A Frolic of His Own

by JDP

Anyone currently residing in a society governed by laws would probably do well to read this novel; even those in lawless societies might not completely be wasting their efforts. Speaking of effort, I’d recommend throwing back a highly caffeinated energy drink and donning your thinking cap before you begin reading.

William Gaddis / American / 1994 / 509 pages

It is an interesting mind experiment to ponder how literature changes when we strip it of one or more of its fundamental components. Authors in more contemporary times have been playing around with this for a while now and occasionally they stumble upon something truly excellent. For example, think about the exciting narrative possibilities that opened up when we disregarded linear storytelling as a central component of the novelistic form. Although playing with the sequence of events seems a bit old hat nowadays, this innovation was nothing short of extraordinary when Ford Maddox Ford and others were pioneering the technique in the 1910s. We might also think of stream of consciousness narration, where authors (Joyce, Woolf, and many others) move away from the (arguably unrealistic to begin with) structured and precise presentation of sensory experiences. Consider additional efforts to strip novels of paragraphs (Bernhard), extraneous verbiage (Hemingway), or characters who retain their names as proper nouns (Saramago). When these masters of form tie their hands in such dramatic fashion, the “limitations” of the resulting works sometimes speak louder than what has actually be placed on the page.

Due to a similarly innovative omission of his own, William Gaddis has become a fascinating and difficult figure in contemporary literature. Begun with his first novel (The Recognitions) and continuing through his last full-length work (A Frolic of His Own), Gaddis progressively bled everything out of his narration except for dialogue and the very slightest elements of stage setting. While this may sound similar in design to a theatrical production’s script, it is substantially vaguer; Gaddis rarely indicates who is speaking and his characters tend to interrupt one another, break off in mid sentence, or double back on previously-completed (or, perhaps, just seemingly-completed) discussion topics. Oftentimes, he builds in enough verbal ticks that it’s easy to distinguish one speaker from another. At other points, however, this is much less the case. The total effect is daunting, but fascinating: Gaddis writes some of the most believable and hilarious dialogue in Frolic that I’ve ever encountered in written form.

More so than in his other books, Gaddis experiments with a broader range of styles in this novel. For example, he has inserted scores of pages of a script for a play and he has them recited aloud (with commentary!) by the author of the production, the novel’s protagonist, Oscar Crease. There are several court decisions written by various circuit judges that appear wholesale at fairly random intervals (no doubt substantial research went into writing this novel) and the text of letters, newspaper articles, and advertisements also put in an appearance. One of the more captivating and comical passages of the novel is a 50-page transcript of a legal deposition. A group of people sits down to watch a movie and Gaddis seamlessly blends their discussion with an account of everything that transpires on-screen. These shifts in form constitute a welcome reprieve from otherwise endlessly running conversations, but several reviewers have taken him to task for writing, well, if not a novel exactly, then some kind of bizarre hybrid attempt at a novel. I’m kind of on the fence: while it’s obvious that the reader, to a certain extent, must construct the novel from the pieces that Gaddis has cobbled together, it’s also fairly evident that there is an intended final product. It is entirely possible, for instance, that as a reader, you can “get things wrong” if you aren’t careful. Reading the book is almost a collaborative project between reader and author, but the relationship is asymmetric. Gaddis is our instructor, not our peer.

This all demands a good deal of patience. The reader only encounters, say, a glass breaking if someone shouts: “my gosh, that glass just broke!” You only determine someone’s race, build, or gender when a third party comments on their appearance or summons them by name (in this respect, it’s often impossible to get a handle on a character’s age). The physical contours of a scene can change dramatically (for example, someone departing the room or arriving with arms full of groceries) without the reader being made immediately aware. In this sense, there’s a nontrivial lag time between what the characters are experiencing and what the reader is encountering. The technique also virtually destroys anything resembling a separate narrator; if all we get are people talking and a variety of other documents with no coherent framework presented by a narrator (omniscient or otherwise), then we’ve really moved into an entirely new form of fiction. This lack of filtration is both exhilarating and problematic. Scenes drag, mundanity abounds, and there are more discussions about food, television, and room temperature than you can shake a stick at.

But the satire is biting. Indeed, Gaddis so thoroughly skewers “the law” — as a profession, a procedure, and a system of social organization — that there’s really no reason anyone reading this book would ever voluntarily end up in a courtroom. Examples are telling. The playwright Oscar Crease is engaged in two lawsuits: one against himself (his car accidentally ran over him while he was in the process of hot wiring it) and another against a huge Hollywood production company (which allegedly stole substantial portions of his play in the course of filming a major summer blockbuster). As we watch the latter lawsuit play out, however, we realize that, not only is the play horribly written to begin with, but the movie has very little relation to it and Oscar seems to have indulged in his own healthy amount of plagiarism (indeed, by the end of the novel, the Eugene O’Neill estate sues Oscar for having “borrowed” substantial swathes of dialogue from Mourning Becomes Electra). A formerly-pregnant woman is sued by her ex-lover for paternal rights because she aborted the fetus without consulting him; just prior to the abortion, however, the woman is accidentally tapped on the shoulder at a hospital and she decides to sue for fetal endangerment. When a dog runs into a huge public sculpture and becomes trapped, the sculptor files an injunction in court to prevent the fire squad from sawing into the sculpture to remove the dog. The locals get angry at this pretentiousness and stage a protest to ask the government to remove the sculpture. When lightening strikes the edifice and kills the dog, the artist feels his work has been befouled and sues the government to remove the sculpture and transfer it to another city. Meanwhile, the court case has generated so much media attention that the locals are now seeing the benefits of tourist revenue. They stage another demonstration, this time in support of keeping the sculpture in their town. A woman sues a man because he talked her into a breast augmentation. A parent sues a pastor when he accidentally lets her child go during a river baptism and the child drowns.

The larger point that Gaddis develops over several hundred pages is this: no one wins. Court cases are decided in favor of or against this or that party, but the process is so ponderous, expensive, and logically convoluted that it’s impossible to emerge victorious. In legal procedure, words are twisted until they become meaningless, common sense is contorted until it resembles naiveté, and the value of a dollar is belittled so extensively that it becomes worthless.

If anything, the people who come out looking best are the lawyers themselves; if anyone in the novel is levelheaded, reasonable, and rational, it is the lawyer. He is a passive participant in a system that he openly acknowledges is broken and borderline Kafkaesque. When faced with the indignities suffered by his clients, the lawyer is a stoic — if fundamentally unhelpful — sympathizer. More often than not, the lawyer is accessible, eager to advise, and knowledgeable. The bill, as they say, is in the mail.

The novel would have been a bit better if it had moved beyond its main satirical thrust. Gaddis tackles in tangential capacities several of his other criticisms that he has famously developed in greater depth in other works: anti-capitalism tendencies are evident here, but left unexplored; his contempt for the mass media consumer is explicit, but secondary; even his character development suffers substantially, though I cannot say whether this is more attributable to the book’s style or its substance. The cast of characters in the novel is fairly thoroughly reprehensible and, as their fates soured toward the novel’s conclusion, I must admit that I wasn’t terribly troubled. They spend most of their time cooped up in the same three or four rooms in a country mansion and the sense of claustrophobia occasionally ramps up to a nearly intolerable pitch. All that being said, my opening sentiments persist: this is a great book to read for those interested in an (clearly biased) account of the legal profession. Frolic probably goes down as one of the great legal novels of all time together with Kafka’s The Trial (which I have previously read and enjoyed) and Dicken’s Bleak House (which I intend to read next month).

Rating: 8 / 10

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