Of Labrynths and Pornography, Information and Holidays: Gravity’s Rainbow, Chapter 2

As I finished Chapter 2, I found myself wondering what the hell just happened to me. I’d suggest that I’m merely a tad paranoid (as I am), but it feels far too much like I’m buying into Pynchon’s Pavlovian-paranoiac reality.

Ah, gads.

Pynchon left me hanging on the matter of 19th century German history and literature. Poof–it was gone! Turned into a fetishistic nightmare of golden showers* and coprophagia. Ahem.

So, I have four points to piddle with here.

Holidays and Octopuses

I had Duff McKagan’s voice in my head while reading this (surprise, surprise), singing Al Bloch’s “Holiday,” particularly this part:

“Dreaming off in space/ Time and a place/ Life calls my name/ Won’t play the game/ Little joy sleep brings/ Telephone sings/ Answering machine/ Won’t you please kill the ring/ I’m on holiday”

The cadence of Chapter 2 was often similar to this punky gem. We spend our time in Casino Herman Goering (I can’t say that name enough….Casino Hermann Goering…there is something so fitting to a Casino, with it’s bloated indulgences and Goering…with his) in France, away from the chill of Chapter One, and a bit more distant (for most of the chapter) from the reality of war. We are on holiday for a spell. The war continues on, however, as characters disappear, lie, and are recovered. And, one cannot forget Slothrop’s ugly American moment, as he dresses in a Hawaiian shirt that gives poor Tantivy chills. Peculiarly, the opening of Chapter Two had all the elements of a good, old fashioned B-monster movie. Complete with an attacking octopus, which threatened to consume poor Katje. As with all B-movies, the staging rapidly evident, even as Slothrop impotently beats the octopus with a whiskey bottle–to no avail. The scene is worth reading repeatedly, even if only to see the following remark: “…and who as to know that among her last things would be vulgar-faced hula girls, ukuleles, and surf-riders all in comic colors…(186). What a way to go.

Chemistry and the Art of Fetish Pornography

The B-monster-cum-manipulation movie rapidly transitions in to a fetish flick. Indeed, Chapter 2 may have had one of the oddest collections of verbal pornography I’ve ever seen. I noted part of it above–the golden showers* and coprophagia. I know why my buddy R. ran screaming from this novel (and from Modern Literature in general) years ago; she retreated wholly into the medieval world as an act of self-defence. Poor lamb. The chapter’s finest moment, however, comes when Pynchon reveals the power of chemistry (which he also alludes to in the dozens of references to Sandoz Labs and, consequently, the 1943 invention of LSD):

“His classic study of large molecules spanned the decade of the twenties and brought us directly to nylon, which not only is a delight to the fetishist and a convenience to the armed insurgent, but was also, at the time and well within the System, an announcement of Placiticity’s central canon: that chemists were no longer to be at the mercy of Nature” (249).

Keep in mind that I’m married to a man with degrees in chemical engineering. Don’t think I haven’t heard this speech before, but Pynchon’s repackaging was genius: Nylon–the godsend of insurgents and fetishists everywhere; the book practically screams: “Better living through chemistry–are you fucking kidding me? This is better??” And, oddly, the control over nature that chemistry, with it’s codes and diagrams, is mirrored by architecture, that art of the Nazi world and blueprints. And, such control, Pynchon seems to make clear (or, my brain on Pynchon anyway) is not ideal.

The problem of the line and diagram shows up in other elements of the narrative. I’m a cartographer at heart, so the following was a bit of beauty:

“We are obsessed with building labyrinths, where before there was open plain andsky. To draw ever more complex patterns on the blank sheet. We cannot abide that openness: it is terror to us…Beneath the city streets, the warrens of rooms
and corridors, the fences and networks of steel track, the Argentine heart, in its perversity and guilt, longs for a return to that first unscribbled serenity…that anarchic oneness of pampas and sky…”(264).

The city as maze and rabbits’ lair (ah, we who overpopulate the earth, yes?), the insistence on marking property with fence and stone…if you’ve read Gilgamesh, you’ve seen an early rendering of this habit: the epic begins by asking readers to witness it’s truth by “touching the walls of Uruk.” The walls and lines give us physical manifestations of civilization, even as we are simultaneously reduced to rabbits in warrens. Those same markers of civilization also separate us from, as Pynchon suggests, the “anarchic oneness” of nature–spaces that lack definition and the borders that at once offer comfort and generate the paranoia that they will eventually be breached. The need for lines and visual confirmation of ownership exists most firmly, I suspect, in the blueprints that float about in Gravity’s Rainbow. Blueprints allow us, like walls, to imagine borders and control, even when we, like Slothrop, have none.

I’m hovering near a conversation about decentering with Pynchon. I’ve got Deleuze and Guattari on the brain after this chapter, but I need to ruminate a bit. “A Map and not a Tracing…,” they write of Rhizome. A map and not a tracing. Chew on this: “What distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real. The map does not reproduce an unconscious closed contact with the real. The map does not reproduce an unconscious closed in upon itself; it constructs the unconscious” (Deleuze & Guattari 12). A blueprint is a tracing, not a map; it cannot reveal the real. But a map…a map we can imagine and shape into a thousand necessary ideas: “The map is open and connectible in all of is dimensions; it is detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification. It can be torn, reversed, adapted to any kind of mounting, reworked by an individual, group, or social formation. It can be drawn on a wall, conceived of as a work of art, constructed as a political action or as a meditation” (Deleuze & Guattari 12). A map, then, has power–and we have power over it. Slothrop cannot understand blueprints alone because they are merely tracings that are part of a map; once he begins to see the interconnectivity of Katje, Tantivy, and information, and zoot suits, he can be gin to understand. The tracing of a rocket has no meaning outside the conspiracy; it is merely a rocket.

A map, though. Much more powerful. Maps connect image and idea–connect nylon to insurgent to freedom from the perceived tyranny of nature.

I think I need to reread a bit of D & G….

Oh hell.**

One of the most interesting parts of the novel so far is Pynchon’s discussion of the commodification of information. Black market dealer Semyavin accedes to Slothrop that his game has fundamentally changed: “Information. What’s wrong with dope and women? Is it any wonder the world has gone insane, with information come to be the only medium of real exchange?” (258). karen-the-great and I have talked around information exchange time and again (indeed, it is the heart and soul of her dissertation-to-be, I suspect). I was delighted to find it wandering around in Pynchon. Information, dope, and women, the great sins of 20th century man?

Oh, one more. Speaking of commodification, we had Zoot Suits. For those who’ve never seen the wonder that is the drape, I give you this gem with Edward James Olmos. Do see the film if you never have.

C. would be so proud. The Zoot Suit Riots at Casino Hermann Goering . I’d put my pic of C. wearing his drape up as an example, but I didn’t ask him first, so Mr. Olmos will have to do.

I’m afraid to admit this, but I think I’m enjoying the novel.

Works Cited

Bloch, Al. “Holiday.” Beautiful Disease. Perf. Duff McKagan. Recorded 1998. Unreleased.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minn P, 1987.

Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity’s Rainbow. New York: Penguin, 1973.

*Interestingly, distribution of images of urophilia, as it is properly (?) known, carries a potential for imprisonment in New Zealand.

**Proof that graduate school ruins the mind, you know. Go back to D & G? AGAIN? Shit.

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