Great movies and not-so-great books // April summation

Watch the skies!

Sometimes it be like that.

I’ve been giving up on novels at an above-average rate lately, tho it could be that my threshold for putting down a work of fiction is lowering. 

It’s clear to me how well I’ve avoided writing about books here that I find unsatisfying. Talking about these experiences doesn’t come as easily.

But on the other side are two positive things on the movie-going front. Really, going from EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert to MEMORIA by Apichatpong Weeresethekul was as hard a shift from maximalism to minimalism you could make within current narrative cinema.

It’s funny that a few posts back I had talked about quantum mechanics being surrealistic in its implications. Then in March mainstream audiences get nailed by a high-concept martial arts comedy whose conceit—fundamental it seems to a lot of Daniels’ work—is essentially a quasi-scientific rationalization for surrealism. Rather than subjective freedom of the imagination or the mysterious unconscious, this kind of goofiness is placed on an objective basis, with all matter being in a superposition of forms, and so on. However, the practical result is the same, for as Michelle Yeoh’s character says, you can imagine whatever nonsense you want and somewhere it is inevitably real. The absurdism may be too much for some audiences, and everyone will have a threshold at a different gag, but as someone who grew up on Stephen Chow I enjoyed this absurd hyperpop romp as produced by the Russo Bros. Stupid gags that are well thought out are the supreme form of comedy. The emotional core in the family drama was smartly written, especially at the beginning. The resolution was naive but one can appreciate the gesture against apathy and disappearing into the bagel/anus singularity, wrapped in a sci-fi concept that contains the noise of the multiverse as a reflection of the noise of the modern world. I can’t really think of anything else from the twenty-first century quite like it, except MINDGAME. And I have definitely never felt a crowd rocked so hard by a film in my life.

The fight scenes were fun to watch. There seemed to be a little bit of undercranking or a sped up quality to it, and there were things like the shot locked to the fanny pack rolling along the floor, reminiscent of Hong Kong movies. That’s the kind of over-the-top you want.

MEMORIA only sinks further beneath my skin with every passing day. On the one hand this was Weeresethekul’s epic breakout with international star Tilda Swinton in the lead, and dialog in English and Spanish. On the other hand, I found this to be the most starkly minimal film from the director yet. (I felt the length with this one, unlike with UNCLE BOONMEE or CEMETERY OF SPLENDOUR, though the running time is longer; the house was packed but the audience seemed to have a brutal time of it, unwilling to even shift in their seats, and when it ended we left in a pall of silence and existential dread.) UNCLE BOONMEE in comparison shares a lot about the characters’ subjectivities and their relationships to the setting. But we have to infer everything and anything about Swinton’s character Jessica, an expat living in Medellín, Colombia, visiting her sister in Bogotá who is recovering in the hospital at the national university. Of course the point is that Jessica is in a strange land, and with a sense of place denied, it’s as if her background and such becomes lost as well.

On a biographical note, I used to experience the same thing Jessica does in MEMORIA’s opening scene that kicks off her quest, namely exploding head syndrome, a sudden loud bang “heard” while falling asleep or waking up, not a real sound in the air but in the mind. This occurred to me semi-frequently when I was younger, up to the end of my teenage years. The “sound,” or the mental image of a sound, for me, was sometimes a dry thud similar to the sound effect in the movie, but it was more often a tinnitus-inducing schwing of a blade, or the pop of an electrical signal. Does Jessica’s bang really exist, as a memory or a premonition? Is it the same thing that’s setting off all the car alarms outside in the morning? 

The best point for restricting this film to the theatrical experience is the use of sound, the climax of the film is essentially a grand formal experiment where sounds from other worlds fill the present moment, and then the soundtrack to the reality of the world eerily drops away. In one scene Jessica walks into a music session, a sequence done in three shots: her approach in the hallway, her watching the performance, and a reverse shot of the musicians. There’s time to dwell on hearing without seeing, then seeing and hearing, and the interactions of the performers were great. I distinctly remember a moment between the pianist and guitarist. The piece itself was a cool and worldly jazz fusion tune, very well chosen, the driving 6/8 time echoing Jessica’s odyssey.

I won’t spoil anything, for this is a decisively rare film to see, but there is a solution to the cause of the sound. After so many decades of art narratives sustaining ambiguity, perhaps explaining the mysteries of the world has become a bold step. With A.W. ‘s work in general, it seems that the story, in the moment of its experience, jerks suddenly into the realm of speculative fiction, but in retrospect you can see the atmosphere of science fiction enveloping all of his art.

E. H. Carr is a big name in my reading solely as the author of a monumental, multi-volume history of the Soviet Union up to 1930, with the initial trilogy of volumes on the Bolshevik Revolution being his headlining achievement. I’ve only gotten through a volume and a half—each book is around 600 pages of small print—but Carr’s excellence as a writer is certainly felt. 

But if you listen to the national security punditry, Carr is also important in the space of international relations theory, and his book THE TWENTY YEARS’ CRISIS is considered a founding text for the twentieth century realist school in bourgeois political science. In its immediate context, the book was an argument for appeasement as the realistic policy choice (this was in 1939). While this is early on in Carr’s intellectual career and his grasp of Marxism remains superficial, his strengths as a prose stylist are well established. He delivers his argument in punchy lines such as: “the fact that utopian dishes prepared during these years at Geneva proved unpalatable to most of the principal governments concerned was a symptom of the growing divorce between theory and practice.” But underneath the rational presentation is a rather eclectic approach to diplomacy and the relations of forces at play in geopolitics.

The book’s ultimate result is a general description of the imperialist struggle of the great powers over spheres of influence. And this rough picture is colored by a bourgeois liberal perspective that is rather platitudinous. The theory of international relations is a simple spectrum between the poles of Utopianism and Realism, between argumentation based on the “common feeling of rights” and argumentation based on the “mechanical adjustment to changes” in geopolitical relations of forces. This balance is expressed concretely in the policy choices of Force or Appeasement. The fundamental problem of handling political change in the international sphere is that of a “compromise between power and morality.” Utopianism ignores power, Realism ignores morality. It becomes clear we’re in the liberal space of politics, since the ideal is nonviolent change (revolution is just as “immoral” as repression in the name of the status quo) and harmonization of class interests within each nation as well as a harmony of nations. But Carr’s critique of utopianism underscores how some overarching world system, either juridical or legislative, will never get off the ground as an adequate solution to the violent wars that keep erupting between competing monopoly blocs. These schemes did not reflect the material reality of international relations so much as the depression-era interests of engineers and technocratic intellectuals.

I ended up liking Hamaguchi’s adaptation of DRIVE MY CAR a lot, especially the low-key feelings it left me with at the end. It was enough to get me to try a Murakami novel out for myself, and I had a very used paperback of 1Q84 sitting around. This is a trilogy of science fiction novels, but I doubt I’ll make it more than halfway through the first volume, where my reading is currently sputtering out before a likely death.

Perhaps it doesn’t help that the book cross-cuts between two narrative lines, one involving a young woman on a mission named Aomame, and the other centered on Tengo, an up and coming writer who gets involved in an odd literary scam with his friend and a precocious teenager. It would clearly be many many pages before these lines converged.

Something about this prose makes it unpleasant to read yet just adequately interesting enough to keep me going. It is not repellant yet nothing attracts me to continue except I guess for its own ease of reading. Tragically, I keep opening the book again to give it another chance only to put it down after a couple pages, repeat ad nauseum.

I don’t enjoy inhabiting the characters’ worlds. What Tengo thinks about and the way he thinks about it stultifies me. These meandering thoughts in cafes, train stations, and bars sound more attractive than they are, like Katherine Mansfield getting drinks with a medicated Dostoevsky in a stuffy bar. Aomame comes off a bit shallow, and a petulant weirdo. She’s an assassin, an ex-softball player, a fighter, but she doesn’t reflect on her own goals that much and her gifts are laboriously presented by the narrator.

The number of people who could deliver a kick to the balls with Aomame’s mastery must have been few indeed. She had studied kick patterns with great diligence and never missed her daily practice. In kicking the balls, the most important thing was never to hesitate. One had to deliver a lightning attack to the adversary’s weakest point and do so mercilessly and with the utmost ferocity—just as when Hitler easily brought down France by striking at the weak point of the Maginot Line. One must not hesitate. A moment of indecision could be fatal.

Is this what fanfic readers refer to when they complain about a character being a Mary Sue? And what’s up with the favorable comparison to Hitler?

Perhaps this style serves to obscure the edge marking the alternate world that Aomame finds herself in, an alternative Tokyo 1984, which seems comfortably identical save for a few key details. This questionable 1984 is designated 1Q84 by Aomame. 

Update: Murakami abandoned. Now reading violent American horror novels.

See ya later, doppelgänger! October summed up

First things first.

I had a new story published in Passages North at the beginning of the month, inspired by Olaf Stapledon but really more in the manner of A. E. Van Vogt. Neat! I read it out loud at the open mic in the cafe where I wrote it. There were so many stand-up comics doing sets at the show that even I got heckled. Laugh-a-minute. I put cinnamon in my coffee every day till I saw DUNE in theaters.

More reads: Anne Carson’s SHORT TALKS | Paul Curran’s LEFT HAND| Thomas Mann’s MAGIC MOUNTAIN (whew!) | Stevens’s PARTS OF A WORLD | Ashbery’s CAN YOU HEAR, BIRD | 

And a press copy of my most anticipated novel of the year, for two years in a row: WARNING TO THE CROCODILES by Antonio Lobo Antunes, translated by Karen C. Sherwood Solentino, from Dalkey Archive.

If you’re at all interested in translated literature then I urge you not to sleep on this great Portuguese novel from 1999. Lobo Antunes is a living grandmaster of literary modernism, and even all my personal hype did not prepare me to realize that this translation is very important, as this work is a summation of the tendencies in his 90s output, in the same way FADO ALEXANDRINO (perhaps his masterpiece) works as a summation of the 80s. A review to come, probably next year. As for the cover, I like the palette, and when you look past the fractal floral pattern and see that it is masking a strange image with pixelated faces, which is suggestive and fits as a depiction of the Lobo Antunes literary experience, with its ultra-subjective haziness. But my reflexive tastes definitely prefer the monochrome with red accent minimalism of Dalkey’s typical covers. Perhaps uniform covers are on their way out more generally.

Now for my trip to Norway via Fosse.


During the day I wrote the opening of Septology. I just started with my laptop on my stomach in bed. I write easily. Something comes to me when I sit down to write. I have never had writer’s block. […] What I experience when I write has as great an impact, if not greater, than what I experience in life. To write is to dream while awake, to place oneself in a controlled dreamlike state where one advances by listening.

Jon Fosse, interview in MUSIC AND LITERATURE

SEPTOLOGY follows a painter named Asle, seemingly from one day to the next. Every morning he imagines or “sees himself” looking at his latest picture, made of a purple and brown line that cross diagonally; and every night he ends the day with his rosary, reciting the Lord’s Prayer in latin, slowly, till it comes one or two words at a time as he inhales and exhales. Which encapsulates nicely the extreme down-tempo nature of this literary experience. Each day begins and ends the same way, with slight variations on what crosses Asle’s mind when he contemplates his picture, will he sell it, will he gift it to his neighbor Åsleik’s sister named Guro but is called Sister, will he stow it away in his crawl space, will he give up painting all together? And in his closing prayer sometimes he wonders if he really believes. “…then I say Ave Maria and that usually helps, I think and sitting there in my car I take my rosary out from under my pullover and I think now do I really believe in this, no, not really, I think…” (Part V) 

I fell in love with this bleak and beautiful fictional world, a world of habits, routines, grieving (for his late wife Ales), and the peculiar human sight made possible in complete darkness, which is how Asle prefers to look at his pictures to make sure they’re truly good and finished. But that’s not all. When we follow Asle heading into the town of Bjørgvin in the first book, he finds his double passed out on the snow: another Asle, also a painter. This Asle is an alcoholic, while our narrator Asle has gone sober; the narrator was devoted to Ales and it was love at first sight, while the double is twice-divorced with distant children; the double has a dog while the narrator doesn’t (though he’d like one); the double’s life is considerably more fucked up, and he spends much of the story recovering in a clinic after the narrator drops him off. Everyone takes the doppelgangers in stride (and there’s another doubling in Åsleik’s sister and a local woman of the same name who bumps into the narrator a few times). The biggest point of tension in the first book is who will take care of the dog Bragi. I found all of this to be profoundly beautiful.

Most of the novel’s space is taken up with the narrator’s almost clairvoyant visions of his life, childhood, a sexual attack by The Bald Man, attending Art School, falling in love with Asle, sneaking cigarettes in those slate roof boat houses that dot the west Norwegian coast. It read to me like he was seeing pictures in his mind not unlike what he paints, and we are reading the “language of pictures,” in the narrator’s phrase, especially since he seems to experience them as compulsive images that wash over whatever he’s doing in the present moment the same way his ideas for paintings do. “I have all these pictures inside me, yes, so many pictures that they’re a kind of agony, yes, it hurts me when they keep popping up again and again, like visions almost” (Part II?). The phrase “I see myself” that heads every part, mantra-like, so perfectly condenses Fosse’s procedures, a narrative act that arrests narrative time in the same moment of its expression.

SEPTOLOGY’s landscape is overwhelmingly darkened snow: the narration so telescoped on individual acts and objects, the pace so languid, the tone so even and gentle, it puts not a movie but a black box play in the mind’s eye. Fosse is a highly mature child of Beckett and Bernhard, but not so caustic as either, taking the former’s absurdism and the latter’s music.

and I grip the edge of the table tight and then I look at Bragi standing there and looking at me with his dog’s eyes and I think that dogs understand so much but they can’t say anything about it, or else they can say it with their dog’s eyes, and in that way they’re like good art, because art can’t say anything either, not really, it can only say something else while keeping silent about what it actually wants to say, that’s what art is like and faith and dogs’ silent understanding too, it’s like they’re all the same, no now I’m getting in over my head with these thoughts, I think, because I’ve never been a thinker, and the only language I’ve so to speak mastered is the language of pictures, I think and I look at Bragi and maybe he’s hungry or thirsty… (Part V)

The last book really threw me in for a loop. First of all, it seems several weeks have elapsed before the beginning of Part VI. I’d thought the seven parts naturally lent themselves to a week (they’re collected in three volumes, just like LORD OF THE RINGS’s seven books, incidentally). But that’s not all, Asle’s schedule changes, as he spends most of this section at night staring out his window at some landmark in the darkness over the Sygne Sea. Asle seems to have been a gifted painter from the beginning. He’s so talented he can start Art School without finishing high school, and after that the Art School runs out of things to teach him. There’s no resistance to his artistic upbringing. It’s God’s grace. I loved the intense mixture of modes in this gentle transformation of the story at the very end.

Mann’s MAGIC MOUNTAIN was three months of delectable reading. I may have enough to say about it to make a proper essay, though the didactic allegory and the ironized bildungsroman conceit Mann employed so masterfully here have been rendered transparent by scholars already. The experience itself is like climbing a mountain by stages, first unrolling slowly until around the sixth of the big chapters, things develop faster, the narrator starts summarizing more, the tone gets funnier and more deranged as we go along, and before you know it you’ve careened over the finish line in a runaway toboggan. 

I read a hard copy of the Lowe-Porter translation, pictured above, but also ended up reading large stretches of it electronically through the more recent John E. Woods translation. This was interesting if irresponsible. They are quite different, with Woods overall being very smooth to read, as I expected after his DOKTOR FAUSTUS, while Lowe-Porter goes for an antiquated pastiche with lots of idioms and untranslated French. Which approach is more faithful to the German I can’t say; the two translations read to me as trying to get to Mann’s sense of humor in different ways. In the first chapter, Hans Castorp laughs his head off at a particular word used by his cousin and asylum resident Joaquim. In Mann, the word is “Seelenzergliederung” which means psychoanalysis, but literally can mean soul dissection. Lowe-Porter translates this to “psychoanalysis” which in the scene made me laugh, while in Woods it’s “psychic dissection.” Is Wood’s more literalized choice a way to make the concept as bewildering as it might be to Castorp’s perspective?

It’s probably because I’m still high from finishing it, but the very best comparison sentence for me is the very last one. 


Out of this universal feast of death, out of this extremity of fever, kindling the rain-washed evening sky to a fiery glow, may it be that Love one day shall mount?

And Woods:

And out of this worldwide festival of death, this ugly rutting fever that inflames the rainy evening sky all around—will love someday rise up out of this, too?

I originally went to Lowe-Porter because, being a hopeless aesthete, I’d previously found Woods suspiciously accessible, but I prefer the Woods formulation here. The fever is more concrete with its “ugly rutting,” and while “feast of death” and “kindling the rain-washed evening sky” have an old macabre ring, “festival” and “inflames” seem more precise. And Woods adds some structural redundancy with the repeated prepositional phrase “out of this” while Lowe-Porter’s sentences are much of the time extremely heavy on either the front or the back end in terms of what you have to keep in mind about the subject while reading through these long sentences. Putting the main verb mount at the very end felt awkward, no doubt because of my modern American ears.

So if I had to recommend the best translation on the market, I don’t know, I’d probably say go with Woods then Lowe-Porter on a possible reread.

Next read: a trip with Mr. Lowry to Mexico, on All Saints’ Day, and something about a dead dog?

High and low

Gustave Flaubert, tr Margarate Mauldon

Oxford UP 2008

In scene 2 of THE ROBBERS (1781) by Schiller, the hero Charles says this:

CHARLES VON M. The glowing spark of Prometheus is burnt out, and now they substitute it for the flash of lycopodium, a stage-fire that will not so much as light a pipe. The present generation may be compared to rats crawling about the club of Hercules.

There’s a Romanticist yearning for the lost heroism of the past. Lycopodium was a species of moss they used for pyrotechnics: Prometheus of the old age has devolved into mass spectacle, of which theater is the emblem.

It’s an impossible dream to be Charles Dickens — or maybe Thomas Pynchon — to write best sellers that are also of artistic merit. Can a narrative work be worth the money you spend on a book or admission ticket, as well has bear that elusive value of art, or beauty? Was Shakespeare the last instance? Balzac?

It’s one thing to signal the rise of mass culture and of the masses themselves in modernity, as Schiller’s play does, and another to view literary texts as various seizures of this high and low split at different moments. There was Balzac, but then there is a fork in the road, between Flaubert/Zola and Dumas.

MADAME BOVARY of course has high and low baked right into the texture. On one hand it’s a, or the 19th century adultery novel, along with SCARLET LETTER and ANNA KARENINA. On the other it is an autonomous work of sentence production. For the first time maybe the idea of the artistic writer is posed, and that what the writer does is not principally tell a gripping story, but offer good sentences. Those conspicuous details, young Charles’s cap being the most infamous example, seem to get lifted by the narrator into a realm of greater agency. So too with the thoughts of otherwise philistine characters, everything you’d hate about the bourgeois mentality. As Emma and Rodolphe carry on their affair, she offers, we’re told, all manner of protestations of love “You’re my king, I’m your concubine, etc.” And Rodolphe?

He had heard these things said to him so many times, that they no longer held any surprises for him. Emma was just like all his mistresses, and the charm of novelty, gradually falling away like a garment, laid bare the eternal monotony of passion, which never varies in its forms and its expression. He could not see — this man of such broad experience — the difference of feeling, beneath the similarity of expression.

And here, mid paragraph, the free indirect discourse breaks in, I take it.

Because wanton or venal lips had murmured the same words to him, he only half believed in the sincerity of those he was hearing now; to a large extent they should be disregarded, he believed, because such exaggerated language must surely mask commonplace feelings:

After the colon comes a beautiful sentence that works like a supplementary step in this argument, which has already excelled the expressive powers of Rodolphe, that bore, and now pushes back.

as if the soul in its fullness did not sometimes overflow into the most barren metaphors, since no one can ever tell the precise measure of his own needs, of his own ideas, of his own pain, and human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when what we long to do is make music that will move the stars to pity. (170)

What if stale language indicated not lack of feeling but the opposite? And the closing images focus on the high and low metaphor where I least expected it. The dancing bears are the mass spectacle (the kind that took place right outside the Globe theater), and the music for the stars that aspiration for aesthetic greatness. The latter, Flaubert suggests here, now entails a choice. Demotic or heiratic culture. Reach the masses, or an elite circle of asthetes.

I still agree with the part of my postmodernist rant that this split has transformed itself into expensive and cheap. I still don’t know what keeping the faith with radical modernism today actually entails.

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