Ted Gioia argues that William Gaddis's The Recognitions (1955) is "a wickedly up-to-date novel" because
This whole book is about forgery. And when
he is not making that point in the plot, Gaddis emphasizes it
in symbolic form. There must be hundreds of signs and symbols
of inauthenticity in this book. I didn't count them, but there
might even by a thousand or more. Indeed, I have never read
a novel in which the author put so much effort into inserting
symbolic representations of his main theme. If you pay attention
you will find them everywhere in this novel—in pieces of furniture,
in objects on a coffee table, in seemingly random fragments of
overheard conversations, and above all in the masterpieces of
art and culture. Everything in The Recognitions is a palimpsest,
from the painting on the museum wall to the inner working of the
To discover this for yourself, first you have to get over the formidable wall of its length–956 pages of choppy prose. Casual readers, of course, wouldn't be expected to last its entire length. Critics, who are supposed to be inoculated against difficult prose by virtue of their specialized training and experience, didn't always make it through to the end of Gaddis's novel. To avoid reducing the novel to one experience–"a kind of penance" is how Jonathan Franzen summarized his experience of reading the novel, and he liked it–Gioia suggests a relationship, partly critical, partly imaginary, between Gaddis and Joyce.
If Ulysses is about the breadth and depth of human consciousness, The Recognitions uses its breadth and depth to demonstrate the impossibility of understanding consciousness. The most trivial mysteries are left unresolved. For page after page a man walks around with a perfectly healthy arm in a sling. Why? Gaddis's narrator refuses to answer. The narration consists largely of utterances floating free of situational context. Gaddis writes excellent dialog, but they read more like sentences stacked on a page than a discourse between two people in a room. No external context, no insight into the mind. Surely this effect is unique to Gaddis. Another conundrum that appears only in Gaddis: the opacity of motivation coupled with the transparency of plot. How it is that we understand the sequencing of events if we don't understand what propels the characters from one incident to another?
Gioia's suggestion that forgery is a metaphor for our present culture is correct, I think, although I would proceed to ask a different set of questions. "The characters in Gaddis's novel agonize over their lack of originality," he writes, "but the contemporary spirit embraces it as part of the zeitgeist." Where are we in the history of forgery? Are all forgeries inauthentic? If, as Gioia observes, "(e)verything in The Recognitions is a palimpsest, from the painting on the museum wall to the inner working of the soul," isn't this a Freudian model and not an existential one? What's the relationship between forgery and mimesis? Forgery is not mechanical reproduction, arguably the dominant form of cultural mimicry. Forgery, it seems to me, is a crime of the hand.