Mail call | Thomas Pynchon

A great shout went up near the doorway, bodies flowed toward a fattish pale young man who’d appeared carrying a leather mailsack over his shoulder.

“Mail call,” people were yelling. Sure enough, it was, just like in the army. The fat kid, looking harassed, climbed up on the bar and started calling names and throwing envelopes into the crowd. Fallopian excused himself and joined the others.

Metzger had taken out a pair of glasses and was squinting through them at the kid on the bar. “He’s wearing a Yoyodyne badge. What do you make of that?”

“Some inter-office mail run,” Oedipa said.

“This time of night?”

“Maybe a late shift?” But Metzger only frowned. “Be back,” Oedipa shrugged, heading for the ladies’ room.

On the latrine wall, among lipsticked obscenities, she noticed the following message, neatly indited in engineering lettering:

“Interested in sophisticated fun? You, hubby, girl friends. The more the merrier. Get in touch with Kirby, through WASTE only. Box 7391. L. A.”

WASTE? Oedipa wondered. Beneath the notice, faintly in pencil, was a symbol she’d never seen before, a loop, triangle and trapezoid, thus:

img_5980

It might be something sexual, but she somehow doubted it. She found a pen in her purse and copied the address and symbol in her memo book, thinking: God, hieroglyphics. When she came out Fallopian was back, and had this funny look on his face.

“You weren’t supposed to see that,” he told them. He had an envelope. Oedipa could see, instead of a postage stamp, the handstruck initials PPS.

“Of course,” said Metzger. “Delivering the mail is a government monopoly. You would be opposed to that.”

Fallopian gave them a wry smile. “It’s not as rebellious as it looks. We use Yoyodyne’s inter-office delivery. On the sly. But it’s hard to find carriers, we have a big turnover. They’re run on a tight schedule, and they get nervous. Security people over at the plant know something’s up. They keep a sharp eye out. De Witt,” pointing at the fat mailman, who was being hauled, twitching, down off the bar and offered drinks he did not want, “he’s the most nervous one we’ve had all year.”

“How extensive is this?” asked Metzger.

“Only inside our San Narciso chapter. They’ve set up pilot projects similar to this in the Washington and I think Dallas chapters. But we’re the only one in California so far. A few of your more affluent type members do wrap their letters around bricks, and then the whole thing in brown paper, and send them Railway Express, but I don’t know . . .”

“A little like copping out,” Metzger sympathized.

“It’s the principle,” Fallopian agreed, sounding defensive. “To keep it up to some kind of a reasonable volume, each member has to send at least one letter a week through the Yoyodyne system. If you don’t, you get fined.” He opened his letter and showed Oedipa and Metzger.

Dear Mike, it said, how are you? Just thought I’d drop you a note. How’s your book coming? Guess that’s all for now. See you at The Scope.

That’s how it is,” Fallopian confessed bitterly, “most of the time.”

“What book did they mean?” asked Oedipa.

Turned out Fallopian was doing a history of private mail delivery in the U. S., attempting to link the Civil War to the postal reform movement that had begun around 1845. He found it beyond simple coincidence that in of all years 1861 the federal government should have set out on a vigorous suppression of those independent mail routes still surviving the various Acts of ’45, ’47, ’51 and ’55, Acts all designed to drive any private competition into financial ruin. He saw it all as a parable of power, its feeding, growth and systematic abuse, though he didn’t go into it that far with her, that particular night. All Oedipa would remember about him at first, in fact, were his slender build and neat Armenian nose, and a certain affinity of his eyes for green neon.

So began, for Oedipa, the languid, sinister blooming of The Tristero.


From The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon.

Blog about Thomas Pynchon’s novel Bleeding Edge

img_5423

I finished reading Thomas Pynchon’s 2013 novel Bleeding Edge a few minutes before I started typing up this blog. I’d jotted down a few notes as I was reading the book over the past two weeks, thinking about writing a review or an essay about the novel, but lately I seem to sit on such notes and never hatch them into anything real.

Today, 8 May 2020 is Thomas Ruggles Pynchon’s 83rd birthday. Folks online like to celebrate with something called Pynchon in Public Day, which this year, thanks to These Paranoid Times, has become Pynchon in Private Day. Instead of doing a big list of links, images, and excerpts, this blog about Bleeding Edge will be my minor contribution.

Reviews usually offer some kind of plot summary, right? Here’s a really short summary: Bleeding Edge is Pynchon’s New York novel, his 9/11 novel, his internet novel. Not enough? Well…

Bleeding Edge is nearly 500 pages long and seems to have almost as many subplots—but the gist of the novel is that Maxine Tarnow, a now-unlicensed fraud examiner, undertakes a sprawling investigation that leads her to what may-or-may-not-be evidence of unidentified conspirators collaborating in some way to facilitate the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. As is the case with any Pynchon, the gist isn’t the point—the subplots are the real point, those threads that tangle off into some other invisible tapestry, unrevealed to protagonist and reader alike. I’ll lazily borrow from the jacket blurb to offer a smattering of those subplots:

She soon finds herself mixed up with a drug runner in an art deco motorboat, a professional nose obsessed with Hitler’s aftershave, a neoliberal enforcer with footwear issues, plus elements of the Russian mob and various bloggers, hackers, code monkeys, and entrepreneurs, some of whom begin to show up mysteriously dead.

Tellingly, there’s even a tangle in the blurb: The neoliberal enforcer is Nicholas Windust (who uses a cattle prod to enforce his ideology on citizens of developing nations); the guy with “footwear issues” is Eric Outfield, a hacker and podophiliac. There are so many characters in Bleeding Edge that we can forgive even the jacket’s condensing a few into each other.

And yet for all its myriad subplots, Bleeding Edge is one of Pynchon’s more cohesive novels. It’s plot is not as baggy as the behemoth Against the Day, or as complicated as Gravity’s Rainbow, or as confusing as Inherent Vice, the novel that preceded it.

Like Inherent Vice, and Pynchon’s second novel, The Crying of Lot 49Bleeding Edge is a detective novel, albeit a highly unconventional one. Our detective Maxine Tarnow is a compelling central figure, and Pynchon sticks closely to her consciousness; indeed, Maxine is maybe the closest thing to a first-person-viewpoint Pynchon has given us. Maxine, who occasionally worries about her Yenta tendencies, is a mother of two near-adolescent boys, Otis and Ziggy. At the novel’s outset, she’s estranged from her husband Horst, but he soon re-enters the picture.

The domestic contours of Bleeding Edge are touching. Maxine plays video games with her children, tries to understand the culture that her boys are growing into, riffs on Beanie Babies and Pokemon and first-person shooters with them. (It’s hard not to map some of Pynchon’s bio here: Like Maxine, Pynchon lives on the Upper West Side, and his son Jackson is around the same age as Ziggy and Otis. I will refrain from more biographical speculation, mea culpa.) Bleeding Edge opens in the pre-tragic spring of 2001, with Maxine walking the boys to school. She wants to protect her boys, and in a telling image, she “drifts into a pick” to guard them from any hypothetical traffic.

That domestic theme resonates until the novel’s end—indeed, with its many tangled subplots, the most satisfying resolution happens in the last pages, when, a year later, Maxine’s boys walk to school by themselves. It’s a bittersweet moment, one in keeping with the novel’s balance of tragedy and comedy, zaniness and horror. Ultimately, Bleeding Edge is a comedy in the classical sense, signaling the restoration of family (families, really).

The domestic plot helps to frame Bleeding Edge, but it also stands in contrast to Maxine’s adventures after dark as her investigation into possible fraud at an internet startup leads her into ever-more bizarre territory. There are mysterious videotapes and immersive video games that may-or-may-not contain the souls of those who’ve departed “meatspace”: there are time-traveling soldiers and debauched internet launch parties. There is that “ideological enforcer,” Nick Windust, who Maxine finds herself imporbably drawn to. And, it’s a Pynchon novel, so there’s plenty of drugs, sex, and songs. Like New York City, Bleeding Edge is packed, crammed with details that evoke not just the city’s form, but also its ever-changing spirit.

Of course, the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks loom over the plot, especially the first two-thirds, where they are foreshadowed repeatedly. (Otis and Ziggy eat lunch with their father and his friend Jake at the top of the WTC early in the novel. It’s a windy day, and the boys are nervous as the building sways, but Jake assures them, ironically, that it’s “built like a battleship.”) Pynchon’s handling of the attacks is remarkably restrained—instead of pages and pages of those strange hours, he instead nimbly constructs the moments beforehand and the moments after. A few paragraphs before the attack, Horst, Ziggy, and Otis watch the Colts beat the Jets on Monday Night Football, a wonderfully banal detail that Pynchon explores in more sentences than the actual attack. The days after offer a New Yorker’s cold perspective on the swiftly-mutating jingoism that exploded across the nation after 9/11.

The 9/11 attacks, and America’s response to them, ultimately serve to recapitulate neoliberalism and late capitalism. Pynchon repeats these terms throughout Bleeding Edge, adding them to his lexicon of old standbys like paranoiainvisible, and convenience. Indeed, Bleeding Edge can be read as a sustained how against late capitalism. But the howl also repeatedly shows the complicity of all the howlers: Who doesn’t want convenience? Who doesn’t want the latest fad, the comfort of mass-produced “culture”? Bleeding Edge is littered with the detritus of late-nineties-early-oughts “culture”: Furbies, Britney Spears, Doom, Ambien sex, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Nas, the Mamma Mia! Broadway musical, Pokemon, etc. etc. etc. Pynchon has always compounded high and low culture into something new, but Bleeding Edge seems to insist that the twentieth century’s ideals of “high” culture no longer obtain.

Some of his characters find optimism of a new culture, one outside the proscriptions of late capitalism, in the internet. A “game” called DeepArcher takes on a mystical quality in Bleeding Edge, a dwelling place for lost souls. Yet some characters are not optimistic about the future of the internet, including Maxine’s father Ernie, who warns her that the internet was born from the military-industrial-complex, and to the military-industrial-complex it will return. Ernie’s elegy for the internet is prescient, and reads like Pynchon looking back from the future, back from 2010, 2011, 2012, when the money guys had already sewed the seeds of ruination.

Indeed, many of the characters in Bleeding Edge come off as mouthpieces for Pynchon’s own viewpoints, whether it’s Ernie riffing on ARPANET or the decline of labor in the US, or Maxine’s zen therapist Shawn, who rails that late capitalism is a scam headed towards its own exhaustion at the price of our planet. It’s the arrangement of these voices that makes the novel strong though—Pynchon shows the complicity of each voice, even as he shows their resistance to the ideological machine they were born into.

It’s really only Maxine that comes through as a fully-achieved, human, character. She’s complex as both a detective, and a mother. Like Doc Sportello of Inherent Vice, she’s already an outsider, having had her license revoked. Despite her general anti-establishment tendencies, she’s nevertheless attracted to the nefarious agent of neoliberal violence, Nicholas Windust. The attraction here echoes Frenesi Gates’ relationship with Brock Vond in Vineland (or even Doc Sportello’s “partnership” with Bigfoot in Inherent Vice), suggesting an ambiguous, amorphous delineation between “good” and “evil” in Pynchon’s characters. Windust is a villain, but Maxine—and Pynchon—try to redeem him.

Other villains are a bit more one-note, like the geek billionaire Gabriel Ice. It being his New York novel, Rudy Giuliani is a frequent target, as is “the paper of record,” the New York Times. George W. Bush and his gang are minor players here; keeping with its NYC theme, Bleeding Edge suggests the corruption of figures like Elliot Spitzer and Bernie Madoff are part and parcel of a corrupt and corrupting system. Maxine’s job is to search out that corruption, but she doesn’t have the tools to cure it.

I had two false starts over six years before finally finishing Bleeding Edge. I’ll admit that I didn’t think it was that good on those starts, but after finishing it today I’d say that it’s very good. It’s not Gravity’s Rainbow or Mason & Dixon, but what novels are? I also have to admit that the material in the book is maybe too close to many of us to fully assess. I was graduating college in the spring of 2001, when the novel begins. In early September, I was living in my parents’ house, waiting to move to my first “real” job in Tokyo. I was supposed to leave on 9/14. I ended up leaving a week later. Pynchon captures a time in America during which I was, at least theoretically, becoming an adult (a becoming which may or may not have happened yet). Reading Bleeding Edge helped evoke all the weirdness the 2000s were about to lay out for us. It made me angry again, or reminded me of the anger that I’d sustain for most of the decade. It reminded me of our huge ideological failure after 9/11, an ideological failure we are watching somehow fail even more today.  But I also loved the novel’s unexpectedly sweet domestic plot, and found a kind of solace even in its affirmation of family, even as its final image pointed to the kind of radical inconclusiveness at the heart of being a parent.

There are about a million things I wanted to riff on in this blog about this book. I’ve failed to remark on how funny the book is, how insightful, and how, at times, frustrating. On one page Pynchon would make me laugh out loud, a page or two later I’d groan at one of his bad puns (Pynchon has no problem picking the lowest-hanging fruit), and then maybe I’d be cringing at something (like, a rap song he wrote!) a few pages later, before getting transfixed by a beautiful, strange prose sequence. It’s a big book.

Bleeding Edge isn’t Thomas Pynchon’s best novel, nor is it a great starting place for readers new to Pynchon, but I’m glad I finally read it. And I really, really hope that it isn’t his last one.

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice

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


Wow.

drivel

stilted dialogue

knock yourself out

every detail is described

This was my first Pynchon

my second stab at Pynchon

I so rarely abandon anything

shouldn’t have been published

that ridiculous post-modern credo

pick up James Ellroy. He is a true artist

like a novelization of the Big Lebowski

false as a jet contrail in an 1880’s western movie

I had to read whole pages twice or even three times

practically nothing that occurs is important to move the plot along

he smokes a joint and stumbles across a clue that leads him to the next chapter

does a disservice to liberals by portraying them as a bunch of negative stereotypes

This book makes the classic NAKED LUNCH by Burroughs completely coherent

No one in our entire bookclub could finish it and we are all avid readers

NEVER BUY BOOKS THAT CRITICS RAVE ABOUT, THEY ALWAYS SUCK!!!

It glorifies hippies and condemns the right-wing Man

one of the most useless novels I have ever read

This is my first experience with Pynchon

this may make a decent movie

nothing redeeming about it

no entertainment value

difficult and obscure

no meter

Uugghh.

As a Scandinavian

It is a bad detective story

Pynchon wants this to be a film.

When Amazon recommends a book, I take notice.

I have never read a book by Thomas Pynchon before

I am beginning to think the “professionals” just like crap.

The Author is the type that critics love to refer to as edgy

Pynchon is probably the most overrated American writer.

It is as if this author was stoned the entire time he wrote this.

numerous drug and hallucination references and insinuations

story telling with drugs and hallucinations are better left to movies or television

Definitively a good movie was made based on an awful book by an overrated writer.

Pynchon maybe in top 10 most overrated writers in the last 100 yrs.

Let me start by saying that I have never read Pynchon before.

I had to re-read several pages and passages multiple times

Thomas Pynchon is supposed to be a great author

Remember those dumb “Family Circus” cartoons

the author appears to be a wanna be stoner

I am in the process of writing my own novel

Where is Kerouac when you need him?

The whole novel is one long inside joke.

I’m in a book club with 10 guys….

nonsensical plot

Studpid

Blech.

meandering piece of slop

What’s not cool is this book.

an Elmore Leonard Want-a-be

I could write a hippie chick way better.

The professor also said he hated reading it.

Do not recommend to anyone under the age of 65

This is my first encounter with a book about drug usage

The seventies were a time of sex, drugs and rock and roll.

The volumes I have read , sadly, occupy a large footprint on the planet.

Doc, the protagonist, is in a drug-induced haze for the majority of the novel

My extremities are tingling with the feeling that Socrates had after drinking a cup of hemlock.

ARPAnet, forerunner of the internet, is discussed as if everyone knows about it

written by a cute undergraduate student working under Pynchon’s wing

characters who make brief appearances

bad acid trips and a caricature of a plot

the ramblings of an intoxicated person

I really wanted to like this book

I am an avid fiction reader.

This was my first Pynchon

Some call it “stoner noir.”

you are the sober one

strangled by Pynchon

unsexy sex scenes

fiction is useless

H are to follow

little cat feet

Trial cover art for Gravity’s Rainbow

trial art for gr

This trial cover for Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow is included in Luc Herman and Steven Weisenburger’s book Gravity’s Rainbow, Domination, and Freedom (University of Georgia Press, 2013).

Herman and Weisenburger note the existence of an even earlier version with Pynchon’s working title Mindless Pleasures. I found it quickly at Pynchon Wiki, which notes:

how the image is based on the Tarot card The Tower, which – as we learn in Weissmann’s Tarot (p. 746-47) – represents “any System which cannot tolerate heresy: a system which, by its nature, must sooner or later fall. We know by now that it is also the Rocket.”

mindless-pleasures

Here are Herman and Weisenburger on that first title, Mindless Pleasures:

…Pynchon’s, or perhaps the Viking editors’, extraction of that phrase [“mindless pleasures”] for the book title, although scotched, surely indexed some shared sense of thematic relevance. An early trial cover put the title “Mindless Pleasures” over a cleverly stylized version of the Tower, a key card in Weissmann/Blicero’s tarot reading. A second trial cover, also scotched, put “Gravity’s Rainbow” over the same image. The Tower gathers several interpretations, most notably (says our narrator) that of “a Gnostic or Cathar symbol for the Church of Rome, and this is generalized to mean any system which cannot tolerate heresy: a system which, by its nature, must sooner or later fall. We know by now that it is also the Rocket.” The notion of tolerance and intolerance is catchy and may also link to Marcuse on repression…. One reading of this cover would be that mindless pleasures bring down the system, are anathema to it. The common gloss of “mindless” is that it refers to the contrary of normativity, or not a mentality conditioned or “defined within rigid societal parameters”…. This contrariness presumes a hierarchy, an established order elevated above a variety of upstart alternatives, many of them popular, carnivalesque, of the body. And the arts are among them…

Weissmann’s tarot:

img_4289-1

Herman and Weisenburger cite Clifford Mead’s Thomas Pynchon: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Materials (Dalkey, 1989) as their source for the trial cover.

As far as I can find, no cover designer is credited.

“Vineland is not the novel Pynchon’s fans were expecting” | A 1990 Pynchon profile

“Togetherness” — Thomas Pynchon

160N09658_9LTYB

(Click to enlarge.)

“Togetherness,” by Thomas Pynchon was published in the vol. 16, no. 12 issue of Aerospace Safety in December 1960. The byline reads “Thomas H. Pynchon” (for Huggles, presumably).

Full text of the article here (for completists only, of course).

Getting away cheap | Thomas Pynchon

“You remember those twin statues of the Buddha that I told you about? Carved out of a mountain in Afghanistan, that got dynamited by the Taliban back in the spring? Notice anything familiar?”

“Twin Buddhas, twin towers, interesting coincidence, so what.”

“The Trade Center towers were religious too. They stood for what this country worships above everything else, the market, always the holy fuckin market.”

“A religious beef, you’re saying?”

“It’s not a religion? These are people who believe the Invisible Hand of the Market runs everything. They fight holy wars against competing religions like Marxism. Against all evidence that the world is finite, this blind faith that resources will never run out, profits will go on increasing forever, just like the world’s population—more cheap labor, more addicted consumers.”

“You sound like March Kelleher.”

“Yeah, or,” that trademark sub-smirk, “maybe she sounds like me.”

“Uh-huh, listen, Shawn . . .” Maxine tells him about the kids on the corner and her time-warp theory.

“Is that like the zombies you said you were seeing?”

“One person, Shawn, somebody I know, maybe dead maybe not, enough with the zombies already.”

“Hmm yes, but now another, you’d have to say insane, suspicion has begun to bloom in all the California sunshine around here, which is, suppose these “kids” are really operatives, time troopers from the Montauk Project, abducted long ago into an unthinkable servitude, grown solemn and gray through years of soldiering, currently assigned to Maxine expressly, for reasons never to be made clear to her. Possibly in strange cahoots also, and why not, with Gabriel Ice’s own private gang of co-opted script kiddies . . . aahhh! Talk about paranoid jitters!

“OK”, soothingly, “like, total disclosure? It’s been happenin to me too? I’m seeing people in the street who are supposed to be dead, even sometimes people I know were in the towers when they went down, who can’t be here but they’re here.”

“They gaze at each other for a while, down here on the barroom floor of history, feeling sucker-punched, no clear way to get up and on with a day which is suddenly full of holes—family, friends, friends of friends, phone numbers on the Rolodex, just not there anymore . . . the bleak feeling, some mornings, that the country itself may not be there anymore, but being silently replaced screen by screen with something else, some surprise package, by those who’ve kept their wits about them and their clicking thumbs ready.

“I’m sorry, Shawn. What do you think it could be?”

“Besides how much I miss them, beats me. Is it just this miserable fucking city, too many faces, making us crazy? Are we seeing some wholesale return of the dead?”

“You’d prefer retail?”

“Do you remember that piece of footage on the local news, just as the first tower comes down, woman runs in off the street into a store, just gets the door closed behind her, and here comes this terrible black billowing, ash, debris, sweeping through the streets, gale force past the window . . . that was the moment, Maxi. Not when ‘everything changed.’ When everything was revealed. No grand Zen illumination, but a rush of blackness and death. Showing us exactly what we’ve become, what we’ve been all the time.”

“And what we’ve always been is . . . ?”

“Is living on borrowed time. Getting away cheap. Never caring about who’s paying for it, who’s starving somewhere else all jammed together so we can have cheap food, a house, a yard in the burbs . . . planetwide, more every day, the payback keeps gathering. And meantime the only help we get from the media is boo hoo the innocent dead. Boo fuckin hoo. You know what? All the dead are innocent. There’s no uninnocent dead.”

After a while, “You’re not going to explain that, or . . .”

“Course not, it’s a koan.”

From Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon.

Insufficiently serious | Thomas Pynchon

Heidi has been working on an article for the Journal of Memespace Cartography she’s calling “Heteronormative Rising Star, Homophobic Dark Companion,” which argues that irony, assumed to be a key element of urban gay humor and popular through the nineties, has now become another collateral casualty of 11 September because somehow it did not keep the tragedy from happening. “As if somehow irony,” she recaps for Maxine, “as practiced by a giggling mincing fifth column, actually brought on the events of 11 September, by keeping the country insufficiently serious—weakening its grip on ‘reality.’ So all kinds of make-believe—forget the delusional state the country’s in already—must suffer as well. Everything has to be literal now.”

“Yeah, the kids are even getting it at school.” Ms. Cheung, an English teacher who if Kugelblitz were a town would be the neighborhood scold, has announced that there shall be no more fictional reading assignments. Otis is terrified, Ziggy less so. Maxine will walk in on them watching Rugrats or reruns of Rocko’s Modern Life, and they holler by reflex, “Don’t tell Ms. Cheung!”

“You notice,” Heidi continues, “how ‘reality’ programming is suddenly all over the cable, like dog shit? Of course, it’s so producers shouldn’t have to pay real actors scale. But wait! There’s more! Somebody needs this nation of starers believing they’re all wised up at last, hardened and hip to the human condition, freed from the fictions that led them so astray, as if paying attention to made-up lives was some form of evil drug abuse that the collapse of the towers cured by scaring everybody straight again.”

From Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon.

 

A kind of boot camp for military time travelers | Thomas Pynchon

The colonel’s face fills the screen, broken up sporadically, smeared, pixelated, blown through by winds of noise and forgetfulness, failing links, lost servers. Its voice was synthesized several generations back and never updated, lip movements don’t match the words, if they ever did. What it has to say is this.

“There is a terrible prison, most informants believe it’s located here in the U.S., though we also have Russian input comparing it unfavorably to the worst parts of the gulag. With classic Russian reluctance they will not name it. Wherever it is, brutal is too kind a description. They kill you but keep you alive. Mercy is unknown.

“It’s supposed to be a kind of boot camp for military time travelers. Time travel, as it turns out, is not for civilian tourists, you don’t just climb into a machine, you have to do it from inside out, with your mind and body, and navigating Time is an unforgiving discipline. It requires years of pain, hard labor, and loss, and there is no redemption—of, or from, anything.

“Given the lengthy schooling, the program prefers to recruit children by kidnapping them. Boys, typically. They are taken without consent and systematically rewired. Assigned to secret cadres to be sent on government missions back and forth in Time, under orders to create alternative histories which will benefit the higher levels of command who have sent them out.

“They need to be prepared for the extreme rigors of the job. They are starved, beaten, sodomized, operated on without anesthetic. They will never see their families or friends again. If by accident this should ever happen, during an assignment or simply as a contingency of the day, their standing orders are immediately to kill anyone who recognizes them.

“Standard strategies for deflecting public attention are considered to be in effect. Rapture by UFOs, disappearance into the correctional system, MKUltra-type programs have all proven useful as diversionary narratives.”

From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Bleeding Edge.

“A Parable Nobody Is Supposed to Get” — Thomas Pynchon

She’s wearing desert-camo fatigues and her signature snood, today a sort of electric green. Her commencement speech turns out to be a parable nobody is supposed to get.

“Once upon a time, there was a city with a powerful ruler who liked to creep around town in disguise, doing his work in secret. Now and then someone recognized him, but they were always willing to accept a small handful of silver or gold to forget all about it. ‘You have been exposed for a moment to a highly toxic form of energy,’ is his usual formula. ‘Here is a sum I trust will compensate you for any damage done. Soon you will begin to forget, and then you’ll feel better.”

“At the time, out and about in the night, there was also an older lady, probably didn’t look too different from your grandmother, who carried a huge sack full of dirty rags, scraps of paper and plastic, broken appliances, leftover food, and other rubbish she collected off the street. She went everywhere, she had lived out in the city longer than anyone there, unprotected and in the open regardless of the weather, and she knew everything. She was the guardian of whatever the city threw away.

“On the day she and the ruler of the city finally crossed paths, he got a rude surprise—when he offered his well-meant handful of coins, she angrily flung them back at him. They went scattering and ringing on the paving stones. ‘Forget?’ she screeched. ‘I cannot and must not forget. Remembering is the essence of what I am. The price of my forgetting, great sir, is more than you can imagine, let alone pay.”

“Taken aback, somehow thinking he must not have offered enough, the ruler began to dig through his purse again, but when he looked up, the old woman had vanished. That day he returned from his secret tasks earlier than usual, in a queer state of nerves. He supposed now he’d have to find this old woman and render her harmless. How awkward.

“Though he was not by nature a violent person, he had learned a long time ago that nobody held on to a job like his unless they were willing to do whatever it took. For years he had sought new and creative methods short of violence, which usually came down to buying people off. Stalkers of imperial celebrities were hired as bodyguards, journalists with nasal-length issues were redesignated ‘analysts’ and installed at desks in the state intelligence office.

“By this logic the old woman with her sack of garbage should have become an environmental cabinet minister and someday get parks and recycle centers all across the realm named after her. But whenever anyone tried to approach her with job offers, she was never to be found. Her criticisms of the regime, however, had already entered the collective consciousness of the city and become impossible to delete.

“Well, kids, it’s just a story. The kind of story you were likely to hear in Russia back in the days when Stalin was in power. People told each other these Aesop’s fables and everybody knew what stood for what. But can we in the 21st-century U.S. say the same?

“Who is this old lady? What does she think she’s been finding out all these years? Who is this ‘ruler’ shes’s refusing to be bought off by? And what’s this ‘work’ he was ‘doing in secret’? Suppose ‘the ruler’ isn’t a person at all but a soulless force so powerful that though it cannot ennoble, it does entitle, which, in the city-nation we speak of, is always more than enough? The answers are left to you, the Kugelblitz graduating class of 2001, as an exercise. Good luck. Think of it as a contest. Send your answers to my Weblog, tabloidofthedamned.com, first prize is a pizza with anything you want on it.”

From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Bleeding Edge. The (commencement) speaker is committed leftist March Kelleher.

Thomas Pynchon beats J.G. Ballard to win the 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers

2020-03-31_183554

Thomas Pynchon beat out J.G. Ballard, earning 61% of 337 votes of my totally-scientific and not-at-all arbitrary twitter poll to become the Champion of the 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers. Mr. Pynchon’s trophy is at Biblioklept World Headquarters here in Florida. After this whole quarantine business is over I’m sure he’ll arrange to pick it up.

My gut feeling is that the people who follow me on twitter are skewed toward Pynchon more than Ballard. Either of the pair could have taken the prize and I’d have been happy.

FG2744-3-14a

J.G. Ballard described the late twentieth century as good as anyone, and anticipated almost every aspect of our zeitgeist. The dude not only understood the intersection of commerce and politics and sex and art, but he could convey it in wild (and wildly-entertaining, forgive the cliche) stories and novels of the blackest and bleakest humor. There are any number of great starting places for Ballard, but if you haven’t read him yet, I’d recommend High-Rise or Concrete Island before jumping into the more challenging Crash. Then: The Atrocity Exhibition, the earlier novels (1962’s The Drowned World is particularly prescient) and the early stories of Vermilion Sands. Actually, if you can get a hold of The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard, go for it. (I riffed on reading all the stories back in 2014.) I don’t recommend starting with the later novels—Ballard’s descriptions are so prescient that there’s this weird drop off in quality when reality catches up to him. In the meantime, why not read “The Secret Autobiography of  J G B”? (It was composed in 1981 but published in 2009; it took autofiction a few decades to catch up with the Notorious JGB.) Ballard is great.

Thomas Pynchon’s novels are famously byzantine, shaggy, esoteric, and paranoid. He captures both the zaniness and the menace of our zeitgeist. His protagonists are often straight figures who go crooked, insiders pushed to the outside through maladventure and adventure alike. Pynchon places a premium on the underdog who resists the Them—the technocracy, the war machine, the military-industrial-entertainment complex. His most famous (and probably best) novel Gravity’s Rainbow is an indictment of war and capitalism; although it’s set in WW2, it also addresses itself, ultimately, to that war’s hangover and the Nixonian evil contemporary with its publication. Pynchon’s loose California trilogy—The Crying of Lot 49Vineland, and Inherent Vice—document, describe, and deconstruct the myth of the American cultural revolution of the 1960s. Pynchon’s “historical novels,” Mason & Dixon and Against the Day are probably my favorites. Both analyze American history as a series of strange mistakes, big blunders, and minor foibles. His longest (and strangely, most accessible) novel Against the Day is also his clearest attack on the nebulous Them who oppose freedom, progress, and, ultimately, love. The humor and intelligence of Pynchon’s writing often softens the core anger of his work, an anger directed at the invisible forces that cry out, to steal from the Dead Kennedys, “Give me convenience or give me death!” He is a national treasure and I hope he lives forever—which he will, through his works.

Finally: I hope that everyone who participated in this thing had (at least the tiniest of sliver of) fun. I don’t think pitting writers against each other has anything to do with literature. I missed college basketball in March, so this is what I did. It also helped me drift off into other places for a while. Ballard is gone but I would love to read his quarantine novel. And I’ll read anything else we get from Pynchon.

Peace to all.

 

 

Final Round: The 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers)

zeitgeisty

 

What’s there to say?

We’ve hit the final round of the 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers.

Top-seeded Aldous Huxley fell to number five seed J.G. Ballad in a match that was never close for a second.

The stranger and more divisive match, at least for my metaphorical money, was between Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy.

Pynchon’s comic zaniness beat out McCarthy’s wryer apocalypticism (or maybe just more people on Twitter dig Pynchon).

I hope everyone had dumb stupid distracting fun with all of this.

 

The Final Four(horsemen of the Apocalypse) match-ups and Round Four results for the 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers)

The Elite Armageddon Eight of the 2020 Tournament of Zeitgeisty Writers is all wrapped up, and we now have our Final Four(horsemen of the Apocalypse).

Let’s go bracket by bracket:

Margaret Atwood kept it close with Aldous Huxley, but lost in the end. I was rooting for her. I’m a huge fan of Huxley’s under-read apocalyptic pre-postmodernist Ape and Essence, but I have to admit I was rooting for Atwood.

I was torn between Ballard and LeGuin in the second bracket—both authors described and diagnosed our zeitgeist. Ballard prevailed.

Ballard will square off against Huxley in the Dead British Writers bracket of the Final Four.

Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 8.31.31 PM

Pynchon and DeLillo both had tough roads to the Final Four. Pynchon beat out Anna Kavan and David Foster Wallace to get to the Elite Eight; DeLillo bested Pat Frank and Philip K. Dick. All of these writers are great, and, more importantly to our rubric, seemed to presciently capture the current dystopia the 20th century was brewing. (Okay, Frank isn’t great, but.)

Pynchon beat DeLillo easily though.

Like Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy pretty much thumped everyone he was matched against, including low seed José Saramago in the Elite Eight. While I’m sure a ton of folks will cite The Road as his zeitgeistiest novel, I’d argue it’s Blood Meridian (or even No Country for Old Men).

Pynchon will contend with McCarthy in the White American Authors in Their Eighties bracket of the Final Four. I’m not sure how to vote. In some ways, this is like, the final bracket for me.

Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 8.32.00 PM

 

Charles Wright/Steve Erickson (Books acquired, 18 March 2020)

img_5192

A couple of days ago I took my daughter to the bookstore for what I imagine will be the last time for a while. She browsed the “Teen” section, which is new for both of us, and picked out a few books.

I picked up The Complete Novels of Charles Wright, which collects The Messenger, The Wig, and Absolutely Nothing to Get Alarmed About. I’m generally not a fan of omnibus editions, but I’m not sure how easy it is to get a hold of The Messenger or Absolutely Nothing (the bookstore had another copy of The Wig, which makes me think it’s in wider circulation). This Harper Perennial edition has no introduction, and I’m not crazy about the no-contrast cover, but it’s got a nice texture to it.

I also picked up Steve Erickson’s debut novel Days Between Stations, in part because Thomas Pynchon blurbed it (even though I wasn’t wild about the last novel I read because Pynchon blurbed it, Wurlitzer’s Nog), and also in part because I’m a sucker for Vintage Contemporaries editions, especially ones with covers illustrated by Rick Lovell.

Here’s Pynchon’s blurb:

 

img_5194

Steve Erickson has that rare and luminous gift for reporting back from the nocturnal side of reality, along with an engagingly romantic attitude and the fierce imaginative energy of a born storyteller. It is good news when any of these qualities appear in a writer– to find them all together in a first novelist is reason to break out the champagne and hors-d’oeuvres.

Pynchon also blurbed Jim Dodge’s novel Stone Junction (or wrote an introduction for it rather), which I’ve been looking for unsuccessfully for a while now—not because Pynchon blurbed it (which I only found out recently), but because I’ve heard it compared to Charles Portis. I was unsuccessful again this time.

I hope I’ll be able to get out of the house soon, but in the meantime I have more than enough reading material.

Blog about some recent reading (Spring break/quarantine (?) edition)

img_5159

Left to right:

I used interlibrary loan to check out a copy of Clifford Mead’s Thomas Pynchon: A Bibliography. It’s pretty neat, and includes some photos of Our Reclusive Favorite that I’d never seen before, like this one:

I read Charles Wright’s 1966 novel The Wig last weekend. The novel is amazing—a picaresque, burlesque, Black black comedy that made me want to reread Invisible Man and read all the Ishmael Reed that I’ve left unread. And more Charles Wright. The energy of The Wig enraptured me; Wright’s cartoon vision of 1960’s Harlem is poised just on the edge of horror. I loved loved loved this novel, and aim for a full review sometime this week.

To its right is The Complete Gary Lutz, which I’ve been nibbling at for a few months. It’s like a rich cheese block or a lovely single malt—not something to inhale all at once, but wonderful in moderation.

I’ve also been picking through Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany, mostly reading the journalism at the front end. (I’m saving the play, Delray’s New Moon for…I don’t know…like a quarantine or something?)

This afternoon, I dipped into Marrow and Bone, Walter Kempowski’s satirical road novel set in Germany and Poland right before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Charlotte Collins’s translation renders Kempowski’s prose as frank, funny, and often ironic.

I’m a little over halfway through Rudolph Wurlitzer’s 1969 cult classic Nog. The novel is far more abject and despair-inflected than I had imagined, and so far, anyway, the despair and abjection isn’t leavened with any humor that’s registered with me. I dig the absurdity, but I’ve got to admit that the book isn’t working for me. I wanted to love it—-blurbed by Pynchon, right? features an imaginary octopus, right?—but something’s missing for me. (The vague something in the previous sentence is humor—there are maybe some jokes or japes I’m missing, to be fair, but…) The book’s strengths bleed over with its weaknesses. Wurlitzer does an admirable job portraying a consciousness dissolving and resolving, only to desire to not desire consciousness at all, only static, Buddhist peace. Nog is essentially a narrative voice, a howl disintegrating in on itself, bubbling down, and revivifying itself via verbal goo to speak anew. There are Big Western Themes, too—Wurlitzer’s critique of America’s favorite myth of Manifest Destiny is subtle but sharp. The novel’s druggy haze recalls William Burroughs or Allen Ginsberg, but a bit more focused. It so far makes me think of better novels by João Gilberto Noll, though. I very much love two films that Rudolph Wurlitzer wrote: Two-Lane Blacktop (1971; dir. Monte Hellman) and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973; dir. Sam Peckinpah). I’d love to see two others he wrote: America (1986; dir. Robert Downey Sr.) and Walker (1987; dir. Alex Cox).

Nog also has some really gross sex scenes.

(I think I might be enjoying Wurlitzer’s debut novel more if I hadn’t read The Wig immediately before it.)

The last two skinny volumes there on the right are new joints from Sublunary Editions. Vik Shirley’s Corpses is like a thirty-paragraph prose-poem, part comic, part morbid.  The blurb for Jessica Sequeira’s A Luminous History of the Palm describes the tract:

This little book can be read as a series of small portraits through time, all of which include a palm tree. Or it can be read as a revolutionary tract. The palm is a symbol traced through history, a hidden portal to intimate moments that bring geographies and situations to life. A vital presence, it coaxes out vitality. It’s everywhere once you start to look, a secret joyful emblem.

To the right of Palms is a pothos plant that was formerly thriving on the window sill of my office. Our college’s spring break starts tomorrow, but I wasn’t sure if we’d be coming back after it, so I brought my plants home. It turns out we’ll come back, sans students. I brought my textbooks home too, but I forgot my copy of  S.D. Chrostowska’s novel The Eyelid, which I’d brought to work to snack on. So it isn’t in this blog, except it is.

Arnold Roth’s original illustrations for Thomas Pynchon’s 1964 short story “The Secret Integration” (and a link to the full text of the story)

ar 2

Thomas Pynchon’s short story “The Secret Integration” was first published in a December issue of The Saturday Evening Post, and later published again as part of Pynchon’s first and only short story collection, Slow Learner.

In a 2018 article published at The Yale Review, Terry Reilly suggested that by publishing “The Secret Integration” in The Saturday Evening Post,

…Pynchon uses the form of an apparently simple, entertaining adolescent boys’ story to engage and then to manipulate the Post readers; to invoke various features of the publication history of The Saturday Evening Post while simultaneously calling attention to the magazine’s limited scope and conservative bias concerning issues of civil rights and racial integration in 1964.

ar 3

Pynchon’s story was accompanied by three illustrations by the cartoonist Arnold Roth, including a header, a small illustration, and this full page illustration below:

ar

The first page of the story:

“The Secret Integration”

by

Thomas Pynchon


OUTSIDE it was raining, the first rain of October, end of haying season and of the fall’s brilliance, purity of light, a certain soundness to weather that had brought New Yorkers flooding up through the Berkshires not too many weekends ago to see the trees changing in that sun. Today, by contrast, it was Saturday and raining, a lousy combination. Inside at the moment was Tim Santora, waiting for ten o’clock and wondering how he was going to get out past his mother. Grover wanted to see him at ten this morning, so he had to go. He sat curled in an old washing machine that lay on its side in a back room of the house; he listened to rain going down a drainpipe and looked at a wart that was on his finger. The wart had been there for two weeks and wasn’t going to go away. The other day his mother had taken him over to Doctor Slothrop, who painted some red stuff on it, turned out the lights and said, “Now, when I switch on my magic purple lamp, watch what happens to the wart.” It wasn’t a very magic-looking lamp, but when the doctor turned it on, the wart glowed a bright green. “Ah, good,” said Doctor Slothrop. “Green. That means the wart will go away, Tim. It hasn’t got a chance.” But as they were going out, the doctor said to Tim’s mother, in a lowered voice Tim had learned how to listen in on, “Suggestion therapy works about half the time. If this doesn’t clear up now spontaneously, bring him back and we’ll try liquid nitrogen.” Soon as he got home, Tim ran over to ask Grover what “suggestion therapy” meant. He found him down in the cellar, working on another invention. Continue reading “Arnold Roth’s original illustrations for Thomas Pynchon’s 1964 short story “The Secret Integration” (and a link to the full text of the story)”

“I’m quite flattered but if I were Pynchon I think I’d be quite annoyed” | William Gaddis annotates a review of Gravity’s Rainbow

irubg8x7lzj41

This is a clipping of W.G. Rogers’ (circa 1973) review of Gravity’s Rainbow (click on the image to enlarge it). The marginal annotation is by William Gaddis:

gaddis

Rogers’ review of Gravity’s Rainbow is eleven paragraphs long in two columns. The final three paragraphs are devoted to a comparison with The Recognitions (this comparison takes up about three quarters of the second column). Rogers refers to Gaddis’s novel as Recognitions.

The final paragraph reads:

Gaddis could have written Gravity’s Rainbow and Pynchon could have written Recognitions [sic].That two hearts can beat as one is no proof two minds can. Would we not expect Gaddis to use his own respected name? Could there be two separate master hands? I suppose so, but…

Gaddis published his second novel J R, two years later, in 1975.

This document is part of the William Gaddis Papers collection at Washington University. I saw it earlier this morning thanks to Reddit user Signor Mantissa.