Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Against the Day

After you've read Thomas Pynchon, everything else, all other prose, seems boring, muted, and dull, as if it were coming at you from deep under water, or as if you were under water - drowning perhaps - and someone was trying to yell at you. But you can't hear them, because you're under water.

Introduced to his novels by a Christian English professor at a Christian college in the Saskatchewan prairies, which is I imagine one of the least likeliest places to encounter Pynchon (a Christian English professor who, by the way, once told me he'd had to think long and hard to decide, when it came down to writing his Ph.D thesis, between a focus on Pynchon and one on John Milton, a decision that is doubtless evidence of some great and incomprehensible psychic schism in his personality),* I have been reading Pynchon for several years now, having made my way heedlessly and recklessly though the sickly and wet corridors of Gravity's Rainbow at least twice, and in parts far more than twice, and through the circuitry and broken synapses of The Crying of Lot 49 more times than is probably healthy or sane. I've only read Vineland once. I have not yet read either V or Mason & Dixon, and I'm not sure why but I'm not really in any rush to, either.

There's really no way to take on a novel like Against the Day, or a novelist like Pynchon, except by diving straight into it, hurled headlong, immersing yourself within its inky and sticky depths, flailing around in it, probably drowning,* or at least feeling as if you're drowning, only occasionally breaking through some surfaces, if only momentarily, to see the sunshine above you, or if not the sun then at least some terrible counter-sun, a solar doppelganger shedding not light but anti-light, Pynchon's light, as he turns the world you know into something alien, menacing, dangerous and erotic in all the wrong ways.

The novel's narrative, if the definition of narrative can be manipulated to include a novel such as this, is carved out during the time between the 1893 Chicago World's Fair to the time just following World War I, when the world, newly made (or perhaps newly destroyed, its pieces left strewn about Europe), is taking its first steps into what we now understand to be the current situation. If you're not into that whole abstraction thing - and I probably wouldn't blame you if you weren't but I would also suggest to you that Pynchon, probably not your cup of tea - the novel is about Frank, Reef, and Kit, the sons of one Webb Traverse, dynamite-hurling anarchist and union man, and the ways in which the three of them deal, or don't deal, with his (spoiler!) murder. There is a lot more to it than just that, however... a whole heckuva lot more. Just look at this: here, out of context, are just a few things that happen: a set of boy adventurers, along with their Henry James-reading dog, travel through the Earth in a hydrogen balloon; they then, later in the novel, travel under the desert in a sub-desertine ship; a man teleports, and changes race and hair colour, through yoga; a man nearly dies under a wave of mayonnaise; people communicate with an intelligent tornado. It all takes a bit of getting used to. As in Gravity's Rainbow, but ramped up in Against the Day to fever pitches, history and science, the very world we've come to know and rely upon, unhinges, blends without warning into pseudo-scientific phantasmagoria, dimensional instability, and moral horrors only slight exaggerated. Things drawn from nearly every conceivable corner and province of the early 20th century, things like the mysterious Tunguska Event, the collapse of the St. Mark's Campanile, the minutia of early 1900's fashion, the bloody politics of the Balkan Peninsula, the 22 Major Arcana of the Tarot, the Reimann Zeta Function, a form of calcite known as Iceland Spar notable only for its properties of double refraction, religious mania, sexual obsessions and depravities, all and more... worlds and worlds more... it's all here, everything you didn't know about the world. Pynchon is one of those authors who apparently not only knows everything, but has subjected everything there is to know to his own often horrific, often hilarious re-imagining of reality. The end result is a work of literature as likely to baffle and perplex as it is to dazzle and seduce.

It's clearly not for everyone. I've been reading Pynchon for a few years now and I had trouble accepting what he was doing here. But for those willing to sail the skies with Pynchon in this strange airship of a novel, the rewards, and the incredible and simple pleasure, of reading a master who not only wants to say something but have fun saying it are without comparison. Read Against the Day.

* He chose Milton.

* Drowning is the metaphor of the day. Deal with it.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Review :: Synecdoche, New York

Sorting through my initial impressions of Synecdoche, New York, the directorial debut from Charlie Kaufman - the madman and perhaps genius, perhaps hopelessly self-indulgent scriptwriter behind Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - I find that, like with a David Lynch film (his later films, I mean... say Mulholland Dr or INLAND EMPIRE) I'm left not so much with a thesis, or even a clear idea of what the hell just happened, but rather I'm left with a list of adjectives that I can throw at, or at least hopefully hurl in the general direction of, the film, the appropriateness of which I cannot fully guarantee: humane, honest, empty, dead, dying, brilliant, indulgent, smug, detached, nihilistic, hopeful, neurotic, narcotic, loathing, fearful, obsessive, possessive... I could go on, but I need to drop a period in here somewhere and here's as good a place as any. There is a type or class of film, like a David Lynch film, like the films that Kaufman has written before this, that don't so much defy criticism as - seemingly deliberately, invitingly - turn criticism in upon itself, leading critics and reviewers to talk more about themselves and their reactions to what they just saw instead of the film itself. Kind of like theory, I guess. Navel-gazing can be fun, I know... but it usually doesn't get us very far. So, Synecdoche, New York.

Synecdoche, New York is the story - though that might be a too generous use of "story," so let's instead say it's the image or impression - of Caden Cotard (Philip "Mattress Man" Seymour Hoffman, who, let's all just agree, is nearly flawless when it comes to picking roles... except for that unfortunate Capote business), a man apparently living in a constant state of midlife and identity crisis. (Aside: though still important: the "Cotard delusion" is, according to Wikipedia (I know, I know), "a rare neuropsychiatric disorder in which a person holds a delusional belief that he or she is dead, does not exist, is putrefying or has lost his/her blood or internal organs.") When we meet him he's about 40, I'd say, married to Adele (Catherine Keener), has a daughter with her, and is directing a production of Death of a Salesman. Adele leaves him, however, (of course), and takes his daughter, Olive, off to Germany, where she (Adele) becomes a world famous artist right?... you know, the nauseatingly "modern" type. I don't think we're supposed to hate her, but I did. Cotard's production, meanwhile, was very well received (he cast young people to play Willy and Linda Loman, that visionary bastard), and he eventually is given a grant to create his own play. And here's where the whole thing becomes thoroughly "Kaufman." The play he ends up staging is as complete a recreation of his own life, and everything around him, as is possible. Actually, strictly speaking, probably more than is possible, but let's not get too strict about what is and is not "real" here. Lines between art and reality blur; characters are doubled, redoubled, sorted into various tiers of reality and simulacrum, fall in love with characters and counterparts from outside their own tier, etc, etc; gender lines are crossed and recrossed, more etc, etc... it all becomes a bit metaphysically confusing, especially when he throws his then-wife Claire (Michelle Williams), who is playing herself in this aggressively neurotic play, into the mix with another actor, maybe stalker, who seems to be playing Caden better than Caden seems to know himself.

I think the whole thing is probably less confusing than it sounds, really. The search for meaning and identity, in which some of us, so many of us really, are hopelessly, desperately mired, always seems pretty straight-forward to those on the outside and so incomprehensible to those on the inside. Looking at Caden from the outside, as spectators to a life far more ordinary than it at first appears, with all its compulsions, obsessions, and generally pathetic behaviours, a strong audience urge to reach out and penetrate the art/reality boundary in order to slap him, shake him up a bit, begins to take hold, or am I only speaking for myself here? I felt frustrated with Caden. But the urge to slap him comes not because he's so different from us (me) but because he reflects us (me) perhaps too well. Not in the specifics, obviously (I don't have a German-speaking, tatooed lesbian daughter, nor neither the Cotard or Capgras delusions... I think), but in the general "feeling" Kaufman manages to capture of this uneasy life.* It's easy to diagnose someone else's life from the outside; easy, as Another once put it, too see the splinter in someone else's eye. We are, all of us, however, trapped inside; we are, all of us, from time to time in need of that godlike hand that occasionally comes crashing through whatever membrane separates us from our audience to slap us; like Caden says, in what for him is a rare moment of perhaps clarity, there are billions of people on earth, and none of them are extras: they are all the stars of their own plays, whether they are consciously staging them or not. 

But now I'm victim to the film, too, and it's got me talking less about it than about my feelings and impressions inspired it. I'm not even interpreting it at this point but have used it to talk about something I'll just go ahead and guess Charlie Kaufman didn't even have in mind. Not very critical of me, I know. But Synecdoche, New York isn't the kind of film that you just give a thumbs up or a thumbs down to... it's the kind of film that you watch and digest, the kind that you put on a shelf and take down again some time later and think about. It's the most "literary" film released last year, by which I mean it feels more like a novel than a movie. It just operates on another level, one that you wouldn't say seems terribly interested in obeying rules and conventions. Actually, one of the only films I feel I can probably compare it to, besides a few of Lynch's more risky metaphysical tableaux, is Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. Wait, don't leave! What I mean is that, like that film, it appears to be operating on the dream-level, where everything is given that slight lateral shift and bumped just left of reality, where cause and effect aren't quite as chummy as they are over here in what we call the real, where nightmares and fantasies come marching down the street, apparently having been given license to be out and about by nothing more than a stray thought, an unpursued impulse; it's the territory inhabited by people like Michele Gondry and Terry Gilliam, where all the signs that this is a dream, and follows dream rules, appear to be there but without ever giving us any reassurance that, yes, relax, this is actually a dream. It's a bit hallucinatory, and a bit dizzying, but when you discard a strict definition of the real, you're free to dazzle people. And dammit, Synecdoche, New York dazzled me.

* And "feeling" is an important part of this film... the way a scene feels, the image and impression that it leaves, is as important, perhaps more important, than the actual events of it.