Oh, banana!

Thomas Pynchon
Penguin, 2000

Some discrete moments jumped out at me in part one of GR, “Beyond the Zero,” this time.

During the Banana Breakfast sequence, just before Pirate serves that disgusting amount of food, we get a paragraph about the Banana Breakfast smell.

Now there grows among all the rooms, replacing the night’s old smoke, alcohol and sweat, the fragile, musaceous odor of Breakfast: flowery, permeating, surprising, more than the the color of winter sunlight, taking over not so much through any brute pungency or volume as by the high intricacy to the weaving of its molecules, sharing the conjurer’s secret by which — though it is not often Death is told clearly to fuck off — the living genetic chains prove even labyrinthine enough to preserve some human face down ten or twenty generations…so the same assertion-through-structure allows this war morning’s banana fragrance to meander, repossess, prevail. Is there any reason not to open every window, and let the kind secret blanket all Chelsea? As a spell, against falling objects….

It’s not a principal or dominant odor in the scene, this Banana Breakfast spell. It seems to operate more “rhizomatically.” We have permeating molecules that do an intricate weaving. “Meander, repossess, prevail.” The word choices, the way they focus on aimlessness, a dispersed and groundless movement, reclamation — these seem like positive things in this world.

The banana fragrance is a kind of model, for weaving together narratives maybe, but also a model for resistance against the books primary situation, which is the proliferation of technology, of the development of productive forces driven by imperialist war.

(GR is a WWII novel that is so clearly actually about everything that came after. Its length and heftiness as a physical book alone suggest that the post war world is so immediately and absolutely different that it’s as if it has come into being all at once.)

This resistance is also one against “Death,” like the persistence of humanity in our genetic material. The death drive in GR is not necessarily nihilistic, since there does seem to be a real afterlife or paranormal dimension in this world, and the multiple mad scientists in the novel are trying to breach it.

Another micro-meditation, this time a little digression in the middle of the Adenoid set piece.

In the thirties balance-of-power thinking was still quite strong, the diplomats were all down with Balkanosis, spies with foreign hybrid names lurked in all the stations of the Ottoman rump, code messages in a dozen Slavic tongues were being tattooed on bare upper lips over which the operatives then grew mustaches, to be shaved off only by authorized crypto officers and skin then grafted over the messages by the Firm’s plastic surgeons…their lips were palimpsests of secret flesh, scarred and unnaturally white, by which they all knew each other.

Another thing about GR being a cold war novel set in WWII is that it resembles a spy novel more than a soldier narrative. There’s a pithy notion that the code technique conceals writing but makes the operatives recognizable, like the icon of a secret society. These spies and soldiers are atomized and dispersed like the banana odor molecules. I haven’t looked it up yet, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the mustache thing, silly even compared to the Adenoid, were real. Pynchon’s surrealism is usually reinforced by something from empirical reality, either historical or scientific.

This digression only exists to explain the absence of one character who was needed for the Adenoid taking over London like the Blob. The narrator inhabits northern chauvinism, the “Ottoman rump,” and the same bit of language makes a contrast between assholes and mouths, maybe. Plastic also jumps out on a re-reading, not just for the plot, but the plasticity of Pynchon’s style.

A bit later, Jessica is hanging out at a seance and talks to the practitioner Milton Gloaming.

“Automatic texts,” girl-nervous Gloaming frowns, nods, “one or two Ouija-board episodes, yes yes…we-we’re trying to develop a vocabulary of curves — certain pathologies, certain characteristic shapes, you see–“

“I’m not sure that I–“

“Well. Recall Zipf’s Principle of Least Effort: if we plot the frequency of a word P sub n against its rank-order on a logarithmic axes,” babbling into her silence, even her bewilderment graceful, “we should of course get something like a straight line…however we’ve data that suggest the curves for certain — conditions, well they’re actually quite different — schizophrenics for example tend to run a bit flatter in the upper part then progressively steeper — a sort of bow shape…I think with this chap, this Roland, that we’re on to a classical paranoiac–“

“Ha.” That’s a word she knows. “Thought I saw you brighten up there when he said ‘turned against.'”

“‘Against,’ ‘opposite,’ yes you’d be amazed at the frequency of this one.”

“What’s the most frequent word?” asks Jessica. “Your number one.”

“The same as it’s always been at these affairs,” replies the statistician, as if everyone knew: “death.”

Well if this isn’t the book in miniature. The search for patterns and meanings in the contingency of automatic writing, a contingency that’s not absolute because it’s still mediated by the human, by the mechanical practice of human writing. And it confirms the statistical analysis reported in this paper, which is what moved me to reread this novel even though school’s starting up.

Notice the narrator’s tone, which seems to take up Roger Mexico’s infatuation with Jessica. And the “bow shape,” which is what links together the arc shape of bananas, rainbows, and rocket trajectories.

“Babbling into her silence.” It’s a nice phrase. I’m noticing that this is something he likes to do. A linguist would explain it more eloquently. But Pynchon likes to use nouns that are supposed to indicate (abstract?) states in this way. Like how later on a room is “filled with noon,” light from a V2 blast.

To touch on the plasticity thing earlier, Pynchon will simply cram any old things together. Like “were-elves.” Pynchon writes as if Henry James experienced ego death during a psychedelic experience, and renounced the psychology that his brother studied, the human dimension of psychology that his baroque prose captures so precisely. And now he writes pretty much in the same way but to prove the opposite point. The difficulty of James (at least for us goldfish brained millennials) is at the syntactic level: fiction has a certain logic to the order of details in the narration, and James’s prose ain’t that, because he’s capturing the bombardment of tiny enigmatic encounters that make up practical life. Pynchon is a similar bombardment, but not of psychological moments, just a lot of mise en scene material. It doesn’t get clearer than in the musical numbers, (more than anything else, I drive myself mad over what the tune for these lyrics are, if there is even one to set them to), when the prose becomes so telegraphic that you’re basically reading a deranged movie treatment or screenplay. Scenes are usually set with discrete details, and their relationships, and even what character’s subjectivity we’re aligned with, gets put off. Which makes sense, because the names of Pynchon’s cast are so wacky, we would have nothing to go on if the events were narrated conventionally. Imagine “Pirate Prentice woke from a dream…” instead of what we’ve got. The names are labels. The point is that the narration represents what it’s like to experience Pynchon’s mock reality, part epic, part satire, a little Libertinage, a little Rabelaisian grotesque, a little Picaresque…

One other thing about the Pynchonian character that I’m undecided on. They don’t have psychology in the realism sense but many of them have dossiers, thanks to which the system can command their ids through knowledge of their fetishes. With all of the atomization and immanent weaving through the structure noted above, and the usual litany characterizing denatured modern capitalism it evokes (fragmentation, alienation, etc.), is the Unconscious in this book’s world a kind of personal property, the closest thing to representing identity as we’ll get?

Pynchon is also an interesting node for the realism-modernism discourse. GR can be claimed for either camp because either its techniques do more to capture the chaos and absurdity of material life and demystifies the practical ideology put up by so-called realist fiction; or it is an absolute break from the novel’s naturalized drive to represent reality, withdrawing into a fabulous realm of raw imagination, on an infinite quest for self-determination, becoming the central text of the postwar American wave of metafictional experiments.

But like any modern classic, GR does a lot of work to understand you as well. There’s a reference to Dutch painting in the sequence with Frans van der Groov and the dodo birds. This comes in  the middle of a long paragraph describing the compulsive slaughter of the dodo birds in Mauritius.

Once he sat all day staring at a single white dodo’s egg in a  grass hummock. The place was too remote for any foraging pig to’ve found. He waited for scratching, a first crack reaching to net the chalk surface: an emergence. Hemp gripped in the teeth of the steel snake, ready to be lit, ready to descend, sun to black-powder sea, and destroy the infant, egg of light into egg of darkness, within its first minute of amazed vision, of wet down stirred cool  by the southeast trades…. Each hour he sighted down the barrel. It was then, if ever, he might have seen how the weapon made an axis potent as Earth’s own between himself and this victim, still one, inside the egg, with the ancestral chain, not to be broken out for more than its blink of world’s light. There they were, the silent egg and the crazy Dutchman, and the hookgun that linked them forever, framed, brilliantly motionless as any Vermeer. Only the sun moved: from zenith down at last behind the snaggleteeth of mountains to Indian ocean, to tarry night. The egg, without a quiver, still unhatched. He should have blasted it where it lay: he understood that the bird would hatch before dawn. But a cycle was finished. He got to his feet, knee and hip joints in agony, head gonging with instructions from his sleeptalkers droning by, overlapping, urgent, and only limped away, piece at right shoulder arms.

The Vermeer reference is an obvious move. And it seals the deal on the the stillness and pictorialism of the above description. The “wet down” retrospectively takes on painterly lighting. Another reference to the notion of the “ancestral chain” of genetic continuity. Not sure what the sleeptalkers are. These lines are packed with moments of realism, drawing links to human world, and human details. And that’s because realism vs. modernism is a metaphysical opposition, when realism is always a moment in modernist writing practice. Jameson says they are independent methodologies. Maybe so. Reading GR, or any of the supreme metafictions, you wonder if there was anything at one and the same time so sturdy and so fragile.


  1. Oh, banana!
  2. Anal explosive
  3. Pynchon is surrealist in travel
  4. I may have lost the plot

3 thoughts on “Oh, banana!”

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