The Chumps of Choice

A Congenial Spot for the Discussion of Against the Day, by Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Cornell '59, and Any Other Damned Thing That Comes Into Our Heads. Warning: Grad Students and Willie-Wavers will be mocked.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Basnight in Twilight

But here seemed to be those old bilocational powers emerging now once again, only different.

picture source

(pp. 1040-1062)

It is 1925, and Lew Basnight, after spending the war in England has, like all good private eyes nearing retirement age, ended up in Los Angeles. He has a staff of three mighty fit young ladies, Thetis, Shalimar, and Mezzanine, handy with firearms, enough rich clients with messy lives needing cleaning, and some mysterious overseas income, so that he is doing quite well for himself.

As our penultimate episode opens, a black jazz musician, Chester LeStreet, tells Lew he's been sent by Tony Tsangarakis, a club owner and gangster, to ask him to investigate the possible reappearance of a party girl named Encarnacion, who was supposed to have been murdered some time before. This word has come via a phone call from Santa Barbara made by one Miss Jardine Maraca, Encarnacion's old roommate.

Lew traces Miss Maraca to a shabby motor court on the Pacific Coast Highway, from which she has departed. Finding no clues in her empty room, Lew calls Emilio, a Filipino dope peddler and psychic living nearby, to come give the place, specifically the toilet bowl, a look.

Emilio, appalled by his visions, gives Lew a Los Angeles address that appears to him, and demands his fee right then, in cash.

Back at the office, Lew learns that Merle Rideout has been calling every ten minutes to speak to him. Finally getting him on the line, Merle asks Lew to meet him at a picnic ground.

Merle has been in L.A. for over a decade, running into Luca Zombini, now a designer of movie special effects, in early 1914. He visits the always interesting Zombini household and comes to some affectionate resolution with Erlys. The Zombinis become what family Merle has.

At the picnic park, Merle has Lew take steps to shake anyone tailing him, directing him to meet his partner Roswell Bounce at the other end of the park. The three of them proceed to the inventors' lab.

Rideout and Bounce (heh) have invented a sort of viewing process which accesses the mysterious capabilities of silver to bring photographs to life, making them not only windows of the future, and the past of their subjects, but, depending on the settings, viewers of alternate futures as well.

The scientists think the studios are out to steal the process and ask Lew for protection. Testing their invention, Lew gets them to scan a photo of Jardine Maraca, and watches as she drives to a place called Carefree Court.

When Lew finally checks out the address Emilio gave him, he finds a bungalow, and, behind its screen door, the malevolently beautiful, and haunted looking, Mrs. Deuce Kindred. Noting Lew's obvious arousal, the very willing Lake invites him in.

Oh this was going to be sordid as all hell, thinks Lew, and boy is he right.

Afterwards, while Lew is chatting with Lake about Encarnacion's case over coffee in the kitchen, Deuce enters, a mean runt packing heat, a labor-busting goon for a low-rent movie studio.

Deuce does not care, like at all, about what Lew and Lake have been up to, but objects heatedly to Lew's mocking questions about what he does, and finally pulls his gun. Luckily, Lew had earlier told Shalimar to back him up. She enters with a machine gun and Deuce ducks out.

The next three pages are sketched out of the miserable dream lives of Lake and Deuce, two pathetic people who've used each other for years merely to escape the consequences of any human feelings.

A day or two later, Lew goes to Carefree Court, where he crashes a party. Everyone there has been, over the years, at war, or at least at odds, with the many forces of authority, but seem pretty chipper about it all. Lew meets Virgil Maraca, who reminds him of the Hermit tarot card, and his daughter Jardine, who reminds Lew of his lost wife, Troth.

Jardine tells Lew that Encarnacion's case is closed, that she returned (from the dead?) only long enough to testify against Deuce, whom the cops have picked up for a string of grizzly murders of women.

Though she makes plans for Lew to take her out of town, Jardine decides instead to steal an airplane, and flies away over the desert.

Lew goes to Merle with a photo of Troth taken in 1890 and asks to see her grow old. Doing so, he falls into a reverie of the irrecoverable past, wondering if she can see him too.

Merle, perhaps inspired by this, uses a picture of Dally he took in Colorado when she was 12, to find her now in Paris, where she, sitting in a tiny studio, now appears to return his gaze, smiles at him, saying something.


I will add my comments in Comments in a bit.


At Tuesday, November 13, 2007 9:11:00 PM, Blogger Monte Davis said...

Even though close friends in my youth were cineastes, I usually had my nose in a book. So [blush] it wasn't until the last few years, when Netflix made it easy, that I saw many of the gems of Hollywood noir. Now I weep for the decades I didn't know Out of the Past, Asphalt Jungle, Double Indemnity, Postman 2x, Scarlet Street, etc.

The upside is that a lot of their crime & detective tropes were fresh in my mind for this section, which made it even more fun. Some LA-specific touches echo Chandler and The Day of the Locust, too. Scholars will surely find many nods to lesser movies and to "Black Mask" stories I'll never read. I just wanted to register my admiration for the sustained sunny weirdness of it all.

And to note that -- while silly names have always been a regrettable childish excrescence on our beloved author's Serious Stature -- I find "Thetis, Shalimar and Mezzanine" pretty goddamn funny.

At Wednesday, November 14, 2007 4:43:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

Some LA-specific touches echo Chandler and The Day of the Locust, too.

Boy, Howdy, and Hammett too. Deuce's "dream" of waking up next to a dead girl is straight out of Red Harvest.

And speaking of movies, I only just realized, quite by accident too, that Dally's first words in the book ("Say, Pa! I need a drink!"), back on pg. 27, were lifted nearly verbatum from a dialogue card from the (very funny) Buster Keaton silent short, The Boat.

At Wednesday, November 14, 2007 10:46:00 PM, Blogger Joseph said...

I don't know if anyone recalls my contention that characters who interact directly with the Chums are closer to the realm of pure fiction than to fictive realism. Lew went up in the balloon with the chums and seems to me to live in a noirish detective lala land. I think these characters are archetypes from the Pynchon Cosmos, and paranoia is Lew's permanent beat. The essence of this world view is dramatic excitement, the mystery ever on the verge of solution, the penetration of the unknown, the sudden thrill of dynamite and death, the man maneuvering solo against all odds.

The fact that P has moved certain characters to Los Angeles, the dream factory of the coming world , is obviously deliberate and loaded. As soon as we are there we move from Disney in the Sky, to Father and son reunions, to David Lynch scenes, to 50's noir .

Doesn't all of this stimulate a thirst for the world behind the entertaining show biz Maya.? I keep thinking of the Tarahumara story of the cave where the gods had hid the waters of life because of human greed.

At Thursday, November 15, 2007 4:40:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

I think you hit the nail on the head with the "dream factory" location. And by now it sould be apparent that Lew does not solve any of the cases we've seen him on, rather they conclude "off camera" or just go away. (Gentleman bomber of Headingly, anyone?)

I'd say there are four pulp fiction genres mixed to create AtD: boy's adventure, detective, western revenge, and international espionage, and they merge with each other with greater or lesser degrees of success.

Now, granting its scope, ambition and the author's astounding narrative gifts (the dialogue throughout, and most notably in this episode, is the best in the business), and if we lower our sights somewhat to the pulp level, we might say that it's all insanely great.

However, hewing to a higher standard, what one might call the higher mind of the novel, the guide to its intentions, is an inconsistant, distracted mess, which is a snotty way of saying that I think you give the author more credit than he deserves with your fictive realm theory of the Chums.

At Thursday, November 15, 2007 6:15:00 AM, Blogger Monte Davis said...

Seems to me that the "higher mind of the novel" offers a rather dour judgment of life in the dream factory:

..all it took was a couple of years in L.A. to turn [Lew] into one more old goat of the region with a deep suntan... (1041)

Merle had... been slowly mutating into a hybrid citrus with no commercial value.. (1045)

The "state picnic" under the sycamores (1047-1048), just like the Traverse family picnic at the end of Vineland that it post-foreshadows, is superficially Arcadian. And that potato-salad riff is dazzling Americanese. But then there's that casual mention of "seasonal farm laborers," which hints at other Midwesterners who'll be coming to a less paradisiac Sunshine State from the Dust Bowl.

Yes, there's a risk of slack anything-goesness in any reading along the lines of "only incoherent fiction can do justice to an incoherent world." But gimlet-eyed Judge Pyncheon is still with us in the dream factory, watching us amuse ourselves to death.

Synchronicity -- this wonderful Mailer from 1960 just popped up on the P-list:

"Since the First World War Americans have been leading a double life, and our history has moved on two rivers, one visible, the other underground; there has been the history of politics which is concrete, factual, practical and unbelievably dull if not for the consequences of the actions of some of these men; and there is a subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation."

At Thursday, November 15, 2007 7:17:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

We might note also the slackness to Time our author notes in California, It was in the days (pp. 1043) A day or two later (pp. 1057), The next time (pp. 1059), being but three inexact locators.

And, Christ, but that Mailer was an awfully smart man.

At Thursday, November 15, 2007 10:28:00 AM, Blogger Monte Davis said...

Doesn't all of this stimulate a thirst for the world behind the entertaining show biz Maya?

Yes, and I think it's supposed to. This author is 70, and may lack the benign patience of that young feller who once told us, old fans who’ve always been at the movies (haven’t we?),[that] there is time, if you need the comfort, to touch the person next to you, or to reach between your own cold legs...

Thanks in good part to you and WillD, I'm becoming surer that all AtD's slap-happy endings are (like GR's) in fact attempts to get us to stop wanking, discard the last of the butter-flavor-flavored popcorn, and exit, blinking, into the day again.

At Thursday, November 15, 2007 11:10:00 PM, Blogger Joseph said...

I'm becoming surer that all AtD's slap-happy endings are (like GR's) in fact attempts to get us to stop wanking, discard the last of the butter-flavor-flavored popcorn, and exit, blinking, into the day again.

I think you give the author more credit than he deserves with your fictive realm theory of the Chums.

I'm skeptical of most of our abilities to give the author more credit than he deserves, but that is a poor defense of my idea. When I read V, my 2nd P book, I got a tremendous sense that he was altering the fundamental structure of narrative movement toward parrallel streams in which the separate lines interact somewhat like DNA strands zipping and unzipping in unpredictable ways. Narrative is only then a tool in a fundamentally non narrative structure. Some take his work as satire. I take Pynchon's work as a rambling essay on every topic of interest to him History, Human psychology, Physics, Alein forces, Religion, War, Myth, Chaos, Nose Jobs, the works. Satire just doesn't cover it.

It is such a stretch for a satirist even to create characters and situations repugnant and weird enough not to be actualized in the newspapers anymore. I sometimes think the human imagination is almost incapable of anything that is not in some sense possible. All of this tends to reinforce my own sense that there is a sliding scale between fiction and reality, because it is all filtered through mind. One of the most real things in this book is the lack of resolution, rather than the satisfying arc of a more traditional fictional narrative.

I am not saying your sense of an inconsistent, distractive mess isn't a valid and actual experience by a very astute reader, but you may be approaching the issues of meaning in a way that doesn't suit the nature of the work.

I think Pynchon has worked hard to make something experiential and as close as possible to undeconstructible. My first read was the most fun because it was like a house of mirrors ala the Glass Bead Game, it was like taking a hallucinogen long after my days trying things like that. It induces a search for meaning that ties into several mythic and pulp fictionish languages and builds a sense of the complexity of history, people and reality that sometimes seems like divine revelation and often falls apart and trails off into the blue. But in the end I have felt Monte's thought working its way to the surface the sense that we are being asked to leave the movie palace after being given a massive dose of maya candy with some unhidden messages about transcendent love and resistance to both idiotics and applied idiotics. That any chance for something better is to be found in the day we live in, in us , in our real lives.

I find that I am losing my appetite to parse ATD. After a five year Pynchon binge it maybe time to move on. The parts that mattered came through with plenty of food for thought for awhile.
In my second read it is the beauty of the writing that stands out and the passages that caught me first time seem even richer and more translucent. I also found the cowboy story to gain the most from the second read. Sometimes I have the same feelings that Will is articulating.

I wish like hell though that everyone who has contributed to this blog could get together at a local bar from time to time to continue this conversation face to face .

At Friday, November 16, 2007 5:22:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

While I would avoid calling what Pynchon does satire, I know exactly what you mean, and will suggest that there might not be a critical term for his brand of modal variations.

In thinking about this discussion I've been trying to decide what AtD is about, as I think all great novels are broadly about One Thing and work their variations from there. Moby Dick is about the Whale (or Leviathan), The Naked and the Dead and Catch-22 are about the War, An American Tragedy is about Class, Lolita, Insanity.

GR, it seems to me is about the Rocket, and M&D about the Line (on another day I might say Friendship.) What is AtD about? After reading it twice, very closely, I really can't say. It's about a lot of things, which is likely the main source of my frustration with it.

Our attention throughout has been directed towards one thing or another, only to have that object of attention evenually tossed away. Iceland Spar, Bilocation, the Interdict Line, you name it, none of it has any bearing on the book's outcome.

And here let me add my last bitch about this episode, how the very touching endings we are given mainly rely on absolutely nothing, other than Rideout, Bounce, & Pynchon's knack for strange invention, that has come before, and could have happened at any point after, say, the 600 page mark.

The best I could come up with is that AtD is about Time. Which is pretty fucking funny, if you think about it, for if you ever buttonhole our reclusive author and ask him what his book is about, he can just scream at you that it's about time.

At Friday, November 16, 2007 7:04:00 AM, Blogger Monte Davis said...

... I would avoid calling what Pynchon does satire... there might not be a critical term...

Charles Hollander makes an interesting if patchy case for Menippean satire: per Wikipedia, "prose satire...rhapsodic in nature, combining many different targets of ridicule into a fragmented satiric narrative, similar to a novel [heh!]... [e.g.] Swift's A Tale of a Tub or Gulliver's Travels, Thomas Carlysle's Sartor Resartus, François Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel or Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland or O'Brien's The Third Policeman..." (IMHO Candide and Tristram Shandy deserve a look in, too.)

Some of CH's essays, including comparisons to Dante that I also like, are online at

[dusting hands briskly] Taxonomy accomplished, now for the minor matter of what it's about. I'd tweak "about time" to "about history": in GR, M&D, and AtD, about how the past knots into, and the future flowers out of, the "nodes" of 1945, 1761-1786, and 1893-1922 respectively: times of concentrated choice when things could/should have taken a different course.

I.e., I take Will D's Rocket as a node for calculus + chemistry + cartels -> Cold War... and the cutting of the Line as a node for Enlightenment order vs. retreating magic + slavery -> the compromises and contradictions of the nascent U.S., which would lead to war across that very Line.

I'm pretty sure that time and re-reading will help me pull AtD into that pattern; I think I'm beginning to see how the Chums, Western, detective etc. modes here do some of the same work as the intricate time-stitching of the Revd's and others' story-telling voices in M&D. (In GR, of course, he just twirled the dial and let all-wavelength, all-night Archetype Radio rip.)

If you'll hand me that crowbar -- thanks -- I'll argue that the other books are less encyclopedic (cf. Ed Mendelson on GR) versions of the same thing:

V. as the 1950s outcome of the Virgin -> dynamo "mechanization" and anomie suspected at the turn of the 20th century...

CoL49 as revelation of a suppressed history that might have been (gee, you mean mail service wasn't a natural monopoly?), of messages that didn't get through...

Vineland as how all that Sixties change-the-world energy sabotaged itself, ending up as quaint and impotent and nostalgic by the 1980s as a sit-com rerun or a Yurok folktale.

To me, all comedy is about the gap between what we are and what we hope/pretend to be. Satire is the same thing in a harsher moral light added (that "could/should" above).

And Pynchon specializes in the satire of history, harshest of all because we have to live with it. Each book offers his characters (and us) every possible excuse of "impersonal" historic forces -- voices from Stencil to Vond to Renfrew enumerate them for us -- and then yanks them away.

No, Benny; no, Tyrone; no, Frenesi; no, Cyprian; no, reader; you're not getting off that easy. Each moment matters, each act or inaction matters -- like Brooktrout sez, "in the day we live in, in us, in our real lives."

(Mister B: I drive between PA and northern Maine several times a year, usually via 95 but sometimes via 91 to St. Johnsbury and VT-NH-ME route 2. We'll drink this over some time, guaranteed.)

At Friday, November 16, 2007 7:48:00 AM, Blogger Robert Z. said...

That Mailer quote also calls to mind Dos Passos' USA, one line in particular: "All right we are two nations," which occurs late in the third volume, following news headlines of Sacco & Vanzetti's execution. The whole USA trilogy echoes ATD in a number of ways: they cover the same period of history for one thing; there's a polyphony of characters, with no single protagonist; a concern for how society is riven by wealth, power, corruption into a caste system, and how everyone one is culpable...

I agree with Brooktrout: ongoing face-to-face symposia (while probably geographically impossible to coordinate a plenary session) would be a gas. (Anyone else in NYC's gravity well?)

And now that we've finally seen Deuce's fate, I wonder about him and Sloat: when we remember that Sloat handled the physical damage and Deuce the emotional, their punishments seem weirdly appropriate. Revenge, unlike justice, is best when tailormade. Simply gunning Deuce down wouldn't have been enough. And Sloat wouldn't have understood the sort of existential hell Deuce lives in as punishment: I bet he'd think he got away with it all. Their fates are well suited for their own conceptions of how the universe works. In other words: live by the sword, die by the sword.

So on reflection, I actually find Deuce's to be the most satisfying: fucked-up little weasel deserves nothing more and nothing less than what he got. And I find Vibe's just desserts the least satisfying...

And I share Will's frustration with ATD -- well, it frustrated me at first, then it fascinated me, and now it fascinates me and frustrates me in equal measure -- It's how I can find each episode/chapter/story-arc in isolation to be extremely moving, or intriguing, or dazzling, or whatever, but when I try to integrate it as part of the greater whole, I fail. In other words, I am having a much harder time synthesizing ATD than any of his other books. I have found ATD puzzling in a completely different way from how I have found his other books puzzling.

Is it about Time? I've been struck since very early on with how utterly static this book is, despite being bound so intimately to chronology, with its constant signposts to historic events. And we drive onward, onward from 1893 to the 1920s... Indeed, we never really even flashback that much (just once or twice, like with Erlys and Merle -- never to the degree that all the others jump around whole decades or centuries).

And yet and yet... in no other Pynchon book do I feel the utter absence of Time's passage. In ATD, it's Zeno's conception of time as a static thing despite appearances to the contrary. Stencil was a young man, now he's an old man, got it. Pointsman and Pokler are exquisitely aware of their mortality, understood. Mexico & Pirate, Mason & Dixon, are viscerally wearied by the history which they are buffeted and tormented by. But while characters in all the other books are woven into the fabric of history, the characters of ATD seem to be coasting alongside history. Participating, perhaps, but detatched. And no one really seems to age in ATD. Not just the Chums. Sure, Jesse and Dally grow up as the book progresses, Merle & Roswell, and Lew are oldsters, etc, but... (Ironically, only Deuce and Lake strike me as truly withered and diminished -- or touched at all -- by the passage of years.) So I guess if we say that a book is about whatever it makes you think hard about, then I'd agree with Will wholeheartedly that it's about time.

At Friday, November 16, 2007 9:28:00 AM, Blogger Monte Davis said...

Thank you, d.j. (and all) -- this is one of the most stimulating exchanges I've had about AtD since it came out. (I'm in Bucks County, two hours from NYC, but lived there for 30 years, visit often, and would run, not walk, to a Chumps Conclave.)

By accident of chronology I cut my reading teeth during a trough in Dos Passos' reputation, haven't read him, and will remedy that ASAP.

I have found ATD puzzling in a completely different way from how I have found his other books puzzling.

Seconded. That's what I'm groping towards in saying that somehow the genres invoked here take the place of -- overlap in a problematic way with -- what I considered varying authorial voices in previous books. (Add in the Lovecraftian horror of the Vormance idol, and the Jamesian micro-genre of "American princess in corrupt European drawing rooms" we get with Dally in Venice.)

To me, the detached-ness of most of the characters is part and parcel of that. Cyprian is a signal exception because he grows -- and finally steps steps so decisively -- out of the 39 Steps, Balkan Great Game, Sanjak of Novi Pazar frame in which we met him. That's the "Jeremiah grabs the whip" or "Slothrop sees Tantivy's obituary" of this book. And even that is perverse, because just as he becomes intensely, morally real, he steps out of the story and out of history.

Fascination and frustration, oh my yes. Damned if I know why Pynchon so often puts us at a distance ("it's just a genre story, just a Zombini trick box") from what happens. So I keep turning this chunk of crystal to angles I haven't tried yet, as if it were some kind of split-image rangefinder...

At Friday, November 16, 2007 12:54:00 PM, Blogger Civic Center said...

Loved brooktrout's "I'm skeptical of most of our abilities to give the author more credit than he deserves, but that is a poor defense of my idea." I think your DNA narrative strands is the best metaphor for Pynchon's style I've ever read.

My favorite moment in this section was the trip up to Santa Barbara, where Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer held court in the 1950s and 1960s, though MacDonald gave the town a phony name. The earthquake was in 1925, by the way, which helps to date this section. And as someone who grew up in the Santa Barbara area, I had to laugh out loud at his description from page 1043: "Because of the right-angled piece of local coastline known as the Rincon, the ocean lay to the south of town instead of west, so you had to rotate ninety degrees from everybody else in Southern California to catch the sunset. This angle, according to Scylla, an astrologer of Lew's acquaintance, was the worst of all possible aspects, and doomed the town to reenact endlessly the same cycles of greed and betrayal as in the days of the earliest Barbarenos."

You can't get any more exact than that, and it reminds me why I still have such a hard time with the concept of directional points of the compass. The sun has always set in the north.

At Saturday, November 17, 2007 5:32:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

I'd tweak "about time" to "about history"

Granting your very acute analysis, Monte, I'm wary of this point for several reasons. History is even more abstract than Time, and here I'll point out that in most of western Europe, all of South America, and in all Indigenous cultures, there is no separate word for what we in the English realm regard as History. In French, Spanish, Italian (and I'm guessing Portugese) the same word is employed for both "history" and "story".

Seen in that light, all histories are stories, and one could make an awfully good case that this is the grand sub-text of all Pynchon's work, oh wait. . . you did!

Anyway, a story of a story by neccessity becomes a bit distracted, no? Which is what Tristram Shandy is all about, inn'it? But note Sterne's very few characters, limited scope of action, and rather vivid narrator. In telling the story of a story, he does not risk doing much more.

NOT the case here.

Now even choosing Time as the subject of a novel is fraught with risk. The most famous example, Proust's In Search of Lost Time, (as Tom's Euro. Lit. prof at Cornell exactly translated the title) kept getting bigger and bigger and the author died while still working on it.

Again, though, a very vivid narrator, and exceptionally narrow focus of action. While I'd say Ulysses is about Dublin, it is obsessed with Time, and that nightmare of Irish history, and limits itself to the events of a single day.

REALLY not the case here.

My point, at last, is that abstract aims are best applied towards very small targets, at least in the field of literature. I'll finish by noting that both examples above are European. AtD, in its terrific ambitions and skills, and in its pronounced shortcomings, is a very American piece of work.

At Saturday, November 17, 2007 6:45:00 AM, Blogger Monte Davis said...

there is no separate word for what we in the English realm regard as History.

Don't hang too much on etymology. I don't think a French reader is in doubt about what he'll find in Michelet, or an Italian about Guicciardini.

Tom's Euro. Lit. prof at Cornell

If this signifies Nabokov, I made exactly the same error a few days ago. While I'm very sure P has read and learned from N, he did not take his courses. There's only speculation that he audited lectures, plus one stray recollection of a student's odd printed script from Vera N.

AtD, in its terrific ambitions and skills... very American...

Many of the Mailer obits resurrected the "Great American Novel" meme, which I suspect was a unique 1950s confluence of (1) "We're all grown up and ready to play Leavis' 'Great Tradition'" and (2) "Who's going to get Hemingway's shoes?" It's not at all clear to me that the ambitions of American novels as a class are systematically broader than those of War and Peace or the Rougon-Macquart saga or The Man Without Qualities... or Ada, to pick at random :-) a sprawling ambitious multi-decade instance of

"Maybe it's not the world, but with a minor adjustment or two it's what the world might be."

At Saturday, November 17, 2007 9:24:00 PM, Blogger Neddie said...

Goodness. A lot of heady stuff going on here. Regular Heady Lamarr, we gots us!

For myself, I will suspend judgment on the Work Itself until a second or even third reading. I agree that the first run-through is insufficient for an educated judgment, "that time and re-reading will help me pull AtD into that pattern." This is a mighty, mighty complex bit of needlework Our Embroiderer has wrought, and it will take more study for me to collect strands, find concordances, and make the kind of summary one can reel off in a cocktail-party scenario...

Took me only about twenty years to be able to knock one off about Gravity's Rainbow...

This "Two Americas" meme is catching hold. I find, in the course of my own researches, this passage from Greil Marcus' "The Old, Weird America" (previously published as "Invisible Republic"). Speaking of the fascinatingly eccentric Harry Smith's magisterial compilation, "The Anthology of American Folk," Marcus sez:

"This is Smithville. Here is a mystical body of the republic, a kind of public secret: a declaration of what sort of wishes and fears lie behind any public act, a declaration of a weird but clearly recognizable America within the America of the exercise of institutional majoritarian power. Here the cadence of Clarence Ashley's banjo is both a counterpoint and contradiction to any law; here everyone calls upon the will and everyone believes in fate. It is a democracy of manners -- a democracy, finally, of how people carry themselves, of how they appear in public. The ruling question of public life is not that of the distribution of material goods or the governance of moral affairs, but that of how people plumb their souls and then present their discoveries, their true selves, to others--unless, as happens here often enough, the fear of not belonging, or the wish for true proof that one does belong, takes over, and people assume the mask that makes them indistinguishable from anyone else."

Drop that mask, kids. Drop that mask. Lose the fear. Drop the mask.

An Anarchist would.

At Sunday, November 18, 2007 7:28:00 AM, Blogger Monte Davis said...

Headley stuff indeed.

As a 60s teen I'd absorbed the discourse around Harrington's The Other America (1962), knew enough to link it back to FDR's "one-third of a nation," all that good Great Society stuff with riot seasoning.

But it didn't get into my dreams, or strike deep roots in my daylight, until I read Oedipa's night on the town in CoL49... which I now want to re-read with the Smith anthology as accompaniment.

"That America coded in Inverarity’s testament, whose was that? She thought of other, immobilized freight cars, where the kids sat on the floor planking and sang back, happy as fat, whatever came over the mother’s pocket radio; of other squatters who stretched canvas for lean-tos behind smiling billboards along all the highways, or slept in junkyards in the stripped shells of wrecked Plymouths..."

At Sunday, November 18, 2007 9:44:00 AM, Blogger Joseph said...

One of the 2 or 3 most traditional idea based essays Thomas Pynchon has written is Is it O.K. to be a Luddite? , in which he takes on C. P. Snows "Two Cultures... " essay about the benefits of the scientific revolution and the dangers of the Luddite-like tendencies, according to Snow, of the scientifically uniformed literary culture. While its apparent purpose is to satirize Snow's name-calling by giving the Luddites their due ( a theme later expanded on brilliantly by Wendell Berry) , he also lays out some of his strongest affinities and touches on 2 major themes of his writing. 1)The revenge of the badass( the unleashing of uncontrollable forces that bite us in the ass) . Great film and literary Badasses include Frankenstein’s "monster", King Kong, Godzilla, Ice Nine, Loki, Grendel's Mother, the Golem of Prague, and in P's work the machine woman V or Blicero or the Schwartzcommando in GR, the fiery ice man in ATD. All of these are metaphors of resistance to cultural colonialism/imperial dominance. 2) The loss that accompanies the idea of progress and advancement. This includes "scientific", cultural, and technological advances. Why must "progress" be accompanied by the devastation of so many? What kind of fucked up religion is this?

Having shown from V to M&D the destructive arc of annihilation implicit in Western progress, crushing both earth and humans in its momentum, I think Pynchon has chosen from this ATD portion of history to first focus on , and then place in the background the incredible story of Nicola Tesla, who was a kind of naïf genius who wanted his inventiveness to serve human needs rather than corporate greed, whose work inevitably crossed borders. Tesla’s is the story of possibilities subverted, worlds destroyed or driven into exile, but also the beginning of an information age whose full possibilities are still unknown. Webb’s is a similar story of naïve resistance to violently reinforced corporate greed, and the legacy of his courage and mistakes as it plays out in the lives of his children. Again it’s about the possibilities that spring from a given life.

So I guess I think at a time when we desperately need other possibilities with enough savvy to know how such possibilities are turned off course, at a time when applied idiotics is on display to the whole world, P is setting forth a novel about other possible worlds. At a time when we think bliss will come to us in the next telecom device, P is reminding us of ancient arches in the desert where we might blow this pop stand and our petty selves and enter another world, become a larger self.

For my money this stuff isn’t sentiment, but real possibilities, sketch lines of informed and hard-won hope that closely parallel the best things I have encountered, filled with dopy good humor that rarely fails to amuse and set against some of the darkest days of human history.

I agree we should dig into the time theme some more .

At Sunday, November 18, 2007 9:47:00 AM, Blogger Joseph said...

Like what neddie is saying as usual, and you guys are coming up with some good reading possibilities.

At Monday, November 19, 2007 6:03:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

At a time when we think bliss will come to us in the next telecom device, P is reminding us of ancient arches in the desert where we might blow this pop stand and our petty selves and enter another world, become a larger self.

And here I'll suggest that subsequent readings won't make AtD clearer or more comprehensible, but new readers will. For a novel to live, no matter how popular or understood it was when first published, it needs to stand against the future. One could argue that Moby Dick needed the Civil War to illuminate its insane details, The Great Gatsby gained its vivid power from the collapse of the Jazz Age, On the Road began to glow after the disappointments and breakdowns of the 60s.

I'm biased, but I think that if any fiction writer working today will be read in 70 years (that is, if anyone is still reading) I'll be Tom, and it's possible that AtD's vast design and occasional disappointments will be seen whole and comprehended in the light of something that's now still under the event horizon.

At Monday, November 19, 2007 6:31:00 AM, Blogger Monte Davis said...

Will: yowza!

(I think you meant "it'll be Tom." If you meant "I'll be Tom," I have a lot of follow-up questions.)

At Monday, November 19, 2007 10:25:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

Heh, Dr. Freud to the emergency room, please. . .

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