Wyatt Mason on Celine

Wyatt Mason, whose Sentences blog for Harpers is much missed, writes in the NYRB about Céline, not least his anti-semitism, one of the more virulent strands of his misanthropy.

To read any single novel by Céline is to receive, in a bracing style, a hysterical primer on the abjection of being. To read them all is to register a unique species of racism: a hatred not of particular elements of humanity but of the human race as a whole. Thus Jean Giono said of Céline’s writing, “If Céline had truly believed what he wrote, he would have killed himself.”

Inherent Vice, Chapter 15

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).


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.


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


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?


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.


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.


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.


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).


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?”


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

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.

Inherent Vice, Chapter 14

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.

Scottish Arts Council Grant

I’m pleased to say I’ve been awarded a professional development grant by the Scottish Arts Council which will help fund a trip to China in March. The purpose of the trip is to visit my old students, most of whom are either in the south east, around Guangzhou (which can be considered the new workshop of the world), in the south, in Hunan province (far poorer, more agricultural) or in the far west, in Xinjiang. I’m primarily interested in how they’ve fared in the far more open (and far more perilous) labour market that developed in the last decade. While all trained to be teachers, many have found their way into other occupations (soldier, businessman, postal worker), often in regions far from their hometowns. It is also possible that I may visit some interesting places in Xinjiang and have interesting conversations, and that these conversations, should they occur, may or may not help me understand the events of last summer and autumn.

It looks like The Tree that Bleeds will be out in the summer.

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