“Justice? — You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.” I went around quoting the opening line of William Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own before I’d ever read all those that followed. As a homeless outreach worker in Manhattan, I’d have occasion to transport people to shelters and in a 10-minute car ride would often get an earful of their lives and their problems. One particularly gruff man raged about the legal system and all the mess it had made of his life. I didn’t know if he would whack me or the driver in his fulminations, so I threw out the line and that stopped him. He laughed and settled, saying, “Whoever wrote that knew what the fuck I’m talking about.”
Last summer, I suggested to my wife, a criminal defense attorney in the Bronx, that we read the book concurrently. We’d both represented and tried to help the most helpless in our society, but we saw the legal system in different ways, though we could both admit it was, of course, skewed toward the rich. She saw her job as maneuvering around district attorneys, judges, and laws that often support the system of mass incarceration in this country. The homeless essentially have no rights, so the legal system is often more of a hindrance for them. I brought more skepticism.
The novel is a satire of the legal system, full of frivolous lawsuits, including Szyrk v. Village of Tatamount et al. In the lawsuit, the artist of a huge outdoor public sculpture (Cyclone Seven) sues a small city after a seven-year-old’s dog, Spot, becomes entrapped, leading to rescue operations that damage the work. Then there are protagonist Oscar Crease’s two lawsuits: the smaller suit, ostensibly against himself, springs from trying to hotwire his Japanese car (a Sosumi made by Isuyu), and having it run him over. The main action is against the film company that produced a Civil War epic, The Blood in the Red, White, and Blue, because Oscar finds it resembles an unproduced and unpublished play, Once at Antietam, he wrote some 17 years before. Oscar had once submitted his manuscript to the film’s then Broadway-leaning producer, though he can’t locate the rejection slip.
Reading together, my wife and I found ourselves taking the book and its dips — from narrative, to legal decision, to further dramatic scenes, to a deposition, to play excerpts, to legal opinions, to implosions of hilarious dialogue — in a certain stride. In the news that summer was a despicable lawsuit taken as seriously as Oscar’s: Manhattanite Jennifer Connell sued her eight-year-old nephew for jumping into her arms because she broke her wrist in the subsequent fall — on his birthday. It went to a jury but was dismissed. The most recent iteration of this obtuse use of legalese was probably New England Patriots fans suing the NFL over the team losing draft picks in the Deflategate debacle. Thankfully, a judge dismissed that, too. “Why do you think people sue?” I asked my wife. “Because we have been told by society that this is how we solve problems, plus most everyone else wants money,” she answered, putting her in mind of the old commercial from Saturday Night Live where a person in the street asks a law firm advertising their cutthroat tactics, “I’d love to sue somebody, but don’t I need a reason?”
Yet in the April issue of Harper’s, Ralph Nader argues that lawsuits, certainly commonsense ones, are good for America. Deregulation reigns as more and more corporations and politicians have become bedfellows, repealing laws protecting “the rights of injured people to recover adequate compensation for harm inflicted.” Nader adds that “multi-million dollar advertising campaigns, heavily funded by the insurance industry, made wild accusations about outlandish jury awards assessed against innocent companies, even clergy and obstetricians, in order to raise the public temper.”
Gaddis’s book could be used as propaganda by this corporate/political side, but it would also indict them as having a pioneering spirit of greed, power, and profit. And though Oscar eventually wins, the money awarded is meager because, as Nader points out, multi-million dollar corporate law films are a beast that can rarely lose. When lawyers start suing other lawyers, loopholes are everywhere.
The 586-page book (the last published in Gaddis’s lifetime) is set in New York City and Long Island, though it takes place mainly in Oscar’s house in the Hamptons. Like all his novels excepting The Recognitions, Frolic is full a neurotic vernacular of Americana that purls and perfectly personifies the sue-happy, media-soaked years during which Gaddis constructed it, 1986 to 1993 — years of growing cable TV and its obsession with scandal, culminating in the Clintons and one of the first pitiful tabloid “stories” worthy of the national news: John Wayne and Lorena Bobbitt. In a scene from the middle of the book, there is a miniature of the type of satire Gaddis often engages in — that of the crashing together of people uncomfortable with other people. Christina’s (Oscar’s sister) rich friend Trisch comes to visit the Crease house with her dog, Pookie, to Oscar’s chagrin. When Pookie has an accident, Oscar characteristically finds a sinister motive: “Little! It was not an accident Christina, I saw him, he did it deliberately…”
Oscar’s high-pitched hysteria typifies how unserious and childish he is in many ways, complicating his “creative” character with his tendency to blame others for his mistakes (making a maid who can’t speak or read English look for the rejection slip; continuing to watch TV after his girlfriend asks him to examine a lump in her breast). There is a great laziness to this “artist,” now a history professor at a community college where the value of his “work” constantly gets called into question. The question we kept coming back to while reading was: Did Oscar seriously believe the studio plagiarized his play, or was he after a handout? His impetus is called into question when he staggeringly chides the producers for stealing certain parts, while being disappointed they did not use others. Perhaps our question is best answered when, after Oscar temporarily wins and is granted an injunction, the studio shows the film on television to make money and the main characters watch it together. At first Oscar complains about its crude opening, but the battle (the main thrust of the film) mesmerizes him, and he becomes as bloodthirsty as the producers who insist on gory battle scenes. He celebrates how they pictorially duplicated the century-old skirmish, “…unbelievable, it’s unbelievable look at that! Half the regiment wiped out at thirty feet…”
I had been turning into a Gaddis freak since interviewing William H. Gass, the author and friend of Gaddis’s, with whom he was often confused in literary circles. I read my wife snippets of The Recognitions and JR in order to bring her into the fold. A Frolic of His Own is a book that has become a lost classic. Usually an author becomes synonymous with one or two of her titles, while the titans are allowed three to five. It hasn’t taken people so long in years to come around to Gaddis. It started happening in his lifetime, but (despite winning the National Book Award) there has been no new edition of Frolic since the paperback in 1995, and Brooklyn’s main library at Grand Army Plaza doesn’t include it in the stacks.
There’s not a chapter or page break in the book, which also might go towards explaining its obscurity compared to the gobs of white space and other breaks de rigueur in many current novels. Gaddis, since 1975’s JR, is one long gush where everything happens on top of something else — where everything interrupts, including his favorite stage prop, the telephone. The play in Frolic was as much a part of Oscar’s past as Gaddis’s, since he wrote it in the late-’50s after The Recognitions came out, though it was soon abandoned. In his own brooding intensity, he found the right profile to insert himself and exorcise his ghost self — the failed artist who takes to a Faust-like selling of his soul to earn a living while shirking his morally responsible art, something Gaddis never succumbed to but observed all around him.
Gaddis took the book’s title from The Handbook of the Law of Torts, which he found during his voluminous research on the legal system, including obtaining the then-84 volumes of American Jurisprudence (the encyclopedia of U.S. law) while corresponding with lawyers and clerks about the validity of his fictionalized judicial opinions and one long deposition. During that 50-page exchange (in legal transcript form and font), the studio’s lawyer attacks Oscar’s, badgering them just because they made a Civil War movie that shares a few ideas with his play (another lawyer says, “You can’t copyright the Civil War”) and connecting William Shakespeare’s practice of taking his material from familiar sources to Oscar’s own ways of borrowing:
Q In other words…it was all just there for the taking, wasn’t it?…Whether you were Shakespeare or Joe Blow, you could turn any of it into a play if you wanted to, couldn’t you?
A Well not the, if Joe Blow could write a play?
Q Do you mean it would depend on the execution of the idea?
A Well, yes. Yes of course.
Q Not the idea, but the way it was expressed by the playwright? Isn’t that what makes Shakespeare’s King Lear tower above Joe Blow’s King Lear?
Gaddis’s propulsive style of writing blends the chilling admonitions of the great Russian novelists and T.S. Eliot with the evaporating social order seen in the late-20th-century America. He took the detritus of our age (TV and radio commercials, print ads, etc.), churned it about in his outraged mind, and delivered an art as timeless as the ancients, but obeying the oft-quoted dictum: Good artists copy, great artists steal. Yet Gaddis came to the point where he had to steal from himself, as the excerpts of Oscar Crease’s play, Once at Antietam, are verbatim bits of Gaddis’s unproduced play (same title), written around 1960. Perhaps if Oscar had stolen from Shakespeare, his play might have been produced all those years back.
After 40-some years in this world and being all too cognizant of the hype-driven galleons, it’s fully apparent to me that the novel comments on our culture’s incredible jealousy at other people getting what we think they don’t deserve, a truism since Alexis de Tocqueville. Whether it is entitlement in all forms, or simply the result of sticking our nose into other’s people’s business and taking offense where there is none, these very hypocritical acts are the basis for many laughable lawsuits, including Oscar’s pursuit of a handout. Is this how Americans think?
We don’t necessarily need a lawyer to intimidate someone. Lionel Trilling writes, in “The Meaning of the Literary Idea,” “We are…the people of ideology.” A furor and gusto similar to the Salem Witch Trials, but without the physicality, is put to use by viral Internet campaigns to bully and shame people — the hysteria of doctrinal vindictiveness all too easily a click away from actually ruining someone’s life. But this consequence gives few people pause before sallying a reactionary social media “fuck you.”
This free play of opposites is played up in Gaddis’s epigraph, care of Henry David Thoreau, the epitome of American individualism, who spoke to Ralph Waldo Emerson thus: “What you seek in vain for, half your life, one day you come full upon, all the family at dinner. You seek it like a dream, and as soon as you find it you become its prey.” Oscar seeks fame and fortune, but he gets a token payment, and all his other ridiculous lawsuits garner him nothing.
The book speaks to our moment, not only in terms of authorship, entitlement, and an oligarchy created by the corporate-political police state, but also because we are still the same people of ideology. However, now that we are armed with the technology to more easily harass and destroy each other, even Gaddis couldn’t anticipate how we easily we would cede our humanity for fame and fortune at other people’s expense.
When I think of the books I really love, the ones I rant about and buy spare copies of so I can give them away, I do not associate many of them with the place where I first read them. I extol an author’s language and humor, a particularly memorable character, the ideas that make the book hum, the sense of place imparted on the pages between the covers. For the most part, what I’m reading is much more important than where I’m reading it.
One notable exception to this dates back to 1998, when as a college student I had the good fortune to participate in Semester as Sea (back before MTV sullied the program’s reputation). I had already gotten a taste for travel and the narratives it inspired by authors like Jan Morris and Paul Theroux. Before leaving for four months at sea, I knew I needed the right book. I found it in The Size of the World, Jeff Greenwald’s recounting of his journey around the world without ever leaving its surface. Utilizing any available mode of ground transport, Greenwald put together more than just a travel story, and I will never forget reading it during my time on that ship.
I’m writing this in Granada, Spain, the Alhambra’s foreboding exterior walls hulking above the hills visible from my window. I knew I would be here for close to a month and had this very much on my mind as I ferreted around for a book to bring along. I wanted something big, entertaining thoughts of War and Peace or Mason & Dixon, maybe JR. The end of the harried week prior to departure found me at Posman Books in Grand Central (my first New York City employer), not wanting to rush my decision but also feeling a self-imposed pressure to get home, finish packing, tidy up the apartment and leave town the next day.
I fondled all of the books I had considered but none of them felt right. With my list out the window, I started looking at books I haven’t read by authors I like. This didn’t work either. No stranger to such bookstore dilemmas, I defaulted to books published by houses I admire: FSG, NYRB, Vintage, New Directions, Dalkey Archive. I was getting warmer. Great Russian World War II novels didn’t seem right, neither did woeful contemporary tales of struggling writers. But then a spine that read Balcony of Europe caught my eye. I liked the cover: Roman arches holding up a great black edifice – housing the title and author’s name, Aidan Higgins – seemingly floating on the mountain-rimmed Mediterranean, two semblances of sail boats, triangles of red and yellow. The back cover copy declares the book a long-unavailable masterpiece, based in “a village on the coast of Spain,” which the table of contents pinpoints to Andalusia. I was sold.
Andalusia comprises the bottom chunk of Spain between Portugal and the Mediterranean. It contains several provinces, including Granada and Malaga at the region’s southern most reach. Nerja, where a great deal of Balcony of Europe takes place, is located in Malaga province. While the euro and technology have radically changed this part of Spain compared to the novel’s early 1960s setting, the craggy coastline and hilly interior dotted with remnants of Roman and Muslim conquests remain the same. At its core, this novel is about history, as the W.B. Yeats epigraph attests: “I begin seeing things double – doubled in history, world history, personal history.”
From early 1962 until the summer of 1963 Irish painter Dan Ruttle, the narrator, and his wife Olivia live in Nerja, a coastal village reluctantly awakening to the advent of tourism that helped spur Spain’s “economic miracle.” Attracting expatriated artists, writers and eccentrics eager to live cheap and focus on art and pastimes, the Ruttles work, read, swim and haunt local bars and cafes with other Europeans, Canadians and Americans. Chief among them are Bob and Charlotte Bayless, he a native Californian writing a scholarly book about Shelley and Byron and she a Lower East Side Jew, beauty her greatest craft.
Dan Ruttle and Charlotte Bayless have an affair. And in one sense, that’s the book. But though the affair is physically consummated, it exists mostly in Dan’s mind. He is obsessed by thoughts of their handful of assignations and how national, political and cultural histories cut their characters out of time’s fabric. The ghost of World War II is inescapable: Franco’s unfulfilled pledge of alliance to Hitler; drunken ex-Nazis; American “we saved your ass” bravado; Jewish identity; “American bombers” constantly flying exercises, contrails embroidering the clear skies. There are also Joycean weaves of history, bobbing in and out of myth and time as read from mountains and sea changes.
From what was and what is and what could be, all of the individuals in this book fill time and waste it. Both Olivia and Bob realize their spouses’ infidelities, but most of their reactions only ever exist in Dan’s head, his interpretation of glances and body language, how they echo the first time Bob slept with Charlotte years before in San Francisco. More than once, Olivia does raise the issue of Dan’s none too subtle preoccupation with Charlotte, but he never responds to her. Dan internalizes everything, and is aware of it, asking himself, “Would my sensations be forever intellectual?”
Interestingly, the characters solidify based on wonderfully descriptive and repeated details of physical traits and personalities. Charlotte doesn’t carry change because it is bad for the ovaries; Schiller kept rotting apples in his drawer because the smell inspired him. Such details are reported over and over again, sometimes more than once on the page, other times two hundred pages apart, providing a perspective like a fly’s: multi-faceted visions that form a whole.
Such repetition might suggest boredom or lack of anything better to say, but the opposite is true, as this book insists: “If a thing is boring, keep repeating it.” Nothing is boring or insignificant by virtue of its existence, and characters like Dan Ruttle tower over most fictional figures, able to create a worldview that synthesizes personal quirks with two thousand years of history. His attitude renders him a passive character, to be sure, but for Dan that’s the rub of history, all experiences are a return to a time that is and was, now and forever. Watching a tipsy old man search for a key to unlock a door, Dan thinks, “I sensed his discomfort; he did not want to go in, though by staying out he could not alter anything. He looked for neither truth nor the likelihood, stood there play-acting, making me feel uncomfortable. How well I understood how he felt, deforming himself, deforming habit and custom. But nothing would change.”
Of course, change is inevitable and constant. Today in this part of Spain there are more tourists, no language is uncommon to hear, no one bats an eye at topless sunbathing. But, dinner is still eaten very late, and breakfast is often accompanied by beer, the church bells still clang and the Sierra Nevada stand tall, dimpled with snow even in summer’s hottest months.
There is no doubt that reading this book at home in New York, riding the train and before bed, would be memorable, but reading it here, covering some of the same ground as these characters, makes it lasting. Watching patterns of swifts cross the sky, the movement of sand on the sea floor, flamenco guitar strings plucked as bright and crisp as the sun – these qualities of place have shaped my reading of Balcony of Europe.
The other day I pulled a stone out of the Mediterranean. It has probably not been dry for a very long time. I will return home with this soft, weathered stone, carrying its history, most likely older than human history and our constructs of space and time. In creating Dan Ruttle, Aidan Higgins has deftly distilled a great many ideas into one very important one: a place defines history, but history cannot be contained by a place.
What book has made an impression on you because of where you read it?