Tuesday, July 19, 2005


Long-time readers of this blog, if there are any, will have noticed that I haven't blogged about Gravity's Rainbow in quite a while. After my last post on Gravity's Rainbow, I set it aside unread for a couple of months. Then I picked it up again, read twenty or thirty pages, set it aside again, picked it up after a few days, read twenty or thirty pages more, and set it aside once again. Why has my reading of Gravity's Rainbow seemingly run out of steam? Partly because of lack of energy and hence of ability to concentrate; and partly because I was busy writing several reviews I'd committed myself to, and I didn't want to read the book if I wouldn't have time to blog about it. But there's another factor which is intrinsic to the book itself. I'm still coming across brilliant bits of writing on nearly every page. But at this point in the book (the tail-end of "In the Zone" and the first pages of "The Counterforce"), the brilliant bits don't seem to add up to anything; or if they do, I can't see it. John Cawelti once wrote in an article on Melville's The Confidence-Man that whatever Melville asserted in that book, he took back later in the book, and the same could be said of Gravity's Rainbow.* But more that that, so much of the material in these pages simply seems irrelevant to any discernible broader design. To take the most recent example I encountered, why is the story of Byron the Bulb bracketed by an unnamed colonel's hallucination (?) of visiting "Happyville"? And why does the colonel meet Jamf there? (Bantam pb ed., pp. 752-64) In Gerald Howard's article on Gravity's Rainbow in the Summer 2005 issue of Bookforum, which is overwhelmingly laudatory, he nevertheless remarks that "there were stretches of the book that felt so private and hermetic I decided that Pynchon was mostly talking to Pynchon"; and I know what he means.

This leads to the question: what is Gravity's Rainbow? In his article, Howard asserts that "Gravity's Rainbow is not ... a novel in the generally accepted sense--it is a text, intended for moral instruction." I would agree with the first half of the sentence, and so, I think, would most readers (never mind the difficulty of defining "a novel in the generally accepted sense"). But I don't agree with the second half. In fact, it's not clear to me what Howard means by it. Certainly Gravity's Rainbow has a moral point of view, but no more so than do many if not most "novels in the generally accepted sense." And if Pynchon's primary goal in writing Gravity's Rainbow was moral instruction, he picked a very inefficient way of going about it. Moreover, Pynchon's moral concerns are not constant within Gravity's Rainbow: for instance, the moral critique of Slothrop I had talked about earlier (Jan. 15) has apparently been discarded in Slothrop's most recent appearances.

Dan Green also disagrees with Howard's claim, and goes on to suggest that Gravity's Rainbow, at least at its "best," is more like a Menippean satire, "in which 'it's usually difficult (if not impossible) to pin down the specific targets of ridicule,'" and which "depicts human behavior as just hopelessly ridiculous." But I don't think this is right either. While there is indeed satire in Gravity's Rainbow, it's not primarily satire, Menippean or otherwise. Nor is it difficult to pin down the specific targets of ridicule in Gravity's Rainbow's satiric passages. And I don't believe that Pynchon shows human behavior in Gravity's Rainbow as "just hopelessly ridiculous" at all, though his characters do often find themselves in ridiculous situations. Franz Pokler, Lena, Mexico, Prentice, Enzian, Tchitcherine, Blicero, Bianca, Greta: none of these are portrayed as ridiculous. Even Slothrop, for all his gee-whiz and aw-shucks mannerisms, is ultimately more tragic than ridiculous. If you compare Gravity's Rainbow with Gaddis's JR and The Recognitions, both of which are Menippean satires, the difference in tone is obvious. At this point I should put forth my own theory of what Gravity's Rainbow is; but unfortunately I don't have one. I don't understand why Pynchon structured the book as he did, or why he included what he did -- unless he did indeed set out to write a book for which no coherent interpretation was possible.

Towards the end of his article, Howard worries that younger readers may find Pynchon's concerns "alien and irrelevant to them. This makes sense. Pynchon is a pure product of the cold war and the arms race and the adversary culture that opposed them, whereas these young people came of age after the fall of communism, in a time when technology is viewed as the royal road to imaginative and personal freedom." If younger readers do in fact find Pynchon's concerns alien and irrelevant (Howard relies upon a very small and unrepresentative sample), I don't think it's for the reasons Howard gives. The end of the Cold War did not mean the end of the military-industrial complex, or of the invocation of external enemies to get the populace to rally 'round the flag. And suspicion of science and technology remains prevalent

A more likely explanation: the "enemy" in Gravity's Rainbow, in the broadest sense, is the processes of systematization and rationalization. This reflects American society as it was at the time, and even more so that of the '50s and '60s, which was the society of Pynchon's formative years and that which the New Left was a reaction against. This was the society of Whyte's The Organization Man and Galbraith's The New Industrial State. Most major industries were divided up among a few large corporations who tacitly agreed to respect each others' market shares. Government programs, based upon social science, sought to put society in order. And McNamara tried to fight the Vietnam War with operations research. But this society is gone (even more so in perception than in reality). No doubt there are still some industries which are shared out according to cozy gentlemen's agreements among corporations, but not the industries or the corporations that dominate the business headlines. Politicians no longer propose ambitious programs based upon social science -- at least none that have any chance of being enacted. And the current administration's wars have not been notable for precise quantitative planning. Given all this, it isn't surprising that a book whose main target is systematization and rationalization might no longer seem relevant.

*John G. Cawelti, "Some Notes on the Structure of The Confidence-Man," American Literature 29 (Nov. 1957), 278-88.

  (0) comments

Sunday, July 10, 2005


IWGP: Ikebukoro West Gate Park vol. 2
Story by Ira Ishida
Art by Sena Aritou
Digital Manga Publishing
224 pp., $12.95
ISBN: 1569709858

This review is embarrasingly, even shamefully, late. I wish I could make up for my dereliction by saying good things about this volume, but unfortunately I can't. IWGP vol. 1 was formulaic but mildly enjoyable, but for the most part this volume isn't even that good.

The first seventy pages finish up the storyline that began in the first volume. There are a couple of big plot holes: we're never told how Makoto abruptly figures out who was responsible for Rika's death, and it's very strange that his reaction, once he's figured this out, is so subdued, given how angry he was at her death in the first volume. And the other big revelation in these pages is something that I feel is exploitative when used primarily as a plot device, as it is here. But despite these flaws, these pages, like the rest of this storyline, are mostly competent formula entertainment. It's with the second storyline, which takes up the rest of volume two (but continues into the next volume, which I haven't read), that things deteriorate.

Once again Makoto is involved with a gorgeous young hooker. This one asks him to protect her boyfriend, who is being hunted by the yakuza for setting on fire some drugs they were selling. Makoto sets out to entrap the pusher who was the buyer in the deal, and who also got the hooker addicted. He forms a surveillance team consisting of the pathetic nerd friend from volume one, a computer whiz, and the boyfriend himself, who is Iranian and has an annoying accent (at least in Duane Johnson's translation here). This leads to predictable hijinks: comedy is not Ishida's forte, as the early chapters of volume one also made clear. Hijinks aside, nothing much happens: if you want action, you'll have to buy the third volume. Nor are any of the characters of much interest. As with the first volume, the art and visual storytelling are competent but undistinguished.

To sum up, the first seventy pages of this volume are mildly entertaining, if this is the type of story you enjoy. The rest of the volume is a waste of space (and money).

In the teaser at the end of the volume, we're told that in volume three Makoto will "dig up the dark and dirty secrets behind online sex." I sense a pattern here.

  (0) comments

Tuesday, July 05, 2005


Lately, I've been spending much of my time reading Fruits Basket in Japanese. First I read vol. 10 to keep up with the English-language releases. Then after the way vol. 10 ended, there was no way I could stop there. And vol. 11 was even more intense. The next volume (which is as far as I've gotten) relaxed the tension a bit, but was still excellent. Aside from the emotional drama, what stands out about these volumes is how Takaya continues to add depth to her characters. After Acme Novelty Library, Fruits Basket is the best ongoing comics series I know of, manga or no. (And yes, Acme Novelty Library counts as ongoing: Ware continues to publish installments in the Chicago Reader, even though it's been over three years since the last issue of the comic book.)

However, I suspect that Tokyopop's translation may be misleading at an important point: the final page of vol. 10. I can't say anything more here without spoilers, but here's an AoD forum thread where I describe the problem, and some people who know more Japanese than me respond. But watch out: even the title of the thread is a spoiler. And I made an error in my initial post, which I corrected here. (Note also that this thread won't be up permanently.)

  (0) comments

Monday, July 04, 2005


Bambi and Her Pink Gun, vol. 1
Atsushi Kaneko
Digital Manga Publishing
208 pp., $12.95
ISBN: 1569709416

What sort of book the forthcoming Bambi is is clear from its first page, which depicts a gun in closeup pointed directly at the reader. The gun turns out to be held by Bambi, a teenage (apparently) girl who has kidnapped a young boy whose name and origin we never learn and is delivering him to a shadowy group of figures referred to only as the "old men." A message has been sent to everyone in the underworld offering a five hundred million yen reward (about five million dollars) to anyone who will kill Bambi and shelter the boy, provided that the boy is not injured in any way. Hence Bambi is constantly having to fight off killers out for the reward; but she survives each encounter, leaving an extensive trail of dead bodies in her wake.

As with the collection of Kaneko's (not yet translated) that I reviewed earlier, we're clearly in Tarantino territory, though parts bring the Takashi Miike of films like the absurdist yakuza movie Gozu to mind as well. But Kaneko has a flair and style of his (her?) own. Bambi is a completely amoral character who seemingly lacks aany inclination for self-reflection. And she relates to other people, including the boy, exclusively through belligerence (though she softens a tiny bit in the last chapter): she typically introduces herself by announcing "Me Bambi" and demanding something at gunpoint. (I'd be interested to see what this corresponds to in the original, as Japanese makes no distinction between "I" and "me.") One character calls her a monster; but she's presented more as a child of nature, with her name and her refusal to eat artificial foods, which she claims sully her "beautiful, pure body." She eschews sex for the same reason; and, though on the cover her midriff is bare and she's briefly nude, she isn't portrayed as a sex symbol, unlike most femme fatales. The other regular character, the kidnapped boy, never speaks or shows any sign of unhappiness with his current situation; he seems to be interested only in eating, though there are hints that there's more to him than meets the eye.

The first three chapters of the book, about seventy pages, are exhilirating. The action is nonstop, and Kaneko's visual storytelling is marvelously fluid. The rest of the book is more uneven. The fourth chapter, featuring a "good" teacher, suffers from too heavy-handed satire. In later chapters, Kaneko broadens the scope of the story, introducing an orgiastic, demonic rock star called Gabba King who plays an important role in the plot. But it's not clear in this volume where Kaneko is going with this; and Gabba King isn't as interesting a character as Bambi.

But despite this unevenness, the book is a lot of fun. It may appeal more, in fact, to fans of American comics than to manga fans: it lacks the focus on relationships, complex plot, or fantasy which (singly or in combination) characterize most of the manga that have become popular here. Instead, it exemplifies a "cinematic" concept of comics as pure action. The art is unlike that of any other manga artist I know of. The nearest thing I can compare it to is David Lapham of Stray Bullets, at least when only individual panels are considered.

  (0) comments

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?