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William Gaddis

From Academic Kids

William Gaddis (December_29, 1922 - December_16, 1998) was an American novelist, born in Manhattan.

He entered Harvard in 1941 and famously wrote for the Harvard Lampoon, but was asked to leave in 1944, after a drunken brawl. He worked as a fact checker for The New Yorker in 1946, then moved to Central America. His first novel, The Recognitions, appeared in 1955. A lengthy, complex, and allusive work, it had to wait to find its audience. Newspaper reviewers considered it overly intellectual, overwritten, and perhaps on the principle of omne ignotum per obscaenum, filthy.

Gaddis then turned to public relations work and the making of documentary films to support himself and his family. In 1975 he published JR, an even more difficult work than The Recognitions, told entirely in dialogue, with no direct indication of who is speaking at any given time. Its eponymous protagonist, an 11-year-old, learns enough about the stock market from a class field trip to build a financial empire of his own. Critical opinion had caught up with him, and the book won the National Book Award. A few years later the hugely successfully television show Dallas featured a tycoon named "JR," albeit somewhat older, and the real-life market of the 80s and since has borne an alarming resemblance to some of the machinations described here.

Carpenter's Gothic (1985) offered a shorter and more accessible picture of Gaddis's sardonic worldview. The continuing litigation that was a theme in that book takes center place in A Frolic of His Own (1994), where it seems that everyone is suing someone, with the core story satirizing the contemporaneous swirl of litigation surrounding Richard Serra's Tilted Arc. There is even a Japanese car called the Sosumi. (Gaddis has never been afraid of the pun. There is a character in The Recognitions named Recktall Brown.)

Gaddis died of prostate cancer on December 16, 1998, but not before creating his final work, Agape Agape (published in 2002), a novella in the form of the last words of a character similar but not identical to his creator.

After many years of critical neglect, Gaddis is now acknowledged as being one of the greatest of American post-war novelists. His influence is vast (although frequently subterranean): for example, it is clear that authors such as Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon have been heavily influenced by Gaddis and much that seemed most innovative in their own work was actually pioneered by Gaddis.

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