Sunday, January 6, 2013


"You romantics," say the detractors, "you're anthropomorphising this underlining pen, and why don't you think about it this way: the person didn't have personal feelings about decadence, they had a teacher or a lecturer standing there telling them, 'Write an essay about the book you're reading, give me the key ideas,' so they wanted to find phrases that would sum up the author's unifying or driving notion, or, hang on, here's another idea, there were no teachers, they're just a reader who prefers to remember what their novels are about.

'They underlined these words so that if they came back in the future they could search through the pages until they saw those lines, and then their future selves would know what their current selves think Pynchon's point of view is, ultimately; the old self is saying to the modern self, 'This is how you can sum up this novel: it's about 'the tag-end,' it's about 'decadence,' it's about decay.' Then a memory of the details comes back to the modern self, that's the plan, and they remember that parts of the book are set in the twilight of the British Empire, an island is being bombed, a man began a marriage but then it disintegrated, a gang respected a woman then they didn't, and there was this failed attempt in the sewers, to Catholicise rats before the world ended; this was the insurance of the Faith and it didn't work. All summed up by the word decadence: decay, decay, decay, and rot, and the slaughter of the innocent crocodile in the underground church, the pet is betrayed because it has been ruined by adulthood, and then the coloured monkey frozen under the ice, the beautiful terrible place that tantalises you and you fear it: perhaps this place is an inhuman extremity that does not die, but all human things die.

'That was the old self's opinion, and now the modern self knows what its thoughts were, years ago, when they read the book, now they don't have to read the whole four hundred and, how many is it, fifty pages again, because all they have to do is look at those phrases. It was laziness on their part, or practicality: they weren't being depressed," say the detractors, "they were being practical. They were passing notes to themselves, the past self leaving its ghost behind, or a sign, or its signature, saying, 'I existed, here are my thoughts, this is how I make you pay attention to me, I give you this useful information, otherwise you will forget --' but it's already dead."

"We like our version better," say the friend of Katherine Anne Porter, "and we'll point out that if they had wanted to remind themselves of ideas that run through the book then there were other sentences they could have underlined without too much stress for themselves or wear and tear on the pen, and why not make a mark in the margin by that long description of a surgical nose-job, the detailed destruction there, and the arousal-by-destruction, destruction sexy, sex in this book generally destructive rather than generative, which might be a significant idea if they're writing an essay or remembering ... but we like to think that their personality felt itself answered in some way by the words they underlined, which seemed to have a secret shattering meaning that stood apart and away from their role in the story so that, for this person, the whole book, with its dozens of characters, was written for the sake of these words, and the father-related problems of this fictional man named Stencil do not matter, and the way these Germans torture these Africans for pages is not as electrifying as the words "Decadence, decadence," taken in through the eyes at the correct time; those words make an impression as if they are glowing in the dark or dimness, and the preference for these words, these words, above everything else, is like love, not fair or reasonable."


  1. Now I can't tell if I remember V. badly or well. I remember some of that, but then the fizz invades. Or you are making some of it up. "We like our version better."

    1. All genuinely there, I swear, the dead crocodile, the monkey under the ice, the rats being Catholicised in the sewers, the nose job, which I thought was brilliantly remorseless. The whole book changes speed for that. It's beautiful.