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JR (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics) by…

JR (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics) (original 1975; edition 1993)

by William Gaddis, Frederick R. Karl (Introduction)

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Title:JR (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics)
Authors:William Gaddis
Other authors:Frederick R. Karl (Introduction)
Info:Penguin Classics (1993), Paperback, 752 pages
Collections:Your library

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J R by William Gaddis (1975)

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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 |
It looks like I've given up on my second reading, which was undertaken because of the peculiarly inaccurately named Occupy Gaddis reading. It's very good and very funny and very painful and very long, and perhaps the reading should have been called Occupy Art, which is really what the occupation, by financial interests, described in the work is -- though Occupy Education is certainly a sub-theme.

Readers would be well advised to focus on the work itself and not be misled by Franzen and others into thinking that Gaddis, and the reader's response, is more interesting than the wonderful piece of literary art the book is. It's much more fun that way, too.
  V.V.Harding | Apr 21, 2015 |
Hugely disappointing. Once you look past the flash of his prose technique, the all-dialogue strategy plays like a one-note samba, and the characters are mostly tired mid-century clichés. The humor is strained, except for a few witty puns it’s all highly contrived slapstick, and Gaddis has a tendency to repeat any humorous verbal effect multiple times till it becomes tedious, even if it was funny in the first place. The portrayal of gender is about what you’d expect it to be, sadly: Gaddis joins his overrated peers: Bellow, Mailer, Roth, et al, in pitching that dumb old idea that hapless modern men are largely the victims of icy, conniving, uncaring women, and thus society has lost its way. Ho-hum. Yet, in spite of these tiresome negatives, Gaddis was still on to something timely: junk culture and its effect on human relationships and human creativity. He concocts an incredibly complicated set of transactions to show how we’re all enmeshed in this toxic net of profit-driven materialism. And his prose savant mastery of junk language is impressive: it’s just not really worth the candle: These days we’re way past his minor revelation, gotten by diligently plowing through 700 pages worth of prose that hammers on the nerves like a mallet, that American capitalism is built on Silly Sand™. Or at least we ought to be past it, now. ( )
1 vote CSRodgers | May 3, 2014 |
  cait815 | Apr 1, 2013 |
Genre and literary fiction are different. After reading JR, Cloud Atlas, Zazen, and a few other books this year, I think I'm finally starting to learn a bit more about those differences. Consider (and I promise to bring this discussion back to JR, bear with me):

The Wizard of Oz. It’s about a girl trapped in another world, and the enemies and friends she makes while trying to get home. Every sentence forwards that story. The book could not be any shorter and still tell that story. The book has a beginning, middle and end.

Anathem. It’s about a kid who grows up in a mathematical monastery, but his life is upended when aliens visit his world. Every chapter of the book is focused on telling that story. The author engages in some interesting asides about mathematics and philosophy; these add interest to the story without advancing the plot much. The story has a beginning, a middle, and (somewhat surprisingly for a Stephenson novel) an end.

Infinite Jest. It’s about what happens to a tennis student whose father created the most dangerous video in history, and the recovering drug addict destined to help him find it. MOST of the book is focused on telling that story, but not all of it. It has a beginning and a middle, but no end. The story’s left dangling at the end of the book, although you can piece together bits of the end of the story if you read closely.

J R. It’s about an 11-year-old boy who is a financial genius and secretly creates a multinational corporation from a public school pay phone. But not really; the author has other goals besides telling that story. MOST of the book is not related to that story line at all. The book really only has a middle; there’s no beginning or end in the conventional sense. The story is simply a clothes hanger for the author to display the larger fish he has to fry … stylistic experimentation and a singularly grim treatise on the relation of art and work in late capitalism.

Finnegan's Wake. I'm not even going to get into it, partly because I haven't finished it (who has?) and partly because if you know anything about that book, you already know the facts about it that are relevant to this discussion. It's the epitome of the "difficult literary book."

This short summary partly describes the spectrum between pure genre fiction and literary fiction. I seem to be happiest somewhere in the middle; I found Oz and JR both somewhat trying, while Anathem and Infinite Jest were top-notch. As writers abandon story, they start to experiment with other aspects of text. I'm sure that can be compelling in the right hands -- Joyce and Gaddis simply don't hold much attraction for me. I've had an opportunity, with the #OccupyGaddis group, to read this book more deeply than I'm used to. That experience, more than the book itself, was unique, compelling, and enjoyable.

I think 400 pages of the middle of this book lift right out, leaving a much better book. I also think Gaddis would be horrified at the very idea, and probably considered those 400 pages the soul of the book. And who the hell am I to take an ax to a National Book Award winner? My likes and dislikes are not necessarily relevant to a true literary analysis, although neither are they immaterial. I find it hard to look past them, however, which is probably why pomo texts were part of what turned me away from a literature degree.

In that middle 400 pages, drunken Gibbs’ ranting and Whitebeck’s insipid stammering are hackneyed, tin-eared, and ultimately poisonous to reader communication. Gibbs’ dialogue, in particular, resembles the very worst sections of Stephen King’s prose, with endlessly repeated phraselet motifs that don’t get any deeper or more meaningful when they’re repeated 37 times. After 10 pages of Whitebeck, there's not a reader alive who wouldn't get the point that bureaucrats and bankers don't listen to anyone but themselves. But you don't get 10 pages, you get 150.

Having said all that: J R certainly does have a unique effect on the reader, and as you round the final curve, somewhere around Rhoda's soliloquy to Gibbs in the squalid 96th St. apartment, that effect begins to shift from annoyance to a quiet frisson. You begin to think back over the book and realize the amazing things Gaddis has achieved ... that he's written a novel entirely without any hint of internal experience; that he's painted perhaps the most damning and accurate portrait of work and finance in America between Sinclair Lewis and Douglas Coupland; and that between the lines of J R, he has described life in the 1970s in a way that I, as a child of that decade, found compelling and darkly nostalgic.

I'm conflicted about J R, and about this review. I hope the above sums up my different thoughts, but if not, here's a one sentence summary: Here's a good book that I'd not read again. ( )
3 vote Brian.McGovney | Mar 29, 2013 |
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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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