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.)

Welcome to the Dream-Factory

September 15, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Dangerous Laughter.

Reading next: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Jan Potocki and The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders.

Libraries and their ilk play a surprising large role in this collection, starting with “The Room in the Attic,” maybe my favorite story in the book (either that or “A Precursor of the Cinema,” which is just rad).

The title of this post is taken from “The Room in the Attic,” and spoken by Wolf, Dave the narrator’s super-cool, iconoclastic, book-addicted friend.  Here’s the full passage:

“A book,” he [Wolf] declared, “is a dream-machine.” He said this one day when we were sitting on the steps of the town library, leaning back against the pillars.  “Its purpose,” he said, ” is to take you out of the world.”  He jerked his thumb toward the doors of the library, where I worked for two hours a day after school, three days a week.  “Welcome to the dream-factory.”

Of course, this is not an orthodox argument for the American public library system, or for research libraries, for that matter.  Library administrators, organizations like ALA, and well wishers are forced to base arguments for the importance of libraries on things like early literacy and young adult after-school programs, continuing education, provision of internet access for the poor, and arts programming.  Mostly libraries are getting away from promoting themselves as places that hold books, which seems hopelessly retrograde and static.  (Instead they, especially those that deal with “youth,” are all about ridiculous promotions like hosting gaming nights and making sure they have a presence on Second Life.)  Books?  God, how embarrassing!

And yet, there it is: “Welcome to the dream-factory.”  This plays out in a rather literal sense in many libraries: college kids, preschoolers, the homeless napping and (one would think) dreaming.  We in libraries, for whatever reason, resist the idea that we are places to dream.  We have been singularly bad about instilling a sense of wonder in our patrons about what libraries make available to them.  This is perhaps a self-defeating argument: libraries as public resources are an American concept, and Americans insisted on them because they were efficient means of equalizing availability to information and creating an informed citizenry.

Something in me has always bristled at the idea of libraries as merely information repositories, and, indeed, at the naming of my own chosen field as “Library Science.”  Wolf goes on to make clear that he sees books as his way out of the world he finds boring and worthy of contempt; and yes, there is something subversive embedded in the idea of the library, as it now exists in America.  It is where you can learn whatever you want to learn — not what anyone tells you you must read.  It is where you go to make your own world.  It is where you go for dreams, fantasies, utopias; knowledge and wisdom, not (just) data and information.  Libraries are some of the few places left in America that create and cultivate idiosyncrasy, free thinking, and, yes, dreams and visions.  They deal with the crackpots and the geniuses that will not be dismissed as crackpots for long.  These are valuable services.

At the other end of the collection is “Here at the Historical Society.”  This is one of a handful of rather Borgesian stories here.  Its unnamed narrator explains the recent changes in his Historical Society’s curatorial and exhibition policies: because “the present is the past made visible,” the staff now “go out each day to observe and classify a world that is already a part of the historical record.”  In other words, everything belongs in the Historical Society; and candy-bar wrappers and other bits of trash are equally worthy of curation and exhibition as historical artifacts as are arrowheads and other more traditionally “historical” materials.  This is rather the opposite of Wolf’s “dream-factory.”  (Or is it that idea’s logical conclusion?)

The story is the archival equivalent of the headache-inducing idea of the universal library — Borges’s “Library of Babel.”  And frankly, Millhauser is not far off: there has certainly been a shift toward collecting more of the materials of daily life in special collections and archives.  Where everyone once wanted the papers of world leaders, they now crave the diaries of frustrated housewives and the letters of the few literate slaves.  Where the mission was once seen as documenting history, it is now seen as documenting life.

As someone who tries to make these kinds of decisions — what’s worth keeping?  How much more valuable is a 400-year-old document than a 4-year-old document?  Will anyone care about a current organization in 10, 100, 1000 years? — this is a profoundly frustrating thought.  Millhauser’s narrator talks about the Historical Society’s initiative as a way of seeing the world in full, of being enthralled by the world as its own museum, everything a priceless connection to the past and future; but of course, the story is also a satire, and this is closer to the reaction that many people have to this kind of work: Why in the world would you want to save my papers?

For me, at least, the story comes off as satirical at first, but somehow gets more sincere but also more troubling the more I think about it.  Do archives, museums, libraries help people better understand their world?  Do they function well either as a dream-factory or as a knowledge generator?  Or do they merely present a distorted view of the world — an inevitably and unavoidably incomplete picture of an instantly bygone world?  As a librarian, I’ve obviously made my decisions on these questions, at least at a practical level; they nevertheless need to be kept in mind.  It is always important to remember that we are much closer to knowing (and to preserving) nothing rather than everything.  (See also: Rumsfeld’s immortal “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.”)

The Decadent Book, or the Book of the Decade?

July 14, 2009 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski.

I will get into the specifics of what this very strange book might be about and how it might work soon, but first I can’t resist talking about the book itself: its physical form, its extravagant typography and layout, and the experience of reading it.  And in fact, as in all books, but especially in this strange one, that experience is a very large part of its subject and function.

Only Revolutions is a Choose Your Own Adventure: there is no set way of reading it.  Although there is a publisher-recommended way, the reader has to make many choices based simply on the book’s unusual presentation.  There are two title pages, one for the “story” by Sam, the other for Hailey.  The Sam-story and the Hailey-story start from opposite ends and meet in the middle, then go back the other way: the story you’re not reading is always upside-down on the page.  From the jacket flap: “The publisher suggests alternating between Sam and Hailey, reading eight pages at a time.”  They rather strongly suggest that — or, I suspect, Danielewski does — by introducing every ninth page with a large initial letter, intimating a break at the end of the previous page.  (And yes, I’ve followed this suggestion.)  But of course, you can start from either end.  And you can certainly disregard the advice and read all the way through one story, then all the way through the other.

But further, there is also more than one section of text on every page: there’s a main body of varying size and layout which looks suspiciously like verse, but always mostly right-justified on versos and left-justified on rectos.  In the gutter of each page is a sidebar, in small (different) font: a chronology of real-life national and world events, from 1863 to 2005.  (There are also empty sidebars up to 2063.)  These sidebar snapshots can be rather cryptic, given the space restraints and the author’s stylistic preferences: a typical line from World War II reads “6 German saboteurs go” (go being a multivalent word in the book, but very often meaning die).  Many are even less descriptive: a simple number, the meaning of which is only revealed (or not) after later repetitions.  (I hate to do this to someone as cool as Danielewski obviously is, but the device is reminiscent of nothing so much as the wildly popular but, in retrospect, horribly embarrassing Billy Joel boomer anthem “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”)

You can choose to read these and attempt to decipher them or just skim for a sense of time and zeitgeist or utterly ignore them as annoying contrivance, simply acknowledging their perceived use in the book.  But if you do pay attention to them, you can also choose what kind of meaning you wish to assign to them: are they summarizing events contemporaneous with the personal events in the main body of text?  Are they only a kind of symbolic anchoring of the themes of the text in the history of the “real” world?  What is the purpose of the bizarre but rigorously uniform phrasing and syntax and style evident in the sidebars — a cipher or code, or (dare I dream?) a kind of Oulipian game, or merely a sort of literary ticker-tape, or what?

But wait!  There’s more!  The letter “o” and the number zero always appear in green ink in Sam’s narrative, gold in Hailey’s.  The page numbers — two for each page, one for each narrative — appear on the side of the page, in two circles within a larger circle; the numbers rotate 360 degrees around each other through the course of the book.  The sidebar dates appear in a kind of deep magenta.  And the word “creep” (and character The Creep) also appears in a kind of reddish-purple (which may or may not be the same as the date-magenta — I really can’t tell if there’s a difference, because of the different sizes and fonts).  Also, characters’ names (and some important objects) besides Sam and Hailey appear in small caps.  Names of animals in Sam’s narrative, and plants in Hailey’s, appear in boldface (gray boldface in the second half).

Beyond all that, the book features across its boards a gorgeous photographic collage of plants and animals in green and gold and earth-tones, and on its two dust jacket covers extreme close-ups of a green-flecked gold iris and a gold-flecked green iris.  Plus two slightly different jacket blurbs — one for Sam, one for Hailey.  Also, gold and green ribbons, for keeping your place.  And a “concordance” of many overlapping circles of words on both sets of endpapers, to be read in a mirror.

If you’ve read his first book, House of Leaves (a book I utterly adore, and a real candidate for my favorite book of the decade), this is not exactly a surprise — but Jesus, what a load of paratext!  It is tempting to read it as a conceptual poem: more like Kenneth Goldsmith‘s work than Joyce’s, even though Finnegan’s Wake is what first springs to mind as a comparison, in that its existing is as much or more the point as anything it actually says.

That’s an overstatement, because documentation of the process is certainly not the end point of Z’s work, but it leads me to one of the things I find so interesting about the book’s format.  This is a book, published in 2006, and very much about cosmic themes of birth and death and renewal and obsolescence, which is also very much about being a book published in 2006, about what a book might be.  I don’t know how much Z actually thought about the book’s publication/marketing during its composition — while I think writers don’t much like thinking about publishing, I think Z is perforce an exception — but I think the folks at Pantheon/Random House must’ve thought of the book as a way to make “the book” hip again.  I think they had to think of it as futuristic/avant-garde/cutting-edge, for promotional purposes.  And perhaps it is; it certainly would’ve been utterly impossible to commercially produce 20-30 years ago.  But it also strikes me as, possibly, a kind of death-knell: a really remarkable piece of decadent bookmaking, an example of digital typography and layout and contemporary cheap-but-flashy binding run amok, the kind of thing that gets designed and pushed by a really very respectable publisher and nominated for the National Book Award when “the book” is going through a massive identity crisis.

In some ways the book is very book-specific, in that the look of it and the rotation of the book 360 degrees to read the other narrative and the thematic import of its typography and layout are meant to be quite profoundly part of the book’s meaning — its “content.”  In other ways it’s very hypertextual: one of those works moving past the book, which only feels constrained when it’s moved from a screen where it can more fully interact with a reader or “user” to a page.

None of which I mean to detract from the work itself, which is really quite remarkable in many respects.  It just strikes me, when I look at it on the table, and when I hold it in my hand, and when I read its overflowing pages, as being simultaneously a very exciting and very sad thing.  And even though I’ve just spilled a lot of language about it, I’m still not sure I’ve quite captured why that is.

Plunging Outside of History

February 14, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Invisible Man.

Just finished watching Yes, a deeply weird, deeply beautiful movie in which all the dialogue is in a lovely, Shakespearean iambic pentameter–some rhyming, some not. (You know I’m a sucker for this kind of thing. Bonus points for an antiquated outlandish formal conceit.) There’s an Irish-American biologist, a Lebanese cook, a chorus of housekeepers, an English blues aficionado, and much much more. I’d spoil the plot but want you to go ahead and watch the movie, so I won’t.

Anywho, this coupled with IM finds me thinking about history. The place of the individual in it, out of it, or near it. What we think of as history and what we think of as life. Etc.

Chapter 20 felt an awful lot like the core of this book. In chapter 17 the narrator and his compatriot, Brother Tod Clifton, have a run-in with their nemesis in Harlem, the black militant Ras the Exhorter. And Ras does not approve of their working in the Brotherhood (as their organization is called) with and for white people. After their confrontation, Clifton says of Ras, “I don’t know…I suppose sometimes a man has to plunge outside history….Plunge outside, turn his back…Otherwise he might kill somebody, go nuts.”

By chapter 20 Clifton has abandoned his post in the Brotherhood. The narrator, reassigned to the Harlem beat, tries to track him down and finds him hawking small, paper-and-cardboard dancing dolls. They’re black, they’re called Sambo, and the narrator sees them as a betrayal of everything he and Clifton had stood for. Clifton ends up shot dead by a cop he’d punched in anger. And the narrator is left to ruminate on Clifton’s sudden plunge outside history, into the black marketplace, selling the world’s image of himself.

I won’t pretend to understand everything in the narrator’s ruminations, but there’s a lot of interesting stuff in here about history and time. He sees three black boys in the subway, and thinks, “These fellows whose bodies seemed–what had one of my teachers said of me?–‘You’re like one of these African sculptures, distorted in the interest of a design.’ Well, what design and whose?” And going on, continuing to talk about these “transitional,” extra-historical (because not recording their own histories, and sure to be forgotten in the traditional textbooks) boys, he says, “What if Brother Jack were wrong? What if history was a gambler, instead of a force in a laboratory experiment, and the boys his ace in the hole?”

What does it mean, exactly, to plunge outside history? To turn one’s back on the narrative of “progress,” or destiny, or fate? To what end? Are the downtrodden in any sense free agents–or does the narrator insinuate the exact opposite–that history is gambling on those boys (all of us), thinking they might lead to some big payoff (the Brotherhood, writ large) but never quite knowing? A kind of determinism lite?

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