NYRB Classics: The Recognitions & JR, featuring Tom McCarthy, Lydia Millet, Joshua Cohen, & Dustin Illingworth

December 3, 2020, 5:30 PM

For the re-release of William Gaddis's novels, The Recognitions and J R, Tom McCarthy, Lydia Millet, Joshua Cohen and moderator Dustin Illingworth discuss the enduring nature of these modern classics. This is part of an ongoing series with NYRB Classics, and will take place on Zoom. Register here:

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About The Recognitions:

A postmodern masterpiece about fraud and forgery by one of the most venerated novelists of the last century.

The Recognitions is a sweeping depiction of a world in which everything that anyone recognizes as beautiful or true or good emerges as anything but: our world. The book is a masquerade, moving from New England to New York to Madrid, from the art world to the underworld, but it centers on the story of Wyatt Gwyon, the son of a New England pastor, who forsakes religion to devote himself to painting, only to despair of his inspiration. In expiation, he will paint nothing but flawless copies of revered old masters--copies, however, that find their way into the hands of a sinister financial wizard by the name of Recktall Brown, who sells them as the real thing. Gwyon's story is only one of many that fill the pages of a novel that is as monstrously populated as the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. Throughout, William Gaddis's characters preen and scheme and party and toil, pursuing salvation through the debasement of desire.

Dismissed uncomprehendingly by the critics on publication in 1955 and ignored by the literary world for decades after, The Recognitions is now recognized as one of the great American novels.

About J R

A National Book Award-winning satire about the unchecked power of American capitalism, written more than three decades before the 2008 financial crisis.

At the center of J R is J R Vansant, a very average sixth grader from Long Island with torn sneakers, a runny nose, and a juvenile fascination with junk-mail get-rich-quick offers. Responding to one, he sees a small return; soon, he is running a paper empire out of a phone booth in the school hallway. Everyone from the school staff to the municipal government to the squabbling heirs of a player-piano company to the titans of Wall Street and the politicians in Washington will be caught up in the endlessly ballooning bubble of the J R Family of Companies.

First published in 1975 and winner of the National Book Award in 1976, J R is an appallingly funny and all-too-prophetic depiction of America’s romance with finance. It is also a book about suburban development and urban decay, divorce proceedings and disputed wills, the crumbling facade of Western civilization and the impossible demands of love and art, with characters ranging from the earnest young composer Edward Bast to the berserk publicist Davidoff. Told almost entirely through dialogue, William Gaddis’s novel is both a literary tour de force and an unsurpassed reckoning with the way we live now.

William Gaddis (1922–1998) was born in Manhattan and raised in Long Island. In 1945 he embarked on a course of travel, living in Mexico, Panama, Spain, and France, while starting his first novel. The Recognitions was published in 1955 to largely negative reviews, though it found an underground following. Over the next twenty years, Gaddis was employed by various companies as an industrial writer, and taught part-time while working on his second novel, J R, which was finally published in 1975, winning the National Book Award. Ten years later he published his third novel, Carpenter’s Gothic, and nine years later published his fourth novel, A Frolic of His Own, which won the National Book Award in 1994. Just before his death in 1998 he finished a novella, Agapē Agape, which was published in 2002.

Tom McCarthy is the author of four novels—RemainderMen in SpaceC, and Satin Island—and several works of criticism. In 2013 he was awarded the inaugural Windham-Campbell Prize for Fiction by Yale University. 

Lydia Millet has written more than a dozen novels and story collections, often about the ties between people and other animals and the crisis of extinction. Her story collection Fight No More received an Award of Merit from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2019, and her collection Love in Infant Monkeys was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2010. She also writes essays, opinion pieces and other ephemera and has worked as an editor and staff writer at the Center for Biological Diversity since 1999. She lives in the desert outside Tucson with her children and boyfriend.

Joshua Cohen's books include the novels Moving KingsBook of NumbersWitzA Heaven of Others, and Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto, the short fiction collection Four New Messages, and the nonfiction collection Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction. Cohen most recently edited He, a collection of short fiction by Franz Kafka. A new novel, The Netanyahus, will appear next year. 

Dustin Illingworth has written for the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, and the New York Times Book Review.