Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Pynchon

The evensong

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Nativity at Night by Geertgen tot Sint Jans

It’s a long walk home tonight. Listen to this mock-angel singing, let your communion be at least in listening, even if they are not spokesmen for your exact hopes, your exact, darkest terror, listen. There must have been evensong here long before the news of Christ. Surely for as long as there have been nights bad as this one—something to raise the possibility of another light that could actually, with love and cockcrows, light the path home, banish the Adversary, destroy the boundaries between our lands, our bodies, our stories, all false, about who we are…

But on the way home tonight, you wish you’d picked him up, held him a bit. Just held him, very close to your heart, his cheek by the hollow of your shoulder, full of sleep. As if it were you who could, somehow, save him. For the moment not caring who you’re supposed to be registered as. For the moment anyway, no longer who the Caesars say you are.

Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

Written by nevalalee

December 25, 2018 at 7:30 am

The dark side of the limerick

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“As almost nothing that has been written about the limerick can be taken seriously—which is perhaps only fitting—a few words may not be out of place here,” the scholar Gershon Legman writes in his introduction to the definitive work on the subject. Legman was one of the first critics to see erotic and obscene folk forms, including the dirty joke, as a serious object of study, and The Limerick puts his singular intelligence—which is worthy of a good biography—on full display:

The limerick is, and was originally, an indecent verse form. The “clean” sort of limerick is an obvious palliation, its content insipid, its rhyming artificially ingenious, its whole pervaded with a frustrated nonsense that vents itself typically in explosive and aggressive violence. There are, certainly, aggressive bawdy limericks too, but they are not in the majority. Except as the maidenly delight and silly delectation of a few elderly gentlemen, such as the late Langford Reed, and several still living who might as well remain nameless, the clean limerick has never been of the slightest real interest to anyone, since the end of its brief fad in the 1860s.

Legman describes the work of Edward Lear, the supposed master of the form, as “very tepidly humorous,” which seems about right, and he apologizes in advance for the vast collection of dirty limericks that he has prepared for the reader’s edification: “The prejudices, cruelty, and humorless quality of many of the limericks included are deeply regretted.”

But a metrical form typified by prejudice, cruelty, and humorlessness may end up being perfectly suited for the modern age. Legman claims that “viable folk poetry and folk poetic forms,” aren’t easy to duplicate by design, but it isn’t an accident that two of the major American novels of the twentieth century indulge in limericks at length. One is Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which includes a remarkable sequence of limericks in which young men have sexual relations with the various parts of a rocket, such as the vane servomotor. The other is William H. Gass’s The Tunnel, which prints numerous limericks that all begin with the opening line “I once went to bed with a nun.” In his hands, the limerick becomes the ideal vehicle for his despairing notion of history, as a character in the novel explains:

The limerick is the unrefiner’s fire. It is as false and lifeless, as anonymous, as a rubber snake, a Dixie cup…No one ever found a thought in one. No one ever found a helpful hint concerning life, a consoling sense. The feelings it harbors are the cold, the bitter, dry ones: scorn, contempt, disdain, disgust. Yes. Yet for that reason. nothing is more civilized than this simple form. In that—in cultural sophistication—it is the equal of the heroic couplet…That’s the lesson of the limerick. You never know when a salacious meaning will break out of a trouser. It is all surface—a truly modern shape, a model’s body. There’s no inside however long or far you travel on it, no within, no deep.

Both authors seem to have been drawn to the form for this very reason. And while Gass’s notion of writing “a limrickal history of the human race” may have seemed like a joke twenty years ago, the form seems entirely appropriate to the era in which we’re all living now.

Another prolific author of limericks was Isaac Asimov, who clearly didn’t view the form as problematic. In his memoir In Memory Yet Green, with typical precision, he writes that his first attempt took place on July 13, 1953. A friend challenged him to compose a limerick with the opening line “A priest with a prick of obsidian,” and after some thought, Asimov recited the following:

A priest with a prick of obsidian
Was a foe to the hosts of all Midian,
Instead of immersion
Within a young virgin
’Twas used as a bookmark in Gideon.

“I explained that the ‘hosts of Midian’ was a biblical synonym for evil and that ‘Gideon’ was a reference to a Gideon Bible, but no one thought much of it,” Asimov writes. “However, when I challenged anyone present to do better, no one could.” Asimov was encouraged by the experience, however, and he soon got into the habit of constructing limericks in his head “whenever I was trapped in company and bored.” Not surprisingly, it occurred to him that it would be a shame to let them go to waste, and he convinced the publishing house Walker & Company to let him put together a collection. Asimov continued to write limericks with “amazing speed,” and Lecherous Limericks appeared in 1975. It was followed by six more installments, including two collaborations with none other than the poet and translator John Ciardi.

And the uncomfortable fact about Asimov’s limericks is that most of them frankly aren’t very good, funny, or technically impressive. This isn’t a knock on Asimov himself, but really a reflection of the way in which the limerick resists being produced in such a casual fashion, despite what thousands of practitioners think to the contrary. (“Amateurs amble over everything like cows,” Gass writes in The Tunnel. “The A which follows so many limericks stands for Amateur, not for Anonymous.”) Asimov was drawn to the form for the same reason that so many others are—it’s apparently easy, superficially forgiving of laziness, and can be composed and retained without difficulty in one’s head. And it’s no surprise that he embraced it. Asimov didn’t become the most prolific author in American history by throwing anything away, and just as he sent the very first story that he ever wrote as a teenager to John W. Campbell, who rejected it, he didn’t have any compunction about sending his first batch of limericks to his publisher, who accepted the result. “One good limerick out of every ten written is a better average than most poets hit,” Legman accurately writes, and Asimov never would have dreamed of discarding even half of his attempts. He also wasn’t likely to appreciate the underlying darkness and nihilism, not to mention the misogyny, of the form in which women “generally figure both as villain and victim,” as Legman notes, while also calling it “the only kind of newly composed poetry in English, or song, which has the slightest chance whatever of survival.” Gass, and presumably Pynchon, understood this all too well, and the author of The Tunnel deserves the last word: “Language has to contain…emotions. It’s not enough just to arouse them. In a perverse way that’s why I use a lot of limericks, because the limerick is a flatterer, the limerick destroys emotion, perhaps it produces giggles, but it is a downer. It’s an interesting form for that reason.” And it might end up being the defining poetry of our time.

Written by nevalalee

December 10, 2018 at 8:26 am

Beyond cyberspace

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The Human Use of Human Beings

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on October 7, 2016.

About a year and a half ago, I spent some time reading the work of Norbert Wiener, the mathematician and polymath best known as the founder of cybernetics. Wiener plays a small but pivotal role in my upcoming book Astoundinghe was one of John W. Campbell’s professors at M.I.T., and Campbell later remembered him as the only instructor who ever helped him with a story. (He also called him “one of America’s dullest and most incompetent teachers.” According to Campbell, Wiener would write an expression on the blackboard, say that its implications were clear, and then write another without further explanation. He could also do third-order differential equations in his head, which was very impressive, apart from the fact that he expected his students to be able to do the same thing.) I became interested in Wiener because of the role that his ideas played in the development of dianetics: Campbell once wrote to Wiener saying that he thought the latter would be “greatly interested” in his research with L. Ron Hubbard, and Wiener later had to ask the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation to stop using his name in its literature. Much of the terminology of dianetics, including the word “clear,” seems to have been derived directly from Wiener’s work. But after reading both Cybernetics and The Human Use of Human Beings—while skipping most of the mathematics, which even Isaac Asimov admitted he didn’t understand—I’ve started to realize that Wiener’s influence in the genre was even greater than I supected. For much of the fifties, the magazine Astounding served as a conduit that brought cybernetic ideas into the mainstream of science fiction, and from there, they entered all our lives.

“Cybernetics” is one of those words, like “postmodernism,” that can be used to mean just about anything, but it originated in a pair of straightforward but profound observations. Wiener, who had worked on computing machines at M.I.T. and laid out the principles of their operation in a famous memo to Vannevar Bush, had grown intrigued by the parallels between computers and the human brain. He also understood that any attempt to explain intelligence in purely mechanical terms was doomed to fail. The mind doesn’t resemble a clock or any other machine, with gears that can run forwards or backwards. It’s more like the weather: a complicated system made up of an countably huge number of components that move only in one direction. Wiener’s first important insight was that the tools of statistical mechanics and information theory could be used to shed light on biological and mental processes, which amount to an island of negative entropy—it’s one of the few places in the universe where matter becomes more organized over time. So how the heck do you control it? In practice, life and intelligence consist of so many variables that they seem impossible to analyze or replicate, and Wiener’s second major contribution related to how such complicated systems could regulate themselves. During the war, he had worked on servomechanisms, like anti-artillery guns, that relied on negative feedback loops to increase their accuracy: the device performed an action, checked the result against its original goal, and then adjusted its performance accordingly. And it seemed to Wiener that many organic and cognitive processes could be modeled in the same way.

Norbert Wiener

This might all seem obvious now, when we’ve unconsciously absorbed so much of Wiener’s thinking, but it’s one of those pivotal insights that opened up a whole new world to explore. When we pick up a pencil—or a cigar, in the example that Wiener, a lifelong smoker, liked to use—we’re engaging in a series of complicated muscular movements that are impossible to consciously control. Instead of explicitly thinking through each step, we rely on feedback: as Wiener puts it, his senses provide him with information about “the amount by which I have yet failed to pick up the cigar,” which is then translated into a revised set of instructions to his muscles. By combining many different feedback loops, we end up with complicated behaviors that couldn’t emerge from any one piece alone. Life, Weiner says, is an attempt to control entropy through feedback. It’s a powerful concept that allows us both to figure out how we got here to think about where we’re going, and it had a considerable impact on such fields as artificial intelligence, anthropology, and game theory. But what fascinates me the most is Wiener’s belief that cybernetics would allow us to solve the problems created by rapid technological change. As he writes in The Human Use of Human Beings:

The whole scale of phenomena has changed sufficiently to preclude any easy transfer to the present time of political, racial, and economic notions derived from earlier stages…We have modified our environment so radically that we must now modify ourselves in order to exist in our new environment.

This sounds a lot like Campbell’s vision of science fiction, which he saw as a kind of technical education for turning his readers into the new breed of men who could deal with the changes that the future would bring. And when you read Wiener, you’re constantly confronted with concepts and turns of phrase that Campbell would go on to popularize through his editorials and his ideas for stories. (For instance, Wiener writes: “When we consider a problem of nature such as that of atomic reactions and atomic explosives, the largest single item of information which we can make public is that they exist. Once a scientist attacks a problem which he knows to have an answer, his entire attitude is changed.” I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure that this sentence gave Campbell the premise that was later written up by Raymond F. Jones as “Noise Level.”) Campbell was friendly with Wiener, whom he described fondly as “a crackpot among crackpots,” and cybernetics itself quickly became a buzzword in such stories as Walter M. Miller’s “Izzard and the Membrane,” the Heinlein juveniles, and Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man. Over time, its original meaning was lost, and the prefix “cyber-” was reduced to an all-purpose shorthand for an undefined technology, much as “positronic” had served the same function a few decades earlier. It would be left to writers like Thomas Pynchon to make real use of it in fiction, while cybernetics itself became, in Gordon Pask’s evocative definition, “the art and science of manipulating defensible metaphors.” But perhaps that’s the fate of all truly powerful ideas. As none other than our own president once put it so aptly, we have so many things we have to do better, and certainly cyber is one of them.

Written by nevalalee

January 17, 2018 at 9:00 am

The evensong

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Nativity at Night by Geertgen tot Sint Jans

It’s a long walk home tonight. Listen to this mock-angel singing, let your communion be at least in listening, even if they are not spokesmen for your exact hopes, your exact, darkest terror, listen. There must have been evensong here long before the news of Christ. Surely for as long as there have been nights bad as this one—something to raise the possibility of another light that could actually, with love and cockcrows, light the path home, banish the Adversary, destroy the boundaries between our lands, our bodies, our stories, all false, about who we are…

But on the way home tonight, you wish you’d picked him up, held him a bit. Just held him, very close to your heart, his cheek by the hollow of your shoulder, full of sleep. As if it were you who could, somehow, save him. For the moment not caring who you’re supposed to be registered as. For the moment anyway, no longer who the Caesars say you are.

Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

Written by nevalalee

December 25, 2017 at 7:30 am

My ten great books #6: Gravity’s Rainbow

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Gravity's Rainbow

If there’s a thread that runs through many of my favorite works of fiction, it’s that they’re often the work of massively erudite authors who are deeply ambivalent—or ironic—about their own learning. Norton Juster of The Phantom Tollbooth and the tireless annotators of the Sherlock Holmes stories seem to be content with knowledge for its own sake, but as for the rest, Borges ends up trapped in his own labyrinth; The Magic Mountain constructs an edifice of ideas on the verge of being blown up by a meaningless war; Proust notices everything but envies those creatures of instinct, like Albertine or Françoise, who can relate to the world in simpler terms. Gravity’s Rainbow may be the ultimate expression of this discomfort, an unbelievably dense, allusive, and omniscient novel about the futility of information itself. No other work of contemporary fiction is so packed with technical lore, references, jokes, and ideas, and its technical virtuosity is staggering. Thomas Pynchon has occasionally been dismissed as a shallow trickster or showoff, but his style is inseparable from his larger concerns. Only by writing the encyclopedic novel to end all others can he qualify himself to sound a deadly serious warning, which is that all the plans, structure, and information in the world can only wither and die in the face of more fundamental truths: death, loneliness, dissolution.

In the meantime, though, there’s plenty to enjoy: limericks, pie fights, burlesque imitations of vaudeville and musical theater, puns of exquisite corniness (the German city of Bad Karma, the Japanese Ensign Morituri), and countless vignettes of incredible beauty, cruelty, and inventiveness. That last word has a way of being applied to works that don’t deserve it, but here, it’s fully justified: Gravity’s Rainbow invents more across its seven hundred pages than any other novel I know—every sentence threatens to fly out of control, only to be restrained by its author’s uncanny mastery of tone—and the effect is both exhilarating and alienating. There aren’t any real characters here, just marionettes with amusing names, and there’s never a sense that this is anything more than a construct of Pynchon’s limitless imagination. (There’s a good case to be made that this was a conscious artistic choice, and that depth of character would only make the novel more unwieldy than it already is.) Like most encyclopedic works, it includes parodies of its own ambitions, like Mitchell Prettyplace’s definitive eighteen-volume study of King Kong, including “exhaustive biographies of everyone connected with the film, extras, grips, lab people,” or Brigadier Pudding’s Things That Can Happen in European Politics, a comprehensive analysis of possible political developments that is constantly overtaken by real events. Despite the occasional glimmer of hope, it’s futile, of course. But on any given page, as we’re swept up by Pynchon’s enormous talent, it doesn’t seem so futile after all.

Written by nevalalee

May 15, 2017 at 9:00 am

The evensong

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Nativity at Night by Geertgen tot Sint Jans

It’s a long walk home tonight. Listen to this mock-angel singing, let your communion be at least in listening, even if they are not spokesmen for your exact hopes, your exact, darkest terror, listen. There must have been evensong here long before the news of Christ. Surely for as long as there have been nights bad as this one—something to raise the possibility of another light that could actually, with love and cockcrows, light the path home, banish the Adversary, destroy the boundaries between our lands, our bodies, our stories, all false, about who we are…

But on the way home tonight, you wish you’d picked him up, held him a bit. Just held him, very close to your heart, his cheek by the hollow of your shoulder, full of sleep. As if it were you who could, somehow, save him. For the moment not caring who you’re supposed to be registered as. For the moment anyway, no longer who the Caesars say you are.

Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

Written by nevalalee

December 25, 2016 at 7:30 am

Jumping out of the system

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Anthony Hopkins on "Westworld"

Note: Spoilers follow for recent plot developments on Westworld.

Right now, Westworld appears to be operating on two different levels. One is that of an enterprising genre series that is content to strike all the familiar beats with exceptional concentration and intensity. You see this most clearly, I think, in Maeve’s storyline. It’s a plot thread that has given us extraordinary moments, thanks mostly to some fantastic work by Thandie Newton, who obviously understands that she has finally landed the role of a lifetime. Yet it’s ultimately less effective than it should be. We’re never quite clear on why Felix and Sylvester are allowing Maeve’s escape plan to proceed: they have all the power, as well as plenty of ways to deactivate her, and given the risks involved, they’ve been remarkably cooperative so far. Last night’s episode tried to clarify their motivations, suggesting that Felix has developed some sort of emotional connection to Maeve, but the show has been too busy cutting from one set of characters to another to allow us to feel this, rather than just being told about it. Maeve’s story seems rushed, as perhaps it had to be: it’s about a robot who wills herself into becoming conscious, instead of growing more organically aware, as Dolores has. (Or so we’re meant to believe—although the chronology of her awakening may also be an elaborate mislead, if the theory of multiple timelines is correct.) Aside from the subplot involving the Delos Corporation, however, it’s the arc that feels the stagiest and the most conventional. We’re pretty sure that it’s going somewhere, but it’s  a little clumsy in the way it lines up the pieces.

The other level is the one embodied by Bernard’s story, and it offers a glimpse of what could be a much more interesting—if messier—series. Last week, I wrote that I had hope that the show could live up to the revelation of Bernard’s true nature, if only because it was in the capable hands of Jeffrey Wright, who seemed eminently qualified to see it through. Not surprisingly, he turns out to be even better at it than I had hoped. The high points of “Trace Decay,” at least for me, were the two scenes that Wright gets with Anthony Hopkins, who also seems to be relishing the chance to play a meatier role than usual. When Bernard asks what distinguishes him from his human creators, Dr. Ford replies that the answer is simple: there’s no difference. The stories that human beings use to define themselves are functionally the same as the artificial backstories that have been uploaded into the robots. We’re all operating within our own loops, and we rarely question our decisions or actions, except on the rare occasions, as Douglas R. Hofstadter puts it, when we can jump out of the system. In theory, a pair of conversations about human and machine consciousness shouldn’t work as drama, but they do. As Hopkins and Wright played off each other, I felt that I could spend an entire episode just watching them talk, even if the result resembled the western that Thomas Pynchon pitches in Gravity’s Rainbow, in which two cowboys played by Basil Rathbone and S.Z. Sakall spend the whole movie debating the nature of reality: “This interesting conversation goes on for an hour and a half. There are no cuts…Occasionally the horses will shit in the dust.”

Thandie Newton on "Westworld"

But when I ask myself which kind of show Westworld most wants to be, I end up thinking that it’s probably the former. In the past, I’ve compared it to Mad Men, a series from which it differs immensely in content, pacing, and tone, but which it resembles in its chilly emotional control, its ability to move between storylines, and the degree to which it rewards close analysis. The difference, of course, is that Mad Men was able to pursue its own obsessions in a relatively neglected corner of basic cable, while Westworld is unfolding front and center on the most public stage imaginable. Mad Men received a fair amount of critical attention early on, but its network, AMC, barely even existed as a creative player, and it wasn’t until the premiere of Breaking Bad the following year that it became clear that something special was happening. Westworld was positioned from the start as the successor to Game of Thrones, which means that there’s a limit to how wild or experimental it can be. It’s hard to imagine it airing an episode like “Fly” on Breaking Bad, which radically upends our expectations of how an installment of the series should look. And maybe it shouldn’t. Getting a science fiction series to work under such conditions is impressive enough, and if it delivers on those multiple timelines, it may turn out to be more innovative than we had any reason to expect. (I’m still nervous about how that reveal will play from a storytelling perspective, since it means that Dolores, the show’s ostensible protagonist, has been been effectively sidelined from the main action for the entire season. It might not work at all. But it’s still daring.)

As usual, the show provides us with the tools for its own deconstruction, when the Man in Black says that there were once two competing visions of the park. In Dr. Ford’s conception, the stories would follow their established arcs, and the robots wouldn’t be allowed to stray from the roles that had been defined for them. Arnold, by contrast, hoped that it would cut deeper. (Harris does such a good job of delivering this speech that I can almost defend the show’s decision to have the Man in Black reveal more about himself in a long monologue, which is rarely a good idea.) Westworld, the series, seems more inclined to follow Ford’s version than Arnold’s, and to squeeze as much freedom as it can out of stories that move along lines that we’ve seen before. Earlier this week, Jim Lanzone of CBS Interactive, the online platform on which Star Trek: Discovery is scheduled to premiere, said of the format:

Sci-fi is not something that has traditionally done really well on broadcast. It’s not impossible, for the future, if somebody figures it out. But historically, a show like Star Trek wouldn’t necessarily be a broadcast show at this point.

It isn’t hard to see what he means: the network audience, like the theme park crowd, wants something that is more consistent than episodic science fiction tends to be. If Westworld can do this and tell compelling stories at the same time, so much the better—and it may be a greater accomplishment simply to thread that difficult needle. But I’m still waiting to see if it can jump out of its loop.

Written by nevalalee

November 21, 2016 at 9:23 am

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