Thomas Pynchon – Gravity’s Rainbow

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Inherent Vice Revisited

InherentViceCollage

With Inherent Vice now a movie, I thought I would repeat this post that originally appeared at Bill Ectric’s Place on 2011:

The books of Thomas Pynchon are so chock-full of cool references, I had to make two collages for this blog entry. Pynchon is one of my favorite writers. I recently read his noir-hippie novel, Inherent Vice (The Penguin Press, New York, 2009). The term “inherent vice” is a legal term that refers to  physical properties of goods which may cause them to suffer deterioration or damage without outside influence, like rust or decay. Near the end of the book, someone asks if  “inherent vice” is like “original sin.” By  this time, the story has unfolded to the point where we recognize that even the so-called “good guys” are flawed, which is not a new theme of course, but Pynchon just does it so well. Here are some of the observations I jotted down while reading Inherent Vice, whenever I had the presence of mind to do so:

There was a show on television about drugs, either PBS or the History Channel, which ended by suggesting that the internet might provide the “expanded consciousness”  sought by hippies and psychedelic gurus like Timothy Leary. And, in fact Wikipedia tells us:

By the mid 1980s, Leary had begun to incorporate computers, the Internet, and virtual reality into his aegis of thought. Leary established one of the earliest sites on the World Wide Web, and was often quoted describing the Internet as “the LSD of the 1990s. ” 

Pynchon touches upon this idea in Inherent Vice. Private investigator Doc Sportello consults with an 1970 version of a computer geek named Fritz, is, who looks up information on a forerunner of the World Wide Web called ARPAnet. Fritz calls it “surfing the wave of the future.” He tells Doc:

(We) just got this new hire in, name of Sparky, has to call his mom if he’s gonna be late for supper, only guess what – we’re his trainees! He gets on this ARPAnet trip, and I swear it’s like acid, a whole ‘nother strange world – time, space, all that shit. 

“So when they gonna make it illegal?” asked Doc.

I like the way Pynchon throws philosophical concepts into his stories without annoying anyone who doesn’t give a rat’s ass about philosophy. Case in point, again from Inherent Vice:

While spying on some shady characters, Doc Sportello is surprised and alarmed to see a rather risque, hand-painted image of his ex-girlfriend, Shasta, on a neck-tie worn by one of the thugs. Not only does Doc feel a twinge of jealousy, he also realizes that Shasta’s life may be endangered by her involvement with suspected criminals. In trying to cope with these concerns, he thinks:

Back in junior college, professors had pointed out to Doc the useful notion that the word is not the thing, the map is not the territory. He supposed you could extend this also to the nudie necktie is not the girl.

Doc’s professors were quoting Alfred Habdank Skarbek Korzybski (July 3, 1879 – March 1, 1950) was a Polish-American philosopher and scientist best known for developing the theory of general semantics. This theory says that people can’t experience the world directly, but only through impressions we get from our five senses and through our understanding of the meaning of words; or to put it another way, words are merely imperfect symbols that represent reality, therefore, reality can never be perfectly understood. This concept is sometimes incorporated into the work of science fiction writers such as A. E. van Vogt, Robert Heinlein, and Samuel R. Delaney, as well as Beat writer William S. Burroughs (whose work can sometimes be classified as science-fiction as well).

Pynchon paints uncanny pictures with words – uncanny because they remind me of scenes or situations I’ve found myself in. It’s not so much that I’ve been the the same exact situations; it’s more a feeling of deja-vu experienced vicariously through Pynchon’s characters:

The sun vanished behind clouds which grew thicker by the minute . . . After hours of detouring for landslides and traffic jams and accidents, Doc and Shasta  finally located the mystically revealed dope dealer’s address, which turned out to be an empty lot with a gigantic excavation in it, between a laundromat and an Orange Julius-plus-car wash, all of them closed. In the thick mist and lashing rain, you couldn’t even see to the other side of the hole . . . Doc and Shasta sat parked by the edge of the empty swamped rectangle and watched its edges now and then slide in, and then after a while things rotated ninety degrees, and began to look, to Doc at least, like a doorway, a great wet temple entrance, into someplace else . . .

Good stuff.

For more information on Thomas Pynchon, here is a page created by   Penny Padgett and augmented by The San Narciso Community College. I especially like the section on Pynchon’s influences.

Thomas Pynchon!

Pynchon's new book

Pynchon’s new book

I’m a big fan of Thomas Pynchon. Levi Asher, at Literary Kicks, isn’t so sure, but it sounds like he’s willing to give Pynchon’s new book a try. Personally, I can’t wait to read it!

Levi says, “All my friends and literary comrades and people I respect love Thomas Pynchon. I guess they find his convoluted style fun and challenging. Who knows? My friends have Pynchon tattoos, have named their bands or websites after Pynchon, have even written adoring Litkicks articles about Pynchon. I don’t understand why all these smart people love him so much and I don’t, and I feel very isolated in this position.”

Read Entire Article

Forrest Aguirre’s Fantastic Fugue – Interview by Bill Ectric

Forrest_Aguirre_Collage

Forrest Aguirre is an American fantasy and horror author, and winner of the 2003 World Fantasy Award for his editing work on Leviathan 3. His fiction has been published in numerous genre periodicals and in the collection Fugue XXIX. His first novel is Swans Over the Moon. He often writes about Africa, and is deeply interested in the continent.

Zoran Zivkovic, the eminent  writer, researcher and translator of classic American fantastic fiction into Serbo-Croation, describes the stories of Forrest Aguirre as “a set of portals that lead to the very quintessence of the ancient and noble art of the fantastic” and “the contemporary prose equivalent of the wildly imaginative paintings of Hieronymus Bosch.”

I concur heartily with Mr. Zivkovic. Here is the conversation I had with Mr. Aguirre via the Internet.

Bill Ectric:  Occult practitioner Ogden Covent is a fictional character in one of the stories in Fugue XXIX, but you make him seem more real by first writing about Aleister Crowley. I created a character named Olsen Archer in my novel, Tamper, and hopefully made him seem more real by portraying him as a colleague of Richard Shaver. Why do you think we like to write “histories” of fictional characters?

Forrest Aguirre: The master of the fictional history is Jorge Luis Borges, an author whose work I love to read. My academic background is in history, so that, of course, informs my writing quite a bit. The benefit of using a historical figure as an associate of your fictional character is twofold: First, many readers will have some familiarity with the historical figure that can be used to quickly immerse them into the setting. Second, and paradoxically, if the readers are familiar with the historical character, this allows the writer to play off of the readers’ preconceived notions in ways that contradict the associations the reader has formed in the past. This ploy simultaneously serves to associate and dissociate the reader from their preconceptions. Each of those results can be used to help the reader suspend disbelief, though they can also backfire if they’re either under-emphasized or over-emphasized. On one hand, you don’t want a historical figure to hijack your story and, on the other, you don’t want to contradict the historical figure to the point that it feels like a mockery (unless that’s your intent). It’s a bit of a tight-rope!

BE: You write about Ogden Covent almost as though you are writing an essay. Would you consider that to be metafiction?

FA: I enjoy work that spits in the face of genre conventions. I don’t know if “Mystic Flower” is necessarily metafictional, though it has the feel of a metafictional work. Much of my fiction is constructed as a series of documents that hint and infer, rather than construct a direct narrative stream. I’ve been accused of being light on plot in my short work, and I’m guilty as charged. My longer work is more plot heavy, but in short fiction, I like to strip down plot and let the reader fill in the gaps with their own imagination. Again, this goes back to my training as a historian. One goes to the primary documentation and works their way toward the history. It’s almost never as straightforward as some historians would have you believe. It’s a bit like building a court case, I suppose: you present evidence, paint the setting, and give meaningful character sketches. You emphasize some evidence and de-emphasize other parts, and push the jury to your desired decision. The reader has the final say in whether or not you”succeed,” since reading is a very individual experience, informed by the reader’s knowledge, training, and experiences.

 BE: Who are some of your writing influences?

FA: I’ve been told I write like “Poe on acid.”  Shakespeare is a big influence, as is H.P. Lovecraft. Thomas Ligotti is another writer whose style has had a heavy influence on my own. The Old Testament and Dante always seem to be floating around in the back of my head when I’m writing shorter work, as well. I love Italo Calvino’s work and can’t recommend it strongly enough. Rikki Ducornet and Brian Evenson are contemporary authors whose writing I greatly enjoy (and who are just great people, to boot). I read broadly, and I find inspiration in many writer’s works. If you go to Goodreads (or my blog) and look at my reviews, that might give you a good idea of writers whose work I like.

BE: When Trent Walters interviewed you for the SF Site, you said your first drafts are always handwritten. Jeff Vandermeer told me he does that as well. Is there a particular reason for that? Do you use a pen or pencil?

FA: I always use a pen. Which pen I use depends on the relative “speed” of the scene. I have a big, bulky glass pen (made by a glass-blowing stoner friend of mine) that I use when I need to write slowly. This one is particularly good for sections of dialogue where characters might be speaking particularly carefully, either to get a point across exactly or to guard against saying the wrong thing. Mostly, I use one of two wood pens. I like the heft in my hand, and I use heavier-gauge cartridges so that the ink flows quickly. Not the most economical of solutions, but it helps when I’m writing an action sequence or when I need to get through some quick, snappy dialogue. I’m a kinesthetic learner, primarily, so the physical act of writing helps me to process in a way that tapping a keyboard can’t. I like to draw (though I’m not particularly good at it), and writing and drawing have the same sort of “flow” from the hand, wrist, and arm. Handwriting is a sort of trigger, I suppose, for my creativity. Typing is for editing and revising, not for writing. Writing is immersive and involves the body, as well as the mind. Editing is best done clinically, from a distance. Keyboards are good for distancing one from the imagination. Your mileage may vary!

BE: What do you think of the cut-up writing technique as used on occasion by William S. Burroughs?

FA: I like it, as well as several techniques that the surrealists and dadaists championed, as writing exercises to get the imagination flowing. I don’t know that I could ever construct an entire piece of fiction using the technique, but it does get the brain charged up and knocked around a bit, which helps with creativity.

BE: Have you read any Thomas Pynchon?

FA: Mason & Dixon is one of my favorite books. I don’t know exactly why – so many things happen in that book and the characters are all so wacky and loveable that it’s hard to pin down the reasons for my love of it. I’ve never really analyzed it closely. Maybe that’s why I liked Mason & Dixon so much. It was just so much fun that I didn’t feel compelled to criticize it.

BE: In your story Over Alsace (Fugue XXIX, page 142), there is a passage I especially like. It reminds me of something Thomas Pynchon might write. I understand that the story is about a WWI flyer over France, but I have some questions. There are elements within the passage that give me impressions, which I can’t quite put into words. First, I’ll reprint the passage:

A blunderbuss shivered as Baelphoegele, the destroying angel-
Cassandra-
Shrack
Shrack
Shracked the ramrod down the weapon’s chrome throat. It tried in vain to regurgitate beryl, onyx, ruby, gold:
The Grapeshot of Mammon;
And awaited the leveling of the weapon, the trigger pull, the shattering echo that heralds the final departure of its victim into the world of the dead.
In the distance, propellers sliced into the world’s skin, wings plowed a field, flames consumed the earth-bound aircraft. Helmuth continued to fall.
Baelphoegele’s – Cassandra’s – smile disappeared behind a puff of smoke as the thunderstick responded in discharge to celestial command, a crusader-king’s ransom of flechette finding its mark on The
Fatherland’s Iron Cross.
Gott
 
BE: Is Baelphoegele a real name for something? It makes me think of Baael, or Bael, the prince of hell, and also the baphomet, but I couldn’t find the actual term Baelphoegele anywhere. 

FA: I made up Baelphoegele. You’ve caught the essence of what I was looking for – something easily identifiable as devilish and evil. It might be a real name, but I’m no scholar of Middle-Eastern languages. Hopefully it’s not an Aramaic non-sequitur! Then again, that might be kind of fun: “Prince of hellish breakfast sausages” or something like that.

BE: Are you saying Baelphoegele is Cassandra?

FA: That’s up to the reader. Is Baelphoegele Cassandra, or merely Helmuth’s impressions of Cassandra? Or is it the set of circumstances that broke his heart? It’s not my call . . . the reader decides this.

BE: I like the reference to beryl, onyx, ruby, and gold. These stones are mentioned early in the book of Genesis, which I always felt was odd, because, why, in the middle of describing Eden and the 4 rivers, did someone deem it important to throw in a fact about precious stones in the area? And these jewels seem to be connected to another word your story: mammon. Then I thought about the oil spattering in the airplane, and war being waged for oil and gold.

FA: I like contrast. The idea of a man being killed by a devil (who might have been disguised as an angel?) with some of the most precious materials known, felt like a really striking image when it first popped into my head. Actually, the term “Grapeshot of Mammon” occurred to me first. I thought “what would Grapeshot of Mammon” be made of? So I fell back on Genesis (I believe these are also in the Revelation of John, but I’d have to look it up) for my source material. I honestly hadn’t thought about the oil and gold – that’s a nice inference. There was no auctorial intent there. Well done, reader!

BE: Is the pilot thinking about Cassandra as he died, and we are seeing an impressionistic reverie in his mind?

FA: I had hoped to tell the story of two planes of reality intersecting, one physical, one spiritual. Whether the spiritual plane is only in the pilot’s head or is some sort of superimposed reality is up to the reader. I’m not going to impose on the reader’s imagination! I like stories that leave the answers to these sort of questions up to the audience, answers that can change over time and after the reader has had more life experience. Some of my favorite stories and books are those that grow with you and that cause growth within you.

BE: Do you think allusions to the Bible will slowly lose their meaning if fewer people are taught the Bible as children? For example, Faulkner’s novel Absolom, Absolom! was about a son rebelling against his father, and if my parents are any indication, there was a time when this allusion to the Absolom of the Old Testament was a powerful tool, connecting to their inner sense of awe. Or, when H. P. Lovecraft called something an “abomination,” back in the day, maybe this spoke to deeply rooted transcendental fears in some readers. Or maybe I’m wrong about less people being taught the Bible. I don’t have statistics.

FA: The reading of the Bible is now becoming an academic challenge, more than anything. When children are taught the Bible now, it’s usually in a watered-down, child-friendly abridgment. So there seems to be a sort of split developing between academic readers of the Bible, on one hand, and those who know its basic stories, but don’t have an appreciation for the finer points of the writing itself, on the other.

Knowledge of the Bible and its stories has become almost a barrier between intellectual classes, if you will. The intellectually “rich” use it for references that carry a great deal of power for those who have read the stories as translated in the King James or other, older versions, usually with little regard to the spiritual teachings it espouses; the intellectually “poor” use it for the moral teachings of the stories, with little appreciation for its inherent beauty as a work of art – in some ways it’s become almost kitsch, a series of cheap, popular morality plays. Whether or not you agree with the precepts or assumptions of the Bible, it is a beautiful piece of literature. I’m guessing that the Bible will never again be regarded as highly as it has in the past as both a work of beauty and as a utilitarian document.

Your reference to Absalom is particularly poignant. I remember reading the story of David and Absalom around the time that my oldest son was going through some difficulties as a teenager. I read that story and actually cried thinking about the tragedy of David weeping aloud when he heard that his rebellious son had been killed by the king’s servant, Joab: “Oh my son, Absalom, my son, my son, Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” That’s powerful stuff, emotionally moving. The Bible is full of that sort of thing. Writers, no matter what their religious views, would do well to read through it and learn something from it, not only about potential allusions, but about the portrayal of the human condition. There’s writer’s gold in there! The same can be said for other religious texts, The Quran, the Vedic texts, and so forth.

Though religion itself is on the wane, interest in our cultural heritage is on the rise. So, I don’t know, maybe the Bible and other religious texts will persevere, if not for their moral teachings, then as ancestral stories with wide appeal.

BE: What about your novella? What ebooks do you have available through Smashwords?

FA: I’ve chosen to publish a few of my novellas through Smashwords because it’s really difficult to sell novellas unless your name rhymes with “Reavin’ Ring”. I love the novella form. Love to read it, love to write it. So Smashwords has the following bastard-children:

Archangel Morpheus – I love my brother, even though he drives me crazy sometimes. I imagined what lengths one might go to in order to find a sibling who had gone missing in action. Since I’ve found that grief often expresses itself in my haunted dreams, I thought it appropriate to force the main character to travel through the land of dream, on the borderland of death, in order to find his brother. It is a quest, but an extremely surreal quest, set between World War I and World War II. It’s funny you mention William S. Burroughs. He makes a cameo in Archangel Morpheus. “How?” you ask? “He was merely a child at that time”. Yes, but this is fiction, isn’t it? And surreal fiction, at that. And if you read the novella, maybe you’ll be able to figure out just how he got there and why. But really, Burroughs only serves as a minor character in the quest, though he does aid the hero in a couple of meaningful ways.

Cloaks of Vermin and Fish – This is the first of three misadventures (the other two still to be published) of a pair of twins, both thieves living in Renaissance Venice. They are, in short, bungling idiots. One reviewer likened them to Abbott and Costello, and I suppose that’s a fair assessment. They have an entanglement with a certain fish-god worshiping cult that will be familiar to readers of early-20th-century horror literature. I had a fun time writing this novella. It was a lark, granted, and shamelessly indulgent. But, hey, it’s 99 cents – what’s not to like?

Swans Over the Moon – This was initially published in trade paperback by Wheatland Press. Since Wheatland’s indefinite hiatus, I have re-edited the text and published it as an e-book. It follows the decline and fall of the Procellarian empire, an empire on a world strangely like Earth’s own moon if it had been populated by humans with a Victorian sense of fashion and a Machiavellian sense of rulership. Most of all, though, this is a story about family, loyalty, betrayal, and the tug of public obligation versus private relationships. In essence, I took Shakespeare’s King Lear and turned it on its head, killed it, then resurrected it in a new form. This seems to be the most popular of my e-book novellas.

I also have a short collection of what I call “Object Fictions,” Fossiloctopus. There are 11 flash and very short fictions, in all, in this collection, each of them detailing or focusing on a physical object of some type. There’s the titular Fossiloctopus, bones from the Rwandan genocide, canopic jars, kaleidoscopes of Africa, a mirror surmounted with mechanical butterflies, the last key in Sodom, Nancy Davis’ bridal veil, and many other objects around which fictions have been built. There really is a little bit of something for everyone. I figured that by the time I had enough of these short object fictions to fill a book, I might be long dead, so I cheated death and published this little e-chapbook. I feel so naughty.

BE: Do people ever say to you, “Run, Forrest!”

FA: All the time.

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.

Read entire LitKicks article

 

Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice: Feds, Heads, and Threads

The books of Thomas Pynchon are so chock-full of cool references, I had to make two collages for this blog entry. Pynchon is one of my favorite writers. I recently read his noir-hippie novel, Inherent Vice (The Penguin Press, New York, 2009). The term “inherent vice” is a legal term that refers to  physical properties of goods which may cause them to suffer deterioration or damage without outside influence, like rust or decay. Near the end of the book, someone asks if  “inherent vice” is like “original sin.” By  this time, the story has unfolded to the point where we recognize that even the so-called “good guys” are flawed, which is not a new theme of course, but Pynchon just does it so well. Here are some of the observations I jotted down while reading Inherent Vice, whenever I had the presence of mind to do so: 

There was a show on television about drugs, either PBS or the History Channel, which ended by suggesting that the internet might provide the “expanded consciousness”  sought by hippies and psychedelic gurus like Timothy Leary. And, in fact Wikipedia tells us:

By the mid 1980s, Leary had begun to incorporate computers, the Internet, and virtual reality into his aegis of thought. Leary established one of the earliest sites on the World Wide Web, and was often quoted describing the Internet as “the LSD of the 1990s. ” 

Pynchon touches upon this idea in Inherent Vice. Private investigator Doc Sportello consults with an 1970 version of a computer geek named Fritz, is, who looks up information on a forerunner of the World Wide Web called ARPAnet. Fritz calls it “surfing the wave of the future.” He tells Doc:

(We) just got this new hire in, name of Sparky, has to call his mom if he’s gonna be late for supper, only guess what – we’re his trainees! He gets on this ARPAnet trip, and I swear it’s like acid, a whole ‘nother strange world – time, space, all that shit. 

“So when they gonna make it illegal?” asked Doc.

I like the way Pynchon throws philosophical concepts into his stories without annoying anyone who doesn’t give a rat’s ass about philosophy. Case in point, again from Inherent Vice:

While spying on some shady characters, Doc Sportello is surprised and alarmed to see a rather risque, hand-painted image of his ex-girlfriend, Shasta, on a neck-tie worn by one of the thugs. Not only does Doc feel a twinge of jealousy, he also realizes that Shasta’s life may be endangered by her involvement with suspected criminals. In trying to cope with these concerns, he thinks:

Back in junior college, professors had pointed out to Doc the useful notion that the word is not the thing, the map is not the territory. He supposed you could extend this also to the nudie necktie is not the girl.

Doc’s professors were quoting Alfred Habdank Skarbek Korzybski (July 3, 1879 – March 1, 1950) was a Polish-American philosopher and scientist best known for developing the theory of general semantics. This theory says that people can’t experience the world directly, but only through impressions we get from our five senses and through our understanding of the meaning of words; or to put it another way, words are merely imperfect symbols that represent reality, therefore, reality can never be perfectly understood. This concept is sometimes incorporated into the work of science fiction writers such as A. E. van Vogt, Robert Heinlein, and Samuel R. Delaney, as well as Beat writer William S. Burroughs (whose work can sometimes be classified as science-fiction as well).

Pynchon paints uncanny pictures with words – uncanny because they remind me of scenes or situations I’ve found myself in. It’s not so much that I’ve been the the same exact situations; it’s more a feeling of deja-vu experienced vicariously through Pynchon’s characters:

 The sun vanished behind clouds which grew thicker by the minute . . . After hours of detouring for landslides and traffic jams and accidents, Doc and Shasta  finally located the mystically revealed dope dealer’s address, which turned out to be an empty lot with a gigantic excavation in it, between a laundromat and an Orange Julius-plus-car wash, all of them closed. In the thick mist and lashing rain, you couldn’t even see to the other side of the hole . . . Doc and Shasta sat parked by the edge of the empty swamped rectangle and watched its edges now and then slide in, and then after a while things rotated ninety degrees, and began to look, to Doc at least, like a doorway, a great wet temple entrance, into someplace else . . .

Good stuff.

For more information on Thomas Pynchon, here is a page created by   Penny Padgett and augmented by The San Narciso Community College. I especially like the section on Pynchon’s influences.