- Our culture’s obsession with design has led to a lot of useless flash, especially on the Internet, where things glide, slide, swoop, pulse, and occasionally dance across the screen. The artist Peter Quinn parodies user interfaces and their ornaments, including “such high-action gibberish as ‘nice, but useless circle,’ frenetic ‘pointless graphs,’ ” and other such forms of “flickery nonsense.”
- Before Thomas Pynchon there was William Pynchon, his ancestor, who was also stirring up literary trouble of a sort: in 1650 he published a pamphlet, The Meritorious Price of our Redemption, which “was not in full agreement with the Reformed position on Christ’s atonement … the Massachusetts Bay General Court took notice of the book, describing it as ‘containing many errors & heresies generally condemned by all orthodox writers that we have met with’ and ordering ‘the said book to be burned in the market place, in Boston, by the common executioner.’ Pynchon was forced to issue a retraction.”
- Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth is a novel, and an essay, and an attempt at a new kind of collaboration—written with factory workers at Grupo Jumex, a juice factory in Mexico City. “Luiselli constructed the book as … a serialized fiction that invited the input of the factory workers. The process was simple. She wrote an installment of the novel, and the factory workers organized a space to read and discuss it. Recordings of their commentaries, as well as images of local landmarks, were then sent back to Luiselli, who would listen to their notes and view the pictures before writing the next section. The formula for the novel, as Luiselli describes it: ‘Dickens + mp3 ÷ Balzac + jpeg.’ ”
- In which Andrew O’Hagan attempts to cross the street: “For some weeks now I’ve been standing at St Giles Circus—the junction of Tottenham Court Road, Oxford Street, New Oxford Street and Charing Cross Road—watching people try to pass from one side of the road to the other … People set out when the green man appears and before they get halfway they are running on red, and very few of them know there are cars about to stream onto the crossing from three blind corners, and many of the drivers are quite unaware of the existence of a crossing twenty yards ahead … We might forget that living in a big city means submitting to a lot of rules about how to live in a big city. You can’t park, you can’t wait, you can’t cross, you must queue, you’re being filmed. There are rules, zones, fines. People in the country don’t have that, and urban dwellers might, at some level, always be looking for strategies that could justify their basic refusal to conform. I thought of that as I watched a man in a business suit climb over two sets of barriers to cross the road. He just wouldn’t walk the extra few meters to be told what to do by an electronic system.”
- My dad was named Gary. Gary Sernovitz is also named Gary, and he’s not happy about it: “To watch television or movies as a Gary is to know pain. When writers can’t think of a joke, when they want to quickly convey character—or chinless lack thereof—they reach to my punchline first name for the bad blind date, the sad sack, the noodge. Garys rarely even rise to the level of real characters, in our culture, but when they do, they don’t lose their essential pathetic Garyness … Gary is a box of day-old donuts on the grab bag table, sitting among the names favored by rising immigrants groups, fearless parents, and people who should be prosecuted for Naming Under the Influence.”
- “The role of a novel is to entertain readers, and fear is one of the most entertaining things there is … I don’t particularly feel like apologizing. It’s impossible to increase the proportion already given to Islam in the news. We’re already nearly at 100% … A good provocateur knows who he’s going to shock. I’m absolutely incapable of predicting that … It’s always a surprise every time.” That’s Houellebecq, saying typically Houllebecq things about Islamophobia, on the eve of his novel Submission’s release in the UK. (It comes to America next month, translated by our own Lorin Stein.)
- Today in wacky and yet not implausible Pynchon theories: Is this brick of a novel called Cow Country—published this April by one Adrian Jones Pearson through a very, very small press—actually the work of the P-man himself? It has all of his hallmarks: “Need I mention that this novel is serious while spoofing … that high satire with a healthy dollop of bodily humor and a keen eye for paradox is this literary sensibility’s chosen (and perhaps as a person, inevitable) metier? … With a magnifying glass, one could look closely and find what seem to be minor instances of Pynchon jokes from earlier novels recycled in Cow Country, tweaked for their new context.”
- Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin were architects in the late days of the Soviet Union, which set strict aesthetic parameters for the buildings it erected—all but ensuring that architecture ceased to be an imaginative discipline. But Brodsky and Utkin found a way to skirt the rules: they designed buildings that could never exist, like “precarious scaffolding, classical domes, huge glass towers, and other visionary architecture that referenced everything from ancient tombs to Le Corbusier’s sprawling city plans.”
- What is an author’s reputation made of? Reviews, sure. Critical studies, yes. But there’s also a less tangible factor you might call “litchat”: “the conversations that writers, readers, and critics have amongst themselves. Whether another writer is spoken of respectfully, whether you get the impression that ‘everyone’ is reading his or her new book enthusiastically, or how well people think he or she comes across in interviews—these and a dozen other imponderable factors constitute a reputation during a writer’s lifetime, particularly in the early part of a career.”
- The image of the booze-soaked, tortured writer is a distinctly male one—but let us not forget the women who drink. “Male writers get careful interpretation of the role of alcohol in their creative lives; women writers are alcoholics, pure and simple … Women writers, meanwhile, have evolved a more complicated relationship with drunkenness. It is no longer quite the stain it once was … Still the canon is for the most part seriously dented by the effects of what you could call the Hemingway attitude—this idea that a woman is contaminated by self-destructiveness, and contaminated in a way that slurs her art.”
If Thomas Pynchon writes systems novels, Steve DiBenedetto makes systems paintings—paranoid, erratic, vaguely interconnected. His latest exhibition, “Mile High Psychiatry,” up through Saturday at Derek Eller Gallery, has an air of zany premonition to it that put me in mind of Pynchon’s Tyrone Slothrop, who in Gravity’s Rainbow predicts rocket attacks with his erections: a carnal dowsing rod. There’s some of that rollicking terror in DiBenedetto’s paintings. You better figure this shit out, they seem to taunt, before your head explodes. (Fittingly, one of the more splattered numbers is called We Blew It.)
DiBenedetto’s earlier work was fixed on helicopters, Ferris wheels, and especially octopi. Those figures are still here, but abstracted, sometimes almost runic, surrounded by formidable blasts of texture and noise. Take the Cannolis and Good Mystic vs. Bad Mystic vs. Tom Carvel conjure brains on the brink of meltdown. Sam Chinita and Biodynamic Radiation have lurid pustules of color, thick enough almost to be popped, like zits. Much of the time you can talk about these paintings as you’d talk about something half buried in your backyard: they seem not just encrusted but mulched in paint and grime. Even the gallery’s release speaks of “scraps and globs and stabs and billows,” to say nothing of “prelinguistic slime.” That release, which I suspect DiBenedetto wrote himself with some relish, is weird enough to quote at length. He says of one painting: Read More
- Finally available, after forty-one years: Gravity’s Rainbow, the audiobook. It comprises thirty CDs and is performed by a superhumanly patient soul named George Guidall. “How on earth, I wondered as I stripped the wrapper, is poor Mr. Guidall going to render the sudden outbreaks of crazed capitals, or librettos in which stoners with guitars pastiche Rossini, the instructions helpfully stating ‘(bubububoo[oo] oo [sung to opening of Beethoven 5th, with full band])’? He turns out to do it in a slow and deep-voiced manner, beneath whose calm avuncularity you can detect anxiety, even mania, bubbling but never quite erupting.”
- New York has fewer used bookstores than ever before, and yet the Strand continues to thrive. How? It’s certainly cheerier than it used to be, which doesn’t hurt—before it was renovated in 2003, it was pretty bleak. “Like a lot of businesses that had hung on through the FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD years, it looked broken-down and patched-up. The bathroom was even dirtier than the one in the Astor Place subway. You got the feeling that a lot of books had been on the shelves for years. The ceiling was dark with the exhalations from a million Chesterfields. There were mice. People arriving with review copies to sell received an escort to the basement after a guard’s bellow: ‘Books to go down!’ ”
- Meghan Daum on suffering: “ ‘The culture is obsessed with the idea that if you go through a crisis, you’re going to come out of it a better person,’ Daum says, explaining her frustration with ‘the pressure we put on people … to have epiphanies where suddenly it all makes sense.’ This ‘redemption pressure’ is sentimentality’s aggressive shadow, a way of forcing people in terrible situations to make us feel better about what they’ve been through. But as she demonstrates in her essays, ‘sometimes you don’t learn anything. It is what it is, and there is no closure.’ ”
- On November 27, 1970, Velázquez’s Portrait of Juan de Pareja became the first painting to sell for more than a million pounds. “It was finally knocked down for a staggering £2,310,000, almost tripling the previous world auction record for a painting. Even the most hardened dealers sitting in the audience breathed gasps of disbelief. Then there was a spontaneous burst of applause. The auctioneer left his rostrum, the painting was hastily removed, and sheer pandemonium broke out.”
- A new service, Deathswitch, allows you to communicate from beyond the grave: “Subscribers are prompted periodically via email to make sure they’re still alive. When they fail to respond, Deathswitch starts firing off their predrafted notes to loved ones. The company now has thousands of users and effectively runs itself. Among the perks of a premium Deathswitch account is the ability to schedule emails for delivery far in the future: to wish your wife a happy fiftieth wedding anniversary, for example, thirty years after you left her a widow.”
- Flannery O’Connor on a 1957 television adaptation of her story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”: “Well, I have seen the production and I thought it was slop of the third water. I aver that everybody connected in any way with it, except me, had a stinking pole cat for a mother and father.”
- Thomas Pynchon doesn’t enjoy talking to reporters, but he’s not really a recluse—who saddled him with that reputation? It may have been none other than our own founding editor: “It all started fifty-one years ago, in 1963, when George Plimpton in the New York Times published the line: ‘Pynchon is in his early twenties; he writes in Mexico City—a recluse.’ It is doubtful if Plimpton, who helped create The Paris Review, knew at the time that he was accidentally kicking off the largest and longest game of Where’s Waldo? ever conceived. Nevertheless, the label has stuck.”
- Daily bummer: “We must reckon with the fact that pop culture really likes to be agreeable along with its thrills. It likes to say yes, and makes endless conciliations to do so. It is safer to say yes. Yes can be deeply pleasurable. History is made by those who say no.”
- Kierkegaard’s prescience extends to cyberbullying and trolls: “If, for instance, I enter a place where many are gathered, it often happens that one or another right away takes up arms against me by beginning to laugh; presumably he feels that he is being a tool of public opinion. But lo and behold, if I then make a casual remark to him, that same person becomes infinitely pliable and obliging … That is what comes of living in a petty community.”
- Is contemplation a pleasant exercise? No, experts say, “most people would rather give themselves an electric shock than be alone with their thoughts.” But “proclaiming that we’re unable to enjoy our own thoughts suggests that our mental weather is always supposed to be pleasant … The human mind is not meant to resemble a postcard from paradise forever fixed in a state of tropical bliss. It’s a vast and perplexing wonderland whose entire topography can change in an instant.
Is Byron in for a rude awakening! There is already an organization, a human one, known as “Phoebus,” the international light-bulb cartel, headquartered in Switzerland. Run pretty much by International GE, Osram, and Associated Electrical Industries of Britain, which are in turn owned 100%, 29% and 46%, respectively, by the General Electric Company in America. Phoebus fixes the prices and determines the operational lives of all the bulbs in the world, from Brazil to Japan to Holland (although Philips in Holland is the mad dog of the cartel, apt at any time to cut loose and sow disaster throughout the great Combi-nation). Given this state of general repression, there seems no place for a newborn Baby Bulb to start but at the bottom.
But Phoebus doesn’t know yet that Byron is immortal …
—Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
I can remember reading Gravity’s Rainbow and marveling at the imagination on display in the famous “Byron the Bulb” section, in which a very chipper, eternally burning lightbulb (yes, that’s our Byron) finds himself in the crosshairs of Phoebus, a nefarious lightbulb cartel intent on controlling the life span of every bulb in the world.
At the time, I assumed without a second thought that Phoebus was a work of fiction—and why wouldn’t it be? The cartel was mentioned, after all, in basically the same breath as an all-girl opium den, “dildos rigged to pump floods of paregoric orgasm to the cap-illaries [sic] of the womb,” and, yes, a talking lightbulb.
Markus Krajewski, a media studies professor, was less skeptical: “I knew that Pynchon’s prose style mixes fact and fiction, and so I wondered: Could this be true?”
It was, his research revealed. Well, it kind of was—the Phoebus cartel really did exist, and it perpetrated what can only be called the “Great Lightbulb Conspiracy.” Appropriately enough, IEEE Spectrum—a trade magazine edited by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers—has Krajewki’s story: Read More