The late William Gaddis wrote four novels during his lifetime, immense and complex books that helped inaugurate a new movement in American letters. Now comes his final work of fiction, a subtle, concentrated culmination of his art and ideas.
For more than fifty years Gaddis collected notes for a book about the mechanization of the arts, told via a social history of the player piano in America. In the years before his death in 1998, he distilled the whole mass into a fiction, a dramatic monologue by an elderly man with a terminal illness. This "man in the bed" lies dying, thinking anxiously about the book he still plans to write, grumbling about the deterioration of civilization and trying to explain his obsession to the world before he passes away or goes mad.
Agape- Agape continues Gaddis's career-long reflection via the form of the novel on those aspects of the corporate technological culture that are uniquely destructive of the arts. It is a stunning achievement from one of the indisputable masters of postwar American fiction.
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William Gaddis's final work, Agape Agape, is an effective distillation of his philosophy and a powerful personal statement regarding the state of modern culture. The book is written in the form of a disjointed, stream-of-consciousness monologue delivered by a dying elderly man, himself attempting to complete his final work, a social history of the player piano in America. Desperate to complete his work before the onset of madness or death and fighting the effects of medication, the frantic narrator offers a meandering discussion of his work, which explores technology's artistically stifling influence. The narrator has isolated a particularly profound example of this in the player piano, an artistic invention that alternately replaced the artist. Technology, the narrator argues, has heightened the value of passivity, entertainment, and mediocrity, leading to the impending "collapse of everything, of meaning, of language, of values, of art, disorder and dislocation wherever you look." The narrator fervently claims that only through artistic courage can we achieve understanding, transcendence, and discover the uniting spirit of creativity, a brotherly "agape" love.
As Joseph Tabbi explains in his informative afterword, Agape Agape is the result of years of research and consideration by Gaddis, and the novella explores technological advancement and the response to this advancement, both actual and hypothetical, by such figures as Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin, and Tolstoy. While an impressive work of scholarship, Agape Agape is foremost an emotional decree, Gaddis's final statement of outrage and sadness at our cultural direction and a plea for change. At less than 100 sparsely punctuated pages, the book is an efficient combustion of energy and an affecting depiction of personal and cultural disintegration. At once a condemnation, warning, and affirmation, it reflects Gaddis's apprehensions but also his enduring faith in the power of creation. A worthwhile starting point for newcomers to Gaddis's work, Agape Agape is a memorable end to the career of a gifted thinker. --Ross DollAbout the Author:
William Gaddis (1922-1998) was twice awarded the National Book Award for his novels J R and A Frolic of His Own. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the recipient of a MacArthur Prize. His other novels are The Recognitions and Carpenter's Gothic.
Joseph Tabbi is a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
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