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.

The Crying of Lot 49 (No Post on Sundays)

Right you are, Harry!

As you may know (I pretend there are people following along), I have been reading The Crying of Lot 49. The post horn is a central image. Yesterday, I reported back that an extraterrestrial encounter with Billy Joel has made me question what Pynchon makes of the modern world. So much terrible, lying media (the muting of truth), and so much inconsequential media (the scholarly paper from 1975 I linked to is one example, this blog itself is another).

Entropy and synchronicity are central to the novel. The abstract to this piece on JStor suggests that Pynchon’s obsession (speaking of Synchronicity) with punning shows that Lot advances language as the only possible perpetual motion machine. Puns are necessarily synchronistic, and they generate all kinds of permutations without requiring more input:

Thomas Pynchon offers, in “The Crying of Lot 49” (1966) and other novels [Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), “Mason and Dixon” (1997)], the pun as an energy-generating alternative to entropy in its ability to multiply meanings, to proliferate “output” from a single source, a word, or an image. In Pynchon’s usage, the pun, even more than Maxwell’s Demon, defies the second law of thermodynamics: it actually creates energy, causing a word to do the work of several with minimal effort. A look into Pynchon’s Puritan past sounds the historical possibilities ofLot 49, suggesting that Pynchon’s puns reinscribe the sacred into the secular world, visiting a supernatural effect upon the world of physical laws to defy those laws and to create life out of the void.

I’d say that this whole enterprise requires more than minimal effort. Yes, these three posts have all come from variations on the words post and horn, but, inconsequential as they are, writing them was only possible because of my undergraduate studies, two advanced degrees (divinity, creative writing) and an obsessive, life-long romance with popular music. I mean, just because the inputs aren’t new doesn’t mean a hell of a lot (there, again, a pun) didn’t go into their acquisition.

Then again, if the point is that once you have acquired the needed inputs of language and culture, you can propagate a hell of a lot without going back to the well, then maybe. But Chapter 5 was a lot of work. A lot of new work. The reading itself, I mean.

I’m also reading Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow. I understand most of Humboldt’s increasingly pedantic obsessions, and relate to them, only because I’ve been educated in an adjacent world. And look, to extend the Lot image, I’m not trying to toot my own horn (no post on Sundays). I’m able to do what I do because of a long story of generational struggle and sacrifice.

But what do I do? What are any of us doing? I said these posts are inconsequential, and they are. How many tens of thousands (Saul has thousands, David his tens of thousands) of people are on these delivery systems, heavily educated, desperately trying to unmute? We think blogs and tweets give us a voice, but they don’t. Not really. What’s the sound of one hand clapping? Of a tree falling in an empty wood? Put your ear next to your keyboard and you’ll know.

But still, we can’t just do nothing. Doing nothing just won’t do. There is too damn much invested in all of this. There is too much invested in you. There are too many miracles, too many traumas, too many things have gone into the making of you to do nothing. One option is interpretation, putting some kind of frame to the collision of worlds (remembering that a pun is a collision of words, expectations). As we learn in Chapter 5:

“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.

In other words, behold the hurricane and try to find meaning in its wake.

I wrote this on Saturday but scheduled it for Sunday, mostly because I posted once already on Saturday, but also because I wanted to make a Harry Potter joke. People like wizards because we all want to believe that if we get the words right, something will happen.

This being Sunday, we could talk about Pynchon’s religious imagery, and, again, about the collision of worlds and words. We could talk about our writerly catechisms, our largely muted efforts at mediating the process of flesh becoming word. We could talk about the irony of voice-to-text, of “ones and zeros, twinned” and so on. It’s all there in Pynchon, in Milton, etc.

There, for now, 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).

What Are You Currently Reading?

For me: Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow.

Currently re-reading: Selections from Winesburg, Ohio (Sherwood Anderson). Selections from Animal Farm (George Orwell).

Recently re-read: “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and “Fifty Grand” by Ernest Hemingway.

What about you?

The Writing on Page 21

Metzger flashed her a big wry couple rows of teeth. “Looks don’t mean anything anymore,” he said. “I live inside my looks, and I’m never sure. The possibility haunts me.”

“And how often,” Oedipa inquired, now aware it was all words, “has that line of approach worked for you, Baby Igor?”

(from The Crying of Lot 49, page 21, by Thomas Pynchon.)