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The big lie of American capitalism is that corporations work in their own best interests. In fact they’re constantly doing things that will eventually bring them to their knees. Most of these blunders involve toxic chemicals that any competent chemist should know to be dangerous. They pump these things into the environment and don’t event try to protect themselves.

In the opening pages of Zodiac, Sangaman Taylor snorts a bag of nitrous oxide and he describes the effect as being like having “half of an orgasm backfired in the middle of my brain“. The first time I read Neal Stephenson‘s novel Snow Crash, my reaction was comparable to Sanagaman’s druggy delirium. Here was a writer, I thought, who got *it*. Two years ago I was reading an article about Stephenson in Wired magazine, where in his latest publicity photos the author had begun to resemble a benign monk. His novels have broken out of the cyberpunk genre and his latest series the Baroque Cycle a remarkably ambitious fictionalised account of the history of ‘natural philosophy’.

The man is my guru.

Zodiac, as it happens, is a relatively early book of Stephenson’s, although still bearing the stylistic traces of ambition, humour and erudition so common in his writing.

Sangaman Taylor is a genius-level environmental activist working with a group known as GEE in the Boston area. Where other students that graduated from the same colleges as himself wound up working for the major chemical companies, S.T. became convinced that only he could stand in the way of rampant profiteering and the flagrant breaking of environmental protection laws. Not above snorkeling around punctured effluent pipe-lines, traipsing through sewer tunnels, and then holding the press conference with the chemical samples he manages to obtain, there is nothing he enjoys more than beating the corporate P.R. reps at their own game. Part intellectual Robin Hood cum media darling, S.T. enjoys the fruits of his labour, even if he has to whip the tree-hugging suporters of GEE into line every once and a while.

When a member of a family with connections to the number one polluter of Boston Harbour stands for election, S.T. goes on the warpath. Searching for evidence that connects Alvin Pleshy, nicknamed ‘The Groveler’, directly to the dumping of toxic waste by Basco, S.T. discovers a highly virulent polycarbon chemical present in the waters of the harbour. Lobsters that have absorbed the substance have been left with liquified livers. Humans who come into contact with the water themselves are coming down with a deadly infection, one that was previously seen in Vietnam, where Basco has also run factories. Then there is matter of thugs on S.T.’s trail whenever he visits the harbour in his Zodiac motor boat, a gang of murderous Satanists high on P.C.P., an attempted assassination and a corporate headhunter from a Basco subdivision who wants S.T. on their side.

Through it all S.T. makes sure to make time for beer and Vietnamese food, to keep his thinking fluid. Not even being framed as an ecoterrorist can stop his unwavering drive to put his intelligence to a good cause.

At times this book reads like a lecture on chemistry, with long discussions of covalent bonding and the degrees of toxicity we are exposed to in everyday life. Stephenson makes for an entertaining lecturer though and Sangaman is a witty tourguide on this hellish investigation of corporate irresponsibility. The environmentalist message of this book is ultimately a positive one. One man can turn the tide against systematic abuses of the law through an astute application of intelligence and cunning (it also helps to have a gang of South Boston Irish on hand as well).

There is a near-Pynchonian degree of humour and invective on display here. The book itself may well be described as an ecoterrorist tract, yet it makes a sincere appeal for greater transparency for the sake of the public good.

A punchy, complex and winningly intelligent political thriller, with a strong environmental message. Excellent stuff.

I remember when the circus used to come each year to Rathcool, the town I grew up in. The posters would appear days before the arrival, with images of laughing clowns and acrobats performing death-defying feats. Then the big day itself would come and my much-pestered parents would accompany me to the opening show. Only for a sense of disappointment to set in almost immediately.

I remember when during the knife-throwing act there was a call for volunteers. My aunt, who had herself been volunteered by my parents to join me on this occasion, had to physically restrain me from throwing up my hand. Then I noticed the man who was chosen was a stage-hand. I had seen him hanging around with the performers before the show. My poor aunt tried to pretend otherwise – I think adults always appreciate the importance of childish illusions, which is why Santa Claus has survived for so long – but I already knew the truth.

This story begins with a man dressed in an acrobat costume voiding his bowels before leaping into his own legend – illustrated by a woodcut of his prowess and two pages of sheet music describing his feats – only to land in his death-bed, drained by a fatal case of smallpox. By his bedside are colleagues and friends arguing over his estate. His nephew Etienne arrives, whose job at the circus was to clean up elephant dung. He is the beneficiary of the great Leotard’s estate, which turns out to be a gnomic riddle, an empty journal containing a fake moustache. Etienne understands his uncle’s dying wish. He is to become Leotard and continue the legend of his uncle.

Unfortunately for Etienne, the troup is still stuck in Paris while it is under siege by the Prussian army. The company’s animals have all been eaten by the starving city inhabitants. Without any animal acts Etienne’s troupe is at a loss as to how they are to continue on. Their new young leader proposes that they become a circus of the stange and wonderful. They are after all strong-men and contortionists, tattooed ladies and bear-impersonators. Etienne is a young man with big dreams, which do not match reality. During their first show a human cannonball sets the famous Paris Cirque de Hiver on fire, burning it to the ground.

Etienne and his fellow artistes have an unerring knack for landing in trouble, becoming embroiled in the infamous Jack the Ripper murder investigation; theft of the Mona Lisa; the sinking of the Titanic; even a catastrophic bloodbath involving nineteen dwarves and a beast known as a ‘Ti-lion’. Through it all success avoids Etienne, leaving him impoverished in old age, despite inventing such implements as fantastical as ‘spring heeled shoes’.

Campbell and Best have fashioned a breezy and romantic counterpoint to the nihilism of that other historical epic, From Hell. Split into a series of episodes, The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard is a winning evocation of a lost vision of popular entertainment. There are even hints that the circus is an ancestor of sorts to the comic book superhero. Campbell introduces the amusingly titled Le Quartette Fantastique and has the creators of Superman witness Etienne’s final show.

The work as a whole has a rich Pynchonian feel to it. When we discover the romantic leanings of Pallenberg, the man disguised as a bear, it is a fine comic moment that is later revealed to be a set-up to the climactic adventure on board the Titanic. History and whimsy are married together to great effect, with Campbell’s febrile art stylings lending an uncanny edge to the proceedings. Best and Campbell even intrude upon Etienne to discuss the progress of the book so far. It is just that kind of book.

Beautifully illustrated, with a rich comic tone and a lurking sense of tired tragedy, this is a wonderful effort by Campbell, an Australian master of the medium.

Head west across the Delaware. You’ll see

a sign that reads: America Starts Here!

It rambles on to Sacramento, free

and brave, but takes a little detour near

Columbus to avoid Chicago – Ski

the Poconos! and Have Another Beer –

the billboards foliating fore and aft,

and every Huckleberry has his raft.

There’s something very communal, but also cloying, about poetry reading nights. I used to attend a weekly session in Dublin’s The Stag’s Head with quickly scribbled verse, that when I wasn’t on the bad side of the organiser (long story) would win me a free pint of red ale.

If writing for booze doesn’t sum up the college poetry scene that I was involved in, I cannot think of a better description.

I say cloying because much of what was performed in that basement bar area was fairly mediocre, but we all clapped loudly, especially if a newcomer was standing before us for the first time. By the same token the atmosphere was kindly, supportive, I was rarely aware of any competitive bickering and having attended a few book launches for well-known published Irish poets – refreshingly free of affectation.

Rick Mullin’s poem evokes the spirit of an open mic poetry evening, with its cantos divided up between different performers on a stage eulogising the life of Herbert Huncke. We visit the life of the (in)famous Beat poet, meet the famous literary figures and New York artistic scenes that he became swept up in. There are sustained riffs on the work of William Burroughs, an associate of his, as well as a style of writing credited to Thomas Pynchon (a man who enjoys inverting history in eye-popping ways).

In that regard Huncke’s life is used as a model for the influences and historical forces of America itself. The Beat poets raged against and satirised the American Dream. ‘Manifest Destiny’, has escaped the dreamers and they were left at the bottom staring upward. No wonder a paranoaic, conspiratorial tone entered their writings. The firebrand language of Paine, the revolutionary promise of George Washington, abducted and besmirched by the new ruling classes of America. Rick Mullin has the twinned symbols of corruption, Mickey Mouse and Rudy Giuliani, haunt the poem’s cantos, reappearing throughout the life of Huncke himself.

And a kid’s been trailing him all afternoon.

A schoolboy in a Catholic uniform

whose head looks like a carnival balloon

that’s prematurely balding. Not the norm

for even Catholic tikes. Well, pretty soon

the child is offering a light. Reform

school etiquette – the contrasts are uncanny.

“So, what’s your name, kid?” ‘Rudy Giuliani.”

Amusingly he also announces -

And drop the politics, for Jesus sake.

It mixes with the arts the way that rock

gets on with scissors – scissors tends to break.

We skip and jump from War of Independence to America’s jazz era and then forward again briefly to dwell upon a post-9/11 New York, but for the most part no vision of the future is offered. Huncke is absorbed into the canon of American letters, this beatnik junkie become a symbol for an idea of the nation, or perhaps just 42nd Street, that has been lost. Ginsberg and Burroughs are ghosts now too, though Mullin dedicates some verses to memory of Joan Vollmer. Her murder an accident. Burroughs saved from a Mexican jail thanks to family influence. It is worth remembering that these heroes (Mullin rejects the term – ‘There’s a hand we over-play’) were for the most part educated, middle-class and privileged. Their free-form verse often indulged in esoterica, a rebellion not so much against their class, but their elders. Yet today all mysteries can be solved with a trip online -

And so I went. To Wikipedia

to bone up on the luminary thief

and prostitute…whose online media

runs viral with a hypertext relief

that lights full paragraphs.

In a sense Mullin’s poem can be seen as an attempt to restore that mystery, the fugue of names, places and associations intended to pique an interest that can be so dismissively sated by a simple hyperlink. For that he should be commended. He also captures the feel of a poetry performance. To see Mullin’s words be read rather than read them strikes me as the preferable condition to receive them in.

So mission accomplished. I would know more about the man Huncke, as well as look forward to a less biographical work by Mullin himself.

With thanks to Seven Towers Publishers for my copy of this edition.

As the Olympics descend upon China, the critiques have begun. Already we are hearing stories of more than 1.5 million “displacements” to clear space for Olympic facilities, reports of human rights abuses, sweatshop labor, and Olympics-related graft. The spotlight will naturally be on China, but China is only part of the story. The modern Olympic Movement itself has been highly controversial – and far from the ‘above politics’ Olympian level that some would have us believe.

If you follow the British press, you may have caught mope-rock singer Morrissey’s latest controversial outburst against the treatment of animals in China. Simon Armitage’s interview can be found here and further comment on the accusation of the Chinese being a ‘subspecies’, here. While Morrissey’s statement is reprehensible, racism at its most dismissive and insidious, it also brings to mind the inherent problems in criticising China itself. The former singer of The Smiths probably knows the only way he can draw attention to his cause – animal welfare – is to be deliberately provocative, because the international community is quite aware of the many civil liberties abuses that occur within China, from forced detention of political subversives, to internet censorship and widespread poverty.

None of that matters though, because China is the future world superpower on the rise. Its story of a massive economic recovery following military incursions by Japan and the disastrous Maoist experiment with industrialisation in the twentieth century would be no less remarkable had the eventual result not been China becoming a major world player. Their position within the international community is consequently very important to the Chinese government and so hosting the Olympic Games represented a major opportunity to woo popular opinion in their favour. In short, the potential profits earned by investment in China outweigh any moral outrage that may be occasioned by foreign criticism.

This book contains a series of essays on different aspects relating to China’s bid to host the Olympics in 2008. The writers include foreign journalists, from sports, economics and political writing, as well as former Chinese political detainees. There is even a photo-essay displaying the hardship faced by construction workers who live and work in Beijing, often having travelled away from far-off provinces to provide for their families.

The quote above is taken from an illuminating essay by Dave Zirin on the dubious history of the Olympic Games. One of the complaints of Chinese government officials in the face of calls for a boycott of the Games (similar to the efforts made to hobble the Soviet Union’s hosting following their invasion of Afghanistan) was that critics were unfairly mixing politics with sports. Zirin shows how political manoeuvring is an essential element of hosting the Games, as the display of competitive prowess is not only inevitably bound up with nationalism, but also provides a platform for host nations. International Olympics Committee president Avery Brundage for example, who supported Adolf Hitler, which he never apologised for, and turned a blind eye to the sins of participating Apartheid nations. He also fervently objected to female athletes entering the games.

The financial cost of hosting the Games is repeatedly stressed. Host cities Montreal and Athens are cited as examples of how crippling debt can often result, with the attendant civil disruption adding salt to the wounds. The welfare of inadequately protected construction workers was also put at risk in the building of Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” stadium, as well as other Olympic structures erected just for the purposes of capturing the lens of foreign cameras. Homes were demolished to make way for much of this development, such as the aging hutong residences, whose owners were turfed out with little compensation.

For China the Games represented an opportunity to erase the spectre of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Arguments in favour of their bid included citations of the positive social changes that followed the Seoul Games in South Korea. However, this conciliatory move on the part of the international community only served to give China exactly what it wanted. Mia Farrow’s ‘Genocide Olympics’, op-ed piece caused a domino effect that increased pressure on China to review its policy of investment in Darfur, but a broader social change was always unlikely.

There are two Chinas, the one we are allowed to see and the one the Chinese live with. This is a fascinating and very readable collection of essays on that schism.

‘You know,’ Carter said, as the cheering faded, hoping this would solve everything, ‘I do love magic. By itself, for its own sake.’

Ledocq nodded. ‘So. If you do a trick and no one notices, does that satisfy? Or is it like a tree falling in the forest without anyone to hear it?’

Carter sighed. His curse in life was to be attracted to people who understood him. With a sip of beer, he said, ‘I feel sorry for that tree.’

I cannot count the number of times I have taken this novel down from a shelf in a book store and then not bought it. For one reason or another, I never made that last trek to the cashier. Since Glen David Gold’s debut novel was first published it has attracted a rake of plaudits and praise. I sometimes suspected this was another one of those popular novels that actually is not all that good, but somehow managed to attract the newspaper literarti. I’m very contrary like that, always plumbing for the obscure over the well known. Turns out I was very wrong.

Gold’s novel is a fictionalized account of events involving real historical persons. President Warren Harding did die suddenly, during an administration notable for corruption scandals and falling public approval. He is still referred to as one of the worst presidents in the history of the United States. The book’s main character Charles Carter was a popular magician and contemporary of Houdini’s. Gold takes the lives of these two men and intertwines them, effectively ‘framing’, his hero for the President’s death.

For in this revision of history, President Harding attended a performance of Carter’s and after taking part in the show stopping illusion known as ‘Carter Beats the Devil’, returned to his hotel and died only two hours later. The magician flees the scene of the crime, with special agent Jack Griffin in pursuit. The government agent becomes obsessed with the history of his quary and the book skips backward and forwards in time, relating the events in Carter’s life that the search uncovers, as well as revealing his origins as a magician to the reader.

Early in the novel Carter’s first steps as a magician lead him to a fateful encounter in a snowbound house. Still a child, he comes face to face with a madman who captures both him and his little brother James and beats them horribly. Using what he has already managed to learn about escape artists, Carter frees himself and his sibling and rushes to find help – only to be dismayed when no one believes his story. It is a frightening and disillusioning experience for the young boy and his later obsession with illusions seem to indicate a fascination with truth and belief. Magic, he learns, is all about misdirection. The spectacle is designed to exploit human psychology, their willingness to believe what their eyes can see over all else.

Gold fills the books with period details, in keeping with choosing real-life personages such as Harding, Carter and Philo Farnsworth as characters. The early faddishness of psychoanalysis is touched upon, as well as the cult of personality enjoyed by Houdini. Conspiracies and new exciting breakthroughs in technology are revealed. By choosing this period, Gold introduces contemporary readers to an age of wonder, when invention and the need of the status quo to financially control such advances in technology, grappled. Thomas Pynchon brought to light the same conflict in Against the Day and H.G. Welles’ wrote The Open Conspiracy revealing how science could become a tool of control, with the greater public remaining in ignorance of its benefits.

This is a gripping and fascinating historical drama, with thrilling intrigue and murderous plots to keep the pace racing.

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