Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The Patron Saint of Death From Above

Wow. Been a while.... but Kiki and I are back and better than ever. We are loaded with new features and unique selling propositions that will transform your home business into a $5000/wk enterprise, dazzling your friends, your family, even your former employer!

Last time, Kiki and I read a small book. A very small book that didn’t need to be so small.
I am proposing this time that we read a big book: Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon.

In the interest of full disclosure, I would like to say that I am part of the Gravity’s Rainbow Death Pact – a group of mostly e2 refugees (long story) that has made a pledge to read the book as a group, starting in May 2007. I (mis)interpreted this to mean that we would read the book in a month, and I am currently on pace to do that. But after venturing into the first 100 pages or so, it occurred to me that GR was actually very compatible with the slow speed fast food slow match project, and that there was nobody I would rather read this book with than Kiki.

Gravity's Rainbow and I have gone around a number of times, a chunky girlfriend that I keep breaking up with but despite the way she talks to me in front of my friends and keeps calling me all the time... there's just something about her that makes it so hard to let go. My first go was as an undergrad at NC State. Kit Knowles, a WW2 vet himself and my American lit survey prof suggested that I might really get the Pynchon Thing (like malaria), given my own tendencies toward a hard science/ high art mashup in classroom conversation. I loved GR – but had learned enough by my senior year to know when I wasn’t getting traction on a text. This began my 15 year hobby of listening to people tell me that they had read GR, and then engaging in a self-control serenity now! moment of not wanting to flip out dennis hopper style on them, "Listen you dumb motherfucker, do you even know the difference between a Poisson distribution and a Gaussian Distribution? Saying you read GR is like me saying I can do tensor calculus because I looked at the formulae on the chalkboard..." But you know, saying that kind of thing out loud might make people think you are an asshole.

Gravity's Rainbow: a history of failure
1990: Laughable undergrad attempt. Like spurned lover I am hurt but also plot revenge while praying for a reunion.

1994: Abortive English PhD at University of Virginia = Abortive 2nd try at Gravity’s Rainbow. Also featuring near-bankruptcy inducing independent film effort! The theme? Year of Thwarted Ambition.

2004: I tried again at Iowa, summer of 2004, and really made it a long ways in. I’m feeling somewhere near the end of “In The Zone.” Sixhundredish. I was getting the book – all my WW2 reading, along with another decade of history, science and literature under my belt had me feeling a real clarity as I read. I too was in the Zone. But then I had a vital depression and alcoholism project that required my close attention. I lost the thread. Cue bumper-roll music for second Year of Thwarted Ambition. Year of Thwarted Ambition is now a thrilling new reality series that follows aspiring novelists, filmmakers, architects, and small business owners through their thwarted ambitions and into lucrative, soul-killing careers in automotive advertising!

However, now I had something more valuable than gold, rubies, or processed uranium – I knew I could read and finish Gravity’s Rainbow. All that was needed was focus, sobriety, and a block of time. It was never that I found GR boring. My failure to complete always had its roots in a desire on my part to comprehend the books many projects and agendas– it was so dense as an intellectual and artistic work that I found myself defeated trying to unpack it all. GR became a kind of literary level-boss for me, something that I need to develop the skills and tools to confront.

For me, I feel like the missing component was the artistic comprehension. Formally, why does Pynchon do the things he does in GR? Let’s accept that nothing in the book is random – the book behaves according to a logic, cryptic and nonlinear at times, but a sinister logic. How is this enacted on the page, or inside the structure of the story? I’ve had the historical and scientific perspective, but it was the literary game that he was playing that was the missing piece.

I was thinking about how the conversation began to spin down after Kiki and I finished Hannibal. It was the fault not of our subject, evil (Evil?), but rather the very limited scope of the text itself. My guess is that our answers will be deeper, and there will be more of them with a larger book, and I mean larger in terms of ambition and project.

Evil. It’s not the first thing I thought when I considered making this 4th (and hopefully 1st successful) run at GR. At the surface the book is an exploration of the War. Sure, there is plenty of opportunity for evil inside a war, but GR is far more interested in what the war does, as a moral action, an event, and as a state of being.

Most importantly, I think GR is an exploration of free will inside the larger technosocial and moral forces of history. Are we the pawns of circumstance, victims of a divinity (secular, infernal, or otherwise) that shapes our ends? Any book that explores the ideas of individual accountability vs. aggregate/corporate responsibility, predestination vs. free will and then sets it against the backdrop of the war in Europe… well, you’ve got a book that at least part of the time is going to be talking about the nature and origins of evil.

I also want to talk about Pynchon’s language. There is something both uncompromising and goofy in the way Pynchon conflates pop culture with fine art gesselschaft, opaque in-text asides about the nature of statistical distribution with turgid ruminations of buggery, seshual pree-version and general assbanditry. Who is this guy writing for, anyway?

The Robert Hass answer is that he is writing for himself: a brilliant, reclusive, recovering technical writer and jazz fiend in his late 30s. A guy who lost his best friend and needed to disappear from the world so he could understand it.


Kiki and I will be writing essays on each of the chunks, plus a wrap-up perspective on the book as a whole. Here are the chunks:

Section 1 “Beyond The Zero” Start up to approximately page 180. - or about 23% of the way through the text

Section 2 "Un Perm' au Casino Hermann Goering." This is the start of the second major book inside GR. Approximate pages - 180 to 283.

Section 3 Start of Book 3 "In The Zone" - 36% completion. We’ll read up to the middle of ITZ (the biggest book), around page 455. There will be a line of Pynchon Narrative Discontinuity Boxes (PNDBs), followed by the line, "When emptied of people, the interior is steel gray."

Section 4 carries us from 455 to page 629, the start of Book 4 "The Counterforce" - 81%, a big jump.

Section 5 will cover “The Counterforce,” thru to the end story.

Keeks, what say you?

Monday, January 29, 2007

Defining Our Terms

As an addendum to my last post, I'm including some terms and their definitions for us to ponder.

I've been thinking hard about Steve's question: "where does Harris place evil, on the throne of biology, or deep inside some flaw in the human heart?" And I believe Harris is actually trying to distinguish between two thrones--biology and anatomy. One being the study of systems, the other a study of parts.

Here's what the OED has to say.

biology: The study of human life and character. Obs.; or The science of physical life; the division of physical science which deals with organized beings or animals and plants, their morphology, physiology, origin, and distribution.

anatomy: The process, subjects, and products of dissection of the body;

a. A body (or part of one) anatomized or dissected, so as to show the position and structure of the organs. b. A body or ‘subject’ for dissection. Obs.; A model of the body, showing the parts discovered in dissection.

I realize this appears to be a fine-line distinction; but we need to make it (or figure out to what degree Harris makes it). What's at stake is Harris's degree of responsibility in clarifying where a seat of evil might be in his series. If the Hannibal novels are about a biology of evil, then we can legitimately look for systems, causalities, and situations where contingent terms like "justice" and "punishment" make sense. If the novels are about biology, then we can say, "Hannibal kills all those Nazis because they killed his sister, and because they are Nazis, and the killings are therefore justified." And by making his sister's killers Nazis in the first place, isn't Harris moving toward that kind of interpretation? Who doesn't want those Nazis to receive their comeuppance, in the form of a bloodbath administered by none other than Hannibal Lecter? It's sweet justice.

The only problem is that Harris appears to be less interested in biology than anatomy, i.e., the simple baring of parts consitutive of a system. He gives us a young Hannibal without connecting him to the current Hannibal; he gives us a house of meticulously constructed memories that, at times, behaves independent of its maker; a postwar Hannibal who is plagued by nightmares about his sister's death, and yet is able to return to the scene of her murder and bury the remains with clinical detachment; he shows us killing after killing, but of legitimate "bad guys" who we don't mind seeing killed anyway; and in the background, we have the swan figure, whose aggression appears out of nowhere, connected to nothing but its own nature, its own genomes and neurons.

If the series privileges anatomy over biology, then Harris doesn't have to resolve any of these discrepancies. He simply has to show us the parts, label them, and put them on the table for us to examine. Instead of working out a complete ideology of evil to govern the series, Harris follows Hannibal down widely divergent avenues of thought and behavior. No doubt this is liberating for a writer, and makes for excitement at the moment of composition. But in the finished product--which, after all, is a series of finished products--having competing ideologies of evil makes for confusion, not dynamism.

What do you think? Blog on.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Biology of Becoming

Well, Steve has done most of the hard work already. In his last post, he distills the major questions that readers should ask, not only of Hannibal Rising, but of the whole series. Like Steve, I am primarily concerned with the system of evil that Harris establishes and develops over time (and by "system," I may very well be looking for a companion term like "ideology," since the concept of evil increasingly seems to function for Hannibal's character as a system of self-representation--more on this later).

But wait. You may be asking, who cares? What should we expect from a novel like Hannibal Rising, a "fun read" that you can pick up in any airport giftshop, and which already has been made into a feature film? Shouldn't we just be satisfied with having the bejeezus scared out of us, and not ask popular fiction to answer these fundamental human questions? The only response I have to this is, that's what a writer like Harris gets for doing such a damned fascinating job of establishing an ideology of evil in the first two movements of this epic, Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs. I agree with Steve that these two works get as close as any novel does to Literature with a capital L, because it's here that Harris engages most provocatively with the nature of evil instead of merely tending to his franchise.

In those works, Hannibal's evil has no origin, no evolution. It emerges whole and unapologetic from the blackness of nature itself. Hannibal is a ruthless force. He kills people and eats the remains. The ghoulish nods he makes to civility--the fava beans, the chianti--place him at the same "table" as Stoker's Dracula, another distinctly originless force of evil who wears the cloaks and top hats of the social elite but who is most comfortable as wolf, bat, or swamp fog. In the first two novels, Hannibal is lethal as a wolf, or a deadly virus, or any other predatory force you can name. He will kill you with a very sharp knife and he will eat you. He will never stop doing this. Why he does so--this the wrong question to ask, and that's why Dr. Frederick Chilton is set up as Hannibal's most foolish jailer in Harris's early work. In my first readings of the Hannibal series, it was passages like the following, from Red Dragon, that most clearly outlined this point. Chilton says to Graham:

"He's impenetrable. To sophisticated about the tests for them to register anything. Edwards, Fabre, even Dr. Bloom himself had a crack at him. I have their notes. He was an enigma to them too. It's impossible, of course, to tell what he's holding back or whether he understands more than he'll say."

Later, Graham observes:

"Dr. Lecter seldom holds his head upright. He tilts it as he asks a question, as though he were screwing an auger of curiosity into your face."

In Hannibal's hands, curiosity--a gift of human intelligence--is just another "auger" or tool for violence. Chilton's tests are no match for that kind of energy. Hannibal is a constantly moving target, re-calibrating his attacks in order to most effectively manipulate the emotions of his victims, jailers, and observers. Unlike the serial killers that Graham and Clarice track through the first two novels, Hannibal's actions do not derive from an identifiable pathology that then drives subsequent violence. He didn't start that way--he just started, or starts. And the point at which he begins is different every time--Hannibal gets to work exactly where he needs to, where his victims are weakest. He says it best in Lambs: "It is on the plank of mood that we proceed." Swish.

So by book 4 of this saga, I think we should be able to see more of this system (or ideology, or architecture) & witness it functioning with some consistency. We should be able to answer the questions in Steve's worthy list, which I repeat here:

Are monsters made, or are they simply born that way? Is evil simply a name that humans, as social mammals, give to profoundly antisocial behavior? Is there a moral architecture for violence? When does it graduate from self-defense to more abstract enactments, like justice? Is all “justice” really just murder with societal approval. Is there room for moral relativity in the universe of one human causing the deliberate, or even indeliberate, suffering of another? If the swan is just expressing its nature in its aggression, what of human nature’s relationship to violence?

As of the first two novels, I believe that Harris contends that while some monsters are made, the really deadly ones are "born that way." Thus, there may not be a moral architecture for someone like Hannibal--just an empty memory palace that is eventually filled with deeds. When we start looking for an origin story, for some node in Hannibal's psyche that explains his brutal behavior, we become like Chilton, foolishly assuming that all evil is within our human understanding and ability to control. And (I'm showing my hand here) I think it's a harder position to maintain--and therefore a more interesting one--to allow for a world where evil isn't bound to causality, to morals, to justice, but to nature itself.

OK, those are my first moves in this argument. I want to compose another post that talks about the second two books, and how the system of evil changes. Like Steve, I think Harris neglects the connections between the various Hannibals he creates (old and young Hannibal, yes, but also the palette of now-Hannibals that take the stage over the whole series), and this is to the detriment of the fascinating architecture of evil that he successfully establishes in the first two novels.

Also, I'd like to know what you think. Are there items, quotes, or passages that you feel should be cited here? Blog on.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Dis Course

One more thing - even though I had a whole grip of ideas about where to go, I also wanted to wait and listen to Kiki before going further. Our original idea was that this would be a dialog with essays, not just a pair of monolithic deliveries. So, I turned off Radio Free Steve, set the soup-pan to simmer and my metaphor mixer to 11.

The Biology of Evil

Blacks swans on the black water of a castle moat. There are two children there, a brother and a sister. The Alpha swan approaches across the water, and begins to threaten them. His wings are thrown out menacingly, an angry hiss projects his hostility. This is a threat gesture.

The sister, being younger, is frightened. Her older brother stands his ground, as his father has taught him the trick. He throws his own arms wide, and grabs the branches of a nearby willow tree, shaking them. The alpha swan retreats, knowing that the boy’s wings are larger.

This scene unfolds near the very beginning of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Rising, the 4th book in what has now become a series of narratives with Hannibal as the only common thread. There is no morality in this scene, only etiology. The boy is Hannibal Lecter at his childhood home of Lecter castle. Some might anthropomorphize the swan, but not Hannibal, and by extension, Harris. The swan’s behavior is simply an extension of his nature, and his nature is physical – genomes expressed in neurons and tendencies.

The stakes are clear from the outset: are monsters made, or are they simply born that way? Is evil simply a name that humans, as social mammals, give to profoundly antisocial behavior? Is there a moral architecture for violence? When does it graduate from self-defense to more abstract enactments, like justice? Is all “justice” really just murder with societal approval. Is there room for moral relativity in the universe of one human causing the deliberate, or even indeliberate, suffering of another? If the swan is just expressing its nature in its aggression, what of human nature’s relationship to violence?

These are some of the oldest literary questions out there, and approaching them inside the framework of the crime procedural has long been Harris’s project. So, I would like to begin with a couple of questions of my own: Is Hannibal Rising literature? Is it a stronger book than Hannibal, or has the franchise gone off the tracks? If HR does rise to highly debatable standard of Literature with a capital L, does is accomplish its project? To use the meter-stick of philosophic pragmatism, is Hannibal Rising a useful inquiry into the nature of evil? Does it work?

Any book that begins with a quote from Philip Larkin has literary ambitions, and this is consistent with Harris body of work. Compared to the first three books, Rising seems to be almost frothy and light in the density of its prose and cultural references. This is deliberate, Harris is not a man that does anything by mistake. The simple phrasing and unornamented language at the beginning of the book are there to evoke the skeletal nature of childhood memories. But I’m not sure how effective it is.

After all, the book begins in Hannibal’s memory palace, an idea fully developed Hannibal – and the passage suggests that despite the vastness and grandeur of the Palace, it is not a space that Hannibal is completely in control of. This is a fascinating conceit, and unfortunately it’s a conceit that seems to be abandoned within the first five pages of the novel. Throughout the book, I found myself wondering about what the adult Hannibal thought of all this, or if the action of the novel was in some way unrecoverable for him. If that’s the case, I can’t help but feel we need more of that tension inside the narrative itself.

The book begins with a move that suggests the narrative being enacted, remembered into being. If Hannibal is recalling the action of the book, then where is the tension between his adult perspective and his younger alterego? And if he is not remembering it into being, then who is the authorial voice? Why begin with this memory house evocation of the muse? The interplay of the two points of view seems to me to be a huge missed opportunity. If the younger Hannibal is born into the world with an innate sense of good and evil, of morality and empathy, does Hannibal the Elder look back on those years with a sense of loss? Or does he shake his noble head at the naiveté of his younger self, much the way I am shaking my head at my use of question marks in this essay?

More to come – I want to talk about the class issues that Hannibal seems to express, and what the trendline of Hannibal’s evolution as a character seems to point towards.

Also, I still want to tackle the most important question – where does Harris place evil, on the throne of biology, or deep inside some flaw in the human heart?

Monday, January 8, 2007

Deep in the Snows

So. I purchased my copy of Hannibal Rising and spent the weekend getting into Harris's groove. I want to save most of my thoughts for a more extensive entry, but so far--I'm having a pretty good time. The novel's preliminary action takes place in WWII-era Lithuania, and details the fall of Castle Lecter to the Nazis, young Hannibal's early education, and such like. As per usual for Harris, the prose reads quite swiftly. If I didn't have a million part-time jobs, I could burn through the whole novel in a day or so. As it is, I'll have to unfold my thoughts bit by bit. Sorry for the pace, but this blog is called Slow Match. Ha!

Thursday, January 4, 2007

The Human Form a Fiery Forge

I can think of no better way to begin the new year--and this new blog--than with a dynamic discussion of a very ancient force: evil. In Thomas Harris's novels, evil is more than an adjective; it's architecture--originless, adamantine. It's every brick holding up the cathedral (or, in Hannibal's parlance, the Memory Palace), and it endures. It's this quality of endurance that makes Hannibal such a fascinating figure; there's no stopping him. What he does, he does--he's just a speeding bullet, beautifully machined.

At least, that's what Steve and I have been telling each other for more than a year now. We each read the books that make up the Hannibal saga years ago, and the action captured us. In bars, on the streets of Iowa City, in different people's apartments--on scratchy cell phone calls between Iowa and L.A. for Pete's sake--we've tried our best to nail down and synthesize the best features of Harris' engrossing narrative. And now? The newest installment, Hannibal Rising, has just been released from Delacorte Press. How can we resist? We've gotta take this conversation worldwide.

Over the next weeks, Steve and I will look at the new novel, and the whole Hannibal series, from a variety of perspectives. I'll tell you now that my focus will be on how the system of evil that Harris so expertly configures in his first two works--Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs--evolves over time. If you're wondering about how I read the third book, Hannibal, I've got plenty to say about what happens to the idea of evil there, too.

So, I'm off to purchase my copy of Hannibal Rising. Also in my holster: Dragon, Lambs, and Hannibal. Maybe some poetry, as well. I'm hoping Steve will come across with his unique brand of textual analysis--and I'd like to hit him up for his take on the various film adaptations, too. This is going to be cool.