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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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8601110,380 (4.16)57
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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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 |
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 |
Showing 1-5 of 11 (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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