Reading Gravity’s Rainbow (#257) as a Screenplay

Three Stars

Rocket blueprintGravity’s Rainbow has the reputation (and rightly so) of being one of the most confusing novels that you can read. It has a huge cast of characters (~400), an intricate plot, and an array of shadowy, acronym-ed agencies to keep track of. It bounces back and forth in time, in and out of dreams, fantasies, drug-induced hallucinations or musical interludes, all without alerting the reader.

Part way through, however, I realized that the difficulty with this book is partly that it operates more like a screenplay than a book. Pynchon uses abrupt scene changes, flashbacks, and musical interludes that are odd in a book but would be perfectly normal in a film. The problem is, in a film we would have all sorts of visual cues that would helpThomas Pynchon guide us. We would see, for instance, that a character looks much younger, or that, for example, we’re now in a childhood home rather than a hospital bed. As a reader, we have to infer all of this from the words on Pynchon’s page, which are often (deliberately) ambiguous. Still, I found it helpful to think of myself as a viewer of this novel rather than a reader, which took some mental shifting.

You might ask then, how is this really different from reading any other book. After all, we usually have some kind of mental picture of what we read. I think that, as opposed to watching a film, reading asks you to take more initiative in the creation of a mental picture from the text. And so I’m used to being able to “direct” the picture myself – choosing which angle to view it from, how to imagine the character’s voices, etc. When reading Gravity’s Rainbow, I had the sense that Pynchon was doing much more of the directing himself. Here, for example, is an excerpt from a scene in the book, where a psychologist is reflecting on his role in the war-time lab:

Oxford Rat In Maze“From overhead, from a German camera-angle, it occurs to Webley Silvernail, this lab here is also a maze, i’n’t it now…behaviorists run these aisles of tables and consoles just like rats ‘n’ mice. Reinforcement for them is not a pellet of food, but a successful experiment. But who watches from above, who notes their responses? Who hears the small animals in the cages as they mate, or nurse, or communicate through the gray quadrilles, or, as now, begin to sing…(though none of the lab people seem to be noticing) to dance him down the long aisles and metal apparatus, with conga drums and a peppy tropical orchestra taking up the very popular beat and melody of:

Pavlovia (Beguine)
It was spring in Pavlovia-a-a,
I was lost, in a maze…
Lysol breezes perfumed the air,
I’d been searching for days.                  [This goes on for another page.]

“They dance in flowing skeins. The rats and mice form circles, curl their tails in and out to make chrysanthemum and sunburst patterns, eventually all form into the shape of a single giant mouse, at whose eye Silvernail poses with a smile, arms up in a V, sustaining the last note of the song, along with the giant rodent-chorus and orchestra.”

I agree with Sarah Cahill that Gravity’s Rainbow should never be made into a film. That would be a disaster. But once you realize that it is, in a sense, already functioning more like a film than a novel, you might be able to hold back your inner director long enough to enjoy the book.

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Theft and Delusion: Pale Fire (#256) and Timon of Athens (#262)

Three Stars


When does creative interpretation of someone else’s work become a violent appropriation Nabokovof their identity? This is one of the questions that Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire dances around, without ever coming to a neat conclusion. The book is set up as if it were an annotated edition of a poem by John Shade, with a foreword and commentary by his “friend” Charles Kinbote. The structure in itself makes this book unique, because the story unfolds only in the relationship between the poem and the commentary, and so the reader is forced to jump back and forth between the two sections in order to get the full picture.

It soon becomes clear that the commentator is using the poem merely as a platform for his own agenda. Kinbote believes that he is uncovering hidden meanings in Shade’s poetry, but actually he twists the author’s intentions beyond recognition. We come to see Kinbote as a deeply deluded individual, not only in his interpretation of the poem, but also in his interpretation of the events that led up to Shade’s death.Delusion

The book therefore highlights the way that appropriation of another person’s thoughts is a form of self-delusion. In order to force a piece of literature (or art, or whatever) into our own framework, it’s necessary at some level to delude ourselves into thinking that it is relevant to us, “made for us” in some way – just as Kinbote believes that this poem is ultimately written for him. As he departs more and more from the text itself, so we realize more and more that Kinbote has lost touch with his own reality.

But of course one question is, how can we avoid appropriating things for ourselves? Every idea, every piece of art, is an appropriation of something else. Don’t we, just by attempting to understand something, inevitably see it through the lens of our own experience and our own values? Doesn’t creativity itself rely on distortion or misreading as much as (or more so) a “true” understanding of the world? Nabokov alludes many times to Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, especially the following passage:

I ’ll example you with thievery:Timon of Athens
The sun ’s a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea; the moon ’s an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun;
The sea ’s a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears; the earth ’s a thief,
That feeds and breeds by a composture stolen
From general excrement: each thing ’s a thief.

In other words, there is no escaping thievery in this world, which I suppose implies that there is no escape from self-delusion.

King of ZemblaWhat’s even more interesting is that, even though we know Kinbote is deluded, we’re never sure just how deluded he is, because there is no reality outside of Kinbote’s interpretation with which we could compare him. Is he really the exiled king of Zembla hiding from an assassin sent by a rival political party? It seems probable that the whole story is made up, and there is no such place as Zembla. And yet, if that is true, how did he get hired at Wordsmith College teaching Zemblan studies? How does he have a copy of Timon of Athens translated into the Zemblan language? Does Charles Kinbote even exist, or is he an invention of John Shade (that’s one popular theory). Perhaps Kinbote invented Shade (another theory). Perhaps Shade’s ghost, or the ghost of his daughter, is responsible for the commentary (both serious theories).

I prefer to think that our inability to figure out the reality behind Kinbote’s interpretation is itself the reality that we’re supposed to grasp as readers. None of us have any way of stepping outside our own interpretations, or of discovering the extent to our own self-delusions. At most, we can know that there is some kind of discrepancy between “reality” and our interpretation. But without being able to define that discrepancy entirely (and perhaps precisely because we can’t define it), we can enjoy the “pale fire” through which the world appears to us, just as we do when we read Nabokov’s book.

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The Existentialist as Anti/hero: Perfume (#252)

Three Stars

PerfumeThere are few literary monsters more unsympathetic than Patrick Süskind’s Grenouille, the villain of Perfume. From his birth (where his mother abandons him in a garbage can, and he in turn betrays her crime with a scream) to his death (which I won’t ruin for you, but which is equally shocking), Grenouille lives his life without any moral compunction whatsoever. Grenouille’s lack of feeling is communicated not just by his actions in the story, but by Süskind’s style – very objective and matter-of-fact. And this leads us as readers to develop very little sympathy with the character.

Suskind’s story is probably most interesting because of the way Grenouillethat he integrates the sense of smell into the narrative. (Just for that, the book is worth reading.) Grenouille has an ultra-keen nose and this becomes the main way that he perceives his world. Paradoxically, although he can smell the faintest odor from across an entire city or parse the ingredients of any perfume, he himself has no scent. His obsession, for which he goes to murderous lengths, is to create a scent for himself.

Patrick SuskindAs creative as this story is, I’m also interested in what kind of philosophical point Suskind is trying to make here. The idea of Grenouille having to construct a scent for himself reminds me very much of existentialism – humans have to create meaning for themselves rather than relying on any innate essence. Since scent is the major way that Grenouille distinguishes things in his environment, his obsession with his own lack of scent boils down to an existential crisis.

Assuming that scent is a metaphor for identity, Grenouille is portrayed as the character who has no self-identity, and also the character who sees behind the self-deception of every other person in the book. Because of his superhuman abilities, Grenouille knows that most human behavior is driven by unconscious reactions to smell. He can change the way that people perceive him simply by changing subtle ingredients in his perfume. If we go with this extended metaphor, that makes Grenouille the ultimate existentialist philosopher: one who knows that his own identity is ultimately groundless and sees right through everyone else’s “bad faith.”

Now most existentialists see the lack of essential identity as an opportunity for real freedom. The conclusion that Sartre draws from this fact, for instance, is that humans are required to make choices and create values for themselves. But these values are not just arbitrary; to be an authentic human being is to create values that could make sense to others in our own position. (See Being and Nothingness, #493.)

Grenouille is clearly an artist, and has no problem pursuing the Grenouille and Girlcreation of his own value, but his complete lack of morality is very different than Sartre’s existentialism (or any other that I know of). My question: is this story ultimately an indictment of existentialist philosophy, if it portrays its consequences as monstrous? On the one hand, Süskind seems to think that Grenouille has discovered something profoundly true about the nature of human identity (i.e., that it depends on “scent” and can be manipulated accordingly). On the other hand, Grenouille’s knowledge of this fact ultimately leads him to despair rather than a sense of freedom:

“The hand that had grasped the flacon was fragrant with a faint scent, and when he put it to his nose and sniffed, he grew wistful and forgot to walk on and stood there smelling. No one knows how good this perfume really is, he thought. No one knows how well made it is. Other people are merely conquered by its effect, don’t even know that it’s a perfume that’s working on them, enslaving them. The only one who has ever recognized it for its true beauty is me, because I created it myself. And at the same time, I’m the only one that it cannot enslave. I am the only person for whom it is meaningless” (252).

So it seems to me that Grenouille is not simply an anti-hero, that is, not just characterized by a lack of positive qualities, or even an ambiguous mixture of good and bad (Grenouille is talented, but otherwise without any positive qualities). He is certainly not a hero in any traditional sense, but he does seem to have a clearer notion about reality than any other character. In Süskind’s mind, then, does existentialism represent something true but ultimately corrosive? And must we choose between the ignorant bliss of the scented and the monstrous nihilism of the master perfumer?

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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (#255) and the Depravity of the Human Spirit

Four Stars

SolzhenitsynAlexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is an amazing little book. It tells the story of a prisoner in a Siberian gulag during the time of Stalin. Though it covers only a single, insignificant day in his eight-year prison term, we get a picture of what Ivan’s “normal” is, and how he copes with this reality. We see him navigating relationships between other prisoners, his unit leader, and the guards, stealing what he can in order to survive, making alliances with those who are in a position to help him, and above all avoiding the attention of those with the power to punish him.

What makes this book so successful is its understatement. Solzhenitsyn, who had himself survived an eight-year term in a Soviet labor camp, describes horrible living conditions. On this day, for instance, Ivan is forced to work outside in -17˚ weather. This would be the case any day unless the temperature falls below -41˚. Ivan is lucky because he has been able to get hold of a pair of boots; he reports that in some winters Gulaghe has had to make himself sandals out of rope or rubber tires. Prisoners are fed a very small portion of poor oatmeal or gruel and bread, just enough to keep them alive. (One of Ivan’s main concerns throughout the book is how to sneak more food from the kitchen or from other prisoners.) Toward the end of the story, Ivan sees one of his workmates sentenced to ten days in an unheated detention cell, which meant “your health would be ruined for the rest of your life. T.B. and nothing but hospital for you until you kicked the bucket.”

Yet Solzhenitsyn tells Ivan’s story almost completely without melodrama or complaint. Ivan has enough experience to know the futility of resistance to the rules of the camp, and concerns himself with adaptation and survival. By the end of the story, Ivan is “fully content”:

“He’d had many strokes of luck that day: they hadn’t sent his squad to the settlement; he’d swiped a bowl of kasha at dinner; the squad leader had fixed the rates well; he’d built a wall and enjoyed doing it; he’d smuggled that bit of hacksaw blade through; he’d earned a favor from Tsezar that evening; he’d bought that tobacco. And he hadn’t fallen ill. He’d got over it. A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day.”

Gulag 2Many commentators see in Solzhenitsyn’s work an example of the triumph of the human spirit over misfortune and oppression. Here is a man who is faced with some of the worst living conditions in human history, and he is able not only to survive but to find some sense of contentment at the end of his day.

I cannot disagree that Ivan is a remarkable literary hero, and that he shows an unfathomable strength in the midst of his time in the labor camp. But I wonder how we should evaluate the human capacity for adaptation presented in this character. Is it really a triumph that Ivan is able to consider these conditions normal, even acceptable? Or that, as readers, we can be so easily lured into seeing through Ivan’s eyes? In a way, Solzhenitsyn’s book shows us how easily humans can be drawn into accepting and submitting to horrible systems through the use of routines, discipline, and competition among the prisoners themselves. The guards, too, are able to see the labor camps as normal and mundane, and therefore feel no guilt or obligation to the prisoners. In my opinion, then, One Day is best seen as a warning rather than a celebration.

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Those Poor Capitalists: Atlas Shrugged (#248) as Fantasy

Three Stars

“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

– John Rogers

Atlas ShruggedI wish I hadn’t liked Atlas Shrugged as much as I did. Given what I knew about Ayn Rand’s philosophy, I was expecting to have to plod through the 1,100 pages of this book, cringing at every turn. But I must say that the plot kept me hooked the whole way through. And it’s a tribute to the power (and trickery) of storytelling that I found myself getting more and more ensnared by Rand’s way of thinking about the world. That is, until I stepped away and thought about it for a couple seconds.

The novel is about the struggles of Dagny Taggart, a railroad executive,Dagny Taggart as she tries to keep her company productive and profitable despite the incompetence of everyone around her. We soon realize that the government is actively trying to discourage the success of talented individuals in the name of leveling the playing field for all the other mediocre industrialists. In reality, they are lining their own pockets with the hard-earned money of creative engineers, scientists, and businessmen. Mysteriously, some of these deserving individuals have been vanishing into thin air, and no one seems to know where they go. Rand manages to make this mystery interesting and suspenseful for much longer than one might think, especially because a reader who is paying attention should pretty much be able to figure things out in the first few hundred pages.

It’s difficult to slap a genre onto this book, but it has a lot of the elements of science fiction – dystopian society, fictional inventions, a political philosophy that borders on the didactic. Now one of the marks of good science fiction is that it’s not really about the future, but about perennial issues. The reason Atlas Shrugged has had such a lasting impact is that it continues to strike people as relevant to American politics. I find this very unfortunate because, if you take a look at the way our politics actually function, Rand’s view is probably better characterized as a delusion rather than science fiction – “fantasy” in the worst sense of the term.

Ayn RandThe central premise of the book is that there is a government conspiracy against the ultra-rich, who of course have earned their money through raw talent and business sense. By peddling the idea that the wealthy have a responsibility to help provide social services, government officials succeed in passing laws that limit the accumulation of wealth, squelching individual creativity. The wealthy capitalists are too proud or business-minded to play the kind of games that would influence Washington, and so they are at the mercy of the government leeches (at least at the beginning of the book).

The problem is, a conspiracy of government against the wealthy is a little far-fetched, even as the premise of a science fiction novel. Last year, Martin Giles and Benjamin Page released the results of a study that traced correlations between the wishes of voters and the actual policies that were implemented by the federal government. They found that the policies that got implemented were the ones favored by – surprise – the ultra-wealthy and powerful lobbying groups, not necessarily the majority of average citizens (unless the majority happened to agree with the wealthy). I guess I would cut Rand some slack since she was writing this in the ‘50s, with the anti-communist hysteria going around. But still, the connection between wealth and political power seems like a fairly enduring one, and Rand’s book obscures that connection instead of illuminating it.

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How to Write a Novel with Only Three Characters: East of Eden (#251)

Three Stars

East of Eden is basically an extended reflection on the story of Cain and Abel. Steinbeck East of Edenmakes no secret about that fact. He uses imagery that is instantly recognizable to anyone slightly familiar with the biblical story (brother vs. brother violence, the father who rejects one son’s gift while accepting the other, a dark scar on a character’s forehead, etc.). In fact, he even signals the symbolic identity of many of his characters by their initial. “C” names are Cain figures, “A” names are Abel figures.

All this makes for a pretty heavy-handed story, and I can’t decide whether this heavy-handedness is worth the interpretation that Steinbeck offers us by the end of the book. Essentially, he sees human existence as a cyclical struggle between the forces of good and evil. In every generation of the Trask family, there is a “good” son (Adam, Aaron), who is characterized as well-liked, trusting to the point of naïve, honest, emotionally vulnerable, and preferred by the father. Cyrus, Charles, Caleb and Cathy are the opposite – always trying to outsmart and undermine other people, struggling to form meaningful Sibling Rivalryrelationships (especially with their fathers), and using physical or psychological violence to get what they want. In both cases, the characters are described with such similar language that it can feel like they have no independent existence, that Steinbeck has really only given us two characters with different names and faces.

Some commentators have taken issue especially with Cathy, the most unredeemable of the characters in this book. Actually, I find Cathy not only believable but also interesting – I was just watching an HBO documentary about Robert Durst, the alleged serial killer, and the descriptions people give of Durst line up very well with Steinbeck’s description of Cathy.

But there is a third type of character that I find more objectionable: the omniscient sage who is there to tell us (in case we missed it) exactly how the characters fit into these two categories. That’s Lee, the Trasks’ loyal servant, and Samuel, the patriarch of the Hamilton family. Both are relative outsiders (Chinese and Irish backgrounds, respectively), which seems to give them a more objective view of things. Both have an uncanny ability to sense the inner meaning of the events around them, on extremely scarce evidence. This is useful to Steinbeck because it means he doesn’t have to write well enough for the reader to understand these things on their own.

John SteinbeckAll in all, I appreciate Steinbeck’s main philosophical point – that humans have the ability to choose how they will shape their own nature. But I don’t believe that we start with one of two kinds of nature – that’s much too simplistic, and it makes Steinbeck’s novel appear rather unpopulated. In fact, at times the idea that we begin either as a Cain or as an Abel seems to undermine the idea that we are ultimately free to choose our own destiny. Caleb succeeds, perhaps, but could Cathy really have done so (of whom Steinbeck says, “I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents.”)? Doesn’t Steinbeck’s dualistic and cyclical view of history lend itself more to fatalism than anything else?

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Vertigo at the Edge of the Qur’an (#245)

Infinite RegressImagine a book, perhaps out of a Borges story, in which every single sentence is a statement of the book’s authority. It’s not that every sentence is the same; each might refer to different aspects of the book’s authenticity, veracity or usefulness: “This book contains the final and absolute truth.” “The author of this book is completely honest.” “You are reading the authentic version of this text.” But the entire book, chapters and chapters, consists of nothing more than an elaborate statement of its own authority. Let us assume that the statements put forward in this book are completely persuasive. Still, having read to the end of the text, the reader must ask herself: what does the authority of the text mean without some kind of referent? How could one even distinguish between authenticity and falsehood?

This imaginary book is obviously not the Qur’an, which does containQur'an some assertions about the world outside itself. But I was surprised at how much of the Qur’an was dedicated to building up its own authority in the eyes of the reader. There were many times, in the middle of a long section about the divine origins of Muhammad’s revelations or the condemnation of those who would detract from the truth of this text, that I caught a distinct feeling of vertigo (Sura 10 or 98, to name only a couple). There were times when one could lose sight of the content of the truth the Qur’an was trying to communicate precisely because of the frequency and vehemence of its own assertion of truth. Is it a coincidence that Islamic philosophers (al-Tusi, for example) were among the first to explore paradoxes of self-reference? Arabic text

As I reflected about this, I began to realize that the vertigo I was experiencing as a reader might actually be an important feature of the Qur’an. In one sense, it’s merely an example of circular reasoning – the Qur’an has authority because it says so itself – but by throwing us into that circle, the Qur’an doesn’t just return us to where we started. It creates the sense of an abyss that we can dance around but never grasp. In these passages of authority, we are led right up to the edge and asked to look down into depths that have no perceivable ground. Reading from my context, I’m struck by the way that the Qur’an induces the same sort of theological reflection that comes out of Christian mysticism, particularly in the mode of “negative theology,” which approaches God through paradox and contradiction. But it is interesting that the Qur’an does so through its strong, positive assertions, which are usually thought of as antithetical to negative theology. Precisely because of the weight and density of its truth claims, the Qur’an creates the sense of divine lightness or spaciousness, in a completely different way than occurs in the more narrative-based Hebrew Bible or New Testament gospels. Without pretending to understand the Qur’an from a Muslim perspective, I can start to see how one might experience both the authority and grace of this tradition in a single motion: “we shall command them to do what is easy for them” (18:88).

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