Off and on, for over half a century, William Gaddis worked on a manuscript about the short life of the player piano in the United States. Over fifty years on an outmoded entertainment? There is more here than meets the eye: 'Agapē Agape is a satirical celebration of the conquest of technology and of the place of art and the artist in a technological democracy,' Gaddis wrote in a proposal from the early 1960s. 'As "The Secret History of the Player Piano", it pursues America's growth in terms of the evolution of the programming and organisational aspects of mechanisation in industry and science, education, crime, sociology and leisure and the arts, between 1876 and 1929.' In fact there was too much here, and the project got away from Gaddis. Luckily, his four great novels also intervened, each satirical and compendious, too, and all crucial to the development of American literature after the war: The Recognitions (1955), JR (1975), Carpenter's Gothic (1985) and A Frolic of His Own (1994). Yet the project didn't disappear, and at times Gaddis borrowed from it: a figure furiously at work on an unwieldy treatise is a staple of his fiction (in JR a character named Jack Gibbs struggles over this very text), and over the years he wrote several essays on related themes (now collected with other occasional pieces in The Rush for Second Place). Then, in early 1997, Gaddis was diagnosed with terminal cancer, which prompted him to distil his mass of notes, clippings, outlines and drafts into a fiction of 84 manuscript pages, the version of Agapē Agape left when he died a year later.
LRB 24 July 2003 | PDF Download