Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Danish documentary Thomas Pynchon: Journey into the Mind of P. inadvertently demonstrates the problematics involved with anonymity in literature. Part of the problem is simply that the two filmmakers, Donatello & Fosco Dubini, have about 45 minutes of actual information, but have determined to pad it out to a full-length feature 90. But the real problem is that they have no there here. The film, the closest I suspect Pynchon will ever get to his own E! True Hollywood Story¹, is an attempt to identify the living person behind the books. Rather than the “magic tricks” that I suggested yesterday with regards to reading anonymous works of literature, this is an attempt to learn something concrete about a real human being who is very determined to remain very private indeed. And, in E! True Hollywood fashion, it has not occurred to our intrepid filmmakers to actually read the freakin’ books!?!

What we get instead is a tour of some elements of the Thomas Pynchon industry – not the academic one, composed as it is of people who’ve read his works – the closest they get is a short talking-head spot with the late George Plimpton reminiscing about a review he wrote of V. – but the over-the-top fans who have their own fansites on the web & speculate – at length – that since Pynchon & Lee Harvey Oswald were in Mexico at roughly the same time in the 1950s, therefore Pynchon must be in hiding because of what he knows about the assassination of JFK. This is accompanied with much stock footage of Lee Harvey Oswald passing out “Hands Off Cuba” leaflets in New Orleans & Jack Ruby gunning Oswald down on Nov. 23, 1963.

The high point of the film – or at least the furthest up they get from that low one – is some interviews with Jules Siegel & his ex-wife Chrissie Jolly. Siegel, a one-time classmate of Pynchon’s at Cornell who had also spent some time in Mexico after graduation, met up with Pynchon in Manhattan Beach, California, where Pynchon was living & writing The Crying of Lot 49. Jolly & Pynchon, according to her, fell instantly in love & carried on a romance behind Siegel’s back, which he later recounted in an article published in, of all places, Playboy. The film follows Chrissie as she wanders the narrow streets that lead down to the beach before finding the one where she had her tryst with Pynchon. She & the film crew persuade a very reluctant current tenant to let them in & film the basic efficiency apartment, noting such details as the size of the bathroom (small). In passing, she also talks about Pynchon’s writing process (longhand first, followed by the typewriter), at least as it was in the 1960s – and that he thought seriously about attending the 1968 Democratic Convention to protest the war in Vietnam. But other than that, his preferences for drugs (weed & hash) and that he would walk down to the beach & spend a couple of hours there every morning “without ever getting the slightest tan,” or that he once showed up at a hotel the Siegel’s were staying in, wearing a black cape, are about the level of depth we get. That is illustrated with stock footage of George Reeves playing Superman from the 1950s TV show.

The remainder of the film is devoted to people who think they have seen Thomas Pynchon, including an Aussie journalist who staked out an uptown Manhattan residence (whose address he had gotten by tracing details in public records related to the death of Pynchon's parents) until he decided that a certain 60ish male walking down the street with an eight-year-old son was Pynchon & snapped a photograph that, even blown up, is little more than generic pixels. CNN did likewise once and then decided to simply do a story on Pynchon’s reclusiveness while showing many people walking down the streets of Manhattan before telling the audience that one of the people they had just seen was Pynchon, without identifying which one. The film ends with Siegel & the filmmakers focusing in on one guy in a Kansas City Royals baseball cap whom they say CNN told them was Pynchon (Siegel doesn’t believe it, preferring instead a guy who looks a lot like poet Geoffrey Young).

In fact, Pynchon’s only public appearance ever has been on the Simpsons, where you do get to hear his voice & see the portrait above. Does this mean that his skin is really yellow or that he only has four fingers on each hand?

I never have asked the poet Allen Fisher, who published some of Pynchon’s essays in chapbook form, how he got in touch with the elusive author, tho I did once ask Mimi Fariña – whom I knew somewhat during the early 1970s – what Pynchon was doing then (he had been the best man at her wedding, her husband having also been part of the Cornell writing scene in the 1950s). This was during the silent period between Lot 49 & Gravity’s Rainbow. Pynchon was, she said, selling vacuum cleaners door to door, having exhausted his earnings as a writer. It was hard to envision then & I still don’t know if Mimi was teasing me.

My point is that it didn’t really matter then & it doesn’t now, but minutiae like this have been turned by Pynchon himself into part of a great puzzle that, I think, detracts from what actually is valuable in the man’s writing. As I noted yesterday, context is one of the six functions of language &, if you make a point of hiding a part of the context, you can pretty well count on readers foregrounding exactly that one element. Do we really need to know about J.D. Salinger’s bouts with Scientology, Hinduism or that he drinks his own urine? It’s Salinger who has made these tidbits a part of his fiction, precisely by making his actual life a mystery. Pynchon has made the same mistake.

Robert Duncan once told me that his own 15-year hiatus from publishing books post-Bending the Bow had been an accident. He had said it half in jest to New Directions publisher James Laughlin simply because Robert didn’t have the work ready in what Laughlin – who had been expecting maybe one big book every three years, Duncan’s rate of production since the 1940s – thought of as a timely manner. But Laughlin had told everyone & now everyone was treating it as a major position that Duncan had adopted. What that meant was that most of his readers knew that what they had heard about Duncan being diffident, imperious & impossible to work with had to be true, because look at this – he’s not going to do a book for 15 years. And in retrospect, it’s true – Ground Work is only now being read as something more than as an afterthought to that career ending hiatus. The non-decision not to do a book for 15 years became instead a large part of the context that adhered to his writing.

Thomas Pynchon has a new novel, Against the Day, forthcoming this November. You can even read a passage by clicking that link. At 1060 pages from a novelist who is now 69, it may well be the last big book we ever get from Pynchon, and it’s only his sixth one. It would nice to imagine that people will read it for what it is, and not as a cryptogram for deciphering what the author doesn’t care to share.

¹ The only other film relating to Pynchon would appear to be a German adaptation of Gravity’s Rainbow entitled Prüfstand VII that appears never to have had American distribution.