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Archive for June 2009

Pychon’s Descriptions

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Mention Pynchon among literary types and you can expect widely differing reactions, from fawning praise to groans of annoyance and everything in between. It is the curious nature of Pynchon that often the criticisms of his work are identical to the compliments. His books are very long (his latest,, Against the Day comes it at over 1,000 pages). His books are “difficult.” He cares more about ideas than characters, and often “realism” (or I should say “realisticness”, since in no way is Pynchon a realist) is sacrificed in favor clever twists, bizarre genre juxtapositions, playful anachronisms, gratuitous weirdness or simply humor. His characters have the disconcerting habit of suddenly and without warning bursting into song, as if in the midst of a musical. Indeed, his characters seem little more than playthings dancing (and singing) around his wild ideas. The plots and characters multiply at alarming rates, as do obscure references. All these things are either delightful or infuriating depending on your viewpoint, and on your idea of what a novel is and what it is supposed to do. Even Pynchon himself sometimes seems to have trouble with it all; at one point in Gravity’s Rainbow, he emerges from the text and starts talking about the problems he’s having moving the book forward.

Like many folks, I have ambivalent feelings about Pynchon. He’s obviously a brilliant writer, and his attention to detail, pyrotechnical skill and sheer glee can be an incredible joy. I wanted to clap when, in Against the Day, the adventuring airshipmen the Chums of Chance navigate their Zepplin into the hole in the center of Antarctica (the existence of which, in real life, has been espoused for years by crackpot, hollow-Earth conspiracy theorists) and travel through the center of the Earth, get involved in the politics of subterranean gnomes and then fly out the other end in the arctic. And Pynchon’s obsession with conspiracy theories is never more rewarding than in the sequence in Gravity’s Rainbow when the light bulbs themselves are involved in an elaborate conspiracy against their human masters.

But, like many readers, the thing I find most frustrating about him is the way he won’t slow down and explain what’s going on, as if he’s just too damned excited about the next cool idea to let the reader get a grip on the last one. This tendency is what often gives his books their puzzle-like quality, and is part of what makes him so popular with graduate students, who love a text they can analyze and analyze and analyze. Pynchon, one imagines, knows who his readers are and doesn’t try to please everybody, and one can respect that even if one secretly wants him to write the more accessible book we know he’s capable of, without loosing the fun he brings to the writing process.

This may be a bit much of an introduction to what is actually the subject of this blog post: Pynchon’s style of writing descriptions. Putting aside considerations of his use of plot, character etc., he really is simply one of the best describers of things working today, and I thought it’d be worth the effort to pick apart some of his sentences to see how and why they work the way they do.

For an example, here’s the famous opening of Gravity’s Rainbow:

A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.

It is too late. The Evacuation still proceeds, but it’s all theatre. There are no lights inside the cars. No light anywhere. Above him lift girders old as an iron queen, and glass somewhere far above that would let the light of day through. But it’s night. He’s afraid of the way the glass will fall—soon—it will be spectacle: the fall of a crystal palace. But coming down in total blackout, without one glint of light, only great invisible crashing.

Inside the carriage, which is built on several levels, he sits in velveteen darkness, with nothing to smoke, feeling metal nearer and farther rub and connect, steam escaping in puffs, a vibration in the carriage’s frame, a poising, an uneasiness, all the others pressed in around, feeble ones second sheep, all out of luck and time: drunks, old veterans still in shock from ordnance 20 years obsolete, hustlers in city clothes, derelicts, exhausted women with more children than it seems could belong to anyone, stacked about among the rest of the things to be carried out to salvation. Only the nearer faces are visible at all, and at that only half-silvered images in a view finder, green stained VIP faces remembered behind bulletproof windows speeding through the city…

The two sentence first paragraph is poetic and lean and takes you right into the story. You don’t know yet that what he’s describing is the London Blitz during WWII (in fact, that doesn’t become clear for quite a bit longer, Pynchon loves making you have to figure out what’s going on). The first sentence is visceral, we have a anthropic verb (“screaming”) performed by what seems to be a non-human object (in fact, a German bomb) coming across something we can all envision – the sky. And then we go immediately from the visceral, to the internal. A contradictory evaluation of the screaming in the sky—it’s happened before, yet there’s nothing to compare it to. There’s nothing to compare it to because of the immediacy of the experience, or because this is the first one the character has experienced first-hand? We don’t know exactly, but the ambiguity’s interesting.

We don’t get so much as a pronoun until five sentences into the second paragraph, but it doesn’t matter because we know we’re in someone’s head from that second evaluative sentence in the first. Who has nothing to compare it to now? The protagonist, the same protagonist who thinks it’s too late, who is afraid the glass will come down in great invisible crashing. The whole first and second paragraphs are on edge, scared, pulling you through sentence after sentence in the hope that in the next one we’ll be safe.

In the third paragraph the tension hasn’t abated, even though we found out the protagonist is in a carriage with a lot of other people (being evacuated). We aren’t told he wants a smoke, we’re told he “has nothing to smoke”, which is much more immediate, much more inside his head. (You don’t think ‘I want a smoke.’ You think ‘where are my cigarettes?’) And from here we’re into one of Pynchon’s well known devices, the run-on sentence, piling modifier after modifier for a feeling of stream of consciousness, of things moving constantly forward. Every description has implied or ascribed emotions laid over them, ” feeling metal nearer and farther rub and connect, steam escaping in puffs, a vibration in the carriage’s frame, a poising, an uneasiness, all the others pressed in around”. The choice of what to describe tells you as much about the character’s state of mind as it does his surroundings, “drunks, old veterans still in shock from ordnance 20 years obsolete, hustlers in city clothes, derelicts, exhausted women with more children than it seems could belong to anyone, stacked about among the rest of the things to be carried out to salvation”. This is establishing a mood. Another character might see the same people as noble, “soldiering on bravely”, or describe them as poor, put-upon people to be sympathized with, but not this character. This character seems resentful, and a bit sad, of having to share the same space with them.

There’s some quibbling that might be had about these paragraphs, mostly with Pynchon’s penchant for obscurity and unexplained references. Consulting the Thomas Pynchon Wiki for instance, we discover that the “iron queen” is “perhaps an iron (usually brass & iron) queen-sized bed” (“old as an iron queen”—not the best simile in the world, even if it is evocative). We also find out about the Crystal Palace the character is inside, “The huge glass and iron structure at the top of Sydenham Hill was originally erected in Hyde Park in London to house The Great Exhibition, embodying the products of many countries throughout the world.” I’d really have liked some more description and explanation of that. Especially since (looking ahead to the forth paragraph which isn’t here) I’m not entirely clear when the carriage moves out of the Crystal Palace. Though maybe that’s because it’s invisible in the darkness.

For a somewhat different application of similar techniques, let’s look at an example from Against The Day. This is the beginning of chapter 2, page 10 in my edition, as the Chums of Chance descend in their airship towards the Chicago World’s Fair (The Columbian Exposition) of 1893:

As they came in low over the stockyards, the smell found them, the smell and the uproar of flesh learning its mortality—like the dark conjugate of some daylit fiction they had flown here, as appeared increasingly likely, to help promote. Somewhere down there was the White City promised in the Columbian Exposition brochures, somewhere among the tall smokestacks unceasingly vomiting black grease-smoke, the effluvia of butchery unremitting, into which the buildings of the leagues of city lying downward retreated, like children into sleep which bringeth not reprieve from the day. In the Stockyards, workers coming off shift overwhelmingly of the Roman faith, able to detach from earth and blood for a few precious seconds, looked up at the airship in wonder imagining a detachment of not necessarily helpful agents.

Beneath the rubbernecking Chums of Chance wheeled streets and alleyways in Cartesian grid, sketched in sepia mile on mile. “The Great Bovine City of the World,” breathed Lindsay in wonder. Indeed, the backs of cattle far outnumbered the tops of human hats. From this height it was as if the Chums, who, out on adventures past, had often witnessed the vast herds of cattle adrift in ever-changing cloudlike patterns across the Western plains, here saw that unshaped freedom being rationalized into movement only in straight lines and at right angles and progressive reduction of choices, until the final turn through the final gate that led to the killing floor.

Again we have the run-on sentence full of chained modifiers. Forget what your English teacher told you about run-on sentences, when employed this way they work very well. Here we’re seeing the “dark conjugate of some daylit fiction”, that is, the part of Chicago that is not the beautiful White City constructed in the middle of the Exposition, but the reality of working-class factories and cattle farmers. Unlike in the beginning of Gravity’s Rainbow, we’re not chained here to one character, but instead we slip down from the Chums collectively to the workers and then back up again. But the creation of a mood is no less palpable, especially in the contrast to the golley-gee-whiz, boy’s adventure nature of the Chums themselves—who are, after all, airship adventurers with a dog of genius-level intelligence; that is, they are whimsical storybook characters who in the second paragraph here are thrust into a much bleaker, darker world (foreshadowing the rest of the book). (This jarring juxtaposition of children’s book concepts with harsh and graphic realities is a common theme with Pynchon, and gets much, much more extreme elsewhere in this book and in others. This is a way of exploring the loss of innocence.) Thus in one, long sentence, beginning with “From this height…”, we see the Chums’ own mind travel from the wild adventures past to a rational maze that leads straight to the abattoir. That is, this description is much less about the cows, and much more about the Chums and their view of what the world is becoming. (The Columbian Exposition, let’s not forget, was supposed to give people a glimpse into the future. This is the real future the Chums see.)

Some of the lessons here are simple. A run-on sentence full of chained modifiers can be breathtaking when done right. Descriptions should work to establish a mood (as Edgar Allen Poe expressed a couple centuries ago), both for the scene as a whole and of characters in particular. That is, descriptions are not merely a way to move characters from one place to another, they’re a way to establish character and mood.

Kurt Vonnegut once said that there should be nothing in your book that doesn’t contribute somehow to plot or character. It’s easy to disagree with that sentiment, since asides, digressions and set pieces can often be as much fun as anything else, but it is helpful to keep in mind that the core elements of the novel are the plot, the character and I’d add possibly the themes/ideas. Unless, like Roberto Bolaño, you’re trying to deliberately buck the reader’s expectations, a good tactic is to make the constituent parts, description, POV, dialog and so-on, work for your plot, character, themes and ideas and not against them. Pynchon shows us a way to do this with description.

Written by ericrosenfield

June 15, 2009 at 11:48 pm

Posted in Uncategorized