The Ludicrous Notion of Patriotism or, Kurt Vonnegut Revisited

There was a guy in our unit who had given away all his possessions in a show of solidarity with workers of the world everywhere. The reason for this was because he was not a communist so much as he was a lunatic.

It’s been brought to my attention that I should post more often on my web site. They say independent authors should use blogs to drum up business. Honestly, I thought often about pulling the plug. Yet, here I am. I won’t even guess when I last posted. There’s good reason for that. Actually, several of them. I used to tell people: everything happens for a reason.

In December 2019 I went into a hospital to have some stents put in since I had been suffering chronic chest pain. There were supposed to be three put in, but the third one didn’t go well. That’s doublespeak for my having a widow-making heart attack right on the operating table. Well, it would have been a widow maker had I not been where I was. The reason that happened was because one artery collapsed. This is doublespeak for it became so clotted it quit working. I ended up with two stents, some new medicine which makes even shaving treacherous should I happen to nick myself, and, joy of joys, one of the medications for blood pressure actually triggered a mild case of plaque psoriasis. As it was explained to me by the medical professionals involved: it’s a small price to pay for the alternative. So, if I understand them correctly, the reason I have developed plaque psoriasis for the first time in my life is because of the medicines I take to keep me alive? Everything happens for a reason.

A few months later, the Coronavirus pandemic began. Beginning in late March 2020, I joined scores of other adjunct professors who ended up teaching online. Like everyone else across the country, I learned to keep myself occupied at home when I wasn’t working or traversing the infectious perils of the local supermarket. In June of this year I started reading Kurt Vonnegut novels in the order they were published. There was a reason for this. One of the schools where I used to teach had a different opinion than mine about academic integrity. Our parting left me with more free time than I was used to having.

Player Piano, Vonnegut’s first novel, is a sci-fi tale that concerns itself, in part, with people being replaced by machines in the workplace. It read like so many sci-fi novels of its time. It is my least favorite of Vonnegut’s novels. Technically, the novel is rendered well enough. For me, it read like a Heinlein novel with not as much sassy, sexist, smarmy dialogue.

My intention here is not to review every single Vonnegut novel. Though I will say that in no particular order, for a variety of  reasons, the author’s books that resonated most so far are Breakfast of Champions, Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, and The Sirens of Titan.

I should probably mention that my first exposure to Kurt Vonnegut’s work came when my father mentioned that I should read him. That was probably when I was in high school. I didn’t get to any of Vonnegut’s work until the mid-1980s when I stopped into an airport bookstore and purchased a paperback copy of Palm Sunday. The reason I didn’t heed my father’s suggestion was because that was what teenage boys were expected to do. Anyway, Palm Sunday served as a good introduction for me to Vonnegut’s writing. I was nineteen years old, still in my first year of a three-year enlistment in the army. It was the only one the army ever offered for that odd length of time. The reason for this, as it was explained decades later to me by my former company commander, was that the option I had chosen—a program they called COHORT which stood for Cohesion, Operational Readiness, Training—turned out to be a disaster. He even directed me to a study done by the army. The study said the COHORT program was supposed to build morale since soldiers went to basic training together and served at their regular unit as one group. The study also echoed my old company commander’s assessment. The reason for this was because he pretty much memorized the study chapter and verse.

The year I had purchased that copy of Palm Sunday I was a long way off from my ETS (End of Time in Service) date, and wrestling with my father’s recent death, a budding love-hate relationship with alcohol, and an insatiable appetite for books of any sort that called into question the ludicrous notion of patriotism.

The post library at Fort Campbell was equivalent to a decent community library. There I was able to take out books like Howl from Allen Ginsberg and The Communist Manifesto. One day on a lunch break I got a dressing down from a junior officer when he saw me reading The Communist Manifesto, one of those mooks raised on fairy tales of Old Glory and Patriotism. It was also the 1980s. The Soviet Union was still very much on everyone’s mind. There was a guy in our unit who had given away all his possessions in a show of solidarity with workers of the world everywhere. The reason for this was because he was not a communist so much as he was a lunatic.

I don’t like to dwell too long on my army days, though I do sometimes write about it. The reason for not thinking about those years ad nauseum is because I had a life after uniform. Some guys I know like to live in the past, telling stories of glory days. Not me. The reason for this was because I didn’t very much like those years. Enough digression. Let’s move on.

Yesterday I started Jailbird. And when I say started I mean I’m still reading the introduction that Vonnegut penned. The day before that I finished Breakfast of Champions. I can’t say I am a fan of an author placing himself in his own novel, even if some critics call it ‘experimental.’ Nevertheless, it made an impression on me…again. The reason for this is because, as he does in so many of his other novels, Vonnegut had a lot to say about America; not much, if any of it, is favorable. There’s good reason for that. If you haven’t read Vonnegut’s novels, give them a try. If you did read them, perhaps it’s time to revisit them like I did.

Trickster Antics: Thoughts on Thomas Pynchon

A Thomas Pynchon novel is like a still pond whose depths are unknown.  A swimmer may wade into the pond only to sink into its murky depths, sinking so far down that he reaches a point where he doesn’t know which end is up and which one down.  The same holds true for anyone who reads Pynchon’s work.  Up becomes down, black becomes white, truth and deception becoming kissing cousins, and, after the experience of reading Pynchon, one is never quite the same.

My relationship with the works of Thomas Pynchon began in college.  During my third year at school, I took a course in modern American fiction.  It was there that I first experienced Pynchon in The Crying of Lot 49.  This slim novel was nothing like I’d ever read before; although looking back now I can understand how some critics might consider that book disjointed and almost rushed.  Still, that little novel was one I’ve always admired because, despite its brevity, it packs quite a punch.

In many colleges across America there is one English professor who teaches a survey course on Pynchon, a professor who falls under suspicion by the handful of neophytes who, caught up in the myth of Pynchon; especially his knack for avoiding all contact with the media; come to believe that their professor is indeed Thomas Pynchon hiding out on their campus teaching his own book.

The same thing happened to me and few of my classmates.  We were young, impressionable and searching perhaps for a secret that we would keep from others.  Our beloved Pynchon professor spoke with a learned Virginian accent ala Val Kilmer as Doc Holiday in Tombstone, an accent, I must admit, that made intelligent men feel like imbeciles.  Despite the fact that our professor looked like a bespectacled Gollum in a leisure suit; his ‘precious’ being not a ring to rule them all, but Gravity’s Rainbow—the meaty novel that developed a cult of its own; more than one female student confided in me that our Pynchon professor possessed a certain charisma that led even the most cerebral of them to think lascivious thoughts.  Whatever the case, given our professor’s photographic memory when it came to naming passages and corresponding page numbers in Gravity’s Rainbow, along with his demonstrated genius, it wasn’t long before we suspected that our professor was Thomas Pynchon; never mind that Pynchon was born and raised in New York and that our professor hailed from Virginia, or that Pynchon possessed a four-year degree from Cornell and our professor a PhD from Yale.  Yet, despite these inconsistencies, it all seemed to fit.

In the real world, outside the hallowed halls of academia, there is nothing more preposterous, and I might add ludicrous, than an author pretending to be a professor teaching his own book.  At Rutgers University’s Camden, NJ campus, where I received my undergraduate degree, it would seem so, indeed.  Or was that the sort of charade Pynchon might pull?  It was during a time, after all, before the release of Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon.  With Philadelphia being right over the Benjamin Franklin Bridge it all seemed perfectly plausible to a bunch of budding paranoids like me and my classmates.  We knew nothing of Pynchon’s writing habits and how he took years to write his novels; often working on more than one at the same time.  It was an illogical naiveté that fanned the flames enough for us to consider that if our professor was indeed Thomas Pynchon then surely the university, if only from a liability standpoint, had to know who they were dealing with since it was Camden, NJ and not exactly a tourist town; and if they did it meant that those in the know, a cabal, perhaps, were neck-deep in a good old-fashioned conspiracy.  Alas, it’s been said that the problem with maintaining a conspiracy is that human beings possess too much self-interest to keep secrets for too long. No sooner than the survey course ended we gave up the notion that our professor was none other than Thomas Pynchon.

The summer following my Pynchon survey course I moved on to Vineland.  From Vineland, I backtracked to V., and a few years after graduation I went back to Gravity’s Rainbow on my own while I waited for the release of Mason & Dixon.

Years ago, living in Philadelphia, I read up on whatever material was available on Pynchon’s life. I remember thinking what kind of middle name was Ruggles?  Thomas Ruggles Pynchon.  It sounded made up.  Was the author real?  Or was his identity a construct?  I read somewhere that Pynchon’s ancestors were listed on the original Mayflower manifest.  True or not, my first impression called to mind religious relics from the past; how if one gathered all the splinters alleged to have come from the original cross used in Christ’s crucifixion one would have enough wood to build Noah’s Ark.  Did that same principle apply to family names associated with the Mayflower?  If one added up all the family names allegedly carried onto the original ship that landed at Plymouth Rock would it mean the Mayflower was larger than Noah’s floating zoo?  For me, it was all too perfect.  Mayflower descendant becomes reclusive writer turned modern American myth.  For the conspiracy nut in me, the whole mess smacked of a construct created from a myriad of mysterious threads all woven together to further confound and confuse.

My own fractured delusions concerning the origins of Pynchon’s ancestors aside, much has been written about Pynchon’s identity.  It was posited long ago that Thomas Pynchon was none other than another famous recluse: J.D. Salinger.  To wit, Pynchon was said to have replied “not bad, keep trying”.  Others hypothesized that Pynchon was none other than William Gaddis, a novelist who wrote some mega-novels of his own including The Recognitions and JR.  In recent years, I doubted this one since Gaddis passed away in 1998.

There is another possibility concerning Pynchon’s identity if we consider the old-school model of the CIA, and that agency’s propensity for recruiting members of old families from ivy league schools; namely, the possibility that Thomas Pynchon could be the proverbial spook.  Surely, a reclusive writer leads the kind of life that would be the perfect cover for being a spy; especially, one whose last photograph made known to the public dates back to 1957.  There are two considerations that render such a notion impossible to prove: the CIA’s tendency to neither confirm nor deny a person’s employ, and getting Thomas Pynchon to admit to being part of the very machine that his body of work concerns itself—namely, the government’s ever-increasing role of subjugation and oppression of the individual.

Given the rumors that have come down the pike in the past few decades with regard to Thomas Pynchon, one cannot help but to consider such a crazy notion.  After all, is there a better place to hide from the police, as the old Russian saying goes, than beneath the brightest street light in front of a police station?  If not, is it too far-fetched to hypothesize that Pynchon may be a deep cover operative, a master in the art of disinformation, using his novels to divert American intelligentsia from the real issues at hand?  Oh boy, here we go.

Granted, the notion that Thomas Pynchon was ever an agent of the United States military-industrial-intelligence apparatus is almost slanderous.  So, let’s consider a feature published in the New York Magazine by Nancy Jo Sales back in 1996.  In Sales’ piece, regarding the mystery of Pynchon’s identity, noted Pynchon scholar Edward Mendelson said “At the beginning, he never declared his anonymity.  It just grew.”[1]  Over time, Pynchon developed into a shadowy messianic figure, traversing America and using his body of work, especially Gravity’s Rainbow, to lay the groundwork, the old testament of his belief system; and later espouse a new testament of sorts through his essays like Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite? among others.

I will not attempt to explicate or otherwise interpret Pynchon’s novels here.  For those who have read them I doubt I can illuminate any understanding that hasn’t been written elsewhere.  And for those who have not read Thomas Pynchon’s work I can only say this: where have you been and what’s taken you so long?  The only way to experience Pynchon’s work is to dive head-long into it.  No matter which side of the Pynchon debate they take; those who espouse the reclusive writer’s genius and those who think the writer’s work a colossal waste of time, claiming that Pynchon’s fiction has little or no substance, that it’s always been a question less about genius as it has been his stylistic wordplay and seemingly Nabokovian literary acrobats; pundits would agree that one cannot learn to swim without getting wet.

Once a reader immerses himself in a Thomas Pynchon novel, witnessing either the self-imposed alienation that Benny Profane experiences in V. as he yo-yos the eastern seaboard from New York to Norfolk and back, or Tyrone Slothrop’s sporadic array of sexual encounters in Gravity’s Rainbow that precipitate V-2 bombings in and around London during WWII, he may understand how at the heart of Pynchon’s work is something more akin to reluctant disinformation; reluctant in the respect that Pynchon’s revelations through his fiction read as if certain truths are almost too hard to bear and thus the reason for his work to be perceived by some as disjointed.  That Pynchon reveals his version of truth cannot be disputed; but, it is his tendency to fling the reader over the surface of the truth, like skipping a flat rock over a pond’s surface, rather than immerse his audience.  Pynchon, like any great writer, shows the reader the way to the truth, but he leaves him to immerse himself at his own peril; almost as if Pynchon seeks to safeguard the very waters of those sacred, secret truths from being contaminated by the uninitiated.

In his essay Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite, Pynchon wrote about “C.P. Snow’s famous Rede lecture, ‘The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution’, most notable for its warning that intellectual life in the West was becoming polarized into ‘literary’ and ‘scientific’ factions, each doomed not to understand or appreciate the other.”[2] It may be argued that Pynchon attempted a synthesis of both factions; especially in a novel like Gravity’s Rainbow, but that would be a stretch.  After the opening paragraph of his Luddite essay, Pynchon goes on to state “Since 1959, we have come to live among flows of data more vast than anything the world has seen.”  Given the magnitude of his novels, especially Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon has contributed to the ‘flow of data’ that resulted in critical articles and essays that continue to appear in print and on the Internet.

Within a multi-cultural society, it is hard to imagine intellectual life being divided simply into two factions.  In his Luddite essay, Pynchon maintains that “it is hard to imagine anybody these days wanting to be called a literary intellectual, though it doesn’t sound so bad if you broaden the labeling to say ‘people who read and think’.”  Later, however, in the closing paragraph of his Luddite essay, Pynchon had this to say: “If our world survives, the next great challenge to watch out for will come – you heard it here first – when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge.  O boy…”  Here Pynchon further contributes to the ‘flow of data’ he wrote about, spawning, perhaps, another off-shoot of the data flow when critics and scholars speculate exactly what he meant.

All writers who speculate about a possible future face criticism.  Pynchon wrote in his introduction to 1984 by George Orwell: “Prophecy and prediction are not quite the same, and it would ill serve writer and reader alike to confuse them…”[3]  In this instance he refers of course to George Orwell who undoubtedly influenced Pynchon’s outlook concerning the relation between man and state.  It may well be here that Pynchon sends a message to his own critics.  But unlike Orwell who was straight-forward in his ideas regarding man and state, Pynchon has, over the years, played the part of a trickster god intentionally steering the reader in the wrong direction for his own amusement.  Regardless, it is better for the reader to immerse himself in the paranoid waters of the sacred truths Pynchon holds so dear, to follow the Pynchonian bouncing ball, as it were, than never to have tested the waters at all.

[1]Nancy Jo Sales, Meet Your Neighbor, Thomas Pynchon, New York Magazine, 11 November 1996.

[2] Thomas Pynchon, Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite? The New York Times Book Review, 28 October 1984.

[3] Pynchon, Thomas.  Introduction to 1984 by George Orwell, Plume, 2003.

%d bloggers like this: