Sunday, January 14, 2007

Bottle Notes: AtD as aubade with utterands, chronosynclastic infundibulum, or both?

Recently I wrote that I would be mounting an expedition to ascend Thomas Pynchon's soaring mountain of a novel Against the Day (AtD to a growing band of fellow travelers and aficionados) and sending back the occasional note in a bottle from my peregrinations. I guess I can dispense with the bottle, what with the internets and all.

I'll start the titles of all my fragmentary dispatches with the keywords "bottle notes." I'm still nervous about upgrading to New Blogger, with its capability of appending searchable keyword tags to posts. This should provide a simple work-around for readers who want to find other posts in the series -- just type bottle notes in quotes into the search box up above, and when Blogger is in a good mood, that should bring up a listing of all the "Bottle Notes" posts.

Although I've started the book, I haven't gotten very far yet, and this has occasioned a certain amount of guilt-provoking commentary by Dr. Diablo, the commenter who appears to have appointed himself Superego and relentless taskmaster to my puny little reader's Id. I've been busy, but it's also true that I've been spending more time reading about Pynchon than reading Pynchon. As I noted before, I'm a tentative traveler and it may be a failing of mine to spend too much time mapping the terrain before I set out.

Be that as it may, I've found a fascinating community of bloggers and other commentators sharing their thoughts about Pynchon online. I have to admit that sometimes, both in reading Pynchon and in reading about him, I feel like a bit of a numbskull who has wandered into a class for the smart kids and feels completely out of his depth. But, hey, the company is good, and who knows -- maybe some of the smart kids also feel as if they wandered by mistake into the class for the smart kids.

I'll be linking to some of their discussions in future posts. But I did want to start out by sharing a review by one of the smartest of the smart kids, renowned science fiction critic John Clute. Thomas Pynchon probably knows more about science and the way it has shaped the modern world than any major novelist writing today, so it seems to make sense to listen to what the author of Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia and co-editor of both The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy has to say. He touches on a frequent criticism of the novel, that its characters are too numerous and underdeveloped. In his view, that's very much beside the point.
Against the Day—which begins intoxicatedly at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 and terminates in the "terrible cloudlessness" of the aftermath years begat upon us by World War I—is an aubade against the coming of the 20th century. Like any aubade, it is written in the knowledge that, in the end, Time wins (Pynchon capitalizes Time a lot). When the novel stops, leaving a few survivors in alternate worlds to cultivate their gardens in peace as long as they do not come back, our bridges have all been burnt, and there is nothing more to tell.


But of course that is the point of this great grotesque swaybacked desiccating book about the victory of Time against our single sad Earth. The hundreds of figures who jam into Against the Day are not in fact characters at all, because Pynchon has evacuated his book of that degree of hope. They are utterands: people-shaped utterances who illuminate the stories of the old world that their Author has placed before us in funeral array; they are codes to spell his book with. That is why Pynchon has them break again and again into songs about the roles they play in the book: because they are being sung through. And because that book is about the death of the stories we used to tell, its utterands are bound to the stake of that telling. They are like lovers in the radium glare of dawn, singing the terminal verse of the aubade. Before we shut the last page, the day has blown them out.
You can read the entire review here. In case you're wondering, an aubade is poem about lovers separating at dawn. Sometimes the term takes on a broader meaning, as in Philip Larkin's haunting "Aubade," in which the lover is life.

I really like Clute's analysis, but something at the back of my mind makes me wonder if there isn't another way of looking at AtD. Maybe instead of an aubade, it's a chronosynclastic infundibulum.
Science-fiction fans may have come across the splendid phrase chronosynclastic infundibulum that was invented by Kurt Vonnegut in The Sirens of Titan, which he explained, perhaps less than helpfully, as being “those places ... where all the different kinds of truths fit together”.
The great thing about Pynchon's vast counterfactual alternate universe is that it can be both, and many other things as well.

A final note about my reading strategy: There's method to my slow pace. Readers of Letter from Here will have noted that the world in which George Bush is president and wreaking such havoc on both the people of Iraq and the people of the United States is a world that's driving me nuts. It's a world from which I need to escape.

AtD provides a perfect escape. Believe me, the Chums of Chance may be mere utterands, but I would rather be aboard the hydrogen airship Inconvenience with them than watching our increasingly wayward president stumbling toward the apocalypse. If I read just a few pages a day, I will have this escape hatch available for the rest of his presidency, and I can celebrate the finish of his incumbency by finishing the book.

Should we succeed in driving him from office before the end of his term, I can just read faster. Be happy to.


Dr Diablo said...

The CEO of a uranium company in which I own stock has been given the sobriquet "Mr Delivery" by industry insiders. He delights shareholders by bringing his mining projects to fruition on time and under budget. My prompts are not intended to induce remorse but to help you make this site the web's premier venue for smart talk. In the service of the goal, you want to be the internet's Mr Delivery. If you promise your readers a full report on the weekend's performance at Baraboo's Circus World Museum (and you're welcome to that idea), you want them to get a whiff of cotton candy the moment they log onto your site on MOnday morning.

I do think we want to settle on what the litbiz folks call a "controlling metaphor" for your meander through AGAINST THE DAY. You have compared it to the ascent of a mountain, but you have also promised to send back "messages in bottles." Bottles are traditionally carried over the bounding main, not flipped carelessly over the shoulder by climbers to shatter on the rocks far below. I vote for the nautical metaphor, but it's your show. Anyway, bon voyage and vaya con dios. I admire the coming effort, as I have never even succeeded in getting through THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, a slim and undemanding work.

Anonymous said...

I'm with you. Just got to:

“Little Hellkite they’re lookin for an amalgamator, seein ‘s how with the altitude and breathin in those fumes, the current one’s got it into his head he’s the President.”

“Oh. Of. . . ?”

“Put it this way, he has this nipper with a harmonica foll’n him around everywhere playin Hail to the Chief. Out of tune. Goes off into long speeches nobody can understand, declared war on the state of Colorado last week.”