Frames and Panes

August 6, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Vineland.

Reading next: Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, by Richard Farina.

I am surprised. On pages 313 and 314, we get what sure seems to be something like a Central Theme or Mission Statement or My-Point-Is Passage from Pynchon. It’s not a very interesting one, actually, but it has some sneaky sentences worth examining.

Zoyd and a certain old friend from The Crying of Lot 49 reminisce about their glory days in the 60s. Pynchon uses this old character in an interesting way; a visitor from another book, he functions as a kind of oracle. He begins the central passage in question by saying, “I guess it’s over. We’re on into a new world now, it’s the Nixon Years, then it’ll be the Reagan Years —”

Of course, Zoyd doesn’t believe “ol’ Raygun” will ever become president. (That’s an old joke by 1990, but I do like the Reagan/Raygun interplay: remember Star Wars?) But Zoyd’s friend goes on, insisting that soon “they” will want to regulate and legislate “anything that could remotely please any of your senses, because they need to control all that.” They remember a trip on a windowpane of acid; Zoyd recalls how he knew he would never die. “When that was always their last big chip, when they thought they had the power of life and death. But acid gave us the X-ray vision to see through that one…”

Zoyd insists that he’ll always remember what he discovered in that time, and here’s the core paragraph:

“Easy. They just let us forget. Give us too much to process, fill up every minute, keep us distracted, it’s what the Tube is for, and though it kills me to say it, it’s what rock and roll is becoming — just another way to claim our attention, so that beautiful certainty we had starts to fade, and after a while they have us convinced all over again that we really are going to die. And they’ve got us again.” It was the way people used to talk.

Obviously “they” is a loaded term in any Pynchon novel. “They” here seems to be used in its broadest sense, as meaning Authority writ large; those who set themselves up as “Police” of anything that could please the senses.  I do think this is largely right, of course: most entertainment is in the business of superficial distraction, underlying fear-mongering.  It seems a pretty threadbare raison d’etre for a novel, though: I read all this to be told the mass media is in the business of distraction? It’s deeper than that, of course, tapping into the fact that constant reminders of death are a good way to keep people in line, while the 60s Pynchon wants to remember were about trying to overcome a culture of death — but it’s a little obvious, isn’t it? I mean, hasn’t DFW gone light-years beyond this kind of analysis?

What sets the passage apart, for me, are two phrases, one at the beginning, one at the end. Pynchon begins this conversation after a flashback, and reminds us that we are “back in real time” when the present conversation begins. Memory’s another other world, isn’t it? Another “falsely deathless” arcade? “Back in real time…” It’s a self-aware statement on the narrator’s part, it jostles one out of the story in a way more conventional transitions would not, and hey, this “real time” isn’t actually the present of the main action of the book anyway, right? We’re back when Prairie was a baby, here, and Zoyd’s just looking for a place to hide from Brock! “Real time” is a euphemism for mediated time — less-fake time. “Real-time video-conferencing.” No one calls real time real time. It’s just time. (Or Time, occasionally.)

So: a foray into metafictionland, I’m thinking.

Then we get another comment from the narrator at the end of this mini-sermon: “It was the way people used to talk.” I love this sentence. Could be Pynchon’s poking fun at the hippies, at their paranoia and self-aggrandizement — “they,” indeed. (Pynchon poking fun at himself.) But he could also be pointing out the collective lowering of the guard against Authority in 1980s USA, or the cruel disregard for social justice in the same decade, or the lack of much conversation at all in the age of the Tube. It’s the kind of shading and complexity I expect from Pynchon, especially after hearing from someone who thinks he knows it all. (Then again, he’s right about Reagan, so maybe he does.)

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