Sunday, September 9, 2018

Book Review: Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day is Lit!

Last summer, topping off a binge of reading Thomas Pynchon books, I set forth on the long, arduous, and vastly entertaining excursion of reading his 1,085-page epic, Against the Day. Almost a year later, I'm still preoccupied with this multifaceted meganovel. Before putting the cinematic cinderblock of letters back on the shelf for a while I've got some thoughts I'd like to share on it here.

Mainly, I must declare that Against the Day is Lit!!! As in, Against the Day is Literature in extremis! Literary, narrative worlds taken to extreme levels of world building, as Bruce Allen of Kirkus Reviews captured it, "Pynchon is both wordsmith and world-smith." The book is all about journeys traversed around the world, and it is told in a bountifully rich style of extremely erudite yet comedically committed prose that serves to weave a vast interconnecting network of literally hundreds of characters across the span of a few decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century.

It's also Lit as in Bonkers as in yo this book is lit af. (Millenial slang for "yo it's wild as fuck!") In Against the Day, Pynchon takes risks, letting the imagination expand in full flourish of zany, unpredictable explosive interactions and storylines, straining the limits of credulity as he works within the genre of what Wikipedia calls historiographic metafiction or metahistorical romance. The powerful electrical experiments of Dr. Nikola Tesla himself make up part of the story, mixed with the ominous tensions of turn-of-the-century political revolutions and the buildup to World War I, witnessed by a team of globe-trotting, time-traveling aviator adventurers (the Chums of Chance), with the overall storyline centered around a decades long struggle between the family of a murdered anarchist bomber (Webb Traverse) against a merciless robber baron/cartel boss (Scarsdale Vibe). It is the grandest manifestation of Pynchon's consistent theme of the struggle throughout history between what he labels the elect vs the preterite or the rich and powerful vs the common man. Serious, important historical stuff. But as Steven Moore noted in his review, the book's Marxist melodrama is laced with the comedic strain of Groucho Marx. Since this is Pynchon in full force, the novel is completely bonkers, often hilarious or silly, and sometimes ridiculous in its sexual excesses.

For example, flipping open the book at random, on page 384 we encounter a freedom fighter in the Mexican Civil War named El Ñato described as an "energetic presence" dressed in an "officer's jacket from the defunct army of some country not too nearby" with a ridiculously oversized parrot perched on his shoulder, "so out of scale in fact that to converse with its owner it had to lean down to scream into his ear." Then we meet the parrot:
"And this is Joaquin," El Ñato smiling up at the bird. "Tell them something about yourself, m'hijo."
"I like to fuck the gringo pussy," confided the parrot.
Later on when one of the main characters is about to strangle the insolent parrot, Pynchon describes El Ñato "sensing psitticide in the air." Parrots being of the Latin order Psittaciformes, Pynchon invents a clever word for parrot murder.

And finally, the novel is also Lit in the sense of Illumination. One of the main preoccupations of Against the Day is Light. The novel is full of newly lit cities, luminous prose, an ever expanding glow of creativity and proliferant storylines intent on covering everything under the sun. The force of the Tunguska event plops upon the text with "A heavenwide blast of light" (p. 779) that leaves the sky over the European continent alight for weeks. The light-refracting crystal Iceland Spar is a recurrent element in Against the Day. We experience frequent digressions into philosophical, scientific or occult contemplations of Light itself, as in the scene where the young genius mathematician/engineer Kit Traverse argues with his cynical brother Reef on science vs mysticism, pointing out how wireless waves were complete "bunk" not very long ago, then he reminds us: "Seems every day somebody's discovering another new piece of the spectrum, out there beyond visible light, or a new extension of the mind beyond conscious thought, and maybe someplace far away the two domains are even connected up." (p. 670)

To illustrate the ways in which Against the Day is totally lit, let's further expand on each aspect of its lit-ness:

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Healing Ingredients for Hard Times

Greek street art from here.

"A middenhide hoard of objects!" 
- Finnegans Wake, p. 19

"To clean and tidy up Matter...
To put back all the things people cluttered up
Because they didn't understand what they were for...
To straighten, like a diligent housekeeper of Reality,
The curtains on the windows of Feeling
And the mats before the doors of Perception...
To sweep the rooms of observation
And to dust off simple ideas...
That's my life, verse by verse."

- Fernando Pessoa (as Alberto Caeiro), 17 September 1914 
(from A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe: Selected Poems, p. 56)

Besides the increasingly entropic, sad and infuriating thunderstorm of drama unfolding daily in the news, my closer circumference has also been racked with scary, turbulent, and unpredictable drama lately. The tension of the times is inescapable, it seems.

Besides the weight of experiencing people close to me fighting life-threatening illnesses, family friends passing away, and cherished friends leaving town, the last few months have featured the misfortune of a nearby neighbor exploding into a dark psychotic and meth-aided breakdown bringing nerve-eroding levels of disturbance and threat to my immediate community. My strong woman is terrified, deeply rattled, and my infuriated Italian Staten Island dude energy is trying to force its way into the situation. Plus it's Texas so the entire neighborhood is armed. Dealing with all of this has been rough.

What's helped me keep my head on straight is regular indulgence in the following ingredients: reading the poetry of Fernando Pessoa, exploring the music of rapper Ka, vibing off daily doses of Fela Kuti or lines from Finnegans Wake, and both watching and playing lots of baseball. Here are some thoughts on all of those.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Rōnin Joyce Scholar, Thought to be Dead, Resurfaces and Other Reports Following Bloomsday 2018

Illustration of Finnegans Wake page 15 by Peter O'Brien from here

Recently I returned from a phenomenal trip to Antwerp, Belgium where I got to partake in the 26th International James Joyce Symposium. The experience was a great one for a litany of reasons, not least of which because it was a relief to be away from the horrifying moral and ethical disaster zone of America for a while (had the same experience last year on my visit to Toronto). It was also a heartening and enjoyable experience getting to convene with so many fellow Joyceans from across the globe. I met and hung out with so many cool people from such a diverse range of places and backgrounds in the span of a week. (Just at the reception dinner I hung with folks from Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Canada, Singapore, the World Cup on everyone's minds.) And all of us share a passion for literature, especially Joyce. (The funniest line from the opening talks was a city official who opened with "a quote from the greatest novelist of all time, Thomas Pynchon.")

The conference itself was like guzzling from the intellectual and artistic firehose; full days of fascinating papers, lectures, thoughtful convo, incredible artwork, and finishing with recorded Finnegans Wake readings every night outside a pub.

I will have more to say about the conference some other time and place. Here and now I'd like to briefly highlight some of the recent Joyce-related news and nuggets that have popped up lately with Bloomsday 2018 happening last weekend.

John Kidd, a Rōnin of Joyceania, Resurfaces

An exiled, wandering rōnin of Joyce scholarship thought to be dead for many years, John Kidd, suddenly popped up in a NY Times profile that read like a Coen brothers movie---with this news arriving at that same time (June 12, 2018) the Joyce nerds of the world had descended upon Antwerp for a symposium (June 11-16th) whose opening lecture was delivered by Hans Walter Gabler, one of Kidd's opponents in the so-called "Joyce wars" of the late-80s and 90s.

John Kidd had risen to fame in the 80s as a young Ulysses scholar who challenged heavyweight Joyce authorities over mistakes in their supposedly official "corrected" texts and won the respect of his peers, promising to roll out his own corrected edition of Ulysses until he supposedly lost his mind, rumored to be dead broke and conversing with pigeons and squirrels before he disappeared into oblivion. I wrote about his bizarre tale back in May 2010, under the impression that "Kidd died in his early 50s with his highly sought-after edition of Ulysses unpublished." Almost a year later a commenter chimed in: "I don't think John Kidd is dead." More than a year after that, another commenter declares: "Alive and alive indeed!!!" And after another year: "He's in Brazil."

The NY Times piece doesn't mention this space sadly, except for referring to digging around obscure blogs and "stray comment sections," but I found it a fun and fascinating story that feels like a film. Kidd at his apartment in Rio de Janeiro shown surrounded with stacks of books and paintings, rocking long white hair, belly protruding out of a Hawaiian shirt:

Jack Hitt paints the picture well:

John Kidd, who is 65, is well above 6 feet tall and comfortably carries the emerging evidence of many a fine dinner. He no longer has the tidy short blond hair of 30 years ago. It’s now grown out snowy white and halfway down his back, deep into Gandalf territory. He’s a devoted fan of loosefitting Hawaiian shirts, flip-flops and shorts. ...
 Right off, he wants to talk about that Boston Globe article with the pigeons. His outrage is still raw. He’s particularly miffed that he was called “broke.” He wants me to know he’s flush and always has been. He has, at the ready, a notarized letter from Fleet Bank in Brookline dated 14 years ago, stating: “six months avg balance in this checking account has been $15,618.00.”
The story at one point involves the main characters fleeing knife-wielding thugs in the streets of Rio, because of course.

I enjoyed the bits of literary info highlighted in the piece---Kidd praising and recommending Fernando Pessoa's poetry collection A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe (a copy of which has remained here on my desk for months); discussions about what Kidd calls "antic" novels like Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy; and Kidd's devotion to translating an obscure 19th century Brazilian novel, The Slave Isaura.

The piece notes how, in the wake of Kidd's disappearance, the world of Joyce scholarship eventually shifted toward accepting the Gabler edition of Ulysses that Kidd poked so many holes in. Certainly that sentiment was on display in the opening remarks of the Antwerp conference where Gabler received an adulatory introduction before he delivered a presentation on the insanely tedious difficulties involved in trying to derive an authoritative edition of Ulysses. He actually brought up the Joyce wars at one point, sort of brushing it off as drama nobody wanted to hear about.

Yet throughout the lecture and the relatively quiet Q&A afterwards, I kept thinking that so many people in the room must be pondering what I'm pondering: "What ever happened to John Kidd?" And then the next day this piece pops up, sending ripples among the attendees. It must have made an impact in the States because many conference folks, myself included, had friends and family coming out the woodwork to send them this NYT feature.

Perhaps the buzz around this surprise profile will reinvigorate interest in bringing out Kidd's edition of Ulysses, but more likely, as the article hints at, it'll never see the light of day. Though a draft version, complete with Kidd's introduction, apparently exists somewhere, its fate got all tangled up in the bureaucratic webs of editors and lawyers and it is now likely dead. Discussing this story with Tom Jackson and Michael The OG over at the RAWillumination blog, it occurred to me that I own 4 copies of Ulysses, but I don't have the Gabler edition. As Gabler himself emphasized at the end of his talk, Ulysses remains an open text.

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Artist Peter O'Brien's Efforts to "arabesque the page" (FW p. 115)

Among the many great works of Joyce-inspired artwork on display at the Antwerp conference was the ongoing series of illustrated annotated Finnegans Wake pages being produced by Peter O'Brien of Toronto. Here's a glimpse at the exhibit in the old stone hallways of the University of Antwerp building:

O'Brien recently wrote a feature in the The Globe and Mail discussing his the project and his 40 years of reading the Wake, sharing insights into some of the pieces, as in this note about page 204: "I asked a friend to make two footprints on this page, first at the bottom and then at the top. Only later did I see the word “Barefoot” imprinted on the page."

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Massive Chronology of Joyce-Inspired Music Published

"History of James Joyce Music" illustration by Sara Jewell.

Derek Pyle and Krzysztof Bartnicki of "Waywords and Meansigns" published a vast chronology of all the Joyce-inspired music they could find. It's a rich and fascinating resource you will want to explore. Here's some further info from Derek Pyle:

A lifelong inspiration to composers such as Samuel Barber and John Cage, Joyce's influence on classical and avant-garde music is well-known. Yet his massive impact on popular music is rarely acknowledged. “Joyce had a profound effect on members of the Grateful Dead, and his works served as major muses in the Southern California punk and indie scene,” explains Derek Pyle. “Joyce even inspired a number-one dance hit: Amber's 'Yes!'” 
The History of James Joyce Music highlights Joyce's legacy in the works of well-known musicians and composers like Leonard Cohen, Joanna Newsom, Tōru Takemitsu, and Karol Szymanowski, but the history does not stop there. Included in the history are dozens of obscure musical works from underground and niche musicians, ranging in genre from minimalism and metal to folk and noise.

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The Pantheon

Over at my "Finnegans, Wake!" blog I just shared the full version of the presentation I delivered at the Antwerp conference. This piece outlines a litany of notable Finnegans Wake enthusiasts from all corners of art and culture, sharing their testimonies on behalf of Joyce's neglected magnum opus.

Click the link below to read the piece:

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Stepping Away from Joyce

The Sydney Review of Books has a new piece by Gabrielle Carey, "Breaking Up with James Joyce" explaining her decision to cease studying Ulysses, the Wake, et al after 40 years as a Joyce scholar. She cites other readers who reached similar ends after decades of puzzling through Finnegans Wake. It seems these folks have never been able to find what they're looking for.

Perhaps they've discovered what Joyce meant when, toward the end of his life, he wrote to his son: "Here I conclude. My eyes are tired. For over half a century they have gazed into nullity, where they have found a lovely nothing." (Ellmann, Collected Letters)

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Speculating on the Story of Lucia

Lucia Joyce, the apple of her father's eye and a gifted-yet-cursed artist herself, continues to be a ripe source of interest for authors and artists. The Irish Times put out a couple pieces on Lucia recently: Deirdre Mulrooney drew attention to Lucia's dancing career (Mulrooney is working on a documentary film about same) and Sean Hewitt reviewed a recently published novel, Lucia by Alex Pheby, calling it "a searching and fascinating book." Don't forget about the film James and Lucia with Game of Thrones star Aiden Gillen set to play James Joyce that is still in production. I shared my thoughts on Lucia and Finnegans Wake a few years ago here.

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The prolific blogger and musician Steve Fly has created an app program that allows you to sample and mix sound effects, music, etc with clips of Robert Anton Wilson talking about and reading from Finnegans Wake. Fly deployed these versatile blends to perfection in a live performance in Antwerp on Bloomsday, putting BloomJamm to great use and inspiring attendees to do the same. You can download BloomJamm from Steve's website and here is a sample of the program:

Friday, March 30, 2018

MLB 2018 Season Predictions (Part 2)

Gazing at the future thru the crystal ball...

Continuing the altogether futile and pointless exercise of predicting how each division will shake up and providing an Over/Under selection against Baseball Prospectus' 2018 win projection for each team, this time in the National League.

There's quite a bit of monotony here---the Dodgers have finished atop the NL West every year for five years running and they are an easy bet to win it again in 2018. The NL Central crown has gone to either the Cardinals or Cubs every year since 2013. The Cubs, Dodgers, and Nationals were NL division winners each of the last two years and are all favored to do it again this year. Certainly seems there's a lack of parity, but admittedly I enjoy the intrigue it creates since any challenger(s) to the hegemony of the Dodgers-Cubs-Nats stronghold tends to be a fascinating underdog, like the Mets in 2015 or the Brewers last year. I also enjoy the October rivalries that have developed between the Dodgers-Cubs-Nats and their respective stars. Parity be damned if it means we get to witness the game's elite players---Kenley Jansen facing Bryce Harper with a series on the line comes to mind---deciding the most high stakes ballgames.
NL East

1. Nationals
PECOTA: 89 wins
My pick: Over

These picks represent what I objectively expect to happen---what I would bet on---not how I want it all to shape out. Personally, I dislike the Nats about as much as I dislike the Yankees. They're the key rival to my beloved Mets. Their lineup features Daniel Murphy, a former beloved Met who immediately became an All Star once he joined the arch rival Nats. Bryce Harper is entertaining to watch but he's also a perfect baseball villain. I dread my Mets having to deal with the relentless pest Adam Eaton all year. And the game's most dominant pitcher besides Clayton Kershaw, three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, stands atop one of the best rotations in baseball. It seems they may have finally addressed their one weakness, the bullpen, too. Much as I hate the Nats and will heartily root for their downfall, that roster is just too deep, the dominance of that core too imposing to not expect them to win the NL East again and try to finally, at long last, make it past the first round of the playoffs! That last part I wouldn't bet on, though.

2. Mets
PECOTA: 80 wins
My pick: Over (Wild Card)

Last year was a sad one for Mets fans---everyone got hurt, beloved players (Granderson and Duda) were traded away and the promising pitching staff imploded, finishing with the second-worst ERA in the NL. Thankfully, Sandy Alderson responded with big changes: he brought in an entirely new medical staff, about which...we'll see; added some sluggers in Todd Frazier and the returning Jay Bruce; bolstered the bullpen with Anthony Swarzak and picked up a perfectly reliable innings-eater to hold down the back of the rotation in Jason Vargas. The main reason I have high hopes for the Mets this year, though, besides the irrationality of my fanhood, is the addition of Mickey Callaway as the new manager, replacing Terry Collins. Callaway earned accolades for his handling of the Cleveland pitching staff the last few years, guiding them to one of the best overall performances by a starting rotation in baseball history last year. The Mets success depends entirely on their immensely talented starting rotation---if Callaway can get this staff to do their best work the way he did in Cleveland, the sky is the limit for the Amazins.

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