Jubilee Part 2: An Accidental Account of Thomas Pynchon and A Brief History of Tom Robbins

Okay, I lied. In my previous post, I claimed that in high school I read nothing but elevated works of high tragedy. You have to understand that it was four in the morning. Actually, the other things I read in high school, very avidly and more than once, were the novels of Tom Robbins and Anne Rice. I suppose I still haven’t outgrown Anne Rice, even though Interview with the Vampire is eighty percent whining, and anything after Queen of the Damned is pathetically unreadable.

Tom Robbins is a more difficult case. He created a map for the enjoyable novel, almost after the fashion of some marketer highly placed in the publishing world.

Instead of the endless heartbreak of Gatsby or Salinger, Robbins substituted seductions and chance encounters taken more or less directly from the world of romance novels.

Instead of the metaphysical quicksand of lost time, or crime and punishment, Robbins substituted an unexplored cosmos of continual possibility. Different cultures and religions jostled alongside each other in friendly fashion, offering up all their myths for one’s own private wonderment.

Instead of pushing genre to the point of horror and banality, as Poe might have done, Robbins started with banality (a waitress stuck in Seattle, with her dissertation at a standstill) and then started uncorking genre plots like fresh bottles of champagne. There was fantasy (immortality! pagan gods!), mystery (international operators! the hidden body of Jesus!), and stock characters from a bohemian-infused commedia del’arte.

All that being true, I still grew tired of the way Robbins retreated into fantasy to prove his metaphysical ideas, and of the superficial relations between his winking, primally prepossessing heroes and their adventurous, but subservient, Barbie doll lovers. His endless, showoff sentences began crashing painfully against my temples.

Which means that I have been waiting for about eight years for another author capable of taking Robbins’s place — capable of bringing the open-ended life to life, without losing hold of prose or plotting like Wolfe (either Wolfe, Tom or Thomas) or Kerouac tend to do. It is one thing to write about the bohemian experiment as a nonfiction experiment in living — that’s what makes On the Road and Tropic of Cancer so great — and another thing to write from inside the ideas that make it run. Enter Pynchon and The Crying of Lot 49, and the word “Tristero.”

Tristero is a reference to the philosopher’s stone, via Hermes Trismegistus, and the allegory of that stone, capable of turning lead into gold, is the allegory for Pynchon of the possibilities of metaphor, “another set of possibilities to replace those that had conditioned the land to accept any San Narciso among its most tender flesh without a reflex or a cry.” This is still the dream he’s hunting down in Against The Day: the task of re-drawing the map of America, and the whole industrialized world, such that many Americas (by which Pynchon would mean something like many undergrounds of different common, intellectual projects) could exist spontaneously, undertaken in freedom.

These connections between people, more or fewer people, are necessarily coded, and not universally visible; the intimacy of the project or of the love affair demands it (hence the connotation of the secret “tryst” in Tristero). (If there is one work through which I could forgive Derrida, it would be A Taste for the Secret.)

So, the symbol of the Tristero is the post-horn, meaning the time after the sounding of the trumpet: “I heard behind me a loud voice, as of a trumpet, saying ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’ ” (Rev. 1:11). Pynchon makes the parallel explicit: “Passerine spread his arms in a gesture that seemed to belong to the priesthood of some remote culture; perhaps to a descending angel. The auctioneer cleared his throat. Oedipa settled back, to await the crying of Lot 49.”

It makes little sense to call Pynchon post-modern. The man is post-apocalyptic, on the sworn evidence of his own metaphors. For Pynchon, the apocalypse is the moment where the mechanism, the mechanical in thought and deed, becomes totally ascendant:

Creation was a vast, intricate machine. But one part of it, the Scurvhamite part, ran off the will of God, its prime mover. The rest ran off some opposite Principle, something blind, soulless; a brute automatism that led to eternal death. The idea was to woo converts into the Godly and purposeful sodality of the Scurvhamite. But somehow those few saved Scurvhamites found themselves looking out into the gaudy clockwork of the doomed with a certain sick and fascinated horror, and this was to prove fatal.

If we ask ourselves what alternative exists to this triumph of the mechanical system, in Pynchon’s novel, it turns out to be a curiosity about alternatives: a curiosity about what the lethal apocalypse has remaindered, exactly in the sense of the remaindered books in Zapf’s Used Books, and in the sense that Oedipa has survived the death of Inverarity (“invariety”) and his San Narciso empire. (Also in the sense of the remaindered “zero” I discussed in the post on Paul de Man. “Tristero” of course contains the word zero as a complement to the triad.) It is the purest of intellectual enterprises: the suspension of the self in the name of the search, adventure qua adventure.

In other words, the dead genre-hopping and dead virtuosity of Robbins has been transformed here into the great narrative of curiosity (as it probably always was, with Robbins shamelessly ripping Pynchon off, and both of them stealing from Joyce). What has become of the mystery plot? It has become a plot about how Oedipa constructs meaning, even when she knows that the resolution of the mystery is also a moment of death:

San Narciso at that moment lost (the loss pure, instant, spherical, the sound of a stainless orchestral chime held among the stars and struck lightly), gave up its residue of uniqueness for her; became a name again, was assumed back into the American continuity and crust and mantle. Pierce Inverarity was really dead.

“It’s over,” she said, “They’ve saturated me. From here on I’ll only close them out. You’re free. Released. You can tell me.”

But the man Oedipa tells this to is already lost; like the victims of forgetting in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he has been unwilling to move past the completed hermetic circle (sphere) of loss and trauma back the beginning with another love, instead choosing to isolate himself as a member of Inamorati Anonymous. In Pynchon’s world, love and curiosity are the same thing.

What happened to the fantasy plot? It became a plot about the function of metaphor; the catachresis, or original error that brings a metaphor to life, becomes a miracle:

    “The Machine uses both. The Demon makes the metaphor not only verbally graceful, but also objectively true.”
“But what,” she felt like some kind of a heretic, “if the Demon exists only because the two equations look alike? Because of the metaphor?”

“You know what a miracle is. Not what Bakunin said. But another world’s intrusion into this one. Most of the time we coexist peacefully, but when we do touch there’s cataclysm. Like the church we hate, anarchists also believe in another world. Where revolutions break out spontaneous and leaderless.”

So the metaphor is middle term, the third term, between two things: between two specific things, like information and thermodynamics in the case of Maxwell’s Demon, and between the thinking subject (Oedipa) and the impersonal “power spectra” of discourse (as revealed to Mucho in his hallucinatory perfect knowledge of corporate music). Hence Tri-stero, triad. It is the fantasy plot: miracle, alchemy, out of catachresis (if there’s one book through which I could forgive Derrida, it would be White Mythologies).

What becomes of Robbins’s seduction plot? It’s there as the first adulterous encounter between Metzger and Oedipa, and that moment, with its wonderfully comic explosion into Oedipa supplemented by every piece of clothing she owns:

So began, for Oedipa, the languid, sinister blooming of The Tristero. […] As if the breakaway gowns, net bras, jeweled garters and G-strings of historical figuration that would wall away were layered dense as Oedipa’s own street clothes in that game with Metzger in front of the Baby Igor movie; as if a plunge toward dawn indefinite black hours long would indeed be necessary before The Tristero could be revealed in its terrible nakedness.

In other words, the seduction narrative (the striptease game) turns into the irony of the search for truth, for an unveiling which instead magnetizes an increasing number of objects (clothes) and events to it through unforeseen tunnels of historical figuration.
The glittering and uncountable world is the result of the attempt to unveil a truth.

So Pynchon became a Robbins for me, one who is not outgrown. What he does is certainly not the only possible function of literature. He has merely created a story about the  way narrative functions — the interplay of love and curiosity, the irresistible progress forward through revelations, and backwards through meanings, the re-minting of the world by metaphor, the symbolic death of final closure. In other words, he has created a story about the very peculiar and indispensable reason for prose, for teaching, and writing, and reading it.

That returns us to the beginning of this post, and to the earlier posts about fatalist tragedy. For Fitzgerald, there is nothing after the cataclysm, except perhaps for Nick Carraway’s bitter moralism. When I think about the way I gradually expanded beyond the Beatles towards darker music, I think of this conversation:

MY FRIEND’S DAD: I read the lyric sheet you left on the kitchen table.

ME: Oh?

MY FRIEND’S DAD: Yes, for “Nine Inch Nails.” “The Downward Spiral.” Those are pretty dark lyrics, man.

ME: It is [sic], yeah.

MY FRIEND’S DAD: I mean, it was too fuckin’ dark. If I read that and listened to that it would drive me nuts. We used to listen to the Doors and we thought that was heavy, you know what I’m saying? Up to you, but I bet you’d be better off listening to something else.

When I think back on it, think what it was all about, us getting suddenly into Nine Inch Nails and The Velvet Underground at the same time we were discovering Gatsby, I remember that I was supposed to write something in defense of sad songs but I never got around to it. I was going to claim that listening to them wasn’t a sad experience, and that reading tragic books isn’t sad. When I think about that music and those novels, I want to call it the traumatic sublime. The experience of a cul-de-sac, of failure and loss, is a humanising and perhaps inevitable experience, and it seems to me that me and my friends, in valuing tragedy, were trying to follow that apocalyptic doom-feeling (cf. “The Pit and the Pendulum” or anything else by Poe) to its limit and moment of transformation. One discovers oneself still persisting in life and consciousness, albeit in an afterlife of sorts. Think of the sympathy and humility of this cry, recently uttered by Spurious (quoting his odd friend W.):

I keep a mental list of W.’s favourite questions, which he constantly asks me so as to ask himself. ‘At what point did you realise that you would amount to nothing?’; ‘When was it that you first became aware you would be nothing but a failure?’; ‘When you look back at your life, what do you see?’; ‘How is it that you know what greatness is, and that you will never, ever reach it it?’

‘What does it mean to you that your life has amounted to nothing?’, W. asks me with great seriousness.

The one great unfinished project of my graduate studies so far is a study of the picaresque novel as an alternative to tragedy, leading from Cervantes and Tristram Shandy all the way to Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow. I suppose I am prone to feeling as though my life has frequently been the empty, becalmed remainder of better days and the traumas that concluded them; what is so miraculous about the characters in Pynchon is that they live phoenix lives as people renewed by words and the loves they contain:

The voices before and after the dead man’s that had phoned at random during the darkest, slowest hours, searching ceaseless among the dial’s ten million possibilities for that magical Other who would reveal herself out of the roar of relays, monotone litanies of insult, filth, fantasy, love whose brute repetition must someday call into being the trigger for the unnamable act, the recognition, the Word.

There is an end to the narrative of failure, like that moment listening to Nine Inch Nails when one realizes that Reznor makes jokes constantly. I have no idea whether the narrative of failure in Spurious will come to an end, and I’m certainly in no hurry to see that happen, since the writing is such a pleasure. As I implied in the recent post on Nabokov and the symptom, every cul-de-sac is presumably necessary at the moment Oedipa describes, the moment of saturation. It is also the Scurvhamite definition of evil, because at the dead-end thought becomes mechanism, fatalistic and helpless.

But for me, and perhaps for you, this New Year will be a time to start over again, and to consign whatever isn’t still vital to ash: “Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendental meaning, or only the earth.” Some part of ourselves, still alive, contains the seed of a life transfigured; that is how the Restoration comedy of Thomas Pynchon understands Invararity’s death, how Joyce understand’s Rudy’s death, how Sterne and Voltaire comprehend the aftermath of war. It differs from Robbins in its crucial awareness of the necessity of tragedy.

Forgiveness: the forgiveness of all debts, injuries, obligations. The cashiering of everything that happened this year that I couldn’t put in the blog. As Oedipa guesses, indefinite long black hours would indeed be necessary before the past can receive its burial and become “only the earth,” material but out of reckoning, eclipsed by other metaphors.

That’s why the law (in Leviticus) of the jubilee year has always stayed with me. Happy jubilee year, dear reader. May 2007 be picaresque indeed.