Overwrought, hysterical, panicked, demented, distressed, hilarious. How have I missed these?
Every word in Thomas Pynchon’s deranged dance macabre, ‘Gravity’s Rainbow,’ seems, like HTML, to link out to some other subject. The book seems for me to exist in-between worlds, barely attached to this one while trying desperately to connect us with another fuzzily glimpsed, just-hinted, vague world, suggested by pure chance connections between ideas and events here on a fractured and demented earth. I’m barely one hundred and sixty-five pages into this book and I’m reacting for it and against it in nearly equal measure. It’s a goddamn blast. It’s also a motherfucking bitch. Every page of it so far mentions some kind of rocket trajectory, launch pad, descent, explosion or blast of light. Everyone in the book seems to be living out one debauchery or another while all the time expecting to be blown away in bits, perhaps even looking forward to it. Death, for Pynchon, seems on the surface like fun. The book almost makes a mockery of dark humor, of dying. It’s as if Pynchon wants to give the finger straight into the yawning mouth of death’s favorite century.
Things I notice so far about the book: Rockets of course. Everywhere and in every mind of the characters. It’s all about predicting bomb hits and finding the rockets. People want to understand how one of the characters can possibly manage to have sex in various locations just prior to those spots being bombed into oblivion by German V-2 rockets. The books seethes with sexual excitement that’s a death-wish. I also notice that Pynchon is associating Hansel & Gretel, the forest and the witch’s oven with Germany and the events of World War II. The Holocaust is looming over this book on every page. There are constant mentions of cause and effect, how it operates and whether it might be possible to break out of its logic. Can a rocket attack be sensed before it even hits? Psychological early warning system. Brain radar. Statistical analysis for making predictions.
Imagine a missile one hears approaching only after it explodes. The reversal! A piece of time neatly snipped out…a few feet of film run backwards…the blast of the rocket, fallen faster than sound–then growing out of it the roar of its own fall, catching up to what’s already death and burning…a ghost in the sky…
Quite a few references to film in this book so far up to page one hundred and sixty-five.
What could be more paranoid than a constant worry about bomb rockets? The book seems like a grotesque exaggeration at first. But that’s the joke I think. It’s actually an understatement and proves paranoia to be the most well-placed and logical mental operation in a century during which people were dug into trenches and told to march toward each other like polite firing squads. A century in which men marched millions of people into gas chambers and pushed them through ovens. A century in which entire cities were blown off the face of the planet while the citizens were out shopping for groceries. Pynchon seems like an author who is not afraid of any of it. He’s like a guy laughing at the scene of a traffic accident. Or photographing it like Warhol did. And the book’s laugh-in-a-sort-of-half-shocked-way funny. Here’s a bit from a funny scene where a guy visits a nurse he wants to sleep with but must endure a lengthy sit-down with an older woman patient who wants to share her candy:
Under its tamarind glaze, the Mills bomb turns out to be luscious pepsin-flavored nougat, chock-full of tangy candied cubeb berries, and a chewy camphor-gum center. It is unspeakably awful. Slothrop’s head begins to reel with camphor fumes, his eyes are running, his tongue’s a hopeless holocaust. Cubeb? He used to smoke that stuff. “Poisoned…” he is able to croak.
“Show a little backbone,” advises Mrs. Quoad.
“Yes,” Darlene through tongue-softened sheets of caramel, “don’t you know there’s a war on? Here now love, open your mouth?”
It’s funny, no? But it should also set off sparks off recognition in your head that link up with gas chambers. You just can’t trust Pynchon to be genuinely funny. He’s watching you laugh and getting ready to slit your careless throat. No wonder Pynchon uses a secret identity. He’s dangerous. He seems slightly criminal. This guy loves conspiracies. He must have some really excellent ideas about who killed Kennedy. I mean he’d probably say Oswald did it, but it’s why Oswald thought he was doing that makes it interesting.
I love it when authors hide their identities. Pynchon has been effectively doing this for about fifty years now. This reminds me, as all secret identities do, of Batman.
Here’s my ancient and torn copy of a Batman giant issue from 1969. Down in the lower margin there I wrote ‘fuck.’ I’m not sure why I would have done something so charming to a Batman comic. I must have been practicing my favorite words or something. What does an old comic book have to do with Pynchon? I don’t really know but it seems to fit. In fact, comic artist Frank Miller did the cover for the recent Penguin edition of Gravity’s Rainbow. That’s the copy of the book in the first photograph above. Behind the book in that photo is a computer screen showing a drawing by artist Zak Smith who did a thing he called ‘Illustrations for Each Page of Gravity’s Rainbow.’ It’s been shown at the Whitney Museum and you can buy it in book form.
It’s strange how much I’m enjoying this book because I hated ‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce. I think Pynchon snagged some stuff from Joyce. He even resorts to script format for some portions of the book the way Joyce did. But I only like the first part of Ulysses which takes place on top of a tower and has a character shaving. I also enjoy the part about Bloom in the park watching the girl’s underpants. But that book suggests to me that Joyce was mentally ill. With Pynchon I get the feeling that the world and everyone in it is mentally ill.
There’s also a definite connection between Pynchon and William S. Burroughs. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if they were the same person. But that’s impossible. They both like secret organizations of scientists or researchers though. They share this fascination with science gone crazy and used to control minds – populations. But Pynchon is a better writer – less concerned with gimmicks. His language is a constant beauty which is the great antidote to his hilariously murderous world view. His entertaining and wildly connecting sentences indicate to me that Thomas Pynchon is an optimist. But, as with Joyce, I find myself constantly shutting the book and wondering, ‘How did he do it?’ How for fuck’s name did this guy not only maintain a secret identity but accumulate so much esoteric knowledge in the late sixties so as to be able to jam-pack every single sentence in the bloody book with some reference or other to some event or other that no sane person would ever have heard of in a lifetime? What the hell is going on in this man’s mind that allowed him to achieve Google knowledge density in 1973?
For all the good it might do anyone, I’ll keep reading the book and make a few more posts about it. I tend to relate work like Pynchon’s to my own video work. It’s something to do with the density of thought and imagery. It’s always good to read solid evidence of someone being crazier than you are so that you can get down and work at your own stuff with a little less embarrassment.
What I like about this documentary is that it does in fact touch upon this subject. What I don’t like about it is Johnny Depp prancing around with an unsmoked cigarette trying to convince us of his Beat/hipster/baggy jacket coolness.
The Beat hatred of all things female manifests itself most obviously in the fact that Burroughs stood his wife, Joan Vollmer, up against a wall in Mexico and blew her brains out with a gun. There’s great mystery surrounding his escape from the authorities in Mexico who quite naturally wanted to investigate and prosecute the man for murder. I would have prosecuted him too. He told various stories about playing a game of ‘William Tell,’ or inebriation or drug use to explain how it happened. But in order to fire a bullet through his wife’s forehead he had to lift the gun and point it at her. It sort of goes without saying. Would you be able to point a gun at your spouse? Hopefully not. I wouldn’t be able to even lift a gun in my wife’s general direction. So why was a man who blasted his wife’s head open welcomed back into his little group of Beat friends? Why would such a man become the life of the party in literary circles? Why would such a man love guns and fire them at tin cans in his backyard for the rest of his life? Good questions. Easily answered. Nobody gave a shit about the man’s dead, blown-open wife. She was just a lady in Mexico married to a bisexual genius. That’s the problem with the Beats. That’s the rock bottom attitude of the most important literary movement in America during the twentieth century.
Here’s what Burroughs had to say about killing his wife:
I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.
Let me translate that for you: “I killed my wife and was so inspired by the act of killing a female that I became a great writer. And I want to kill again. I have to constantly struggle with the urge. My writing helps with that.”
Get the idea? Murder inspires good writing… according to one-third of the Beat literary movement. The other two-thirds were just fine with that.
You may think I’ve gone too far or have some literary ax to grind. But I would suggest that reading the Beats without keeping these ideas in mind is self-deception. It’s all right there on the page if you actually read the stuff. These guys weren’t gentle spirits with open hearts and minds. They were brutal little elitists from Columbia University who were willing to kill and dump dead bodies into rivers in order to protect their group. Kerouac helped a friend dispose of a murder weapon, then took the murderer out to a movie. That murder, which was in fact the brutal slaughter of a gay man who was making advances, led to inspiration for Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg who all attempted and partially succeeded at novels based on the incident. Again, murder inspires Beat writings. If one really wants to get down in it, one would go so far as to say that the prime mover behind the Beat movement – its basic inspiration – was a gay-bashing murder in Riverside Park. People may say whatever they like about writers trying to work out the demons, but I see something much darker than that.
Kerouac later based the main character of ‘On the Road’ on Neal Cassady, a man who appears on film to be a psychopath. I’d be looking for dead bodies buried under any house that guy ever lived in.
I think the Beat movement should be done over for the twenty-first century. This time, try not to blast anyone’s brains out across a wall.