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By William Gaddis

Original Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Current Publisher: Penguin Classics

Chad Post writes:

J R is the perfect novel for our new recession-driven world. Similar to Gravity’s Rainbow (which I wrote about earlier), this is another encyclopedic novel with dozens of characters, subplot upon subplot, quite literally overflowing with ideas, conversations, and detritus. And money. It’s all about money.

At the heart of this comic masterpiece is an eleven-year-old boy named J R, who, with a bit of capitalist ingenuity and the help of his music teacher Edward Bast, builds a paper fortune out of surplus goods, common stock, and an unerring ability to game the system. It’s a coming-of-age tale for the late-capitalist period of irrational exuberance.

Of course, things fall apart in the end. Bast—who dreams of becoming a composer—loses his artistic mojo, and J R’s paper empire is just that, and implodes like a house of cards. (Sound familiar?)

It’s not like we weren’t warned though—entropy always wins. It’s just like science teacher Jack Gibbs says early on in the novel:

In other words this leads you to assume that organization is an inherent property of the knowledge itself, and that disorder and chaos are simply irrelevant forces that threaten it from outside. In fact it’s exactly the opposite. Order is simply a thin, perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos . . .

There is tons of chaos in J R. Everywhere you turn in this book you find another mess. The amount of clutter Gaddis was able to work into a book that’s narrated almost entirely through dialogue is amazing.

And that’s probably the most amazing thing about J R. Although some early critics were flummoxed by this method of unattributed dialogue, after 50 pages a half-way perceptive reader picks up the rhythms and phrases and can jump ahead a few hundred pages and immediately identify which character is speaking.

J R is America. It’s a loud, raucous book of voices, messes, and money. It’s a book with a solid cult pedigree that should be read, and read again, for pure pleasure and great insight into the insanely frantic world we inhabit.

Chad W. Post is the director of Open Letter Books (http://www.openletterbooks.org) and the website Three Percent (http://www.rochester.edu/threepercent), both of which are dedicated to the publication and promotion of international literature.


ISBN: 9780140187076

Fiction Finalists that Year:

  • Saul Bellow for Humboldt's Gift
  • Hortense Calisher for The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher
  • Johanna Kaplan for Other People's Lives
  • Vladimir Nabokov for Tyrants Destroyed and Other Stories
  • Larry Woiwode for Beyond the Bedroom Wall

Fiction Judges that Year: Maurice Dolbier, William Gass, Mary McCarthy

The Year in Literature:  

  • Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

This was the first of William Gaddis’ two National Book Award wins for Fiction. He won again in 1994 for A Frolic of His Own.

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