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?

What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?

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.

Brautigan’s Shibboleths

July 9, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Trout Fishing in America and In Watermelon Sugar, by Richard Brautigan.

Reading next: Vineland, by Thomas Pynchon.

“By the way,” Doc Edwards said. “How’s that book coming along?”

“Oh, it’s coming along.”

“Fine. What’s it about?”

“Just what I’m writing down: one word after another.”

“Good.”

That’s from In Watermelon Sugar, maybe the most compellingly weird, indefinable narrative I’ve ever read. Now here’s one from Merriam-Webster:

shibboleth: a word or saying used by adherents of a party, sect, or belief and usu. regarded by others as empty of real meaning

I’m afraid I’m going to have to more or less gloss over these two Brautigans: they deserve fuller treatment than I’m going to give them (just as Dog of the South did), and even if I’m uncertain how much I actually understand, appreciate, or should even worry about understanding or appreciating them, they are certainly interesting, and I’m glad I read them. It’s been kind of a crazy summer, and I’ve been away from the ol’ desk for two weeks straight, more or less. I’m on to Vineland and there’s too much crazy-fun shit in there for me to ignore: I need to get to Pynchon more than I need to babble about Brautigan.

But back to my point, which is that these books are in part about their language, the words that make them up. Classic metafictional tactic, I suppose, but much less cloying than many metafictional tactics, in that Brautigan is fairly loose about it, fairly comical, willing to have fun with the idea and (I think) let the reader in on the fun, too. The phrases “trout fishing in America” and “in watermelon sugar” recur throughout their respective books. The first, oddly beautiful, sentence of the latter is “In watermelon sugar the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar.” And it turns out that, yes, the substance “watermelon sugar” does, in fact, make up much of the material of the world in that book. I imagine it as a kind of natural plastic, if it’s anything, which it’s not, because it’s just words. And that’s kind of the point, maybe: “watermelon sugar” is a phrase that strikes Brautigan as beautiful, and it can mean something or not, as you will.

Similarly, “trout fishing in america” is, in the first chapter, the title of the book, and subsequently becomes, additionally, an activity, an idea or mythos , an anthropomorphization (writing letters, responding to the text: maybe a deity, maybe just another facet of being an idea or mythos), a synecdoche for America itself and especially its “nature” (maybe), a name for a very strange wheelchair-bound wino, a place. A phrase, though, always. A hook to hang a little story or idea from. Maybe a shibboleth, although it can seem meaningful many times.

Brautigan spent much of his life in Japan, and it would seem that he’s studied his haiku. The sound and intonation of words is important in haiku, and the point is not telling a story, exactly, but crafting out of a moment and a setting an emotion, a reaction, a being. I think Brautigan was after something similar, perhaps. But it is tempting to see his phrases as shibboleths: all those hippies getting high, digging on his crazy riffs, his willfully naive sentences (as rhetorically complicated as anything DFW has written, these sentences that act simple), his seeming talk of nature and living in it. (But what does he actually think about nature?)

The cool thing, especially in TFiA, is how the metaphors carry so much of the weight of the book. The book seems to be all about his metaphoric juxtapositions of the pastoral or “natural” with the modern, the artificial, the urban and suburban. And IWS is built around this central mystery of what it means that things are made of watermelon sugar; that the place the townspeople live in is called iDEATH, where the sun’s color is different on each day of the week and strangely disaffected suicides shock (but do not seem to change) those townspeople; that a book has not been written for generations and books used to be burned for fuel. It’s the words themselves, to no small extent, that make the surrealism, not the images they can (or cannot) convey. Why that small “i”? Why is it important that the last word of TFiA be “mayonnaise”?

The books are now remembered as hippie books, and Brautigan is remembered as a hippie writer, so I suppose if we think of these as shibboleths for anyone, it would be for hippies. But my understanding is that Brautigan was ambivalent at best toward the hippie movement (if there was such a monolithic thing). These might be shibboleths for just strange folks, folks enamored of language, enamored of odd ways of thinking about being and the oddness of being in a world full of other beings being. (But that sounds like hippie talk. Perhaps I’ve backed into a corner. And yet there seems something intellectually substantial to Brautigan; an anecdote to overthought, bringing me back to haiku. I suppose there was something substantial to many hippies, too, before we turned them into a punchline.)

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