Joseph Tabbi's outstanding new biography of postmodern master William Gaddis, Nobody Grew But the Business, is a fascinating look at a well-known reclusive writer. It also reveals that much of Gaddis's writing was autobiographical, and that Gaddis mined his 20 years in corporate America, as well as his own family history, for characters, themes, and stories. Tabbi ranks Gaddis's novels.

William Gaddis (1922-1998) was famously labeled “Mr. Difficult” by Jonathan Franzen in the New Yorker, and the length of most of his works does little to encourage the new reader. But, as I have seen in my years of teaching his books and researching his life, he is a writer who can change how a reader looks at the world.

Gaddis lived and absorbed the patterns, trends, and rhythms of everyday life in America. Family and friends would often find their conversations in print, many years later, and Gaddis kept voluminous files of newspaper, magazine clippings and seemingly cast-off copy to be used later.

No writer is better than Gaddis at portraying the corporatization of America. The recognition that one’s own family narrative can hardly be advanced by a culture grounded solely (and soullessly) by business values, accounts for much of Gaddis’s low public profile. It accounts also for the title of my biography of Gaddis and his lifework. In Gaddis’s novel, J R, the phrase Nobody Grew but the Business appears on a passing truck that also pictures five dwarfs, who are housepainters. Gaddis’s humor never failed him but neither did he ever deviate from the conviction that family, religious, and ethnic groupings were being done in by corporations.

Top pick: J R (1975)

Gaddis’s second novel takes first place in my estimation because of the way that he quietly worked his own family history into the impersonal, multi-mediated narrative of money and finance. After the publication of his first novel in 1955, he found himself married, a father to be, and heading toward a two decade long career in corporate writing. During this period he also watched his son and daughter grow up. So Gaddis not only brings an insider’s understanding of technology and marketing but also a father’s ear for the speech of a sixth grader – which must have aided in his creation of J R Vansant, an “unkempt 11 year old whose penny stock and defaulted bond operations [blossom] into a vast and perilous financial empire.” (Essays and Occasional Writings.)

Mark Twain had already given the spirit of accumulation and entrepreneurship to his adolescent hero, Tom Sawyer. Without any of the moral, aesthetic, or sexual ambitions that constrain adult lives, young J R is focused entirely on winning. He’s not at all concerned with the human consequences of his market interventions. Written mostly in unattributed dialogue, J R also follows in the tradition of Dos Passos, who claimed in the preface to the USA Trilogy (1930-38) that any one author’s imagination of the American nation was nothing more or less, than “the speech of the people.”

But there is more going on than just talk. An innovation that is often missed in J R is the numerous narrative voiceovers that carry readers from one scene to the next: through telephone conversations; with a couple riding a commuter train, reading a day-old newspaper or looking out the window; and through televisions seen or radio announcements heard by characters in separate locations. The bridge passages in J R, to readers who are able to get out of an informational frame of mind and actually listen, can be recognized as some of the most accomplished prose poetry in any work of American fiction. The boy’s closing words are directed as much to the reader as to his interlocutor in the novel, “–Hey, you listening?”

The Recognitions (1955)

Gaddis’s massive first novel ostensibly follows Wyatt, a former seminarian turned forger, but reflects Gaddis’s own wandering years as a would-be writer. At the time, he could observe so many others so much like him who seemed always to be leaving, going abroad, and searching: “I mean to Saint Germain des Prés where they’re imitating Greenwich Village and here we are in Greenwich Village still imitating Montmartre,” as he has one character say in the novel.

The influence of The Recognitions on succeeding generations of U.S. writers is well documented: More than one of Thomas Pynchon’s professors at Cornell University told me that V. (1966) never would have been written the way it was without the conversations that surrounded Gaddis’s novel among literature students at the time. It was also influential in Beat circles. Over the next two decades novelists such as Coover, DeLillo, Gass, McElroy, Auster, and Richard Powers would attest to the influence of Gaddis’s first novel not for this or that theme or narrative technique but for a sense of what it meant to be a writer at a time when the ambitions of literary modernism were felt to have played themselves out.

The novel initially had an appeal that was all the more powerful for having remained underground: there were not yet, at that time, writing programs (such as the one Gaddis himself taught at, at Bard in the 1970s), that would formalize and channel all the extended conversations Gaddis depicts, in the bars and bedrooms and studios of lower Manhattan and on the Left Bank of Paris.

Carpenter’s Gothic (1985)

“Portrait of the Artist as a Writing Professor” is the title of my chapter on Gaddis’s third novel. We enter the lives and the ‘Carpenter Gothic’ rented house of a couple in upstate New York, based on the Piermont house Gaddis himself shared with his second wife, Judith, and then rented out after their divorce. Initially titled “That Time of Year,” after a line in a Shakespeare sonnet, the book details the affair between an older man, McCandless, who has published a novel, and his tenant (also an aspiring writer), Elizabeth Booth. I hadn’t noticed the running sub-theme about the art of fiction writing when the book first appeared. In retrospect, after I realized just how much time Gaddis himself spent in classrooms, the parallels became clear and not just the personal context: I could see how the corporatization of everyday life, Gaddis’s great theme in J R, extended to the writing life also, as aspirants have been channeled into creative writing programs nationwide. DeLillo noticed this too, when in Mao II he has his character Bill Gray – a reclusive novelist living in upstate NY who in many ways resembles Gaddis – complain to his publisher about the inability to write any longer in the way he and his compeers had done it in the 1960s and early 1970s, “before we all were incorporated.”

A Frolic of His Own (1994)

If Art, Business, and a fundamentalist Religion are the primary topics of his first three novels, Gaddis turned to the Law in this one – the discipline where language itself becomes not just communicative, but operational. By now, that operative legal language can be said to extend to all professions that the character Harry Lutz, a corporate lawyer, recognizes as “a conspiracy against the public, every profession protects itself with a language of its own.”

There is another, ecological aspect to Frolic that was present in earlier works but never foregrounded so much. There is always in J R the sound of trees being sawed down on the ever more uniform streets of Massapequa, Long Island, where Gaddis grew up. Outside the house in Carpenter’s Gothic and outside the narrative action, a group of boys seem always to be playing hockey with a fallen pigeon for a puck. In Frolic we have Nature Channel programs running through the night, alongside quotations in the text from Longfellow’s Hiawatha (“By the shores of Gitche Gumee…”). He was, in many senses, an ecological novelist who at the end cringes to think of “what we destroyed” and who could not bear to see things wasted—not money, not talent, and certainly not the unpublished products of his own creative energies.

Agapē Agape (2002)

A reduction of a fifty yearlong interest in the seemingly obscure history of the player piano, this reflection on Agapē, the Christian motif of brotherly love, is in fact a way of encountering the replacement of a centuries long, distinctively American tradition of folk, blues, high school bands and small town orchestras and not least, the downtown honky-tonk. But the independent musician, doing what he can with the talents he’s got, the materials at hand, and whoever shows up that night in the audience, were each of them already being replaced by a punchcard pianist that may be the first example of the digitization of the arts.

Though Agapë Agape may be the slightest of Gaddis’s works, in terms of length and elaboration on its themes, there is no diminishment of power or insight and this book may well be the best introduction to Gaddis’s always untimely, potentially timeless, artistry.