Spoiler alert: and yet, it’s not so unlike that first chapter

So, I’m about 200 pages into The Recognitions; with luck and determination, I’ll be through part one today; and with a lot more luck and a lot more determination, I’ll be out entirely within a month. I don’t know how much of the book I’ll really get, but if my current stats hold up, I will have at least enjoyed a majority of the book.

Of course, things can change.

The thing about reading a book like this, full of allusions and foreign languages, is that you sort of have to (I mean, if you are me) read it like you’re a little bit immortal; like time is on your side. I’m reading it the way I read Infinite Jest; like I had all the time in the world to come back and study it and burrow into the details. Like, I already know I’d like to come back to this book again, they way there are so many books I could spend the rest of my life re-reading, re-learning. It’s only by giving myself permission to assume I someday will that I can give myself the permission I need to take the immediate pleasures I can while glossing over the pleasures I can’t. Someday, though. (Ten years later, and I’m a little bit away from finally re-reading Infinite Jest. It will almost be like reading it again for the first time. Almost.)

What’s great though is that The Recognitions really can be immediately enjoyable. (Which feels like a bit of a theme for the year; gosh, these big books can be good, too! Which isn’t a particularly interesting theme. But. I’m not exactly in the term paper business this year.) Watching Otto unfold has been in particular a trip; if a somewhat squirm-in-the-seat trip. (Who doesn’t want to make more of their own story to others than there is to make? Who isn’t tempted to show off their own arm sling, whatever it may be for them, to wait for the questions it will fail to prompt? Unless that really is just me. Then, move along, please.) It’s also been fascinating, witnessing the rise and fall of the marriage of Esther and Wyatt; at the rate this book moves, we’re either going to cross several generations of characters, or everybody is going to live until they’re well past a hundred.

I will admit to feeling a little uneasy with regards to the question of what this book all adds up to, which is obviously a premature question to tackle, and one that’s probably foolish to discuss in any case; 950 page books about art, society, religion, and money should not be reduced to bullet-point summaries. Still, I would currently have a hard time filtering out a thesis statement, or even a necessary point, to the book, to what it’s saying about anything, if anything. But, it’s early, of course.

Spoiler alert: it’s really not all like that first chapter…

…our hero realizes (recognizes?) as he reads through the readable, though highly disorienting, second chapter. As Matthew Cheney put it, some time ago:

I enjoyed much of The Recognitions on that first reading, but also knew that I was missing a lot, perhaps even 80% of what the book was up to. For one reason or another, I didn’t mind being lost in the book, though. I was both lost in the book in the traditional sense — engrossed, enchanted, beguiled — and lost in the pedestrian sense: I kept forgetting which character was which and how they related, had no idea for many pages what was going on, and sometimes wondered if English were even a language Gaddis and I shared. Consequently, my memories of The Recognitions are impressionistic, imagistic, and not tied at all to narrative or meaning.


Which, well, yeah. Suddenly we’re in Paris and there’s a lot of French dialogue and a lot of non-linear descriptive about stuff I’ve got little bearing on, and, uh, yeah. Maybe not the best chapter to try to get lost in with an itchy bandaged finger pointing one way and a pre-dinner stomach point another way.

Still, the book keeps coming back to some kind of ground, some entirely relatable, entirely, ah, forgive me, again: recognizable bit of prose. Such as:

He painted at night, and often broke off in a fever at dawn, when the sun came like the light of recovery to the patient just past the crisis of fatal illness, and time the patient became lax, and stretched fingers of minutes and cold limbs of hours into the convalescent resurrection of the day.

– page 69

Which is a strange way to put it, and a strange call-back to the sunrise stuff from the first chapter, but: it’s enough. Enough to move me into the next paragraph, which may or may not be immediately (or less so) get-able.

Smart people books aren’t just for smart people, or shouldn’t be, at least

“Something to keep in mind when you start reading, Gaddis considered this [The Recognitions] a comic novel. Don’t forget to laugh amidst all that erudition and fancy language.”


Which: yes.

Standard disclaimers and apologies aside about infrequent posting, etc etc etc, yadda yadda yadda, full time job, school, recent discovery that I’ve likely been suffering from a sort of frakking eczema the last six months; the usual. That said there’s some cool stuff in the background that is in fact straight up book-related which will be coming around over the next couple months. So that’s fun.

But anyway, back to The Recognitions, by William Gaddis, a book that marks the incredibly fat, incredibly dense mid-point of my reading challenge for the year, a reading challenge I humbly admit to pridefully believing I’d have been all the way through by now. Because ambitious goals for unrealistic times, right? Anyway, no, still here, still reading, slowly, occasionally, but, with something like something to show for it. Or so.

Anyways. The Recognitions, I’d like to blog about this one a bit more, because I think I once said I would; give me about a month and I might have more time to make good on this promise. I’m going to at least in good faith start by saying I’ll admit to actually knowing terribly little about Gaddis or his works, other than, they’re big books by a white male protopostmodernist, which is fancy talk for shit people brag about reading cuz nobody actually does. Except me and some other people along the way I guess.

The thing about some of these “great books” people don’t actually read because why would you bother reading this “great books” is that they can actually also just be good books. See also, War and Peace. See also, Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, a book I just now noticed I completely missed blogging about, even though it was awesome and made for a really phenomenal follow-up read to War and Peace. These books, many other books, whatever, you get past the professor talk and snobby attitudes and bad raps, and they’re still books written by people for people. Which sounds a little kumbaya, sure, but.

But, so: I’m one chapter into The Recognitions so it’s too soon to declare the book great or good, but what I can say I’ve found in the first sixty pages that I didn’t expect to find has been a lightness of tone, of that modernist sort, that makes me really glad I’ve got some John Barth lined up for later in my reading list this year, because I think there’s going to be some nice call-and-echo action there. I was going to say it avoids slapstick, but then, here, the quote I find for an example of that deft lightness of humor:

—It looks fine, it still looks fine, the Town Carpenter said now, backing into a chair stacked with paintings and sketches and knocking the whole thing over, which immediately put him at his ease by giving him something to do.

– page 52

Which, yes! That’s awesome. Or, another line that had me laugh out loud, as out main character

…was taken with a fever which burned him down to seventy-nine pounds. In this refined state he was exhibited to medical students in the amphitheater of a highly endowed hospital. They found it a very interesting case, and said so. In fact they said very little else.

– page 41

Which, again, yes! That’s awesome. And also tells you most all you need to know about the doctors coming up; and also those delicious, loaded words, burned and refined, exhibited and endowed

Bottom line being, while I’m sure the remainder of this book will not be “easy,” there likely being a reason Jonathan Franzen (oh, Jonathan Franzen) dubbed it “the most difficult book [he] ever voluntarily read in its entirety,” (which, yes, Jonathan Franzen, but whatever), what I can safely say is that it has a pretty stellar self-contained opening chapter, a sixty-page coming-of-age story that I’d rank up there with any other coming of age story you might toss out there. Which, okay, coming of age is about the most difficult thing there is, in some ways, but…still, it’s at least slightly relatable, no?