Monday, July 27, 2009

But What Would Mr. Pynchon Say?

Un-plugging "Unplugging Philco"

This alt-reality satire, written by Jim Knipfer and published this year, posits an American society gone wrong after a poorly-understood attack on the Homeland (Tupelo, Mississippi, to be exact) known as The Horribleness. The attack, perpetrated supposedly by Australians, becomes the justification for all manner of intrusions on privacy and re-structuring of the economy.

The story focuses on Wally Philco, a low-level Corporate Tool working for some insurance company, living out a loveless, childless marriage, and increasingly disenchanted by the impositions of the outside world on his anonymous existence. Philco ultimately goes the extra mile to go off-grid, under the eyes of Big Brother in the heart of Brooklyn, and joins a mysterious group of subversives called the Unpluggers.

This caricature of post-9/11 society and the reaction to domestic terrorism gives Knipfer a free platform to denounce or satirize his pet peeves, which include:
0) mandatory peeing into a cup for your employer--Philco chose refusing this request as his route to get fired;
1) cellphones plugged into one's ears;
2) pop-up ads;
3) hidden cameras;
4) public patriotic events;
5) political correctness enforcement;
6) phony Prohibition;
7) de-personalization through ID numbers; and most strongly,
8) aggressive mothers pushing their baby carriages and running over anyone who won't get out of their way.

As you can see, his complaints range from totally justified to extreme exaggeration. Sometimes a bit too obvious, UPP (we only give one free plug) has a plot closely patterned after Orwell's "1984" and pays overt homage to Kurt Vonnegut's "Player Piano".

Knipfer chose to tell the story mostly, but not exclusively, from the perspective of Everyman Philco (he uses brand names for people as a satiric perspective on the commercialization of all aspects of postmodern life). Philco is a bit narcissistic, though brave, and more than a bit oblivious to detail. In centering the narrative on Philco's limited perceptions, he avoids going more deeply into some of the interesting characters he creates, most prominently his recruiter into the Unpluggers, Johnny Faro (the character--a Norwegian imitating a cowboy?--has got to be modeled on someone--Marion Morrison? Thomas Pynchon? --but we never find out), and the seductive agent Cornelia Bain and her rich uncle, "The Colonel".

We are fortunate in that we don't have to guess Thomas Pynchon's take on UPP, as he provided a blurb for the paperback cover, which I quote in its entirety:

Mr. Knipfel...brings to fiction the welcome gifts which distinguished his previous books--the authenticity, the narrative exuberance, the integrity of his cheerfully undeluded American voice.

We'll skip the question of the ellipsis in the first sentence, and what was left out. The description--particularly the "narrative exuberance" bit--sounds like Pynchon plugging Pynchon. All credit to Knipfer for getting "Unplugging" plugged, though.

Knipfer takes an ultimately libertarian, neo-Luddite, but pessimistic stance toward the gadgets which are progressively enslaving us. Pynchon's take on King Ludd and his followers, as discussed (but not much resolved) in his 1984 essay "Is It OK to be a Luddite?" (New York Times Book Review, 28 October 1984, pp. 1, 40-41.), is clearly sympathetic, though Pynchon himself is coming from a different place: Luddites are a phenomenon, like the science behind technology, or the events we try to interpret through history, or high art, or popular media (he gives high praise in the essay to postwar sci-fi), and all provide tragicomic grist for the endlessly turning mill.

Git Chaney, Episode 1

A detective story set in early 1920's Teapot Dome Wyoming in which Irish ex-footballer Berick O'Bama tracks down that cowboy rascal Jeremiah "Git" Chaney, bringing him to justice for disparaging public comments about the Lady V., Mrs. Joseph Wilson.

O'Bama's Teutonic investigator, Erick Holter, reaches dead ends when it comes to reports of dragging suspicious-lookin' furriners on the end of ropes tied to his horse, to accusations of setting his henchmen to watching innocent civilians down at the land title company, and researching the motivation possibly behind some kind of dubious hunting accident. The Wilsons, though, who blocked Chaney's prospectors from staking out a possible yellowcake mine, were turned out from job and home when Git got his banker to foreclose on their mortgage.

"We can tolerate some forward business dealin'", O'Bama explained. "But going after a lady, that just ain't right."

Blurbs for Pynchon Works

V. , 1963--"Pynchon...establishes key themes of modern dialectics of Force and Counterforce, Entropy and Revival, forcing an effort to connect the dots between the globe's hidden focal points in search of the roots of 20th-century drama through an inexplicable conspiracy. In other words, modern History is explored through a tragicomic novel."

The Crying of Lot 49, 1965--"Pynchon...posits a hidden struggle between sacred and profane forces coming to a possible head in the mind of a clueless divorced SoCal housewife exposed to hints of colossal ripples in the society's tectonics. In this short work, medieval revenge drama, postal monopolies, and rock music are intimations of something which may or may not provide hope and/or instability to our settled world."

Gravity's Rainbow, 1973--"Pynchon...babbles with profound coherence about the unseen forces on both sides of the curtain falling on the endgame of World War II and forming the Postwar world he grew up in. The problems of ballistic missiles provide a metaphor for the variable but constrained possible arcs of human civilization. High political drama and popular culture intersect in a metaphorical destiny that finds us unavoidably, just as the V-2's seek out our antihero Tyrone Slothrop."

Slow Learner, 1984--"Pynchon's...riffs on themes of degeneration and regeneration on the extremes of society, where the interesting stuff happens. This collection of early short stories shows the boil of talent and erudition which would bubble over in his novels."

Vineland, 1990--"Pynchon...builds a tale of the betrayal and disillusion of Nixonian repression and reaction on a micro scale among the hardcore Counterculture refugees of Northern California's forests. The archenemy's dramatic and cartoonish fall to Earth allows regeneration to replace degeneration of all types."

Mason & Dixon, 1997--"Pynchon...ironically locates the Great American Novel (Founding Father edition) in the tales and adventures of two British technologists of the mid-18th century. The great surveying project of drawing a straight line to eliminate any border issues between Catholic, slave-owning Maryland and free, Quaker-sponsored Pennsylvania becomes an allegory for the reduction of this nearly limitless land and its nearly limitless potential into plots (and counter-plots). Rollicking adventure and greater character development, especially of the eponymous heroes, make for the most enjoyable lesson yet from our voluble Zen Master."

Against the Day, 2007--"Pynchon...challenges once again our willingness to suspend resolution for 1000+ pages, and then inevitably to accept something less than clarity. As with his first novel, the foundations of the 20th-century are the subject, though the locus is now more exclusively American Turf."

Inherent Vice, August 2009--"Pynchon...returns to the Sixties Motherlode for a new tale of Emergent Counterculture. Pure pleasure seems to be the objective, and the page count is reduced to a manageable 384, giving all of us who haven't quite finished Against the Day an enjoyable excuse for diversion and distraction. This appears to be the story Pynchon has chosen for conversion to a screenplay and movie by the Coen Brothers".

I wish.

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