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.

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