Fittings: William Gaddis’ “Carpenter’s Gothic”

Gaddis, William (1999), Carpenter’s Gothic, Penguin
ISBN 0-14-118222-9

William Gaddis was probably one of the most celebrated writers in the English language in the latter half of the twentieth century. At his death in 1998 he was considered a major American writer despite having only four (a fifth, Agape, Agape, was posthumously published in 2002, as well as a collection of essays, The Rush for Second Place) novels to his credit. Two, JR, which is concerned with the world of finance, and A Frolic of his Own, which pokes fun at the law profession, have won the National Book Award. His chef d’oeuvre, the towering, enormous The Recognitions is the only one I have personally read, so far. Difficulty and, as trite an observation though it may seem, length, is one characteristic all three of these novels share. Carpenter’s Gothic, published in 1985, the third of his novels, is not very difficult and slim to boot. Thus, it’s no small wonder it has been given short shrift by many readers and is considered B-grade Gaddis.

For B-grade material, however, this is an amazing prose masterpiece. Even if every other novel by Gaddis were better than Carpenter’s Gothic, that’s no skin off CG’s back. This is a wonderful, extraordinarily written book. The plot is the least of it, yet it’s an grand plot with colorful characters that is generic yet consistently engaging. I have pointed out elsewhere on this blog how hard it is to make good genre books while trying to be ‘literary’. Dozens of boring books attest to that fact, for examples a few of Chabon’s genre forays, such as “The Final Solution”. Gaddis, however, has his generics down pat. The characters alone attest to that: the female protagonist, Liz, is a young beautiful heiress to a huge, evil conglomerate. She and her brother are not paid their full share though, they are paid from a trust fund. The conglomerate’s chief executive is also the one who controls the trust fund. His daughter is Liz’s best friend and richer than her, thanks to her father’s shady dealings.

Liz’s husband Paul, who may or may not have married Liz for her money, is an irascible media consultant for Reverent Ude, an evangelical priest, who is himself engaged in some shady affairs. Paul is a Vietnam veteran, who has come out of the war without decorations but with a lot of psychological damage. He is no Travis Bickle, though, Paul’s a functioning part of society. In fact, I personally thought that his psychological limitations are quite some help in his job. And he is very good in what he does, although he may not be the brightest bulb in the box. With everyone around him engaged in subterfuge and intrigue, Paul appears to grasp only a fraction of what is happening. Speaking of which, we should not forget the third major character, Mr. McCandless, a former teacher, who owns the house Liz and Paul are currently living in. His own background is a mystery. When asked by Billy, Liz’ brother:

“I mean what are you, some kind of geologist?”

He answers vaguely

“Yes. Yes you could put it that way, now…”

He may be involved in shady dealings, secret maps, clandestine knowledge about ore mines in Africa, or he may not. From these three characters a story is spun that gains speed as you turn the pages and comes to a violent and turbulent climax.

There are all sorts of tricks and games Gaddis plays with us. In a novel with an evangelist and his media consultant, the only fundamentalist ravings we get to read are McCandless’, who is a fervent atheist. They are amusing to read, and the only actual monologue we get served. Any bit from these rants is quotable, so I just use an early one:

Think I made it up? Like the name on that book there? You think ignorance isn’t dead serious? Red dirt, rolling hills, a rail line, trickle of a stream and a town grows up there, great trees meeting overhead down the main street and some civilized person names the place Chemin-couvert. A generation or two of ignorance settles in and you’ve got Smackover, a hundred years of it and you’ve got a trial like that one, defending the Bible against the powers of darkness they are doing more to degrade it taking every damned in it literally than any militant atheist could ever hope to. Foolishness bound in the heart of a child but the rod of correction shall drive it out so they whale the daylights out of their kids with sticks.

Another great topic is ownership, how things and people are owned, held and used, Paul, who barely owns anything, makes a point of holding and using as many things as possible, trying to pay/invest as little as possible in/for them so they appear to be his, largely a self-deception which starts with not paying the rent for the house and ends with trying to hold (on to) his wife, as he holds her breasts. Sexuality, per se, is repressed, there’s not much sex or open eroticism in the house, which also extends to the aesthetics. We only learn at the close of the novel that Liz is staggeringly beautiful, only after the events have started into their fateful gallop we even learn she’s a redhead. Once desire is freed, however, it starts to ooze and burn and takes ahold of every major character. As in The Recognition, authenticity and repetition is a major topic again. The very title refers to this. Late in the book, McCandless talks about the house which is built in a style called “Carpenter’s Gothic”:

Oh the house yes, the house. It was built that way yes, it was built to be seen from the outside it was, that was the style, he came on, abruptly rescued from uncertainty, raised to the surface -yes, they had style books, these country architects and the carpenters it was all derivative wasn’t it, those grand Victorian mansions with their rooms and rooms and towering heights and cupolas and the marvelous intricate ironwork. That whole inspiration of medieval Gothic but these poor fellows didn’t have it, the stonework and the wrought iron. All they had were the simple dependable old materials, and the wood and their hammers and saws and their own clumsy ingenuity bringing those grandiose visions the masters had left behind down to a human scale with their own little inventions.

He continues and later refers to the house as a “patchwork of conceits”. This could be said about the novel as well, in two ways. One is the plot. As typical of the genre, the plot is virtually “a patchwork of deceits”, i.e. a plot stitched together by all its characters’ trickery and subterfuge. The way this is realized, however, brings us to the second way. Gaddis isn’t content by merely writing a great Gothic novel, he undercuts expectations time and again, sometimes by playing with themes. Sometimes, though, he uses his most powerful tool: language. The book, to return to metaphor is well referred to as a patchwork of conceits, because sure as hell it is not a melting pot of conceits or something like that. All the intrigue is relayed to us in dialogue that almost never meshes. People talk and talk yet they don’t communicate. Liz is the medium of this sort of antisocial behavior, she endures other people’s plots and talks. Plots intersect yet they don’t meet and even after the explosive finale the major strands appear to be ‘pure’.

This novel continues Gaddis’ work with dialogue that he started in “The Recognitions” and brought, as as I have read it so far, to full bloom in “JR”. The novel is largely dominated by the things people say, the things they do are often relayed to us via dialogue, and this dialogue is so well written that it doesn’t need the tired formula many prose writers rely on, the “he said sadly” structure of introducting/framing speech. Gaddis’ dialogue doesn’t need this, he uses punctuation in order to convey pauses and speed, not in order to adhere to any dull rules of punctuation. His characters’ words double up, speed up, are pitched higher, lower, so we almost hear how they say it. His is an extraordinary control of other people’s voices. Many things have been written, especially in the 1990s, on this or that writer’s ‘ventriloquism’, writers like DFW or David Mitchell. The effortlessness of Gaddis’ casting voices, compared to the heavier-handed works of his younger acolytes, is humbling. The whole book seems to be written effortlessly. It’s a quick, fun read, written with a master’s hand who took on a genre and made it his. The boards and structures of the genre are there, but the fittings are Gaddis’ and the heart of the house, it’s soul, is his as well. And no one could have done a better job on either of them.


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