A Frolic of His Own by William Gaddis

February 1, 2007

Frolic is an Important Book – potentially important enough to earn the scorn of students for years to come. Themes of Import include the obvious call for tort reform, but also the role of the artist in society, the role of a man as an artist, parent-child relationships, copyright law and the use of the public domain, the nuisance of television, the pervasiveness of television, greed, money as the sole metric by which we evaluate worth, and of course justice. The book makes use of all of its 500+ pages and even where words seem wasted they can be written off as an author’s statement about our society’s signal to noise ratio.

Written almost entirely in dialogue, the book revolves around Oscar Crease, a failed old curmudgeon who initiates two seemingly frivolous lawsuits, one against the director of a Civil War movie whom he claims stole ideas from his unproduced play Once at Antietam, and another against himself for being hit by his own car as he hotwired it. In the first lawsuit he seeks some justification for his life – a concrete identity as an artist and intellect. In the second he is scammed by lawyers he found on a matchbook cover. The author follows the first lawsuit to its finish as Oscar denies a $200,000 offer to settle, loses in court, and then appeals, all while legal bills grow absurd on both sides and the protagonist ignores his girlfriend and irritates his step-sister and her husband (himself a lawyer and eventually the subject of a lawsuit).

Parallel to Oscar’s story is that of his father – a Federal Court judge – and the publicity storm following a series of cases he presides over, all of which resulted from a boy’s dog being caught in a sculpture and which are more complex than most as the boy’s father, the city, and the artist all switch sides at various points to be in a position to win money or, in the artist’s case, to preserve the integrity of the work.“…an office worker puts out an eye shooting paperclips with a rubber band they say he’s on a frolic of his own…” The climax of absurdity in the novel is in another of Judge Crease’s decisions, when a mother litigates against a preacher because her son drowned while being baptized in a river, and the Judge must examine the possibility that God was liable because the preacher was doing the work of the Lord.

Through all of this Gaddis utilizes mostly dialogue with scant description and ne’er a transition between scenes except maybe unpunctuated in the middle of a statement i.e.
–I said don’t even dream of such a thing! recounting it later over a half eaten supper –my God, I mean can you imagine it?
Periodically the format of the book changes entirely and and without segue you are reading a legal decision, Once at Antietam, a newspaper, or listening to television. If the book sounds like a beast, that’s because it is, but don’t let the density slow you down. There’s a lot here, but if Gaddis wants to make a point he makes it with such sledgehammer lines as
Isn’t that what language is for? to say what you mean? That’s why man invented language, isn’t it? so we can say what we mean?
The lines aren’t unsubtle, but it’s not important that the reader know what’s going on to know what the author intends him to think.

Does the author make good use of all 500+ pages? Absolutely. What then, is the book’s problem? He doesn’t earn them. Frolic is a beast to be dealt with, but not enjoyed. There is plentiful evidence that Gaddis is a great writer – Oscar suing himself is a clever parallel to a theme in Once at Antietam, and television interruptions often illuminate the situation at hand – but the book is rarely a pleasure to read. Oscar Crease is a cartoon and every frivolous lawsuit is as much the product of a ridiculous layperson as as it is of the “self regulating conspiracy” of lawyers. Besides writing about Important Things, Gaddis doesn’t deign to give the reader any incentive to continue. If you feel you must Know this book, get a study guide instead and you won’t be missing out.

3 Responses to “A Frolic of His Own by William Gaddis”

  1. shawn Says:

    you are a fucking moron

  2. Alex Says:

    I agree, Shawn. This jackass wouldn’t know good literature if it crawled up their pants in the form of an evil snake.

  3. Cody Hess Says:

    It’s exciting to see people reading a three year old Salad post (-:

    As a general rule I expect literate men to be able to leave more intelligent comments. I’m disabling discussion on this post lest we see more of John Gabriel’s G.I.F.T. in action.

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