Pynchon is surrealist in travel

Thomas Pynchon
Penguin 2000

Toward the end of the 1924 First Manifesto, Breton distinguishes between “absolute surrealists,” like himself and his colleagues like Aragon, and artists outside of or predating the surrealist camp but who nevertheless may be surrealist in a certain area. So Jonathan Swift is a “surrealist in malice,” and the Marquis de Sade is a “surrealist in sadism,” which seems odd. Baudelaire was a surrealist in morality, and apparently Sartre (Breton must have said it elsewhere) was a surrealist in quietude.

I offer a reading of Pynchon as a surrealist in travel writing. Sometimes his landscapes are products of deep research, and other times they are 100% phantasy, like the plastic candyland version of hell that he throws two characters in for no reason that I’ve comprehended.

Part 3, “In the Zone,” is visibly the bulkiest. Weisenburger’s companion tells us that it’s as if this part has drawn in, accumulated, assimilated more episodes than all the rest, 32 in all. The Zone, postwar Germany, where all regulating forces have been suspended, is a “center of gravity,” pulling on the cast and the narrative material (things fall at 32 feet per second per second). There are several plotlines creating near misses: Slothrop’s quest for self-knowledge and rocket 00000, chased by a crazed American Major; the Soviet agent Tchitcherine’s mission to find and liquidate his half brother Enzian, leading one faction of the split Shwarzkommando; a quick heist to extract a bag of hashish out of the Potsdam conference; episodes on an aristocratic yacht party; and the story of Pokler, enlisted by Blicero (the kinky SS officer who also goes by Weissmann, whose brainchild is rockets 00000 and 00001 with the black device inside each), which is played totally straight, and makes a core of pathos for the whole book.

I shouldn’t offer yet another impossible summary. My own takeaway is that GR in one sense has the 50s 60s and 70s imaginatively superimposed on the 20s 30s and 40s, two overlapping chronotopes. (Which is bewildering in Pynchon but can also be sober and poignant, like in David Albahari’s novels.) Thinking about America, or the idea of America in 1973, what would it mean to revisit Europe and the second world war so fabulously? We have to follow baby-faced young American Slothrop back to the old world…into death.

Here’s a less lazy thought: GRAVITY’S RAINBOW is very similar to Goethe’s FAUST, especially part 2. I mean they share the same basis for many complaints of overstuffing the narrative to the point of boredom. The Zone functions like the “classical walpurgisnacht,” a center of gravity drawing out gods, mythical creatures, soul-bearing angels, all the entities through all the ages. They both allow their heroes to escape capture through cartoonish switcheroo gags. I vacillate between finding GR very very hard to recommend to people, and touting it as -the- literary work of the modern epic.

But as to being a surrealist in travel.

Light pulses behind the clouds. Tchitcherine tracks mud off the street into the Center, gets a blush from Luba, a kind of kowtow and mopflourish from the comical Chinese swamper Chu Piang, unreadable stares from an early pupil or two. The traveling “native” schoolteacher Dzayp Qulan looks up from a clutter of pastel survey maps, black theodolites, bootlaces, tractor gaskets, plugs, greasy tierod ends, steel map-cases, 7.62 mm rounds, crumbs and chunks of lepeshka, about to ask for a cigarette which is already out of Tchitcherine’s pocket and on route. […]

Here [Luba] has become a connoisseuse of silences. The great silences of Seven Rivers have not yet been alphabetized, and perhaps never will be. They are apt at any time to come into a room, into a heart, returning to chalk and paper the sensible Soviet alternatives brought out here by the Likbez agents. They are silences NTA cannot fill, cannot liquidate, immense and frightening as the elements in this bear’s corner—scaled to a larger Earth, a planet wilder and more distant from the sun…. The winds, the city snows and heat waves of Galina’s childhood were never so vast, so pitiless. Se had to come out here to learn what an earthquake felt like, and how to wait out a sandstorm. What would it be like to go back now, back to a city? […]

Out into the bones of the backlands ride Tchitcherine and his faithful Kirghiz companion Dzaqyp Qulan. Tchitcherine’s horse is a version of himself—an appaloosa from the United States named Snake. Snake used to be some kind of remittance horse. Year before last he was in Saudi Arabia, being sent a check each month by a zany (or, if you enjoy paranoid systems, a horribly rational) Midland, Texas oil man to stay off the U.S. rodeo circuits, where in those days the famous bucking bronco Midnight was flinging young men right and left into the sun-beat fences. […]

They’re riding away from the railroad: farther away from the kinder zones of Earth. Black and white stars explode down the appaloosa’s croup and haunch. At the center of each of these novae is a stark circle of vacuum, of no color, into which midday Kirghiz at the roadsides have taken looks, and grinned away with a turn of the head to the horizon behind.

Amongst all the backfilling details, the noun clauses, and these other crufty elements, the figures of Tchitcherine and Qulan riding horseback in central Asia stand out. I enjoyed these moments the most, the voice working like in a Robert Howard pulp story; he gives the impression that these landscapes, “zany” as they are, can be inhabited and deeply understood. The moments are like Weird Tales but also simply tall tales, stories and rumors about Tchitcherine and his ward that the narrator has gathered.

And it’s these situations that have stayed in my memory, against the more esoteric material. (I finished the whole thing in the last week of April.)

Early in this part is a long stretch of backfill on the Shwarzkommando and the history of the Herero people in southern Africa under colonization.

A generation earlier, the declining number of live Herero births was a topic of medical interest throughout southern Africa. The whites looked on as anxiously as they would have at an outbreak of rinderpest among the cattle. How provoking, to watch one’s subject population dwindling like this, year after year. What’s a colony without its dusky natives? Where’s the fun if they’re all going to die off? Just a big hunk of desert, no more maids, no field-hands, no laborers for the construction or the mining—wait, wait a minute there, yes it’s Karl Marx, that sly old racist skipping away with his teeth together and his eyebrows up trying to make believe it’s nothing but Cheap Labor and Overseas Markets…. Oh no. Colonies are much, much more. Colonies are the outhouses of the European soul, where a fellow can let his pants down and relax, enjoy the smell of his own shit. Where he can fall on his slender prey roaring as loud as he feels like, and guzzle her blood with open joy. Eh? Where he can just wallow and rut and let himself go in a softness, a receptive darkness of limbs, of hair as woolly as the hair on his own forbidden genitals. Where the poppy, and cannabis and coca grow full and green, and not to the colors and style of death, as do ergot and agaric, the blight and fungus native to Europe. Christian Europe was always death, Karl, death and repression. Out and down in the colonies, life can be indulged, life and sensuality in all its forms, with no harm done to the Metropolis, nothing to soil those cathedrals, white marble statues, noble thoughts…. No word ever gets back. The silences down here are vast enough to absorb all behavior, no matter how dirty, how animal it gets….

(Now I see where David Foster Wallace got so much of his haughtiness.)

Is it just because of the rejection of Marx that passages like this one strike me as the most postmodern, ideologically? The narrator clearly prefers the chapter in Brown’s LIFE AGAINST DEATH on excrement over the closing chapters of CAPITAL volume 1 on primitive accumulation. He prefers the language of desire over that of political economy (“Christian Europe was always death and repression”). The latter merely explains while the former describes, maybe endlessly. Overall, it’s a move from class politics to instrumental rationality as a way to take stock of capitalism in its imperialist stage. And would Pynchon or the narrator prefer the colonial products, the opium, weed and coke, over the European fungal component of LSD?

You’ll notice how evasive I’ve been about the shwarzkommando, a black battalion for national socialism. I can’t explain, but can describe Pynchon’s reading of German ethnographic monographs on Herero organization and political struggle, including the use of suicide, worked into the novel as a line struggle over the question of the V-2 rocket. He wrote in a letter:

But I feel personally that the number done on the Herero head by the Germans is the same number done on the American Indian head by our own colonists and what is now being done on the Buddhist head in Vietnam by the Christianity minority in Saigon and their advisors: the imposition of a culture valuing analysis and differentiation on a culture that valued unity and integration.

I take his point that cheap labor and overseas market as explanatory phrases doesn’t do justice to the irreducible sensuous manifold of elephantine proportions that is the Pynchon Novel. It’s just that the words of the skipping Marx are not simply reductions (or else Marxism isn’t anything). And GR’s sprawling plurality can itself be an inverted reduction, into a new universalized stew, as homologous as it is eclectic.


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

3 thoughts on “Pynchon is surrealist in travel”

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