Tuesday, January 9, 2007

WHY READ PYNCHON, 3

4. Sex and humor. In Pynchon's world, sex in all its manifestations -- ribald, comic, grotesque, lyrical, perverse, sentimental, erotic, and so on -- is an ongoing narrative effect. That is to say, that not only do characters have sex, but the sex they have is tied, like the narrator's sense of humor, to the imaginative possibilities of any given situation. When, for instance, a character begins to contemplate a woman's dog as an object of desire, it's as "natural" to the fictional context as having a huge hot air balloon and gondola journey beneath the desert sands and a find a city there which, like all Pynchon cities, has a bar where colorful characters cross paths.

Humor is a part of sex and vice versa in many instances. Only when a major character feels a major passion -- which generally is of the nature of an obsession that can't be gainsaid -- does the narrator adopt a tone of respect about, even of sympathy with, what primal forces can make us do. But never does he drop the tongue-in-cheek tone that naturally intrudes when discussing someone else's delusions, no matter how heartfelt. The variation on this is when he strikes up the band big time to let the prose equivalent of flowers and bon bons descend upon some happy couple he is for the moment giving a literary fĂȘte. In other words, the corollaries and nuances of sex -- often "kinky" -- and humor -- often collegiate -- are a given. Few authors are able to be so arch about their characters' sex lives -- Joyce and Nabokov spring to mind as heading the list, but neither of them is at the same time so enthusiastic about every new wrinkle or fetish. Pynchon's narrator actually seems at times enamored of the erotic obsessions his characters experience even as he exploits them for dramatic or comic effect.

Saying the humor is "collegiate" is to say that it partakes of what has been common parlance to students since the '50s: drug humor -- at first filtered through jazz (and the hipsters Mailer discusses in "The White Negro"), then through the "sex, drugs, rock'n'roll revolution" of the college-age masses of the '60s. Pynchon's humor harkens back to those times, with perhaps a bit more of the inspired goofiness that found its anarchist heroes in the Marx Brothers, and its hip counter-cultural sensibility in The Firesign Theater. Neither of which were about drugs, per se, but which were so much more "meaningful" when stoned. But another meaning for "collegiate" is "sophomoric" and Pynchon seems to pride himself on the kinds of puns and verbal jokes that old English teachers liked to use to make the class groan -- just to make sure we were all paying attention.

5. Arcana, anyone? GR was the Pynchon novel that got tagged with the term "encyclopedic," but AtD is the only Pynchon novel that at times sounds that way. The passages on rocket aerodynamics in GR, or on the statistical Poisson distrbution, or on Pavlovian experiments, were part of the activity being presented. In AtD, the mathematical discussions have some of that feeling: we're listening to math-heads talk, so, sure this is what they have to say. The parts that sound less "motivated" by the story, and also way less metaphorical, are the passages that give us a quick precis of political developments, say, in Mexico, or which want to bring us up to speed on what's happening in the Balkans when one of our heroes stumbles into it.

Such passages aren't abundant, but I mention the tendency because it does demonstrate the extent to which Pynchon, for all his audacity, relies upon certain basic assumptions of intelligibility, such as those of any historical record. At one point one character says to another, "you really only believe what you were taught," or something to that effect, and it's a moment that illuminates something that underpins much of TP's method: the stories he tells are not the stories They tell or that We were already told. He's the poet of crypto-history, the teller who wants to reimagine the world via the cast-off arcana, the forgotten bits of pseudo-historical dream and theory and surmise. It's a daunting task. Most works of fiction either imaginatively recreate things which actually happened, or entirely fantasize a world only tangentially a part of ours. Pynchon does both those things, and so much more, but he still has to rely, at times, on basic accounts of the who, what, where and why.

6. Apocalypse then. The notion of apocalypse as revelation, a showing of what is to come (or of what has always lurked latent in the way things are or were) is a major working interest of TP's narrators and many of his characters, but the more popular meaning of apocalypse, as a revelation about the ultimate end or destruction of what is, is also intrinsic to both narrators and characters, though generally it's the characters that want to see what's coming before it gets here and it's the narrators that like to intimate that, whatever it will be, it's going to wipe what is, now, off the map. No one exploits so well, or so often, this tone of meanings just out of reach, of changes poised to occur that need only a certain catalyst or participant to become manifest.

Those who have compared Pynchon's works to pre-novelistic romance or allegory tend to focus on this aspect: a sense that meaning inheres in the things themselves and that the quest is to find that meaning, to bring it out, to rescue history from darker subtexts that are just as possible, perhaps even more likely. Indeed, as we go on in AtD we get the sense that hopes for the future keep diminishing. And, since the future of the book (on at least the standard timeline), is our time, well, good reason for the pessimism. To counter that, it seems, Pynchon provides glimpses of other possibilities -- aspects of "our" past which might still be recovered in "our" future, if we can manage it. I think this, more than anything, is the reasoning behind what the novel calls "bilocations": the notion that we live always with one foot in the past we want to claim as ours and one foot in the future we want that past to be the origins of. Apocalypse, as revelation, was all about a moment -- now in the past -- when what was revealed was a future that the present wholly ignored and which only a tradition -- religious, mystical, allegorical -- could maintain as still germane in the present. For TP, all secret societies, to say nothing of every new school or system of study, owe their provenance and their relevance to some such vision, insight or relevation.

2 comments:

Andrew Shields said...

The bit at the end here about "bilocations" recalls Kundera's points in (I think) "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting" about how anytime an idealist starts talking about the future what he really wants to do is define how we should interpret the past.

Donald Brown said...

Yeah, when I re-read my comment I realized that it sounded as if I was saying that's what TP treats "Bilocations" as, when it's really my spin on what he's doing.