Judge Holden holds forth on war (Blood Meridian)

From Chapter XVII of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian

They grew gaunted and lank under the white suns of those days and their hollow burnedout eyes were like those of noctambulants surprised by day. Crouched under their hats they seemed fugitives on some grander scale, like beings for whom the sun hungered. Even the judge grew silent and speculative. He’d spoke of purging oneself of those things that lay claim to a man but that body receiving his remarks counted themselves well done with any claims at all. They rode on and the wind drove the fine gray dust before them and they rode an army of gray-beards, gray men, gray horses. The mountains to the north lay sunwise in corrugated folds and the days were cool and the nights were cold and they sat about the fire each in his round of darkness in that round of dark while the idiot watched from his cage at the edge of the light. The judge cracked with the back of an axe the shinbone on an antelope and the hot marrow dripped smoking on the stones. They watched him. The subject was war.

The good book says that he that lives by the sword shall perish by the sword, said the black.

The judge smiled, his face shining with grease.

What right man would have it any other way? he said.

The good book does indeed count war an evil, said Irving. Yet there’s many a bloody tale of war inside it.

It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.

He turned to Brown, from whom he’d heard some whispered slur or demurrer. Ah Davy, he said. It’s your own trade we honor here. Why not rather take a small bow. Let each acknowledge each.

My trade?

Certainly.

What is my trade?

War. War is your trade. Is it not?

And it aint yours?

Mine too. Very much so.

What about all them notebooks and bones and stuff?

All other trades are contained in that of war.

Is that why war endures?

No. It endures because young men love it and old men love it in them. Those that fought, those that did not.

That’s your notion.

The judge smiled. Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard. Games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all. Games of sport involve the skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and define them. But trial of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up game, player, all.

Suppose two men at cards with nothing to wager save their lives. Who has not heard such a tale? A turn of the card. The whole universe for such a player has labored clanking to this moment which will tell if he is to die at that man’s hand or that man at his. What more certain validation of a man’s worth could there be? This enhancement of the game to its ultimate state admits no argument concerning the notion of fate. The selection of one man over another is a preference absolute and irrevocable and it is a dull man indeed who could reckon so profound a decision without agency or significance either one. In such games as have for their stake the annihilation of the defeated the decisions are quite clear. This man holding this particular arrangement of cards in his hand is thereby removed from existence. This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god. Brown studied the judge.

You’re crazy Holden. Crazy at last.

The judge smiled.

 

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Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49

[Editorial note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49. To be clear, I’m a big Pynchon fanI’ve preserved the reviewers’ own styles of punctuation and spelling. More one-star Amazon reviews].


If it were better written, it might qualify as pretentious.

the prose was simultaneously confusing and boring

my first Pynchon novel and probably my last

I am really picky when it comes to reading.

I suppose if you like post modernist crap?

This novel just did not do it for me.

Opaque, muddled, and mindless.

Yuck! Had to read for class. :-(

the characters were unlikable

Reading shouldn’t be work…

If you’re an English major

What is this I don’t even

I didn’t finish it

insufferable

convoluted

No thanks.

overly complicated

gacked-up cartoon of a…thing

stupidest thing I’ve ever read

left confused about many things

deliberate manipulation of names

palpably viscerally nauseated and sick

Pynchon and Robbins can just go and get a room.

I love A LOT of post-modern experimental fiction, but

I managed to finish this novel only because it’s short

This is really the worst book I have ever read

loaded with pretentious intellectualism

I find the weirdness too weird

required too much effort

A Silly Word Salad

wacky hi-jinks

post-beatnik weirdoes

difficult, delirious writing style

pretentious intellectualism posing as literature

like Sacha Baron Cohen of the dreadful movie “Borat” fame

(modern life is uncertain; there is no guarantee of a happy ending)

Pynchon is a sad man with a rather warped and gloomy view of the world

a prose style that is going to either delight or dismay most readers

physics, Greek tragedies, postal history, drug culture

is bizarre like the author is high when he wrote it

hyperstylized game of literary three card monte

I was expecting a Victorian crime drama

nothing to interest a decent reader

he really should find a day job

the character names; silly

without the humor

Thankfully brief

chaos engine

 

 

I consider myself a student of colours and shades and hues and tints (From Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts)

I consider myself a student of colours and shades and hues and tints. Crimson lake, burnt umber, ultramarine … I was too clumsy as a child to paint with my moistened brush the scenery that I would have liked to bring into being. I preferred to leave untouched in their white metallic surroundings my rows of powdery rectangles of water-colours, to read aloud one after another of the tiny printed names of the coloured rectangles, and to let each colour seem to soak into each word of its name or even into each syllable of each word of each name so that I could afterwards call to mind an exact shade or hue from an image of no more than black letters on a white ground.

Deep cadmium, geranium lake, imperial purple, parchment … after the last of our children had found employment and had moved out of our home, my wife and I were able to buy for ourselves things that had previously been beyond our means. I bought my first such luxury, as I called it, in a shop selling artists’ supplies. I bought there a complete set of coloured pencils made by a famous maker of pencils in England: a hundred and twenty pencils, each stamped with gold lettering along its side and having at its end a perfectly tapered wick. The collection of pencils is behind me as I write these words. It rests near the jars of glass marbles and the kaleidoscope mentioned earlier. None of the pencils has ever been used in the way that most pencils are used, but I have sometimes used the many-striped collection in order to confirm my suspicion as a child that each of what I called my long-lost moods might be recollected and, perhaps, preserved if only I could look again at the precise shade or hue that had become connected with the mood – that had absorbed, as it were, or had been permeated with, one or more of the indefinable qualities that constitute what is called a mood or a state of feeling. During the weeks since I first wrote in the earlier pages of this report about the windows in the church of white stone, I have spent every day an increasing amount of time in moving my pencils to and fro among the hollow spaces allotted to them in their container. I seem to recall that I tried sometimes, many years ago, to move my glass marbles from place to place on the carpet near my desk with the vague hope that some or another chance arrangement of them would restore to me some previously irretrievable mood. The marbles, however, were too variously coloured, and each differed too markedly from the other. Their colours seemed to vie, to compete. Or, a single marble might suggest more than I was in search of: a whole afternoon in my childhood or a row of trees in a backyard when I had wanted back only a certain few moments when my face was brushed by a certain few leaves. Among the pencils are many differing only subtly from their neighbours. Six at least I might have called simply red if I had not learned long ago their true names. With these six, and with still others from each side of them, I often arrange one after another of many possible sequences, hoping to see in the conjectured space between some or another unlikely pair a certain tint that I have wanted for long to see.

From Gerald Murnane’s 2018 novel Border Districts.

I failed as a reader of fiction (From Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts)

Whenever I tried long ago to learn from books about the workings of minds, I was equally troubled whether I read fiction or non-fiction. In the same way that I struggled and failed to follow plots and to comprehend the motives of characters, so did I struggle to follow arguments and to understand concepts. I failed as a reader of fiction because I was constantly engaged not with the seeming subject-matter of the text but with the doings of personages who appeared to me while I tried to read and with the scenery that appeared around them. My image-world was often only slightly connected with the text in front of my eyes; anyone privy to my seeming-sights might have supposed I was reading some barely recognisable variant of the text, a sort of apocrypha of the published work. As a reader of texts intended to explain the mind, I failed because the words and phrases in front of my eyes gave rise only to the poorest sort of image. Reading about our minds or the mind, and about purported instincts or aptitudes or faculties, not to mention such phantasms as ego, id, and archetype, I supposed the endless-seeming landscapes of my own thoughts and feelings must have been a paradise by comparison with the drab sites where others located their selves or their personalities or whatever they called their mental territories. And so, I decided long ago to take no further interest in the theoretical and to study instead the actual, which was for me the seeming-scenery behind everything I did or thought or read.

From Gerald Murnane’s 2018 novel Border Districts.

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Way too cheap (From Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland)

“Whole problem ’th you folks’s generation,” Isaiah opined, “nothing personal, is you believed in your Revolution, put your lives right out there for it—but you sure didn’t understand much about the Tube. Minute the Tube got hold of you folks that was it, that whole alternative America, el deado meato, just like th’ Indians, sold it all to your real enemies, and even in 1970 dollars—it was way too cheap. . . .”

A critique (by Gen X punker Isaiah Two Four) of the Baby Boomers. From Thomas Pynchon’s 1990 novel Vineland.  The “Tube” is television, of course, but might be a placeholder for any passively-consumed entertainment.

I guess it’s over (From Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland)

Mucho blinked sympathetically, a little sadly. “I guess it’s over. We’re on into a new world now, it’s the Nixon Years, then it’ll be the Reagan Years—”

“Ol’ Raygun? No way he’ll ever make president.”

“Just please go careful, Zoyd. ’Cause soon they’re gonna be coming after everything, not just drugs, but beer, cigarettes, sugar, salt, fat, you name it, anything that could remotely please any of your senses, because they need to control all that. And they will.”

“Fat Police?”

“Perfume Police. Tube Police. Music Police. Good Healthy Shit Police. Best to renounce everything now, get a head start.”

“Well I still wish it was back then, when you were the Count. Remember how the acid was? Remember that windowpane, down in Laguna that time? God, I knew then, I knew. . . .”

They had a look. “Uh-huh, me too. That you were never going to die. Ha! No wonder the State panicked. How are they supposed to control a population that knows it’ll never die? When that was always their last big chip, when they thought they had the power of life and death. But acid gave us the X-ray vision to see through that one, so of course they had to take it away from us.”

“Yeah, but they can’t take what happened, what we found out.”

“Easy. They just let us forget. Give us too much to process, fill up every minute, keep us distracted, it’s what the Tube is for, and though it kills me to say it, it’s what rock and roll is becoming—just another way to claim our attention, so that beautiful certainty we had starts to fade, and after a while they have us convinced all over again that we really are going to die. And they’ve got us again.” It was the way people used to talk.

“I’m not gonna forget,” Zoyd vowed, “fuck ’em. While we had it, we really had some fun.”

“And they never forgave us.” Mucho went to the stereo and put on The Best of Sam Cooke, volumes 1 and 2, and then they sat together and listened, both of them this time, to the sermon, one they knew and felt their hearts comforted by, though outside spread the lampless wastes, the unseen paybacks, the heartless power of the scabland garrison state the green free America of their childhoods even then was turning into.

An elegiac passage from Thomas Pynchon’s 1990 novel Vineland.

The spilled, the broken world (From Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland)

So the bad Ninjamobile swept along on the great Ventura, among Olympic visitors from everywhere who teemed all over the freeway system in midday densities till far into the night, shined-up, screaming black motorcades that could have carried any of several office seekers, cruisers heading for treed and more gently roaring boulevards, huge double and triple trailer rigs that loved to find Volkswagens laboring up grades and go sashaying around them gracefully and at gnat’s-ass tolerances, plus flirters, deserters, wimps and pimps, speeding like bullets, grinning like chimps, above the heads of TV watchers, lovers under the overpasses, movies at malls letting out, bright gas-station oases in pure fluorescent spill, canopied beneath the palm trees, soon wrapped, down the corridors of the surface streets, in nocturnal smog, the adobe air, the smell of distant fireworks, the spilled, the broken world.

A description of the postmodern Preterite world from Thomas Pynchon’s 1990 novel Vineland. 

Strugatsky brothers/Mutis/Pynchon (Books acquired, 8 May 2019)

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I went to the bookstore on Pynchon in Public Day, 2019 to pick up the only Thomas Pynchon novel I don’t own, Bleeding Edge. I’ve given the book a shot or three, checking it out from the library, but it’s never quite clicked for me. I’m reading Vineland right now though, the other Pynchon novel I haven’t previously read, and finally really digging it. So maybe I’ll read Bleeding Edge after (although I think I’ll probably immediately reread Vineland after reading Vineland).

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I have a little mental list of books and authors I look for while browsing, including the Australian writer Gerald Murnane whom I did not find a scrap by—but I did unexpectedly find The Mansion, a collection of early short stories and fragments by Colombian author Álvaro Mutis. Here’s one of those little sections (in translation by Beatriz Hausner):

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I also like to scan the massmarket scifi paperbacks at this particular used bookstore for original US editions of works by the Strugatsky Brothers. I’ve been a bit lucky lately, finding Hard to Be a God and The Final Circle of Paradise—and I was thrilled to find the Pocket edition of Roadside Picnic/Tale of the Troika. I read Olena Bormashenko’s 2012 translation of this book a few years ago, and loved it (I also really dug her translation of the Strugatsky’s superweird novel The Snail on the Slope). This translation is by Antonina W. Bouis, and includes an introduction by Theodore Sturgeon. I haven’t read Tale of the Troika, but Sturgeon describes it as a satire that evokes “Kafkaesque horror.” Sounds delightful.

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The Mother Conspiracy (Gravity’s Rainbow)

Otto is earnestly explaining his views on the Mother Conspiracy. It’s not often a sympathetic girl will listen. The Mothers get together once a year, in secret, at these giant conventions, and exchange information. Recipes, games, key phrases to use on their children. “What did yours use to say when she wanted to make you feel guilty?”

“‘I’ve worked my fingers to the bone!’” sez the girl.

“Right! And she used to cook those horrible casseroles, w-with the potatoes, and onions—”

“And ham! Little pieces of ham—”

“You see, you see? That can’t be accidental! They have a contest, for Mother of the Year, breast-feeding, diaper-changing, they time them, casserole competitions, ja—then, toward the end, they actually begin to use the children. The State Prosecutor comes out on stage. ‘In a moment, Albrecht, we are going to bring your mother on. Here is a Luger, fully loaded. The State will guarantee you absolute immunity from prosecution. Do whatever you wish to do—anything at all. Good luck, my boy.’ The pistols are loaded with blanks, natürlich, but the unfortunate child does not know this. Only the mothers who get shot at qualify for the finals.

Here they bring in psychiatrists, and judges sit with stopwatches to see how quickly the children will crack. ‘Now then, Olga, wasn’t it nice of Mutti to break up your affair with that long-haired poet?’ ‘We understand your mother and you are, ah, quite close, Hermann. Remember the time she caught you masturbating into her glove? Eh?’ Hospital attendants stand by to drag the children off, drooling, screaming, having clonic convulsions. Finally there is only one Mother left on stage. They put the traditional flowered hat on her head, and hand her the orb and scepter, which in this case are a gilded pot roast and a whip, and the orchestra plays Tristan und Isolde.

From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow.

Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a postmodern fantasy novel that challenges the conventions of storytelling itself

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Marlon James’s novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a postmodern fantasy that takes place in medieval sub-Saharan Africa. Set against the backdrop of two warring states, the North Kingdom and the South Kingdom, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the story—or stories, really—of Tracker, a man “with a nose” who can track down pretty much anyone (as long as he’s got the scent).

The central quest of Black Leopard, Red Wolf is for Tracker to find and recover a missing child of great importance. An explanation of exactly how and why the child is so important is deferred repeatedly; indeed, James’s novel is as much a detective story as it is a fantasy. In his detective-quest, Tracker partners with a number of strange allies: a talkative giant (who tells us repeatedly that he is not a giant), an anti-witch who places charms on Tracker, a duplicitous Moon Witch, a skin-shedding warrior-spy, a sandy-colored soldier from an alien land, a surly archer, a very smart buffalo, and more, more, more.

I used the word allies above, but truculent Tracker is just as likely to fight against the members of his fellowship as he is to fight with them. Black Leopard, Red Wolf runs on the same logic we find in comic books, where heroes fight each other first and then figure out why they are fighting each other after the fact. Sure, they’ll band together to fight lightning zombies, vampires, or roof-walking night demons—but they’re just as likely to go at each other with brass knuckles, axes, or arrows right after.

Chief among Tracker’s  allies/rivals is the Leopard, a shapeshifter. Throughout the book, Tracker and the Leopard fall in and fall out, fight and fuck, laugh and scream. Their bond is forged early in the novel, when they work together to rescue Mingi children, outcast mutants with strange appearances and stranger abilities. These children become an ersatz family for Tracker and provide an emotional ballast to a novel that often reads like a violent tangle of chaotic, meaningless tangents.

The fact that Leopard and Tracker—the title characters for the novel (Tracker gets his eye sucked out by a were-hyena and replaces it with a magical wolf eye; don’t ask)—the fact that Leopard and Tracker save children, particularly strange children is central to understanding their motivations in their quest to save the missing child.

From the outset though, the reader has to doubt just how successful the quest will be. Black Leopard, Red Wolf opens with these intriguing sentences: “The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.” These lines for foreground the novel’s two major themes: radical infanticide and the problem of knowing what we know and (story)telling what we know.

James’s novel uses infanticidal threat as the impetus for its central plot, the fellowship’s quest to save a child. In the backdrop though is Tracker’s oedipal rage toward his father/grandfather (don’t ask), a rage born out of the infanticidal threats Tracker himself has survived. Tracker has survived, but he is not at peace. He is perhaps the angriest narrator I have ever read, quick to temper and driven by (oedipal) impulses of revenge against a target he cannot name. His anger boils over repeatedly, and not just at his foes, but at his partners and his lovers—the Leopard, in particular.

At the same time, Black Leopard, Red Wolf transports us to scenes of strange love and strange families. James’s novel shows how radical love—Tracker and his Mingi children—might mediate, disrupt, or upend the impulses of revenge. And yet there is nothing permanent or stable in this postmodern novel.

Indeed, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is very much about the problem of how we know what we know and how we can express what we know. Tracker is our narrator, but he doesn’t tell us his story straight (there is nothing straight about this queer novel). Tracker tells his stories—the novel—to someone he addresses as inquisitor, but we never learn how Tracker came to be the inquisitor’s captive. Like Sheherezade in One Thousand and One Nights, Tracker seems to spin his story as a life-saving trick.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a tangle, a fluid that courses this way and that, a jumble of time and space. Like the “Ten and Nine Doors” that Tracker’s fellowship uses to teleport from one city-state to another, the narrative leaps through time and space, discursive and discontinuous. Tracker nests his narrative as well. We get tales inside tales inside tales, a matryoshka doll without a clear and definite shape. I occasionally felt submerged in reading James’s novel, as if I’d disappeared into an undersea cave only to find some strange current that bore me elsewhere.

Late in Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Tracker neatly summarizes the novel’s deconstruction of a stable truth, and then reverses the roles, demanding testimony from the inquisitor:

And that is all and all is truth, great inquisitor. You wanted a tale, did you not? From the dawn of it to the dusk of it, and such is the tale I have given you. What you wanted was testimony, but what you really wanted was story, is it not true? Now you sound like men I have heard of, men coming from the West for they heard of slave flesh, men who ask, Is this true? When we find this, shall we seek no more? It is truth as you call it, truth in entire? What is truth when it always expands and shrinks? Truth is just another story.

James has planned to write two sequels to Black Leopard, Red Wolf in what he is calling his “Dark Star” trilogy, and he’s stated that each entry in the series will, like an episode in Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon, tell the story from another perspective. After all, “Truth is just another story.”

Of course, Tracker’s telling can be confounding, even exhausting. James’s prose often feels picaresque, one-damn-thing-happening-after-another, a phantasmagoria of sex and violence signifying nothing—only it doesn’t signify nothing. It means something. Many readers won’t want to puzzle that out though.

A lot of the plot is delivered after the fact of the action. We get a form of clunky post-exposition—another form of storytelling, really, with one character summarizing the fragmented details the reader has been wading through for another character. In a kind of metatextual recognition of his tale’s messiness, James will often wink at the reader through his characters. Summarizing pages and pages of plot for the Leopard (and the reader), Tracker finds himself befuddled:

I told the Leopard all this and this is truth, I was more confused by the telling than he was by listening. Only when he repeated all that I said did I understand it.

A few chapters later, the pattern repeats. “The more you tell me the less I know,” one character tells another. Even storytelling can’t stabilize the truth.

While the plot’s unwieldiness can become tiresome, it is not a defect of the book as much as an intentional feature. However, some of the battle scenes fall into a kind of mechanical repetition of blank violence. Tracker tells us again and again how he “hacked” or “yanked,” etc. in scenes that become duller and duller as there are more of them.

The book is far more fun when it’s weirder—Tracker getting trapped by a mutant spider demon who sprays webs all over his face, or Tracker swimming with mermaids to the land of the dead, or Tracker and his companion visiting a technologically-advanced tree city-state ruled by a mad queen. James’s best set pieces don’t need battles to reverberate with energy.

The sex is more interesting than the violence in Black Leopard, Red Wolf—and there’s plenty of both. “Fantastic beasts, fantastic urges,” our lead characters repeat to themselves. James’s novel is deeply horny, its characters fluidly shifting into all kinds of weird fucking. Tracker partners with various members of his fellowship in more ways than one. Sex is magic in Black Leopard, Red Wolf, too—only ten pages in, Tracker ejaculates on a witch, she flicks his semen into a river, fish eat it, and turn into mermaids who lead him to the land of the dead.

There’s so much more in Black Leopard, Red Wolf that I haven’t touched on. The novel is lurid and horny, abject and affecting. It’s often quite funny, and, in the end, it turned out to be unexpectedly moving. It’s also exhausting and confusing, and will likely prove divisive for many readers. It’s clear that Lord of the Rings was a reference point for James (the word “fellowship” is oft-repeated in his novel), but Black Leopard, Red Wolf reminded me more of Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones than it did a traditional fantasy.

In its vivid weirdness and pure invention, James’s book also reminded me of Brian Catling’s novel The Vorrh. However, Catling’s novel often takes the colonialist viewpoint. Black Leopard, Red Wolf  points to a fantasy that could reverse our own history, potentially obliterate that viewpoint’s existence. When Tracker asks the inquisitor, “Now you sound like men I have heard of, men coming from the West for they heard of slave flesh, men who ask, Is this true?”, his questioning seems to point to the larger implications of the James’s Dark Star universe—a precolonial space with a looming threat from the West. Late in Black Leopard, Red Wolf, one character warns the others that the warring between the North and South Kingdoms, between tribes and city-states must end. There’s an existential threat on the horizon. I find the potential storytelling here intriguing.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is clearly Not for Everybody. It’s violent and strange, and the sex in it will likely upset conservative readers. It’s also shaggy and unwieldy. It probably has a future as a cult novel. You just sort of have to go with its fluid (in every sense of that word) program and enjoy the ride. I enjoyed it very much and am looking forward to the sequel.

Pynchon in Public Post, 2019

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Today is the 82nd birthday of the American author Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, which a lot of jokers on the internet have turned into Pynchon in Public Day.

The spirit of Pynchon in Public Day is zany fun, and mostly centers around reading Pynchon’s works in public and spreading the muted post horn symbol from The Crying of Lot 49 around as much as possible. I am the last person in the world who will read a book in a coffee shop, but I did don my second 49 shirt today—-

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—and head to the bookstore to pick up the only Pynchon novel I don’t own, Bleeding Edge. More on that in second, but—no real recognition on the shirt today, although I’ve gotten some reactions to the other muted post horn shirt I own over the years, mostly from booksellers (not that interesting I know).

A few years ago though, wandering around downtown Los Angeles (wearing a muted post horn shirt), a stranger passing opposite me on the sidewalk hailed me with this question: “Are you the Trystero, guy?” At least that’s what I thought I said. I looked confused, asked, “What?” and he repeated — “Are you the Trystero guy?”

This particular moment struck me with a neat silly wave of minor paranoia, a Pynchonian moment, maybe—was this some kind of call sign for me to repeat, a password in a game of good fun? So I did the only thing that seemed sensible and replied, “Yes, I am the Trystero.”

The guy then proceeded to tell me that he loved my coffee. This confused me, so I told him that loved his coffee. Then he looked confused. After a few minutes on the hot July L.A. sidewalk we finally figured out a few things: He was referring to Trystero Coffee, which he showed me all about on his iPhone, and I was referring to The Crying of Lot 49, which he promised to read at the end of our exchange.

So anyway I went to the bookstore and picked up Bleeding Edge (and a few other books too, I admit). Along with Vineland, it’s the only Pynchon novel I haven’t read (despite two attempts on each). I’ll read Bleeding Edge before May 8th, 2020 though.

I started a retry of Vineland though. I had hoped to get past the farthest I remember going in—like the first 90 pages—before this post—-but I only made it through the first five chapters these past two days (through page 67). Still, I’d forgotten all about Ch. 5, the “Kahuna Airlines” chapter, which steers the book into new territory, and even though it still hasn’t hooked me yet (unlike the other Pynchons at this point), I’m starting to appreciate it for what I guess it is: Pynchon’s analysis of the eighties, of the absorption of the counterculture into culture, of nostalgia. The jokes are often hilarious and terrible, sometimes simultaneously. Pynchon sets up a Loony Tunes diner bit to deliver the execrable punchline, “Check’s in the mayo” for example. Pynchon names a lawn care company “The Marquis de Sod.” There’s a moment where protagonist Zoyd Wheeler pays for a ludicrous psychedelic party dress with “a check both he and the saleslady shared a premonition would end up taped to this very cash register after failing to clear,” a wonderful little throwaway line that shows Zoyd’s brokeassedness and empathy (and also highlights the Lebowski-Pynchon overlap, if you like). The line that’s cracked me up each time I’ve read it though is Zoyd’s daughter Prairie’s punker boyfriend being described as “the NBA-sized violence enthusiast who might or might not be fucking his daughter.” It’s just so dumb and poetic. I had also missed a few things — the night manager of Bodhi Dharma Pizza is named “Baba Havabananda,” a reference I’m thinking to Gravity’s Rainbow (“Have a banana”). There’s also a reference to the Vulcan hand salute, which shows up improbably in Pynchon’s next novel, Mason & Dixon (more on that here). And there’s the whole Bigfoot motif too, which Pynchon would echo in Inherent Vice, with Zoyd and Zuniga prefigurations of Doc Sportello and Bigfoot Bjornsen. And like every Pynchon novel, I’m sure I’ve already missed a ton of stuff.

Anyway, more on Vineland to come. In the meantime, if you haven’t read Pynchon–why not check him out?

The extinction of the dodo | A passage from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow

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Dodo, 1638 by Cornelis Saftleven (1607-1681)

He left the dodoes to rot, he couldn’t endure to eat their flesh. Usually, he hunted alone. But often, after months of it, the isolation would begin to change him, change his very perceptions—the jagged mountains in full daylight flaring as he watched into freak saffrons, streaming indigos, the sky his glass house, all the island his tulipomania. The voices—he insomniac, southern stars too thick for constellations teeming in faces and creatures of fable less likely than the dodo—spoke the words of sleepers, singly, coupled, in chorus. The rhythms and timbres were Dutch, but made no waking sense. Except that he thought they were warning him… scolding, angry that he couldn’t understand. Once he sat all day staring at a single white dodo’s egg in a grass hummock. The place was too remote for any foraging pig to’ve found. He waited for scratching, a first crack reaching to net the chalk surface: an emergence. Hemp gripped in the teeth of the steel snake, ready to be lit, ready to descend, sun to black-powder sea, and destroy the infant, egg of light into egg of darkness, within its first minute of amazed vision, of wet downstirred cool by these south-east trades… . Each hour he sighted down the barrel. It was then, if ever, he might have seen how the weapon made an axis potent as Earth’s own between himself and this victim, still one, inside the egg, with the ancestral chain, not to be broken out for more than its blink of world’s light. There they were, the silent egg and the crazy Dutchman, and the hookgun that linked them forever, framed, brilliantly motionless as any Vermeer. Only the sun moved: from zenith down at last behind the snaggleteeth of mountains to Indian ocean, to tarry night. The egg, without a quiver, still unhatched. He should have blasted it then where it lay: he understood that the bird would hatch before dawn. But a cycle was finished. He got to his feet, knee and hip joints in agony, head gonging with instructions from his sleeptalkers droning by, overlapping, urgent, and only limped away, piece at right shoulder arms.

Continue reading “The extinction of the dodo | A passage from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow”

Three potential starting points for reading Thomas Pynchon

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Today is Pynchon in Public Day, so here are three books that I think may make good entry points for those interested in, but perhaps unnecessarily daunted by, Thomas Pynchon. My intuition is that many readers’ first experiences reading Pynchon may have been like mine: I read The Crying of Lot 49 as a college assignment, found it bewildering and baffling, and despite understanding almost none of it, I then attempted Gravity’s Rainbow (the key word is attempted (failed will also do in a pinch)).

Many readers start with The Crying of Lot 49 because it’s short. While I like the novel (I wrote about it here), it’s also extraordinarily dense, a box so crammed with jokes and japes that some fail to spring out at full force. Lot 49 is a much better reading experience after you’ve read more of Pynchon.

Lots of readers new to Pynchon plunge into Gravity’s Rainbow, probably because it’s famous. I love love love Gravity’s Rainbow, but along with Mason & Dixon (which may be my favorite Pynchon novel), I do not think it is a good starting place for Pynchon. Gravity’s Rainbow is a rich, ringing vortex, a seven-hundred-and-something pager that almost necessitates that its reader immediately reread it. Gravity’s Rainbow is a very funny and very tragic book, and I think it is the work of genius that its reputation suggests—but it’s also one of the few books I can think of that get put on lists of Big Difficult Novels that is, actually, Difficult.

So here are my suggestions for starting places for Pynchon.

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Against the Day, 2006.

Okay. So maybe you’re saying, Waitisn’t that one, like, really long? Reader, you’re correct. At 1,085 pages Against the Day is Pynchon’s longest novel to date. But it’s also one of his most accessible, and, most importantly, it offers a condensation of Pynchon’s Big Ideas and Big Themes. (I wrote a list of 101 possible descriptors for Against the Day, if you’re interested in a short take; I also riffed on the book at some length in a series of posts).

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V., 1963.

V. is Thomas Pynchon’s first novel. It’s also the first Pynchon novel I read and loved and (possibly) understood. Like Against the DayV. lays out many of the themes and styles (and even a character or two) that appear elsewhere Pynchon’s oeuvre. In a loose sense, V. feels like a dress rehearsal for Gravity’s Rainbow. Oh, it’s also pretty discursive—in fact, you can read chunks of it almost as short stories. In fact, here’s a good way to break into Pynchon: Get V., and read Ch. 9–it stands on its own as a long short story, the tale of Kurt Mondaugen—and colonialism, siege paranoia, dark dread, etc.

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Inherent Vice, 2009.

I’ve heard Inherent Vice dismissed as “Pynchon lite,” which may be true—I’ve read the book twice now and if its shaggy threads connect, I can’t see it (unlike, say, Gravity’s Rainbow, which resolves like a complicated math problem). Still, Inherent Vice makes a nice gateway drug to Pynchon—it’s funny and loose, and even though it rambles through an enormous cast of characters and settings, it’s ultimately far, far more contained than sprawling novels like Mason & Dixon and Gravity’s Rainbow. Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation also makes an interesting visual counterpart to the novel—which it somehow simultaneously condenses and expands. Inherent Vice—the novel—also seems to me a kind of bookend or sequel to The Crying of Lot 49. (I wrote a bit about that here).

Last thought: Ignore my suggestions. Pick any novel that interests you by Pynchon and dive in. Don’t get too frustrated if you’re not sure what’s going on. A lot of the time, that’s the point of it all. Enjoy it.

[Ed. note–Biblioklept ran a version of this post on 8 May 2016].

The fragrance of the arbutus is spicy and exquisite | Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for April 28th, 1851

April 28th.–For a week we have found the trailing arbutus pretty abundant in the woods. A day or two since, Una found a few purple violets, and yesterday a dandelion in bloom. The fragrance of the arbutus is spicy and exquisite.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for April 28th, 1851. From Passages from the American Note-Books

Problem with you Markson you’ve got no God damned fellow feeling in bosom (William Gaddis)

Problem with you Markson you’ve got no God damned fellow feeling in bosom, put yourself in the poor bastard’s place: like if your wife wrote a novel and the best agent in town declined to handle it, would you go around giving a free ride to the agent’s clients? I mean why the hell do you think some poor bastard wants to be a book calumnist in the first place.

–A 1975 letter from William Gaddis to David Markson. Collected in Letters of William Gaddis, edited by Steven Moore. Moore provides this context for Gaddis’s satirical letter:

When Christopher Lehmann-Haupt’s negative review of J R appeared in the daily New York Times on 30 October, Markson sent a postcard the same day to WG reading: “Dear Bill—Fuck Christopher Lehmann-Haupt!” (Lehmann-Haupt had also written a negative review of Markson’s Going Down five years earlier.) Gaddis’s reply, undated and without salutation, plays on a joke in J R whereby a foreigner takes literally a dictionary definition of “sympathy” (488–89)…

Baudelaire/Musil (Books acquired, mid-April 2019)

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Contra Mundum has two new ones in translation.

Robert Musil’s Unions, translated by Genese Grill, comprises two early stories, “The Completion of Love” and “The Temptation of Quiet Veronica.” From Contra Mundum’s blurb.

 

The stories in Unions, drawn from Martha’s [Marcovaldi, Musil’s wife] life, explode conventional morality; explore questions of self, union, and dissolution of self; and approximate exceptional sensations of erotic and intellectual perception in a shimmering and exceedingly dense proliferation of metaphors. The images, Musil tells us in a note, are the bone, not just the skin, of these carefully crafted stories. Each word is as motivated as the internal and external moments it attempts to embody in language. Although Musil did not continue to work in this experimental style in his later writing, in a late note he affirmed that Unions, the fruit of much artistic struggle and deep personal engagement, was the only one of his books that he sometimes still read from.

Belgium Stripped Bare is bad boy Baudelaire’s bad-mood visit to Belgium in the mid-1860s. This translation by Rainer J. Hanshe is comprised of Baudelaire’s journal entries, observations, and clippings of his time in Belgium, the place he left Paris for in 1864 in self-imposed exile. The entries, like this one, are fucking mean:

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And I have no idea what to make of this—

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I have yet to read Hanshe’s lengthy introduction for context, though—but from the blurb:

 Belgium Stripped Bare is an aesthetico-diagnostic litany of often vitriolic observations whose victory is found in the act of analysis itself, in the intoxication of diagnosis, just as great comedians exult in caustic and biting observations of society, a slap in the face of the status quo.

Cigarette Bunnies 1 and 2 — Laurie Hogin

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Cigarette Bunnies 1 and Cigarette Bunnies 2, 2016 by Laurie Hogin (b. 1963)