Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

William Gaddis Calling: Telephonic Satire and the Disconnection of Authority

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

William Gaddis Calling: Telephonic Satire and the Disconnection of Authority

Article excerpt

Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.

(Ephesians 4:29)

William Gaddis's four novels of "uprooted" voices harken to the very etymology of satire: "verse medley" has become, in novels like JR and Carpenter's Gothic, an altogether more motley (and Rabelaisian) assortment of verbal exchanges. Unlike the relatively pleasant and even idyllic voyages in representational novels of satire like Huckleberry Finn, Gaddis's journey into the consciousness of America through its ear is a rough ride. "Noise," bemoans one character in JR, "you'll hide in noise any chance you get ..." (52). Gaddis has tried to complicate the dynamic of simply ironic and undercut narrators (the trademark of Swiftian satire) by multiplying, "uprooting," and fragmenting the narrative voices, and by inserting a sense of indeterminate distance between the expressions of those voices and the identities of their owners. J R's muffled calls ("like someone talking under a pillow" [229]) represent a parody of the fiction writer's method, but--to borrow one of Gaddis's innocuous-sounding but highly charged turns of phrase--"the way the telephone behaves" makes all the difference (234). When Patrick O'Donnell considers that "the agencies of transmission--telephones, televisions, tape recorders--have--in a sense, taken over the discourse" in and of JR (155), his qualifying "in a sense" betrays the underestimation. The integrity of the text will not hold--the reader turning the pages finds that "sequential thaw technique" (JR 673) leads to the explosions of shards of language--and neither, naturally, will the center (moral or authorial). Gaddis does not mimetically "write" the ring of the telephone, and yet it is always there, registered by its disruptive impact upon the regularly failing continuity of speech and the slippery instances of narrative description alike. McLuhan recognizes the telephone as demanding "complete participation, unlike the written and printed page" (267) in that it "ignores all the claims of visual privacy prized by literate man" (272). (1)

These "claims" could be summed up simply as a basis for (believing in) authority. The reader of a text projects a writer and divides up between him-or herself and this writer an investment of authority (I deliberately use here a rhetorical trope suitable to JR). Gibbs gives this formulation his usual blunt and desperate edge: "Pay attention here bring something to it take something away" (JR 289). The telephone "ignores" these private claims, for, as Avital Ronell's Telephone Book points out, "[t]he notion of a 'phony' originates in the phone's call, designating the predicament of a suppositious subject, on both ends" (45). (2) Like any empire, J R's is based upon the situation of an authorial nucleus, a situation which is as "free" an enterprise as any in that it is free for exploitation, and this much the boy understands: "I just scribbled this here name which it's nobody's down at the bottom where it says arthurized by, I mean you think the telephone company goes around asking everybody is this here your signature?" (JR 185). The signature is a touchstone for McLuhan's "literate man," and the "telephone company" (the characterization is delightfully anonymous) by its very nature has no interest in such a thing: (3) "Author" might as well be "Arthur."

Gaddis's fascination with authenticity and its discontents intersects with Walter Benjamin's: both observe the red-shift of a receding original concurrent with the mechanical propagation of echoes. The novel of voices that Bakhtin has deftly analyzed is not exactly the right vehicle for Gaddis's articulation of the phenomenon of the "phony," and he adjusts the form to mimic the electronic discourse: he echoes echoes. And just as each subsequent echo invariably distorts the information of its predecessor, the principle of the game of "Broken Telephone" or simply "Telephone," Norbert Wiener's realization of the struggle between information and entropy is itself a "message" echoed in JR,; or a call transferred from Gaddis to Gibbs: "more complicated the message more God damned chance for errors" (JR 403). …

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