Until this summer, I’d never participated in any kind of reading group that wasn’t explicitly an English class. Since college, I’ve treated reading as more or less a solitary activity, and I think I’m okay with this as my normal mode. I like to read at my own pace, and I don’t feel an immense need to discuss most books while I’m reading them. Still, when Lee Konstantinou (novelist, LARB editor, professor, and my T.A. for Contemporary American Fiction in 2004) announced an online reading group for William Gaddis’s J R, I was intrigued. I’d read and enjoyed Carpenter’s Gothic in college, and I’d always had a vague desire to read Gaddis’s longer works. The Recognitions sat uncracked on my bookshelf when I purchased my copy of J R. #OccupyGaddis also started around the same time as my obsession with Goodreads, and as I’d already been tweeting to no one about the books I read, I decided to give this online reading group a shot. I joined, I participated, I occupied Gaddis. I’m so glad I did.
For one thing, I loved the book. It’s been years since I abandoned a book, so I was going to get through it whether I liked it or not, and I am happy I liked it. Last year I spent two months reading The Adventures of Augie March; in 2010 I got bogged down in This Side of Paradise and Time’s Arrow, both short books that just couldn’t hold my interest for more than a few pages at a time. The pacing of #OccupyGaddis helped a lot – I decided at the beginning that I would read other books at the same time, and I had no problem toggling back and forth between novels. I think I might even keep this approach to long books in my solitary reading.
When I first opened J R, I had a fuck this moment. I did a quick flip-through to look for chapter breaks or scene breaks or really any kind of breaks, only to discover that I was staring at 700+ pages of unbroken unattributed dialogue. You know that feeling when you want to ride Splash Mountain but the line is a thousand times longer than you thought was possible and the sun is pouring itself right on your head? Similar idea. But I proceeded. The first scene was fantastic, with Anne and Julia Bast (as interchangeable as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, if I’m not mistaken) having an absurd conversation with the lawyer Coen involving a pretty soapy family history. It was easy to follow after the first page or so, and I thought, “All right, let’s do this.” A couple scenes later, I found myself scratching my head as about ten characters gathered in the principal’s office of J R’s school, where they all talked across each other while watching educational programming on television. That was a hard scene to follow, and I have to say, I didn’t enjoy it.
At some point early on, I found the annotated scene outline on williamgaddis.org, which I am a little ashamed to say I had to use as a crutch for my reading sanity. With this roadmap and a growing grasp on the style and characters of the novel, I started to enjoy J R immensely. It was a difficult book – certainly one of the more difficult books I’ve read of late – but it was not at all impossible. I’d say that the opening scene and the scene at the principal’s office represent the two levels of difficulty in the novel. Most of the scenes don’t involve more than two or three people, and these are pretty easy to understand. A few of the scenes are literary clusterfucks, which I like to think Gaddis meant to be chaotic and cluttered. Someone should map out the entropy levels of the scenes in J R, add that to the website.
So J R takes some work, especially in the beginning. I think I was about 200 pages in when I started reading for pleasure. At some point, though, it became almost easy. I stopped reading 10 pages a day. Instead I took days to read other books and did my catch-up reads on J R in 50-70 page bursts. The second half went by quickly, as many other Occupiers noted on Twitter.
There are many reasons to read J R. It’s a damning portrait of capitalist America that is particularly relevant today; it’s a book with some real caché, that you want to look nice and creased on your bookshelf. But the reason that got me through and made it all worthwhile is that J R is fun. Not just fun, but fucking zany. I mean look, the Pynchon comparisons are necessary and obvious, but I don’t think they do anything for potential readers put off by the apparent difficulty of the novel. J R, more than any other novel, reminded me of Catch-22. I was ten years old when I first read that book, and I listed it as my favorite until late into high school. I remember laughing my ass off when someone promoted Major Major Major, and when Milo Minderbinder bought all the Egyptian cotton and coated it with chocolate just to try and unload it. Do you guys remember all that? How it was just the funniest shit you’d ever read in a way that was completely different from Roald Dahl? J R tickled me in the same way. I mean it was so ridiculous. Dog-food-eating Dad. Pre-Photoshop blackface. Bast in that headdress. The 96th St. apartment. J R Vansant. It was a laugh-out-loud ride with some serious things to say along the way. Milo Minderbinder and his Egyptian cotton tax loss would’ve fit right in.
I loved J R and I had a great time reading along with all the other Occupiers on Goodreads and Twitter. I liked seeing what others were reacting to, and sharing thoughts and favorite quotes through the hashtag. I read Gravity’s Rainbow during my semester abroad in college, when I had no internet access off campus. It was a reading experience that now seems antiquated (at least for the long, difficult books that demand some Google support), from a time long before Twitter, when book blogs were either not really a thing or totally off my radar. I’m sure I’ll read many more books on my own, but I’d be open to doing this sort of online book club again. Tweet @ me if you have ideas.
PS. Other things read while occupying Gaddis:
1. Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
2. The Song is You by Megan Abbott
3. How to Raise the Perfect Dog by the Dog Whisperer
4. A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift
5. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
6. Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth
7. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
8. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carré
9. The End of Everything by Megan Abbott
10. 300 pages of Cryptonomicon, because Neal Stephenson passed through my local bookstore on August 8. I am now almost halfway through and I’m giving it the J R treatment. I’ve read Sharp Objects (Gillian Flynn) and Death of a Salesman since finishing J R, and I’m going for Dare Me (Megan Abbott) next. As you can see, I’m on a female crime novelist kick.
Other than Cryptonomicon, I stuck to relatively short/quick reads. I got a lot more out of my reading this summer than I would have if I’d insisted on reading just the one book at a time. I’d be curious to know what others read while reading J R.