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Excuse Me, While I Kiss The Sky

Sometimes a phrase or association just jumps out at me, and in this week’s reading, it was the following section (ellipses Pynchon’s):

Even a month ago, given a day or two of peace, he might have found his way back to the September afternoon, to the stiff cock in his pants sprung fine as a dowser’s wand trying to point up at what was hanging there in the sky for everybody. Dowsing Rockets is a gift, and he had it, suffered from it, trying to fill his body to the pores and follicles with ringing prurience . . . to enter, to be filled . . . to go hunting after . . . to be shown . . . to begin to scream . . . to open arms legs mouth asshole eyes nostrils without a hope of mercy to its intention waiting in the sky paler than dim commercial Jesus. . . .

Slothrop has just learned from Greta about a highly erotic suit made of Imipolex-G but doesn’t quite manage to put together all the facts and come to certain important conclusions. But that’s almost beside the point. What made me sit up and take notice was that mention of a scream, which zipped me right back to the opening line of the book:

A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.

It’s strangely worded, isn’t it? Memorable, sure, but there’s also something very slovenly about the choice of so prosaic a verb as “comes” in such a sentence, unless the word turns out to be a sort of double-entendre picked up 500 pages later. So the rocket screams and part of binary Slothrop that has been conditioned to be attracted to that black substance ensconced within the rocket provokes a screaming as well, inviting the question of exactly which screaming it is we’re hearing at the beginning, or whether one can be properly distinguished from the other.

Signs and Symptoms

I couldn’t help noticing in this week’s reading (1.19 – 2.3) that Pynchon writes a whole lot about things beneath the surface, including most notably the machinations leading to the theft of Slothrop’s identity so that, stuck, he can be manipulated and monitored as part of Pointman’s great experiment. Much has been choreographed with the intention — failed — of hoodwinking Slothrop without letting him know he’s being hoodwinked. Weisenburger points out that section 2.1 is very theatrical and that Katje pulls something of a magician’s stunt by covering Slothrop with a red cloth so that his identity can be made to disappear. And of course it’s worth noting that the epigraph that opens part 2 references a movie about an animal that captures a woman, much as the octopus Grigori somewhat comically captures Katje. Movies, of course, also attempt to dupe you into believing the stories they put before you, so the epigraph does more than simply prefigure the Grigori scene; it telegraphs something about the understanding that creeps along beneath the surface of at least the opening chapters of the section: that there’s the way things seem and there’s the manipulation being carried out to make them seem that way.

But it starts before we even get into part 2. Consider this exchange between Franz and Leni Pökler in 1.19:

She even tried, from what little calculus she’d picked up, to explain it to Franz as Δt approaching zero, eternally approaching, the slices of time growing thinner and thinner, a succession of rooms each with walls more silver, transparent, as the pure light of the zero comes nearer….

But he shook his head. “Not the same, Leni. The important thing is taking a function to its limit. Δt is just a convenience, so that it can happen.”

What Leni sees as a way of understanding something about the way the world works Franz brushes aside as a convenience. A scientist, he sees the way things operate under the surface, while Leni tries to use a mathematical metaphor to explain to him her outward perception of the world. In other words, it’s as if he sees what lies beneath while she sees only the surface; he seeks cause while she’s stuck with effect.

He was the cause-and-effect man: he kept at her astrology without mercy, telling her what she was supposed to believe, then denying it. “Tides, radio interference, damned little else. There is no way for changes out there to produce changes here.”

“Not produce,” she tried, “not cause. It all goes along together. Parallel, not series. Metaphor. Signs and symptoms. Mapping on to different coordinate systems, I don’t know…” She didn’t know, all she was trying to do was reach.

We learn next that Franz can’t stay awake during films (and how filmlike that description of sliced time), and that he watches them “nodding in and out of sleep,” as if his experience of movies mimics the way moving pictures themselves worked, stills spliced together but always with gaps in between. Leni wonders how “did he connect together the fragments he saw while his eyes were open?” Moreover, he’s unable simply to enjoy films, picking at technical points because he’s more tuned in to the mechanisms of the films than the feelings they evoke. Yet we find him pasting up advertisements for a film and finally attempting to attend the film only to find the theater empty. This misadventure brings him to the rocket, which ignites in him a passion for the work, though at the cost of his partnership with Leni. The cause-and-effect man indeed.

This is all of course in the past. Jumping back to the present of the novel and all its obfuscations, we find the American Slothrop forced to go about confusingly in a British uniform, speaking with Dodson-Truck about signs and symbols and their hidden meanings, trying to grok schematics whose symbols are reversed as if to camouflage them, growing one of many possible types of mustache that could provide different cues about what type of person he might be. As he encounters the somewhat chameleonish Katje in the Himmler-Spielsaal room and ponders the roulette wheel, he thinks of “the game behind the game.” Within a page or so, we learn that Slothrop knows of some room in his past he doesn’t have access to, some horrible hidden thing that Katje seems to know about that he doesn’t. Later, as Dodson-Truck confides in Slothrop, we read again of this “terrible secret.”

Then we move into a séance and learn that the medium Eventyr, who channels the control Peter Sascha, doesn’t even have access to the very information he channeled, that he gets only the censored (read: manipulated) transcripts after the fact. He thinks of his “hidden life” and mentions “acrostics” — a sort of poetry but also a sort of crude code in which one message is buried within another. And this very notion of a person with access to some other plane hidden to most seems related to the concept of things being other than they seem.

It took delving into the chemistry of coal-tar to produce from an unlikely nasty substance a whole dye industry that made beautiful things.

And, finally, there is Slothrop’s unpleasant feeling that everybody around him seems to know something that he doesn’t. Is it paranoia if it’s true? He has access to the facts as they seem, but the machinery driving the great theater of his capture is a little off-kilter, a little bit too funhouse maybe, and he’s aware dimly that something fishy’s going on, though he lacks the hidden knowledge he’d need to have in order to understand just what.

Several times now, we’ve seen this funny little word “preterite,” which before reading Gravity’s Rainbow I had encountered only as it pertained to verb tense. Pynchon uses the word to mean something like “common people,” but there’s also the more specific meaning (rare according to the OED) “a person not elected to salvation by God.” In other words, the preterite are people denied access to certain knowledge/salvation/whatever that the elect do have access to, which would seem to apply pretty well to poor Slothrop, as, with less dire ramifications, to those of us consuming the shuddering frames a film is edited down to, or the jump-cut narrative of a book like Gravity’s Rainbow.

Slothrop and Orin

This isn’t likely to make too much sense if you haven’t read Infinite Jest, and it may also contain mild IJ spoilers. I offer it more as a set of idle observations than as any sort of thesis.

In David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, we meet womanizer Orin Incandenza, about whom I wrote the following a few years ago:

A bit more on Orin. His name can be switched around to “iron,” “noir,” and “orni,” which, this last, makes me think of ornithology. He plays football for the Cardinals and is actually made to don fake wings (I think) and like a jetpack and fly down onto the field earlier in the book. Then a bird falls out of the sky into his apartment’s pool (oddly reminiscent of the end of Barton Fink, starring John Turturro, whom I peg as a shoo-in for playing JOI and/or JOI’s father in a movie adaptation of Infinite Jest). Then, on page 294, we have Orin engaging Joelle “entirely through stylized repetitive motions,” making me think of the mating dances of birds.

Orin has a habit of tracing the infinity sign with his finger on the flanks of the girls he has bedded. Like Orin, Slothrop traces a mathematical sign as he sows his oats, though in his case, it’s a Poisson distribution scrawled over a map of London.

And like Orin, Slothrop is frequently associated with birds, especially in the pastoral section 1.4, in which he appears in the company of an owl, girls called Wrens, peacocks, and hummingbirds and in which he sports an erection (his “cock,” if we want to stretch the bird motif a bit) as a rocket explodes. This section also happens to deal pretty heavily in the contrast between the earth and the sky, a dichotomy the sky-bound but (if I recall correctly) acrophobic Orin also contemplates.

Both men sport a very special appendage, and both are subject to paranoia. As Orin begins to fear that he’s being followed and ultimately has his fears confirmed and culminating in his being taken prisoner, so Slothrop begins to feel as if he’s being watched, and as if his cubicle is a trap (early in 1.15). Also probably not significant but certainly attention-getting for me was the reference early in 1.15 to “Enfields” — a name whose singular form will resonate with readers of Wallace’s novel.

Unlike Orin, Slothrop at least writes nice letters home to his mother.

Temptation

I may be dim, but both times I’ve read this far into Gravity’s Rainbow, I’ve been puzzled by the scene in which, chasing tail after his discharge from the abreaction ward, Slothrop lands himself in an old lady’s flat eating nasty candy. It’s a funny enough scene, but it always seemed sort of out of place amid the pretty serious stuff surrounding it.

It took a return to exercise after a lapse and the subsequent temptation of a box of Girl Scout cookies to open my eyes to what’s going on here. There it lay on the dresser, not even my favorite kind (Samoas win that title), but open, by gar, and all but leaping into my mouth as I dismounted the exercise machine and wiped away my sweat. Heart still pounding from exertion, I casually inspected the nutritional information printed on the box of cookies. Seven grams of fat and 170 calories in a serving; one cookie would cost me 2.3 grams of fat and 57 calories. As I did a little cost-benefit analysis, the connection struck me.

Blicero and Katje and Gottfried enact over and over again a fetishized game of Hansel and Gretel, and just a few pages later, Slothrop finds himself invited into an old crone’s house to feast on candy. Slothrop’s little confectionary adventure is a light-hearted callback to and dramatization of the folktale that Blicero appropriates. And the lesson in that folktale (bad parenting exemplum aside) and in Pynchon’s dual retelling of it has to do with temptation and its payoffs.

Blicero succumbs to the temptation of bedding a woman he suspects may be working for the British. Although he knows he’ll finally be given a push from behind into some oven or another, he’s certain it won’t come in the form of an air raid thanks to betrayal by Katje. But then she does leave, and he prepares for the worst, paying for his temptation in two, somewhat paradoxical, ways — he is, first, convinced that he was wrong to trust Katje after all and, second, denied the consummation of the betrayal he fears. Accustomed to controlling his playthings, he is now stripped altogether of control, and even of the illusion of making of his fate a sort of gift (a form of control in its own right, if what one reads about the rules in a sadomasochistic partnership is accurate — ie, that control of a situation is always just a single safe word away for the person being subjugated).

Slothrop’s temptation too comes at a cost, for we learn in 1.17 that the abreaction ward from which he has just been discharged has been bombed, and with it poor Spectro, who back in 1.8 shared a tense moment with Pointsman in which he tried to steer the behaviorist away from the temptation to try to experiment on Slothrop. Dipping his wick after entering that candy-strewn apartment costs lives, including that of a rare ally. (Of course, it’s not at all clear whether coitus is the cause or the effect here; still, I think the point is worth considering.)

Pointsman too confronts a great temptation. He’s tired of collecting the spit of dogs and isn’t terribly interested in studying the octopus Grigori, no matter how big and smart he is. He wants a man to poke and prod, and he wants in particular the man whose secret all the scientists paranormal and otherwise also covet. As 1.17 closes, we find Pointsman constructing rationalizations for designing an experiment around Slothrop, suffering be damned (“the man will suffer — perhaps, in some clinical way, be destroyed”), and he has his eye on the Nobel. It’s not just the shiny trophy he has his eye on, though; there’s something Faustian about Pointsman, and the connection Pynchon makes between his quest for knowledge and Theseus’s triumph in the labyrinth seems telling, for like Theseus, in order to win, Pointsman must destroy the creature that lies at the center of the labyrinth once he’s wended his way through it. Pointsman’s fall to temptation comes at the ultimate cost, in other words, of what scrap of humanity he may have left.

(It also occurs to me that like Theseus with his yarn, Hansel and Gretel leave breadcrumbs behind to help find their way out of their peril.)

Candy. Quim. Fame. Knowledge. Girl Scout cookies seem pretty insignificant as I ladder up that list, but it’s still hard not to feel a little satisfaction at having resisted.

The Kenosha Kid

February 27, 2012 9 comments

As episode ten of part one of Gravity’s Rainbow opens, Tyrone Slothrop — injected with sodium amytal to induce a sort of trance wherein his psyche will be probed — is chewing on the line “Bet you never did the Kenosha Kid” in much the same way that I remember trying many years ago as a would-be poet to bend the repeating lines of a villanelle to my will by hanging on them different meanings and syntax. Is the Kenosha a dance? Or is the Kenosha Kid a person? If so, is he from the town Kenosha? And what does all this tomfoolery mean anyway? Weisenburger calls this interlude “one of the outstanding enigmas of GR,” and I certainly remember being baffled by it when I first read the book a few years ago.

But this time through, with the syntactic chicanery involved in the obsessive construction of a villanelle on my mind and tromping through the prose a bit better oriented than last time, I began to make a strange sort of sense of the Kenosha Kid bit.

Episode 1.10 is in some ways about discovering the pure. Consider for example Slothrop’s race anxiety, which certainly calls to mind period concerns with matters of miscegenation, race inequality, and so on. The appearance of Malcolm X (and particularly the fact that he appears pre-enlightenment) seems telling enough. The reference to the song “Cherokee” and Pynchon’s line “one more lie about white crimes” and several other references to Indians made me think of America’s treatment of its aborigines, which may resonate with certain other grisly race marginalization that World War II reeks of.

Weisenburger posits that this episode introduces some of the most important opposites in the novel (e.g. north/south, black/white). He also mentions the at first (to me) unintelligible pairing of “shit” and “the word.” Well, the episode is surely full of shit. But what’s this business about “the word?” Maybe it’s a typographical error in my older edition of the companion. Thinking of Slothrop’s descent into the sewer, I remembered that episode 1.4 dealt pretty extensively with another pairing: sky vs. earth. And flipping back, I reencountered the following: “Shit, money, and the Word, the three American truths, powering the American mobility, claimed the Slothrops, clasped them for good to the country’s fate.”

That capital W makes a big difference. Slothrop’s turpitude generally and our trip through the sewer of his uncomfortably unfettered subsconscious looks back to his family’s history and its granite-chiseled concern for squaring matters with that hand reaching down from the sky. Near the end of 1.10, we even return briefly to a churchyard scene:

Then for another moment it seems that all the Christmas bells in the creation are about to join in chorus — that all their random pealing will be, tis one time, coordinated, in harmony, present with tidings of explicit comfort, feasible joy.

But then we go right back to Slothrop’s fantasy of the Roxbury slum, sine-waving from relief, hope, and redemption back to the gutter and his fear of all those black folk with their prying fingers, and back to those ehisshehwle Hahvaad boys who ought to know better than to think the sorts of things we encounter while rummaging through Slothrop’s mind. All this back and forth, from grime to righteousness and so on, begins to seem to correspond roughly with that pesky pairing that big books tend to touch on: right and wrong.

In 2005, a Pynchon reader discovered a pulp western story titled “The Kenosha Kid” that itself takes up moral ambiguities. The eponymous hero is described early on as a sort of Robin Hood. A gambler who makes his living taking other people’s money but who has a large capacity for both guilt and generosity, the Kenosha Kid struggles over the course of the story with how he can best reason which of the people he encounters are and are not scoundrels and how he should conduct himself. For example, he cheats at cards to beat a man he believes had pulled a prior stick-up, but then he begins to feel sympathy for the character. When the stick-up-artist lands in jail due to circumstances resulting directly from the loss of his money, the Kid endures something of a moral crisis. He feels bad for the bad guy. Published in 1931, the story is of about the right vintage for Slothrop to have read as a youngster. And of course we all know that we dredge up the weirdest things in dreams, presumably also when in drug-induced trances.

So to me, the Kenosha Kid bits that frame 1.10 begin to make sense as snatches from Slothrop’s memory that bubble up as he works through matters of judging people based not on the color of their skin but on the content of their character (reasoned judgment of character being something the Kid prides himself on). It’s especially relevant given the content of Slothrop’s hallucination and our discovery in 1.12 that the whole point of his participation in these experiments is “to help illuminate racial problems in his own country.” In other words, maybe all this poking at Slothrop ostensibly to get at racial issues in America is pushing buttons in his head that make him ping-pong back and forth between reprehensible racist thoughts and a more noble and enlightened impulse he’ll recall from having read “The Kenosha Kid.” None of this is to say that I think Pynchon is trying to show us a man fighting a morality war with himself; but it does seem as if he’s maybe showing us a way in which he thinks the brain might operate when left untended.

Slothrop’s wordplay, then, becomes for me a sort of emblem of his subconscious brain at work. In the same way that I twiddled lo these many years ago with the syntax and enjambment of my repeating lines of doggerel until I felt like I had worked out a scheme that felt right, Slothrop’s tranced-out brain here is trying to piece together a coherent sense of the moral right, and as so often happens in dreams, a minor detail becomes the focus of a riff, is imbued with greater significance than it really merits on its own.

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