Monday, November 09, 2009

"Call it Capitalism" Thomas Jones on Pynchon's Inherent Vice

Date: Mon, 9 Nov 2009 04:50:58 -0600
From: Dave Monroe <>
Subject: Call it Capitalism

Call It Capitalism
Thomas Jones
Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon
Cape, 369 pp, £18.99, August 2009, ISBN 978 0 224 08948 7

When Gravity’s Rainbow won the National Book Award in 1974, its
famously reclusive author surprised everyone by turning up at the
ceremony to collect the prize. Except that the rambling, shambling
figure at the podium wasn’t Thomas Pynchon at all, but a comedian and
actor, ‘Professor’ Irwin Corey, who had been hired by Pynchon’s
publisher to impersonate the novelist. The audience gradually got the
joke as Corey, who was once described by Kenneth Tynan as a ‘travesty
of all that our civilisation holds dear and one of the funniest
grotesques in America’, accepted the ‘stipend’ on behalf of ‘Richard
Python’. ‘The great fiction story is now being rehearsed before our
very eyes, in the Nixon administration,’ Corey announced. He described
Gravity’s Rainbow as ‘a small contribution to a certain degree, since
there are over three and a half billion people in the world today: 218
million of them live in the United States, which is a very, very small
amount compared to those that are dying elsewhere.’

What part Pynchon played behind the scenes of Corey’s performance is
unclear, but he probably played some because he has always kept a
tight rein on his public persona, mostly by not having one – apart
from a couple of guest appearances on The Simpsons in 2004 (he’s
depicted with a paper bag over his head). When a CNN camera crew
caught him on film in 1997, he phoned the network to ask them not to
air the footage. They took the opportunity to quiz him about his
reclusiveness. ‘My belief is that “recluse” is a codeword generated by
journalists,’ he replied, ‘meaning: “doesn’t like to talk to
reporters”.’ Authorised by Pynchon or not, Corey’s surrogate
acceptance speech touched on many of the persistent themes and
anxieties of his novels: that America is not, and has never been, the
benign force it would like to pretend to be; that the lines between
fiction and reality are uncomfortably blurred; that it’s hard ever to
be sure that anyone is who they claim to be; and that many of the
things people are inclined to take seriously – literary prizes, global
conspiracies, life – may turn out to be someone’s idea of a great big

Gravity’s Rainbow was written during the Vietnam War and published a
year after the Watergate break-in. But it is set 30 years earlier,
during the last war that the US engaged in as one of the unambiguous
good guys. It opens with the flight of a V2 rocket launched from The
Hague over the North Sea one December morning in 1944 – ‘A screaming
comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to
compare it to now’ – and ends a literal moment, ‘the last delta-t’,
before the single most devastating V2 attack of the war, which killed
567 people in a cinema in Antwerp on the afternoon of Saturday, 16
December 1944. Over the course of the intervening 750 pages the
narrative loops nine months ahead to encompass the occupation of
Germany, the fall of Berlin and the bombing of Hiroshima.

From the V2 to the atom bomb, Gravity’s Rainbow pursues the
continuities between Nazi Germany and Cold War America. Pynchon
learned a fair amount of what he knows about Nazi rocket technology
from working at Boeing in the early 1960s. The novel’s first epigraph
is attributed to Wernher von Braun, the designer of the V2 and later
director of Nasa’s Marshall Space Flight Center. The I.G. Farben
conglomerate, which owned the patent for Zyklon B, is a malign
presence throughout the book. Though Farben was officially broken up
in 1951 on account of its war crimes, various of its constituent parts
– Agfa, BASF, Bayer – still exist, and Farben itself was listed on the
Frankfurt Stock Exchange until 2003 as a trust company with various
real estate assets. The reach, power and longevity of international
corporations far surpass those of any individual or government.

The various structural underpinnings of Gravity’s Rainbow – the
parabolic flight of a missile (one explanation for its title),
differential calculus, the Christian calendar, Kabbalah, astrology,
numerology, Tarot – have been relentlessly documented in books and on
fansites, and are more or less interesting depending on your tastes.
But what they all have in common is a tendency, or a desire, if not to
impose order on chaos then at least to see patterns in it – a tendency
shared, though rarely so explicitly or exhaustively, by all readers
and writers of stories. More fully perhaps than any other novelist,
including Don DeLillo, with whom he is so often (and so oddly) paired,
Pynchon has explored and exposed the overlap between paranoia and
fiction, between the plots imagined or unearthed by conspiracy
theorists and the plots of novels, not least because both are
concerned with what’s excluded from the historical record. The
paranoid’s worst fear is that the conspiracy they see everywhere is
their own invention, or a hoax dreamed up at their expense by someone
out of reach.

In The Crying of Lot 49 (1965), the ‘true paranoid’ is defined as
someone ‘for whom all is organised in spheres joyful or threatening
about the central pulse of himself’. The description could apply just
as well to the protagonist of a novel, the person whose story it
arbitrarily is, as if they were somehow of greater cosmic significance
than anyone else. One of the many startling – and potentially
off-putting – things about Gravity’s Rainbow is the way that a
succession of implausibly named characters about each of whom you
think, first time through, ‘Oh, so this guy must be the hero’ (Pirate
Prentice, Tyrone Slothrop, Seaman Bodine), drop out of the narrative.
It’s a picaresque tale without a picaro.

Slothrop, who has the strongest claim of the vast cast of characters
to be the novel’s centre of gravity, is last seen, nearly a hundred
pages before the end, sitting on a curbstone in occupied Germany,
watching the sun come up. For a while Slothrop has been stumbling
round Berlin in the guise of Rocketman, an ineffectual parody of a
superhero, like an X-rated version of Sesame Street’s Super Grover.
Later, there’s an explanation of sorts for his disappearance: ‘“We
were never that concerned with Slothrop qua Slothrop,” a spokesman for
the Counterforce admitted recently in an interview with the Wall
Street Journal.’ Seaman Bodine is ‘one of the few who can still see
Slothrop as any sort of integral creature any more’: see him, that is,
in the way that we’re supposed to see other people if we’re to keep a
grip on our sense of their, and consequently our own, humanity. Though
the use of the word ‘creature’ suggests that Slothrop and Bodine – and
the writer and reader with them – may have slipped a link or two down
the chain of being.

The idea of humanity, Gravity’s Rainbow implies, is a paranoid
fantasy. But strip it away and all you have left are death, sex and
the laws of physics. The place where they intersect is the black hole
at the novel’s core, around which the plots and the paranoia orbit in
a centripetal swirl. (At least, that’s one relatively respectable
explanation for all the high-tech sadomasochism that saturates the
novel.) Gravity’s Rainbow acknowledges that to see patterns in the
chaos is to be deluded, but at the same time demonstrates the
necessity of the delusion.

This isn’t to say that the patterns we project onto the world, the
lines we draw on the earth, are any less real, or any less
conseq-uential, for being imaginary. One reason for the Second World
War was widespread disagreement about where the edges of Germany were.
In Mason & Dixon (1997), Pynchon tells the story – or rather, a great
many stories – of the surveying of the boundary line that separates
Pennsylvania and Delaware from Maryland and West Virginia. The
location of the unnaturally straight line was arbitrarily (or at least
abstractly) chosen, and Pynchon’s characters get into all kinds of
scrapes as a result of the incongruity between the imaginary line
they’re plotting and the physical land they’re plotting it on.

The business of surveying it was a good deal messier and more chaotic
than you’d guess from seeing it on a map. The finished line is a
joined-up series of tangents to the many circuitous expeditions that
Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon undertook between 1763 and 1767. When
their work was completed, the fantasy of the men who’d hired them was
stamped on the earth, and the battlelines of the Civil War that was to
come a century later were already set in stone, literally: the line
was marked out every mile with stones shipped out from England.

The opening of Mason & Dixon, ‘SnowBalls have flown their Arcs,’ is a
softer echo of that first sentence of Gravity’s Rainbow: ‘A screaming
comes across the sky.’ Flying bombs have been transmogrified into a
children’s game. Looking back to the decades before Independence is
one version of the quest for the chimera of America’s lost innocence.
But it requires a shift in tense: the bombs are present, the snowballs
are past. The quest for innocence is doomed to failure: however far
back you go, the elusive quarry has always somehow retreated even
further into the past. Innocence can never be written about in the
present tense. Besides, with hindsight, the snowballs can be seen to
prefigure the bombs: the trajectories and hostilities have always
existed; it’s just a question of waiting for the technology to catch

If it wasn’t already apparent enough in his earlier novels, Pynchon’s
18th-century sensibility was fully unveiled in Mason & Dixon. Forget
DeLillo; the Anglophone novelist whom Pynchon most closely resembles –
with his delight in silly names, scatological jokes, wild digressions
and impromptu outbursts of song lyrics, his disregard for distinctions
between fact and fiction, his scientific background, his belief in the
randomness of the world and fascination with the patterns that appear
in the chaos – is Tobias Smollett. Perhaps the most striking of
Pynchon’s reactions against the legacy of the Victorian novelists is
his treatment of children, especially in Gravity’s Rainbow. He doesn’t
merely defetishise them as vessels of mystical innocence; he
refetishises them as irresistible sex objects. There is a satirical
edge to all the spanking and fucking of children: it can be read as an
exposé of the sexual component latent in the lingering Victorian
ideal, or as an attack on the hypocritical prurience of moralising
media crusades against paedophiles, or as an illustration of the
brutalising effects of war, or as a more general allegory of the abuse
of innocence. Or maybe it’s just porn – an uncomfortable doubt that
maintains the edginess of the satire.

Something that people who don’t like Pynchon often complain about is
that his ‘characters’ aren’t really characters, in the sense that
developed over the course of the 19th century: basically, there’s
never anyone to sympathise with. For his fans, there’s always enough
else going on for this not to be a problem. But it’s also the case
that Pynchon’s fiction reveals something bogus, even sinister, about
the very idea of ‘sympathetic characters’. As readers we may rely on
our liberal humanist ability to ‘empathise’ with immaterial strangers,
but we can still tolerate with bland equanimity the manifold suffering
of the wretched of the earth when we put down our novels and turn on
the evening news. That’s OK: if we couldn’t, we’d all be suicide
bombers. Still, in this respect, Pynchon’s alienating novels are
altogether more ‘realistic’ than any number of finely wrought
explorations of individual consciousness.

Once certain stories have been made up about the way the world is –
that there’s something called the Mason-Dixon Line, for example, or
childhood innocence, or novelistic character – it’s impossible to go
back to a world in which those stories haven’t yet been told. The
epigraph to Inherent Vice, Pynchon’s latest novel, is a translation of
the famous piece of Parisian graffiti from May 1968: ‘Sous les pavés,
la plage!’ But just because the paving stones were laid on top of the
beach, that doesn’t mean that the beach will still be there if you rip
up the paving stones. On the contrary, perhaps the beach is only still
there beneath the paving stones so long as you don’t rip them up. But
then, what good is a buried beach?

That’s the kind of dumb-serious question – ‘Anybody understand why
they call it “real” estate?’ is an actual example – that it might
occur to one of the novel’s perpetually stoned characters to ask. The
protagonist, Doc Sportello, is a diminutive private eye – ‘What I lack
in al-titude . . . I make up for in at-titude’ – with a serious dope
habit and an office in Gordita Beach, a fictional suburb of Los
Angeles last seen in Vineland and based on Manhattan Beach, where
Pynchon probably lived in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Inherent
Vice is set in 1970: Nixon’s in the White House, Reagan is governor of
California, and Charles Manson and his groupies are about to go on
trial for mass murder. Whichever way you look at it, the 1960s are
over, though Doc doesn’t seem to have noticed.

The novel’s title is taken from the world of marine insurance. ‘It’s
what you can’t avoid,’ explains Doc’s lawyer, Sauncho Smilax, who
specialises, not very helpfully for Doc, in maritime law. ‘Stuff
marine policies don’t like to cover. Usually applies to cargo – like
eggs break – but sometimes it’s also the vessel carrying it. Like why
bilges have to be pumped out?’ Doc, when he first hears the phrase,
asks if it’s ‘like original sin’, but it’s more like ‘double
indemnity’. The novel begins with Doc’s ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay
Hepworth, coming ‘along the alley and up the back steps the way she
always used to’ – the nostalgia seeps out of the page – with a story
about how her new lover, a phenomenonally rich property developer
called Mickey Wolfmann, is at risk from his wife and her lover:
they’re ‘working together on some creepy little scheme’ to do away
with him and take his money.

It’s complicated, and it gets more complicated still when a guy called
Tariq Khalil turns up (‘black folks were occasionally spotted west of
the Harbor Freeway, but to see one this far out of the usual range,
practically by the ocean, was pretty rare’) asking Doc to track down a
member of the Aryan Brotherhood he knew in prison, who owes him money
and who also just happens to be one of Mickey Wolfmann’s bodyguards.
And then Wolfmann is kidnapped, the bodyguard is killed and Doc is
framed for his murder. At this point we’re not even 25 pages in, and
Doc hasn’t yet been contacted by the widow of Coy Harlingen, who used
to play the saxophone in an experimental surf band called the Boards,
and who may not in fact have died of a heroin overdose, as everybody
supposed, but be working as a counter-revolutionary triple agent for
the FBI or some other, even more secret government – or possibly
supra-governmental – agency. Phew.

The experience of reading the novel is probably as close to getting
stoned as reading a novel can be. It brings on fits of the giggles and
paranoia jags, and badly messes with your short-term memory: the plot,
as ever with Pynchon, is bewilderingly hard to follow, the plethora of
characters almost impossible to keep track of without taking notes (as
it happens, Doc’s a bit of a compulsive notetaker, to help compensate
for his doper’s memory). It doesn’t, however, make you fall asleep or,
despite the many descriptions of the consumption of every conceivable
variety of fast food, give you the munchies.

Amid all the shenanigans, Pynchon finds time to acknowledge the rise
of the world wide web – one of Doc’s contacts has hacked into ARPAnet,
the precursor of the internet established by the Department of Defense
and various West Coast universities – and to take a few sideswipes at
the war on terror (‘these days . . . most of the energy in this office
[the FBI] is going into investigating Black Nationalist Hate Groups’)
and the credit crunch: ‘It isn’t new money exactly . . . more like new
debt. Everything they own, including their sailboats, they’ve bought
on credit cards from institutions in places like South Dakota that you
send away for by filling out the back of a match cover.’

And, inevitably, there’s a vast and secretive organisation with
tentacles that appear to be busily squirming in every dark corner that
Doc pokes his nose into. It’s called the Golden Fang and, unlike
Farben, it’s undocumented anywhere outside the fiction of Thomas
Pynchon. When Doc warns someone that ‘this is the Golden Fang you’re
about to rip off here, man,’ he gets the dismissive reply: ‘That’s
according to your own delusional system.’ But ditch the silly name and
the comic-book headquarters, and it’s hard not to agree that a system
like the Golden Fang exists, only most people call it, more
prosaically, capitalism. And it’s everywhere:

The Golden Fang operatives were cleverly disguised tonight as a
wholesome blond California family in a ’53 Buick Estate Wagon . . . a
nostalgic advertisement for the sort of suburban consensus that [the
Golden Fang] prayed for day and night to settle over the Southland,
with all non-homeowning infidels sent off to some crowded exile far
away, where they could be safely forgotten. The boy was six and
already looked like a Marine.

The ideological antithesis to the Golden Fang is the lost continent of
Lemuria, submerged beneath the Pacific Ocean, which the hippies and
surfers imagine as an anarchist utopia, more or less accessible
depending on how much acid you happen to have taken. Utopias are what
the paranoid imagine when they’re on a good trip. The trouble is, it’s
not always straightforward to disentangle the positive paranoia from
the negative, and impossible to know which side everyone – including
yourself – is really on. The more closely you scrutinise the struggle
between anarchist utopia and totalitarian capitalism – also one of the
threads in Against the Day (2006) – the more interdependent they seem
to be.

Just look at the drugs: an ineffectual pimp informs Doc that the
Golden Fang is an ‘Indochinese heroin cartel. A vertical package. They
finance it, grow it, process it, bring it in, step on it, move it, run
Stateside networks of local street dealers, take a separate percentage
off of each operation. Brilliant.’ Obviously no single organisation
has this kind of reach. But global capital does. And the drug trade is
as good an example as there is of what the invisible hand of
unfettered capitalism might look like. The pimp’s tongue has been
loosened by ‘a joint of Colombian commercial proven effective at
stimulating conversation’. Indochina and Colombia: the sites of two of
the lengthiest and most disastrous US interventions of the 20th
century. The drug-dependent fantasy of the beach (Lemuria) can only be
sustained as long as the paving stones (capitalism) remain in place:
the people dreaming about the beach are inadvertently paying for the
upkeep of the paving stones.

This might look like a mutually sustaining cold war between the values
of the 1960s and those of the 1980s, an apparent antagonism that
Pynchon also investigated in Vineland (1990). But actually all the
elements of the conflict were already there in the 1960s. If von Braun
is the malign spirit hovering over Gravity’s Rainbow, in Inherent Vice
it’s Charles Manson, the white racist advocate of black power. He
embodies the contradictions of the decade: he was into free love,
getting stoned, the Beatles and the Beach Boys; he believed in the
coming revolution; and he ordered his followers to go into other
people’s homes and maim and kill in the service of a fugitive idea –
just as Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon did. Manson’s in jail because he
brought the slaughter home to California instead of exporting it to
Central America or South-East Asia; he’s widely recognised as a nutjob
because he preached about the coming of Helter Skelter instead of the
menace of Communism and the domino effect, taking the Beatles’ ‘White
Album’ for his bible instead of the Truman Doctrine.

Inherent Vice is heaving with references to pop culture, not just
music and drugs but films and television too. Zombies and vampires of
indeterminate metaphorical status stalk the streets of Los Angeles.
Sauncho is often too freaked out by what he’s just caught on the tube
– seeing The Wizard of Oz on a colour set for the first time, he
wonders what the Technicolor of Munchkinland must look like to Dorothy
– to pay much attention to what Doc’s trying to tell him. When Doc’s
neighbour finds a huge stash of heroin in a cardboard box that once
held a colour TV, he spends many baffled hours staring at it, trying
to figure out what the programme is.

Both shorter and easier to read than any of Pynchon’s previous novels
apart from The Crying of Lot 49, Inherent Vice gives the impression of
having been easier to write, too. It’s less than three years since
Against the Day was published, compared to the 17 that passed between
Gravity’s Rainbow and Vineland. That may be one reason why,
characteristically hilarious and thought-provoking though it is,
Inherent Vice lacks much of the menace and the passion of its

Then again, perhaps this flattening of affect is deliberate, analogous
to seeing the world through a haze of cannabis smoke, or entirely
mediated through TV. It’s not that the conspiracies and the paranoia
aren’t there any more; it’s just that these days, as he looks back at
California in 1970, it’s hard for Pynchon not to see it all as a bit
of a joke. But there’s something profoundly bleak about the inability
to take anything seriously. Since the conspiracy is inescapable,
there’s nothing to do except laugh at it. Squint the right way, and
what looked like wry indulgence morphs into nihilism.

Possibly the weirdest thing of all about Inherent Vice, however, a
perverse bright spot in the smog of despair, is the thought that
somewhere out there in one of the beach towns of LA County, never very
far away from wherever Doc is carrying out his desultory
investigations, somewhere among the dopers and the surfers and the
hippie chicks, among the dentists and lawyers and loan sharks, among
the voters who put Nixon in the White House and Reagan in the
Governor’s Mansion in Sacramento, Thomas Pynchon is secluded at his
typewriter, at work on Gravity’s Rainbow.

Vol. 31 No. 17 · 10 September 2009 » Thomas Jones » Call It Capitalism
Pages 9-10 | 3928 words

- --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Vol. 31 No. 21 · 5 November 2009

From James Wood

Thomas Jones, in his review of Inherent Vice (LRB, 10 September),
asserts that those who haven’t liked the last Pynchon books ‘often
complain’ that his characters are not proper characters, ‘in the sense
that developed over the course of the 19th century: basically, there’s
never anyone to sympathise with.’ When? I haven’t seen this complaint
in two recent negative reviews by Louis Menand (in the New Yorker) and
by Sam Anderson (in New York magazine). Speaking for myself, as a
hostile reviewer of Against the Day, the question has nothing to do
with whether you consider Pynchon’s characters fully rounded in a
19th-century sense (19th-century characters not being all that
rounded, anyway, in the end); or whether you ‘sympathise’ with them:
does one ‘sympathise’ with, say, Peter Verkhovensky, or Stavrogin, or
Verloc, or any of the people in a Michel Houellebecq novel? Surely the
issue is not what a novel’s characters are (round, flat, major, minor,
caricature, sketch etc) but what a novelist does (or doesn’t do) with
them: what is seriously at stake in the entire novel of which they
form the fabric. And what Pynchon does with his characters,
increasingly, is juvenile vaudeville. If you like that, fine. But in
his review, Jones unwittingly gives two reasons why one might not:
reading Pynchon’s new novel, he writes, ‘is probably as close to
getting stoned as reading a novel can be’ (which he takes as high
praise); and – apropos of Pynchon’s relentlessly jokey treatment of
1970s California – ‘But there’s something profoundly bleak about the
inability to take anything seriously’ (which he also envisages as a
compliment, of sorts).

James Wood
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

magazine cover by Chums of Chance-related Harry Grant Dart

posted @ with the following caption:

Magazine cover for "The All-Story" by Harry Grant Dart, taken between 1900 and 1910. Dart was an illustrator and comic artist who also created the short-lived cartoon "The Explorigator", on which the "Chums of Chance" from Against the Day might be modeled, making this my second (speculative) Pynchon reference in a few days. Note that Harry had no problems with women steering!

from John Carvill @ Pynchon-l, re TRP autographed letter

Has this been seen on the p-list before? Apologies, as usual, if so.

A listing (now defunct I think) for a very interesting sounding Pynchon letter. I'll post the entire text here in case the link dies. Essential reading I would say. Sorry for the lack of paragraphs, that's, um, inherent to the listing itself. Definitely worth the effort to read, I promise.

334. PYNCHON, Thomas. Autograph Letter Signed. January 21, 1974.

Two tightly printed pages, on both sides of one sheet of graph paper, written to his friends, authors David [Shetzline] and his wife Mary [M.F. Beal]. Last paragraph written in pencil, including the signature "Love, Tom." A lengthy letter, over 1000 words, to two friends who date back to his college days 15 years earlier. Both Shetzline and Beal were students at Cornell, and a part of the group that came to be known as the "Cornell School" of writers, including Pynchon, Richard Fariña, Shetzline and Beal. Shetzline published two novels in the late 1960s -- Heckletooth 3 and DeFord, which is dedicated to the memory of Fariña -- and Pynchon wrote blurbs for both of them. Pynchon also wrote a blurb for M.F. Beal's novel, Amazon One, about a group of radical activists of the 1960s. She also wrote what many consider to be the first lesbian/feminist detective novel, Angel Dance. All of these elements come into play in this remarkable letter, which deals with literary matters, poli!
tical matters, and the correspondents' longtime friendship. Written four months after Gravity's Rainbow was published, the letter sheds light on Pynchon's state of mind in the aftermath of the work of writing that novel. The letter starts out apologizing for writing to them together instead of "one by one but haven't been able to write anything to anybody for a couple years, and will be lucky even to get through this one letter here..." He goes on to tell them that his agent, the legendary Candida Donadio, "turns out to be a closet MF Beal freek [sic] and would really dig to establish contact..." He advises Mary to write to Candida but says "don't ask me what about, though, I can't understand any of this literary stuff" -- a remarkable comment from someone who has just finished writing Gravity's Rainbow. A long paragraph details events in New York City, where he is living, including an "Impeachment Rally" in Greenwich Village. Pynchon is self-consciously disdainful of this !
round of political activism: "Maybe I am wrong not to show up,!
after a
ll think of all that great neurotic pussy that always shows up at things like -- oh, aww, gee Mary, I'm sorry! I meant 'vagina,' of course! -- like that, and all the biggies who'll be there..." He goes on to describe that he is having "what the CIA calls a 'mid-life crisis,' looking for another hustle, cannot dig to live a 'literary' life no more..." A "lump of hash I lost somewhere in Humboldt County 3 years ago" figures into what becomes an increasingly textured, complicated narrative, much the way his fiction does, at the same time that it represents his side of an obviously ongoing dialogue, and elicits further contact from the recipients: in referring to stories of bad LSD circulating, he asks "You might as well tell me. How many times'd you end up sucking on the rug?" A dissection of the general state of mind among the self-proclaimed hip in New York City follows, and he waxes nostalgic for the West a couple of times: "Last fall I rode around on the 'Hound for a while.!
Would've dropped by [their place in northern California] except by the time I got in your neighborhood I was bummed out..." Future "master plan" was "to go across the sea, but now I don't know. I've sort of been keying my plans on Geraldine, part of general resolution not to impose shit on her, also cz I'm lazy and can't make decisions... so maybe we will head west, and then again maybe not, but if we do we'll be by your place, OK?" A remarkable letter, exhibiting all of the characteristics for which Pynchon's writing is known, and many of the concerns that he raises in his writings, and addressed to two of his closest and oldest friends. Pynchon even used Shetzline's name in Gravity's Rainbow: Shetzline was credited with having written the "classic study" of "the property of time-modulation peculiar to Oneidine." Folded in twelfths for mailing, else fine in hand-addressed envelope folded in fourths. In content and style, probably the best Pynchon letter we have ever seen.

'bout half-ways down the page.

I found this link about a week back, browsing pretty much at random on The Fictional Woods. What a find!



Dave Monroe wrote (and see also the recent post on mineral evolution,


This article appeared in the May 1996 issue of Postmodern Culture and
is still archived at PMC. If you would like to know why I reposted it
at this site, go here.

Copyright (c) 1996 Wes Chapman

Male Pro-Feminism and the Masculinist Gigantism of Gravity's Rainbow
Wes Chapman

The title of Tania Modleski's Feminism Without Women refers, Modleski
explains, to a confluence of two political/intellectual trends: the
subsumption of feminism within a "more comprehensive" field of gender
, accompanied by the rise of a "male feminist perspective that
excludes women," and the dominance within feminist thought of an
"anti-essentialism so radical that every use of the term 'woman,'
however 'provisionally' it is adopted, is disallowed" (14-15). The two
trends are linked, Modleski argues, because "the rise of gender
studies is linked to, and often depends for its justification on, the
tendendency within poststructuralist thought to dispute notions of
identity and the subject" (15). These trends are troubling for
Modleski because she fears that, insofar as gender studies tend to
decenter women as the subjects of feminism, they may be not a "new
phase" in feminism but rather feminism's "phase-out" (5).

My concern in this essay is with male-authored work on gender of the
type identified by Modleski, and in particular with its intersections
with anti-essentialism....


That this politics of discourse may tend to decenter women as the
subjects of feminism is suggested by the one direct and I think
suggestive reference in the novel to a contemporary feminist, M. F.
Beal.8 Felipe, one of the Argentinian exiles, makes "noontime
devotionals to the living presence of a certain rock" which, he
believes, "embodies . . . an intellectual system, for [Felipe]
believes (as do M.F. Beal and others) in a form of mineral
consciousness not too much different from that of plants and animals"
(GR 612). M. F. Beal was (or is) a friend of Pynchon's, author of two
novels, Amazon One and Angel Dance, several stories, and Safe House: A
Casebook of Revolutionary Feminism in the 1970's. David Seed, who has
written most about the relationship of Pynchon and Beal, explains that
the reference to Beal in Gravity's Rainbow refers to a conversation
that Pynchon and Beal had about "the limits of sentience" (227): "Beal
implicitly humanized the earth's mantle (containing of course rocks
and minerals
) by drawing an analogy with skin. . . . " (32) In effect,
Beal was espousing what we would now call a Gaia philosophy9; as Seed
writes, "[i]f there is such a thing as mineral consciousness then the
earth's crust becomes a living mantle and man becomes a part (a small
part) of a living continuum instead of being defined against an inert
environment" (227). There is a version of this belief in "mineral
consciousness" in Safe House:

Only recently have a few modern men begun to learn anything about life
and what they are learning is that the only difference from the point
of view of chemistry between living and non-living substances is their
ability to reproduce themselves. (86)

As in her discussions with Pynchon, Beal here minimizes the
distinction between plants and animals on the one hand and
"non-living" beings like minerals; if the "only difference" between
them is the ability to reproduce, then in other ways they are the same
(so, perhaps, rocks are sentient, as Beal had argued to Pynchon

One tenet of Gaia philosophy is that the Earth acts as a conscious
organism to protect itself. In Safe House, Beal speculates that one
mechanism by which the Earth might be trying to protect itself is what
she calls a "strategic retreat" -- the possibility that "adult women
given the choice will choose to live without [men] -- to eat, sleep,
work, rear children and dwell without them" (87) -- in other words,
female separatism. Beal wonders whether the contemporary urge toward
separatism might be not just a conscious choice by particular women
but a manifestation of some larger biological necessity:

Could it be that we are witnessing an unfathomably significant genetic
reflex for species survival? Could it be that the DNA code has been
triggered by some inscrutable biological alarm system from the threat
of male violence and annihilation? Could it be that this is some
ancient reoccurring pattern which has activated female response over
the millennia to withdraw, to protect and defend themselves and their
progeny? (87)

For Beal, man has turned away from the earth to "violence and
annihilation," just as for Pynchon humanity has turned away from the
Titans to the "structures favoring death." But for Beal, this turning
away is specifically coded according to gender; the "man" in the
previous sentence refers to men, not to humanity. Conversely, women
are a key part of the Earth's counter-struggle: the earth is
triggering in women, who are open to the message of survival because
they "have always known all things are alike and precious," a "genetic
reflex for species survival," which consists of a disentanglement from
"male violence and annihilation." In Gravity's Rainbow, the
genderedness of Beal's vision is lost; the Titans in Greek mythology
were half male and half female.

Safe House was published in 1976, three years after Gravity's Rainbow,
so it is impossible to be certain whether Beal had in fact worked out
within a specifically feminist framework the belief in "mineral
consciousness" which Pynchon attributes to her. But it seems to me
likely that she had, or at least likely that Beal was a feminist by
that point, and that that feminism was part of her discussions with
Pynchon. If the critique of masculinism in Gravity's Rainbow was
influenced by Beal, then we can see the novel a kind of appropriation
and recentering of feminism; Pynchon subordinates his critique of
masculinism to a critique of militarism, and in so doing defuses the
genderedness of his subject. Within the play of pluralized discourses
in the novel, none of them privileged, none of them untainted by the
structures of power, the issue of gender is subsumed within the issue
of gender discourses. But if everyone is trapped within masculinist
discourse, then masculinism is not a problem of men at all; it is a
role one takes on or steps out of, as Greta Erdmann steps so easily
out of the role of masochist in Alpdrücken and into the role of sadist
with Bianca.


Works Cited

Beal, M.F., and friends. Safe House: A Casebook of Revolutionary
Feminism in the 1970's. Eugene, OR: Northwest Matrix, 1976.



Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Remedios Varo born 100 years ago today

"Photograph of Remedios Varo in her studio painting Farewell, 1958, courtesy of Walter Gruen" from

More details & links in this Metafilter post:



2008年12月11日 09:12 来源:东方早报 发表评论

  核心提示:在中国翻译家和出版商多年的共同努力下,35年来不停搅动美国文坛,以晦涩、庞杂著称,但又对大众文化影响巨大的后现代经典小说《万有引力之虹》(Gravity's Rainbow),终于由译林出版社推出了中文版。

  在中国翻译家和出版商多年的共同努力下,35年来不停搅动美国文坛,以晦涩、庞杂著称,但又对大众文化影响巨大的后现代经典小说《万有引力之虹》(Gravity's Rainbow),终于由译林出版社推出了中文版。



  奇书背后必有奇人。《万有引力之虹》的作者托马斯·品钦(Thomas Pynchon)在隐居术方面的修习,与JD.塞林格几乎不相上下。除了小说,他几乎将自己在这个世界上存在过的所有物证统统湮灭,外界能够看到的品钦照 片大概只有两张,其中一张还是他二战从军时模模糊糊的黑白戎装照。

  1973年,《万有引力之虹》在美国出版,大为轰动,孰料引发次年普利策小说奖的大地震。三人评委会支持给品钦授奖,但11位理事推翻了评委的 决定,裁定此书“无法卒读,浮夸,滥施笔墨,淫亵”。1974年的普利策小说奖因此空缺。而数月后,美国国家图书奖坚持表彰了《万有引力之虹》,没想到品 先生拒绝受奖,最终找他人代领了事。


  小说分四个部分,“零之下”、“戈林赌场的休假”、“在占领区”和“反作用力”。故事发生在1944年圣诞节到1945年9月期间,主要情节是 盟军追查德国人正在制造的威力惊人的导弹,美国中尉泰荣·斯洛索普的一张“性交地图”却出人意料地屡次与德国导弹的轰炸地点吻合。寻找,寻找,所有的人都 在不停地寻找。



  “自虐”的说法决不算夸张,但这世上知难而上的品钦迷、甚至野心勃勃的品钦本人,必以之为赞辞。厦门大学外文学院副教授刘雪岚曾援引英国批评家托尼·坦纳(Tony Tanner)的话说:“《万有引力之虹》的深奥与恢弘拒绝任何归纳和概括。”

  刘女士这样形容此书:“它的内容从文艺学、社会学、历史学、心理学到数学、化学、物理学、弹道学、军事学,几乎无所不包;它的文体从哲学沉思、 历史百科、间谍侦探到滑稽喜剧、歌曲民谣乃至戏仿反讽,仿佛无所不能。小说包括73个场景,400多个人物,发生的故事遍及南北美洲、非洲、中亚、东欧和 西欧。涉及的社会阶层包括盟军和轴心国的将军和士兵、科学家、政治家、持工、妓女乃至非洲土人。使用的语言包括英、法、德、拉丁和意大利语等等。”(《美 国全国图书奖获奖小说评论集》,吴冰,郭棲庆主编,外语教学与研究出版社,2001年)





"I am embarrassed to admit that I have read a book"

[…] it's not often that new work from the fascist genocidal dictator comes to light, which is why military historians and creepy Nazi memorabilia collectors who live in basement apartments are so excited by the discovery of an aircraft concept designed by Nazi engineers near the end of World War II, a design which smacks of exactly the pants-shitting desperation you'd expect Nazis to be feeling at that point in the war:

dart glider.png

Here's the desperately insane idea: Dart-shaped gliders equipped with pilots and 1,000 pound bombs would be carried by conventional planes into allied airspace and dropped. The glider pilot would steer the bomb toward its high-priority target -- a factory that printed posters warning G.I.'s about the dangers of venereal disease, for instance -- and at the last minute, release the bomb and activate a balloon which would explode out of the tail and lift the glider to safety, all of which bears a creepy resemblance to certain details in Thomas Pynchon's big, fat novel Gravity's Rainbow. WHOOPS, sorry for the inexcusable lapse into Fancy Ladism, y'all, I am embarrassed to admit that I have read a book. But if the indignant comments occasionally left by Ayn Rand enthusiasts on certain Daily Briefs posts can be believed, I probably didn't understand it, and am also completely retarded, and anyway probably didn't even read it in the first place. […]


"I don’t expect to encounter things that will frustrate the reading process, the way I might in the work of Pynchon"

[…] I suppose I approach a title that I know has been labelled as Y.A. thinking that it’s going to be a more relaxing reading experience—maybe relaxing isn’t the right word, but more pleasurable, perhaps—because I don’t expect to encounter things that will frustrate the reading process, the way I might in the work of Pynchon, say. This isn’t to say that Y.A. fiction can’t be highly cerebral or experimental, just that I presume the author wants to cultivate a relationship with the reader that is more welcoming and, yes, probably more emotional. […]

mineral evolution & "a Soul in ev'ry stone. . . ."

Kevin Kelly offers an interesting take on "mineral evolution" & links to a recent paper, that may shed some light on a sermon in every stone:

"The theory of "mineral evolution" -- the idea that the Earth's rocks are dynamic "species" which emerged over time, sometimes in concert with living things -- is a radical new idea…"


back in the saddle again

It's official. I re-subscribed to Pynchon-l, I'm reading Pynchon (working through Against the Day and enjoying it), and looking forward to the new novel next year. Maybe I'll start updating this blog.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

signed copy of ATD

…from Chronicle of Higher Education:

M.H. Abrams: A Life in Criticism

In literary studies, M.H. Abrams is an iconic name. It appeared as "general editor" for 40 years on nearly nine million copies of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, and has also, in a detail that only scholars would know, led the indexes of many a critical book for a half-century. (In fact, one scholar I know cited "Aarlef" just to avoid that custom.) In addition, Abrams, now 95, stamped the study of Romantic literature: His book The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (Oxford University Press, 1953) was ranked 25th in the Modern Library's list of the 100 most important nonfiction books of the 20th century, and he was a prime participant in debates over literary theory, especially deconstruction, during the 1970s and 80s.

Last summer I interviewed Abrams — Meyer Howard, but he goes by Mike — at his home in Ithaca, N.Y., up the road from Cornell University, where he has been a professor since 1945 and still goes to his office in Goldwin Smith Hall. Colleagues at Cornell had held a birthday celebration for him, and among the gifts was an inscribed copy of Thomas Pynchon's latest novel. Pynchon had been a student of Abrams's in the 1950s and sent it on. Abrams has the book on the coffee table in his living room.

Friday, June 27, 2008

"ad the Metro’s owners carted off the decorations that had lodged within the imagination of young Pynchon"

…from today's New York Times:

Then we combed Valletta, marching up and down the hills looking for evidence of the now-sleepy city’s illustrious past and marveling at the cute Victorian-style balconies. On Strait Street in the heart of the Gut, the entertainment district once frequented by visiting sailors, I was hoping to find the Metro Bar, where a key scene of Pynchon’s unsummarizable “V” takes place. We asked old-timers and were directed to a doorway filled with cinderblocks. The Metro Bar was no more.

Like the New Life Music Hall, the Smiling Prince and the Blue Peter — whose faded signs hung over locked and cobwebbed doors — the Metro had shut down sometime after 1979, when the British naval base closed, and I was left to wonder what lay within. Did it still look, as Pynchon wrote, “like a nobleman’s pied-a-terre applied to mean purposes”? Did “statues of Knights, ladies and Turks” still line the “wide curving flight of marble steps” that led to the second-story dance floor? Or had the Metro’s owners carted off the decorations that had lodged within the imagination of young Pynchon (who presumably visited Valletta during his 1955-57 stint in the Navy)?

Today, all that remains of the Gut’s glory days is a 90-year-old tattoo parlor and a few graybeards who remember the noise and chaos and fun. “But now it’s too quiet here, too quiet,” one of them told us. “If you come at Friday night, Saturday, Sunday, you can bring shotgun and you can shoot and nobody, nobody take notice.”

His nostalgia was palpable, and another Pynchon line seemed apt: “Monuments, buildings, plaques were remembrances only; but in Valletta remembrances seemed almost to live.”

Thursday, January 18, 2007

call to action!

Date: Thu, 18 Jan 2007 11:20:26 -0500 (EST)
From: "John M. Krafft"
Subject: Help wanted

I've been stumped--brain dysfunction or something--by a request
for help that runs as follows:

"on the first page of Eleanor Cook's _Enigmas and Riddles in
Literature_, she writes: 'Literary studies of the riddle are
few and far between. There are studies of the remarkable Old
English riddles. There are studies of riddles in specific
authors: Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Donne, Joyce,
Pynchon...' Apparently there is at least one study of
Pynchon's use of the riddle out there. Do you know of it?"

Of course I should, but nothing comes immediately to mind, and
a first, superficial search of my bibliography didn't turn up
anything obvious. Can anyone help?



- --
John M. Krafft
Miami University–Hamilton / 1601 University Blvd. / Hamilton,
OH 45011-3399
Tel: 513.785.3031 or 513.868.2330
Fax: 513.785.3145

Monday, January 15, 2007

Zak Smith's book arrives

And a fine-looking tome it is, even with the rather substantial title, Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon's Novel Gravity's Rainbow with an engaging and well-worth reading Introduction by Steve Erickson.