s an attempt to emulate God. And when the story, already laced with references to arcane Christianity and art history and alchemy, gets weird, Gaddis seems at his most in control. Characters hallucinate on ships and exhume mummies and get crucified by mental hospital inmates, and Gaddis finds his common threads, these strands of self-mythology and self-actualization and authenticity, these endless threads of identity to weave together into a bizarre and beautiful tapestry. And even if it doesn’t all tie together for you, these extra bits still make for powerful flavor.
Masterful, this one. There are those who swear J R, the seven-hundred page panoply of conversation, is the best Gaddis, but I’m a Recognitions type of guy the whole way through. And those winding sentences really are beautiful.