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Agape Agape by William Gaddis

Gaddis, William. Agape Agape. (Viking, 2002).

(Originally apperaed in (now defunct) The Readerville Journal (Nov/Dec 2002).

William Gaddis is known — at least by those who have actually heard of him — for long, dense novels such as The Recognitions (1955) and J R (1975). If you were to remove from those the complicated plots woven together with darkly humorous elements of chance, the vast arrays of characters and the pages and pages of dialogue (usually unattributed) you would be left with Agape Agape.

In the mid-1940s, before his first novel, Gaddis began researching the player piano, a project that followed him through his life. (He died in 1998.) It wasn’t the instrument as such that interested him but rather what it suggested, the place it held in a chain of technological advancements that assimilated art and the organization of society. For instance, the player piano roll, what we would now consider a simple binary mechanism, inspired the first computer punch card.

He revisited the player piano project often during his life. A short excerpt was published in The Atlantic Monthly (1951); a summary was sent to publishers during the 1960s and pages of his notes were worked into J R as the work of one of that novel’s characters (himself a stand-in for Gaddis). By the mid-1990s, when he knew he was dying, the proposed book (originally planned as a work of nonfiction) was turned into fiction — its form inspired by the work of Thomas Bernhard, short and compressed.

Agape Agape can be considered a novella more than a novel, especially since it lacks what most readers would expect from the novelistic form: plot, dialogue and characters. What we do get is a 96-page monologic paragraph, spoken to the reader by a dying writer as he attempts to organize and finish his last work. It is more reminiscent of Beckett than those with whom Gaddis is generally grouped, such as Pynchon and DeLillo.

The narrator begins: “No, but you see I’ve got to explain all this because I don’t, we don’t know how much time there is left and I have to work on the, to finish this work of mine … .” It’s not hard to equate the narrator, dying in his bed surrounded by decades of notes and research, with Gaddis, ditto, concerned about being forgotten (“Fact that I’m forgotten that I’m left on the shelf with the dead white guys in the academic curriculum …”) and looking back on life (“… it’s not the change no but how fast the changes come now, not even the weeks the years but how many different lives you’ve lived, first step that counts yes I always took the wrong one like being five, ten, twenty different people wouldn’t know each other if they met in the street wouldn’t even say hello, you see?”).

The book expands from that thread, weaving together strands of thought, quotation and allusion, alongside references to the narrator’s condition and actions. The monologue is repetitive and digressive (the narrator is medicated for his condition, medication that causes him to lose focus), slowly building up its theme:

.. that’s what my work is about, the collapse of everything, of meaning, of language, of values, of art, disorder and dislocation wherever you look, entropy drowning everything in sight, entertainment and technology and every four year old with a computer, everybody his own artist where the whole thing came from, the binary system and the computer where technology came from in the first place, you see?

The text incorporates Plato (banished poets), Walter Benjamin (art and reproduction), Freud, Melville, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Glenn Gould, ancient Greek concepts of inspiration and texts related to the player piano, such as this ad:

“You can player better by roll than many who play by hand” you see? “And you can play all pieces while they can play but a few. And now even untrained persons can do it,” breaks your heart. “The biggest thrill in music is playing it yourself. It’s your own participation that rouses your emotions most,” whole thing breaks your heart …

The reader slowly builds a concept of Gaddis’ questioning: Where does the individual artist fit into today’s society? How has mechanization affected art and artists? And while he holds little regard for much of society in its mass/technological aspect, I’m not sure the book offers any answers. It does offer thought for consideration and true appreciation for what art can be.

This may sound dry, confusing or just plain annoying. I’ll admit that almost 100 pages of text without a single paragraph break — and sentences that go on and on — could make for an unpleasant reading experience, yet I found myself unable to put the book down. Gaddis offers no convenient place to stop, so one just continues on, taking it all in as it should be heard.

There’s no easy way to sum up the book; it’s already so distilled. Gaddis speaks from beyond the grave, summing up his oeuvre with this capstone — a tiny book atop mountains of words. [NOTE — Annotations to “Agape Agape” by Gaddis scholar Steven Moore are available at:”]

Related Reading:

David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel (Counterpoint; 2001) offers a work similar in form to Agape Agape, monologic and discursive, though concentrating more on the theme of the dying artist and the despair of artists’ lives rather than the technological and societal aspects.