Nodding, shrugging, smirking

Because this is the beginning, and the beginning is a very good place to start, I’m going to quickly dispense with some inane observations. I will then progress into less inane observations. I will not mark the transition between the two, and if you feel all of the following are painfully inane, why then just pretend the transition happens somewhere at a later date. Like Paul, I’m flying completely blind here. No background research, no previous reading, no exposure to this novel at all.


I hate bananas. I have always gagged at the smell of bananas. I hold my breath when I give my children bananas. If I mistakenly drink a smoothie with banana or eat a so-called bread made of banana, I try very hard not to vomit.

Pirate Prentice, therefore, is already in the running for my least favorite character.

Seriously, though, the banana-seeking trip to the roof and the banana-laden and overripely unctuous kitchen scene brought me immediately to a pleasant, early conclusion about this text. This author can write. Not just because he goes on and on in nauseating detail about bananas. Any monkey could do that. My immense gratitude for the vacillations of physical space between narrow and expansive in this section begins when the cold, murky, drowning scene of those on the train (and those left behind) wedges us tightly, claustrophobically into a depot that becomes Pirate’s private quarters, and then the banana nonsense opens the whole text away from that sepulcher-like scene into a luxurious (especially since illicitly undertaken under rationing) sensory extravaganza. I thoroughly enjoyed this scary into safe, skeletal into gluttonous transition, and lodged stylistic ebbing and flowing as a point very much in Pynchon’s favor.

At the recommendation of several re-readers, including a fabulous comment a few days ago by DCN, I am letting this text wash me along its course. I am not trying to understand it. I have experience with Faulkner and Joyce and Wallace and Bolaño, and I will willingly follow stream of consciousness wherever it leads. I don’t need transitions, don’t ask for clarifications, and quite enjoy being driven by a good author. Heck, we’re already suspending disbelief to read a novel, so why not suspend all expectations of realism. I meant that sincerely and without facetiousness. But just so Mr. Pynchon knows, I can’t comment intelligently about such writing until I’ve finished and reread, so I hope he’s not visiting our group read anytime soon.

The style, however, both hides and highlights a central point of this first section: the terrible upheaval of war. Just as Roger Mexico vacillates between “don’t make me out some cold fanatical man of science” (47) and “his morality always goading ” to keep the “psychical” distinct from science (47), I sense already that we’re going to go back and forth with the characters between “I need to dissociate from the horrors of war and pretend life is normal” and “nothing can be normal in this hell.” Already we see Tyrone Slothrop a barely controlled panic about his obsession “with the idea of a rocket with his name written on it” (29). Genetic  PTSD about the fire or not, Slothrop is on the edge and I don’t blame him. One wrenching reality of the first section is that it’s nigh impossible to explain to people not living a war what it feels like to be terrified and resigned and depressed and morbidly hopeful. The long section (relatively) between Jessica and Roger nurtures the paranoia and frustrations both feel, repeating the ineffectual literary protests of war. The “perfectly black rectangle of night” (59) taking men, the reduction of woman to child (62), the  suggestion that “the Home Front is something of a fiction and a lie, designed, not too subtly, to draw them apart” (48). Unfortunate, though, that the wounded girls asking for gum and rockets screaming  through this text are plot movers and therefore not terrifying but exciting for the reader. Well written voyeurism of people in war is Schadenfreude of the worst kind.

And speaking of deplorable literary styles (nice way out of the intense discomfort afforded readers of a surreal war novel, no?) is anyone shocked that it took a postmodern writer 31 pages before talking about a penis? One of the things I most loathe about the other Pynchon books I’ve read is the latent, creepy, old-man sex fetish in which a woman can’t just throw a dart without “breasts bobbing marvelously” (36). We have several cocks and hardons and a map of sexual conquests “Never to rank a single one—how can he?” For titillation’s sake, Pirate climbs a tall ladder to a hot house, “holding up the skirt of his robe to drop [bananas] in. Allowing himself only to count bananas, moving bare-legged among the pendulous bunches” (8) there hasn’t been a dystopic writer this obsessed with sex since Robert Heinlein. I counted at least one sexual innuendo or reference every 8 pages, and I’m usually pretty daft about such things.

Look, I get that the easiest way to counter the humanity effacing effects of war is writing long, intense sexual romp scenes. But bawdy jokes are different than constantly grabbing at it.

But I will hold off my frustration with the constant phallic status updates (noted in my paperback as I.P.R.s [infantile penis reference] for now. Because Variable Slothrop might be the best name in all literature *and* an essentialism for Gravity’s Rainbow itself. (Jeff and I have more in common than I thought, because I debated, before I read his post, whether Variable or Constant had the better name. Slothrops are no fun if they’re predictable, though, so I went with Variable.)

I absolutely will not discuss Mr. Pointsman now. I’m hoping he just goes away and is a character role of disgusting soulless pig placed carefully as juxtaposition to Jessica and Roger’s desperate clinging to humanity. If he turns out to best Randy Lenz as my least favorite character in a novel EVER, I will not be surprised.  But for now, honor the spoiler line and let me pretend this rat scurries away before we find out what The Book is and who the other six owners are.

In the tradition I began for Infinite Jest and continued on for 2666, I will offer a quote of the week from Gravity’s Rainbow. Please, by all means, share your favorite (or least favorite or most iconic or least intelligible) below. We’ve read approximately 85 pages, I just adore this line:

“An elderly air-raid warden, starchy and frail as organdy, stands on tiptoe to relight the sensitive flame.” The pun of the sensitive flame, beaten to death on an earlier page actually pays handsomely in this line. I assumed in reading and typing that line that the warden was a woman. Rather daft of me, I thought, until I did some research and found that there were, in fact, women serving as air raid wardens. So now I love the line all the more*: as history lesson, as gender-bending prose, as ethereal image.

*I’m going to pretend to not have a preconceived prejudice about Pynchon specifically and postmodern writers generally as ragingly misogynistic, and will thereby allow that he might describe a man as frail as organdy. And on tiptoe. I’m guessing by Week 6 I will retract that generosity, but for now I’m feeling quite generous indeed. Probably from the equally magnanimous helping of bananas.

17 thoughts on “Nodding, shrugging, smirking

  1. DCN February 29, 2012 / 4:22 pm

    First: Shucks.

    Second: I too hate bananas and find all the banana goings on at the beginning one of the many truly disgusting things in the novel.

    Third: Regarding penises and misogyny: It hurts to have something like that pointed out about a novel I love and that I’ve just gone on and on about loving. I’m usually really sensitive about those sorts of things and now will have to think about it here. My initial thoughts (excuses) are that much of that is to capture a 1930s/40s Hollywood film flavor (Roger and Jessica meeting cute), but I think this is inadequate. A usual criticism of Pynchon is that his characters are flat, but I don’t think it is any defense to lifeless female characters to say the men are lifeless too (and I don’t think they are).

    There are women in Pynchon that I think are full and real an interesting, but I think your points are real and good and will be the cause of much introspection for me.

    Fourth: There is probably no end in sight for the IPRs (especially if don’t like Pointsman).

    To all: I am really enjoying reading these. Thank you.

    • Christine February 29, 2012 / 6:00 pm

      DCN thank you for seconding the banana-loathing. Someday, when we know each other better, I’ll admit hating avocado, too. But it’s too early yet.

      I am suspending my presumption of misogyny, and have observed no reason to level that claim about this book. Incessant penis jokes doesn’t make a text misogynistic, nor does a teenage-level preoccupation with breasts. So far, the Roger/Julia connection seems real, respectful, and multidimensional, so I’m optimistic. Other Pynchon, Crying of Lot 49, specifically, made me feel like a token chick just for reading it, so we’ll see what happens.

      I also don’t think an inability to write good female characters makes an author misogynistic. David Foster Wallace writes so-so women, but they represent 1% of his fully fleshed characters. And I absolutely believe he writes as a (sometimes misguided but sincere) feminist.

      So I hope a close read reifies your love for GR and smashes my prejudice. And I really hope Pointsman goes away.

      • DCN February 29, 2012 / 6:32 pm

        Yes, you are right, it is too soon and I didn’t really think you were saying that yet. I don’t think the book or author are misogynistic, but I am looking forward to maybe having that discussion when all is said and done.

        (And as a misguided, but sincere, feminist, I agree with you about DFW.)

      • Christine February 29, 2012 / 9:29 pm

        I forgot to say that I adore the writing of David Foster Wallace more than any other author I can think of. His prose sings in the same rhythms of my own mental nonsense.
        But Joelle and Avril aren’t enough to say he can write women.

  2. jrlsberro February 29, 2012 / 4:33 pm

    I’m with you on the bananas – after a traumatic experience of a cargo load of bananas washing up on the beach in the middle of summer and proceeding to ripen/explode/be devoured by crabs it was years before I could stand the thought of them!
    As far as the IPRs – I think you may have just swayed me against getting an e-reader – I was really contemplating it for this go round, but how would I annotate them as you’re doing? I love it!

    • Christine February 29, 2012 / 6:07 pm

      Okay, world, the banana haters are here, and we state unequivocally that we don’t care that farmers are breeding bananas out of existence. Good riddance, all three of us say!

      I think IPRs are no reason to go paper if you don’t want to. Highlighting them with a click is a hilariously visceral way to manipulate them manually. Then your e-reader could tally them for you. I hope. If the technology isn’t there for such puerile games, why the hell would we buy one?

      Let me know, someone with electronic knowledge. Can we point and laugh at penis obsessed texts with a touchscreen, or not? If so, I’d get one just to have the software count Pynchon’s…um…bananas.

  3. Dennis Fleming February 29, 2012 / 8:31 pm

    I think that the bannana does offer one theme that is present in bundles with Pynchon. If you look at Viking p 10 ll 9-20 there is a description of the wafting character of their odor and characterized as a “weaving of molecules”. Then he goes on to compare it to genetic inheritance as a sort of imortality, which comes back to using the odor “as a spell against falling objects.” It seems to me that things go well when we focus on individuals and not on the totality. Thus, the family can cheat death; killing and dying is just a sideshow for commerce.
    I think I did this one without amy typos.

    • DCN February 29, 2012 / 8:53 pm

      Not to mention the fact that a banana looks like a rocket and is arched like a rocket’s path.

      • Christine February 29, 2012 / 9:36 pm

        [phaaaaaaaaallus] rocket is a symbol of violation, of geopolitical rape, of violence of power. Banana is a juxtaposition of domestic and tropical, nourishing and elemental (food). You can smell banana before you see it. You can hear rocket before you see it. EXCEPT….and on we go.

      • DCN March 1, 2012 / 9:56 am

        But: The banana has also be spirited away from South America to be cultivated on a London rooftop, so there is a nod to British Colonialism there (maybe).

      • Christine March 1, 2012 / 1:12 pm

        Yes! Change that “but” to and “and” and we have an indictment of the militaryindustrial complex that pays Pirate so he can Pirate people’s emotions and dreams to serve the greater purpose of defeating one horrible form of governance (Nazi state-sponsored murder) i the dreams of restoring another horrible form of governance (murderous invasion and colonization by a distant government).

        In fact, I’m willing to debate whether co-opting Latin bananas to Pirate’s purposes supports an assertion that British invasions were just as violently murderous as the German invasions WWII fought against.

        Pynchon wrote GR before Edward Said starting talking about Orientalism as a power construction, though, so I’m not in any way arguing intention by Pynchon. I’m just noting that Pirate’s willingness to work for The Firm whose legacy is “discovering” and murdering shows his complicity with a world order that says Might is Right and ownership is an essential good.

    • Christine February 29, 2012 / 9:32 pm

      Dennis, that’s an interesting observation. The very part of an actual banana—their pervasive net in which they capture everything around them—is useful to a story because they can do more than most food. Garlic has an aromatic lasso that’s very different, though, it, too can offer the individual versus clove image. I’ll keep my eye out for more banana as metaphor rather than as loathsome object.

      • Dennis Fleming February 29, 2012 / 10:46 pm

        I like your comment on geopolitical rape. It was the Vergeltungswaffen the “revenge weapon” which has all of the nasty doublespeak of ethnic cleansing.

  4. Jeff Anderson March 2, 2012 / 7:50 pm

    Well, I don’t know what to say to all’a’y’all banana haters. Except that now I have a curiously relevant “Mad About You” excerpt in my head that the Internet knows NOTHING about! (I’m not kidding, I find two hits on all of Google.) Mel Brooks is an old man in an apartment on another floor, and he makes smoothies with bananas in them, which is fine, but he won’t ever put peach in, because the peach takes over everything, it’s like Hitler.

    Aaaaaaaaaanyway, I do love how this discussion has looked at bananas both as the luxury they must have been and as the product of imperialism that they undoubtedly were. I think, given the inclusion of the Herero and the colonial description of the War that I mentioned over in my own post, it’s not an accident that this whole indulgence is whipped up from (literally) the fruits of expansionist policy.

    I don’t think I get what y’all are saying, Dennis and Christine, about the smell of bananas and the net and all that. It sounds like you’re understanding each other, which makes me think I’m missing something interesting. Is it related to the ethylene outgassing that lets bananas ripen other nearby fruit?

    And DCN and Christine, although I don’t know of any capability on my Kindle Touch to add up the IPRs, they can definitely be highlighted and even annotated. Passages that you annotate, highlight, or bookmark bookmarks are all compiled in one file, but the highlighting also stays with the text, and any notes are accessible by just tapping the passage.

  5. Christine March 3, 2012 / 2:14 pm

    I’m a bit disappointed that all the IPRs can’t be agglomerated into one Giant Penis Reference List (GPRL) but I guess I’ll survive, seeing as I don’t particularly give a flying fig newton about anything but shaming the IPRs, and that, really, is just as infantile.

    I’m very sorry about Uncle Phil’s banana smoothie not being on the Internet. I just spend 45 minutes checking, because I really wanted to see a clip. Shame.

    Beyond the ethylene gas, bananas smell from a distance. Banana haters can tell from two rooms away that there is a banana in the house. Add Pirate’s insistence on cooking them in butter and simmering them in sauces and fermenting them…the banana smell must be a *thickly* pervasive roommate in that joint.

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