28 September, 2007

Exhaustive enumeration

Recently Aaron Haspel linked to a review of Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day from the Virginia Quarterly Review. I wrote a little piece on Pynchon here—but never got around to reading Against the Day. The reviewer, William Logan, quotes this passage:
The rooms seemed to run on for blocks, stuffed with automata human and animal assembled and in pieces, disappearing-cabinets, tables that would float in midair and other trick furniture, Davenport figures with dark-rimmed eyes in sinister faces, lengths of perfect black velvet and multicolored silk brocade a-riot with Oriental scenes, mirrors, crystals, pneumatic pumps and valves, electromagnets, speaking-trumpets, bottles that never ran empty and candles that lighted themselves, player pianos, Zoetropic projectors . . .
Logan comments, 'The list may be the manifest sign of research the novelist can’t bear to throw away', adding that 'the matter of matter is almost always farcical in accumulation, from Dickens’s dust heaps in Our Mutual Friend to Imelda Marcos’s shoes'. He continues:
The meaning of the title, should Against the Day mean anything, lies in shoring up the present against those ruins of the future—and to that end, the list stockpiles odds and ends, like boxes of Civil Defense crackers, as a specific against destruction.
I'm not going to write a history of lists. (The canonical figures of literary listmaking are Rabelais and Joyce; many accounts see a precursor in the catalogue of ships from Iliad 2. I think that textual listmaking also has two important extra-literary sources—religious ritual and anatomical catalogues.) But this list, with its last two members, and with its mention of 'perfect black velvet', tips its hat in subtle reference to another striking literary list—this, from Vonnegut's 1952 Player Piano:
In the early light, the town seemed an enormous jewel box, lined with the black and gray velvet of fly-ash, and filled with millions of twinkling treasures: bits of air conditioners, amplidynes, analyzers, arc welders, batteries, belts, billers, bookkeeping machines, bottlers, canners, capacitors, circuitbreakers, clocks, coin boxes, calorimeters, colorimeters, computers, condensers, conduits, controls, converters, conveyers, cryostats, counters, cutouts, densitometers, detectors, dust precipitators, dishwashers, dispensers, dynamometers, dynamotors, electrodes, electronic tubes, exciters, fans, filers, filters, frequency changers, furnaces, fuses, gages, garbage disposers, gears, generators, heat exchangers, insulators, lamps, loudspeakers, magnets, mass spectrometers, motor generators, motors, noisemeters, oscillographs, panelboards, personnel machines, photoelectric cells, potentiometers, pushbuttons, radios, radiation detectors, reactors, recorders, rectifiers, reducers, regulators, relays, remote controls, resistors, rheostats, selsyns, servos, solenoids, sorters, spectrophotometers, spectroscopes, springs, starters, strain-gages, switchboards, switches, tape recorders, tachometers, telemeters, television sets, television cameras, testers, thermocouples, thermostats, timers, toasters, torquemeters, traffic controls, transistors, transducers, transformers, turbines, vacuum cleaners, vacuum gages, vacuum tubes, venders, vibration meters, viscosimeters, water heaters, wheels, X-ray spectrogoniometers, zymometers. . .
Player Piano is not one of Vonnegut's great books—it lacks the perfect irony and beauty of Slapstick, and the linguistic invention of Cat's Cradle. It is clearly an early work. But this passage is a masterstroke. It comes toward the end of the novel: the protagonist is admiring the wreckage left by a group of Luddites (the 'Ghost Shirts') in a dystopian techno-future. The list is thus not so much 'shoring up the present against those ruins of the future', but rather shoring up the past against the ruins of the present.

There are two brilliant things about Vonnegut's list: firstly, its unremitting alphabetization (only 'radios, radiation' and 'television sets, television cameras' seem to break the law), and secondly, the local effects created by the total pattern. It's terrific that we have 'dynamometers, dynamotors' and 'motor generators, motors', because the standard logic of prose rhythm would give the reverse order in each case. 'Fans, filers, filters' is a more traditional tricolon, and there is a delightful jangle on 'calorimeters, colorimeters'. Another nice touch is 'wheels, X-ray spectrogoniometers', which moves from the simplest machine to the most abstruse, purely by alphabetic place.

These local effects serve by contrast to make the listening reader more aware of the flatness of standard prose structures. The list defamiliarises both the language and the mechanical world now reduced to rubble: that world is now to be described not by a bystander, casually, but as if by an archaeologist, in systematic order. The world is dead, unrevivable; fully objectified.

Vonnegut's list thus takes the reader out of the lull of the text—which, in a pretty standard bit of science fiction, is a bold writerly move. But Vonnegut makes two mistakes. Firstly, he ends the passage with an ellipsis (. . .), and secondly, he then continues the novel, with some rather weak dialogue and narrative dribble, for another few pages, adding nothing. It would have been better to put a full stop after 'zymometers' and leave the novel at that.


Sir G said...

That is a great list. Thanks.

Languagehat said...

Well spotted, well discussed.

Anonymous said...

Conrad! I never would have taken you for a fan of Vonnegut's, but this is deft-and-compressed an appreciation as anyone could hope for (with the bonus of an editorial suggestion so just it hurts to think it'll never be heeded).

Vonnegut foresaw the PC dystopia of our Now all the way back in '61 ("Harisson Bergeron"), figured out the Bin Laden-Bush relationship in "Cat's Cradle", slipped Martin Amis the idea for "Time's Arrow" (in the bombing-in-reverse sequence from "Slaughterhouse 5") and gave the secular cadaver of the American "Left" an identifiably sane, charming and reasonable face. And he could write *rings* around Gore Vidal, the anti-Vonnegut who manages to package *his* populism in the purplest snobbery.

But, back to the subject of literary list-making: isn't Vonnegut the direct heir, in temperament and list-making both (though minus, *perhaps*, the bisexuality), to Walt Whitman?

"I see plenteous waters,
I see mountain peaks, I see the sierras of Andes where they
I see plainly the Himalayas, Chian Shahs, Altays, Ghauts,
I see the giant pinnacles of Elbruz, Kazbek, Bazardjusi,
I see the Styrian Alps, and the Karnac Alps,
I see the Pyrenees, Balks, Carpathians, and to the north the
Dofrafields, and off at sea mount Hecla,
I see Vesuvius and Etna, the mountains of the Moon..."

(what a glittering wordchain, and long before wikipedia, too)

Anonymous said...

"It would have been better to put a full stop after 'zymometers' and leave the novel at that."

Agreed, though with one qualification. The ellipsis would have had to stay. Horrible way to end a book, functionally, but observe-

1. A zymometer is an "an instrument for measuring degree of fermentation."

2. That ellipsis, in this context, was surely (surely!) meant to serve as a winking representation of 3 delightful little carbon dioxide bubbles rising through an alcoholic beverage.

And since-

3. The final scene in the book, as it was published, centers around the performing of a toast with a bottle of just such a delightful beverage, and ends with the subsequent smashing of said bottle against a rock, which would have, of course, freed those little carbon dioxide bubbles to scatter off, just so- ...

4. Ultimately, if taken as a visual pun, the word zymometers followed by an ellipsis elegantly provides all the clues necessary to ascertain the emotional content intended in the author's resolution.

Really it's all any diligently hyper-aware lateral-thinking reader would need to sit in a poorly lit coffee shop, nodding knowingly, with a wry smile playing across his face.

Elementary my dear Conrad!

Conrad H. Roth said...

G and LH: thanks.

Steven: Yes, I've always had a soft spot for Vonnegut. It seems dirty to even mention Amis in the same paragraph. Still, Bin Laden as Bokonon, eh? I like it!

Jaime: "a winking representation of 3 delightful little carbon dioxide bubbles rising through an alcoholic beverage."