Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Frolic of His Own (1994)

A Frolic of His Own by William Gaddis (1994) isn't really an easy read, but it is a rather fun one. I haven't read any other of Gaddis' books, but if the online book review community is to be believed, this is his most accessible novel. Made up primarily of dialogue (with no quotation marks, unconventional punctuation, and speakers changing in mid sentence), interspersed with lengthy legal briefs and sections from an unpublished play, the format takes a little getting used to. Once you get a feel for the characters, though, the style becomes almost naturalistic -- the conversations more actual and penetrating than in a conventional novel.

The story centers around Oscar Crease, a man who comes from money, lives alone in a giant isolated family house, teaches history, and has somehow managed to hit himself with his own car while jump starting it. He naturally sues the car manufacturer. At the same time, a blockbuster movie set during the Civil War has just come out, loosely based on the true story of Oscar's grandfather. But Oscar wrote a play interpreting the same events 30 years ago, so he is also suing the studio for stealing his work. His step-sister, Christina, and her husband, Harry (who is a big-shot lawyer), are in and out of the house giving advice, making tea, putting out fires, and having a much needed drink. Also in and out (but mostly in) is Lily, Oscar's silly girlfriend who is hiding from her estranged husband, trying to reconcile with her religious family, and constantly in need of a little more money. And she is possibly the most admirable of all of them. Not in the book at all, except as the gigantic motivation behind nearly every one of Oscar's actions, is Oscar's father, a 97 year old Federal judge who just made an unpopular ruling on the case of a dog who got stuck in the base of a gigantic modern art sculpture.

Got it all straight?

The ups and downs and downs and ups of this group make for a very engaging plot. And since they get worked up over a misplaced letter or the wrong thing for dinner (as well as winning or losing thousands of dollars, death, and more death), I found myself often having to take a break from this book and read a magazine when the frantic pace of the streaming conversation got to be too much for me. This is not a relaxing read, in any sense.

It is, however: often very funny, an interesting exercise in style, very long, a bit curmudgeonly, viciously satiric of the legal profession, satisfyingly complex, and ultimately a good read. If you are up for a challenge, then I highly recommend it.

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