A heart-shaped face

January 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

At the end of the first chapter of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa Maas looks at a painting and cries. The painting is by the exiled Spanish artist Remedios Varo and depicts

a number of frail girls with heart-shaped faces, huge eyes, spun-gold hair, prisoners in the top room of a circular tower, embroidering a kind of tapestry which spilled out the slit windows and into a void, seeking hopelessly to fill the void. (CL 13).

What upsets Oedipa is that she identifies with these girls, not only their sense of captivity, but also their impotence. It is with terror she thinks that

what really keeps her where she is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all… if the tower is everywhere and the proof of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else? (CL 13)

But when I look the painting above, I don’t see anything to justify this kind of fear or paranoia. It’s something Oedipa brings to the painting. The rest of Varo’s work doesn’t have this tone either. It’s more playful, more interested in the surreal than in being allegorical.

Please note the cat in the floor.

Remedios Varo (1908-1963) was born in Spain and educated in Spanish convent schools. Her father was a hydraulic engineer, which had a recurring influence in her work. Her artistic training was strict and academic, from which she fled into Barcelona’s bohemian artistic circle. She was married to the poet Benjamin Peret, and her widower, publisher Walter Gruen. She moved to Paris where she became involved within the Surrealist movement. Forced into exile by the Nazis, she settled in Mexico City where she died of a heart attack at 55. There only seems to be one biography of her in English, Unexpected Journeys: The Art and Life of Remedios Varo (1988) by Janet Kaplan, and I have a feeling she isn’t that well critically thought of (there’s a lot of snobbishness about ‘fantasy’ art, sometimes with good reason). But to me there’s something distinctive about these pictures that elevates them from a lot of stuff that’s come since. The trouble is that the waters have been muddied so much.

In Defense of Lost Causes

January 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

After my conversation with the organisers of the July 2009 Urumqi protests, I’ve been thinking a lot about protest, in all its forms. Slavoj Zizek’s In Defense of Lost Causes is a book that aims to convince the reader that the ills of the world will not be solved peacefully. What is needed, he argues, is revolutionary terror. The book is a sustained attack on the idea that tolerance and democratic debate are going to effect meaningful change (which for Zizek means the end of capitalism). It’s a complicated book whose argument wanders at times, and occasionally gets lost in score-settling, or Hegelian nitpicking, but it is always readable, provocative and entertaining, not least because for Zizek everything- whether it be Shakespeare or a Jennifer Anniston film -can be illustrative.  As a Pynchon scholar I was particularly interested in how he deals with alternative communities, whether or not these are genuinely subversive, or just a form of escape which does nothing to threaten that which they are fleeing from. If I rely heavily on Zizek’s quotes to summarise some of the book’s main arguments, it’s because it seems a safer way to avoid any ‘violence’ to his ideas.

The book’s aim “is not to defend Stalinist terror, and so on, as such, but to render problematic the all-too-easy liberal-democratic alternative… the misfortunes of the fate of revolutionary terror confront us with the need- not to reject terror in toto, but- to reinvent it” (6-7).

In terms of the accepted ideas about which to put a human face to capitalism, he argues that “When one confronts a world which presents itself as tolerant and pluralist, disseminated, with no center, one has to attack the underlying structuring principle which sustains this atonality- say, the secret qualifications of “tolerance” which excludes as “intolerant” certain critical questions, or the secret qualifications which exclude as a “threat to freedom” questions about the limits of the existing freedoms. (30)

He goes on to critique the idea of opting out of the system:

“Postmodernity” as the “end of grand narratives” is one of the names for this predicament in which the multitude of local fictions thrives against the background of scientific discourse as the only remaining universality deprived of sense. Which is why the politics advocated by many a leftist today, that of countering the devastating world-dissolving effect of capitalism modernization by inventing new fictions, imagining “new worlds”… is inadequate or, at least, profoundly ambiguous: it all depends on how these fictions relate to the underlying Real of capitalism- do they just supplement it with the imaginary multitude, as the postmodern local narratives do, or do they disturb its functioning? (33)

Zizek is withering about the way in which many of our ‘ethical’ choices involve choosing how we consume:

True freedom is not a freedom of choice made from a safe distance, like choosing between a strawberry cake and a chocolate cake; true freedom overlaps with necessity, one makes a truly free choice when one’s chouice puts at stake one’s very existence- one does it because one simply “cannot do otherwise.” When one’s country is under foreign occupation and one is called by a resistance leader to join the fight against the occupiers, the reason given is not “you are free to choose,” but: “Can’t you see this is the only thing you can do if you want to retain your dignity?” (70-71)

At times the worldview he presents veers towards a form of Gnosticism (much like Pynchon’s):

The fact that God created the world does not display His omnipotence and excess of goodness, but rather his debilitating limitations. (153)

Many of the book’s best lines belong to Robespierre. This is his riposte to the moderates who deplored the excesses.

Citizens, did you want a revolution without a revolution? What is this spirit of persecution that has come to revise, so to speak, the one that broke our chains? But what sure judgement can one make of the effects that follow these great commotions? Who can mark, after the event, the exact point at which the waves of popular insurrection should break? (163)

Robespierre addressing those who complained about the innocent victims of revolutionary terror: “Stop shaking the tyrant’s bloody robe in my face, or I will believe that you wish to put Rome in chains”. (471)

On the anti-globalisation movement:

This movement also succumbs to the temptation to transform a critique of capitalism itself (centred on economic mechanisms, forms of work organization, and profit extraction) into a critique of “imperialism”… with the (tacit) idea of mobilizing capitalist mechanisms within another, more “progressive” framework. (181)

On the power of ‘failed’ revolutionary Events:

The ultimate factual result of the [Chinese] Cultural Revolution, its catastrophic failure and reversal into the recent capitalistic transformation, does not exhaust the real of the Cultural Revolution: the eternal Idea of the Cultural Revolution survives its defeat in socio-historical reality, it continues to lead an underground spectral life of the ghosts of the failed utopias which haunt the future generations, patiently awaiting their next resurrection. (207)

With reference to Pynchon and the failed Utopias that appear in his work (such as Lemuria in Inherent Vice), it makes me think that though it can be a form of escape, to posit some form of Utopia is always an essentially hopeful act.

For Zizek, the real problem is what happens after a revolutionary Event, how one keeps revolutionary momentum.

The problem is thus: how to regulate/institutionalize the very violent egalitarian democratic impulse, how to prevent it being drowned in democracy in the second sense of the term (regulated procedure)? If there is no way to do it, then “authentic democracy” remains a momentary utopian outburst which, on the proverbial morning after, has to be normalized. The harsh consequence to be accepted here is that this excess of egalitarian democracy over the democratic procedure can only “instituinalize” itself in the guise of its opposite, as revolutinary democratic terror. (266)

One of Zizek’s main strengths is overturning conventional wisdom about what rhetorical positions we should occupy:

The influx of immigrant workers from the post-Communist countries is not the consequence of multiculturalist tolerance- it is indeed part of the strategy of capital to hold in check workers’ demands… the lesson the Left should learn from it is that one should not…  merely oppose populist anti-immigration racism with multiculturalist openness, obliterating its displaced class content (267)

Given how much of Pynchon’s work deals with delusion and escape, I was interested in what Zizek has to say about fetishes:

They can be our inner spiritual experiences (which tell us that our social reality is mere appearance which does not really matter), our children (for whose good we do all the humiliating things in our jobs) and so on and so forth (298)

Fetishists are not dreamers lost in their private worlds, they are thoroughly “realist”, able to accept the ways things effectively are- since they have their fetish to which they can cling in order to canel the fall impact of reality. (296)

Zizek on how democracy has its own constraints:

When Rosa Luxembourg wrote that “dictatorship consists in the way in which democracy is used and not in its abolition” her point was not that democracy is an empty framework which can be used by different political agents (Hitler also came to power through- more or less -free democratic elections), but that there is a “class bias” inscribed into this. (379)

Zizek then goes on to offer what looks like an argument in favour of some kind of revolutionary faith, without which one cannot see the potential for change.

Liberals claim that capitalism is today so global and all encompassing they they cannot “see” any serious alternative to it… The repy to this is that, in so far as this is true, they do not see tout court: the task is not to see the outside, but to see in the first place (to grasp the nature of contemporary capitalism)- the Marxist wager is that, when we “see” this, we see enough, including how to go beyond it. (393)

The following seems to be a fairly clear endorsement of ‘violence’ (though what that means is not yet clear, i.e. is it literal violence or symbolic?)

One should not renounce violence ; one should rather reconceptualise it as defensive violence, a defense of the autonomous space created by subtraction (408)

Zizek also offers a way of evaluating subtraction (e.g. the alternative communities that occur throughout Pynchon, especially in Vineland).

Is it a subtraction/withdrawl which leaves the field from which it withdraws intact (or even functions as its inherent supplement , like the “subtraction” from social reality to one’s true Self proposed by New Age meditation); or does it violently shake up the field from which it withdraws? (412)

It’s only in the afterword that Zizek starts to signal what he might mean by ‘violence’. Unfortunately, this seems to shift, initially from a kind of eye-of-the-beholder definition of violence (that differentiates between “radical emancipatory violence against the ex-oppressors and the violence which serves the continuation and/or establishment of hierarchical relations of exploitation and domination” (471)) to talk of violence that is really non-violence. He calls for

a passive revolution which, rather than directly confronting power , gradually undermines it in the manner of the subterranean digging of a mole, through abstaining from particiapation in the everyday rituals and practices that sustain it. (474)

However, Zizek concludes by arguing that the distinction between literal violence and non-violence is less important than whether the “violence” is “divine violence”.

What is and what is not divine violence?… it can appear in many forms: from “non-violent” protests (strikes, civil disobedience) through individual killings to organized or spontaneous violent rebellions and war proper. (483)

As for evaluating such acts, these are said to be

located ‘beyond good and evil’, in a kind of politico-religious suspension of the ethical. Although we are dealing with what, to an ordinary moral consciousness, cannot but appear as “immoral” acts of killing, one has no right to condemn them, since they are the reply to years, centuries even, of systematic state violence and economic exploitation. (478)… If a class is systematically deprived of their rights, of their very dignity as persons, they are eo ipso also released from their duties toward the social order, since this order is no longer their ethical substance. (479)

This is about as unambiguous as it gets:

Sometimes one has to kill in order to keep one’s hands clean; not as a heroic compromise of dirtying one’s hands for a higher goal. (484)

However, in the final pages, Zizek again muddies the waters by suggesting that no one is able to pass judgement on whether an act of violence is ‘divine’ or not, which if he means it, to some extent undermines many of the judgements he passes on the value of various failed revolutions.

There are no “objective” criteria enabling us to identify an act of violence as divine: the same act, that to an external observer, appears merely as an irrational outburst of violence, can be divine for those engaged in it. (485)

The subtleties of this may be lost on me. But to me this seems dangerously close to denying us the right to condemn the killings by a lynch mob, the suicide bomber in a school, or acts of ethnic cleansing.

Vineland 323-385

September 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

p. 323 The sections starts with a description that seems to be setting up the Traverse/Becker gathering as a kind of rural idyll.

The pasture, just before dawn, saw the first impatient kids out in the dew.

This is followed by a long passage that celebrates communal life in a fairly unambiguous way.

p. 325 Even the Thanatoid’s, that ‘community of the insomniac unavenged’, appear to have found some moment of temporary peace, which leads the narrator to ask

What was a Thanatoid, at the end of the long dread day, but memory?

In terms of their refusal to forget ancient resentments, are the Thanatoids in some sense correct? Should we all therefore be Thanatoids? Their addiction to TV doesn’t seem to impede this kind of memory (which thus run counter to the idea put forth by Huehls et al that TV destroys any sense of historical perspective). However, there seems no suggestion that this sense of being wronged is anything other than personal. But in terms of ‘escape’, or ‘transcendence’, this is perhaps a necessary (though perhaps not sufficient) level at which change must occur.

p. 327 Prairie disdains the representations of girls on TV.

On the Tube she saw them all the time, these junior high gymnasts in leotards, teenagers in sitcoms, girls in commercials learning from their moms about how to cook and dress and deal with their dads, all these remote and well-off little cookies going “Mm! This rilly is good” or the ever-reliable “Thanks Mom,” Prairie feeling each time this mixture of annoyance and familiarity, knowing like exiled royalty that that’s who she was supposed to be, could even turn herself into through some negligible magic she must’ve known once.

But for all her rejection of these gender stereotypes, her role models still come from TV. Her and Che have a ‘star and sidekick routine, going back to when they were little, playing Bionic, Police, or Wonder Woman.’ An awareness of the media’s power to influence is thus no protection against its capacity to do so.

p. 328 The description of Prairie rescuing her friend Che from the mall cops strongly resembles the meeting of DL and Frenesi. Of course, whereas that was in a political context, with Prairie all that’s happening is theft, which can only be seen as an act of resistance in terms of our role as consumers.

p. 335 Hector’s TV fixation is probably the worst in the book:

In the back seat, on loud and bright, was a portable Tube, which Hector had angled the rearview mirror at so he could see, for the highway was a lonely place, and a man needed company.

This is one reason why Hector never seems as much a villain as Brock Vond. Even when in TV detox, he is subject to the whims of those in control, who had

a new policy of letting everybody watch as they wanted of whatever they felt like seeing, the aim being Transcendence through Saturation.

Exactly what kind of ‘transcendence’ this is likely to produce is debatable- perhaps a warped version of the Emersonian ideal, that of removing oneself from one’s surroundings, but only into a kind of hermeneutic fugue state.

p. 337 Unflattering portrait of two Hollywood movie executives, especially their attitude to the audience. To them, Hector is ‘just a guy from the wrong side of the box office’, a judgement that ‘condemned him irrevocably to viewer, that is, brain-defective status’.

p. 340 TV, in its pervasiveness, its saturation of the world (and the narrative of Vineland), is an obvious target of paranoia. In addition to Weed’s belief that it shows too much death (and thus weakens the effect of LSD), Hector imagines what it would be like if

the Tube were suddenly to stop showing pictures and instead announce, “From now on, I’m watching you.”

Though this is a classic Orwellian notion (the view screen that spies on everyone), it is also worth remembering the mental state of Hector. He too depends on TV for his role models, even his own profession (in contradiction to his earlier remarks to Zoyd).

P. 345

It was disheartening to see how much he depended on these Tubal fantasies about his profession, relentlessly pushing their propaganda message of cops-are-only-human-got-to-do-their-job, turning agents of government repression into sympathetic heroes. Nobody thought it was peculiar anymore, no more than the routine violations of constitutional rights these characters performed week after week, now absorbed into the vernacular of American expectations.

It’s easy to forget to who’s ‘talking’ in Vineland, given the number of minds through which the narrative is mediated, some of which sound pretty close to the book’s overall narrator. In this case, it’s Frenesi, as ‘agents of government repression’ suggests, though by the end of the quote, when there’s talk of the ‘vernacular of American expectations’ it sounds like someone else, perhaps the main narrator. This is one of the interesting things about the book- how it slips in and out of free indirect narration so subtly.

p.346 Frenesi’s disillusionment, as shown by her opinion of Hector.

He reminded her of herself when she was in 24fps, inside some wraparound fantasy that she was offering her sacrifice at the altar of Art, and worse, believing that Art gave a shit- here was Hector with so many of the same delusions, just as hopelessly insulated, giving up what already seemed too much for something just as cheesy and worthless

p. 348. TV as a household member, when Hector’s wife cites the TV as correspondent in the divorce, ‘arguing that the TV was a member of the household, enjoying its own space, fed out of the house budget with all the electricity it needed… certainly as able to steal affection as any cheap floozy Hector might have met on the job.’

p. 351 Advice on how to ‘watch’ reality.

The smartest kid Justin ever met, back in kidergarten, had told him to pretend his parents were characters in a television sitcom. “Pretend there’s a frame around ‘em like the Tube, pretend they’re a show you’re watching. You can go into it if you want, or you can just watch, and not go into it.”

Though the idea of living as if everything is a TV show doesn’t sound healthy, there doesn’t necessarily seem to be anything wrong with the approach mentioned here- note the emphasis on not having to ‘go into it’, which also suggests the converse- that one can  watch TV like watching reality- i.e. in a questioning, detached manner.

p. 358-359 introduces the Sisters, a male motorcycle order, who act as you might expect a biker gang to- the difference is that in addition to their hatred of authority, they believe they cannot sin. Van Meter tells Zoyd:

“Their club tattoo says ‘Full of Grace.’ They believe whatever they do, it’s cool with Jesus, including armed insurrection against the government.”

On the one hand, this seems to be satirising the belief of those (often on the political right) that if they have God on their side, their actions are fully justified, by transposing these beliefs to a gang of bikers. But beyond the comedy of this, there is also the idea that those on the left can be equally self-deluding, especially in terms of the use of force, which Pynchon has previously shown to be a corrupting influence on his protagonists.

p. 364 Another way to view the TV screen- as a window of redemption.

Looking for the magical exact film frame through which the dispossessed soul might reenter the world

p. 365 Weed says

“As a Thanatoid one’s reduced to hanging around monitoring the situation, trying to nudge you if you don’t think it’s moving along fast enough but basically helpless, and, if you give in to it, depressed, too.”

This is a fair summary of the predicament of many of Pynchon’s characters, in particular Oedipaa Maas.

p. 366 Refutes the idea of revenge as a form of closure.

Used to think I was climbing, step by step, right? toward a resolution- first Rex, above him your mother, then Brock Vond, then- but that’s when it begins to go dark, and that door at the top I thought I saw isn’t there anymore, because the light behind it just went off too.

p. 369 Jess Traverse reads from an Emerson passage he found in a jalhouse copy of William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience.

“Secret retributions are always restoring the level, when disturbed, of the divine justice. It is impossible to tilt the beam. All the tyrants and proprietors and monopolists of the world in vain set their shoulders to heave the bar. Settles forever more the ponderous equator to its line, and man and mote, and star and sun, must range to it, or be pulverized by the recoil.”

Jess and Eula are ‘each year smaller and more transparent’ which we could apply to these words as well- this, and the earlier Emerson passage, seems a case of Pynchon signaling his disagreement of these sentiments that all is fine, if fine within, and that there is some sort of restorative natural justice.

p. 371 asks us to consider if things are bad, or simply, worse.

Other grandfolks could be heard arguing the perennial question of whether the United States still lingered in a prefascist twilight, or whether that darkness had fallen long stupefied years ago, and the light they thought they saw was coming only from millions of Tubes all showing the same bright-colored shadows.

p. 373 Once again, a criticism of the naivete of the Sixties, and people’s failure to resist the distorting influences of living a TV-mediated life.

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

‘Well, I hope your wrong,’ Zoyd breezed on, ’cause plan B was to try and get my case on ’60 minutes’.

Isiah’s opinion is so commonplace in the novel that by now it approaches parody. TV is perhaps too easy a target for Pynchon, and given the events in Gravity’s Rainbow and V., it is safe to say that he does not subscribe to the all-was-fine-till-TV-began school of thought. Zoyd’s response does seem to prove the point however, as he either basically ignores what Isiah has said, or thinks that he can still use the media.

p .376 Vond’s plan to capture Prairie involves him being lowered from a helicopter, so he can

come down vertical, grab her, and winch back up and out- “The key is rapture. Into the sky, and world knows her no more.”

Instead of this peverse kind of deliverance, Brock is suddenly removed, Prairie is saved, and there is something unrealistic about this ending, almost a deus Ex Machina. This is underlined by the fact that Brock is then magically taken down into a deathly kingdom, which ironically fulfils his prophecy of ‘rapture below’ on p.248. But whilst it is satisfying for the reader that the villain is taken away, the manner in which it occurs does not allow us to enjoy it for long. It, too, is a kind of escape, into a fantasy that all (especially the ‘wicked’) get what they deserve (as in the Emerson quote about ‘divine justice’ on p. 369)

p. 382 Sister Rochelle tells Takeshi another allegorical story, about the Earth being a paradise that Heaven and Hell fought. When Hell won, Heaven withdrew upward, and Earth became a kind of vacation spot (i.e. a place to escape to). Eventually

the visitors began to realize that Earth was just like home, same traffic conditions, unpleasant food, deteriorating environment, and so forth. Why leave home only to find a second-rate version of what they were trying to escape?

In the end, the forces of  Hell leave, and the people of Earth tell stories about that time.

“We forgot that its original promise was never punishment but reunion, with the true, long-forgotten metropolis of Earth Unredeemed.”

p.383 After the communal feast, the removal of Vond, there is still talk of sinister forces.

The unrelenting forces that leaned ever after the partners into Time’s wind, impassive in pursuit, usually gaining, the faceless predators who’d once boarded Takeshi’s airplane in the sky, the ones who’d had the Chipco lab stomped on, who despite every Karmic Adjustment resource brought to bear so far had simply persisted, stone-humorless, beyond cause and effect, rejecting all attempts to bargain or accommodate, following through pools of night where nothing else moved wrongs forgotten by all but the direly possessed, continuing as a body to refuse to be bought off for any but the full price, which they had never named.

In some ways, this recalls the talk of ‘divine justice’- is this a case of Pynchon affirming this view after all? Or is he satirising the kind of paranoid thinking that prefers there to be dark conspiracies rather than no order (as in the Tristero in Lot 49).

p. 384-385

The book ends in a similarly dark fashion, with Prairie fantasising about Brock as an authority figure (as her mother, and grandmother did). There are ‘silent darkened silver images all around her’, now that the flashbacks, and the screenings are over. She sleeps and the pastoral images return.

Deer and cows grazing together in the meadow, sun blinding in the cobwebs on the wet grass, a redtail hawk in an updraft soaring above the ridgeline.

Then Desmond, her dog, appears with a dead bird in its mouth. This brings the novel full circle, back to the beginning where Zoyd dreamt these same birds had messages for him he could never get to in time. Now, in reality, his daughter has also got to these birds too late. The dog is said to be ‘smiling out of his eyes, wagging his tail, thinking he must be home.’ But for all his happiness, he is mistaken- he is far from home, assuming such a place still even exists.

Coming probably all too soon: The Crying of Lot 49

Vineland 268-322

September 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

p.268 Though Brock has been painted fairly blackly thus far, the opening of this section immediately humanises him, and makes him seem far less powerful (and this reminds me of David Letzler‘s  talk on the subject of ’round’ characters in Gravity’s Rainbow at IPW 2010).

When had Brock ever posessed her? There might have been about a minute and a half, just after the events at College of the Surf, the death of Weed Atman, and the fall of PR3, though he was no longer sure.

There is also an explanation for why some become college snitches, which again draws on the idea of an escape back to childhood, or at least adolescence.

Another selling point for hiring on would turn out to be this casual granting of the wish implied in the classical postcollegiate Dream of Autumn Return, to one more semester, one more course credit required, another chance to be back in school again… the FBI could even put you on the time machine if that’s what you wanted.

There is then a further explanation for Frenesi (and many others) defection:

Brock Vond’s genius was to have seen in the activities of the sixties left not threats to order but unacknowledged desires for it. While the Tube was proclaiming youth revolution against parents of all kinds and most viewers were accepting this story, Brock saw the deep- if he’d allowed himself to feel it, the sometimes touching -need only to stay children forever, safe inside some extended national Family.

This last phrase about the ‘national Family’ puts a different, if logical slant, on the idea of a return to childhood- that there will need to be parents, or guardians to watch over the kids. If we accept that this is filtered through Vond, then it is slightly at odds with Vond’s disparaging remarks about parenthood on p. 300. All of it, however, may be secondary to his pursuit of Frenesi, which again humanises Vond further.

p. 271 ‘Feel like we been in aMovie of the Week!’ says Roscoe, Brock Vond’s partner, in yet another example of TV being used as a frame of reference to define reality.

p. 283 ‘Childhood’, in Vineland, is not a stable metaphor, signalling, on the one hand, innocence, but at other times, naivete.

Stunned by the great Childward surge, critical abilities lapsed.

p. 285 Not just a paragraph about moments of transcendence, but one with a shift in person.

And these acid adventures, they came in those days and they went, some we gave away and forgot, others sad to say turned out to be fugitive or false- but with luck one or two would get saved to go back to at certain later moments in life.

Though the book does have a narratorial voice, whose sympathies appear to be with Zoyd and his ilk, this ‘we’ is the closest the novel comes to the personal.

p. 287 Frenesi’s Fall from ‘Angel’ status.

Taken down, she understood, from all the silver and light she’d known and been, brought back to the world like silver recalled grain by grain from Invisible to form images of what then went on to grow old, go away, get broken or contaminated. She had been priviledged live outside of Time, to enter and leave at will, looting and manipulating, weightless, invisible. Now Time had claimed her again, put her under house arrest, taken her passport away. Only an animal with a full set of pain receptors after all.

As well as its celestial aspects, the talk of ‘silver recalled grain by grain’ suggests the photographic process.

p. 289 “Taking ‘free’ as far as you can usually leads to ‘dead’” Frenesi’s dad tells her.

p. 290 Pynchon possibly overdoing the child comparisons, with Hub’s face ‘suddenly a kid’s again’, and then, in the next sentence, him and Sasha are said to have started off such ‘happy-go-lucky-kids.

p.293 Long, claustrophobic sentence that uses the metaphor of Frenesi playing an arcade game whose joystick (ahem) is represented by Brock Vond’s penis which she uses to

steer amongst the hazards and obstacles, the swooping monsters and alien projectiles of each game she would come, year by year to stand before… playing for nothing but the score itself, the row of numbers, a chance of entering her initials among those of other strangers for a brief time, no longer the time the world observed but game time, underground time, time that could take her nowhere outside its own tight and falsely deathless perimeter.

‘Falsely deathless’ is a brutal reminder of what lies at the end of a mediated life, whether through TV or within games. It cannot be avoided. And however long she plays, all she can achieve is a meaningless score.

p. 300 Vond presents normality as the escape, not the counter culture. It is thus convention that is the aberration, according to this.

A woman, say, trying to be an average, invisible tract-house mom, anchoring herself to the planet with some innocent hubby, then a baby, to keep from flying away back to who she really is, her responsibilities, hm?

p. 306 What fantasies, and nostalgia are for, perhaps.

Where’d he ever have been without fantasies like that to help bridge him across the bad moments when they came?

p. 314 Zoyd and Mucho reminisce about how acid let them understand they ‘were never going to die’. Mucho then says,

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

Though the idea of the TV being a method of control sounds like something we might want to ascribe to Pynchon, not least because TV is usually portrayed in his novels in a negative fashion (e.g. a TV box is mistaken for heroin in Inherent Vice), the fact that Mucho, who argues this, also believes that the proper use of acid will prevent death, tends to undermine this view. As Brian McHale argues (in Constructing Postmodernism) rather than Vineland being a ‘jeremiad’ against the corrupting influence of TV, it is more an exploration of how it saturates our lives, our vocabulary, and most importantly, acts a mirror to the ontological plurality (the multiple, competing forms of reality) of the postmodern world. 

Vineland 218-267

September 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

p. 218 Further criticism of TV’s effects on our sense of time, space and mortality. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is said to inform us that the ‘soul newly in transition’

finds no difference between the weirdness of life and the weirdness of death, an enhancing factor in Takeshi’s opinion being television, which with its history of picking away at the topic with doctor shows, war shows, cop shows, murder shows, had trivialized the big D itself. If mediated lives, he figured, why not mediated deaths?

p. 220 Zoyd describes Holytail, the ‘last refuge for pot growers in North California’ as ‘a community living on borrowed time’.While a reference to the precariousness of their situation, there is also the suggestion of a debt being called in.

p. 223 A paragraph that links childhood in with the ability to find transcendence, thus tying up the metaphors of childhood, naievete, innocence, and escapism that have appeared thus far.

In Van Meter’s tiny house behind the Cucumber Lounge, the kids, perhaps under the influence of the house parrot, Luis, figured out a way to meet, lucidly dreaming, in the same part of the great southern forest. Or so they told Van Meter. They tried to teach him how to do it, but he never got further than the edge of the jungle- if that’s what it was. How cynical would a man have to be not to trust these glowing souls, just in from flying all night at canopy level, all shiny-eyed, open, happy to share it with him? Van Meter had been searching all his life for transcendent chances exactly like this one the kids took for granted, but whenever he got close it was like can’t shit, can’t get a hard on, the more he worried the less likely it was to happen.

Even from the second sentence Van Meter is distrustful (‘Or so they told…), despite the fact that he ‘had been searching all his life for transcendent chances’. As for the question of ‘how cynical would a man have to be not to trust these glowing souls?’, the fact that he is, that we are, despite all we might hope for  in the way of release, or escape, could lead us to the idea that the greatest Fall we suffer is from childhood, and that this is what most of us, whether hippies or not, are searching for, but cannot accept even when we find it, or something that at least resembles it.

p. 226 May possibly mirror the cut to an advertising break.

Because Thanatoids relate in a different way to time, there was no compression towards the ends of sentences, which meant they always ended by surprise.

p. 229-230  Rex’s approach to resistance aims for a denial of all forms of pleasure, to transcend all appetites, whose culmination is death.

Rex himself saw the revolution as a kind of progressive abstinence… As the enemies attention grew more concentrated, you gave up your privacy, freedom of movement, access to money, with the looming promise finally of jail and the final forms of abstinence from any life at all free of pain.

p. 232 Rex offers a recapitulation of Weber’s ideas in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

“You’re up against the True Faith here, some heavy dudes, talking crusades, retribution, closed ideological minds passing on the Christian Capitalist Faith intact, mentor to protege, generation to generation, living inside their power, convinced they’re immune to all the history the rest of us have to suffer.

But Pynchon usually undermines most forms of duality- so the fact that they are supposedly evil, is no guarantee of ‘us being good.

“They are bad, bad’s they come, but that still doesn’t make us good, not 100%, Weed.”

p. 236 TV described as a drug, or at least a form of sustenance.

Embarassed, he reached for the Tube, popped it on, fastened himself to the screen and began to feed.

p. 236 Frenesi describes make believe as ‘her dangerous vice’, one of the few moments where a character shows some insight.

p.237

Beginning the night she and Rex had publicly hung the snitch jacket on Weed, Frenesi understood that she had taken at least one irreversible step to the side of her life, and that now, as if on some unfamiliar drug, she was walking all around next to herself, haunting herself, attending a movie of it all.

Here Frenesi is trying to distance herself from her own life, with its betrayals, by pretending it is a movie, and thus not real.

If the step was irreversible, then she ought to be all right now, safe in a world-next-to-the-world that not many would know how to get to, where she could kick back and watch the unfolding drama.

On the one hand, this seems problematic- that there isn’t this safe place where she can avoid the consequences of her actions (in her case, betrayal and accessory to murder). But within there is also the possibility of redemption- that the step is not irreversible, that one can go back, at least in memory, and seek some measure of atonement. And arguably this is something Frenesi achieves by the end of the novel.

p. 239 Suggestion that everyone is complicit to some degree with the ills of the system, the abuse of power, the erosion of liberty.

No one, Frenesi was finding out, no matter how honorable their lives so far, could be considered safely above it, wherever “above” was supposed to be.

p. 248 Brock Vond, when talking about the disappearance of many protestors, makes a joke about murder being a form of transcendence.

Taken one by one, after all, given the drop out data and the migratory preferences of the time, each case could be accounted for without appealing to anything more sinister than a desire for safety. At his news conference Brock Vond referred to it humorously as “rapture”.

He goes on to say that they have ‘gone underground’, that they have sought ‘rapture below’.

p. 252-253 DL’s sense of karma while doing the ‘bookkeeping on this caper’.

If the motive itself was tainted, then the acts, no matter how beautifully or successfully executed, were false, untrue to her calling, to herself, and someday there would be a payback.

p.256 Frenesi’s Dream of the Gentle Flood. In this a California beach town is partially, gently submerged, in such a manner that no one dies, and life can regroup on the higher slopes. She dreams of hearing a song about

divers, who would come, not now but soon, and descend into the Flood and bring back up for us “whatever has been taken”, the voice promised, “whatever has been lost….”

Yet another fantasy that dolphins, aliens or some other entity will come and ‘save’ us. Here there is also a temporal displacement, in that the Flood is arguably what she is actually wishing for, but within this future state, there is also her present desire of wanting ‘whatever has been taken’. Perhaps also worth noting the difference between ‘taken’ and ‘lost’ (why else virtually repeat the phrase?). ‘Taken’ makes her sound more like a victim; ‘lost’ allows for her playing a more active role, and perhaps comes closer to the truth.

p. 258 More talk of bookkeeping.

Those framable pieces of the time, which had demanded, when the bookkeeping was done, damn near everything.

p. 259 Repetition of question on p. 29. Frenesi asks DL

So what difference did we make? Who’d we save? The minute the guns came out, all that art-of-the-cinema handjob was over.

But given the context in which she asks this (having just betrayed Weed) her motivations for being skeptical of the achievements of their guerilla film unit are perhaps doubtful. But denigrating it she also lessens the import of her betrayal.

p. 260-261 Repetition of the idea of Frenesi as an angel who has fallen

She waited, guttering with a small meek defiance, standing at the window and trembling, moonlight from a high angle pouring over her naked back, casting on it shadows of her shoulder blades, like healed stumps of wings ritually amputated long ago, for some transgression of the Angel’s Code.

But the fact that the moonlight is coming ‘from a high angle’ should make us, as reader’s (or in a sense, eavesdroppers), wary of the romanticising power of such depictions.

And all this is taking place as oral narration, Prairie hearing it from DL, so when the phone rings, and DL stops talking,

Prairie, reentering non movie space, felt like the basketball after a Lakers game- alive, resilient, still pressurized with spirit yet with a distinct memory of having been, for a few hours, expertly bounced.

Because what a movie, or a novel does, is move you around between different places and times, often without your knowledge. All art being manipulation, the only question to what end.

p. 264 Mention of place of detention that were ‘not fun or sitcom prison camps’- as with death, such places are now trivialised.

Vineland 192-217

September 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

p.192 Description of a movie-lot converted to housing.

Space devoted to make-believe had, it was thought, been reclaimed by the serious activities of the World of Reality.

Lest we miss the capitals of ‘World of Reality’, and the slight irony of ‘serious activities’, this idea is further undercut by the tentativeness of ‘it was thought’. We are thus invited to think that rather than there being a shift from ‘make-believe’ to ‘Reality’, all that is happening instead is the substitution of one form of fantasy for another. It seems to me that this could be read in (at least) two ways, the first being that there is no reality, only constructions, which in a way is liberating, as it means there is no ‘Reality’ to escape from. The second is a more critical view of our endless attempts at delusion.

p. 194 Television schedules are used as a point of temporal orientation.

It was just before prime-time

Again, as with the cinematic vocabulary, and Zoyd’s shift in perspective in memory, Pynchon is suggesting that our ways of perceiving time and space, or at least how we talk about them (which isn’t automatically the same thing) have been heavily influenced by TV.

p. 195 24fps idealism (and naivete) regarding the power of the image to reveal the ‘truth’.

They particularly believed in the ability of close ups to reveal and devastate. When power corrupts, it keeps a log of its progress, written into that most sensitive memory device, the human face. Who could withstand the light? What viewer could believe in the war, the system, the countless lies about American freedom, looking into the mug shots of the bought and sold? Hearing the synchronized voices repeat the same formulas, evasive, affectless, cut off from whatever they had once been by promises of what they would never get to collect on?

Though meant as a series of rhetorical questions, they do, however, invite skeptical answers. Because there’s no indication that TV or film has made viewers less trusting, less willing to believe ‘the countless lies’. The end of the passage’s reference to ‘what they would never get to collect on’ is interesting, as there may be something hopeful in this idea that there is something beyond the reach of the ‘they’ of the passage. However, it is equally possible that this is just further wishful thinking.

p.202 Frenesi’s love of the TV.

Did she really believe that as long as she had it inside her Tubeshaped frame, soaking up liberated halogen rays, nothing out there could harm her?

Obviously not, judging by the fact she goes over to Brock Vond.

p. 207 Rex’s view of the Vietnamese revolutionaries:

These men and women, few of whose names he would ever know, had become for him a romantic lost tribe with a failed cause, likely to remain unfound in earthly form but perhaps available the way Jesus was to those who “found” him- like a prophetic voice, like a rescue mission from elsewhere which had briefly entered real history, promising to change it, raising specific hopes that might then get written down, become programs, generate earthly sequences of cause and effect. If such an abstraction could have found residence in this mortal world, then- of the essence to Rex- one might again.

This idea of an external, mythic agency that offers deliverance (‘like a rescue mission’) will return in Inherent Vice, in the form of Lemuria (see previous entries). It also appears in The Crying of Lot 49, on p. 85.

Catching a TWA flight to Miami was an uncoordinated boy who planned to slip at night into aquariums and open negotiations with the dolphins, who would succeed man.

p. 216 Some explanation for why Frenesi changes sides, allegedly in despair at the direction she sees things going. If there’s no escape, one can at least survive.

She understood as clearly as she could allow herself to what Brock wanted her to do, understood at last, dismally, that she might even do it- not for him, unhappy fucker, but because she had lost too much control, time was rushing all around her, these were rapids, and as far ahead as she could see it looked like Brock’s stretch of the river, another stage, like sex, children, surgery, further into adulthood perilous and real, into the secret that life is soldiering, that soldiering includes death, that those soldiered for, not yet and often never in on the secret, are always, at every age, children.

The idea that those we struggle, or ‘soldier’ for, are children, can be taken literally, but also, given the earlier comparisons of hippies to children, it can also be taken as referring to anyone in a state of innocence (or from another point of view, ignorance). As for the talk of them being children ‘always, at every age’, this supports the second reading- a state of perpetual childishness (which we can envy or disparage). ‘Every age’ also has a suggestion of this being true in different historical periods.

However, there is also way to read this. I think one of the traps in Pynchon is confusing authorial voice with that of the character. This is, after all, being filtered through Frenesi, for whom the idea that her betrayal is in some sense to benefit not just others, but the ‘innocent’ is probably a fairly appealing notion, in that it at least partially justifies (and thus redeems) her actions. Whilst she might think it a ‘secret’ that ‘life is soldiering’, if so, it is one that is extremely poorly kept.

Vineland 141-191

August 28, 2010 § Leave a comment

p. 141 Prairie asks about her mother,

“How could she’ve ever gone near somebody like this Brock guy?”

“I never could figure it either, kid. He was everything we were supposed to be against.”

I think this is one of the central questions of the novel. Leaving aside the possibility that maybe Vond isn’t so different to them, or that their own ideological stance is not as defined or principled as they might think ( an idea raised by the phrase ‘supposed to be against’), the reasons for Frenesi’s defection are never made explicit. Though the powerful-man-in-uniform hypothesis gets floated, another possibility is that after her experiences with the guerilla film crew, she could not  doubt the eventual outcome of the struggle between the forces of authority, and those who wanted an alternative. This need not be anything so crude as simply wanting to be on the winning side. If she stopped believing in the counter-culture’s ability to provide a viable alternative (a means of escape if you will), then perhaps she thought there was only one other option, to join the ranks of the self-designated elect.

For DL, Frenesi’s betrayal is enough to make her doubt reality itself.

She’d wonder if this was all supposed to be some penance, to sit, caught inside the image of the one she’d loved, been betrayed by just sit… Was it a koan she was meant to consider in depth, or was she finally lost in a great edge-to-edge delusion, having only read about Frenesi Gates once in some dentist’s waiting room or standing in line at the checkout, whereupon something had just snappped and she’d gone on to make up the whole thing?

There’s a sense that this abstract possibility might almost be preferable.

p. 155 Sister Rochelle criticises DL for her lack of focus

“All we see’s somebody running because if she stops running she’ll fall, and nothing beyond.”

To some extent, DL is almost the mirror of Frenesi. Though she dreams (p. 133-134) of escaping into a universe where she can lead a normal, Clark Kent existence, it is Frenesi who stops running, in a sense, gives up on trying to escape, and by stopping, enters a version of suburban normality, with a husband and child. In the end it is, in some ways, as much a fiction, and as fragile, as any other attempt at escape.

p. 166 Sister Rochelle’s version of the Creation story.

This is important, so listen up. It takes place in the Garden of Eden. Back then, long ago, there were no men at all. Paradise was female. Eve and her sister, Lilith, were alone in the Garden. A character named Adam was put into the story later, to help make men look more legitimate, but in fact the first man was not Adam- it was the Serpent.

Morality and notions of good and evil are then described as just another ‘confidence game’. Apart from the notion that these are just ways of controlling people, this may also be a reference to the fact that in Calvinism it is crucial to feel confident that one is part of the elect- anything less is a sign of insufficient faith.

p. 170 ‘Thanatoid’ means ‘like death, only different.’ Thanatoids have few possessions, and live in communities, and ‘watch a lot of Tube.’ Thanatoids are said to have learned

to limit themselves, as they already did in other areas, only to emotions helpful in setting right whatever was keeping them from advancing futher into the condition of death. Among these the most common by far was resentment, constrained as they were by history and by rules of imbalance and restoration to feel little else beyond their needs for revenge.

p.172 DL and Takeshi get in on the ‘karmic adjustment’ business. The list of Thanatoid complaints is enough to make them a synedoche of the entire nation.

They heard of land titles and water rights, goon squads, and vigilantes, landlords, lawyers and developers always described in images of thick fluids in flexible containers.

p.173

They were victims, he explained, of karmic imbalances- unanswered blows, unredeemed suffering, escapes by the guilty

When they look out the window, there is a parallel to Zoyd watching himself on TV on page 14.

Although the streets were irregular and steeply pitched, the entryways and setbacks and forking corners, all angles ordinarily hidden, in fact, were somehow clearly visible from up here at this one window.

p. 174 The suggestion that everyone bears some level of responsibility for the ills of the present.

“And by fixing each beef, that’ll bring back the lost limbs, erase the scars, get people’s dick to working again, that it?”

“No, and we don’t restore youth, either! Why- you don’t have enough else- to feel guilty about?”

Even karmic adjustment, and the healing of resentments, the bestowing of forgiveness, is a form of commodity exchange.

Everything had moved as slowly as the cycles of birth and death, but this proved to be too slow for enough people to begin, eventually, to provide a market niche. There arose a system of deferment, of borrowing against karmic futures. Death, in Modern Karmic Adjustment, got removed from the process.

p.180 A wonderful sentence about the sins of the past.

with the past as well, and the crimes behind the world, the thousand bloody arroyos in the hinterlands of time that stretched somberly inland from the honky tonk coast of Now.

p. 186-187 has the myth of the woge

p.191 Prairie has a TV-influenced fantasy, wishing they could be

only some family in a family car, with no problems that couldn’t be solved in half an hour of wisecracks and commercials, on their way to a fun weekend at some beach.

Vineland 91-140

August 18, 2010 § Leave a comment

p. 92 Ralph Wayvone’s momentary escape:

[He] could take another of what he’d come to think of as microvacations on an island of time fragile and precious as any Tahiti or one of them.

This is perhaps the only kind of escape that is accessible and unproblematic. Grace, but only for an instant. Later, in Mason & Dixon, Pynchon will explore the way in which many different temporal experiences can be embedded in a single perceptual/narrative moment.

p.97 A little joke for postmodern theroists. The band consult The Italian Wedding Fake Book by Deleuze and Guattari. Who also authored Capitalism and Schizophrenia, which consists of A Thousand Plateaus and Anti-Oedipus.

p.117 Whilst Wayvone’s escape is a solitary moment of peace, for Frenesi ‘the best chances of light’ are to be found in action. The final sentence, however, may possibly undermine the sacrifices described.

Frenesi dreamed of a mysterious people’s oneness, drawing together toward the best chances of light, achieved once or twice that she’d seen in the street, in short, timeless bursts, all paths, human and projectile, true, the people in a single presence, the police likewise simple as a moving blade- and individuals who in meetings might only bore or be pains in the ass here suddenly being seen to transcend, almost beyond will to move smoothly between baton and victime to take the blow instead, to lie down on the tracks as the iron rolled in or look into the gun muzzle and maintain the power of speech- there was no telling, in those days, who might change unexpectedly, or when. Some were in it, in fact, secretly for the possibilities of finding just such moments.

The first thing to say is that all this is only a dream of Frenesi’s, how she would like things to be. Does that mean this cannot exist? Not necessarily, but the fact that the people are ‘a single presence’,  and the police are ‘likewise simple’ almost seems to echo the accusations of childishness levelled by Hector at Zoyd earlier in the novel. And again, there is this notion of an altered temporal sense.

p. 127 DL’s sensei offers advice that addresses a rather different notion of grace and election- one which does not deny our Fallen status, and our own limitations.

This was what he felt he had to pass on- not the brave hard-won grace of any warrior, but the cheaper brutality of an assassin. When DL finally tumbled, she brought it to his attention.

“Sure,” he told her, “this is for all the rest of us down here with the insects, the ones who don’t quite get to make warrior, who with two tenths of a second to decide fail to get it right and live it with the rest of our lives”

When DL protests that ‘everybody’s a hero at least once’ he tells her she is ‘seeing too many movies, maybe’.

p.131 Wayvone tells DL

“We know your history, it’s all on the computer.”

p 133-134 A long passage where DL tells Frenesi about how “Superman could change back into Clark Kent”.

“Don’t underestimate it. Workin’ at the Daily Planet was the Man o’ Steel’s Hawaiian vacation, his Saturday night in town, his marijuana and his opium smoke, and oh what I wouldn’t give…”

What’s interesting is that it is Frenesi, not DL, who tries to live this fantasy, that of giving up on anything remotely heroic. By throwing in her lot with Brock Vond, and then becoming an informer, Frenesi ends up living a perverted version of this, one where all the solid normality is bought at other’s expense. Which makes her objection to DL’s daydreaming (and DL has arguably had to deal with far worse than Frenesi, which in some ways would make any such escape, however it was bought, more understandable) all the more ironic.

Why should anybody want to be only mortal? Better to stay an angel, angel.”

If DL did go on to try and escape, in a literal sense, by moving to Columbus and compiling an ‘invisibility wardrobe’ it was for good reason. If Frenesi thinks of DL as an ‘angel’, it is because she doesn’t grasp what DL has had to do.

p. 139 Ralph says to DL (in flashback)

“All that great gift? You wanted to just escape it?”

She doesn’t even bother to address this when she answers him, so obviously is her situation not a ‘great gift’.

Vineland 68-90

August 11, 2010 § Leave a comment

p.71 Frenesi on remembering the Sixties:

Sure, she knew folks who had no problem at all with the past. A lot of it they just didn’t remember. Many told her, one way and another, that it was enough for them to get by in real time without diverting precious energy to what, face it, was fifteen or twenty years dead and gone.

The idea of having no problem with the past is reminiscent of the mentions of being blessed with Doper’s Memory in Inherent Vice- the best thing, even better than nostalgia, is to forget. Nostalgia whilst being a crutch, is also a distraction.

Frenesi goes on to consider the strange form of ‘freedom’ she hoped to gain at the end of the 60s by collaborating with the authorities. In an inversion of the usual liberal view of the period, she sees the ‘Nixonian repression’ as ‘her Woodstock, her Revolution’ (which echoes Hector’s comments on p. 27).

She understood her particular servitude as the freedom, granted to a few, to act outside warrants and charters, to ignore history and the dead, to imagine no future, no yet-to-be-born, to be able simply to go on defining moments only, purely, by the action that filled them.

But even this escape (which is not really an escape) is going to be taken away by the economic forces of the Reagan era.

p.76-77 has a different kind of nostalgia, one that perhaps isn’t even that, if by this we mean something sentimental, and somewhat selective in a self-serving way.

[Eula] discovererd what she really wanted- the road, his road, his bindlestiff life, his dangerous indenture to an idea, a dream of One Big Union, what Joe Hill was calling “the commonwealth of toil that is to be”.

This has a markedly straigher tone than all the talk of the Magic Sixities- and is an interesting contrast to the nostalgia for, or denial of, the past in the novel thus far.

Growing up, Frenesi heard stories of those prewar times, the strike at the Stockton cannery, strikes over Ventura sugar beets, Venice lettuce, San Joaquin cotton… of the anticonscription movement in Berkeley, where, as Sasha was careful to remind her, demonstrations had been going on before Mario Sava was born.

Sasha continues in this vein on p. 82

After a while her thoughts started falling into place. The injustices she had seen in the streets and fields, so many times, too many times unanswered- she began to see them more directly, not as world history or anything theoretical, but as humans, usually male, living here on the planet, often well within reach, commiting these crimes, major and petty, one by one against other living humans. Maybe we all had to submit to History, she figured, maybe not- but refusing to take shit from some named and specified source- well, it might be a different story.

Though Sasha herself is immediately undercut by Hub saying how he wasn’t really listening, this does not necessarily refute what she has said. And there is something refreshing about bringing it all down to a very human level- where it is not some ‘distant others’ or some abstract force like Capital or Technology, but a ‘named and specified source’, which is for the most part where most of the ills of the world come from (please supply your own list of these). It is far from the defeated tone one often gets from Pynchon’s characters.

p. 81 has a passage that almost seems to be against the metahistorical (the idea that there are can only be Histories)

“History in this town,” Sasha muttered, “is no more worthy of respect than the average movie script, and it comes about in the same way- soon as there’s one version of a story, suddenly it’s anybody’s pigeon. Parties you never heard of get to come in and change it. Characters and deeds get shifted around, heartfelt language gets pounded flat when it isn’t just removed forever.

It is as if she is lamenting that there are these multiple histories, which is unusual, as the idea of plurality is commonly thought to be a beneficial corrective to the homogenising, and usually deeply compromised, narrative that is presented as History.

p. 83 Magical properties are ironically imputed to the TV.

Believing that the rays coming out of the TV screen would act as a broom to sweep the room clear of all spirits, Frenesi now popped the Tube on.

While watching a motorcycle cop show, she gets aroused, which is offered as part of the explanation for why she ends up with Brock.

Since her very first Rose Parade up till the present, she’d felt in herself a fatality, a helpless turn towards images of authority, especially uniformed men.

Sasha (who suffers from the same fetish) is obliged to face ‘the dismal possibility that all her oppositions, however just and good, to forms of power were really acts of denying that dangerous swoon’. Though this unsurprisingly angers Frenesi (it seems incredibly sexist and patronising to argue that women have this kind of uncontrollable, almost hysterical weakness), she eventually more or less accepts it. ‘Let the grim feminist rave’ she thinks (or at least we are encouraged to think that she does) and then, unexpectedly, Pynchon does not undercut this idea. One possibility is that mother and daughter would rather believe it was due to some uncontrollable urge, instead of a series of decisions, or choices ignored, that has led to the submission (sexual and otherwise) to authority.

p. 87 Frenesi’s son goes to find his parents, the ‘cartoons having ended and his parents now become the least objectionable programming around here’. Reality is thus just another show that one sometimes must unhappily turn over to.

p. 90 on how we will be executed:

It would all be done with keys on alphanumeric keyboards that stood for weightless, invisible chains of electronic presence or absence.

Vineland 35-67

August 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

p. 37  A possibly wishful affinity between surfers and drivers.

Beer riders of the valleys having found strange affinities with surfers and their music. Besides a common interest in beer, members of both subcultures, whether up on a board or beind a 409, shared the terrors and ecstacies of the passive, taken rider, as if a car engine held encapsulated something likewise oceanic and mighty- a technowave, belonging to distant others as surf belonged to the sea, bought into by the riders strictly as is, on the other party’s terms.

The interesting thing about this is that we might expect Pynchon to place these groups at odds with one another- mainstream vs counterculture. Both, however, are ‘subcultures’, not least in the sense that they are beneath, and subservient to, the ‘distant others’, who dictate the ‘terms’. Both share ‘the terrors and ecstacies of the passive, taken rider’, one via technology, the other via the sea. Pynchon may intend to suggest that there is also political common ground between these (and other) groups, because whether one is driving a car, or riding a board, one is still far from being in control of the forces (natural, financial) that shape one’s environment. It is questionable whether Pynchon really intends the description of the car engine as encapsulating ‘something likewise oceanic and mighty’ as a simile- it can also be taken as synedoche of the whole socio-economic system of consumption. Another effect of pairing surfers and drivers in this fashion is to reduce the extent to which the surfers can really be said to be an alternative lifestyle. They, too, are no less in thrall to the ‘distant others’.

p.38 has what begins as a piece of nostalgia for the unhurried, ‘Mellow Sixities’, one where people’s sense of time, as a continuous flow, has not yet been disrupted (see all the stuff about temporal distortion (Currie, Huehls et al) in the Inherent Vice posts).

It may have taken hours or been over in half a minute, there were few if any timepieces among those assembled, and nobody seemed restless, this after all being the Mellow Sixties, a slower moving time, predigital, not yet so cut into pieces, not even by television.

However, this is not being shown, it is being remembered (like so much else in the book).

It would be easy to remember the day as a soft focus shot, the kind to be seen on ‘sensitivity’ greeting cards in another few years.

The fact that this is remembered as ‘a soft focus shot’ is telling- it suggests that our vocabulary (lexical, visual, memorial) has been changed by film and TV. Even if the actual moment was experienced as a temporally uncertain event, it is not recalled this way. And perhaps, to return to an earlier thought, this pre-digital ‘timelessness’ is no more socially beneficial than the ‘crisis of historicity’ that many new media are said to have produced. The paragraph continues in a supposedly rosy tone:

Everything in nature, every living being on the hillside that day, strange as it sounded later whenever Zoyd tried to tell about it, was gentle, at peace- the visible world was a sunlit sheep farm. War in Vietnam, murder as an instrument of American politics, black neighborhoods torched to ashes and death, all must have been off on some other planet.

But they weren’t (and aren’t) ‘on some other planet’. These horrors were happening concurrently. Though at the time, and also in memory, they have escaped into the fantasy of everything being a ‘sunlit sheep farm’, such a view is only possible if one ignores, or forgets, what else was happening. However, this is probably the only way that we can live on a daily basis- by denying what we know to be happening, while telling ourselves that we care. This is a delicate balancing act, this satisfying of one’s (inevitably) selfish urges, while trying to maintain the self-image of being a ‘good’ person (which brings us back to Weber’s ideas of ‘the elect’ seeking reassurance that they were in fact so).

The description, and the erasure of evil, has been said to be reminiscent of Emerson’s passage in Experience:

When I converse with a profound mind, or if at any time being alone I have good thoughts, I do not at once arrive at satisfactions, as when, being thirsty, I drink water, or go to the fire, being cold: no! but I am at first apprised of my vicinity to a new and excellent region of life. By persisting to read or to think, this region gives further sign of itself, as it were in flashes of light, in sudden discoveries of its profound beauty and repose, as if the clouds that covered it parted at intervals, and showed the approaching traveller the inland mountains, with the tranquil eternal meadows spread at their base, whereon flocks graze, and shepherds pipe and dance. (41).

As Dickson(1998) argues, Emersonian ‘transcendence takes place through a removal not of the self from the realm of ordinary activity, but through a removal of ordinary reality away from the self.’

Emerson is directly referenced at the end of the novel, on page 369.

p. 41 has a reference to karma:

He wrote her a postdated check he’d still have to scramble, this day already so advanced, to cover.

p. 51 Hector wants to make a movie of the whole Zoyd, Frenesi, and Brock Vond story.

Ernie’s been waitin years for the big Nostalgia Wave to move along to the sixties, which according to his demographics is the best time most people from back then are ever goin to have in their life

In a sense, this is what we are watching for most of the book, given how much of it is flashback, and only rarely in the voice of the person telling/remembering what happened.

And it is worth asking what good nostalgia does, in a political sense? is there any real difference between being nostalgic for the ‘Mellow Sixties’ or a (possible equally) imaginary past like Lemuria in Inherent Vice? Are either an impetus to an action which might lead to change?

p. 58 Frenesi as portayed as a habitual escapist.

Sasha was as angry as she’d ever been at Frenesi’s habit, developed early in life, of repeatedly ankling every situation that it should have been her responsibility to keep with and set straight. Far as Sasha could make out, this eagerness to flee hadn’t faded any over the years, with its latest victim being Zoyd.

In her case, the question is not only what she is fleeing from, but also what she is fleeing to- why does she flee  Zoyd (as an exemplar of the counter culture of which, she herself, via her role in guerilla film making, is a part) and end up with with his opposite (Brock Vond) and even as the opposite of herself (from documenting the ills of the powerful, to being an informer who conspires with them). What does her narrative suggest about our need to Fall?

p. 60 Death, the greatest form of escape, is also commodified. Hawaii is said to be ‘where men from California bring their broken hearts’. Zoyd is offered ‘several travel agents who offer Suicide Fantasy packages.’

Vineland 1-34

August 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

After the feral success of my posts on Inherent Vice- we’re talking about daily hits sometimes in double digits -I thought I’d do the same for Vineland because a) it’s an obvious point of comparison, in terms of setting (California), time period (the 70s and 80s)  and preoccupations (the many ways that the counter culture has been, um, countered) and b) because it’s my ‘job’ to (in terms of being a doctoral student, though let’s face it, it’s a pretty strange job where you have to pay your employer for the right to work, and then still find yourself slacking off).

Anyway, my reading of Vineland is going to be based around two interests- its similarities with Inherent Vice, and how the characters in the novel use different strategies to escape/deny/avoid various mental and emotional states, with a particular emphasis on ideas of Redemption, Transcendence etc. (which is starting to sound dangerously like I might have some notion of what this PhD is about).

Given that the book doesn’t have numbered sections, I’ll just be doing it in as large a chunks as I can. And forgive me if I don’t provide much in the way of plot summaries- life, I am given to understand, is really very short. All page numbers from the Vintage UK 1990 edition.

Pages 1-14

Introduces Zoyd Wheeler, his daughter Prairie and Hector Zuniga, DEA field agent. The novel opens with Zoyd waking to hear blue jays, which reminds him of his dream where carrier pigeons have a special message for him that he can never receive. He understands this as ‘another deep nudge from forces unseen, almost surely connected with the letter that had come along with his latest mental-disability check.’

Of course, there’s no necessary connection between the real and dream birds and the letter, and Pynchon quickly undermines Zoyd’s reliability with the reveal of mental-disability. One reading of this is to satirise people’s tendency to see significance and pattern (not to say conspiracy) where there is mostly randomness. (As Sortilege says in Inherent Vice, “That’s because you think everything is connected”).

As in Inherent Vice, there is also the start of a thread about going over to the other side by becoming a snitch.

Hector had been trying over and over for years to develop him as a resource, and so far- technically -Zoyd had hung onto his virginity.

That ‘technically’ is pretty damning- and maybe also softens the realisation that ‘one day, just to have some peace, he’d say forget it, and go over.’

14-21

Zoyd watches himself on the TV (‘in Tubal form’) jumping through a window, ‘in midair with time to rotate into a number of positions he didn’t remember being in’

TV thus distorts memory, either by showing us what didn’t happen, or what did but we have forgotten. Memory is thus as rewritable a medium as any other technology.

p.19 has a bit on the commodification of violence

Isaiah’s business idea was to set up first one, eventually a chain, of violence centres, each on the scale, perhaps, of a small theme park.

p.27

“This ain’t tweakin around no more with no short-term maneuvers here, this is a real revolution, not that little fantasy hand-job you people was into, is it’s a groundswell, Zoyd, the wave of History, and you can catch it, or scratch it.”

The Right (as personified by Hector- an equivalence that will blur as the novel goes on) is here appropriating the terminology of the left- a revolution that is not Progressive, but is actually the opposite, in that it solidifies the exisiting structures of power and wealth.

p.28 In the same vein, Hector attacks 60s radicalism

I know you still believe in all that shit. All o’ you are still children inside, livin your real life back then. Still waitin for that magic payoff.

There’s a lot of talk in the novel about ‘innocence’ and other supposedly child-like states, which although is meant by Hector in a derogatory way, can be viewed in a more tolerant fashion. The retreat back into childhood, or nostalgia (the ‘real life back then’) may be the only safe haven (and it’s worth noting that at least half of the novel occurs in flashback, as a tale related). But even this innocence must be questioned

Impossible to tell with you, Zoyd. Never could figure out how innocent you thought you were.

Hector then asks a difficult question.

I won’t asks you to grow up, but just sometime, please, asks yourself, OK, ‘Who was saved?’ That’s all, rill easy, ‘Who was saved?’ “

Of course no one can be ‘saved’ (unless we buy into a non-secular world view) but the idea of personal redemption, of joining some kind of ‘elect’ or at least not being so clearly part of the preterite (yes, I have been reading Weber), is a powerful impulse, one that it is difficult to discount.

p. 29 Already Hector is becoming a deeper character:

It was the closest Hector got to feeling sorry for himself, this suggestion he liked to put out that amongst the fallen, he had fallen further than most

This notion of the Fallen recurs in Inherent Vice, and with it all the talk of karma.

p .31 Further talk from Hector of  youth and innocence being a kind of distortion that needs, by implication, to be rubbed off.

“I used to worry about you, Zoyd, but I see I can rest easy now the Vaseline of youth has been cleared from your life’s lens by the mild detergent solution of time, in its passing….”

There seems like a extra level of disingenuity in this use of the language of advertising- a consequence of Hector being a TV addict. The changes wrought by time (especially in historical terms) are not usually ‘mild’.

Hector then refers to the counterculture as

“A certain kind of world that civilians up on the surface, out in the sun thinkin’ em happy thotz, got no idea it’s even there”

Rather than it being a place to escape to, for Hector it is more like a dark sercet, a Welles-ian subterranean nightmare. This seems like an inversion of how we like to think of the 60s- rather than a happy, carefree time, with a dark undercurrent (Manson, riots, Nixon, Vietnam) it is here the counterculture that is the corrosive force.

Of course, the loss of innocence (or rather the belief in one’s own innocence), and the ensuing inability to escape into nostalgia, leads to bitterness. At the end of Inherent Vice Doc talks about how hippies ‘don’t know nuthin’. And as Zoyd says to Hector on p. 31

“Nothin’ meaner than a old hippie that’s gone sour, Hector, lot of it around.”

To which Hector answers, “You pussies set yourself up for it”.

p. 33 TV equated with any other harmful substance. There’s the ‘National Endowment for Video Education and Rehabilitation’ whose acronym is ‘NEVER’. Maybe this stands for the possibility of us ever recognising and being willing to actually confront this aspect of TV.

There’s also talk of ‘Tubal abuse’ and ‘A dryin’-out place for Tubefreeks.’

Which raises the question- how much of Hector’s worldview is supposed to be attributable to watching too much TV? And isn’t it also perhaps his partial salvation, in terms of how he acts at the end of the book, when trying to make the film?

‘A conjuror of high magic to low puns’

August 5, 2010 § Leave a comment

It’s definitely more fun to write about being an academic than to actually do academic stuff.

As proof, I cite this piece of mine in n + 1 and Elif Batuman’s The Possessed.

***Thanks to The New Yorker, American Fiction Notes, The Millions, Longform.org, The New York Observer and other places for linking to the piece.

The Year of the Metal Tiger

June 23, 2010 § Leave a comment

So I went to the Pynchon conference. In Poland. A marvellous time was had. In addition to being promised a certificate proving that I am now a bona fide scholar, the lovely people at Marie Curie University recorded everyone’s talks. So delete your playlists. Sit in a dark room. You’ll be amazed at what you end up doodling.

Click on the names on the abstract page to hear the talks- My suggestions would be Simon de Bourcier on Aether, David Letzler on character, Sascha Pöhlmann on games, Jeffrey Severs on women and capitalism, and for sheer verbal brio, Douglas Lanark on the year of the metal tiger.

Here is mine which is about 15 minutes long. It’s about how to escape.

Inherent Vice, Chapter 20

March 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

PLOT- Doc’s parents try to score weed off him… Sauncho and Doc go to watch the Golden Fang being repossessed… Coy is finally freed of his obligations.

p.351

While gazing at photos Doc sees their details become little blobs of colour.

It was as if whatever had happened had reached some kind of limit. It was like finding the gateway to the past unguarded, unforbidden because it didn’t have to be. Built into the act of return finally was this glittering mosaic of doubt. Something like what Sauncho’s colleagues in marine insurance liked to call inherent vice.

“Is that like original sin?” Doc wondered.

“It’s what you can’t avoid.”

This is about the problem of knowing the past (history), and with the added spin being what seems to underline last chapter’s conclusion- it really is what you can’t avoid. But maybe this is a step sideways from the karmic equation- there isn’t the suggestion of wrongdoing.

p.353

Doc’s parents complain that after smoking weed the soap they watch becomes hard to understand- identities and faces shift, either because they are befuddled, or because some veil has been stripped away.

p. 354

I think there’s a joke in the fact that Doc is still only wearing one shoe here, long after his escape from Prussia’s place. I’d like it to be suggesting that he’s waiting for the other shoe to drop- which would tie in nicely with the whole this-is-a-mystery-but-everyone’s-avoiding-answers theme.

p. 355

Doc imagines, then perhaps shifts to remembering, Bigfoot when he first came to Gordita.

“This place has been cursed from the jump” he told anybody who’d listen. “Indians lived here long ago. they had a drug cult, smoked tolache which is jimsonweed, gave themselves hallucinations, deluded themselves they were visiting other realities- why come to think of it, not unlike the hippie freaks of our present day. Their graveyards were sacred portals of access to the spirit world, not to be misued. And Gordita beach is built right on top of one.”

The jump seems part of the record/groove image set- and Bigfoot is of course missing the point. There’s no need to make a supernatural explanation up- the reality of disposession is bad enough.

They were hard to see and hard to catch hold of, these Indian spirits. You plodded along in pursuit, maybe only wanting to apologize, and they flew like the wind, and waited their moment…

“What’re you looking at?” Saunco said.

“Where I live.”

There is a sense of complicity in Doc’s reply.

p.363

At the end of the chapter, when Coy is thanking Doc, what should be a happy moment instead has a sour tone.

“Yeah, yeah, some hippie made that up.” These people, man. Don’t know nothin.

It is as if, after all Doc has seen and heard, he can no longer count himself among the ranks of the happily unenlightened. This is an old theme, that of the hero-becoming-an-exile-from-the-community-he-has-fought-to-protect. Like John Wayne in The Searchers (1956).

Inherent Vice, Chapter 19

February 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

PLOT-Doc meets Crocker Fenway and arranges to trade the heroin in return for an assurance that Coy Harlingen and family wont be harmed. The trade takes place without any double cross.

p. 343

Whilst waiting for Fenway, Doc inspects a mural depicting the arrival of the Portola expedition in 1769. In terms of local karma, this is as close as one gets to original sin. The mural, however, is clearly not to be trusted as historical record.

The pictorial style reminded Doc of labels on fruit and vegetable crates when he was a kid. Lots of color, atmosphere, attention to detail… Everybody in the scene looked like a movie star.

It’s style is that of advertising and commerce; the people are substitutes; the details it pays attention to are not those of history. However, the labels are worth a look:

Pynchon then produces a piece of imperial rhetoric to describe one of the expressions of the men in the mural:

There was an expression of wonder, like, What’s this, what unsuspected paradise? Did God with his finger trace out and and bless this perfect little valley, intending it only for us?

This perfectly reproduces the sense of divinely ordained entitlement that lies behind exploration and conquest, with the notion of God ‘intending it only for us’ being especially sharp in its denial of the rights of any indiginous people. However the mural, for all its flaws, is still a reminder of the past, which thus allows for some debate about the nature of that past. Crocker (who is shortly to give one of the most villainous speeches of the book) says ‘Never noticed it really.’

p. 346-347

feature some of the harshest, most political exchanges of the book, in which Doc sounds far more world-weary than when he began.

Crocker Fenway chuckled without mirth. “A bit late for that, Mr Sportello. People like you lose all claim to respect the first time they pay anybody rent.

“And when the first landlord decided to stiff the first tenant for his security deposit, your whole fucking class lost eveybody’s respect.”

Doc continues:

“Every time one of you gets greedy like that, the bad-karma level gets jacked up one more little two-hundred-dollar notch. After a while that starts to add up. For years now under everybody’s nose there’s been all this class hatred, slowly building. Where do you think that’s headed?

I think this is the first time that the karmic equation has been invoked to explain something other than a present ill; it is here being used in a predictive fashion, and aimed at a specfic group of people, as opposed to all of ‘us’.

The lines are then drawn even more clearly:

“We’ve been in place forever. Look around. Real estate, water rights, oil, cheap labor- all that’s ours, it’s always been ours. And you, at the end of the day what are you? one more unit in this swarm of transients who come and go without pause here in the sunny Southland, eager to be bought off with a car of a certain make, model, and year, a blonde in a bikini, thirty seconds on some excuse for a wave- a chili dog, for Christ’s sake.” He shrugged. “We will never run out of you people. The supply is inexhaustible.”

A pretty fair summary of the capitalist system.

p. 349

Doc continues to sound jaded.

“What, I should only trust good people? man, good people get bought and sold every day. Might as well trust somebody evil once in a while, it makes no more or less sense. I mean I wouldn’t give odds either way.”

Denis’ response is to say ‘That’s heavy,’ then, after a toke, ‘What does that mean?’- the pattern of pronouncement/avoidance/humour that is common in Pynchon.

p. 350

Even Bigfoot has ‘weird twisted cop karma’.

Inherent Vice, Chapter 18

February 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

PLOT-Doc goes to visit Adrian Prussia, where he is drugged by Puck Beaverton. After this he wakes up, handcuffed to the bed, and can do nothing but summarise the plot. Doc then escapes, killing Puck and Adrian, only to find that Bigfoot has set him up and is now stealing the Golden Fang’s heroin. Though he and Bigfoot appear to come to an understanding, this is only cover for a further set up, as the heroin is planted in Doc’s car. After some bait and switch, he stashes it in Denis’, then gets a call from Crocker Fenway, asking to meet so that Doc can return the drugs.

p. 315

He recalled that somewhere behind him, back at the beach, it was still another classic day of California sunshine.

This feels like a historical reference, only it is Doc who feels that things were better in the past (his present).

He thought about Sortilege’s sunken continent, returning, surfacing this way in the lost heart of L.A., and wondered who’d notice if it did. People in this town only saw what they’d all agreed to see, they believed what was on the tube or in the morning papers half of them read while they were driving to work on the freeway, and it was all their dream about being wised up, about the truth setting them free. What good would Lemuria do them? Especially when it turned out to be a place they’d been exiled from too long ago to remember.

Here is the depressing answer to the idea that we might be ‘saved’- even if our lost (and imagined) utopia was restored to us, it wouldn’t help. The reason being that the consensus we operate under isn’t open to that- in Pynchon, the truth never sets anyone free, but instead enmeshes them in a series of conflicting impulses that lack easy resolution.

p. 316

In Prussia’s office, the light itself has been compromised (see Against the Day for more of this light/knowledge/harm/guilt stuff).

Heated downtown smoglight filtered in from the window behind him, light that could not have sprung from any steady or pure scheme of daybreak, more appropriate to ends or conditions settled for, too often after only token negotiation.

There is also another stopped clock, that Prussia affects to read the time from. This is continued on p. 317

“So who sent you here? Who you working for today?”

“All on spec,” Doc said. “All on my own time.”

“Wrong answer. How much of your own time you think you got lef,t kid?” He checked the dead wristwatch again.

‘Time’ here can also be read in a broader fashion, in terms of the period and its supposed freedoms.

p. 318

This being a novel with genre elements, the villain does need to show up, and this being a Pynchon novel, it is only in a drug-induced hallucination.

p. 321

Linking of a sex ring to Governor Reagan’s administration. This is the most specfiic reference to a future ill thus far- previously it has all been shadows and vague threats.

Adrian Prussia is also told

“The Governor has some great momentum right now, the future of America belongs to him, somebody can be doing American history a big favour here, Adrian.”

Whilst the first and second propositions may be true, there is an ironical slant to the third- arguably, the big favour to history would have been not to help him.

p. 322

A highly sexualised death, with plenty of S & M, not a new thing in Pynchon’s work, but one that I miss the point of here. Maybe its the ugliness of having someone like Prussia- a hired killer -take the moral highground with a pornographer.

p. 326

Doc has a flashback, possibly from the PCP, and possibly not, in which he understands that

he belonged to a single and ancient martial tradition in which resisting authority, subduing hired guns, defending your old lady’s honor all amounted to the same thing.

What this  thing is isn’t specified- it could easily be ‘nothing’. Heroism has no place, and no chance, perhaps.

**General observation- is all this being drugged and shooting and killing actually happening? It’s so genre appropriate that I can’t help but wonder.

p. 329

General ominousness-

The sun was just down, a sinister glow fading out above the edge of the world.

p. 334

Bigfoot issues a little wisdom:

“What goes around may come around, but it never ends up in exactly the same place, you ever notice? Like a record on turntable, all it takes is one groove’s difference and the universe can be on into a whole n’other song.”

On the one hand, this is an affirmation in the power of change; on the other, it’s still the same record, still the same turntable.

This metaphor has already appeared, on page 262 (“as if some stereo needle had been lifted and set back down on some other sentimental oldie on the compilation LP of history.”).

p. 339

Doc hides the heroin in a TV container in Denis’ place- when he comes back Denis is

sitting, to all appearances serious and attentive, in front of the professionally packaged heroin, now out of its box, and staring at it, as it turned out he’d been doing for some time.

Whilst this is a final, non-too subtle twist on the TV-as-narcotic theme that has run throughout the book, it may be doing more than critiquing TV. Perhaps TV is only one of many narcotics- it is then more about the psychological needs that each of these meet, rather than some… (ahem)… inherent vice of the drug.

p. 341

Dream in which the Golden Fang ship has been redeemed and ‘dezombified’. Sauncho gives a ‘kind of courtroom summary’ which is both sentence and grounds for optimism.

“… yet there is no avoiding time, the sea of time, the sea of memory and forgetfulness, the years of promise, gone and unrecoverable, of the land almost allowed to claim its better destiny, only to have the claim jumped by evildoers known all too well, and taken instead and held hostage to the future we must live in now forever. May we trust that this blessed ship is bound for some better shore, some undrowned Lemuria, risen and redeemed, where the American fate, mercifully, failed to transpire…”

Is this, then, a verdict on people’s attempt to avoid and deny the politically hopeless state they find themselves in? Or is the book in many ways a resounding contradiction to this? Which has primacy?

The claim is ‘jumped’ as with a record (see page 334), which brings to mind a passage from Against the Day:

“Most people have a wheel riding up on a wire, or some rails in the street, some kind of guide or groove, to keep them moving in the direction of their destiny.” (AD, 46)

Though the notion of a ‘future we must live in now forever’ doesn’t sound optimistic, it could also mean that we have to abandon our laments for what we (imagine?) we have lost, and focus on constructing the best world we can. Also, the ‘we’ in the sentence is clearly far from all-inclusive- there is still those on the blessed ship, for whom the entirety of US history is no more than a cautionary tale. Unless they are just the fond imaginings, a futher escape, of people who feel themselves doomed.

Inherent Vice, Chapter 17

February 17, 2010 § Leave a comment

PLOT- Coy tells Doc how he ended up being recruited as a snitch. Doc and Shasta reunite. Sort of. She makes him wonder if there’s any difference between he and Coy.

This is a thematically tight chapter, with its references to zombies, enslavement, addiction, being in the service of evil and irresistable powers.

p. 297

“You can’t always blame zombies for their condition,” says Doc, what may be only a joke, or instead a wider comment about our many forms of enslavement.

p. 297

Anybody understand why they call it ‘real’ estate’?” wondered Denis.

Good question.

p.298

Right now Coy had the look of sailor on liberty, willing to live inside the moment till he had to be back in some condition of servitude.

p.299

Further space reference, to Pink Floyd’s ‘Interstellar Overdrive’.

p.300

Coy’s method for kicking heroin is called, ironically, ‘Higher Discipline’. The irony is compounded by the fact that there is the incentive of ‘a once-a-year fix of Percodan, then regarded as the Rolls-Royce of opiates’. There is thus no recovery from addiction- just the substitution of one drug for another.

p.302

Coy makes the ‘karmic error of faking his own death’.

p.303

Nice mix of contradictory, yet truthful attributes in Doc’s self-description

He was back to his old wised-up self, short on optimism, ready to be played for a patsy again. Normal.

p. 305

Shasta tells Doc about the way Mickey treated her, how it was ‘so nice to be made feel invisible that way sometimes’. Here is a non-drug based method of dissociation- being treated so badly you cease to feel like a person. Even this, she suggests, can be a relief.

p. 312

has some karmic advice- ‘the best way to pay for any luck, however temporary, was just to be helpful when you could.’

p. 313

Shasta describes Coy and Doc as

cops who never wanted to be cops. Rather be surfing or smoking or fucking or anything but what you’re doing. You guys must’ve thought you’d be chasing criminals and instead here you’re both working for them.

Though it might seem that there is a difference between them, Doc is not sure. There is then, on p. 314, this  passage.

Doc followed the prints of her bare feet already collapsing into rain and shadow, as if in a fool’s attempt to find his way back into a past that despite them both had gone on into the future it did.

At first this seemed hard to decipher- if the past had gone on into the future, that makes it seem like it hasn’t changed, so why need he try and find his way back to it? On third reading, I think it’s just a lament for a past (perhaps an imagined one) that led to a negative future. Which perhaps raises the question- how idyllic could such a past have been if it led to a present ruin? By imagining our past utopia, we must also undermine it, else there cannot be the Fall that leads to the present.

Inherent Vice, Chapter 16

February 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

PLOT- Doc and Penny hook up again. The detective killed by Adrian Prussia turns out to be Bjornson’s old partner. Doc also finds a photo of Prussia in front of the Golden Fang. When he returns his office he finds Clancy Charlock and Tariq Khalil going at it on the floor. Tariq tells Doc about the arms deal Glen Charlock did with the WAMBAM. Later, Doc has a stoned conversation with Thomas Jefferson.

p. 278

When Doc needs to look at someone’s file, he says,

Ancient history, but it’s still under seal. Like till 2000?

There something disorientating about having a reference to the distant past with a projected event in the narrative future, which is actually our recent past. I’m not sure that we, as readers, can reconcile these different time periods, since one is imagined and the other is history, and maybe that’s the point. Whatever we take to be history, it isn’t a cohesive, continuous narrrative, but one of conflicting, contradictory accounts.

p.280

Further temporal distortion: when Doc and Penny are having sex, ‘for an untimably short moment Doc believed it was somehow never going to be over, though he managed not to get panicked about that.’

p.282

Further differentiation of the FBI and local cops, with the idea that the FBI are beyond the law. Then a long passage about ways of pereceiving and understanding from a supposedly addled state.

The clock up on the wall, which reminded Doc of elementary school back in San Joaquin, read some hour that it could not possibly be.

What matters here, I think, is disbelief- it is not that the situation (1970s America, or that of the present) was impossible, or even implausible, more that ‘we’ told ourselves it was. Such denial of the we-did-not-think-it -could-ever-possibly-get-this-bad variety is of course a contributory factor.

The passage continues:

Doc waited for the hands to move, but they didn’t, from which he deduced that the clock was broken and maybe had been for years.

Another interpretation would be that that time (as a index of change) has stopped. If the hands are not moving, it is thus not because the clock is broken, just that there is nothing for it to measure. This ties in with the whole idea (which I don’t have much use for) that there is a ‘crisis of historicity’.

Yet another interpretation is that it is ‘the time’ (i.e. society) which is broken. However, there is still the possibility of learning something from what seems to be broken (as there is from a paranoid supposing).

Which was groovy however because long ago Sortliege had taught him the esoteric skill of telling time from a broken clock. The first thing you had to do was light a joint… After inhaling potsmoke for a while, he glanced up at the clock, and sure enough, it showed a different time now, though this could also be from Doc having forgotten where the hands were to begin with.

Thus the means by which this knowledge is gained contaminate the answer.

p.283 Further reference to ‘ancient history’ (at least the third- the other being a reference to The Flinstones’ theme song).

p.286 In the photo of Adrian Prussia, the Golden Fang is described as ‘riding calmly at anchor in some nameless harbour, slightly out of focus as if through the veils of the next world’. This latter reference may refer to the future, and also our present.

Sauncho freaks out when he watches The Wizard of Oz on a colour TV, what is partly a stoner over-reaction, but also a commentary on the distorting effect of TV.

-the world we see Dorothy living in at the beginning of the picture is black, actually brown, and white, only she thinks she’s seeingit all in colour- the same normal everyday color we see our lives in. Then the cyclone picks her up, dumps her in Munchkin Land, and she walks out the door, and suddenly we see the brown and white shift into Technicolor. But if that’s what we see, what’s happening with Dorothy? What’s her ‘normal’ Kansas colour changing into? Huh? What very weird hypercolor?

p.288

In the previous chapter I wrote that Pynchon is rarely cynical about love. However, when Petunia says ‘Oh, Doc. Love is the only thing that will ever save us’, his only response is ‘Who?’ It is not love that is the problem- more  the notion of ‘us’- and the questions of who can we trust, and what constitutes a bond.

p.293

The commodification of resistance and murder.

I been seein these T-shirts and shit? Like Manson’s mug shots with Afros airbrushed onto them, that’s real popular.

There is thus the suggestion that these are equivalent, in their status as icons, and that this matters more than what they stand for. This is certainly true of the variations of Che Guerava seen on T-shirts.

p.293 also has a too long to type out passage of paranoia (or dead on commentary) which, after a long list of paranoid supposings, asks

And would this be multiple choice?

It is thus not necessarily a question of only one of these terrible supposings being true. That could even be the best we can hope for.

p.294

Thomas Jefferson (also appears in Mason & Dixon, p.385) speaks to Doc:

So! The Golden Fang not only traffick in Enslavement, they peddle the implements of Liberation as well.

Though this is a reference to guns, it can also be a reference to drugs- the depressing thing being that both of those, whatever their revolutionary potential, are just further commodties.

Inherent Vice, Chapter 15

January 19, 2010 § Leave a comment

PLOT- Doc returns to LA, only to find that Shasta has returned. They meet, and she assures him she’s fine, but nothing really is said. Doc has several meetings with an increasingly emotional/unsettled Bigfoot, who reveals that the LAPD is itself prone to intrigue and paranoia. He warns Doc not to investigate the death of ‘El Drano’ (aka Leonard J. Loosemeat), Coy Harlingen’s heroin dealer (and thus a suspect in Coy’s ‘death’). When Doc talks to Leonard’s partner Pepe, he learns that Adrian Prussia, a major loanshark, may have paid Leonard to off Coy. Bigfoot adds a further twsit by telling Doc that he thinks Prussia is involved with the murder of a detective in the LAPD, which Internal Affairs are trying to hush up. Doc decides he needs to look up Penny…

p. 256

‘Around nightfall Tito let Doc off on Dunecrest, and it was like landing on some other planet.’

This sense of dislocation (**which happens a lot to the reader of Pynchon- he refuses to let you get settled in any time period) mounts, leading Doc to wonder if

Tito had actually dropepd him in some other beach town… and that the bars, eateries and so forth he’d been walking into were ones that happened to be similarly located in this other town

How should we read this? As a fear of homogenity? That the structures of command and control are the same everywhere? That there is a spatial equivalency between different places, in the same way that different historical moments are presented as equivalent (especially on TV).

p.257

When Doc runs into Denis, he doesn’t mind if it’s ‘somebody impersonating Denis’- even the appearence, or the fiction of his identity is preferable to nothing.

p.258

Even though ARPA (the proto-internet) is in its infancy, the FBI are already monitoring it.

p.261

Doc tries to watch the end of I Walked with a Zombie (1943) ‘but somehow despite his best efforts fell asleep in the middle, as so often before’.

There’s a fair few  actions uncompleted in the novel- though most of these, as here, seem unimportant, perhaps Pynchon is arguing that it is symptomatic of a wider tendency. If TV shows, the internet and other forms of mass entertainement (the novel?) are what divert and distract us from an awareness (let alone an active resistance to) to the ills of the present, how badly must we be off if we cannot even attend to these properly? If we are distracted from our distractions?

p.262

As if some stereo needle had been lifted and set back down on some other sentimental oldie on the compilation LP of history.

This is a nice metaphor, which on closer inspection makes me wonder about describing history as a ‘compilation LP’. Something that is played over and over. Nothing but a collection of fragments. Things jumbled out of place. Things that may be skipped.

p.265

Leonard has a fine paranoid rant about loansharks.

They traffic with agencies of command and control, who will sooner or later betray all agreements they make because among the invisible powers there is no trust and no respect.

p.267

This deserves a closer look.

Lost, and not lost, and what Sauncho called lagan, deliberately lost and found again…

Unfortunately there is a mouse in my room which is really distracting me.

Um.

I had to go to the Pynchon wiki for this- it helpfully suggests that it can refer to the many disappearances and re-appearances in the novel, plus also Mickey’s conscience, and most of all, innocence and purity themselves (‘deliberately’ is here the key word).

p.272

Doc asks Bigfoot what seems almost a philosophical question.

“Can I say something out loud? Is anybody listening?”

Bigfoot’s reply encompasses fear, denial, and nihilism.

“Everybody. Nobody. Does it matter?”

p.273

A strong thematic statement about time, perception, and denial.

Yes and who says there can’t be time travel, or that places with real-world addresses can’t be haunted, not only by the dead but by the living as well? It helps to smoke a lot of weed and to do acid off and on, but sometimes even a literal-minded natchmeister like Bigfoot could manage it.

You have to get away from ‘reality’ in order to get closer to it. Man. Eerie connotations of the living being the ones doing the haunting.

The hot ticket this summer

January 17, 2010 § Leave a comment

Thousands are sure to flock to Lublin, in Poland, and not just for its associations with Jewish mysticism. This summer the International Pynchon conference is being held between 9-12 June. I’ll be giving a talk that may have some resemblance to the following abstract.

“Can you tell me, please, where is reality?”- Imagined Utopias in Inherent Vice

Pynchon’s novels contain multiple alternate time lines and realities, often in contradiction of one another. In this paper I argue that what interests Pynchon about such versions of history is not their ‘truth’ or otherwise (which is itself unverifiable) but how they are employed by people to meet different ends (ideological, social, personal), such as how to explain (and perhaps excuse) a present they view as lamentable, especially when they perceive themselves as being unable to effect meaningful change. One of the major themes of Inherent Vice is of a Fall from an imagined Utopia of the past- the sunken continent of Lemuria. Whilst this is a comment on nostalgia, and the need to believe that the past was better, it can also be seen as a way of avoiding responsibility for the ills of the present. By repeatedly invoking the idea of a ‘karmic adjustment’, Pynchon creates a pervasive sense of collective guilt, which whilst seeming to implicate ‘us’ (as a species, as a society) nonetheless spares us as individuals: the ‘sins’ for which we are paying were committed by others long before us. In some ways, this is the antithesis of the conspiracy theories beloved of Pynchon’s characters: there is no ‘they’ who can be blamed; there is only ‘us’. Whilst a long shadow hangs over the novel— cast by our knowledge, in hindsight, of the American political landscape from the 1970s to the present —Pynchon, as in his previous novels (most notably Gravity’s Rainbow) suggests that one ‘price’ for the ‘Fall’ has been our growing submission to technology. In the novel television, automobiles, and a proto-internet are all presented as being of equal (or greater) narcotic power to the illicit drugs consumed within the novel. These are shown to cause distortions of temporal and spatial perception that echo those which characterise the ‘crisis of historicity’ described by Harvey (1995), and more recently, Currie (2007) and Huehls (2009).

However, the novel is more than a straightforward paen for the ‘swinging sixties’. Just as the ‘sins’ of Lemuria are supposed by some of the novel’s characters to be the ‘cause’ of their problems, so Pynchon invites us, perhaps with a wink, to draw a link between the characters actions in his imagined version (or even, myth) of late 1960s California and our political present. One possible reading of the novel is that the many forms of escape, denial and avoidance exemplified by the characters (most of them drug-induced) have, by virtue of the political apathy they foster, contributed to the triumph of free-market values. But this seems a somewhat reactionary position for Pynchon to take. Given the distrust evidenced throughout much of his work for ideologies on both the right and the left, and also his habitual focus on the non-heroes of history (who are usually more observers than agents within the plot of the novels), Pynchon’s characters’ drug-induced retreats from ‘reality’— into fantasies of time-travel, alien abduction, or past-lives —can thus be considered the only form of resistance available, the nearest there is to ‘escape’ from the many traps of the present.

Coming to a shelf near you…

January 14, 2010 § 1 Comment

I have a piece on the London Review of Books blog about the use of video trailers for literary fiction. It features a wonderful animation for Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, and also one of Pynchon giving a monologue.

Inherent Vice, Chapter 14

January 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

PLOT- Tito drives Doc to the Kismet casino, a joint that has fallen on hard times. After placing a deliberately suspicious bet on the ‘Mickey book’, he is taken into the office of Fabian Fazzo, who tells him that Mickey was trying to build a new city out in the desert. In a private area he runs into the man himself, in the arms of the FBI. Out in the desert, he finds the half-completed, half-destroyed dream city of Arrepentimiento. Finally, Tito and Doc lose themselves in a Toob-fest.

Here, at around the two-thirds mark, a lot of the novel, both in terms of plot and also thematically, seems to come together.

In a Pynchon novel, this is somehow disquieting.

p.235 In the description of North Las Vegas- the neglected sibling of the Strip to the south -as being ‘away from the unremitting storm of light’ and this same glow then disappearing ‘as if into a separate “page right out of history”, as the Flintstones might say’, there is perhaps a somewhat optimistic message. On one level this can be viewed as prophetic- that all structures are subject to inevitable ruin. If this fate can befall North Las Vegas, there is no reason why the Strip, that accumulator of Profit (see Chapter 13) should not one day submit.

However, the presence of a second, also ruined city in the chapter, perhaps undermines this hope- unlike North Las Vegas, Arrepentiemento was envisaged by Mickey Wolfmann as as act of atonement, and it too was quickly destroyed. One reading of this  is that in the world to come (which we live in) intentions count for even less against the profit motive.

p.238 One of Pynchon’s favourite tropes- the relationship between cartography and power.

He says when Americans move any distance, they stick to lines of latitude. So it was like fate for me, I was always supposed to head west.

And just for good measure there is both the invocation of manifest destiny and the colonisation of the West.

p.238 Doc and Fabian’s long conversation about what might have happened to Wolfmann, during which they run through all the possible alternatives, nicely trivialises the whole Quest aspect of the plot (and the genre). They’re only talking about these outcomes in terms of gambling odds, not because anyone particularly cares. From what little I know of classic detective fiction (Chandler, Hammett) this is very much a staple of the genre. One could, I suppose, construe a more depressing interepretation- that someone’s life is only worth discussing in terms of how it might yield profit.

p.240 Even money is not to be trusted.

The half-dollar coin, right? ‘sucker used to be ninety percent silver, in ’65 they reduced that to forty percent, and now this year no more silver at all. Copper, nickel, what’s next, aluminium foil, see what I’m saying? Looks like a half-dollar, but it’s really only pretending to be one.

p.241 Doc remembers his acid trip as ‘trying to find his way through a labyrinth that was slowly sinking into the ocean’. As well as being a description of the present (both then, and now) ecological and political crisis, it is also a reference to the sunken continent of Lemuria, suggesting, somewhat gloomily, that even our impending disasters are far from original.

p.243 When Doc glimpses Mickey Wolfmann, he has

the same look as he had in his portrait back at his house in the L.A. hills— that game try at appearing visionary —passing right to left, borne onward, stately, tranquilized, as if being ferried between worlds

It is, alas, only an attempt at appearing (as opposed to being) visionary. But perhaps it still counts for something- whether or not it does depends on how we view his building the city in the desert- whether it is a meaningful (albeit doomed) attempt at atonement.

We might also ask which worlds he is being ferried between.

p.244 The FBI agent accuses Doc and his ilk of being the ones to inspire Wolfmann’s guilt.

It’s you hippies. You’re making everybody crazy.

It is undeniably unpleasant to reflect on the inequalities of the world, and especially on one’s own complicity in this state of affairs. So many of the book’s characters are doing their best to retreat from the world, by any means-  psychedelic, mystical, insanity.

Wolfmann’s mea culpa, which summarises a persistent sentiment of the novel:

I feel as if I’ve awakened from a dream of a crime for which I can never atone, an act I can never go back and choose not to commit. I can’t believe I spent my whole life making people pay for shelter, when it ought to’ve been free. It’s just so obvious.

It is, however, not in a dream that these things were done, but by himself, in reality. This kind of distancing suggests that even when admitting responsibility, he is still preserving a modicum of denial. Furthermore, whether or not the wrongness of his acts is ‘so obvious’ is perhaps not the point. People are able to supply a justification for even the most obviously heinous acts e.g. mass murder, bombing civilians, genocide, etc.

p.246 The wackiness of the Gilligan’s Island/Godzilla clash gives way to Henry Kissinger on TV saying “Vell den, ve should chust bombp dem, schouldn’t ve?” There is then a ‘lengthy honking’ which drowns him out.

On the one hand, the funny voice, and juxtaposition with Godzilla,, serves to satirise Kissinger. However, there is also an argument that TV, by presenting the banal and the serious in alternation, trivialises all it depicts. As for the lengthy honking, I’m starting to notice the way that Pynchon’s characters are often quick to change the subject when something of importance is said- the honking (from a car, not a goose) feels like more of the same.

p.247 Classic the-conspiracy-is-only-a-cover-for-the-real-conspiracy stuff

“Ain’t like this is the Mob. Not even the pretend Mob you people think is the Mob.”

p.248 Arripentimiento is ‘Spanish for ‘sorry about that’.’

Also on this page, Doc gives Trilium and Puck his rental car. This, and the amount of time devoted to Coy Harlingen and his wife, reminds me that Pynchon, for all his pessimism, rarely strays into direct cynicism- there is nothing ironic about the way love is portrayed.

p.249 ‘Like spacemen in a space ship, they were pressed violently into the seat’

Further images of moving into the future- which, I think, is maybe what we, as readers of this historical novel, end up doing to the characters, in that we relate them to our present.

Is the idea of ‘a wake-up joint’ a contradiction? Or a nod to the need to disengage with reality in order to be able to cope with it?

p.250 Out in the desert, ‘the zomes ahead, like backdrop art in old sci-fi movies, never seemed to come any closer’.

Nor, alas, does the promised future where harmony prevails.

p.251 Spatial distortion inside the zome.

More space, judging from the outside, than there could possibly be in here.

Some paranoia about how things, even when destroyed, cannot be ‘history’, “because they’ll destroy all the records, too”.

p.253 The disruption, then resumption of the TV signal occurs ‘as if through some form of mercy peculiar to zomes’.

Though TV has been portrayed in mostly negative terms in the book thus far, here, in the wreckage of a supposed dream city, the TV appears to be almost a necessary means of escape.

This TV theme continues on p.254, but here the tone seems to have shifted, and the TV, for Doc, is once again disturbing. Watching John Garfield’s last picture ‘before the anti-subversives did him in’ (again, the sense of the patterns, and repetitions, of history) was

Somehow like seeing John Garfield die for real, with the whole respectable middle class standing there in the street smugly watching him do it.

After a litany of TV scenes, there is this passage, which I will, if you’ll forgive me, allow to speak for itself.

And here was Doc, on the natch, caught in a low-level bummer he couldn’t find his way out of, about how the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all, and all be lost, taken back into darkness… how a certain hand might reach terribly out of darkness and reclaim the time, easy as taking a joint from a doper and stubbing it out for good.

Doc didn’t fall asleep till close to dawn and didn’t really wake up till they were going over the Cajon Pass, and it felt like he’d just been dreaming about climbing a more-than-geographical ridgeline, up out of some worked-out and picked-over territory, and descending into new terrain along some great definitive slope it would be more trouble than he might be up to turn and climb back over again.

OK, what I will say about this is that it could be read as TV being one of the things to ‘reclaim the time’, literally as well as metaphorically.

Inherent Vice, Chapter 13

December 17, 2009 § Leave a comment

PLOT- Bigfoot alerts Doc to a possible connection between Puck Beaverton (one of Wolfmann’s bodyguards) and Coy Harlingen. Blatnoyd’s death is revealed as being due to bites, as from a pair of fangs… Trillium Fortnight asks Doc for help finding Puck Beaverton… These names are really incredible… um… Doc and Trillium fly to Vegas, where they run into Tito, and after Trillium has sex with someone called Osgood, and two one-armed bandits spew out jackpots, Doc arranges to meet with Puck at the Kismet Lounge.

p.207

Time was when Doc used to actually worry about turning into Bigfoot Bjornsen, ending up just one more diligent cop, going only where the leads pointed him, opaque to the light which seemed to be finding everybody else walking around in this regional dream of enlightenment… never to be up early enough for what might one day turn out to be a false dawn.

Here we see again the fears of transformation, selling out, of missing out on the dream of enlightenment- although you know it is most likely a delusion, it is still one you crave, and perhaps, need.

p.209 Even Bigfoot falls prey to the paranoia (or the very real sense of worse times to come) in his talk of

“the evil subgod who rules over Southern California… who off and on will wake from his slumber and allow the dark forces that are always lying there just out of the sunlight to come forth?”

and how much closer they are ‘to the end of the world’.

p.214

“Everybody’s time is precious,” philosophized Bigfoot, reaching for his wallet, “in its own way.”

This feels like a comment on how people are inevitably present-centred- how easy it is to feel that the time in which one lives is distinctive and special. But if each time is precious, then perhaps none of them is.

p.231

A nice description of a slot machine that seems to recapitulate political history:

A long line of half-dollars went disappearing down a chute of yellowing plastic, the milling around the edges of the coins acting like gear teeth, causing each of the dozens of shining John F. Kennedy heads to rotate slowly as they jittered away down the shallow incline, to be gobbled one after another into the indifferent maw of Las Vegas.

Thus politics is only something that drives and feeds the profit motive. Las Vegas, as a Marxist economist comments on p.232, is arguably the purest form of capitalism for it

produces no tangible goods, money flows in, money flows out, nothing is produced. This place should not, according to theory, even exist, let alone prosper as it does. I feel my whole life has been based on illusory premises. I have lost reality. Can you tell me, please, where is reality?

Perhaps this corresponds to the bewilderment that greets the end of history (in a Marxist sense).

Pynchon’s quest to ‘keep scholars busy for several generations’

December 9, 2009 § Leave a comment

Green cords, purple shirts, teenage groupies, weed and cheeseburgers: favourites of Pynchon in late 1960s California, which also crop up aplenty in Inherent Vice. More in Bill Pearlman’s account of those days in the LRB.

Inherent Vice, Chapter 12

December 9, 2009 § Leave a comment

PLOT

Doc pays a visit to the Chryskylodon ‘laughing academy’, where he runs into (again) Coy Harlingen, who expresses doubts that he can ever ‘get out’ of his involvement with various powers. Wolfman’s missing tie, with the nude of Shasta, is seen on an orderly. Denis’ flat gets trashed, and not even by him. Doc pays a home visit to one of the volunteer police force who were involved in the battle in chapter… 2?3? And then there is a dream in which Doc is a child and does not understand death.

p.188 Ominous talk at Chrskylodon of their ‘Noncompliant Cases Unit’, ‘not quite operational but soon to be the Institute’s pride and joy.’

Also, a spatial distortion where Doc has a feeling that Sloane is close by, but ‘in some weird indeterminate space whose residents weren’t sure where they were, inside or out the frame.’

p.190 Further pessimism about the direction of things:

The world had just been disassembled, anybody here could be working any hustle you could think of, and it was long past time to be, as Shaggy would say, like gettin out of here, Scoob.

p. 194 ‘Back in junior college, professors had pointed out to Doc the ussful notion that the word is not the thing, the map is not the territory.’

The whole signs and signification thing. Not sure whether this is meant as giant reminder of the unreality of the text.

p.195 Small joke about use of the ARPA (the proto-internet) being like ‘surfin the wave of the future’. Then it is said to be ‘like acid, a whole ‘nother strange world- time, space and all that shit’. Down the rabbit hole of this sentence there is a big (though possibly trivial) debate about what globalisation and the internet have allegedly done to our sense of time (and in particular, sense of history) and space. Believe me, I know. I just wrote 3,000 words on it. Postmodernism and Time and Narrative and…

p.205 A short, but disquieting dream sequence, in which Doc is with a kid who resembles his brother, but is not, and a woman who resembles his mother, but is not. They are in a diner and the young Doc asks when a waitress named Shannon is coming back.

“Didn’t you hear what the girl said? Shannon’s dead.”

“That’s only in stories. The real Shannon will come back.”

“Hell she will.”

“She will, Mom.”

“You really believe that stuff.”

“Well what do you think happens to you when you die?”

“You’re dead.”

Why would he, or anyone else, think that people only die in stories?

I’m not sure if the following (on p.206) helps, or just makes it both sadder and more mysterious.

And now grown-up Doc feels his life surrounded by dead people who do and don’t come back, or who never went, and meantime everybody else understands which is which, but there is something so clear and simple that Doc is failing to see, will alwyas manage not to grasp.

It’s almost a lapse in the main genre register of the book, which so far hasn’t really been interested in a richer set of emotions for Doc (though it would be less distinctive in Against the Day or Mason & Dixon). If I had already finished the book (as would have been sensible, rather than this chapter by chapter, twice, approach) I would know whether it marked a shift in emotional tenor, as Doc realises that the 60s (whatever they were) are definitely over.


Inherent Vice, Chapter 11

November 15, 2009 § Leave a comment

pynchon

PLOT

Doc gets a postcard from Shasta that reminds him of when a Ouija board sent them on a fool’s errand. When he revists the location he finds a golden building shaped like a fang. Inside he meets Japonica Fenway, a girl from a previous case, who has wraparound hallucinations. After Denis crashes his car, Doc takes it to Tito Stavrou, who tells him he was supposed to pick up Wolfman from Chryskyolodon, but he never showed. And that Chryskylodon is, at a push, Greek for ‘Golden Fang’.

p.163- An amusing alternative postal delivery system- ‘catapult mail delivery involving catapult shells, maybe as a way of dealing with an unapproachable reef’.

p.165- A little extra sensory paranoia to add to all the fears about the living

Around us are always mischevious spirit forces, just past the threshold of human perception, occupying both worlds, and that these critters enjoy nothing better than to mess with all of us still attached to the thick and sorrowful catalogs of human desire.

p.166- During a torrential storm Doc imagines floods that lead to the ‘karmic waterscape connecting together, as the rain went on falling and the land vanished, into a sizable inland sea that would presently become an extension of the Pacific’. Lest we miss the reference to Lemuria, Sortilege has a dream about it, where she reveals that ‘We can’t find a way to return to Lemuria, so it’s returning to us’ (p.167). Just because this is an imagined Eden, it is no less potent (and perhaps painful). Once again, we are dealing with the Fall. Which is perhaps the only tolerable way to explain the present. At least there is the comfort that in the past things were different.

p.166- Doc and Shasta, whose relationship is all but over, make out in a car (this is a flashback) just so they can forget ‘for a few minutes how it was all going to develop anyway’. This is pretty much a synedoche of the novel.

p.170- The Golden Fang Procedures Handbook has a chapter on ‘Hippies’.

Dealing with the Hippie is generally straightforward. His childlike nature will usually respond positively to drugs, sex, and/or rock and roll’

p.171 Doc has a vision of ‘an American Indian in full Indian gear, perhaps one of those warriors who wipe out Henry Fonda’s regiment in Fort Apache (1948)’. Though a comic moment, this is also a nod to a history of disposession, of massacre and counter-massacre.

p.172 Japonica’s delusion (‘actually visiting other worlds’ p. 175)  is not without its truth, and also recalls the figures from the future in Against the Day.

Among those who could afford to, a stenuous mass denial of the passage of time was under way. All across a city long devoted to illusory product, clairvoyant Japonica had seen them, these travellers invisible to others, poised, gazing, from smogswept mesa-tops above the boulevards, acknowledging one another across miles and years, summit to summit, in the dusk, under an obscurely enforced silence.

p.176 Another ominous technological development, when Doc sees people listening to music on headphones,

in solitude, confinement and mutual silence, and some of them later at the register would actually be spending money to hear rock ‘n’ roll. It seemed to Doc like some strange kind of dues or payback. More and more lately he’d been brooding about this great collective dream that everybody was being encouraged to stay tripping around in. Only now and then would you get an unplanned glimpse at the other side.

The disturbing implication here is that all of the experimentation and freedom of the 60s actually helped the interests of capital and authority. That the last thing the latter wanted was a public fully engaged with actuality.

Inherent Vice, Chapter 10

November 4, 2009 § Leave a comment

pynchon

PLOT

Doc gets a damsel in distress call from Jade, who turns out to be in no distress at all. He ends up speaking to Jason Velveeta, her self-styled pimp, who says the Golden Fang is a heroin cartel. Later he bumps into Coy Harlingen again, who only wants to be back with his wife and daughter.

Not a lot to say about this chapter, other than that the description of the Golden Fang’s operation as a ‘vertical package’ that finances, grows, processes and distriubtes the drugs is little different to that of a corporation (p.159).

Here’s the song that gets to Doc, Roger and Hart’s ‘It Never Entered My Mind’


Here are the lyrics to the song sung on p.160, Dietz and Schwartz’s ‘Alone Together’, which seem a comment on community, and solidarity, but maybe also their limits.

Alone together, beyond the crowd,
Above the world, we’re not too proud
To cling together, We’re strong
As long as we’re together.
Alone together, the blinding rain
The starless night, were not in vain;
For we’re together, and what is there
To fear together.
Our love is as deep as the sea,
Our love is as great as a love can be,
And we can weather the great unknown,
If we’re alone together.

p. 162 A nice piece of genre-appropriate writing here, with the right amount of sentiment.



Inherent Vice, Chapter 9

November 2, 2009 § Leave a comment

pynchon

PLOT

Doc goes to see Coy Harlingen at the Boards mansion, but is driven away by English zombies and threatening suits. There are two counts of cunninlingus. Clancy Harlingen, Coy’s sister turns up and tells Doc that Mickey had a plan to give away a lot of the money he made.

p.125 Mention of Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa, described as ‘the eternally suspended monster’ (p.126), about as ominous (and vague) a symbol as one could ask for.

p.126 Cantor’s Delicatessan
Georg Cantor (1845-1918) was a German mathematician who pioneered the subject of set theory, now at the foundation of all modern mathematics. He proved that there are different sizes of infinity – for example, the set of natural numbers is smaller than the set of real numbers, though both sets are infinite.

This is perhaps a comment on what can be known, and how even vague concepts like ‘infinity’ or ‘time’ can be broken down (a bit of a stretch, I know)

p.128 A TV soap opera features

‘something called “parallel time”, which was confounding the viewing audience nationwide, even those who remained with their wits about them, although many dopers found no problem at all in following it. It seemed basically to mean that the same actors were two different roles, but if you’d gotten absorbed enough, you tended to forget that these people were actors.’

The implication is that our regular ‘wits’ are insufficient to understand that people are not single, consistent selves, but instead are fractured constellations of memories and competing impusles.

It can also be read as a sop to the critics, or at least those who complain that Pynchon’s work (esp. Against the Day) is hard to follow and lacks fully developed characters (most vocally, Mr James Wood).

It also recalls this passage in V.

Rachel was looking into the mirror at an angle of 45°, and so had a view of the face turned toward the room and the face on the other side, reflected in the mirror; here were time and reverse-time, co-existing, cancelling one another exactly out. Were there many such reference points, scattered through the world, perhaps only at nodes like this room which housed a transient population of the imperfect, the dissatisfied [...]

This passage is immediately followed by another swipe at TV, when Doc realises ‘the scope of the mental damage one push of the “off” button of a TV zapper could inflict on this roomful of obsessives’.

p.129-130 has what appears at first sight to be an either paranoid (or highly perspicacious) condemnation of the activities of those in authority.

If everything in this dream of prerevolution was in fact doomed to end and the faithless money-driven world to reassert its control over all the lives it felt entitled to touch, fondle, and molest, it would be agents like these, dutiful and silent, out doing the shitwork, who’d make it happen.

Was it possible, that at every gathering- concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, and freak in, here, up north, back east, wherever -those dark crews had been busy all along, reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday, all they could sweep up, for the ancient forces of greed and fear?

But for Doc, and perhaps for Pynchon, this is somewhat over the top- the ‘epic’ sexual drive, the ‘faithless money-driven’ etc. It’s function may be to send up people’s paranoia, and show the desperation with which people construc tales of conspiracy. And in case any readers are still nodding at these sentiments, there is always Doc’s verdict”

“Gee,” he said to himself out loud, “I dunno…”

(The alternative is that only someone in Doc’s state of perpetual befuddlement could doubt this idea).

p.146 Masse shots are forbidden- In billiards, a massé shot is when a player strikes a ball with the cue at a sharp angle and causes the ball to curve drastically or even eventually reverse direction. Given Pynchon’s predilection for the imagery of arcs, rainbows, refraction etc, he is most likely commenting on the status quos resistance to change, especially of a revolutionary nature.

Inherent Vice, Chapter 8

October 28, 2009 § Leave a comment

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PLOT – Doc meets up with his parents; Nixon’s face appears a lot (on banknotes, and TV); Coy Harlingen, pretending to be someone else, disrupts a Nixon rally.

p.113 The parking regulations at Gordita are said to have been devised ‘by fiendish anarchists to infuriate drivers into one day forming a mob and attacking the office of town government’.

If only it were so… I suppose this might be construed as the idea that technology will enslave us, and control us, far more than even the forces of order might have bargained for.

p.116-117

After Doc’s parents get a random phone call, threatening them, Doc reflects that

in the business, paranoia was a tool of the trade, it pointed you in directions you might not have seen to go.

As Michael Wood said in his NYRB review, being crazy can, in a circuitous manner, lead one back to insight.

p. 118 Further parallels between domestic and foreign US policy, with Nixon’s face being found in banknotes, in the same way he was put on bills in Vietnam.

p.122 Coy Harlingen turns out to be a police informant, something that Doc has already been approached about. He is here identified as Ric Doppel, which means ‘double’ in German and might refer here to the ‘doppelganger’-motif or shifting identities in a more general way. The theme seems to be prominent in this chapter. The films mentioned on p.115 belong in this context, for example. In Black Narcissus, Kathleen Byron’s character, Sister Ruth, can be seen as the dark double of Deborah Kerr’s Sister Clodagh. In Robert Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, the somnambulist Cesare commits crimes when he is under the hypnotic spell of the title figure; Caligari himself may be director of a circus attraction or of a psychiatric hospital. In Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a character called Maria is replaced by a robot.

Inherent Vice, Chapter 7

October 3, 2009 § Leave a comment

pynchon

PLOT

Sauncho fills Doc in on the Golden Fang’s mysterious history, which includes a 50 year disappearance in the Bermuda Triangle. Doc hangs out with some surfers who end up talking about Lemuria, an Atlantean lost continent of the Pacific. On an LSD trip Doc meets a Lemurean who shows him a vision of Shasta on the deck of the Golden Fang.

p.89 Sauncho (which only now has made me think of Don Quixote, and Doc being the one who tilts at windmills) grows ‘strangely evasive’ when asked about the Golden Fang. Not for the first time, he avoids what is, at least within the narrative, a siginificant question by changing the subject to something that happened on TV. Whilst this puts watching TV (and perhaps also reading books) on a par with drug use, in their capacity to tranquilise our fears, it also undercuts this by showing how even our best attempts to avoidance can inadvertantly lead back to what we wish to avoid.

There was pulse of embarassed silence as both men realized this could all be construed as code for Shasta Fay and Mickey Wolfmann

p.90 Sauncho talks of debt from credit cards obtained ‘from institutions in places like South Dakota that you send away for by filling out the back of a match cover’ which echoes Zoyd’s thoughts in Vineland in regard to Isaiah Two Four’s business proposition: “expecting some address in a distant state, obtained from a matchbook cover.” (p. 19 )

p.90 When Doc sights the Golden Fang, it is described as having ‘not a flag of national origin in sight’, which recalls Michael Wood’s comments about the vessel representing global capitalism (New York Review of Books, Sept. 24, 2009 ).

p.91 ‘Tentacles of sin and desire and that strange world-bound karma which is of the essence in maritime law’- this takes us back to the novel’s title, and with it the suggestion that there is something inevtiable about our Fall, that we are continually paying for the sins of ourselves or those we would have been in times before. This is in many ways the antithesis of paranoid conspiracy theories: there is no ‘they’ who can be blamed; there is only ‘us’.

p.93 Sauncho on the fate of the Preserved, which later became the Golden Fang:

Better she should have got blown to bits in Halifax fifty years ago than be in the situation she’s in now.

We can read this as a general comment from Sauncho, namely that losing the First World War (and all the death and destruction this would entail) would be preferable to the state of society (both in the late 1960s, and by extension, now). In some ways, this extreme nihilism could be viewed as an entirely legitimate response to what Sauncho perceives as the dire state of society. Anything else is denial.

However, it is Doc, not Sauncho, who here changes the subject:

Sauncho, get that weird look off your face, man, you’ll wreck my appetite.

p.98 Merging of the motifs of the desert and the automobile.

the exhaust from millions of motor vehicles mixing with fine Mojave sand to refract the light toward the bloody end of the spectrum, everything dim, lurid and biblical, sailor-take-warning skies.

This also recalls the motif of light being refracted in Against the Day.

p.100 Further talk of general sin and exculpation, in a description of the Saint.

the deep focus of a religious ecstatic who’s been tapped by God to be wiped out in atonement for the rest of us.

But we might question the tone of this: the idea that some old surfer is a Christ-like figure who will redeem us may be a joke, but it also speaks of desperation. Whilst we might smile at the idea of the old surfer as Christ, there is a tension behind our amusement, borne of the notion that whilst the Saint may be no messiah, we may still need forgiveness.

p.100 Another coined acronym’ GNASH, the Global Network of Anecdotal Surfer Horseshit’. Possibly meant to mock the claims to knowledge and usefulness of MICRO and especially ARPA, the internet precursor.

p.101 First mention of Lemuria, ‘Atlantis of the Pacific’, ‘something that sank long ago and is rising now slowly to the surface again’. More info about Lemuria here, which has, in cultural terms, been around, so to speak.

Lemuria may be a lost glory, but also one that may be regained. It is thus part of the classic narrative of Fall and Restoration. What is Utopia if it is not a kind of Heaven on earth?

The dream of Lemuria is quickly punctured. On p. 105 it is suggested that both Lemuria and Atlantis sank ‘into the sea because Earth couldn’t accept the levels of toxicity they’d reached’. The theme of environemntal devastation also appears on p.104 where ‘Channel View Estates reminded him strangely of jungle clearings’ (the implication being that both domestic and foreign policy has similar goals- dispossesion for the purpose of profit) and on p.108, with ‘Tiny Tim singing “The Ice Caps Are Melting”… which had somehow been programmed to repeat indefinitely’.

During Doc’s acid trip he finds himself

in the vividly lit ruin of an ancient city that was, and also wasn’t, everyday Greater L.A… [He] and all his neighbors , were and were not refugees from the disaster which had submerged Lemuria thousands of years ago.

Even this, a retreat into fantasy, may, as in Doc and Sauncho’s opening phone conversation, have accidentally circled back to the truth, or at least a cousin of it, so long as one accepts that there was a period, perhaps even before history, when things were not as bad.

p 109. Extends the fantasy to include the war in Indochina which in these terms is actually ‘repeating a karmic loop as old as the geography of those oceans’. Doc, true to form, remembers nothing of his trip.

After just over 100 pages of convoluted plot, suspicion, paranoia and mysterious coincidences, Pynchon provides us with a warning (p. 108):

“I’d be very surprised if they weren’t connected,” Vehi said.

“That’s because you think everything is connected,” Sortilege said.

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