Rocket Man: Thomas Pynchon Again

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 Movie film was originally made from cellulose nitrate, which was highly flammable.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.

Good Reading Ahead

Two books arrived in the mail yesterday!

Thomas Pynchon (1974, Warner Paperback Library), by Joseph W. Slade, is a detailed analysis of all Pynchon’s short stories and novels up through Gravity’s Rainbow, which was Pynchon’s most recent book at the time this study was written. In the preface, Slade’s list of prerequisites for studying Pynchon include, among others, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,  T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Goethe’s Faust, and E. E. McKenzie’s The Major Achievements of Science.

In the forward to the Pynchon book, Terence Malley of Long Island University, Brooklyn, says, “It seems almost impossible that a writer still in his thirties could know so much, It is even more difficult to believe that any writer could assimilate so much in his fiction – and could treat it all with such authority . . . Genocidal war in South West Africa or arcane global diplomacy in Alexandria; how it feels to sit waiting for a V-2 rocket to land or how it feels to learn that beneath the taken-for-granted business-as –usual America an organized counter culture of losers may be operating . . .  ” 

The book is part of a series called Writers For the 70’s. Other titles in the series are Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. by Peter J. Reed,  Richard Brautigan by Terence Malley, Herman Hesse by Edwin F. Casebeer, and J.R.R. Tolkien by Robert Evans. So far I’ve read the Forward, Preface, and Chapter 1, and can’t wait to get back into it.

As soon as I finish the Pynchon book I’ll start reading Claudia Moscovici’s novel, Velvet Totalitarianism. Ken Kalfus calls the book “a taut political thriller, a meditation on totalitarianism, an expose of the Ceausescu regime, and a moving fictionalized memoir of one family’s quest for freedom”.

I first discovered Moscovici here on Literary Kicks, where she says:  

My first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, took me about ten years to write. It took me so long partly because I wrote this book while also teaching literature and philosophy, writing scholarly books and raising a family. It took me a long time to write it also because I had to do a lot of historical research for it. When one works for so long on one book, the interrelated questions of motivation and intended audience become all the more relevant. As I was writing Velvet Totalitarianism, I asked myself often: why write historical fiction about the Cold War, an era which is now relegated mostly to history books? Why is the history of Romanian communism so important to me and whom do I hope to touch in writing fiction about it? An anecdote brought these questions into sharper focus.

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