"At the edges of perception" : William Gaddis and the encyclopedic novel from Joyce to David Foster Wallace
"Longer works of fiction," a character in William Gaddis's JR complains of the current literary scene, are now "dismissed as classics and remain . . . largely unread due to the effort involved in reading and turning any more than two hundred pages" (527). This study argues that despite most literary critics constructing American postmodernism as a movement that privileges short works, in contrast to the encyclopedic masterworks of modernism, there are in fact a large number of artistically sophisticated contemporary novels of encyclopedic scope that demonstrate often ignored lines of continuity from works like James Joyce's Ulysses. In arguing this, I attempt not just to draw attention to a neglected strain in contemporary American fiction, but also to provide a more accurate context in which those few recent encyclopedic novels that have assumed centrality, like Gravity's Rainbow, might be evaluated. In doing so, this thesis also seeks to demonstrate the pivotal position of William Gaddis who, despite publishing four impressive novels that engage with the legacy of modernism and pre-empt elements of postmodernism, has been excluded from most studies dealing with the transition between the two movements. Through detailed readings of four encyclopedic novels - Gaddis's The Recognitions, Don DeLillo's Underworld, Richard Powers's The Gold Bug Variations, and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest - I show Gaddis's continuation of encyclopedic modernism, the importance of his example to later writers, and the continuing vitality of the encyclopedic novel beyond the defined limits of modernism. However, as these novels try to encompass the full circle of knowledge, in order to do justice to their diverse learning I have adopted a different approach in each chapter. Very broadly, they attempt to encircle art, psychology, science, and literature, which, taken together, attempt to synthesise a defence of the contemporary encyclopedic novel. While minimalist writers from Raymond Carver to Ann Beattie have affirmed that less is more, this thesis argues that, in some cases, more really is more.