Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, December 12, 2016


In the first pages of V. Benny Profane falls in love with Rachel Owlglass, who at that point in the story seems to love only her MG (an inanimate object). Because he, as schlemihl, cannot get along with inanimate objects, he doesn’t drive.

Later in the book, after having lost touch with Rachel, he sits on a bench in what appears to be Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library, and thinks.

Material wealth and getting laid strolled arm-in-arm the midway of Profane’s mind. If he’d been the type who evolves theories of history for his own amusement, he might have said all political events: wars, governments and uprisings, have the desire to get laid as their roots; because history unfolds according to economic forces and the only reason anybody wants to get rich is so he can get laid steadily, with whomever he chooses. All he believed at this point, on the bench behind the Library, was that anybody who worked for inanimate money so he could buy more inanimate objects was out of his head. Inanimate money was to get animate warmth, dead fingernails in the living shoulderblades, quick cries against the pillow, tangled hair, lidded eyes, twisting loins… .

At this point he realizes that “he’d thought himself into an erection,” and then that

His erection had produced in the newspaper a crosswise fold, which moved line by line down the page as the swelling gradually diminished. It was a list of employment agencies. Okay, thought Profane, just for the heck of it I will close my eyes, count three and open them and whatever agency listing that fold is on I will go to them. It will be like flipping a coin: inanimate schmuck, inanimate paper, pure chance. He opened his eyes on Space/Time Employment Agency.

The idea of information-bearing erections — semiotic erections, one might say — returns with a vengeance in Gravity’s Rainbow. But more on that later.

Besides growing erect, another thing that penises do is urinate, and in the penultimate episode of Ulysses, as Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus are urinating in the former’s back yard, we learn that Bloom “in his ultimate year at High School (1880) had been capable of attaining the point of greatest altitude against the whole concurrent strength of the institution, 210 scholars.” That is, when pissing he could hit a higher point on the wall than anyone else in the school, which is meant to remind us, as Hugh Kenner notes somewhere, of the “great bow” of Odysseus that only the hero could bend and string. What Joyce calls the “penumbral” arc of male urination is itself a kind of “gravity’s rainbow.”

And if you’re wondering whether my invocation of Ulysses is truly warranted: Near the beginning of the fourth chapter of V. the word “metempsychosis” is introduced, as it is also introduced near the beginning of the fourth episode of Ulysses, where it is meant to suggest, for the first time, the reincarnational link between Odysseus and Bloom. In V. it is a first hint of the multiple avatars, incarnations, of the mysterious V. herself.

I might also add that when Benny is out with Rachel in her MG, spending a day drinking, near sundown he gets out of the car to urinate and points West, “with some intention of pissing on the sun to put it out for good and all.“ (He reflects first that “inanimate objects could do what they wanted,“ but then corrects that: “Not what they wanted because things do not want; only men. But things do what they do.”) The sun immediately and in defiance of Benny's schlemihlhood sets.

So anyway, Benny obeys the summons given on the line of newsprint raised up, at the point of an upside-down V, on that day’s paper, and when he arrives at the Space/Time Employment Agency the receptionist who receives his application is Rachel Owlglass. But they don’t recognize each other. Apparently they are meeting again, but for the first time. Benny is regularly referred to in the book as a “yo-yo,” and thinks of himself that way, yo-yoing up and down the East Coast from job to job and love affair to love affair, and the title of this chapter begins with the words “In which Rachel gets her yo-yo back” — but no, no sign of recognition.

Somewhere between their first and again-first meeting, Pynchon gives us this:

Rachel was looking into the mirror at an angle of 45 degrees, and so had a view of the face turned toward the room and the face on the other side, reflected in the mirror; here were time and reverse-time, co-existing, cancelling one another exactly out. Were there many such reference points, scattered through the world, perhaps only at nodes like this room which housed a transient population of the imperfect, the dissatisfied; did real time plus virtual or mirror-time equal zero and thus serve some half-understood moral purpose? Or was it only the mirror world that counted?

Draw a line on a piece of paper, and then set a mirror atop it. Look at the mirror from a 45º angle and you see two lines that meet and make a V. Make a dot marking the meeting of Rachel and Benny, and another dot appears in the mirror-world. But which of the meetings described by Pynchon is the real, and which the mirror?

Interestingly, later in the book Benny remembers “young Rachel” as almost herself an inanimate object, “half an MG.” Have the timeframes converged? Or did they remember each other after all, when they met in that employment office, simply choosing simultaneously and independently not to acknowledge their history, but in a way that Pynchon chooses not to explain to us? If so, then perhaps we still have two-time frames, just selected and enforced by the characters rather than the author.

In any event, when Benny follows up the job possibility Rachel gives him he gets hired by Anthroresearch Associates — a subsidiary of a company significantly called Yoyodyne — as a night watchman, and finds himself sitting across the room from something called SHROUD (Synthetic Human, Radiation Output Determined.) The purpose of SHROUD is to test radiation absorption, and it is comprised of, among other things, transparent cellulose skin stretched over an actual human skeleton. It is thus built on a frame of once-but-no-longer-animate material, something organic deteriorated into inorganic.

SHROUD is creepy, but more interesting to Benny is SHOCK (Synthetic Human Object, Casualty Kinematics) — basically, a very lifelike crash-test dummy made wholly from the inanimate world, containing, among many other features, a system for circulating “blood” that allows for assessment of likely bleeding in various crash circumstances. Benny feels “a certain kinship with SHOCK, which was the first inanimate schlemihl he’d ever encountered.”

One day Benny decides to speak to SHROUD.

“What’s it like,” he said.

Better than you have it.


Wha yourself. Me and SHOCK are what you and everybody will be someday. (The skull seemed to be grinning at Profane.)

“There are other ways besides fallout and road accidents.”

But those are most likely. If somebody else doesn’t do it to you, you’ll do it to yourselves.

“You don’t even have a soul. How can you talk.”

Since when did you ever have one? What are you doing, getting religion?

Benny soon ends the conversation, but keeps thinking. Then:

After a while he got up and went over to SHROUD. “What do you mean, we’ll be like you and SHOCK someday? You mean dead?”

Am I dead? If I am then that’s what I mean.

“If you aren’t then what are you?”

Nearly what you are. None of you have very far to go.

“I don’t understand.”

So I see. But you’re not alone. That’s a comfort isn’t it?

It is very interesting indeed to reflect that a similar conversation — between a living human being and something or someone that may or may not be alive — happens in Pynchon’s most recent novel, Bleeding Edge, published fifty years after V. There the novel’s protagonist, Maxine Tarnow, is talking to someone in a video game, and thinks it may be a friend who has been reported dead. But is he dead? How can she know? This avatar claims to be him … could it be some remnant or simulation of his consciousness?

“How about at least letting me bring you back up. Whoever you are.”

“What. Up to the surface?”

“Closer anyway.”


“I don’t know.” She doesn’t. “If it’s really you, Lester, I hate to think of you being lost down here.”

“Lost down here is the whole point. Take a good look at the surface Web sometime, tell me it isn’t a sorry picture. Big favor you’d be doing me, Maxine.”

Early and late Pynchon is fascinated by the lines that mark — and especially by those that fail to mark — the boundaries between the animate and inanimate worlds. But in 1963 that boundary was investigated by the portrayal of a mechanical object, while in 2013 the same questions were raised by an encounter with digital reality.

More on this theme in my next post.


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