09 November, 2006

The Modern Word

2006 is shaping up to be a pretty good year for literature—first Gilbert Sorrentino died, now Pynchon is coming out with his first novel in 10 years.

Pynchon's hermetic mystique is not what it once was, with his two Simpsons cameos and the various blurbs he's shilled—liner-notes for indie-rock bands, the preface for a glossy new 1984, and now his rather silly summary of the forthcoming blockbuster. But of course, people are still talking excitedly about Against the Day. You'd think the Beatles were releasing new material.

I've been flipping through some old Pynchon novels of late, trying to get myself back into the mood. They were a natural progression for me when I got into Joyce as a teenager, and easy to appreciate. But, perhaps, unlike Joyce, difficult to love. The connection is readily apparent, I think—even the bibliobole on the Penguin Gravity's Rainbow calls it 'a work as exhaustively significant to the second half of the twentieth century as Joyce's Ulysses was to the first'. But then, there's no cause for surprise: much of the 'high' American fiction of the last 50 years has been in conscious competition with the old bastard. Alexander Theroux's dazzling Darconville's Cat was of the old school, classicist, with a Trappist education in place of a Jesuit one. Mailer put his oar in with the mediocre Ancient Evenings—though his much greater success was with the gonzo / beatish Why Are We In Vietnam? Bellow strung out the picaresque strain in Ulysses with Augie March, though again, his masterpiece was Henderson, its magnificence unborrowed. Pynchon's aemulatio was more of its period—the period of Catch-22, Vonnegut, Burroughs, Barth, Gaddis, Gass. You can smell Joyce all over Pynchon: the ballads, the syntax, the high brought low, the totemic symbolism, the elaborate names, the lists, the compressed surrealism (compare 'Circe')—even the band-pass filter diagram from V. is obviously inspired by the Wake's use of Euclid 1.1. But he's his own writer, too, 1960s America thru and thru, with a private vocabulary of reference, the clamoring of jazz and movies and street slang and the Navy and engineerspeak and a history that starts pointedly after Joyce's death with the Second World War. That's why Pynchon is so admired, beyond his obvious talent—in him Americans have a native Joyce, not just a borrowed one.


Three years ago I was in Cape Cod with my bellamy D; we were staying in the Red Mill Motel, out on the highway, miles from anywhere. It was a wet and desolate September. The only restaurant nearby was a family-owned joint with delicious seafood and the sort of waitresses you get in nowheresville, where pretty local girls have nothing better to do. It was there that I first heard the word quahog. One evening we walked along the shingle beach in the cold rain, all the way to the end; there, beyond all the helmet crabshells, capless bottles and kelp, was an observation deck looking out into the Atlantic. The wind was mordant, and a sign prohibited climbing. Naturally, we climbed anyway. Nobody was about, except the gulls. The hole in the platform was barely big enough to squeeze through, and the steel was gelid—the gales rushing into the ocean constantly threatened to push us over—but it had to be done, and we were fortified by the shared recklessness, both in ourselves, and between each other. You feel the clutch of a human faith in such circumstances.


Pynchon's first effort, V., was a dry run for his historical imagination. I don't see it as my job to tell you what the book's like on this blog; there's plenty of internet opportunity for that sort of thing. But to put it briefly, V. isn't bad, and shows occasional glimpses of that perfect prose Pynchon would hone a decade later. The first revelation is early: he begins to relieve himself of his signatures, such as the adverbial adjective—
watching snow-shrouds flap silent against the big windows
I have a fondness for this device, which tends towards the static and the heavy; it is also common in Latin. Then there's the suppressed question-mark, as far as I know a Pynchonian peculiarity:
"What are you shivering for. It's warm enough in here."
And the associative vocabulary, here warm being suggested by worn:
she shivered, a discreet foot of worn bench between them
Note also in this sentence a very loose semantic connection between the two cola, a modernist trait, although its genesis is as early as the anti-Ciceronian seventeenth century. A stylistic ambivalence is evident also in a sentence such as:
The engine thumped and labored down below, they could feel it through their buttocks, but neither could think of anything to say.
The first and second cola are in a loose, Attic, asyndetic relation—they could be separate sentences—whereas the second and third have a formal, periodic relation introduced by the connective but. These are flashes, but then Pynchon gives us a flawless paragraph, the entire world in four sentences, unequal but balanced, consummately:
Snow falling lazy on the water made 11 P.M. look like twilight or an eclipse. Overhead every few seconds a horn sounded off to warn away anything on collision course. But yet as if there were nothing in this roads after all but ships, untenanted, inanimate, making noises at each other which meant nothing more than the turbulence of the screws or the snow-hiss on the water. And Profane all alone in it.
There's the adverbial adjective in the first sentence, and the formal ambivalence in the third, taken to a perfection of subtlety. There is so much going on in that third sentence! It is a perversion of form: the 'original' being something like this, a line of verse—
As if there were nothing in this roads but ships
making noises at each other.
At the sentence's heart is a double caesura, both negatives—and 'inanimate' is one of Pynchon's favourite words, here echoing 'untenanted' both in sound and sense, but a little softer. Note also the ungrammatical 'this roads', which recalls an earlier conflation of many streets into 'one Street'. How many would dare to ruin a line of poetry with such a glaring but pregnant solecism? But Pynchon has also allowed the line to be prose: to this end he has employed a vernacular American copia, inserting 'But yet' and 'after all', and running on the last clause without punctuation for a further 17 words. And that's only the music of the sentence, to say nothing of its content. There is no main verb here—you expect, 'as if X, Y', but there is no Y, only a series of nested subclauses. This again repeats the 'broken-sentence' paradigm of Ulysses, and see also my remarks on Amanda Ros.

There is an Aggadic tradition from around the 4th century that Isaac, at the moment Abraham was about to sacrifice him on Moriah, saw the antechambers of the Throne. For the working mystic, having the vision and passing through the chambers one by one, is terrible and complex. The angels at the doorways will try to con you, threaten you, play all manner of cruel practical jokes, to turn you aside.

Gravity's Rainbow (1975)
There is something alchemical in Pynchon's ability to incorporate this heterogeneous material in a narrative voice at once Protean and reassuringly of a piece. The digression on Isaac is one voussoir in the soffit of the book's covenantal theme. Here he is brought into alignment with another theme, that of devotional mysticism—Jacob's ladder, for instance, or the sefirot. The 'angels' confronted by the mystic are also the temptations of Christ—typed either by Abraham's surrogate ram, or in a perverse sort of way by Isaac himself, who carries his own deathwood up Golgotha—and the demon assessors of the Book of the Dead, against whom spells are to be continually recited. The angels are also Pynchon himself, who stands at the doorways of his own text, against the reader passing through the chambers of each chapter, trying to con him with all manner of cruel practical jokes.


I think that Pynchon is something of a ladder to be climbed, up onto an observation deck overlooking the wild Atlantic. To lose oneself in his chambers is not comforting, not enriching, not warm—there is the nausea and vertigo of great height, a fortifying climate of recklessness. There is never any Platonic sort of truth to be had—an idea satirised in the image of Byron the immortal lightbulb discovered in one delicious subplot—only the loneliness of endless expanse.

I'll read Against the Day, and perhaps even blog about it. I'll read it backwards, I think, paragraph by paragraph, labouring up Golgotha, so as to remain confused, and to remain also in awe.


John Cowan said...

I don't normally post a comment before finishing a piece, but I have to make an exception this time. I was following you with alarmed fascination and then was slammed to the floor by this sentence:

How many would dare to ruin a line of poetry with such a glaring but pregnant solecism?

I think you have been infected with the parasitic amoeba of over-interpretationism, and you need to seek a remedy. "This roads" is not only not a solecism, it's the correct form.

Webster's NID3 rightly defines "roads" in this usage as a synonym for "roadstead", which it defines in turn as "a place less sheltered or enclosed than a harbor where ships may ride at anchor" (note the ablaut relationship of "road" to "ride").

In any case, "roads", like "news", is firmly singular. Pynchon is neither daring nor solecistic in using it so.

(I may write another comment later.)

Languagehat said...

Wonderful post -- you remind me of why I love Pynchon.

I agree with John, though I wouldn't be as dogmatic about it; I was taken aback by your strictures on the usage, and doubly so when I looked it up in the OED and found no support for a singular. But it sounds fine to me, and I am glad to see Webster's supports me; this is evidently a US/UK thing.

Raminagrobis said...

Bloody hell, I haven't even finished Gravity's Rainbow yet (I've only been reading it for two years though), and you're coming up with stuff like this?

Very impressive.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Blow me, John (and Steve) you must be right. I hadn't heard it before... no doubt, indeed, a US/UK thing. And yes, the OED is unhelpful (I did check, as it happens). Do forgive my hastiness: there was no over-interpretationism intended. I'm glad to have learnt.

And thanks, R.

E said...

>But, perhaps, unlike Joyce, difficult to love.

Funny, I've always thought completely opposite! Joyce I admire, Pynchon I love. Maybe this is a UK/US thing, too.

Strange, though-- you acknowledge Pynchon's "perfect prose" but seem baffled by the excitement surrounding Against the Day. Yes, it won't be GR, but still more interesting than anything else being published these days...

Interesting post, although I wouldn't call the 1984 intro "shilling" (the Lotion liner notes, OK)...

Conrad H. Roth said...

> Maybe this is a UK/US thing, too.

Or maybe just a question of historical priority; I came to Pynchon through Joyce.

I wouldn't say I was 'baffled' by the excitement surrounding Against the Day, more amused. He inspires the same sort of cult fannishness as rock bands. But hey, I'm looking forward to it as much as anyone, and agreed, until Theroux ever releases anything again I don't think Pynchon has any current contenders. If The Modern Word is anything to go by, ATD is even better than GR, if such a thing is possible.