Literature

Voices on the wire: JR – William Gaddis (NYRB Classics, 2020)

A wild ride through financial markets, big business and middle school, JR remains Gaddis’ most experimental novel, and perhaps his best. 

Told almost entirely through dialogue, most of it one-sided telephone conversations, JR follows a handful of characters through a chaotic series of monologues and snatches of chatter. Central to it all is JR Vansant, a sixth-grader who, on a field trip, catches a taste for business when his class buys a single share of stock. From there, JR starts buying into get-rich-quick schemes, some of which pay off. Learning the business of business by trial and error, JR slowly builds up a paper family of companies selling everything from beer to matchbooks to a weird, off-colour brand of aspirin (“It’s Green!” is it’s tagline). 

There’s a series of players circling JR, but none is as finely drawn as Edward Bast, a young and earnest composer who starts by offering to lend JR a hand and is drawn into his web of speculation and companies. After all, since JR is only a kid, and runs everything over the phone, never in person (shades of Howard Hughes) he needs a front person and Bast kind of falls into the role, even as he’s telling JR to quit and stop making a mess of people’s lives through constant buying, selling, merging and laying-off. 

For JR though, he’s just doing what thinks people are supposed to do:

“- Okay so what am I suppose to do… I mean this here stock and bond stuff, you don’t see anybody you don’t know anybody only in the mail and the telephone because that’s how they do it nobody has to see anybody, you can be this here funny lookingest person that lives in a toilet somewhere, how do they know, I mean like all those guys at the Stock Exchange where they’re selling all this stock to each other?” (pg 183)

For JR, he’s just doing what he’s been taught to do, be it through learning from experience or his hap-hazard reading and outlandish ideas. His naïve take on unrestrained capitalism is a vicious satire on corporate America – a kid at a phone booth or getting armfuls of junk mail, buying and selling his way up the corporate ladder… it’s a hoot. 

Less of a hoot are the hints of darkness at it’s edges. JR wears ratty clothing and is always apologizing, asking adults not to get so mad at him. It makes one wonder what his life’s actually like – the only hints are his parents work all the time, and that JR seems to have free reign, coming and going as he pleases. In more ways than one, he needs Bast.

In this wide-ranging novel, though, it’s Bast and the other men who get the most interesting treatment from Gaddis. Several of them end up crashing at an apartment bursting at the seams with unopened boxes and crates, a tub that won’t turn off and a young woman named Rhonda who flits in and out of the narrative. When left to their own devices, these men are helpless, unable to even cook themselves a meal, lost in a pile of their own debris:

“…he rummaged around the typewriter among papers and paperclips, a sheep with one leg gone, a red mitten, a broken music box, a marionette in a tangle of strings, car with no wheels, Piglet torn from his base, a clock with one hand pointing the minute and an arm from a stuffed bear, an arm lofting a bugle, an armless headless soldier, marching…” (Pg 431) 

Gaddis, who died in 1998, spent 20 years working in corporate America between his first and second novels, and that experience shows throughout JR. From the sprinkling of corporate jargon to the empty talk of executives in a board room, to the quick moments where they let their guards down: “not talking about ethics, Beaton, talking about the price of the damn stock…”  And it’s these men, in Gaddis’ vision, who run the world and control the big businesses, making decisions that impact us all.

Is JR a tough read? It depends on your tolerance for experimental fiction. It’s not exactly linear, a clear path from a to b. But it’s not has hard to follow as some more recent novels, like Ducks, Newburyport. Still, it’s had a positive reputation over the years. As Joy Williams relates in her introduction, Ezra Pound told Gaddis “Joyce was an ending, not a beginning,” after his first novel The Recognitions, and reviews were poor. But the critics caught up with Gaddis, and in 1976 JR won a National Book Award. 

In the years since it’s publication, JR has remained relevant: the market has entered recessions and people were wiped out at a stroke. At other times, it’s risen and made billionaires from people who seem like they’ve got no business having that kind of money. And what is JR if not some go-getter, someone who would feel at home next to people like Martin Shkreli, who justified jacking up the price of an AIDS drug with JR-like logic, and later ran his company over the phone – albeit from jail.

Overall, JR is a roller coaster of a ride, one with ton of characters and some memorable locations and dialogue. It’s one of those books where, once it gets going, it’s hard to stop, let alone get off. It comes highly recommended, although it’s admittedly not for everyone. 

About author

Roz Milner is a journalist at Live in Limbo. They are a freelance writer and media critic who's writing has appeared on Bearded Gentlemen Music, CTV.ca, The Good Point and elsewhere. @milnerwords on Twitter.