Tear Off Your Own Head

August 16, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Been Down So Long It Looked Like Up to Me.

Tear off your own head

Tear off your own head

It’s a doll revolution

-Elvis Costello

This is not an advice column, but I’m going to go ahead and give some anyway: you probably don’t need to read this book. But if you’re interested in Pynchon, you might want to take a look at his introduction sometime. (Mine is a 1983 Penguin paperback, which I believe is the first with the intro.) It’s surprisingly heavy on the personal detail, rather tellingly uninterested in much of the book itself, and seems to have been written while Pynchon was writing or at least planning Vineland, since the phrase “karmic adjustment” pops up.

But there are some interesting things in the book — it’s overstuffed, is all, and rather pompous — including its use of ekphrasis. Ekphrasis is the description of an artwork in a medium different than that artwork (although it’s often used for descriptions of books within books, too): in this case, there’s the use of jazz rhythms and descriptions of other music, but there are also paintings. I tend to be a sucker for this in literature: it’s one of the things I love Paul Auster for (the movies were the best part of The Book of Illusions, for instance). The most important painting here is kept rather cryptic, but in a useful way. And it strikes a strange chord (to engage in ekphrastic metaphor) with the Elvis Costello song quoted above.

It’s a mural-sized canvas by Calvin Blacknesse, Gnossos’s friend, advisor, and guru. Blacknesse is, apparently, a figurative painter, rather out of step with the art-world trends of his time, even anachronistic, I should think (although there may be a hint of early psychedelia, here). His canvases appear to be heavy on symbolism and mythological imagery. When we first meet him, he’s painting “the dark goddess.” Here’s our first brief description of the painting most important to Gnossos: “That one with the tapestry look, a beheading. Must have it sometime.” Gnossos then goes on a very bad mescaline trip in the Blacknesses’ house, and is terrified of the painting. “No, I saw him,” he says of the figure in the painting. “He cut his head off. All by himself.” (This leads to one of the funniest scenes in the book, the tripping Gnossos fleeing to the bathroom to hide all the razor blades to protect the family from themselves.)

Nevertheless, he takes the canvas and installs it over the mantel in his room. Like a lot of ekphrastic devices, it serves, I think, as a kind of compact allegory of the character with which it’s identified. Gnossos is, indeed, on a mission to tear off his own head, it would seem: his quest to receive a vision, to get out of his own skin, to remain “Exempt”: from death, societal convention, and ordinary consciousness. In another funny touch, the canvas nearly falls on him when the spurned Pamela attacks him with a knife: “the nearly decapitated profile rushed at his own.” Funny picture, a man in profile presumably with a knife cut through most of his throat, with the medieval look of a tapestry.

Some more lines from “Tear Off Your Own Head”:

What’s that sound?

It will turn you around

It’s a doll revolution

They’re taking it over

And they’re tearing it down

It’s a doll revolution…

(Costello wrote this to be recorded by the Bangles, I’m told, and they did so, after his version was released. It’s a very sixties song, for a very sixties-sounding group.)  At the end of this book that’s exactly what’s happening: Alonso Oeuf, Gnossos’s nemesis, has successfully led a coup of the university administration with a demonstration of thousands of students who will do pretty much whatever they’re told. A doll revolution.  I suspect it’s supposed to be read as a microcosm of the university unrest of so much of the sixties, with both its good elements (increased academic freedom, decreased repressive sexual regulations) and its ugly (wankers who play at being revolutionaries following the mob’s every whim).

Gnossos has an ambivalent relationship with the real: he wants the mystical “real,” as his name implies, the layers of reality behind the mundane. But he’s terrified when a vision does strike — it happens to be a death-vision, unpredictable as visions tend to be — and when real death occurs, he’s rather unprepared for it. He’s a kid, and an unlikeable one at that. Anyone who says “Oh, Thanatos baby, kiss my wicked tongue” as he threatens to jump off the side of a boat for a lost love is not terribly likeable, or prepared for the reality of death.

The Trickster’s Exemption

August 11, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, by Richard Fariña.

Reading next: The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall.

Lots of questions with this book. For one: Why am I reading it? (Well, because Fariña was a good friend of Pynchon’s when both were at Cornell in the ’50s, and I’m in this hippie-lit phase now anyway, and if not now, when?)

For others: is it Beat or Hippie? Does it matter? (Not really, but fun to parse sometimes.) I think it’s mostly late-Beat, actually. As Vineland is a kind of post-hippie novel, looking back at the 60s to reclaim its ethos from the greedy 80s, BDSLILLUTM looks back at the Beat heyday, 1958, from crazy 1966. It’s ponderous and pretentious (as well as overreaching in the very special way that only first novels from those weaned on the Beats can be), with jazz, Joyce, and multiple layers of mythological allusion involved. (Actual onomatopoetic lines of jazz at some points, I guess to reinforce mood and tone, or at least that’s the excuse.) It’s also got that Beat frisson of misogyny or at least condescension to women. And everybody embarrassingly calling each other “baby.” And Gnossos, our hero, with this retarded self-aggrandizing idea about being a spiritual virgin, claiming he’s “laid” like a million women but never “surrendered” himself to any of them. (What a tool, seriously. This is the stupidest thing about this book.)

But I’m being hard on the book. There are some funny slapstick scenes, and some good writing. It’s only pretense if you’re pretending to be good, as they say, and Fariña definitely has good stuff. (He died, sadly, two days after this was published.) And it does seem to be at least in part about that anxious incessant identity-forming that was so much of the Beat project, and is so much of a part of growing up, getting out of the house and going to college and out on expeditions in hopes of receiving a vision (as Gnossos does, into the American West and the frigid North, before returning to Athene, the stand-in for Ithaca, NY, in the book). Right at the start, there’s this interesting passage, as we’re plunged into Gnossos’s thoughts:

I am invisible, he thinks often. And Exempt. Immunity has been granted to me, for I do not lose my cool. Polarity is selected at will, for I am not ionized and I possess not valence. Call me inert and featureless but Beware, I am the Shadow, free to cloud men’s minds. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? I am the Dracula, look into my eye.

Exemption, immunity: Gnossos is a trickster, or at least fancies himself such. An invisible Mercury, a wandering Odysseus (yes, he’s very self-consciously Greek), a fly in the ointment of an uptight 1950s university town. This passage does a nice job of introducing some of the main symbol-systems used in the book: the physics and chemistry of the nuclear age (we learn later that Gnossos witnessed a nuclear test in the Nevada desert), the mass media booming in the ’40s and ’50s and forming a generation both homogeneous and terrified of homogeneity, the literary and the mythical.

And yet Gnossos also obsessively worries about “the monkey-demon,” another trickster figure from Chinese Buddhist legend (and there’s a fair amount of Buddhist allusion in the book, making me think this is a Buddhist monkey-demon and not one of the flying monkeys of The Wizard of Oz. ‘Course, could be both). He reminds himself again and again to watch out for the monkey-demon. At one point, at a crazy party/orgy, a scary spider monkey actually appears; his owners get him stoned for fun, making the monkey even scarier. Needless to say, Gnossos is freaked out.

The monkey-demon seems to stand for the dark side of the trickster/outsider identity, to Gnossos: the side of chaos, of destructive rather than creative force, the side that turns evil and frightened when its mind is altered. The perspective shifts in this book in tricksy ways, too, Farina often shifting from third to stream-of-consciousness first and back within the same paragraph or sticking to one or the other for pages at a time with a few sentences sprinkled in that could either represent the thoughts of either the narrator or Gnossos. Mentions of “the monkey-demon” or “beware the monkey-demon” are often like this: we can’t be sure if it’s Gnossos saying this to himself, or the narrator telling us and his eight-years-ago hero-self that danger is afoot. (Clearly part of this shifting perspective is the semi-autobiographical nature of the book, the trickster as the author of his own fictional story and “true” identity, the web-weaver and lie-spinner. The confidence-man. Anansi.) The problem I’m having is with that mention of Dracula, which seems to show awareness, and even an embrace, of the dark side of the identity Gnossos has cultivated.

This circles back to this whole male-spiritual-virginity thing: as “Book the First” ends, Gnossos has fallen in love with a co-ed named Kristin McLeod. “Exemption” means exemption from the rules of society, but it also, apparently, has meant exemption from being required to care about the person on the other side of sex. Is this why the dark trickster figures of monkey and wolf recur here, why Gnossos’s boozy Indian neighbors interrupt the consummation with a smile and a warning, “Much caution”? Although Gnossos longs, supposedly, to truly “make love,” is this a warning that immunity and exemption are only granted to those who remain outside of love’s circle?

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