Thomas Pynchon’s Banana Breakfast

At the beginning of Thomas Pynchon’s massive tome Gravitys Rainbow, Captain Geoffrey “Pirate” Prentice cooks up a bodacious banana breakfast for a bunch of hungover army officers—

Routine: plug in American blending machine won from some Yank last summer, some poker game, table stakes, B.O.Q. somewhere in the north, never remember now….Chop several bananas into pieces. Make coffee in urn. Get can of milk from cooler. Puree ‘nanas in milk. Lovely. I would coat all the booze-corroded stomachs of England. . . . Bit of marge, still smells all right, melt in the skillet. Peel more bananas, slice lengthwise. Marge sizzling, in go long slices. Light oven whoomp blow us all up someday oh, ha, ha, yes. Peeled whole bananas to go on broiler grill soon as it heats. Find marshmallows. . . .

Here’s how it all turns out–

With a clattering of chairs, upended shell cases, benches, and ottomans, Pirate’s mob gather at the shores of the great refectory table, a southern island well across a tropic or two from chill Corydon Throsp’s mediaeval fantasies, crowded now over the swirling dark grain of its walnut uplands with banana omelets, banana sandwiches, banana casseroles, mashed bananas molded into the shape of a British lion rampant, blended with eggs into batter for French toast, squeezed out a pastry nozzle across the quivering creamy reaches of a banana blancmange to spell out the words C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre (attributed to a French observer during the Charge of the Light Brigade) which Pirate has appropriated as his motto . . . tall cruets of pale banana syrup to pour oozing over banana waffles, a giant glazed crock where diced bananas have been fermenting since the summer with wild honey and muscat raisins, up out of which, this winter morning, one now dips foam mugsfull of banana mead . . . banana croissants and banana kreplach, and banana oatmeal and banana jam and banana bread, and bananas flamed in ancient brandy Pirate brought back last year from a cellar in the Pyrenees also containing a clandestine radio transmitter. . . .

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In which I read Playboy for the Thomas Pynchon article

A few years ago I posted a brief excerpt from Jules Siegel’s March 1977 Playboy profile “Who is Thomas Pynchon… And Why Did He Take Off With My Wife?” The excerpt came from an excerpt posted on the Pynchon-L forum, but most of the article had been removed at the (apparent) request by Siegel. A few people sent me the whole article though (thanks!) and I read it.

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Jules Siegel was briefly a Cornell classmate of Pynchon’s in 1954, and they remained friends (in Siegel’s recollection) for at least two decades after. During this time, Siegel claims that Pynchon wrote him dozens of letters, which were ultimately sold at auction (along with much of Siegel’s property) to help pay for a hip replacement. Material from the letters soak into Siegel’s sketch of Pynchon’s progress, along with several stoned/drunken adventures that would not be out of place in V. or Mason & Dixon or Gravity’s Rainbow, or really, any person’s young life.

A competitive anxiety reverberates under the piece. “We were friends, maybe at some points best friends, very much alike in some important ways,” Siegel writes. “We were both writers,” he boldly writes. Siegel reminds us that “In Mortality and Mercy in Vienna, Pynchon’s first published short story, the protagonist is one Cleanth Siegel,” but protests he doesn’t see himself in that hero.

The competitive anxieties culminate in the big reveal that (spoiler!) Thomas Pynchon had an affair with Siegel’s second wife Chrissie. There’s probably a Freudian reading we can append to the details that Siegel offers about Pynchon’s sexual prowess: “He was a wonderful lover, sensitive and quick, with the ability to project a mood that turned the most ordinary surroundings into a scene out of a masterful film—the reeking industrial slum of Manhattan Beach would become as seen through the eye of Antonioni, for example.”

Or maybe these unsexy details are just a sign of Playboy’s editorial hand. Wedged gracelessly between ads for vibrators and nude greeting cards, Siegel’s lines often reek of 1970’s Playboy’s rhetorical house style, a kind of frank-but-(attempted)-sensual glossiness that contrasts heavily with Pynchon’s own sex writing. At times I found myself reading Siegel’s prose in one of Will Ferrell’s more pompous accents.

Even worse is the casual sexism of the piece—which again, may be attributable to Playboy’s editors. Siegel, on his first wife (sixteen when he married her): “She was so wonderful a lover, generous and easily aroused, but I was too callow then to appreciate her.” Of his second wife: “It is easy to underestimate her intelligence, but it is a mistake. She is obviously too pretty to be serious, conventional wisdom would have you believe.” Of one of Pynchon’s girlfriends: “Susan has red hair and is breathtakingly beautiful, with the voluptuous body of a showgirl. Like Chrissie, she is much brighter than she looks.”

More interesting, obviously, are the (supposedly) real-life details that inform Pynchon’s fiction. Siegel notes some of the contents of Pynchon’s Manhattan Beach apartment: “A built-in bookcase had rows of piggy banks on each shelf and there was a collection of books and magazines about pigs.” Pigs, of course, are a major motif of Gravity’s Rainbow. Another detail that seems to connect to GR: “On the desk, there was a rudimentary rocket made from one of those pencil-like erasers with coiled paper wrappers that you unzip to expose the rubber. It stood on a base twisted out of a paper clip.” Siegel lets us know that he knocked the rocket down. Pynchon puts it back together; Siegel knocks it down again.

(Parenthetically: Siegel’s evocation of Pynchon’s Manhattan Beach days fits neatly into my picture of Inherent Vice).

In accounting details of Pynchon’s alleged affair with his wife, Chrissie, Siegel shares the following:

Once, out on the freeway, she told him that we had all gone naked at the commune, he professed to find that incredible and dared her to take off her blouse right there. She did. A passing truck hooted its horn in lewd applause. He loved her Shirley Temple impersonations—On the Good Ship Lollipop sung and danced like a kid at a birthday party. They talked about running away together.

It is hardly possible here not to recall the episode early in Gravity’s Rainbow wherein Jessica Swanlake removes her blouse in the car on a dare from Roger Mexico. Is Siegel daring the reader to extrapolate further? Extrapolation, paranoid connections—isn’t this part of Pynchonian fun?

In that spirit, I’ll close with my favorite moment from the article.

“You know the W.A.S.T.E. horn in The Crying of Lot 49? The symbol of the secret message service? Every weirdo in the world is on my wave length. You cannot understand the kind of letters I get. Someone wrote to tell me that the very same horn was the symbol of a private mail system in medieval times. I checked it out at the library. It’s true. But I made it up myself before the book was ever published, before I ever got that letter.”

The lines are supposedly from Pynchon himself. Siegel even puts them in quotation marks—so they must be real, right?

[Ed. note: Biblioklept ran a version of this post in 2015].

Three potential starting points for reading Thomas Pynchon

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

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

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

So here are my suggestions for starting places for Pynchon.

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Against the Day, 2006.

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

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V., 1963.

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

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Inherent Vice, 2009.

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

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

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

Cormac McCarthy’s essay “The Kekulé Problem,” a meditation on language and consciousness

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The science magazine Nautilus has published Cormac McCarthy’s essay “The Kekulé Problem.” This is the first piece of nonfiction that McCarthy has published. It’s a fascinating essay that takes its name from a dream of Friedrich August Kekulé, “father of organic chemistry.” Kekulé dreamed of an ouroboros, an unconscious insight that led him to “discover” the ring-structure of the benzene molecule. (Thomas Pynchon writes about Kekulé’s dream in Gravity’s Rainbow, by the way).  Anyway, it’s a nice piece on a complex subject, and it’s fun to watch McCarthy move from lucid, transparent, and direct prose into wry fragments that are, well, more McCarthyesque. From the essay–

The evolution of language would begin with the names of things. After that would come descriptions of these things and descriptions of what they do. The growth of languages into their present shape and form—their syntax and grammar—has a universality that suggests a common rule. The rule is that languages have followed their own requirements. The rule is that they are charged with describing the world. There is nothing else to describe.

All very quickly. There are no languages whose form is in a state of development. And their forms are all basically the same.

We dont know what the unconscious is or where it is or how it got there—wherever there might be. Recent animal brain studies showing outsized cerebellums in some pretty smart species are suggestive. That facts about the world are in themselves capable of shaping the brain is slowly becoming accepted. Does the unconscious only get these facts from us, or does it have the same access to our sensorium that we have? You can do whatever you like with the us and the our and the we. I did. At some point the mind must grammaticize facts and convert them to narratives. The facts of the world do not for the most part come in narrative form. We have to do that.

A review of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, Ishmael Reed’s syncretic Neo-HooDoo revenge Western

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Ishmael Reed’s second novel Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down tells the story of the Loop Garoo Kid, a “desperado so onery he made the Pope cry and the most powerful of cattlemen shed his head to the Executioner’s swine.”

The novel explodes in kaleidoscopic bursts as Reed dices up three centuries of American history to riff on race, religion, sex, and power. Unstuck in time and unhampered by geographic or technological restraint, historical figures like Lewis and Clark, Thomas Jefferson, John Wesley Harding, Groucho Marx, and Pope Innocent (never mind which one) wander in and out of the narrative, supplementing its ironic allegorical heft. These minor characters are part of Reed’s Neo-HooDoo spell, ingredients in a Western revenge story that is simultaneously comic and apocalyptic in its howl against the dominant historical American narrative. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is a strange and marvelous novel, at once slapstick and deadly serious, exuberant in its joy and harsh in its bitterness, close to 50 years after its publication, as timely as ever.

After the breathless introduction of its hero the Loop Garoo Kid, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down initiates its plot. Loop’s circus troupe arrives to the titular city Yellow Back Radio (the “nearest town Video Junction is about fifty miles away”), only to find that the children of the town, “dressed in the attire of the Plains Indians,” have deposed the adults:

We chased them out of town. We were tired of them ordering us around. They worked us day and night in the mines, made us herd animals harvest the crops and for three hours a day we went to school to hear teachers praise the old. Made us learn facts by rote. Lies really bent upon making us behave. We decided to create our own fiction.

The children’s revolutionary, anarchic spirit drives Reed’s own fiction, which counters all those old lies the old people use to make us behave.

Of course the old—the adults—want “their” land back. Enter that most powerful of cattlemen, Drag Gibson, who plans to wrest the land away from everyone for himself. We first meet Drag “at his usual hobby, embracing his property.” Drag’s favorite property is a green mustang,

a symbol for all his streams of fish, his herds, his fruit so large they weighed down the mountains, black gold and diamonds which lay in untapped fields, and his barnyard overflowing with robust and erotic fowl.

Drag loves to French kiss the horse, we’re told. Oh, and lest you wonder if “green” here is a metaphor for, like, new, or inexperienced, or callow: No. The horse is literally green (“turned green from old nightmares”). That’s the wonderful surreal logic of Reed’s vibrant Western, and such details (the novel is crammed with them) make Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down a joy to read.

Where was I? Oh yes, Drag Gibson.

Drag—allegorical stand-in for Manifest Destiny, white privilege, capitalist expansion, you name it—Drag, in the process of trying to clear the kids out of Yellow Back Radio, orders all of Loop’s troupe slaughtered.

The massacre sets in motion Loop’s revenge on Drag (and white supremacy in general), which unfolds in a bitter blazing series of japes, riffs, rants, and gags. (“Unfolds” is the wrong verb—too neat. The action in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is more like the springing of a Jack-in-the-box).

Loop goes about obtaining his revenge via his NeoHooDoo practices. He calls out curses and hexes, summoning loas in a lengthy prayer. Loop’s spell culminates in a call that goes beyond an immediate revenge on Drag and his henchmen, a call that moves toward a retribution for black culture in general:

O Black Hawk American Indian houngan of Hoo-Doo please do open up some of these prissy orthodox minds so that they will no longer call Black People’s American experience “corrupt” “perverse” and “decadent.” Please show them that Booker T and MG’s, Etta James, Johnny Ace and Bojangle tapdancing is just as beautiful as anything that happened anywhere else in the world. Teach them that anywhere people go they have experience and that all experience is art.

So much of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is turning all experience into art. Reed spins multivalent cultural material into something new, something arguably American. The title of the novel suggests its program: a breaking-down of yellowed paperback narratives, a breaking-down of radio signals. Significantly, that analysis, that break-down, is also synthesized in this novel into something wholly original. Rhetorically, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down evokes flipping through paperbacks at random, making a new narrative; or scrolling up and down a radio dial, making new music from random bursts of sound; or rifling through a stack of manic Sunday funnies to make a new, somehow more vibrant collage.

Perhaps the Pope puts it best when he arrives late in the novel. (Ostensibly, the Pope shows up to put an end to Loop’s hexing and vexing of the adult citizenry—but let’s just say the two Holy Men have a deeper, older relationship). After a lengthy disquisition on the history of hoodoo and its genesis in the Voudon religion of Africa (“that strange continent which serves as the subconscious of our planet…shaped so like the human skull”), the Pope declares that “Loop Garoo seems to be practicing a syncretistic American version” of the old Ju Ju. The Pope continues:

Loop seems to be scatting arbitrarily, using forms of this and that and adding his own. He’s blowing like that celebrated musician Charles Yardbird Parker—improvising as he goes along. He’s throwing clusters of demon chords at you and you don’t know the changes, do you Mr. Drag?

The Pope here describes Reed’s style too, of course (which is to say that Reed is describing his own style, via one of his characters. The purest postmodernism). The apparent effortlessness of Reed’s improvisations—the prose’s sheer manic energy—actually camouflages a tight and precise plot. I was struck by how much of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down’s apparent anarchy resolves into a bigger picture upon a second reading.

That simultaneous effortlessness and precision makes Reed’s novel a joy to jaunt through. Here is a writer taking what he wants from any number of literary and artistic traditions while dispensing with the forms and tropes he doesn’t want and doesn’t need. If Reed wants to riff on the historical relations between Indians and African-Americans, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to assess the relative values of Thomas Jefferson as a progressive figure, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to attack his neo-social realist critics, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to critique the relationship between militarism and science, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to tell some really dirty jokes about a threesome, he’ll do that. And you can bet if he wants some ass-kicking Amazons to show up at some point, they’re gonna show.

And it’s a great show. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down begins with the slaughter of a circus troupe before we get to see their act. The real circus act is the novel itself, filled with orators and showmen, carnival barkers and con-artists, pistoleers and magicians. There’s a manic glee to it all, a glee tempered in anger—think of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, or Thomas Pynchon’s zany rage, or Robert Downey Sr.’s satirical film Putney Swope.

Through all its anger, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down nevertheless repeatedly affirms the possibility of imagination and creation—both as cures and as hexes. We have here a tale of defensive and retaliatory magic. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is the third novel of Reed’s novels I’ve read (after Mumbo Jumbo and The Free-Lance Pallbearers), and my favorite thus far. Frankly, I needed the novel right now in a way that I didn’t know that I needed it until I read it; the contemporary novel I tried to read after it felt stale and boring. So I read Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down again. The great gift here is that Reed’s novel answers to the final line of Loop’s prayer to the Loa: “Teach them that anywhere people go they have experience and that all experience is art.” Like the children of Yellow Back Radio, Reed creates his own fiction, and invites us to do the same. Very highly recommended.

A review of Ishmael Reed’s Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down

Thomas Pynchon sends his regrets to Donald Barthelme for missing the Postmodern Dinner

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A 1983 letter from Thomas Pynchon to Donald Barthelme.

Superlibrarian Jessamyn West shared Pynchon’s letter to Barthelme on Twitter yesterday and then posted it on her wonderful Donald Barthelme appreciation page.

Pynchon here is ostensibly apologizing for missing Barthelme’s so-called “Postmodern Dinner” in New York.

In his 2009 Barthelme biography Hiding Man, Tracy Daugherty offers the following recollection from novelist Walter Abish:

Around this time — in the spring of 1983 — “Donald had this idea to make a dinner in SoHo,” says Water Abish. “A major dinner for a group of writers, and he planned it very, very carefully. It was a strange event. Amusing and intriguing. He invited…well, that was the thing of it. The list. I was astounded that he consulted me but he called and said, ‘Should we invite so-and-so?’ Naturally, I did the only decent thing and said ‘Absolutely’ to everyone he mentioned. I pushed for Gaddis. Gass was there, and Coover and Hawkes, Vonnegut and his wife, Jill Krementz, who took photographs, I think. Don’s agent, Lynn Nesbit, was there. She was always very friendly. Susan Sontag was the only woman writer invited.

Daugherty continues:

Pynchon couldn’t make it. He wrote Don to apologize. He said he was ‘between coasts, Arkansas or Lubbock or someplace like ‘at.”

Okay.

Abish recollects that the meal was at a very expensive restaurant, prefix, and the writers had to pay their own way. There were about 21 attendees, and Barthelme was “Very, very dour.”

Three Books (or, My three favorite rereading experiences in 2016)

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I prefer rereading to reading. Rereading an old favorite can often offer comfort. A week or so after the US presidential election, I picked up Roberto Bolaño’s Last Evenings on Earth and reread its fourteen stories over a few mornings and afternoons. I’m not sure why, but somehow Bolaño’s sinister vibes and dark humor worked to alleviate my own post-election dread in some small measure. “Life is mysterious and vulgar,” after all, as one of his narrators points out. (I reviewed the book seven years ago).

I’m not really sure what impelled me to reread William Gaddis’s great grand gargantuan novel J R in 2016, but I found the experience incredibly rewarding—richer, sadder, funnier, more bitter. Most of J R is composed as unattributed dialogue, so one of the great challenges for a first reading is simply figuring out who is speaking to whom; additional readings help flesh out the narrative’s colors and tone. I wrote about rereading J R, noting

Only a handful of novels are so perfectly simultaneously comic and tragic. Moby-Dick? Yes. Gravity’s Rainbow? Absolutely. (G R and J R, a duo published two years apart, spiritual twins, massive American novels that maybe America hardly deserves (or, rather: theses novels were/are totally the critique America deserves).

This little note offers me an easy bridge to the reread that dominated the second half of 2016, a slow read of Gravity’s Rainbow. I finally read Gravity’s Rainbow in full in 2015—and then immediately reread it. Which is sort of like, y’know, actually reading it. To put it plainly, the only way to read Gravity’s Rainbow is to read it twice. Reading it a third time was fascinating—not just in seeing all the stuff I’d missed, but also in experiencing the novel’s radical coherence, its sublime plotting, its real depth—and most of all, Pynchon’s prose. Critics and commenters tend to foreground Pynchon’s humor and themes, perhaps overlooking his prowess as a sentence-shaper. I also had fun annotating sections of the novel, a project I’ll be continuing next year, when I read Gravity’s Rainbow again.

Christmas bugs (Gravity’s Rainbow)

Later, toward dusk, several enormous water bugs, a very dark reddish brown, emerge like elves from the wainscoting, and go lumbering toward the larder—pregnant mother bugs too, with baby translucent outrider bugs flowing along like a convoy escort. At night, in the very late silences between bombers, ack-ack fire and falling rockets, they can be heard, loud as mice, munching through Gwenhidwy’s paper sacks, leaving streaks and footprints of shit the color of themselves behind. They don’t seem to go in much for soft things, fruits, vegetables, and such, it’s more the solid lentils and beans they’re into, stuff they can gnaw at, paper and plaster barriers, hard interfaces to be pierced, for they are agents of unification, you see. Christmas bugs. They were deep in the straw of the manger at Bethlehem, they stumbled, climbed, fell glistening red among a golden lattice of straw that must have seemed to extend miles up and downward—an edible tenement-world, now and then gnawed through to disrupt some mysterious sheaf of vectors that would send neighbor bugs tumbling ass-over-antennas down past you as you held on with all legs in that constant tremble of golden stalks. A tranquil world: the temperature and humidity staying nearly steady, the day’s cycle damped to only a soft easy sway of light, gold to antique-gold to shadows, and back again. The crying of the infant reached you, perhaps, as bursts of energy from the invisible distance, nearly unsensed, often ignored. Your savior, you see… .

From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow.

Sixteen books I wish I’d written more about in 2016

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I read a lot of great books this year but had a hard time writing full reviews for all of them. These are some of the ones I liked the most.

Woodcutters, Thomas Bernhard

I finished Woodcutters just the other night, reading most of it in three sittings. (Actually, I was lying down. And it was very late at night, each time. I couldn’t pick the book up during daylight hours). Anyway, I finished Bernhard’s novel just the other night, so maybe I’ll muster something on it, but for now: I think this may be my favorite Bernhard novel so far! I can only think of a handful of writers so masterful at mimicking the operations of consciousness, of replicating consciousness (and conscience) reflecting on consciousness. (I even had to stop and do a too-hasty read of Ibsen’s play The Wild Duck, a plot point of Woodcutters). What happens in Woodcutters? A man sits in a chair remembering things. It’s fucking amazing.

White Mythology, W.D. Clarke

White Mythology is comprised of two novellas, Skinner Boxed and Love’s Alchemy. The first and longer novella, Skinner Boxed, takes place over a few days in the life of a psychiatrist; it’s a zany zagging yarn, crowded with MacGuffins and red herrings (a missing wife, a bastard son, a new anti-depressant drug, etc.). Oh, and it’s a Christmas story! Did I mention that? (Skinner Boxed takes its epigram from A Christmas Carol…and another from Gravity’s Rainbow). Love’s Alchemy is a kind of time-arrangement, or locale-arrangement—a story in pieces that the reader has to assemble. I enjoyed White Mythology (especially Skinner Boxed, which, typing this out, I realize I’d like to read again).

The Dick Gibson Show, Stanley Elkin

The Franchiser, Stanley Elkin

Somehow I’d made it to 2016 without reading Elkin. I read these two back-to-back. The best parts of The Dick Gibson show are as good as anything any of those other big postmodern dudes have written. (Okay. If not as good, nearly as good). I didn’t review The Dick Gibson Show because Elkin basically did it for me in his Paris Review interview. The Franchiser is a comic tragedy—or do I mean tragic comedy? It does all that inversion stuff: high-low/low-high. A novel of things and colors, both mythic and predictive, The Franchiser feels simultaneously ahead of its time and yet still very much bound to the 1970s, when it was first published.

Bear, Marian Engel

This slim novel is somehow simultaneously lucid and surreal, conventional and bizarre, romantic and ironic, heady and dry. And wet. A bibliographer travels to a remote island in Ontario to index an old library. I’m going to read this one again.

(Oh, the bibliographer has a sexual relationship with a bear. Like, a real bear. Not a metaphorical bear. A real one).

Collected Stories, William Faulkner

I didn’t read them all because I’m not a greedy pig. I read a lot of them though. Lord.

There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden, Leon Forrest

I will read Leon Forrest’s There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden again in the first quarter of 2017 and I will write a proper Thing on it. I read it in a two-day blur, drinking up the sentences greedily, perhaps not (no, strike that perhaps) comprehending the plot so much as sucking up a feeling, a place, a mood, a vibe. But there’s so much history reverberating behind the novel’s lens. Like I said (wrote): I need to read it again, which will kinda sorta be like reading it for the first time. Which is a thing one might say of any great novel.

The Weight of Things, Marianne Fritz

I read this really early in the year and I only remember the impression of reading it—not the plot itself, but the language—I remember horror, cruelty, pain. And this is why I need to write about the books I read.

The Inheritors, William Golding

A colleague told me to read Golding’s account of telepathic Neanderthals and their eventual encounter with predatory Homo sapiens. I’ll admit that I’d unfairly written off Golding as YA stuff, but the evocation of a prelingual (and postlingual) consciousness is fascinating here. It’s also a ripping quest narrative starring the Holy Fool Lok, who laughs in terror and joy. What stands out most in my memory, beyond the premise, is Golding’s concrete prose. I’m glad my colleague told me to read The Inheritors.

The Transmigration of Bodies, Yuri Herrera

I read Herrera’s The Transmigration of Bodies in a blurry weekend (sensing a pattern here) and enjoyed it very much: Grimy neon noir poured into mythological contours. Lovely.

The Leopard, Giuseppe di Lampedusa

This was the best novel I read in 2016 that I’d never read before. So good that I reread it immediately (the only two books I can recall doing that with in recent memory areBlood Meridian and Gravity’s Rainbow). It was even better the second time.  The Leopard is the story of Prince Fabrizio of Sicily who witnesses — and takes part in — the end of the old order era during the Italian reunification. Fiery and lascivious but also intellectual and stoic, Fabrizio the Leopard is the most engrossing character I read this year. Di Lampedusa’s novel takes us through his mind, through his age—places he himself isn’t fully cognizant of at times. I can’t recommend this novel enough: History, religion, death, sex. Sense and psyche, pleasure and loss, crammed with rich, dripping set pieces: dances and dinners and games of pleasure (light sadomasochism!) in summer estates. But its plots and poisons and pieces are not the main reason for The Leopard—read it for the language, the sentences, the sumptuous words. Its final devastating images are still soaked and sunken into my addled brains.

The Absolute Gravedigger, Vítězslav Nezval

I wedged these poems into the end of my third proper trip through Gravity’s Rainbow; I was also dipping into Rilke’s Duino Elegies and the Rider-Waite tarot. It’s all crammed together in a surreal web in my memory: shimmering horror, broken badlands, entropy and degradation—but life.

Cow Country, Adrian Jones Pearson

Cow Country (not pictured above because I listened to the audiobook) is a bizarre, disjointed satire of community colleges in particular and educational administration in general. (And: a satire on our slavish sensibilities of time ). It’s also a wonderful send-up of dialectical methodology—or rather the dialectical impulse to, like, resolve things. And by things, I mean Jones Pearson (or is it AJP? Or Adrian Ruggles Pearson? Or A.J. Perry? Or—nevermind)—Our Author (whoever) breaks down the way that all of our breakdowns breakdown under any real scrutiny.

Hilda and the Stone Forest, Luke Pearson

I read all of the Hilda books this year with my kids. And I read them by myself. And my kids read them by themselves. More than once. Hilda and the Stone Forest is the best one yet—richer, denser, funnier, and more devastating than anything Pearson’s done yet. The Stone Forest is stuffed with miniature epics and minor gags, and the central story of Hilda and her mother in the titular stone forest is somehow both bleak and heartwarming. Great stuff.

Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon

I actually wrote a lot about Gravity’s Rainbow (probably a major reason I didn’t write more about other stuff)—but I still wish I’d written more. I will write more. I’ve been listening to the audiobook for my fourth trip through.

Marketa Lazarova, Vladislav Vančura

Strange, violent, funny, and ultimately devastating, this Marketa Lazarova is a medieval tale of family loyalty, kidnapping, and love. Nothing I can do here would be a substitute for Vančura’s vivid, surreal voice—a voice that guides the story cynically, ironically, but also energetically, buoyantly. One of the best things I read all year.

Pynchon invests his work with mythological associations on a vast scale

…Pynchon…invests his work with mythological associations on a vast scale, in a manner both deliberate and mocking, utilizing both central myths of Western civilization and popular culture myths. Orphic myths, manifested in various descents into the underworld, jostle against Faustian legend, which calls for trips up the Brocken, the Walpurgisnacht mountain, and these in turn are juxtaposed with fairytales like Hansel and Gretel, children’s stories like Alice in Wonderland or the Wizard of Oz, and archetypical figures from movies, such as Dracula, King Kong, and Jack Slade. In addition, there are allusions to classical, kabbalistic, and Christian contexts. By far the most significant are references to Norse and Teutonic myth. Swirling in the background of the novel are the trappings of Northern epic: runes, the Northern Lights (the flickering light given off by the Valkyries), dwarves, the titans Etzel and Utgarthaloki, and rainbows (the bridge to the abode of the gods), The distillation of meat and the novels first scene. Two of the principal figures are Blicero, or “white,” and his former love, the Herero Enzian, or “blue,” a name Blicero borrowed from Rilke; the body of the Norse goddess of death, Hela, is half white, half blue.

From Joseph W. Slade’s long essay “Living on the Interface: Preterition in Gravity’s Rainbow.” The essay is part of Slade’s 1974 book Thomas Pynchon, part of Warner Paperback Library’s “Writers for the 70’s” series.

Gravity’s Rainbow — annotations and illustrations for page 539 | There is a terrible possibility now, in the World

1 think that there is a terrible possibility now, in the World 2. We may not brush it away, we must look at it. It is possible that They 3 will not die. That it is now within the state of Their art to go on forever 4—though we, of course, will keep dying as we always have. Death 5 has been the source of Their power. It was easy enough for us to see that. If we are here once, only once 6, then clearly we are here to take what we can while we may 7. If They have taken much more, and taken not only from Earth but also from us 8 —well, why begrudge Them, when they’re just as doomed to die as we are? All in the same boat, all under the same shadow…yes…yes. But is that really true? Or is it the best, and the most carefully propagated, of all Their lies, known and unknown? 9

The speaker here is Father Rapier, a very minor character, one of Pynchon’s heroes of the Counterforce, the Preterite who rally (if that is the right verb, which it isn’t) around the unraveling spirit of Slothrop against the Elect.

Father Rapier is “a Jesuit . . . here to preach, like his colleague Teilhard de Chardin, against return. Here to say that critical mass cannot be ignored. Once the technical means of control have reached a certain size, a certain degree of being connected one to another, the chances for freedom are over for good.”

Rapier preaches his “Critical Mass” in a cottage in the bizarro-Limbo headquarters of the Counterforce; his shack is appropriately beshingled with the sign “DEVIL’S ADVOCATE.”

Pynchon’s Counterforce points to a coming community. Indeed, Gravity’s Rainbow might be seen as an imaginative study of postwar communities, of new forms of social organization (social organizations tellingly organized against the They): The Counterforce of disaffected rebels; the Sudwest Hereros assembling their 00001 rocket; the Argentine anarchists; the homosexuals liberated from Dora; the Anubis orgiasts (orgiers? orgy-goers? What’s the word for orgy participants?)—etc. Each of these coming communities attempts to synthesize the detritus of the War into Something New. And speaking of synthesis—

Rapier’s “colleague [Pierre] Teilhard de Chardin” (1881-1955) tried to synthesize science and spirituality in what he called an Omega Point, a spiritual/physical singularity, a condensation of spirit and mass into a “supreme consciousness”: Christ: God: Logos. Or, in Pynchon’s Rapier wit: Critical Mass.

Rapier rails against systems of control: The Elect will not fight the coming postWar Preterite communities directly, but rather enslave them via byzantine bureaucracies.

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The World tarot card by Pamela Colman Smith, 1909

Cf. A.E. Waite’s The Pictorial Key to Tarot (1910), one of Pynchon’s sources for Gravity’s Rainbow. Some of the language here (which I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting) echoes Rapier’s Critical Mass/de Chardin’s Omega Point:

It represents also the perfection and end of the Cosmos, the secret which is within it, the rapture of the universe when it understands itself in God. It is further the state of the soul in the consciousness of Divine Vision, reflected from the self-knowing spirit. But these meanings are without prejudice to that which I have said concerning it on the material side. It has more than one message on the macrocosmic side and is, for example, the state of the restored world when the law of manifestation shall have been carried to the highest degree of natural perfection. But it is perhaps more especially a story of the past, referring to that day when all was declared to be good, when the morning stars sang together and all the Sons of God shouted for joy.

The World is what Pynchon and Gravity’s Rainbow are most interested in—both its past and its coming communities.

Significantly, The World is the final card in Captain Dominus Blicero Weissmann’s tarot (see page 746):

Weissmann's tarot
Weissmann’s tarot

In his thorough physical description of the World tarot card, A.E. Waite describes the central figure surrounded by “an elliptic garland…a chain of flowers intended to symbolize all sensible things.” I cannot help but see in the card an impossible ouroboros; an ouroboros with four heads corresponding to the “four living creatures of the Apocalypse and Ezekiel’s vision, attributed to the evangelists in Christian symbolism” which we find in the card’s corners. The ouroboros is minor trope in Gravity’s Rainbow.

The Elect. The baddies.

Rapier will, a few lines later, compare Them to vampires.

Here—and elsewhere in Pynchon (most clearly and perhaps most cogently in Against the Day)—the Elect—the They—manipulate and monopolize the earth’s resources in order to prolong their dominance. Those resources include humans: The Preterite: the low: the feebs.

5  

Death tarot card by Pamela Colman Smith, 1909
Death tarot card by Pamela Colman Smith, 1909

A.E. Waite again; again, I’ve highlighted in boldface phrases that suit my own purposes for this riff:

The veil or mask of life is perpetuated in change, transformation and passage from lower to higher, and this is more fitly represented in the rectified Tarot by one of the apocalyptic visions than by the crude notion of the reaping skeleton. Behind it lies the whole world of ascent in the spirit. The mysterious horseman moves slowly, bearing a black banner emblazoned with the Mystic Rose, which signifies life. Between two pillars on the verge of the horizon there shines the sun of immortality. The horseman carries no visible weapon, but king and child and maiden fall before him, while a prelate with clasped hands awaits his end. … The natural transit of man to the next stage of his being either is or may be one form of his progress, but the exotic and almost unknown entrance, while still in this life, into the state of mystical death is a change in the form of consciousness and the passage into a state to which ordinary death is neither the path nor gate. The existing occult explanations of the 13th card are, on the whole, better than usual, rebirth, creation, destination, renewal, and the rest.

If we are here once (only once), then eternal recurrence is a nonstarter.

The phrase clearly echoes lines from one of Pynchon’s major GR sources, Rainer Maria Rilke’s mystical Duino Elegies (1923). From “Ninth Elegy”:

Everyone once, once only. Just once and no more.
And we also once, Never again. But this having been
once, although only once, to have been of the earth,
seems irrevocable.

Pynchon’s phrasing also echoes William Bright’s 1866 hymn, “Once, Only Once, and Once for All,” which begins:

Once, only once, and once for all,
his precious life he gave;
before the cross in faith we fall,
and own it strong to save.

In “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time, Robert Herrick (1591-1674) advised

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

Seems like a Preterite Sermon.

Cf. note 4. Throughout GR, the exploitation of the earth’s natural resources is a persistent if minor theme. Gravity’s Rainbow’s ecological critiques are overlooked perhaps because it’s a given in Pynchon’s critique that They would use ecological capital and human capital without regard. Consider the Slothrop family, which made its non-fortune by milling trees into “Money, shit, and The Word” — papers the real value of which Pynchon invites us to interrogate.

Pynchon’s mouthpieces often hedge their bets in eithers and ors, zeroes and ones. We systems and They systems, in the parlance of the Counterforce. Are we all under the same shadow (of Death? of the falling rocket?) Are we all in the same boat?—which is to say, are we all working together toward the same coming community—are we rowing in the same direction?

Oh I think you know the answer.

Reading/Have Read/Should Write About

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I don’t know.

I feel like I’ve got nothing in me.

It’s easier to work from what’s outside of me lately, so I’ve been doing these Gravity’s Rainbow annotations; I “finished” (not the right verb) a third reading this weekend and then dipped back into it again—this time in the middle. I was thinking of doing a “how to read Gravity’s Rainbow” post but that seems fucking pretentious. I love the book though.

This stack looks big, but it’s not really—most of the other books there are slim volumes I worked into my reread of Gravity’s Rainbow. Little breaks, of a sort.

But not that big book at the bottom.

That big book at the bottom, Bottom’s Dream? Hm. Not sure about this guy. It’s too big to read. I mean physically. It’s unwieldy, uncomfortable, uncurlupwithable. I can’t get a rhythm going there.

Roman Muradov’s Jacob Bladders and the State of the Art will get a full review soon; the book starts with the best opening line of read in a contemporary story in years: “READER YOU HAVE NO WORTH.”

Daniel Green’s Beyond the Blurb will also get a review, sort of, soon (the book is a critical survey of literary criticism, making a review of it especially difficult to me). I have n interview with Green in the works.

Not pictured here because it’s an e-book is Scott Esposito’s The Missing Books. Esposito’s book is a continuing project, a “curated directory of books that do not exist, but should.” I read it in one sitting and was frankly jealous that I hadn’t written it.

Leon Forrest’s There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden is a novel I read in a blur, a kind of fever dream postmodern pastiche, a narrative unstuck in time and yet wholly about a specific time and place and past and consciousness. I need to read it again; like so many so-called “experimental” novels, a first reading is highly impressionistic but also confusing. Forrest throws you in the deep end. The prose is liquid, viscous, and you’re swimming around for edges, contours to grab onto. Just a marvelous strange read, and it deserves better than I’m giving it here—I mean, I think the novel deserves way more attention, and I’ll attend to it again.

Vítězslav Nezval’s 1937 poetry collection The Absolute Gravedigger is new in English translation by Stephan Delbos and Tereza Novická (Twisted Spoon Press). I hadn’t read Nezval before now, but I did see Jaromil Jireš’s film adaptation of his novel Valerie and Her Week of Wonders; if you know it, you’ll perhaps have an idea of some of Gravedigger’s rich dark weird flavor. There’s something of Bosch or Goya in the spare poems—somehow simultaneously bleak but vivid, morose but witty. The cityscapes, the entropy, the impressionistic details here all melded into my Pynchon-addled brain with the immediate post-War Zone of Gravity’s Rainbow: broken bits of civilization twitching into new combinations of reality.

Marian Engel’s Bear is this wonderfully lucid story of a bibliographer who goes to a remote island to document the contents (and library) of an old semi-famous house. Engel’s sentences are too good; there’s something fresh and restorative about the prose that echoes the plot, which is both simple and bizarre. Also, the bibliographer has a sexual relationship with a bear.

I read the first half of John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig over two short plane rides. I might have finished it, but I had to read every paragraph twice. I haven’t picked it up since the election on Tuesday. Maybe this post will motivate me to pick it up. Here’s Flannery O’Connor’s so very accurate blurb from the back cover:

You suffer The Lime Twig like a dream. It seems to be something that is happening to you, that you want to escape from but can’t. The reader even has that slight feeling of suffocation that you have when you can’t wake up and some evil is being worked on you.

Evil is being worked on you.

 

A place must be made for innocence | Gravity’s Rainbow, annotations and illustrations for page 419

In a corporate State 1, a place must be made for innocence, and its many uses 2. In developing an official version of innocence, the culture of childhood has proven invaluable . Games, fairy-tales, legends from history, all the paraphernalia of make-believe can be adapted and even embodied in a physical place, such as at Zwölfkinder 5. Over the years it had become a children’s resort, almost a spa. If you were an adult, you couldn’t get inside the city limits without a child escort. There was a child mayor 6, a child city council of twelve. Children picked up the papers, fruit peelings and bottles you left in the street, children gave you guided tours through the Tierpark 7, the Hoard of the Nibelungen 8, cautioning you to silence during the impressive re-enactment of Bismarck’s elevation, at the spring equinox of 1871, to prince and imperial chancellor 9,… child police reprimanded you if you were caught alone, without your child accompanying. Whoever carried on the real business of the town—it could not have been children—they were well hidden.10

From page 419 of Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow.

Pynchon, as always, diagnoses not just the past and present, but the future. The state is corporate; They — the oligarchy et al. — run the show. And conceptualizing innocence is part of running that show.

Cf. William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789). In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793), Blake wrote: “Without Contraries is no progression.” Without corruption there is no innocence; without abjection there is no purity; without an elect, there is no preterite.

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The Chimney Sweeper, William Blake, 1794

Blake’s Songs share much in common with Pynchon’s big novel—both argue for the preterite, pointing out the ways in which industrial technologies exploit the most vulnerable among us; both are wildly, acidly vivid; both employ metaphors of fall and ascent; both foreground the utterly real humanity of their subjects.

Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper” (from Experience) shows in simple language how the official version of innocence can be used to enforce the dominant and exploitative order. Consider the last stanza:

And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his Priest and King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery

Blake’s chimney sweeper asserts his right to happiness, to laughter and joy. The creative impulse is a Counterforce against Them—here, the Priest and King. Yet They co-opt the dancing and joy and convert it into signs of “the official version of innocence”: a lie to cover over the utter corruption of the dominant order.

You’ve read Freud, right? Like, those ideas on infantile sexuality that are downright icky, and yet nevertheless reaffirmed and reinforced by the Corporate State? (Oligarchial capitalism simultaneously infantilizes and sexualizes its subjects). Gravity’s Rainbow does a lot of stuff it’s easier (less queasier) to write off as abject than to actually like, think through. But GR also shows that They infantilize and sexualize childhood in the service of control, as a way of establishing (and blurring and “defiling”) official versions of innocence.

Consider Our Poor Hero Tyrone Slothrop, whose conditioning as an infant by Laszlo Jamf (involving the mysterious MacGuffin Imipolex G) leads to erections that predict rocket strikes. (I swear that sentence makes sense).

“Games, fairy-tales, legends from history, all the paraphernalia of make-believe can be adapted and even embodied in a physical places” — physical places like Gravity’s Rainbow. Well, okay. I mean, we get a condensation here of Pynchon’s process, his synthesis, his grab-bag of songs and japes and jibes and jokes and tales and etcetera.

But Pynchon’s pointing out other, perhaps more nefarious and venal and corporate uses for the same cultural material he’s massaging: A fucking theme park. Like, uh, Disneyland. Or Disneyworld. Etcetera, you get it—that we—did I just write We?!—I want to say They—that They colonize and corporatize the imagination; that They gobble up the cultural material and excrete it in smooth, digestible, sanitized (yet subtly sexualized)—and consumable, marketable!—segments that we take our kids to queue up to experience in their innocence.

5  As always, Pynchon Wiki does it better than I can:

“Twelve Children” – the name evokes Jacob’s twelve sons (and the daughter who is not one of the official twelve). This pattern is self-consciously repeated in the Grimms’ tale “The Twelve Brothers”, where the boys are to die if their mother gives birth to a girl.

The camp, which is also a quasi-town, may be modelled after Theresienstadt, the Jewish town/Lager set up by the Nazis in what is now the Czech Republic. This is suggested by themes like transit, phoney children’s paradise, as well as the large orchestra, or the number 60,000 (the number of those who “passed through” Zwölfkinder as well the population of Theresienstadt at its peak). It also recalls another totalitarian institution, that of the communist “children’s towns” (large, town-like, somewhat militarized holiday camps for Young Pioneers), whose prototype was Artek in the Soviet Union. (Deutsches Jungvolk also had its summer camps.)

Further, consider Argentina’s Republic of Children, a city proportioned for children, which was created under Juan Peron’s regime and opened in 1951.

The Oedipal plot of Grimms’ “The Twelve Children” repeats throughout Gravity’s Rainbow, and I invite you to look for it lurking in Disney.

“The brothers were full of joy, and embraced her with fondest affection,” Mary Hamilton Fry, 1912

Cf. Gravity’s Rainbow page 534—Osbie Feel’s screenplay Doper’s Greed!:

“At the entrance to the town, barring their way, stands the Midget who played the lead in Freaks. The one with the German accent. He is the town sheriff. He is wearing an enormous gold star that nearly covers his chest.”

The little person referenced is Harry Earles who played Hans in Freaks (1932; dir. Tod Browning).

The zoo.

A vast treasure hoard, such as Scrooge McDuck might dive into, or Bilbo Baggins and his pals might play upon.

The Nibelungen Hoard, as I’m sure you know, is the treasure of the Nibelungen. (You know Wagner’s Ring Cycle, eh? Or you’ve read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, right?—you get the idea. The titular Nibelung is the dwarf Alberich, by the way).

Cf. W.N. Lettsom—

The tale of that same treasure might well your wonder raise;
’T was much as twelve huge wagons in four whole nights and days
Could carry from the mountain down to the salt-sea bay,
If to and fro each wagon thrice journeyed every day.

It was made up of nothing but precious stones and gold;
Were all the world bought from it, and down the value told,
Not a mark the less thereafter were left, than erst was scored.
Good reason sure had Hagan to covet such a hoard.

Hagen Orders Servants to Sink the Hoard in the Rhine, Peter von Cornelius (1859)
Hagen Orders Servants to Sink the Hoard in the Rhine, Peter von Cornelius (1859)

In the Nibelungenlied, Hagen murders the hero Siegfried and then steals and hides the Nibelung hoard.

Otto von Bismarck, 1815-1898, who unified Germany through technocracy and, uh, war.

10 “…they were well hidden”: A précis of Pynchonian paranoia, perhaps.

Gravity’s Rainbow annotations (so far)

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I’ll be adding to these and then doing more the next time (?!) I read Gravity’s Rainbow.

Pages 82-83: The White Visitation, etc.

Page 103: Black Markets, King Kong, etc.

Pages 148-49: Preterite/Elect, Lurianic Kabbalah, Uncanny X-Men, etc.

Page 203: Rainbows, Fuck-yous, Plastic Man, etc.

Pages 204-05: Paper, mise en abyme, a silkenness of girls, etc.

Page 256: “Real America,” Hughes contra Whitman, BANZAI!, etc.

Pages 257-58: The War, nimbus clouds, Zoot Suit Riot!, etc.

Page 299: Tannhäuser, horny expectations, etc.

Page 364: Knights and fools, dendrites and axons, etc.

Pages 412-13:  Ouroboros, organic chemistry, tarot, etc.

Page 419: Innocence, experience, Wm Blake, Wagner’s Ring cycle, etc.

Page 539: Critical Mass, Weismann’s tarot reading, Rilke, hymns, etc.

The Great Serpent holding its own tail in its mouth | Gravity’s Rainbow, annotations and illustrations for page 412-13

Ouroboros, Codex Parisinus, 1478
Ouroboros, Codex Parisinus, 1478

Kekulé 1 dreams 2 the Great Serpent holding its own tail in its mouth, the dreaming Serpent which surrounds the World 3. But the meanness, the cynicism with which this dream is to be used 4. The Serpent that announces, “The World is a closed thing, cyclical, resonant, eternally-returning,” 5 is to be delivered into a system 6 whose only aim is to violate the Cycle. Taking and not giving back, demanding that “productivity” and “earnings” keep on increasing with time, the System removing from the rest of the World these vast quantities of energy to keep its own tiny desperate fraction showing a profit: and not only most of humanity—most of the World, animal, vegetable and mineral, is laid waste in the process 7 . The System may or may not understand that it’s only buying time. And that time is an artificial resource to begin with, of no value to anyone or anything but the System, which sooner or later must crash to its death, when its addiction to energy has become more than the rest of the World can supply 8 , dragging with it innocent souls all along the chain of life. Living inside the System is like riding across the country in a bus driven by a maniac bent on suicide… though he’s amiable enough, keeps cracking jokes 9 back through the loudspeaker, “Good morning folks, this is Heidelberg 10  here we’re coming into now, you know the old refrain, ‘I lost my heart in Heidelberg,’ 11 well I have a friend who lost both his ears here! Don’t get me wrong, it’s really a nice town, the people are warm and wonderful—when they’re not dueling. Seriously though, they treat you just fine, they don’t just give you the key to the city, they give you the bung-starter!” 12  u.s.w. 13  On you 14 roll, across a countryside whose light is forever changing 15 —castles, heaps of rock, moons of different shapes and colors come and go. There are stops at odd hours of the mornings, for reasons that are not announced: you get out to stretch in lime-lit courtyards where the old men sit around the table under enormous eucalyptus trees you can smell in the night, shuffling the ancient decks oily and worn, throwing down swords and cups 16 and trumps major in the tremor of light while behind them the bus is idling, waiting—passengers will now reclaim their seats and much as you’d like to stay, right here, learn the game, find your old age around this quiet table, it’s no use 17 : he is waiting beside the door of the bus in his pressed uniform, Lord of the Night he is checking your tickets, your ID and travel papers 18 , and it’s the wands of enterprise 19 that dominate tonight… as he nods you by, you catch a glimpse of his face, his insane, committed eyes, and you remember then, for a terrible few heartbeats, that of course it will end for you all in blood, in shock, without dignity 20 —but there is meanwhile this trip to be on… over your own seat, where there ought to be an advertising plaque, is instead a quote from Rilke: “Once, only once…” 21 One of Their favorite slogans. No return, no salvation, no Cycle—that’s not what They, nor Their brilliant employee Kekulé, have taken the Serpent to mean. No: what the Serpent means is—how’s this—that the six carbon atoms of benzene are in fact curled around into a closed ring, just like that snake with its tail in its mouth, GET IT? 22

From pages 412-13 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow.

Friedrich August Kekulé, 1829–1896, German chemist—the “father of organic chemistry.” (Our arts and sciences must be fathered, it seems).

East German Kekulé, postage stamp (with the benzene compound), 1979
East German Kekulé, postage stamp (with the benzene compound), 1979

Actually, let me bother to set the stage a little better, by piggybacking (are pigs not a motif of GR?) off Michael Davitt Bell’s invaluable “Some Things that ‘Happen’ (More or Less) in Gravity’s Rainbow:

[11], 397-433. This long chapter, consisting mostly of one long recollection, narrated in the past tense, tells the story of Franz Pökler […] Pökler dreamed about the history of Friedrich August Kekulé, father of organic chemistry (410-13), and about Kekulé’s dream: a serpent with its tail in its mouth. We learn how this dream was misused by the System, as the foundation for understanding the benzine ring. All this is lectured on by “Pökler’s old prof,” Laszlo Jamf.

A neat little summary, yes.

Kekulé’s most notable contribution to chemistry—and capitalism!—is in his work on describing the structure of that valuable petrochemical benzene.

Formule chimique développée du benzène inscrite dans le dessin de l'Ouroboros (serpent qui se mord la queue), Haltopub, 2013
Formule chimique développée du benzène inscrite dans le dessin de l’Ouroboros (serpent qui se mord la queue), Haltopub, 2013

2 Receiving an honor in 1890, Kekulé, told the German Chemical Society that he had discovered benzene’s ringed shape in a daydream about the ouroboros, the serpent that eats its own tail (tale?!).

Kekulé’s dream-image-symbol is clearly compelling for both the reader and, I think, for Pynchon. Gravity’s Rainbow is very much about the overlap between physical and metaphysical, and Kekulé’s vision points to the convergence of dream and experience, magic and science.

3 Ouroboros is literally tail-devouring in Greek, but through surreal etymological phonological dream-time leaps, we can get to tale-devouring (why not?—okay, I guess maybe that’s mythosboros or something like that, but hell—–).

In any case, the serpent, or Serpent, here strikes me as one of Pynchon’s Moves Against Them—he taps into an older myth, one that elevates the Scaly and Low—the Preterite?—into an Elect position that the Christian Tradition simply doesn’t care for, what with the Tempting Serpent and all. No, no shedding of the skin, no eternal return…no, no return at all. Cf. a few lines later in the passage cited above: “No return, no salvation, no Cycle—that’s not what They, nor Their brilliant employee Kekulé, have taken the Serpent to mean.”

The anonymous author of Ophiolatreia, or Serpent Worship (1889) offers the following:

Horapollo, referring to the serpent symbol, says of it:— ‘When the Egyptians would represent the Universe they delineate a serpent bespeckled with variegated scales, devouring its own tail, the scales intimating the stars in the Universe. The animal is extremely heavy, as is the earth, and extremely slippery like the water, moreover, it every year puts off its old age with its skin, as in the Universe the annual period effects a corresponding change and becomes renovated, and the making use of its own body for food implies that all things whatever, which are generated by divine providence in the world, undergo a corruption into them again.’

4 Used by Them.

Gravity’s Rainbow is clearly about paranoia of Them, and as such (necessarily), Pynchon’s targets are…nebulous. (Although technology and the Military-Industrial-Entertainment Complex that technology works through might be a manifest if not wholly concrete villain in GR.). Pynchon’s big novel Against the Day offers a more specific locus for everything wrong with Them in its awful villain Scarsdale Vibe and his henchmen and lackeys.

5 You are of course familiar with the concept of eternal recurrence, no?

6 Oligarchial capitalism.

7  Pynchon seems to describe the past few centuries here, and probably the future.

8  Gravity’s Ranbow was published in 1973, folks…

9 …but of course, Pynchon is also describing now, which is to say, his narrative’s own future.

10 A charming German city famous for its university.

11 A German song composed by Fred Raymond in 1925. Hear a 1932 English-language version by Arthur Lally and His Orchestra here.

12 A wooden mallet for opening the bung of a cask (or wine or beer). I visited Heidelberg when I was 16 and drank copious quantities of ale.

13 “u.s.w.” — German acronym for und so weiter; translates to etcetera. Pynchon allows the tape to roll on in his reader’s head.

14 Always beware Gravity’s Rainbow’s shifts into second-person! Look at this ride that Pynchon’s put us on…but wait…we’re already on the ride.

15 A rainbow image.

16 Tarot references abound in Gravity’s Rainbow.

3 of Swords, Sola-Busca Tarot (1491; reprint by Wolfgang Mayer, 1998)

17 The preterite’s complaint: Wisdom shall not be found, order will not reveal itself, meaning will be suspended indefinitely.

18 Our wacky busdriver is actually “the Lord of the Night,” an ominous and perhaps self-explanatory title (and one that resonates with the passage’s mythological overtones and tarot motif). The Lords of the Night are figures in both the Mayan and Aztec calendars, but I’m not sure if Pynchon’s referencing them here—although this passage is deeply concerned with the apprehension and management of time. This Lord of the Night, you’ll note—a stickler for paperwork—is awfully bureaucratic.

19 Oligarchial capitalism. The wands are another suit in the tarot deck. (The upright three of wands is associated with enterprise).

20 The strange trip here echoes Gravity’s Rainbow’s bewildering opening “evacuation” sequence, and the line I’ve noted recalls to me a line I’ve cited at least twice now in these annotations.

From the novel’s 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. . . .”

21 In A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion, Weisenburger provides the following context for the Rilke quote:

1

22 Well? Do you?

No knightly hero | Gravity’s Rainbow, annotations and illustrations for page 364

The Gray Tree, Piet Mondrian (1911)
The Gray Tree, Piet Mondrian (1911)

Toward dusk, the black birds descend, millions 1  of them, to sit in the branches of trees nearby. The trees grow heavy with black birds, branches like dendrites of the Nervous System 2  fattening, deep in twittering nerve-dusk, in preparation for some important message… . 3

Later in Berlin, down in the cellar among fever-dreams with shit leaking out of him at gallons per hour, too weak to aim more than token kicks at the rats 4 running by with eyes fixed earnestly noplace, trying to make believe they don’t have a newer and dearer status among the Berliners, at minimum points on his mental health chart, when the sun is gone so totally it might as well be for good, Slothrop’s dumb idling heart 5 sez: The Schwarzgerät is no Grail, Ace, that’s not what the G in Imipolex G stands for. And you are no knightly hero 6. The best you can compare with is Tannhäuser 7, the Singing Nincompoop—you’ve been under one mountain at Nordhausen, been known to sing a song or two with uke accompaniment, and don’tcha feel you’re in a sucking marshland of sin out here, Slothrop? maybe not the same thing William Slothrop, vomiting a good part of 1630 away over the side of that Arbella 8, meant when he said “sin.” . . . But what you’ve done is put yourself on somebody else’s voyage 9—some Frau Holda, some Venus in some mountain—playing her, its, game… you know that in some irreducible way it’s an evil game. You play because you have nothing better to do 10, but that doesn’t make it right. And where is the Pope whose staff’s gonna bloom for you? 11

From page 364 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow.

1 A million black birds sounds like a hyperbole of crows, but Berlin 1945, post-V-E Day—which is like, where we are here—I mean, it’s a desperate deathly ghastly place. So maybe buzzards and dreadful crows abound.

2 Cf. the discussion between nerve cells in pages 148-49.

Drawing of Purkinje cells (A) and granule cells (B) from pigeon cerebellum, Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1899)
Drawing of Purkinje cells (A) and granule cells (B) from pigeon cerebellum, Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1899)

3  What’s the important message? Oh wait, we’re still in the marvelous tree-crow-dendrite simile—the “twittering nerve-dusk”—so the “message” the crow-tree-branches awaits is just part of the, uh, metaphor. Or not? I mean, this is a novel in large part about expectation—about waiting for the bomb to fall, waiting for the Sword of Damocles to descend. And also: awaiting a message of Return.

But: What a lovely little simile. Pynchon’s powers as a prose stylist seem under-remarked upon.

4 Cf. page 359: “Last week, in the British sector someplace, Slothrop, having been asshole enough to drink out of an ornamental pond in the Tiergarten, took sick.”

The cellar, the diarrhea, the rats….I’ve written it before: Gravity’s Rainbow is a thoroughly abject novel—full of assholes (literal) and shit (literal) and toilets (literal). (And oh, also: metaphorical too, metaphorical too). Slothrop here is sick, literally evacuating—but also figuratively evacuating. A few pages later he’ll evacuate into his next identity, Rocket Man.

Cf. page 553, from Slothrop’s “Partial List of Wishes on Evening Stars for This Period”:

“Let me be able to take a shit soon.”

5  I counted 75 words in the dependent clause that precedes Pynchon’s finally introducing the independent clause—which is to say subject and verb

“Slothrop’s dumb idling heart sez”

(My count is likely off; I counted once and I’ve had some bourbon. I counted “fever-dreams” as two words, although I think you’re not supposed to do that).

Anyway: That’s a lot of dependent-clauseauge before, like, the main idea—which I guess, from a prose/aesthetic analysis, is the, uh, main idea—ascent, suspension—and then an immediate divergence (and note how Pynchon simultaneously deflates and invigorates his predicate verb “sez” with colloquial zeal).

6  Many of Gravity’s Rainbow’s motifs almost cohere here. Pynchon highlights two of Slothrop’s ostensible “quests” — the Schwarzgerät (the mysterious “black device” that will be installed in rocket 00000 (present), and the sexy sinister plastic Imipolex G (past). (But also both, obviously: Future).

Slothrop’s dumb heart denies any knightly virtue, rejects Romanticism—and, perhaps, Modernism’s ironic obsessions with Romanticism.

(I think the passage above, what with its ravens and Venus-denial and grail-refusal, is a tidy antonym to Rossetti’s depiction of the Grail…and yet I’d argue Pynchon’s writing bears a Pre-Raphaelite streak)—

The Damsel of the Holy Grail, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1874)
The Damsel of the Holy Grail, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1874)

The episode strikes me as utterly true, a moment of honest self-speech. As Emily Dickinson put it: “I like a look of Agony / Because I know it’s true.” (One of Slothrop’s ancestor’s plagiarized Ms. Dickinson on his gravestone). And yet and yet and yet…Perhaps Tyrone S. is being a bit too harsh on himself (who among us hasn’t cast a harsh gaze into the mirror?).

Slothrop expels the old identity here, the old dreams, the old, evacuating space for the arrival of “Raketemensch,” — Rocketman!

Rocketman points to an emerging postmodern hero—a comic bookish hero, perhaps—totemic, sure, but also Pop, cartoonish, textual—framed (literally) in the conventions of previous centuries’ conceptions of “heroism.”

7  Cf. page 299: “There is that not-so-rare personality disorder known as Tannhäuserism. Some of us love to be taken under mountains, and not always with horny expectations.” I annotated the page here.  Slothrop seems to accept the abject mantle of a bard, a laze, a loaf, a lingerer. I think of Whitman here, proud to lean and loafe at his ease at the beginning of Song of Myself, only to “effuse [his] flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags” in the poem’s closing lines. Like Whitman’s persona, Slothrop will dissipate.

8 Cf. pages 203-04 (annotations here), wherein Slothrop’s vomiting ancestor William Slothrop, in a remarkable passage of hysteron proteron, travels backwards from the New World to the Old.

9 One of the central paranoias of Gravity’s Rainbow is that you might be on their voyage. How much agency do you have in your own life? And what’s the cost of asserting that agency? How many identities do you have to evacuate? And in the end—what’s left?

10 Boredom strikes me as one of (if not the) central theme connecting Modernism, postmodernism, and post-postmodernism.

11 Cf. the Tannhäuser story/footnote 7.

Or: Simply note the motif of bloom, of fruition, of phallic life, of promise. In fuller context though—it’s a bloom too late. The question blooms from Slothrop’s self-speech, but also extends to you and me, reader.

Or: 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. . . .”