I recently re-read all of Jeff Smith’s massive comic Bone—this time to my son, and this time in the Scholastic color reprints. (I read Bone in full with my daughter years ago through the unwieldy 1,300 page single-volume single edition; I read bits and pieces of it earlier in the late nineties, when Dave Sim (of Cerebus fame/infamy) was an early champion of Smith’s cartooning charms).
Anyway, we enjoyed the read, and the fourth book, The Dragonslayer, seemed particularly timely.
In this volume, Phoncible P. Bone—aka Phoney Bone—manipulates the fears of the populace of Barrelhaven. A natural conman, Phoney instructs the townspeople to build a wall to keep “dragons” out. Only sensible Lucius Down (and Phoney’s cousins, who know he’s a scammer) realize that Phoney is driven by egomania and greed.
Perhaps the most infuriating moment in the story comes when Phoney—a gifted pitchman—cloaks his greed in the language of ethics and morality.
Of course Phoney doesn’t win in the end. And Bone is just a comic; it’s not real life. It’s not like a xenophobic conman could really take sway over the zeitgeist.
Settright Road by Jon Boilard is forthcoming from Dzanc Books. Their blurb:
Settright Road is a collection of 20 short stories and one longer piece of fiction, all set in and around a string of busted Massachusetts mill towns during the cocaine-fueled 1980s.
Its pages are colored by unforgettable characters: a teenage lothario whose plans to escape his one-horse town by hopping a train to California are monkey-wrenched when he impregnates a local girl from a prominent family; fresh-out-of-prison Sean Folan, who nearly kills a man in a bar fight just so he’ll get locked up again; underage Bill Buick, who sells dope to hard-up townies and seduces high school girls, when he’s not driving a wedge between his aunt and her new boyfriend; and Eskimo — trouble in a too-tight dress — a dancer and a poet whose unsavory relationship with a strip club owner comes to a tragic end when she falls in love with a notorious backwoods brawler.
Jon Boilard lets loose these conflicted characters against a backdrop of the abject poverty that sits in stark contrast to the lush New England scenery; then he challenges us to root for these desperados despite the weight of their human errors.
He 1 gets back to the Casino just as big globular raindrops, thick as honey, begin to splat into giant asterisks 2 on the pavement, inviting him to look down at the bottom of the text 3 of the day 4, where footnotes will explain all 5. He isn’t about to look. Nobody ever said a day has to be juggled into any kind of sense at day’s end 6. He just runs. Rain grows in wet crescendo. His footfalls send up fine flowers of water, each hanging a second behind his flight. It is flight. He comes in speckled, pied with rain, begins a frantic search through the great inert Casino, starting again with the same smoky, hooch-fumed bar, proceeding through the little theatre 7, where tonight will play an abbreviated version of L’Inutil Precauzione (that imaginary opera with which Rosina seeks to delude her guardian in The Barber of Seville) 8, into its green room where girls, a silkenness of girls 9, but not the three 10 Slothrop wants most to see, tease hair, arrange garters, glue on eyelashes, smile at Slothrop. No one has seen Ghislaine, Françoise, Yvonne. From another room the orchestra rehearses a lively Rossini tarantella. The reeds are all something like a half tone flat. At once Slothrop understands that he is surrounded by women who have lived a good fraction of their lives at war and under occupation, and for whom people have been dropping out of sight every day… yes, in one or two pairs of eyes he finds an old and European pity, a look he will get to know, well before he loses his innocence and becomes one of them… . 11
So he drifts 12 through the bright and milling gaming rooms, the dining hall and its smaller private satellites, busting up tête-à-têtes, colliding with waiters, finding only strangers wherever he looks. And if you need help, well, I’ll help you… . 13
1 The “he” here is again Our Boy Tyrone Slothrop, and again, these annotations pick up right damn exactly where the last set left off. (Do not worry. I will not be annotating the entire novel paragraph by paragraph. I hope). Slothrop returns to the Casino Hermann Goering after an unsuccessful search for his friend Tantivy Mucker-Maffick.
2 What a wonderful series of transformations here, as the phenomenological world — “rain” — is converted via simile into “honey,” which transforms again into typographical representation — “asterisks.”
3 …and then the phenomenological world—which is to say here, the phenomenological world’s representation in literature—is converted into text. This is, uh, whattayoucall it, that metafiction? Slothrop’s family, recall, made their non-fortune in paper, a fact foregrounded near his introduction. We learn the Slothrops turned the natural world into a medium for text:
…green reaches were converted acres at a clip into paper—toilet paper, banknote stock, newsprint—a medium or ground for shit, money, and the Word. (28)
Shit, money, and the Word—key themes in Gravity’s Rainbow.
4 The phrase “the day” appears like a signature note not just throughout Gravity’s Rainbow but throughout Pynchon proper.
5 “….the bottom of the text of the day, where footnotes will explain all”—well, um. Lovely to look for answers, I suppose.
6 I’ll spell the line out in full again: “Nobody ever said a day has to be juggled into any kind of sense at day’s end.” Lovely on its own, but again, a concise if incredibly oblique gloss on Gravity’s Rainbow’s own end some 556 pages from now.
7 Cf. the fourth line of the novel (page 3): “The Evacuation still proceeds, but it’s all theatre.”
8 Weisenburger’s gloss from A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion:
The opera-within-an-opera is a kind of meta-textual, self-referencing recursion—what André Gide termed a mise en abyme.
Consider, by way of example, Velázquez’s meta-paintingLas Meninas, with its blurring of frame, gaze, reflection, self-reflection, and meta-reflection.
You’re undoubtedly familiar with The Murder of Gonzago, the play-within-a-play in Hamlet, which Shakespeare uses to satirize and comment on the “text” proper of his great tragedy.
Pynchon posits a play-within-a-play in his earlier novel The Crying of Lot 49 (1969), when he includes a summary performance of The Courier’s Tragedy.
Mise en abyme reaches a sort of apotheosis in Charlie Kaufman’s film Synecdoche, New York (2008):
9A silkenness of girls is the correct and proper term (if overlooked by some, if not most, linguistic authorities). English terms of venery are the best.
Cf. James Lipton’s An Exaltation of Larks (1968).
10 The three…Graces? Fates? Furies?
…or just Ghislaine, Françoise, and Yvonne?
11 Slothrop among the women.
What is the antecedent for the sentence-final pronoun “them”—what does the text promise Slothrop will become once he “loses his innocence”? (And how ironic is this reference to Slothrop the Innocent?)
Possible referents for the “them” included the implied antecedent “European” (later, Slothrop will become the European folk hero Plechazunga the Pig), “pairs of eyes” (not likely), and “women” (also not likely). No, the “them” to which Slothrop shall eventually be elected are those “people [who] have been dropping out of sight every day.” Slothrop the Invisible. Note that Pynchon hides the referent in a tangle.
12 “He drifts”—a key verb for Our Drifter Slothrop.
13 Slothrop alone. The final italicized line are Tantivy’s last words.
Outside, he 1 heads down toward the quay, among funseekers, swooping white birds, an incessant splat of seagull shit 2. As I walk along the Bwa-deboolong 3 with an independent air… Saluting everybody in uniform 4, getting it to a reflex 5, don’t ask for extra trouble, try for invisible 6.… bringing his arm each time a bit more stupidly to his side. Clouds now are coming up fast, out of the sea. No sign of Tantivy out here, either.
Ghosts 7 of fishermen, glassworkers, fur traders, renegade preachers, hilltop patriarchs and valley politicians go avalanching back 8 from Slothrop here, back to 1630 when Governor Winthrop came over to America on the Arbella, flagship of a great Puritan flotilla that year 9 , on which the first American Slothrop had been a mess cook or something 10 —there go that Arbella and its whole fleet, sailing backward in formation, the wind sucking them east again, the creatures leaning from the margins of the unknown sucking in their cheeks, growing crosseyed with the effort, in to black deep hollows at the mercy of teeth no longer the milky molars of cherubs, as the old ships zoom out of Boston Harbor, back across an Atlantic whose currents and swells go flowing and heaving in reverse 11 … a redemption of every mess cook who ever slipped and fell 12 when the deck made an unexpected move, the night’s stew collecting itself up out of the planks and off the indignant shoes of the more elect 13 , slithering in a fountain back into the pewter kettle as the servant himself staggers upright again and the vomit he slipped on goes gushing back into the mouth that spilled it… 14 Presto change-o! 15 Tyrone Slothrop’s English again! 16 But it doesn’t seem to be redemption exactly that this They have in mind… . 17
He’s on a broad cobbled esplanade, lined with palms shifting now to coarse-grained black as clouds begin to come over the sun. Tantivy isn’t out on the beach, either—nor are any of the girls. Slothrop sits on a low wall, feet swinging, watching the front, slate, muddy purple, advancing from the sea in sheets, in drifts. Around him the air is cooling. He shivers. What are They doing? 18
1 The “he” here is Our Dude Tyrone Slothrop, and if anyone’s keeping count, these annotations pick up right damn exactly where the last set left off. Slothrop exits his (tampered with) room at the Casino Hermann Goering to find his friend Tantivy Mucker-Maffick.
2Gravity’s Rainbow is full of shit.
3 Weisenburger offers the following gloss in A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion:
Weisenburger’s second “u” in “Boulougne” seems to be an error. (Or make what you will of a double-you).
Van Gogh depicted promenaders on the Bois de Boulongne in 1886, about six decades before the events in GR and about nine decades before Pynchon composed GR.
4 In Gravity’s Rainbow a uniform is a polyform. Our Boy Slothrop repeatedly changes uniforms; in this vignette, he’s donned an English soldier’s uniform—but just a few pages later he was wearing a purple toga; before that, a tacky Hawaiian shirt, and before that…well…you get the deal.
Pynchon might be suggesting that identity is contingent on circumstance, on external forces, on They—on the uniforms we have to slip on to cover over our shame. And yet many of his characters dress up to participate in shame! Gravity’s Rainbow is a carnival of shifting identities.
5 There’s that Pavlovian theme—will Slothrop break the reflex?
6Invisible is clearly (heh heh heh) a key word for Pynchon—it permeates Gravity’s Rainbow, as well as his other texts—particularly his other big books Against the Day and Mason & Dixon. I’m tempted to riff at length on Invisible in Pynchon, but perhaps it’s better to rack up annotations and try to align them to some, uh, purpose.
For now, it’s worth noting that Slothrop’s salute and uniform are his means of camouflage, his cloak of invisibility.
7 Ghosts…invisible (?!) ghosts…what an incredible paragraph this is, one I shouldn’t molest with my grubby annotations…but… .
8 Hold on…we’re gonna do a bit of time travel here. “…avalanching back” — this is a bit of the old assy-turvy, cart-before-horse dealieness—latter-first hysteron proteron business (as Weisenburger and others note).
9 The Arbella and a trio of other ships embarked unto America in the spring of 1630 under the command of Purtitan Man John Wintrhop, He Of “City Upon A Hill” fame, a phrase that in no way (LOL) cursed New World America. Hell, it may even be that Winthrop and his gang had civilization’s best interest in heart when they made the Massachusetts Bay Colony. I’m sure religious freedom ETC. motivated them, and not, like, all that goddamn “free” land.
The poet Anne Bradstreet was on board. Something of a pre-post-modernist, riffing on writing and paranoia in “The Author to Her Book” :
Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth didst by my side remain,
Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, exposed to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th’ press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
The visage was so irksome in my sight;
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.
I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot still made a flaw.
I stretched thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run’st more hobbling than is meet;
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save homespun cloth i’ th’ house I find.
In this array ‘mongst vulgars may’st thou roam.
In critic’s hands beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known;
If for thy father asked, say thou hadst none;
And for thy mother, she alas is poor,
Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.
Or maybe actually naw—not pre- or post- anything there. Just writing. And the paranoia writing entails.
10 Weisenburger and other sources point out that Pynchon’s ancestor William Pynchon was part of Winthrop’s fleet. This historical stitching suggests that Pynchon posits Slothrop as something (?) of an authorial…placeholder (?)—in any case, Pynchon and Slothrop both share Puritan ancestors. Wm Pynchon helped “settle” two places in Massachusetts—Roxbury and Springfield.
Roxbury is a the setting of one of GR’s strangest scenes, in which Slothrop descends into the abject hell of a nightclub toilet. (Around page 62 for those counting).
Pynchon kinda sorta showed up in another Springfield.
11 Hysteron proteron continued.
12 A redemption, a fall—even Pynchon’s note that Slothrop’s ancestor is a mess cook points to the novel’s abject contours.
13 Although consistently accused of willful obscurity, Gravity’s Rainbow telegraphs its central themes repeatedly. Here, we see a bobbing seasick distinction between the pure-elect and the abject-preterite.
14 And again…and gross. A sort of abject magic potion is getting worked up here, cross-Atlantic style (in-reverse)—the stew returns to the cauldron, the vomit returns to the guts. Hysteron proteron.
15 The magic words…
16 But…he was already wearing an English uniform.
17 Of course not—this They have other plans for Slothrop’s preterite soul—there is no return, no way home, no way back—no reversals.
Why here? 1 Why should the rainbow edges 2 of what is almost on him be rippling most intense here in this amply coded room? say why should walking in here be almost the same as entering the Forbidden 3 itself—here are the same long rooms, rooms of old paralysis and evil distillery, of condensations and residues you are afraid to smell from forgotten corruptions, rooms full of upright gray-feathered statues with wings spread, indistinct faces in dust 4 —rooms full of dust that will cloud the shapes of inhabitants around the corners or deeper inside, that will settle on their black formal lapels, that will soften to sugar the white faces, white shirt fronts, gems and gowns, white hands that move too quickly to be seen 5 … what game do They deal 6 ? What passes are these, so blurred, so old and perfect? “Fuck you,” whispers Slothrop 7. It’s the only spell 8 he knows, and a pretty good all-purpose one at that. His whisper is baffled by the thousands of tiny rococo surfaces. Maybe he’ll sneak in tonight—no not at night—but sometime, with a bucket and brush, paint FUCK YOU 9 in a balloon 10 coming out the mouth of one of those little pink shepherdesses there 11… .
He steps back out, backward out the door, as if half, his ventral half, were being struck in kingly radiance: retreating from yet facing the Presence feared and wanted. 12
Okay—this seems like a fair question. Let’s not be glib.
The question is Our Hero Tyrone Slothrop’s, via Pynchon’s oft-present free indirect style.
The where is the hotel room of Our Man in the French Riviera. Slothrop is on “furlough” (not really, they—They—have his ass hard at work) at the Hermann Goering Casino.
Poor Tyrone returns to his hotel room after a picaresque run (and wardrobe shift: tacky/sexy Hawaiian shirt to purple toga to English army uniform) to find that “everything in this room is really being used for something. Different. Meaning things to Them it has never meant to us. Two orders of being…”
Two orders of being: I could riff all day (night?) on this, but I suppose we can boil it down to GR’s binary theme. (Or, for fun, because it’s Our Boy Slothrop—Visible/Invisible (“paranoia” is the gradation between that binary).
2 The fourth appearance of the word “rainbow” in GR (barring the title, colophon, etc.). Another gradation, the rainbow, between binaries. An arc, a rise, a fall.
11 A fascinating image, I think. Leave the rococo knickknack of the pink shepherdess alone a moment (perhaps it suggests erotic enticement to you, pervert preterite?) and attend to just how and where Slothrop intends to append this “FUCK YOU” sign—in a comic book speech bubble. The intertextual (do I mean metatextual—it’s hard to keep up) possibilities here bubble and boil. It’s as if Slothrop would rewrite his room (“Two orders of being”) as a comic book.
A page or two later, we find Our Guy Slothrop reading an issue of Plastic Man.
12 Note here the halving of Slothrop, the text that cuts him—ventral. He’s in and out, facing a Presence but already half Absent. Is Our Savior Tyrone the one radiating the “kingly radiance” — or is he being radiated by it?—Or am I making too much of light?