Imaginary homelands essa.., p.34

Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991, page 34

 

Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991
 



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  Never mind that it doesn’t quite achieve its impossible aim. That its structure sometimes seems too ponderous and at others too shadowy. Never mind that Bellow’s supreme gift, that of investing his fiction with the absolute authority of reality, poses its own problems: is the lead insult theory ‘really’ true? Haven’t the dice been loaded too heavily against the novel’s blacks? Should an allegory about the fall of the new Romes (Eastern and Western) be so magnificently disguised as naturalism?

  This remains a pugnacious, feisty, quarrelsome, fierce book. It is a book to fight with, to be infuriated by; but it is also a book that will create in its readers the kind of passionate excitement and involvement that only real art can inspire. Like his dean, Bellow looks up to the stars with awe; but he knows the stars are not his job. His place, and his subject, is the earth.

  1982

  THOMAS PYNCHON

  So, he’s back, and the question that occurs to you on finishing Vineland is, what took him so long? Because this doesn’t feel like a book written to break a block, it isn’t congested or stop-start or stiff, matter of fact it’s free-flowing and light and funny and maybe the most readily accessible piece of writing the old Invisible Man ever came up with. It is also not the book we thought Thomas Pynchon was writing. We heard he was doing something about Lewis and Clark? Mason and Dixon? A Japanese science fiction novel? And one spring in London a magazine announced the publication of a 900-page Pynchon megabook about the American Civil War, published in true Pynchonian style by a small press nobody ever heard of, and I was halfway to the door before I remembered what date it was, April the first, ho ho ho. What happened to those spectral books? Did they never exist? Are we about to get a great rush of Pynchon novels? The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

  Because one thing that has not changed about Mr P. is his love of mystification. The secrecy surrounding the publication of this book—his first novel since Gravity’s Rainbow in 1973—has been, let’s face it, ridiculous. I mean, as one of his characters might put it, rilly. So he wants a private life and no photographs and nobody to know his home address, I can dig it, I can relate to that (but, like, he should try it when it’s compulsory instead of a free-choice option). But for his publishers to withhold copies and give critics maybe a week to deal with what took him almost two decades, now, that’s truly weird, bad craziness, give it up.

  Other things, too, have remained constant in the Pynchonian universe, where these are days of miracle and wonder, like Doonesbury written by Duke instead of Garry Trudeau, and the paranoia runs high, because behind the heavy scenes and bad trips and Karmic Adjustments move the shadowy invisible forces, the true Masters of the Universe, ‘the unrelenting forces that leaned ever after … into Time’s wind, impassive in pursuit, usually gaining, the faceless predators [who] had simply persisted, stone-humorless, beyond cause or effect, rejecting all attempts to bargain or accommodate, following through pools of night where nothing else moved wrongs forgotten by all but the direly possessed, continuing as a body to refuse to be bought off for any but the full price, which they had never named.’

  That’s what we’re up against, folks, and what Mr Pynchon used to set against it in the old days was Entropy, seen as a slow, debauched, never-ending party, a perpetual coming-down, shapeless and meaningless and therefore unshaped and uncontrolled: freedom is chaos, he told us, but so is destruction, and that’s the high-wire, walk it if you can. And now here we are in Vineland, and the entropy’s still flowing, but there’s something new to report, some faint possibility of redemption, some fleeting hints of happiness and grace; Thomas Pynchon, like Paul Simon’s girl in New York City who calls herself the Human Trampoline, bouncing into Graceland.

  It’s 1984 in Vineland County, Northern California. Dates really matter in this book. Even the movies come with dates attached, e.g., Return of the Jedi (1983), Friday the 13th (1980) (‘Everybody was Jason that year’), Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961), Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956): we’re talking mass culture here, and mall culture, too, because this is a 1984 flowing with designer seltzer by Alaïa and Blass and Yves, and the malls have names like Noir Center (as in film noir) and the mall rats have names like Ché. And in this 1984 that Orwell could never have imagined the skies contain marauders who can remove people from commercial airlines in mid-air, and a research lab belonging to a ‘shadowy world conglomerate’ named Chipco can be stomped into Totality, flattened beneath a gigantic and inexplicable animal footprint, size 20,000 or thereabouts. This 1984 is also Ronald Reagan’s re-election year, and that, for all the left-over hippies and sixties activists and survivors and casualties, could mean it’s time for the ‘last roundup’.

  Listen closely now: Zoyd Wheeler, father of beautiful teenage Prairie, whose mother Frenesi Gates went off with arch-baddie Brock Vond, Federal Prosecutor and psychopath, collects mental disability cheques from the State by jumping through plate-glass windows once a year. The novel begins with such a jump, and thereafter fragments into a myriad different narrative shards (but, at the end, the pieces all leap off the floor and fit miraculously together, as if a film were being run backwards). Prairie is obsessed with her vanished mother, and so is everyone else in the novel: so is Zoyd, so is Brock Vond who was her lover and who turned her from a radical film-maker, the child of a blacklist-and-Wobbly family, into an FBI sting specialist, turned her towards her own dark side. Frenesi, meanwhile, is out of sight, having been axed by Reaganomics from the slashed FBI budget, so that at the centre of this novel by the master of vanishing acts is a largely invisible woman, whom we learn through the eyes of others.

  Now then: Vond appears to be after Prairie, maybe to use her against Frenesi, so Zoyd, as he dives for cover, sends her into hiding as well. Prairie’s odyssey takes her closer and closer to Frenesi, by way of a band called Billy Barf and the Vomitones, whom she follows to a Mob wedding where she meets her mother’s old friend, the Ninjette Darryl Louise (DL) Chastain, who was once obliged, by the Mob boss Ralph Wayvone, to try and assassinate Brock Vond by using, during the sexual act, the Ninja Death Touch known as the Vibrating Palm, which its victims never feel and which kills them twelve months later, while the killer is having lunch with the Police Chief—except that Vond, skilled in eluding Death (‘He’s the Road-runner,’ says Wayvone, admiringly) manages to send along, in his place, the Japanese private eye Takeshi Fumimota, who gets the Vibrating Palm by mistake; and as if that weren’t enough trouble for Takeshi, he’s also being chased by the same malign forces as arranged for the Chipco stomping, which he investigated.

  And, anyhow, through DL and Takeshi, Prairie gets to find the doors to her mother’s past, on computer records and film archives and in the memory of Frenesi’s old friends, and we reach the story’s dark heart, namely the events that took place in the 1960s at Trasero County’s College of the Surf, which renamed itself after the fashion of those loon-panted days the People’s Republic of Rock ‘n’ Roll; and we hear, as Prairie hears it, how her mother betrayed the leader of this little revolution, who rejoiced in the name of Weed Atman, and who now, after death, still roams the forests of Northern California as a Thanatoid, a member of the undead, unable to find peace … and eventually Prairie’s search for Frenesi, and Brock’s search for Prairie and Frenesi which takes him, along with a huge strike force, to Vineland, comes to a climax complete with helicopters and Thanatoids and family reunions and an old woman and an old man who can remove your bones and leave the rest of you alive. You get the picture.

  It either grabs you or it doesn’t, I guess; it grabbed me. I laughed, many times, out loud, often at Pynchon’s absurdly brilliant way with names (a manufacturer of microchip musical gimmickry is called Tokkata & Fuji, which to my mind is as funny as the German town in Gravity’s Rainbow named Bad Karma); and at the little songs with which I’m happy to report he’s still littering his texts, high points of this particular set being the Desi Arnaz-style croon, ‘Es posible’, and Billy Barfs ‘three-note blues’, ‘I’m a Cop
:

  Fuck you, mister,

  Fuck your sister,

  Fuck your brother,

  Fuck your mother,

  Fuck your pop—

  Hey! I’m a cop!

  There is enough in Vineland to obsess the true, mainlining Pynchomane for a goodly time. One could consider, for example, the significance of the letter V in Pynchon’s œuvre; his novel V was actually V-shaped, two narratives zeroing in on a point, and Gravity’s Rainbow, being the flight path of a V-2 rocket, followed a deadly parabola which could also be described as an inverted V; and here’s the letter again, what does it mean, with all the death-imagery in this novel, with its use of old Amerindian death-myths: are we being told that America, 1984, is in fact the land of the dead, V-land, the universe beyond the zero? And one could do a number of further riffs on the more allegorical of the names, e.g., Weed = marijuana + Atman = soul, and hey, ‘Frenesi’ turns out to be an anagram of Free + Sin, the two sides of her nature, light and dark, just as the hero of Gravity’s Rainbow, Tyrone Slothrop, could be made to reveal his essence anagrammatically, turning into ‘Sloth or Entropy’; sure, it’s still working, that old anagrammar. ‘Frenesi’ more conventionally derives from the Old French frenesie, meaning frenzy or madness. Frenesi Gates: insanity’s entrance, derangement’s doorway.

  But what is perhaps most interesting, finally, about Pynchon’s novel is what is different about it. What is new here is the willingness with which Pynchon addresses, directly, the political development of the United States, and the slow (but not total) steamrollering of a radical tradition many generations and decades older than flower-power. There is a marvellously telling moment when Brock Vond’s brainchild, his school for subversion in which lefties are reeducated and turned into tools of the State, is closed down because in Reagan’s America the young think like that to begin with, they don’t need re-education.

  We have before us, at the end of the Greed Decade, that rarest of birds: a major political novel about what America has been doing to itself, to its children, all these many years. And as Thomas Pynchon turns his attention to the nightmares of the present rather than the past, his touch becomes lighter, funnier, more deadly. And most satisfying of all is that aforementioned hint of redemption, because this time entropy is not the only counterweight to power; community, it is suggested, might be another; and individuality; and family. These are the values the Nixon-Reagan era stole from the sixties and warped, aiming them back at America as weapons of control. They are values which Vineland seeks to recapture, by remembering what they meant before the dirt got thrown all over them, by recalling the beauty of Frenesi Gates before she turned.

  Thomas Pynchon is no sentimentalist, however, and the balance between light and dark is expertly held throughout this novel, so that we remain uncertain until the final pages as to which will prevail, hippie heaven or Federal nemesis; and are left, at the last, with an image of such shockingly apt moral ambiguity that it would be quite wrong to reveal it here.

  Vineland, Mr Pynchon’s mythical piece of Northern California, is of course also ‘Vinland’, the country discovered by the Viking Leif Erikson long before Columbus, ‘Vineland the Good’; that is to say, this crazed patch of California stands for America itself. And it is here, to Vineland, that one of America’s great writers has, after long wanderings down his uncharted roads, come triumphantly home.

  1990

  KURT VONNEGUT

  In Kurt Vonnegut’s most famous novel, Slaughterhouse 5, the hero Billy Pilgrim ends up as an exhibit in a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore, where his couplings with a famous movie star are found mildly diverting. In The Sirens of Titan, the entire course of human history is subverted by a Tralfamadorean envoy whose spaceship has broken down on the moon. The Great Wall of China, the Pyramids, Stonehenge turn out to be his demands for spare parts. The envoy is carrying a message from Tralfamadore to another super-advanced species across the galaxy. This message is deemed important enough to justify manipulating thousands of years of human development.

  The message reads: ‘Hello.’

  Vonnegut’s readers have long been aware that the view from Tralfamadore is, to say the least, unflattering. And these days, Vonnegut’s own attitude to homo sapiens is increasingly Tralfamadorean. Humankind, as readers of Hocus Pocus are frequently informed, is a pretty poor species, not nearly as bright as it thinks it is, and a lot more cruel. American humankind is probably even worse. Kurt Vonnegut’s response is a sort of hip, cynical world-weariness, his tone halfway between jeremiad and shrug. He is the only important and original writer in the world whose entire œuvre can be summed up in three words: ‘So it goes.’

  In Hocus Pocus, Vonnegut’s old weakness for so-it-goes catch-phrases has infected many of his characters, whose responses to life on the planet have shrunk alarmingly. One character faces everything in life, love, war and death by saying, ‘I had to laugh like hell.’ Another likes to end sentences by asking, ‘So what, so what?’ A black convict’s defining phrase is harsher: ‘See the Nigger fly the airplane.’ And so on. The entire novel, its whole web of event and symbol, can be explained by two words, both place-names.

  ‘America.’ ‘Vietnam.’

  The narrator, Eugene Debs Hartke, named after an old American socialist politician, is a Vietnam veteran and the experience has damaged his soul, of course. Lest we miss this, one of his lovers suggests that he should tell any woman fool enough to fall in love with him, ‘Welcome to Vietnam.’ He is concerned to enumerate (1) the women he has slept with, and (2) the Vietnamese he has killed. These two numbers will turn out to be (you’ll never guess) the same number.

  So it goes.

  Coming home from Vietnam is compared to an illicit visit to Bloomingdale’s department store in New York City. The American presence in Vietnam is compared to the present-day Japanese ‘invasion’ of the American economy. Dollars are compared to Vietnamese corpses. These comparisons tell us nothing much about Vietnam, Bloomingdale’s, the Japanese or money. They are supposed to tell us that human beings/Americans are beyond hope and tragedy, washed up, sunk in a kind of moral entropy. What they actually tell us, alas, is that Kurt Vonnegut is getting a little tired.

  Eugene Debs Hartke teaches at a college for the educationally subnormal children of the economically super-affluent. What does this college symbolize?

  ‘America.’

  Across the lake is the Athena ‘correctional facility’, or nick, full of underprivileged black prisoners who escape, name themselves Freedom Fighters, and attack the college. What do the prisoners represent, and what is the allegorical meaning of their futile little break-out?

  ‘Vietnam.’ ‘The Vietnam War.’

  The convicts are only allowed to watch out-of-date television programmes. They can watch anything as long as it isn’t relevant to their lives. (In this case, the convicts mean ‘America’.) There is a computer game named GRIOT, a word for oral storyteller, which predicts human lives. Something is being said, have no doubt, about the Influence of Computers in America. And Tralfamadore is here, too, appearing in a story by an anonymous science-fiction writer, published in a girlie magazine. Once again, human history is being subverted, this time for the benefit of the planet’s germs, which are more valuable to the aliens than the human race. It makes a person feel pretty dam small.

  And so on.

  The theme of this novel is damage, human damage, social damage, the awful damage of war, but it is itself damaged by a loss of the gaiety, the brilliant linguistic invention and intellectual sprightliness that used to be the upside of Vonnegut’s deep pessimism. This is the writer who thought up ice-nine, the substance that froze all the water on earth in Cat’s Cradle. This is the creator of Kilgore Trout, the science-fiction genius who, in Hocus Pocus, no longer merits a name, but who once told us unforgettable fables, such as the one in which God apologizes to the reader for starting an experiment that went wrong. The experiment was the Universe. The purpose of the experiment was to see ho
w free will worked. So everything in the Universe is a machine, except for one being with free will. That being is the reader of the story. This is what God has to say to the reader: ‘Sorry.’

  That old hocus-pocus, language, just isn’t working in this novel. To read it is to experience the sad pleasure of hearing a favourite voice trying to sing in its old, swooping, magical manner, occasionally reminding one of its old glories, but revealing, mostly, its decline. Only one long sequence—when Eugene Debs Hartke is fired from his teaching job because he has been uttering un-American thoughts, suggesting, for example, that ‘the two principal currencies of the world were the Yen and fellatio’, and thus allegedly undermining the confidence of his damaged students, who stand, don’t forget, for America—has the authentic, sharp, funny Vonnegut touch. I wish there were more such scenes.

  Many years ago, Kurt Vonnegut asked me if I was serious about writing. I said I was. He then said, if I remember correctly, that there was trouble ahead, that one day I would not have a book to write and I would still have to write a book.

  It was a sad, and saddening, remark, because I don’t think, though I may be wrong, that it was really about me.

  PS: There’s a little maths test at the end of Hocus Pocus, designed to establish whether or not the reader has been paying attention. By adding and subtracting various dates and figures scattered through the text, we arrive at the number of Hartke’s lovers and victims.

  If I have been paying attention properly, the number is 82.

  ‘So what, so what?’

  1990

  GRACE PALEY

 

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