Category Archives: Pynchon

My Favorite Mistakes

“Did you know when you go

It’s the perfect ending”

Sheryl Crow, My Favorite Mistake 

 

“My Favorite Mistake” is the title of my list of books I thought would be great, but couldn’t finish, or even start.

I’m not bored with writing blurbs and reviews, but do they really tell as much about my reading life as the couch potato drama that is my Coffee Table Stack or the labor of love between the covers of my Nightstand Stack? Aren’t the eye-crossingly soporific failures just as revelatory of my intellectual struggles as the PMBs (Post Modern Bricks) and Victorian classics I’ve triumphantly crossed off my bucket list? Sure, it’s a bit of an obscure question, but that’s why we have obscure blogs. Onward-

Reasons for not finishing, or not starting, a book:

Readability: An ex-girlfriend once got me an academic critical study of Thomas Pynchon’s novels, because she knew I loved ( and repeatedly read) them. Though I’d read many Pynchon exegeses before, I put it down quickly as it was clotted with post modern jargon and elliptical syntax.

By the same token, I admit I recently put down a book on post modernism’s misuse of higher mathematical principles because I really didn’t understand academic postmodernism’s basic concepts, not to mention those of higher mathematics. That was the point of the book, of course, I GET THAT, but obviously didn’t get it.  I was not well read enough to understand why PoMo philosophy is often unreadable.  I got a few sentences into the first, struggled through a chapter of the second.

I kept the first book, though, because she wrote a nice note in it. I occasionally pull it out, in case something clicks, but inevitably the first sentence I pick out to read is a clotted mess. Although challenging oneself is clearly a good thing sometimes, I think  it’s very healthy to read stuff that appeals to us, for whatever reason.

Shove me in the shallow water: The Enlightenment and the Book, by Richard B. Sher seemed, despite its fussy academic aspirations, to offer perspective on the Age of Reason. Cultural histories are an exciting genre, and getting my history of ideas through a history of publishing excites my nerdy, bookish little mind to no end, at least in the abstract. But I probably needed a bit more basic explication on the Scottish Enlightenment itself and a little less on the effects of quarto and octavo editions on the marketing of Locke’s ideas. Got through a chapter, I think.

This differs from The Novel: A Biography, whose oblique evaluations of ancient books I (mostly) hadn’t read I loved so much I snatched up a used copy to keep at home and refer to, and have actually referred to. I finally got through Part One of Don Quixote, and read all of Mill on the Floss (rather than Dickens), because of Novel.

Book not what was expected:

A Traveler’s Guide to the Restoration, I’ve forgotten the bloody author’s name: This just happens to be the tome I was reading when the idea for this post occurred to me. It looked like one of those day-to-day, street-level cultural histories that can breathe air into heavily historicized and romanticized eras (in this case, England’s return to monarchy after the beheading of Charles I, and the ensuing Puritan Interregnum).

But it could have used a bit more historicization. We get precious little on Charles II and James II and VII (really, isn’t a king with TWO succession numbers worth a bit of historicization!?), and quite a lot on the prices paid for each of the 17 or so meat dishes included in the typical upper middle class Sunday meal.

Plus, he really does sporadically attempt t0 maintain its awkward conceit of being an actual travel guide, thus killing its potential appeal as traditional history/cultural history hybrid, which is what I wanted. I cherry picked a few of the more interesting chapters, then sort of slid it into my bag of returned books one Sunday afternoon. So I can’t really tell you why I didn’t finish this book, because I never really finished not finishing it.

Book Duplicative: The Best Non Required Reading, 2017, Sarah Vowell editor: It’s an impeccable anthology, and I think most would agree there’s no shame in not reading every morsel of an anthology, even one edited by the irrepressible Sarah Vowell.  It includes short fiction and essays, and I impulsively grabbed it during a binge of short fiction and essay reading from a stack I’d squirreled away against those dreaded, and mostly imaginary, moments when I tell myself there is NOTHING TO READ.

Currently, those include  a stack of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concerns I scoop up for $5 everytime one appears at my favorite used bookstore, a George Saunders collection, Denis Johnson’s newest and a Fitzgerald collection. There are a couple of essay collections, too, and I pretty sure I’ll die alone.

Secondly, the non-fiction in the collection mostly concerns, unsurprisingly, Trump, and I regulate my intake carefully. ‘Read rage’ is painful and counter productive, however worthy. Trump will be hammered by any and all thoughtful writers in the next two decades, then relegated to the end of the presidential shelf, with Millard Fillmore and Warren G. Harding. It’s an irony how many trees will die for this anti-environmentalist thug.

I did read Ta-Nahesi Coates’ My President Was Black, and a couple of great stories. It’s recommended, if you don’t mind recommendations from anthology-grazers.

Bus/train reading, not on bus/train: Superficial perhaps, but a book of a certain size, optimal chapter length and expendability, I will often put in my kit bag for the ride to work.  I really loved Adam Gopnik’s essay on comics and high art in High Low, where he bravely and convincingly documented R.Crumb’s influence on Phillip Guston,  so when I saw At the Strangers Gate on the freebie advance reading pile at work I speculatively picked it up.

I soon happened across a review in the NYT somewhat dismissive of this memoir of life in 80‘s and 90‘s New York because nothing bad ever really happens to him. It’s true that Stranger reads like a history of white liberal entitlement at times, but it turns out that Gopnik can make almost anything, including copyediting fashion magazines, seem interesting and culturally significant. But the book never really left my book bag when I got home.

I actually began the ‘Reading List’ portion of this blog in homage to Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree, published originally in Believer Magazine then collected into a tidy little (kit bag-sized) paperback that yo-yo’ed up and down the E-Line with me and was titteringly ingested in perfect little DU-to-Union Station’-sized bites. Part of the appeal of Hornby’s blurbs are his admissions of when a book just isn’t for him, like losing a lover: some one had to make that call, but you’ll always wonder what might have been in the next chapter.

Call of Duty: I had long ago read a euro comics version of DeSade’s Justine, and when I saw a thick Collected Works at the library it seemed superficial to base my whole impression of this very influential writer on that, so I read a couple of introductory essays and some Dialogues and Philosophy in The Bedroom.

Then I was done. I’m pretty sure I’ve read more DeSade than most who presume to judge him, and I understand why he’s influential- doesn’t Raskolnikov later pose the same moral questions, albeit with his ax, as DeSade does with his dick? And what does that say about us that we avoid such an influential writer because of anal sex?

But how much lecturing on the libertarian fantasy should we have to subject ourselves to before we decide that its absolutist seductions are not morally defensible and thus not possible? And shouldn’t fantasy, whether sexual or political, contain some small kernel of possibility? Or philosophy, less self indulgence and more rigor? I’ve crossed it off my bucket list and installed it on my ‘rhymes-with-bucket list’. When I need to get up someone’s ass, reading-wise, it’ll probably be some actual porn, rather than bedroom philosophy.

Finishing books is a positive character trait, I believe. But so is admitting when you’ve made a mistake. Life is short and procrastination is the mind’s way of telling you there are better things to be done with your time.  I’m certain that my list of mistakes will grow. But I should stop here and try to finish a book, or at least start one.

 

Read Flag!

I found this image on Tumblr. I recognize the contradiction of a visual artist using someone else's image without proper credit. If anyone has a source, or needs it taken down, please contact me.
I found this image on Tumblr. It’s very cool! I recognize the contradiction of a visual artist using someone else’s image without proper credit. If anyone has a source, or needs it taken down, please contact me.

It’s Banned Books Week. 

Though it’s been a busy Summer, I’ve gotten quite a bit of reading in. Evenings and mornings have mostly been spent catching up on my reading on the back porch, thankfully relatively cool this summer.

Here is what I’ve been reading. Rather than compile a comprehensive entry, which I’ve identified as a reason I have trouble posting regularly, I’ll make it a two-parter, leading up to an update on comics and other media.  Does anyone else have this problem? I’m hoping that splitting up the posts will lead to more (and more fluid) posts. I’m also updating the page on Monotype Workshops with new info on the free Denver Public Library/ Art Students League drop-in workshops I’m leading. Come down and try a monotype!

First, some books:

Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon. Another “detective” story from Pynchon, actually a private Certified Fraud Investigator tale. Maxine smells a rat when a shady “Silicon Alley” corporation starts buying up failing dot coms to use as shell companies. Set in NYC in the 9/11 era, so you know all the expected Pynchonian paranoia is here. But unlike his last door-stop novel Against The Day, or his surf-hippie noir, Inherent Vice, the plot is one of his most straightforward, which helps with this type of genre pastiche. It’s no Gravity’s Rainbow, but it’s a fun read.

The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn. Sounds geeky, and I guess it is, as there is technical data on each session given, but the commentaries are compelling reading, in the same way that the Beatles Anthology discs, and Tim Riley’s Tell Me Why are indispensable: they get you into the same studio as, and into the heads of, the Fabs at each juncture of their amazing creative journey. Matter of fact, just buy all three, and some beer or Blue Sapphire gin, and your reading/listening is all set. Thank me later.

Women, Art and Society, Whitney Chadwick. Not exactly a page turner, as this sort of thing usually needs to cater to the freshman text trade, and pay respects to the academic/feminist/cultural studies tenure track convo as well, but relatively free of post-modernist jargon. As such, it’s a tidy little overview of some of the issues and societal shifts that have kept all but the least well-behaved (and most talented) women out of the history books. Also: not likely to, nor intended to, make you proud to carry a Y chromosome.

Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski. Been meaning to read this forever, so rather than sit and day-drink between WC games one day, I walked down to the Tattered Cover and finally picked it up. Short, essay-sized chapters on topics that footy fans expound on with great certainty, that these guys (one a football scribe, the other an economist) put to the test. Which side to go during PKs. Why soccer teams don’t, and shouldn’t make money. Do coaches make a difference? Buy this,The Ball is Round, some beer or gin, and the MLSLive package, and watch soccer become a favorite American sport. Thank me later.

A whole big stack of Atlantic magazines that I didn’t have time for in the winter/spring, but which I refuse to recycle till I’ve read them because when the Atlantic publishes on a given topic one month, it becomes a major topic in the mainstream media and parties the next 2-3 months, every single time. Why Big Oil isn’t going away ( Technology makes it ever cheaper and easier to find and extract). Why the foodies’ anti-processed food crusade is wrong (it can easily be retooled for healthy eating for poorer Americans, unlike organic, GMO-free “natural” foods). Why the Beatles’ creative style fits the “team of rivals” mode more than the popular “two solitary geniuses” model ( John’s interjection “It couldn’t get no worse” to Paul’s “It’s Getting Better” lyrics exemplifies how they completed each other in making unique, complex pop.) You should subscribe. It’s cheaper than beer or good gin. Thank me later.

A whole big stack of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, the quirky and irresistibly stylish journal of fiction, non fiction and publishing design gimmickry. I buy every 3rd or 4th one and keep them on the shelf in the bedroom, and I can pull one out when I need something to read at night. Often I’ve read barely half of a given issue anyway, but I often return to past favorites as well. Such as: ‘Hadrian’s Wall’ by Jim Shepherd, in #14, in which we meet one centurion who did not share in the glory of Rome. ‘The Stepfather’ by Chris Adrian in #18, where we encounter a family more preposterous and absurd than even our own. And ‘Fox 8’ in # 33 by George Saunders, in which we meet, then say farewell to, a creature who knows us better than we know ourselves. Each features a dark, insinuating humor that stays with you.

 

 

 

Weekend Squish: Book Review

It’s Pynchon month in Squishytown! We started the festivities off by bussing down August 4 to Tattered Cover for his latest, INHERENT VICE. Things really ramped up with a 94-word run-on tribute sentence wedged into the previous Squishtoid post – still far short of the 400+ monster that opens MASON AND DIXON, but I guess that’s why TP has a MacArthur Genius Grant and the Squish doesn’t (yet).

And now, because 77,000 reviews ( one for each wacky TP character moniker) in 2 weeks just don’t seem enough, comes my review. And unlike all the others, this one doesn’t mention the word “paranoia”. Oh. Damn.

Thomas Pynchon, a writer whom many associate with dense, hard to read doorstop -type books, has created what will surely become the entry point for his work with INHERENT VICE. The previous entry point, CRYING OF LOT 49, deals with the same place, Southern California, and many of the same cultural and metaphorical issues, but doesn’t have two things that VICE does: the easy flow of genre (here, detective) fiction, and an agreeable, heck, lovable- central character who smokes way too much pot, in much the same way Phillip Marlowe drank way too much whiskey.

That combination, lifted whole from the classics of the Noir era, smooths the way for Pynchon’s usual mix of irony, pathos and satiric humor, and provides a peek into the heartbreakingly funny and ineffectual lives he celebrates, along with the crushing, relentless systems of power and control that provide the juice for his electric and very post modern prose. It’s always sex magic versus death-mongering with Pynchon, but here he adds in a lot of nostalgia for late 60’s Los Angeles, and a spirit of place that, like Raymond Chandler’s, feels like the real deal.

Like LOT 49, and another earlier NoCal novel, VINELAND, that are quickly being formed by the commentariati into an ad-hoc trilogy, the goofy proles and bra-less babes who redeem their floundering, drug enhanced lives, speak to the betrayal of simple pleasures by those nameless, humorless forces of greed and frigid fear that would bulldoze a community to erect soul-less developments rather than nurture a neighborhood. Only this time, unlike past TP epics, even some of the villains have names and come off as flawed, almost lovable losers themselves.

Discussing plot is always somewhat beside the point in Pynchon. His characters are questers, lighting off manically in search of answers to questions they know not, stopping for a quick buzz or fuck along the way. There is enough here to keep the lovable losers scrambling and the pages turning, but Doc Sportello, The laid-back, hard-“baked” PI who tries to sort it all out, understands that in the end, it’s finding kinship through the smog that makes a city, however Noir, vivid and real. Pynchon appears to have made that leap as well, with the later novels, from VINELAND on featuring progressively more sympathetic characters; special mention made here of the exquisite MASON AND DIXON.

But will VICE please the lovers of intricate, labyrinthine masterpieces such as LOT 49, GRAVITY’S RAINBOW, and V? As one who’s read all of his books, many twice, and counts RAINBOW among the century’s best, I say it doesn’t have to. Pynchon’s done his fair share of heavy lifting. He’s metaphorically compared Information Theory to Thermodynamics, hefted Riemann surfaces and Hollow-Earth theories and squished in hashish and weird menages a trois. Now he wants to be Chandler or Elmore Leonard, or even Jeff Lebowski. Or all three. Wait, that’s a weird menage a trois, too.

Pynchon, if the famous Simpsons “appearances” and the trailer he did for VICE are any indication, may want to be popular for once. That’s not such a bad thing, and INHERENT VICE is not such a bad way to get there. If you never got past the famous 100-page barrier of GR, this eccentric yet agreeable book may get you to the bottom of the mystery of why it’s worth another try.

Goin’ Down the Road…

We’ve all got wheels,
to take us far away.
We’ve got [Squishtoid blogs] to say, what we can’t say…

-Flying Burrito Bros.


Spent the weekend listening to mountain music. That specific mix of Bluegrass, Folk, and Country Rock I first inhaled after leaving the bleak, Hard-Rock steel yards of the Queen City of the Lakes many moons ago.


It hasn’t changed much since I left the Queen City of the Plains (so many queens! There’s a Dame Edna joke in there somewhere..) to come to the Denver Punk scene. Some of it I can go months or even years without. But I don’t mind snoozing through the obligatory Grateful Dead homage to get to the good stuff- Billy Bragg or Gram Parsons. This is the sound track of the many mushroom- and pot-fueled mountain camp outs I’ve stumbled through out in the sage, under the Wyoming moon.


It’s late summer in the Rockies. That time when each hot day contains a hint, like a strip of cool white tan line at the edge of a well-filled yellow bikini, of something to be simultaneously longed for yet postponed as long as possible: Fall. Downtown Salida sitting in its 19th century glory on the banks of the preternaturally turbulent Arkansas River ( August would normally mark the end of flow, and the rafting, but we’ve had a wet Summer), rimmed by the Collegiate Peaks -tall iconic pyramids dappled with the slightly tarnished sunlight of August and skimmed by the fluffy billowing white clouds strobing by like freight cars, with the rustle of cottonwood leaves and the strum of mandolin riffs from the stage at this little festival in the park, is where wraith-like, Autumn ’09 first appeared for this Squishtoid.


It was a pleasant enough show, with a fairly steady stream of interested visitors, many of whom, I heard later, were still raving about my work when they entered the local Mexican bistro across the street; faint praise indeed when none were willing to put pen to checkbook. Oh, well.


Driving out, late sun sliding across rippled arpeggios of mountain peaks like a Sneaky Pete Kleinow solo, then up past the tailings and Superfund degradation of Leadville and onto 70 and down through its interminable, apocalyptically signed descent- ” TRUCKERS DON’T BE FOOLED! STILL 4 MORE MILES OF 6% GRADE WITH TIGHT CURVES!” and as a GP-synth-fill grace note the jagged lightning strokes slashing and hacking away at Lyons, or some other some poor farm town east of Denver.

I spent Monday organizing the garage, to avoid the sort of loading slip-up from Friday, in which a minor part of the tent was left behind ( Um. The roof). I avoided the 5 hour retrieval round trip thanks to a nice woman who had a spare, slightly wind-mangled pop-up, which thanks to the calm weather, worked like a charm. Except, of course, for the no sales part.

But to paraphrase Freewheelin’ Franklin, times of time and no money are better than times of money and no time. Part of the promised but still undelivered Squishtoid Manifesto, folks! Watch for it!

Of course, Freewheelin’ Franklin and his cannabinoid musings are very much on my mind lately, as I solaced my self after my zippo blanco show by laying in bed and finishing Inherent Vice. About which, full review tomorrow, though speaking as one who the only Pynchon books he hasn’t read twice are the ones he’s about to read twice, don’t expect a negative reaction, as it turns out to be kind of a page-turner without losing that delightfully bizarre TP mojo.

The run-on sentence in graf three being in his honor.

Days with out job: 139
Squishometer: “We’re not afraid to ride…”
Number of Words in Graf 3 Run-on: 94

Weekend Squish: A Squishing Comes Across the Sky.

Days without Job: 122

Days Without New Pynchon Novel: -3

In this newly job-less ‘slacker’s’ version of heaven, the required beach read is Thomas Pynchon. So the news, late last year, of an new TP novel, Inherent Vice, out August 4, is welcomed. The unusually quick turn-around, three years – with 10 not unusual for Pynchon, 13 the longest- makes me all squishy inside.The fact that it’s a Noir detective story, unusually light at 369 pp. compared to his last monster (Against The Day, 1000+), is intriguing.

The first reviews have been trickling out.Now they have reached flood stage. They tend to fall into three distinct categories: outraged screed; jaded, knowing intro for newbies; and thematic speculations.

The first, a hallmark of his Gravity’s Rainbow era, is now rare, though you can usually count on some curmudgeon at Slate or wherever to trot one out at some point. That 1974 blank spot in the list of Pulitzer Prizes for Literature is the legacy of this mindset. The second is now standard, and this one typifies the genre: bemused listing of Pynchon tropes; disclaimer about the rather nonchalant plots; toss in a snarky comment about the character names; and you’re done. Mail it in.

The third, my favorite, links the subject novel with his others in terms of Pynchon’s ongoing thematic obsessions, but without the jargon that tends to choke the academic journals clustered around our era’s pre-eminent Post-Modernist writer. These are the most useful to those trying to enjoy or understand the cult surrounding him, and Sarah Churchwell, in the Observer, provides a nice overview:

The book’s title provides Pynchon with a new metaphor for three of his oldest preoccupations: entropy, capitalism and religion, specifically Puritanism. For insurers and preservationists, “inherent vice” describes the innate tendency of precious objects to deteriorate and refers to the limits of insurability and conservation; it suggests that matter (and thus, by extension, materialism) carries within it the seeds of its own destruction.”

But since this is a Noir novel (of sorts), another kind of review has joined the fray, basically asking the question “Is it Noir?” And since the gumshoe genre is one of my favorites, I had to read “Death Becomes Them”, an exploration of literary giants trying out Noir in Newsweek, by Malcolm Jones:

“No one will ever accuse Pynchon of wearing his feelings on his sleeve, but in Inherent Vice there’s no mistaking his affection for his private detective, Larry (Doc) Sportello. Using Chandler territory as inspiration, Pynchon launches a tale as complicated as anything he’s ever written, a tale that involves rotten cops, a missing girlfriend, a murdered developer, and a sinister menace called the Golden Fang, which is a mysterious schooner used for smuggling, but also the name of a shadowy holding company and maybe even a Southeast Asian heroin cartel. There are times when the false starts, red herrings, dead ends, and duplicities get so tangled that all a reader can think of is the story about Faulkner and Leigh Brackett, who, in the midst of writing the screenplay for The Big Sleep, had to call up Chandler to ask who killed the chauffeur—and he couldn’t remember either.”

Jones’ conclusion:

Does it add up? Maybe. Do you get lost? Lured down a long linguistic dark alley is more like it. It’s always weird but always fun.

I’ll be at the Tattered Cover early Tuesday for my copy, and I’ll post my preliminary thoughts in a Weekend Squish soon, and more when I’ve finished it. The single quotes around “slacker” in the first graf above are a warning that I’m actually quite busy in the next three months, and don’t know when this will be.