Tag Archives: Thomas Pynchon

Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ and the difficulty of endings

For novels like Gravity’s Rainbow, or novels within the tradition of novels like Gravity’s Rainbow, where the length or complexity thereof acts to a certain extent as a deterrent, endings are difficult things. Finnegans Wake, Ulysses or Infinite Jest are densely referential, intricate and occasionally intractable narratives and the very notion of ending them can seem antithetical to the impulse that motivates an author to write a book that brushes up against a thousand pages.

For each of the novels I’ve named above, different strategies are adopted where the notion of an ending is elided or dodged. Those who are familiar with Finnegans Wake will know that Joyce deliberately constructed the novel to have a circular structure, where the ending, in theory, brings the reader back to the beginning. I say ‘in theory.’ I have to doubt myself that any reader who, having made her way through the Wake in its entirety finds herself now naively leafing back to the front page, on and on ad infinitum. This is to leave aside Joyce’s final inscriptions on Ulysses and the Wake with the city he wrote the novel in, and the years spent writing it. As such, the circularity of the Wake can only really be conceptual. All novels have to end, so it is, as I said, a dodge. But an interesting dodge.

The final lines of the Wake read as follows:

“We pass through grass behush the bush to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved along the”

The beginning reads:

“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

If we were to read these lines sequentially, we can detect a definite shift in tone, the ending is told in almost a fervent hush, lots of haitch sounds and staccato repetitions. I’m never usually one for syllabic analysis, but ‘grass behush the bush to’ seems to insist on a certain mutedness, a sense of petering out. So too the elegiac ‘Coming, far! End here. Us then’ Equally I suppose, it could summon memories of Father Ted‘s ‘small, far away’ schema. The final ‘sentence’ ‘a way a lone a last,’ seems particularly evocative, rather than serving an adjectival function, as in ‘alone’ or ‘away,’ they become nouns, alone-ness or last-ness incarnated, before we are rushed forward into the panorama of Dublin Bay once again, Howth Castle and Environs where Bloom proposed to Molly, and at the same time evoking the generative, fertile image of H.C.E., which stands for a lot of things in the course of the Wake, but may as well, for the moment, mean Here Comes Everybody.

Speaking of the Blooms, in Ulysses, Molly is permitted to close things out, with an extended soliloquy of sixty some pages, with about eight full-stops. It’s an ingenious structural technique, especially after the comparatively ‘dry’ episodes that precede the final ‘Penelope’ episode, ‘Eumaeus,’ and ‘Ithaca,’ the latter of which takes the form of a series of questions and answers that seem to pride themselves on the cool detachment, pedantry of their tone. In this way, Molly’s closing sentences seem more like a celebration of the fecundity of language and the body, without wishing to get too Earth Mother about it.

“then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

One should note that Molly have Bloom’s proposal in mind as she thinks this, equally, she might be thinking about her other great love when she was younger in Gibraltar. Either this is an affirmation of her relationship with Bloom, that there may be hope for them to re-kindle their ailing (depends on how you look at it, all the same) relationship, or she might continue to feel nostalgia for past loves, what might have been. Or both. They’re not mutually exclusive. On a final note, that ‘s’ sound transmutes fairly easily into the opening salvo, ‘Stately plump Buck &c.’

Infinite Jest presents us with an interesting negotiation of this issue, its one hundred pages of footnotes means we have a choice when deciding what ‘the ending’ is. I don’t have a copy to hand right now, but I think I remember the last footnote being arch and self-aware in some way. The final sentence of the prose narrative proper, takes place I think a few years, maybe a decade before the thrust of the actual narrative gets underway, it consists of a flashback of a extended drug binge the venerable Don Gately indulges on in some point during his years spent in the Massachusetts drug scene. But Foster Wallace has us in deciding on a beginning too, the start of the novel takes place a few months after the main events of Infinite Jest have concluded, long after the Quebecois separatists have shown up at the Enfield Tennis Academy and after the dust has settled with everything regarding the samizdat, that great scene with Hal Incandenza failing to make himself understood to a panel of interviewers working in the University of Arizona. With all these conflicting, interwoven chronotopes based around establishing the novel’s beginning or ending, Foster Wallace seems to have pulled off a successful elision of finishing Infinite Jest; the novel ends more or less arbitrarily, leaving the reader to try and figure out the chronology of the action-packed climax that the novel has supposedly been building to. Not only does Infinite Jest not have a proer beginning or end-point, there isn’t really a coherent middle-point to speak of either.

The ending to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow takes a different, no less self-conscious tack. Much of the novel’s arc is concerned with Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop’s attempts to get to the bottom of the mystery of an experimental V-2 rocket, and a component thereof known as the Schwarzgerät, or ‘black device.’ Many, many other things happen too, this being a Pynchon novel, but I will endeavour to keep myself focused on the ending, which relates the actual launching of the device at a cinema, a real-life actual event in Antwerp, where 567 people were killed. Just as the rocket is about to strike, the jovial correspondent narrator halts its momentum in mid-air:

“And it is just here, just at this dark and silent frame, that the pointed tip of the Rocket, falling nearly a mile per second, absolutely forever and forever without sound, reaches its last unmeasurable gap above the roof of this old theatre, the last delta-t.

There is time, if you need the comfort, to touch the person next to you, or to reach between your own cold legs…or, if a song must find you…here’s one…sung to a simple and pleasant air of the period. Follow the bouncing ball:

There is a Hand to turn the time,

Though thy Glass to day be run,

Till the Light that hath brough the Towers low

Find the last poor Pret’rite one…

Till the Riders sleep by ev’ry road,

All through our crippl’d Zone,

With a face on ev’ry mountainside,

And a soul in ev’ry stone…

Now everybody-“

I don’t think it’s too extravagant to view these last two words as an invective to the reader, to every potential reader, to partake in the communal sing-song, one that is quite morbid, not to mention laden with references to the narrative that precedes it. The fact that it takes place in the briefest moment before the rocket’s impact adds to the poignancy, and casts all the other apparently whimsical vaudeville old-Hollywood sing-alongs in an altogether different pall, perhaps they are just for the purposes of distracting ourselves from our own demise, whether it be for the onanist or the happily coupled. In the pages leading up to this, we get a throwaway reflection on the nature of endings:

“He thinks of their love in illustrations for children, in last thin pages fluttering closed, a line gently, passively unfinished,”

which is of course what we get in the above hyphen. It would be a straightforward matter, also, to link this with the Hansel & Gretel pantomime that Roger Mexico and Jerssica Mossmoon attend with Jessica’s nieces, during the production, (significantly, just before Gretel is about to dispose of the witch by beating her into the furnace) the Germans bomb a building down the street. The children become distressed, and the actor playing Gretel leads the crowd in another, seemingly innocent tune, which addresses the fact of our existences as transitory and contingent:

“And the lamps up the stairway are dying,

It’s the season just after the ball…

Oh the palm trees whisper on a beach somewhere,

And the lifesaver’s heaving a sigh,

And the voices you hear, Girl and Boy of the Year,

Are of children who are learning to die…”

This is only an excerpt of the song, and there is plenty of it to unpack, but I’ll stick to the topic for the moment. The fact that Gravity’s Rainbow‘s ending is caught in a moment of indefinite postponement, a kind of narrative caprice, is crucial, bearing in mind what Pynchon encourages the reader to dwell upon in the moments leading up to it, and in sections of the novel that anticipate the ending. Namely, death. Which is omnipresent, and inescapable. We all know this, and singing songs about it are all very well and good to distract us, but Pynchon seems to be focusing on the ending as an instrument through which we can re-assimilate our understanding. Death is an ending, of course, but an ending doesn’t have to be death. It, like the moment of Molly Bloom’s yes, can be just as affirmative and celebratory as a story’s beginning.

Thomas Pynchon’s ‘The Crying of Lot 49’

Very, very good lecture by Amy Hungerford on Thomas Pynchon’s debut novel, Oedipa Maas, and what motivates Pynchon’s counter-cultural tendencies & those of his contemporaries. Takes an original slant. Fun fun

 

Vectoral Characterisation and Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Against the Day’

20061123042439!Campanile

The problem with making generalisations about the oeuvre of any novelist, particularly when you haven’t read all of their novels, is that one just might find that one of their major works is an extended allegory of your wrongness. I once wrote that Thomas Pynchon’s characters are little more than clockwork automata as they are subservient to the satirical burlesque in which they exist; Pynchon being more interested in mounting his extravagant Mennipean satires in prose than intricate character studies.

But Chris, objects one, how could you make such a myopic statement, when you have read that other major work of Pynchon, Mason & Dixon, which is positively heaving with rich characters &c? Yes, well firstly, Mason & Dixon is some eight hundred pages in length, secondly, it is written in a pastiche of early modern English, and thirdly, while I was reading it I was in a foreign country strung out on tetrahydrocannabinol and heartbreak. At many stages in my ‘reading’ of Mason & Dixon, I might aswell have been moving my eyes along repetitive linear pathways on a blank surface. It’s one thing to wonder who a character is halfway through a novel, it’s an entirely different matter to find yourself asking ‘why are they in China all of a sudden?’

But Chris, a possibly the same, possibly different objector voices, Why are you pointing this out when that Don De Lillo post had nine views tops? Do you expect that some sort of furore has erupted for which you are now pledging a mea culpa rather than playing out an imaginative contrivance? To which I say that I am starting this off with a sort of rhetorical gesture to introduce a bit of personal drama. I’ll take a step back and talk about characterisation in general for a second before I push into Against the Day.

E.M. Forster is probably among the only writers of serious literature who you might get cited at you in an evening course on screenwriting, based on a text he wrote entitled Aspects of the Novel, in which he sets out some rather direct and uncomplicated theories of novelistic architecture. The one I’ve heard most often is the distinction Forster makes between ‘flat’ and ‘round’ characters. I might not need to delimit the difference, but Forster’s rule of thumb is that a flat character’s whole being can be delimited in a sentence. If flat characters are not being used to service a punchline, they’re probably boring. A round character, as Forster writes:

“has further dimensions to their personality, which are revealed as events demand them. A flat character never surprises us with their behaviour, but a round character may well surprise us with these unsuspected aspects of their nature; and the test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way.”

Forster is saying a lot of things in the above quotation, but I think one should ask why character comes to be framed in such terms, what is the cause for the spatiality metaphors haunting Forster’s notion of character, revealed in words such as ’flat,’ ‘round’ and ‘dimensions.’ If we think about the fields and discourses that these words conjure up, geometry, physics, mathematics and all the things I disregard out of hand because I’m not good at them, we begin to sense how inadequate they are when looked at at length, particularly in a literary context, when dimensionality doesn’t intuitively seem like something a writer should be aiming for, seeing as they are writing for a flattened, textual medium.

Calling Pynchon’s characters ‘clockwork’ would be to confine them to the realm of a two-dimensional, or flat character. They exist to carry out a pre-determined function, and serve as a representation of something beyond what they merely ‘are.’ But what if Pynchon was to expand the absurdity of these spatial notions of fictional Being, to plot the fullness of a protagonist’s dimensions with more of a verisimilitudinous gesture, rather than making them just convincingly contradictory, as one would do if one belonged to the Forster school of novel-writing. Which would be fine, by the bye; most novelists do.

Against the Day opens in the year 1893, the year of the Chicago World’s Fair. The reader is introduced to a number of young boys, and a dog who reads Henry James, aboard the airship Inconvenience. These are The Chums of Chance. The writing style is initially, that of a jocular dime-store adventure novel for pre-teens, albeit with a healthy influx of heightened literary verbiage. This sets the tone for Against the Day’s remainder, which utilises the Western, the road trip and a number of science fiction set-pieces, in a mode that honours the ‘lower’ genres that they appropriate, while keeping them at arm’s length via irony.

It is in the precise modulation of this irony that Pynchon’s art resides, manipulating these genres, refusing to commit to any one of them for very long, and thereby constructing a rambling picaresque constructed of a panoply of voices and styles. Even when Pynchon could be seen as lowering the mask and having lengthy reflections on how a particular character ‘feels’ one can see them being rendered with lines perhaps more reminiscent of those who populate nineteenth-century novels, where an individual’s agglutinated mass of feeling is far more legible to the reader, the observer-narrator, than they are to the characters themselves. Pynchon certainly manages to explain (if not explain away) Lake Webb’s reasons for entering into an effective ménage à trois with Sloat Fresno and Deuce Kindred, the men who murdered her father Webb Traverse on the instructions of the nefarious capitalist Scarsdale Vibe, far more articulately and at greater length than she ever attempt to articulate, either to herself or anyone else.

Webb is an anarchist, union leader, miner and the different ways in which Webb’s children, Frank, Reef, Kit and Lake process their grief over their father’s murder, or do not, forms the novel’s essential dramatic arc. There’s the spatial metaphor again, and it brings us back to characterisation, the notion that all characters, especially the round ones, are on a journey of some sort, and must undergo a change as they move along their individual character arc, or, as I might suggest, character vector.

Pynchon, being one of those polymaths with a flair not just for prose fiction, often makes use of mathematical or scientific concepts in his work, which can offer tempting silhouettes of skeleton keys to any would-be understander of a Pynchon novel. Kit Traverse offers one such potential source of meaning, as he is a theorist of quaternion vectors, a system of thought which extends complex numbers beyond two dimensions into four. For example, 1, 2, 3, 4, all follow a straightforward, linear path. However, we can map the figure in a different way by extending a number along a vertical axis, and map it in physical space. Why stop there? Instead of just x and y, we could add i, j and k, to solve problems that would only arise in three-dimensional space. As Kit puts it: “Up and down…left and right, to and fro, the three axes…But someone might have command of Quaternion space – three imaginary axes plus a fourth scalar term.”

The possibilities that the introduction of algebra, complex numbers and then quaternion theory takes mathematics in eludes my understanding entirely, but its placement in a novel that is, at times when it is less numerate, dealing with human longing, difficult and multifarious sexual identities and whether what it is possible to live in the world and not be deeply, ethically compromised in some way, (a world which “generation after generation, has been absorbing…labour, accepting…corpses this labor produces, along with obscene profits, which is left to other and usually whiter men to gather”) begs the question as to what the vector theme is there to establish. Looking for a single answer may be wrong-headed, but my own sense is that Pynchon is showing the ways in which the normative ways of creating characters on the page are always open to development and extension. Cyprian Latewood may enter the novel as an apparent punchline around page 900, subject to engaging in clandestine BDSM rendezvouses with closeted military men, falling laughably in love with the improbably beautiful and unattainable mathematical prodigy, Yashmeen Halfcourt, but somehow as the chapters continue, as he engages in an affair with Yashmeen, which develops in turn into the novel’s other ménage with the at first homophobic Reef Traverse, their picaresque sexual adventures develop into something far more complex. See also, his interactions with Yashmeen and Reef’s daughter. When Cyprian enters into a monastery and makes the trio a duo, the double heartbreak that his departure occasions is some of the most simultaneously affecting and underplayed I can recall encountering in a while:

“One evening Reef came in to find Yashmeen sitting distraught by a pile of Cyprian’s discarded clothing, picking up item after item. “I could pretend to be him for you,” she cried…the hopefulness in her voice more than he knew how to respond to…

“Darlin…please…That ain’t gonna do it…”

For a novelist marketed on his brashness, he knows when to turn the volume down and let the pathos seep through his half-journalese, half-objective screed of language.

Plot-wise, arc-wise or vector-wise, however you wish to construe it, the novel is always at war with the symmetry that narrative promises us, that is ingrained in its DNA. The wedding of two love interests who have long been circling one another, the murder of the wrongdoer; these are all things we are programmed to expect, and even in Against the Day, we expect Kit to couple up with Dally, and for the Webbs to gang up together to take down the Vibe enterprise. But this symmetry is always denied us. Revenge, when it happens, is never carried out by who you would expect or when. The romantic interests established early in the plot as apparently star-crossed burn themselves out, re-ignite before fading away again and both parties beginning to regularly engage in intercourse with someone else. Always for undramatic, credible reasons, that two humans getting along is difficult. The three-ways that evoke the quaternion schema and repudiate the happy-ending marriage tend not to last either, but they do seem less bourgeois, and that’s always good.

It’s always good also when in a novel’s closing pages, an apparently throwaway sentence seems to justify the possibly mad theory you’ve developed as to what the novel ‘means,’ and in the following quotation, we have a line of that nature, suggesting that Against the Day aims to “transcend the old political space, the map-space of two dimensions, by climbing into the third.”

Post-Soviet America and Don DeLillo’s ‘Underworld’

Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel Underworld opens in 1951, at a famous or infamous baseball game, (depending on whether you care more about the Brooklyn Dodgers or the New York Giants) where Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason and J. Edgar Hoover sit in the stands and watch. One of the novel’s many characters, Cotter Martin, playing hooky from school in order to attend, has a blithe conversation with Bill Waterson, across racial divides, in 1951 of all times. The tone throughout is stately, smooth and as good as DeLillo gets. Is this a novel about Old America, pre the frequently articulated loss of American innocence? A great American novel about great American people in all their ordinary humanness, through which an underplayed redemption is obtained? A nostalgic paean to pre-counter-culture, old New York? Yes, and at the same time, absolutely not, there is nothing about ordinary, white bread, milquetoast America in this novel, and the closest we get to a ‘nuclear’ family is the most distorted, upsetting, Stepford-y sections in the text.

This is for the reason that DeLillo’s prose, and I mean this as praise, simply will not allow real life in:

“Then they were everywhere at once again, looped about each other, everything new for the second time, and she closed her eyes to see them together, which she could almost do, which she could do for the sheerest time, bodies turned and edged and sidled, one way and the other, this and that concurrent, here but also there, like back-fronted Picasso lovers.”

Sometimes the only response worth outlining to a quotation is, well, there it is. This is one such occasion.

But one of the many things that makes Underworld so gratifying, is, if it is straddling the Great American Baggage, it is also resisting the obvious potential response, the sort of counter-cultural, Anglo-Dutch patronymics, scattered, dispersed, yet totally connected plots and clockwork characters of Thomas Pynchon. James Wood describes Underworld as a ‘post-paranoid novel,’ and he is not suggesting, when he does so, that the novel has somehow moved beyond paranoia. One would have to be an inferior literary critic to claim that in the two-year span that produced Underworld, Infinite Jest and Mason & Dixon that the contemporary American novel was in some way done with paranoia, but he is pointing to a component of Underworld, DeLillo’s subversion of what some of his mates might be up to.

DeLillo has expressed nostalgia for the Old America of the fifties, but as was said, this is not something that Underworld expresses baldly. For many of its characters in retrospect, the Cold War was a time of certainty, one knew who the enemy was, and who you were. The good guys. When this all falls away, when Kennedy is shot, when the Zapruder film is released, when the civil rights movement exposes white supremacy, the answer is a lot less clear. Messrs Pynchon, Foster Wallace have tended to align a critique on not totally dissimilar lines along with the rise of consumerism, and these things certainly aren’t unrelated, but DeLillo has a more interesting take on the matter, and the vast, uncomprehendable quantity of waste that it produces. DeLillo’s descriptions of such things are tinged with religiosity and rather than slinging a sardonic eye the way of piled-up garbage, reaches a pitch of intense profundity, saying that we may judge our progress as a civilisation by charting our relationship with our own waste: “Civilisation did not rise and flourish as men hammered out hunting scenes on bronze gates and whispered philosophy under the stars, with garbage as a noisome offshoot, swept away and forgotten. No, garbage rose first, inciting people to build a civilisation in response, in self-defense.”

Further, the character of Marvin, the collector of baseball memorabilia, and one of the owners of the famous baseball that threads itself through the novel seems to me to be a satire of Pynchon’s metaphor-for-narrative narratives: “Marvin said, ‘’Which the whole thing is interesting because when they make an atomic bomb, listen to this, they make the radioactive core the exact same size as a baseball.’ Through the narration, the whole wandering epic, skimmed here, protracted there, Brian was confident that the man was slipshod only in the telling. The search itself had clearly been hard, fierce, thorough and consuming.’ Marvin’s submersion in his past, determined to trace the baseball’s origin story, and relate it to the bomb, is the real nostalgia, almost as if DeLillo is getting one over and getting past the paranoid maximalism of his peers. By investigating the effects of capital influx into post-Soviet Russia in the epilogue, and the new dispensation that exists between the two states in an age of invisible ideology, De Lillo is attending to something more vivid and fundamental.

This quotation gives some sense of one aspect of what it is that the Underworld of the title refers to, you’d have to read the book to get at all of them. It is a novel about subterranean connections and invisible intersections. As the novel continues, one finds oneself increasingly noticing, drawing analogies, knowing that you’re missing others that might only reveal themselves the second time around. This is Underworld’s underworld; more so than many other novels from the time, it is pointing you again and again to what is beyond the page, to what’s beneath the words. You could go mental doing it, wonder why some chapters would be more aptly named with the title that a different chapter has, in what precise order the baseball passes from one character to another, which I suppose is only fitting for a novel in which a baseball is semi-seriously analogous to the equally mythologised magic bullet. But don’t spend all your time trying to read past Underworld, not when the prose is this this:

“This was a statement she couldn’t make, partly out of personality but also because she could not feel the ordinary contentment of things the way she used to. She could not feel favoured or charmed.

He’d replaced her life with his leaving. The voice running through her head was not the voice she used to hear before he left…There was less of her now and more of other people. She was becoming other people. Maybe that’s why they called her Rose.”

The Life-Cry of Don De Lillo’s Ratner’s Star

The novel Ratner’s Star was pitched to me, in the few outlets that have posted their reviews of the text online, as a Menippean satire, a work that is usually in prose, multi-perspectival, in that it makes ideology or interior mental states targets of fun rather than individuals, and I can’t conjure a third trait to complete the Rule. It strikes me that this is a useful means of taxonimising a good heft of the post-war American literary milieu, at least those who I’ve read enough of in order to identify what they have in common with De Lillo. I won’t name them here because it should be fairly clear that when I talk about maximalist male authors with more interest in critiquing systems/order than the steady clockwork of characterisation, that I’m hardly talking about Franzen.

This is an abstruse way into Ratner’s Star, because I’m a little stumped for what to talk about. Spelling out the satire of the novel, its brilliant deconstruction of the mechanisms of scientific enquiry, its shortcomings, its ideological blind spots, would be too programmatic, not to mention futile in its re-hashing of the case, though I do think it’s worth mentioning that the hermetic, dry humour of the novel (its re-hashing similarly useless), is as funny, smatteringly laughing out loud in places funny as Beckett or Douglas Adams.

I may just have to quote from a characterless invective towards the novel’s close that takes a global view of an eclipse forecasted by an ancient civilisation wiped out by nuclear war before our current ‘civilisation’ rose in its wake, and essentially spells out some of what the novel’s mission statement may be taken to be:

“To be Outside is to know an environment infinitely less complex than the one you left. Far from wishing to revisit misery, you are nonetheless able to experience once again some of the richness of inborn limits. You see our rapt entanglement in all around us, the press to measure and delve…Why are you here? To unsnarl us from our delimiting senses? To offer protective cladding against our cruelty and fear? The pain, the life-cry speak our most candid wonders. To out-premise these, by whatever tektite whirl you’ve mastered, would be to make us hypothetical, a creature of our own pretending, as are you.”

To quote, “Excuse me, but what the fuck is going on there?”

The paragraphing there is non-existent, the words of the section of which the above forms a part just spills and spills for pages. The rhythm is compulsive, the outlook is unrelenting, visceral, all the more so for its stepping out of the familiar novelistic framework, for its purging of all characters and scenarios we’ve been acclimatised to and for its filming a close-up of De Lillo’s monologuing face. Any other novelist would’ve been well advised to quell such faffery, as it is more likely than not to be heavy handed Malicking, but he pulls it off, and its pretty damn astounding.