American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

THE RECOGNITIONS (1952). The first novel by William Gaddis (19221998), The Recognitions is a wildly convoluted work that circuitously follows the lives of several interconnected characters. The first major incident takes place on board the Purdue Victory, where Camilla Gwyon dies in her stateroom from complications of appendicitis. The surgeon who botched her operation is not really a doctor but a counterfeiter trying to elude his pursuers. The ship had set sail from Boston, bound for Spain as Camilla dies, but the rest of the sea journey is of little concern to Gaddis.

A second important shipboard incident takes place when Otto, another forger, is headed back to New York on a banana boat, trying to disguise who he is and what he is up to. Near the end of the novel, Otto is again on a banana boat, the Island Trader, headed for the Caribbean* port of Tibiezza. Otto is constantly one step ahead of getting caught, but he always manages to escape. Gaddis seems primarily interested in demonstrating that fraud and deception are the modern world’s most effective means of survival.

A Mr. Yak is later introduced as another character who disguises his identity and uses the sea as a means of eluding detection. He sails around the world like the Flying Dutchman, never able to make port. Near the end of the novel, Father Martin dies from poisoning aboard ship, perhaps signifying that sea life is synonymous with corruption and death. The final sea-related incident occurs when the Ever Lasting Mercy docks in Naples, and the surviving offspring of the original central characters are in a position to sort out their sordid relationships and responsibilities.

The sea provides a backdrop of uncertainty against which many of the characters have to define themselves. Much like James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon, Gaddis uses setting and atmosphere to delineate his characters’ states of mind. In this vein, the sea becomes associated with the unconscious, a frequent literary conceit. [See also MASON & DIXON; V.]

Ralph Berets