So fall begins as Gaddis ends, with Lee Konstantinou wrapping up our #OccupyGaddis summer. Special thanks to Lee, Sonia Johnson and Joseph Tabbi for their contributions to the LARB blog, and to everyone who read along, tweeted, blogged, and commented.
Something weird happens at the end of William Gaddis’s J R. A few weird things, actually, connected to Doctor (aka Coach) Vogel. What we might have initially thought was a ruthlessly naturalistic novel – a novel set in a world very much like our own – moves in its last pages into openly science fictional territory. We learn that the JR Family of Companies tries to deploy a classified noise-reduction system known as the “Frigicom process,” developed by the Department of Defense and J R Family of Companies subsidiary Ray-X. It’s “a complex process employing liquid nitrogen” that dampens sounds through the creation of “sound shards,” which are then “collected and disposed of in remote areas or at sea” like so much auditory toxic waste. Near the end of the novel, the Frigicom process faces certain comic difficulties:
In what Doctor Vogel described as perhaps too ambitious a trial in this early state of the art, the shards comprising Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony proved more difficult to handle than had been anticipated, and the sequential thaw technique was not entirely reliable. Appearing before the committee with his left arm in a cast and his face partially hidden by bandages, the colorful research director stated that the injuries sustained by himself and three of his technicians occurred when the entire first movement thawed in an unscheduled four seconds, ascribing the damage mainly to the strident quality of the musical work’s opening bars…
These experimental hiccups come to us through a few layers of mediation – via a newspaper article read to Edward Bast while he’s convalescing in a hospital – so it’s possible that Vogel is misrepresenting his research to the public. But there’s more. What we suspected were fraudulent experiments in “Teletravel” – human teleportation across telephone networks – turn out to be (we learn in a conversation among Cates, Beaton, and Zona) less than fraudulent. Dan diCephalis – the former psychometrician at J R’s school in Massapequa – has been lost in a trial run of the teleportation system, also engineered by Doctor Vogel. We might come up with a plausible explanation for the Frigicom fiasco, but it’s hard to imagine that Dan’s disappearance is anything other than real. There’s no countervailing evidence, so I think we’re meant to take this as a real accident – which means that J R really is developing a human teleportation system within the world of the novel.
In one sense, these developments are very much in keeping with the themes we’ve already encountered in J R. Gaddis passionately attacks the idea that scientific discovery and technological change are forces for good, possibly implying that they’re more often disasters. Just as Jack Gibbs condemns the mechanization of the arts in his unfinished history of the player piano (a book actually Gaddis posthumously published in 2002 as the slim novel, Agapē Agape), the Gaddis of J R condemns the mechanization of the person, which amounts for him to more or less the same thing. The Teletravel process must have been, for Gaddis, the natural end of the mechanization of everyday life: the reduction of the fullness of the person to data, transmissible over a cable. Dan’s fate suggests, in a barely allegorical fashion, that it may not be possible to come out the other end of such a damaging change.
To make this point, Gaddis seems to have felt the need to change the genre of his book midstream. Why?