Pynchon in Poland

When the time came for International Pynchon Week, held this spring in Lublin, Poland was a country in mourning. There had been a plane crash in which the Polish president, his wife, a dozen members of parliament and members of the clergy had died. The church altars were draped in black. Portraits of the dead hung on the walls. A funereal hush was on the countryside as well. During my two hours on the train from Warsaw I saw horses, several angry geese, and a dignified-looking goat, but only one person, a young man with bottles of beer on the roof of a barn. Further south there were submerged trees and fields, the first sign of the floods that had already drowned several picturesque towns.

I arrived in Lublin late in the evening, and caught a taxi to my hotel. The room was quiet, and my bed comfortable, but my head was fizzing too much for sleep. The main source of bubbles was the prospect of delivering a paper on Pynchon’s latest book, Inherent Vice. Set in California at the end of the 1960s, the novel follows a private investigator’s attempts to part clouds of pot smoke, bad karma, and paranoia in order to find a missing ex-girlfriend and divine the nature of a shadowy organisation known as the Golden Fang. At 369 pages, the book is one of Pynchon’s shortest, with a linear narrative that builds to a fairly straightforward resolution—straightforward enough, even, to make the book seem un-Pynchonesque. But by my third reading (the first for sheer enjoyment, the second to get over character names like Trillium Fortnight and Puck Beaverton, the last to begin some sort of analysis), I felt that despite its fairly welcoming narrative structure, it was still, in its blend of the mystical and absurd, very much a Pynchon novel. Thematically, it seemed a close cousin to Vineland, which is set in California in 1984. Each book depicts an era that feels like a quickly fading “parenthesis of light,” and each exhibits a marked distrust of the mass media, especially television.

At 5 AM I decided it wasn’t worth trying to sleep. After a long, wasteful shower, I put on my wool suit, then ate a leisurely hotel breakfast of processed cheese and meat to a soundtrack of justly neglected disco songs from the 1990s. Despite getting lost and having to ask schoolchildren for directions—which they gave scornfully—I arrived at Marie Curie University ninety minutes early. I bought several packets of unfamiliar candy from the vending machines, which I ate while sitting beneath a pine tree. As I chewed, I considered my talk, which was on the idea of utopia in Inherent Vice. Anticipation, coupled with the growing heat—by 8:30 the temperature had climbed to 27 degrees—caused me to pant and sweat in a manner that may have been misunderstood by the hordes of beautiful women in short black skirts floating around the campus.

The conference room looked like the United Nations as depicted in ’60s spy movies: windowless, with curved banks of seats, and a microphone before each chair. All that was missing was the name cards. I took a seat at the back (in what would have been “Togo” or “Benin”) next to a man who resembled a Biblical prophet as drawn by Robert Crumb. He had a long, grey beard and eyes like hot coals, and was with a woman whom he introduced as an “illustrator”—which word required him to relate the entire plot of William Gaddis’s The Recognitions. As he talked, and talked, I looked around the quickly filling room. Of the fifty or so people, most were middle-aged white males. It occurred to me that a) I had never met a woman who said she loved Thomas Pynchon and that b) while not a virgin, I was, at the age of 36, very far from married. I hoped these two facts were unrelated.

The first talk was by a British young man whose sentences were long, curving roads that forked repeatedly. Though the audience at first mistook this for garrulousness, after twenty minutes it became clear that he was paying deliberate homage to some of Pynchon’s more Byzantine passages, a fact we acknowledged with gentle nods and the occasional yawn of rapture. The only dissenting voice was the prophet to my right. “That boy talks out of his ass,” he said in an angry whisper.

Another talk in the session was by a Frenchman who, after discussing the anarchists in Against the Day, argued that you can “build a bomb with letters and words.” His heavily accented English was like afternoon rain on a skylight when you are reading a book in bed, and though you are very warm and comfortable, you are definitely not going to sleep, you will just rest your eyes and head for a moment, not for long, just a second more …

I snapped awake in time to hear him say, “The detonator is more often than not a small breach in the syntax, and as for the nitro, well, it’s easy—it’s the nuclear energy that holds together our reality.” I wasn’t sure this made sense, so I looked to my neighbours for confirmation. The prophet’s expression was unreadable; on the pad of the man to my left there were no notes, just a drawing of a cat wearing a shirt and tie.

The third talk was a more focused affair. The speaker was a balding American who began by acknowledging two of the most frequent criticisms of Pynchon’s novels—that they feature flat, cartoonish characters, and that their narratives present a conflict between a powerful Them and an impotent Us —then announced his intention to disagree with both of them. Using E. M. Forster’s definition of a round character as one capable of surprising the reader, he showed how several of the supposedly flattest characters in Gravity’s Rainbow are actually psychologically complex, and have at worst a divided moral sense. From there, he went on to argue against a similarly binary reading of the novel’s politics. By re-examining its theology, much of which centers around the idea of a preterite and an elect—only the latter will go to Heaven—he showed that it was no longer easy to assign the novel’s characters to these categories. Though there are conspiracies within the novel, many of the passages that rail against a dark and shadowy Them intent on Our destruction actually take place as interior monologue, not straight narration.

The man concluded his talk by stressing the importance of Judas, and the need to forgive him, which, in a silently magnanimous moment, I agreed to do so. Then we were applauding, and then we were in a small room swallowing bad coffee, indifferent tea, an orange drink with bubbles. Our names were written on small badges over our hearts, but unlike at the awkward reunion it resembled, we had never known each other. For a moment we were quiet. We became fascinated by our drinks, the hair on our hands, the tiny macaroons. “I really enjoyed your paper,” said three people, not quite in unison, to the day’s three speakers. The speakers smiled and said thank you, the compliments were repeated by others, and then we all knew what to do.

Over the next few days I realised that when it came to love, I was still a child. I had first come across Pynchon while living in a small town in China where books in English were hard to come by, with the exception of digested Victorian classics: Vanity Fair in sixty-five pages, David Copperfield in forty. The sight of any non-genre contemporary novel was enough to send me into spasms of desire. It was on the bookshelf of a hostel in Kunming that I found Mason & Dixon (“found” being a nice word for “took”). The opening sentence made me hurl the book at the wall:

Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs, starr’d the Sides of Outbuildings, as of Cousins, carried Hats away into the brisk wind off Delaware,—the Sleds are brought in and their Runners carefully dried and greased, shoes deposited in the back Hall, a stocking’d foot Descent made upon the great Kitchen, in a purposeful Dither since Morning, punctuated by the ringing Lids of various Boilers and Stewing-Pots, fragrant with Pie-Spices, peel’d Fruits, Suet, heated Sugar,—the Children, having all upon the Fly, among rhythmic slaps of Batter and Spoon coax’d and stolen what they might, proceed, as upon each afternoon all this snowy Advent, to a comfortable Room at the rear of the House, years since given over to their carefree Assaults.

At the time I was an acolyte of the Church of Raymond Carver. If I picked up the book again a few days later, it was only out of defiance, an unwillingness to be beaten by what seemed a wilfully impenetrable style. I read slowly, carefully, occasionally out loud, and somewhere along the way my idea of what constituted a Good Sentence changed. Instead of forming clipped phrases that cut, words could be more like unravelling yarn, travelling on wood or carpet, dropping abruptly from stair to stair, taking time and gathering distance.

What I loved, as I sped through the rest of Pynchon’s oeuvre, was that unravelling prose. Lines like the following got me through those long books, their difficult sections, the vertiginous moments when I was no longer sure what was happening (let alone to whom):

Over it all the enormous gas ruin of the sun among the smokestacks, the barrage balloons, power lines and chimneys brown as aging indoor wood, brown growing deeper, approaching black through an instant— perhaps the true turn of the sunset —that is wine to you, wine and comfort. (Gravity’s Rainbow)

And this:

The more I studied her face—dark hair blowing, foreshortened eyes, freckles fading into the general green of that afternoon—the more anxious I became. I wanted to protest, but there was no one to protest to. Perhaps I wanted to cry, but the salt Harbour we had left to gulls and fishing boats; had not taken it in as we had the city. (V.)

On the conference’s second day, when it came time to deliver my own love letter, it seemed little better than a triumph of paraphrasing. My thesis was that Pynchon’s characters (and by tenuous extension, all of us) invent utopias from which we have been cast out, so the ills of the present can be explained as the karmic price for the sins of those who came before us. In Inherent Vice, the utopia in question is a sunken continent known as Lemuria, somewhat akin to Atlantis. The term ‘Lemuria’ was in fact coined by the 19th-century zoologist Philip Sclater, who proposed that lemur fossils in Madagascar and India were relics of a sunken continent. Though the theory of continental drift discredited such ideas, Lemuria was taken up by Helena Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society, who claimed it had been inhabited by the “Third Root Race,” whose members were said to be seven feet tall, sexually hermaphroditic, egg-laying, mentally undeveloped, and spiritually pure. My own theory was that, like Pynchon’s characters, we use these myths to avoid feeling responsible for our own social and political problems, but that finally there is “no avoiding time, the sea of time, the sea of memory and forgetfulness, the years of promise, gone and unrecoverable.”

My peers were appreciative, as they were toward every speaker, even those who pursued so esoteric an approach it verged on the personal. The role of the L.A. Lakers in Inherent Vice; the anti-gravity devices developed by the Nazis during WWII; the fact that Pynchon was 33 when he wrote Gravity’s Rainbow, “the age of Christ at his death”; even the long, long talk on imaginary numbers which concluded that “the differences between texts could be understood as a very complex four-dimensional object slowly turning round”: each of these was treated with the same respectful attention. Some of this was simply academic etiquette; however boring, obtuse, or just plain wrong you are, your peers will withhold their disapproval till it’s time for questions. Then (it often happens) the knives come out, knives that cut on the way in and again on the way out, because, as the old Venezuelan saying goes, “A sin that has only been paid for once, has not been paid for at all.”

But I did not see a single flash of steel during those three days. The only time it seemed a possibility was during a talk by the Polish translator of The Crying of Lot 49. He began in a winning manner—by telling us that Lublin was the city in which his grandfather had killed his first man—but quickly squandered this goodwill by launching into an attack on the book he had translated, which he said was “out of date,” “obsolescent,” and “no longer relevant.” If he had continued in this vein for long, one of us would have stood and, with burning cheeks, asked the man to step outside. But he soon spiralled off into a narrative of personal confession so full of hard luck—culminating in his time spent frying chickens for KFC—that it would have been churlish not to forgive this man, who was clearly one of the preterite. And perhaps it made us feel good to do so. Perhaps it made us feel that we were more than pale and pitiful creatures who worshipped the books of a man we would never see, let alone meet, about whom we knew almost nothing.

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