In the previous posts, I have taken up a lot of time to talk about a number of works that have been celebrated fairly widely within the world of letters. In part, I wanted to acknowledge that within our culture, the currency of exchange is generally trafficked around attention. That is, certain works are spoken about more than others because they serve as functional vehicles for the most number of ideas, or as caches for meaning. This is only one need for writing or art. On the other side resides those works that measure personal feelings, sentiments or ideas, that always appear as under-appreciated treasures. Often, the preciousness of the text is in direct proportion to its relative obscurity. In some cases, the level of idiosyncrasy assures that while a reader may identify with the work, love it, empathize with it, they may lack the language to describe it or a means to pull it into their everyday thinking. Mark Costello's Murphy Stories is one of those books for me. Christine Schutt's Nightwork is another. In both of these cases, I felt the writing dissolve some essential structure in my thinking that then made me a better reader and lifted a psychological burden I didn't know I'd been carrying. I could add a few more (The Log of the S.S. Mrs. Unguentine, Motorman, Firework, Stories in the Worst Way) but I mostly want to stop to acknowledge that though I've taken pains to pace out my thinking here, I am still missing some points and I'll make an effort to pull this out a little further, but that in casting off with this idea I really wanted to get a handle on the means by which Proust makes himself understood and consider the reasons for that form of expression, its value and its short-comings in contrast to other styles as well as to a number of writers I find valuable to find a balance to the means of self-expression and ultimately what is made public within any given form of writing.
Through the pain, I always tell the truth
In this light, I was thinking about Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke, and considering the text as an inquiry into meaning that withholds meaning and simply presents the actions of character in their search. As a Vietnam novel and one that deals with the intelligence community leading up to and following the conflict, we already have the cultural implication of a meaningless war, an implication that isn't spelled out in the novel, but instead exists as the fundamental question within, but also the idea of hidden meaning and the variety of truths people seek. The novel unlocks for me around the early use of the word infestation-- the only four syllable word spent in a sea of single or double syllable words within the early portion of the book and used to describe the state of a tree in a jungle with ants-- then following the assassin Fest and the change in meaning that association ascribes to his name and actions within the book we get to the prime contrast of intelligence, agents of meaning and meaningless death. Not as overt as Harry Mathews, who includes actual cryptograms within the text of Tlooth, but along those lines-- the question of the ways in which people conceal and reveal political truths contrasts to the larger search for meaning and the ways in which we interrogate nature to fulfill our needs.
|Mark Lombardi Global Networks|
Despite all of the energy put into a system, there is always a point of diminishing returns, a point where the system becomes supersaturated and cannot continue to perform the function of its design. Within the natural world, the system breaks down and transforms through decay into its reduced, constituent parts, nutrient and toxic. It's written into the second law of thermodynamics.
Consider what came out of the second world war.
Proust and Pynchon, separated by Puig and Puzo on my shelf, separated by two world wars, separated by an ocean, separated by titanic differences in form, style, and thought. Considering Proust as one removed from Parisian society, sitting in his cork lined room limning the evanescent stuff of memory and its extensions then considering Pynchon, removed as well from the old monied New England and Mid-Atlantic society, self-exiled and wandering, I assume, through bars and back rooms and scenes intellectual or non, it may be worthwhile to consider the type of reclusiveness an author adheres to.
Pynchon has cultivated a charismatic absence. Gaddis's reclusiveness, because of the tone of his writing, the anger, came off with a kind of disdain born of superiority (a Jonathan Edwards type severity and distrust of people). Nevertheless Gaddis has his followers too and for many Gaddis's and Pynchon's concerns are so close that some assumed they were the same person. I'm assuming someone put this forward before, but I always thought that Pynchon could have been the name Gaddis and Ralph Ellison put on the work that came out of Herman Kahn's Hudson Institute (the institute does pre-date V. by two years). Come to think of it, Ellison too went into reclusion after The Invisible Man.
In the absent author, I've found surrogates for other absences within my own life, but I think of Thomas Pynchon as a kind of reverse Batman. His name appears in lights and he disappears to allow the citizens of Gotham to learn krav maga and assemble the clues left behind in the Riddler's latest puzzle, only the tools he leaves us are our own paranoia, our foibles, our follies and a deep mistrust of authority. Gravity's Rainbow is about the collapse of Europe after WWII and what rose up from its remains. In Search of Lost Time is an attempt to reconstruct in part the society that stood before the first World War. The two works stand as book ends for the first half of the twentieth century: one looking backwards and the other looking forward (I had read online a while back a letter Dow Mossman had written about GR stating that it goes into the past to talk about the future-- thought that was a good way of putting it, but can't find the link to save my life now).
Going back through his work, Pynchon presents himself as a kind of paradox. His books avoid a build to hierarchical meaning, instead setting his balance so that all elements can carry equal weight, a novel in suspension and novels that would appear to highlight the means of control and relinquish the more obvious elements of authorial control. Indirection, discourse and expansion as the methods of understanding the world. The variety of epistemologies that he uses as lenses (organic chemistry, horticultural, behavioral psychology, parapsychology, film theory, electrical engineering, rocket science, etc) underpins the basic idea that the pursuit of knowledge is inherently Faustian, but also the only means of alleviating the human condition of unknowing, ignorance, subjection and subjugation. While there's always a sense of the absurd, Pynchon is more interesting for his ability to maintain a concept of the tragic, that notion of the innocence lost in the path toward total knowledge (Gnossos and Mathemesis for the Gnostics out there). To consider Tyrone Slothrop, swabbed by Q-Tip as an infant to build the response that would turn him into the V-2 divining rod he becomes as an adult, that he was sold into said swabbing by his father, so that Tyrone could be eventually the pawn within the questing of industrial, governmental, clandestine and military plots gets at the level and degree with which Gravity's Rainbow points at the embedded corruption, but despite still retains the character's humanity (ironically, the swab in this case).
Pynchon adapts the Joycean strategy of reference, inference and invocation to attempt a text that addresses a pluralistic readership. If there should be any one reader who comprehends the whole of Gravity's Rainbow without additional research, that reader may feel a bit like Maxwell's demon. The book is there to prompt us out of specialized roles, to sort through the elements of the story to come away with their own sense of understanding, or the reader can simply allow the work to flow, to take it for its ride. Joshua Cohen's review of Bleeding Edge in Harper's captures the effect of Pynchon's influence: people come together to solve the mystery. That this type of collective pursuit of meaning is in a way the best antidote to a corporate system that propagates single, easily replicable solutions may be the unintended extension of Pynchon's charisma. It reminds me in ways of the work of early Christians, or of Talmudic scholars-- readers can inhabit and question the text in pre-political communities and come away with their own pet theories.
To think of Pynchon's work within the question of publicity, it seems that in his pursuits he has created a matrix of books that would allow for the maximal expression of latent meaning, but that those connections are left for the readers to discern. The ways in which Pynchon plays with the explicit is always tempered with a healthy dose of the unknown.