Carpenter's Gothic

( 3 )

Overview

This story of raging comedy and despair centers on the tempestuous marriage of an heiress and a Vietnam veteran. From their "carpenter gothic" rented house, Paul sets himself up as a media consultant for Reverend Ude, an evangelist mounting a grand crusade that conveniently suits a mining combine bidding to take over an ore strike on the site of Ude's African mission. At the still center of the breakneck action—revealed in Gaddis's inimitable virtuoso dialoge—is Paul's wife, Liz, and over it all looms the shadowy...

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Overview

This story of raging comedy and despair centers on the tempestuous marriage of an heiress and a Vietnam veteran. From their "carpenter gothic" rented house, Paul sets himself up as a media consultant for Reverend Ude, an evangelist mounting a grand crusade that conveniently suits a mining combine bidding to take over an ore strike on the site of Ude's African mission. At the still center of the breakneck action—revealed in Gaddis's inimitable virtuoso dialoge—is Paul's wife, Liz, and over it all looms the shadowy figure of McCandless, a geologist from whom Paul and Liz rent their house. As Paul mishandles the situation, his wife takes the geologist to her bed and a fire and aborted assassination occur; Ude issues a call to arms as harrowing as any Jeremiad—and Armageddon comes rapidly closer. Displaying Gaddis's inimitable virtuoso dialogue, and his startling treatments of violence and sexuality, Carpenter's Gothic "shows again that Gaddis is among the first rank of contemporary American writers" (Malcolm Bradbury, The Washington Post Book World).

"An unholy landmark of a novel. . . .He is an American Original." -- Cythia Ozick, New Times Review of Books

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What People Are Saying

From the Publisher
"An unholy landmark of a novel—an extra turret added on to the ample, ingenious, audacious Gothic mansion Gaddis has been building in American letters"—Cynthia Ozick, The New York Times Book Review

"Everything in this compelling and brilliant vision of America—the packaged sleaze, the incipient violence, the fundamentalist furor, the constricted sexuality—is charged with the force of a volcanic eruption. Carpenter's Gothic will reenergize and give shape to contemporary literature."—Walter Abish

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780141182223
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 3/28/1999
  • Series: Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics Series
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 780,559
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.44 (h) x 0.59 (d)

Meet the Author

William Gaddis

William Gaddis (1922-1998) was a master of the American novel who was frequently compared with Joyce, Nabokov, and Pynchon. Two of his novels, J R and A Frolic of His Own, won the National Book Award. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the recipient of a MacArthur Prize.

Biography

William Gaddis published only four novels in his lifetime, but those four books were influential enough that George Stade, writing in the New York Times Book Review, could dub Gaddis the "presiding genius of post-war American fiction." Though Gaddis is now celebrated as a master of experimental fiction, his work initially met with indifferent or hostile reviews.

Gaddis left Harvard University during his senior year, worked for two years as a fact-checker for the New Yorker, then spent five years traveling through Central America, North Africa and Europe. After returning to the United States in 1951, he wrote The Recognitions, a densely allusive, darkly comic novel centered on the Faustian figure of Wyatt Gwyon, an aspiring painter whose obsession with beauty and order eventually leads to a career as a forger of Flemish masterpieces.

The Recognitions bewildered book critics when it was published in 1955, but it has since come to be viewed as a pivotal work of American literature, one that marks a turning point between the great modernist authors like William Faulkner and postmodernists like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. Richard Toney described it as "a novel of stunning power, 956 pages of linguistic pyrotechnics and multi-lingual erudition unmatched by any American writer in this century -- perhaps in any century."

Following its markedly unsuccessful publication, Gaddis went to work as a corporate speechwriter, a job he hated. But Gaddis's literary reputation began to grow as fellow novelists discovered and championed The Recognitions, reissued in 1962. Eventually, Gaddis received several grants, which helped him write his second book.

JR, a 726-page novel written almost entirely in dialogue, skewers the business world through the tale of an 11-year-old boy who builds a paper empire of penny stocks from his school phone booth. It won the National Book Award for 1975, thrusting a somewhat reluctant Gaddis into the limelight. "I feel like part of the vanishing breed that thinks a writer should be read and not heard, let alone seen," he said in his acceptance speech for the award.

His next two books also garnered high critical acclaim: Cynthia Ozick, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called Carpenter's Gothic (which weighs in at a mere 262 pages) "an unholy landmark of a novel." Gaddis won a second National Book Award for A Frolic of His Own, which combined Swiftian satire of our litigious culture with deeper meditations on the nature of justice. His final book Agapé Agape, a novel about the history of the piano player, was published after his death in 1998.

Gaddis scholar Steven Moore wrote: "In Carpenter's Gothic, a character speaks of 'books that erode absolute values by asking questions to which they offer no answers.' This is very close to what Gaddis's fiction attempts, and close too to the work of two of the greatest American novelists, Hawthorne and Melville." In the current crop of novelists, writers like Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace have carried out their own versions of the literary experiment that so flummoxed Gaddis's critics in 1955.

Gaddis's novels may be less widely read than those of his successors, but they remain compelling for their imaginative reach, sumptuous prose style and mordant wit. Gaddis seems to have known from the beginning that he was writing for a select audience, a recognition signaled at the end of his first book: "He was the only person caught in the collapse, and afterward, most of his work was recovered too, and it is still spoken of, when it is noted, with high regard, though seldom played."

Good To Know

After The Recognitions was panned by several critics, the independent publisher Jack Green wrote a 70-page diatribe titled "Fire the Bastards!" which excoriated the book's critics for their factual and interpretive errors. In 1962, Green wrote and paid for a full-page ad in The Village Voice, urging people to buy The Recognitions. Some readers suspected Gaddis had taken out the ad himself, and that Jack Green was a pseudonym.

When Thomas Pynchon's first novel V. was published in 1963, some readers suspected Pynchon was actually William Gaddis, a theory fueled by both writers' reclusiveness. In the mid-1980s, letters signed "Wanda Tinasky" began to appear in local California newspapers. They asserted that Pynchon, Gaddis and Jack Green were all the same person. In 1996, The Letters of Wanda Tinasky were published on the premise that Pynchon wrote them, though Pynchon denied any part in their authorship.

Don Foster, the literary sleuth who identified Joe Klein as the author of Primary Colors, started to investigate the Tinasky letters in 1996. Foster eventually identified them as the work of Thomas Hawkins, a Mendocino County writer and fanatic admirer of The Recognitions who had killed his wife and then himself in 1988.

Gaddis enrolled at Harvard College in 1941 and was editor of the famous Harvard Lampoon; but was kicked out in his senior year. According to a Salon article, he was asked to leave “after a run-in with local police.”

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    1. Date of Birth:
      December 29, 1922
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Death:
      December 17, 1998
    2. Place of Death:
      East Hampton, New York
    1. Education:
      Attended Harvard University (no degree)

Read an Excerpt

CARPENTER'S GOTHIC
by William Gaddis

 

INTRODUCTION

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.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. What does Billy mean when he says to Liz, "it's like you've got this real secret self hidden somewhere you don't want anybody to get near it, you don't even want them to know about it"? (p. 193-194)
     
  2. McCandless says to Liz, "There's much more stupidity than there is malice in the world" (p. 118). Does the novel support or contradict this statement?
     
  3. Why does Paul constantly accuse Liz of not listening to him?
     
  4. Why is the action of the novel set entirely within the house where Liz and Paul live? Why are the house's windows so dirty?
     
  5. What is the significance of McCandless's house being "a classic piece of Hudson river carpenter gothic," as Lester points out, "all designed from the outside...they drew a picture of it and squeezed the rooms in later"? (pp. 123-124)
     
  6. Why does the appearance of the old man with the broom and dustpan always seem to have a troubling effect?
     
  7. Why does Liz refuse when Billy offers to help her leave Paul?
     
  8. What is the significance of Lester interpreting Paul's sketch of his business plans as a rendering of the Battle of Crecy?
     
  9. Why does Liz speculate about the possibility of observing her past from a distant star?
     
  10. Why does Liz want to believe that McCandless is a writer?
     
  11. Why does McCandless keep his papers locked up in the rented house?
     
  12. What does Liz mean when she says to McCandless, "it was all your despair locked away in that room there with the smoke and the cobwebs"? (p. 244)
     
For Further Reflection
  1. Does technological progress tend to increase or decrease the overall level of communication among people?
     
  2. McCandless says we read novels to "Get the inside story, explore the dark passions hidden in the human heart" (p. 221). Do you agree or disagree?

 

ABOUT WILLIAM GADDIS

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.

Related Titles

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.

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Reading Group Guide

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

Q> What does Billy mean when he says to Liz, "it's like you've got this real secret self hidden somewhere you don't want anybody to get near it, you don't even want them to know about it"? (p. 193-194)

Q> McCandless says to Liz, "There's much more stupidity than there is malice in the world" (p. 118). Does the novel support or contradict this statement?

Q> Why does Paul constantly accuse Liz of not listening to him?

Q> Why is the action of the novel set entirely within the house where Liz and Paul live? Why are the house's windows so dirty?

Q> What is the significance of McCandless's house being "a classic piece of Hudson river carpenter gothic," as Lester points out, "all designed from the outside . . . they drew a picture of it and squeezed the rooms in later"? (pp. 123-124)

Q> Why does the appearance of the old man with the broom and dustpan always seem to have a troubling effect?

Q> Why does Liz refuse when Billy offers to help her leave Paul?

Q> What is the significance of Lester interpreting Paul's sketch of his business plans as a rendering of the Battle of Crecy?

Q> Why does Liz speculate about the possibility of observing her past from a distant star?

Q> Why does Liz want to believe that McCandless is a writer?

Q> Why does McCandless keep his papers locked up in the rented house?

Q> What does Liz mean when she says to McCandless, "it was all your despair locked away in that room there with the smoke and the cobwebs"? (p. 244)

Q> Does technological progress tend to increase or decrease the overall level of communication among people?

Q> McCandless says we read novels to "Get the inside story, explore the dark passions hidden in the human heart" (p. 221). Do you agree or disagree?

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 14, 2001

    A novel equal to the Best of Joyce Or Pynchon

    I hadn't heard of William Gaddis, until a Friend told me of the profound qualities of his work. He was right!! 'Carpenter's Gothic'is one those rare novels that i felt could have and really should have been an experience that i've lived through, not just a novel-Gaddis first draws comparison to Thomas Pynchon & probably John Barth-but he is I believe saying something different than them, though like those two -commenting with deep humanity,humor,sadness on our lives in the modern times.

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    Posted August 10, 2009

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    Posted February 27, 2009

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