The Recognitions


Skimming or Swimming in GaddisOf course, one can never know if one is reading the original of The Recognitions.Especially as it is packaged by those noble and normally nonpareil packagers Dalkey Archive.Here’s the entirety of the two blocks of print on back of the book:‘“THE RECOGNITIONS is always spoken of as the most over-looked important work of the last several literary generations…Through the famous obscurity of THE RECOGNITIONS, Mr. Gaddis has become famous for not being famous enough.” --Cynthia Ozick’‘Dubbed by Jonathan Franzen the “ur-text of postwar fiction” and the “first great cultural critique, which, even if Heller and Pynchon hadn’t read it while composing Catch-22 and V., managed to anticipate the spirit of both”—THE RECOGNITIONS is a masterwork about art and forgery, and the increasingly thin line between the counterfeit and the fake. Gaddis anticipates by almost half a century the crisis of reality that we currently face, where the real and the virtual are combining in alarming ways, and the sources of legitimacy and power are often obscure to us.’Having ordered the book via mail, I read it anyway. And luckily it included an introduction by William Gass that brilliantly challenged me to give the book its due as I went along at any, I think he implied, preferred speed. What I found was neither an ur-text nor the first great anything, although it did have in it much about forgery, fakery, counterfeitery, shallowness, posturing, either as passionately assertive activities of city folk or bumblings of lost city folk, mostly blindly assertive, even as a sort of rings of hell for the tortured honest as can be (’…increasingly thin line between the counterfeit and the fake…’ ? Is that really what they meant to say? If so, it is not inaccurate, but awfully limiting.).Known as a difficult book that requires patience, I found it a rather easy book that only required that I not think much about the next book I wanted to read. The 956 pages are not large print. Nor, and here is where I’ll stuff my one use of postmodern, does the book hook the reader, rev up and charge to a distant finish line. Nor do the stories within stories conform to neat spirals as in The Arabian Nights. But that is one of the delights, for Gaddis is as lyrical, philosophical, and funny as he is surprising, his wit ranging from Marxian one-liners (a Renault taken to be a painting), to slapstick (a great bit about a leg driven about Manhattan and how it leads to a false rumor of sexual hijinx…). One section, or chapter, is in fact a set piece as long as a novel by Dawn Powell or Nathaniel West, two writers who certainly retain their echoes in Gaddis’ novel.Okay, so what makes the book seem difficult? Well, ‘big words’, meaning obscure ones, are scattered throughout—the average reader would probably have to run to the dictionary 15 to 20 times; there are abstruse references throughout, hopefully a number of them invented by Gaddis, but familiarity with none of which is required to follow or understand the book; and finally, conversation is not clearly demarcated, so that quite often one has to follow the meaning of the text to get who is speaking, be patient before it is revealed who is speaking, or it matters not at all who is speaking.What does the book mean (why does Fraudzen believe it is ur)? Well, yes, the book riffs ontologically throughout on the real, the fake, the fake of the real, the expert of the fake of the originally meaningless real, creating a very intellectually inconvenient, multi-layered mélange of realities that require of the reader precisely the amount of thought the reader would like to apply to the book. Known as a book its readers return to repeatedly, one can readily see why, for there are passages strewn throughout in which Gaddis says lyrically what we all suspect to be true, and even if, over half a century on, these matters are not new, if we have not yet read Gaddis, his way of expressing it is.Rating the book seems a silly exercise, so I thought I would argue for its place in ‘the canon’, but canon’s exist so that books like this can mean all the more, so it gets five stars, fifteen mackerels, three genius grants, whatever the top prize is. In terms of recommendation, I believe every reader of serious literature should have this book and read it as the urge arises. One LT reader mentioned two attempts, each ending before page 100. This is likely not uncommon. But if this happens to you, keep it next to Finnegan’s Wake in the shitpot room and enjoy the expressions of a great thinker and writer as you, by excreting, create in your being room for inspiration.