Tuesday, March 26, 2013

ICA talks: William Gaddis and Malcolm Bradbury, in conversation

I have enjoyed listening to some of the Institute of Contemporary Arts talks and wanted to share some notes on some of these recordings over the next few weeks. In this case it is William Gaddis talking with Malcolm Bradbury on February 20, 1986, soon after the release of Carpenter’s Gothic. Similar to other talks in the series there is little new here but it was the first time I actually heard Gaddis speak. At times Bradbury takes forever to get to some semblance of a question, only to have Gaddis veer off in another direction or completely dismiss his point.

As anyone who has read Gaddis (or read any of his interviews) will know, he hates to have to explain the work in too much detail or provide more information than is already on the page. There isn't much new here for anyone that has read an interview with Gaddis, but I enjoyed it anyway. Here are a few notes from their “conversation”:

Carpenter’s Gothic was written with a series of self-imposed constraints, including limiting the number of characters, keeping the setting in one place, and do it all in fewer pages than his other works. Gaddis wanted to take clichés and make them work. Bradbury likes calling it a novella, at least when compared to Gaddis’ other works. Many events take place through the mail, newspapers, and television and on the phone. Gaddis says he likes using the different methods of communication to move the story along. Bradbury noted and Gaddis confirmed that Carpenter’s Gothic contains more rage than JR.

They talked about several authors (Hawthorne and Melville especially) and focused on the subject of confidence men and swindling as it appears in Gaddis’ book. Gaddis likes the way confidence men provide good theater, relating a recent experience of being robbed on a bus in New York City.

Bradbury wanted Gaddis to touch on the term “carpenter’s gothic” since it mind not be as understood as well outside of America. Gaddis notes the phrase works on several levels in relation to the book: architecture, style, religion, and economy. Regarding the architectural term, Gaddis said he liked the style in its imitation of a more ornate style but using simpler materials. The style emphasizes outside appearance at the expense of inside utility (noting his experience with his house of the same style). The religious imagery, Jesus as carpenter, may be a little strained but works with some aspects of the novel. Gaddis also noted the economy of the style—the houses were built by a stylebook that could be easily copied and applied.

On writing, Gaddis noted he can’t resist certain things, satire and pastiche for examples, but always with entertainment in mind. He can’t believe some reviews of his books that don’t mention the humor in them (I’ll add my bewilderment on that point, too). One thing he tried to do in J R was completely remove the author from the book. In this case, reading the book requires the reader to participate in what emerges. Despite the length of the novel, there is a type of economy in doing this, revealing only what he feels is enough for the reader to understand characters, scenes, etc. The reader has to be willing to accept the ambiguity that arises in some areas. For example, even though no character in J R is provided with much description, Gaddis had an idea of what the characters looked like. When Harper’s had an illustration accompanying a review of J R, Gaddis was amused to see that the artist’s rendering of Edward Bast was completely at odds with how he pictured him. Once he begins writing, though, the characters and storyline may take him in places he didn’t intend at all. Back to J R—as Gaddis moved through the story, Jack Gibbs became a much less likeable character than he had intended when he started the book.

A common theme in the talk, and in Gaddis’ books, is the feeling that things are out of control. While everyone recognizes that in the differing times to some extent, a pervasive lack of responsibility seems to underlie much of it. As he has pointed out in other interviews, he occasionally says he has a naïve notion that pointing out the problems will lead to corrections…that the overall system is viable. At the end of the Q&A session Gaddis veers off into politics, but thankfully there’s not much of it before the recording ends

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