A first riff on rereading Gravity’s Rainbow (and some thoughts on Weisenburger’s Companion)

I enjoy rereading more than reading. Returning to Moby-Dick2666, Ulysses, or Blood Meridian reveals so much more: More depth, more art, more structure, more precision, more humor, more pain, more more.

Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow is all more. Rereading Gravity’s Rainbow is like reading it for the first time, or, rather, more precisely, that is how I am experiencing it now—with clarity—compelled as I was to immediately circle back through its loop again.

Gravity’s Rainbow’s cohesion hides (hides is not the right verb) under detritus, in the flux of objects and concepts that tangle and unravel throughout the text. Indeed, the novel’s themes seem to repeat (with difference, with opposition) in the lists and rants that lard it.

A simple, early example comes on page 18, where Teddy Bloat turns spying eyes over our hero Tyrone Slothrop’s desk, where “Things have fallen roughly into layers, over a base of bureaucratic smegma that sifts steadily to the bottom…” In A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion: Sources and Contexts for Pynchon’s Novel, Steven Weisenburger points out that “Among the list of objects on Slothrop’s desk are items, allusions, and brand names left in his wake throughout the novel.” Weisenburger proceeds to sift through these layers, pointing out connections, and offering (as always) helpful page numbers which attest how damn precise Pynchon’s novel is.

I picked up Weisenburger’s Companion on solicited recommendations from Twitter folk and readers of this blog, and I’ve found it unobtrusive and helpful so far. Weisenburger’s introductory essay is especially good, and foregrounds his intertextual approach to his Companion (he all but namechecks Mikhail Bakhtin: “Gravity’s Rainbow sets in motion ‘the Night’s Mad Carnvival’ (V133.38) of intertextual entertainments”; a few lines later, he describes the novel as a work of “encyclopedic heteroglossia”). Weisenburger also quickly helped to (re)confirm my sense that GR loops back into itself, its end cycling back to its beginning: “Gravity’s Rainbow is ‘heterocyclic’ (V249.26): rings are looped together in still larger, polymerized rings, looped together in the still larger cycling of its four parts.”

I’m about halfway through the second of those four parts, “Un Perm’ au Casino Hermann Goering,” but still playing catch-up with the Weisenburger. I sometimes skim—sometimes with undue pride (Hey I got that reference on my own, thanks anyway Dr. W), and sometimes, admittedly with a vague but cheerful boredom (Weisenburger has an occasional tendency to lay out Pynchon’s source texts in detailed detail).

The Companion is at its finest, in my estimation, when Weisenburger extrapolates from his sources and contexts into GR’s deepest themes, like here, where our introduction to Gottfried (a seemingly minor character) branches into etymology, mythology, and comparative religion:

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(My favorite moment here is probably where Dr. W poses that question about Pynchon knowing Branston and Grimm, and then immediately answers it (in what I like to pretend is Robert Evans’s voice)).

While Weisenburger’s Companion often enlightens and clarifies, so does simply (or not so simply) rereading Gravity’s Rainbow enlighten and clarify the first reading. I’m thankful that I didn’t use Weisenburger’s book on my first full trip though GR. Sure, Companion hazards a number of plot spoilers, which I imagine would annoy many readers. But more significant to me is that using Weisenburger’s annotations as a first-timer’s guide through Pynchon’s detritus would have likely spoiled the aesthetic effect of that detritus. It would likely have spoiled some of the richness in the rereading that I’m enjoying so very much now.

Riff on the end/beginning of Gravity’s Rainbow

Well: “A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before [—]”

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So. Okay. So I finished Gravity’s Rainbow on Friday night, and reread the opening section (and more than the opening section) on Saturday morning, resisting a compulsion to immediately return to the beginning.

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So: Okay: Right?

The ending of Gravity’s Rainbow cycles back to the beginning (like Finnegans Wake): Blicero’s rocket, screaming across the sky—yes? no?—to invade the dreams (?) of psychic Pirate Prentice? The book: a loop, a Möbius strip, a film, its reels discombobulated, jostled, scattered

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“…it’s all theatre,” we learn on the book’s first page (page 3); the book ends in a theater—the Orpheus Theater!—where maybe scattered Slothrop is the leading man, scattered, we find ourselves in him, parts of him—where the audience demands, on the book’s last page: “Start-the-show!”

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“You’re putting response before stimulus,” Spectro shakes his head at Pointsman, early in “Beyond the Zero,” the first section of Gravity’s Rainbow—does this describe the beginning/end of the novel? (“It has happened before”).

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Or, a bit earlier even, at the seance, (page 32), Gloaming describes one kind of plot: “…we should get something like a straight line” — but then gives us another kind of plot — “…however we’ve data that suggest the curves for certain —conditions, well they’re actually quite different—schizophrenics for example tend to run a bit flatter in the upper part then progressively steeper—a sort of bow shape … classical paranoiac—” Is this the shape of Gravity’s Rainbow?

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—but right this moment it’s that final dash that intrigues me—this in a novel full of dashes, this in a novel that name-checks Emily Dickinson, Eternal Empress of Dashes—the fragmented conclusion is full of dashes, lines obliterated by more perfect, straight lines, simultaneously connecting and disconnecting—like the novel’s final line:

“Now everybody—“

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A scattered riff on Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow

I’m safe here at my office, away from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I almost certainly would not dare to write about it were it proximal. If the book were here with me, its text would infect me, and I’d replicate it in chunks here for you, dear reader, to sort out (or not sort out) as you wish (or do not wish).

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I’m almost finished with Gravity’s Rainbow, which is how I know that I’m not finished with Gravity’s Rainbow. I’m going to have to read it again. (I want to read it again).

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I’m about fifty pages from the last page—just got through/endured/delighted in/icked and acked at the Gross Suckling Conference, or, as I like to think of it, the alliterative abject dinner party.

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Gravity’s Rainbow is filled with more abject imagery than any novel I’ve ever read.

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I mean abjection here in the general sense of degradation, etc., but also in the specific sense that Julia Kristeva uses in Powers of Horror:

The corpse (or cadaver: cadere, to fall), that which has irremediably come a cropper, is cesspool, and death; it upsets even more violently the one who confronts it as fragile and fallacious chance. A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat, of decay, does not signify death. In the presence of signified death—a flat encephalograph, for instance—I would understand, react, or accept. No, as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border. Such wastes drop so that I might live, until, from loss to loss, nothing remains in me and my entire body falls beyond the limit—cadere, cadaver. If dung signifies the other side of the border, the place where I am not and which permits me to be, the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything. It is no longer I who expel, “I” is expelled. The border has become an object. How can I be without border? That elsewhere that I imagine beyond the present, or that I hallucinate so that I might, in a present time, speak to you, conceive of you—it is now here, jetted, abjected, into “my” world. Deprived of world, therefore, I fall in a faint. In that compelling, raw, insolent thing in the morgue’s full sunlight, in that thing that no longer matches and therefore no longer signifies anything, I behold the breaking down of a world that has erased its borders: fainting away. The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject. It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object. Imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us.

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Forgive me for citing at such length, but perhaps Kristeva summarizes some aspect of Gravity’s Rainbow that deeply interests me: The core of the novel (the core that Pynchon atomizes, decentralizes, scatters like his main man Tyrone Slothrop)—the core of the novel rests on love and death, me and not-me: “How can I be without border?” The war and its corpses and rockets and dissolutions. Continue reading

Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World is sharp subterranean fiction

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Yuri Herrera’s sharp, thrilling novella Signs Preceding the End of the World opens with calamity. A sinkhole — “the earth’s insanity” — nearly swallows our hero before we can properly meet her:

I’m dead, Makina said to herself when everything lurched: a man with a cane was crossing the street, a dull groan suddenly surged through the asphalt, the man stood still as if waiting for someone to repeat the question and then the earth opened up beneath his feet: it swallowed the man, and with him a car and a dog, all the oxygen around and even the screams of passers-by. I’m dead, Makina said to herself, and hardly had she said it than her whole body began to contest that verdict and she flailed her feet frantically backward, each step mere inches from the sinkhole, until the precipice settled into a perfect circle and Makina was saved.

This opening passage sets the tone of Signs Preceding the End of the World. Makina will repeatedly plunge into and out of danger as she treks from her village in borderland Mexico into the weird world of the Big Chilango–the United States.

Makina crosses the border to find her estranged brother, who left the village years ago with the dubious plan of claiming some land (supposedly) owned by his family. (Reader, mark the symbolism there). Makina’s mother prompts her journey, but she’s also aided by a trio of adversarial gangsters—Mr. Double-U, Mr. Aitch, and Mr. Q. At the end of the first chapter of Signs, Mr. Q summarizes Makina’s impending quest (and the novella itself) in terse but eloquent language:

You’re going to cross and you’re going to get your feet wet and you’re going to be up against real roughnecks; you’ll get desperate, of course, but you’ll see wonders and in the end you’ll find your brother, and even if you’re sad, you’ll wind up where you need to be.

Mr. Q plays seer in his short monologue, just one example of the novella’s mythic overtones. Or maybe the word I want is undertones: Signs Preceding the End of the World opens with the earth swallowing victims; underworld mobsters send a hero on a night-quest over rough waters and alien terrain; aided by an underground network, Makina must traverse labyrinths and mazes and dark spaces; and, yes, the book ends underground. This is subterranean fiction. Continue reading

A Conversation about Evan Dara’s Novel Flee (Part 2)

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[Context/editorial note: I’d been meaning to read Evan Dara’s latest novel Flee for a while, and when Biblioklept contributor Ryan Chang told me he’d be reading it as part of a contemporary literature class I decided to join him. This is the second part of a two-part discussion which took place over a few weeks of emails. We discuss the book’s conclusion, including what some people might think of as “spoilers.”

Read part one of our discussion of  Flee.

The tl;dr version of all of this: Both Ryan and I loved Flee, a 2013 novel about the citizens of a New England town who, uh, flee, for reasons never made entirely clear I claim that “Flee is maybe the best novel (so far, anyway) to aesthetically and philosophically address the economic collapse of ’08.” Ryan called it a book “for people who like books to fuck with them and then be their friend.” And I agree with him. — ET]

Ryan Chang: Right–Flee doesn’t prescribe a future, or at least an alternative future. “841” testifies to this. The A-burgian upstakers are no different from the new settlers, rejoicing in the bargains to be had in the town. Carol and Marcus quietly disappear (Spoiler alert). Flee is overall hesitant to prescribe, I think. In my previous e-mail, I was thinking out loud a bit, trying to see if something in the book was pointing to these spaces of the “nonidentical” as Adorno calls it; that Flee as an aesthetic object figures, in exactly what isn’t said, the suffocating presence that squeezes the life out of A-burg, could figure a moment of possibility in absence. Some kind of fracture that, even if it is a failure (as A-burg is, I think), is a temporary moment of reprieve from the administered life.

I’m not sure what the forms of Kimball’s “radical forgiveness” and “hospitality” would be, if he points to them — especially of the former. And is it only that the literary artists get to have all the fun of democracy? Exactly where does democratic critique happen off the page? I’m wondering because it seems that the form of popular critique — save from public protest and other distortions of space — are infected with exploitative capital, with ideology, unwittingly going along with the system that saves the banks before humanity. Additionally: to whom–or what–is forgiveness granted? Hospitality seems more tangible to me, but the phrases Yes? Who’s There? imply exclusion rather than inclusion to me. As if at the door of democracy, the speaker hesitates. Should not a radical affirmation continually say yes rather than no at the door? The questioning yes is skeptical. I wonder if a self-consciousness and -becoming out of administration is required. The molectular make-up of the present absence that suffocates A-Burg and, implicitly, whatever other small town, would have to be transposed, if you like, into another key. To mention Lerner again (briefly) — do you remember that scene in the book, with the first hurricane, the (eventually fictional) threat of Irene destroying the infrastructure as a moment when disparate communities — who would otherwise keep to themselves, much like the voices in Flee — begin convening? That was just a way of getting to the epigraph of the book: “Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.” Continue reading

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Flannery O’Connor’s Short Story Collections and Novels

[Editorial note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of various Flannery O’Connor short story collections and novels. To be clear, I’m a big O’Connor fanI’ve preserved the reviewers’ own styles of punctuation and spelling. More one-star Amazon reviews.].

I wanted to burn it.

I like happy endings.

100 per cent not for me.

I did not finish the book.

This story was agonizing.

I do not like the words used.

To me it was very depressing.

I really, truly hated this book.

The plot was as much a mystery.

They barely even seemed human.

I would not recommend this to anyone.

I had to force myself to finish this book.

I didn’t understand the characters at all.

Not only that, but I really didn’t like them either.

I would never have guessed that the author was female.

I didn’t understand, and I’m fairly certain that I never will.

I think this is the only book I’ve ever felt that I really hated.

One finds it impossible to symapthize or identify with them.

O;Connor is a gifted writer. However this book is dark in tone.

This story just stopped, no solutions to the problems involved.

I think it was a failing of the author to make the character believable.

After reading this book I really need some sunshine and happy voices.

Perhaps most disurbing is the brutal portrayal of violence against children.

Flannery O’Connor is the most depressing writer I have ever had the misfortune to read.

I can’t understand an author who could treat her characters with such callous disregard!

There is little here that resonates with my life’s experiences or my understanding of them.

I would not read this book again without a gun to my head, and I regret ever having picked it up. Continue reading

Jon McNaught’s Birchfield Close Is a Tranquil Visual Poem

A few weekends ago, I spent several days primitive camping on a tiny, rocky island off Cape Canaveral. The weather was miserable and the fishing was poor, but the company and bourbon offered cheer. Still, by the time I got home I was terribly sore, thoroughly damp, and inhabited by one of those hangovers that sets up shop inside one’s soul as a kind of second-consciousness, coloring the world a dreadful surreal blue. I wanted to see my family, but they were out playing tennis. There was a small stack of packages waiting for me though—review copies for this blog—with Jon McNaught’s Birchfield Close neatly nestled atop. After showering, I lay on my soft soft bed in the afternoon, read through the brief poem-novel-comic, and drifted into a gentle warm hazy nap. It was the most marvelous medicine. Sublime.

I read Birchfield Close again later that night and then every night for a week. McNaught’s work—see his longer novel Dockwood—is its own aesthetic experience: Minimal, gentle, tranquil, but also evocative and complex. Birchfield Close is (maybe) the (non-)story of two lads who climb upon a roof and spend the day observing (or not observing) their neighborhood.

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They see birds and people, dogs and snails, balloons and bikes (etc.), all rendered in gentle gradations of orange-pink and grey-blue and black-black.

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In one of my favorite little episodes, one boy reaches for a branch. His imagination transmutes the branch into a rifle, and a play-shooting spree ensues.

Birchfield Close is comprised entirely of such moments, yet none of its episodes feel discrete. Rather, each panel pushes (pushesThat’s not the right verb!) into the next, a miniature gesture that creates—that somehow is—the entire work. The effect is soothing.

I’ve read Birchfield Close a dozen times now (read? Is that the right verb?), and I’m still (happily) unsure what commentary McNaught might be making on media. The story is full of images of “entertainments” that may or may not be at odds with the neighborhood’s ambiance: a handheld video game, a banal soap opera, a pop song on the radio. In another favorite episode, we move from rooftop to an airplane flying through the sky to the actual inside of the airplane, where a passenger watches Nemo’s reunion with his overprotective father. On the next page, we are treated to the imaginative forms that the clouds might take—formations that the airplane passenger, wrapped up in viewing Finding Nemo on a tiny headrest screen, perhaps misses. But if there’s a judgment here, McNaught seems to leave it to the viewer to suss out. As we pan back down to the boys on the roof, we see that one remains watching the clouds, shaping them in his imagination (or perhaps he’s sharing an imaginative vision with the airplane passenger), while the other boy has returned to his own tiny screen to play a fighting game. He misses the sunset.

Or does he miss the sunset? Maybe it’s simply part of his own aesthetic experience with the game, a peripheral, environmental occurrence, one he enjoys as transitory and ambient, an event promised to repeat again and again. I like this second reading more, as it fits neatly with my own reading experience of Birchfield Close—the book is an ambient aesthetic experience, calming but quizzical, deeply enjoyable—physical: light, color, the touch of the fine thick paper. I’ve tried to capture some of that reading experience here but have undoubtedly failed. Better you read see think feel for yourself.

Birchfield Close and other books by Jon McNaught are available from the good people at Nobrow Press.