Book review: The Recognitions

The Recognitions by William Gaddis.
My rating: four stars.

It’s taken me a while to write this review because it’s taken a while to read its subject. The Recognitions is an undeniably skilful creation, a wellspring of erudition and multiple narratives, a thumbnail sketch of religion, of bums, of certain locales around the world at a certain juncture in time, as well as a meditation on falsity, on misdirection and true paths. But it’s also, for all its brilliance, often a sluggish read, and one that provides brilliantly polished vignettes at the cost – for me, at least – of overall coherence.

I’d long heard about William Gaddis. I mean, I was a lit student many moons ago, and this first-novel bombshell casts a long, supposedly under-appreciated shadow, especially when it’s considered how many That-Guy-In-Your-MFA-approved authors (Pynchon, Barth, King of fuckin’ Footnotes DFW and more) the book’s dense, learnedly cryptic prose has influenced. I eagerly awaited the NYRB release of the work so I could finally find out what I’d been missing.

This was my mistake. By only knowing of the book, rather than about it, I was woefully unprepared for the experience. The combination of wit on display and things included seemingly only to create reader frustration – this is a book which renames major characters, or stops referring to them by name at all – is something that takes time to calibrate for. I get that a large part of the confusion is likely intentional, as crisis and truth in representation is a key to the work, but fuck me, if you’re not in the right mood for it, this novel would be an absolute punishment.

—There’s something about a . . . an unfinished piece of work, a . . . a thing like this where . . . do you see? Where perfection is still possible? Because it’s there, it’s there all the time, all the time you work trying to uncover it.

This is one of those books – such as Joyce’s Ulysses – where reading is made a bit more comfortable by having a guide to lean on. I found this Readers’ Guide to be extremely useful inasmuch as it provides contextual cues and musings on the plethora of tidbits with which Gaddis salts the text.

To be clear: no matter how smart you are, there’s a good chance the author will make you feel like a dumbass. There’s so many references you won’t get the first time around that you’ll feel somewhat lost. The same thing occurs in Ulysses, of course, but you can at least leaven that with the knowledge that Joyce wrote scatological mash-notes to his wife. With Gaddis, there’s just the north face of his erudition to contend with, and that’s… quite something.

After all, my dear fellow, you are an artist, and nothing can happen to you. An artist does not exist, except as a vehicle for his work. If you live simply in a world of shapes and smells? You’re bound to become just that. Why your life, the way you live . . . —Yes, I don’t live, I’m . . . I am lived, he whispered.

Look, it sounds like I didn’t enjoy this book, and that isn’t what I want to get across. There’s moments of absolute brilliance in here, and the turn of phrase that’s on display is never less than stellar. I enjoyed the story, and the level of granular detail about a variety of topics. I just wish that I didn’t feel dumb while I was reading, either because of the narrative complexity, or the assumed knowledge.

I’m not really using Goodreads any more, because I’d rather not get involved in its toxic, Bezos-enriching stew. If you’re after some good bookish times, please check out my profile on TheStoryGraph. If you’d like to buy me some books to review, there’s a wishlist over here.

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