Just finished William Gaddis’s third novel, Carpenter’s Gothic. I’d been meaning to read it and, knowing I’d be out at sea for a few days, figured now was the time.
The problem is that with a Gaddis novel, now is never really the time. His books are all-consuming and time-consuming at the same time; you need to focus, but the focus must also be sustained. I think of his novels as the sort to force the cultivation of focus, not just its exercise: you go into them expecting to struggle, but in fact the struggle isn’t even the hardest bit. What’s hardest is learning to struggle, figuring out what kind of attention you need to be paying, and for how long each moment of effort will go on.
Carpenter’s Gothic is — if you exclude Agape Agape, which I would not call a novel in any significant sense — Gaddis’s shortest novel, and I read it relatively quickly. But then, I set myself high standards when I was reading The Recognitions: six months of nothing but reading that, more than once, carefully, adoringly. JR took about a month.
Everything in Carpenter’s Gothic happens in a single house built in the style suggested by the title: wooden, derivative, or, in the words of a central character, “a patchwork of conceits, borrowings, deceptions, the inside’s a hodgepodge of good intentions like one last ridiculous effort at something worth doing even on this small a scale…” What I quoted is a passage I’ve seen a few times in Gaddis criticism, and having read the novel I understand its importance. This novel is bursting with characters trying to make do with what is there, and often doing it badly, miserably.
The back cover copy on my edition calls this a “tempestuous comic novel” — if this is a comic novel, I’ve lost my funnies. I feel almost dead after reading it, much as I did when I finished JR. The humor is there, but it’s not funny very often. This is not a drawback. Whatever remains lighthearted throughout the book serves a higher purpose than providing laughter. It is relief from the endless sense of gloom and sadness. The Recognitions has moments of utter hilarity to it, frequent moments, but it, too, is generally bleak. The difference is partly in this novel’s conciseness. There’s less scope for digression, and jokes aren’t really useful here the way they are in the longer books.
Instead, what drives things forward here seems to be a kind of playful seriousness, of taking cliches seriously enough that they no longer need satirizing or lamenting. So you have a truly horrible, lying abuser of a husband, his wife utterly frozen with fear and longing and a mysterious artist figure/geologist with whom she goes for her affair. You have the irresponsible and impressionable younger brother, the Christian fundamentalists as idiotic as they ever are portrayed in fiction, the dubious strangers walking into the house.
Gaddis mentioned in an interview I read once that he was playing with cliches, but this wasn’t what you’d expect. The cliches here are purely formal; he departs from them. It’s a remarkable, unsettling thing to see cliches stripped of their power. Films like Shrek find almost all their strength in their clever subversion of the hackneyed and the eye-rollingly obvious; the Austin Powers films, too, take what we all know about spy films and just nod along with us as we delightedly identify the things being skewered. I’ve been trained, by my own prejudices and by a very powerful culture of sarcastification, to see a distance from boring tropes as a way to keep them at bay.
But Carpenter’s Gothic is an example of what Slavoj Zizek often goes back to in his early work: overidentification, or taking the dominant ideology so seriously that you actually end up displacing it. It’s a fascinating idea, one of my favorite little parts of Zizek’s explicitly Lacanian work, and of course Gaddis did this perfectly well in JR, too — but here it’s the formal aspect of the novel’s power that springs from overidentification. This abusive husband, Paul, is truly a wretched creature, but for whatever damned reason, a relatable monster; this powerless wife, Liz, probably the closest thing to a protagonist here, is not an idealized sufferer who could only be rescued by the shadowy artist, McCandless — and he finds no redemption either, because he is naive and cynical at every step. These people rant and lie to each other, ignore the moments of truth as so much more irrelevance, and suffer in absolute isolation. It’s glorious. You forget that you’ve seen this a million times, that of course the affair was going to come, that of course the house is somehow symbolic in this way and that. The far-fetched coincidences are not a relief.
The escape from Gaddis’s narrator’s unrelenting exteriority comes only from the inner despair betrayed by what the characters say to each other, even as they’re being ignored. It’s by listening to them that you get any sense of who they are. And if the reader doesn’t listen, it’s likely nobody else will, either. It’s a chaos of babbling and contradiction in that house. I loved it and want to die.