‘What the hell is water?’

This is the text of David Foster Wallace’s commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005. If anyone can find the full audio, there may be some sort of, um, ‘prize’.

Vineland 323-385

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

‘God is doing great things in China’

Bible school in rural China

On August 24 the BBC reported that the Chinese government is encouraging the development of Christianity within the country. In addition to supporting the establishment of national seminaries for Catholic and Protestant clergy, the government has provided land, and 20% of the building costs, for a new church in Nanjing, which when completed will be the largest in the country. An official told the BBC that there are at least 20 million Protestants legally worshipping in churches in China. Though this may come as a surprise (on the grounds that a Communist state might be expected to oppose religion), freedom of belief is provided for by article 36 of the Chinese constitution.

It justifies this by arguing that ‘People in China, whether they are religious believers or not, in general love their motherland and stand for socialism. They all work for the country’s socialist modernisation programme. So, it is easy to see that the policy ensuring freedom of religious belief for all citizens is in no way against socialism.’

But although religion is tolerated, there are many restrictions on how people can worship. Believers must worship in registered venues, and all religious publications and appointments must be approved by the authorities. It is this level of surveillance that leads people to worship in house churches throughout the country, which not being registered, are considered illegal. For many years, human rights organisations have criticised the treatment of people arrested for attending these churches, many of whom, according to Amnesty International, ‘continue to experience harassment, arbitrary detention, imprisonment and other serious restrictions’.

Though the government claims that its goal in encouraging Christianity is to ‘better guarantee religious belief in China’, the official the BBC spoke to also made it clear that ‘the Chinese Communist Party believe there is no God in the world’. However, there are other reasons why the government may wish to encourage Christianity. One is that the government could be trying to bring more worshippers into open, where it can keep a watchful eye on them. Another, more pragmatic explanation, is to do with the social role a strong Church might fulfill. In the past, the Communist Party has sought to prevent the formation of national organisations outside the state’s control (such as its campaign against the Falun Gong), fearing these might serve as a focal point for dissent. But as the gap between the rich and poor increases in China, non-state organisations may be needed to deal with the social problems (drug use, homelessness, poverty) likely to result. Given that, in a recent survey of charitable behaviour, China came 147th out of 153 countries surveyed on measures like volunteering and giving to charity, the government may be hoping that state-run churches will encourage a growth in social consciousness. Whatever the reason for the government’s shift in policy, it has been welcomed by many Chinese Christians. One student interviewed by the BBC said, ‘I think this nation will change, and I think God is doing great things in China.’

Vineland 268-322

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. 

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