The great novelist (Agape Agape, p. 1053, etc.) explores his fascination with machines, greed, violence, and art in odd bits of nonfiction, some appearing in print for the first time.
Gaddis (1922–98) never hesitated from targeting the nation’s economic elite in his densely packed fiction, and his essays are no different. For example, in a piece that first appeared in the New York Times Book Review in 1995, he has no trouble linking Newt Gringrich’s Contract with America to Samuel Butler’s 1872 utopian novel, Erewhon. Both Butler and Gingrich, he argues, predicate their passion for law and order on stamping out difference, and their intent resembles the function of most technology, another Gaddis obsession. In an essay written as a script for an IBM promotional film, he writes that a player piano performs its music as beautifully as a real player might, raising the question of the artist’s purpose, but it also leaves one feeling cold, because ultimately the same humans replaced by the piano are the sources of, and the ones listening to, the music. There’s a connection here between Gaddis’s criticism of the Contract with America and of the player piano; both beget an alienated and usually underserved audience. The title piece argues that this audience, the American public, has opted for second place: the good life as defined by status and three square meals a day. Instead of holding fast to the Protestant work ethic that views material success as tantamount to goodness, Gaddis would prefer Americans to work on goodness and let the material success follow. Will the business leaders of American society ever make this transformation? On that point, the author is cynical. Joseph Tabbi provides an excellent introduction and biographical background that’s particularly helpful in a collection that spans 50 years.
Sometimes dense, but always discerning: essential for Gaddis fans and those seeking an offbeat critique of American civilization.