Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The trajectory as signature

I'm sure that not the only one who will drop everything in order to read a just-published novel by Thomas Pynchon.   The latest is Inherent Vice, a weird noir set in L.A. in the Spring of 1970. As soon as the book was opened — and to the great frustration of a family who wanted a little attention —  nothing of importance got done until it was read, word for word, straight, from cover to cover.  There is no other writer who can do this to me, and I can now count at least a half-dozen weekends lost to a new Pynchon, and at least twice that many lost to re-reads.   My admiration for the author's technical skills and imagination is unbounded, and the pleasure in the cool but caring voice of Pynchon's narrators (who regularly allow us to forget the distincton  between the ridiculous and the sublime*),  equally so, but explaining how he is able to do that is a critic's job, not mine.  So here I'll just note one feature of Pynchon's writing that has been a profound influence on my compositional thinking:  all of his novels begin in motion, with examples that would make any Calculus teacher proud of trajectories loaded with precisely the energy required to sustain the rest of each book.   Inherent Vice is typical:

She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to.

The upward motion clearly sets things in play, and you know already that the book is going to be all about why she came up those stairs, and we already know some history ("the way she always used to") and, moveover, it is far from clear that the horizontal motion is forward motion, an important bit of information indeeed, for, as it turns out, very little in the book that follows will be straightforward.

Here are the opening trajectories of the other novels:

 Christmas Eve, 1955, Benny Profane, wearing black levis, suede jacket, sneakers and big cowboy hat, happened to pass through Norwich, Virginia. (V)

The arbitrary nature of Profane's journey is carried through in the novel in which every locale chosen seems equally happenstance; in V. even events of great circumstance are passed through rather than experienced.

ONE summer afternoon, Mrs Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party... (The Crying of Lot 49

What does it mean to come home from a Tupperware party?  Nothing less that a return to a life far less banal and ordinary. 

A screaming comes across the sky. (Gravity's Rainbow)

The path of the rocket, is everywhere mirrored in this book:  in the title, in the pattern's of Tyrone Slothrop's sexual excitement, and in the reading difficulty curve of the book itself. 

LATER than usual one summer morning in 1984, Zoyd Wheeler drifted awake... (Vineland)

The novel Vineland itself does nothing but drift, with all of the characters awakening into a much more sober era.  

Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs,... (Mason & Dixon)

Which is almost a parody of the opening of Gravity's Rainbow, with apparently gentle snowflakes in place of rockets.

And, of course, in the immediate predecessor to Inherent Vice, Against the Day, the Chums of Chance in their airship launch, in naive good spirits, with: 

..."Up we go!"... (Against the Day)

In technical terms, this is not a particularly complex way of setting a novel in progress, but when you get it right, it is inherently powerful.  In many ways, it's like the signature or motto opening of many classical works or the hook of popular music, but Pynchon never allows his signatures to only be hooks upon which events are strung along.  Rather more like a seed, these have genetic material which implies a history and suggests a future path, and Pynchon makes it clear that the scenario initially implied need not be satisfied and thus, in every moment, "the" future is continuously being recalculated or reset, and every variable may vary.  Thus, the environmental influences on the development of the seed are considerable, indeed they combine with the unpredictable dynamism to provide the interest which allows a tiny initial idea to be sustained far beyond any exhaustion in its inherent interest.   Moreover, as readers are always aware of the finite dimensions of the book as whole, we are prepared to pay attention to and take measure of the forces which will inevitably halt the trajectory, whether in a crash or a gentle landing or just a drift away.  


* If you just want a taste of Pynchon, I suggest first the episode with Byron the Bulb, the ultimate resistor (or that little light which is going to shine, all the time) in Gravity's Rainbow, then, if you are strong enough, chapter nine, set in German Southwest Africa, of V.

1 comment:

sfmike said...

Gosh, I was hoping you were going to quote that entirely insane first sentence which starts: "ONE summer afternoon, Mrs Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party..." Pynchon's one of the few writers who I always give the benefit of the doubt. If I'm not getting something, I figure it's my fault, and I don't feel that way about many other writers, to tell you the truth.

Interesting that you recommend Chapter 9 in "V." It's one of the more disturbing novellas ever written, with lotsa sex, violence and colonial racial war.

I have to finish Mailer's "Harlot's Ghost," his 1100 page historical fantasia about the CIA, which I'm reading really slowly (about halfway through.) Slow is an interesting way to read the book, especially with reminders in the news every day about what a sick group they are. Its semi-imagined history feels like essential reading right now.

Then I get to read "Inherent Vice," set in out part of the world (SoCal) at a time I even remember. Life is full of disturbing pleasures.