ZZ Top, “La Grange”

“La Grange” by ZZ Top, off their great third album, Tres Hombres. Their first two albums, ZZ Top’s First Album and Rio Grande Mud, didn’t sell real well, but this one really hit the spot. They were these sort of hippie redneck freaks from Texas playing this weird country/blues/jam boogie Southern rock.

The lyrics to the song are about a famous brothel in La Grange, Texas called The Chicken Ranch. This brothel was also the theme of the play Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. After all these years, I had no idea the song was about that!

This music jams like Hell! They just don’t make music like this anymore.

Rumor spreadin’ a-’round in that Texas town
’bout that shack outside La Grange
and you know what I’m talkin’ about.
Just let me know if you wanna go
to that home out on the range.
They gotta lotta nice girls ah.

Have mercy.
A haw, haw, haw, haw, a haw.
A haw, haw, haw.

Well, I hear it’s fine if you got the time
and the ten to get yourself in.
A hmm, hmm.
And I hear it’s tight most ev’ry night,
but now I might be mistaken.
hmm, hmm, hmm.

Ah have mercy.

139 Great Difficult Books to Crack Your Brain

The original list was derived from a very interesting topic in reading group on the Goodreads site called Brain Pain. It looked so fascinating that I wrote all the authors and books down because really these are same of the greatest books out there. If you read anything on this list, you’re reading a great book. A lot of them are absolutely classics. It’s not a list of easy reading books though, as the books were specifically chosen for their difficulty. Looking down at the 16 books I’ve read on the list, most of them weren’t that hard, and some were downright easy reads.

Have you ready of the books below? Have you heard of any of them? Heard of any of the authors? Which books would you like to read below, assuming you had the time. Are there any errors in my list below. Gimme some feedback, you slackers.

139 Great Difficult Books to Crack Your Brain

  1. Renata Adler, Speedboat, novel.
  2. Renata Adler, Pitch Dark, novel.
  3. Theodor W. Adorno, “The Culture Industry:  Selected Essays on Mass Culture,” book chapter.
  4. Aeschylus, The Oresteia, play.
  5. Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, “Rashomon,” short story.
  6. Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, “In a Grove,” short story.
  7. Isabel Allende*, Eva Luna, novel.
  8. Apuleius, The Golden Ass, play.
  9. Aristotle, Poetics, non-fiction.
  10. Aristotle, The Art of Rhetoric, non-fiction.
  11. Aristophanes, Lysistrata, play.
  12. Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye, novel.
  13. Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, non-fiction.
  14. Jane Austen, Emma, novel.
  15. Gaston Bachelard, Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement, non-fiction.
  16. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, non-fiction.
  17. Djuna Barnes, Nightwood, novel.
  18. John Barth*, Giles Goat-Boy, novel.
  19. Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal Read
  20. Charles Baudelaire, Paris Spleen
  21. Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, non-fiction.
  22. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, non-fiction.
  23. Jorge Luis Borges*, “The Cult of the Phoenix,” short story.
  24. Jorge Luis Borges, “The South,” short story.
  25. Richard Brautigan*, In Watermelon Sugar, novel.
  26. Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre, novel.
  27. Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, non-fiction.
  28. Mighail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita, novel.
  29. Dino Buzzati, The Tartar Steppe, novel.
  30. James M. Cain, Mildred Pierce, novel.
  31. Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, novel.
  32. Albert Camus*, The Plague, novel.
  33. Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, short stories.
  34. Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel, novel.
  35. Robert Coover*, The Public Burning, novel.
  36. Julio Cortazar*, Hopscotch, novel, Read.
  37. Mark Z. Danielewski, House Of Leaves, novel.
  38. Marie Darrieussecq, Pig Tales: A Novel of Lust and Transformation, novel.
  39. Marie Darrieussecq, My Phantom Husband, novel.
  40. Don DeLillo, The Body Artist, novel.
  41. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground, novel.
  42. Rikki Ducornet, The Stain, novel.
  43. T.S. Eliot*, The Waste Land Read
  44. Euripides, The Trojan Women (The Women of Troy), play.
  45. Euripides, Medea, play.
  46. William Faulkner*, Absalom, Absalom!, novel.
  47. William Faulkner, The Sound and The Fury, novel.
  48. Juan Filloy, Op Oloop, novel.
  49. Charles Fourier, The Social Destiny of Man, or Theory of the Four Movements, non-fiction.
  50. Paula Fox, Desperate Characters, novel.
  51. Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny, non-fiction.
  52. William Gaddis, J R, novel.
  53. William Gaddis, The Recognitions, novel.
  54. Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, 100 Years of Solitude, novel, Read
  55. William Gass*, Middle C, novel.
  56. William Gass, Omensetter’s Luck, novel.
  57. William Gass, The Tunnel , novel.
  58. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust I & II, play.
  59. Gunter Grass*, The Flounder, novel.
  60. H. D., Helen in Egypt
  61. John Hawkes, The Lime Twig, novel.
  62. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, A Romance, novel. Read.
  63. E. T. A. Hoffman, The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, novel.
  64. Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World, novel.
  65. James Joyce*, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, novel, Read.
  66. James Joyce, Ulysses, novel.
  67. Franz Kafka, Josephine the Singer, or The Mouse Folk, short story.
  68. Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis, novella, Read.
  69. Anna Kavan, Asylum Piece, novel.
  70. Anna Kavan, Ice, novel.
  71. Yasunari Kawabata, Beauty and Sadness, novel.
  72. Comte de Lautréamont, The Songs of Maldoror, novel.
  73. Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook, novel. Read
  74. Clarice Lispector, Água Viva, novel.
  75. Clarice Lispector, Near to the Wild Heart, novel.
  76. Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano, novel.
  77. David Mamet, Faustus, play.
  78. Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, Told by a Friend, novel.
  79. Christopher Marlowe, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, play.
  80. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto , non-fiction, Read.
  81. Colman McCarthy, Blood Meridian, novel.
  82. Joseph McElroy, A Smuggler’s Bible, novel.
  83. James Michener*, The Novel, novel.
  84. Toni Morrison*, The Bluest Eye, novel.
  85. Nicholas Mosley, Impossible Object, novel.
  86. Harumi Murakami, 1Q84, novel.
  87. Harumi Murakami, Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, novel.
  88. Vladimir Nabakov*, Ada, or Ardor, novel.
  89. Vladimir Nabakov, Invitation to a Beheading, novel.
  90. Vladimir Nabakov, Lectures on Literature, non-fiction.
  91. Vladimir Nabakov, Lolita, novel Read
  92. Vladimir Nabakov, Pale Fire, novel.
  93. Vladimir Nabakov, Pnin, novel.
  94. Vladimir Nabakov, Speak, Memory, novel.
  95. Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds, novel.
  96. George Perec, Life, a User’s Manual, novel.
  97. Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquietude, novel.
  98. Robert Pirsig, Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, non-fiction, Read
  99. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, novel.
  100. Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, novel.
  101. Thomas Pynchon*, Against The Day, novel.
  102. Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, novel, Read
  103. Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon, novel.
  104. François Rabelais, Gargantua & Pantagruel, novel.
  105. Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage, Vol. 1: Pointed Roofs, novel.
  106. Alain Robbe-Grillet*, The Erasers, novel.
  107. Philip Roth*, The Breast, novel.
  108. Juan Rulfo, Pedro Páramo, novel, Read
  109. Salman Rushdie*, Midnight’s Children, novel.
  110. Ernesto Sabato, The Tunnel, novel.
  111. William Shakespeare*, Hamlet, play,  Read
  112. William Shakespeare, Macbeth, play,  Read
  113. Susan Sontag, Death Kit, novel.
  114. Susan Sontag, On Photography
  115. Susan Sontag, The Benefactor, novel.
  116. Sophocles, Antigone, play.
  117. Sophocles, Oedipus the King, play.
  118. Sophocles, Electra, play.
  119. Gilbert Sorrentino, Mulligan Stew, novel.
  120. Lawrence Sterne, Tristram Shandy, novel.
  121. Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, novel. Read
  122. Enrique Vila-Matas, Dublinesque, novel.
  123. William Vollman*, Argall: The True Story of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith, novel.
  124. William Vollman, Europe Central, novel.
  125. William Vollman, Fathers and Crows, novel.
  126. William Vollman, The Ice-Shirt, novel.
  127. William Vollman, The Dying Grass, novel.
  128. William Vollman, The Rainbow People, non-fiction.
  129. William Vollman, The Rifles, novel.
  130. William Vollman, The Royal Family, non-fiction.
  131. David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, novel.
  132. David Foster Wallace, The Broom of the System, novel.
  133. Edmund White, The Flaneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris, novel.
  134. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, novel.
  135. Virginia Woolf, Orlando, novel.
  136. Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out, novel.
  137. Virginia Woolf, The Waves, novel.
  138. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, novel.
  139. Marguerite Young, Miss Macintosh, My Darling, novel.

I’ve read 16 out of 139. That works out to 12%. Not bad at all.

Other Works by the Authors Above That I’ve Read Which Were Not on the List

The entries with an asterisk mean that I’ve read other works by them. This list includes 21 of the authors above, and adds 38 more works to the list, this time of works by one of the authors above that I have read that are not listed in the main list.

  1. Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits
  2. John Barth, The Sot-Weed Factor and “Life-Story”
  3. Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones and Labyrinths
  4. Richard Brautigan, A Confederate General in Big Sur and Trout Fishing in America
  5. Albert Camus, The Stranger
  6. Robert Coover, “A Pedestrian Accident”
  7. Julio Cortazar, “Blow Up”
  8. T.S. Eliot, All poetry
  9. William Faulkner, Light in August
  10. William Gass, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country”
  11. Gunter Grass, The Dog Years
  12. James Joyce, Dubliners
  13. James Michener, The Bridges at Toko-Ri
  14. Toni Morrison, Beloved, Jazz, and The Sound of Solomon
  15. Vladimir Nabakov, Bend Sinister and “…If in Aleppo Once”
  16. Thomas Pynchon, “A Journey into the Mind of Watts”, Slow Learner, The Crying of Lot 49, V, and Vineland
  17. Alain Robbe-Grillet, Pour un Nouveau Roman (For a New Novel), Dans le Labyrinthe (In the Labyrinth), La Jalousie (Jealousy), Projet pour une Révolution à New York (Project for a Revolution in New York); Souvenirs du Triangle d’Or (Souvenirs of the Golden Triangle), Topologie d’une Cité Fantôme (Topology of a Phantom City), and Le Voyeur (The Voyeur)
  18. Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint
  19. Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Voices
  20. William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
  21. William Vollman, Poor People

Books I Want to Read by the Authors in the First List

Both lists combined gives us 160 authors and 176 books. I’ve now read 54 out of the combined 176 books, which gives us 34%, a much better figure! Except it’s cheating. But oh well.

Here are the books listed above that I would possibly like to read at some point. I left out books that I just don’t want to read right now, and no, I don’t care about Greek playwrights or Aristotle or all the Fausts, sorry.

Notes say how I feel about possibly reading it, whether I am familiar with the author or not and if so how much, a bit about the book or author, it’s status as a classic or not, the country of the author and the period or year when the book was written,  whether I’ve read anything else by the author, and finally, length was noted and tallied for very long books, more as a warning than anything else. If there’s no page length after the entry, the book has less than 500 pages and can at least be read by the average human in a reasonable length, unlike the doorstops, which violate that principle.

  1. Theodor W. Adorno, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”: Sounds heavy duty. German expat in the US, 1947. Never read him.
  2. Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, “Rashomon”: Yes, classic, Japan, 1915. I know little about this writer. Never read him.
  3. Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, “In a Grove”: Maybe, Japan, 1922.
  4. Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature: Maybe, supposedly a classic of type, but sounds heavy duty. 625 pages. I don’t know much about him, just hear his name in passing. German expat in Turkey, 1946. Never read him.
  5. Jane Austen, Emma: Yes, a classic from 1847 UK. Never read her.
  6. Gaston Bachelard, Air and Dreams: Maybe, sounds intense. I know very little about this author, France, 1943. Sigh. Never read him.
  7. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space: Same as above, France, 1958.
  8. Djuna Barnes, Nightwood: Absolutely! A classic from an American expat in the UK, 1936. Never read her.
  9. John Barth, Giles Goat-Boy: Quite possibly! I love Barth. But 700 pages! US, 1966.
  10. Charles Baudelaire, Paris Spleen: Oh yes. France, 1869.
  11. Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays: Maybe so, I love Baudelaire. France, 1863.
  12. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project: Maybe sounds deep. German expat in Spain, 1940. 1,100 pages! I’m not real familiar with this man or his work. Never read him.
  13. Jorge Luis Borges, “The Cult of the Phoenix”: Probably, Argentina, 1952. I love Borges.
  14. Jorge Luis Borges, “The South”: Same, Argentina, 1953.
  15. Richard Brautigan, In Watermelon Sugar: Maybe, US, 1968. I love Brautigan.
  16. Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre: Yes, another classic from 1816 UK. Never read her.
  17. Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project: I dunno, sounds so intense. 550 pages. US, 1991. Never read her.
  18. Mighail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita: Absolutely, all-time classic, USSR, 1936. Never read him.
  19. Dino Buzzati, The Tartar Steppe: For sure, a little known (in the US) classic from Italy 1940. I know almost nothing about this author, but you sure hear a lot about this book. Never read him.
  20. James M. Cain, Mildred Pierce: Probably, it’s a classic noir from the US 1941. Never read him.
  21. Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller: Oh yes, a classic for sure, Italy, 1981. Never read him.
  22. Albert Camus, The Plague: Definitely, famous classic from France 1946.
  23. Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories: Maybe. I don’t know much about this writer. US, 1979. Never read her.
  24. Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel: Definitely, classic from Argentina 1940, friend of Borges. Never read him.
  25. Robert Coover, The Public Burning: Absolutely, another classic from the US, 1977. 550 pages. Read a short story.
  26. Mark Z. Danielewski, House Of Leaves: Certainly, a recent US classic from 2000. Bizarre, baffling, and innovative. 700 pages! Never read him.
  27. Marie Darrieussecq, Pig Tales: A Novel of Lust and Transformation:  France, 1996. Never read her.
  28. Comte de Lautréamont, The Songs of Maldoror: Definitely, classic from 1869 France. Don’t know much about him, though. Never read him.
  29. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground: A classic of course from Russia 1864. When I finish Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. The only Dostoevsky I’ve read was 15 pages of The Brothers Karamazov. But those were some fine 15 pages!
  30. William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!: Sure, a classic, US, South 1931.
  31. William Faulkner, The Sound and The Fury: I should as it’s one of the greatest books ever, but it’s so intimidating, US South, 1929. Read the first page.
  32. Juan Filloy, Op Oloop: I really ought to, it’s a classic, out of Argentina 2009. Don’t know much about him other than being associated with the Oulipo School. Never read him.
  33. William Gaddis, J R: One of the greatest books ever, US, 1955. I need to but it’s so difficult! And 750 pages! Never read him.
  34. William Gaddis, The Recognitions: Another of the greatest books ever and just as hard as J R, US, 1975. 950 pages! See above.
  35. William Gass, Middle C: I really need to start reading him, but I hear he’s difficult. The short story I read by him (see above) was out of this world! US, 2013.
  36. William Gass, Omensetter’s Luck: Same. US, 1966.
  37. William Gass, The Tunnel: Same, except this one is one of his best. 650 pages! Supposed to be a classic, US, 1995.
  38. Gunter Grass, The Flounder: I should, his most famous work. 700 pages! Germany, 1977.
  39. H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), Helen in Egypt: A classic, US expat in Switzerland, 1961. I should but I’ve heard she’s hard as Hell to understand. Never read her.
  40. John Hawkes, The Lime Twig: Another classic, UK, 1961. Never read him, would be a good place to start.
  41. James Joyce, Ulysses: One of the top 10 greatest books of the last 200 years, Irish expat in Paris, 1921. Been meaning to forever, got 10-15 pages into it over a period of 40 years. Maybe it’s that 1,000 pages part? Need to get off my ass.
  42. Yasunari Kawabata, Beauty and Sadness: Possibly, Japan, 1975. I know nothing at all about this writer. Never read him.
  43. Clarice Lispector, Água Viva: I’ve never read her but I should, Brazil, 1973. I know almost nothing about her. Never read her and might be a good place to start.
  44. Clarice Lispector, Near to the Wild: Heart: See above, Brazil, 1943.
  45. Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano: Yes, classic story of alcoholism. US expat in Mexico, 1947! Never read him.
  46. Colman McCarthy, Blood Meridian: For sure! Terrifying but classic. US, 1985. Never read him.
  47. Joseph McElroy, A Smuggler’s Bible: He’s great but I’ve never read him and this might be a nice place to start. US, 1966.
  48. Nicholas Mosley, Impossible Object: He’s supposed to be great but I’ve never read him, and this might be a nice beginning. I don’t know him real well. UK, 1968.
  49. Harumi Murakami, 1Q84: Yes, it’s a classic, Japan, 2010! But 950 pages! Never read him.
  50. Harumi Murakami, Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: Definitely, another of his great books. 600 pages. Japan, 1995.
  51. Vladimir Nabakov, Ada, or Ardor: Of course, I love Nabokov, especially this, one of his finest. It’s hard to understand though! 625 pages! A major classic, Russian expat in US, 1969.
  52. Vladimir Nabakov, Invitation to a Beheading: Yes. Russian expat in France, 1936.
  53. Vladimir Nabakov, Lectures on Literature: Sure. Russian expat in US, 1980.
  54. Vladimir Nabakov, Pale Fire: For sure, once again, one of his most famous, but it’s supposed to be hard to figure out. A serious classic, Russian expat in US, 1959.
  55. Vladimir Nabakov, Pnin: Yes. Russian expat in US, 1955.
  56. Vladimir Nabakov, Speak, Memory: Yes. Various places, Russian expat in 1966.
  57. Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds: Oh, yes, a little known classic, Ireland, 1939! He’s difficult, but he sounds fun, like Joyce. Never read him.
  58. George Perec, Life, a User’s Manual: A little known but great book, France, 1978. I know almost nothing about him except the association with the Oulipo Movement out of France. 650 pages! Never read him.
  59. Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet: One of the greatest books ever, 1935, Lisbon. Read bits and pieces, it’s intense! 550 pages. Never read him.
  60. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar: Really should, classic about mental illness, US, 1963. I’ve read some of her poetry, and it is out of this world!
  61. Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time: One of the top 10 books of the last 200 years, France, 1927. Why haven’t I read this yet? It’s only 3,200 pages. Slacker! Never read him.
  62. Thomas Pynchon, Against The Day: Absolutely, one of his best, US, 2006. But it’s 1,100 pages! I’ve read bits and pieces.
  63. Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon: Of course, another of his finest, US, 1997. 875 pages! I’ve read a few bits of it.
  64. François Rabelais, Gargantua & Pantagruel: Definitely, it’s an old classic from 1556 France, sounds like a blast, but 1,100 pages! Never read him.
  65. Alain Robbe-Grillet, The Erasers: I should, as I am almost a Robbe-Grillet completist, France, 1950.
  66. Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children: A modern classic, Indian expat in the UK, 1981. It’s about his best so I really need to.
  67. Ernesto Sabato, The Tunnel: Little-known classic. Hear great things about it. Argentina, 1948. Never read him.
  68. Susan Sontag, Death Kit: Novel, sounds intense, US, 1967. Never read her.
  69. Susan Sontag, On Photography: Said to be a classic work, US, 1977. Maybe more interesting then the above.
  70. Susan Sontag, The Benefactor: This one is a novel, so it might be more accessible, US, 1963.
  71. Gilbert Sorrentino, Mulligan Stew: This is an absolute must, an obscure recent classic, US, 1979. Never read him.
  72. Lawrence Sterne, Tristram Shandy: A classic from UK 1759 but one of the greatest books of all time. Mandatory reading. 750 pages! Never read him.
  73. William Vollman, Argall: The True Story of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith: I probably should read any or all of these. He’s a bit difficult but not real hard, US, 2001. Part of the Seven Dreams series. Very good book, 750 pages!
  74. William Vollman, Europe Central: See above, US, 2005. Part of the Seven Dreams series. Won the National Book Award. But 850 pages!
  75. William Vollman, Fathers and Crows: See above, US, 1992. Part of the Seven Dreams series. Said to be excellent. 1,000 pages, though!
  76. William Vollman, Ice-Shirt: See above, US, 1990. Part of the Seven Dreams series. Good book.
  77. William Vollman, The Dying Grass: See above, US, 2015. Part of the Seven Dreams series. Excellent book, 1,400 pages, though!
  78. William Vollman, The Rainbow Stories: See above, US, 1989. Book about prostitutes. Good book.
  79. William Vollman, The Rifles: See above, US, 1994. Part of the Seven Dreams series. Very good book.
  80. William Vollman, The Royal Family: See above, US, 2000. Another book about prostitutes. Good book, but 800 pages!
  81. David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest: I so need to do this, this is one of the top books of the modern era in the last 30 years, US, 2006. He’s hard but I can handle him. And then there’s the part about the book being 1,100 pages. Never read him.
  82. David Foster Wallace, The Broom of the System: Another modern classic, US, 1987. This one might be easier going.
  83. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway: One of the greatest books of the last 200 years by one of the top ten greatest authors of the period and the only one that is a woman. But George Eliot might get on a list like that for Middlemarch. The all time classic, UK, 1925. Never read her.
  84. Virginia Woolf, Orlando: Classic, UK, 1928. Another mind-blower.
  85. Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out: Another classic, UK, 1915. More great literature.
  86. Virginia Woolf, The Waves: Yet another classic, UK, 1931. Incredible writing.
  87. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse: Another super-classic, UK, 1927.
  88. Marguerite Young, Miss Macintosh, My Darling: Modern classic, US, 1965, rather obscure, I have heard this is out of this world, except for the 1,200 pages! Never read her.

This is a list of another three of the books in the first list, but I have no particular interest in reading any of these at the moment. Since I made a point above about marking long books, these were three of those books that were particularly long.

Books From the List Above I Don’t  Particularly Want to Read and Why, Along with Background Information about Them

    1. Renata Adler, Pitch Dark: I know nothing whatsoever about this author or any of her books.
    2. Renata Adler, Speedboat
    3. Aeschylus, The Oresteia: No Greek plays. Why? I dunno!
    4. Apuleius, The Golden Ass See above.
    5. Aristotle, Poetics: No Greek philosophers, at least at the moment.
    6. Aristotle, The Art of Rhetoric: See above.
    7. Aristophanes, Lysistrata :No Greek  plays, though this one is a bit tempting.
    8. Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye: I like her prose and per poetry in small doses. She’s an incredible writer. Unfortunately, she’s also an typical feminist lunatic and typical feminist silliness and nonsense, a long with a dollop of the usual man-hating and evil male characters, mar her novels. Canada, 2000’s
    9. Marie Darrieussecq, My Phantom Husband: Well, I researched this author and I plan to break down and read Pig Tales, which sounds like quite a handful right there. First things first.
    10. Don DeLillo, The Body Artist: This is one his very early novels, I believe the 2nd. His early novels are generally considered to be inferior work to his later awesome novels like The Underground. Wow! US, 1980’s
    11. Rikki Ducornet, The Stain: She’s up my alley but I don’t know much about her or her books. Give me some time.
    12. Euripides, The Trojan Women (The Women of Troy): No Greek plays, except this one sounds tempting with the babes in the title. I’ll read any play if it’s about chicks!
    13. Euripides, Medea: Greek play. Not sure about this one.
    14. Fourier, Charles: The Social Destiny of Man: Or, Theory of the Four Movements. Frenchman, political scientist and philosopher, maybe an early socialist. France, 1840’s. I know next to nothing about the author and nothing about the book. 700 pages!
    15. Paula Fox, Desperate Characters: I know nothing whatsoever about this woman or her work.
    16. Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny: I’ve read a fair amount of his stuff and have some of his books lying around. He’s a much better writer than people think and he’s also a sort of universal genius or Renaissance Man. I’ve never heard of this essay though.
    17. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Faust I & II: The universal genius, but I’m tired of Faust stories. Germany, early 1800’s, 500 pages. I have an affinity for Elective Affinities though. Also the bildingsroman, Sorrows of Young Werther, and while we are at it, how about The Theory of Colors?
    18. E. T. A. Hoffman, The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr: On the back burner with Richardson, DeFoe, Fielding. I do like Sterne and  Swift though – see above, so it’s not an anti-novelists of the  1700’s thing. But Sterne and Swift are wickedly, almost diabolicaly funny. The other three can be too, but another issue is their books are extremely long. Richardson’s Clarissa is one of the longest books ever written.
    19. Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World: A modern writer. I have heard a bit about her, but know little about her or her work. Never heard of the book.
    20. Franz Kafka, Josephine the Singer, or The Mouse Folk: Let’s say I finish The Trial first, ok?
    21. Anna Kavan, Asylum Piece: I know nothing of this woman or her work. Never heard of the book.
    22. Anna Kavan, Ice: See above, never heard of this book either.
    23. David Mamet, Faustus: I’ve had enough of Faustus overload for the time being. You might say I have devil fatigue. I plan to spend a lot of time with the fucker later on though, so why add to me mystery by hanging out with him when I’m above ground?
    24. Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus, or The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, Told by a Friend: Germany, 1920’s. Once again, tired of Faust stories. Death in Venice does beckon over yonder hill though. Has for 40 years now. 550 pages.
    25. James Michener*, The Novel: Apparently a novel about writing a novel. Metafiction. Gets tiresome after a while, Barth is bad enough this way.
    26. Toni Morrison*, The Bluest Eye: I’m just sick and tired of her! I’ve already read three of her books. Yes they’re good but no, she’s not James Joyce or even Virginia Woolf. Hell, she’s not even Nora Zeale Thurston! Want a Black woman on the greatest list? Throw Houston on there! She’s as good as Eliot or Woolf. Their Eyes Were Watching God is truly out of this damned world! One of the greatest books ever written and it was written by a Black woman! The endless accolades about Morrison? Guess why? She’s Black! And she’s a woman! She’s an oppressed class times two, poor lass! I’m seeing a lot of 10 greatest books ever with her next to Tolstoy, Melville, Joyce, Eliot, Dostoevsky, and even Virginia Woolf, whose To the Lighthouse barely makes it to 10th place. Now we throw Morrison in with these illustrious gods? I don’t think so. Just get out. I guess affirmative action has come for the great book lists too. Sigh.
    27. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar: A book about a nutty woman thrown into a mental hospital because she’s crazy and suicidal. Written by a crazy and suicidal woman who eventually killed herself. I guess the book was a premonition. Hard pass. But her poetry though! Read her poetry! Some of the best ever written!
    28. Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage, Vol. 1: Pointed Roofs: I don’t know much about her or her famous series of books, The Pilgrimage.
    29. Sophocles, Antigone: Greek play. Nuff said.
    30. Sophocles, Oedipus the King: This one is a bit tempting though. I’m a total sick fuck and all the Mommy fucking and Daddy murdering has got me real interested, I must say!
    31. Sophocles, Electra: Greek play again. Yawn. This one’s about a babe though, so my other head says yes, read it.
    32. Enrique Vila-Matas, Dublinesque: Know nothing about the writer and never heard of the book.
    33. Edmund White, The Flaneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris: Book is set in Paris. Author is an American gay man. And he’s gay with a capital G. Gay as a rainbow. Times 1,000. A coterie of young gay men are all fucking each other and falling in love with each other. They’re all Adonises (obviously). All young gay men in gay fiction are named Adonis. Anyway, that’s the plot. Gross.  Now get ready because I’m about to become a total asshole here. This is a fag book! Well, it is. His books are about gay men, often young ones, who are falling in love with other hot young gay men, with lots of jolly buttfucking to pass the time. He is said to be an awesome writer though. And I did plow through William S. Burroughs’ books, and they’re practically out and out gay pornography, dudes fucking dudes all the way through his books. Thinking back, I don’t know I do this. Hey gay writers! Pro tip! Quit writing about male homosexuality and maybe some of us straight guys will read your stuff. In the meantime, you’ve all locked yourself into a ghetto, or better yet, a prison. But there’s plenty of hot sex when you’re behind gay bars in the prison system, so don’t fret!

Dirk Vanderbeke (Greifswald), “Vineland in the Novels of John Barth and Thomas Pynchon” 

Although this text is copywritten, the Internet page on which it was posted has been taken down and is only accessible via the Wayback Machine, so I think I am in the clear as far as copyright it concerned.

If you are wondering, this is the sort of thing I read for fun. That’s right, for kicks. I read this stuff because I love Literature and even literary criticism but I also do so as a way to exercise my mind because modern literary criticism is one of the few types of nonfiction that I still find very difficult to read.

Most of the things that I post here about – psychology, sociology, foreign policy, domestic policy, political economics, gender studies, race realism, etc. – are often a result of reading I have done. However, the reading involved in any of the fields above is typically not very challenging to me. I can just wolf it right down. It’s often very interesting but it’s not like it’s hard to figure out.

Now when we get into Linguistics and literary criticism, it’s a whole new ballgame. I read Linguistics because it’s my field, but I also do so to exercise my brain because a lot of the Linguistics I read is pretty hard to understand. So it’s a brain workout.

And I read literary criticism not only because I love literature but because modern literary criticism is often very hard to read and understand.

In part this is due to the way it is written – nowadays, it’s all based on critical theory with all of the postmodernism and post-structuralism that implies. Names like Derrida, Lacan, Foucalt, etc. are tossed about – and these Frenchman are hard if not impossible for anyone to understand.

In fact, one criticism of them (see Noam Chomsky) is that what they writing simply makes no sense at all. I would throw in Slavoj Zizek here for good measure. I don’t think he makes sense at all.

So quite a bit of the time, literary criticism doesn’t make much sense because that’s the general idea – it’s not supposed to make sense. A lot of the time I think even the authors don’t even understand what their own articles are going on about.

One annoyance is repetitive themes running through all of this: the blurring of boundaries, borders, meaning, and the divide between the world of the self and the external world of perception and representation.

Another theme seems to be the difficulty or impossibility of finding any true meaning in much of anything or the idea that meaning is personal in any text, has no firm definition, and is instead derived via the particular personal interpretation of the reader himself.

This last theme is actually interesting in a way, even if these folks take it way too far. But that is the subject of another post.

As you can see, the themes above are all the usual obsessions of postmodernism. But I tire of reading about this theme. Sometimes it seems like all modern literary criticism is telling the same story and that is reiterating the themes above. It gets old after a while.

Isn’t there anything else we can derive from reading modern literature but the claustrophobic themes above? It seems to be a lack of imagination on the part of literary critics that they have boxed themselves in like this, not to mention that it makes a lot of modern literary criticism quite boring.

I’ve recently read quite a bit of literary criticism as a brain workout, if you will. Most of it did not seem appropriate for a repost here, as it was hard for me to understand and for sure it’s going to be hard for you all to understand. But this essay was pretty much intelligible to me, and it ought to be understandable to most of you all too.

Whether or not you are into literary criticism and these two authors is another matter. But you might want to dip into it just for a brain workout anyway, as it deals with a lot of concepts that are not easy at all to grasp.

The two authors here are Thomas Pynchon and John Barth.

Pynchon’s books are few – nine.

I have read all five of these, and they’re all great:

V.
The Crying of Lot 49
Gravity’s Rainbow
Vineland
Slow Learner

I have not yet read these four:

Mason & Dixon
Against the Day
Inherent Vice
Bleeding Edge

Which is most of the later stuff. I have read excerpts of the first two, in particular Mason & Dixon, but I haven’t read the whole books. I’ve read very little of Against the Day, Inherent Vice, and Bleeding Edge. Mason & Dixon and Against the Day are supposed to be awesome.

Barth has written many more books than Pynchon – 18. 12 of those are said to be very good. The rest are more up in the air.

I have read the following book:

The Sot-Weed Factor

It’s very long – 756 pages – but it’s great!

The Floating Opera
The End of the Road
Giles Goat-Boy
Lost in the Funhouse
Chimera
Letters
Sabbatical: A Romance
The Tidewater Tales
The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor
Once Upon a Time: A Floating Opera
On with the Story
Coming Soon!!!
The Book of Ten Nights and a Night
Where Three Roads Meet
The Development
The Friday Book
Further Fridays
Final Fridays

The Floating Opera, The End of the Road, Giles Goat-Boy, Lost in the Funhouse, Chimera, Letters, Sabbatical, The Tidewater Tales, Once Upon a Time: A Floating Opera, The Development, The Friday Book, and Final Fridays are all supposed to be very good.

Let me know if you want me to run more stuff like this or if you think this is a huge waste of time. If you are into literature, you might want to read stuff like this simply as a brain workout if you are into such exercizes.

Dirk Vanderbeke (Greifswald)

Vineland in the Novels of John Barth and Thomas Pynchon (1)

At the end of the first chapter of Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49, the heroine Oedipa Maas is reminded of a trip to Mexico with her former and now late lover Pierce Inverarity.

In Mexico City they somehow wandered into an exhibition of paintings by the beautiful Spanish exile Remidios Varo: in the central painting of a triptych, titled “Bordando el Manto Terreste”, were a number of frail girls with heart-shaped faces, huge eyes, spun-gold hair, prisoners in the top room of a circular tower, embroidering a kind of tapestry which spilled out the slit windows and into a void, seeking hopelessly to fill the void: for all the other buildings and creatures, all the waves, ships, and forests of the Earth were contained in this tapestry, and the tapestry was the world. (Pynchon 1967, 10)

If you imagine a tapestry spreading out from a single point, you will get something approaching the shape of a wavy V, the letter which is of crucial importance in the novels of Thomas Pynchon.

If Mexico City is chosen as the starting point of this image, the shape of the wavy V may come to resemble the North American continent, and it may be useful to keep in mind that it was Central America where the first concepts of the New World were formed.

Vanderb (2).gif (2326 Byte)

And if you finally travel along the branching lines of the V up to 40° of latitude, you will come to Vineland: i.e. the actually existing town of Vineland, New Jersey in the East and the fictional city and county of Vineland in the West.

When Pynchon’s novel Vineland was published in 1990, the initial V. served to some extent as a trademark of the obscure author, and after 17 years of silence since Gravity’s Rainbow, expectations were running high. But many of the reviewers were rather disappointed at first (cf. Keesey 1990; Hawthorne 1992, 77). 

The title suggested some historical depth, a concern with the origin of America, and possibly an evocation of another American dream, the mythological ‘Vinland the Good’, which never had to face the reality of history and thus could remain in a prelapsarian state. Yet there is less historical interest in the actual book than in any of Pynchon’s previous novels.

The text hardly ever leaves the time-frame experienced by its readers, i.e. the few decades since the 60’s; only occasionally are there some brief reminiscences about the strikes and labor movements of the 30’s or the anticommunist witch hunt of the 50’s. And the only mythology mentioned in the text is the lore of the Yuroks, the Native Americans of the Vineland area.

Still, some attempts were made to link the fictional Vineland of the novel with the Vinland of the Vikings:

As a distant, romanticized land, Vinland connoted refuge, a haven after the harrowing crossing of the Atlantic. Pynchon’s Vineland is also a refuge where fantasy, or at least the ignoring of reality, can shape a girl’s education, keeping her from knowing the secrets of her mother, but it is a refuge surrounded and finally invaded by reality.

Vinland became identified with Thule, the White Island or Blessed Islands of Western mythology; likewise, Vineland is associated with Tsorrek because it stands at the mouth of the river that, according to Yurok geography, flows from the land of the living to the land of the dead. (Hawthorne, 77)

I will later come back to the mythical river of the dead, but for the moment I would like to suggest that this kind of analogy is rather forced – the ‘Blessed Islands’ do not really resemble the grim image of Tsorrek.

Another critic wrote:

Vineland sets its dreary depiction of contemporary reality against former utopian dreams of what America might one day become. Although the title refers to the novel’s setting in the fictional (but realistic) town of Vineland, California, it also evokes the name given America by the Vikings, a name that conveys a sense of abundance and promise.

The New World as a whole originally functioned in the European psyche as a locus of hopeful idealism. […] But the cruelty with which … [the] conquistadors subdued the native population of Mexico anticipates Pynchon’s suggestion in Vineland that the American dream has become a nightmare. (Booker 1992, 7)

The sudden shift from Leif Erikson’s idealized Vinland to the Spanish conquest in the quotation above blends two images of the New World which are not so easily reconciled. After all, even in the earliest Spanish accounts of America, the utopian dream was frequently balanced by its opposite, the dystopian nightmare, and the arcadian garden was also supposed to be inhabited by a multitude of monsters and man-eating savages.

I also doubt that Pynchon suggests that the American dream has become a nightmare – all his novels and especially his latest book Mason and Dixon indicate that history has lately been ‘a nightmare from which he is trying to awake’.

But the setting of the novel in the year 1984 certainly does suggest a dystopian view of contemporary America and thus the Vineland region, a dwelling place of marijuana farmers, old hippies, and large sections of the counter culture, may very well indicate the other America which is now under siege, the land of myth and eternal childhood.

But Pynchon’s novel is far too ambiguous to offer us a simplistic alternative of a better world, even if this world is eventually doomed to fail and succumb to the evil forces of Reaganite persecution.

His Vineland is a complex web of intertextual references and hidden allusions, and I want to suggest that one of the most important texts in this context is John Barth’s novel The End of the Road, which is partly set in Vineland, New Jersey – Barth’s title would, of course, be a very suitable subtitle for all of Pynchon’s novels.

Vineland, New Jersey, was, by the way, the site of a utopian community in the 19th century based on strictly teetotal regulations. The fact that Pynchon’s Vineland is rather the last refuge for dope heads and the grass-growing segment of American agriculture may tie in with concepts of complementarity in his earlier novels.(2) And maybe the oversized grapes of the mythical Vinland were simply translated into modern modes of intoxication.

The End of the Road, published in 1958, explores the human condition in terms of freedom, choice, and motivation. I suppose that it will not be necessary to outline the plot of the novel; for the purpose at hand, a brief summary of the basic situation will suffice.

At the chronological beginning of the novel, the hero, Jacob Horner, does not sit in the corner as in the well-known nursery rhyme but instead sits on a bench at Pennsylvania Railway Station in Baltimore, and he is completely paralyzed not because of some kind of bodily handicap or ailment but because he simply cannot find any reason to move.

Having asked at the ticket window for possible destinations he might reach with his money, he takes a seat to make up his mind.

And it was there that I simply ran out of motives, as a car runs out of gas. There was no reason to go to Cincinnati, Ohio. There was no reason to go to Crestline, Ohio. Or Dayton, Ohio; or Lima, Ohio. There was no reason, either, to go back to the apartment hotel, or for that matter to go anywhere. There was no reason to do anything.

My eyes, as Winckelmann said inaccurately of the eyes of the Greek statues, were sightless, gazing on eternity, fixed on ultimacy, and when that is the case there is no reason to do anything – even to change the focus of one’s eyes. (Barth 1988; hereafter quoted as ER).

The plurality of possibilities has led to an impasse because the alternatives offered carry no intrinsic value. If everything is ultimately the same, there is no basis and no reason for choice.

Jacob Horner remains in the grip of paralysis, like Buridan’s ass locked in its state of indecision, until the next day he is observed by an obscure, nameless Black doctor who specializes in cases of psychological paralysis and takes him to a remobilization farm. The farm is situated in Vineland, New Jersey.

This choice of location in a novel of mainly fictitious places may be taken as an indication that America and the American dream are at stake and that the therapies offered or rather prescribed bear some significance for the American condition.(3)

The most important and striking feature of all the quite unusual therapies mentioned is that they do not even try to touch upon the causes of psychological paralysis  – all they deal with are the symptoms of a state of mind which is more or less taken for granted.

Among the therapies offered there are Agapotherapy or Devotional Therapy, Sexual Therapy, Conversational Therapy, Virtue and Vice Therapy, Philosophical Therapy, Theotherapy and Atheotherapy, all of which are basically methods by which one may choose between different modes of action without the necessity of an individual evaluation of the possibilities at hand.

The doctor states that “Choosing is existence” (ER 77), and in this claim we may detect a faint echo of the credo of democracy and a celebration of the ultimate achievement of freedom in the proverbial land of unlimited possibilities, but the principle of choice is re-qualified as an absurd ritual, vital but meaningless:

[D]on’t let yourself get stuck between alternatives, or you’re lost… If the alternatives are side by side, choose the one on the left; if they are consecutive in time, choose the earlier.

If neither of these applies choose the alternative whose name begins with the earlier letter of the alphabet. These are the principles of Sinistrality, Antecedence, and Alphabetical Priority – there are others, and they are arbitrary, but useful. (ER 80f.)

The French equivalent of Jacob Horner, the hero of René Clair’s La Princess de Chine, organizes his life on the basis of similar modes of selection in an extensive game on probability. In Barth’s novel, the ability to choose remains a sine qua non of existence even after the evaluation of alternatives has long lost its relevance.

Jacob Horner’s paralysis is the result of an ultimate lack of ego, he is simply a person without a personality. His emblem is a small statue of Laokoön, immobilized, the mute mouth opened in a silent scream. The doctor’s solution to Horner’s problem is Mythotherapy, the willful selection of a role-model as the prototype for one’s own life and every process of decision-making.

Mythotherapy is based on two assumptions: that human existence precedes human essence, if either of the two terms really signifies anything; and that a man is free not only to choose his own essence but to change it at will. Those are both good existentialist premises, and whether they’re true or false is of no concern to us – they’re useful in your case. (ER 82, italics in the original)

The philosophical principle ‘Know thyself’ is thus undermined by the realization that there is no self to be known, that there are only multitudes of masks to conceal the essential emptiness. The American ideal of the self-made man takes an almost Lacanian twist where the “self” is “made” by prefabricated roles, and the life story precedes the life it will narrate.

It is made quite clear that Mythotherapy is not simply the cure for Jacob’s state of mind but the general mode of human existence, and that paralysis is rather the result of not being able to participate in Mythotherapy any longer.

In consequence, all the characters of the novel are occasionally observed in the process of donning and doffing their masks. In fact, it seems as if Barth in his novel had anticipated Michel Foucault’s diagnosis of the selves as the difference of masks (cf. Foucault 1974, 131).

Thus the question for motivation leads to an infinite regress, as every action can be traced back to an earlier choice of the role to which the function of decision-making was assigned.

When Jacob Horner commits adultery with his only friend’s wife, the attempt to analyze this act, to attribute motive to a deed done, will lead to catastrophe.

As neither of the characters in question is able to account for any intentions which motivated the act or to define the infinitesimally small change in atmosphere which ultimately led to the considerable result, the only mode of investigation seems to consist in a forced and increasingly reluctant repetition, which leads to pregnancy, which leads to abortion, which leads to death.

The concept that each life is based on a story and that the story precedes life must take into account that each story ends with the final period and that human life follows the law of diminishing possibilities.

It might be possible to take the development of the plot as a kind of analogy to the butterfly effect of chaos theory, i.e. a minor shift in initial conditions leads to major effects, but then novelists knew about this long before scientists began to investigate the phenomenon.

The ill-fated abortion is performed by the nameless doctor in Vineland.

It is preceded by a kind of Faustian pact in order to gain the doctor’s agreement, but in accordance with the basic lack of human essence proclaimed throughout the novel, Jacob Horner does not have to trade his dubitable soul but his future life – he agrees to become the property of the doctor, to follow him as a living case study when the farm is moved to a new location – the remobilization farm turns out to be the most mobile element in the novel.

On the last page, Jacob Horner is taking a taxi to the railway station to meet the doctor. Beginning and end are reversed in the image of the railway station, i.e. the starting point of endlessly bifurcating paths but at the same time the final destination of all those paths. This image will return in the mythology of the other Vineland on the West Coast.

But in a sense the story of Jacob Horner begins and ends in Vineland at the remobilization farm, where initially unlimited though meaningless possibilities are offered, except they lead back to the same place and to the loss of any choice.

The American dream of liberty, of mobility, of the eternal frontier, has been replaced by arbitrariness, chance, mindless motion, and ultimately by paralysis and death, the last word of the novel being “terminal” – I do not think it will be necessary to elaborate on the double meaning.

In Pynchon’s Vineland some of the elements of The End of the Road are re-investigated. Again I do not think that it will be necessary to give an outline of the plot; as a matter of fact, this would be quite impossible, as the novels of Thomas Pynchon do not yield to any kind of summary.

Let it suffice that the novel is based on the quest of a young girl, Prairie Wheeler, for her mother, Frenesi, who in the 60’s had originally been a member of a radical film crew but crossed the lines and for some time became the lover and instrument of the evil principle of the novel, the DA Brock Vond. As in The End of the Road, the novel begins and ends in Vineland, but it is Vineland, California, and 30 years have passed.

Again, Vineland marks an end of the road, and in a sense one might say that Vineland is the last frontier of an expanding and colonizing America.

Someday this would be all part of a Eureka – Crescent City – Vineland megalopolis, but for now the primary sea coast, forest, riverbanks, and bay were still not much different from what early visitors in Spanish and Russian ships had seen.

Along with noting the size and fierceness of the salmon, the fogbound treachery of the coast, the fishing villages of the Yurok and Tolowa people, log keepers not known for their psychic gifts had remembered to write down, more than once, the sense they had of some invisible boundary, met when approaching from the sea … (Pynchon 1990, 317; hereafter quoted as Vl)

This almost mythical land has become the last refuge for the remains of the American counterculture of the 60’s, eternal hippies as well as labor movement activists, but it is under siege from the lumber industry on the one hand and from CAMP, i.e. the Campaign Against Marijuana Production, on the other hand.

In consideration of Pynchon’s rather obvious bias for the failed revolution of the 60’s and the identification of evil with the Reagan administration and especially every kind of law enforcement, this could lead to the simple understanding that Vineland resembles Vinland the Good, that good and evil are easily distinguished in the novel and in politics in general, and that mind-expanding drugs may offer a new vision of the American dream.

As a matter of fact, one of the leaders of the 60’s in the novel, later to be assassinated, is called Weed Atman, which might be translated into ‘marijuana smoke’. But things are not so easy in Pynchon’s novels.

If possible, psychological involvement with Mythotherapy has taken leaps since The End of the Road. But while the doctor’s prescriptions were chiefly based on the classical role models of Western tradition or even on narrative functions as described by structuralist patterns, we now encounter distinct voices and gestures taken directly from the ever-present television, the capitalized Tube.

In George Orwell’s 1984 the telescreen serves as the ubiquitous instrument of control because it can monitor each and every move. In Vineland’s America of 1984 this has proven to be quite unnecessary because each and every move is motivated by the images and characters observed on the screen.

The vision of the American dream has been replaced by television, and the question of good and evil has been blurred by the fact that every story needs its villain, no matter whether the villain is the outlaw or the cop.

When Prairie’s father is confronted by an old-time acquaintance from the police who is still after him, the conversation turns into a fast game of impersonations, with the law enforcement officer humming the tune from Meet the Flintstones and alternately imitating Clint Eastwood and Skipper from Gilligan’s Island.

As one result of this impact of the media, the generation gap tends to close. The world of Vineland is marked by a culture of reruns and thus also by a ritualized and quite literal déjà vu, as each childhood is largely structured by the tubal input which remains constantly retrievable ever after.

Children and adults are thus shaped by the same experience in which the past and the present are to some extent fused – the endless repetition creates a kind of timelessness.

As a matter of fact, a childhood which is extended into adult life was one of the significant features in the culture of the Yuroks, the native Americans of the Vineland region (cf. Becke & Vanderbeke 1992, 63-76), and it might be of interest here that one of the standard texts on Childhood in America contains a chapter on the Yuroks and was written by Erik Erikson (4) – the surname should ring a bell in the context of Vineland.

Pynchon’s Vineland features an equivalent to the clinic in The End of the Road, but it is no longer concerned with those who are unable to participate in Mythotherapy, it rather deals with patients who have developed some televisionary addiction, it is a “dryin’-out place for Tubefreeks” (Vl 33).

The name of this clinic is one of Pynchon’s typical acronyms: the abbreviation of the ‘National Endowment for Video Education and Rehabilitation’ spells NEVER, and like the Neverland of Peter Pan or Michael Jackson, it is a place for those who are unwilling or unable to grow up.

But it is not only the personal of Vineland that is obsessed with the new media, the text itself occasionally reads like a complicated version of Trivial Pursuit’s silver screen edition. The novel contains about 300 names, and disregarding the characters of the novel, by far the largest group of them consists of real or fictional characters associated with the new media.

As a result, the reading process occasionally turns into an extended excursion into pop culture, but there is a catch. Once you have achieved a complete understanding of all the allusions, you yourself will have turned into a potential patient of the rehabilitation center for addicts of tubal abuse.

And finally, reality itself seems to have been infused with the fantasies of the screen. All of Pynchon’s novels call for a heavy dose of willing suspension of disbelief, and quite regularly, the most unbelievable elements are actually taken from life. But here the fantastic element is almost completely an extension of television’s virtual reality into the world of Vineland.

The Thanatoids, a group of reproachful revenants who try to obtain recompense for wrongs done to them while alive, are, for example, quite obviously descendants of George A. Romero’s living dead, and when a Japanese Research and Development laboratory is flattened by a size 20,000 foot, we simply know that it was an act of God or Godzilla.

The world is constantly being told and retold on the screen until the narrative claims priority over the world itself. In terms of the image of the girls who weave the world in TCoL49, in Vineland the tapestry of the world has turned into video tape.

The ritualized cultural experience based on repetition, the dependence on pre-fashioned role models in any attempt to cope with an increasingly complex world, and especially the interaction of reality with the virtual reality of a prevailing narrative mode which is distinctly illiterate mark a cultural situation which bears some resemblance to mythical ways of worldmaking. America has to some extent returned to its origins.

This world is ruled by the members of a remote power elite – Brock Vond calls them the “Real Ones” (Vl 276) just as H. P. Lovecraft refers to the “Great Old Ones” or the “Ancient Ones.” Their will is carried out by the computer, an instrument of control which has turned into a symbol of arbitrariness, incomprehensible but unquestionable processes of decision-making, and a metaphor for a cruel and despotic God.

When Prairie’s mother Frenesi and her husband are quite suddenly dropped from the government’s pay list and their bank accounts are canceled, she starts to hum to a sort of standard gospel tune:

We are digits in God’s computer (…) and the only thing we’re good for, to be dead or to be living, is the only thing He sees. What we cry, what we contend for, in our world of toil and blood, it all lies beneath the notice of the hacker we call God. (Vl 91)

The computer has assumed the role of former mythical deities, granting or withholding the flow of modern forms of sustenance, i.e. money, in the same way in which the local gods granted or withheld the return of the salmon.

The novel opens with a ritualized annual performance by Prairie’s father: once a year he has to jump through the closed window of a public building to prove his mental instability and also his obedience to the powers that be, and he is rewarded for this act with a monthly mental disability check.

The story of Vineland follows Joseph Campbell’s well-known pattern of the quest for the mythical hero’s – or in this case heroine’s – origin. The time frame is cyclical rather than linear, and both the beginning and the end are marked by annual happenings, the beginning by Zoyd Wheeler’s autodefenestration and the end by a yearly family reunion which seems to embrace all segments of the American counterculture.

This counterculture has lost the revolutionary momentum of the 60’s. In fact, the anticipation of a better society has given way to a nostalgic remembrance of times past; the utopian dream has taken a regressive twist. America scorns its intellectuals, and the development of the political Left seems to prove the point.

According to Pynchon’s assessment of the last decades, large sections of the former Left have turned to a new irrationalism and the eclecticism of the so-called New Age philosophy. The movement of the 60’s, which never excelled in excessive coherence, has further dissolved into a heterogeneous mass of solipsistic and interchangeable ideologies.

In Vineland these include the usual forms of radical vegetarianism and mysticism but also the clinic for karmic readjustment and the Sisterhood of Kunoichi Attentives. But in one way or another all segments seem to be connected with Vineland, and they all turn up at the annual reunion of a Pan-American family in the Vineland region. In the course of this reunion, American history is ritually retold as an endless succession of persecution and the abuse of power:

…grandfolks could be heard arguing the perennial question of whether the United States still lingered in a prefascist twilight, or whether that darkness had fallen long stupefied years ago, and the light they thought they saw was coming only from millions of Tubes all showing the same bright-colored shadows. One by one, as other voices joined in, the names began – some shouted, some accompanied by spit, the old reliable names good for hours of contention, stomach distress, and insomnia – Hitler, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Nixon, Hoover, Mafia, CIA, Reagan, Kissinger, that collection of names and their tragic interweaving that stood not constellated above in any nightwide remoteness of light, but below, diminished to the last unfaceable American secret, to be pressed, each time deeper, again and again beneath the meanest of random soles, one black fermenting leaf on the forest floor that nobody wanted to turn over, because of all that lived virulent, waiting, just beneath. (Vl 371)

In Barth’s novel, Vineland offered a cure for paralysis, but the cure did not include a return to a meaningful evaluation of different possibilities – it was based on arbitrariness and chance.

In Pynchon’s Vineland all the decisions seem to have taken a bad turn, and American history reads like a long list of wrong roads taken. The final failure of utopian ideals was established once the screen dominated the scene. The diagnosis is announced by an adolescent violence freak:

Whole problem ‘th you folks’s generation … is you believed in your Revolution, put your lives right out there for it – but you sure didn’t understand much about the Tube. Minute the Tube got hold of you folks that was it, that whole alternative America, el deado meato, just like th’ Indians, sold it all to your real enemies, and even in 1970 dollars – it was way too cheap… (Vl 373)

America, the seemingly most advanced society, has relapsed into a quasi-mythical mode, and Original Sin is endlessly repeated in every instance of giving in or selling out to the agents of power – in fact, with every use of the remote control, the term carries a very precise double meaning in this context.

The area of Vineland may be a last refuge for the other America, but it has long succumbed to the American way of life in the age of mass media. It may be of interest here that the name of Prairie Wheeler fuses both aspects of America: the old and the new, the primordial and virgin American landscape and the intrusion of the railroad or, using Leo Marx’s image, the machine and the garden.

In addition, the seductive power of order is working on the last inhabitants of the happy enclave. In Orwell’s 1984 there was a catch:

If there is hope, wrote Winston it lies in the proles. (…) (Orwell 1972, 59)

But:

Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious. (ibid., 60)

In Vineland‘s 1984 the paradox reads: If there is hope it lies in the hippies, the anarchists, and especially the children. But until they organize they can never succeed, and once they begin to organize, they have changed sides.(5) But even more important: behind every act of revolt there lurks the wish for a return to the equilibrium of order (6):

Brock Vond’s genius was to have seen in the activities of the Sixties Left not a threat to order but unacknowledged desires for it. While the tube was proclaiming youth revolution against parents of all kinds, and most viewers were accepting the story, Brock saw the deep … need only to stay children forever, safe inside some extended national Family. (Vl 269)

All this seems to indicate the necessity of doom, the ultimate failure of each and every hope for individuality and the salvation of the American dream. But Pynchon ends his novel with an unexpected twist. The mythical landscape of the Native Americans itself succeeds and overcomes the forces of evil, if only temporarily.

On the last pages, the villain is led to the land of no return – to Tsorrek – the Yurok version of Styx, the river of the dead. The road to Tsorrek can open anywhere, i.e. all roads finally lead to the same destination, and so many have walked this road that it is trodden deep into the earth.

The familiar image of time as a garden of branching paths, i.e. of endless possibilities, is turned into its opposite, an image of the irreversible processes leading to death. The question of general history is replaced by the inevitable conclusion of life.

With the death of the villain, the book may end on an unfamiliarly happy note (at least in the context of Pynchon’s novels), but this is balanced by the rather grim image of the unhappy hereafter, which after all seems to be a place in Arcadia.

 

Notes

(1) The ‘Pynchon-part’ of this paper is to some extent a revised version of aspects already touched upon in a paper I read at the Alte Schmiede, Wien in 1994, published as “Thomas Pynchon’s V, oder: Wie man einen Buchstaben erzählt”, in: Strukturen erzählen, Hrsg. Herbert J. Wimmer, Wien 1996. (back)

(2) In The Crying of Lot 49, for instance, we find the names Tristero and Hilarius, one being the incarnation of the entropic forces in nature and society, the other a psychoanalyst who started his career in a German concentration camp and is thus ultimately associated with the forces of order.

But the names allude to Giordano Bruno’s motto for his play Candelaio “In tristitia hilaris: in hilaritate tristis” and thus to the concept of the coincidentia oppositorum – and, as a matter of fact, Tristero and Hilarius do each – like yin and yang – contain elements of the opposing principle, and they both lead to the same reaction, i.e. paranoia. (back)

(3) In the discussion at the conference it was suggested that the doctor’s existentialist background may put Europe rather than America under attack in Barth’s novel. This is certainly a valid point, America is heavily influenced by European philosophy in The End of the Road.

But the text does not offer any alternative. Joe Morgan, complementary counterpart to the doctor and all-American scoutmaster, definitely takes part in the game of impersonations. The rules established by the doctor in Vineland govern each and every character of the novel, they define the American condition. (back)

(4) I am grateful for Hartmut Lutz’s remark in the discussion of this paper that Erikson’s account of the Yuroks bears little resemblance to reality. Pynchon’s allusions to the Yuroks are chiefly references to Yurok mythology, still the importance of a prolonged adolescence in Vineland seems to indicate that Erikson’s book and its claim of ‘infantile attitudes’ preserved within Yurok culture may have served as a source for the novel. (back)

(5) This problem recurs frequently in Pynchon’s texts, it is of crucial importance in his short story “The Secret Integration” and it leads to the ultimate failure of the ‘Counterforce’ in Gravity’s Rainbow.(back)

(6) Anne Hegerfeldt has reminded me of the fact that in nature there is, of course, no equilibrium of order but only equilibrium of disorder. I would like to maintain though, that in Pynchon’s novels there is a tendency towards order and that the entropic process is reversed in his depiction of human history and society. (back)

Works Cited

Barth, J., The Floating Opera and The End of the Road, New York 1988.

Becke, R. & Vanderbeke, D., “Chants of Dispossession and Exile: The Yuroks in Vineland“, in: Pynchon Notes 30-31, spring – fall 1992, pp. 63-76.

Booker, M.K., “Vineland and Dystopian Fiction”, in: Pynchon Notes, No 30-31, spring – fall 1992, pp. 5-38.

Foucault, M., The Archaeology of Knowledge, London 1974.

Hawthorne, M.D., “Imaginary Locales in Pynchon’s Vineland“, in: Pynchon Notes, No 30-31, spring – fall 1992, pp. 77-90.

Keesey, D., “Vineland in the Mainstream Press: A Reception Study”, in: Pynchon Notes, No 26-27, spring – fall 1990, pp. 107-113.

Orwell, G., 1984, Harmondsworth 1972.

Pynchon, Th., The Crying of Lot 49, New York 1967.

—–, Vineland, Boston 1990.

Acknowledgements
“Vineland in the Novels of John Barth and Thomas Pynchon” was first read at the Conference: The Viking Connection: Canada – Continentalist Perspectives (Greifswald 1996), and then published in Informal Empire? Cultural Relations Between Canada, the United States and Europe (Schriftenreihe des Zentrums für Kanada-Studien an der Universität Trier, Bd. 8); ed. Peter Easingwood, Konrad Groß and Hartmut Lutz, Kiel, l&f Verlag, 1998, S. 415-427. It is reprinted here by kind permission of the editors.

Julie Covington, "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina"


The best version ever, from the play Evita from 1977. There have been many covers of this song including a famous one by Madonna. None of them really come anywhere close to the original, which still reigns. Sarah Brightman and Madonna’s versions are simply not as good, though they have their fans. Better than Karen Carpenter’s too, and Karen is one of the finest female singer-songwriters of the modern era.
The only version that nearly matches this one is by Elaine Paige. It is the one good cover of this song, but even it does not quite match the original.

This is the Elaine Page version. Very beautiful, and her theatrics are the best of all. Very nearly as good as the original. Versions by Nicolle Scherzinger, Madelena Alberto, Babara Streisand, Patti Lu Pone, and Suzann Eren and Lea Salonga all have their fans, particularly those by Eren and Scherzinger.
This really is an operatic song, but it is nevertheless perfectly suitable for pop as Madonna showed us two decades later to great success.
Reactive in death, polarizing in life, for better or worse, Eva Person continues to define modern Argentine politics and culture.

Turgenev!

Turgenev is usually listed as one of the great Russian writers of the 19th Century along with Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekhov and Nikolai Gogol. He was the favorite Russian novelist of Henry James and Joseph Conrad, who both said he was better than Dostoevsky. Vladimir Nabokov rated him below Tolstoy, Chekhov and Gogol but ahead of Dostoevsky.
Although Turgenev quarreled with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky during his lifetime, both eventually came to praise him.
After he died, Tolstoy said:

His stories of peasant life will forever remain a valuable contribution to Russian literature. I have always valued them highly. And in this respect none of us can stand comparison with him. Take, for example, Living Relic, Loner, and so on. All these are unique stories. And as for his nature descriptions, these are true pearls, beyond the reach of any other writer!

Turgenev never married but had many lovers and affairs. He had a lifelong affair with a Spanish-born opera singer who was raised in Paris. He spent most of his time in Western Europe, especially Germany and France. He preferred cosmopolitan Western Europe over his native land. He died at age 64.
He was particularly noted for his great ear for dialogue, as you can see in the excerpt below. Just to give you a taste of what he is like, here is a passage from the play, A Month in the Country:

You know, Ratikin, I noticed this a long time ago …You are wonderfully sensitive to the so-called beauties of nature, and talk about them exquisitely … very intelligently … so exquisitely, so intelligently, that I feel sure nature should be indescribably grateful to you for your beautifully chosen, happy phrases about her; you court nature, like a perfumed marquis on his little red-heeled shoes, pursuing a pretty peasant girl … the only trouble is, I sometimes think that nature will never be able to understand or appreciate your subtle language – just as the peasant girl wouldn’t understand the courtly compliments of the marquis; nature is simpler, yes, cruder than you suppose – because, thank God, she is healthy …Birches don’t melt, they don’t have fainting fits like ladies with weak nerves.

Nnnice!

Will Shakespeare Ever Be Equalled?

According to Ralph Waldo Emerson, he was not yet surpassed 150 years ago. Doubt if much has changed since. In glorious prose the likes of which we don’t see much anymore, Emerson lays out precisely what the contenders are up against:

Shakespeare is as much out of the category of eminent authors, as he is out of the crowd. He is inconceivably wise; the others, conceivably. A good reader can, in a sort, nestle into Plato’s brain, and think from thence, but not into Shakespeare’s. We are still out of doors. For executive faculty, for creation, Shakespeare is unique. No man can imagine it better. He was the farthest reach of subtlety compatible with an individual self – the subtlest of authors, and only just within the possibility of authorship.

With this wisdom of life, is the equal endowment of imaginative and of lyric power. He clothed the creatures of his legend with form and sentiments, as if they were people who had lived under his roof; and few real men have left such distinct characters as these fictions. And they spoke in language as sweet as it was fit.

Yet his talents never seduced him into an ostentation, nor did he harp on one string. An omnipresent humanity coordinates all his faculties.

Give a man of talents a story to tell, and his partiality will presently appear. He has certain observations, opinions, topics, which have some accidental prominence, and which he disposes all to exhibit. He crams this part, and starves that other part, consulting not the fitness of the thing, but his fitness and strength.

But Shakespeare has no peculiarity, no importunate topic; but all is duly given; no veins, no curiosities; no cow-painter, no bird-fancier, no mannerist is he: he has no discoverable egotism: the great he tells greatly; the small, subordinately. He is wise without emphasis or assertion; he is strong, as nature is strong, who lifts the land into mountain slopes without effort, and by the same rule as she floats a bubble in the air, and likes as well to do the one as the other.

This makes that equality of power in farce, tragedy, narrative, and love-songs; a merit so incessant, that each reader is incredulous of the perception of other readers.

Whoa! That’s some kickass prose. I didn’t know Emerson could write like that.

He’s right. Shakespeare’s in another world altogether. There’s Shakespeare, and then there’s everyone else.

References

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. 1850. Representative Men. Boston: Phillips, Sampson and Co.

Just How Many Poets Are NOT Queer, Anyway?

I’m going back through a lot of poetry these days for some reason, mostly native English language stuff. I find it annoying that so many of these guys were queer! It seems like just about all of my favorite poets were a bunch of queers, or often bisexuals. I mean, I still love these guys and all, but it’s sort of deflating to my image of these dudes.

It’s rather distressing because I like poetry. I went back reading the poets of centuries past and this same fagginess seems to creep up yet, even though back in those days this was a definite no-no. Novelists seem to be less queer, but there’s a fair amount of fagginess there too. Being a novelist is definitely a straighter occupation.

I don’t even want to go into playrights. When I was living in Los Angeles in the early 1980’s, I got into the theater scene a bit, and it was gay as Hell. The guys of course, but quite a few of the women too. You can actually do all right in these scenes if you’re a good-looking, masculine straight guy. The women are a bunch of frustrated fag hag types, often sort of bi, but you know how women are, they say they hate macho guys, but they just can’t resist the bad boy in the scruffed up leather jacket even though they sort of hate him, macho pig that he is.

Anyway, in these scenes, and in Hollywood and places like that in general, you can clean up in you have good game, good looks, or some combination. There are all sorts of single women there who are pretty frustrated. Most of the guys are either married or queer, and there aren’t many single guys to go around. You’re hot property, if you don’t mind being surrounded by hungry queers and bi guys (these latter are everywhere in those gay neighborhoods) lusting after you all the time. Actually, that is pretty annoying right there!

Anyway, brings me back to my original question. What is it about literary writing that turns guys queer, or seems fit mostly for queers? One could argue that writing poems is a pretty faggy thing to do, and that makes sense. It’s not exactly tackle football. But that begs the question of why so many of these literary women, especially the poets, are a bunch of lesbians! I mean, if poetry is feminizing, why aren’t female poets these swaying, coquettish Southern belle types afraid to get their hands dirty?

Either that or just being a poet attracts weirdos and misfits in general, sexual and otherwise. That’s about the only sense I could make of it.

Another thing I noticed is that most all of these guys are depressed. Many were manic-depressive, and alcoholism seems to be epidemic among poets in the last century anyway. Pretty similar with novelists. Lots of depressives, lots of boozers. Many were suicides in one way or another. It’s starting to make me depressed just reading about all these guys.

Why? Is writing depressing? Is depression good for the creative spirit? How could it be, as it’s so enfeebling?

One reason I got into journalism is that journalists are fairly sane types. They had a reputation, at least at city papers, for being squares. Some were sort of eccentrics, but they worked hard, often all night. They drank, but they also worked. They were sort of these hard-bitten types. They were either family men or straight bachelors, but city room journalism isn’t a very faggy job. It’s kind of macho, actually. Check out any old Hollywood movie where they show the newsroom guys.

I still don’t see why you practically have to be queer to be a poet. Poetry is kind of cool. Anyway, it’s a good way to get chicks, cuz a lot of women are romantic, and a lot of them love writers and even poets. At least that’s been my experience anyway. C’mon guys! Crank out those poems! Chicks dig em!