The Late Show: Thomas Pynchon

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Among other things, I’ll remember 2021 as the year of Too Much Work, but it’s also been the year of reading several thousand pages of Thomas Pynchon’s prose. After finally getting through Gravity’s Rainbow back in June (having also read V. and The Crying of Lot 49) I continued with the rest of the Pynchon oeuvre, working my way through Vineland, Mason & Dixon, and Inherent Vice. And after reading the latter I watched the film adaptation again which I found to be much more enjoyable and less confusing the second time round. (Moral: read the novel first). I’m currently ploughing through Against the Day, not worrying too much about how all the various episodes are supposed to join together.

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The commendable inaccessibility of Pynchon the man means that documentary features about his books are scarce. Television abhors an authorial vacuum which is why so many TV documentaries about long-dead or otherwise unavailable writers resort to the cliches of a silhouette hammering away at a typewriter, or an actor in period clothing scribbling in a dimly-lit room. The BBC, in the days when it still used to make programmes about books and writers, often evaded the absurdities of docu-drama by the simple expedient of having a suitable actor read portions of prose, which is what we have in this all-too-brief Pynchon feature from 1990. The Late Show was a nightly fixture on BBC 2 at this time, with a remit to cover anything newsworthy in the cultural sphere. Vineland was about to be published in Britain so editor David Gale was called upon to explain to viewers the lure of Pynchon’s novels and their mysterious author. It’s a fascinating piece which achieves in a mere 19 minutes what Thomas Pynchon – A Journey into the Mind of [P.] barely manages in an hour and a half. As with the Dubinis documentary, there’s some discussion of the authorial enigmas but Gale keeps the novels to the fore. It’s amusing with hindsight to hear about the critical disappointment that greeted the arrival of Vineland—Pynchon’s first novel after a silence of 17 years—knowing that the monumental Mason & Dixon would be published a few years later. Commentary is supplied by publishing heavyweights Tom Maschler, Dan Franklin and John Brown (two of whom describe their meetings with the elusive author), together with critic Rhoda Koenig and critic/poet Eric Mottram, here interviewed with a picture of one of his favourite authors, William Burroughs, peering over his shoulder.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Esoterica 49
Pynchonian cinema
Going beyond the zero
Pynchon and Varo
Thomas Pynchon – A Journey into the Mind of [P.]

Esoterica 49

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“What is especially needed is great sensitivity: to look upon everything in the world as enigma….To live in the world as in an immense museum of strange things.” —Giorgio de Chirico

A few weeks ago I made a list of feature films that might be regarded as having the characteristics of a Thomas Pynchon novel without being based on any of Pynchon’s books. The post prompted several suggestions for other candidates, including recommendations to watch Jim Gavin’s TV series, Lodge 49, an American production that ran for two seasons from 2018 to 2019 before being cancelled due to low ratings. Having now watched the series I can say that I enjoyed it very much, and it is very Pynchonian, unsurprisingly when it not only gestures to the title of Pynchon’s second novel, The Crying of Lot 49, but also borrows from its storyline.

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Ernie (Brent Jennings) has just been contemplating a print from the Ars Magna Lucis (1665) by Athanasius Kircher. Near the end of the second series he leaps through an image from the same book.

Lodge 49 presents a unique mélange of alchemy, surfing, secret societies, aerospace engineering, pool cleaning and cryptocurrency, with the added bonus of songs by the much-missed Broadcast being woven into the narrative. The series is consistently funny, humour being another essential Pynchonian ingredient, while the episodes are littered with references to (or correspondences with) Pynchon’s oeuvre: two of the main characters are an ex-surfer and an ex-sailor; the defunct aerospace company, Orbis, is modelled on Pynchon’s Yoyodyne from V. and Lot 49; there’s a trip to Mexico, a visit to an auction, and mention of a Remedios Varo exhibition (Lot 49 again); there are even references to Antarctic mysteries (V.), the Hollow Earth (Mason and Dixon) and the V-2 rocket (Gravity’s Rainbow). And those are only a few of the things I happened to catch as a first-time viewer. This is unusual territory for a small-scale television series, even if American TV has loosened up in recent years to allow a more eclectic range of material.

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Larry (Kenneth Welsh) in the Sanctum Sanctorum with a plate from the Splendor Solis on the wall.

The Lodge 49 of the title is part of a global network of lodges that form the Ancient & Benevolent Order of the Lynx, a cross between a Masonic order and an occult cabal, founded by one Harwood Fritz Merrill, a Scottish alchemist, writer and explorer. (Merrill’s biography and the history of the Order of the Lynx is detailed here [PDF].) Alchemy is a persistent theme in the series but remains in the background for the most part, literally so inside Lodge 49 (Long Beach, California) and Lodge 1 (London) where the walls are decorated with prints of alchemical engravings. It would have been tempting to identify all of these pictures but most of them can be found in Taschen’s excellent Alchemy and Mysticism picture book so it’s easier to direct the curious to the Taschen volume. The prints also seemed to be there more to provide suitable set decoration rather than be significant in themselves, with one notable exception (see below).

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Connie (Linda Edmond) going deeper into the mysteries of Lodge 1. The print is from Cabala, Spiegel der Kunst und Natur: in Alchymia (1615) by Stephan Michelspacher.

More intriguing was the appearance of several paintings which did seem significant although they might equally have been there to generate audience speculation. Film and TV drama is made today in the full awareness that every detail is liable to be screen-grabbed and scrutinised by obsessive viewers, a situation that offers the potential for directors and designers to incorporate details that may have no special significance but are simply there to fuel online chatter. It’s difficult to tell if this is what Gavin and co. were doing, especially when the prematurely truncated series contains so many loose ends and unexplained moments. But paranoia is in part the search for a significance that may not exist outside the mind of the paranoiac so a small degree of concern about being gamed by the creators of Lodge 49 seems warranted here, as well as adding to the general Pynchon factor. Despite all the Pynchoniana mentioned above the series is light on the paranoia that’s a constant in Pynchon’s novels so why not cultivate a little paranoia in the audience itself?

Continue reading “Esoterica 49”

Pynchonian cinema

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(Pynchonian? Pynchonesque? Pynchon-heads can no doubt supply the most common descriptor but for now Pynchonian will do.)

Is it possible to identify a Pynchonian strand in cinema? This question came to mind while I was reading the end of Gravity’s Rainbow, and probably a little before then during a scene that takes place in the Neubabelsberg studio in Berlin. The Pynchon reading binge is still ongoing here—after finishing the Rocket book I went straight on to Vineland, and I’m currently immersed in Mason and Dixon—so I’ve been watching films that complement some of the preoccupations in the Pynchon oeuvre, at least up to and including Vineland. This is a small and no doubt contentious list but I’m open to further suggestions. Inherent Vice is excluded, I’ve been thinking more of films that are reminiscent of Pynchon without being derived from his work. Elements that increase the Pynchon factor would include: a serio-comic quality (essential, this, otherwise you’d have to include a huge number of thrillers); detective work; paranoia; songs; and a conspiracy of some sort, or the suspicion of the same: a mysterious cabal–the “They” of Gravity’s Rainbow—who may or may not be manipulating the course of events.

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The President’s Analyst (1967)
I’d be very surprised if Pynchon didn’t like this one. James Coburn as the titular analyst, Dr Sidney Schaefer, has little time to enjoy his new job in Washington DC before half the security services in the world are trying to kidnap him to discover what he’s learned about the President’s neuroses. This in turn leads the FBI FBR to attempt to kill Schaefer in order to protect national security. Pynchonian moments include a bout of total paranoia in a restaurant, Canadian spies disguised as a British pop group (“The ‘Pudlians”), and a visit to the home of a “typical American family” where the father has a house full of guns, the mother is a karate expert, and the son uses his “Junior Spy Kit” to monitor phone conversations. Later on, an entire nightclub gets spiked with LSD. This is also the only film in which someone evades abduction to a foreign country by the cunning use of psychoanalysis.
Is it serio-comic? Yes.
Is there detection? In the background: the CIA CEA and KGB agents have to work together in order to outwit the FBI FBR and discover who the ultimate villains might be.
Is there paranoia? You only get more paranoia in one of the serious conspiracy dramas of the 1970s like The Conversation or The Parallax View. (The latter includes the same actor who plays the All American Dad, William Daniels.)
Any songs? Yes. Coburn hides out for a while with the real-life psychedelic group Clear Light, and helps with their performance in the acid-spiked nightclub.
“They”? There are multiple “They”s in this one.
Pynchon factor: 5. Maybe a 6 for the LSD.

Continue reading “Pynchonian cinema”

Weekend links 573

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The Greendale Oak, Welbeck, Nottinghamshire, from Joseph George Strutt’s Sylva Britannica (1822/1830).

• “…a single page from Max Ernst’s collage novel Une semaine de bonté (A Week of Kindness, 1934) uncovers the weird brooding threat in Tenniel’s image of Alice in the railway carriage.” Mark Sinker reviewing the Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. I don’t know what Ernst page Sinker is referring to but I made the connection between an Ernst collage and Tenniel’s drawing here in 2010.

• At Wormwoodiana: “Calum Storrie’s 36 Elevations is a book of drawings of imaginary architecture, with the emphasis on towers, stairs, ladders, globes, oblique angles, gantries, finials etc.”

• At The Quietus: Jennifer Lucy Allen on The Strange World of…Don Cherry, and Dustin Krcatovich on Don and Moki Cherry’s Organic Music Theatre.

Call it the new orthodoxy of the digital middlebrow, “the rise of safely empowering stories with likeable protagonists who move through short sentence after short sentence towards uplifting conclusions in which virtue is rewarded.” The laudable goal of increasing the diversity of literary voices has somehow morphed into a series of purity tests designed to ensure that any artistic representation ticks the same boxes as its ostensible author. “On this,” Tyree writes, “conservative religious evangelicals secretly agree with their puritanical secularist enemies on a censorious attitude and checklist approach to art as either ‘acceptable’ or ‘offensive’ to whatever program one happens to prefer for cleansing all vileness from the world.” The result?

[A]rt is increasingly viewed by both the right and the left as a sub-branch of medicine, therapy, hygiene, or good manners. Art is no longer that which tells us the truth but rather that which makes us feel better—a deflated ideology that is spawning a sort of unofficial school of palatability.

And this, I fear, is what’s afflicting many of my students…

Justin St. Clair reviewing The Counterforce: Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice by JM Tyree. Since I’m currently in the midst of a Pynchon reading binge this is all very timely

• “Researchers create self-sustaining, intelligent, electronic microsystems from green material“.

• From 2018: Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Toop live at The Silver Building.

• New weirdness: Catwalk Of The Phantom Baroque by Moon Wiring Club.

• Mix of the week:Episode #391 of Curved Radio by radioShirley & mr.K.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Illegible autographs.

Elevation (1974) by Pharoah Sanders | Elevation II (1997) by Vainqueur | Elevations And Depths (2010) by Locrian

Going beyond the zero

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“But it is a curve each of them feels, unmistakably. It is the parabola. They must have guessed, once or twice—guessed and refused to believe—that everything, always, collectively, had been moving toward that purified shape latent in the sky, that shape of no surprise, no second chances, no return. Yet they do move forever under it, reserved for its own black-and-white bad news certainly as if it were the Rainbow, and they its children….”

Reader, I read it. It isn’t an admission of great achievement to announce that you’ve reached the last page of a novel after a handful of stalled attempts, but when it’s taken me 36 years to reach this point it feels worthy of note; and besides which, Gravity’s Rainbow isn’t an ordinary novel. Umberto Eco is partly responsible for my return to Pynchon. I’d just finished The Name of the Rose, a book I’d avoided for years even while reading (and enjoying) a couple of Eco’s other novels, and was wondering what to read next. Maybe it was time to try the Rocket book again? The thick white spine of the Picador edition—760 pages in 10pt type—would accuse me every time I spotted it on the shelf: “Still haven’t made it to page 100, have you?” For many people this happens with novels because a book is “difficult” (which I didn’t think it was), or boring (which it isn’t at all), or simply too long (page count doesn’t put me off). Back in 1985 I was looking for more heavyweight fare after reading Ulysses, something I’ve now done several times, so I wasn’t going to be intimidated by a novel which is misleadingly compared to Ulysses on its back cover. If anything the comparison was an enticing one. Pynchon at the time exerted a gravitational pull (so to speak) for being very mysterious, although this was a decade when most living authors, especially foreign ones, were mysterious to a greater degree than they are today, when so many have their own websites and social media profiles. Pynchon’s works were also referred to in interesting places, unlike his less mysterious contemporaries. I may be misremembering but I seem to recall a mention of the W.A.S.T.E. enigma from The Crying of Lot 49 in Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus!; if it is there then it’s no surprise that a writer so preoccupied with conspiracy and paranoia would find favour with the authors of the ultimate conspiracy novel. (And that’s not all. I’m surprised now by the amount of coincidental correspondence between Illuminatus! and Gravity’s Rainbow. Both novels were being written at the same time, the late 1960s, yet both refer to the Illuminati, the eye in the pyramid on the dollar bill, Nazi occultism, and the death of John Dillinger. Both novels also acknowledge the precedent of Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, another remarkable conflation of conspiracy, secret history, and wild invention.)

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Pynchon had other connections to the kind of fiction I was already interested in. One of his early short stories, Entropy, had been published in New Worlds magazine in 1969, although editor Michael Moorcock later claimed to have avoided reading any of the novels until much later. And, Pynchon, like Shea & Wilson (and Moorcock…), made pop-culture waves. I think it was Laurie Anderson who put Gravity’s Rainbow in the centre of my radar when she released Mister Heartbreak, an album whose third song, Gravity’s Angel, refers to the novel and is dedicated to its author. As for the novel itself, in the mid-1980s this was still Pynchon’s major work, the one that fully established his reputation. Nothing new had appeared since its publication in 1973; Vineland, and the subsequent acceleration of the authorial production line, was six years away. The final lure was the refusal of the Picador edition to communicate very much of its contents: what was this thick volume actually about? The back cover is filled with praise but doesn’t tell you anything about the novel at all, while the cover illustration by Anita Kunz suggests a scenario connected with the Second World War but little else. (“This was one of the most complicated books I ever read,” says the artist, “and really hard to get the germ of the idea. Pynchon kept going off in tangents. I mixed up the art the same way the writer did and made an image that can be read in all directions.”) It’s only when you start reading the book that you find the connection between the novel’s dominant concerns—the development of the V-2 rockets used by the Nazis to bomb London, and the erotic compulsions of Tyrone Slothrop, an American lieutenant at large in war-ravaged Europe—subtly reflected in the illustration, much more subtly than the cover art on the edition that preceded this one.

Continue reading “Going beyond the zero”