William Gaddis’s monumental book “The Recognitions”–Faith, fraud, belief, and “cross questions and silly answers”

Finally, I have finished reading William Gaddis’s 956 page novel The Recognitions and have to report that it, like David Foster Wallace’s book Infinite Jest (which is even longer) is another satiric group of novels-within-a-novel.  There are several sets of characters cross-relating and interacting in Gaddis’s novel, but even though the ends are more neatly tied up than in Wallace’s book, there’s the same tendency to switch from protagonist to protagonist (and even to the occasional anti-hero) and back again.

The main protagonist for much of the book is Wyatt Gwyon, whose father is a Protestant minister of a strict sect.  But unlike most such ministers, Reverend Gwyon has a wide and varied education about other religions and especially seems to prefer those considered pagan by most Christians.  As time goes on, he becomes more and more wound up in such subjects as animal and human sacrifice, and as a sort of side note to all the other things going on in the novel, ends his days in an asylum.  His son is another case.  Wyatt is an accomplished artist from early on, but his Aunt May has shamed him about “taking the Lord’s works in vain” by presuming to copy them artistically to such an extent that it has affected his sanity too, to satirical and humorous ends.  Here’s an early section of the novel in which Aunt May, his only living female relative, expounds upon her beliefs and scolds him:

“–Don’t you love our Lord Jesus, after all?  He said he did.  –Then why do you try to take His place?  Our Lord is the only true creator, and only sinful people try to emulate Him, she went on, her voice sinking to that patient tone it assumed when it promised most danger.  –Do you remember Lucifer?  who Lucifer is?  –Lucifer is the morning star, he began hopefully, –Father says…  –Father says!…her voice cut him through.  –Lucifer was the archangel who refused to serve Our Lord.  To sin is to falsify something in the Divine Order, and that is what Lucifer did.  His name means Bringer of Light but he was not satisfied to bring the light of Our Lord to man, he tried to steal the power of Our Lord and to bring his own light to man.  He tried to become original, she pronounced malignantly, shaping that word round the whole structure of damnation, repeating it, crumpling the drawing of the robin in her hand, –original, to steal Our Lord’s authority, to command his own destiny, to bear his own light!  That is why Satan is the Fallen Angel, for he rebelled when he tried to emulate Our Lord Jesus.  And he won his own dominion, didn’t he.  Didn’t he!  And his own light is the light of the fires of Hell!  Is that what you want?  Is that what you want?  Is that what you want?  There may have been, by now, many things that Wyatt wanted to do to Jesus:  emulate was not one of them.”

The punctuation is a trifle difficult to follow, since Gaddis uses dashes and not quotation marks, and often runs sentences into each other which rightly belong in separate paragraphs.  Still, I think it’s easy to grasp the dark satiric humor of Aunt May’s homily and its reaction on the timid though artistically gifted boy Wyatt, as he grows up.  He matures convinced that he is damned, but still unable to stop drawing.  The upshot of it all, however, is that he is very inept at completing his own original pictures, but instead only feels at home when creating fradulent pictures.  He is original in spite of himself, however:  he doesn’t facsimilate already existing pictures and sell these fake copies.  Instead, he paints “new” and “original” pictures never before seen and passes them off as the works of famous artists which have only recently “surfaced.”  Thus, his psyche manages to have it both ways.

From the topic of Wyatt, the topic switches to all sorts of social and societal frauds going on in his immediate circle of friends, a real bohemian crowd with no actual artistic pretentions to support or excuse their lifestyles.  There is the further question of spiritual belief as it affects a man named Stanley, a devout man who wants to lead to God a worldly woman called Agnes Deigh (a pun on “Agnes Dei,” “Lamb of God”).  His continual misadventures with her as they discuss their beliefs back and forth and he gets her to go on a pilgrimage with him to Europe to see the canonization of a young female saint are fraught with a different set of religious traditions and questions, as Stanley is a Catholic.  But one very funny element in all this is the presence of a Mister Sinisterra, a forger who also regards himself as an artist.  In a very amusing crosstalk act of “cross questions and silly answers” which happens as a matter of mistaken identity when he passes forged notes for distribution to a man named Otto, an acquaintance of Wyatt’s, he gets involved in going to Europe as well, and tries to “forge” a mummy out of Wyatt’s mother Camilla’s bones (which ironically and highly coincidentally were interred next to those of the young female saint aforementioned, in San Zwingli, Spain).  Instead, he causes the mother’s bones to get mistaken by the celebrants of the canonization as the young girl’s, and he himself drags the young girl’s corpse around all over the place disguised as an old woman in heavy dress and a mantilla.  Much comedy ensues, though of a highly equivocal nature.

There are several other cases of mistaken identity or mistaken intent in the book, and the slowest portions are in fact those about the lurid parties of the group of Wyatt’s one-time associates, as they party across New York City and other world cities.  Wyatt dies well before the end of the book, so it’s not a book tied to one protagonist.  The book in fact ends with Stanley’s demise, as he finally achieves his ambition of playing his organ works on a famous old organ in Italy.  But due to the fact that he is unable to understand Italian, he doesn’t understand what the sacristan of the church has tried to tell him, which is to leave out the bass notes, as the building is too old to stand up under the reverberations of the bass as well as treble.  After the sacristan leaves, Stanley performs his of course genuine works (in opposition to all the fake things and people there have been in the book), complete of course with the bass notes.  The building falls on him, supplying the ironic ending:  faking is a way of contemptuously or wryly or in some state of disbelief withstanding the world; the genuine and sincere end up getting the short end of the stick.

There are many, many incidents in the book and not a few characters that I haven’t described, but the book is so rich and so long that I fear I will have to leave you to read it for yourself.  It’s another one of those books that you may find you want to read slowly and live with for a while; you’ll find many a dark and sardonic laugh inside, I can guarantee you that much.  Also, I at least found many passages, such as the incidents when characters were mistaking someone else’s identity and no one discovered the mistake until much later, which just tickled my funny bone enough to make me laugh aloud, repeatedly.  I hope you too will find this book to your liking, and I recommend it highly, though again wanting to point out that Gaddis’s form of notating his conversations and enclosing paragraphs is irregular, and so will probably provide a challenge.  No matter, though:  at least no one can say it isn’t genuine and original!


Filed under Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments, What is literature for?

4 responses to “William Gaddis’s monumental book “The Recognitions”–Faith, fraud, belief, and “cross questions and silly answers”

  1. It’s been a while, but I loved this book. J.R., too, but this one more. Often very funny, sublime in places – in the ending, both. I hope I have the energy to read it again someday. So glad to read your piece.


    • Hi there, Tom (no “amateur reader” you, to have made it through this book and “J.R.” both). Do you know, I had the funniest experience–when I was reading through this book this time, I kept finding some reader’s notes and markings in the margins, and was sometimes in serious disagreement with them. When I got to one of them almost 1/2 way through the book, I finally recognized my own handwriting! I had apparently read the book as a much younger person, and not only hadn’t understood it properly, but hadn’t retained it! I’m ever so glad that I picked it up off my totally disorganized shelves a second time. There’s another one, that another reader told me about, a satire of law and lawyers apparently also by Gaddis called “A Frolic of His Own.” I’ll read it someday if I can ever unearth it–have you read it? Thanks for stopping by to comment. Your remarks are always appreciated.


  2. Yes, Gaddis is a master, there’s no doubt, and like every master, he requires that one step up to him; he is not going to “step down” to any reader with easy explanations. I think his notation system hails from James Joyce in its tradition of not being easy to follow.


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