Monday, November 27, 2006

One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Down: Three Views of Pynchon's New Novel

Whom do you trust? The complete reviews from which the following excerpts were taken were available on the Times and New Yorker Web sites.

Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, 20 November 2006
Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, Against the Day, reads like the sort of imitation of a Thomas Pynchon novel that a dogged but ungainly fan of this author’s might have written on quaaludes. It is a humongous, bloated jigsaw puzzle of a story, pretentious without being provocative, elliptical without being illuminating, complicated without being rewardingly complex.

The novel plays with themes that have animated the whole of Mr. Pynchon’s oeuvre: order versus chaos, fate versus freedom, paranoia versus nihilism. It boasts a sprawling, Dickensian cast with distinctly Pynchonian names: Fleetwood Vibe, Lindsay Noseworth, Clive Crouchmas. And it’s littered with puns, ditties, vaudevillesque turns and allusions to everything from old sci-fi movies to Kafka to Harry Potter. These authorial trademarks, however, are orchestrated in a weary and decidedly mechanical fashion, as the narrative bounces back and forth from America to Europe to Mexico, from Cripple Creek to Constantinople to Chihuahua.

There are some dazzling set pieces evoking the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and a convocation of airship aficionados, but these passages are sandwiched between reams and reams of pointless, self-indulgent vamping that read like Exhibit A in what can only be called a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Dozens of characters are sent on mysterious (often half-baked) quests that intersect mysteriously with the mysterious quests of people they knew in another context, and dozens of portentous plot lines are portentously twined around even more portentous events: the appearance of a strange figure in the Arctic, a startling “heavenwide blast of light”, the hunt for something called a “Time-weapon” that might affect the fate of the globe.

Whereas Mr. Pynchon’s last novel, the stunning Mason & Dixon, demonstrated a new psychological depth, depicting its two heroes as full-fledged human beings, not merely as pawns in the author’s philosophical chess game, the people in “Against the Day” are little more than stick figure cartoons.

Liesl Schillinger in The New York Times Book Review, 26 November 2006
In Against the Day, his sixth, his funniest and arguably his most accessible novel, Thomas Pynchon doles out plenty of vertigo, just as he has for more than 40 years. But this time his fevered reveries and brilliant streams of words, his fantastical plots and encrypted references, are bound together by a clear message that others can unscramble without mental meltdown. Its import emerges only gradually, camouflaged by the sprawling absurdist jumble of themes that can only be described as Pynchonesque, over the only time frame Pynchon recognizes as real: the hours (that stretch into days) it takes to relay one of his sweeping narratives, hours that do “not so much elapse as grow less relevant.”

Where to begin? Where to end? It’s both moot and preposterous to fix on a starting point when considering a 1,085-page novel whose setting is a “limitless terrain of queerness” and whose scores of characters include the doomed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a dog who reads Henry James, the restless progeny of the Kieselguhr Kid and a time-traveling bisexual mathematician, not to mention giant carnivorous burrowing sand lice, straight out of Dune, that attack passengers of desert submarines — or, rather, subdesertine frigates. In any case, Pynchon (speaking, one presumes, through his characters) dismisses the existence of time as “really too ridiculous to consider, regardless of its status as a believed-in phenomenon,” asserting that civilization has been dead since World War I and “all history after that will belong properly to the history of hell.” He also rejects a fixed notion of place. To him, delineations of the known world are merely maps that “begin as dreams, pass through a finite life in the world, and resume as dreams again.” Let us proceed, then, like Pynchon: as we wish, without a map, and by bounding leaps.

Louis Menand in The New Yorker, 27 November 2006
Do The Math: Thomas Pynchon returns.

Thomas Pynchon is the apostle of imperfection, so it is arguably some sort of commendation to say that his new novel, Against the Day (Penguin; $35), is a very imperfect book. Imperfect not in the sense of “Ambitious but flawed.” Imperfect in the sense of “What was he thinking?”

The book is set in the period between 1893 and around 1920, and this is the plot: An anarchist named Webb Traverse, who employs dynamite as a weapon against the mining and railroad interests out West, is killed by two gunmen, Deuce Kindred and Sloat Fresno, who were hired by the wicked arch-plutocrat Scarsdale Vibe. Traverse’s sons—Kit, a mathematician; Frank, an engineer; and Reef, a cardsharp and ladies’ man—set out to avenge their father’s murder. (Webb also has a daughter, Lake, but she takes up with one of the killers.) This story requires a thousand and eighty-five pages to get told, or roughly the number of pages it took for Napoleon to invade Russia and be driven back by General Kutuzov. Of course, there are a zillion other things going on in Against the Day, but the Traverse-family revenge drama is the only one that resembles a plot—that is, in Aristotle’s helpful definition, an action that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The rest of the novel is shapeless, just yards and yards of Pynchonian wallpaper: fantastic invention, arcane reference, virtuosic prose. Elaborately imagined characters and incidents, from a man who may or may not be transformed into a jelly doughnut to a city beneath the desert and a near-death experience in a mayonnaise factory, pop up and disappear after a few pages, so many raisins in the enormous loaf. The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893; the mysterious collapse of the Campanile in the Piazza San Marco, in Venice, in 1902; the equally mysterious Tunguska Event, in 1908, in which roughly eight hundred square miles of Siberian forest was flattened, evidently by an exploding asteroid; the Mexican Revolution; and the troubles in the Balkans leading to the First World War all figure in the book’s pages. Longer-running characters include the eternally youthful crew of a sometimes invisible airship, Inconvenience, who style themselves the Chums of Chance; initiates of a British spiritualist society called T.W.I.T.; a private eye named Lew Basnight; a glamorous mathematician named Yashmeen Halfcourt; and an itinerant photographer called Merle Rideout, his daughter, Dahlia, and his ex-wife, Erlys, who has run off with a magician named Zombini. Scenes are set in (among other places) Colorado, New York, Venice, Paris, Croatia, Macedonia, Mexico, various points in Asia, and Hollywood. Characters are given names like Alonzo Meatman, Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin, Professor Heino Vanderjuice, the Reverend Lube Carnal, and Wolfe Tone O’Rooney. Pig Bodine, a recurring avatar who appeared in Pynchon’s first novel, V (1963), puts in his ritual appearance. There is a literate dog, a machine for time travel, a “subdesertine frigate” for voyaging beneath desert sand, and assorted mad inventors, shamans, clairvoyants, terrorists, drop-dead-gorgeous women, and drug abusers. The whole thing sloshes along, alternately farcical and magniloquent, with threads left dangling everywhere, sometimes for hundreds of pages, ultimately forever. The novel doesn’t conclude; it just, more or less arbitrarily, stops.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Brava Kozena!

Brava to Magdalena Kozena for programming an encore by Erwin Schulhoff at her Alice Tully Hall recital in New York on Sunday. For encore fans everywhere, she began with Schulhoff’s “When I Was on My Mother’s Lap,” about 60 seconds of presto vocal filigree. Try as I might, I couldn’t find an opus number for it. It’s possible, but I wouldn’t want to have to swear to it, that it hasn’t been recorded yet. Kozena followed that with two songs of Dvorak: “There is nothing that could make me happy,” Op. 2, No. 3, and “The Mower,” also known as “When a maiden was a-mowing,” Op. 73, No. 2. Both were lovely.

Kozena put together an interesting program, beginning with five songs of Mendelssohn, which are not often peformed but deserve to be, followed by Schumann’s Frauenliebe and -leben, seven songs of Faure, and concluding with Dvorak’s Gypsy Songs, Op. 55. Kozena has a beautiful voice, and it was fascinating to hear how much she sang without vibrato—very cool, and reminiscent of early music singers like Emma Kirkby. Apparently, there is some controversy over whether she is a mezzo (vide Cecilia Bartoli) but she sounded like one to me.

Her accompanist of the afternoon, Malcolm Martineau, is of the accompanist-as-equal-recital-participant school, playing with the top of the piano up, and not a retiring partner at all. But someone needs to tell him to stop mugging at the audience at the ends of songs. It is jarring. He doesn’t need to swivel his grinning face around at the end of a comical number to make sure we get it. Malcolm, we get it, O.K? After a few grimaces from the keyboard, I had to stop looking at him. (James Levine is another one who gets into the act, in case anyone in the audience doesn’t notice the other person on stage.)

A word on Kozena’s recital dress: She seemed to be in costume for the Gypsy Songs and considering the chill in the air, I hope she didn’t catch a cold. She had on a black lace top, cut down to just above her navel, accessorized by a massive necklace/pendant affair. Her beige dress had a train she had to carry on stage, and doing so highlighted her knee-high (or nearly) black leather boots. It certainly excited comment amongst the audience members. Whether it was in keeping with the tone of Frauenliebe and -leben, and particularly the last song in the cycle, is a valid question but it is a tribute to her singing that I didn’t really notice what she was wearing most of the time.

NOTE: Kozena recorded the Schulhoff song, “Kdyz jsem byla mamince na kline” [“On my mother’s knee”] as part of her CD, Songs My Mother Taught Me. The piece comes from Národní písne a tance z Tesinksa (Folksongs and Dances from the Tesinskso Region) and is WV120 - 15 in Schulhoff’s catalog.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

I think I heard Florence Foster Jenkins’ recordings for the first time in the 1960s on WBAI-FM, New York’s left-wing listener-supported station. During the regular pledge drives, a few minutes of Mme. Jenkins was sure to get a steady stream of listeners to promise to contribute if the DJ would get her off the air. Yes, people would pay to stop her singing. And hanging out with fellow teenage musicians as I did at that time, fans of Tom Lehrer and the Goon Show, it was inevitable that we’d come across RCA Victor’s Jenkins LP, The Glory (????) of the Human Voice. So when I saw a notice on Parterre Box for the premiere screening of Florence Foster Jenkins: A World of Her Own, I simply had to go.

Filmmaker Donald Collup, assisted by researcher Gregor Benko, assembled a 91-minute film that explores all the facets of Jenkins’ life, and if it wasn’t tragic, there was certainly more than enough pathos to quiet some of the laughter around her recordings. As it turns out, there was more to Jenkins than someone whose attacks on notes above high C have left listeners gasping in disbelief for more than sixty years. There was the father who stifled her aspirations to study music in Europe, the goal of all serious students at the time. There was the accident that ended her piano studies. Later, her husband was a disappointment and the marriage led to her being disinherited for a time. She never could overcome her small-town background, though she traced her forebears back to the Revolution. A dedicated social climber, her tactic of choice was membership in New York’s women’s clubs. She belonged to more than a dozen and even founded one, the Verdi Club, but her aspirations to be accepted into New York City high society were never realized.

And, of course, there was her singing. She studied for years, performed at her clubs and at society musicales, but her dream was to be recognized as an artist. She could almost be the inspiration for Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced “bouquet,” of course) of Keeping Up Appearances. That Jenkins was in her seventies when she went into the studio explains a lot about the way she sounded. Explaining the rest may be a combination of profound self-delusion and the complete absence of a musician’s ear.

Far from being an obscurity, as I assumed she was, Jenkins was well-known enough to leave a considerable documentary trail. Using a surprising number of articles from newspapers and magazines, supplemented with interviews, plentiful photographs, and period music, Collup has produced a film somewhat in the Ken Burns mode, though there was no contemporary movie footage. The testimony of people who were at the 1944 Carnegie Hall recital —Marge Champion, Alfred Hubay, and Daniel Pinkham — along with the photo taken from the stage, showing Cole Porter, were fascinating, as were articles by critics and gossip columnist Earl Wilson. Overall, we get perhaps too much information about Jenkins — I could have done without the family tree, for example — but the result is that a person takes shape behind the notorious recordings. “Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner” applies here.

Collup’s film is aptly titled. Jenkins did her best to construct a world of her own but ultimately had to live in the same world as the rest of us, where disappointment is plentiful and triumphs hard-won and often fleeting. Though not without its longueurs, Florence Foster Jenkins: A World of Her Own is well worth seeing if you are at all interested in understanding the person behind the legend.

NOTE: In response to public (?) demand (!), Video Artists International released A World of Her Own on DVD. It is available from VAI, as well as Amazon and other fine retailers.