Review: Taking Woodstock (2009)


The realities were already fixed; the illness was understood to be terminal, and the energies of The Movement were long since dissipated by the rush to self-preservation. — Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971)

Altamont’s fixed realities are thankfully mentioned at the end of Taking Woodstock, when organizer Michael Lang, portrayed here by Jonathan Groff as a perpetually calm Brian May type, mentions “a truly free concert” in the making that involves the Rolling Stones. Exciting stuff. If only Meredith Hunter had been around to lodge a protest. (Or perhaps he’s the unnamed man seen checking into a motel with a white woman.) But Ang Lee’s film is less concerned with this corruption (although it does thankfully suggests that everybody listens to money). Lee is more interested in how people of all types — Jewish motel owners, the dutiful farmer and local chocolate milk magnate Max Yasgur, acidheads busing across the nation, theatrical performers fond of Happenings and disrobing, a Vietnam vet, a transvestite amusingly played by Liev Schreiber — came together in a anarchic haze to slide in the mud, listen to distant music, and kiss random strangers. Good times. But, as it turns out, the possibilities for unity were there all along. For before the Woodstock organizers roll into Bethel, New York, Eliot Tiber (both in real life and in this movie) was the president of the local Chamber of Commerce, patiently stamping permits and listening to wily eleventh-hour interlopers. And what makes the Bethel diner any different than Yasgur’s rented farmland as an amicable place for congregation?

The film actually shares much in common with Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel, Inherent Vice: an accessible mainstream story, streaks of subdued and audience-friendly eccentricity, a meticulous concern for landscape, and a celebration of misfit life just before its destruction by “progress” (for Pynchon, it’s the toxic qualities of the information age; for Lee and screenwriter James Schamus, it’s the transformation of free love advocates into avaricious capitalists). While Lee and Pynchon approach their respective canvases from two close but different time periods (and from two different coasts), I came away from both works with similar populist-minded emotions. I was greatly delighted to see so many perspectives united through a common mass experience, but very much aware that this is a harder reality in an age where careers can end with the judgmental spread of a sound bite. (Rebecca Solnit’s fascinating new book, A Paradise Built in Hell, offers the argument that disaster is now the only way for disparate souls to band together, although both Lee and Pynchon make persuasive cases that passing along a roach might get some of the stiffs to expand their horizons — a sentiment I don’t entirely disagree with.)

What happened to America’s generous capacity to accept its freaks? Or to embrace those gritty human qualities nestled inside steely opportunistic hulls? It can’t just be Thompson’s self-preservation that lopped off the liberal and attentive ear. But these are questions worth asking four decades after Woodstock’s inadvertently free event altered the cultural landscape. Lacking a chewy antagonist like Bigfoot Bjornsen (the cop in Inherent Vice who shares more in common with the libertine detective Doc Sportello), Lee and Schamus have shifted the conflict inwards to the Teichberg family, the managers of the El Monaco. But the Teichbergs are as stiff as dimensionless characters come until the brownies arrive. Imelda Staunton is given a Jewish stereotype. She runs around the hotel screaming at people, muttering Yiddish curses, and, in one terrible Shylock-like moment, is seen clinging to a stash of money in the closet. Surely the real Sonia Teichberg had more depth.

But maybe these skeletal characters represent part of the point. With Woodstock around, we all become insignificant. And, for what it’s worth, Lee gets decent performances out of the actors who count. As Eliot Tiber, Demetri Martin manages to evince an appealing boyishness that matches his efforts to win the town over and his repressed sexuality. Eugene Levy is an inspired casting choice as Yasgur, particularly because Lee allows Levy to play the role straight. Dan Fogler, who I last saw in Fanboys, again shows great energy as a character actor. It’s too bad the women here have been given very little. Surely, Woodstock was a two-gender affair. (And certainly this film features at least one free-form ménage à trois. They didn’t call it free love for nothing, although it would be interesting to see Chris Anderson plagiarize a book on the subject.) And it’s too bad that Emile (Speed Racer) Hirsch is unconvincing (and often laughably bad) as the aforementioned Vietnam vet.

Speaking of Hirsch, his presence here offers a sensible reminder that he also appeared in Gus Van Sant’s Milk. And like that audience-friendly Trojan horse, Taking Woodstock does succeed very well in recapturing Woodstock’s innocence and making you believe in human possibilities. “Hey, don’t lose that creativity, man,” says a character to Tiber, after he suggests an out-of-the-box solution . But he may as well be addressing the audience. Later in the film, after news of the hippie influx has made the rounds, Tiber finds himself unable to order “the usual” from the diner forming the Bethel social center. But the entire town hasn’t quite turned against him. Happy entrepreneurs rush up to Tiber and thank him. Is capitalism then just as much of a galvanizing force as the Woodstock ideology? It would seem so. Michael Lang pays everyone in cash, bundled in brown bags of money. “$1 for water?” says Tiber’s dad upon encountering some pre-bottled water entrepreneur. “Can you believe it?” (Just imagine if he’d encountered the inflated prices in the Coachella desert.)

The film then, despite being a crowd-pleaser, isn’t afraid to focus on the Movement’s dissipated energies. And while Taking Woodstock may come bundled with supporting characters who contribute little to the narrative, as well as annoying split-screen homages to the Michael Wadleigh film, there’s a marvelous shot — which reminded me of the famous traffic scene from Godard’s Weekend — in which Tiber heads down a jampacked Bethel street (courtesy of a motorcycle lift from a friendly cop) past a man carrying a sign BOB DYLAN PLEASE SHOW UP, bra-burners, war protestors, a booth with a sign reading MAKE YOUR OWN SANDWICH, and much more. Today, when such people gather together for an arts festival or a political rally, there is generally some snarky photographer who wants to snap pix and post the results on Flickr for others to ridicule. But presented within this context, only a mirthless asshole would fail to see the wonder of so many types together.

Lee’s made a film that, like The Ice Storm, succeeds in getting us beyond our present historical reference point and reconsidering some of the virtues we abandoned in the past. And maybe the energies of self-preservation will be dissipated by the rush to collective understanding. Yes, that’s a Utopian ideal. But, as Oscar Wilde once said, a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at.

“Against the Day” Roundtable, Part Four

[NOTE: The discussion can also be followed at Metaxucafe. Previous installments: Part One (Max), Part Two (Carolyn) and Part Three (Megan).]

against4.jpgThe New Chums of Chance, aided by associative penchant and a perfervid desire to ferret out reference, continued their journey, hitting beyond Part One and, with Colonel Bud Parr beginning to see references to the Bible and Eliot, settling into the firm fields of Part Two:

“But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Romans 2:5)

My reading of Part 1, “The Light Over the Ranges,” and early Part 2, “Iceland Spar,” has me coming back to the idea of faith in all of its manifestations. Faith in the Old Testament sense of an apocalyptic fear; Faith in anarchism, Faith in science and technology; magic and pagan rituals and of course Faith in money and materialism, particularly as the book opens on the 1893 World’s Fair, which, as one commentator on that event said, was a dry run for America’s “consumer based society.”

Each of these manifestations appear to be represented by a major character. When the anarchist Webb Traverse shrugs and says “Sufficient unto the day” on page 96 he echoes Saint Matthew (6:34):

“Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”

Taken with the quote above where “against the day” is bookended by the word “wrath,” Webb stands as a polar opposite to the capitalist Scarsdale Vibe and the distinctly American optimism of the Chums of Chance who are surrounded by Christian symbols, including, on page 14, “Jacob’s ladder,” which is used literally as a ship’s ladder, but also is a well known symbol from the Bible (Genesis 28:12):

“And he [jacob] dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.”

On page 250-252 Chum Miles Blundell has a vision and says:

“‘It wanted us to know that we, too, are here on a pilgrimage….When all the masks have been removed, it is really an inquiry into our own duty, our fate…As the Franciscans developed the Stations of the Cross to allow any parishioner to journey to Jerusalem without leaving his church grounds, so have we been brought up and down the paths and aisles of what we take to be the all-but-boundless world, but which in reality are only a circuit of humble images reflecting a glory greater than we can imagine – to save us from the blinding terror of having to make the real journey, from one episode to the next of the last day of Christ on Earth, and at last to the real, unbearable Jerusalem.’”

With all the talk of alternative universes in this book and clouds of apocalypse hanging over it, the fictive Chums – who do show up alternatively on page 214 as fiction despite interfacing with other “real” characters like Lew Basnight – seem to me to be something like King Arthur’s Knights of the Roundtable with perhaps Blundell as the virginal Galahad himself.

The Chums’ airship parallels the original “Quest of the Holy Grail,” (the original, not the Mallory) which is a tale of overt Christian symbolism, with its itinerant heroes who find themselves meeting challenges on a quest that is initially unknown to them. Ships play a large role in the original Quest too.

It’s interesting that Max said reading Pynchon is like reading T.S. Eliot because it is Eliot who led me to reading “The Quest for the Holy Grail” and Jessie Weston’s “From Ritual to Romance,” which relates the quest for the holy grail to its ritualistic roots and could also be for interesting ancillary reading alongside Against the Day.

Of course, picking a theme like I have could be dangerous territory because it seems to me that once you go mining in a Pynchon novel you start finding things where they may or may not really exist. The inscriptions that pop up everywhere in Against the Day are confusing, but also seem to point toward something. The Dante quote inscribed before (I think) New York City on page 154 “I AM THE WAY INTO THE DOLEFUL CITY” — which we know ends (frustratingly not here) with “Abandon Every Hope, All You Enter Here” — seems to be a signpost. Of the city that this inscription stands before, which underwent an “all-night rape,” Pynchon says in one of his occasional flourishes of sensuous writing:

“Out of that night and day of unconditional wrath, folks would’ve expected to see any city, if it survived, all newly reborn, purified by flame, taken clear beyond greed, real-estate speculating, local politics – instead of which, here was this weeping widow, some one-woman grievance committee in black, who would go on to save up and lovingly record and mercilessly begrudge every goddamn single tear she ever had to cry, and over the years to come would make up for them all be developing into the meanest, cruelest bitch of a city, even among cities not notable for their kindness.”

I say it’s a signpost because the story surrounding this city seems confusing as it pops out of nowhere and recedes into the background of the novel just as quickly, yet stands in contrast to the opening scenes of Chicago’s World’s Fair and captures the connection between a wrathful apocalypse and the Christian journey that Dante had just embarked upon in Canto III of The Divine Comedy, which like “Against the Day” reaches back into pre-Christian elements along its path and challenges Dante in his judgement of others. The passage in the Bible right after the one I quoted from Webb above reads:

“Judge not, that ye be not judged. 7:2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”

“Against the Day” Roundtable, Part Three

[NOTE: The discussion can also be followed at Metaxucafe. Previous installments: Part One (Max) and Part Two (Carolyn).]

against3.jpgThe New Chums of Chance rose further into the sky, wondering if Pynchon’s opus would take them into the heliosphere and whether the airy confines of the hydrogen airship Roundtable Discussion would cause many of them to become light of head. Fortunately, Major Megan Sullivan put a halt to the flames, pointing out to the loyal crew (all perusing Pynchon) that oxygen was becoming nowhere nearly as plentiful as it once had, and offering the following observations on Part One:

I’ve only read The Crying of Lot 49, so this is my first foray deeper into the Pynchon forest and it’s taking me a while to find a path. He keeps taking me off course, introducing new characters and ideas on almost every page it seems. Like Max mentioned, I feel the need to look up every reference on Google.

One interesting aspect of the first section was the tone Pynchon used with the Chums of Chance. They speak archaically, like Max said, with a quaint and antiquated speech. Yet Pynchon goes out of his way to contrast the goodness of the Chums with the reality of the time period. He paints Chicago as it truly was, not as how one might expect it to appear in a boy’s magazine. “Somewhere down there was the White City promised in the Columbian Exposition brochures, somewhere among the tall smokestacks unceasingly vomiting black grease-smoke, the effluvia of butchery unremitting, into which the buildings of the leagues of the city lying downwind retreated, like children into sleep which bringeth not reprieve from the day.”

And what are the Chums’ role in the novel? The Chums seem unreal. Like Socrates in The Clouds, they live in the sky oblivious to what’s occurring on the ground beneath them. Are they to keep the action moving throughout this long novel? It’s a relief to get back to the Chums after pages of introductions to new characters—they’re like old friends. It will be interesting to see how they develop in the next parts of AtD.

* * *

The Quite Balding Moderator interjects:

I’ll have more to say about the Chums of Chance very soon, once I’ve followed Mr. Parr’s prodigious post (forthcoming). But I put forth Megan’s question to Pynchonites of all stripes (including those reading this roundtable discussion): I like the Chums of Chance very much, but I feel that their presence is very much ancillary to the narrative. Like Michael Moorcock, I believe that Against the Day is very much using dime novel conventions to raise larger and serious questions about how wizards of science were viewed in the early days of the 20th century, particularly with the ragged pursuit of cash. But if the form is sprawling, with often tertiary connections among the characters, then are the Chums the clearest membrane between reader and writer? Are these “old friends” the very conduit which permits us to steer through the narrative?

“Against the Day” Roundtable, Part Two

[VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: In case it wasn’t clear, the Quite Balding Moderator wishes to note that this post came from the mordant wit of Carolyn Kellogg and not from his dunder-soaked head.]

[IMPORTANT NOTE (Not as Important as the First, But Important Nonetheless): The discussion can also be followed at Metaxucafe. Previous installments: Part One (Max) and Part Three (Megan).]

against2.jpgAnd so the New Chums of Chance continued their great rightward list (as opposed to Danielewski’s leftwrist twist) through the mammoth volume, still finding accommodations in Part One although undaunted by Messr. Pynchon’s dutiful chronicling and celeritous introduction of characters, some logged in history books and others escaping scholarly notice. Then the moment arrived in which Captain Carolyn Kellogg remarked upon Mr. Clarke’s findings — as it turns out, in many guises herself:

Big thanks to Max for parsing Part 1 so effectively. He does a great job as a reader of Pynchon. But as a currently-enrolled MFA student, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if Pynchon tried to bring this to workshop….

Tom Pynchon: OK, guys, this is Part One of my novel-in-progress. It’s called Against the Day. I’ll be quiet now and let you discuss.

Cranky MFAer: Part 1! This is 119 pages—and it’s single spaced. We’re supposed to go double-spaced. And our max is 30.

Professor: OK, I know it’s long, but let’s talk about what’s here.

Chirpy MFAer: I really liked the description! But I was … kinda confused.

Helpful MFAer: Yeah, Tom? I counted and you have, like, 60 characters in 119 pages. People can’t keep track of that many characters. How about 5? Five characters? Maybe 7? Then we could figure out who is who.

Echoey MFAer: Exactly! Like, Scarsdale Vibe is the bad guy, right? But why does he need a sidekick? And you know, everyone has a sidekick? You could really pare down if you got rid of the sidekicks.

Wrong Track MFAer: I don’t mind the sidekicks, but these Chums of Chance leading everything off made me think you were writing some meta comic book. They were funny, but if you want the book to have, you know, weight, you need to signal that up front. Instead of a dirigble, maybe they should be flying something more—threatening, like a military plane. Or maybe instead of a naked lady running around below them, it should be the scientists talking about the math that you’ve put in later.

Chirpy MFAer: About the science stuff? That left me really confused. Like, is it real or fiction? Am I supposed to Google it or something?

Cranky MFAer: Yeah, you’re asking a lot of your readers. If you want them to look stuff up. Or know stuff.

Echoey MFAer: Right? Like, Chicago World’s Fair, am I supposed to know when that was? Because I get that it’s a big fair, but I don’t know if it was back in the 1980s or 1950s or what.

Wrong Track MFAer: I looked it up—it was 1893. But how are we supposed to know this from the text? Maybe you could have a billboard or something that advertises, like, Introducing the New 1893 Coca-Cola! I mean, I don’t know if there was Coke then, but are we supposed to figure out the date by just trains and a haberdashery? Or know about World’s Fairs? Because that’s pretty arcane.

Chirpy MFAer: Can we talk about the science stuff? Because I didn’t get it at all.

Helpful MFAer: I don’t know if I needed to get all the science, and that was OK with me. But I kept looking for plot. Like, where is it? At first I thought it was the Chums of Chance’s mission, then I thought it was going to follow that little girl Dahlia, then I thought it was going to have something to do with Scarsdale Vibe and Tesla, and then there was this Webb Traverse guy blowing something up …. that’s like 5 books. It’s too much. To make this one book you need less—a lot less.

Tom: Um, can I say something?

Professor: Yes, Tom. That would be a change.

Tom: Well, this is only about the first tenth of the novel. I mean, there’s a lot more to come, not less. More characters, more plots, a lot more science, and yes, they all kind of ebb and flow, but the answers won’t be in part one ….

Tom is drowned out by cries of “How long?” “More characters?” “I don’t get the science at all!” etc. etc. And never returns to workshop—or public, for that matter—again.

I’m a new—and believe it or not, enthusiastic—MFA student, so I couldn’t help but read this thinking that a workshop would hate it. Pynchon does so many things that are verboten in writing class. He writes long. He writes complicated and dense as hell. Part 1 is comprehensible, but only in retrospect, really. Keeping track of characters and significant details as you go is near impossible: yet a careless ice cream on page 89 winds up having relevance hundreds of pages later. As Max said, the only way (that works for me) is to let the book wash over you and then go back to paddle around a bit.

And for my part, I promise more detailed paddling for Part 2. Which is when my reading-with-post-its really took hold.

“Against the Day” Roundtable, Part One

[NOTE: The discussion can also be followed at Metaxucafe. Previous installments: Part Two (Carolyn) and Part Three (Megan).]

againstroundtable1.jpgIt was with great fortitude and due diligence that the New Chums of Chance, in collusion with those very active operators over at Metaxucafe, took it upon themselves to parse and digest the contents of Against the Day, a volume authored by Messr. Thomas Pynchon which thankfully concerned those unsung heroes known as the Chums of Chance during the early years of the Century Twentieth. The Chums’ Adventures, which are too manifold and legendary (some would argue apocryphal) to itemize here, are something of a footnote in the heroic ledger, occluded perhaps by the Two World Wars that came hot on the heels of their sundry journeys across several continents by way of a noble and specially equipped hydrogen airship, punctuated by plentiful barks from the loyal Pugnax. But it was with this steady spirit that the New Chums of Chance took upon the moniker, led by the Quite Balding Moderator and a not so balding gentleman by the name of Bud Parr. The first yeoman to fire the hydrogen flames and contemplate the many refractive states now long forgotten was Maximus Clarke, who as it so happens is a keen man on matters of electricity.

Mr. Clarke writes:

I had to work up some nerve to crack the spine of Against the Day, and I’ve had to do it again to get myself to commit my thoughts about it to keyboard. This is another big, raggedy Pynchon opus—the biggest and raggediest. 1085 pages, a cast of thousands (or so it seems), and a narrative spanning decades and continents… I’m still not actually sure whether it all really hangs together. Of course, Gravity’s Rainbow was massive and messy too. Still, it felt tight and contained compared to AtD. (Mason & Dixon, his other big book, was even tighter, thanks to its focus on the titular characters, and its consistent use of 18th-century language.)

A big part of reading Pynchon is decoding the allusions. I realize that the necessity of this is also a big turn-off for many people; it’s a bit like reading T.S. Eliot (although Pynchon is more fun). Of course there’s more to TP’s work than navigating the intellectual and cultural labyrinths he’s laid for us—and stopping while reading to look up every obscure reference on Google would be a drag. For the most part I prefer to let the story wash over me, and flag the stuff I don’t quite grasp for later investigation. But the references do provide landmarks of a sort for navigating the vastness of this novel.

I’m not sure how to parse the epigraph from Thelonious Monk, but I’m going to venture a guess that the ancient-looking seal on the next page is an image of Shambhala, the paradisaical hidden city of Tibetan Buddhist legend—the quest for which figures largely in AtD. As I’ve gone back over the first 119-page section of the novel, “The Light Over the Ranges”, I’ve noticed that the quasi-magical “White City” of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair contains prefigurations of things that happen later in the story (page 23: fair exhibits featuring Mexican Indians and hallucinogenic cactus, and Tungus reindeer herders from Siberia). Both of those cultural groups are noted for their shamanistic practices. Maybe the fair is also meant to be a reflection of Shambhala itself? (There’s also a prophetic and squalid simulacrum of a Colorado silver mining camp, on page 55.)

The first lines of the book, in any case, feature the aeronauts of the skyship Inconvenience, embarking for the Chicago fair. The images of ascent and descent seem to echo the opening lines of GR (“A screaming comes across the sky”) and Mason & Dixon (“Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs”). There’s other talk of arcs, flight-paths, hyperbolas, etc. throughout the book—whether it adds up to something in particular, other than allusive density, I’m not sure.

I like these ridiculously quaint, clean-living dime-novel aeronauts. TP uses them to address serious subjects—e.g., the way that, even when trying to remain detached, we can make ourselves into the willing instruments of powers greater than ourselves, with obscure and perhaps sinister motives. But the absurd, funny, and fantastic aspects of the Chums of Chance storyline help to offset the more ponderous passages of the book. Whether speaking formally or using period slang, the Chums use stilted, antiquated phrases that add to their charm. (I loved the language of M&D for this reason, but I know some people found it unreadable.) This is also true of characters like Merle Rideout, Professor Heino Vanderjuice, and others that they meet in Chicago.

The first transition away from the aeronauts’ story to the tale of the robber baron Scarsdale Vibe and those affected by his machinations happens around page 30. Vibe is never given much of a personality; his factotum, the marvelously named Foley Walker, is more dimensional. A “foley walker”, as cinephiles know, is a person who treads across floorboards, gravel beds, strewn leaves, etc., to create the sounds of footsteps used in film soundtracks. Foley Walker starts out as Vibe’s paid battlefield substitute during the Civil War. He then becomes the corporate titan’s thuggish right arm, and virtual doppelganger. There is a karmic consequence to this doubling near the end of the book… but more on that later.

On page 45, Austrian royal playboy Franz Ferdinand, inspiration of indie rockers and (more significantly for the book) the First World War, pops up. His role seems to be mostly to get us thinking early on about the powder keg of Balkan politics. He also gets to deliver a hilarious German transliteration of hip-hop slang in a Chicago bar.

And he introduces us to another point-of-view character, private detective Lew Basnight. Basnight’s story is one of the book’s threads that strikes me as peripheral and possibly redundant. But he in turn provides a transition to Colorado, where much of the book’s action will take place.

In the vicinity of Telluride, we catch up with Merle Rideout and daughter Dahlia, and meet Webb Traverse, mining engineer and explosives expert. His religious conversion to anarchism, subsequent career as a bomber, and murder by corporate goons kick off the core plot of AtD. There’s also some banter about capitalism, silver, photography, alchemy, explosives, and the Fourth of July. There’s mail with ersatz stamps and postmarks (p. 84), which seems to be a token reference to The Crying of Lot 49. (The Mason-Dixon Line gets a shout-out a few pages later.) There’s a German bartender named Adolph, who I’m guessing could be Adolph Coors (but I don’t know who his colleague “Ernst” is).

We meet Webb Traverse’s kids, and then return to the Chums of Chance storyline for one more interlude. Their flight from pole to pole through the hollow Earth, on orders of their unseen superiors, brings us to the end of Part One.

Due to Recent Legal Threats, This Blog Will Now Be Known as “Blog Posts Showing What Happens on Each Synapse of Edward Champion’s Mind”

Georgie Lewis of Tin House writes in with the following news:

The highly anticipated publication of artist/provocateur Zak Smith’s visual homage to Thomas Pynchon’s seminal novel Gravity’s Rainbow took a bizarre turn last week. Pynchon’s publisher, Penguin USA, believing the book’s original title, Gravity’s Rainbow Illustrated: One Picture for Every Page, was misleading, demanded Tin House Books change the title or face a lawsuit. Smith’s book will now be known as Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow, the title of the original series of artwork showcased at the 2004 Whitney Biennial.

Against the Fray

Thomas Pynchon may not have been susceptible to the Rake’s $49 check (and neither apparently is Dave Eggers), but the Ian McEwan flap has had Pynchon issuing a letter in support of McEwan.

Then again, on second thought, given that “indispensable” is misspelled in the letter, I’m wondering if this message truly came from Pynchon. Surely a man of his scrutiny wouldn’t have committed such a rudimentary solecism. And if Pynchon is referencing the Internet, why would he be working off a typewriter? I suspect a possible hoax, unless Pynchon, Ellison-like, clings obstinately to his typewriter. (via Maud)

Here’s the full text:

Given the British genius for coded utterance, this could all be about something else entirely, impossible on this side of the ocean to appreciate in any nuanced way — but assuming that it really is about who owns the rights to describe using gentian violet for ringworm, for heaven’s sake, allow me a gentle suggestion. Oddly enough, most of us who write historical fiction do feel some obligation to accuracy. It is that Ruskin business about “a capacity responsive to the claims of fact, but unoppressed by them.” Unless we were actually there, we must turn to people who were, or to letters, contemporary reporting, the encyclopedia, the Internet, until, with luck, at some point, we can begin to make a few things of our own up. To discover in the course of research some engaging detail we know can be put into a story where it will do some good can hardly be classed as a felonious act — it is simply what we do. The worst you can call it is a form of primitive behavior. Writers are naturally drawn, chimpanzee-like, to the color and the music of the English idiom we are blessed to have inherited. When given the chance we will usually try to use the more vivid and tuneful among its words. I cannot of course speak for Mr. McEwan’s method of processing, but should be very surprised indeed if something of the sort, even for brief moments, had not occurred during his research for Atonement. Gentian violet! Come on. Who among us could have resisted that one?

Memoirs of the Blitz have borne indispensible [sic] witness, and helped later generations know something of the tragedy and heroism of those days. For Mr. McEwan to have put details from one of them to further creative use, acknowledging this openly and often, and then explaining it clearly and honorably, surely merits not our scolding, but our gratitude.

Jerome Weeks Embraces Blog Form More Adroitly Than Expected

Jerome Weeks complains about Pynchon and writes (even though he admits that he hasn’t read the entirety of Mason & Dixon), “His best work remains The Crying of Lot 49. There’s something to be said for succinctness.”

I couldn’t agree more (on the succint part, that is). Which makes me wonder why Weeks didn’t just type “I hate Pynchon” and hit the Publish button.

Jack Green’s manifesto holds true in the 21st century.

Pynchon Roundtable Forthcoming

Hear ye! Hear ye! Adept literary connoisseurs and other devoted followers of the Chums of Chance may wish to note that a roundtable, it being an interchangeable variable to be squared in a forthcoming equation, shall begin anew for the thick tome, Against the Day, now making its postal peregrinations to swell and salacious folks scattered across the Republic. Their veritable derring-do will be unearthed upon these pages, where there shall likely be talk of aether, balloons, anarchism, the Great Fair, and, of course, the considerably overlooked Chums of Chance, whose adventures have not met with the grand reception equal to their deeds.

Stay tuned, in as much as your monitor resembles Philo’s discovery, to these pages for more!



First page: epigraph from Thelonious Monk.


Next page: Seal.


Title page: One. The Light Over the Ranges.


“Now single up all lines!”

“Cheerly now…handsomely…very well! Prepare to cast her off!”

“Windy City, here we come!”

“Hurrah! Up we go!”

It was amid such lively exclamation that the hydrogen skyship Inconvenience, its gondola draped with patriotic bunting, carrying a five-lad crew belonging to that celebrated aeronautics club known as the Chums of Chance, ascended briskly into the morning, and soon caught the southerly wind.

1,081 pages to go.

Pynchon Galleys Personalized

John Freeman observes that the galleys of Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day are now being circulated, with the recipient’s name on the galley.

I just sent the following email to Paul Slovak:


Seeing as how you folks are personalizing the galleys, which, aside from the understandable reasons, is quite nice and saves some of us from writing our names in it, I was wondering if it was possible to obtain a galley of AGAINST THE DAY. If you need a specific name to use, “Bat Segundo” will do.

Thanks and all best,


Should Viking come through with this personalization request, I will post a photograph.

If “Bat Segundo” is unacceptable, I will happily accept anything under the following names:

Mark Foley’s Second-String Bitch
Carmen “He Packs the Banana” Miranda
“Easy Ed” Champion
Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson

[UPDATE: Megan observes in the thread to Freeman’s post that booksellers have been told that there will be no galleys. Was Penguin lying or did they decide upon the galleys at the last minute?]

[UPDATE 2: I have sent an email to Tracy Locke asking for clarification on the bookseller galley front (as well as a galley). Locke reports that galleys were planned all along. Alas, no “Bat Segundo” or “Edward Champion” galley is in the cards.]

Imagine If All Those Energies Went to Deconstructing the Text Instead of Harassing the Poor Man

If you think litbloggers have too much spare time, check out this obsessive video, whereby a bunch of Pynchon freaks dissect a shadowy two-second video image of Pynchon walking down the streets of New York. So Pynchon’s an “aging hipster” and may be wearing a baseball cap containing a cartoon character. Who cares really? (via Black is the New Blood)

Pynchon Description

From Pynchonoid (via the Rake), a description for Pynchon’s next novel from the main man himself:

Spanning the period between the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and the years just after World War I, this novel moves from the labor troubles in Colorado to turn-of-the-century New York, to London and Gottingen, Venice and Vienna, the Balkans, Central Asia, Siberia at the time of the mysterious Tunguska Event, Mexico during the Revolution, postwar Paris, silent-era Hollywood, and one or two places not strictly speaking on the map at all.

With a worldwide disaster looming just a few years ahead, it is a time of unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places. No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred.

The sizable cast of characters includes anarchists, balloonists, gamblers, corporate tycoons, drug enthusiasts, innocents and decadents, mathematicians, mad scientists, shamans, psychics, and stage magicians, spies, detectives, adventuresses, and hired guns. There are cameo appearances by Nikola Tesla, Bela Lugosi, and Groucho Marx.

As an era of certainty comes crashing down around their ears and an unpredictable future commences, these folks are mostly just trying to pursue their lives. Sometimes they manage to catch up; sometimes it’s their lives that pursue them.

Meanwhile, the author is up to his usual business. Characters stop what they’re doing to sing what are for the most part stupid songs. Strange sexual practices take place. Obscure languages are spoken, not always idiomatically. Contrary-to-the-fact occurrences occur. If it is not the world, it is what the world might be with a minor adjustment or two. According to some, this is one of the main purposes of fiction.

Let the reader decide, let the reader beware. Good luck.

New Pynchon Book?

From Scott comes this rumor that Pynchon has a new book out in December from Viking, set in 1897 Chicago. There is nothing currently listed at the Amazon site, nor on the Penguin site, but the Wikipedia Pynchon entry notes:

It has been rumored that Pynchon’s next book will be about the life and loves of Sofia Kovalevskaya, whom he allegedly studied in Germany. The former German minister of culture Michael Naumann has stated that he assisted Pynchon in his research about “a Russian mathematician [who] studied for David Hilbert in Göttingen”. Information from Penguin Press (Viking) places the new novel’s publication date as December 2006.

Of course, since we have nothing here that has been confirmed, it’s best to treat all this information as rumor or conjecture. I will be making calls this morning to see if I can confirm anything. I’ve also sent an email to Paul Slovak.

[UPDATE: There is some kind of Pynchon book being handled by The Penguin Press, not Viking. My contacts at Viking expressed some familiarity with it (one even confirming December publication), without actually telling me what it was. I have a call into Penguin Press people and, as soon as I learn more, I will report it here.]

[UPDATE 2: I’ve spoken with Tracy Locke. She has confirmed that The Penguin Press is publishing a Pynchon book in December 2006, but will not reveal any further information at this time. There isn’t yet a title for the book.]

[RELATED: Darby Dixon III and Bud Parr on reading Pynchon. For those who are new to Pynchon, I suggest the following reading order: V., Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon and, once you’ve been thoroughly seduced, Slow Learner to see how it all started. I have not actually read The Crying of Lot 49 or Vineland, hoping to save these books for a very special occasion. Although, strangely, I’ve read all of Gaddis multiple times.]

[UPDATE: I can’t even begin to imagine where John Freeman got his information from, can you?]

More Fun with Amazon

Amazon has recently instituted “text stats,” which measures a book by Fleish-Kincaid index (the higher you go, the more difficult it is to read), percentage of complex words and words per dollar. Now if this is the basis for why one should read, let’s see how the thickass literary heavy-hitters stand up:

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Fleisch-Kincaid Index: 9.3
Complex Words: 11%
Words Per Dollar: 25,287

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
Fleisch-Kincaid Index: 7.3
Complex Words: 9%
Words Per Dollar: 24,553

The Recognitions by William Gaddis
Fleisch-Kincaid Index: 8.4
Complex Words: 9%
Words Per Dollar: 25,458

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
Fleisch-Kincaid Index: 9.5
Complex Words: 10%
Words Per Dollar: 24,086

The Royal Family by William T. Vollmann
Fleisch-Kincaid Index: 6.6
Complex Words: 9%
Words Per Dollar: 31,532

Ulysses by James Joyce
Fleisch-Kincaid Index: 6.8
Complex Words: 10%
Words Per Dollar: 16,777

The Gold Bug Variations by Richard Powers
Fleisch-Kincaid Index: 8.5
Complex Words: 14%
Words Per Dollar: 20,944

And here are the winners.

Best Words Per Dollar Value: William T. Vollmann
Author You’ll Need Your Dictionary For: Richard Powers
Most Difficult to Read: Thomas Pynchon (w/ David Foster Wallace a close second)
Easiest to Read: William T. Vollmann (w/ James Joyce a close second)


Primer: Winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and the Alfred P. Sloan Prize. The film was made for $7,000, doesn’t appear to have a distribution deal yet, but somehow manages to involve time travel and ethics in its plot. The intricate story has also caused a lot of people to scratch their heads, which has resulted in several unclaimed ski caps left at theatres.

As if the Whitbread isn’t enough, Mark Haddon has walked away with another award — this time, from the South Bank Show. The British literary community is up in arms about this, trying to convince committees that “enough is enough.” An anonymous Important Literary Person has made calls, noting that, while The Curious Dog is a great book, Haddon has simply won too much praise and that there won’t be enough praise for the rest of the books.

Alexandra Ripley, author of Scarlett, has died. Several publishers, upon hearing the news, have been trying to determine which great Ripley book they can pilfer a sequel out of. Unfortunately, Ripley was no Margaret Mitchell. And no publisher wants to be reminded of how much they backed Ripley’s attempt to cash in, let alone the other stuff she wrote.

Prima facie that the New Yorker is overinfluenced by vapid McSweeney’s-like pop cultural riffs: “Boswell’s Life of Jackson”. (And Menudo is referenced in the first sentence. Oh no.)

James Fallows annotates the State of the Union address.

The Boston Globe interviews Tibor Fischer and Fischer comes across, no surprise, as a smug son of a bitch. Not only does he compare himself to Shakespeare, but he lauds cheapshots: “I’m with Amis, and so although in ‘Voyage’ I do have laughs at the expense of foreigners — so did Shakespeare — I also allow characters for whom English is not their first language to express dismay when someone British doesn’t know an arcane piece of English vocabulary: ‘It’s your language,’ they say.”

And to hell with the Golden Globes. How about a real award? Best Lead In A Rising Up and Rising Down Review: “For the past decade, it seemed Sacramento-based novelist William T. Vollmann was neck and neck in a war of prolificacy with Richard Powers, David Foster Wallace, and anyone else who would take him on. With ‘Rising Up and Rising Down,’ he has put the issue to rest.” And I truly feel sorry for John Freeman, who, like all reviewers, read all 3,500 pages from a CD-ROM.

Lizzie Grubman (not to be confused with this Lizzie) is returning to the social scene. This may be the first time in New York history that first-hand accounts of road rage are discussed over caviar.

At long last, a New York Times I want to see. (via Old Hag, courtesy of Pullquote)

Pynchon’s voice on The Simpsons. He sounds like an angrier Harvey Pekar. (via Chica)

Francis Ford Coppola quotes Wodehouse! (via At Large)

[1/24/06 UPDATE: Primer, as nearly all film geeks know by now, did manage to nab a DVD distribution deal, leading to enthusiasts working out the multiple timelines. As for the McSweeney’s influence upon the New Yorker (and other places), I should note that litblogs, as much as they claim to be anti-Eggers, are guilty practitioners (including this one).]


Thanks to computers, professor Floyd Horowitz has uncovered 24 stories likely to have been authored by Henry James. Using common phrases, themes and pen names (the same methodology used to track down Joe Klein as the author of Primary Colors), Horowitz was able to track down tales published anonymously or under pen names during James’ lifetime.

Oprah picks One Hundred Years of Solitude for the New Year’s first book choice.

Amy’s Robot offers The History of Thomas Pynchon on TV. Personally, my favorite Pynchon reference is in the movie Miracle Mile, where Denise Crosby is reading the Cliff’s Notes for Gravity’s Rainbow. (via Chica)

And Disney has lost a goldmine. The Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has denied Disney’s appeal to grab the rights to Winnie the Pooh, said to be worth between $3 billion and $6 billion in annual revenue.

Two additional notes: hire Jessa and tell Maud she rawks.

The Reluctant Tries to Remain Impartial Too, But…

The BBC has banned its journalists from writing newspaper and magazine columns pertaining to current affairs. The m.o.? “Impartiality.” The ban extends to both staff and freelancers. There is at least some consolation: voicing vitriolic opinions on things like food is considered impartial. Whether such a restriction will trickle over the Atlantic to the “fair and balanced” networks remains to be seen.

Mayor Cleese? (via Tom)

New OED words: “fuckwit,” “non-homosexual,” “Norman Rockwellish,” “no-talent,” “cut and shut,” “fist-fucker,” “gang-bang,” “huevos rancheros,” and “super-unleaded.”

The Illustrated Complete Summary of Gravity’s Rainbow (via MeFi)

Mary Shelley’s original MS. for Frankenstein has been saved thanks to a grant. The draft, with Shelley’s handwritten corrections, can now be found at Oxford’s Bodleian library.