J R: A Humble Cello Piece

None of William Gaddis’s books continue to be published in Australia. I had to order my copies of J R and The Recognitions from the US, ironically paying a premium for these pieces of art because, I suppose, that’s what America’s all about. It is truly tragic that Gaddis, arguably the person responsible for kickstarting postmodern literature, has become all but forgotten in the modern world. Tragic because his works still operate as pertinent critiques of contemporary society, but also because J R has now earned its place as my favourite book of all time. Writing a review of an artwork that has so recently become a personal favourite is an incredibly daunting task, to be frank, for there remains that ever-present fear that I will taint the work somehow, that I have misinterpreted some vital component or missed a fundamental idea and will fail to do it justice to an audience. There also exists the fear that I will simply end up regurgitating the core message of the novel in a clunkier and less entertaining jumble of words than the original author. So when you read this review, just know that this is only one lowly undergraduate’s experiences with J R, a novel that is extraordinarily complex, witty, and tragic in its own right. And I think, for me personally, that was the element that hit home the hardest in this novel: the tragedy. But although the world, the characters, and the story are torn to shreds by the vicissitudes of capitalism, there remains a glimmer of beauty in the fight against inevitable destruction and the ever-present press of entropy.

For those unfamiliar with J R, it is a novel that primarily serves as a satirical depiction of American capitalism and the corrosive effect it has upon creative minds. The vast majority of the novel is written entirely in dialogue, often with no indication to the reader about which character is speaking beyond contextual clues and styles of speech. There are no chapters or paragraphs either. Rather, scene changes occur as different characters cross paths and the script switches focus from one individual to another at each of these points of intersection. If J R were a movie, then the entire film would have involved a single call for lights, camera, action and a single, mobile, two hour long camera shot that followed around any of the characters who happened to drift into the scene. It is a chaotic snapshot of time within which two groups of people struggle to give meaning to their lives: the artists and the capitalists. The artists consist of the writers Thomas Eigen, Schramm, and Jack Gibbs, the painter Schepperman, and the musician Edward Bast. The range of people who are absorbed by the game of capitalism are far more expansive and include the local bank president and school principal Whiteback, the public relations director David Davidoff, a number of the senior executive for the fictional company Typhon International, and the source of the story’s namesake: the sixth grade schoolboy J R Vansant. The events of the novel are kickstarted as J R starts teaching himself how to invest in financial assets, forming the J R Corp Family of Companies under which he builds a paper manufacturing empire. Unfortunately for J R, he still remains a child and cannot realistically meet with any of the adults required to broker these deals.

So, our artists and capitalists are brought together when J R enlists the musician, Bast, to act as his executive officer for operations and perform all of the face-to-face interactions necessary for the operation of J R Corp, whilst the young boy manages the firm over the phone, using a handkerchief stuffed into the receiver to give the impression of a deeper voice. Bast is so exhausted by the work at J R Corp that he struggles to make time to pursue his passion for music, changing his project from a full opera to a symphony, then to a sonata, then a suite, and finally a solo cello piece. The events of the novel end in calamity as an exhausted Bast is forced to interact with a number of despairing individuals who have been brought to ruin by J R’s heartless corporate decisions in an attempt to maximise company profit. Bast barely escapes from a Native American uprising, watches as the president of one of the companies under J R Corp suffers a heart attack face down in his omelette, and is held hostage at gun-point by a distraught brewer who discovers that he is going to lose his brewery after it is purchased by J R Corp. When J R finally fires Bast for this string of catastrophes, the exhausted musician cracks and goes temporarily insane. It is only his final, humble piece of music which he is writing that keeps him from completely falling to pieces.

Gaddis depicts American capitalism as essentially a chaotic game. J R is the key player, manipulating numbers and intangible financial assets in an attempt to maximise profit with minimal investment. It is left to Bast to deal with the real assets – the consequences of each decision made whilst playing the game. As such, J R is completely detached from any of the humanity and emotional repercussions of his decisions, whilst Bast has his health, creative drive, and eventually his sanity ground to dust by those real-world consequences. It is important to note that the rules of the game are never broken by J R either, at least until Bast fails to complete the key set of negotiations at the end of the novel. Every decision made by J R is to the letter of the law: every investment, the formation of offshore shell companies, cutting employee pension funds, and the firing of the old employees within his companies all have terrible human consequences, but they are legal. The game does not account for its own indifference to humanity.

Everything about the game is ugly too; disordered, messy, and cruel. The messiness of the world is best portrayed through the base of operations for J R Corp: a derelict apartment on East 96th Street, Manhattan, owned by Jack Gibbs operating under a pseudonym for tax evasion purposes, rented for $61.40 per month. Disorder slowly develops throughout the room as the novel progresses. There are growing piles of trash, a radio buried beneath a stack of boxes which cannot be switched off, a number of broken water faucets, and a clock that runs anti-clockwise. When I close my eyes I can still see that room in exquisite detail. Every box of “12-38 Oz Btls Won’t Burn, Smoke or Smell”, “24-7 Oz Pkgs Flavored Loops”, and “Hoppin’ With Flavor” could be rendered perfectly within my mind by the end of the novel. This room has enough personality for it to count as another character, especially considering how disordered and ugly the real characters actually are. Not one character within the novel could truly be described as a good person, even from amongst the artists. Jack Gibbs is a self-destructive alcoholic, Thomas Eigen attempts to sexually assault a young woman squatting in the apartment, and Bast loses his sanity in his fruitless attempts to juggle the operation of J R Corp and his music. Just like the apartment room, these characters are broken and full of trash. Yet we are supposed to be rooting for these people?

It is important to consider the notion that these disgusting components of the characters’ personalities are generally all symptoms of a greater power. They have been eroded over the years by the stress of earning rent and food money, failing to earn acclaim in their dead-end careers, falling out of love with their partners and losing custody of their children, all whilst desperately trying to maintain a spark of passion for their art. The world continues to take and take and take from them with no way for them to break the cycle. Those who are cold, wicked, and manipulative are rewarded and congratulated in the world of big business, while those who start out with a pure heart and passion are crushed beneath the boot of a corporate world. It is no surprise that these people grow to become bitter and resentful, cruel and hopeless. The characters become a reflection of the very world that they are forced to endure; a world within the book that is shaped by the clueless, heartless character of J R.

With all of this ugliness, bitterness, cruelty, and entropy in the world, there exists the perfect canvas for juxtaposing beauty. The corporate world of the novel fails to recognise this beauty. One of Schepperman’s paintings is deemed a waste of money by the executives of Typhon International after they purchase it in an attempt to liven up their building’s foyer. One of J R’s teachers, Mrs Joubert, attempts to get him to appreciate the beauty of the night sky, but the boy avoids even considering the notion:

“—Yes look up at the sky look at it! Is there a millionaire for that? But her own eyes dropped to her hand on his shoulder as though to confirm a shock at the slightness of what she held there. —Does there have to be a millionaire for everything?
—Sure well, well no I mean like…
—And over there look, look. The moon coming up, don’t you see it? Doesn’t it make…
—What over there? He ducked away as though for a better view, — No but that’s, Mrs Joubert? that’s just, wait…
—No never mind, it doesn’t matter…”

Bast tries his hand at showing J R the beauty of music, but the young boy cannot comprehend anything beyond the material nature of the notes. He experiences no emotional response whatsoever:

“—No but look hey I’m cold I mean how can we sit out here in the dark and lis…
—I’m cold too! I’m cold dizzy sick at my stomach if I can sit here and listen to you talk about how much this goodwill is worth and this here friend at what makes you think we’ve got any friends anywhere! How much goodwill do you think we …
—No wait hey I mean holy shit I don’t mean where everybody’s crazy about us and all, see goodwill that means the excess of the purchase price over the value of these net tangible assets where they really screwed us on that Endo deal see so ouch!
—That’s not what it means! That’s what I’m trying to, listen all I want you to do take your mind off these nickel deductions these net tangible assets for a minute and listen to a piece of great music, it’s a cantata by Bach cantata number twenty-one by Johann Sebastian Bach damn it J R can’t you understand what I’m trying to, to show you there’s such a thing as as, as intangible assets?”

Nobody ever succeeds in making J R see the intangible assets afforded by something beautiful. But as a reader, the clear contrast with the ugly world makes it obvious and unavoidable. Eigen and Gibbs love their children dearly, but both have lost custody by the end of the novel. A tiny nativity scene reminds Eigen that his son used to refer to it as Baby Jeeter and the Three Wide Men, something pure and innocent that has no real material value. When Gibbs is allowed to visit his daughter they play catch together, depicting a brief moment of bonding and love which also lacks tangible value. Despite the ever-increasing time commitment required by his work at J R Corp, Bast desperately continues to compose music and produce something that he can be proud of before he dies. The disorder of the world does its best to obscure these brief moments of beauty, but they are there if you look for them.

The modern world is complicated. There are a lot of components that take up our time and drain our energy, threatening to corrode our passions and create a tragedy. Every time I start a new semester of university, I promise myself that I will keep up with my hobbies. I tell myself that I will keep practicing the piano, paint my miniatures, write in my leisure time, and maintain my social life. As the semester progresses, these passions are inevitably sidelined for what appear to be the more immediate concerns presented by university and work life. It’s disheartening to make noticeable progress on a piano piece, get distracted for a couple of months, then pick it up once I have free time again, only to find that I have to relearn everything I forgot during that period.

The scene that has embedded itself in the forefront of my mind occurs after Bast is released from hospital following his brief insanity. Bast had lost everything, there was not a dollar to his name. He had been constructing his unaccompanied cello piece with crayons on pages of stave, but had thrown it in the bin after deciding it was a waste of time.

“—Joe bring in a chair to take Mister Bast down to the front door, you signed everything for him didn’t you Mister Coen I have to hurry you out, we need this room immediately and Joe? Hurry right back it has to be scrubbed everything including the Venetian blinds, if she recovers we’ll probably have to paint it too.
—Joe wait, wait that wastebasket…
—Please Mister Bast we’re in a hurry…
—So am I! No just those papers on the top…
—But what…
—Because it’s all I’ve got!”

The only thing of any real value left in Bast’s life, the only thing with a modicum of beauty, had to be wrenched from a wastebasket before it could be whisked away. After reading J R, I am forced to confront the things that I find intangible value in and ensure that I latch on to them. I need to make sure that the complexities and abrasive nature of life don’t overcome my sanity and recognise that they should never be allowed to overwhelm my passions. At this stage in my life, this means making time for the things that I love, perhaps keeping my weekends free and never sacrificing my mental wellbeing for things that I don’t intrinsically find valuable.

The world is a disordered mess. The corporate world is cold and indifferent. It has the potential to bring out the worst in people, erode their passions, and smother beauty when it pokes up its head. But as the entropy of the universe grows, if you look hard enough, you will be sure to find these little ordered systems of beauty within the chaos. So when you get home today, I hope that you keep writing your little cello piece. I’m sure it will be beautiful.

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