The triumph of his tired eyes

I am overjoyed (yes, I am capable of it) to write that my colleague, friend and co-conspirator Ryan Van Winkle has been awarded the Crashaw Prize by Salt Publishing.

I will let you know when you can purchase his debut collection.

Now he will be buying me drinks.

Inherent Vice, Chapter 19

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

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.


During the 2008 US Presidential Election, The Onion ran a series of blog pieces purporting to be by Don Delillo (whose new novel Point Omega is just out), commenting on the political conventions in Minneapolis. There were several reasons why this seemed unlikely. The first was that The Onion is a satirical newspaper, famous for having articles whose headlines are punchlines in themselves (‘Massive Earthquake Reveals Entire Civilisation Called “Haiti”‘; ‘Man Who Enjoys Thing Informed He Is Wrong’), whereas Don De Lillo— one of the most lauded authors of his generation —has rarely been associated with either comic writing or direct political comment. The second was that the tagline for the author read ‘Master of Postmodern Literature’- surely too immodest a title to be taken seriously. Though an entirely accurate (and respectful) bio accompanied each piece (‘Don DeLillo is considered one of America’s greatest living novelists. His works explore themes of consumerism, alienation, and decontextualization, and include such towering postmodernist classics as White Noise, Mao II, and Underworld’), and though I wanted to believe that Don Delillo was writing for The Onion (The British equivalent of J.G. Ballard writing for Private Eye), in the end what convinced me that this could only be a fond parody was that one of the pieces began ‘He speaks in your voice, American’. This is the opening phrase of Underworld,  Delillo’s best-selling (and most praised) novel to date,  and thus not a phrase he seemed likely to re-use.  However, after reading through the pieces again, I had to conclude that they were at the very least a fair imitation of Delillo’s style:

In the air, invisible information. Uploads, downloads. Waves and radiation. Surrounding us both, on every side of the lobby, dozens more do exactly the same, typing with their thumbs into tiny silver death machines.

Whilst I hoped that this was a piece of self-parody, a wink at the notion that in postmodernity every text is a pastiche, even if it is only of your own work, I and most other commentators concluded that it had to be a hoax. The only indication to the contrary was an item in the New Yorker, said ‘to be from the writer himself.

Yes, I posted a blog for The Onion, but this was four years ago at the Republican Convention in New York. Evidently the report has been orbiting the blogosphere all this time. Note the prophetic reference to Sarah Palin.

All this did was muddy the waters, albeit of a debate that was somewhat less pressing than the questions being asked of the US electorate. Even if Delillo had written those pieces, and thus reused his opening phrase, did it really matter? The answer, I decided, was that it did not. And then Obama won.

But yesterday, whislt reading a collection of tributes to the late David Foster Wallace, I came across a piece by Delillo. At the end of his moving and appreciative eulogy (the pieces were first read out on 23 October, 2008 at New York University) there is a familiar phrase.

The words won’t stop coming. Youth and loss. This is Dave’s voice, American.

The idea that one should always avoid repetition in one’s work may be helpful for begining writers (‘the big dog chased the big man into the big field’ is probably not a good sentence) but done deliberately, as for example, throughout Faulkner’s work, repetition can be a very effective device.  Whilst there is an argument that a writer should always be looking for new ways to test the language, it is also true that sometimes the best way to express something has been said before, not only by others, but also oneself.

Pushcart Rankings

A while ago I posted a list of US journals to submit to (courtesy of Bookfox), to which I’d like to add this list from Perpetual Folly, which ranks the journals according to how they are represented in the 2010 Pushcart Prize anthology. Though the two lists have considerable overlap (the domination of Ploughshares and Conjunctions for example) there are also some surprises, such as the Iowa Review and Glimmer Train being much lower down. I hope it will also be useful for alerting people to journals they may not be familiar with (my submissions to Noon and The Threepenny Review are already in the post…).

Inherent Vice, Chapter 17

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.


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.


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


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.


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


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.

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