A couple of weeks back, I was looking for John Berryman’s biographical study of Stephen Crane. I did not find it, but I did find a signed hardback edition (not sure if it’s a first or second printing) of Harry Crews’s amazing memoir A Childhood.
Here’s the opening paragraph:
I already have the book (it’s included in Classic Crews—the best starting place for Crews (you should start)), but I couldn’t pass up a signed copy. (It was like 8 bucks I think, and I have store credit out the wazoo).
The War has been reconfiguring time and space into its own image 1. The track runs in different networks now. What appears to be destruction is really the shaping of railroad spaces to other purposes, intentions he can only, riding through it for the first time, begin to feel the leading edges of… .2
He checks in to the Hotel Nimbus 3, in an obscure street in the Niederdorf or cabaret section of Zürich. The room’s in an attic, and is reached by ladder. There’s also a ladder outside the window, so he reckons it’ll be O.K. 4 When night comes down he goes out looking for the local Waxwing rep, finds him farther up the Limmatquai, under a bridge, in rooms full of Swiss watches, clocks and altimeters 5. He’s a Russian named Semyavin. Outside boats hoot on the river and the lake. Somebody upstairs is practicing on a piano: stumbling, sweet lieder. Semyavin pours gentian brandy 6 into cups of tea he’s just brewed. “First thing you have to understand is the way everything here is specialized. If it’s watches, you go to one café. If it’s women, you go to another. Furs are subdivided into Sable, Ermine, Mink, and Others. Same with dope: Stimulants, Depressants, Psychomimetics… . What is it you’re after?”
“Uh, information?” Gee, this stuff tastes like Moxie… .
“Oh. Another one.” Giving Slothrop a sour look. “Life was simple before the first war. You wouldn’t remember. Drugs, sex, luxury items. Currency in those days was no more than a sideline, and the term ‘industrial espionage’ was unknown. But I’ve seen it change—oh, how it’s changed. The German inflation, that should’ve been my clue right there, zeros 7 strung end to end from here to Berlin. I would have stern talks with myself. ‘Semyavin, it’s only a temporary lapse away from reality 8. A small aberration, nothing to worry about. Act as you always have—strength of character, good mental health. Courage, Semyavin! Soon all will be back to normal.’ But do you know what?”
“Let me guess.”
A tragic sigh. “Information. What’s wrong with dope and women? 9 Is it any wonder the world’s gone insane, with information come to be the only real medium of exchange?”
“I thought it was cigarettes.”
“You dream.” He brings out a list of Zürich cafés and gathering spots. Under Espionage, Industrial, Slothrop finds three. Ultra, Lichtspiel, and Sträggeli 10. They are on both banks of the Limmat, and widely spaced.
“Footwork,” folding the list in an oversize zoot-suit pocket 11.
“It’ll get easier. Someday it’ll all be done by machine. Information machines. You are the wave of the future.” 12
1 If there is a central thread through these Gravity’s Rainbow annotations—and I’m not claiming that there is one—but if there is a central thread I’ve been trying to tease out, it’s that GR, despite being a complex and confounding conundrum, repeatedly clarifies its thesis. The narrator spells out another summary of the tale, this time in a dozen words.
2 The “he” here is Our Main Man Tyrone Slothrop en route to Zurich. It’s the spring of 1945, and we’re at the end of the second part of Gravity’s Rainbow, “Un Perm ‘au Casino Hermann Goering,” and riding into part three, “In the Zone.” Here, the war—excuse me, The War—is an entropy pushing out into “other purposes.”
3 Weisenburger notes in A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion that “The Nimbus appears to be a fictional hotel.”
You, dear reader, of course know that a “nimbus” is a cloud. I’ve always been partial to Magritte’s clouds.
“Nimbus” is also a term for the halo or aureola that often surrounds sacred or supernatural figures in artistic representation, like the rainbow that shimmers around Albion in Blake’s Albion Rose.
Later, in his hot air balloon escape from Marvy’s Mothers, Slothrop and his pirate pilot Schnorp will try to hide in a cloud.
From Joseph T. Shipley’s The Origin of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (1984). Check his last notation (the Nibelungen are a motif in Gravity’s Rainbow):
4 As GR progresses, Our Free Agent Slothrop gets better and better at spotting means of escape (he’ll note the keys left in an unattended car later in Peenemünde, for example). A ladder up, a ladder down. Rise, ascend, escape. Repeat.
5 All devices for measuring, obviously—ones and zeroes and all that. Slothrop is a disruptive force to traditional means of measurement, natch.
6 “French and Swiss liqueur distilled from the roots of gentian plants; also called Enzian” (Weisenburger, A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion).
Cf. Oberst Enzian, introduced on page 100—Enzian meets Slothrop a few dozen pages later and pushes Marvy from a train.
7 The inflation, the zeros…Pynchon intricately repeats his motifs, ever-threading them throughout the novel.
8 And who among us has not assured themselves that “it’s only a temporary lapse away from reality”? Semyavin’s complaint seems to be the default position of the 20th century. It’s downright quaint or naive in the 21st.
Reality is not a stable story, a progress, a culmination, but rather a entropic mess, a shuffling chaos, one big etc.
10 Weisenburger gives “Ultra, Lichtspiel, and Sträggeli” as nightclubs, and offers that Sträggeli means “‘specter,’ a ‘play of light’ (or Lichtspiel); in the same context, ‘Ultra’ refers to the very high frequency light waves in any spectrum of illumination.” Synonyms.
11 The zoot suit is another motif in GR (another kind of uniform that Slothrop dons—a non-uniform? a uniform of resistance?), and Pynchon’s evocation of the Los Angeles Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 (roughly 10 pages earlier) is a superb little number of storytelling.
The zoot suit received an unnecessary revival in the 1990s. I was then an impressionable lad in my very-late teens/early twenties, yet still had the sense to find this attire revolting. It’s possible now to see that the zoot suit revival gelled with the zeitgeist’s preference for baggy garb—hip-hop, mall goth, and skate culture clothes in particular.
12 Clearly prescient lines—both in the spring of 1945 and in 1973 when GR was published. Pynchon explores the idea of these information ideas in his 2009 novel Inherent Vice.
I love the metaphorical evocation of Slothrop as “the wave of the future” — a cliche that the narrative literalizes.
Just before dawn knocking comes very loud, hard as steel. Slothrop has the sense this time to keep quiet.1
“Come on, open up.”
“MPs 2 , open up.”
American voices, country voices, high-pitched and without mercy. He lies freezing, wondering if the bedsprings will give him away. For possibly the first time he is hearing America as it must sound to a non-American 3. Later he will recall that what surprised him most was the fanaticism, the reliance not just on flat force but on the rightness 4 of what they planned to do… he’d been told long ago to expect this sort of thing from Nazis, and especially from Japs —we 5 were the ones who always played fair—but this pair outside the door now are as demoralizing as a close-up of John Wayne (the angle emphasizing how slanted his eyes are, funny you never noticed before) screaming “BANZAI!” 6.
“Wait a minute Ray, there he goes—”
“Hopper! You asshole, come back here—”
“You’ll never get me in a strait jacket agaaaaain… .” Hopper’s voice goes fading around the corner as the MPs take off in pursuit.
It dawns on Slothrop, literally, through the yellowbrown window shade, that this is his first day Outside. His first free morning. He doesn’t have to go back. Free? What’s free? He falls asleep at last. A little before noon a young woman lets herself in with a passkey and leaves him the papers. He is now an English war correspondent named Ian Scuffling 7.
1 Slothrop has fled the clutches of The White Visitation and made out for Nice, where he hooks up with Blodgett Waxwing’s contacts in a squalid safehouse…the safehouse is actually closer to a madhouse though, or a halfway house.
2 Military Police—a concept that perplexed me when I was five or six, watching MASH reruns with my father. MASH is kinda sorta (slightly) Pynchonian, actually.
3 A fascinating notation.
Some jingoists would insist, of course, that no decent American (i.e., a Real American) ought to hear America the way it must sound to a non-American. Slothrop has already posed as an Englishman, but there’s a bit of a conversion here, I think—a shift for our shifter, who’s moving from not simply performing a double-agency to actually existing (or non-existing) one.
Cf. Walt Whitman’s 1860 poem “I Hear America Singing”:
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
To which, Langston Hughes, in 1926 replied in “I Too”:
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
4 When we most believe we are right we are most susceptible to being wrong. Unconsidered belief is terrifying.
5 Pynchon is too often accused of obscurity; his critique of blind patriotism and government propaganda is so clear that it hardly warrants this footnote. So I’ll comment, rather, on his brilliant modernist style—note the shift here, via free indirect speech, from third-person to first-person, from “he” to “we.”
6 I’m admittedly confused here—does the narrator attribute the expression BANZAI! to the MPs, or to John Wayne? I think what we have here is a conflation of both (which is to say a conflation of the third-person “he” with the first-person “I”—in other words, Slothrop, now attuned (or detuned) to “hearing America as it must sound to a non-American” can recast his country’s jingoistic martial fantasies and see/hear the Hero of the Military-Industrial-Entertainment Complex (John Wayne) as a cartoonish, racialized war trope).
In Japanese, the term banzai translates as ten thousand years, but basically means, as I’m sure you know, something like “Hooray.” During WWII, banzai was an attack cry for Japanese soldiers (review the independent clause after the ellipses in Pynchon’s original sentence).
Is BONZAI! here a strange transposition of GERONIMO!, an exclamation cribbed by U.S. Army parachutists from a 1939 film of the same name?
The ironic notation of John Wayne’s “slanted…eyes”seems like a nod to the notorious 1956 flop The Conqueror, which featured John Wayne as…Genghis Khan.
And speaking of BANZAI—
Have you seen the Pynchonesque 1984 film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension? It is good fun.
(W.D. Richter, director of Buckaroo Banzai, also co-wrote Big Trouble in Little China, in which Kurt Russell did a good/bad John Wayne impression).
7 Slothrop’s always shuffling off identities—or shuffling into them. Here, we get Ian Scuffling, his English journalist identity (for a few dozen pages). Scuffling…shuffling…? Let’s get the etymology.
From Joseph T. Shipley’s The Origin of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (1984):
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.
In high school I was, like many American intellectual kids, a stranger in a strange land. I made the Berkeley Public Library my refuge, and lived half my life in books. Not only American books—English and French novels and poetry, Russian novels in translation. Transported unexpectedly to college in another strange land, the East Coast, I majored in French lit and went on reading European lit on my own. I felt more at home in some ways in Paris in 1640 or Moscow in 1812 than in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1948.
Much as I loved my studies, their purpose was to make me able to earn a living as a teacher, so I could go on writing. And I worked hard at writing short stories. But here my European orientation was a problem. I wasn’t drawn to the topics and aims of contemporary American realism. I didn’t admire Ernest Hemingway, James Jones, Norman Mailer, or Edna Ferber. I did admire John Steinbeck, but knew I couldn’t write that way. In The New Yorker, I loved Thurber, but skipped over John O’Hara to read the Englishwoman Sylvia Townsend Warner. Most of the people I really wished I could write like were foreign, or dead, or both. Most of what I read drew me to write about Europe; but I knew it was foolhardy to write fiction set in Europe if I’d never been there.
—(Quietly) 1 It’s been a prevalent notion 2. Fallen sparks 3. Fragments of vessels broken at the Creation 4. And someday, somehow, before the end, a gathering back to home. A messenger from the Kingdom, arriving at the last moment 5. But I tell you there is no such message, no such home 6—only the millions of last moments… no more. Our history is an aggregate of last moments 7.
From pages 82-83 of Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow.
1 A stage direction. These are the final lines in a one-act play, a small (cosmically-large) tragicomedy featuring two…nerve cells. Rollo Groast of the White Visitation prefaces a page earlier:
It is part…of an old and clandestine drama for which the human body serves only as a set of very allusive, often cryptic, programme notes—it’s as if the body we can measure is a scrap of this programme found outside in the street, near a magnificent stone theater we cannot enter.
In this little play (its rough setting echoes GR’s own martial satire), a younger cell asks a senior cell if she’s ever been to the “Outer Level” and is somewhat shocked when she tells him that “sooner or later everyone out here has to go Epidermal. No exceptions.”
Is this the first episode of Gravity’s Rainbow staged as a play? I think so.
2 The “prevalent notion” the younger cell subscribes to is characterized in the four sentences that follow, and then rejected in the fifth, the sentence that pivots with “But.” A satire of religious hope, perhaps?—the notion of salvation, redemption, an organizing principle to arrive and tidy all the chaos?
3 The preterite. But also/and—
4 The notations on broken vessels and sparks seem to allude to the Kabbalah of Isaac Luria (1534-1572). I will not attempt a bad paraphrase of Lurianic Kabbalah here, but a basic big picture—sparks—souls, fragments of a one-soul—looking to be rectified. Pynchon, inking heavy his preterite-and-elect theme.
5 The deus ex machina in the last act, the game-winning Hail Mary pass, the Messiah, smiling and terrible…
Cf. the opening of Gravity’s Rainbow. From the sixth paragraph:
“You didn’t really believe you’d be saved. Come, we all know who we are by now. No one was ever going to take the trouble to save you, old fellow. . . .”
These are the first lines of dialog in the novel. (If they can be called dialog).
7 The “our” here is biological—one cell to another business—but is there more to human history? Are we more than just our cells? Are there sparks for these vessels?
The narrator here seems to superimpose an answer into the senior cell’s line here: History is simply an imposition, a psychological trick, a way to organize chaos via narrative.
Will Postwar be nothing but ‘events,’ newly created one moment to the next? No links? Is it the end of history?
This miniature cellular drama comes after the introduction to a minor character in Gravity’s Rainbow I’ve always found intriguing: Gavin Trefoil.
Trefoil, an agent (?!) of The White Visitation, has powers:
Lately, as if all tuned in to the same aethereal Xth Programme, new varieties of freak have been showing up at “The White Visitation,” all hours of the day and night, silent, staring, expecting to be taken care of, carrying machines of black metal and glass gingerbread, off on waxy trances, hyperkinetically waiting only the right trigger-question to start blithering 200 words a minute about their special, terrible endowments. An assault. What are we to make of Gavin Trefoil, for whose gift there’s not even a name yet? (Rollo Groast wants to call it autochromatism.) Gavin, the youngest here, only 17, can somehow metabolize at will one of his amino acids, tyrosine. This will produce melanin, which is the brown-black pigment responsible for human skin color. Gavin can also inhibit this metabolizing by—it appears—varying the level of his blood phenylalanine. So he can change his color from most ghastly albino up through a smooth spectrum to very deep, purplish, black. If he concentrates he can keep this up, at any level, for weeks. Usually he is distracted, or forgets, and gradually drifts back to his rest state, a pale freckled redhead’s complexion.
I suppose I could riff all day on the symbolic/historic implications of Trefoil’s powers: His gradations of color disrupt the binary (black-white, off-on, zero-one) that a Pavlovian like Pointsman insists upon (Trefoil’s super(?!)power falls in line with Roger Mexico’s gradations between 0 and 1).
But what really interests me here is Trefoil’s mutant powers and The White Visitation as a sort of potential comic book—I mean what I want to say here is that Pynchon points ahead to the 1975 “reboot” of Uncanny X-Men, and even The New Mutants: Post-global preterite underground weirdos with strange powers. Psychics and witches and protagonists that splinter into nothingness, after going through multiple reboots—(Plechazunga, the Pig-Hero, Rocketman, etc.). (Hell, the Pynchon X-Men team could even have Grigori the Octopus).
The closest X-Men comparison for Gavin Trefoil is probably the shapeshifter baddie X-Men antagonist Mystique, whose powers are obviously more pronounced than Trefoil’s. And there’s also Nightcrawler—maybe my favorite of Chris Claremont’s run on X-Men—or maybe I mean Excalibur. And also blueskinned Beast.
Late in the novel, Our Hero Tyrone Slothrop will help form the superish heroish team the Floundering Four (along with Myrtle Miraculous, zoot-suited Maximillian, and mechanical man Marcel). The Floundering Four will set out to battle the Paternal Peril. (Make of that what you will).
On Trefoil the Blueskin, here’s Steven Weisenburger (A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion):
I got to page 258 (of 801 pages, in the 2001 Vintage paperback edition).
On that page, the visiting poet (Visiting Poet?)—he’s visiting the post-apocalyptic city of Bellona, which is I guess the central character of Dhalgren (I guess?)—on that page, Ernest Newboy (go ahead and groan at that name), declares:
There’s no reason why all art should appeal to all people.
I took that as a sign that I could go ahead and quit Dhalgren.
Delany’s cult novel initially appealed to me, but: No.
I’m trying, right now, to think of a novel I’ve wanted to like more but didn’t like than Dhalgren. (Thomas Disch’s 334, maybe, which Dhalgren resembles? Ballard’s Millenium People, which suggests that somewhere out there there’s a better Delany novel I need to read—like I read the wrong one, the famous one?).
I wanted to like Dhalgren because it’s weird and messy and post-apocalyptic and discursive and shambling and tripping and plotless and vibe vibe vibe…but mostly I found it boring. And the prose was often, uh, bad.
(I just read William Gibson’s foreword to the thing, in which he declares it a “prose-city…a literary singularity…executed by the most remarkable prose stylist to have emerged from the culture of American science fiction.” Nah. (Gibson’s intro has this real awful Baby Boomer you-had-to-be-there-man tone to it too)).
There are bits and pieces of Dhalgren that were interesting enough to make me keep wading through the rubbish: tree sex, hologram gangs, the unnamed apocalypse, the specter of violence, the drugs, the weapons…but to give you an idea of this novel’s rhythm, the central protagonist, Kid, spends a sizable chunk of the novel’s third chapter moving furniture from one apartment to another.
The Kid also wants to be a poet, and Delany spends a lot of time dipping into our boy’s notebook. It’s bad stuff, cringeworthy, and not in an Isn’t-he-a-bad-writer? way. Delany’s own prose veers hippy dippy too—a mirror. (Mirrors and lenses and prisms and recursion images twist through the 250 pages I read. Reality’s an illusion, man. Or not. Or memory. Or something).
I’ve had every kind of warning that Delany’s novel is plotless and will refuse to cohere (Gibson: “Dhalgren does not answer”). I fucking love those kinds of novels. But they have to have something else: Good sentences, one after another. Humor that’s actually, uh, funny. A point of feeling or message beyond the kind of apocalypse vibe I absorbed by reading comics (and comix) when I was 11, 12, 13. Less furniture moving.
Anyway, I’m unconvinced that anything wonderful’s going to pop out in the next 550 or so pages. And I’m fine, at this point, of being wrong, and ready to move on to something else.
September 7th.–In a wood, a heap or pile of logs and sticks, that had been cut for firewood, and piled up square, in order to be carted away to the house when convenience served,–or, rather, to be sledded in sleighing time. But the moss had accumulated on them, and leaves falling over them from year to year and decaying, a kind of soil had quite covered them, although the softened outline of the woodpile was perceptible in the green mound. It was perhaps fifty years–perhaps more–since the woodman had cut and piled those logs and sticks, intending them for his winter fires. But he probably needs no fire now. There was something strangely interesting in this simple circumstance. Imagine the long-dead woodman, and his long-dead wife and family, and the old man who was a little child when the wood was cut, coming back from their graves, and trying to make a fire with this mossy fuel.
Louis Armand’s novel (or anti-novel, or whatever) is new from Equus Press.
It’s bigger than a brick.
Lots of footnotes, end notes, different fonts, maps, images, etc. The “text proper” (whatever that means) refuses to begin—epigraphs, notes, an “Overture,” etc.
Here’s the blurb from Equus:
Fiction. Drama. Art. The “European anti-novel” in all its unrepentant glory is here in THE COMBINATIONS, following in the tradition of Sterne, Rabelais, Cervantes, Joyce, Perec.
In 8 octaves, 64 chapters and 888 pages, Louis Armand’s THE COMBINATIONS is an unprecedented “work of attempted fiction” that combines the beauty & intellectual exertion that is chess with the panorama of futility & chaos that is Prague (a.k.a. “Golem City”), across the 20th-century and before/after. Golem City, the ship of fools boarded by the famed D’s (e.g. John) and K’s (e.g. Edward) of the 16th/17th centuries (who attempted and failed to turn lead into gold), and the infamous H’s (e.g. Adolf, e.g. Reinhard) of the 20th (who attempted and succeeded in turning flesh into soap). Armand’s prose weaves together the City’s thousand-and- one fascinating tales with a deeply personal account of one lost soul set adrift amid the early-90s’ awakening from the nightmare that was the previous half-century of communist Mitteleuropa. THE COMBINATIONS is a text whose 1) erudition dazzles, 2) structure humbles, 3) monotony never bores, 4) humour disarms, 5) relentlessness overwhelms, 6) storytelling captivates, 7) poignancy remains poignant, and 8) style simply never exhausts itself. Your move, Reader.
It was September now, a season of rains. The gray sky above the city washed with darker scud like ink curling in a squid’s wake. The blacks can see the boy’s fire at night and glimpses of his veering silhouette slotted in the high nave, outsized among the arches. All night a ruby glow suffuses the underbridge from his garish chancel lamps. The city’s bridges all betrolled now what with old ventriloquists and young melonfanciers. The smoke from their fires issues up unseen among the soot and dust of the city’s right commerce.
Sometimes in the evening Suttree would bring beers and they’d sit there under the viaduct and drink them. Harrogate with questions of city life.
You ever get so drunk you kissed a nigger?
Suttree looked at him. Harrogate with one eye narrowed on him to tell the truth. I’ve been a whole lot drunker than that, he said.
Worst thing I ever done was to burn down old lady Arwood’s house.”
“You burned down an old lady’s house?
Like to of burnt her down in it. I was put up to it. I wasnt but ten year old.
Not old enough to know what you were doing.
Yeah.–Hell no that’s a lie. I knowed it and done it anyways.
Did it burn completely down?
Plumb to the ground. Left the chimbley standin was all. It burnt for a long time fore she come out.
Did you not know she was in there?
I disremember. I dont know what I was thinkin. She come out and run to the well and drawed a bucket of water and thowed it at the side of the house and then just walked on off towards the road. I never got such a whippin in my life. The old man like to of killed me.
Yeah. He was alive then. My sister told them deputies when they come out to the house, they come out there to tell her I was in the hospital over them watermelons, she told em I didnt have no daddy was how come I got in trouble. But shit fire I was mean when I did have one. It didnt make no difference.
Were you sorry about it? The old lady’s house I mean.
Sorry I got caught.
Suttree nodded and tilted his beer. It occurred to him that other than the melon caper he’d never heard the city rat tell anything but naked truth.
Another vignette from Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree—a transition scene perhaps, but one that draws Suttree and Harrogate closer, even as it underlines their differences.
In the cabinet of the Essex Historical Society, old portraits.–Governor Leverett; a dark mustachioed face, the figure two thirds length, clothed in a sort of frock-coat, buttoned, and a broad sword-belt girded round the waist, and fastened with a large steel buckle; the hilt of the sword steel,–altogether very striking. Sir William Pepperell, in English regimentals, coat, waistcoat, and breeches, all of redbroad-cloth, richly gold-embroidered; he holds a general’s truncheon in his right hand, and extends the left towards the batteries erected against Louisbourg, in the country near which he is standing. Endicott, Pyncheon, and others, in scarlet robes, bands, etc. Half a dozen or more family portraits of the Olivers, some in plain dresses, brown, crimson, or claret; others with gorgeous gold-embroidered waistcoats, descending almost to the knees, so as to form the most conspicuous article of dress. Ladies, with lace ruffles, the painting of which, in one of the pictures, cost five guineas. Peter Oliver, who was crazy, used to fight with these family pictures in the old Mansion House; and the face and breast of one lady bear cuts and stabs inflicted by him. Miniatures in oil, with the paint peeling off, of stern, old, yellow faces. Oliver Cromwell, apparently an old picture, half length, or one third, in an oval frame, probably painted for some New England partisan. Some pictures that had been partly obliterated by scrubbing with sand. The dresses, embroidery, laces of the Oliver family are generally better done than the faces. Governor Leverett’s gloves,–the glove part of coarse leather, but round the wrist a deep, three or four inch border of spangles and silver embroidery. Old drinking-glasses, with tall stalks. A black glass bottle, stamped with the name of Philip English, with a broad bottom. The baby-linen, etc., of Governor Bradford of Plymouth County. Old manuscript sermons, some written in short-hand, others in a hand that seems learnt from print.
With a wildly excited Bendicò bounding ahead of him he went down the short flight of steps into the garden. Enclosed between three walls and a side of the house, its seclusion gave it the air of a cemetery, accentuated by the parallel little mounds bounding the irrigation canals and looking like the graves of very tall, very thin giants. Plants were growing in thick disorder on the reddish clay, flowers sprouted in all directions, and the myrtle hedges seemed put there to prevent movement rather than guide it. At the end a statue of Flora speckled with yellow-black lichen exhibited her centuries-old charms with an air of resignation; on each side were benches holding quilted cushions, also of gray marble; and in a corner the gold of an acacia tree introduced a sudden note of gaiety. Every sod seemed to, exude a yearning for beauty soon muted by languor.
But the garden, hemmed and almost squashed between these barriers, was exhaling scents that were cloying, fleshy, and slightly putrid, like the aromatic liquids distilled from the relics of certain saints; the carnations superimposed their pungence on the formal fragrance of roses and the oily emanations of magnolias drooping in corners; and somewhere beneath it all was a faint smell of mint mingling with a nursery whiff of acacia and the jammy one of myrtle; from a grove beyond the wall came an erotic waft of early orange blossom.
It was a garden for the blind: a constant offense to the eyes, a pleasure strong if somewhat crude to the nose. The Paul Neyron roses, whose cuttings he had himself bought in Paris, had degenerated; first stimulated and then enfeebled by the strong if languid pull of Sicilian earth, burned by apocalyptic Julies, they had changed into things like flesh-colored cabbages, obscene and distilling a dense, almost indecent, scent which no French horticulturist would have dared hope for. The Prince put one under his nose and seemed to be sniffing the thigh of a dancer from the Opera. Bendicò, to whom it was also proffered, drew back in disgust and hurried off in search of healthier sensations amid dead lizards and manure.
But the heavy scents of the garden brought on a gloomy train of thought for the Prince: “It smells all right here now; but a month ago… ”
He remembered the nausea diffused throughout the entire villa by certain sweetish odors before their cause was traced: the corpse of a young soldier of the Fifth Regiment of Sharpshooters who had been wounded in the skirmish with the rebels at San Lorenzo and come up there to die, all alone, under a lemon tree. They had found him lying face downward in the thick clover, his face covered in blood and vomit, his nails dug into the soil, crawling with ants; a pile of purplish intestines had formed a puddle under his bandoleer. Russo, the agent, had discovered this object, turned it over, covered its face with his red kerchief, thrust the guts back into the gaping stomach with some twigs, and then covered the wound with the blue flaps of the cloak; spitting continuously with disgust, meanwhile, not right on, but very near the body. And all this with meticulous care. “Those swine stink even when they’re dead.” It had been the only epitaph to that derelict death.
After other soldiers, looking bemused, had taken the body away (and yes, dragged it along by the shoulders to the cart so that the puppet’s stuffing fell out again), a De Profundis for the soul of the unknown youth was added to the evening Rosary; and now that the conscience of the ladies in the house seemed placated, the subject was never mentioned again.
The Prince went and scratched a little lichen off the feet of the Flora and then began to stroll up and down; the lowering sun threw an immense shadow of him over the gravelike flower beds.
From Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s 1958 novel The Leopard. English translation by Archibald Colquhoun.
Concord, August 5th.–A rainy day,–a rainy day. I am commanded to take pen in hand, and I am therefore banished to the little ten-foot-square apartment misnamed my study; but perhaps the dismalness of the day and the dulness of my solitude will be the prominent characteristics of what I write. And what is there to write about? Happiness has no succession of events, because it is a part of eternity; and we have been living in eternity ever since we came to this old manse. Like Enoch, we seem to have been translated to the other state of being without having passed through death. Our spirits must have flitted away unconsciously, and we can only perceive that we have cast off our mortal part by the more real and earnest life of our souls. Externally, our Paradise has very much the aspect of a pleasant old domicile on earth. This antique house–for it looks antique, though it was created by Providenceexpressly for our use, and at the precise time when we wanted it–stands behind a noble avenue of balm-of-Gilead trees; and when we chance to observe a passing traveller through the sunshine and the shadow of this long avenue, his figure appears too dim and remote to disturb the sense of blissful seclusion. Few, indeed, are the mortals who venture within our sacred precincts. George Prescott, who has not yet grown earthly enough, I suppose, to be debarred from occasional visits to Paradise, comes daily to bring three pints of milk from some ambrosial cow; occasionally, also, he makes an offering of mortal flowers. Mr. Emerson comes sometimes, and has been feasted on our nectar and ambrosia. Mr. Thoreau has twice listened to the music of the spheres, which, for our private convenience, we have packed into a musical-box. E—- H—- , who is much more at home among spirits than among fleshly bodies, came hither a few times merely to welcome us to the ethereal world; but latterly she has vanished into some other region of infinite space. One rash mortal, on the second Sunday after our arrival, obtruded himself upon us in a gig. There have since been three or four callers, who preposterously think that the courtesies of the lower world are to be responded to by people whose home is in Paradise. I must not forget to mention that the butcher conies twice or thrice a week; and we have so far improved upon the custom of Adam and Eve, that we generally furnish forth our feasts with portions of some delicate calf or lamb, whose unspotted innocence entitles them to the happiness of becoming our sustenance. Would that I were permitted to record the celestial dainties that kind Heaven provided for us on the first day of ourarrival! Never, surely, was such food heard of on earth,–at least, not by me. Well, the above-mentioned persons are nearly all that have entered into the hallowed shade of our avenue; except, indeed, a certain sinner who came to bargain for the grass in our orchard, and another who came with a new cistern. For it is one of the drawbacks upon our Eden that it contains no water fit either to drink or to bathe in; so that the showers have become, in good truth, a godsend. I wonder why Providence does not cause a clear, cold fountain to bubble up at our doorstep; methinks it would not be unreasonable to pray for such a favor. At present we are under the ridiculous necessity of sending to the outer world for water. Only imagine Adam trudging out of Paradise with a bucket in each hand, to get water to drink, or for Eve to bathe in! Intolerable! (though our stout handmaiden really fetches our water.) In other respects Providence has treated us pretty tolerably well; but here I shall expect something further to be done. Also, in the way of future favors, a kitten would be very acceptable. Animals (except, perhaps, a pig) seem never out of place, even in the most paradisiacal spheres. And, by the way, a young colt comes up our avenue, now and then, to crop the seldom-trodden herbage; and so does a company of cows, whose sweet breath well repays us for the food which they obtain. There are likewise a few hens, whose quiet cluck is heard pleasantly about the house. A black dog sometimes stands at the farther extremity of the avenue, and looks wistfully hitherward; but when I whistle to him, he puts his tail between his legs, and trots away. Foolish dog! if he had more faith, he should have bones enough.
July 28th.–We had green corn for dinner yesterday, and shall have some more to-day, not quite full grown, but sufficiently so to be palatable. There has been no rain, except one moderate shower, for many weeks; and the earth appears to be wasting away in a slow fever. This weather, I think, affects the spirits very unfavorably. There is an irksomeness, a restlessness, a pervading dissatisfaction, together with an absolute incapacity to bend the mind to any serious effort. With me, as regards literary production, the summer has been unprofitable; and Ionly hope that my forces are recruiting themselves for the autumn and winter. For the future, I shall endeavor to be so diligent nine months of the year that I may allow myself a full and free vacation of the other three.