Reading Pynchon #3

I shall speculate a little more on the way Pynchon has used the tourism trope to organise the narrative of Against the Day.

In ‘Plots, Pilgrimage and the Politics of Genre in Against the Day’ (in Pynchon’s Against the Day: A Corrupt Pilgrim’s Guide, 2011) Amy J Elias develops her reading of metahistorical romance in Sublime Desire: History and Post-1960s Fiction (2001). The metahistorical romance renders representation problematic, asking how we know what we know; the pilgrimage offers a narrative towards a goal that can never be reached, one always elsewhere, precisely because we can take no reading for granted. In my last post the historical sublime was related specifically to the representation of war. However, in Chapter 40 (AtD: 568ff), Dally has just arrived at Venice and the historical sublime is expressed as a function of tourism: ‘that irregular seethe of history reduced to a few simple ideas’ (574). Later, with reference to Venetian history, Hunter speaks of ‘a hundred forms of bourgeois literalism, leading to its ultimate embodiment, the tourist’ (579).

On 568, as Dally arrives in Venice, the narrative describes her reaction to a tourist speaking ‘in a vilely mucous specimen of British Accent’ (568). An outsider herself, Dally wishes to distance herself from

… this pest and his replicas in their thousands, they were like the gnats who rose in clouds here at nightfall, their purpose to infest the Venetian summer, to enhance its splendour with earthly annoyance, to pass quickly as they must, driven off, forgotten. (568)

One might see the ‘effusive companion’ here as doubling Dally for, immediately preceding this passage, we have read her own reaction to ‘the pure Venetian evening …’ etc, explicitly a representation: the scene given as ‘the blue-green shadows, the lavenders, ultramarines, siennas and umbers of the sky’ might be recalled later when we find Hunter ‘work[ing] at getting Venice “down”, as he put it’ (575). However, on 568, both passages have emphasised the failure of representation, by drawing attention to the sound of the tourist’s voice and the sight that has so affected Dally, one that has been put into words we are not given access to. Subsequently, on 575, a reference to the Chums again emphasises representation with ‘stories about [the Campanile’s] fall had multiplied’ and ‘reports of an encounter in the sky’. Certainly the reader should remember the event from earlier in the novel; but the account offered here by ‘[s]treet urchins and lucciole’ reminds us that this is Dally’s highly subjective reading, one dependent on her own response to Venice. Put simply, she has no access to the reader’s recollection of 255-257.

In her discussion of quest, picaresque and pilgrimage, Elias emphasises the importance of movement in Against the Day and notes that ‘the system of pilgrimage complexly reconfigures time and space’ (Elias 2011: 34); her discussion here could be illustrated by Dally’s progress through this chapter.

By 574 she has been left alone in Venice, ‘earning a living …, putting to use the many light-handed and quick-fingered skills and the fast talk that went with them …’ etc, even taking advantage now of those same tourists as they pause ‘on the way to better-known landmarks around town’. From Dally’s point of view, tourists are

changing [Venice] from a real city to a hollow and now and then outright-failed impersonation of itself, all the centuries of that irregular seethe of history reduced to a few simple ideas, and a seasonal human inundation just able to grasp them.

A page later, on 575, Dally is distanced from ‘the American girls, breezing along the Riva without a care …’ etc, her own gaze juxtaposed to ‘the covetous gazes of naval officers, guides, and waiters’. Moreover, by this time, of course, Dally is in disguise, ‘brown from the sun’ and ‘dress[ing] these days as a boy’; hence, when the following paragraph announces that ‘[i]t was not quite the Venice older folks remembered’, one might add that Dally also has been transformed as she ‘escaped all male attention other than that directed at boys’. Further, one might say she has replicated Kit’s descent ‘into the engine spaces of the Stupendica’ on 516.

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