Reading William Gaddis’ JR is a weird experience. It’s mostly dialogue, and most of that dialogue is unattributed (so you often don’t get the helpful little, “Mr. Johnson said” or “shouted Adam” bits before or after quotes). The novel reads like one long, continuous tracking shot moving from conversation to conversation, following individuals across New York City and throughout its various suburbs. Ostensibly, the plot revolves around an eleven year old boy, the eponymous JR Vansant, who takes a few fundamental lessons in capitalism (things like “don’t make your money work for you, make other people’s money work for you”) and puts them into practice, quickly creating an immense corporate empire.
I say ostensibly because, in truth, the actual character JR resides mainly in the background. The dialogue shifts seldom follow him, so that, save for a few phone conversations, we only ever catch sight of him in those moments where he talks to the cast of adult characters whose lives surround his rapidly expanding corporation. Instead of tracking JR himself, Gaddis paints a remarkable mural of contemporary life in the American 1970s, pulling readers along through disintegrating marriages, failed or failing careers, and a corroding education system, all while piecing together the increasingly frantic development of JR’s considerable stock holdings.
There are plenty of things to say about JR as a novel. I mean seriously I have no idea where to really start. It’s a wide ranging, deviously complex epic that touches on everything from the commoditization of love and marriage to the increasingly profit-oriented nature of schools to the importance and worth of art in society. I have no desire to pick this thing apart in its entirety, and certainly not here what with the time and space that would eat up. So I’ll just focus on two things: JR himself and how the novel has aged.
JR is one of the most obnoxious characters you will ever read. He is, at his core, an eleven year old: endlessly persistent, a bit manipulative, and painfully concerned with proving himself capable in the world of adults. In spite of all of this (or perhaps because of it), you’d be hard pressed to find someone more heartbreakingly endearing in the novel’s considerable cast. His homelife is only referenced on occasion and obliquely at that, but it doesn’t seem terribly warm. Meanwhile, his clothes and belongings remain in a constant state of disrepair and his hygiene and habits both seem neglected by any sort of parental interest. By and large he comes across like a lonely kid trying to get some validation. Even when he’s trying to guilt someone into continuing to develop a soul-crushing, exploitative web of corporate investments, you can’t get mad at him. He’s just too damned innocent.
Sure, he’s got a flawed conscience, but he’s not malicious or cruel. He’s just an eleven year old striving to prove himself and affirm his self worth. Almost immediately after meeting JR, when he starts sending away for worthless penny stocks from ads he gets in the mail, you feel a heart-wrenching sympathy for his naïveté. Somehow he manages to maintain that even towards at end of the book; despite having dismantled family owned businesses to cobble together tax shelters and borrowed against pension funds to buoy his corporate worth, you can’t help but feel simple, pure pity for how he sees the world. To him, this is just how the game is played, and the game is simply what you have to be a part of to be worth anything. JR reminds me a lot of Huck Finn, a good heart with a deformed conscience, a tragic product of a toxic social environment.
I’d like to be able to tell you now that Gaddis’ expansive tale of the “American dream turned inside out” is dated and not all that relevant to the modern day. But it’s not. It’s terrifyingly relevant. With more and more stories coming out about government corruption at every level, about the education system continuing to compromise quality for cost, and about corporate malfeasance, JR is as disturbingly accurate a portrait of America as it was when it won the National Book Award in 1976. It’s like a less over-the-top Wolf of Wall Street. You can’t help but see parallels between JR’s mindset about building net worth and avoiding salary tax through stock options and the mindset of modern day banks that borrow against toxic assets, planning to profit off the eventual collapse of someone’s financial world. The fact that it’s a child at the helm of such a destructive force certainly critiques the values we as a culture instill in our youth, but it also highlights the immaturity inherent in those values and in seeing the world as nothing more than a source for potential fortune.
JR is a challenging piece of literature, and one that is most likely not for everyone. But Gaddis’ America is one that we all live in. A darkly comic (I probably forgot to mention the book is pretty damn funny at times) and incomprehensibly complicated place. I can’t in good conscience recommend it to anyone who doesn’t look for a serious challenge in picking up a book, but if you do, I highly recommend JR. It’s worth the work.