30% of “The Recognitions”/“Book of the New Sun”/Rereading/‘Difficult’ Reading in General

To Mrs. M—, I was “a pompous snob, and a real ass-hole.” -Johnathan Franzen

According to my kindle, I am 30 percent of the way through William Gaddis’ “The Recognitions”, which is a book that has a reputation of being a ‘difficult read’. Some of this reputation comes from  Johnathan Franzen’s essay called “Mr. Difficult”, which is at least partially about how difficult “The Recognitions” is. He’s a much more erudite writer than I, and gives a little plot summary and some general thoughts on ‘difficult’ novels (give it a read here, if desired: https://adilegian.com/FranzenGaddis.htm).

Franzen (who’s name I keep attempting to add the letter “t” to for some reason) writes about the notion of ‘The Status Model”— “…championed by Flaubert, the best novels are great works of art, the people who manage to write them deserve extraordinary credit, and if the average reader rejects the work it’s because the average reader is a philistine; the value of any novel, even a mediocre one, exists independent of how many people are able to appreciate it. “ and “The Contract Model” — “…a compact between the writer and the reader, with the writer providing words out of which the reader creates a pleasurable experience. Writing thus entails a balancing of self-expression and communication within a group, whether the group consists of ‘Finnegans Wake’ enthusiasts or fans of Barbara Cartland…a novel deserves a reader’s attention only as long as the author sustains the reader’s trust.”

There exists a sort of blend between these two; at least on the internet, where people will tell you that something is difficult, and you will only derive enjoyment from it if you are capable of understanding it. Sometimes, they will tell you that you’ll need to read something multiple times in order to truly comprehend it, as though the book is some sort of puzzle box that needs unlocking in order to, I dunno, win literature points or something. It strikes me as a form go gatekeeping, which is something I have very little time for. When someone tells me that I’m going to need to have to read something multiple times to understand it, or that I will have to had read and understood the collected works of Jean-Paul Satre to ‘unlock the meaning’ of something, I end up thinking of that “To be fair, you have to have a high IQ to understand Rick and Morty…” quote. 

One such book is Gene Wolfe’s “Book of the New Sun”, which is really four (or five; I read the ‘sequel’ along with the first four) books, all telling the connected story of Severian, a seemingly ordinary person who becomes extraordinary. It’s a fantasy novel with sci-fi elements, taking place on ‘Urth’ (which made me groan every time I read it), which is either our Earth or AN Earth (it’s unclear) millions of years in the future, as the sun is slowly dying. Wolfe’s ‘trick’ is that he never explains anything, unless the characters have to explain something to each other. If they would know something, then it’s left unexplained. This is counter to a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, which will use ‘prophecy’ or the dreaded ‘as you know, bob’ conversation to explain stuff to the reader. (Though he does ‘call a rabbit a Smeerp’ a fair bunch).1

The other ‘difficult’ part is that Severian is considered an unreliable narrator. Lots of people mention this, to the point where pointing it out when writing about the book is kind of annoying; it also strikes me as inaccurate. This essay explains it a little better: https://www.tor.com/2021/12/08/what-makes-an-unreliable-narrator-severians-voice-in-gene-wolfes-the-book-of-the-new-sun/; but how important is it to the overall story? I’m going to argue that it’s not really important overall. The only perspective we are given is his; the only time we shift outside of his perspective are during occasional endnotes when Wolfe steps in, presumably in his own voice, as the ‘translator’ of the book. The fact that someone has survived to translate the book implies a whole lot of extra-textual things I’m not going to dip into here, or this little entry will expand to Gaddisean or Wolfean lengths, and I get exhausted at the thought of editing that. But since he’s the only narrator, his reliability is moot. The book is clever enough to let us know he’s not always telling the truth, but we only have the truth he tells. There’s no one to counterbalance it. 

The above linked essay also says that one has to re-read the book to get it to ‘open up’. I don’t know about you, but even as a fairly voracious reader, the thought of revisiting close to 2000 pages of just about anything gives me hives. While I do occasionally reread things— notably Norton Juster’s “The Phantom Tollbooth” and Melville’s “Moby-Dick”, I only have so much time left on this earth. I don’t know that the story of Severian and his “fuligin cloak” roaming around the hills and dales with a sword and whatnot is something I want to visit again. It certainly was a book that rewarded close reading, paying attention to detail, and so on, but I think its overall difficulty is overstated.  It’s not like Finnegans Wake or Gravity’s Rainbow or [insert other postmodern weirdness]; there’s a clear, discernible plot, which you can recount in detail. There’s an arc. There’s various characters, with various motivations, and there’s worldbuilding, it’s just not all spelled out. 

In other words, to get all Franzen about it, it’s a Contract novel with Status trappings. 

For similar reasons, I’m not finding The Recognitions all that difficult, either. And there are things that I do find difficult: I mean, it took me four tries to actually read Blood Meridian, and I’ve started a few Pynchon books (“Mason & Dixon” I am looking in your direction) and cast them aside because I have no clue as to what’s going on. But The Recognitions has a story, and characters, and an arc. Several arcs, really. I think a few things throw people: Characters are all kind of introduced with a similar level of importance, and often given a fairly deep background, but not all of them are important to the narrative, and there are lots of references that you may or may not get, especially to painters and art. In this age, the internet is available if you want to see the Flemish masters Gaddis talks about, or look up a concept that you don’t get. 

But I think the oddest, and likely the thing which will throw the reader the most is Gaddis’ approach to dialogue. Characters speak extraordinarily realistically. They cut each other off, they ignore each other, they understand each other without waiting for the other person to complete a thought. Gaddis also does not often identify who is speaking, you have to figure it out either via context or by knowing the sorts of things the character would say. But equally, especially in some parts of the book, who is speaking is flat out unimportant. The “infamous to a few literary nerds” party scenes contain pages that go by without attributing dialogue. Gaddis is using the dialogue to make observations about the world his characters inhabit, not to further the plot. 

When the plot doesn’t advance, or the world doesn’t ‘build’ but instead has to be assembled by the reader, we’re entering Status territory.  Whether that’s worth it depends on what you want to get out of your time reading. I’ll write a little bit more about The Recognitions when I’ve finished it, but for now, I’m struck by how contemporary it feels, despite being written in the 50s. Maybe Otto would be terminally online instead of a shitty playwright, and Wyatt might be some sort of other artist than a painter (though there’s no reason he couldn’t continue to be a painter), and there’d be some cellphones, and less smoking, but other than that, I’ve met a lot of the assholes that inhabit Gaddis’ world. You have as well. It might be worth it to you to take a little time with The Recognitions; just recognize you’re going to have to do some of the work yourself. But if you keep reading, and go along with its rhythms and quirks, there are rewards in there.

1- From a delightful list of tropes : https://www.sfwa.org/2009/06/18/turkey-city-lexicon-a-primer-for-sf-workshops/

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