Early in Carpenter’s Gothic, the third of William Gaddis’s five novels, Paul Booth says to his wife, Liz, “trying to put things together, build something like your father did we both know that’s what it’s about” (p. 18). For Paul, “trying to put things together” means somehow procuring money from an outlandish and absurdly complicated scheme involving everything from a thoroughly corrupt evangelist to mineral rights in Africa. “Trying to put things together” is also a fair description of Gaddis’s method of composition and the task he presents to readers. Carpenter’s Gothic consists primarily of the unattributed speech of its characters, who are frequently interrupted not only by one another, but also by the background noise of daily life—television, radio, ringing telephones, and the printed word that constantly inundates them in the form of junk mail, newspapers, magazines, and books. The effect is one of unfiltered sound; only occasionally does the third-person narrative voice step in to situate readers in time and place. Interpretation becomes not only a matter of choosing among possible meanings; readers must first sift through what often seems a random onslaught of words.
Carpenter’s Gothic proceeds as a series of revelations, which come ever more quickly as the conclusion approaches. But one of the novel’s many ironies is that however much of the truth both readers and characters know, there seems to be just as much more that remains elusive. For example, the circumstances of Liz’s fate illustrate the multiple layers of truth in the novel. Liz is also a kind of pivot, although an unstable one, on which much of the plot turns. A cloud of uncertainty envelops her at the end of the novel. Other characters seem to have reached incorrect conclusions, yet it is still difficult to say precisely what happens to her. At one point, McCandless, the owner of the house, observes, “There’s a very fine line between the truth and what really happens” (p. 130). Given the oblique manner in which the narrator renders events, and the unreliability of the characters’ statements, the novel forces readers to consider whether it is possible to ever know what really happens, and whether truth is only another word for consensus.
But the convoluted plot of the novel may be little more than a distraction for readers, just as it is, in a sense, for Liz. Paul is consumed by his role as a media consultant in Reverend Ude’s scheme, which Gaddis uses to savage the ambitions and values at the heart of American economic, social, political, and religious life. As Paul says while relating the latest developments in the scheme to Liz, “pray for America pray for Brother Ude all the same God damn thing” (p. 111). If Paul, to some degree, is a specific embodiment of the moral and spiritual bankruptcy on display in the public life depicted in the novel, Liz’s fate might suggest the toll this general condition exacts on private life. From the first scene between Liz and Paul, her inability to arrest Paul’s incessant monologues detailing the progress of his work leaves her increasingly desperate and isolated. She only manages to throw him off stride by interjecting coarse language when she tells him about a visit to the doctor in support of a specious lawsuit Paul has filed. When Paul remarks on this, Liz says, “I wanted to see if you heard me” (p. 72).
Not only does Paul never hear her, but he also repeatedly chastises Liz for not listening to him. McCandless, perhaps the novel’s most perplexing character, arrives to fill the void created by Paul’s complete self-absorption. Sometimes he seems to be a parody of the seductive, mysterious stranger with a murky past. But he nevertheless engages Liz’s mind and imagination. It becomes difficult to decide whether McCandless is a viable but fleeting alternative to the world Paul imposes on Liz or a sinister figure who preys on a woman feeling trapped. Mechanically assuming the role of the distant landlord on the unexpected appearance of Liz’s brother Billy, McCandless says to Liz, “afraid I disturbed you Mrs. Booth” (p. 196). The phrase continues to echo in her head after McCandless leaves, the verb taking on a more ominous tone than McCandless might have intended.
On the telephone with Paul near the end of the novel, Liz seems to experience one last moment of hope: “if we can get a fresh start Paul if we could go away” (p. 232). Is she falling back on the longstanding American ideal of erasing one’s history at any moment, no possibilities ever foreclosed? If Liz’s life with Paul suggests the destructive force of the American dream, what are we to make of the fact that the novel concludes with Paul apparently making good on its promise, but with Edie, his wife’s cherished friend? In defending to her brother Paul’s inability to finish any project he starts, Liz says, “as long as something’s unfinished you feel alive” (p. 89). Gaddis seems to share with Liz a bit of this sentiment. So intricately orchestrated, his fiction still leaves much for readers to put together.
One of the great masters of the twentieth-century novel, William Gaddis was born in 1922 in New York City and grew up in Massapequa, Long Island. He attended Harvard but was asked to leave the university, under mysterious circumstances, during his senior year. After working as a fact-checker at The New Yorker, he traveled through Europe, Africa, and Central America. During this time he wrote his first novel, The Recognitions (1955), a massive, dense, highly allusive work about the fraudulence that pervades contemporary life. Both critics and the public either ignored or dismissed it.
Gaddis took various jobs over the next twenty years to support his family, speechwriting for corporate executives, scriptwriting for government films, and working in public relations for a pharmaceutical company. These experiences informed his second novel, J R (1975). Consisting almost entirely of fragmentary dialogue, the book is a stinging satire of American business, charting the rise and fall of a huge financial empire assembled by an 11-year-old boy.
Although it divided critics, J R won the 1976 National Book Award. Considerably shorter and more intimate, Gaddis’s third novel, Carpenter’s Gothic (1985), is perhaps his darkest work, focusing on the anguished lives of a miserable heiress and her husband, a scheming Vietnam veteran. A Frolic of His Own (1994), the winner of another National Book Award, delineates the absurdities of the law and the legal profession.
A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Gaddis received a MacArthur grant in 1982. He died in 1998. His last novel, Agape Agape, a monologue about the destructive effects of corporate culture and technological innovation on the arts, was published in October 2002, along with a collection of his critical essays.
Edward Albee, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962)
A classic of modern American drama, this play portrays a married couple whose relationship, animated only by alcohol-fueled bitterness, rests on outrageous shared delusions.
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (1847)
This Victorian masterpiece, perhaps the greatest of gothic novels, subjects its heroine to a house that, with the dark secrets it conceals and the madness it seems to facilitate, becomes another adversary she must overcome.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ (1895)
Completed just before a mental breakdown put an end to his writing life, Nietzsche’s tirade against what he saw as the life-denying precepts of Christianity is one of the most provocative explorations of religious thought in Western literature.
Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road (1961)
Frank and April Wheeler, trapped in the deadness and banality of their suburban lives, concoct an absurdly optimistic plan of escape in this dark, insightful novel about American ideals and the disillusion they breed.