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J R by William Gaddis
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J R (1975)

by William Gaddis

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This 700 page novel by William Gaddis (1922-1998) is a splendid work of literature. And in case you’re wondering about the title, JR is the name of one of the main characters, a grungy 12-year old boy who happens to be a financial genius working his money-magic from a public telephone booth in a hallway at his school. An alternate meaning of the two huge letters on the book’s cover could be ‘Jabbering Ruck’, since the novel is mostly dialogue and, make no mistake, every single person – down-on-their-luck men, flower-loving women, corporate business-types, school administrators, ticket takers, school kids, old ladies – do not possess the patience or capacity to hear one another out. Nearly every sentence in the entire novel is cut off before the sentence is completed. And, equally telling about American culture, everybody stops talking mid-sentence to answer the phone. Interruption as a mode of communication.

There is a quote cited in the middle of the novel: ‘That a work of art has a beginning, middle and end, life is all middle.’ Curiously, from the very first page to the last page, I had the distinct feeling I was in the middle of Gaddis’s novel, and for good reason: there are no chapter breaks nor scene demarcations, the dialogue has no character attributions, that is, there are no he said, she said, Tom said, Amy said. Dialogue and descriptions, action and interruptions, connections and misconnection, intimacies and alienation are part of one unending literary gush – novel reading as three weeks of ultimate extreme rafting down white water rapids. Do they pass out awards for finishing JR? They should.

And, man o’ man, what a novel: grand in scope, sweeping social commentary, satire, dark humor (yes, be prepared to laugh-out-loud a few times on every page) as Gaddis writes about multiple aspects of the American dream and American nightmare and everything in between – business, commerce, education,, government, sex, love, marriage, divorce, vision, literature, art, music, to name just a dozen – and with some of the most memorable characters you will ever encounter. However, I can see where Jonathan Franzen and other literary types judge JR a difficult book. But, from my own experience, once you follow Gaddis’s pace and rhythm, the language is quite engaging and not at all overwhelming. Here is a snatch of dialogue where an old aunt explains some family history to a visiting lawyer:

“Well, Father was just sixteen years old. As I say, Ira Cobb owned him some money. It was for work that Father had done, probably repairing some farm machinery. Father was always good with his hands. And then this problem came up over money, instead of paying Father Ira gave him an old violin and he took it down to the barn to try to learn to play it. Well his father heard it and went right down, and broke the violin over Father’s head. We were a Quaker family, after all, where you just didn’t do things that didn’t pay.”

How about that for insight into the culture? A young boy wants to play violin instead of fixing farm machinery or dealing in money. Well, whack! . . . take that kid. Get back to work so you can hand me some money! Bulls-eye, Mr. Gaddis. And heaven help those adults who don't grow out of wanting to play music or paint pictures or write books. Darn. . . why don't they really grow up and get a real job and do something useful so they can make some serious money?

One of my favorite characters is Whiteback, the school principal, who speaks pure Buffoon-ese. My guess is Gaddiss had great fun including Whiteback. I love the fact Whiteback displays his Horatio Alger award and 56 honorary degrees on his wall. 56! Here is Whiteback meeting with Dan, one of the school testers, and a Major Hyde, a corporate-military type pushing his company’s agenda on the school. At one point in the conversation, Whiteback pontificates on the justification of monies being given his school for standardized testing:

“Right, Dan, the norm in each case supporting or we might say being supported, substantiated that is to say, by an overall norm, so that in other words in terms of the testing the norm comes out as the norm, or we have no norm to test against, right? So that presented in these terms the equipment can be shown to justify itself in budgetary terms that is to say, would you agree, Major?
--- I’ll say one thing Dan, if you can present it at the budget meeting the way Whiteback’s just presented it here no one will dare to argue with you . . . “

What a scream. No joke, no one will argue. How do you argue with blustering sophistic double-speak?! Language as an administrate cover-up. Ironically, JR was published during the Watergate era.

In one scene we have Jack Gibbs making his entrance into a ramshackle, crumbling apartment, bottle in hand, to join his buddy. Through Gibbs's rant, Gaddis gives us the myth of the American writer/artist – the surly, gruff, liquor-fueled, poetic, perceptive outsider shooting holes through all the hypocrisy, shallowness, stupidity, self-righteousness and insensitivity of modern American life. It is as if the spirits of Henry Miller, Jackson Pollock, Charles Bukowski and other American tough-guy writers and artists loom over Gibb’s shoulder; matter of fact, one could take the words of Gibb’s rant and easily transpose them into a number of Bukowski-style poems. My sense is Gaddis also sees these looming spirits and knows the downside of the myth. What real freedom is there when one is tied to the scotch bottle and crusty, hard-boiled cynicism? But, then again, perhaps Gaddis detects some keen wisdom in a crusty cynicism, after all, his novel depicts how modern American cultural fuels one-dimensionality and a constriction of choice, where people are forced to live in a world constantly bombarded by noise, tawdriness, commercialism, land destruction, cesspools and intrusive gadgets.

JR is a challenging book, but a book well worth the effort. And, even if they don’t give you an award for finishing, at least you can tell your friends you made it to the end. ( )
  Glenn_Russell | Nov 13, 2018 |
As others have noted, this really bogs down in the middle. Gaddis' method of satire depends upon relentless repetition of his main motifs; does he think we don't get it? or does he think more is more? Anyway, I don't think we would have missed about 200 pages, since no story line would have suffered.

There are five somewhat interconnected story lines, and each is told in unattributed dialogue. That isn't as difficult as it would seem, since it's usually clear who is speaking. The difficulty comes in the frustrating manner in which everyone speaks, which seems like everyone has an extreme ADD going on, so sentences are never concluded, either because the speaker jumps to something else, or more likely, someone else interrupts them. Perhaps most irritating are the one-sided phone conversations; we hear only one of the talkers and have to fill in the other's speech via the context.

I found JR the most irritating of all, the eponymous child "investor", who isn't the financial genius that some reviewers would have you think. Rather, he has read about how to leverage every single deal, taking advantage of financial instruments he does not understand and which will eventually lead him (and others) into serious legal (and physical) jeopardy. A lot of this absurdity is only possible because of Bast, a composer who must be a complete idiot to let himself be the willing dupe in JR's harebrained schemes.

And that's what I find confusing here. I would have thought that the artists here (writers mostly) would be portrayed more sympathetically, to offset the greed of the capitalists on display. Instead, they come off as being selfish in self-destructive ways, not particularly talented, and doing nothing to correct the squalor of their abodes (or is that supposed to be the source of a lot of laughs?). They do provide Gaddis the opportunity to provide some pretty obscure references to various works of poetry and other literature -- take that, James Joyce! I think the problem is that Gaddis was an amateur at humor and thought that being exhaustive equaled brilliance. The essential points could have been made in a book easily half this length. I'm probably being generous with the fourth star, but at least he had some prescience regarding how out of control the greedheads of capitalism could be. And we still suffer from that without anyone being particularly upset. At least not enough to do something substantive about it. ( )
  nog | Feb 11, 2018 |
4.5 / 5
Wow. I won't be able to write everything here right now. This book is such a monumental achievement. I can't imagine what it took to write it, and I can't pretend to understand all of it. Everyone is so connected through back channels or invisible ties...it's hard to make sense of it all. Despite it being entirely in dialogue (well almost), and despite the book feeling at first as though it may not be able to create a fully formed 3D whole person, the book ends up brimming and overflowing with complex characters searching for meaning and purpose or else for money and success and all being stymied by each other (often unknowingly) or by the very system they are working in / creating.
Franzen was wrong about this novel. I don't know what is wrong with him if he can't take the fucking time to read it.
This book reminded me a lot of Infinite Jest. I think it is an order of magnitude better. I don't know why IJ gets more attention than JR. If you liked the former, you will absolutely love the latter.
Amy, JR, Gibbs, Rhoda, Bast, Duncan... oh lord these were great characters. The novel fucking explodes with connections and chaos and heartbreak in the last 100 or so pages.
Wow...simply wow. I must read the rest of Gaddis' work. ( )
  weberam2 | Nov 24, 2017 |


This 700 page novel by William Gaddis (1922-1998) is a splendid work of literature. And in case you’re wondering about the title, JR is the name of one of the main characters, a grungy 12-year old boy who happens to be a financial genius working his money-magic from a public telephone booth in a hallway at his school. An alternate meaning of the two huge letters on the book’s cover could be ‘Jabbering Ruck’, since the novel is mostly dialogue and, make no mistake, every single person – down-on-their-luck men, flower-loving women, corporate business-types, school administrators, ticket takers, school kids, old ladies – do not possess the patience or capacity to hear one another out. Nearly every sentence in the entire novel is cut off before the sentence is completed. And, equally telling about American culture, everybody stops talking mid-sentence to answer the phone. Interruption as a mode of communication.

There is a quote cited in the middle of the novel: ‘That a work of art has a beginning, middle and end, life is all middle.’ Curiously, from the very first page to the last page, I had the distinct feeling I was in the middle of Gaddis’s novel, and for good reason: there are no chapter breaks nor scene demarcations, the dialogue has no character attributions, that is, there are no he said, she said, Tom said, Amy said. Dialogue and descriptions, action and interruptions, connections and misconnection, intimacies and alienation are part of one unending literary gush – novel reading as three weeks of ultimate extreme rafting down white water rapids. Do they pass out awards for finishing JR? They should.

And, man o’ man, what a novel: grand in scope, sweeping social commentary, satire, dark humor (yes, be prepared to laugh-out-loud a few times on every page) as Gaddis writes about multiple aspects of the American dream and American nightmare and everything in between – business, commerce, education,, government, sex, love, marriage, divorce, vision, literature, art, music, to name just a dozen – and with some of the most memorable characters you will ever encounter. However, I can see where Jonathan Franzen and other literary types judge JR a difficult book. But, from my own experience, once you follow Gaddis’s pace and rhythm, the language is quite engaging and not at all overwhelming. Here is a snatch of dialogue where an old aunt explains some family history to a visiting lawyer:

“Well, Father was just sixteen years old. As I say, Ira Cobb owned him some money. It was for work that Father had done, probably repairing some farm machinery. Father was always good with his hands. And then this problem came up over money, instead of paying Father Ira gave him an old violin and he took it down to the barn to try to learn to play it. Well his father heard it and went right down, and broke the violin over Father’s head. We were a Quaker family, after all, where you just didn’t do things that didn’t pay.”

How about that for insight into the culture? A young boy wants to play violin instead of fixing farm machinery or dealing in money. Well, whack! . . . take that kid. Get back to work so you can hand me some money! Bulls-eye, Mr. Gaddis. And heaven help those adults who don't grow out of wanting to play music or paint pictures or write books. Darn. . . why don't they really grow up and get a real job and do something useful so they can make some serious money?

One of my favorite characters is Whiteback, the school principal, who speaks pure Buffoon-ese. My guess is Gaddiss had great fun including Whiteback. I love the fact Whiteback displays his Horatio Alger award and 56 honorary degrees on his wall. 56! Here is Whiteback meeting with Dan, one of the school testers, and a Major Hyde, a corporate-military type pushing his company’s agenda on the school. At one point in the conversation, Whiteback pontificates on the justification of monies being given his school for standardized testing:

“Right, Dan, the norm in each case supporting or we might say being supported, substantiated that is to say, by an overall norm, so that in other words in terms of the testing the norm comes out as the norm, or we have no norm to test against, right? So that presented in these terms the equipment can be shown to justify itself in budgetary terms that is to say, would you agree, Major?
--- I’ll say one think Dan, if you can present it at the budget meeting the way Whiteback’s just presented it here no one will dare to argue with you . . . “

What a scream. No joke, no one will argue. How do you argue with blustering sophistic double-speak?! Language as an administrate cover-up. Ironically, JR was published during the Watergate era.

In one scene we have Jack Gibbs making his entrance into a ramshackle, crumbling apartment, bottle in hand, to join his buddy. Through Gibbs's rant, Gaddis gives us the myth of the American writer/artist – the surly, gruff, liquor-fueled, poetic, perceptive outsider shooting holes through all the hypocrisy, shallowness, stupidity, self-righteousness and insensitivity of modern American life. It is as if the spirits of Henry Miller, Jackson Pollock, Charles Bukowski and other American tough-guy writers and artists loom over Gibb’s shoulder; matter of fact, one could take the words of Gibb’s rant and easily transpose them into a number of Bukowski-style poems. My sense is Gaddis also sees these looming spirits and knows the downside of the myth. What real freedom is there when one is tied to the scotch bottle and crusty, hard-boiled cynicism? But, then again, perhaps Gaddis detects some keen wisdom in a crusty cynicism, after all, his novel depicts how modern American cultural fuels one-dimensionality and a constriction of choice, where people are forced to live in a world constantly bombarded by noise, tawdriness, commercialism, land destruction, cesspools and intrusive gadgets.

JR is a challenging book, but a book well worth the effort. And, even if they don’t give you an award for finishing, at least you can tell your friends you made it to the end. ( )
  GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
J R Vansant is, quite likely, the most improbable corporate titan ever portrayed in literature. An 11-year old sixth-grader at a progressively dysfunctional school on Long Island, J R parlays a field trip to a Wall Street brokerage firm organized by one of his teachers into the creation of a massive business empire—the J R Family of Companies—using a lot of borrowed assets, creative side deals, and considerable chutzpah. And the lad does this while operating completely behind the scenes, using Edward Bast, a struggling music composer who works part-time as a music instructor, as an unwitting figurehead spokesman for the firm while he himself conducts business from the school’s pay phone and a run-down Manhattan apartment! Indeed, he becomes the very embodiment of the American Dream, or at least what that dream had become 200 years after the founding of the country.

It is hard to know where to even start to analyze this remarkable novel, which won the National Book Award and cemented William Gaddis’ reputation as one of the most innovative and important literary voices during the second half of the 20th century. Certainly, it is a fierce satire of many things, most notably the ethically stilted Wall Street culture and the capitalist system it represents. However, the book also skewers the follies of a modern educational system that all too often confuses its true purpose, as well as the way in which art (i.e., music, literature, painting) gets corrupted when it becomes enmeshed with commerce. Beyond that, Gaddis’ writing is frequently very funny and the plotting is quite impressive given the multitude of characters, scenes, obscure references, and story lines that are crammed into the tale.

That said, it must also be noted that J R is a very challenging book to read. By now, the author’s all-dialogue writing style has been well documented and, in fact, it does take a lot of getting used to before the reader can find the proper rhythm. Also, the lack of chapters, section breaks, or even manageable paragraphs made it difficult to even keep track of what was happening in the story at times. (I found myself referring to an excellent on-line synopsis that outlined the chronology in the novel and explained a lot of the references.) Of course, the confusion that these literary devices generated appears to have been purposeful; like Thomas Pynchon, Gaddis was intrigued by the concept of entropy and creating an intentionally “noisy” atmosphere throughout the novel (e.g., hidden radios blaring, half-heard conversations, continuously running water) underscored the main theme of a free market economic system that has run amok.

I really enjoyed the several weeks it took me to consume this sprawling, ambitious novel. Despite the myriad obstacles he puts in the way, Gaddis was a brilliant writer with quite a bit to contribute to our understanding of modern conditions, both economic and personal. I have seen J R described in number of ways, from being a masterpiece to a “smoke screen for an author who has nothing interesting, wise, or entertaining to say” (apparently, Jonathan Franzen was not a fan!). I would have to say that the former depiction seems about right to me. ( )
  browner56 | Feb 6, 2016 |
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J R is the perfect novel for our new recession-driven world.
 
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A humorous take on the American dream as JR, an eleven-year-old boy, uses his newfound knowledge of business and the stock market to build a huge and exploitive business empire.

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