by William GaddisPublished 1975 775 pages
JR is an absolute blizzard of a book, both in theme and in form. It's mostly a book about money, and about the systems that we use to spend and trade and multiply it. It's about a kid, JR Vansant, with a seemingly limitless supply of attention and energy, who, on a school field trip to purchase a share in a corporation, is taken with the American system of capital and decides to play the game himself, and "play to win".
Apparently not bound by morality, JR wheels and deals his way to big time American corporate stardom—shuttering small-town businesses and selling ads in school textbooks and building a "Family of Companies" that exists mostly on paper—all from a payphone installed at his school. No one's aware that JR is just a kid; late in the book a profile on the "Boss" of the JR Family of Companies comically claims he has "steel blue eyes [and a] bulldog jaw", though JR's laments that he never even gets to go to any of the banquets and parties hosted by his own company. The JR Family of Companies is eventually audited ominously by the IRS, though the book ends before the audit is completed.
About JR swirls a constellation of other characters, no less prominent: Edward Bast, JR's hapless right-hand man, who gets roped into JR's schemes against his will; Jack Gibbs, an alcoholic author trying to cope with his divorce; countless businessmen and lawyers and politicians squeezing the system for all the bucks they can. They come thick and fast and they don't stop for 700 pages.
In doing so, they generate mountains on mountains of junk. I'm talking mail that no one reads, food that no one eats, a hundred thousand plastic flowers, cheques for pennies. Money, as The Complete Review points out, flows so freely that characters are at significant pains to hold on to it. Money is lent, lost, created from nothing, and evaporates back into nothing. Mischaracterisations and misunderstandings abound—the class that visits a company HQ early in the book, for instance, is confused with a class action lawsuit; a wallpaper company is confused with a publisher of the same name; Gibbs swaps languages to purposely confuse people he doesn't want to talk to.
Given a world so aswirl with noise, Gaddis takes a couple of opportunities throughout the novel to try to remind the reader to cut through it and find joy in the simple pleasures of life. Both Edward Bast and Amy Joubert urge JR to give up his corporate pursuits to listen to music and appreciate the sunset, respectively. And late in the novel, a character on his deathbed laments that after fourteen years in business the thing he missed most was his late daughter playing music. I think that's about as much as we're going to get of a moral as far as Gaddis is concerned, but maybe that's enough.
Much has been made of Gaddis's style, and how difficult it is: the book is almost entirely dialogue, with no dialogue tags to indicate who's speaking; and the dialogue is fast-paced and unapologetically American, replete with half-formed thoughts and unfinished clauses and filler words:
—What tell me what! I mean you're telling me how neat the sky looks you're telling me listen to this here music you even get pissed off when I...
—I asked you what you heard! that's all, I...
—What like it lifted me out of mysel...
—Not what I said no you! what you heard!
—What was I suppose to hear!
—You weren't! you weren't supposed to hear anything that what I'm...
—Then how come you made me lis...
—To make you hear! to make you, to make you feel to try to...
Getting into the rhythm takes a bit of getting used to, but once you're on Gaddis's wavelength the pages basically turn themselves. It's a remarkably easy read! There are no chapters, but there are scene transitions to help break up the action. Gaddis gets a little flowery with the language during these scene transitions—to the point of inscrutableness, sometimes—but the plot, such as it is, is generally very easy to follow. The cross-plot references (that is, effects from one scene that ripple into another) are a little bit more difficult to catch, though they often constitute comedic misinterpretations which helps them stand out.
Throughout, Gaddis weaves a dense array of references to other works, almost none of which I would have understood without the Gaddis Annotations. The first publisher to append the annotations directly to the text will make a killing.
- I can't remember where I read it, but I think that Gaddis went on record saying that JR stands for "Junior", and I think that's pretty funny.
- I also like Scott Bradfield's characterisation of the novel, for the Los Angeles Times: "In the ’60s and ’70s, when it was written, “JR” was about how bad America was getting. Today it’s about how awful America is."