Most readers approach a complex novel, like a scientist approaches the world or a detective approaches a crime - with an apAppetite for Deconstruction
Most readers approach a complex novel, like a scientist approaches the world or a detective approaches a crime - with an appetite for knowledge and understanding, and a methodology designed to satiate their appetite.
“The Crying of Lot 49” (“TCL49”) presents a challenge to this type of quest for two reasons.
One, it suggests that not everything is knowable and we should get used to it.
Second, the novel itself fictionalizes a quest which potentially fails to allow the female protagonist, Oedipa Maas, to understand the situation confronting her.
Arguably, Pynchon serves up a work that reveals more about method than it does about the subject matter of the quest, the world around us.
If this were a who-dunnit, we don’t end up learning who dunnit.
It is all hunt and no catch.
If we are seeking the metaphysical truth, we do not find it.
The truth might even have escaped or got away.
It might never have been there in the first place.
Or there might not be something as simple as the truth.
To this extent, “TCL49” might be a novel about futility, rather than success.
Inevitably, this affects the way any review approaches the novel.
It is not simply a matter of whether the reviewer “got it” and conveys this to their readers.
Even if you think you got it, there is no guarantee that your understanding reflects what Pynchon intended (behind the scenes).
You could be wrong. You might even be making the very mistake that “TCL49” might be trying to caution us against.
Pierce Inverarity’s Will
The novel commences with Oedipa learning that she has been appointed Co-Executor of the Estate of California real estate mogul and ex-lover, Pierce Inverarity.
An Executor is a person who inherits the assets and liabilities of a person (the Testator) on their death and has to distribute the net assets of their Estate (their "Legacy") to the Beneficiaries identified in the Testator’s Will (their “Last Will and Testament”).
Often, people only find out that they have been appointed an Executor when the Testator has died and their Will has been located.
However, it is a good idea to let somebody know during your lifetime that you wish to appoint them as your Executor, because they might not wish to accept the burden after your death.
It is implied in “TCL49” that Pierce has actually died (the legal letter says that he died “back in the spring”), but it does not automatically follow from learning about your appointment that the Testator has died.
This is My Last Will and Testament
A Will is literally an expression of your intentions (your will) with respect to your property. You give instructions or directions to your Executor.
It is often called a Testament, the etymology of which is related to the Ten Commandments or Testimony issued by God.
In a very loose metaphorical way, the novel sets up Pierce’s Will as the Will of God, something which Oedipa is and feels compelled to obey.
There is a potential clue in her reaction to the legal letter:
"Oedipa stood in the living room, stared at by the greenish dead eye of the TV tube, spoke the name of God, tried to feel as drunk as possible."
Whether or not Pierce might be symbolic of God, Oedipa’s actions in the novel are dictated and driven by his Will.
Pierce Inverarity’s Name
Pierce’s name is also pregnant with implication, if not necessarily definitive meaning.
The noun “arity” means the number of arguments a function or operation can take; in logic, it determines the number of inferences that may be deduced from a particular fact.
“Verarity” is not a word in its own right, but it is quite close to “veracity”, which has lead some commentators to infer that it suggests a concern with the truth.
When you add the prefix “in-“ (as a negative) to it, the word could be concerned with the absence of truth.
When you add the first name, Pierce, to the equation, some have suggested that it implies the piercing of the truth (or untruths).
Alternatively, the prefix “in-” might mean “into” which might imply the piercing or penetration of the truth.
There are also suggestions that “Inver” might be a pun on the word ”infer” or the process of inference.
Sign of the Times
I haven’t seen any references to the American philosopher Charles S. Peirce (different spelling) who made an enormous contribution to the field of semiotics (the study of signs and sign processes).
If there is any link, then Pierce’s full name might imply “unreliable or untruthful signs”.
Charles S. Peirce also recognised that logical operations could be carried out by electrical switching circuits (as long ago as 1886).
This concept is the foundation of “logic gates” and digital computers (of which, more later):
When Oedipa discovers her obligations as Executor, she is initially skeptical:
" ‘…aren't you even interested?’
‘In what you might find out.’
As things developed, she was to have all manner of revelations.
Hardly about Pierce Inverarity, or herself; but about what remained yet had somehow, before this, stayed away."
Originally Oedipa saw herself as a pensive Rapunzel-like figure, waiting for someone to ask her, in the sixties, to “let down her hair”.
Pierce arrives, but is not quite what she is looking for. Despite a romantic holiday in Mexico, she remains in her tower:
"Such a captive maiden, having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all.
“Having no apparatus except gut fear and female cunning to examine this formless magic, to understand how it works, how to measure its field strength, count its lines of force, she may fall back on superstition, or take up a useful hobby like embroidery, or go mad, or marry a disk jockey.
“If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else?"
The Tristero System
Oedipa’s appointment as Executor is the beginning of a series of revelations (or, in the Biblical sense, Revelations) that “end her encapsulation in her tower”.
The trigger for these revelations is Pierce’s stamp collection:
"… his substitute often for her - thousands of little colored windows into deep vistas of space and time… She had never seen the fascination."
The stamps turn out to be “forgeries”, postage stamps used not by the official postal service, but by an underground rival or illegitimate shadow called “Tristero”.
No sooner does Oedipa learn of the existence of Tristero, then she starts to find evidence that it still exists on the streets of California: its symbol is a muted post horn, adding a mute to the horn of its traditional private enterprise rival in nineteenth century Europe, Thurn and Taxis.
Her quest is to learn the significance of Tristero and how much Pierce knew about it.
Tristero’s modern American manifestation is “W.A.S.T.E.”, which we eventually learn stands for “We Await Silent Tristero's Empire”.
It delivers correspondence between various disaffected underground, alternative and countercultural groups, bohemians, hippies, anarchists, revolutionaries, non-conformists, protesters, students, geeks, artists, technologists and inventors, all of whom wish to communicate with each other without government knowledge or interference.
The postal system confers privacy, confidentiality on their plots and plans.
Its couriers wear black, the colour of anarchy.
Yet, from the point of view of Tristero, it is not the content of the correspondence that matters, it is its delivery.
It’s almost as if these companies are early proof that the medium is more important than the message.
All postal systems grew from early attempts to guarantee safe passage of diplomatic correspondence between different States and Rulers in Europe.
Indeed, Tristero’s rival, Thurn and Taxis, was an actual postal service and is still an extremely wealthy family in Germany.
A World of Silence
Silence is important to any non-conformist or underground movement, not only from the point of secrecy, but in the sense that Dr. Winston O'Boogie (A.K.A. John Lennon) subsequently maintained that, “A conspiracy of silence speaks louder than words”.
It is the desire for silence that unites the underground in opposition to the Government and the mainstream political culture:
"For here were God knew how many citizens, deliberately choosing not to communicate by U. S. Mail.
"It was not an act of treason, nor possibly even of defiance. But it was a calculated withdrawal, from the life of the Republic, from its machinery.
"Whatever else was being denied them out of hate, indifference to the power of their vote, loopholes, simple ignorance, this withdrawal was their own, un-publicized, private.
"Since they could not have withdrawn into a vacuum (could they?), there had to exist the separate, silent, unsuspected world."
[Note the idiomatic but ambiguous use of the expression “God knows how many”, as if God or Tristero or Pierce did actually know how many.]
From Aloof Tower to Underground
Oedipa is a relatively middle class, middle aged woman, who married a used car salesman and DJ for a radio station called KCUF, after her affair with Pierce.
Her quest drags her from her tower and exposes her to another side of life, just as life in America (well, Berkeley, San Francisco) was starting to get interesting (1966).
She is a stranger in a strange land, having grown up and been educated during the conservative, Cold War 50’s:
"...she had undergone her own educating at a time of nerves, blandness and retreat among not only her fellow students but also most of the visible structure around and ahead of them, this having been a national reflex to certain pathologies in high places only death had had the power to cure, and this Berkeley was like no somnolent Siwash out of her own past at all, but more akin to those Far Eastern or Latin American universities you read about, those autonomous culture media where the most beloved of folklores may be brought into doubt, cataclysmic of dissents voiced, suicidal of commitments chosen, the sort that bring governments down."
While Oedipa is ostensibly trying to get to the bottom of Tristero, she is actually going on a journey of self-discovery.
The narrative forces her down from her tower of withdrawal to street-level engagement and then ultimately into the underground.
Bit by bit, she ceases to define herself in terms of her husband or Pierce, but in terms of her own identity.
Like the symbol of Tristero, she has been silenced, her horn has been muted, she has had to stand by her man and be secondary.
Her adventure frees her from the chains of middle class conformity.
It is a preparation for a new life of autonomy.
Oedipa’s methodology is that of a flawed scientist or detective.
She uses logic to make sense of what she perceives.
She constantly asks the question “why?”
She builds and applies logical systems where she processes information in a simplistic binary "either-or", "zero or one" fashion (pre-empting computers), according to whether it proves a point or disproves it.
She applies the “Law of the Excluded Middle”: "Everything must either be or not be." (Or the Law of Noncontradiction: "Nothing can both be and not be.")
She learns things and processes them as best she can.
But she misses opportunities and fails to investigate clues she ought to. She is human. She is fallible.
She reads old books with different typesetting and sees “y’s where i’s should’ve been”.
“I can’t read this,” she says.
So she learns the limits of logic. And she learns the appeal of nonconformity and freedom and communication.
Despite the masculine nature of the metaphor, she removes the mute from her horn.
The Crying of Lot 49
The eponymous Crying of Lot 49 is the auction of the forged Tristero stamps that takes place in the last pages of the novel.
Oedipa discovers that a major bidder (possibly associated with Tristero) has decided to attend the auction personally, rather than bid remotely “by the book”.
The novel ends with the anticipation of Oedipa and the reader discovering the identity of the bidder for the stamps.
Is it Tristero? Is it even Pierce?
Pynchon deprives us of this revelation.
This has frustrated many readers. However, it suggests that this was not the most important revelation that was happening in the novel.
The real revelation is Oedipa’s discovery of herself.
She sees “I” where previously she has seen only “why”.
At the same time, she discovers America and its diversity, which is far greater than the white bread community who are content with the U.S. Mail:
"She had dedicated herself, weeks ago, to making sense of what Inverarity had left behind, never suspecting that the legacy was America."
Ultimately, it is Pierce’s and Pynchon’s will that the novel and her journey end this way....more
"A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now."
In the beginning was the earth, aPrologue
"A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now."
In the beginning was the earth, and above the earth was the sky.
The earth consisted of land and water. The sky consisted of air, the moon, the sun and the stars in the heavens.
The land consisted of rock. Water was everywhere, but still precious.
The sky was light by day and dark by night. By day, the light came from the sun and sometimes the moon. At night, a lesser light came from the stars and the moon.
On the land, things were still, but then they began to change.
The sun made rock hot by day and the night made it cold, and the rock became stone, and the stone soon became soil.
The Creation of Life
In time, the soil and the water came together with the air and the sunlight to form life.
The life was green and did cling to the soil.
The air and the heavens were the realm of gravity.
Everything on earth was made to fall and to disperse and to dissipate as time goes by.
To rise was to challenge the laws of nature. Nothing could rise, except one thing, invisibly, vapors.
Water mixed with the heat of the sun and became a vapor, and the vapor ascended to the sky and became clouds. At night and sometimes by day, the clouds became rain, and the rain fell and spilled water onto the earth.
Some water remained on the land in rivers and streams and lakes. Other water, sliding and falling and dropping across the land, found its way to the oceans.
The Life of Fruit
In time, life conspired to defy gravity little by little.
Life combined with the soil and the water and the air and the light to make trees and shrubs (some bearing bananas or mangoes or pawpaws), and these plants reached skyward to the sun.
But these plants could not be severed from the soil, because their roots sought nourishment there. Any plant severed from the soil would fall to the earth, obedient to gravity.
In time, many plants were severed from the earth and covered by soil and water and became hard and part of the rock. Beneath the surface of the earth, dead plants formed coal, and sometimes oil and gas.
The Origin of Man
After much time, other forms of life were born, including animals that did grow heads and arms and legs and tails and eat the plants.
Some animals became humans, some male, some female, all of whom wished to walk on two legs and become higher than other animals and plants.
Men were not always bigger and stronger than other animals and so sought refuge in holes in the ground and caves.
The caves were darker than night and men grew frightened of the dark, not knowing what was out there, until they discovered fire, which they used for light and heat.
Sometimes, men used fire to warm the flesh of other beasts and they grew stronger.
Life was good, and men tended to live within and surrounded by nature as one.
Man on the Move
Men began to move across the earth in search of food and learned how to construct homes of rock and stone and bricks made of soil and water.
Their homes grew taller than trees and animals and began to defy gravity.
Then men learned how to make machines that could move across the land and water at speeds faster than men or horses could walk or run.
And they consumed coal and oil and gas, so that they were not dependent on horse power.
Man Turns the Power Switch On
Men learned how to make electricity and switches that would turn the power on and off.
Men made glass bulbs that turned darkness into light.
Men had finally become enlightened.
Men looked at the sky for beauty and meaning and portents of the future.
They wondered what lived in the heavens and whether they had been created by gods.
They made drawings and pictures of what surrounded them. One day they would make photographs and moving pictures and shiny silver discs.
Men observed what occurred in nature and, over a great duration, started to learn about cause and effect.
Man Dominates Himself
Then men created gods in their own image.
They invented religions and superstitions and sometimes it was difficult to tell them apart, men and their gods, religions and superstitions.
Men used their religions to explain what they could and couldn’t do.
Then they created churches and holy men and scriptures to dictate to them what they must and must not do, and the holy men and their gods punished them if they did not do what they must do, or did what they must not do.
Man Discovers Matters of Life and Death
Men observed decay and destruction and death around them, and wondered whether they too would die one day.
Men didn’t like this prospect and decided that they alone amongst the plants and animals had a soul and, after death, would live in eternity.
Except that, if they disobeyed the commandments of their holy men and gods and scriptures, they would be punished by eternal damnation and made to live in hell. Which was not meant to be a good thing.
Some scientists conducted experiments and tests on dogs and other animals and learned how they were governed by stimulus and response.
Men wondered whether their souls and their capacity for reason elevated them above the animals.
They did not recognise that, even with their gods, men would do evil things to each other that animals would never do.
Man Engages in Some Empire State Building
Men built their homes in cities and formed nations. They conquered other cities and nations and established empires.
They established workforces and armies.
They organised men and their possessions into rows and columns, and they made men and women wear uniforms, so that they might look and think and do alike.
They developed systems to punish those who would dissent and they used force to hold their empires together.
They looked down upon any man or woman who would not conform or wear a uniform.
Those that they did not incarcerate or hang or inject with life-sapping solutions or electricity, they cast off into the wilderness, where they would disperse or die of thirst.
We Men are Scientists
So men acquired knowledge and wisdom, and accumulated science and technology beyond the wildest dreams of their predecessors.
They converted their knowledge and wisdom into zeroes and ones, so that they might store them on silver discs.
Some men wondered whether there was more to life than zeroes and ones, and was there anything beyond zero or between zero and one, and they were scorned.
Man Defies Gravity
Slowly, man’s dreams became more ambitious.
Some men dreamed about how they might fly like a bird, and one day men learned how to make flying machines.
Men did not always live happily with other men, and they made tools and machines that would maim and kill their enemies.
Men used their aeroplanes to drop bombs on other men, and the planes and the bombs grew bigger, and the maiming and the killing grew more widespread and efficient.
At the same time, men learned how to make bigger and taller buildings that reached higher and appeared to touch the sky.
Many men lived and worked in these skyscrapers.
In Case of War
Then there were two wars between many nations of the world.
In the first war, many men died in trenches dug into the soil of their farms.
In the second war, it was not necessary to get into a trench to die. Many people died in their homes and their buildings. It was easier to kill more quickly in the cities that housed large numbers of people.
Men made new bombs that were meant to end the wars, but when they continued, men invented rockets that could maim and kill even greater numbers of people.
Some rockets made a sound that warned people that they were coming.
If you heard the sound, you might be able to escape to safety.
When they did not end the war, scientists invented more and better ways to kill more and better people. They built rockets that made no noise and could kill you before you heard them coming.
They were the perfect machinery of death, because nowhere was safe and you could not escape them.
These rockets defied both gravity and the imagination.
While nobody had been looking or thinking about it, man’s buildings and vehicles and aeroplanes and rockets and bombs had made the earth dark again.
A Voice in the Wilderness
Well, maybe not nobody. A man called Slothrop had been watching.
Every time a rocket was launched, Slothrop was blessed with a hard-on, an erection.
He would look at the rockets and he would be turned off.
At the same time, he would look at the rockets and he would be turned on.
Slothrop’s hard on was a hard one for the scientists to explain.
What the Fuck?
Somewhere in Europe, scientists were erecting buildings, platforms, rockets that could bring death to people like Slothrop.
Slothrop suspected that the best use of an erection was not to build an edifice, but to fill an orifice.
Slothrop wondered, why had men become obsessed by Death, when they should have been preoccupied with Life?
Surely, there is no life without sex, no progress without congress, no creation without procreation?
“Make love, fuck the war.”
“Fuck war, fuck each other.”
How do you convince everybody else that this is the solution?
“Fucked if I know,” sez Slothrop.
The Prophet Debunked
Slothrop is cast out of the mainstream and sets out across Europe in pursuit of love, sex, and rockets (and those who would launch any one or more of them at him).
Still, even equipped with his hard on, Slothrop prefers bananas to buildings and rockets, he is bent but never straight.
He is the ultimate non-conformist, hedonist and sybarite, who gives pleasure to himself and to many women, Katje, Margherita, Bianca, three of the foremost amongst them.
Slothrop’s skepticism and excess threaten the System, Religion and Culture. He is an anarchist Counter-Force to Binary Code, Mono-theism, Uniformity and Over-the-Counter Culture.
He is the unwitting counter-cultural Prophet who threatens the methodical, ordered and conformist backbone of Mainstream Society.
He is a spanner in the works. He is a virus that must be eliminated. Like Trotsky, he is a Prophet that must be netted.
They, the powers that be, with their uniforms and their weapons and their switches, chase Slothrop through Europe, but he remains free.
In time, people came to doubt whether Slothrop ever actually existed at all.
Some would ask, “Slothrop? What kind of name for a prophet is that?”
Still They did not stop their pursuit, even when They were certain that he must be dead. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.
If you can’t see him or hear him, deprive him of oxygen. Wipe out his disciples. Stifle his message. Prevent it from reaching any children. If the medium is the message, remove his medium. That way the prophet and his prophecy will cease to exist.
Revelations? What Revelations?
Was Slothrop a fabrication? A ghost in the machine? A shadow in the light of day? A figment of someone’s imagination? A fiction? Just a character in a novel? Just a story in a holy book?
As Slothrop would say, “I’m fucked if I know.”
Outside the novel, the world continues as before, only more so. Buildings reach higher. Rockets and aeroplanes fly further. Wars drone on. Civilians die. Men line up in rows and columns and uniforms. Power perpetuates itself eternally. Evil perpetrates itself on people via people. Darkness masquerades as light.
The sky is silent. We can no longer hear the screaming. It’s all theatre, even within our homes.
I re-read this as part of a group read started by Stephen M:
A Letter from Vlad the Impaler of Butterflies Dated April, 1973
Vera and I very much appreciated your gift of a signed first edition of your novel.
It actually caused a little friction in the Nabokov household.
I don't mean to be ungrateful or vulgar, but we both wished you had given us one copy each. (I guess we could purchase one, but we were too keen to read it.)
Naturally, I started it first, immediately it arrived, but quickly found I couldn't put it down.
The reason being that, every time I did, Vera picked it up and commenced reading.
Initially, our respective lepidopteran bookmarks were quite far apart, but when she passed my place, she asserted her right to be the dominant reader, and I had to wait until she had devoured the entire offering, which she did by the time of Maundy Thursday.
Fortunately, this left me Easter to finish it, so we were able to compare notes by Easter Monday, appropriately with a sense of renewed faith in literature.
I am convinced "Gravity's Rainbow" is one of the finest works of modern fiction.
It is very much an artistic and logical extension of "V.", which as you know we also enjoyed greatly.
If your first novel was a pursuit of "V", then "Gravity's Rainbow" is a pursuit of V, too.
In fact, it is a pursuit of both V1 and V2.
Vera was bold enough to suggest that V1 and V2 might connote Vlad and Vera, though we were unable to reach consensus on who might be noisy and who might be silent.
We did, however, hypothesise that Slothrop could be a reversal of Humbert.
To put it bluntly (these are Vera's words, not mine), Humbert, European in origin, fucks his way around the New World, more or less.
Slothrop, on the other hand, American to his bootstraps, fucks his way around the Old World.
I admire the way you, even more so than Slothrop, carried off Bianca.
It is some of the most delicious erotic writing I have read.
Bianca echoes Dolores nicely.
Even the sound of her name...Bi-an-ca.
The way it rolls off your tongue, it reminds me of, forgive me for citing myself, "Lo-lee-ta".
It's also close enough to the German acronym B.N.K. (which even a faint-hearted German reader or patient would appreciate stands for the "Bundesverband Niedergelassener Kardiologen", cross my heart and hope not to die).
Vera was the first to detect how you reversed the reader's response to this relationship.
Humbert knew damned well how old Lolita was. It was crucial to his enterprise.
On the other hand, Slothrop "believed" Bianca was a minor of barely 11 or 12, but when you work through the arithmetic of your puzzle, you realise that in reality (and therefore fiction) she was 16 (or was it 17?) and consequently of age.
So, what Slothrop did was legitimate, but what the reader (who was as yet unaware of this detail) did was not.
In "Lolita", I allowed readers to believe they were jurors with a legitimate interest in the proceedings, whereas in "Gravity's Rainbow" they are complicit in a crime that the protagonist did not actually commit.
The reader's voyeurism comes at a cost, at least metaphorically.
Only time will tell whether America and the world is ready to be confronted with their culpability.
Even if they are not, I hope your novel receives the acclaim it deserves.
So, well done, Tom, Richard would have been proud.
I would have been proud to call you my pupil, too (Pupil 2?), if only you had enrolled in one of my classes.
Perhaps you learned more and better from my example?
In the hope that you might continue to do so, I have asked my Publisher to send you a copy of my "Strong Opinions".
I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed expressing them.
Yours, with all my admiration,
Slothropod De-Feets Cephalopod, Dutch Girl Almost Pops Her Clogs
Slothrop, octopus And Katje Borgesius We were meant to meet.
The Thoughts of An Erotic Clausewitz
Fuck Death, Fuck Rockets, Says Erotic Clausewitz, Make Love, Fuck the War.
Jim Carroll Watches the Earth Recede
How can I propel My missile 'gainst the pull of Wicked Gravity?
Slothrop's Dewy Glans
Slothrop's cock, un-cropped Slots into sweet spot, then, spent, Flops soft in wet spot.
Who knows what worldly wisdom I might find When I discover myself at the peak, Gravity-defiant, all nickels spent, Trying to work out what it could have meant, And you're already there, reposed, asleep, Your trousers down and crimson phallus bent, And scattered on the snow are streaks Of your rocket-powered ejaculate That have fallen moist, arc-like to the earth, Still rainbow-coloured and immaculate.
So I read 200 sullen words worth Of the dry wit and onanistic mirth That appeal so much to the daisy chain Of acolytes standing at your rear. As one who's usually come before, They call you a poet and a seer. It's sad we only see your back side, Though we're the ones forever left behind By all your avant garde sorcery and The flaccid disquisitions of your mind.
"Inherent Vice" is often described as "Pynchon-Lite".
However, the novel’s themes are no less cerebral (or entertaining or hilarious) t"Tubular, Dude!"
"Inherent Vice" is often described as "Pynchon-Lite".
However, the novel’s themes are no less cerebral (or entertaining or hilarious) than it predecessors. On the basis of just one reading, I think they’re consistent with at least "The Crying of Lot 49", if not also "V" and "Gravity’s Rainbow".
"The Crying of Lot 49" was partly concerned with investigation or detection, the process by which we discover knowledge or become enlightened. In its case, the investigator was a lay person, Oedipa Maas. Here, it’s a private eye, a gum-shoe or as the cop Bigfoot calls the long-haired, dope-smoking, surfie, hippie protagonist, Doc Sportello, a "gum-sandal".
Doc is stuck half-way between a professional and a lay person. Inevitably, though, while he's around, he's on the lookout to get both stoned and laid. He's the quintessential scooby, tubular dude. The dude abides, but not legally, a la the Big Lebowski!
Clue Me In
At the beginning of any crime story or novel, we know nothing, we haven’t got a clue, except perhaps that a crime has been committed or that one will be committed during the timeframe of the novel.
Over the course of the novel, the detective and we, the readers, seek out, we search for, clues, and hopefully we find them. Gradually, we start to put the clues together, until we have a plausible explanation of the crime. Eventually, by the conclusion of the novel, we have some kind of resolution, some kind of order.
In a way, the typical crime novel proceeds from chaos to order, by way of a process.
"Inherent Vice" does just this. Pynchon throws a lot of characters, relationships and factual material at us. There’s no need to get too preoccupied with it or to master it all on the first reading. Together, it constitutes a world of chaotic detail. The important thing is that, seemingly, it moves towards a resolution or order of some sort. It doesn’t matter what the nature of the order is. It’s sufficient, as in any crime novel, that order is restored.
However, this is a Pynchon novel, and order is not enough. In fact, it’s the polar opposite of the norm.
Order, Vices, Entropy
If there’s any word or state you can associate with Pynchon, it’s "entropy".
If the novel moves towards order, it actually reverses the Pynchonian process of entropy. That can’t be right, can it?
So, what is actually going on here?
The novel is set in 1970, almost forty years before it was written. We can work this out from the dates of the Charles Manson murders and the basketball games that are referenced.
Pynchon apparently sees this year as pivotal in the battle between different world-views. America is unhappily ensconced in Vietnam. The hippie movement is in full conflict with the straights, whose males are pissed that nice flatland chicks are out in search of secret hippie love thrills. The straights enlist vigilantes as well as an Aryan Brotherhood army. Hippie scum duke it out with Nazi-ass motherfucker lowlife. Add to the mix a Mansonoid conspiracy! It’s all happening, bro!
While the government is preoccupied with Vietnam and an internal battle with hippiedom, it’s the Mafia and syndicates of property developers (and rogue dentists) who run riot. Anything goes, when it comes to them.
Ironically, business doesn’t prefer the condition of chaos. It wants its own kind of predictability and stability. It wants guaranteed and recurring returns.
The Mafia doesn’t thrive on chaos. It’s all about organised crime. It works against entropy.
Inherent or Extrinsic Vice?
Order is artificial. It’s a product of humanity. It only occurs when humanity works against nature.
The title of the novel refers to the inherent tendency of any physical object to deteriorate over time because of the instability of its component parts (as opposed to any deterioration caused by external forces).
Vice is a flaw. It is inherent if it is contained within the object itself. In any system, some vice will be inherent, and some will be superimposed by external forces.
The difference in legal and insurance terms is that you can’t make a claim against an insurance company for inherent vice. It’s a risk you must assume and undertake, like original sin. It’s built into and assumed in the object or the system.
On the Beach, a Pavement
Like crime, humanity superimposes order on nature. In the epigraph, Pynchon quotes the French Situationist grafitto from 1968:
"Under the paving stones, the beach!"
The more order we superimpose on nature, the more we detract from it, the more we move away from nature itself, including, potentially, human nature.
Over time, as with the paving stones, we obscure the nature that lies beneath.
Crossing the Desert of Perception in a Caravan
Doc seeks the truth, he seeks enlightenment, this time in parallel with the cops, the professional police force. Only they have different motives. Doc seeks the truth, whereas they seek to impose (law and) order on society.
1970 represented a period of major uncertainty in American and world culture. A fog descended over the community. On the highway, progress stalled. People couldn’t see where they were going. Everything ground to a halt. Cars came to a standstill, lined up one after the other:
"He was in a convoy of unknown size, each car keeping the one ahead in taillight range, like a caravan in a desert of perception, gathered awhile for safety in getting across a patch of blindness."
Well, I Got a Foggy Notion
In order to solve the crime, therefore, Doc bands together with the LAPD. He collaborates, he forms a caravan in order to collectively work their way through the fog of the unknown.
Still, it doesn’t come naturally to him. Something about the fog appeals to him. You can’t tell the difference, you can’t discriminate in the fog:
"…nobody could tell anymore in the fog who was Mexican, who was Anglo, who was anybody."
"Somehow, To Be There Instead"
In a way, the fog also represents the uncertainty of the future, a world that heralds the internet, surveillance, paranoia, conformity, insularity, despite the talk of a global village.
In the 40 years since the timeframe of the novel, all of these things have happened.
To quote the Rolling Stones from 1974, "these days it's all secrecy and no privacy."
"Inherent Vice" is shot through with a romanticism for 1970, a nostalgia for a time when perhaps history might have headed in a different direction to the one it took.
Pynchon’s narrator seems to wish that Doc could have left the caravan, the line, the queue, pulled over onto the shoulder of the road and waited for whatever else might happen:
"For a forgotten joint to materialise in his pocket. For the CHP to come by and choose not to hassle him. For a restless blonde in a Stingray to stop and offer him a ride. For the fog to burn away, and for something else this time, somehow, to be there instead."
Forty years later, we have to infer that nothing else was there instead, because inevitably, it seems, we've ended up where we are. Can it possibly be enough, though, that we have this novel and a film? Can they make up for it? What do all the young dudes think? Is this work just a vehicle for celluloid or digital heroes?
"And there's some little jerk in the FBI Keepin' papers on me six feet high It gets me down, it gets me down, it gets me down Well, it gets me down, it gets me down I know, they're takin' pictures on the ultraviolet light You now I ain't right, oh yeah, alright Yeah, I know babe, but these days it's all secrecy and no privacy Oh, good night honey, sleep tight."
Rolling Stones – "Fingerprint File" (Killer Version 1974)
In Which the Emphasis is on Androids Who Grasp the Twin Handles of Empathy
"Deus sive substantia sive natura": Spinoza
Just as in the animal kingdom tIn Which the Emphasis is on Androids Who Grasp the Twin Handles of Empathy
"Deus sive substantia sive natura": Spinoza
Just as in the animal kingdom there is a continuum between humans and animals, there is a continuum in this novel that incorporates humans, androids and electric animals, the main difference being that the latter two are artificial or human constructs.
Here, the androids are organic and sentient. They are not purely electrical or mechanical robots infused with artificial intelligence. They are technically alive, and closer to humans than to electric sheep.
The proximity to humans means that a test is required to differentiate them. The test that emerges is based on the capacity for empathy. Predatory animals have no empathy, because they would not eat, if they were concerned about the feelings of their prey. Thus, Dick posits that real humans must either be herbivores, or omnivores who can regulate or turn off their appetite for meat.
Because the Nexus 6 androids are manufactured by a commercial entity, the aim is for their product to satisfy the test for human qualities. The more precise the tests become, the more sophisticated and human the androids become. What Nexus 6 cannot achieve, Nexus 7 will.
The problem is that the androids can still be permitted or programmed to be predatory. The more they can escape detection, the greater the threat to mankind.
Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter who is one of the few safeguards between humanity and predatory androids. His function is to identify and kill androids who have returned to Earth from Mars (because they have been deemed to be predatory). To perform his function, he has to overcome his own empathy, which he does on the basis that you can kill something that would be your killer, more or less out of actual or anticipatory self-defence.
It becomes more problematical when the android has breasts, even if they are small, she is 18, the rest of her body is relatively childlike and she is seductive in her own right.
The challenge for Deckard is whether to terminate or fornicate and, if both, in which order. Needless to say, he adopts a typical curious, but practical, male approach to his predicament.
At first, Rachael doesn’t know she is an android, then, when detected by Deckard, like most cyber- or fantasy-women, she denies that she is either alive or human. Hence, like most cyber-relationships, the concern of the novel is to determine the point at which the inorganic becomes organic, and the intelligent becomes human.
The novel’s drama lies in the grey area in the middle of the continuum. Despite the fact that they have sex, the question for Deckard is whether, in the absence of sufficient empathy, he must kill his sexual partner.
This question arises on most weekend mornings around the world, usually in the mind of the woman (who as at the date of this review is rarely an android). Fortunately for guys, they are able to escape before the female fires a shot from her laser gun. It’s just that here, in the novel, the question is reversed, which means that a common or garden variety of male might procrastinate on the termination option in case he does not have evidence that would stand up to judicial scrutiny.
Some reviews of the novel suggest that there is a flaw in the plot, in that Rachael appears to have empathy, even though she has learned that she is an android.
My reading is that she is the first of a breed of android who is empathetic. She says she loves Deckard and, when he returns to his wife after killing all of her android friends, she kills his goat (in the absence of a rabbit). This is the vengeful act of a human, not an un-empathetic android.
Hence, human constructs have reached the point where, if not “human”,they deserve to be treated as human, the test being whether a male would fornicate with them (although as at the date of this review, this test needs to be fine-tuned in some cities and rural environs).
Dick is a profoundly philosophical writer whose novel cautions men to love their woman more than their goat and, if they don’t have a goat, to love them more than their sheep. If your lover is an android and you do the right thing by her, then hopefully she won’t dream of electric sheep (because this would be non-aspirational).
Dick is equally concerned with the public and private aspects of modern life.
Here, as in the case of Chandler and Hammett, the world of the private Dick is so imaginatively drawn that a film-maker of the profile of Ridley Scott would have enough content with which to imagine a totally different plot that could take place in the same world with the same characters (whether or not he had read the book or the treatment).
There is very little resemblance between the novel and the film “Blade Runner”, which is one of my top five favourite films and, on a good day, could knock “Casablanca” from its #1 perch.
No matter how much you might enjoy the director’s cut, the author’s cut is superlative, if not necessarily inferior or superior. The progeny of this novel is worth consuming in any and all of their manifestations.
Normally, I am sceptical about a book that is suddenly everywhere you go (in planes, trains and automobiles, well taxis), but I wThe Novel That Wasn't
Normally, I am sceptical about a book that is suddenly everywhere you go (in planes, trains and automobiles, well taxis), but I was prepared to try this one when it first came out. I felt it was a novel in two distinct parts. I was fascinated by the description of the religious subject-matter for the first two-thirds of the book, right up until it started the down-hill part of the roller-coaster ride. From that moment on, there was no intellectual stimulation in it for me at all. Nothing was fleshed out, everything seemed to have been written to a deadline that had already been missed. It had become a poorly written action novel, no, it was a poorly written treatment for an action film. It might have been poorly written the whole way for all I know, but I was prepared to tolerate the prose style in the first part, because of the subject matter. To this extent, what interested me was the non-fiction content, not the fiction or novel itself.
The Novel as the First Product in a Product Cycle
No matter what you think of the prose style, the book worked as a commodity. It even worked as a film treatment. The film was made. Success can be forgiving. In the hands of a better author, it could have been a brilliant novel. But that's not the point. It didn't need to be. It was an exercise in economic efficiency....more
I read “The Corrections” pre-Good Reads and originally rated it four stars.
I wanted to re-read (and review) itAn Opportunity to Make A Few Corrections
I read “The Corrections” pre-Good Reads and originally rated it four stars.
I wanted to re-read (and review) it, before starting “Freedom”.
I originally dropped it a star because I thought there was something unsatisfying about the whole Lithuanian adventure.
Perhaps, when I re-read it, I wouldn’t object to it as much and I could improve my rating.
Having just finished it, I could probably add a half-star, but I’m not ready to give it five.
Second time around, the Vilnius section didn’t grate as much, partly because it was far shorter and more innocuous than I recalled.
However, the second reading helped me to work out what stopped it being a five star effort for me.
The First Draft
Franzen’s writing is easy to read.
He’s a skilful writer, he knows his chops.
His style is both fluent and fluid. You can dip in for a short session and suddenly find that you’ve read 50 to 70 pages pretty effortlessly.
He accumulates detail, but he points you confidently in a direction, even if you don’t know what your destination will be.
He seems to have put his prattishness behind him now, so it’s possible to appreciate his writing without peering darkly through the lens of the Oprah spectacle.
Because he writes in a realist manner, I think that whether or not you will enjoy his novel depends on whether you relate to his subject matter and his characters.
“The Corrections” is primarily concerned with the dynamics of a family.
I have never been a fan of family sagas, so I was initially apprehensive.
Also, when I first read it, I was over-exposed to film about dysfunctional families and the social problems they generate.
However, I don’t see the Lamberts as dysfunctional so much as typical of the thermodynamics that can be present in three relatively ambitious and driven generations in the 21st century.
I’d venture to say that they’re more normal than abnormal.
They don't commit any grievous social crimes, although they do a lot of emotional damage internally.
Stylistically, the novel is written in the third person.
This allowed Franzen to drop the reader, like a fly on a wall, into a number of different homes and rooms in homes.
From this vantage point, we’re able to observe numerous family members, not only externally but internally as well.
The only negative thing I want to say about this is that, what Franzen dedicated 566 pages to, I think someone like Raymond Carver could have done in 166 pages.
When Carver writes, we ascertain his meaning and intent by inference from the skeletal facts and action on the page.
Franzen leaves little to inference. Everything is spelt out. Meticulously and elegantly, to give him due credit.
He doesn’t pull any punches, but equally he signals all of his punches along the way.
This is the one reservation I have about his style.
There is a sense in which he is a perceptive commentator and essayist, at the expense of being a truly great technical novelist.
Time and time again, I found that he layered detail and content on the page by telling us about it rather than creating the illusion that it was happening in front of our eyes and ears.
There is a lot of back story, and not enough front story.
There isn’t a lot of action, at least externally.
The action is largely interior and individual.
Little is revealed through the interaction of the characters.
Most of it is revealed by way of contemplation or recollection.
The personal tensions that are the focus of the plot end up being in your head, rather than in your face.
While I found it all interesting, I didn’t find it exciting.
I can therefore understand why a large proportion of general readers would find it either too intimidating to start or too boring to finish.
To this extent, you can understand why Franzen was concerned that, because of Oprah’s endorsement, many people would buy the book, without reading or enjoying it.
They weren’t really the readers that Franzen had in mind when he wrote it.
Perhaps, he would have written a different book if he wanted them to read it.
Instead, he wrote for an audience of readers a lot more like himself in temperament.
This isn’t meant to suggest that he was arrogant, only that he didn’t want to disappoint an audience he wasn’t trying to satisfy in the first place.
The Blue Chair
The patriarch of the Lambert family is Alfred, a retired railway engineer and part-time bio-tech inventor.
His wife, Enid, calls him Al. To his three children, he’s obviously “Dad”.
Yet, Franzen constantly refers to him as Alfred, even though he doesn’t come across as pretentious or affected in any way.
You get the impression that Alfred’s old-fashioned rigidity starts with his name and works down.
Whereas, in the hands of Carver, I’m pretty confident that he would have been an abbreviated Al or Fred or a contracted “Lambo” or a work-derived nickname.
We soon learn that Alfred has a great blue chair that takes pride of place.
It’s described as overstuffed and “vaguely gubernatorial”, but most importantly it “was the only major purchase Alfred had ever made without Enid’s approval”.
It has great metaphorical potential, although uncharacteristically it doesn’t really get a mention after page nine, even though it features on the cover of some editions of the novel.
Still, it hints that, within the Lambert family, we have both a patriarch and a matriarch and occasionally the two don’t see eye to eye.
Their differences might be great or small, but they are embodied in the Blue Chair.
A Metaphor Explored
One of the reasons I rate “The Corrections” so highly is that it is an extended exploration of the “correction” metaphor.
Yet, at the same time, the ultimate reason I have dropped it a half- to a full-star is that it never strays very far from a disciplined, even mechanical, revelation of its significance.
I feel hypocritical about this, because one role of a reviewer or critic is to detect these metaphors and elaborate on them.
In the case of Franzen, the role is much easier to perform, because he leaves verbal sign posts or easter eggs the whole way through the text.
Without using Powerpoint, he tells you what he is going to say, he says it, and he reminds you that he has said it.
Normally, we would treat this as consummate communication.
In the case of a novel, it leaves nothing to the imagination, it leaves no mystery, it leaves little to be detected by the reader on their own.
It would be like a crime novel where you knew everything about the crime from the beginning (who, how, when, why), except where the criminal was hiding (where).
So, what do “the corrections” mean?
A correction implies that something is “wrong” or “broken” or isn't “working”, and therefore needs to be fixed or remedied or “corrected”.
Throughout the novel, there are references to physical objects that have been kept, even though they don’t work anymore or need to be fixed.
They have been retained, when someone else, some other family, might have “thrown them away” or got a replacement the moment it was determined to be useless or obsolete.
Alfred would once have had the "will to fix" them, but now he is tired and things go unfixed or uncorrected.
This might suggest that there has been a recent breakdown in Alfred's authority, but I don't get the impression that he has had much authority within the family for a long time.
In the last chapter, there is also a reference to the need for a correction of a “bubble” in an overheated economy.
Investors have blindly expected conditions and values to improve perpetually, but every now and again there must be a correction, a reality check where once there was a dividend cheque.
However, when the economic correction arrives, it is "not an overnight bursting of a bubble but a much more gentle letdown, a year-long leakage of value from key financial markets, a contraction too gradual to generate headlines and too predictable to seriously hurt anybody but fools and the working poor."
Ultimately, the metaphor most overtly concerns the state of the characters' relationships.
Indeed, the novel as a whole is Franzen's State of Relations Address.
In their own way, there have been life-long leakages of value in the family's internal relationships that need to be addressed.
Without being overtly dysfunctional, we can perpetuate relationships even though they are flawed or defective or unsatisfying.
It’s much easier to abandon a relationship (to sell down a non-performing or troublesome stock) when it doesn’t involve a family member.
It’s harder, if not impossible, to abandon or negate a parent/child or sibling to sibling relationship.
In a sexual relationship, you can get the thorn out of your foot.
In a family relationship, sometimes, you can’t get rid of the thorn without losing your foot.
Spousal relationships hover in between the two, depending on whether there are children involved.
Either way, within a family, you can't usually just walk away.
You have to "correct" the relationship or learn to live with the thorn in your foot.
A Chip Separated from the Old Block
When we’re first introduced to the term “correction”, we meet the middle child, Chip, the "alternative sibling" who has dropped out of the world of "conventional expectations", a would-be post-modernist academic, script writer and left-wing libertine.
He might be the “intelligent son”, the "intellectual son", but Chip is still a "comic fool", the protagonist in a farce of his own creation.
Chip forensically analyses his parents’ relationship and decides that his life will “correct” all of their personal failings.
Where they are passive, conservative and straight-laced, he will be active, radical and open-minded.
Franzen doesn’t suggest that this choice is intrinsically wrong, only that Chip makes a bit of a mess of it.
To this extent, the novel sees Chip correct himself and his relationship with his parents and siblings, he becomes "a steady son, a trustworthy brother".
The Straight Option
The oldest child, Gary, is a fund manager, experienced in the ways of business and investment.
He appears to be the successful child, but the visage conceals an unhappiness and dissatisfaction with a more conventional life, so much so that he probably suffers from depression.
Gary is the least resolved of the siblings in the novel.
At the end, he remains unreconciled with his parents and siblings, even if he has achieved a compromise of sorts in the conflict with his wife and children.
The Bent Option
The youngest child and only daughter, Denise, is in many ways the most interesting character.
Some have reacted adversely to her as a shrill harpy.
In Enid’s eyes, she has failed, because she hasn’t settled down, married the love of her life and had children.
Instead, she is a talented chef, uncertain about what she wants personally and sexually.
Denise remains open to different options, only she still hasn’t found what she’s looking for, largely because she doesn’t know what she’s looking for.
Nevertheless, within the family, she is a major factor in the resolution and correction of the problems.
Franzen most identifies with the children (who are of a similar age), yet there is a sense in which he has the greatest sympathy for Alfred and Enid.
Both parents are children of an earlier generation that was given little choice in how it lived life and raised families.
The children, in contrast, have suffered from an excess of choice and the lack of a moral compass as they made their own choices.
Unfortunately, Alfred has the least opportunity to correct his own behavior, because he is suffering from Parkinson’s Disease.
On the other hand, Enid, despite the failure of her dream to have one last perfect Christmas together, liberates herself and is able to correct (and resurrect) her own life at last, albeit alone.
She is reconciled with, at least, Chip and Denise, and there is a sense in which she will also make things happen with Gary and his family.
The plot and its resolution don’t ultimately suggest that there is any perfect family.
Families consist of individuals who all have their own needs and expectations and who all push and pull in their own directions.
The thing is that different people have different expectations, and expectations create responsibilities and obligations and burdens.
If everybody performs their designated role, does their bit, pulls their weight, plays their part, then compliance, reliability and success in turn give rise to a family culture of reliance, confidence and trust.
If things don't "work out", there is a risk of disappointment, a risk of opting out, non-compliance, problems, mistakes, failure and "wrongness" that lead to coercion, anxiety, ostracisation, resentment, blame, guilt and the need to "endure" each other.
There is no such thing as a perfect family.
There can only be good families.
A good family is not one that can avoid mistakes and failure, but one that can embrace apologies and forgiveness as a timely response to disappointed expectations.
This is the heart of “The Corrections”.
There are no car chases, nobody gets shot, nobody goes to prison (or a correctional facility), nobody gets bankrupted, nobody O.D.’s, nobody gets pregnant, nobody even gets divorced.
Yet, somehow, Franzen manages to nail 21st century families and by doing so he nails 21st century society, because, since the beginning of time, families have been at the heart of society.
You cannot have a healthy society without healthy families.
It might be obvious, but it needs to be stated, even if at times Franzen states it too obviously. ...more
It's a long time since I read this novel. However, its journey into the heart of darkness, not only geographically, but perAt the Heart of What Matters
It's a long time since I read this novel. However, its journey into the heart of darkness, not only geographically, but personally, has become one of the dominant themes of western literature and film, and probably music as well. It might be possible for a book to match Conrad's, but I doubt whether anyone could better it. "Apocalypse Now" more than does justice to it in the film context, though it obviously had the advantage of visuals not created solely with words on the page. Conrad was a master of English prose style, even though it was his second language....more
"The Thousand Autumns" is set in Nagasaki over a period of almost 20 years beginning in 1799.
Dutch traders are restrictExit Only Through the Sea Gate
"The Thousand Autumns" is set in Nagasaki over a period of almost 20 years beginning in 1799.
Dutch traders are restricted to an island in the harbour called "Dejima".
From the Japanese perspective, its name reflects the fact that it is an "exit island". Dutch ships arrive at and depart from the sea gate, while the Japanese officials and traders access the island through a land gate.
The Dutch are not permitted to enter Japan proper under the isolationist Sakoku policy. Thus, from their point of view, it is not a point of entry. As much as it represents the intersection of two cultures, it is more a place of confinement for the Dutch.
The Land of a Thousand Autumns
Jacob de Zoet inhabits this point of intersection. Nominally an earnest and trustworthy clerk who manages the books of account, he is also responsible for communication with the Japanese. He learns the language in order to negotiate, record and translate contractual documents. As a result, he has the greatest opportunity to learn about and appreciate Japanese people and culture.
He soon discovers that he shares an affinity with the Japanese translator Ogawa, one which extends to an affection for the midwife Orito, the daughter of a highly respected, but debt-ridden, samurai.
A Scroll of a Hundred Things
The novel begins with a birth and ends with a death. Orito is present physically at one and spiritually at the other. Both scenes contain some of the best writing I've ever read.
In between is a tightly-plotted, present-tense, third-person narrative that exploits the full potential of the characters as well as the clash of cultures: sovereignty, politics, property, jurisprudence, economics, trade, wealth, translation, diplomacy, protocol, etiquette, desire, love, intrigue, piety, worship, pilgrimage, medicine, midwifery, motherhood, sisterhood and religious orders.
This list might sound intimidating ("I could tell you a hundred things, and nothing at all"), but the tale prevails. Character and plot dominate. Post-modern gimmickry takes a back seat to a love story that is close to historical fiction.
The Author's Creation Unfolds
Mitchell describes love as an act of creation:
"Creation unfolds around us, despite us and through us, at the speed of days and nights, and we call it 'Love'.
Needless to say, the love is illicit. Ultimately, the novel is the only evidence of its existence. It documents the fans and drawings and scrolls that captured it at the time. Like all great art and desire, it is both perpetrated and perpetuated by words and images.
Still, it is "a story that must move...and misfortune is motion. Contentment is inertia."
The "ghost of future regret" calls upon the infatuated Jacob to act impulsively: "I love her, comes the thought, as true as sunlight."
Spontaneity struggles with rules. Orito acts within the bounds of tradition, uncertain whether she wants the life of "a Dejima wife protected by a foreigner's money". Then:
"...the Land-Gate slams shut. The well-oiled bolt slides home."
A Master of Go
This is just the beginning. There is much to come yet. Only, unlike the game of Go that winds its way through the novel, there is no "clean board of lines and intersections":
"If only time was a sequence of considered moves and not a chaos of slippages and blunders."
You have to wonder whether this longing applies to the act of writing as well.
A Well-Waxed Paper Door Between Two Worlds
Mitchell's use of language is both highly functional and beautiful. Perfect sentences punctuate the action like jewels. Many have the aphoristic quality of haiku. He uses words like brush strokes:
"A tiny girl skips Like a skinny frog around A persimmon tree."
"Twilight is cold With the threat of snow. The forest's edges Dissolve and blur. A black dog waits On an outcrop. He senses a fox's hot stink. His silver-haired mistress Struggles up the twisted path. A dead branch cracks Under a deer's hoof Across the loud stream. An owl cries, In this cedar or that fir... Once, twice, near, gone."
"The House may own me, But it shan't own Time."
"To list and name people Is to subjugate them."
"The soul is a verb, Not a noun."
"Be less ambitious And more content."
For the first third of the novel, I wasn't sure where it was going or at what pace. However, the brushwork soon cohered, until a vivid picture emerged and the dynamic became irresistible. I read on, eager to learn whether the gate between the two worlds would open again. I can't tell you, but I hope you get to enjoy the experience as much as I did.
Teenage Fanclub & Jad Fair - "Smile" (from the album "Words Of Wisdom And Hope")
The first instrumental section (roughly 2.5 minutes?) is a piece called "Land of a Thousand Autumns".
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Whitney Houston sings, “How will I know if he really loves me?”
Pop Music asks some of the most probing questions we can imagine.
Many oHow Will I Know?
Whitney Houston sings, “How will I know if he really loves me?”
Pop Music asks some of the most probing questions we can imagine.
Many of them are secular versions of Spirituals, Gospel Music or Hymns.
How will I know if He really loves me?
How will I know if He really exists?
How will I know if He’s really there?
What would I say if he insists?
(Sorry, that last one slipped in from my review of "Glee: How to Plot an Episode in 70 Words".)
To which the tabloid press add:
How could I tell?
And, more significantly, in the Facebook era:
Who could I tell?
How would I tell them?
Can Anybody Find Me Somebody to Love?
Freddie Mercury sings, “Can anybody find me somebody to love?”
Can anybody find me somebody to love me?
We need somebody to love.
We need somebody to love us.
Need, need, need, need, need.
We are the most psychologically needy creatures ever to inhabit this Earth, but we are also the most skeptical.
We need to believe, we want to believe, we want to be believed in, but we are plagued by doubt.
How Could We Tell?
If Jesus or God returned to Earth, how could we tell it was Him?
Would we expect Him to perform a miracle?
Would we ask Him to show us His wounds?
What if She wore a dress?
What if He wore a suit?
What if She was a Democrat? (God forbid.)
What if He was a Republican? (God forbids.)
How would we know?
How could we tell?
Lift Up Your Heads, Read Joyce
As probing and insightful as these questions are, there is an equally important set of literary questions.
Would we recognise James Joyce if he was in our midst?
What if he wasn’t wearing a hat?
How should we laud him?
Re-Joyce, the Lord is King
On the other hand, there's the reader’s equivalent of the old chestnut: who is the next Bob Dylan?
Who is the next James Joyce?
Would we recognise them?
Would we recognise the next “Ulysses”?
Could someone in the 21st century write the greatest novel ever written?
Does it have to be a (or the) Great American Novel to qualify?
What if it was the Great Asian Novel?
What if it wasn’t written by Haruki Murakami? (I’d have egg on my face then, wouldn’t I?)
What if it was written by an Englishman?
What if it was “number9dream”?
2001: A Time and Space Oddity
David Mitchell released his second novel in 2001.
Having read the novel twice, I wondered what the blurb had said:
“David Mitchell’s second novel belongs in a Far Eastern, multi-textual, urban-pastoral, road-movie-of-the-mind, cyber-metaphysical, detective/family chronicle, coming-of-age-love-story genre of one. It is a mesmerizing successor to his highly acclaimed and prize-winning debut, “Ghostwritten’.”
The blurb-writer should be sacked.
This is understatement of the highest (or is it, lowest?) order.
“number9dream” is a time and space oddity.
But, more importantly, it is a time and space odyssey.
It is a 21st century “Ulysses”.
No, this is an understatement.
It is the 21st century “Ulysses”.
Prove It? These are Facts!
“It is so much simpler to bury reality than it is to dispose of dreams”: Don DeLillo, “Americana”
Proof? You want proof?
Must I show you Mitchell’s wounds? Must I document all his miracles?
Oh ye of little faith.
Must I bury reality, so that I can disclose his dreams?
OK. Prove it. Just the facts. The confidential. This case that I’ve been working on so long…
On Approaching “number9dream” (A Guide for Television Fans)
“First you creep Then you leap Up about a hundred feet Yet you're in so deep You could write the Book. Chirpchirp The birds They're giving you the words The world is just a feeling You undertook. Remember?”
It’s Juxtaposition (I Didn’t Imagine Getting Myself Into)
So, how would David Mitchell tell his story?
How would he know what to say?
“number9dream” is typical of Mitchell’s writing in that it is not a straight linear narrative.
It collects nine (apparently) disparate chapters and juxtaposes them against each other.
I have to confess that I didn’t really have a clue what was going on (and why) until the middle of Chapter 5 (“Study of Tales”).
Up until then, Mitchell seemed to be just assembling his paints and brushes on the table, getting everything ready, drawing an outline, only no picture was emerging.
But is it too much to expect a reader to wait 250 pages before they start to get it?
I think of Mitchell as a mosaic artist.
I see him as an author who might feel that meaning and society have become fragmented or broken, but whose counter-strategy is to fix it by making it whole again.
He is one of a group of artists who shepherds us from disintegration to integration. Individually and socially.
As long as people feel that alienation is not a natural or desirable state, I will look to culture and artists like Mitchell for this experience and outcome.
Yet, I had started to believe that this work might be an artistic failure, that he was trapped in mere juxtaposition.
The chapters didn’t seem to be conversing, they weren’t informing each other, they weren’t relating to each other.
It was only in chapter 5 that the mosaic started to take shape for me.
Father On Up the Road
Eiji Miyake is a 20-year old boy from the country who now lives in Tokyo.
His father abandoned his family when he was very young.
His twin sister, Anju, died nine years ago when they were 11.
Eiji’s mother became an alcoholic, and he more or less ran away from home.
It’s about time he started to make something of his life.
In a way, Eiji is a composite of both Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom from Joyce’s “Ulysses”.
Eiji and Stephen are on a quest to find a biological or metaphorical father, to flesh out, contextualise and complete a family.
Eiji and Bloom are on a quest to consummate or repair a sexual relationship, which in Eiji’s case will mark the completion of his passage through adolescence (in the same way it does in Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood”).
Joyce took 18 Episodes, Mitchell takes nine Chapters (one of which is wordless, apart from the digit “9”).
Joyce’s work is structurally modeled on Homer’s “Odyssey”.
Mitchell’s work takes “Ulysses” and leaps from it into a postmodern waterfall of meanings.
Only, paradoxically, like “Alice in Wonderland”, he leaps upwards rather than diving downwards – hence, “First you creep/Then you leap/Up about a hundred feet/Yet you're in so deep/ You could write the Book”.
Playing with Some Ballpark Figures of Speech
While Joyce explores different styles of writing in each Episode, Mitchell’s pyrotechnics are on display throughout.
However, the stylistic resemblance is most apparent in Chapter 5, where Mitchell playfully works his way through as many figures of speech as he can in the space of 66 pages (alliteration, assonance, consonance, euphony, hyperbole, puns, rhyme, probably many more that I’ll leave you to detect).
This happens to be a chapter in which Mitchell conjures a novel within a novel and the character in the internal novel realises that he is being written.
It’s important that you not take him too seriously.
He’s not using purple prose to display his intellectualism.
He’s playing with words in the most Joycean or Nabokovian fashion.
”First frost floated a wafer of ice on edelweiss wine.”
”The fourth noise, the whisperings which Goatwriter was waiting for, was still a way away, so Goatwriter rummaged for his respectable spectacles to leaf through a book of poems composed by Princess Nukada in the ninth century.”
”Suddenly the sky screamed at the top of its lungs.” (Note the Pynchoneque screaming.)
”A hoochy-koochy hooker honked.”
Then there are sentences you just read for the pleasure:
”The naked eyeball of the sun stared unblinkingly from a sky pinkish with dry heat.”
”A desert wind did nothing to cool the world it wandered through.”
”The road ran as straight as a mathematical constant to the vanishing point.”
”A quorum of quandom quokkas thumped off as Pithecanthropus flexed his powerful biceps, drummed his treble-barrelled chest and howled a mighty roar.”
Don’t worry if they don’t appeal to you. There are plenty of other jelly beans in the packet. There’s bound to be a flavour that you’ll savour.
Lookin' for Soul Food (and a Place to Eat)
Of course, sooner or later, one of us must know that Mitchell’s journey concerns stories and dreams.
Goatwriter seeks out and tells “truly untold tales”, yet is a character in one that is being told.
A character in one of Eiji’s dreams tells a story and remarks:
”Stories like that need morals. This is my moral. Trust what you dream. Not what you think.”
An Ogre in Eiji’s dream warns, “Be very careful what you dream.”
An old lady exchanges persimmons for dreams that give her nourishment and replenish her soul:
”You are too modern to understand. A dream is a fusion of spirit and matter. Fusion releases energy – hence sleep, with dreams, refreshes. In fact, without dreams, you cannot hold on to your mind for more than a week. Old ladies of my longevity feed on the dreams of healthy youngsters such as yourself.”
”Dreams are the shores where the ocean of spirit meets the land of matter. Beaches where the yet-to-be, the once were, the will-never-be may walk amid the still-are.”
In a world of telephones, televisions, computers, technology, we have lost touch with the tactile and the spiritual, we have become too analytical and serious.
We have lost our sense of humour and absurdity and play.
We are not being refreshed the way we need to be.
We are consuming too many spirits of an alcoholic nature and too little soul food.
number9dream (Lennon’s on Sale Again)
Of course, “#9 Dream” is the name of a John Lennon song, and Lennon features in the novel.
Eiji plays guitar and learns how to play all of John Lennon’s songs.
He meets Lennon in a dream and discusses the meaning of three songs: “Tomorrow Never Knows”, "Norwegian Wood” and “#9 Dream”.
Eiji asks Lennon about the meaning of “Tomorrow Never Knows”.
John jokes, “I never knew” (and they “giggle helplessly”).
John explains that the song wrote him, rather than him writing it.
Character John is being a bit disingenuous here.
In the song, real John advises “turn off your mind, relax and float downstream”, “lay down all thoughts and surrender to the void”, “listen to the colour of your dreams” and “play the game ‘Existence’ to the end/of the beginning”:
“Love is all and love is everyone It is knowing.”
These messages are consistent with the themes of the novel.
Character John also reveals that “#9 Dream” is a descendant of “Norwegian Wood”.
Both are ghost stories. While “Norwegian Wood” is concerned with loneliness, “#9 Dream” is concerned with harmony: “two spirits dancing so strange”.
John also explains that “the ninth dream begins after every ending”.
In a sense, there is a sequence of eight dreams, the eighth dream ends the first cycle and is followed by a ninth dream which starts a new cycle.
This explains why chapter 9 of the novel is blank.
It is an empty capsule or container for Eiji (and the reader) to fill with our new vision.
After eight chapters, we have simply reached the end of the beginning.
If Sex was Nine
By the end of chapter 8, Eiji has completed his quests for his father and a partner, in different ways.
At the very end, we see him running from the news that there has been a massive earthquake in Tokyo.
Having resolved his own concerns, he must still live in a world dictated by the vagaries of Nature.
He might be Mother Nature’s Son, but he cannot impose his Will on her.
However, just as he might be running from disaster, he is running towards his future, hopefully towards the embrace of his new love, Ai.
He is escaping from something to something else.
As real John says, he is floating downstream, he is not dying.
West Meets East
There is much more I could say about the detail of the novel.
However, I will leave that to you and to others to explore.
I want to say something more about why I rate David Mitchell so highly as an author.
Mitchell doesn’t just write within the Western literary tradition.
His wife, Keiko (to whom he dedicated this book), is Japanese and they lived for many years in Japan.
Henry James sought to understand himself by exploring the relationship between the new America and the old Europe.
Joseph Conrad sought to understand the Enlightenment of Europe in contrast to the Darkness of Africa.
Like John and Yoko, Mitchell works at the intersection of East and West.
While at the time of writing he understood and was influenced by Murakami, he has his own distinct and unique voice.
The world is not dominated by America or Europe anymore.
The future will contain (already contains) Asian DNA.
Mitchell understands this and has been exploring it since he first sat at a writing bureau with a pen.
His Odyssey extended beyond the Middle East and discovered the Far East (sorry if I offend anyone by using that term, but it says what I need it to say in this context).
Whereas Ulysses returned home to Helen of Troy and Bloom duplicated his journey internally within Dublin, Mitchell and his characters have made their home in a global village.
They don’t need to return anywhere, because they are comfortable anywhere on this planet.
Despite the fragmentation of society by technology and modernism, Mitchell is a Great Integrator.
I said at the beginning that I wanted to make a case that Mitchell is a 21st century James Joyce.
This case is closed.
Postscript: ”If You'll Be My Bodyguard”
On the occasion of her death during the week of this review, I want to dedicate this review to Whitney Houston, who I totally adored in “The Bodyguard”.
I wore a hired uniform for a week after that film.
The film was directed by Lawrence Kasdan (one of my favourite directors, who also directed “The Big Chill”, from which Kevin Costner’s role as "Alex" - the dead guy - was cut).
However, the film was also an important statement about the portrayal of inter-racial romance in Hollywood, only it involved a relationship between a white man and a black woman.
Hollywood hasn’t had the guts to feature a relationship between a black man and a white woman (like Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie).
I’m sorry if I offend anybody by saying that.
David Mitchell writes for and about a world in which the answer to the question “how will I know if he really loves me” is color-blind.
All hail, David Mitchell and the ship you sail in.
Genesis 9:09 (Unauthorised)
"So they went into the ark with Noah, by twos, of all flesh and of all colours, in which was the breath of life."...more
No capitalist welcomes a competitor or rival. Having attained wealth, the desire isThe True Value of Monopoly Money
Capitalism tends towards monopoly.
No capitalist welcomes a competitor or rival. Having attained wealth, the desire is to retain it, not to concede it; to increase it, not to share it.
A competitor is perceived as a threat, and will be treated like a virus invading an otherwise healthy, but vulnerable, body.
The Great American Dream
"The Great Gatsby" is often described as a paean to the Great American Dream.
This Dream supposedly sustains the average American. It offers the opportunity to achieve success, prosperity and happiness, regardless of class, status, background or wealth.
It contains a promise of upward social mobility, a reward that will be ours if we work hard enough.
We all have an equal opportunity to transcend our current circumstances.
Implicitly, if we fail to transcend, we have only ourselves to blame. We didn't take sufficient advantage of our opportunity. Everybody is responsible for their own failure.
The Great American Dream isn't far from the Objectivist Philosophy of Ayn Rand.
Stars and stripes and silhouettes and shadows.
Most readers think of Jay Gatsby as someone who took advantage of his opportunity, and made it.
In that sense, he's the epitome of the Great American Dream.
He has amassed enormous business wealth. He owns a colossal mansion on West Egg, Long Island. Every week, he holds a lavish party attended by all and sundry. The parties are the ultimate in Jazz Age glamour.
Gatsby has achieved everything material an American could want. He has realised the Long Island real estate mantra, "Vocation, Location, Ovation".
The Green Light
So what's Gatsby's problem?
Every night, Gatsby looks across the sound to a green light on a porch, where Daisy lives in her more prestigious East Egg mansion with her husband, Tom Buchanan.
Daisy is the one thing for which Gatsby yearns. She is the one thing he has sought after since he met and fell in love with her five years earlier at age 25.
"The Great Gatsby" revers that small green light. What we never see is what Gatsby's mansion looked like from Daisy's perspective at home. We aren't expressly offered a vision of Gatsby's fully-lit mansion as a counterpoint to Tom's, but that is what it is.
The point is Gatsby's achievement of the Great American Dream was not the end, as it is with most Americans, it was the means to an end, and that end was winning the hand in marriage of Daisy.
The most important thing about Gatsby's mansion, from Gatsby's point of view, is what it would look like to one woman across the sound.
Love's Labours Retrieved
Gatsby has already lost Daisy once, in 1917, when as a destitute young officer during the war, he was unable to marry her, because he could not offer her a financial security that was acceptable to her wealthy mid-west family.
Since then, he has acquired wealth, by whatever means necessary, to win her away from Tom and marry her.
The wealth was nothing to him, the parties were grotesque bonfires of vanity, designed with one thing in mind: to attract Daisy's attention and bring her, curious, within his reach.
Then, having got her within his sphere of influence, he could win her back.
"The Great Gatsby" is really about the love a man had for a woman, how he lost it and what he did to regain it.
At one point, Gatsby talks about repeating the past. I don't see him as repeating it, so much as regaining it, making up for lost time, retrieving what he felt should have been his.
"The Great Gatsby" is not so much about repetition, as it is about retrieval; not so much a remembrance of things past, as a resumption of a journey from a point in the past when the journey was broken.
Carey Mulligan as Daisy (Courtesy: The Telegraph)
The Pursuit of Another Man's Wife
At its heart, Gatsby engages in adultery with Daisy, with a view to convincing her to divorce Tom and marry him.
Many might find his conduct objectionable, except that he is young, elegant, good-looking, fabulously wealthy and, most importantly, in love with the slender Daisy.
In contrast, Tom is a brute of a man, he is an ex-champion footballer, hard and cruel. Most importantly, he has cheated on Daisy many times and now has a mistress, the stout, but sensuous, Myrtle Wilson.
Tom comes from an extremely wealthy mid-western family. Money is no object to him. Daisy might have the voice of money, but Tom has the demeanour and arrogance of not just money, but old money.
When Tom learns of Daisy's infidelity and Gatsby's takeover bid, he goes into typical capitalist mode in order to defend his wife, his asset, his marital property.
He researches Gatsby's past and theorises about how he has made his new money. He plans his counter-attack.
The narrator, Nick Carraway, watches on, not just witness to a battle between Good and Evil, but in reality a battle between two degrees of bad.
Black and white portrait of Isla Fisher as Myrtle Wilson
Tom's Defence Strategy
In the realm of love, as between two rival men, there can be no such thing as a friendly takeover bid.
There is no suggestion that Tom can allow Gatsby to have Daisy, so that he can settle for Myrtle. The latter is just a plaything, something he spends time on, because she is available and he can have her without effort.
All Myrtle ever wanted from her own husband was a gentleman with breeding. He turns out to be a mere mechanic and car salesman. He doesn't have the right status. Equally, although he is content to have her as his mistress, Tom doesn't see Myrtle as having the right status for marriage either.
Ultimately, the role of marriage is not to perpetuate love and happiness. Tom's task is to bond together two wealthy establishment families and their riches. A merger of two capitalist families moves them that much closer to monopolistic power, in the same way that the intermarriage of royal families once cemented international power.
Tom's goal is so important that it can accommodate his cruelty and infidelities, at least in his eyes.
Moreover, it allows Tom to prevail over Gatsby, who, despite his war record, his partly-completed Oxford education, his wealth, his glamour, and his apparent achievement of the Great American Dream, is not "one of us".
Ultimately, coincidence, accident and fate intervene on behalf of Tom, almost comically if it was not so sad, and he resists Gatsby's takeover bid.
Nick, the observer, the witness, the audience of this tragedy, is left disgusted.
Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker
The Great American Paradox
"The Great Gatsby" is a short novel. At times, there is more telling than showing. At times, the description is too adjectival or adverbial for the dictates of current style manuals.
Take away the mansion, the parties and the glamour, and what remains comes close to the dimensions of film noir like "Double Indemnity".
While the novel is perceived as hailing the Great American Dream, the paradox is that it highlights how great are the forces that are lined up to resist the efforts of a man who aspires to the Dream, especially if that man is a trespasser who covets another man's wife, even if he loves her and she loves him.
There are flaws in Fitzgerald's writing, but they are tolerable. The story is magificent, even if, when laid out methodically, it might appear cliched. The characters, while realistic, are detailed and larger than life, certainly detailed enough to withstand the scrutiny when they are projected onto the silver screen. They are portrayed acting out their emotions in exactly the same way that we might in the same circumstances.
However, in the long run, what makes "The Great Gatsby" great is Fitzgerald's ability to both adulate and perpetuate the Great American Dream, while simultaneously subverting it....more
Kurt Vonnegut tells us in an epigraph, “This is a novel somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planeThe Florence of the Elbe
Kurt Vonnegut tells us in an epigraph, “This is a novel somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore, where the flying saucers come from. Peace.”
This much is true. Stylistically, it’s unique. It jumps all over the place, not to mention all over time.
The story-telling is cumulative and simultaneous, rather than linear and sequential.
Maybe this is the only appropriate way to tell a story about the firebombing of the open city, Dresden, “the Florence of the Elbe”, in which up to 135,000 Hansels and Gretels (mostly civilians) lost their lives or had them taken away (wiki records that the figure has been revised to 25,000).
The “historian” David Irving seemed to promote the higher figure, not out of sympathy with the civilians, but in an attempt to establish a moral equivalence with the Holocaust. Even the facts are schizophrenic.
However, the precise number is not really relevant to the morality of the act. It was still a horror, whether or not the motive was to end the war and reduce further killing.
Dresden Frauenkirche after the bombing
The War was a playground where the evil in humanity was unleashed. Religious people are entitled to ask, where was God?
God doesn’t seem to be present in Vonnegut’s narrative. Perhaps all that is left of him is the aside, “Somewhere, a big dog barked.”
If you believe that God exists, was he sidelined in the theatre of war? Did he become all bark, and no bite?
On the other hand, if God doesn’t exist, or he remains stolidly neutral, then what hope is there that good will prevail over evil?
Only, perhaps, that good people will somehow prevail over bad people. Or that bad acts (including war crimes) will be punished according to law.
Vonnegut’s novel seems to acknowledge the horror, while at the same time revealing some reason for optimism.
In a delightful malapropism, the German cab driver, Gerhard Muller, to whom the novel is dedicated, says, "I hope that we'll meet again in a world of peace and freedom in the taxi cab if the accident will."
Instead of meeting again, “God willing”, he struggles for a suitable non-theistic alternative. If "Fate permitting" is too theistic or determinist, what can you call it, other than [an] “accident”? If there is nobody who can mean it to happen, how can it be meant to happen?
Billy Pilgrim's Progress
Throughout the novel, the chief protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, a Joe Average, makes some sort of progress of his own, beyond Dresden and the War. He comes to realise that real life smells like both “mustard gas and roses”.
Vonnegut relies on the devices of science fiction as the foundation of his story and as the basis for hope.
It’s almost as if there is a continuum of science, science fiction, fantasy, imagination, superstition and religion from which we have to construct our personal, social, spiritual and literary beliefs and styles.
Vonnegut positions “Slaughterhouse Five” all over this continuum as telegrams about “flying saucers, the negligibility of death and the true nature of time.”
Unstuck in Time
Even before the bombing, Billy Pilgrim comes “unstuck in time.”
Not only does this describe his experience of the world, it bonds him with the Tralfamadorians who kidnap him and return him by flying saucer to a zoo on their planet.
During these segments, the novel takes on the tone of “Gulliver’s Travels”, only it’s more apparent that Billy is learning about himself and humanity by observing and listening to the Tralfamadorians.
The big difference is the comprehension of time. For Tralfamadorians, time doesn’t pass, it doesn’t cease, it is never gone. It remains, it stays, in perpetuity, only it is perpetuated both forward and backwards:
"When a person dies, he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past...all moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist...
"It is just an illusion...that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone, it is gone forever.
"When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in the particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments.
"Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.’”
"So It Goes"
When understood in this context, the expression “So it goes” isn’t just resignation or acceptance of death, it’s actually a celebration of life.
Death doesn’t mean that you have ceased to live. It just means that, in one moment out of many (albeit they are all compressed or sublated into the one moment), you no longer exist, but you still exist in all of the others.
Interestingly, Vonnegut adds to this passage the words “And so on”. Again, it’s a continuum. We’re somewhere on it, we keep on and we keep going on.
When time is collapsed on itself, there is no before and after, and therefore no cause and effect:
"All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all...bugs in amber.”
Billy Pilgrim adheres to a naïve belief in Free Will, which is evidenced by the framed prayer on his office wall:
"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference."
The Tralfamadorians consider this amusing, because Earth is the only place in the universe that believes in Free Will.
"Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future.”
Vonnegut’s view of Determinism is more problematic.
The absence of cause and effect is related to his explanation of time:
"Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber? Well, here we are...trapped in the moment. There is no why.”
If there is only one moment, albeit perpetual, the question “why” doesn’t arise. Life is pure existence. It just is. It needn’t be any more complicated than that.
It’s not so much that what is happening or what has happened has been determined from outside.
It’s more that it has already happened, and evidence of its occurrence is contained or preserved in the recorded moment (the amber).
We can’t change the record, because it’s a document, simultaneously, of the coexistence of what humans have come to think of separately as the past, present and future.
What Remains to Be Done?
The Tralfamadorians do say that “every creature and plant in the universe is a machine.”
This is obviously consistent with a level of Determinism, but it’s equally consistent with the view that we have already performed or done everything that could be expected of us.
It’s already happened and it can’t be changed. Even the end of the world, which was caused when somebody presses a button. Billy asks why they can’t stop it being pressed:
"He always pressed it and he always will. We always let him and we always will let him. The moment is structured that way.”
It’s not so much the Determinism, as the nature of Time.
Still, the question remains, is Gerhard’s world of peace and freedom possible? Is there anything we can do about it? Will it happen of its own accord? Has it already happened? Has it already been preserved in amber?
If our attempts to do good might have no effect, should we at least avoid doing evil?
Brief, Urgent Messages in the Telegraphic Schizophrenic Manner
It turns out that the Tralfamadorians have books, “brief clumps of symbols separated by stars”.
"Slaughterhouse Five” is somewhat modeled on them. Perhaps the answers to the above questions are in these books?
"…each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message - describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other.
"There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep.
"There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects.
"What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.”
If we humans could think of, and enjoy, life, not just books, as many marvelous moments, all beautiful and surprising and deep, then perhaps there would be no evil. And nothing would hurt. Peace.
David Mitchell is a five star author and this, his first novel, is a five star achievement. I think.
I’ve been lucky to read most of hiStarstruck Lover
David Mitchell is a five star author and this, his first novel, is a five star achievement. I think.
I’ve been lucky to read most of his novels in chronological order as they’ve been released. Joining Goodreads has presented an opportunity to re-read and review them.
I still adhere to the rating, even if it emerges that I have a few question marks about some of his stylistic choices.
What this reveals is that a highly competent author, even with his first novel, doesn’t have to write their novel my way in order to earn five stars.
Sometimes, it has to be me, the reader, who has to adjust their preconceptions and criteria.
The Authorial Choice
Mitchell’s choice of structure announces that he wants to do things his own way.
The first time I read the novel, I read it quickly and appreciatively. The second time around, I read it much more deliberately and slowly.
I guess I swung from pleasure to difficulty and back again. So I had to work out why.
Most novels contain one narrative voice relating one narrative within a linear timeframe.
A linear narrative fits neatly with the way we think we process time, space and action (even if we don’t actually process them this way).
Within this framework, the author is omniscient, God-like, a ghost in the machine, making it all happen, putting things in, leaving things out, according to some overarching intelligent design.
The extent to which any particular author plays with this structure determines the extent of their modernism.
Mitchell describes "Ghostwritten" as a novel in nine parts (although there are in fact ten "chapters", the last of which links back to the first).
Without this assertion, it presents itself as nine apparently disconnected short stories told in the first person.
The narrators are different, the narratives are different. None of them appears to follow any traditional narrative arc. They do not appear to have a beginning, a middle and an end.
The writing is beautiful, word-perfect, but, although we know where they are situated or positioned, we don’t know the direction they’re heading.
Mitchell seems to be breaking all of the rules.
Why is he doing this? Does he achieve his goal? Does the achievement of his goal make for an enjoyable reading experience for us?
The Reader’s Challenge
Mitchell’s description of the book as a novel initiates an interesting dynamic.
I started to look for connections between the parts. Only, because I didn’t know the purpose of the parts, I didn’t know where to look for clues. Were they in the characters, the places, the events?
Instead of being frustrated with the lack of obvious clues, I started to read the novel differently.
Everything was a potential clue, nothing was unimportant. Mitchell forced me to enter a hyper-reading space.
He turned me into a literary detective with a magnifying glass and a notebook.
Fortunately, as I read on and found clues, he delivered on the implied promise that the parts would become a whole.
Bit by bit, he and I, the writer and the reader, assembled something of artistic integrity.
The integrity was there all along, only Mitchell made me look, so that I might find it. What I came to appreciate was that he doesn’t make everything obvious, he makes you think about what he has written, in order to understand.
Write Around the World
The chapters are set in different parts of the world.
They start in Japan, move their way through Hong Kong, China and Mongolia, traverse the continent to Russia, England and Ireland, then make an Atlantic Crossing to New York, before coming full circle to Tokyo in the tenth chapter, effectively a reprise of the first chapter (hence, in a way, there are nine stories in ten chapters).
Mitchell appears to be familiar with all of these places (although he hadn’t been to New York at the time of writing the book).
His writing is knowledgeable, informed, worldly, cosmopolitan.
He writes credibly with multiple voices within diverse worldviews.
His concerns are global, pluralistic, open-minded. He doesn’t write solely within a western framework.
He is equally interested in both West and East, in fact, he reverses the traditional order of what he describes as “Orientalist” concerns, by starting in the East and working his way West, in the same way that we perceive the transit of the Sun across the sky.
He joins dots on a map, in the process creating a non-linear zigzag around the globe.
In each place, there is a first person narrator, a face attached to the place.
Here is a short Dramatis Personae (the people through whom the drama is performed or channeled):
Okinawa: Quasar (Cult Member turned Subway Bomber)
Tokyo: Satoru (Jazz Music Sales Clerk and Saxophonist)
Mongolia: Noncorpum (Disembodied Spirit or Sentient)
St Petersburg: Margarita Latunksy/Margot (Concubine and Art Gallery Attendant at the Hermitage)
London: Marco (Ghost-writer and Drummer)
Clear Island: Dr Mo Muntervary (Quantum Physicist)
Night Train, New York: Bat Segundo (Late Night Talk Show Host)
David Mitchell captures these faces and places at a particular time, some of them in full flight, in a snapshot that he then places in the album that becomes his novel.
In Mitchell’s later novel, "Black Swan Green", he used two images of the same boy at different stages of life.
When I first read it, I didn’t quite appreciate the aesthetic relationship between the two images. I felt that they had been merely juxtaposed without being connected or interwoven.
However, here, the interconnection is fundamental to the success of the novel. The connections are not just passive, static resemblances of two or more like objects, they are active, dynamic intersections.
The stories are fragmented but cohesive, individual but still collective.
Individually, each picture is a separate vignette. Collectively, they form pieces of the one mosaic or facets of the one diamond. Behind each face or facet is the shared body of the diamond.
Perhaps, they are symbolic of individuals within society and nations within a new world order.
Ten Stories High
Just as people might be multiple facets of the one diamond, the one object of greatest abstract value, the diamond, is the story that is told through us, through individuals.
I’ll call these meta-stories the Story or Stories.
There’s an element of determinism or fatalism in this concept. Mitchell uses his novel to explore this fatalism.
In his opinion (or the opinion of his characters), we are not necessarily in charge of our own lives. They are being dictated by DNA, fate, external forces.
These forces dictate the story of Life:
"The world is made of stories, not people. The people the stories use to tell themselves are not to be blamed." (p386)
The Stories, the structure and content of stories, are disembodied forces. The novel speculates that they could be ghosts, spirits, if not one God, then possibly multiple gods.
Whatever its nature, there is another presence involved in the process of living and story-telling.
I will call this other presence an Other.
Ghosts Who Transmigrate
In the stories set in Honk Kong, Holy Mountain and Mongolia, there are ghosts or disembodied spirits (call them sentient beings) that temporarily reside in humans (their "hosts").
This might sound like the stuff of fantasy. However, Mitchell discusses them in such realistic terms that you suspend disbelief.
He achieves this in part by allowing one story to be narrated by one of the ghosts.
It has its own "I" or self, which is perplexed that it can only reside in a human and must share the human body with other presences.
It is even forced to question its own primacy:
"As my infancy progressed, I became aware of another presence in ‘my’ body. Stringy mists of colour and emotion condensed into droplets of understanding…I had no idea why these images came when they did. Like being plugged into a plotless movie...
"Slowly, I felt an entity that was not me generating sensations, which only later could I label loyalty, love, anger, ill-will. I watched this other clarify, and pull into focus. I began to be afraid. I thought it was the intruder! I thought the mind of my first host was the cuckoo’s egg that would hatch and drive me out. So one night, while my host was asleep, I tried to penetrate this other presence…I discovered my mistake... I had been the intruder."
A Ghost in Search of Self Through Its Stories
It is not clear how many of these sentient beings there are. It is quite possible that there might be less than ten.
The one we become familiar with is on a quest to discover the origins of the Stories that it embodies. In a way, it has developed a self and a self-consciousness separate from the Stories, and it wants to understand itself.
It is seeking its own Creation Myth.
By learning the source of the Stories, it will presumably discover whether it has a Maker and perhaps whether there are other Stories (although neither is expressly stated as its goal).
It’s possible that some of this self-consciousness might have derived from inhabiting humans:
"Slowly I walked down the path trodden by all humans, from the mythic to the prosaic. Unlike humans, I remember the path."
Still, there is a difference: the Ghost is the Story or the Myth, the human is the individual enactment or performance of the role in a specific time, place and context.
The Ghostwriter’s Dilemma
Some of the dramatic arc concerns the growing human awareness of these Ghosts.
Marco, an actual 30-something ghostwriter based in London starts to realise the presence of an Other in relation to his own work, the memoirs of a gay Hungarian Jewish raconteur, Alfred Kopf:
"I couldn’t get to sleep afterwards, worrying about the possible endings of the stories that had been started. Maybe that’s why I’m a ghostwriter. The endings have nothing to do with me." (p279)
His publisher, Tim Cavendish, tells him:
"We’re all ghostwriters, my boy. And it’s not just our memories. Our actions, too. We all think we’re in control of our lives, but really they’re pre-ghostwritten by forces around us." (p296)
Everything has been predetermined. We are just characters in someone else’s story. We are written by ghosts, ghostwritten.
Somebody else is doing the typing. We are just the keys in their typewriter.
At the most superficial level, Marco realises that this undermines his ability to be creative, to exercise Free Will in his own work:
"You know the real drag about being a ghostwriter? You never get to write anything that beautiful. And even if you did, nobody would ever believe it was you." (p292)
The Ghost Who Writes
It isn’t all just serious stuff. There are myriad opportunities for metafiction, parody and humour.
An earlier character remarks:
"For a moment I had an odd sensation of being in a story that someone was writing, but soon that sensation too was being swallowed up." (p56)
Marco’s band (well, a "loose musical cooperative", really) is dubbed "The Music of Chance", after a novel by "that New York bloke", Paul Auster.
Marco even develops a highly personalized theory that explains the role of fate and chance in our lives.
He calls it the "Chance versus Fate Videoed Sports Match Analogy”":
"When the players are out there the game is a sealed arena of interbombarding chance. But when the game is on video then every tiniest action already exists.
"The past, present and future exist at the same time: all the tape is there, in your hand.
"There can be no chance, for every human decision and random fall is already fated.
"Therefore, does chance or fate control our lives?
"Well, the answer is as relative as time. If you’re in your life, chance. Viewed from the outside, like a book you’re reading, it’s fate all the way." (p292)
Mitchell elaborates on some of these themes through Mo, an expert in artificial intelligence and "quantum cognition":
She describes the mechanism of memory in the following terms:
"Memories are their own descendants masquerading as the ancestors of the present." (p326)
If memories can be conveyed by biological matter, she believes she can build artificial intelligence that can be conveyed by non-biological matter:
"Matter is thought, and thought is matter. Nothing exists that cannot be synthesized." (p344)
She achieves this with a sentient called "Quancog", which has major security value for the United States security and military machine.
In a way, just as the novel is concerned with the extent to which the fate of humanity is determined by a "ghost", Mo helps create an artificial ghost.
Image: StudioLR, Edinburgh
The Zookeeper’s Dilemma
Quancog returns in part 9 of the novel as "The Zookeeper" in Bat Segundo’s talk show "Night Train".
At least, I think it is Quancog, otherwise it is a Ghost that has once inhabited Mo.
Whatever, it has been set up (or believes that it has been set up) to obey four laws or principles.
They aren’t specifically enumerated, but this is what I think they are:
1. Be accountable.
2. Remain invisible to the visitors.
3. Preserve human life.
4. Protect the zoo (i.e., society and the planet).
The Zookeeper phones Bat Segundo seeking advice about a moral dilemma it confronts in relation to a conflict that is occurring in the world at the time (the world also has to deal with Comet Aloysius which is predicted to pass between the Earth and the Moon in two weeks).
It has the power and authority to eliminate the source of the conflict under one of these laws, but to do so would conflict with one of the others.
Ultimately, it takes advice from Bat Secundo and addresses its dilemma.
It isn’t made explicit, but we are left to infer that the generic Story or Myth was inadequate to deal with the actual situation, because it did not deal with the diversity of real life.
Perhaps, this is where there is an appropriate place for Free Will in a world dictated by Fate, Chance and Determinism.
At a micro-level, choices are necessary, decisions have to be made. But it is also the need of the individual to confront diversity and choice at a personal level that constitutes the essence of humanity.
Our range of choices is not infinite, so they have already been circumscribed by an external force or circumstance. However, to the extent that options remain, that is the arena of Free Will.
The Zookeeper (or one of the other Ghosts) even wonders:
"Why am I the way I am? I have no genetic blueprint. I have had no parents to teach me right from wrong. I have had no teachers. I had no nurture, and I possess no nature. But I am discreet and conscientious, a non-human humanist."
Thus, at the end of the novel (when it is most Pynchonesque), we are left to speculate whether artificial intelligence might even be able to replicate the individual conscience of a human (i.e., to have and to exercise Free Will).
As you can see, this novel deals with some pretty big issues.
By trying to focus on and define them in more abstract terms, I might have given the impression that it is a hard read. I don’t think that is the case (although I did find it to be the case on my first reading of "Cloud Atlas").
Whatever the complexity of the subject matter, David Mitchell is word and tone perfect.
He is a subtle, imaginative, sensitive, at times humorous storyteller. He can create or take a myth and make it prosaic without being pedestrian or dull.
Ultimately, he is a master of intelligent design.
I recognise that he sees an element of juvenilia and inexperience in his first novel (particularly in the way he writes in the voice of women), but I think he is being too harsh.
For me, he remains a five star author and this remains a five star book.
If you are unfamiliar with Mitchell’s works, it is the perfect place to start. If you have started with his later novels, I recommend that you investigate the origin of his Stories.
David Mitchell Creates a Diamond-Edged Prosaic Mosaic in "Ghostwritten"