Hearing America as it must sound to a non-American | Gravity’s Rainbow, annotations for page 256

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 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.
Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.
Besides,
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.”

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).

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):

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Gravity’s Rainbow — annotations and illustrations for pages 203-04

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.

2 Gravity’s Rainbow is full of shit.

3 Weisenburger offers the following  gloss in A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion:

Screenshot 2016-09-22 at 8.23.26 PM.png

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.

the-bois-de-boulogne-with-people-walking-1886
The Bois De Boulogne with People Walking, Vincent van Gogh, 1886

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?

6 Invisible 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.

A Taste of the Invisible, Rene Magritte, 1927
A Taste of the Invisible, Rene Magritte, 1927

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.

A postcard depicting The Arbella, printed sometime between 1930 – 1945

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.

18 Yes—What are They doing?

Gravity’s Rainbow — annotations and illustrations for page 105 | The real business of the War is buying and selling

“The blackmarket blights peace,” Dutch postwar propaganda poster, 1946

Don’t forget the real business of the War is buying and selling 1. The murdering and the violence are self-policing, and can be entrusted to non-professionals. The mass nature of wartime death is useful in many ways 2. It serves as spectacle, as diversion from the real movements of the War. It provides raw material to be recorded into History, so that children may be taught History as sequences of violence, battle after battle, and be more prepared for the adult world 3. Best of all, mass death’s a stimulus 4 to just ordinary folks, little fellows 5, to try ’n’ grab a piece of that Pie while they’re still here to gobble it up. The true war is a celebration of markets 6. Organic markets, carefully styled “black” 7 by the professionals, spring up everywhere. Scrip, Sterling, Reichsmarks continue to move, severe as classical ballet, inside their antiseptic marble chambers. But out here, down here among the people, the truer currencies come into being. So, Jews are negotiable. Every bit as negotiable as cigarettes, cunt, or Hershey bars. Jews also carry an element of guilt, of future blackmail, which operates, natch, in favor of the professionals. 8

From page 105 of Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow.

1 Gravity’s Rainbow is often (unjustly and unfairly) maligned as a messy, even pointless affair—but here’s our author speaking through the narrator, offering up one of the novel’s points—clearly, without equivocation.

Our narrator digs irony though…

Entropy is all—but entropy doesn’t make for good capitalism, by which our sly narrator means, Their Capitalism. The adult world needs to be organized, systematized, caused and effected.

Cf. Jack Gibbs’s rant to his erstwhile young students, early in William Gaddis’s 1975 novel of capitalism, J R:

Before we go any further here, has it ever occurred to any of you that all this is simply one grand misunderstanding? Since you’re not here to learn anything, but to be taught so you can pass these tests, knowledge has to be organized so it can be taught, and it has to be reduced to information so it can be organized do you follow that? In other words this leads you to assume that organization is an inherent property of the knowledge itself, and that disorder and chaos are simply irrelevant forces that threaten it from the outside. In fact it’s the opposite. Order is simply a thin, perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos . . .

Note the not-so-oblique reference to GR’s theme of stimulus-response (and upending that response).

Not too much earlier in the narrative, dedicated Pavlovian Dr. Edward W.A. Pointsman worries about the end of cause and effect, the rise of entropy:

Will Postwar be nothing but ‘events,’ newly created one moment to the next? No links? Is it the end of history?

5…the preterite?

Pynchon reiterates his thesis.

Note that organic (entropic?) markets fall outside of Their System—y’know, Them—the Professionals—these organic (chaotic, necessary) markets must be labeled “black” (preterite?).

Here’s another Dutch propaganda poster:

“Protect them against the black market!”, Dutch propaganda poster, 1944

Page 105 of Gravity’s Rainbow “happens,” more or less, in 1944, in the middle of an extended introduction of Katje Borgesius, a Dutch double agent. (Or is that double Dutch agent?). The propaganda poster above strikes me as overtly racist, but also seems to nod to King Kong (1933, dir. Cooper and Schoedsack). Gravity’s Rainbow is larded with references to King Kong, a sympathetic but powerful force of entropy, a force against the Professionals.

Still from King Kong, 1933
Still from King Kong, 1933

From the invaluable annotations at Pynchon Wiki’s Gravity’s Rainbow site (there is no annotation for page 105 at Pynchon Wiki, by the way, and no notes on the passage I’ve cited above either in Steven Weisenburger’s A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion):

King Kong & the Like

Fay Wray look, 57; Fay Wray, 57, 179, 275; “You will have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood,” 179; “headlights burning like the eyes of” 247; “the black scapeape we cast down like Lucifer,” 275; Mitchell Prettyplace book about, 275; “Giant ape” 276; “the Fist of the Ape,” 277; “orangutan on wheels,” 282; taking a shit, 368; “The figures darkened and deformed, resembling apes” 483; “a troupe of performing chimpanzees” 496; “on the tit with no motor skills,” 578; “Negroid apes,” 586; “that sacrificial ape,” 664; “a gigantic black ape,” 688; Carl Denham, 689; poem based on King Kong, 689; See also: actors/directors film/cinema references;

The Kong-figure in the Dutch propaganda poster seems to wear the petasos (winged hat) and wield the caduceus of Hermes or Mercury—god of thieves. But also god of the market, of commerce, merchandise, all things mercenary.

From Joseph T. Shipley’s The Origin of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (1984):

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The passage as a whole, which emphasizes war as a conduit for the techne of the market (or do I have that backwards? should I note the market of techne?) echoes an earlier passage. From page 81:

It was widely believed in those days that behind the War—all the death, savagery, and destruction—lay the Führer-principle. But if personalities could be replaced by abstractions of power, if techniques developed by the corporations could be brought to bear, might not nations live rationally? One of the dearest Postwar hopes: that there should be no room for a terrible disease like charisma.

All signs seem to point to No.

Gravity’s Rainbow — Annotations and illustrations for pages 82-83

Andrea Solario
Andrea Solario

Overhead, on the molded plaster ceiling, Methodist versions of Christ’s kingdom swarm: lions cuddle with lambs, fruit spills lushly and without pause into the arms and about the feet of gentlemen and ladies, swains and milkmaids. No one’s expression is quite right. The wee creatures leer, the fiercer beasts have a drugged or sedated look, and none of the humans have any eye-contact at all 1 . The ceilings of “The White Visitation” aren’t the only erratic thing about the place, either. It is a classic “folly,” 2 all right. The buttery was designed as an Arabian harem in miniature, for reasons we can only guess at today, full of silks, fretwork and peepholes. One of the libraries served, for a time, as a wallow, the floor dropped three feet and replaced with mud up to the thresholds for giant Gloucestershire Old Spots to frolic, oink, and cool their summers in 3, to stare at the shelves of buckram books and wonder if they’d be good eating 4. Whig eccentricity 5 is carried in this house to most unhealthy extremes. The rooms are triangular, spherical, walled up into mazes 6. Portraits, studies in genetic curiosity, gape and smirk at you from every vantage. The W.C.s contain frescoes of Clive and his elephants stomping the French at Plassy 7, fountains that depict Salome with the head of John (water gushing out ears, nose, and mouth)8, floor mosaics in which are tessellated together different versions of Homo Monstrosus, an interesting preoccupation of the time—cyclops, humanoid giraffe, centaur repeated in all directions 9. Everywhere are archways, grottoes, plaster floral arrangements, walls hung in threadbare velvet or brocade. Balconies give out at unlikely places, overhung with gargoyles whose fangs have fetched not a few newcomers nasty cuts on the head. Even in the worst rains, the monsters only just manage to drool—the rainpipes feeding them are centuries out of repair, running crazed over slates and beneath eaves, past cracked pilasters, dangling Cupids, terra-cotta facing on every floor, along with belvederes, rusticated joints, pseudo-Italian columns, looming minarets, leaning crooked chimneys—from a distance no two observers, no matter how close they stand, see quite the same building 10 in that orgy of self-expression 11, added to by each succeeding owner, until the present War’s requisitioning. Topiary trees line the drive for a distance before giving way to larch and elm: ducks, bottles, snails, angels, and steeplechase riders they dwindle down the metaled road into their fallow silence, into the shadows under the tunnel of sighing trees. The sentry, a dark figure in white webbing, stands port-arms in your 12 masked headlamps, and you 13 must halt for him. The dogs, engineered and lethal, are watching you from the woods. Presently, as evening comes on, a few bitter flakes of snow begin to fall 14.

From pages 82-83 of Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow.

 This strikes me as a description of Gravity’s Rainbow.

2 An architectural folly, but another description of Gravity’s Rainbow. (Perhaps ironic. Certainly ironic. Meta-ironic).

3 Late in the novel Our Hero Tyrone Slothrop will take up the mantle of “Plechazunga, the Pig-Hero” — one of many Circean (Odyssean?) transformations.

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Gustav-Adolf Mossa

4 Bibliophagy, baby. Another meta-description of the novel itself.

5 A reference to the Neo-Palladian baroque style that swept Britain in the 18th century?

6 Another description of Gravity’s Rainbow, a self-describing novel…you see where I’m going with this.

7 Clive of India is a very very minor character in Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon.

8 See the Solario painting above; you know this old saw of course. The femme fatale, etc. The lines of leakage from ears nose and mouth point to Gravity’s Rainbow’s themes of abjection and dissolution—of unbecoming from the inside out.

Another description of Gravity’s Rainbow (disputed). Monster men populated the undiscovered country. Do you know Gaspar Schott?

10 “…no two observers, no matter how close they stand, see quite the same building” — strike building and replace with novel, and we have, perhaps, another meta-description of Gravity’s Rainbow. 

11 You know by this point I’m going to say that “orgy of self-expression” is another meta-description of the novel itself, right?

There is, of course, a real orgy (by which I mean non-metaphorical, orgy-orgy) later in Gravity’s Rainbow, on the Anubis. 

12 …yourWha? Whence this narrative shift?

13 You!? And hold on who’s this fellow, this dark figure in white webbing (a sorta kinda oxymoron, maybe)—a sentry sure, a watcher, maybe—a statue? The martial imagery prefigures, perhaps, black and white, Enzian and Tchitcherine, the White Visitation (prefigures? This whole passage is set there!) and the Counterforce…(you’re stretching, dude).

14 Our paragraph begins with “Overhead” and ends with “begin to fall”—the descent of the rocket, the arc of the rainbow, the decline of the human condition. (And curves in other directions too).

“Bartleby” is the first great epic of modern Sloth (Thomas Pynchon)

By the time of “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” (1853), acedia had lost the last of its religious reverberations and was now an offense against the economy. Right in the heart of robber-baron capitalism, the title character develops what proves to be terminal acedia. It is like one of those western tales where the desperado keeps making choices that only herd him closer to the one disagreeable finale. Bartleby just sits there in an office on Wall Street repeating, “I would prefer not to.” While his options go rapidly narrowing, his employer, a man of affairs and substance, is actually brought to question the assumptions of his own life by this miserable scrivener — this writer! — who, though among the lowest of the low in the bilges of capitalism, nevertheless refuses to go on interacting anymore with the daily order, thus bringing up the interesting question: who is more guilty of Sloth, a person who collaborates with the root of all evil, accepting things-as-they-are in return for a paycheck and a hassle-free life, or one who does nothing, finally, but persist in sorrow? “Bartleby” is the first great epic of modern Sloth, presently to be followed by work from the likes of Kafka, Hemingway, Proust, Sartre, Musil and others — take your own favorite list of writers after Melville and you’re bound sooner or later to run into a character bearing a sorrow recognizable as peculiarly of our own time.

From Thomas Pynchon’s 1993 essay “Sloth; Nearer, My Couch, to Thee.”

Endicott, Pyncheon, and others, in scarlet robes, bands, etc. (Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for August 22nd, 1838)

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 red broad-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.

From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for August 22nd, 1837. From Passages from the American Note-Books. In addition to this description, the full journal entry contains a description of a walk, a note on Hawthorne’s ancestors, and no fewer than ten story ideas. The Pyncheons (of whom Thomas Pynchon descended) star in Hawthorne’s underread classic, The House of Seven Gables.

Three Books (that are good starting points for reading Thomas Pynchon)

Today is Pynchon in Public Day, so today’s Three Books blog offers 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 by Thomas Pynchon. First edition Penguin hardback, 2006. Jacket design my Michael Ian Kaye.

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. by Thomas Pynchon. Vintage UK trade paperback edition (1995). Cover by Paul Burgess.

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 by Thomas Pynchon. First edition hardback, Penguin, 2009. Jacket design by Tal Goretsky and Darren Haggar; image credited to Darshan Zenith and Cruiser Art.

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.

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest

[Ed. note: I usually don’t preface these one-star Amazon selection riffs with much, other than to note the occasion for the post. In this case, the occasion is my coming to the end of a second reading of Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow, a novel that is very much about the military-industrial-entertainment complex. And so well anyway, I keep thinking about Infinite Jest, which I have not read in full since 2002, but plan to reread later this summer. I expected Pynchon to show up a few times in the one-star reviews, but he’s present throughout, often obliquely referenced. Otherwise, the one-star reviews are typical: Rants against academia, “literary elites,” etc. The term “self-indulgent” appears again and again. Only one reviewer bothers to engage the plot though.

Update: I ran this post (minus this update) in the summer of 2015; I’m running it again because today’s the 20th anniversary of IJ’s publication]

***

slop

passably clever

completely pointless

superfluous logorrhea

spawn of PC Elitist writers

reads like a math textbook

This is the T.S. Eliot Effect

terminally adolescent drivel.

The footnotes have footnotes.

Big words and run-on sentences

utterly lacking in aesthetic merit

I only read the first 50 pages or so

wow, that’s a heck of a lot of words.

challenging, involving, and horrifying

A humorous book? – no. Absurd – Yes.

never made it to the end of chapter one.

I never did get through Gravity’s Rainbow

the magnum opus of American hipsterism.

the worst science fiction novel ever written.

If you like Pynchon, fine, go ahead, you’ll like this.

over a hundred pages of notes that serve no purpose

I pride myself on being an intelegent well read person

At least Pynchon, has humor, literary references, etc.

He probably sold more books on hype than on talent.

All in all, I suppose Wallace will just become a footnote.

this book(?) would not be worth the money if it was free

I trie d to think of Catcher in the Rye, but no comparison.

If you want to be warm, burn your overrated copy of Infinite Jest.

Wallace makes up words which does not help one reading a story.

I think it was in that book that I learned the word “omphaloskepsis.”

I’ll bet Dave had to beat off the nubile young co-eds after they read this one

obviously didn’t follow Elmore Leonard’s last tenet of his “10 Rules for Writing”

I suppose that some might consider Wallace a great writer, but was he popular?

It’s written in the first-person from the point of view of a mentally ill teenager.

he filled it with worthless footnotes that pretend to enlighten the victim of his prose

I just don’t understand how my fellow Amazon reviewers could have scored this book highly.

I realize that this book is considered to be “literature” but IMHO the internal ravings of mentally ill people isn’t literature.

It is called “INFINITE JETS” but there is not a single aircraft within, in fact the book is about people on land with drugs problems.

The book contains an anecdote plagiarized from the humorist, Gerard Hoffnung, who recorded it in the 1950s.

700 pages of clumsy sci-fi and the kind of smarty pants absurdist nonsense you’d expect from a precocious middle schooler

The premise for this novel derives from a Monty Python sketch in which the world’s funniest joke is also fatal.

Oh one other thing that drove me crazy: he started so many sentences with “And but so..” or “So but and…”

if Finnegans Wake was a rancid fart that was proudly left to rip, Infinite Jest is a weak one, lacking sound and odor.

Just a bunch of irrelevant words to set the scene…. not to mention he described everything into painful detail.

a kid thinks he’s going to the dentist but it’s really some sort of counselor and they have a long battle of wits to see which one of them is the bigger booger-eating nerd

DWF is desperately trying to emulate one of the century’s greatest authors, and utterly fails.

Put down the bong, go outside and get some real world experience before putting pen to paper.

Comparing Wallace to Pynchon is like comparing a kettle of sponges to Disney World

Academics also praise it as a badge of courage for (allegedly) reading it

It’s just the narrator’s interior thoughts about trying to buy drugs.

I was two pages in and started to feel confused, zoned out, and lost.

It reads like the stream of consciousness of a spoiled 10th grader.

What I read would have gotten an F in a freshman writing class.

The style is Pynchon. And by style, I mean, an exact duplication

At least, now I know where Dave Eggers ripped off his garbage

sorry Amazon,you definitely missed the boat with this one.

completely lacking in any kind of moral or ethical center

He and this book are simply silly, and a waste of pulp.

Book was a work of art, one I wasted my time viewing.

seems to spend forever talking about tennis and drugs

Characters are unbelievable and are over analyzed

Sure, he was making good points, for the 1990s!

Reading a thesaurus does not count as research.

Over 1000 pages of pseudo-subersiveness.

It’s the tyranny of the English Deparment

I only read about four percent of the book

For my taste, there were too many words

I think his suicide inflated his reviews.

I still feel awful thinking about it.

narcissistic garbage

wannabe Pynchon

Bad read no stars.

…is this an essay?

Generic Pynchon

Troglodyte.

Boring.

Skip it.

Three Books

Last week on Three Books, I featured three books I kinda sorta maybe plan to read in 2016. Here are three more:

Slow Learner by Thomas Pynchon. First edition hardback by Little, Brown (1984). Jacket design by Fred Marcellino. I’ve only read “Entropy” from this collection so far. (I actually tried to use it in my Intro American Lit class—it’s in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. E, somehow—and no, it didn’t go over well, but hey).

The Weight of Things by Marianne Fritz; English translation by Adrian Nathan West. First edition trade paperback from Dorothy (2015). Cover art is Anonymous by Hella van ‘t Hof. Book design by Danielle Dutton. I started this as the chaser to Ishmael Reed’s The Free-Lance Pallbearers—proved to be a false start (went on a Le Guin jag instead). Feels like a one-sitting read.

The Easy Chain by Evan Dara. First edition trade paperback from Aurora (2008). Cover and design by Todd Michael Bushman. Does anyone want to read The Easy Chain with me?

Three Books (or, My three favorite reading experiences in 2015)

These were my three favorite (?!) reading experiences in 2015:

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Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. 1973 first edition trade paperback by Viking. Cover design and illustration by Marc Getter.img_1218

Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson. First Vintage Contemporaries edition, trade paperback, 1998. Cover design by Carol Devine Carson.

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Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed. 1978 mass market paperback by Bard Books, a division of Avon Books. No designer or illustrator credited.

A Mason & Dixon Christmastide (Thomas Pynchon)

They discharge the Hands and leave off for the Winter. At Christmastide, the Tavern down the Road from Harlands’ opens its doors, and soon ev’ryone has come inside. Candles beam ev’rywhere. The Surveyors, knowing this year they’ll soon again be heading off in different Directions into America, stand nodding at each other across a Punch-bowl as big as a Bathing-Tub. The Punch is a secret Receipt of the Landlord, including but not limited to peach brandy, locally distill’d Whiskey, and milk. A raft of long Icicles broken from the Eaves floats upon the pale contents of the great rustick Monteith. Everyone’s been exchanging gifts. Somewhere in the coming and going one of the Children is learning to play a metal whistle. Best gowns rustle along the board walls. Adults hold Babies aloft, exclaiming, “The little Sausage!” and pretending to eat them. There are popp’d Corn, green Tomato Mince Pies, pickl’d Oysters, Chestnut Soup, and Kidney Pudding. Mason gives Dixon a Hat, with a metallick Aqua Feather, which Dixon is wearing. Dixon gives Mason a Claret Jug of silver, crafted in Philadelphia. There are Conestoga Cigars for Mr. Harland and a Length of contraband Osnabrigs for Mrs. H. The Children get Sweets from a Philadelphia English-shop, both adults being drawn into prolong’d Negotiations with their Juniors, as to who shall have which of. Mrs. Harland comes over to embrace both Surveyors at once. “Thanks for simmering down this Year. I know it ain’t easy.”
“What a year, Lass,” sighs Dixon.
“Poh. Like eating a Bun,” declares Mason.”

The last paragraphs of Ch. 52 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon.

Did Thomas Pynchon publish a novel under the pseudonym Adrian Jones Pearson?

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Interesting Pynchonesque Pynchon theory over at Harper’s today: Art Winslow plays with the idea that Thomas Pynchon published a novel called Cow Country under the pseudonym Adrian Jones Pearson. First two paragraphs:

Is it possible that the literary sensibility—person—that produced a clutch of novels under the name Thomas Pynchon has had a fat new novel out since April, under a different name, only to encounter a virtual vacuum of notice? That relative anonymity may have been expected, or might even have been among its aspirations, to prove a point?

Yes and yes. The book in question is called Cow Country, a 540-pager that came out of the chute from Cow Eye Press, a publishing house (if that is what it is) established in 2014 apparently for the express purpose of issuing Cow Country and perhaps related follow-ons, one of which is a centennial reprint of a 1916 eugenicist tract by Madison Grant, tying Americanism—patriotism—to racial purity. (Surely that is a stunt up someone’s sleeve.) Cow Eye Press sports a street address in Cheyenne, Wyoming, that is occupied by a registrar agent for company incorporation in the state, a firm that offers virtual offices in a locale “known for business-friendliness and respect for privacy.”

Possible photographic evidence of Thomas Pynchon’s hand (and a pig piñata)

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From an article in LAist:

A photograph on the back cover of a memoir by Phyllis Gebauer, a close friend of Pynchon’s, shows the author’s hand extending out of the door of his apartment giving a peace sign with a pig piñata named Claude and Gebauer in the foreground. In 2011, Gebauer donated her rare collection of signed Pynchon novels to UCLA.

I seem to recall mention of this pig piñata in A Journey into the Mind of P (but I could be wrong).

Big thanks to Doug Eklund for pointing the photo out to me.

A last riff (for now) on Gravity’s Rainbow (and Disney’s Fantasia)

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Disney’s Fantasia is one of the better film adaptations of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow. 

At least this thought zipped into my head a few weeks back, as I watched the film with my wife and kids. I was in the middle of a second reading of the novel, an immediate rereading prompted by the first reading. It looped me back in. Everything seemed connected to the novel in some way. Or rather, the novel seemed to connect itself to everything, through its reader—me—performing a strange dialectic of paranoia/anti-paranoia.

So anyway, Fantasia seemed to me an adaptation of Gravity’s Rainbow, bearing so many of the novel’s features: technical prowess, an episodic and discontinuous form, hallucinatory dazzle, shifts between “high” and “low” culture, parodic and satirical gestures that ultimately invoke sincerity, heightened musicality, themes of magic and science, themes of automation and autonomy, depictions of splintering identity, apocalypse and genesis, cartoon elasticity, mixed modes, terror, love, the sublime, etc.

(There’s even a coded orgy in Fantasia).

But Fantasia was first released in 1940 right, when Pynchon was, what, three or four? And Gravity’s Rainbow was published in 1973, and most of the events in that novel happen at the end of World War II, in like, 1944, 1945, right? So the claim that “Fantasia is one of the better film adaptations of Gravity’s Rainbow” is ridiculous, right?

(Unless, perhaps, we employ those literary terms that Steven Weisenburger uses repeatedly in his Companion to Gravity’s Rainbow: analepsis and prolepsis—so, okay, so perhaps we consider Fantasia an analepsis, a flashback, of Gravity’s Rainbow, or we consider Gravity’s Rainbow a prolepsis, a flashforward, of Fantasia…no? Why not?).

Also ridiculous in the claim that “Fantasia is one of the better film adaptations of Gravity’s Rainbow” is that modifier “better,” for what other film adaptations of Gravity’s Rainbow exist?

(The list is long and mostly features unintentional titles, but let me lump in much of Robert Altman, The Conversation, Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, that Scientology documentary Going Clear, a good bit of stuff by the Wachowksis, The Fisher King (hell, all of Terry Gilliam, why not?), the Blackadder series, which engenders all sorts of wonderful problems of analepsis and prolepsis…).

Gravity’s Rainbow is of course larded with film references, from King Kong and monster movies to German expressionism (Fritz Lang in particular), and features filmmakers and actors as characters. The novel also formulates itself as its own film adaptation, perhaps. The book’s fourth sentence tells us “…it’s all theatre.” (That phrase appears again near the novel’s conclusion, in what I take to be a key passage). And the book ends, proleptically, in “the Orpheus Theatre on Melrose,” a theater managed by Richard M. Nixon, excuse me, Zhlubb—with the rocket analeptically erupting from the past into “The screen…a dim page spread before us, white and silent.” Indeed, as so many of the book’s commentator’s have noted, Pynchon marks separations in the book’s sequences with squares reminiscent of film sprockets —  □ □ □ □ □ □ □. Continue reading “A last riff (for now) on Gravity’s Rainbow (and Disney’s Fantasia)”

Inherent Vice Film Poster — Steve Chorney

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Gorgeous madness | George Saunders on Thomas Pynchon

I don’t think anyone has gotten closer than Thomas Pynchon to summoning the real audacity and insanity and scope of the American mind, as reflected in the American landscape. I read Pynchon all out of order, starting with Vineland, and I still remember the shock of pleasure I got at finally seeing the America I knew—strange shops and boulevards, built over former strange shops and former boulevards, all laid out there in valleys and dead-end forests, heaped on top of Indian cemeteries, peopled with nut jobs and hustlers and moral purists—actually present in a novel, and present not only in substance but in structure and language that both used and evoked the unruly, muscular complexity of the world itself.

In Pynchon, anything is fair game—if it is in the world, it can go in the book. To me there is something Buddhist about this approach, which seems to say that since the world is capable of producing an infinity of forms, the novel must be capable of accommodating an infinite number of forms. All aesthetic concerns (style, form, structure) answer this purpose: Let in the world.

This is why Pynchon is our biggest writer, the gold standard of that overused word inclusiveness: No dogma or tidy aesthetic rule or literary fashion is allowed to prefilter the beautiful data streaming in. Everything is included. No inclination of the mind is too small or large or frightening. The result is gorgeous madness, which does what great literature has always done—reminds us that there is a world out there that is bigger than us and worthy of our utmost humility and attention.

I have often felt that we read to gain some idea of what God would say about us if someone were to ask Him what we’re like. Pynchon says, through the vast loving catalogue he has made, that we are Excellent but need to be watched closely. He says there is no higher form of worship than the loving (i.e., madly attentive) observation of that-which-is, a form of prayer of which Pynchon’s work is our highest example.

George Saunders on Thomas Pynchon. From the Summer 2005 issue of Bookforum.

Ishmael Reed . . . and more Pynchon (Books acquired, 5.22.2015)

So I finished my second full reading of Gravity’s Rainbow today. And then I read the last section three more times. And my brain feels fried. I was thinking about rereading V. after this, but I think a break will do nicely. So I picked up Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo on Pynchon’s recommendation (“check out Ishmael Reed,” the narrator tells us on page 588 of Gravity’s Rainbow). A stroll through the lit crit section led to my spying (okay, looking for and finding) the 20th Century Views collection on Pynchon. So we’ll see how that reads.