' second novel, published 1975
Twenty years after his first novel (The Recognitions), and after 20 years of working for the government and big business, Gaddis produced his highly acclaimed second; the prize-winning J R, another huge book of 726 pages containing very little except dialogue. A number of critics have said that this is the novel which comes closest to catching the varieties of spoken American English, while another has called it "the greatest satirical novel in American literature". The first line of the novel gives us its theme: "- Money...?". J R is a satire on corporate America and tells the story of the 11-year-old schoolboy JR Vansant who builds an enormous economic empire from his school's public phone booth, an empire that touches everyone in the novel, just as money - the getting of it, worry about the lack of it, the desire for it - shapes a great deal of the characters’ waking and dreaming lives. Through conversations, letters and telephone calls, we come to understand what Marx called "the distorting power of money", how all value under capitalism is transformed into economic value. The novel lays before us in immense detail, in the very grain of the human voice, the alienation that is part and parcel of a world in which our innermost feelings have been commodified and where money has become fetishized; rather than it being simply a medium of exchange, a means to an end, money has become an object of desire for its own sake, an outward sign of success and power. The novel draws on a huge range of social and economic thinkers from Marx, a phrase of whose hangs over the entrance to JR's school, to Max Weber, George Simmel and George Bernard Shaw, whose interpretation of Wagner's Ring as an allegory of the rise of capitalism is central to J R.
The novel is far more than a tissue of references to other works, however. The way in which JR’s growing paper empire impinges on the lives of the other characters allows Gaddis to explore a number of themes that will be familiar from his first novel. Around the central figure of JR are educators, writers and musicians and through their greed and need we see how human relationships are torn asunder and how artistic creativity is stunted or dissipated. J R is an epic work and the second indisputable masterpiece Gaddis has contributed to post-war American fiction.