Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Crying of Lot 49

The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon
1965, 152 pp.

When most people speak of “postmodernism” in literature, they are really speaking of Thomas Pynchon, and when most people speak of Thomas Pynchon, they are speaking of two books: Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49. Intrepid readers seeking an entry point into that arch and disreputable genre can select no better exordium. Gravity’s Rainbow is considered a titan of the genre, while The Crying of Lot 49 contains all of its essential preoccupations, in a much more manageable package.

Therefore we have funny names (the heroine is called Oedipa Maas), a preoccupation with psychoanalysis (her therapist is named Dr. Hilarius), an irreverent combination of absurdist humor and real pathos, and acute paranoia. The story begins when Oedipa finds that she is the executor of the estate of her recently deceased ex-boyfriend Pierce Inverarity. Inverarity was an eccentric tycoon who seems to own a piece of everything. Oedipa begins to find traces of a shadowy organization called “Trystero,” which turns out to have been a nefarious shadow postal service in Renaissance Europe, then migrated to the United States, where it serves as an underground through which all other undergrounds communicate. Its emblem is a postal horn with a plug in it, and she begins to see this sign everywhere. Every lead she follows brings her back to another entity owned by Pierce Inverarity. Everywhere she goes she sees the muted horn. Has she stumbled onto a giant conspiracy, or is this an elaborate game set up by Inverarity?

The book starts with comedy and farce. There is a long sequence in which Oedipa is being seduced by her co-executor, so she puts on lots of extra clothes, but knocks over a hairspray bottle which flies around the room smashing things. One of the first members of an underground who she encounters is a parody of a right-wing fringe outfit, based around the cult of the captain of the Confederate ironclad “Disgruntled,” led by somebody called "Mike Fallopian." The opening is the weakest part of the book, since the comedy leaves enough room for the reader to begin wondering what the point is. Why call your protagonist “Oedipa”? Clearly it’s to conjure an association with a certain ill-fated Theban, but since her parents are never mentioned, is it the riddle-solving aspect rather than the more known parricide that we should focus on? What about the other silly names, like “Genghis Cohen”? Why am I reading these long, silly digressions about a movie one of the characters starred in as a child?

Then about two-thirds of the way in, Pynchon changes gears. In a riveting, tour-de-force passage of some twenty pages, he sends Oedipa on a Dantean nighttime journey through San Francisco, encountering desperate people and the Trystero symbol everywhere she turns. The prose here is lush and heavy, with a long, bitter nose and earthy undertones. It’s relentless, clever, brilliantly realized. It’s like a particularly paranoid Tom Waits song. It also marks the point when the novel turns serious.

The final third consists of nothing but loss. Oedipa loses everyone in her life, and indeed perhaps even her sense of self, since she is left with nothing of her original life to hold onto: “That night’s profusion of post horns, this malignant, deliberate replication, was their way of being up. They knew her pressure points, and the ganglia of her optimism, and one by one, pinch by precision pinch, they were immobilizing her.” The book is worth the read simply for the central bridge section, which is a relief, because the book does not resolve itself, it only ends. To some extent this is a manifestation of the wise old rule about how it is always more effective not to actually show the monster, but to leave it to the reader (or viewer) to imagine. Not resolving the reality or fabrication of the Trystero network is probably wise, and works to make the book unsettling instead of just entertaining. With such a short book, the reader invests fairly little time and effort, so the burden of proof is fairly low, but still it was a gamble which Pynchon only pulls off thanks to his virtuoso middle section and the intriguing possibilities it raises.

The impact of this book is quite easy to trace. I was constantly struck by just how similar David Foster Wallace’s book The Broom of the System is to The Crying of Lot 49. Both share numerous aesthetic and structural points, and though Wallace is articulating a rather less paranoid and hostile worldview, it is still a worldview preoccupied with anxiety and persecution. Wallace was a great talent and an original voice, but it is striking to see just how Pynchonian he was.

At any rate, The Crying of Lot 49 is accessible, which much postmodern fiction is not, and holds the reader’s attention, which most modern fiction in general does not. It is at times brilliant, though not consistently, but shows enough skill and virtuosity that it makes the prospect of tackling the beast of Gravity’s Rainbow a bit less daunting.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Universal Baseball Association

The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., by Robert Coover
1968, 174 pp.

This strange and rather endearing little book is rather like a musty capsule sent up from those disreputable realms once referred to disparagingly by Gore Vidal as the “research and development” division of fiction writing. It comes from a different time, when meta-fiction was still a new world to be explored, before the arch irony of the self-appointed post-modernists drowned all sense of wonder and empathy in exploratory fiction. Coover was one of the first great meta-fictionists during the high 1960’s when it was still possible to speak of a serious American literary avant-garde. His most famous book is probably The Public Burning, which approaches the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg from a perspective somewhat akin to magical realism. (Incidentally, this seems to be an oddly resonant confluence of interests: E.L. Doctorow’s acclaimed 1971 novel The Book of Daniel deals with the same case in a metafictional sort of way.) The Universal Baseball Association is brief, elliptical, and allegorical. It is full of baseball, full of middle aged failure and loneliness, and is also about God and creation, good and evil.

The story is about a sad, lonely, 56-year old accountant named J. Henry Waugh, who loves games. He has designed himself a baseball game he plays with dice, which has been so elaborately thought out that it simulates all of the possibilities and probabilities of real baseball. He has created teams, players, histories, relationships, sexual tendencies, bars, songs, politics, commentary. He has charts governing all manner of possible outcomes, and in his mind the characters live and breathe and play baseball. This reveals itself gradually: the book seems to open with Henry watching a game. Or perhaps he is at one. Only slowly do we realize that it and everything he sees and hears at it is in his imagination.

Like Henry, the Association is past its prime. The Golden Age is over, and since Henry can play through a year in about six weeks, whole dynasties have risen and fallen and new generations of players emerged. But he is losing interest, until a brilliant young pitcher appears on the scene, throwing the exhilarating perfect game which opens the book. Henry pours all of his hopes into the boy and counts on him to revive the Association and the sole source of interest in Henry’s life. But then the dice turn against him: triple ones twice in a row send him to the “Chart of Extraordinary Occurrences,” and another set of triple ones kills the young hope, struck in the head by a wild pitch. The dice are relentless, and the game turns into a miserable defeat on top of the tragic death. There seems to be no justice in the Association, no sense of good triumphing over evil. Henry is devastated and his life starts to come apart. For long stretches of the book Henry disappears entirely and his imaginary characters take center stage, themselves coming apart under strain. Finally Henry stacks the dice and kills the player who threw the fatal ball, trying to regain balance in the Association.

The reader’s ability to parse what is going on is directly proportional to the amount of time it takes to realize that the name “J. Henry Waugh” is very easily condensed to read “JHWH.” Henry is none other than the Creator himself, and his pure Son dies a premature death at the hands of cruel fate and its evil avatars, who are unfortunately also of Henry’s own creation. The story of The Universal Baseball Association is the progression from a deistic to a theistic God: in case the reader is unclear, the final chapter takes place a hundred “years” in the future, when the Association has resolved into religious sects with rituals and blood feuds.

Quite a lot of the book consists of baseball games and baseball jargon. To some extent, it is probably possible to enjoy without some underlying enjoyment of baseball. Henry is a compelling enough character: sad and pointless in a stultified Middle-American way. His imaginary players are colorful and often entertaining. The writing is good without being flashy. When Coover writes, for instance, that Henry “cried for a long bad time,” the reader must reflect that “long bad time” has no linguistic finesse, but is a perfect phrase nonetheless. The hallucinogenic shifts between Henry’s reality and imagination are not slippery and deceptive in the manner of some more manipulative meta-fictions. One can easily picture them using different aspect ratios, different film stocks. After the initial uncertainty, it is always clear what is going on, which allows the reader more space to think and feel about it. It is a frequently sad book, but a clever one, and Coover’s idea of telling life through baseball is a satisfying conceit. Recommended, but only so long as the reader does not mind a great deal of baseball.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Growth Triumphant

Growth Triumphant, by Richard A. Easterlin
1998, 200 pp.

This compact, efficient little book is a surprisingly satisfying foray into the melee of economic growth literature. It takes as its task the explanation of what it argues are the two major developments in the modern world: rapid and sustained economic growth and enormous population growth. Both of those topics have provoked an enormous and tedious amount of literature, and arguments as to their causes are so numerous that a small army of scholars is fed simply to generate new ones. Easterlin does something audacious, though: he argues that both have the same cause, progress in roughly the same way, and are leading towards the same result. The cause is technological change, and in his view it determines mostly everything else.

Considering the simplicity of that explanation, he makes a remarkably persuasive case. He argues that since the technological changes of the Industrial Revolution created large, expensive, complicated methods of production, they were not feasible to buy and use in a home, farm or workshop. This necessitated institutions like corporations to raise capital to invest in these new technologies, centralization of production to take advantage of the economies of scale generated by large production facilities, which in turn created more administration (leading to white-collar jobs) and urbanization. Urbanization promoted agglomeration industries (services catering to large populations) and a demand for municipal government services. Better technology reduced transport costs, which promoted trade. It increased income, which increase demand for products, which generates more growth. Better technology requires better education, which is why education is necessary to development. In his argument, virtually all the usual explanations for growth are just consequences of technological change and scientific methodology.

He takes the argument further, to state that the population explosion is the result of technologies and scientific developments which reduced mortality. This created an over-supply of children relative to demand, which eventually falls off as incomes rise and the cost of regulating fertility falls. So after an initial, transitory increase in population, fertility drops off and populations stabilize. Easterlin argues that both this demographic transition and the process of growth are happening faster now than they did in the past, so he predicts a future of permanent, general growth, constantly rising aspirations, and disappearing cultural differences in a “constant race to achieve the good life of material plenty.” His analysis of technological change in industrialization and public health is interesting, upbeat, and engaging. He mentions a lot of intriguing, logical conclusions which follow from discarding the ideas he finds quantitatively inadequate, and consequently the book is an enjoyable and fairly quick read. It is also much less depressing than most books on economic development, which revolve around either European exploitation, hopeless poverty traps, or Malthusian catastrophe. Easterlin makes the whole process sound quite hopeful and encouraging.

To reach this conclusion, he deals with each issue separately, in a very careful, measured, precise, unemotional way. He presents both sides of a given argument, then some quantitative evidence, and sees what the evidence suggests. Quite often this is persuasive, as when he proves fairly conclusively that neither population growth nor population decline is correlated with economic growth. Other times he is less persuasive, as when he has to set up elaborate proxy variables for some difficult-to-quantify variable he wants to test. He also dispenses with whole arguments based on one or two quantitative studies, without discussing just how difficult it is to get reliable data, or the statistical significance of his correlations. Fairly large swathes of the first half of the book seem to be extended arguments with Paul Krugman, who largely invented the modern theories of economic geography, economies of scale, and North-North trade, but Krugman gets only one mention in the whole book, and that’s a rather disparaging remark on a minor article in Foreign Affairs. He also doesn’t spend much time explaining how and why that mighty technological change took place in northern England in the 1750’s, as opposed to earlier or later or in a different place. Obviously there had to be institutions in place to create and spread such technological change, which he acknowledges, but doesn’t spend much time analyzing. Growth Triumphant is also a fairly short book: only 154 pages of actual text, and that is frequently broken up by large charts and graphs. That being the case, Easterlin really could have been more thorough. He is persuasive when he uses quantitative data to dispense with faulty arguments, but less so at proving his own. The burden of proof for such a monocausal explanation is quite high.

Interestingly, the book seems to wind up on a very upbeat note: growth and rising aspirations for everyone forever! But then Easterlin pulls the rug out from under the reader with a genuinely chilling final sentence, like the last shot a film with a twist ending that makes you rethink everything that’s gone before: “In the end, the triumph of economic growth is not a triumph of humanity over material wants; rather, it is the triumph of material wants over humanity.” Yes, he suggests, the future is constant growth, but there is no choice, no room for human agency. Growth Triumphant indeed!


Babel-17, by Samuel R. Delany
1966, 219 pp.

Samuel R. Delany might accurately be thought of as the James Joyce of science fiction. His work is intellectual, difficult, conceptual, avant-garde. It begins with acclaimed, cerebral renditions of existing literary forms and progresses to Dhalgren, an immense, impenetrable work of high modernism. Babel-17 won Delany prominence and a Nebula award and is now justly a classic of the genre.

The book is a sort of science-fiction-according-to-Ludwig-Wittgenstein. In the midst of a 20-year interstellar war, strange sabotages and disasters are accompanied by mysterious transmissions in an unknown language code-named Babel-17. The plot follows Rydra Wong, an acclaimed poet who has neurological gifts which allow her to understand any language and grasp the thought patterns which accompany a language to an extent which borders on telepathy, as she tries to unearth the mystery of Babel-17 and stop the attacks. She forms a crew, which allows Delany to really let his imagination run with the possibilities of space travel. Her pilot is an immense surgically-created tiger-beast who steers by literally wrestling through “hyperstasis transit,” her navigators are a “Triple” of three mentally, emotionally, and sexually symbiotic people, and her sensors are resurrected ghosts called Ear, Eye, and Nose. They perceive space and objects through one intense sensory input. She encounters space pirates and aliens and all manner of wildly imaginative science-fiction stuff.

The aesthetic is quite similar to M. John Harrison’s great novel The Centauri Device: it’s a future set mainly in decaying post-industrial port cities full of smoke stacks and rusted metal and concrete towers. There’s an impoverished, anarchic underclass, a seemingly permanent and pointless interstellar war, and a lot of imagery centering around smoggy sunsets and industrial fires. “Ships rose with a white flare, blued through distance, became bloody stars in the rusted air,” for instance. It might be plausible to think of Babel-17 as an entry in a very select sub-genre: the post-industrial anarcho-poetic sci-fi novel. I love this kind of stuff, and Delany pulls it off with flair and style. He keeps the forward momentum going with a decent amount of sabotage, space fights, assassinations, and so forth, without losing track of the great linguistic puzzle his protagonist is attempting to solve. Delany is good at expressing her intellectual excitement: “She wondered what would happen if she translated her perceptions of people’s movement and muscle tics into Babel-17. It was not only a language, she understood now, but a flexible matrix of analytical possibilities where the same ‘word’ defined the stresses in a webbing of medical bandage, or a defensive grid of spaceships. What would it do with the tensions and yearnings in a human face? Perhaps the flicker of eyelids and fingers would become mathematics, without meaning…”

Speaking of that linguistic puzzle, there’s some very interesting parallels in Babel-17 to David Foster Wallace’s Broom of the System. Both feature female protagonists trying to solve language puzzles, and seem born out of each author’s interest in the degree to which reality is a linguistic construction. Both involve antinomies (in fact, the exact same ones) as a major plot point, though Babel-17 is structured in a much more conventional novel form, with none of the post-modern playfulness of Broom of the System. I just wonder if Wallace happened to read Babel-17 at some point, or if the attraction of speculative fiction authors to Wittgenstein, language, and logic is so widespread as to create such coincidences.

All of that said, the book is not perfect. Delany is here better at vivid prose and imagination than he is at dialogue and interpersonal relations, the former of which is often strained and the latter sometimes unmotivated and arbitrary. There is an odd slackening to the pace about twenty pages before the end, and what seems like a minor plot twist midway through turns out to be a major development which determines much of the second half of the book. And my copy (the original 1966 Ace paperback edition) had some serious quotation-mark typos which were a particular impediment during a long and lovely dialogue towards the end in which two characters switch around “I” and “you” in their conversation. Those minor complaints aside, Babel-17 is an excellent read, at once a satisfying sci-fi adventure and a cerebral exploration of the possibilities of language. It isn’t every sci-fi author who knows what an “allophone” or a “plosive” is or who is daring enough to suggest that an interstellar war might be ended using antinomies.