I amIn the winter of 2009, Nick Sullivan received what would become a very heavy duty commission. “They sent me this huge cardboard box,” says the actor and audiobook narrator. This was before the books were even numbered. They told me it was a long time – and that I had a lot of time I’d wanted to work on. Sorry, I thought this was unusual. That’s when I went online and found out all about JR. “
Written by William Gaddis, a Manhattan-born late modernist, JR was published in 1975, 20 years after the author’s first monumental novel, The Confessions, appeared with confusion, anger, and indifference. JR tells the story of JR Vansant, an 11-year-old in Massapequa, New York who – for over 700 pages – amasses a vast and corrupt financial empire as everyone around him struggles and stumbles.
Gaddis, who said JR was “a comment on the [America’s] The Free Enterprise system is running out of control. ”He spent 15 years writing the book, funded by arts grants and public relations work for corporate giants. Once again, many critics got drunk. The New York Times called it“ amazing, ”while The New Yorker considered it“ illegible. ” Yes, it won a National Book Award but it has rarely garnered much attention from readers.Even Jonathan Franzen, in an article published in 2002 trying to revive interest in Gaddis’ work, described JR as “cold, mechanical, and exhausting.” He hinted that it was never over.
So how did Sullivan, who’s been with the audiobook game 25 years ago, find it? “You can’t go too deep into JR,” he says, “before you realize it’s almost all written in unattributed dialogue. There’s an early scene, located in the principal’s office, where like five characters are talking at once. It’s just a cacophony of voices.” “.
In fact, about 90% of JR is in unattributed dialogue, with dashes and ellipses only to indicate when the character starts and stops speaking or, more accurately, is interrupted. Although JR is punctuated at times by dream-like scene changes, JR is a crowded operatic racket, a messy satire of American capitalism where the faltering voices of more than 120 characters – plus excerpts from advertisements, newsletters, and TV shows – outperform some Other. There are no class breaks, no section breaks, only plots within plots and themes within the themes, as the anti-hero schoolboy gradually gains a huge portfolio and, in the process, destroys the lives of the people around him.
“When you tell an audiobook, you find voices for the characters as you work on the book,” Sullivan says. “In this case, that was impossible. I needed to know who they were all before.” Using a site called williamgaddis.org, which divided JR into specific scenes through the entry and exit of each character, Sullivan meticulously worked through a huge pile of pages, coding each of the 50 main characters and sketching their biographies.
“Normally, I could do a book in two or three days,” says Sullivan, up his south sleeve. “I worked at JR for a month and a half.” However, in the process, the novel came alive, calling names for militant artists, exhausted teachers, corrupt financiers, and deceitful and degenerate artists all gradually shaped by a series of verbal tics and behavior.
“It’s one of the best books I’ve ever encountered in terms of being translatable to sound,” he says. “A lot of it is already there, in the phonetic way Gaddis writes the dialogue. Every once in a while, there may be long, long sentences where you realize too late the character who was speaking. But once I started working, I would haunt each character, and all their unfulfilled dreams and frustrations “.
There’s a fiery frenzy in JR, a comic polyphony of muddled and complicit voices, all muttering forward toward entropy and meltdown. It can be overwhelming. “Working at JR consumed my life,” says Sullivan. “I was going to audition for Law & Order TV, but would prepare for one of Gaddis’ scenes when I had to look at my lines. The book flows from scene to scene in such a torrent that I felt impossible to take a break. I turned down job offers even I can stay at home and work at JR. “
Sullivan found himself wanting to stay longer in the recording room: “It wasn’t fun to be here. There’s a character called Jack Gibbs who always seems tired. So sometimes I would read until 3 in the morning, until I got exhausted, only because I knew she’d look like Gibbs. When it’s over. All, I cried. “
Fittingly, when Sullivan’s 37-hour reading was released in 2011, it received little fanfare. But over the years, it has amassed a steady fan base. That number is almost certain to grow now that JR has just been republished in a beautiful remake by the New York Review of Books Classics, along with the Sullivan version. Now a writer himself, Sullivan continues to play for Jades and has voiced five of the late author’s works. JR is still considered the “most rewarding fictional job I’ve ever had”.
The novel now has another chance to be recognized as the great American novel that many believe it is. Sullivan definitely thinks the time has come. “JR is about the hustle and bustle of everyday life,” he says. “There is no doubt in my mind that if he wrote it today, a quarter of the book would have been spent criticizing social media. Even I no longer read for fun. Instead of sleeping and reading Steinbeck, I look at Facebook and scroll through the news feed. I’m sure Gaddis is kicking my ass. From behind the grave if he knew that. “
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