July 30, 2008 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Vineland.
“And here came Frenesi Gates’s reverse shot. Prairie felt the two women shift in their seats. Frenesi’s eyes, even on the aging ECO stock, took over the frame, a defiance of blue unfadable. ‘Never,’ was her answer, ‘because too many of us are learning how to pay attention.'”
I’m writing this on a laptop from a room on the University of Virginia’s Lawn, in a building designed by Thomas Jefferson. I’m here for the week at Rare Book School, learning about “The American Book in the Industrial Era, 1820-1940” from Michael Winship, Mr. American Book in the Industrial Era himself. And things have come together: the key, he’s told us, is being interested and then paying attention to what interests you.
Then Peter Stallybrass, a prof at Penn, gave a talk tonight on the reuse and recycling of woodcuts in the 16th-18th centuries. It was incredible in a number of ways, but it built to this incredible crescendo in which he found that a particular woodcut initial letter was used a number of times in the 1570 Bishop’s Bible, seemingly whenever an “I” or “J” was called for, only a small and crude figure intended to represent either Christ or God was excised from the initial when it was used to begin a chapter in Isaiah interpreted as a prophecy of Christ: the purely functional and formal become meaningful, political, ideological, if only to the compositor.
Looking close, paying attention. It’s something of a paradox in Vineland, with its seeming scorn for those who look too much at the Tube. And the quote above comes from Prairie, Frenesi’s daughter, watching a film of her mother, another of Pynchon’s tricks with flashback and the intrusion of past into present. (It’s another tour de force chapter, actually, and another great piece of film-writing from the guy who seemingly perfected the form.) But the fact remains that I think Pynchon’s sympathies (and perhaps pity, too) lie with those who pay attention. It sometimes drives them mad, and Frenesi was clearly wrong (she’s responding, it seems, to a question from a local TV news reporter about the dangers of her work in 24fps, a guerrilla film collective documenting injustice; she’s saying, I think, that they will never stop, that people are waking up, when of course, if they were, they went back to sleep, or faded into living death, a la the Thanatoids), but paying attention still seems to be the only way Pynchon sees to break the system.
July 23, 2008 § 2 Comments
Now reading: Vineland.
For all his theological concern, I’ve never been sure what Pynchon makes of Jesus. His concern is primarily with the lost and outcast — all of us, or damn close — and not with the saved and saving.
But one of the most surprising elements of JC’s teaching is his emphasis on love and his deemphasis of guilt. He talks to prostitutes and Samaritans, recruits tax collectors and peasants, asks forgiveness for his punishers. A revolution of personal orientation toward the world: doing good not because you’ve done bad and feel bad about it, but doing good because you love your neighbors and your God.
Of course Christianity has very little to do with Christ. (Did it ever?) But I do think Pynchon addresses himself in the long chapter covering pages 130-191 to the lack of love in our contemporary discourse, and the preponderance of guilt.
The startling passage that got me thinking on these lines occurs as we meet a Thanatoid, one of Pynchon’s underground people. Thanatoids are ambiguous beings, creatures of entropy. They “watch a lot of Tube,” living in ghostly communities like Shade Creek, where DL and Takeshi (the “Karmic Adjuster” almost accidentally killed by DL thinking she was killing Brock Vond with the ninjic “Vibrating Palm” — is anything harder to summarize than a Pynchon plot?) meet Ortho Bob Dulang, their first Thanatoid. They “limit themselves… to emotions helpful in setting right whatever was keeping them from advancing further into the condition of death… the most common by far was resentment…”
After a cool exchange in which Takeshi is revealed as a kind of anti-Thanatoid, “trying to go — the opposite way! Back to life!” from his dead-man-walking condition as DL’s victim, we get this doozy, as Ortho Bob comments on the arrangement by which DL is assisting Takeshi for a year and a day to atone for her, you know, killing him slowly with her ninja moves: “My mom would love this. She watches all these shows where, you got love, is always winnin’ out, over death? Adult fantasy kind of stories. So you guys, it’s like guilt against death? Hey — very Thanatoid thing to be doin’, and good luck.”
He’s right: very Thanatoid thing to be doin’. But what does that mean? The Thanatoids are still quite slippery, Pynchon keeping their meaning ambiguous: sometimes they seem to stand for American culture as a whole, a culture glued to the TV and losing the will to do just about anything else; sometimes they seem to be presented as victims of Vietnam or the reactionary elite, made half-ghostly by their inability to overcome their desire for revenge; sometimes they seem simply a way of presenting the human condition: always moving towards death. But it’s the way Ortho Bob frames his argument, his sarcastic, typically Thanatoid comment that there’s no way that guilt (much less love!) could ever overcome death, that’s interesting.
Because the Thanatoids do practically nothing but watch TV, the idea of “love winning out over death” strikes him as an “adult fantasy.” In the arrangement before him, he doesn’t see love as entering into the equation at all: guilt is the emotion he sees, incapable of believing that DL could possibly have any other motivation. But of course, I think the point of the whole exercise from the SKA’s point of view is to move her past guilt, to a desire to operate in the world out of something more than rage and resentment. And it works, maybe — she’s still with Takeshi an undetermined number of years later, in a presumably platonic relationship that seems to bear many of the marks of love.
It’s a very cool, dense passage. It reminds me a helluva lot of DFW, with those extra commas, that broken grammar, the filtering through TV. And also in the way that love is dismissed from the discourse, as something too often exaggerated and mediated and sold to possibly be a real opportunity for salvation. And that does seem to me a Pynchonian commentary on the 1980s, in the time’s utter repudiation of something like “love” — say, concern for fellow citizens and humans, a desire to live peacefully and simply.
One more note here. We saw The Dark Knight last Sunday, and I was struck by what a strange movie it was, so very different from so much else that’s been released in recent years. What made it strange, I think, was its attempt to move past our societal obsession with blame and guilt — if only we can identify and punish the “evildoers,” surely everything will be all right — and its amazingly old-fashioned climax, a fascinating variation on the “prisoner’s dilemma” of game theory set up by the Joker (and seriously, it’s not just hype: Heath Ledger is really unbelievably good as the Joker). It’s hardly a Batman movie at all: it’s a movie about wanting a man, a city, a country to move past guilt, towards decency, regard for fellow humans, something like love.
July 17, 2008 § 2 Comments
Now reading: Vineland.
Well, shucks, things have changed. It’s still a fun book, but we’ve gotten into heavy-duty Pynchon territory now. The damned, the paranoid, the radical and the tyrannical. I have this strange feeling that TP started out trying to write a different kind of book but it sucked him in and he let it take him, his obsessions with Calvinism, systems, technology. There are moments when you can feel the sentences pulling him along to his inevitable conclusions. But it’s great stuff, and there are passages in here to rival anything in Gravity’s Rainbow. (Also, the quirk I remember most from GR, the “a-and” stutter or elongation, has resurfaced here, if only a couple of times. I always liked that, and it always seemed like Pynchon was trying to channel the archetypal overexcited American kid in movies and ’50s TV with that extra letter and dash, and it seemed to me like a brilliant condensation of American character. In which case it fits in well in this media-obsessed book, showing how TV has worked its way into our minds and is constantly showing us how to live, how to be. Or it was just supposed to be a longer “a” sound and I got the whole thing wrong. Anyway.)
He’s on to computers, for instance. There are no less than three really virtuoso pieces about computers already in the book. Two are in the chapter in which we’re shifted to Frenesi’s story (a virtuoso chapter overall, really). On page 87, after Frenesi’s husband Flash has been talking about how people are disappearing from the government’s computer files (and it begins…), their son enters. The kids in this book are really interesting — Pynchon seems to have a lot more invested in them than in previous books, or maybe is just more interested, or is acknowledging the shift toward youth that the culture as a whole took after the 60s — so I might quote a little long just to get in some of the allusive, pitch-perfect, idiosyncratic dialogue:
…Justin came wandering in, cartoons having ended and his parents now become the least objectionable programming around here, for half an hour, anyway — and just as well, too, because the last thing either parent needed right now was an argument, or what passed for one with them, a kind of alien-invasion game in which Flash launched complaints of different sizes at different speeds and Frenesi tried to deflect or neutralize them before her own defenses gave way.
“Say, Justintime, how’s ’em Transformers, makin’ out OK?”
“And how was everything over at Wallace’s?”
The kid put on a genial smile, waved, put his hand to his ear like Reagan going, “Say again?” “How about a few questions,” Justin pretending to look around the room, “Mom? You had your hand up?”
“We’re just getting you back for all those questions you used to ask us” — Flash adding “Amen!” — “not too long ago.”
“I don’t remember that,” trying not to laugh, because in fact he did, and wanted to be teased.
“Must be gettin’ old, man,” said Frenesi.
“Nonstop questions nobody could answer,” Flash told him, “like, ‘What is metal?'”
“‘How do you know when you’re dreaming and when you’re not?'” Frenesi recalled, “That was my favorite.”
Isn’t that great, that subtle shift, incorporating the computer-game metaphor into the already-established TV theme? And this idea itself, of parental arguments being seen as a video game? I’m always fascinated by Pynchon’s narrators, how they manage to shift their voices so rapidly and convincingly without actually shifting point of view: the idea of Flash and Frenesi’s arguments being like a giant game of Space Invaders would not have occurred without Justin’s point of view, in addition to the metaphor being important to Pynchon’s overriding concerns. (I love Justin impersonating Reagan, too, and “I don’t remember that” — just like Reagan, forgetful whenever convenient, and playing his coy game with the media, wanting to be teased.) Plus there’s Frenesi’s remembrance of young Justin asking about dreams; we’ll later see DL asking similar questions, wondering if she’d become “finally lost in a great edge-to-edge delusion.”
So this leads to the end of the chapter, as F&F’s nightmare is coming to pass and they’ve apparently been erased from the system they were living on the edge of, as independent contractors on shady governmental missions.
…it would all be done with keys on alphanumeric keyboards that stood for weightless, invisible chains of electronic presence or absence. If patterns of ones and zeros were “like” patterns of human lives and deaths, if everything about an individual could be represented in a computer record by a long string of ones and zeros, then what kind of creature would be represented by a long string of lives and deaths? It would have to be up one level at least — an angel, a minor god, something in a UFO. It would take eight human lives and deaths just to form one character in this being’s name… We are digits in God’s computer, she not so much thought as hummed to herself to a sort of standard gospel tune, And the only thing we’re good for, to be dead or to be living, is the only thing He sees. What we cry, what we contend for, in our world of toil and blood, it all lies beneath the notice of the hacker we call God.
Overblown? Maybe you could say that. But mind-blowing, too, and I wonder what Pynchon makes of the fact that a lot of the people in the world are now busy adding to their “computer records” pictures, profiles of friends and acquaintances, weird literary blogs? (2.0 apps as path to acknowledgment by the hacker-God, and as handy guides to governmental intrusion.)
Then there’s Prairie, looking at her mom’s file on an apparently magic computer (it plays “Wake Up, Little Susie,” and it politely says goodnight to Prairie when she shuts it off — it’s maybe the worst line I’ve ever seen Pynchon write, actually, right there on p. 115). But this is a great paragraph, an enrichment of the theme:
So into it and then on Prairie followed, a girl in a haunted mansion, led room to room, sheet to sheet, by the peripheral whiteness, the earnest whisper, of her mother’s ghost. She already knew how literal computers could be — even spaces between characters mattered. She had wondered if ghosts were only literal in the same way. Could a ghost think for herself, or was she responsive totally to the needs of the still-living, needs like keystrokes entered into her world, lines of sorrow, loss, justice denied?… But to be of any use, to be “real,” a ghost would have to be more than only that kind of elaborate pretending….
After that we get Prairie finding out some things, but transported by a picture of her mom with DL (the asskicking Ninjette) in the 60s. There’s a great transcript of what Prairie imagines they’re talking about in the photo, and then, once Prairie has shut the machine off, in his inimitable Pynchonian fashion, the narrator takes us back into those “quiescent ones and zeros” and shows us (apparently) the true story behind the picture, and we get a nice long flashback, and flashbacks to flashbacks, and the ghosts become as real as ghosts in a machine can. (Realer, maybe.)
July 16, 2008 § 1 Comment
Now reading: Vineland.
For my own faulty memory, here are a few quick notes on Pynchon’s usual bunch of stylistic quirks (“usual” in that there’s always a bunch, although they seem to change at least slightly from book to book):
-Most typically for him, language (and especially dialogue) is tortured into weird conjunctions. Some of the time they make sense as a way of capturing speech, but sometimes they just seem perverse, and impossible to actually capture in voice. He likes jamming a bunch of consonants together, and I can’t speculate on a reason why. Perhaps he really does think it captures the spoken word, which — let’s face it — would be unreadable if actually transcribed.
-A related point, his consistent use of the misspelling “didt’n” instead of “didn’t.” I suspect this is Pynchon’s way of pointing out that yes, in fact, people do often drop the “t” at the end, pronouncing more like “did’n,” although the “t” sound does seem to slip in there somewhere just before the “n.”
-He’s also using accent marks in the dialogue of Hector Zuniga, Zoyd’s pursuer, to capture the Hispanic pronunciation of ultimate syllables (like “in” in “complainin”). Surprised I haven’t seen this done before, actually.
Now we come to the quirks that actually seem important thematically, the media-related quirks:
-“the Tube.” That’s the dominant term for TV here, and it’s always capitalized. It’s a character and a presence. I have to keep reminding myself that this was published in 1990: Pynchon was fairly unusual, I think, in persisting in writing about the medium in such monolithic terms. I’m sure we’ll get some gonzo descriptions of the content of the feedings from said Tube later, but for now it seems a weirdly trite way of discussing the fact that, yes, we’re addicted to TV as a culture.
-Whenever a movie is mentioned in this book (and it happens a lot), the year in which it was released is placed after it, in brackets if the mention takes place in dialogue, in parentheses if not. This is, obviously, a weird thing to do in a work of fiction. Even weirder, Pynchon does not do this if he’s making up a movie (like “Pat Sajak in The Frank Gorshin Story,” which is funny not only because it’s stupid, but funny because Frank Gorshin played the Riddler on the campy old Batman show and Sajak hosts America’s favorite pointless campy show about riddles, Wheel of Fortune. And, while we’re here, that seems to be a semi-important illustration of Pynchon’s concern with television and media saturation in general: he obviously knows all of the backstory of Gorshin and Sajak, and he’s constructed the little joke to allow us to catch it, too, and I think, given the context of the book as a whole, that’s meant to give us pause: this over-familiarity with not even just purely escapist entertainment, but entertainment willfully constructed to be as dumb and campy and unimportant).
Why do this? The fact that he “cites” real movies and not the fake ones could be a metafictional device, a reminder that it’s all a big fiction (and there are moments when Pynchon telegraphs that it is to be read, intermittently, as fiction of an especially wacky and cartoonish sort, if not exactly campy). From another metafictional angle, it could be a weird glimpse at the narrator/author, at his obsessive cataloging of cultural objects like old movies and B-sides real and imaginary, at our culture’s addiction to the Tube and allied pastimes. While a lot of movies are mentioned so far, they’re almost all being watched on TV. This all reminds me very much of Infinite Jest (although really IJ, and really a lot of DFW’s oeuvre, should’ve reminded me of this book, which seems very much like one of DFW’s true touchstones), with its addicts, its isolated entertainment junkies, its killer videotape.
July 12, 2008 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Vineland.
First, a tiny bit more on the (already overextended) More Is Less. The cliche has been echoed once more (although, maddeningly, I can’t find the reference now — I think it’s in Zoyd’s conversation with Hector in ch. 3), and reminded me that the other, non-literary reference the phrase conjures up might be the Reagan era and its policies of dismantling government. Reagan was, indeed, the president of more government equals less government, and vice versa. You’d think Pynchon would be behind this idea, but then the “more” that was being lessened was never military spending, covert tinkering with Latin American governments, or other CIA ops.
Second, the Marquis de Sod commercials (p. 46-47) are super-hilarious. Go to the library or bookstore and read about them right now. Now, the jokes are jokes with Pynchon, but they’re also often meaningful, and embedded in this wackiness is another interesting comment on the development of TV advertising, the ramping up of production values, and the weird investments of massive effort and money into incredibly absurd and unnecessary “micromovies” to convince us all to, say, whip our lawns into shape.”
Third, and mostly: Pynchon has escaped the hippie-writer label that Brautigan never did (he’s a much less limited writer: more of a mimic, less of a monolithic voice, more of a satirist and craftsman, less of a bard and mythologizer — a genius, not a dreamer), but Vineland is (already) clearly his look back at the Sixties and their legacy (or lack thereof). Zoyd’s a self-described “old hippie that’s gone sour.” (His interactions with his daughter, Prairie, remind me an awful lot of the hippie parents in Valley Girl.) Writing about this through the lens of the decade that dismantled the hippie ethos is interesting, and would be unavoidable in a book set in northern California even if it wasn’t what interested the author: we’ve already seen the Bodhi Dharma Pizza Temple, complete with deliriously bad organic pizza and a “Pizzic Mandala” stained-glass window, and met Prairie’s boyfriend, Isaiah Two Four, the mohawked member of the punk (or does Pynchon mean metal?) band Billy Barf and the Vomitones, who has a bank interested in financing “a chain of violence centers.”
Pynchon, as always, is genius enough that this is not annoying in the manner of so much boomer-self-involvement: he seems to be exploring the overreaction to, not “lifestyles” or stupid fads (which he’s happy enough to make fun of along with everyone else), but the goals and ideas of the time (granted, only a small minority actually understood or really cared about said goals and ideas). The idea that because hippies don’t shower or they like terrible music or are self-involved, “peace and love” must be horrible ideas worthy of ridicule, and protest of unjust and tyrannical government must be whiny and the by-product of too many drugs. The idea that getting “welfare queens” (and Zoyd’s kind of a welfare king, come to think of it) off the government dole is more important than changing the conditions that lead to the necessity of welfare in the first place. Etc etc.
All the same, he does seem more involved personally than in previous books: there seem to be more passages of authorial interpretation than previously, more moments of non-wacky retrospection. There’s the really interesting discussion between Hector and Zoyd on “who was saved” by the sixties (the inevitable preterition theme), and the stunning paragraph following (seemingly in the narrator’s own voice, for the most part) on Hector’s self-pity for his own state of being fallen (p. 28-30). There’re also Zoyd’s reflections on his relationship with his ex-wife Frenesi (Spanish for “frenzy,” apparently, and the name of a jazz standard, sez Wikipedia).
Here’s a gorgeous paragraph on their wedding. I love how it combines obvious (but nevertheless funny) satire on hippieness with emphasis on the importance of the moment. I love its ambiguous attention to the vagaries of memory, the way it never actually disproves that greeting card “soft-focus” it acknowledges, and its strange and disquieting (for Pynchon) certitude about the character of the “Mellow Sixties.” And the complexity of those last two sentences!
“Frenesi Margaret, Zoyd Herbert, will you, for real, in trouble or in trippiness, promise to remain always on the groovy high known as Love,” and so forth, it may have taken hours or been over in half a minute, there were few if any timepieces among those assembled, and nobody seemed restless, this after all being the Mellow Sixties, a slower-moving time, predigital, not yet so cut into pieces, not even by television. It would be easy to remember the day as a soft-focus shot, the kind to be seen on “sensitivity” greeting cards in another few years. Everything in nature, every living being on the hillside that day, strange as it sounded later whenever Zoyd tried to tell about it, was gentle, at peace — the visible world was a sunlit sheep farm. War in Vietnam, murder as an instrument of American politics, black neighborhoods torched to ashes and death, all must have been off on some other planet.
July 10, 2008 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Vineland, by Thomas Pynchon.
I think I can safely say that the first two chapters of Vineland were the most fun I’ve had with Pynchon since I read Lot 49 in college. Gravity’s Rainbow is awesome, but it’s exhausting. This is a straight-up blast. Case in point: “More Is Less, a discount store for larger-size women…” Our hero (apparently), Zoyd Wheeler, buys a garish dress there which he wears to better seem insane for his annual jump through a window to keep receiving mental-disability checks.
Nothing’s an accident with Pynchon, especially not the jokes, and even more especially not the names. This one got me, made me laugh out loud. And after getting the joke, the store’s name made me think of that “less is more” dictum of writers’ workshop lore. (Surely no one actually uses this line anymore.) It occurred to me that the star of Raymond Carver, the minimalist’s minimalist, Mr. Less-is-More (well, with Gordon Lish’s help), had risen and fallen between Pynchon novels: Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? came out in 1976, three years after GR, and Carver died in 1988, two years before Vineland.
Pynchon’s a maximalist. He’s setting his story in the mid-80s, and it’s clear from the get-go that part of the point here is going to be mediation, inundation, the sensory saturation that had been kicked up a notch since the 70s. I suspect that Pynchon believes that to trim out the details of modern life to tell intense stories of personal relationship and unspoken tension is a goddam lie. You are not going to get a discussion of how a former dive lumberjack bar has been transformed into an upscale gay bar and restaurant (still named the Log Jam, of course) since Return of the Jedi was filmed nearby in a Raymond Carver story. You are also not going to get brilliant and semi-prescient descriptions (seemingly offhand, like so much important stuff in Pynchon) of TV newscasts and their insatiable appetite for “human interest” fluff, their selective reporting of inconvenient details (choosing not to mention that Zoyd’s jump this year was through a window made of candy, and that the media had more or less directed where he would jump rather than reacting to his decision), and their willingness to analyze in absurd detail worthless trivialities while overlooking massive atrocities (here, a panel discusses the development of Zoyd’s jumping technique, and I can’t help but see this as in part a comment on the rise of the ESPN family of networks).
I don’t know that Pynchon cares enough about his contemporary literary milieu to have done this intentionally. But I do think it’s interesting that the reigning dictum of 1980s literature has been inverted and put to work as a plus-size ladies’ clothing store.
July 1, 2008 § Leave a comment
Just finished: The Dog of the South.
There is, in fact, something named The Dog of the South in the book: it’s a bus, owned by Dr. Reo Symes, who was using it as both vehicle and home until it broke down. But it plays no large part, only showing up for a few pages before Reo and Ray leave it behind and head farther south. So why that title? What else could it mean? I think, at least in part, that it’s just a provocative, mellifluous title, but there may be something more, too.
There is a dog: Guy Dupree’s chow, whose fur Guy cuts with scissors to spare him the Belizean heat. Again, not a major concern of the book, although he’s good for a few laughs.
Of course, by “dog” we could also mean hangdog, or underdog, or dirty dog (see title of post before last). So it might be a reference to Dupree, who is something of a dog: he steals his friend’s wife, car, and credit cards, and seems more or less a horrible human being. I love this description of him by Ray: “…he would always say — boast, the way people do — that he had no head for figures and couldn’t do things with his hands, slyly suggesting the presence of finer qualities.” But Dupree has no finer qualities, unless his revolutionary scheme is somehow unexpectedly brilliant.
Or there’s Ray: you couldn’t call him an underdog, since he’s a rich man’s son, but he does seem to match that phrase “beaten like a dog,” he follows the trail of Guy and Norma like a bloodhound (not a terribly skillful one, but nevertheless), and at the end he shows a dog’s persistence and loyalty, forgetting his car and nursing Norma back to health.
The “South” seems more straightforward, but there’s some complexity here, as well. The book starts in one South — the American — and ends in another — the Southern hemisphere, as well as what’s come to be known as the “global South.”
But do we ever really leave the American South? It pervades the book in interesting ways. Ray, we learn, “studied the Western campaigns of the Civil War under Dr. Buddy Casey” at Ole Miss. This, and the tapes of Casey’s lectures that Ray liked to listen to, become something of a running gag. The South’s Christianity follows Ray down to Belize: he himself is disinterested, it would seem, but Mrs. Symes insists on evangelizing to him, pestering him about the metaphysical questions he otherwise steadfastly avoids, preferring discussions of his rickety car. And then there are the natives in Belize, the blacks and Indians Ray meets.
The movie house in Belize shows a film of a Muhammad Ali fight, and the next day Ray finds his young aide-de-camp, Webster Spooner, “dancing around the tomato plant and jabbing the air with his tiny fists”:
“I’m one bad-ass nigger,” he said to me.
“No, you’re not.”
“I’m one bad-ass nigger.”
“No, you’re not.”
He was laughing and laying about with his fists. Biff Spooner! Scipio Africanus! I had to wait until his comic frenzy was spent.
When Ray finally finds Dupree, he says, “This is not much of a place…. I was expecting a big plantation. Where are the people who do the work?” (The people who do the work, it turns out, have absconded, shooting the cows on their way out.)
It’s subtle, but it seems to be there, in this and other places: this is a much more Southern book than it first seems, a thoroughly Southern comedy. And I think Portis sees some interesting connections between the South and the south below the South.