Phenomenological Rainbows

Each morning Lord Blatherard Osmo must put on his bowler, and take his briefcase out to the Adenoid to make his daily demarche. It is taking up so much of his time he's begun to neglect Novi Pazar, and F.O. is worried. In the thirties balance-of-power thinking he was quite strong, the diplomats were all down with Balkanosis, spies with foreign hybrid names lurked in all the stations of the Ottoman rump, code messages in a dozen Slavic tongues were being tattooed on bare upper lips over which the operative then grew mustaches, to be shaved off only by authorized crypto officers and skin then grafted over the messages by the Firms' plastic surgeons... their lips were palimpsests of secret flesh, scarred and unnaturally white, by which they all knew each other.
Novi Pazar, anyhow, was still a croix mystique on the palm of Europe, and F.O. finally decided to go to the Firm for help. The Firm knew just the man.
Every day, for 2 1/2 years, Pirate went out ot visit the St. James Adenoid. It nearly drove him crazy. Though he was able to develop a pidgin by which he and the Adenoid could communicate, unfortunately he wasn't nasally equipped to make the sounds too wqell, and it got to be an awful chore. As the two of them snuffled back and forth, alienists in black seven-button suits, admirers of Dr. Freud the Adenoid clearly had no use for, stood on stepladders up against its loathsome grayish flank shoveling the new wonderdrug cocaine--bringing hods full of the white substance, in relays, up the ladders to smear on the throbbing gland-creature, and into the germ toxins bubbling nastily inside its crypts, with no visible effects at all (though who knows how that Adenoid felt, eh?).
But Lord Blaterard Osmo was able at last to devote all of his time to Novi Pazar. Early in 1939, he was discovered mysteriously suffocated in a bathtub full of tapioca pudding, at the home of a Certain Viscountess. Some have seen in this the hand of the Firm. Months passed, World War II started, years passed, nothing was heard from Novi Pazar. Pirate Prentice had saved Europe from the Balkan Armageddon the old men dreamed of, giddy in their beds with its gradeur--though not from World War II, of course. But by then, the Firm was allowing Pirate only tiny homeopathic doses of peace, just enough to keep his defenses up, bu not enough to poison him.


This is the majority of page 16 of the Penguin edition of Gravity's Rainbow, which I have just finished reading. You may have just finished reading it as well, if you just read the portion of text I transcribed into this blog post. But you have not read the book I am reading.

That's because I was reading my copy of the Penguin edition--the one with the cover image of the V-2 rocket pulled from the Smithsonian archives; the one printed on cheap, paperback paper yellowed a bit, even though it is concievably not more than seven years old; the one set in some delightful serif font, with margins a bit too big I feel, though it does allow the text to an impressive 760 pages. The page numbers are set in italics.

But even if you have the same edition, you do not have the copy I do. I shoplifted this copy from a large book retailer back when I was college, and I was broke, but had an enormous appetite for fiction. On my way out of the store, I was confronted by a clerk who could not have been more than seventeen years old. I gave her a look and kept walking, calmly.

Later that summer one of Iowa's amazing thunderstorms blew open the windows of my then-girlfriend's apartment. It was an old building, a marvel of the midwest, with wide wood floors, one of the highest structures in the small town. The windows were also old, having antiquated latches keeping them from swinging open laterally. They were no match for the wind, which came in with sheets of rain, soaking the couch and the end table, where this volume was lying, my bookmark only three chapters into its pages. It was thoroughly soaked, but the remarkable thing about the cheap paper was that it dried as easily as a sponge, though there remains a water-damage wrinkle running from the binding out to the face like a scar, gradually lessening in severity as one turns the pages in reverse from the back of the book. While I hold the book open, I feel this wrinkle in the fingers of my right hand.

This would not be the last time this book would contact water. I did not finish reading the book that summer, because honestly, who sits down and reads Pynchon the first time around? I can't remember if I finished reading it the summer I lived in Arizona with the same girlfriend, a disasterous chain of events that precipitated our breakup. I did bring it to Arizona with me, where there is very little rain, but when there is, it is beautiful, and dangerous. Where the book met the water was actually in New York, when I brought it back from the failed relationship and put it back on the shelf near the window of our recently redone apartment.

The apartment was very cheaply redone. The fixtures were new, but the sink and toilet clogged. The windows were new, but they leaked. More water came in, but not the lovely, pastural aqua vita of Iowa, but the stinking piss-rain of the city. Luckily it was only the corner of the pages that got damp, because then it was able to dry out without leaving a lingering odor. I know it did not, because then it inhabited the floor of my bed room for a time, as I was reading pieces of it. If I had not finished its entirety in Arizona, I did so then--I remember this because it was cohabitating my floor with Asimov's Foundation series, of which I only managed to finish the first two books. I remember finding it ironic that I finished the Pynchon, but was drawn away from the Asimov. But, after all, this is how I read. I was also working on my thesis, and the Pynchon might have been more conducive to this work--though the Hari Seldon certainly found his place in my theories as well.

Now, in Oregon, I am picking up this same copy again. I knew how it would smell when I reached for it at the bottom of the bookshelf, just where I knew it would be. It smells pulpy, like the dust of a library, or paper that is old. It is the opposite of the smell of new paper--perhaps shining with the new gloss they print everything on these days, driving the cost of a paperback up to twenty dollars. The price on the back of this edition is $16.95, though I did not pay for it. Sometimes I feel bad for not paying for it, because Pynchon is still alive. My pseudo-ethic of shoplifting in those days was to steal only books of authors who were deceased. But I couldn't help myself in this case--I had just finished V and desperately wanted to crack into this massive book by the same man, alive or dead. If I knew Pynchon's address perhaps I would mail him a check. But I probably would not have read the book if I hadn't obtained a copy then. But perhaps I would have.

In picking up the book, I am going to read, at least some of it, as work in preparation for writing my own piece of work. It is not meant to be Pynchon-esque by any means, though going back over his words now I hear a lot of his prose in my own. I am searching for mystery in this book: how, in the amazing opulence of the prose, is there any open space for mystery? I think he is one of the finest mystery writers ever, because one doesn't even know one is picking up clues and rounding up characters as one does it. The mystery is so natural, once you have solved it, it seems as if it was your own idea, and not the author's. In planning my project, I realize I have a solution, but I don't think I have the mystery yet. I have too many pieces, and not enough holes. I'm hoping I can formulate some sort of idea, or theory, about how one makes a whole, and then carves the pieces from it. What is it Pynchon is telling us with the words, before we even start to look for the mystery? What is there, staring me in the face, the minute I turn the page? Crazy banana breakfasts? Metaphor-induced beat-war scenes? Superheroes of nation-states' secret sex lives? Not these things, but something else.


Anybody who think that books will die out, is fucking crazy, or an idiot, or both.

That's what I wanted to write here, right now.

There is no way you can tell anything about a book without holding it in your hand, and turning the pages. You can read thousands about thousands of "pages" of text, but you cannot read one bit of a book on a screen. The only people who will be content with ebooks are those who are satisfied with text. Those who read books, will always read books. I have no doubt that a large part of the mystery I am looking for scattered on these pages is something to do with shoplifting, Arizona, Iowa, and New York, and the smell of wet paperbacks. No, it's not purely an aesthetic experience, but it certainly has to do with the phenomena of words. You may have read the text I typed into the top of this post, but you did not read it off page 16 of my copy, as I did. Semantics is not a holistic experience, by any means. But reading has never been a semantic practice, anymore than books are simply about good grammar. Semiotics--the meaning of signs--is about a communion of signs and the body. Does sentence structure matter? Yes. Does typesetting matter? Yes. Does paper choice matter? Yes. Does where that paper has been and who touched it before you held it in your hot little hands and greedily ran your eyes over it the same way you look at the picture of a naked human being? Yes.

Literary theory does not consider itself phenomenological, and only thinks of itself as sexual as a lark: a minor titillation, an inside joke. It is only recently that psychology even got in the door to the literature seminar, and we got to think of the people in addition to the text-in-itself. Oh--I mean we got to think of authors. Just wait until we begin to think of the reader. All those young men and women becoming arroused as they parse the pages of paperbacks borrowed from friends, and snuck inside the house. And not only the sex--but the sadness, the happiness, the content to sit in a chair for hours, moving nothing but the fingers (no, not the sex!). When will reading become part of literature? It already has, and this communion of eyes, hands, nose, and brain is the only reason anyone has ever read.

What's dying is not books, but publishing. The latter is the semantic: the title page, the TOC, the cover, and the price. The former is the semiotic: the meaning, the sign, the context, reading as an act. If you can call the semantically-glossy crap with which they fill up the mall "books", then yes, I guess that industry is dying. But good semiotics will find its medium just as it always finds its readership, as small as these might be. The collapse of the publishing industry doesn't have shit to do with that. Oh, and the money--well, people were writing before the publishers even let them have a little money--so I'm not worried about that.

I know--I have a love affair with books, and it is coloring my judgment. You're damn right. If one thing I said here is important it is this: reading words off bound paper is not necessarily the most authentic semiotic experience that will ever exist, but it is a phenomenologically distinct process that will exist for a very long time. You can read on whatever material you want, and read whatever you want, but literature will continue to exist, both electronics and rainwater be damned. See if I'm wrong.

Fine. Let's put it to the test. Who wants to publish something? Yes: right now. Let's get some literature together, and we'll put in on paper. I'll, print it and bind it with my own bare hands, if I have to. People will read it. If it's good, you can believe that people will read it.

Actually: totally serious. Let's go.

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