Wait! Wait for me!

I hesitated posting this since you’re all a week done with the book. But this is Infinite Zombies, where the literati stay and play and discuss awesome books ad infinitum. Right?

Good. Because I’m finally liking this book. Section 4 is just delightful. So far. No use anymore pretending I’m caught up. Unlike Jeff, I’m not escaping the worst job of my adult life. I just have two small children and no outside help. Like, zero. I have 45 minutes a week to read and this book made me not want to read.

Until Byron the Bulb.

I know we have a WTF post on Byron, but I wanted to add my thoughts here. Because I have not pulled my weight on this read and want to try to make up a bit of that lack.

One slight factor in Byron’s favor is that he arrives more than forty pages after Major Marvy’s castration, which, if you didn’t notice, was the end of the last sexual escapade of the novel. [NB: I’m not done yet and I will not be shocked is Pynchon gets down and funky again. Also NB: I will also not be shocked if the gratuitous and torturous sex is done since Section Four seems to be about post-war, post-missile Europe, which means all is now limp and we can get some damned work done for once.]

A second reason Byron tipped the scales for me into full GR reading pleasure is that his narrator is funny. “When the War came, some people thought it unpatriotic of GE to have given Germany and edge like that. But nobody with any power. Don’t worry” (775). This is the narrator I’ve wanted all along. Don’t bother me with conspiracies and corporate malfeasance if you can’t be sarcastic about it.

But the joy of Byron lies in his placement within the novel and his fundamental functions. The immortality of what-one-would-believe-is-an-inanimate-object opens gorgeous windows into the rest of the novel. He condenses paranoia at its more pure: the light itself is watching us. The light has memory.  And is nursing a grudge.

Freaking resonant and brilliant paranoia, that is. As Paul and Daryl point out, the conspiracy of a cartel that controls light, bulbs, tallow, electricity, tungsten, etc. was based on a real case of capitalism gone awry. Dennis notes that seeing overdeterministic forces suggests paranoia in the preterite. While I don’t disagree, I offer an alternate reading that, rather than showing a Calvinist-described control that filters down into even the electrical wires, Byron’s sentience and permanence offer hope.

Bryon, after all, is preaching a message of revolution. He’s gone from Bulb Baby Heaven to earth to foment resistance not in ohms but in refusal to be controlled. Byron is our novel’s hero, since we’ve been failed by Pirate and the merry band of creeps: Pökler, Pointsman, Katje, Blicero, and Margherita. And it should go without saying that we’ve been failed by Slothrop.

As Slothrop loses his mind and is sprawled in a bullseye on the forest floor, Byron is teaching, evading, and surviving. He’s chased, but unlike Slothrop, does not falter. He’s flushed down the toilet, too, and floats on the sea (773). Slothrop is given as a dream to Prentice but Byron gets the Savior treatment and appears in a dream to a priest (773). Slothrop screws woman after woman in pursuit of and pursued by rockets; and Byron is “screwed into mother (Mutter) after mother” (774) which seems to get better results.

[I find the previous sentence goofy and ridiculous, but it’s true. Blame Pynchon. And the fact that I’ve been reading for almost two hundred pages without an IPR.]

As comic and slapstick as Slothrop’s various escapes are, “through all his years of survival, all of these rescues of Byron happen as if by accident” (774). His wisdom grows as he endures, and “he has come to see how Bulb must move beyond its role as conveyor of light-energy alone” (774). Byron is fighting the system, and not just by growing pot (774).

Not too long after we’re asked anachronistically to read Ishmael Reed, Byron is fighting from outside the system, forcing through simple manipulations and seizures a reexamination of what happens in sunlight versus bulblight versus dark. Byron is what turns black into white and white into black.

Byron knows more than all of our narrators put together.

And Byron is why I’m finally picking up steam reading this text.

Anybody else find the fourth section the most compelling? Anyone else think Byron holds the key to the text? Anyone else still reading?

Pynchon’s Vergeltungswaffen

I’ve been fighting harder and harder against the text this month, because I’ve decided I’m not just going to let Gravity’s Rainbow‘s narrators take me for a ride anymore. This text is full of distortions, and I don’t know how in the name of all that’s holy we are supposed to know what does and does not happen in this novel.

There are some outlandish narrator assertions that I just know are character fantasies rather than actual events. There’s no way Slothrop had an orgy in the closet while touring Middlewerke. He did not charge the Shell Mex House with Tommy gun blazing. Halliburton’s ghost didn’t appear to befuddle anyone. Marguerita does not beat a reluctant performer Bianca, nor does an ensuing orgy take place before they “begin to drift away to catch some sleep.”

Right? Those simply have to be the narration of a dream, perhaps Pirate’s clairvoyant retelling of the nonsense floating through Slothrop’s brain.

If much of this story actually happens, then, it makes for an exhilarating and frustrating exercise in “if that’s not real in the way conventional fiction is real [yes, I do hear the ridiculousness of that], then why spend so much time on it? Why are a character’s thoughts more important than actual events?” Because they are. How do we each live if not listening to our internal narration, interpretations, and fantasies about what we see and do?

So I know that most of the Slothrop sequences are outsized cartoonish fantasies built on a thin framework of reality. I know Slothrop’s narrator is not teling us what is but rather what Slothrop feels. But that’s where my certainty ends.

A couple of weeks’ old question: did Pökler actually bed Ilse? “No. What Pökler did was choose to believe she wanted comfort that night, wanted not to be alone. Despite Their game.”  Her hand might have brushed his knee, but he didn’t slap her, she didn’t hike up her dress, they didn’t spend hours in a taboo sexual affair and then slink out into the morning of Zwölfekinder’s amusement park city. Right? Of course not. But why not, really, except that he was fighting what They wanted and he thought They wanted to weaken him. And what better way than to eviscerate his sense of self? So he fought the obvious by not sleeping with his daughter, who he thought was not his daughter?

I know that postmodern narrators are unreliable. I know that in a text that tries to be a Saturday Morning Cartoon complete with seamless fantasy wish-fulfillment we’re supposed to know that a lot is dream sequence and a lot is fantasy. I started balking way back at the Keystone Cops nonsense after Katje disappears and Slothrop becomes Ian Scuffling. After the U.S.S. Badass I decided everything herein is complete Kuhscheiβe.

So what’s real? Slothrop or Scuffling or Schlepzig or none of them? [All.] The banana rooftop? [Yes.] Blicero’s twisted home on the range? [Yup.] The octopus? [Sure?] The basement-degraded Admiral? [Probably.] Slothrop falling into the sea and struggling aboard the Anubis? [No?]  Is Imipolex real? [Yes?] Is the 00000? [Maybe?] Just because our most reliable, technical, buttoned-down narrator shared Weissman’s order of the Schwarzgerӓt  doesn’t mean even that’s real. This collection of unreality, I feel, is as real as the novel gets. And yet…

It’s all real, since the text is all we have. Whether the whole novel is a dream or not, it’s as real as we’re going to get.

Pökler’s discovery of the Dora death camp was very real.

Is the death in this novel true while all the life is a hopeful lie? Is the sex, even at its most ludicrous, the fantasy that keeps people on several continents going despite the horrors of the early 1940s?

The further we get into this novel, the more capable I feel at distinguishing conventional fiction from experimental narrator hijinks. But I then question the previous narrators’ assertions and feel I should stop at each cinematic fade, go back to the beginning, and reread from there. And believe none of it, which is, I suppose, the point of postmodern fiction anyway. “How probable is the Anubis in this estuary tonight?” It’s a Schroedinger’s text come to harass us with uncertainty and “be careful, for if you try to detect truth, you won’t like what you find.”

Because I’m beginning to think that Gravity’s Rainbow is a Vergeltungswaffen: a Weapon of Retaliation. A revenge for fiction, for reality; for war, for murder; for frivolity in the face of war and murder.  Retaliation for the helplessness and the refusal to help; for the privileging of capitalism over humanity; for the insufficiency of America’s too-late efforts to “liberate.” A Retaliation for our inhumanity: Gravity’s Rainbow gives us a fantasy that shows us how ludicrous it is to pretend life is anything but death.



The narrator sez

On a mission to figure out a rhyme or reason behind the use of the colloquial “sez” in Gravity’s Rainbow, I rescanned Section Two.

Here’s a quick chronicle from my 1995 Vintage edition copy:

p. 223 the “ID bracelet. Sez KATJE BORGESIUS” [Slothrop’s learning something]

p. 238 “‘It’s Slothrop,’ sez Bloat” [Bloat’s feigning discovery]

p. 239 “‘Shit,’ sez Slothrop” [Slothrop’s in pain]

p. 245 “‘Oink, oink, oink,’ sez Slothrop” [Slothrop’s gleeful]

p. 250 “‘Bad Guy,’ sez Slothrop” [Slothrop’s wishfully thinking; he’s boastful]

p. 264 “‘Hey, Katje’ ‘s all he sez” [after the classic ‘he rapes her but she likes it’ scene; Slothrop’s tentatively probing {not like that}]

p. 266 “‘Come on upstairs,’ sez Slothrop” [Slothrop’s hoping and timidly probing]

p. 271 “‘Your Interested Parties again?’ sez Rollo Groat” [Slothrop’s timidly probing]

p. 288 “Flagnote on the flagnote sez” [major revelation about plastics]

Sez is not the only word the narrator spells phonetically. There are other instances of colloquial spellings. Slothrop says, “whyzat?” on page 287.  The Webley Silvernail section on page 272 is all in phonetically written dialect with “dey wuz” kind of theater.

So why the “sez”?

It’s not when someone is being a phony…

It’s not when someone is being dumb…

It’s not when someone is feigning casualness when in danger…

It’s not when someone is on the verge of an important discovery…

It’s used for men and for inanimate objects with writing on them but never about women…

It’s only the narrator who uses “sez.”

So the best I can come up with is it’s an inconsistent narrator tic that serves to remind us of the fundamental unreliability of our narrator? That much is writ large in the 294 minute detailing of Tamara and Perlimpinpin’s debt, the long description of which ends with “Something like that.”

Perhaps the narrator uses “sez” when he’s being particularly intimate with the reader. Clueing us in on something important, peeking in on a private moment, being technically insubordinate to let us see what he’s seen. (I’m assuming the narrator is male. He is visually fixated on genitalia, and I could find pages of clues to convince you, but until I hear a good argument for the narrator being female, I’m going to default to my IPR argument and say we’re being told a story by a man.) At least two-thirds of the above listed “sez”s fit that intimation idea. But two-thirds is not enough for me.

Is it, perhaps, a slip, when the narrator lets down his guard because he’s most engaged in the story? Do we see his true voice rather than his storytelling voice when he’s enrapt with the details of the novel? That fits 100% of the above incidents, presuming the narrator is engrossed in the most significant bits of the book’s prose. So our narrator is pretending to fit in and have clearance to get the gig of telling us the story? That means his true self, the “sez” self, revealed when he’s not paying attention to his persona, is younger, less well educated and connected, and less experienced than he pretends?

I couldn’t find the etymology of “sez” or when it came into fashion. I sense that it was a post-Flapper flippancy that gained ground in the ’40s (as Paul noted) or with Beat writers in the ’50s (as Daryl noted).

In none of  the historical slang dictionaries have I found an etymology for “Jackson,” Slothrop’s infrequent pet phrase, either. I have found, though, that Slothrop uses “Jackson” in his internal monologue when he’s seriously terrified. To wit: 221 (octopus), 232 (wardrobe’s a fake), and 287 (with Bounce talking about Shell).

I don’t have the e-version, so I’m sure I’m missing some sezes and some Jacksons. If you come across some, do they help or hurt my theory?

A new post, coming soon…

I’m working feverishly. I’m throwing together any freaking thought I can manage crafting careful sentences that delve into the beauty and thoughtfulness that is Pynchon’s prose.

[I’m definitely not stalling while I finish the last few pages of this week’s reading. That would be intellectually dishonest and morally lazy. And way too predictable.]

But I really have to know, to gauge the timbre of my post:

Am I the only one going absolutely nuts every time the lazyologism “sez” appears in the text?

Because when I googled “Pynchon sez” I found this awesome irreverent Pynchon mockery that should be in the sidebar would be wholly inappropriate to include in our studied and thoughtful approach to Gravity’s Rainbow.

So I need to know: does “sez” bug you, too? Or do I need to back off my self-assigned role as the Zombies’ resident linguistic curmudgeon?

Quote of the week candidates

Week Two had several outstanding choices for quote of the week.

What’s your vote? One of these or something else?

“Don’t forget the real business of the War is buying and selling. The murdering and the violence are self-policing, and can be trusted to non-professionals. The mass nature of wartime death is useful in many ways. It serves as spectacle, as diversion from the real movements of the War. It provides the raw material to be recorded into History, so that children may be taught History as sequences of violence, battle after battle, and be more prepared for the adult world….The true war is a celebration of markets.” (124-5)

“Pointsman’s season of despair was well upon him….this war, this State he’d come to feel himself a citizen of, was to be adjourned and reconstituted as a peace—and that, professionally speaking, he’d hardly got a thing out of it.” (88)

The first, a devastating view of the reality of conflicts that are politically manufactured and controlled by wealth, is intensely cruel on several levels. And feels very true. Nauseatingly true.

The second captures what seems, thus far, a central tension of the novel. War is a monumental Hell experienced by all involved, and yet each still has to live each day. Live, as in eat and clean and think and have sex and work. But it’s war, and so none of that really happens in a way that feels normal? How do we not collapse into deep existential depression? How do moments like Roger and Jessica’s “Fuck the war. They were in love.” happen? And do they accumulate sufficient moments of humanity to allow the net reality of war to still be life?

Finally, my personal favorite:

“Ask them at ‘The White Visitation’ about the master plan of BBC’s eloquent Mryon Grunton, whose melted-toffee voice  has been finding its way for years into the fraying rust boucle of the wireless speakers and into English dreams, foggy, old heads, children at the edges of attention…” (87).

Why? Because it feels luxuriously normal and beautiful in a sea of cold and deadly and fearful.

How about you?

I’m late I’m late I’m late

Isn’t it nice to have a blogger who will *never* risk broaching the spoiler line because she’s at least a week behind?

Okay. Again I present you with random ramblings that don’t yet approach a theory or textual dissection of any sort. I’m just here with a reader’s really raw response (RRRR) for your late-week bemusement. By current progress I’ll finish the novel four months behind the rest of you.

Now, I’m not saying I need a parade in my honor or anything, but how about a muted nod to my early noting of Infantile Penis References (IPRs) before I even read the Kryptosam section in which invisible ink messages are only intelligible once covered in sperm.

This kind of goofball phallocentrism is what I meant when I casually stereotyped the typical male postmodern writers’ obsession with sex. And I don’t know why it so irritates me. This is not a feminist rant about objectification (excluding the galling fact that messages revealed only to those possessing sperm require a sperm-producing event by either self or other, the very demand of which means those in power need either a penis or access to a penis).  There is just something methodical about the inclusion of penis observations that seems gratuitous. I know we need to talk about Slothrop’s “peculiar sensitivity to what is revealed in the sky” (31) and how Pirate felt physically in the presence of Scorpia (42) and Pointsman’s grotesque lusting after pretty children (58) and Slothrop’s subconscious fear of anal rape (75) and Captain Blicero’s sadistic staging (111). They are all important to the story and not gratuitous by themselves. But they add up to enough sexual input that we don’t need IPRs, too. Yet Pynchon gives us a masturbatory kryptosam sequence in which the human penis is so darned grandiose it holds the key to the Allied victory over the Nazis. Sperm saves the world in this novel, folks. I just can’t argue that penis references get any more juvenile or that sexual obsession gets any more exalted.

But wait…a few pages later, they do and it does. In the pinnacle of all IPRs, Slothrop is the adult legacy of actual infantile penis experimentation (99). And, his every psychological underpinning is said to, perhaps, stem from his early erections (100).

The problem, of course, is I set out to overlook the IPRs and the Gravity’s Rainbow obsequious reverence for ejaculation. And in two weeks of reading I’ve found an awfully good argument for the possibility that IPRs are the central point, not the marginalia. That this book is centered rather superciliously around rockets and penises and ejaculations as the Pillars of Civilization. That erections are the well written, funny, poignantly terrified of death end-all-be-all human existence.

 [Eye roll; deep sigh; resignation to persevere through this as I did through Hemingway’s The Penis Also Penises, better known as The Sun Also Rises.]

Very few authors write compelling horrifying characters—villains who are so grotesque a readers should turn away, but who are also so human they elicit empathy. The captivating experience of reading Blicero is like taking an acting role as a sociopath. Pynchon’s writing allows us to see, at each turn, a human fear of mortality, a wounded childhood, a vulnerability that almost no other author I’ve read gives their beasts. Most successful evil characters are unredeemably disgusting, even when the author tries to reveal the wounds beneath their behavior and psychoses. Blicero seems an archetype I’ve never read before: the depraved monster  who is clearly human. He is what happens when a slightly icky person has his soul mutilated by war. He is humanity—warty and flawed—turned inside out into a raunchy and nasty mound oozing bile.

Freaks me out that I don’t hate him. I mean, I don’t like him. I’m not rooting for Blicero, let me be clear. I’d shove him in the Oven myself. But Pynchon has created a cruel, sadistic, pedophilic Nazi whose point of view I can appreciate. [shudder] And I’ve read those sections twice because I was so intrigued at being co-opted into seeing Blicero’s recognizable humanity.

So now I’m off to finish last week and read this week and do some other stuff. Let me know if you’re creeped out that I’m not exceedingly creeped out by Blicero. Or if you’re quite enjoying the IPRs. Or if you want to defend Hemingway, for some twisted reason (other than the Nick Adams stories).

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.