It might have been appropriate to begin this post with a declaration about my vacation. Something like: “I’m back from vacation refocused, reenergized, and ready to jump into the writing process.” I woke up about two hours earlier than I’m used to this morning in an effort to get back into a work schedule and I’m far too bitter with the universe about consciousness to exude such frivolities. Instead, while I try to get some coffee in my system, let’s just say that my vacation was superb and I’m in mourning about my vacation’s passing. I’ll get around to writing about it once I move through the stages of grief.
So, in the meantime, it’s back to writing about Pynchon and this is a fitting chapter to return with. Just as I’m returning from a sojourn away from the troubles of the world, Benny resurfaces in New York in this chapter. Admittedly, I didn’t go on vacation in the sewers where I explored the remains of a mad priest’s chapel and shot an albino alligator / Stencil in a diving suit. We can’t have everything though.
This week I was struck by the fact that my first time through V. (and subsequently each time I thought of it thereafter) I considered it to be a novel with a mentality of the sixties set in the mid-fifties. Undoubtedly this impression came from having read Oedipas’ journey in Lot 49 and focusing on the similarities of The Whole Sick Crew and hippie culture (as opposed to the beats, though some core similarities certainly apply). A bit of anachronism really, but that’s also why I’m rereading this stuff in order of publication. This time through I’m focused on elements that I didn’t fully understand or appreciate before. There’s a lot of focus on the turn of the century in Victoria’s chapters and even on World War I through moments like the focus on Schoenmaker. There’s also Mondaugen’s story, but that’s another post. These are all relatively obvious settings though. What’s less apparent though are the open, but passing, references to the thirties and the Great Depression.
This chapter holds a key example. Many of these references (or at least the ones I’ve caught thus far) occur in reference to Benny and his work or his search for work. The most prominent one is the recounting of Fairing’s Parish in the sewers. As the narration notes:
During the Depression of the ‘30’s, in an hour of apocalyptic well-being, he had decided that the rats were going to take over after New York died. Lasting eighteen hours a day, his beat had covered the breadlines and missions, where he gave comfort, stitched up raggedy souls. He foresaw nothing but a city of starved corpses, covering the sidewalks and the grass of the parks, lying belly up in the fountains, hanging wrynecked from the streetlamps. The city – maybe America, his horizons didn’t extend that far – would belong to the rats before the year was out. (117-118)
There are a few features (beyond the captivating image and the sharp prose) worth noting. The depression is capitalized (bearing import) but it’s “of the ‘30’s” and thus acknowledges the presence of multiple depressions. History extends beyond the disruption of the Great Depression. It casts Fairing’s action of retreating into the sewers as panicky and shortsighted. At the same time the passage provides a nice stand in for Pynchon’s apocalyptic themes at this point in his works. The horizons are local – New York – rather than national or global. We’re not yet at the level of Gravity’s Rainbow, much less Against the Day. The irony of New York’s rat race going literally to the rats who are subsequently personified in the chapter is also quite powerful when we reach the descriptions of the rat V. Finally, I’m engrossed by the phrasing: “an hour of apocalyptic well-being.” That phrase alone caries a bevy of meanings. Fairing is at once in a point of high apocalyptic thought with the description of corpses throughout the city. At the same time, his decision to retreat into the sewers is the ironic side of “well-being” as the city goes on while he just begins a futile attempt to turn rats to the path of God. At the same time, the passage captures the scope of the Depression’s destructive power. Fairing is not a raving apocalyptic nut. His apocalyptic well-being is at once an escape from the power of the Depression and an attempt to do good works. A misguided one, sure. Nevertheless, with this brief description we’re left with a sense of rationalism rather than a sense of insanity or merely silliness: “Well, by that reasoning…”
Back to the chapter at hand though: Upon Benny’s return to the surface and the sinking knowledge that he’s likely to lose his job in the sewer patrol, he goes out drinking and otherwise carousing. Eventually he and some girls hear a song that has its roots in the Great Depression. The passage is again worth looking at in detail:
The girl on the sidewalk twitched. “It doesn’t have any beat.” It was a song of the Great Depression. They were singing it in 1932, the year Profane was born. He didn’t know where he’d heard it. If it had a beat it was the beat of beans thumping into an old bucket someplace down in Jersey. Some WPA pick against the pavement, some bum-laden freight car on a downgrade hitting the gaps between the rails every 39 feet. She’d have been born in 1942. Wars don’t have my beat. They’re all noise.
There’s a nice bit of free indirect discourse happening here in the passage’s final lines. The wars don’t have Benny’s beat. Moreover this sells a theme in Pynchon’s work as well that I’ve always found intriguing. Not to conflate Benny with Pynchon, but this sentiment about the rhythm of wars rings true for Pynchon’s work. Gravity’s Rainbow and Against the Day are prime examples of the omission of war in novels where the setting tends to point towards war as being the primary conflict in the novel. Instead, both in V. and those novels, the “rhythm” remains focused on labor and economic hardships. This is a key to Profane’s character. Whatever the date of the book, Benny is a creature of the thirties – work is his motivation for wandering, but his lack of skills points to the inherent emptiness of that labor and subsequently his wandering. Benny’s yo-yoing harkens back to the emptiness inherent in that search for the American Dream (or rather a version of it). Employment and economic stability aren’t all that they’re cracked up to be. Instead there is the hint of fulfillment that is belied by emptiness and stagnation. As we’ll find out, that way leads to tupper-ware parties and too much kirsch. (It’s also intriguing that so often Benny’s employment woes are mirrored by the women that “happen” to become interested in him. While I haven’t fully thought this through, I think it’s worth noting that Benny’s attitude towards women and the way he finds himself involved is fairly complex when compared with Rachel and her own composed professional status.)
Certainly all of this warrants further thought. I’m looking forward to tracing some more references. In the meantime, onward to the Birth of Venus.
(Image via Wikimedia Commons)