Post Horns, Everywhere, Unmuted

Today I finished The Crying of Lot 49. There are a few recent posts here about the themes of communication, miracle, and entropy, and of the imagery of the muted horn.

Also read today: “How to Hear a Stutter” by Adam Giannelli in the latest Kenyon Review. A few lines really stood out. I won’t say which ones, so as not to influence the way they might strike you.

 Over the next few days, I’ll be posting some short pieces from years ago, many of which where published at online journals that no longer exist. I have been thinking for a long time about the compromise of communication, the give and take we enter with the things we have to say and the truth of how and when we might be heard.

I saw a quote from George Saunders today from the Paris Review and I have questions:

“To write a decent story is such a huge and unlikely accomplishment that we shouldn’t care how long it takes. How much time would you be willing to spend to create something that lasts forever?”

What constitutes forever? There are probably hundreds of thousands of decent stories that will never be published. Are they immortal? There are tens of thousands of good stories that will never grace the pages of a print journal or a beautifully crafted electronic magazine. Tens of thousands of very good stories shuffle off to the same fate. Great ones, too. Kafka died with no reason to assume the apotheosis of his work.

In the main, though, Saunders is right. It can be hard to remember because we’re all mostly dealing with the local and specific.

I read this line in Lot 49 today, which seems to get right to the point:

The illustrations were woodcuts, executed with that crude haste to see the finished product that marks the amateur.

And so there you have it.

Thomas Pynchon and Billy Joel

When you write a post about Thomas Pynchon and Roy Orbison, I suppose you can’t be annoyed when only six people read it. (And I thank you). But, I mean, it’s Roy Orbison.

Here’s a 40-page essay about The Crying of Lot 49 written by Edward Mendelson at Yale in 1975. (Just to show you I know how to have a good time).

One of the things going on in Lot (now see, that’s probably intentional, too) is a message about muted communication. Is communication futile, or is fiction? Is revelation muted in the world of “ones and zeros, twinned” or is the dampened horn (again, on purpose?) a stand-in for a certain kind of expression? Had Pynchon foreseen the world we live in now? Was he warning us about the eventual, inevitable, impotence (the muted horn) of mass media?

I may not be thinking so much of these horn symbols if I had not heard Billy Joel talking about the composition of “Christie Lee” last night on, of course, satellite radio.

“There’s a lot of clever stuff in there. Yeah, I’m pretty proud of that one.”

Let me tell you a story
About a woman and a man
Maybe you will find familiar
Maybe you won’t understand

The man’s name I don’t remember
He was always Joe to me
But I can’t forget the woman
She was always Christie Lee

He was working in a night club
That’s where he played the saxophone
He used to fake to stock arrangements
He left the customers alone

But one night before the last song
About a quarter after three
He saw her standing at the coat check
And made his move on Christie Lee

Christie Lee, Christie Lee
Christie Lee, Christie Lee

She was a nice piece of music
She had a rhythm all her own
He blew a solo like a blind man
She really dug his saxophone

She wanted more than just an encore
And he could play in every key
He left the stage and packed his alto
And he took it home with Christie Lee

Oh I heard the man knew “the Bird” like the bible
You know the man could blow an educated axe
He couldn’t see that Christie Lee was a woman
Who didn’t need another lover
All she wanted was the sax

It took a while for him to notice
It took a while for him to see
He was never in control here
It was always Christie Lee

Christie Lee, Christie Lee
Christie Lee, Christie Lee

Oh the man took a calculated gamble
Yes the man had the power to perform
But Christie Lee was more than he knew how to handle
She didn’t need him as a man
All she wanted was the horn

hey say that Joe became a wino
They say he always drinks alone
They say he stumbles like a blind man
They say he sold his saxophone

Even the band must face the music
That’s what the moral is to me
The only time you hit the high note
Is when you play for Christie Lee

Christie Lee, Christie Lee
Christie Lee, Christie Lee….

I’m just old enough to have bopped around the basement to the Innocent Man LP when it was new. Another track, “Keeping the Faith,” describes the whole project. Billy Joel is not mired in the past, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t love it:

 If it seems like I’ve been lost
In let’s remember
If you think I’m feeling older
And missing my younger days
Oh, then you should have known
Me much better
Cause my past is something that never
Got in my way
Oh no…

etc.

Synchronicity is a key theme in Lot. It’s also the name of a Police album whose most famous song is about obsession. We can stop there for now.

In Dreams (The Crying of Lot 49)

I’ve been looking forward to finishing The Crying of Lot 49.

I’m not someone who cares very much about being hooked by intriguing plots. One of my favorite books, The Sun Also Rises, is mostly about people going to cafes.

The Crying of Lot 49 spends four chapters piquing my interest in a potentially sensational plot, but chapter 5 is a slog. Shame on me.

The chapter is partly a dream sequence, but it gets to be too much. I start suspecting that I’m about to be had, and that this plot, now that it’s something I care about, is not going to pay off. You’ve got me very, very interested in the promise of some centuries-spanning conspiracy about who controls the mail (of all things), and then you grind things to a halt by building deftly crafted nods on looping city bus routes into something so off-puttingly ponderous that I wonder if I’ve just finished the book 50 pages before it’s over because, I mean, come on.

But the effect is brilliant in a very precise way. See, the first four chapters of the book are quick. They’re not quick in the sense of slight or spurious, but what I mean is that they move. Chapter 5 does not. It slows everything down. It distorts time. It’s a morass that takes far too long to get through. It’s an incredible trick, and I’m certain it’s intentional. It’s very much like sleeping and very much like dreaming. It’s a slog, and it’s too much, but it’s annoyingly well-done.

Something I’ll take with me from this particular dream is the idea that miracles are the intrusion of one world into another:

“You know what a miracle is. Not what Bakunin said. But another world’s intrusion into this one. Most of the time we coexist peacefully, but when we do touch there’s cataclysm.

This is Milton. This is the Gospels of Mark and John. This is true.

Milton’s Nativity Ode is all about the intrusion of heaven into history and the breaking of temporal strictures and the fleeing of the idols in the presence of eternity. John talks about the Word becoming flesh. For Mark, everything is immediate, everything has equal weight (the weight of exceeding urgency), and everything is coming and everything is here.

Speaking of miracles. Roy Orbison:

(A follow-up post…post!…here).