Back Down the Toilet of History with Pynchon

June 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon.

Reading next: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell.

Pynchon has a thing for toilets, you may have noticed.  I mean, besides the seriously scatological stuff going on in most of his books, toilets themselves are important plot devices or metaphors in his work: think of the scene in Gravity’s Rainbow when Slothrop travels down the toilet in the Roseland Ballroom.

There’s not as much scatology and not as many toilets in Inherent Vice as in Gravity’s Rainbow (but really, that’s the all-time champion in both categories, isn’t it?)  But at one point, a remark sends “Doc off down the Toilet of Memory…”  And that made me think about Pynchon’s toilets, and his historical novels, and what he’s been up to all these years with memory and history.

Because calling them “historical novels” doesn’t even really sound right, does it, even though most of his books are set in a meticulously detailed past?  They’re more novels about history, and about the reverberations into the past and future of any given present.  It’s simply easier to feel those reverberations in a book set in the past: you can view them from both ends, whereas any book set in the present or future will have to contain some guesses, some estimates of what, exactly, it is that’s important to highlight about the present.  (If you’re gifted or just especially well attuned, your book attempting to capture the gestalt ends up captured in it, becoming one of those reverberations people think about when they think about an era: think Great Gatsby, On the Road — hell, even Less than Zero.)

Pynchon’s books set in the past are always mostly about the present, and he tends to weave a bright thread of allusions to the present day (the future of the plot) into his very detailed recreations of the past.  But that’s too clean a metaphor for Pynchon: it’s about toilets, after all.  What he tends to say, in these novels set in the past, is that we, the people of the present day, are the excretions of the past.  We are always the left over, the waste of another time’s failed hopes.  As it frequently is with Pynchon, it’s about being unsaved; unelected; preterite.  We go down the Toilet of Memory because we’re in the bowl to begin with.

In Inherent Vice, that’s clearest in the book’s subplot on the use of ARPAnet, the proto-Internet of university and governmental computers.  Not a plot device that would’ve been found in most detective novels of the late ’60s or early ’70s, but essential for the point Pynchon wants to make about the roots of our current state of hypervigilant cyber-surveillance.  He’s the best at embedding this sort of fictional anachronism into his books.

But a Pynchonian past is never simply a past, but also the future of many former pasts.  So the book’s present day of greedy real estate developers and shadowy drug syndicates and burned-out hippies and ruthless right-wing bikers-for-hire and a nascent national surveillance network is also linked to the Communist scares of the 1950s.  There’s always an earlier attempt at revolution, for Pynchon; and there’s always an earlier repression, too.  (Doc’s obsession with the actor John Garfield, blacklisted for his liberal politics, is a dominant note in this motif.)

God and Ghost in the Machine

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.)

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