Jul/Aug 2003 Book Reviews

Agape Agape

William Gaddis
Joseph Tabbi (Afterword)
Viking (2002) 128 pages

reviewed by Kevin McGowin

I have seldom if ever revised my opinion of an author based on a posthumous work—until now. I confess to having found the late William Gaddis' other (and in some circles, classic) novels (J.R., Frolic of His Own, The Recognitions, and Carpenter's Gothic) theoretically interesting and probably brilliant, but always far too long, very self-indulgent, difficult for its own sake and almost unreadable. In other words, they bored me, what I could get through of them.

This prejudice of mine is coupled with a general dislike for posthumous works in general—the kind where a Major Author left a work unfinished at death, and which is years after released and edited with an introduction or forward by some noted Scholar: "This really IS a great book, all of Fitzgerald's/Hemingway's/Duras'/McGowin's major Themes are here," etc., etc... Well, they very seldom are great works, and just as the act of Revision seems contrived to some (your Kerouac wannabes, perhaps), I, conversely, find the act of posthumous publication to itself be contrived—again, in general. Glenn Gould, the great pianist, once expressed his intense dislike of "live" recordings being released on record labels with the surrounding hoopla, and said he planned to do a "fake" live album, recorded in the studio, complete with mistakes and overdubbed with audience coughing, etc. Sony of course wouldn't go for it, but I've often wanted to write a "fake" posthumous novel, the Final (unfinished) Work of a Great American Novelist. I'll make it about 100 de-contextualized pages, with 200 pages of forwards, introductions, afterwards, and footnotes. Now that Dave Eggars is a Publisher, he should get in touch.

But in the case of Agape Agape, the Afterward is totally superfluous. The book was finished when Gaddis died, and I don't need to have that explained to me, nor do I care what Joseph Tabbi et al think of it in the overall context of Gaddis' other novels or what it started out as or what Gaddis wanted it to achieve. It's 125 pages, and all of a piece, without section or chapter breaks, the perfect length for what is the most cohesive and affecting book the man ever wrote—the free-associations of a dying narrator who's afraid his lifelong goal to write the definitive history of the player piano will never come to fruition. Into this frenetic and breathless narrative, then, is woven... everything. What begins with the narrator's opinions concerning several aspects of the History and Future of Technology becomes a fictional autobiography the likes of which has rarely been achieved, cemented by the character's grasp of mortality and humanity, and by Gaddis' seamless and masterful narrative drive. He is on.

This is a one or two-sitting book, and the reader will come away from it reeling. It's too brief for me to go into specifics, for the specifics are the book, the book is the plot—but if you've never read Gaddis, START HERE. And if you need to picture a Literary Precedent, think of Doestoyevsky's Notes from Underground, perhaps, or of the best shorter work by Camus or John Hawkes—but only think. Because this book succeeds where Gaddis' other novels drag, in that it also makes you feel.


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