“Justice? – you get justice in the next world, in this world, you have the law.”
Gaddis is right up front: his theme is the discrepancy between the ideal of justice and the reality of the law. He suggests that the theory of justice is a well-ordered system artificially created by man to overcome the chaos of life. Unfortunately, the theory in practice becomes “a carnival of disorder” and a closed system serving, for the most part, the legal profession. The law is “about itself” and justice takes a backseat.
This is right in line with the events going on in this country every day: justice is not a valued commodity, falling behind ideology and greed.
The narrative of A Frolic of His Own involves Oscar Crease, a college instructor who is suing both a film company and himself. He is convinced that Hollywood has plagiarised his unpublished play about the Civil War and turned it into an adventure story full of blood and sex. In another truly farcical thread, Oscar is also suing himself because when he popped the hood to hot-wire his old car it slipped into gear and ran him over; of course his suit against himself isn’t just for hospital costs (which the insurance would pay outright) but for damages, pain, suffering, lost of income, etc. Damages claimed for himself as well as against himself. In a parallel narrative, the elements of his play are exposed and it seems that a relative of Oscar was able to escape military duty during the Civil War (the War of Northern Aggression) by paying off a substitute when he lived in the south and another substitute when he moved to Pennsylvania to care for investments. In a manner that compares to the automobile self-injury, the two substitutes meet in battle and kill each other, or so the story goes.
There is more side-line narrative, mostly involving the cases that Oscar’s grandfather and father adjudicated from the bench and Oscar’s lawyer brother-in-law. Gaddis is never simple but he keeps things interesting … and confusing.
Gaddis is a very well read author and even if he is no James Joyce, his text is full of references and allusions that make it fun. I have found that I get most of the allusions and nowadays generally ignore footnotes and such, but others might benefit from an assist so I will suggest the index to A Frolic of His Own. My normal recommendation is to read the novel through the first time and then scan the secondary resources. If they look helpful, by all means use them the next time you read the book.
One last note: when you consider how much more complex and how much more well-written William Gaddis’ novels are, it is a complete mystery to me that he isn’t held in higher popular esteem than the later novelists who hung around him as callow youths learning their trade: authors like Pynchon, DeLillo, Markson, Elkin, Moody, etc.
A big recommendation and I hope the novel was well received by others in the Experimental Fiction group.