The Rush for Second Place
If you want to find out what ticked off the late William Gaddis and you don't have the time for his 700-page novels, Rush for Second Place might not be a bad place to start. Appendices and commentary aside, there are about 120 pages of essays, snippets, and disjecta. In them, he approaches themes familiar to his readers: the role of technology in art ("Player Piano"), the capitalist culture of entropy ("Rush for Second Place"), and religion ("Old Foes With New Faces"). There's also plenty of filler, including examples of Gaddis' corporate writing and long selections of notes and commentary.
This is all redeemed by the brief, brilliant attacks on post-war American culture. They are blasts from the past, directed at George H.W. Bush, Newt Gingrich, and Jerry Falwell, but the diagnoses of the illness remain ruthlessly accurate: Gaddis found this country to be permeated by a "suspension of disbelief" that allows the government to create fictions that outstrip literature in imaginative power. There were, and still are, very few writers willing to look straight into the eye of the storm, and right up until his death in 1998 Gaddis was unwavering. So what role does literature have on the periphery of a country that is hypnotized by its empty center? Not much, according to Gaddis: "The business of America is business, and for good reason the [American] writer has been and is an endangered species. That is our edge."
In Agape Agape, Gaddis' penultimate work of fiction, this endangered species is given a chance to speak for itself. It is not a pleasant voice. Agape is a bile-driven screed of about 100 pages written by a fictional dying writer who has been borked by the literary establishment. This isn't the Gaddis readers came to love and/or hate; the notoriously detached style of JR and A Frolic of His Own has been abandoned here for a confessional monologue in the vein of Thomas Bernhard. The subject, though, is a familiar one: the place of the artist in a world in technical overdrive. This seems to be a short-order version of a lifelong project that Gaddis didn't have the time to finish. But in its own way, that makes this a more remarkable testament. Agape Agape is one last bareknuckled bout in the knock-down drag-out fight between a grumpy old writer and an art form that has left him on the shelf. This bitter, dying man is anything but a gracious loser. In a curious way, though, that's a light at the end of the tunnel. Gaddis' characters always seem, like the author himself did, to draw lifeblood from the most hopeless battles.