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”

Weekend links 559

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Cover art by Toshiyuki Fukuda for the Japanese edition of the new novel by Kazuo Ishiguro.

• “The story here is how between 1978 and 1982, this impulse shed its novelty genesis and its spoils were divvied up between gay producers making high-energy soundtracks for carnal abandon, and quiet Hawkwind fans smoking spliffs in Midlands bedrooms.…this excellent compilation offers fresh understandings of a period in sonic history where the future was up for grabs.” Fergal Kinney reviews Do You Have the Force? Jon Savage’s Alternate History of Electronic Music, 1978–82.

DJ Food continues his history of mini CDs with Oranges And Lemons, the 1989 album by XTC which was released in the usual formats together with a limited edition of three small discs in a flip-top box. The cover art by Dave Dragon is a good example of the resurrected groovy look.

• “If Austin Osman Spare, William Burroughs, Mary Butts and Kathy Acker got together for a séance, the transcript could well look like this.”

• How Leonora Carrington used Tarot to reach self-enlightenment: Gabriel Weisz Carrington on his mother’s quest for mythic revelations.

• Mixes of the week: Sounds Unsaid at Dublab with Tarotplane, and To Die & Live In San Veneficio by SeraphicManta.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: 5strings presents…Solve et Coagula: An introduction to Israel Regardie.

• The Joy of Silhouettes: Vyki Hendy chooses favourite shadow-throwing cover designs.

Emily Mortimer on how Lolita escaped obscenity laws and cancel culture.

Freddie deBoer has moved his writing to Substack.

• New music: Wirkung by Arovane.

• Children Of The Sun (1969) by The Misunderstood | Children Of The Sun (1971) by Hawkwind | Children Of The Sun (2010) by The Time And Space Machine

Weekend links 531

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Cover art by Ian Miller, 1979.

• Ray Bradbury was born 100 years ago today. Emily Temple expresses surprise that Truman Capote encouraged the publication of a Bradbury short story at Mademoiselle in 1946. I’m more surprised that Bradbury was paid $400 for his work; no wonder he was so eager to write for the non-genre magazines. Elsewhere: Ray Bradbury—The Illustrated Man: the BBC’s Omnibus arts strand profiled Bradbury in 1980 with enthusiastic assistance (narrating/reading/performing) from the man himself; Ray Bradbury book and magazine covers at Flickr.

Anna Smith asks whether Linda Fiorentino was the greatest femme fatale ever in The Last Seduction (1994). A substantial claim, especially for a neo-noir playing so self-consciously with the theme, but it’s a very good film, and one I’d like to see again.

• “Bad as a work of art, and morally bad…” Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita being reviewed by Kingsley Amis, a writer who preferred the peerless prose and stainless morals of Ian Fleming. Dan Sheehan looks at other contemporary reactions to Nabokov’s novel.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Mary Ellen Bute Day, and (how could I avoid it?) ClicketyClack presents…Brothers Quay Day.

• More from The Art of the Occult: S. Elizabeth offers a glimpse of the contents of her forthcoming book.

• Make the letter bigger: John Boardley on the development of the illuminated capital.

• In 1987 Anne Billson talked to Nicolas Roeg about his latest film, Castaway.

• Five controversial arthouse features from Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono.

• It’s that group again: Joe Banks on the strange world of Hawkwind.

C82: Works of Nicholas Rougeux.

Fahrenheit 451 (1982) by Hawkwind | Something Wicked This Way Comes (1996) by Barry Adamson | The Martian Chronicles (2007) by Dimension X

Weekend links 496

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Fahrenheit 451 (1966) poster by György Kemény.

• “The novel is constantly assailed by people wanting to conscript it to their own ends. (Other art forms are not similarly burdened; someone yelling ‘What about global warming?’ between numbers at a Keith Jarrett concert would be recognized to have made a category error.)” Jonathan Clarke on the demands that literature should nurture empathy.

• The first three features by Alejandro Jodorowsky—Fando y Lis (1968), El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973)—return to Britain’s cinema screens in January (well…two of them return; I’m not sure that Fando y Lis has ever been shown in cinemas over here). All three films will be given overdue blu-ray releases by Arrow in March.

• “What distinguishes Oulipo from other language games, is that its methods have to be capable of producing valid literary results.” Tony White reviews The Penguin Book of Oulipo: Queneau, Perec, Calvino and the Adventure of Form, edited by Philip Terry.

But from a present-day perspective, it is also remarkable the extent to which cafés, busy conduits for knowledge and sentiment, resembled later digitally connected systems. The larger establishments offered not just a huge selection of newspapers, domestic and foreign, but also reference material—maps, dictionaries, encyclopaedias, language lexicons, address books—for writers struggling with their research, or merely trying to settle an argument. The combination of hard facts and caffeinated opinion firing through the steamy analogue ether constituted a local area network of extraordinary reach. In the pre-digital era, the Viennese café offered the greatest possible concentration of current knowledge—for the price of a mélange.

From the Strange Flowers guide to Vienna, part 2

• “People like Edmund Wilson and Isaiah Berlin, they have to love Zhivago to prove that good writing can come out of Soviet Russia. They ignore that it is really a bad book.” Jennifer Wilson on Vladimir Nabokov’s fighting spirit.

• Master animator Richard Williams died in August so here again is the exceptional adaptation of A Christmas Carol made by his studio in 1971.

• Hearing a person: Annea Lockwood remembers her partner, composer Ruth Anderson, whose death was announced last week.

• The London Review of Books has relaunched its website. The paywall is currently down until mid-January so dig in.

Live In Paris by Pharoah Sanders, a previously unreleased ORTF concert recording from 1975.

• Unrising sun: Amos Chapple’s photographs of the polar nights of Murmansk.

Mary McNamara on the rescuing of 200 historic Hollywood backdrops.

• Mix of the week: XLR8R Podcast 623 by Aida.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Sandy Dennis Day.

The Desert Is A Circle (1970) by Shades Of Joy | The Desert Is A Circle (1971) by Paul Horn | Holy Mountain (1994) by Axiom Ambient

Weekend links 469

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X from Theodore Howard’s ABC (1880) by Theodore Howard.

• “[Parade] has everything: joy and sadness, get-down and wistfulness, mourning and melancholia, group funk and Debussy interludes, echoes of Ellington, Joni, film music, chanson. It’s a perfectly realised whole.” Ian Penman on the enigmas and pleasures of Prince.

• “Mescaline reads like the culmination of a lifetime’s wanderings in the very farthest outposts of scientific and medical history.” Ian Sansom review’s Mike Jay’s history of the psychedelic alkaloid.

• The Day the Music Burned by Jody Rosen: “It was the biggest disaster in the history of the music business—and almost nobody knew. This is the story of the 2008 Universal fire.”

This willing constriction of intellectual freedom will do lasting damage. It corrupts the ability to think clearly, and it undermines both culture and progress. Good art doesn’t come from wokeness, and social problems starved of debate can’t find real solutions. “Nothing is gained by teaching a parrot a new word,” Orwell wrote in 1946. “What is needed is the right to print what one believes to be true, without having to fear bullying or blackmail from any side.” Not much has changed since the 1940s. The will to power still passes through hatred on the right and virtue on the left.

George Packer on what George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four means today

• Having spent the past week watching Jacques Rivette’s 775-minute Out 1, this interview with Rivette from 1974 was of particular interest.

• At Dangerous Minds: Donald Sutherland as “a sperm-filled waxwork with the eyes of a masturbator” in Fellini’s Casanova.

The Adventures of the Son of Exploding Sausage (1969): the Bonzo Dog Band getting it untogether in the country.

• Dark, velvety dark: Nabokov’s discarded ending to Camera Obscura, introduced by Olga Voronina.

• “Spotify pursues emotional surveillance for global profit”, says Liz Pelly.

• Mix of the week: Then Space Began To Toll by The Ephemeral Man.

• An interview with master of horror manga Junji Ito.

• Announcing the Arthur Machen Essay Prizes.

• RIP film-maker and author Peter Whitehead.

X is for…

X Offender (1976) by Blondie | X-Factor (1981) by Patrick Cowley | X-Flies (1997) by Mouse On Mars