The Pequod Review:
William Gaddis’s final full-length novel is one of his very best, an enormously entertaining legal satire that touches on essential features of American culture. The book starts with a question (“Justice? — you get justice in the next world, in this world, you have the law.”) and proceeds to explore a series of increasingly complex lawsuits that the book’s central characters find themselves parties to. For example, a college professor (Oscar Crease) sues a film producer for plagiarizing his screenplay; an artist (R. Szyrk) sues to prevent the destruction of his outdoor sculpture when a dog becomes trapped in it; and Crease is involved in a convoluted lawsuit against himself (by way of his insurance company) after being run over by his car during a hotwiring mishap.
These plot details may sound pretentious or gimmicky but Gaddis’s skill is in the details — the intricate dialogue, the legal minutiae of each case, and the mixed motives (ranging from opportunism to altruism to careerism) of the lawyers and plaintiffs involved. From these cases, Gaddis explores more generally how the legal system both resolves and amplifies disputes between parties, the tension between higher principles of justice and the actual practice of law, and the way every profession (not just law) tends to develop an insular style of language in order to preserve its authority and restrict competition:
—But, but damn it Christina that’s what we’re talking about! What do you think the law is, that’s all it is, language.
—Legal language, I mean who can understand legal language but another lawyer, it’s like a, I mean it’s all a conspiracy, think about it Harry. It’s a conspiracy.
—Of course it is, I don’t have to think about it. Every profession is a conspiracy against the public, every profession protects itself with a language of its own, look at that psychiatrist they’re sending me to, ever try to read a balance sheet? Those plumes of the giant bird like the dog cornering his prey till it all evaporates into language confronted by language turning language itself into theory till it’s not about what it’s about it’s only about itself turned into mere plaything the Judge says it right there in this new opinion, same swarm of flies he’s stepping on down there right now with their motion to throw out the jury’s verdict if they’ve got any sense.
Gaddis arguably gets too cute at times — as when he names the hotwired automaker Sosumi ("so sue me") Motors or when some extremely implausible conflicts of interest arise during certain legal cases — and it is done in ways that undermines the seriousness of his intentions. But this is otherwise a lively and sharp-witted book by an author with a much deeper understanding of business and law than is typical for novelists. William Gaddis has always demanded a lot of the reader, but with A Frolic of His Own it is for once well-rewarded.