A Frolic of His Own by William Gaddis (Shane'e book 5, 2011)

One day I plan to tackle The Recognitions, William Gaddis's enormous and challenging first novel. I read this, Gaddis's fourth novel, as a way of limbering up, much as one might run a half marathon before trying a full length race. Unfortunately, it left me less inclined to tackle The Recognitions. [amtap book:isbn=0684800527]

That's not to say that A Frolic of His Own is a bad book, more that it just wasn't to my taste. Published in 1994, 39 years after his debut, Frolic is a dense satire on the American legal system.Written almost entirely in dialogue, it can be hard to follow. It's sometimes not clear when scenes have changed and on occasion several pages can go by before it's obvious who is talking. Reading it can be hard work.

The plot concerns Oscar Crease, a middle-aged college teacher who has become embroiled in two lawsuits. The first involves a car accident: Oscar was run over by his own car as he tried to hotwire it. This causes some confusion for the insurance company since Oscar is both the victim and the owner of the car and there was no driver.Eventually he ends up suing himself.

In the second case Oscar is suing a film director whose civil war blockbuster, Oscar claims, was based on an unpublished play that he wrote some years earlier. Oscar objects not to the money being made from his work but mostly to the vulgar treatment his story has received.

A sub-plot involves Oscar's father, a federal judge, who has to rule in a case in which a puppy becomes trapped in a sculpture in a park. At first the family of the boy that owns the dog is suing the artist who made the sculpture but later the artist sues over damage done to the sculpture during the attempt to rescue the dog. Then there are protests by locals who want the sculpture removed and after the sculpture becomes a tourist attraction there are protests by the same locals who want it stay.

Meanwhile, there are passing lawsuits involving Trish, a friend of Oscar's stepsister Christina, and Lily, Oscar's girlfriend. Christina's husband Harry, a lawyer, provides the voice of legal reason - or at least justification for why things are the way they are - but amidst this cacophony of voices there is little reason to be found.

At times, Gaddis breaks off from the stream of dialogue to give us entire acts of Oscar's play so that we can see for ourselves that it is, as Christina says, "long-winded". There's a 50-page legal deposition in which Oscar is questioned about his place and several legal judgments from Oscar's father, written in perfectly rendered but utterly dense legalese.

This is, as I said earlier, intended to be satire but Gaddis's humour is broad. There is a running gag, for example, about Japanese cars named Isuyu and Sosume. It's not especially sophisticated humour.

There is a lot to admire in this book. Gaddis's analysis of his theme is about as thorough as it's possible to be. However, it is a difficult book to enjoy and an even harder one to like.