TalkPynchon Pandæmonium

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Feb 28, 2013, 1:22 pm

First published February 28, 1973 and blowing minds ever since.

Edited: Nov 5, 2015, 6:34 pm

Maybe this would be a good time to wake up this thread. Last year I listened to Donal Donelly reading Ulysses which was an epic experience, just indescribably good. I found that I worked harder, imagined things better, heard much much more than I "saw" as I read.

So . . . curious if this could happen also with Pynchon, I've downloaded the whole of Gravity's Rainbow and while the reader is not of the caliber of Donelly, he's good, good enough, in fact. I'm forty minutes in.

I'll be stopping in now and then to give a little round-up of what I've listened to, so yeah, expect spoilers. Because I'm listening, forgive weird spelling, although I do have a copy of the book around somewhere, and yeah, I should look things up. When I can, I will. Read along, listen along.

GR 1. In this first listen, Pirate Prentice an American officer in some sort of geek special ops, based in London, WW2, wakes up from a very nasty dream (helpless refugees being moved about) in his lodgings, a big very old place (it has a minstrel's gallery) filled with his slumbering chums and colleagues, climbs up to the roof where he grows bananas in profusion. While there he sees the con-trail of a freshly launched V-2 rocket, Germany's fiendish new weapon, and watches it as it climbs until the boosters shut off and the con-trail disappears . . . he knows, because he is a geek, when it will reach its apex and start coming back down. Somewhere in London. Resigned, wondering if you feel or know anything when something like that hits, he trudges back down to his kitchen to cook up a Pynchonesque feast of banana-based dishes. Then everyone is up and going off to work, including himself. Already, in forty minutes, there have been three lists. A description of the contents of this house, of the banana dishes (at least twenty I think!) and of a colleague's messy work desk (so much like my spousal unit's I started laughing).

I should add I was brought immediately to mind of Stephen Dedalus waking and climbing to the top of the tower (another old and eccentric building)in Ulysses and looking out, and mulling things over, though looking at what and mulling about what I can't quite remember, certainly not a V-2 although most likely he was thinking about mortality. Or maybe he's just hungry. Then he goes back down to breakfast, clearly a crucial meal in the day of a poor and busy young man. Then it was off to work for him.

How does Pynchon do it? Supremely silly and playful and profoundly serious simultaneously.

Edited: Nov 5, 2015, 6:34 pm

GR 2 And now, I'm realizing, with some horror, that I have merrily listened to many many hours of Gravity's Rainbow (merrily might not be quite the right word) without reporting a single thing.(I'm up to around p. 155) I've dug up my paper copy . . . I should also add that I use the Pynchonwiki for Gravity's Rainbow to look things up, translations and what not.

In a way it is already hopeless to keep up any sort of response. Reading Pynchon is like that - Kaleidoscopic, probably purposefully fractal, fragmented and chaotic in appearance, but not really. What I think might make Pynchon seem so cold and obscure to reader is the sheer volume of the words and descriptions pouring over the reader . . . the many different characters . . . the growing realization that he is pushing you hard towards seeing what he sees -- this unbelievable profusion of detail that is life and how humans seem to have placed themselves at odds with it, in a crazy love affair with death. The V-2 rocket bombardment of London (and England generally) somehow exemplifies and intensifies an this aspect of human madness. Yet even knowing the rockets fall randomly, the brain clutches at explanations, and this need leads to obsessions, leads to horrible acts and ideas. Pynchon pulls back too: Even if war appears on the surface to be about ideas and ideals, he states unequivocally (and herein lies the paranoia) that it is always and only about economics, big business, and don't you forget it. All the rest is window-dressing, using this human frailty of flirting with death.

Plot? Someone notices that this fellow named Slothrop, a swamp yankee, Harvard grad, working in an acronymed secret ops area known as ARF has a flagged map which weirdly predicts, a few days ahead of time, where the rockets will fall. In fact, the little flags mark his sexual conquests . . . so . . . the question arises, is there a connection with the, uh, Little Death and the rockets? There is a research center, "The White Visitation" formerly an asylum (where the residents still live, including one who believes he IS World War II) where experiments are conducted, the inmates, sane and mad, closely watched for signs of telekinesis or clairvoyance and where Slothrop is studied and discussed.

All around Slothrop, who, it turns out, who was part of a behavioural, yes, sexual response, experiment as an infant, circle a host of characters, all caught up, one way or another in his orbit (Or should I say trajectory?), all assigned with figuring out what the heck is connection is (or isn't) to the rockets. . Among them, Roger Mexico, a british statistician, a behavioural scientist Pointsman (doing horrible things to dogs, trying to reverse condition them--don't ask). Katya, a Belgian, former spy and on and on.

Pynchon is a master of the humorous riff, that rises inexorably to a climax that had me snorting tea up my nose. Slothrop re-encounters one of his conquests and is invited in for tea with her and her landlady. Follows a American/British never-the-twain-shall-meet over what constitutes a delicious candy. The wine-jellies have names like Lafitte-Rothschild. Another , a Marmalade Surprise, has a "dribbling liquid center, which taste like mayonnaise and orange peels." a raspberry candy, is bitten into and "there comes pouring out onto his tongue the most godawful crystalline concentration of Jeez it must be pure nitric acid." Then another bowl full of novelty candies, replicas of weaponry. He takes a grenade: "Under its tamarind glaze, the Mills bomb turns out to be luscious pepsin-flavored nougat, chock-full of tangy candied cubeb berries, and chewy camphor-gum center. . . Cubeb? He used to smoke that stuff. "Poisoned . . " he is able to croak. 'Show a little backbone,' advises Mrs. Quoad." Slothrop starts coughing, they give him a Meggezone drop: "The Meggezone is like being belted in the head with a Swiss Alp." And so on.

At the very least, it gives a Yank an insight into where the 'ear-wax' flavored jelly beans come from in HP - nothing new, apparently, to the average Briton.

There is also real love, the genuine article, between one Jessica and Roger, the statistician . . . as I left the story yesterday, they had stopped, to listen to an Advent service at a tiny Norman church, filled with mostly American serviceman, who sing, IN GERMAN, because, well, that is how it is sung. A moment of counterpoint and beauty.

Nov 5, 2015, 6:34 pm

Pointsman, the disciple of Pavlov, is having doubts about his experiments conditioning dogs (you don't want to know) -- this is because of Slothrop. He wants Slothrop. He wants to take Slothrop apart, basically, to find out if he really is causing the rockets to fall where he has been with a woman. He's in agonies too because 'the book'-- some scientific work-- that he shared with six other people initially is down to only two living people and he feels perhaps the book is cursed, those who have it will die of this war.

Then the narrative turns to a German woman, Leni, living in Berlin with her husband Franz, an engineer who gets entangled with the rocket makers. Her lover is Peter Saxa (I'll have to check the spelling) who we know dies at some point, because his ghost speaks through one of the psychic residents at "The White Visitation". Yeh, things are gettin' weird. I'm just hanging on for the ride.

Two hours left on this first installment, which will be about 1/4 of the book. I have to think a bit about whether I want to keep pushing on or take a break for Shardlake. It is very intense, no question.

Edited: Nov 9, 2015, 9:08 am

GR 4
I finished up the last couple of hours on the first of four installments from Audible. In this Leni attends a seance of Sachsa's -- where he channels a minister from WW1 (Rathenau) who re-organized the business side of the war machine and who Pynchon (who else) declares to be the founder of modern corporate business practice. The minister is touch on the business magnates of the present who are in attendance looking to get some tips and advice. Leni also tells Saxa she has left Franz for good. I have to admit here I am not sure of what time frame we are in, I am under the impression that Saxa does die and that the fellow in England communes with his spirit, but I could be wrong. Something to check.

There was a whole riff from Rathenau about the invention of the color mauve. I couldn't help but recall from a skit on Beyond the Fringe where a group of male models are sitting around waiting for a photo shoot to begin, discussing the color mauve. No question there is something about the word itself, just saying it, that sets one off.

Pointsman is celebrating Christmas with the last remaining book sharer, a mad Welshman whose name I won't even try to spell.

Roger and Jessica are spending Boxing Day with Jessica's sister. Roger is in despair over the depth of his love for Jessica. We have glimpsed, earlier, Jessica feeling that perhaps Roger is just too much for her to deal with, and yet. She does prefer him to her steady beau.

Meanwhile the action moves to the Riviera where Slothrop is on leave with his office mate Tantivy and Bloat (one of Prentice's colleagues). The Englishmen are horrified that Slothrop is wearing a Hawaiian shirt. (For all he is a Harvard man he flaunts his American lack of taste happily.) Three lovely women walk below their balcony and in no time at all the six are headed out on a picnic on the beach. But then -- a young woman out on the rocks is attacked by - - a giant Octopus - - oh yes - which reminds that Slothrop's conditioning as an infant had something to do with octopi and erections (induced somehow?). ANYHOW, this giant octopus attacks the maiden on the rock, Slothrop runs to the rescue and beats on it with the wine bottle he has in his hand. Bloat appears with a giant crab and says, "Here, feed it this and it'll let the girl go." Slothrop does as suggested. The octopus lets the girl go and leaves with the crab.

It is all very weird. (Thinks Slothrop - I know better!)

Slothrop can't help but get a creepy feeling that the whole thing was a set up. However, the girl he rescued (yeh, Katya) tells him to come to her room after midnight, and they have a good romp, complete with pillow fight. In the morning, however, Slothrop awakes to discover someone is stealing his clothes. He ends up wrapping himself in a sheet pursuing his quarry, but the tree he jumps into to keep chasing appears to be mysteriously sawn and breaks and he lands, in his sheet, on a croquet lawn where the generals and the ladies just sort of giggle and tut-tut. Bloat dresses him in some of his clothes when Slothrop discovers his entire room has been cleared out, all his ID everything, as if he has never been there. Tantivy too is gone. Bloat is unfriendly. He spends the day wandering around in a paranoid daze and ends up at Katya's door. Thankfully (or maybe not) she is there. And that's where I stopped.