Saturday, March 23, 2019

End of the Rainbow

"Between you and me is not only a rocket trajectory, but also a life."

When asked about my thoughts regarding Gravity's Rainbow, I responded that it easily has become one of my favorite books. Not my favorite, but certainly one of them. I mentioned that one of the things I liked most about the novel was that, like Moby-Dick, it created an entire universe, a world that could be recreated just from the science, technology, and mythology it contained. I liked how every detail, every character, every image responded to and activated that universe. Its rhizomic narrative structure is nearly perfect.

It's funny that Pynchon has been so little on my radar. I read The Crying of Lot 49 in graduate school, and I thought it was schlock lit. I had no interest in reading anything else by him.

Another aspect of Gravity's Rainbow that appealed to me was Pynchon's dialog with translation. There are a lot of languages used in the novel. And Pynchon does this interesting thing where he'll use a foreign word or phrase and then half-translate it a page or two later without ever calling attention to the fact that that's what he's doing. I say "half-translate" because his translation often employs an almost hyper-foreignized root that he leaves intact.

One example, when he directly cites Rilke: "These tall, these star-blotting Moslem angels ... O, wie spurlos zerträte ein Engel den Trostmarkt. . . ." And a paragraph and a half later: "coming to trample spoorless the white marketplace of his own exile. . . ." This was probably the first time I noticed what he was doing, and this example comes near the middle of the book. Spoorless jumps out because it's so weird. In German, it means trackless or without a trace. But Pynchon half-translates it as spoorless, which barely amounts to translation at all. This is not a common word in English. And the word is typically translated as completely in English translations of the Rilke. There are lots more examples.

Pynchon's manifesto of language can perhaps be summed up with this line: "Words are only an eye-twitch away from the things they stand for." Or perhaps more forcefully: "The knife cuts through the apple like a knife cutting an apple."

Pynchon's love affair with Rilke was beautiful and on display from early on. Rilke's name is mentioned seven times. The Duino Elegies, once. I would've liked to have translated The Duino Elegies to commemorate having finished Gravity's Rainbow. Or perhaps even Rilke's thematically related “How surely gravity’s law.” But because there are only so few hours in a day, I stuck with the shorter "Gravity." Here is Rilke's poem and my Pynchonian translation below.

Schwerkraft
by Rainer Maria Rilke


Mitte, wie du aus allen
dich ziehst, auch noch aus Fliegenden dich
wiedergewinnst, Mitte, du Stärkste.

Stehender: wie ein Trank den Durst
durchstürzt ihn die Schwerkraft.

Doch aus dem Schlafenden fällt,
wie aus lagernder Wolke,
reichlicher Regen der Schwere.

Gravity
by Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Frank Garrett

Middle, how from all of us
you pull yourself, even from those flying off you
regain yourself, middle, you most strong.

Standing: like a drink the thirst
plunges him down by gravity.

But from the sleeper falls,
As from a stored-up cloud,
a generous rain of what’s grave.

See also: Half a Rainbow

Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Insolubility of Milk

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I learned about this collection of short stories by Simon Fruelund from his translator K.E. Semmel on Twitter. It's a short 110-page book published in a gorgeous volume by Santa Fe Writers Project. But don't let its thickness fool us. These stories plumb the full depth of human experience in an astonishing paucity of words.

Take, for example, the title track. An unintended whistle during a puff of a cigarette leads to a defiant walk in the rain that results in a spontaneous tiff with a brother about the meaning of existence over an overturned tanker truck on the freeway. All this in little more than four pages.

Fruelund captures the frigidity of familial relationships, jilted lovers, and spurned mentors. He hangs these reticent characters against a barren ice-desert where haunting flames still flare up in the infinitesimal gaps as they pull apart from each other and their comfortable surroundings. The default tone is one of mourning after it's become a habit.

Milk and Other Stories is a fist ready to punch you in the throat. You reel from the impact even though the hand has long ago unclenched and disappeared into the night.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Culture Hole in the Sky


On a rain-splattered Saturday about sixty people made their way to an evening of avant-garde sound and performance art in Exposition Park, Dallas, in order to hear, among other things, an almost 100-year-old dada sound poem. The event was produced by Culture Hole, in collaboration with MentalDrift and Mutarrancho, upstairs in the third-floor space of the Power Station.

At about nine o'clock the first act began: a concert entitled Magical SyNaps and Other Marriage-Saving Experiments. It consisted of high-energy live looped trumpet-heavy songs by Swirve, a collaboration between poet/vocalist Tamitha Curiel and her jazz trumpeter husband Chris. Swirve is a perfect blend of the B-52s/Fred Schneider and more classic jazz work by Miles Davis and Don Cherry. You can find some of their irresistible work on Bandcamp.


Next up was Starting At Language, a text-based electronic collaboration between Massachusetts-based cellist Vic Rawlings and Dallas-based vocalist Liz Tonne. This piece, which seeks a dialogue with Susan Howe’s poem Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, often verged on the operatic in its whispered intensity.

Tonne's mostly minimalist vocalizations were heavily treated and processed through Rawlings' knob-turning. The glitchy exposed/de-boxed speakers contributes to the improvisational/chance nature of the work as well as adds a visual element to an otherwise austere spectacle of two seated performers. It was the perfect transition into the headliner.


Rounding out the evening was Dutch improvisational vocalist Jaap Blonk performing Kurt Schwitter's dada sound poem Ursonate. Blonk, who has been in this line of work since the late 1970s, easily captivated the audience with his outstanding interpretation.

Putting into question the nature of language and pushing the limits of language's capacity to convey meaning were chief concerns of dada. Culture Hole's event celebrated that history as well as signaled some possible future trajectories.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Half a Rainbow

"That V-2 on the way?"
"A4, yes."

He hangs at the bottom of his blood's avalanche, 300 years of western swamp-Yankees, and can't manage but some nervous truce with their Providence. A détente. Ruins he goes daily to look in are each a sermon on vanity. That he finds, as weeks wear on, no least fragment of any rocket, preaches how indivisible is the act of death . . . Slothrop's Progress: London the secular city instructs him: turn any corner and he can find himself inside a parable.
This year's reading challenge at The Wild Detectives is Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. Now that I've reached the 50% mark of the text, I thought I should try to say something about the book.

The structure of the plot contains many narrative folds, which is both keeping me entertained as well as giving me plenty to think about. The story touches on mechanics, chemistry, psychology, pharmacology, linguistics, sexuality, history, geography, and the pseudoscience of race, among other fields. A constellation of characters gravitate around at least one particular realm. Roger Mexico, for example, gravitates toward statistics, which tracks both the mechanics of missile launches as well as sexual acts.

Slothrop, the main character, manages to transcend all of these areas yet is still drawn, seemingly inexplicably, into each one during his quest to understand the secret of both his own past as well as that of the development of the S-Gerät (short for Schwarzgerät, "black device"), which is made out of a synthetic ingredient called Imipolex G that was to be used as a weapon by Nazi Germany.

Like William Burroughs' routines--the surreal, hallucinogenic narratives that make up the devised plots of his novels--Pynchon's routines incorporate the surreal but within a scientific framework as if to critique its inherent, implied undergirding positivism, the view that there is an epistemological endpoint, that everything can (and will) be perfectly understood with enough data, experience, modeling, etc. Often, each routine is parabolic in at least three senses.

1) The structure of the scene follows a trajectory, a narrative arc. But even more than that, the structure is almost self-aware and self-generating. Pynchon devises background stories, asides, plot points, and characters that mirror, reflect, and refract the routine's structure as well as each other, resulting in a proliferation of parabolas that rise and fall back toward a (sometimes absent) center, or toward its destination, or back toward its point of origin. There are doubles but only insofar as an arc has both an ascent and a descent.

2) The routine reads as a quasi-scientific parable meant to teach a hard truth about what it means to be human or to serve as a parable against positivism.

3) Thematically and linguistically, there is a hall of mirrors of parabolas in which the characters find themselves: U-boats, torpedoes, helmets (especially a Viking helmet with the horns removed), V-2 rockets, penises, rocket trajectories, Poisson distributions, octopi, turds, GIs and IG and Imipolex G and AG and GE (and I wonder if in Pynchon's decoder ring a G is nothing but half an S: S-Gerät), A's that are flipped V's and the two different G's of the New Turkic Alphabet that Tchitcherine is developing in Central Asia in order to liquidate (read: make extinct, like the dodo, like the Herero) illiteracy.

Overlaying all of this is the binary grid structure of off/on, black/white, 0's and 1's--those concepts that resist the parabolic structure of gradation, doubles, and inverses.

Finally, I don't know how people who don't read other languages read books. I don't know how I could read and appreciate and understand Gravity's Rainbow the way I do without my background in German and Russian and (now) Spanish.



Monday, December 31, 2018

Books Read in 2018

Here are most of the books I read in 2018. Now that I have affiliated with IndieBound, I won't be linking any more to Amazon.

I found an old journal entry from several months ago that listed some typically outrageous resolutions for a previous year. One read, "To defang the small minded." That's the only resolution I'll make for 2019. I encourage you to also make this same resolution.