'Hit your Educable Public Right in the Supermarket Where they Live': Risk and Failure in the Work of William Gaddis

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This essay explores political and aesthetic 'failure' in the work of William Gaddis, specifically arguing that failure was his critical response to the triumphalism of an emerging neo-liberalism. In the first half I argue that Gaddis drew on Norbert Wiener's 1950 The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society as a 'sourcebook' for his novel JR because it offered a critical counter-point to an increasingly hegemonic positivism. I specifically explore the parallels and divergences between the work of Wiener and his erstwhile colleague Milton Friedman to suggest that Wiener provided Gaddis with a formal and methodological alternative to the modelling of conservative economics. The second half of the article focuses on JR, drawing out the ways in which the novel draws on Wiener in order to make evident the importance of failure as a site of political and aesthetic critique. In this section I highlight how the 'difficult' formal properties of the novel offer their own parodic response to an empirical methodology: as they force us to question what it is that we know we know in an entirely different way.

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William Gaddis’ corporate writing in the years between his first two novels was as important to J R’s (1975) formal innovations as to its business-world plot. While previous J R criticism has dealt in formal tropes of flatness, depth, and flow, the corporate writing preserved in Gaddis’ archive offers grounds for reading the novel’s plot andstyle through the related but under-examined concept of friction. Through various archival discoveries, I sketch the case for a friction-centric reading of J R. I show what Gaddis’ work in the slide-show medium and assembling speeches out of contradictory source material contributed to the novel’s sentence-level innovations in style, and finally offer a style-driven re-reading of the novel’s overall narrative design. While Gaddis’ corporate work taught him techniques for eliminating traces of ideological friction, J R’s formal innovations first draw on those techniques to establish a world that tends toward frictionlessness, then invert them to restore friction within that world’s terms.
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I analyze William Gaddis’ transmutation, in J R (1975), of material from his abandoned book on instructional TV for the Ford Foundation (1962-3). Finding previously unknown sources for numerous passages of the novel, I focus on a pattern of changed emphasis. Gaddis’ work for Ford is scrupulous about the pedagogical potential of TV, which it sees as a viable classroom tool threatened by administrative misuse. The novel, however, turns material that initially focused on teachers’ experiences and dilemmas into indictments of administrative culture alone. I show how central the Ford project’s conception of administrative problems becomes to J R, trace the way that material originally organized around pedagogical concerns is repurposed to evoke administrative overreach and dysfunction, and demonstrate this transmutation-pattern’s implications for understanding the novel’s narrative and rhetorical drama.
Cambridge Core - Literary Theory - The Market Logics of Contemporary Fiction - by Paul Crosthwaite
In Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (2008), cricket is the dominant thematic mechanism, and anchoring allegorical device, through which the novel encodes the capitalist world-system, including the ways in which structural continuity and “riskless risk” are glorified as the neo-liberal conditions for a cosmopolitan class of white international workers, in the face of, and directly at the expense of, their racialized, economic and cricketing “Other”. This encoding renders visible the “systemic cycles of accumulation” that characterize the history of capitalism. Yet the novel goes to extreme lengths to hold off, seemingly as perpetual delay, the failure-filled future consequences of its own leaked revelations. Hence, it is only by resituating Netherland in a world-systemic frame that critical sense can be made of Hans’s feigned cricketing bildung and the novel’s Dutch-English-American journey of cyclical continuity.
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