Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Tales of Personal Failure - Literary Edition

This weekend, shortly after I had made a new friend, I went to the car wash to clean and vacuum the car and to attempt (alas, unsuccessfully) to get some of this year's collection of pine sap off the car, and I was confronted with the Google Maps directions to my new friend's residence. I was about to throw the directions (along with countless items of garbage) into one of the large trash receptacles that live next to the vacuums, when it occurred to me that I would likely want those directions again in the not-too-distant future. I thought about directions to the homes of other new friends that I'd printed off two, three, or even four times, and I thought that I should probably keep them all in a notebook. But then I thought, "No. A map. Like Slothrop's."

And then I sighed a little. In Gravity's Rainbow, Tyrone Slothrop keeps a map of all of the women he sleeps with while he's stationed in London.
Both young ladies happen to be silver stars on Slothrop's map. He must've been feeling silvery both times--shiny, jingling. The stars he pastes up are colored only to go with how he feels that day, blue on up to golden. Never to rank a single one--how can he? Nobody sees the map but Tantivy, and Christ they're all beautiful ... in leaf or flower around his wintering city, in teashops, in the queues babushkaed and coatwrapped, sighing, sneezing, all lisle legs on the curbstones, hitchiking, typing or filing with pompadours sprouting yellow pencils, he finds them--dames, tomatoes, sweater girls--yes it is a little obsessive maybe but ... "I know there is wilde love and joy enough in the world," preached Thomas Hooker, "as there are wilde Thyme, and other herbes; but we would have garden love, and garden joy, of Gods owne planting." How Slothrop's garden grows. Teems with virgin's-bower, with forget-me-nots, with rue--and all over the place, purple and yellow as hickeys, a prevalence of love-in-idleness.

He likes to tell them about fireflies. English girls don't know about fireflies, which is about all Slothrop knows for sure about English girls.
As it happens, the points on his map coincide exactly with the points on a map of German rocket strikes in London. Tyrone gets lucky, and a day or a few days later, the bomb hits. You'd think he would just send flowers.

Anyway, I can't really tell you what happens to Slothrop towards the end of the book because on three different occasions I have started and failed to complete Gravity's Rainbow. This failure weighs on me in a way that others don't. For example, I've never gotten more than a few pages into Finnegan's Wake, but I blame Joyce for that one. Besides, I made it through Ulysses (ugh!) twice (ugh! ugh!), so I reckon I'm covered.

For the most part, I haven't felt guilty about giving up on reading things since I was a senior in college and the professor in my seminar on Ulysses (ugh!) told us a story about how he'd been twenty-eight years old and standing in the supermarket checkout line carrying a bunch of broccoli ("Like a bridesmaid," he said) and had asked himself, "What am I supposed to be thinking about now?" and it had dawned on him that there's something very wrong with feeling obliged to think about anything. It was a good lesson to learn, and it's certainly stuck with me better than has anything I learned about Ulysses (ugh!).

I expanded the idea, especially after I was free of the responsibility to write papers from an informed perspective, to include the notion that I should not feel obliged to read anything. And I've pretty much stuck to that position, with a few exceptions. For instance, a very cute young man, upon hearing that I was a big fan of Dickens, once told me that I really should read Villette (ughs aren't nearly sufficient) as a companion piece to Bleak House, and for nearly six months I picked it up every once in a while and slogged through a few more pages until I was done. Jane Eyre it ain't.

Gravity's Rainbow is a different matter altogether, mostly because I want to read it. I just find it very elusive. And when I say "elusive," I don't mean that the text is difficult to follow (though it occasionally is): I mean that it's a fairly lengthy book, and on two of the three occasions when I've tried and failed to complete it, I've gotten about halfway in and then mislaid the physical book. It would just vanish, and I'd say, "Well, it'll turn up, and then I'll just pick up where I left off," but it wouldn't turn up for months, and I would have lost track of one or more of the horrendously complicated plot lines, and the idea of re-reading three hundred pages would just be more than I could bear. No matter how funny I find the descriptions of banana breakfasts and English sweets. Or how much I enjoy reading all that smut. And trust me, there's a lot of stuff in that book that your mother doesn't want you to read.

But, hey, someday, right? RIGHT? Anyway, that's what I was thinking of when I was broiling in my dark t-shirt while clearing the trash out of the car last weekend. It made the nearly $300 that I subsequently dropped at LubeWorld or SuperLube or InstaLube or QuikLube on an oil change and a fuel filter replacement and a power steering flush and a cabin air filter seem even bitterer.

But at least it wasn't all for naught. The next day, when I went to SuperTire or Mr. Tire or BoyDoWeKnowTires or wherever it was to have the puncture that the lube people pointed out to me fixed and to get new wiper blades, I made sure to take my copy of Don Quixote with me and to read a good chunk of it. I was already within shouting distance of the end, and when the tire was fixed (free! I have road hazard insurance on the tires, apparently), I still wasn't done, so I took the book with me to Starbucks, where I ordered a venti mocha frappuccino and sat at the bar, getting ever closer to the end. The barrista asked what I was reading, and when I told her, she smiled and said, "You're almost done!" and then slid a plate with a complimentary piece of banana bread in front of me. I probably would have finished without the bribe, but I guess she didn't want to take any chances. I sat there until the very last word ("Vale), which gave me a reasonable sense of accomplishment, even though I was making it through DQ on my first attempt. And even though it's not particularly tough to get through.

I went home, thinking that perhaps it was time to tackle Gravity's Rainbow again, but, of course, I couldn't find it. I reckon it's as elusive as its author. On the other hand, I believe that a few years ago, someone actually managed to get a picture of T. Pynchon, so maybe completing GR is something achievable, and not merely tilting at windmills. We can but hope.

No comments:

Post a Comment