In 2002, Jonathan Franzen published an essay in The New Yorker titled “Mr. Difficult,” in which he detailed his changing readerly relationship with William Gaddis—who had died in 1998—over the course of his own coming of age as a novelist. For a time, Mr. Franzen wrote, he was infatuated with writers who “shared the postmodern suspicion of realism” that he himself felt—or rather, felt obliged to feel—in the late ’80s and early ’90s. (Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover are just a few of the names checked alongside Gaddis’s.) A marathon reading of Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions got Mr. Franzen through what sounds like a fairly serious depression. Mr. Franzen titled his novel The Corrections partially in homage to The Recognitions, but when he later tried to read other Gaddis novels, he found that he didn’t want to, and—more importantly, at least to Mr. Franzen—he couldn’t bring himself to care that he didn’t want to. Older, perhaps wiser, and certainly more world-weary and pressed for time, he wasn’t interested in the brick-thick novels of mostly unattributed dialogue that constitute Mr. Gaddis’s other major works, JR (1975) and A Frolic of His Own (1994), both of which won the National Book Award. “Mr. Difficult” concludes with a bitter dismissal of The Rush for Second Place, a nonfiction collection, and Agape Agape, a very short novel, both published posthumously in 2002. For a younger generation of readers, it’s likely that Mr. Franzen’s epic kiss-off to “Mr. Difficult” was the first and only thing they ever heard about him. Read More
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