Constant Havoc

Yes, I thought about this stuff before I put it here.

Category: reading

Reading “Howl”

On the first reading

A locomotive rhythm propels me through the lines driving me from one syllable to the next. A hunger in the sounds claws at the words to reach deep in my mind’s eye conjuring images of a man standing at a microphone eyes closed coughing line after line into the air falling on ears drowning thoughts out of blank stares soaked with yesterday’s tears. I’m left wondering when this force shoved my head into its vise grip.

Who gives way to what. The Fates are there. A god appears. Denver takes a beating. Sex’s scent rides high over the pages. There is dirt and anguish and women and men.

Was there laughter?

There was pounding sound. There was a beat. There was a need to move on on on.

I do not sense a wood fire. This is a modern, internal combustion. Sparks ignite gas, and a thousand intimate hopes burn through the paper and drive the pistons to push and pull on on on.

There were commas. Were there periods? Did anything stop? I don’t remember rest. I remember need.

*

The second reading

There was one period. And I’m out of breath! The words! They come relentlessly driving me over the cliff.

The rooms are unshaven. Purgatory is not a place but an active force. The ashcans scream. And what is a “kind king light of mind”? How does a mind illuminate? “Grandfather night” smiles on us all and gives us just a line or two of rest. “Hotrod-Golgatha jail-solitude watch” reaches in and twists me.

The commas are not punctuation. The lack of commas speaks of need to make language.

“What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?” Oh, God! What sphinx indeed?! I am laid waste. My breast is open, and my beating heart is there to be eaten.

I have so many questions. Why does this make me want to rush to the corner to buy a pack of cigarettes?

Need. Hunger. Want.

Breath. Sound. Rending.

*

Third

I forgot how to read. I must learn again.

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Why do I read Gravity’s Rainbow?

I’m thinking about me today. As I mentioned in the previous post, I have read Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon over the last thirty years or so too many times to count. Last night as I lay in bed drifting into sleep, I began to question why.

The book has been a companion to me. It’s been with me everywhere. I’ve read it in bed, in easy chairs, in trains and planes, and on the beach. It’s frustrated me and comforted me. It has assailed me with riddles, and it has spoken clear words of encouragement.

I’m rereading it now, and its message seems so distinctly simple.

Yes, there is a lot we don’t control about our world. Yes, there are powerful forces who exert control over vast amounts of energy, and They are not friendly. However, those elites do not hold quite as much control as They imagine. They are not omniscient.

Resistance is real, and it works. We can play the part of double agents, living in Their systems and simultaneously sabotaging them.

Connection is key. The elite divide us. We must come together. We can touch each other, and They can’t stop us. Through small acts, we can thwart Them, and we win when we do.

Their systems – the rocket – crave sacrifice. They destroy. But even that technology of death connects. The launcher and the dying are one in the flight of the rocket.

What can we preterite do in the face of such radical destruction? Look to our hero Slothrop. We can narrow our Delta-t band. Live as much now, leaving the past and the future to Them. Live! It’s the thing that scares Them most.

* * *

Why do I read Gravity’s Rainbow?

My relationship with the book is about my relationship with myself. I can see myself maturing as I have read it over and over. I discovered me in its pages.

I have read passages that utterly confused me. They were times I did not know my own way through the world. I have read dream sequences with tangled words, and I have felt peace. These were times I was grateful for the turmoil around me. I saw the path through the rubble of my life.

I have no illusions before me as I read it now. I am one with myself, and the pages dissolve as I turn them. The words register and leave their impressions, and I smile.

The book is complex, but so is the world They have made for us to pick our ways through. We must each bring our dead as we join the resistance, and we must touch each other. We must bare our skin and open to our lashes we lay on ourselves. We must own our selves. We must touch.

Reading Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

Gravity's Rainbow 004

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon is my vade mecum, a guidebook carried constantly.

I read it first while still an undergraduate in the early 80s. We’d read Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 in a class, and I liked it. I decided to read what was purported to be his best work, which had won the National Book Award, and I was not disappointed. I remember standing in my English professor’s little office, and she asked me what made me think I could possibly tackle such a book.

“Arrogance?” I quipped.

She guffawed and slapped her desk.

Gravity’s Rainbow is a puzzle to many readers. It confounded me for a very long time. I think the best way to describe it is entwined.

The book opens in a dream of a labyrinthine knotting of passageways and trails that lead steadily into a deeper place, a level further below, revealing still new permutations of existence than were readily available at first glance. People trudge through the space neither succumbing nor escaping. They simply move.

A master storyteller like Pynchon knows the opening must reveal the whole in some way. This opening language weaves in and out of various levels of understanding of the dream, and we’re alerted to the notion we will journey through a maze that will lead us deeper into the story, the characters, the themes, the words, and even ourselves as readers.

I don’t think there’s anything extra in this book. I have read it so many times I’ve lost count. That’s honest. I’m rereading it again, and it’s very clear this time through. I’ve had questions about the book for many years, decades. I am getting answers this time.

Yes, the language is convoluted at times. It’s serpentine, and it’s done for a reason. I think the times when the words double back on themselves and lead the reader to the place where he questions what he’s just read and where he is in the text are to push him out of his easy chair and into a new way of knowing, a new way of questioning how a book and a reader are supposed to relate to each other.

The scientist is observer and observed. The rocket is one with launcher and victim. Separation is a myth invented by our minds to control our environments. The reader is whole in the act of reading, and the book is not an object but a function in the equation. Connection is key. Singularity as opposed to duality seeps through the language. We are all whole in our beings as we move through our days. Verbs are vital.

“A screaming comes across the sky” is the opening sentence. There are only six words, and two of them function like verbs. They act on the reader. They move. “Screaming” conjures a host of terrors, nightmares, banshees. “Comes” sits there simple enough. Surely. It’s a small word. Or does it act in another way here? Where does it put us, the readers? Aren’t we left underneath the noise listening to it peak and recede, leaving us shaking in our boots and thankful for escape? We’re sorry enough for the poor sods under the rocket when it stopped screaming and left only dust and rubble, but really, better him than me, eh?

Our hero, Tyrone Slothrop, educates us as he hops across Europe. He’s an American lost and helpless amongst these tired Europeans. He grows in his knowledge of the trappings of his own life and its tie to the rocket, and he is transformed into the Rocketman when he is liberated from the ties binding him to his Earthly existence. He transcends.

I am enjoying this read through the book immensely. The words shine on the pages or the screen, as it is. Yes, I like my e-reader very much. I carry a library in my palm. The world’s books await. It’s a gift, and I like it.

I had so many questions when I read it the first few times. There was so much that eluded me, and now I see it was my own life I was questioning as a young man. I’m not young any more. I’m middle aged. Like Slothrop, I’ve evolved. I don’t fight the words. They lie there. I take them in. They work their wonders in my mind calling up all sorts of ideas and pictures and feelings and memories. Together, we make a story.

The night’s sounds trilling through my window while I read are just as much a part of the event as the book and I are. It’s all there, and nothing gets left out.

“Soup” should be a verb.

Gravity’s Rainbow soups its way into my being, and together we grow.

Thomas Pynchon’s Got a New Book

A well-worn book

A well-worn book

Bleeding Edge will be available in just two days, and I can’t wait. It’s Thomas Pynchon’s newest book, and the reviews promise more of what I love about his work: conspiracies, paranoia, funny names, and a critical eye on modernism. The setting is New York City in 2001. Pynchon writes about history and how events shape people. His plots always threaten to drown the characters in impossibly complex underworlds. His books stop me and force me to think about my little place in the world.

I read his most famous work, Gravity’s Rainbow, when I was a university student, and I’ve been a fan of his ever since. That was back in the early 80s before the Internet. It was back before personal computers and the World Wide Web were ubiquitous. Books were made of paper.

I spent last evening delving into the dark underbelly of Amazon’s Kindle books downloading all the free ones I could find. I got some great stuff. I found well over a hundred, which are now stored safely on my computer and even more loosely in The Cloud.

I have not downloaded any of Pynchon’s books onto my Kindle. Bleeding Edge will be the first.

Back when I read all books on paper, I kept a little one of quotes I found particularly poignant. I have wide ranging entries from many different sources. Gravity’s Rainbow moved me to include a few as well.

Yet the continuity, flesh to kindred metals, home to hedgeless sea, has persisted. It is not death that separates the incarnations, but paper: paper specialties, paper routines.

These sentences come early in the book before the conspiracies are too thick. The idea that there is a connection between the animate and inanimate is praised. Human bureaucracy and man made definitions push things apart.

Pynchon values love and all its entanglements. Roger Mexico writes movingly about Jessica:

You go from dream to dream inside me. You have passage to my last shabby corner, and there, among the debris, you’ve found life. I’m no longer sure which of all the words, images, dreams or ghosts are “yours” and which are “mine.” It’s past sorting out. We’re both being someone new now, someone incredible….

Here is not only love but touching the deepest core. Here is where real human interaction shows us importance.

And then there are the missiles. Roger and Jessica shelter in each other’s arms while bombs fall on London. On the other side of the war, Franz Pokler works designing them to go aloft. He experiences the change in the environment where the scientists labor.

No one was specializing yet. That came later, when the bureaus and paranoias moved in, and the organization charts became plan-views of prison cells.

The team succumbed to the bureaus. Men define and separate instead of build up and celebrate.

Is redemption possible in the post-modern world? Is there no more connection? Will even the rainbow surrender?

…plastic saxophone reed sounds of unnatural timbre, shampoo bottle ego-image, Cracker Jack prize one-shot amusement, home appliance casing fairing for winds of cognition, baby bottles tranquilization, meat packages disguise of slaughter, dry-cleaning bags infant strangulation, garden hoses feeding endlessly the desert

In the end, Tyrone Slothrop, the Rocketman, fades somewhere we seemingly cannot follow, and we wonder. We hope. We pray:

But an Aether sea to bear us world-to-world might bring us back a continuity, show us a kinder universe, more easy-going….

Should we look to the heavenly spheres that assuaged us before Copernicus obliterated them? Where do we fit into Galileo’s assertion “It moves”? Are humans evolution’s pinnacle or just a chance occurrence? Is continuity after Hiroshima and Nagasaki merely a dream? Can we love any more?

I hope Bleeding Edge enlightens some of the dark corners of our questions.

50 Years Later

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963.

With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Children’s Books

“Every book is a children’s book, if the kid can read!”

Mitch Hedberg

Living Abroad

from here to there

from here to there

I had the great fortune to live abroad for quite a number of years as a young adult. I called Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Australia, England, and France home at one time or another. Reading travel writing is one of my favorites, and I get the most pleasure from what experienced writers have to say about their jaunts. I like both fiction and nonfiction when it comes to stories about life overseas.

Graham Greene wrote often about the many different places he visited. He is well known for The Quiet American, and I have a couple of favorite quotes from the book.

[Americans] were so charming, and I wanted to send them home too. (Part 3, ch. 2, 2)

Americans abroad need protection. We’re too cute for our own good.

“Perhaps you ought to have been a priest.” [Thomas]

“I didn’t read the right authors for that — in those days.” [Vigot] (Part 3, ch. 1, 1)

Reading plays an important formative role for all of us, and perhaps it’s a bit different for those who ruminate over words. I was marked and changed by Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. The words, characters, and ideas of the book invaded my head at a young age. My university English professor, who guided me through Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, asked me why I’d thought I could read such a tome. My quick, youthful and honest reply was “Arrogance.”

Mark Twain traveled, and of course, he wrote.

The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad. I speak, now, of course, in the supposition that the gentle reader has not been abroad, and therefore is not already a consummate ass. If the case be otherwise, I beg his pardon and extend to him the cordial hand of fellowship and call him brother. I shall always delight to meet an ass after my own heart when I shall have finished my travels. Innocents Abroad, vol. 1, ch. 23

Of course, I am a consummate ass and a proud one, too. There’s such a wide world to see, and in the twenty-first century, it takes very little to become a consummate ass. Join us.

Nox by Anne Carson

Nox by Anne Carson is a type of accordion book.

Nox by Anne Carson is a type of accordion book.

I bought Anne Carson’s newest book the other day. She is one of two authors alive today whose works I will buy at the drop of a hat. (The other is Thomas Pynchon.) It’s called Nox, and it is a beautiful piece of literature. Physically, it is a beautiful book.

It’s more of a box than a book exactly. The box opens like a book, but the pages come out in accordion-like fashion as one long strip. It is one piece of long paper. At first, it’s difficult to decide how to handle these odd pages. I assumed the thing was fastened into the bottom of the box-book somehow, so I carefully held it in my lap and gently turned the pieces over revealing one page at a time the words.

Then came a section that ran on for several folds in the manuscript and made me look at the thing in a whole new light. I could lift out the front part and stretch the words out over several pages and take in a larger section than is normally afforded to the reader with the average book.

Finally, came the realization that the back of the manuscript was free of the bottom of the box-book. I could lift it entirely from its case. So, I did. I spread it out before me on the bed where I sat reading and took in the beauty of the lovely words that lay before me.

Nox is the Latin word for night, and the manuscript is a long, loving translation of Catullus 101. The pages alternate between dissertive translations of the poem word by painstaking word and fragments of letters from Ms. Carson’s deceased brother and her thoughts on their life and relationship. The manuscript is a facsimile of something she created for herself in memory of her brother.

There are old photographs and copies of handwritten letters. I should say that there are copies of torn pieces of letters from her brother. We are left wondering whether we have all to go by to decide what we should think.

But isn’t that life? Aren’t we in a constant state of wondering whether we have all the information we need to think?

The physical manuscript itself calls out to me and begs to be handled. It implores me to stretch it across the floor to try to piece it together.

Beautiful. Simply beautiful.

“Never May the Fruit be Plucked” by Edna St. Vincent Millay

tomatoes

Never, never may the fruit be plucked from the bough

And gathered into barrels.

He that would eat of love must eat it where it hangs.

Though the branches bend like reeds,

Though the ripe fruit splash in the grass or wrinkle on the tree,

He that would eat of love may bear away with him

Only what his belly can hold,

Nothing in the apron,

Nothing in the pockets.

Never never may the the fruit be gathered from the bough

And harvested in barrels.

The winter of love is a cellar of empty bins,

In an orchard soft with rot.

In this poem, four lines are almost repeated save one or two words. Importantly, those changes are verbs. There is something in the action that the poet wants us to look at closely. In the lines beginning “never, never…,” plucked becomes gathered, and in the lines about the barrels, gathered becomes harvested. The ideas in the words rhyme. It’s interesting that she chose only 3 verbs to play with. Plucked. Gathered. Harvested.

Plucked has joy in it. Spring laughs.

Gathered begs multiplicity. It is full.

Harvested is final. Ripening completes.

And in the end, in love’s winter, nothing is stored but rots where it hangs or lays. The ripe, full joy comes to an inedible sour sweet stench.

Reading Opening Lines

Published 1973 by Jonathan Cape

Gravity’s Rainbow. Published 1973 by Jonathan Cape.

A screaming comes across the sky.

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon opens with that sentence. I like the simple, declarative structure. Sound takes on the active role. Something that we see as normally passive and received becomes the actor, the mover. It does so in a medium that is painted with adjectives to adorn it with meaning. Here sky stands alone. It’s not stormy, blue, clear, cloudy, or even star-studded.

And how does sound relate to this empty sky? It comes. Of all the ways it could have passed, ridden, approached, or appeared. The whole idea has been stripped to its essence, and in those naked words, a glimmer of what is to come is born.

Opening sentences carry enormous responsibility in books. They have to inform the reader about the subject of the book, and good ones subtly set the tone. Great ones make the astute reader stop and stare. The line quoted above is one of those. It announces to anyone interested enough to consider it that the following book is going to be loud enough to fill an empty space. Gravity’s Rainbow roared into literary space in 1973 and has been the subject of study, adoration, and derision ever since. It happens to be one of my top 5 favorite books.

Another great book also opens simply. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden starts with “The Salinas Valley is in Northern California.” At first glance, the sentence is almost boring, until you consider the elements. There is a name, and there is place echoed from the book’s title. What follows in the story is a wrestling of name and identity in place that grows, anchors, and frees.

I read books. I can tell a lot by the opening line. I’ve read some pieces in which I knew the entire plot by the first sentence, and I’ve read some that needed a lot of work on that one little sentence.

My favorite opening line of all time comes from a little book with a big title, Winner of the National Book Award by Jincy Willett. While it’s very good, no, the book did not win the National Book Award. That’s not what we’re here to consider.

What does the opening line say?

Lightning sought our mother out, when she was a young girl in Brown County, Indiana.

There it is. It’s got sentient natural electrical weather. It’s got the maternal role juxtaposed against the promise of a youthful girl. And it’s got place. I love that the moving inanimate electricity searches for the girl. It injects just a note of paranoia. But it’s in the past and in a seemingly unlikely place. The book goes on to fulfill the promise of this opening. It’s got bad weather and women and an odd place little thought of by people except those who live there.

When I browse bookshops, I often read the opening lines of books. I rarely look at what the cover has to say. The verbiage written on the dust jacket is advertising, but the opening line is there to hook me. It’s there to compel to read what follows.

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