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  •  Bookpost 5: Sebastian Faulks and Thomas Pynchon (6+ / 0-)

    War and Piss: Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks  
    Stephen gradually stopped trembling. “I’ve always hated birds. That time I told you about when I hit that boy and they made me go back into the institution. He had been taunting me about some crows that the gamekeeper had nailed up to a fence. I went up and stroked one to show I was not afraid. It had maggots under its wings and drooling, milky eyes.” He shuddered.
    Isabelle said, “So birds make you think of having to go back to that place?”
    “It’s partly that. But I had always hated them, from long before that. There’s something cruel, prehistoric about them.”
    She stood up and took his arm. For a moment she looked into his dark brown eyes, into the symmetrical beauty of his pale face. She nodded a little and smiled.
    “So there is something that frightens you,” she said.

    This “novel of love and war” has a magnificent reputation, but left me feeling dry.  It’s part of a genre that includes All Quiet on the Western Front, Farewell to Arms, and The Ghost Road, in that it depicts normal civilian life juxtaposed with life in the trenches, with bullets, explosions and gas, to indicate that war is Very Bad.

    When you are in a war, you die, and then you don’t get to live any more.

    So goes the story of Stephen Wrayson, an Englishman who begins the story in Amiens in 1910, indulging in culture and illicit romance, and who ends up in Flanders tunneling under trenches with sappers and watching his friends get blown to bloody bits. There are descriptions of brain matter coming out of eye sockets, intestines putrefying in the mud, all sorts of nasty images like that, while in other parts of the book there are steamy erotic scenes of great tenderness.  Neither set of images left me particularly in the mood for the other, but I suppose that’s the point.  And also, on reflection, yes we do need to see stories like this again and again, as long as there are people out there who think running off to war in, say, Iraq, is a great thing.

    I’m not giving it particularly great recommendations, but only because it wasn’t right for me. I can see how for other people, or even for me in a different frame of mind, it can be a very moving reading experience indeed.

    Sex, Drugs and Rocket Science: Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon
    Then come...the Space Helmets! At first you may be alarmed, on noticing that they appear to be fashioned from skulls. At least the upper dome of this unpleasant headgear is certainly the skull of some manlike creature built to a larger scale...perhaps Titans lived under this mountain, and their skulls got harvested like giant mushrooms...The eye sockets are fitted with quartz lenses. Filters may be slipped in. Nasal bone and upper teeth have been replaced by a metal breathing apparatus, full of slots and grating. Corresponding to the jaw is a built-up section, almost a facial codpiece, of iron and ebonite, perhaps housing a radio unit, thrusting forward in black fatality. For an extra few marks you are allowed to slip one of these helmets on. Once inside these yellow caverns, looking out now through neutral-density orbits, the sound of your breath hissing up and around the bone spaces, what you thought was a balanced mind is little help. The compartment the Schwarzkommando were quartered in is no longer an amusing travelogue of native savages taking on ways of the 21st century. The milk calabashes appear only to be made of some plastic. On the spot where tradition sez Enzian had his Illumination, in the course of a wet dream where he coupled with a slender white rocket, there is a dark stain, miraculously still wet, and a smell you understand is meant to be that of semen--but it is really closer to soap, or bleach.

    There’s no way I can do justice to this book on a first reading.  It took me up to my fourth attempt to really figure out what was up with Ulysses, at which point I loved it; asking me to describe it after the first three attempts would simply have revealed me to be woefully out of my depth.  I was able to tell that Gravity’s Rainbow is an important work of literature that picks up where the Joyce era left off, and yet...there’s so much I must have missed.

    Gravity’s Rainbow is “postmodern”. Pynchon feels no need to limit himself with conventional ideas of “plot” and “character” and “storytelling”. He combines the drug-induced hallucinations of William S. Burroughs, the political paranoia of Hunter Thompson, the guerilla ontology of Robert Anton Wilson, the detached fatalism of Kurt Vonnegut, and the surreal comedy of Zippy the Pinhead into 776 pages of major weirdness that draws upon hard science, ancient literature, comic book archetypes, woo-woo New Age cosmogony and gilded-era Hollywood for cultural sustenance in roughly equal proportions.

    Characters come and go and are never seen again.  Digressions into any academic topic and any part of the world you care to name exist.  Various characters are presented as having low-level superpowers, and it’s hard to tell if they really have them, or are hallucinating them, or are indulging in magical thinking to reassure themselves that they have a way of influencing their own fates in the environment of WWII where V-2 rockets might fall and blow them up at any given moment.  The central character is a guy named Slothrup, whose superpower is that wherever he has sex, a rocket will land within a few days afterwards, and who spends a good deal of the book searching for clues about one particular V-2, mysteriously called the 00000.  I wasn’t quite clear on just why he was looking for information about this rocket; it’s not as if it’s some sort of God-Destroy-All doomsday weapon, because it was already launched and blown  in the normal course of the war before Slothrup learned about it.

    Most of the rest is theme. Rocket themes: long, phallic rockets that have explosive climaxes, and parabolic arcs (the “gravity’s rainbow” of the title is the arc of a rocket from liftoff to impact) from start to finish, birth to death, rise to fall.  There is tarot imagery, but instead of the cyclical “wheel of fortune”, where death ascends to life and back again, there is an arc of fate with a sudden ending. To Pynchon, sex does not create life, but ends it.

    I had a real problem with that.  

    There is an abundance of sexual imagery in Gravity’s Rainbow, most of it sickening and borderline pornographic. The choice of words like “jizz” and “cunt” in sex scenes instead of more imaginatively erotic words, it seems to me, debases human pleasure.  Certain scenes that, I think, were meant to be comic, become merely pathetic. Or maybe I just lose my sense of humor where pain is on the line.  There’s a scene where Slothrup discourages a warplane from attack by throwing pies at it; another scene where he is prevailed upon to don a pig costume for a peasant festival and ends up fleeing the Russian army and having a disturbing encounter with an actual, amorous pig; yet another where his mouth harp falls into a toilet and he risks getting stuck headfirst in the toilet and raped by “negroes” while trying to fetch it back out (compare with a similar “toilet scene” in Trainspotting.  There’s humor to be found in those situations if you squint hard enough, I suppose, but I just couldn’t feel more than horror at it all.

    More than anything, when dealing with Pynchon or any author from the late 1960s to early 1980s, I feel cultural dissonance. It seems to me that America peaked as a nation somewhere between the Johnson and Carter Administrations, and yet the literature, television and entertainment in general from that era seems distressingly surreal, hedonistic and banal to me.  And Pynchon seems to pinpoint that.  Was that really the apex of America’s arc, or did we take a wrong turn some place?

    If you think you have issues with ObamaCare, wait till the GOP tries to force PerryCare on you!

    by AdmiralNaismith on Wed Nov 02, 2011 at 06:18:33 PM PDT

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