I thoroughly enjoyed Writers For the 70’s: Thomas Pynchon by Joseph Slade. Here are some notes I took while reading, but keep in mind, these notes represent only a small part of what Pynchon’s work is all about.
One of Pynchon’s preoccupations is that the 20th Century was the age of oil, from which we derive, not only gasoline, but plastics. Sure, the chemistry of plastics started much earlier: Pynchon talks about 19th Century chemist Friedrich August Kekule, who discovered the ring shape of the benzene molecule after dreaming of a snake biting its own tail. Benzene is an important chemical for the production plastics. Pynchon invokes an image of the “benzene serpent” announcing, “The world is a closed thing, cyclical, resonant, eternally returning,” but unfortunately, according to Pynchon, the announcement “is to be delivered into a system whose only aim is to violate the Cycle. Taking and not giving back, demanding that ‘productivity’ and ‘earnings’ keep on increasing with time . . .”
Pynchon seems to be saying that the original “serpent” represented the good and natural circle of life, only to be called “the devil” later by those who would steal and rape the land through Crusades and colonialism.
Plastic and oil are both polymers. The University of Southern Mississippi Department of Polymer Science of tells us “polymers are made up of many many molecules all strung together to form really long chains” that can “bend and twist and get all tangled up.”
There are natural polymers and man-made polymers. Natural polymers include the rubber that comes from rubber trees; silk from moth caterpillars and other insects; cellulose, which comes from the cell wall of plants; and even DNA, the molecule that stores genetic information. Man-made (synthetic) polymers include nylon, polyester, and Teflon.
Pynchon talks about the way motion pictures capture history. Each frame of movie film is like a brief segment of time. When I think of all that black & white battle footage of World War I and WWII we see on the History Channel, or the strangely slient 8mm Kodachrome Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination, or the silvery transmission of the first moon landing, it does, indeed, seem like history is like a series of movies in my mind. Before plastic, there was nothing flexible enough, yet strong enough, to reel through the sprockets in movie projectors. Movie film was originally made from cellulose nitrate, which was highly flammable. A flame-resistant formula of cellulose triacetate plastic came into use in the 1930s. Since the 1990s, most release prints have used polyester film stock. There may come a time when all movies are digital and film is obsolete.
A character in Pynchon’s novel, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) says, “We aren’t in the movies,” to which another character replies, “Not yet. Maybe not quite yet . . . someday, when the film is fast enough, the equipment pocket-size and burdenless and selling at people’s prices, the lights and booms no longer necessary, then . . . then . . .”
“Gravity’s Rainbow” is how Pynchon describes the vapor arc of a V2 rocket as it soars across the sky. The rocket becomes almost a religious icon in the book. Pynchon’s talks about, “Manicheans who see two rockets . . . a good rocket to take us to the stars, an evil rocket for the World’s suicide, the two perpetually in struggle,” and says, “The rocket has to be many things . . . it must survive heresies, and heretics there will be: Gnostics who have been taken in a rush of wind and fire to chambers of the rocket throne.” This reminded me of the farcical Cannon Sect in Steve Aylett’s Accomplice series. The Sect’s leader, Fusemaster Rod Jayrod, pontificates on the meaning of the Powderhouse shrine:
“Here resided our holy relic the Wesley Kern gun, until it was plundered from us – one day it will be restored and the culprit found fatally maimed and twitching in a turnip field.” The languid riddler gestured to a baby on stilts, who pulled on a rope – the curtains floated apart to reveal the titanic metal image of the revellers’ cannon-mouthed godhead . . . “Isn’t she a beauty? The slow smoke out of those urns gives it a doomy feel. The Powdermouth belches on the hour, purifying us all . . .” – The Velocity Gospel ( 2002), Steve Aylett
If you were able to film a V2 rocket in flight, and the film was fast enough, in theory, the rocket would never hit its target. This is because of Zeno’s Paradox, which says, if you shoot an arrow at a target, the arrow cannot reach the target without first traveling halfway there. Before it gets halfway there, it must get a quarter of the way there. Before it travels a quarter way there, it must travel one-eighth; before an eighth, one-sixteenth, and this goes on infinitely because, in math, you can always divide a space into a smaller space. Of course, this isn’t a practical real-life scenario for rockets, but Pynchon uses it to make statements about the nature of time and history, and about predestination vs. free will. Predestination says, “The rocket is bound to hits its target; just look at the last frame!” but free will says, “The only reality at this moment is this frame. Maybe the rocket will hit, maybe it won’t.” Maybe someone will edit the film.
Photo of Lauren Agnelli by Chion Wolf
I’m reading my first Thomas Pynchon novel, V. and wondering if Pynchon created the urban legend about baby alligators being flushed down toilets and growing into big alligators in the sewers of New York, or did he simply take a pre-existing rumor and expand upon it. For that matter, is it only a myth, or is it true?
Sometimes I think Pynchon is like Jack Kerouac with the added luxury of sleep, leisure time, and a global outlook. Other times, Pynchon reminds me of William Burroughs, with the hallucinatory traces of intrigue and skullduggery but without the homoerotic obsession. Then again, the humor is more Vonnegut. Of course, the rollicking debauchery of V.’s “Whole Sick Gang” might evoke Bukowski, and/or circle back again to Kerouac’s crew of desolate angel outcasts.
I refer to these other writers because it’s an easy way to describe my initial reactions to V., which I am enjoying immensely. I get the impression from Pynchon fans that the comparisons should be reversed.
In a book review of Gravity’s Rainbow, on Amazon.com, William P. Mcneill says, “Read V. first… Pynchon’s V. is shorter and more accessible than Gravity’s Rainbow, but addresses the same themes in a similar style. If you enjoyed V. , you will have built up a reserve of goodwill for Pynchon that will carry you through the initial rough patches of Gravity’s Rainbow. This advice was given to me years ago, and I’m glad I took it.”
BILL: Lately I’ve been reading (a Rudy Rucker essay) about the relative denseness of information in various novels. Someone suggested that I read Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. I get the general feeling that Rainbow is similar to Ulysses in it’s layers of reference and meaning. Would anyone here agree with that? Comment by Bill Ectric – June 27th, 2008 12:07 pm
MIKE: Bill, you *must* read Gravity’s Rainbow. It is quite accessible compared to Ulysses, but yes the denseness of reference is there. To read Pynchon, you need to be versed in History, Literature, and Drugs. And have a sense of humor. Comment by Michael Norris – June 27th, 2008 2:57 pm
BILL: You’ve convinced me. I’m going to read Gravity’s Rainbow. Now, let me ask you this. Someone said it would be better to read “V” first. Have you read
V? – email from billectric
MIKE: Yes, read V first. This will get you used to Pynchon’s style. Also, V is set
in a more contemporary period, whereas Gravity’s Rainbow takes place during
WWII. Also, some of the characters in V repeat in Gravity’s Rainbow. – email from Michael Norris
For some background on Thomas Pynchon, here’s a LitKicks article written by singer/musician/writer Lauren Agnelli. I once had the pleasure of seeing Lauren perform with the Washington Squares in New York City at the Bowery Poetry Club, a memory I will always cherish.
I can give you a vague definition of cyberpunk with terms like “noir future” and “distopia,” but Rudy Rucker says it better and really whets my appetite to know more. Here’s an excerpt from What Is Cyberpunk:
Proximately, “cyberpunk” is a word coined by Gardner Dozois to describe the fiction of William Gibson. Gibson’s novel Neuromancer won the Science Fiction equivalent of the Triple Crown in 1985: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Phil Dick award. Obviously, a lot of SF writers would like to be doing whatever Gibson is doing right. At the 1985 National SF Convention in Austin there was a panel called “Cyberpunk.” From left to right, the panelists were me, John Shirley, Bruce Sterling, a nameless “moderator,” Lew Shiner, Pat Cadigan, and Greg Bear. Gibson couldn’t make it; he was camping in Canada, and the audience was a bit disappointed to have to settle for pretenders to his crown. Sterling, author of the excellent Schismatrix, got a good laugh by announcing, “Gibson couldn’t make it today, he’s in Switzerland getting his blood changed.” Talking about cyberpunk without Gibson there made us all a little uncomfortable, and I thought of a passage in Gravity’s Rainbow, the quintessential cyberpunk masterpiece:
On Slothrop’s table is an old newspaper that appears to be in Spanish. It is open to a peculiar political cartoon of a line of middle-aged men wearing dresses and wigs, inside the police station where a cop is holding a loaf of white . . . no it’s a baby, with a label on its diaper sez LA REVOLUCION . . . oh, they’re all claiming the infant revolution as their own, all these politicians bickering like a bunch of putative mothers . . .
On the objective level, a cyberpunk work will often talk about computers, software, chips, information, etc. And on the higher level which I was talking about above, a cyberpunk work will try to reach a high level of information-theoretic complexity. High complexity does not, I should point out, mean hard to read.