December 12, 2018

Thomas Pynchon Drops In and “Nature’s Nation” Gives Way to “Gravity’s Rainbow”

By Stuart Mitchner

The first thing you see when you walk into Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment at the Princeton University Art Museum could be called an act of war. Or you could downgrade it to a metaphor for climate change like the one recently used by scientists comparing greenhouse gas emissions to “a speeding freight train.” However you frame the dynamic, it happens as your eyes move from the majesty of Albert Bierstadt’s Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite (ca. 1871-73) to Valerie Hegarty’s travesty Fallen Bierstadt (2007). According to an online video narrated by Hegarty, she painted her own version of the Bierstadt and then, in effect, blew it up, leaving a hole in the bottom half, the remains scattered in a pile of papier-mâché debris on the gallery floor that museum aides have to occasionally rearrange. The artist says her intention was to simulate “acts of entropy, as if maybe the painting went over the falls and was left to decay.”

The moment I saw the demolished Bierstadt, I thought of my demolished copy of Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow, which I have finally finished after decades of trying, thanks to what Hegarty might call acts of entropy. While my 45-year-old copy of the first Viking paperback edition looks like it went over Bridal Veil Falls with the butchered Bierstadt, I rescued it, let it dry, and gave it a home. I find its decripitude companionable. I like a book that lets me know it’s there; you could even say it has a voice since every time I turn one of its water-rippled pages, it makes a small sound, a sort of creak, like the crackle of the embers in a dying fire. 

Also, it’s solidly intact, all 760 creaking crackling pages of it, although the front and back covers are either torn or wrinkled at the corners and the spine is faded and frayed. This is not a novel to be read with kid gloves on or at arm’s length. You need to ease into it like the weather-beaten, dirt-stained denim jacket you wore on the road in the sixties. The faint brown water line trailing along the outer edge of each page tells you it’s been around, lived a life of its own, many lives. This is the real McCoy, not some publisher’s stunt like the worn-and-torn-but-not-really faux 1980s edition of Netflix’s Stranger Things that just surfaced on the New York Times best-seller list. 

Maxwell’s Demon

Merely mention the e-word and into the room comes Thomas Pynchon, whose previous books at the time were V (1963) and The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), in which Oedipa Mass learns that entropy is a metaphor connecting “the world of thermodynamics to the world of information.” This fusing of heat engines and communication happens when “Maxwell’s Demon” renders the metaphor “not only verbally graceful, but also objectively true.” The Demon “passes his data on to the sensitive and the sensitive must reply in kind,” which Oedipa tries but fails to do, unable to share in such “hallucinations.” When the explicator of entropy suggests sex might help enlighten her, Oedipa hops into her Impala and drives off, “faced with a metaphor of God knew how many parts; more than two anyway.”

Slothropian Disseminations

Near the end of Gravity’s Rainbow, Tyrone Slothrop, the primary protagonist and authorial surrogate, has been scattered into fragments that have “grown into consistent personae of their own.” Only Pig Bodine, a lifelong player in the Pynchon roadshow, “can still see Slothrop as any sort of integral creature.” Himself a master of clandestine disseminations known for his resistence to being photographed, the author suggests that an image of Slothrop may be seen on the back of “the only record album ever put out by The Fool, an English rock group.” In the photo seven musicians are posed “in the arrogant style of the early Stones, near an old rocket-bomb site, out in the East End, South of the River” in London. “There is no way to tell which of the faces is Slothrop’s: the only printed credit that might apply to him is ‘Harmonica, kazoo —  a friend.’”  

Some 500 pages earlier, however, Pynchon sneaks in a self-portrait of a “slightly bucktoothed and angular American, who is dancing now from stoop to English stoop, lank as a street-puppet in the wind.” This figure bears an eerie resemblance to the character who stepped through the window of a dream I had in the mid-1970s, around the time the real Tom Pynchon was dropping in on some real-life friends in Santa Barbara to watch slides of India.

“Something for Everyone”

That’s what I wrote on top of page 516, which brings together John Dillinger, Clark Gable, William Powell, and “bitchy little Melvin Purvis” of the FBI, plus Fritz Lang’s Der müde Tod (1921) with its “last Rilke-elegaic shot of weary Death leading two lovers away through the forget-me-nots.” Fifteen pages later in this teeming India of science, cinema, virtuoso rhetoric, and occasional soft-core porn, Pynchon screens a movie called Doper’s Creed, the title music sung by Nelson Eddy as “two trail-weary cowboys Basil Rathbone and S.Z. (‘Cuddles’) Sakall” ride into a town guarded by the town sheriff, cast as “the Midget who played the lead in Freaks.” These comic cameos that mainly movie buffs will relate to remind me of the bizarre pairings Joyce dreams up for Leopold Bloom in the Nighttown chapter of Ulysses.

It’s the literary cinema of Gravity’s Rainbow that moves me; the “world of thermodynamics” leaves me stranded somewhere between fixed quantity A and quantity B. Behind the multidimensional entropy metaphors and formulae, there seems to be a cabal of writers, physicists, movie buffs, and culture vultures collaborating in a narrative that spins from sophomoric humor to genius prose in the same two-page span. There’s room for everyone, from King Kong to Mickey Mouse, whose 90th birthday is being celebrated this year and whose familiar falsetto can be heard in a relatively straight passage about Slothrop’s childhood in the Berkshires. Here he’s dreaming about birds, a flock of snow buntings in a storm, he’s worried about them (“Poor little guys”) and feels his father “squeeze his hand through its wool mitten” as he tells little Tyrone not to worry because “their blood and their feathers keep them warm.” Slothrop wakes up aware of some flab on his stomach, and suddenly we’re back to the cartoon hyperbole of “an invisible kingdom of flab, a million cells-at-large, and they all know who he is — soon as he’s unconscious, they start up, every one, piping in high horrible little Mickey Mouse voices, hey fellas! hey c’mon, let’s all go over to Slothrop’s, the big sap ain’t doing anything but laying on his ass.”

Pynchon’s Cinema

Now let’s dive into a characteristic Gravity’s Rainbow rhapsody (the italics and ellipsis are Pynchon’s). Midway through a paragraph beginning with the smile of a man “being theatrical about something,” there’s a sunset, “the kind that changes the faces of buildings to light gray for a while, to an ashy soft chaff of light bleating over their outward curves, in the strangely forge-like glow in the west, the anxiety of pedestrians staring in the tiny store-front window at the dim goldsmith behind his fire at his work and paying them no attention, afraid because the light looks like it’s going to go away forever this time, and more afraid because the failure of light is not a private thing, everyone else in the street has seen it too . . . as it grows darker, the orchestra inside this room does, as a matter of fact, strike up a tune.”

You may wonder about “light bleating” but not for long, no more than you wonder about a book with creaking pages that opens with a quote from Wernher von Braun (“Nature does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation. Everything science has taught me and continues to teach me, strengthens my belief in the continuity of our spiritual existence after death”) and ends in a moviehouse, where “in the darkening and awful expanse of screen something has kept on, a film we have not learned to see.” And it’s “just at this dark and silent frame, that the pointed tip of the Rocket, falling nearly a mile per second, absolutely and forever without sound, reaches its last measurable gap above the roof of this old theatre, the last delta-t.” Here the author tells you there’s time “if you need the comfort, to touch the person next to you, or to reach between your own cold legs.” And if you need a song, Pynchon offers a hymn composed by Slothrop’s ancestor, “centuries forgotten and out of print.” You can even sing along like at the old Saturday matinees, “Follow the bouncing ball.” The hymn’s closing words have a touch of Mt. Rushmore manifest destiny Albert Bierstadt might have recognized: “With a face on ev’ry mountainside./And a Soul in ev’ry stone. . . .”

In the real world, December 16, 1944, a V-2 rocket hit the Rex Cinema in Antwerp killing 567 people; the film was a Paramount western, The Plainsman, with Gary Cooper as Wild Bill Hickok and Jean Arthur as Calamity Jane. 

Enjoy It Now

Visitors to Nature’s Nation, which will be at the Princeton University Art Museum through January 6, should know that the building housing the exhibit, which stands on “the ancient homeland of the Lenape people,” will undergo major construction by 2020, leaving the community without one of its most precious resources for as long as three years. The dynamics of demolition are on view as soon as you enter the exhibit.