Friday, December 24, 2004


I'm on the verge of the long Franz Pokler segment, and this seems a good time to take stock of my reading of "In the Zone" so far. "In the Zone" is by far the longest of Gravity's Rainbow's four "parts" (390 pages in the Bantam edition), taking up nearly half the book. And in a way, it feels like "In the Zone" is where Gravity's Rainbow really begins; "Beyond the Zero" and "Un Perm'" both have the atmosphere of prologues. But at the same time, "In the Zone" feels disconnected from the two earlier parts. Except for Slothrop, all the major characters of the earlier parts vanish, or play only minor roles, in "In the Zone"; and Slothrop himself plays a different role, as Pynchon gradually deflates the image of Slothrop as heroic seeker of truth that "Un Perm'" had established.

In the section with Tchitcherine in Central Asia, there's another important passage for the book's worldview. It's in the words of one of the spirits Blobidjian meets on the "other side": "See: how they [molecules] are taken out from the coarse flow--shaped, cleaned, rectified, just as you once redeemed your letters from the lawless, the mortal streaming of human speech" (413-4). The key word in this passage is "mortal." Read in conjunction with the speech by Webley that I called attention to earlier (scroll down to Dec. 10), what's being implied is that any attempt to "shape," refine or analyze the "mortal streaming" of experience, whether through writing, chemistry, or technology in general, aligns one with "Death the Impersonator." In fact, the main point of the whole Central Asia sequence is to present writing itself as a tool of Death the Impersonator. With this in mind, we can now go back to a question I asked earlier when noting that Pointsman was the most psychologically complex of all the characters so far, "does having a complex character imply corruption?" and see that the answer is "yes." For to have a complex character is to analyze one's emotions, instead of just being submerged in their stream.

Of course, Pynchon himself is hardly guiltless by this standard. Gravity's Rainbow is a massive piece of writing (whose publication consumed large quantities of the paper whose manufacture will later condemn: 644); one could even think of it as a monument to writing. And while Pynchon may have attempted to cram as much experience into it as possible, this experience is "shaped" and "cleaned" through his prose as much as any synthetic molecule. In fact, Pynchon himself alludes to his own implication in what he condemns. He does so when Ombindi, the leader of the Empty Ones, is introduced, when he says "looks like Ombindi's trying to make believe the Christian sickness never touched us, when everyone knows it has infected us all, some to death." (371) And later, in "The Counterforce," a "spokesman" for the Counterforce says "I am betraying them all . . . the worst of it is that I know what your editors want, exactly what they want. I am a traitor. I carry it with me. Your virus" (862; ellipsis Pynchon's). This may tie in with my suggestion earlier that Pointsman may be a distorted self-portrait of Pynchon. Of course, admitting that one is inconsistent doesn't make the inconsistency go away.

More later.

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Wednesday, December 22, 2004


I'd meant to link to this before, but Johanna Carlson has a nice appreciation of the manga series Hot Gimmick up at Comics Worth Reading. (Warning: there are spoilers.) Ironically, right now I'm not sure whether I want to continue buying it or not.

If you're curious about my opinions on translated manga, you can read my reviews of Buddha and X-Day in The Comics Interpreter vol. 2, no. 3, which also sports a stunning cover by James Jean as well as an interview with him. I also have a review of the French graphic novel Road to America in vol. 2, no. 2.

UPDATE: After I wrote this, Johanna revised her Hot Gimmick review so its spoilers are much vaguer (though if you don't want any spoilers at all, you should stop reading after the nineteenth paragraph (the one that begins "Hatsumi has a beauty...")).

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Herding Cats by John McCabe is a British comic novel; it's largely, though not exclusively, about the tribulations of the owner of an unsuccessful advertising agency in a small town. It is funny, though not "one of the funniest novels you're ever likely to read," as one of the back-cover blurbs asserts (though it turns out that this is actually a quote from a review of one of McCabe's earlier novels; a bit of false advertising here, ironically). When it gets serious, it becomes pretty heavy-handed; but this is a minor part of the book, and genuinely funny comic novels aren't so common that one can afford to be picky (as we've seen). The ISBN is 0-552-77090-6, and it's published in the U.K. by Black Swan; it doesn't appear to have been published in the U.S.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2004


Via Media Matters for America, Editor and Publisher magazine reports on a Gallup Poll released Dec. 14 in which "moral values," defined broadly, was tied for fourth, not first, as "the most important problem facing this country today," behind the war in Iraq, terrorism, and the economy in general, and tied with unemployment/jobs. Only 10% of respondents picked it, compared to the 23% who picked the war in Iraq (or the 29% who chose some aspect of the economy). This could, as E&P suggests, deliver a "death blow" to the "moral values" hype--except that, as Media Matters for America points out, this finding has gone virtually unreported in the media.

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Sunday, December 19, 2004

RENO 911!

To make up for the recent posts about alleged humor books that weren't funny, here's something that is funny: the DVD of Reno 911! The Complete First Season. I'd seen scattered episodes of this during visits to my family (I don't have cable myself), and found them mildly amusing. But when I watched the entire season, I liked it a lot better: watching the episodes in succession made it clear, as individual episodes in isolation didn't, that it really is character-based humor, and not just people acting like idiots. I'm not claiming that it's Fawlty Towers, but it's worth checking out. The DVD has commentary tracks to four episodes: the first is worth listening to, the others not so much.

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Thursday, December 16, 2004


Scorch Trio is a Scandinavian instrumental trio that, like Alan Licht or Ascension, inhabits the boundary zone between rock and free improv. In Scorch Trio's case, the rhythm section is clearly jazz-based, but Raoul Bjorkenheim's (there should be an umlaut over the o in Bjorkenheim) electric guitar captures the energy of rock guitar at its best, though melodically it's more akin to free improv. On the CD I have, Luggumt, the standout tracks are the first, with blazing guitar, and the fifth, with Bjorkenheim's Cale-like electric viola. But it's all good. Both this CD and their first, self-titled CD are put out by the Norwegian label Rune Grammofon, and available from Forced Exposure.

Guillermo Gregorio's Otra Musica is subtitled "tape music, fluxus & free improvisation in Buenos Aries 1963-70." The closest reference point I can think of to it is the three "Inside the Dream Syndicate" CDs of John Cale's experimental from the sixties put out by Table of the Elements. I like the Gregorio CD better, though; it's--dare I say it?--less monotonous, with some free jazz-like sax playing alongside the composed and tape-manipulated pieces. If you're at all interested in experimental music,this is worth checking out. It's put out by Atavistic, and is also available from Forced Exposure.

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Wednesday, December 15, 2004


Reacting to a news story about "a 10-year-old girl ... placed in handcuffs and taken to a police station because she took a pair of scissors to her elementary school," Richard TPD of The Peking Duck asks "Why is America hellbent on being the laughingstock of the entire world?"

I wish I knew the answer to that question, too.

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Monday, December 13, 2004


Below are various observations on "Un Perm' au Casino Hermann Goering," which I finished a couple weeks ago.

It's only in this part of the book that Slothrop emerges as the protagonist, as opposed to just one of a number of major characters. And when the focus is on Slothrop in "Un Perm'," as it is most of the time, everything else is in the background; the everything-in-the foreground technique Pynchon used in "Beyond the Zero," which I talked about here (scroll down to Nov. 4), is only used in "Perm" when Slothrop is absent.

Just as "Beyond the Zero" was grounded in material reality (discussed here, under Oct. 26), the conspiratorial flights in "Perm" are built on a detailed foundation of economic and political reality. The brief appearance of the Argentinian anarchist Squalidozzi, for instance, becomes a pretext for Pynchon to dilate on Argentinian politics and society (pp. 305-7, Bantam edition).

In line with my earlier thoughts about Pointsman being the most psychologically developed character in the book (the post in the first reference above), we have the poem Pointsman wrote (263-4), which I'd forgotten about. As far as I can remember, Pointsman is the only character who we see doing anything like this: the songs the characters sing are all "already there" in the world of the book, if I'm not mistaken. And it's a poem written from the point of view of a historical figure -- again, a parallel with Pynchon himself. What is Pynchon doing with Pointsman? Is being psychologically complex an indicator of corruption?

The complicated and virtually impossible to follow intrigue surrounding the tank described on p. 287 are an anticipatory parody of the conspiracies Pynchon will soon be describing.

I once said that Gravity's Rainbow could be said to have a musical structure, with motifs that keep reappearing. One of these motifs is midgets. They show up a couple of times in "Beyond the Zero," and they're mentioned in "Un Perm'" on pp. 291 and 301 here. But why midgets?

This quote, from Slothrop's point of view when he is on the run, seems very timely today given the nature of our occupation of Iraq: "American voices, country voices, high-pitched and without mercy.... For possibly the first time he is hearing America as it must sound to a non-American. Later he will recall that what surprised him most was the fanaticism, the reliance not just on flat force but on the rightness of what they planned to do" (298; emphasis Pynchon's)

I know I said I wasn't going to quote passages just to say "this is great," but here's one I can't resist: "[railroad] marshaling-yards whose rails run like layers of an onion cut end to end" (299). Not flashy, but startlingly apt.

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Friday, December 10, 2004


On p. 268 of the Bantam edition, Webley Silvernail makes a speech. I'd never paid attention to this speech in previous readings: it's a speech by a very minor character, made to a bunch of dancing rats at the tail end of one of Pynchon's song-and-dance fantasy sequences, and the scene between Pudding and Katje which follows immediately is lurid enough to overshadow everything else in its vicinity. But it now strikes me as absolutely crucial for the book as a whole, crucial enough to reproduce here in toto:

"Now it's back to the cages [for the rats] and the rationalized forms of death--death in the service of the one species cursed with the knowledge that it will die. . . . 'I would set you free, if I knew how. But it isn't free out here. All the animals, the plants, the minerals, even other kinds of men, are being broken and reassembled every day, to preserve an elite few, who are the loudest to theorize on freedom, but the least free of all. I can't even give you hope that it will be different someday--that They'll come out, and forget death, and lose Their technology's elaborate terror, and stop using every other form of life without mercy to keep what haunts men down to a tolerable level--and be like you instead, simply here, simply alive. . . .'" (Ellipses Pynchon's)

Combining this speech, Rathenau's speech at Peter Sachsa's seance (193-95), and various incidental remarks, including the statement that "The real business of the War is buying and selling" (122) I quoted earlier, we can piece together, in broad outline, the worldview governing the book. In GR, World War II is only superficially a struggle to the death between two ideologically opposite sides. In reality, it is being stage-managed by a conspiratorial elite referred to as "They" which controls both sides, in order to extend the reach of technology, bureaucratization, and control, in the hopes that they can overcome death. But far from being able to overcome death, they are its unwitting tools: their actions further the inhuman, quasi-mystical process in which "Death the Impersonator" extends its artificial domain at the expense of life.

Now, this worldview has an aesthetic appeal, and it's fun to hunt down its ramifications throughout the book. And there is arguably a certain symbolic truth to it. The problem is that, of all the historical events Pynchon could have used to illustrate this worldview, World War II is perhaps the worst. For all the faults of the Western Allies (Pynchon pays little attention to the U.S.S.R.'s role), it made an enormous difference which side won; but Pynchon can't acknowledge this without contradicting the book's worldview. The need to deny the difference between the two sides leads him to minimize the Holocaust (though he's willing to allude to it when it serves his purposes). Nor was the vast amount of death caused by Nazi Germany, including the Holocaust, the result of an impersonal process: it was willed by specific people. This treatment of World War II shows a certain moral insensitivity, despite the sensitivity Pynchon frequently shows in individual passages. And it's mainly for this reason that I can't give myself up entirely to the book this time through, despite the brilliance of its prose.

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Wednesday, December 08, 2004


You may have noticed the absence of any political commentary here since the election. That's largely because I haven't had anything to say. I don't know why Kerry lost and I have no idea what the Democrats or the Left should do next (though I do have an idea what they shouldn't do; see below). And to be honest, it was sort of a relief to have the election over. I did my part (not as much as some, but more than most; and greater effort on my part wouldn't have made a difference), and what happens next isn't my responsibility anymore. Which means I can ignore politics if I want to, and I did want to. I particularly didn't want to read any of the many articles describing all the terrible things that would happen now that Bush had been elected: all these consequences had been predicted repeatedly before the election, and I didn't want to be reminded of them now that it was too late.

Recently, though, I've come across a couple of pieces written by others in response to the election which are worthy of notice. "Mourn," Katha Pollitt's column in the Nov. 22 Nation, is the best immediate post-mortem of the election I've come across. It also includes a splendid swipe at the idea, popular on the left, that the Democrats need only nominate a "progressive" candidate to win:

"The logic of the "Left Is More" position seems to be this: What people really want is a Debs or La Follette who will smite the corporations, turn swords into plowshares, share the wealth and banish John Ashcroft to a cabin in the Ozarks. But since the Democratic Party denies them their first choice, they will--naturally!--pick a hard-right warmaker of staggering incompetence and no regard for either the Constitution or the needs of the people. Better that than settle for a liberal centrist who would only raise the minimum wage by two dollars. In other words, these proto-progressives will consciously choose the greater evil out of what--spite? pride? I scorn your half-measures, sir! Keep your small change!"

In her conclusion, Pollitt makes the following depressing reflection:

"Maybe this time the voters chose what they actually want: Nationalism, pre-emptive war, order not justice, "safety" through torture, backlash against women and gays, a gulf between haves and have-nots, government largesse for their churches and a my-way-or-the-highway President. "

I hate to believe this, but it seems difficult to deny it.

There's also a very good article by Louis Menard in the Dec. 6 New Yorker (apparently not available online) which does a good job of refuting the idea, which became conventional wisdom immediately after the election, that "moral values" was the main factor in Bush's victory. (Menard's article wasn't the first to do so, but is more accessible and comprehensive than the other refutations I've seen.) Hopefully Menard's article will also put a stop to the discussions of how Democrats can appeal to conservative evangelicals. I know everyone was upset, but that doesn't explain why so many people decided that trying to appeal to the people least likely to vote for you would be a good strategy.

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Tuesday, December 07, 2004


I just came across a good article by Paul O'Brien at Ninth Art, dealing with the difficulty that comics from the Big Two that aren't about their "core characters" (Batman, Spiderman, X-Men, etc.) have in getting noticed these days, largely because there are so many core character titles. Coincidentally, a few days ago I read the Ed Brubaker interview in The Comics Journal #263, and had noticed a quote which seems to perfectly sum up this issue and the current state of the "mainstream" comic market. I'd been thinking of posting it anyway, so here it is:

"Mainstream comics is just about as small as alternative comics were in 1992. Almost everybody I know who works in mainstream comics has a book they're doing that they're just doing because they really want to do it, and everybody that reads the book loves it but the book doesn't make any money, most retailers don't order it -- and that's just what alternative comics were like. [Laughs.] You'd wish you could get Marvel and DC off their shelves a little bit more so there was room for other books and now it's like that at the major publishers, too." (p. 70)

To be sure, this may be a little exaggerated; I suspect that even in 1992 there were very few alternative comics with sales that could equal the typical second-tier Marvel or DC book of today. But essentially, it rings true to me.

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Monday, December 06, 2004


I believe that Gene Wolfe is one of the great American writers. Peace is definitely a great book, and The Fifth Head of Cerberus is either great or nearly so; The Book of the New Sun has a good deal of magnificent writing in it, though I want to reserve judgment as to the overall scheme. Of his shorter works, "The Death of Doctor Island" and "Forlesen" are stunning.

But it's been years since I've read a new book by him that I've enjoyed. I was underwhelmed by The Book of the Long Sun. I didn't like The Book of the Short Sun overall, though parts of it were excellent. And I disliked The Knight in toto. (Below I've appended a rant about The Knight that I posted to the Wolfe mailing list when it first came out.)

A few days ago The Wizard, the second part of the "bilogy" of which The Knight is the first part, showed up at my local library, and out of curiosity I checked it out. I got about ninety pages into it (skipping a bit), and then began looking ahead to see if there was anything worth continuing for. I don't actively dislike The Wizard the way I did The Knight, perhaps because my expectations going in were so low. I just found it dull. As with The Knight, none of the characters or their actions interested me at all. The characters have endless boring conversations about the book's convoluted plot, and given my experiences with Wolfe's recent work I have no expectation that making the effort to follow this plot would be worthwhile. Bye bye, Wizard.


Here's the rant about The Knight I mentioned, very slightly edited. It was written in the white heat of disappointment, so to speak; were I to read The Knight again (which I don't plan to), I might find a little more value in it.

I just finished reading The Knight, without any pleasure. In fact, I found it dispiriting, for the extent to which Wolfe has fallen off even from The Book of the Short Sun. I nearly gave up two-thirds of the way through, as up till then literally nothing about the book had interested me (except for a few scraps of research): not Sir Able of the High Heart, the Uberknight who his inferiors willingly submit to (if not, they're treacherous curs, whom he rightfully punishes), not any of the other characters, not the world, and not the plot, such as it was. Able doesn't behave like an adolescent, magically given an adult body or not: what he does behave like is an adolescent boy's fantasy of how he would behave if given a powerful adult body. Nor does he sound in the least like an adolescent, contemporary or otherwise. When Able talks to other characters, he sounds like the generic Wolfe Competent Male; when he's narrating, he mostly sounds like Hoof, except when Wolfe throws in some incongruous "poetic" passages, or remembers that Able is supposed to be a modern teenager and tosses in a reference to Macs or baseball. As Roy and Chris have suggested, the idea that the book is a letter written by Able to his brother to explain his situation is ridiculous. After the two-thirds mark, the book picked up a little, I'll admit: Mani, the only interesting character, appeared, and the story moved away from Able alternately displaying his valor and chastising cads. But I have no interest in Able's further adventures, and no need to know what happens next.

Aside from the minor characters being completely uninteresting except for Mani, several of them have been recycled from The Book of the Short Sun. Disiri is another version of Seawrack. Able's adoring slave-elfmaidens are like Jahlee--shape-shifting temptresses in lust with the hero--though lacking Jahlee's individuality. Berthould and Pouk are both versions of Pig, and Gylf combines Oreb and Babbie.

There's been talk about how the book explores chivalric values, but in fact the values of the book are those of British boys' school stories circa 1910. Some people have argued that Able is an unreliable narrator, but to me this is wishful thinking (like the idea that "The Ziggurat" is a critique of patriarchy) born of disbelief that Wolfe actually wants us to see a dull lout like Able as a hero.

Compared to my other complaints, it's a minor point, but Uns's dialect is even more annoying than the dialects in The Book of the Short Sun.

I'm aware of the high praise the book has received here, in print, and from the famous names who contributed blurbs, but I find this acclaim simply baffling. I literally don't see anything in the book to evoke it. To me, the book is like a parody of Wolfe. Even more, it strikes me as being Wolfe's own wish-fulfillment fantasy. I'll probably read The Wizard when it appears, for old times' sake if for no other reason, but it would take a miracle for it to redeem The Wizard Knight as a whole, and I no longer expect miracles from Wolfe.

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Sunday, December 05, 2004


A few days ago I remarked that an otherwise unfunny humor anthology contained one funny piece, an excerpt from Girls' Poker Night by Jill A. Davis. I just read it, and unfortunately, there isn't much else in it that's nearly as funny. It's not much of a novel either. Sorry for mentioning it. (The anthologized chapter is entitled "Sister Goddess Ruby" and begins on p. 78 of the hardcover, if you want to read it in the library.)

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Thursday, December 02, 2004


A year ago, I wrote a favorable review of The Soddit, a parody of you-know-what by A. R. R. R. Roberts [Adam Roberts]. A few days ago I saw a new parody by Roberts, The Sellamillion, and bought it. Unfortunately the front-cover blurb, "the disappointing 'other' Tolkien parody," turned out to be accurate. Most of the humor is decidedly uninspired, relying on funny names and mock-pedantic footnotes. And while there are some chuckles, there's nothing as funny as the best bits of The Soddit, apart from a dialogue between Frodo and Sam in the style of Dr. Seuss (sample:

'Sam, I'll tell you this in actual fact --
I hate this magic artefact;
I do not like it in the dark
I will not treat it as a lark
I do not like this Magic Ring
I do not like it, Sam-old-thing.')

Actually, when you strip away the funny names and facetiousness, the 160 smallish pages from "Of Belend and Luthwoman" through "Of Earwiggi" (see what I mean? And I left out the umlauts) make up a pretty good epic fantasy novella (if that's not an oxymoron).

It's published by Gollancz in the U.K. (apparently no U.S. publisher, but a local bookstore was selling it for $9.95) and the ISBN is 0-575-07611-9.

Last night I was feeling kind of depressed and not up to any serious reading, so I decided to browse through May Contain Nuts, a contemporary humor anthology that I checked out of the library a few days ago (edited by Michael J. Rosen). Doing so made me a lot more depressed: apparently humor is dead in this country. But I wanted to be fair, so this afternoon I checked to see if it would look any better when I was feeling better. It didn't. In fact, much of it is so unfunny that I'm wondering if it's some new genre of experimental humor that I'm not getting; but I'm not inclined to investigate. I did discover one funny piece, though: an excerpt from Jill A. Davis's Girls' Poker Night, which I checked out of the library today and intend to read.

UPDATE: Don't bother with Girls' Poker Night; see the post just above this one.

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