Pynchon vs. Dos Passos

by Jess

I’m taking a break from Gravity’s Rainbow.  I know I shouldn’t because of the risk that I won’t ever pick it up again, but it wears me out.  It strikes me so far as a mix between Ulysses and Catch-22.  It’s got the sort of playful mockery of the modern military that Heller did so well, but it’s dense and confusing and names some 400 characters.  I never made it to the end of Ulysses, I’m sad to say, mostly because I couldn’t renew the book from the library enough times to finish it.  Doesn’t bode well for Gravity’s Rainbow, which has failed to knock my socks off — except perhaps with that bizarre toilet scene, when Slothrop falls in and goes swimming through the shit (“Jeepers Slothrop, what a position for you to be in! Even though he has succeeded in getting far enough down now so that only his legs protrude and his buttocks heave and wallow just under the level of the water like pallid domes of ice. Water splashes, cold as the rain outside, up the wall of the white bowl. ‘Grab him fo’ he gits away!’ ‘Yowzah!’ Distant hands clutch after his calves and ankles, snap his garters and tug at argyle socks Mom knitted for him to go to Harvard in, but these insulate so well, or he has progressed so far down the toilet by now, that he can hardly feel the hands at all…”).  It was very Ralph Ellison for a second there, very Invisible Man (if you haven’t read it, do it now), and I was so pleased, I had to read that section over twice.

In the meantime, I’ve picked up volume one of John Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy, The 42nd Parallel.  Unlike Gravity’s Rainbow, The 42nd Parallel knocked my socks off right away — like, in the prologue, right away.  What could have been so astounding, you ask?  It was this:

“U.S.A. is the slice of a continent.  U.S.A. is a group of holding companies, some aggregations of trade unions, a set of laws bound in calf, a radio network, a chain of moving picture theatres, a column of stock quotations rubbed out and written in by a Western Union boy on a black-board, a public library full of old newspapers and dogeared historybooks with protests scrawled in the margins in pencil.  U.S.A. is the world’s greatest rivervalley fringed with mountains and hills.  U.S.A. is a set of bigmouthed officials with too many bankaccounts.  U.S.A. is a lot of men buried in their uniforms in Arlington Cemetery.  U.S.A. is the letters at the end of an address when you are away from home.  But mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people.”

The narrative is intercut with “Newsreels,” which are bits of actual headlines from newspapers of the time, fragments of news stories, advertising slogans, popular song lyrics, etc., all sort of thrown together in a post-modern American jumble.  “The speech of the people,” so to speak.  Like I said, I’m only a few pages in, but I’m already completely taken with Dos Passos’ writing and style.  More to come!

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