William Gaddis has always been a difficult writer. But the complexities--philosophic, religious, aesthetic--of the finely wrought The Recognitions, one of the most brilliant first novels ever published, were adventurous and pure. Gaddis' theme of three young artists seeking identity in the contemporary flux, learning to choose between the necessary fiction and the debilitating forgery, may have had its Gidean and Joycean parallels. Still, there was no denying the vision and grace which animated his huge canvas with its compelling protagonists, or which paradoxically sustained a threatening landscape where those ""who do not know what is true, yet hold some appearance of knowledge. . . . do many evil things as if they were good, and hasten to destruction as if it were salvation."" J R, however, though his fans have eagerly been awaiting its appearance for almost twenty years, is, alas, something of a disappointment. Perhaps we've been expecting too much. For Gaddis' new novel is peculiarly aggressive, a collage of voices, courtesy of the blurb ""talking to or at each other, into phones, on intercoms, from TV screens""--continually assaulting both the reader and one another, and yet, for all that, never fully making contact. Certainly the book is obsessive, but the obsessions do not seem to emerge from the imagination or even the unconscious, but from some inchoate anxiety or puritanical disgust on the part of Gaddis himself. J R is about America, about sex and money, the machinations of the beau monde, the business world, and the underworld; its impresario is an eleven-year-old pint-sized tycoon, an imp of the perverse, around whom shuttle an assortment of philistines and bohemians, lawyers and heiresses, tricksters and culture-vultures, while its plot is so intricate as to seem almost a charade. Here the ""accumulation of chaos,"" which is also the metaphor of the counterfeit modern world of The Recognitions, simply doesn't work. Or only works in fits and starts. Even the satirical moments--the send-ups of the literary scene (""Kricket Reviews, Newsleak Magazine, Glandvil Hix"")--offer no real relief from the incessant gabble. Melville says that ""it is with fiction as with religion: it should present another world, and yet one to which we feel the tie."" Gaddis' demotic style does not dramatize that other world, nor suggest any mysterious bond. There's a passionate garrulity about J R but it has no inner voice. Everything's strangely exterior, though trapped, it would also seem, in the imprisoned consciousness of its creator's angered, darkening mind.