Gaddis's head, but as essays these are incredibly ineffective. Take the longest piece in this collection - The Rush for Second Place: it pretty much starts out with the conviction that American culture is largely mediocre (revolutionary thought!) and then just lists a whole bunch of things that Gaddis considers stupid and ridiculous. Well, I agree that there's a lot about this country that's stupid and ridiculous, but the last thing I need is a list: I'm not asking for solutions, just an argument - a point - something. An essay: TRY to accomplish something. No one else needs another sputtering catalogue of rage.
The only thing a list is useful for, of course, is exposing you to something (a book, a person) that you may not have heard of before. And the most wonderful discovery that I got out of this book was John Holt and his books. Read him if you haven't already.
As an admirer of Gaddis's fiction, though, which is full of fascinating ideas, this collection was disappointing and even a little dismaying. The early essays contain interesting germs of topics, such as a short piece of writing on the player piano, whose ramifications aren't really developed. Gaddis apparently considered the player piano as a sort of symbol for a culture that wants art without effort, easy mechanized entertainment for the masses - but that's just my incompetent gloss, and I wish that he'd made the effort to put together an argument himself.
And the later work, as I said earlier, is of the scattershot rant variety - even the interesting comparison of Erewhon with the Republican congress of the 90s jumps around and has obviously dated rather badly.
The reason I say this is a little dismaying is that - if an author writing essays has such trouble expressing himself in a coherent fashion - it starts to reflect on his fiction as well. I've read A Frolic of His Own and Carpenter's Gothic - and have stalled out recently, although I hope to start again, on The Recognitions and JR - and although I still find them hilarious satires, I'm starting to doubt the penetration of the thought behind the comedy. Gaddis's imagination is visionary, but I'm starting to feel that - like Dickens - his mind is pretty commonplace. The standard liberal line on politics, for the most part, and moaning about the stupidity of mass culture: maybe he's right, but how dreary it is to be right in such a boring and disorganized fashion.