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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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769812,029 (4.14)50
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 (Author) (1975)


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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. ( )
1 vote Brian.McGovney | Mar 29, 2013 |
A great satire of the free market. Timely. Dense and difficult. Abandon all hope, ye who enter. Keep reading, even if you don't know what they're saying. Then read the chapter on JR in Tom LeClair's book The Art of Excess. You'll find out that you understood more than you thought you may have. ( )
1 vote ianwissman | May 25, 2009 |
If you thought David Foster Wallace wrote obscenely long convoluted sentences, try reading this two pound behemoth that has not one (not one I tell you!) chapter break in its entirety. It's like reading The Neverending Paragraph. If that sounds daunting enough, factor in that the narrative is ninety per cent dialogue, only the dialogue doesn't increase reading speed because it's dialogue that Gaddis has purposely not clearly delineated who's speaking what to whom ninety-nine per cent of the time (sound confusing, try reading it) for one must deduce who's speaking without any he said/she saids to help you sort it all out, similar to the unspecified-as-to-who's-speaking-dialogue featured in "A Clean, Well Lighted Place," only J R, mind you, is not a ten page short story by Hemingway, but a 752 page menacing gargoyle of a novel comprising vast Himalayan-like exchanges of dialogue and it takes at times the concentration or meditation of a Tibetan monk to decipher what it all means, let alone figuring out who's speaking. It's scary to face, yes, and it's hard keeping track of who said what to who what where when why and how, true, and it mocks the comprehension of one accustomed to instant gratification in light easy reading, but other than that, it's a real breeze. A nice cool refreshing breeze after running a marathon.

And since it's about money and capitalism gone so wild and satirically haywire that even a precocious elementary school kid working a payphone at recess as if he were a bookie, or working a payphone out on a school field trip to the local stock exchange can become a zillionaire practically overnight on stocks and bonds, it's quite topical to boot given the present state of our abysmal and, some might argue, broken economy run into the ground by children dressed up all nice and spiffy as if they were genuine businessmen and women not certainly seeking to go Ponzi on an all too gullible American public willing to buy anything. It's funny too, and not quite as depressing as our abysmal and, some might argue, broken economy run into the ground by children dressed up all nice and spiffy as if they were genuine businessmen and women not certainly seeking to go Ponzi on an all too gullible American public willing to buy anything. So stop overlooking William Gaddis and I'll stop being redundant, wordy, and pontificating, too. Just put down the Pynchon for a sec and give this neglected great master postmodernist whom Pynchon actually looked up to once upon a time in his young'n days before "V" had been conceived -- and the 1976 National Book Award Winner for crying out loud -- the larger audience he finally deserves. ( )
27 vote EnriqueFreeque | Feb 12, 2009 |
Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
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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