Sunday, December 23, 2001

Gravity's Rainbow (1973)

In mid-August, I started rereading Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, which I'd last read around the time the Cold War was thawing. Following the 1997 publication of Mason & Dixon, an extravagant, decadent, hilarious re-imagining of American history, I'd revisited his other novels, but despite my admiration for it I neglected his Big Book, telling myself it was too long, too troublesome -- really just too much work. I'm unsure now what changed my mind here of late, maybe just the notion that good books change through time as will good paintings under shifting afternoon light, and that the time had come for me to read it again.

The plot of Gravity's Rainbow, such as it is, winds around a conspiratorial quest for an experimental V2 rocket, code-numbered the 00000. In the aftermath of the Second World War, a menagerie of characters from all races and nations grope across war-torn Europe: some seek the rocket (or, later, at least information about it), some seek each other, some seek only to disrupt the quest itself. There are plots, counterplots, red herrings, and monumental distractions. Central but by no means crucial to this labyrinthine treasure hunt is American lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop, who discovers a creepy, Pavlovian connection, dating from his own infancy, to a certain plastic used in the rocket.

Having said all that, it isn't as important to Pynchon what these characters do so much as how and why they do it -- he sometimes lingers for pages over the inner thoughts of an obsessed character. And for the first third of the novel, their obsession is the progress of the war, specifically Hitler's blitz of London as the V2 rockets come soaring in from Holland. Pynchon manages not the personal, paranoid mania of Catch-22, but a diffused, electric, collective terror. There are some moments of Heller-esque angst, but the characters mainly try to take it in stride, making oddly clinical observations as Death follows Poisson distributions across maps of the city. This is in eerie contrast to careful descriptions of the urban destruction caused by the rockets:
The rubble waits him, sloping up to broken rear walls in a clogging, an openwork of laths pointlessly chevroning -- flooring, furniture, glass, chunks of plaster, long tatters of wallpaper, split and shattered joists: some woman's long gathered nest, taken back to separate straws, flung again to this wind and this darkness.
It seems almost funny now, that I'd been thinking how Pynchon's great book had, in some ways, become an anachronism. The 750-page buildup, meticulous and beautiful in depicting the origins of the post-war world, flashes forward in the novel's closing moments to a chilling, definitive moment of Cold War fear: air raid sirens blare over Los Angeles, and The Bomb is dropped.

Entirely feasible, even viewed as inevitable by many when the book was published in the still-dawning 1970s. The subconscious anticipation of a singular Armageddon, for our world to come to a fiery, nuclear end in less time than it takes for the Red Sox to play the Yankees on any given sun-bleached Saturday afternoon, was for nearly fifty years part of everyday life. Then for a while, the blissful 1990s, it seemed such fears were newly unfounded, even quaint: there would be no Duck-and-Cover moments, there would be no Terror from the Sky.

But now, though the equations differ from our present reality, the sum of Pynchon's novel is the same: we are, in our own way, back to the Blitz. And so, for a while, I had to stop reading. The descriptions of devastation and fear were too uncannily similar -- even down to a character remarking on wartime city destruction that begins in the south and spreads north -- to what I was already seeing on television and in magazines.

But when I did resume reading, I began gleaning something different. Though caution must be observed in willful interpretation (near the end of the novel is a fictitious hymn containing the lines "Till the Light that hath brought the Towers low/Find the last poor Pret'rite one…" which is, for my money, far more prophetic than any of the Nostradamus claptrap that's been making the rounds lately) I was seeing a great deal more hope in the story than I'd previously noticed.

The very final seconds of Gravity's Rainbow take place in a London movie house. True to the clich├ęd motto of Stiff Upper Lip, London proceeded about its usual business during the horrors of 1944 -- up to and including all the usual entertainments. The theaters were kept open, and everyone went, brazenly so. What better way for ordinary people to withstand the barrage of rockets than to Keep Calm and Carry On, to conduct their lives as if Death were not ever above and around them, gathering its powers for a silent (or not so silent), sudden strike. Because, given pause for thought, isn't that the case every day? Don't these horrific events, be they in 1944 or 2001, merely eradicate the schedules and symbols we use to distract ourselves from that Inevitable Zero?

In Pynchon's theater, the film breaks -- a precursor to what will happen to all the lives within when a V2 rocket, falling, falling, hits the roof. But in the meantime, the patrons, who seem to know what's happening, have erupted, together -- together -- into song (actually, that hymn mentioned earlier). It is a moment that perfectly symbolizes a struggling Humanity, determined to survive, even if only because survival is all humanity knows. Yes, we will all move beyond the Zero. In due time, or undue time; perhaps naturally, perhaps violently. But for now -- for the very reason that we are Here and Now -- that alone should give us reason for Hope. That it should be our pleasures, our "distracting" schedules and symbols, be they mindless or not, that give us joy and purpose in every second of our lives.

Originally published in the Mobile Register as "What Comes Down Must Go Up: Re-Reading Gravity's Rainbow After 09/11/01," December 23 2001

Sunday, May 13, 2001

To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) / In Cold Blood (1966)

I recently spent a couple hours perusing Author Unknown by Don Foster, Vassar College professor of English and forensic linguist. Foster created an academic stir by attributing "A Funeral Elegy" to William Shakespeare; in less highbrow feats, he deduced Joe Klein as the "Anonymous" author of Primary Colors, and was also hired by the FBI to profile the Unabomber (before the Unabomber became known to us as Ted Kaczynski) based on language and idiosyncrasies in the typescript of the infamous Manifesto. As a matter of personal taste these pursuits interested me less than did a chapter on Thomas Pynchon, rumored author of a spate of quirky letters-to-the-editor sent to an alternative northern California newspaper in the 1980s, when he was supposedly in the area penning Vineland. (Foster decided Pynchon was not the guy, much to the relief, apparently, of Pynchon.)

Reading Foster's literary-gumshoe exploits brought back to mind an old regional argument: Did She or Didn't She? For years I've heard the rumor that Harper Lee did not write To Kill a Mockingbird, that it was in fact penned by her childhood buddy Truman Capote. You're likely to first hear this rumor mongered in the affirmative, something like this: It's a ridiculous notion that an unknown writer would turn out a single, perfect novel, then cease writing (or at any rate cease publishing), disappear completely from the Literary Radar, and communicate to the reading world via a profound silence that they damn well better not expect anything else from her, either. She's being silent because she's keeping a secret, and the secret is that she doesn't write at all...

Just as, in this region, you must cheer for either Auburn or Alabama, you must also take an absolute side on this issue. Reclusive as she is, "Nelle" doesn't offer much support; at least with the likes of, say, Salinger and Kesey, who made occasional appearances (even if only in the form of salacious biography), there was always hope they were still writing. Not so much with Lee, who endeavors to stay out of the spotlight. Still, the fastest way to the other side is: Hey, if you'd written To Kill a Mockingbird, you might retire from writing, too. I know I'd seriously consider it.

And while I am certainly no "forensic linguist" (I am often surprised to find, once per month when my bank statement arrives, that I myself hand-wrote a number of questionable checks) I like to think that I am a fairly alert reader -- my near-spotless driving record attests to the fact that very few stop-signs escape my notice. So I decided to read To Kill a Mockingbird and a work by Capote back-to-back, and thereby make up my own mind.

It had been two decades since I read Harper Lee's novel as a high school assignment, so I was essentially approaching it with a fresh view. I found a story efficiently told, a narrative that does little more than serve the action and the characterizations. Nothing distracts the reader from what happens on the page: no poetic diversions, no artsy intrusions, no verbal pyrotechnics. Just minimal language which perfectly suits the structure -- a powerful tale is allowed to tell itself.

To follow up, I chose In Cold Blood, which was entirely new to me. Given this story's basis in hard fact, I figured Capote would treat the material in a straightforward manner, as free of literary structure, voice, and artifice as he could manufacture. I figured this correctly: Capote did his best. But even in matter-of-factly covering the Clutter murders, he's still Capote: those charming turns of phrase, those imaginative, evocatively precise similes still spice his prose and delicately render characters and events.

I'm no expert on Truman Capote; I've read Breakfast at Tiffany's and A Christmas Memory (both of which broke my heart), I've had a go at Answered Prayers, and for what it's worth I've seen the movie Murder by Death a couple times. Nor am I an authority on Harper Lee, and I know absolutely nothing about the friendship that the two enjoyed. I only know just enough to have nearly formed my own opinion in answer to Did She Or Didn't She? even before I read these two books. And reading them merely cemented that opinion.

The whole thing, to my ear, sounds too close to the assertion that the 1969 moon landings were faked in a Nevada television studio, begging the question: Why? Any possible answers must be constructed from fringe reasoning. You certainly can't take anything away from Capote, saying he didn't write it; he's got plenty of masterpieces under his belt. And I'd rather give credit where credit is due. I firmly believe, in my amateur "forensic linguist" view (and also in my heart, where it matters most anyway) that Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird -- just like it says on the cover. Even if you want to insist that she didn't write it -- that at some stage in the game a different hand tinkered with or restructured or rewrote the initial drafts -- I think you'd still have to admit it was written by someone other than Capote. The styles simply differ too much, according to my reading.

Still, one cannot deny the fun of playing parlor games with these ideas. It's fun to speculate how Capote may have helped Lee in places, telling her how a character should say this rather than that, how a scene might play better if written from a different perspective, that sort of thing. And it's equally fun to turn the tables on that game. If Capote and Lee were tight enough for him to edit and shape her drafts, well, how might she have affected his work? Perhaps… hmmm--perhaps it was she who devised A Christmas Memory, that fundamentally sentimental tale that is nearly singular among Capote's writings. Maybe Harper Lee even wrote it, from idea to draft to finish, and Capote only did a final polish. Hmmmm….

I'm sure she'll never tell.

Originally published in the Mobile Register, May 13 2001 as "Cold, Cold Mockingbird"