So these are two books written by two incredibly famous, talented American (to the extent that Saul Bellow considered himself American) writers nearing the end of their careers, and for Gaddis the end of his life, that are both about 100 or so pages long, were published nearly at the same time and address a lot of the same ideas and issues, focusing on mortality, doubles and doubling, the mechanization of life, the impossibility of representing time in literature, a catalog of language, and various other similar topics. Gaddis died shortly after this novel was published, while Bellow, who was already seven years older, would live another eight years. Gaddis was primarily known for two or three of his previous novels: JR and the The Recognitions for being 700 and 900 pages respectively and for his next most recent novel, A Frolic of One’s Own which had just won the National Book Award. Bellow on the other wrote several volumes of short stories, more than a dozen novels, and won the National Book Award three times, and won the Pulitzer and the Nobel in the same year. Gaddis’s (except this novel) is known for its sheer length and breadth (ala Thomas Pynchon at the same time and say William Vollmann or David Foster Wallace after), while Bellow wrote at times complicated and thematically knotty, but otherwise straight forward fiction. So to find myself listening to two audiobooks on the same day, chosen randomly from Hoopla, that cover so much of the same ground meant I put them side by side a little in my thinking about them.
The Actual – 2/5 Stars
Bellow’s novella deals with an older man looking back on his life, but especially looking at the life of a friend who has just died and even more so looking at that man’s wife and recasts his whole life, relived in a different way as if he had married her. He thinks about the choices and failures he made in this life and wonders beyond what might have been to some kind of even more introspective place. The writing is more or less sound, but it’s less good and impactful from much of his previous work.
Agape, Agape – 4/5 Stars
If his other novels are encyclopedias, this is a bibliography. A dying man makes his last pleas for life and sense as he searches through his papers looking for a way to order and shape them when he finally dies. He finds that a sense of order and meaning is lost because of the near infinite competing ideas of how to order and understand life brought through to him a host of different artists, writers, thinkers, philosophers, novelists, and musicians is jumbled mess in his brain and literally on the desk in front of him. We understand more and more of the jumbled mess of his mind in part because of the words he’s saying to us as we read, but also because of his confusion amid the fog of taking strong does of prednisolone or predisone, his aging, his sadness and confusion, and how he can’t separate from his own failing body from his failing mind, how his papers are disordered, and as we find out water-stained at times, full of scribbling text that he must have written but can’t recall or read and various other elements. This leads him among other things to think about the minds and the bodies of those same thinkers he’s attempted to make sense of their words.
The central image of his work is that of the player piano, the history of which seems to be the subject of the narrator’s text. Through this image he reads us various advertisements claiming that the machine would allow the non-musician to play as well as professional musicians, and much better than others, through the mechanical pumping of the foot pedals and rote fingers of the keys (it makes me wonder what he might have thought of Rock Band or Guitar Hero). This literal subject, with the rolls of punched paper through which a pre-programmed is playing through the mechanics of the piano is the central image and a kind of nightmarish tension he feels throughout. He speaks to the idea of musical recordings and seems to find in them something altogether more human (and more humane) because they are analog recordings of real performance as opposed to the almost digital playing of the machine (I know these would still be analog literally, but take on a kind of digital form through their mechanization). This image is then thought in terms of the production of art in film and television especially. It’s the kind of thing where I would like to know what he made of say poets (ie Shakespeare) writing sonnets for sale or commission or commissioned art, but I suspect the one-ness of these pieces (at least before folio editions of Shakespeare) might stand in for that, or perhaps the authorship of Shakespeare being less in question. But I also thought about what he might think digitally produced block-chain art and the like.
Like I said, this book is a bibliography more than anything. It’s a constant flow of allusions (which are quite telling: Nietzsche, Melville, Hawthorne, Benjamin, Pound, even John Kennedy Toole–as much by who he includes than by those he doesn’t), and I imagine it takes some sense of these to enjoy this novel. He really seems to be pissed off that he was given the National Book Award, which comes through in this book as a kind of indignity. H even mentions a kind of jealousy that Pynchon’s National Book Award was taken away before it was given by some higher order of award-giver, and he most certainly seems to begrudge Saul Bellow his Nobel. It’s curious book and it does make me want to read his other books sooner than later.