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.)

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.

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