Frolic of His Own

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Overview

With the publication of the Recognitions in 1955, William Gaddis was hailed as the American heir to James Joyce. His two subsequent novels, J R (winner of the National Book Award) and Carpenter's Gothic, have secured his position among America's foremost contemporary writers. Now A Frolic of His Own, his long-anticipated fourth novel, adds more luster to his reputation, as he takes on life in our litigious times. "Justice? - You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law." So begins this ...
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Overview

With the publication of the Recognitions in 1955, William Gaddis was hailed as the American heir to James Joyce. His two subsequent novels, J R (winner of the National Book Award) and Carpenter's Gothic, have secured his position among America's foremost contemporary writers. Now A Frolic of His Own, his long-anticipated fourth novel, adds more luster to his reputation, as he takes on life in our litigious times. "Justice? - You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law." So begins this mercilessly funny, devastatingly accurate tale of lives caught up in the toils of the law. Oscar Crease, middle-aged college instructor, savant, and playwright, is suing a Hollywood producer for pirating his play Once at Antietam, based on his grandfather's experiences in the Civil War, and turning it into a gory blockbuster called The Blood in the Red White and Blue. Oscar's suit, and a host of others - which involve a dog trapped in an outdoor sculpture, wrongful death during a river baptism, a church versus a soft drink company, and even Oscar himself after he is run over by his own car - engulf all who surround him, from his freewheeling girlfriend to his well-to-do stepsister and her ill-fated husband (a partner in the white-shoe firm of Swyne & Dour), to his draconian, nonagenarian father, Federal Judge Thomas Crease, who has just wielded the long arm of the law to expel God (and Satan) from his courtroom. And down the tortuous path of depositions and decrees, suits and countersuits, the most lofty ideas of our culture - questions about the value of art, literature, and originality - will be wrung dry in the meticulous, often surreal logic and language of the law, leaving no party unscathed. Gaddis has created a whirlwind of a novel, which brilliantly reproduces the Tower of Babel in which we conduct our lives. In A Frolic of His Own we hear voices as they speak at and around one another: lawyers, family members, judges, rogues, hucksters, and desperate

Winner of the 1994 National Book Award

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times Books of the Century
...[An] exceptionally rich novel....[R]eaders who laugh their way through to the end may find it impossible to get the rhythms and sounds of [the] voices out of their imaginations.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The author of Carpenter's Gothic (and winner of a 1993 Lannan Award) takes a brash, entertaining swipe at the legal profession in his fourth novel. Oscar Crease is a quiet, middle-aged history professor whose father and grandfather were both high-ranking judges. The story begins as Oscar contemplates two lawsuits: one against the Japanese manufacturer of the car that ran over him; the other against a filmmaker Oscar claims stole his play, Once at Antietam, and turned it into a gory, lavish movie. Before long, the legal wrangling, strategic maneuvering and--of course--the whopping bills dominate Oscar's life and wreak havoc on his relationships. There is no description or third-person narrative. Like Carpenter's Gothic, which is rendered wholly in dialogue, this narrative is a cacophony of heard and found voices: Oscar's conversations with his myriad lawyers, his flighty girlfriend, his patient sister and her lawyer husband are all spliced with phone calls, readings from Oscar's play and various legal documents. Rather than slow the action down, these documents add to the grim melee. This is a wonderful novel, aswirl with the everyday inanity of life; it may also be the most scathing attack ever published on our society's litigious ways. (Jan.)
Library Journal
When Oscar Crease, an obscure history teacher, discovers that a new Hollywood film borrows heavily from his own unpublished Civil War play, he immediately sues for plagiarism. Meanwhile, Crease's brother-in-law, a corporate attorney, is struggling with a trade name dispute brought by the Episcopal Church against the anagrammatic Pepsi-Cola Company, and Oscar's father, irascible federal judge Thomas Crease, is deep in a ``media circus'' trial involving a dog trapped in a piece of junk sculpture. Gaddis's fourth novel is written in the cacophonous style that he perfected in his National Book Award winner, JR ( LJ 9/15/75). Conversation, recorded verbatim, is full of jargon, non-sequiturs, and misunderstanding. No effort is made to identify the speakers, and blaring televisions and offstage noise drown out the words. The end result is a mordant analysis of a society overrun with lawyers, presented in a format that mirrors the chaos of modern life. An essential purchase for all literature collections. -- Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law School. Lib., Los Angeles
Library Journal
When Oscar Crease, an obscure history teacher, discovers that a new Hollywood film borrows heavily from his own unpublished Civil War play, he immediately sues for plagiarism. Meanwhile, Crease's brother-in-law, a corporate attorney, is struggling with a trade name dispute brought by the Episcopal Church against the anagrammatic Pepsi-Cola Company, and Oscar's father, irascible federal judge Thomas Crease, is deep in a ``media circus'' trial involving a dog trapped in a piece of junk sculpture. Gaddis's fourth novel is written in the cacophonous style that he perfected in his National Book Award winner, JR ( LJ 9/15/75). Conversation, recorded verbatim, is full of jargon, non-sequiturs, and misunderstanding. No effort is made to identify the speakers, and blaring televisions and offstage noise drown out the words. The end result is a mordant analysis of a society overrun with lawyers, presented in a format that mirrors the chaos of modern life. An essential purchase for all literature collections. -- Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law School. Lib., Los Angeles
New York Times Books of the Century
...[An] exceptionally rich novel....[R]eaders who laugh their way through to the end may find it impossible to get the rhythms and sounds of [the] voices out of their imaginations.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684800523
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 2/10/1995
  • Edition description: First Scribner Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 512
  • Sales rank: 434,232
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

William Gaddis
William Gaddis
Long before "intellectual property" became a buzz phrase of the digital age, William Gaddis was exploring the collision of creativity and the modern world in influential novels such as The Recognitions and A Frolic of His Own. Gaddis was an author who raised crucial questions about art, mechanization, ownership and industry; though he never promised to answer them.

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)

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 6, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    its great, i suggest the william gaddis website as well for foot

    its great, i suggest the william gaddis website as well for footnotes

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    Posted August 10, 2009

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