A rambling and possibly incoherent riff on Inherent Vice (film and novel) and The Crying of Lot 49

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A. The first time I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Inherent Vice, I was in the middle of rereading Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49, which I hadn’t read in fifteen years. I remembered the novel’s vibe, its milieu, but not really its details.

B. I read The Crying of Lot 49 and then immediately reread it. It seemed much stronger the second time—not nearly as silly. Darker. Oedipa Maas, precursor to Doc Sportello, trying not to lose the thread as she leaves the tower for the labyrinth, rushing dizzy into the sixties.

C. Another way of saying this: Inherent Vice is sequel to The Crying of Lot 49. Any number of details substantiate this claim (and alternately unravel it, if you wish, but let’s not travel there)—we could focus on the settings, sure, or maybe the cabals lurking in the metaphorical shadows of each narrative—is The Golden Fang another iteration of The Tristero?—but let me focus on the conclusions of both novels and then discuss the conclusion of PTA’s film.

D. A favorite line from a favorite passage from The Crying of Lot 49: “the true paranoid for whom all is organized in spheres joyful or threatening about the central pulse of himself.” Paranoia as a kind of sustained hope, a way to find meaning, order, a center.

E. The final pages of The Crying of Lot 49 find Oedipa trying to make sense of the labyrinth (my emphases in bold):

For it was now like walking among matrices of a great digital computer, the zeroes and ones twinned above, hanging like balanced mobiles right and left, ahead, thick, maybe endless. Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth. In the songs Miles, Dean, Serge and Leonard sang was either some fraction of the truth’s numinous beauty (as Mucho now believed) or only a power spectrum. Tremaine the Swastika Salesman’s reprieve from holocaust was either an injustice, or the absence of a wind; the bones of the GI’s at the bottom of Lake Inverarity were there either for a reason that mattered to the world, or for skin divers and cigarette smokers. Ones and zeroes. So did the couples arrange themselves. At Vesperhaven House either an accommodation reached, in some kind of dignity, with the Angel of Death, or only death and the daily, tedious preparations for it. Another mode of meaning behind the obvious, or none. Either Oedipa in the orbiting ecstasy of a true paranoia, or a real Tristero. For there either was some Tristero beyond the appearance of the legacy America, or there was just America and if there was just America then it seemed the only way she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was as an alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia.

There is either meaning, or there is not meaning. Read More

Live long and prosper (Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon)

One day, the Meridian having been closely enough establish’d, and with an hour or two of free time available to them, one heads north, one south, and ’tis Dixon’s luck to discover The Rabbi of Prague, headquarters of a Kabbalistick Faith, in Correspondence with the Elect Cohens of Paris, whose private Salute they now greet Dixon with, the Fingers spread two and two, and the Thumb held away from them likewise, said to represent the Hebrew letter Shin and to signify, “Live long and prosper.” The area just beyond the next Ridge is believ’d to harbor a giant Golem, or Jewish Automaton, taller than the most ancient of the Trees. As explain’d to Dixon, ’twas created by an Indian tribe widely suppos’d to be one of the famous Lost Tribes of Israel, who had somehow given up control of the Creature, sending it headlong into the Forest, where it would learn of its own gift of Mobile Invisibility.

“And . . . do you folk wear Special Hats, anything like that?” inquires Dixon.

From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon. (More/some context).

Ship in a bottle (Inherent Vice)

Ship in a bottle (Inherent Vice)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Screenplay

Capture

 

You can (legally) download Paul Thomas Anderson’s screenplay for his adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice(Via, via, via).

There is no avoiding time (Pynchon’s Inherent Vice)

Sauncho was giving a kind of courtroom summary, as if he’d just been handling a case. “. . . yet there is no avoiding time, the sea of time, the sea of memory and forgetfulness, the years of promise, gone and unrecoverable, of the land almost allowed to claim its better destiny, only to have the claim jumped by evildoers known all too well, and taken instead and held hostage to the future we must live in now forever. May we trust that this blessed ship is bound for some better shore, some undrowned Lemuria, risen and redeemed, where the American fate, mercifully, failed to transpire . . .”

From Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. The passage, near the end of the novel, acts as a summary—or rather one of several summaries—to Inherent Vice’s shaggy plot. The blessed ship is The Golden Fang, aka Preserved. I’ve been sketching out a riff on Inherent Vice the novel, Inherent Vice the film, and The Crying of Lot 49. (This passage also kinda sorta summarizes The Crying of Lot 49. And Mason & Dixon).

Because It’s So Damn Cold, Donald Barthelme’s Recipes for Fine Homemade Oxtail Soup and Fine Homemade Leek Soup

In his introduction to The Teachings of Don B, Thomas Pynchon praises Donald Barthelme’s soups:

Those recipes. That oxtail soup mix. That “burgoo,” with the frozen ducks in it? A notable moment in chef psychopathology, to be sure — yet such is Barthelme’s genius that even the most porkophobic or duck-intolerant among us is drooling, unashamed, by recipe’s end.

I don’t own The Teachings of Don B, but Pynchon’s description (which I found while looking for something entirely different) piqued my interest (first and foremost: was the recipe even a real thing?). Anyway: Via Maude Newton, via Overnight to Many Distant Cities, and then an additional Google search to The Purest of Treats:

FINE HOMEMADE OXTAIL SOUP

Take Knorr Oxtail Soupmix, decant into same any leftover meat (sliced or diced) from the old refrigerator. Follow above strategies to the letter. The result will make you happy. Knorr’s Oxtail is also good as a basic gravy maker and constituent of a fine fake cassoulet about which we can talk at another time. Knorr is a very good Swiss outfit whose products can be found in both major and minor cities. The point here is not to be afraid of the potential soup but to approach it with the attitude that you know what’s best for it. And you do. The rawness of the vegetables refreshes the civilization of the Soupmixes. And there are opportunities for mercy–if your ox does not wish to part with his tail, for example, to dress up your fine Oxtail Soup, you can use commercial products from our great American supermarkets, which will be almost as good.

And if you’re into Lenten observation:

FINE HOMEMADE LEEK SOUP

Take one package Knorr Leek Soupmix. Prepare as directed. Take two live leeks. Chop leeks into quarter-inch rounds. Throw into Soupmix. Throw in ½ cup Tribuno Dry Vermouth. Throw in chopped parsley. Throw in some amount of salt and a heavy bit of freshly ground pepper. Eat with good-quality French bread, dipped repeatedly in soup.

(See also: Gordon Lish’s recipe for chicken soup).

Doc Sportello’s Interstellar Trip (Pynchon’s Inherent Vice)

It had all begun, apparently, some 3 billion years ago, on a planet in a binary star system quite a good distance from Earth. Doc’s name then was something like Xqq, and because of the two suns and the way they rose and set, he worked some very complicated shifts, cleaning up after a labful of scientist-priests who invented things in a gigantic facility which had formerly been a mountain of pure osmium. One day he heard some commotion down a semiforbidden corridor and went to have a look. Ordinarily sedate and studious personnel were running around in uncontrolled glee. “We did it!” they kept screaming. One of them grabbed Doc, or actually Xqq. “Here he is! The perfect subject!” Before he knew it he was signing releases, and being costumed in what he would soon learn was a classic hippie outfit of the planet Earth, and led over to a peculiarly shimmering chamber in which a mosaic of Looney Tunes motifs was repeating obsessively away in several dimensions at once in vividly audible yet unnamable spectral frequencies. . . . The lab people were explaining to him meanwhile that they’d just invented intergalactic time travel and that he was about to be sent across the universe and maybe 3 billion years into the future. “Oh, and one other thing,” just before throwing the final switch, “the universe? it’s been, like, expanding? So when you get there, everything else will be the same weight, but bigger? with all the molecules further apart? except for you—you’ll be the same size and density. Meaning you’ll be about a foot shorter than everybody else, but much more compact. Like, solid?”

 

“Can I walk through walls?” Xqq wanted to know, but by then space and time as he knew it, not to mention sound, light, and brain waves, were all undergoing these unprecedented changes, and next thing he knew he was standing on the corner of Dunecrest and Gordita Beach Boulevard, and watching what seemed to be an endless procession of young women in bikinis, some of whom were smiling at him and offering thin cylindrical objects whose oxidation products were apparently meant to be inhaled. . . .

 

As it turned out, he was able to go through drywall construction with little discomfort, although, not having X-ray vision, he did run into some disagreeable moments with wall studs and eventually curtailed the practice. His new hyperdensity also allowed him sometimes to deflect simple weapons directed at him with hostile intent, though bullets were another story, and he also learned to avoid those when possible. Slowly the Gordita Beach of his trip merged with the everyday version, and he began to assume that things were back to normal, except for when, now and then, he’d forget and lean against a wall and suddenly find himself halfway through it and trying to apologize to somebody on the other side.

From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice.

Plastics and paranoia (Harold Bloom on Thomas Pynchon)

For Pynchon, ours is the age of plastics and paranoia, dominated by the System. No one is going to dispute such a conviction; reading the New York Times first thing every morning is sufficient to convince one that not even Pynchon’s imagination can match journalistic irreality. What is more startling about Pynchon is that he has found ways of representing the impulse to defy the System, even though both impulse and its representations always are defeated. In the Zone (which is our cosmos as the Gnostics saw it, the kenoma or Great Emptiness) the force of the System, of They (whom the Gnostics called Archons), is in some sense irresistible, as all overdetermination must be irresistible. Yet there is a Counterforce, hardly distinguished in its efficacy, but it never does (or can) give up. Unfortunately, its hero is the extraordinarily ordinary Tyrone Slothrop, who is a perpetual disaster, and whose ultimate fate, being “scattered” (rather in biblical sense), is accomplished by Pynchon with dismaying literalness. And yet—Slothrop, who has not inspired much affection even in Pynchon’s best critics, remains more Pynchon himself.

From Harold Bloom’s introduction to Bloom’s Critical Modern Views: Thomas Pynchon.

Read “Entropy,” a short story by Thomas Pynchon

“Entropy”

by

Thomas Pynchon

Boris has just given me a summary of his views. He is weather prophet. The weather will continue bad, he says. There will be more calamities, more death, more despair. Not the slightest indication of a change anywhere…. We must get into step, a lockstep toward the prison of death. There is no escape. The weather will not change. – Tropic of Cancer

Downstairs, Meatball Mulligan’s lease-breaking party was moving into its 40th hour. On the kitchen floor, amid a litter of empty champagne fifths, were Sandor Rojas and three friends, playing spit in the ocean and staying awake on Heidseck and benzedrine pills. In the living room Duke, Vincent, Krinkles and Paco sat crouched over a 15-inch speaker which had been bolted into the top of a wastepaper basket, listening to 27 watts’ worth of The Heroes’ Gate at Kiev. They all wore hornrimmed sunglasses and rapt expressions, and smoked funny-looking cigarettes which contained not, as you might expect, tobacco, but an adulterated form of cannabis sativa. This group was the Duke di Angelis quartet. They recorded for a local label called Tambú and had to their credit one 10″ LP entitled Songs of Outer Space. From time to time one of them would flick the ashes from his cigarette into the speaker cone to watch them dance around. Meatball himself was sleeping over by the window, holding an empty magnum to his chest as if it were a teddy bear. Several government girls, who worked for people like the State Department and NSA, had passed out on couches, chairs and in one case the bathroom sink.

This was in early February of’57 and back then there were a lot of American expatriates around Washington, D.C., who would talk, every time they met you, about how someday they were going to go over to Europe for real but right now it seemed they were working for the government. Everyone saw a fine irony in this. They would stage, for instance, polyglot parties where the newcomer was sort of ignored if he couldn’t carry on simultaneous conversations in three or four languages. They would haunt Armenian delicatessens for weeks at a stretch and invite you over for bulghour and lamb in tiny kitchens whose walls were covered with bullfight posters. They would have affairs with sultry girls from Andalucía or the Midi who studied economics at Georgetown. Their Dôme was a collegiate Rathskeller out Wisconsin Avenue called the Old Heidelberg and they had to settle for cherry blossoms instead of lime trees when spring came, but in its lethargic way their life provided, as they said, kicks.

At the moment, Meatball’s party seemed to be gathering its second wind. Outside there was rain. Rain splatted against the tar paper on the roof and was fractured into a fine spray off the noses, eyebrows and lips of wooden gargoyles under the eaves, and ran like drool down the windowpanes. The day before, it had snowed and the day before that there had been winds of gale force and before that the sun had made the city glitter bright as April, though the calendar read early February. It is a curious season in Washington, this false spring. Somewhere in it are Lincoln’s Birthday and the Chinese New Year, and a forlornness in the streets because cherry blossoms are weeks away still and, as Sarah Vaughan has put it, spring will be a little late this year. Generally crowds like the one which would gather in the Old Heidelberg on weekday afternoons to drink Würtzburger and to sing Lili Marlene (not to mention The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi) are inevitably and incorrigibly Romantic. And as every good Romantic knows, the soul (spiritus, ruach, pneuma) is nothing, substantially, but air; it is only natural that warpings in the atmosphere should be recapitulated in those who breathe it. So that over and above the public components—holidays, tourist attractions—there are private meanderings, linked to the climate as if this spell were a stretto passage in the year’s fugue: haphazard weather, aimless loves, unpredicted commitments: months one can easily spend in fugue*, because oddly enough, later on winds, rains, passions of February and March are never remembered in that city, it is as if they had never been.

Read the rest of “Entropy” online here—alongside a Spanish translation and explanatory notes—or read it in the collection of early Pynchon shorties Slow Learner.

A (probably incomplete) list of films mentioned in Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice

Below: A (probably incomplete) list of films mentioned in Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice.

I’ve listed them in the order in which they show up, and also in the editorial style in which they appear—initially, Pynchon separates the release year with a comma or doesn’t give a year at all, before settling on parenthetical citations—with the one quirk of A Summer Place—its year is indicated in brackets. Obviously this inconsistency is actually some kind of super-meaningful clue, a key that will unlock any unresolved mysteries of Inherent Vice—right?

Black Narcissus, 1947

Caligari

Metropolis

Dr. No, 1962

Now, Voyager (1942)

Fort Apache (1948)

He Ran All the Way (1951)

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)

Roman Holiday (1953)

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Vertigo (1958)

The Big Bounce (1969)

Champion (1949)

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

A Summer Place [1959]

The Sea Wolf (1941)

Little Miss Broadway (1938)

Paranoia Alert (Inherent Vice)

paranoia alert

The true paranoid for whom all is organized in spheres joyful or threatening (Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49)

“Please,” the sailor said. “Go on now. You don’t want to stay here.” She looked in her purse, found a ten and a single, gave him the ten. “I’ll spend it on booze,” he said.
“Remember your friends,” said the arthritic, watching the ten.
“Bitch,” said the sailor. “Why didn’t you wait till he was gone?”
Oedipa watched him make adjustments so he’d fit easier against the mattress. That stuffed memory. Register A . . .
“Give me a cigarette, Ramírez,” the sailor said. “I know you got one.”
Would it be today? “Ramírez,” she cried. The arthritic looked around on his rusty neck. “He’s going to die,” she said.
“Who isn’t?” said Ramírez.
She remembered John Nefastis, talking about his Machine, and massive destructions of information. So when this mattress flared up around the sailor, in his Viking’s funeral: the stored, coded years of uselessness, early death, self-harrowing, the sure decay of hope, the set of all men who had slept on it, whatever their lives had been, would truly cease to be, forever, when the mattress burned. She stared at it in wonder. It was as if she had just discovered the irreversible process. It astonished her to think that so much could be lost, even the quantity of hallucination belonging just to the sailor that the world would bear no further trace of. She knew, because she had held him, that he suffered DT’s. Behind the initials was a metaphor, a delirium tremens, a trembling unfurrowing of the mind’s plowshare. The saint whose water can light lamps, the clairvoyant whose lapse in recall is the breath of God, the true paranoid for whom all is organized in spheres joyful or threatening about the central pulse of himself, the dreamer whose puns probe ancient fetid shafts and tunnels of truth all act in the same special relevance to the word, or whatever it is the word is there, buffering, to protect us from. The act of metaphor then was a thrust at truth and a lie, depending where you were: inside, safe, or outside, lost. Oedipa did not know where she was. Trembling, unfurrowed, she slipped sidewise, screeching back across grooves of years, to hear again the earnest, high voice of her second or third collegiate love Ray Glozing bitching among “uhs” and the syncopated tonguing of a cavity, about his freshman calculus; “dt,” God help this old tattooed man, meant also a time differential, a vanishingly small instant in which change had to be confronted at last for what it was, where it could no longer disguise itself as something innocuous like an average rate; where velocity dwelled in the projectile though the projectile be frozen in midflight, where death dwelled in the cell though the cell be looked in on at its most quick. She knew that the sailor had seen worlds no other man had seen if only because there was that high magic to low puns, because DT’s must give access to dt’s of spectra beyond the known sun, music made purely of Antarctic loneliness and fright. But nothing she knew of would preserve them, or him.

From Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49.

To give the spirit flesh. The words, who cares? (Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49)

“You don’t understand,” getting mad. “You guys, you’re like Puritans are about the Bible. So hung up with words, words. You know where that play exists, not in that file cabinet, not in any paperback you’re looking for, but—” a hand emerged from the veil of shower-steam to indicate his suspended head—“in here. That’s what I’m for. To give the spirit flesh. The words, who cares? They’re rote noises to hold line bashes with, to get past the bone barriers around an actor’s memory, right? But the reality is in this head. Mine. I’m the projector at the planetarium, all the closed little universe visible in the circle of that stage is coming out of my mouth, eyes, sometimes other orifices also.”

A favorite little riff from Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49.

I review my review of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice an hour before seeing PTA’s film adaptation

I’m leaving to (finally) see Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Inherent Vice in a few minutes.

I’m going with my uncle. (I also saw No Country for Old Men with him in the theater. This point seems hardly worth these parentheses).

Below, in block quotes, is my review of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice (which I published here—the review obviously—in 2009). My 2015 comments are interposed.

inherent_vice

Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel, Inherent Vice

Oh god I used to bold face key terms jesus christ sorry.

is a detective-fiction genre exercise/parody set in a cartoonish, madcap circa-1970 L.A. redolent with marijuana smoke, patchouli, and paranoia.

“genre exercise”…”madcap”…ugh!

Navigating this druggy haze is private detective Doc Sportello, who, at the behest of his ex-girlfriend, searches for a missing billionaire in a plot tangled up with surfers, junkies, rock bands, New Age cults, the FBI, and a mysterious syndicate known as the Golden Fang–and that’s not even half of it.

Not a bad little summary, bro.

At a mere 369 pages, Inherent Vice is considerably shorter than Pynchon’s last novel Against the Day, not to mention his masterpieces Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon, and while it might not weigh in with those novels, it does bear plenty of the same Pynchonian trademarks: a strong picaresque bent, a mix of high and low culture, plenty of pop culture references, random sex, scat jokes, characters with silly names (too many to keep track of, of course), original songs, paranoia, paranoia, paranoia, and a central irreverence that borders on disregard for the reader.

Uh…

And like Pynchon’s other works, Inherent Vice is a parody, a take on detective noir, but also a lovely little rip on the sort of novels that populate beaches and airport bookstores all over the world. It’s also a send-up of L.A. stories and drug novels, and really a hate/love letter to the “psychedelic 60s” (to use Sportello’s term), with much in common with Pynchon’s own Vineland (although comparisons to Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, The Big Lebowski and even Chinatown wouldn’t be out of place either).

When I heard the PTA was adapting Inherent Vice, I thought: Wait, the Coens already did that before Pynchon wrote the book.

While most of Inherent Vice reverberates with zany goofiness and cheap thrills,

Clichés, bro.

Pynchon also uses the novel as a kind of cultural critique, proposing that modern America begins at the end of the sixties (the specter of the Manson family, the ultimate outsiders, haunts the book). The irony, of course–and undoubtedly it is purposeful irony–is that Pynchon has made similar arguments before: Gravity’s Rainbow locates the end of WWII as the beginning of modern America; the misadventures of the eponymous heroes of Mason & Dixon foreground an emerging American mythology; V. situates American place against the rise of a globally interdependent world.

Uh…

If Inherent Vice works in an idiom of nostalgia, it also works to undermine and puncture that nostalgia. Feeling a little melancholy, Doc remarks on the paradox underlying the sixties that “you lived in a climate of unquestioning hippie belief, pretending to trust everybody while always expecting be sold out.” In one of the novel’s most salient passages–one that has nothing to do with the plot, of course–Doc watches a music store where “in every window . . . appeared a hippie freak or a small party of hippie freaks, each listening on headphones to a different rock ‘n’ roll album and moving around at a different rhythm.” Doc’s reaction to this scene is remarkably prescient:

. . . Doc was used to outdoor concerts where thousands of people congregated to listen to music for free, and where it all got sort of blended together into a single public self, because everybody was having the same experience. But here, each person was listening in solitude, confinement and mutual silence, and some of them later at the register would actually be spending money to hear rock ‘n’ roll. It seemed to Doc like some strange kind of dues or payback. More and more lately he’d been brooding about this great collective dream that everybody was being encouraged to stay tripping around in. Only now and then would you get an unplanned glimpse at the other side.

Oh cool you finally quoted from the book. Not a bad little riff.

If Doc’s tone is elegiac, the novel’s discourse works to undercut it, highlighting not so much the “great collective dream” of “a single public self,” but rather pointing out that not only was such a dream inherently false, an inherent vice, but also that this illusion came at a great price–one that people are perhaps paying even today. Doc’s take on the emerging postmodern culture is ironized elsewhere in one of the book’s more interesting subplots involving the earliest version of the internet. When Doc’s tech-savvy former mentor hips him to some info from ARPANET – “I swear it’s like acid,” he claims – Doc responds dubiously that “they outlawed acid as soon as they found out it was a channel to somethin they didn’t want us to see? Why should information be any different?” Doc’s paranoia (and if you smoked a hundred joints a day, you’d be paranoid too) might be a survival trait, but it also sometimes leads to this kind of shortsightedness.

Will PTA’s film convey the ironies I found here? Or were the ironies even there?

Intrinsic ironies aside, Inherent Vice can be read straightforward as a (not-so-straightforward) detective novel, living up to the promise of its cheesy cover. Honoring the genre, Pynchon writes more economically than ever, and injects plenty of action to keep up the pace in his narrative. It’s a page-turner, whatever that means, and while it’s not exactly Pynchon-lite, it’s hardly a heavy-hitter, nor does it aspire to be.

I’m not sure if I believe any of that, bro. Did I believe it even when I wrote it? It’s a shaggy dog story, and shaggy dogs unravel, or tangle, rather—they don’t weave into a big clear picture. And maybe it is a heavy hitter. (Heavy one-hitter).

At the same time, Pynchon fans are going to find plenty to dissect in this parody, and should not be disappointed with IV‘s more limited scope (don’t worry, there’s no restraint here folks–and who are we kidding, Pynchon is more or less critic-proof at this point in his career, isn’t he?). Inherent Vice is good dirty fun, a book that can be appreciated on any of several different levels, depending on “where you’re at,” as the hippies in the book like to say. Recommended.

Oh geez.

Okay, I should write more but my uncle says it’s time to roll.

Reading/Have Read/Should Write About

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The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

After a few false starts over the last decade, I finally submerged myself in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon in those bourbon-soaked weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year. I read the book as a sort of sequel to the book Pynchon wrote after it, Against the Daysimply because I read Against the Day in 2013, before M&D. Both books are excellent, and seem to me more achieved in their vision than Inherent Vice or V or Vineland. The obvious comparison point for the pair though is Pynchon’s other big book (and, by reputation, his Big Book) Gravity’s Rainbow which I haven’t read since my freshman year of college—which is almost the same as not having read it at all. I intend to read it later this year (or maybe earlier?), but I also haven’t read The Crying of Lot 49 since my undergrad days either (which is to say, like, coming up on twenty years jesus). I’m about half way through and not zapped by it really—there are some funny jokes, but it’s just not as rich as Mason & Dixon or Against the Day (which is not meant to be a complaint, just an observation. And while I’m observing stuff parenthetically: What most bothers my attention most as I read are the reminders of David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System, which I have reread more recently than TCoL49).

Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles (collected in My Sister’s Hand in Mine)

What to say about Jane Bowles’s only novel? It goes: Propelled on its own sinister energy it goes, its vignettes flowing (or jerking or shifting or pitching wildly or dipping or soaring or sneaking) into each other with wonderfully dark comic force. I’ve sketched a full review I hope to be able to write, but for now let me excerpt a paragraph from Negar Azimi’s essay “The Madness of Queen Jane” from last summer in The New Yorker:

When it was first published, in 1943, “Two Serious Ladies” received lukewarm, even baffled, reviews. Edith Walton, writing in the Times Book Review, called the book senseless and silly: “To attempt to unravel the plot of ‘Two Serious Ladies’ would be to risk, I am sure, one’s own sanity.” Another reviewer said, simply, “The book is about nothing.” Jane’s family, in the meantime, found it unseemly in its stark depiction of lesbianism. Its characters, who have goals and motivations that are hard to grasp, were difficult to relate to. Yet another critic wrote, “The only shocking thing about this novel is that it ever managed to find its way to print.” Jane was only twenty-four.

Wharton’s line should intrigue, not repel readers. And: “The book is about nothing” — well, okay, that’s completely untrue—the book is about women searching for something, but something they can’t name, can’t conceive in language but can perhaps imagine. These women are on the brink of all those things one can be brinked upon: abysses, madness, abysses of madness, etc. But: “The book is about nothing” — well, okay, Two Serious Ladies resists unfolding in the way in which we expect narratives to be about something—Bowles withholds exposition, clarification, and motivation—well, okay, not withholds, but rather hides, or obscures, or enshadows.

I don’t have the verbs for this book.

But I loved reading it, feeling estranged from it while simultaneously invited into its darkness, bewildered by its transpositions, as Jane Bowles moves her verbal camera from one character to another—Wait, what? Okay, I guess we’re going over here now?!—its picaresque energy a strange dark joy. More to come.

William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion, a collection of essays edited by Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes

I’ve been dipping into this kind of at random, but it’s very rewarding, and I think it would make a surprisingly good introduction to Vollmann. To be clear, academic criticism is never a substitute for, y’know, reading the author’s actual texts, the range here covers voluminous Vollmann. And look, I’ll be honest, I’ll probably never read Argall, so I very much appreciated Buell Wisner situating it for me in his essay. One of the treats of this book is how an academic essay like Wisner’s—a well-researched close reading with 64 reference notes—is followed by a reflective and informal piece by Carla Bolte on designing Vollmann’s books (“Bill’s books are not for everyone. We all know that,” she offers at one point). Good stuff, more to come.

Dockwood by Jon McNaught

I owe this marvelous book a proper review. Dockwood is a kind of visual prose-poem, tranquil, meditative, autumnal. The book is its own total aesthetic; McNaught uses color and form to evoke feeling here, with minimal, unobtrusive dialogue that functions more as ambiance than exposition. Lovely.

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Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon

[Ed. note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon—which I loved. (See also: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s RainbowGeorge Orwell’s 1984, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, James Joyce’s Ulysses and David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress). I’ve preserved the reviewers’ own styles of punctuation and spelling].

What crap.

A talking dog?

I made a mistake.

Dialogue that is meaningless?

But what is the point of this story?

Pynchon is simply messing around

I can’t believe I read the whole thing.

I guess there’s no accounting for taste.

Rarely have I anticipated a book so hungrily.

Lost me at the talking dog, and never recovered.

I’ve also seen Pynchon praised for his erudition.

You think a talking dog or mechanical duck is funny?

Supposedly it’s a literary adventure through the 18th century

George Washington smoking pot and getting the munchies?

I consider my myself a reader who relishes literary challenges.

I am a reader who enjoys being bluntly told what the author thinks

The only book I’ve ever read that was a complete waste of time !

just an endless series of unconnected and unrelated ramblings…

Yes, it was a different world back then, and people talked funny (to our ear).

The publisher should have left the trees to grow rather than putting this in print.

I had to finish it – but resorted to scanning the text for references to my 7th great grandfather.

Pynchon is like strolling through a garbage dump full of meaningless, forgotten pop culture relics.

Wow, I give up on Mr. Pynchon who apparently has some intergalactic literary insights well above my head.

Regretfully, I’ll need to wait for the english language translation before properly assessing this novel’s merits.

Thomas Pynchon surely must have been smoking something more powerful than plain tobacco when he wrote this debacle…

I admit to approaching this book with a great deal of reverence, along with guilt for never having attempted either “V” or “Gravity’s Rainbow.”

Mr.Pynchon may be considered one of today’s great writers by the cosmopolitan literati, but this provencial reader found his work to be a 773 page morass of archaic vernacular with no particular point.

I would like to assert, however, as one who has read quite deeply in English prose of the last 400 years, that the much-praised “18th-century English” is nothing like, being full of anachronisms and lapses of decorum.

Pynchon doesn’t descibe. He makes lists of objects, as if the acculation of things or people surrounding the characters is enough to create some semblance of reality, or alternate reality, or hyperreality or whatever.

I am in the vast minority, obviously, who “didn’t get it.” Some times I wonder if reviewers, too “didn’t get it” but were afraid to say so, because this conglomeration of words is just that – a pointless, incomprehensible waste of trees.

My Tedium never Ceases, yet have I only Dredged thru half of this Tome. My eyes grow Tir’d and my Thoughts grow more hateful towards this Author. History is barely Reveal’d and the style has Vex’d me thru and thru. Hemp smoking Franklin? Confus’d and Stupid Astronomers? Half the book not spent in the country of interest? Yet I plod on, making a use of this Fantastique tale, to knaw away at the Minutes spent in the loo. Wouldst it be quite the thing, if only the Paper t’was softer, I can then make of it a Cleansing Agent for my Posterior once Finished with each page.

It was evidently written for a limited audience–people who can actually read eighteenth century style prose and who still find jokes about “not inhaling” to be amusing.

Pynchon’s style is clotted, mannered, meretricious and UNpoetic in the extreme. Indeed, I think much of the book, in word and matter, is a stale exercise in collecting academic trivia and faddish modern-day truisms about the period.

To be sure, there is some real history reported, but there is also much nonsense and fakery–the first pizza, golems–and interminable, leaden dialogues that could never have taken place.

Really Pynchon was just showing off his “imagination” with endless derails, whimsical characters that didn’t figure into the story at all, and stupid jokes bathed in obscure jargon.

If you like rambling verbiage that not only obstructs but obliterates the point, you’ll love this author, whose neurotic word dribblings are gnosticed by critics to be visionary insights.

For all the scribblings in this book’s 800 some pages, 90% of it just feels like hot air lacking any real message or content.

One could read this book from front to back, back to front, or from the middle both ways and not be able to tell the difference..

I love sentimental literature but I couldn’t for the life of me see much connection between Pynchon’s writings and the major works of the 18th century.

I challenge any fan to give even one insight about life or the universe that they gleaned from Mason and Dixon..

Just because the gags are about the hollow earth theory does not make them any more than just gags.

The reader is presented with one choppy chapter after another, often with little or no context.

The book is a mess and sorely needed a large pair of scissors to trim out the inane chatter.

Thers’s an old phrase about good writing: show, don’t tell. Phynchon don’t show nothun’.

For years Pynchon has intrigued me as being one of the “bosses” of modern literature.

There’s no sense of place, no compelling plotline. The characterization is merely O.K.

Pynchon is all over the map willy nilly throwing out anything that diverts his attention.

In what way was this an homage, parody, or imitation of 18th century literature?

If Thomas Pynchon has a plot or a story line, he surely has hidden it very well..

To this day I do not know what the book was about and what was going on.

The overall scheme of the novel is stupid and amateurish.

Too hard to read for this master’s degree English teacher.

Hundreds of unrelated and disconnected characters too..

Some as ridiculous as a talking dog, and a robot duck…

This book is a waste of time and paper.

What is all this supposed to mean?

Honestly, this book is just annoying.

The first pizza made in England?

Clearly, the fault is mine.

Wicks Cherrycoke?

Big @#$%ing deal.

Musical Duet Summary of Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon in Two Stanzas

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From Ch. 77 of Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. I love the elision expressed in those dashes — “I say, was that–” — I say, was that a talking dog? I say, was that were-beaver? I say, was that a giant cannabis plant? I say, was that a Sino-Jesuit cabal? I say, was that the Lost Tribe of Israel? I say, was that the missing 11 days, and the Asiatick Pygmies who inhabit them? I say, was that a mechanical duck, looking for love? I say, was that an electric eel? I say, was that a recipe for catsup? I say, was that the first English pizza? I say, was that The Black Dog? I say, was that an iron bathtub? I say, was that a ridotto of inflamed debauchery? I say, was that a Masonic conspiracy? I say, was that the metaphysical wind? I say, was that a dead wife’s ghost? I say, was that a friendship? I say!

Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (Third Riff: The Rabbi of Prague)

A. I’m a few chapters–three, precisely—from finishing Mason & Dixon. “Finishing” is not the right verb here, though—Pynchon’s novel is so rich, funny, strange, and energetic that I want to return to it immediately.

B. But I need to backtrack a bit, riff on one of my favorite episodes—Chapter 50.

C. (First riff and second riff for those inclined).

D. In Chapter 50,

’tis Dixon’s luck to discover The Rabbi of Prague, headquarters of a Kabbalistick Faith, in Correspondence with the Elect Cohens of Paris, whose private Salute they now greet Dixon with, the Fingers spread two and two, and the Thumb held away from them likewise, said to represent the Hebrew letter Shin and to signify, “Live long and prosper.”

Pynchon plays here on the reader’s initial understanding of the signal and phrase as a pop culture reference—

 

 

—but the goof isn’t merely postmodernist shtick—Pynchon is pointing to how the invisible manifests itself in signs and wonders, covert, cryptic, but perhaps—perhaps—decipherable.

E. (Maybe this needs clarification: The Rabbi of Prague is a tavern. I lost track of how many bars taverns pubs inns alehouses coffeehouses etc. show up in M&D). Read More