The Reading Edge: When the Going Gets Weird

“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”

Hunter S. Thompson

A vacancy of purpose takes hold. This is not necessarily a bad thing in a creative sense; I’ve alluded to large empty landscapes in my work and in my creative process. An idea, I’ve said, might be compared to a single rider appearing on a dark plain.

It becomes a bit disconcerting, doesn’t it, when vacancy overtakes your daily routine. It’s an issue I’ve seen coming but delayed addressing, but as I reach official retirement age next spring, it’s been a subtext to my lockdown activities. What to do to keep everyday fresh. I’ve got projects, like everyone, there’s the slow reorganization of life around the idea of staying home. I’ve made a teaching video, applied for economic relief, attended to chores both bureaucratic and domestic. Odd that enrolling in Medicare came at the same time as the virus exposed the weakness of the American health infrastructure.

I had set aside creative production with the closing of my normal workspace, but now I’m looking to return to sketching and studio tasks in anticipation of its eventual reopening. I’ve kept busy. But a creative response was always going to be a must going forward.

But what’s the response? What is the meaning of this newly recovered time? That’s not as easy to resolve as painting the bedroom or as simple to unlock as a studio door. I’ve always turned to art and pop culture in my resting hours to inform that investigation, but now, in a sort of free floating anxiety, I found it hard to pursue new, complex projects. So I returned to older revelations to see them in a new context. Creative flipping, I’ve called it- like a monkey with a stick, I’m turning things over to see if there’s some important function I’ve missed. It can feel repetitive. But in repetition is motion, in motion there can be found rhythm and in rhythm can be found music (art).

And that is -of course! -what led me to Thomas Pynchon and Neil Young. I won’t try to link them- a process that would certainly fill time, but also condemn this blog to the farthest, and very vacant reaches of SEO exile. But I will post separate speculations as evidence of something I consider an essential truth: art’s rarely great, without first being weird. Both Pynchon and Young have had long successful, honored careers. Neither ever foreswore their insistence on being weird.

Mason and Dixon, Thomas Pynchon: In the void that opened up between daily creative purpose (what to do?), and mindfully spent days (what to make of this?), my full docket of readings collapsed. I’m a browser. With the library closed, limited budget and shelf space for online purchases, and the strange, vacant days having tracked us down, I searched my shelf and found a reliable poltergeist to fit the zeitgeist. This is the third time I’ve read it. Why?

Pynchon, like America- and let’s be honest, we didn’t need a pandemic shutting down The Cheesecake Factory to show us this, it’s been right there in front of our faces all the while- is weird and more than a little scary. Pynchon happens to be much better at dressing up the existential paranoia with humor, with robust sentences and images, with the sort of literary parallax that post modernism specializes in, than the country, especially as represented by the incomprehensible word salad of its titular spokesman. We wish America was funny-weird-scary right now, rather than scary-weird-scary. As soon as I pulled the book from my shelf, hefting the 865 pages of funny weird creepy improvisations on the very heavily loaded line drawn in 1863 between Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania and a host of very American histories they stand for, I knew I was home. I wish I could say the same when I look out my front window.

Novels having flown their arcs, this is a very simple tale. Straight line, east to west, actually. To complicate it: some monarch ( James II and VII, but who’s counting) has botched the math in awarding proprietorship in colonies to Penn and Calvert, and borders must be surveyed to fit the authoritarian ignorance. Mason and Dixon, between gigs sighting Transits of Venus, a measurement of solar parallax that was a landmark in determining astronomic distances, are hired. The line surveyed took 4 years of hacking their way through the wilderness and triangulating it with the stars. It eventually wound up becoming a political-cultural touchstone when Americans could not triangulate their way around the question of owning human beings and how much the darkness of their skin devalues them. It sits there invisibly in the pleasant rolling Middle Atlantic landscape, having become as much scar as inscribed line.

That’s where Pynchon comes in. His genius is exploring the dark dreamlike wilderness between science and storytelling. Apocalyptic rainbows etched by erectile weaponry, capital “V” vectors between identity and desire, that sort of thing. The astronomers/ surveyors survive sea battles to get to slave states, pick up chicks with Franklin, smoke pot with Washington. Then they get out their instruments, and the weirdness really kicks in.

This is not beach reading, though it is at times hilarious. It puts the lie to the Rousseauan Arcadia of pre-revolutionary America, and includes Indian massacres, professional-grade geometry and robot ducks. This is an America that is unmapped, and thus dreamlike. “Does Britannia when she sleeps, dream? Is America her dream?” There is a long section in which a character lives through the 11 days that everyone else skipped over when England converted to the Gregorian calendar. It immediately came to mind when the reality of the shelter-in-place was fresh, and weird.

I set myself up on the couch in the hours formerly known as morning rush hour, or the now perfect silence that settles after dark, with my beverage ( coffee, the official drink of Enlightenment era political ferment, now the drug of choice for essential workers, gets a starring role in the book) and my Pynchon Wiki, a pioneering internet lit crit innovation that TRP can justly claim indirect credit for. The wiki helps one to negotiate the myriad historical and scientific allusions, the coffee opens one’s eyes to Pynchon’s rich imaginings, faux Early Modern English patois and robust syntax, the quiet streets remind us that however strange and frightening our history, we are still a work in progress, a nation that can be about the future. Who, after all, writes a book about 18th Century surveyors; unless he thinks it can tell us something about how our lines are drawn now?

Familiar, and yet strange. That is the textbook definition of the surreal, and not to overuse a very overused term, a perfect description of what passes for our daily lives right now. A bit of a horror show, really, though not without its irony, humor and possibility. These days, like all days, once we see them, for all their weirdness, approach the sublime. We’re going to need artists like Pynchon, who in this book says, through the voice of a framing character:

“Who claims Truth, Truth abandons. History is hir’d, or coerc’d, only in Interests that must ever prove base. She is too innocent, to be left within the reach of anyone in Power,- who need but touch her, and all her Credit is in the instant vanish’d, as if it had never been. She needs rather to be tended lovingly and honorably by fabulists and counterfeiters, Ballad-Mongers and Cranks of ev’ry Radius, Masters of Disguise to provide her the Costume, Toilette, and Bearing, and Speech nimble enough to keep her beyond the Desires, or even the Curiosity, of Government.

The tiny hands of corruption are all over the narrative of the present day; the poets and artists- essential workers, by Pynchon’s lights- are on the back heel. In casting about restlessly in my quarantined space I found, on my shelf, the perfect book for this eerie, vacant lost world. Fabulist, counterfeiter, ballad-monger, crank- which am I? In a time when society tends to put people like me, older, poorer, marginalized by choice of profession- on a shelf; in a nation that has never prioritized the health of its people, it’s a healthy question to ask.

And here is your reminder that whatever you read, listen to, or do to get you through this bizarre period, to remember to vote on November 3, as the health of a nation depends upon it.

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