Terrorism and Temporality in the Works of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo 9781472543974, 9781441133564

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Terrorism and Temporality in the Works of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo
 9781472543974, 9781441133564

Table of contents :
List of Figures
Note on the Text
Pynchon and DeLillo
What is terrorism?
1 Mao II: Prefigurations of Terrorist Time
The City: New York City
Time, terror, and art
Death and time
Death and the novel
Jean-Claude and Bill
New York to Beirut: Bill Gray’s journey toward death
2 The Futurity of September 10
Dromology and anachronism
Prochronism in Cosmopolis
A counter-narrative?
Parachronism in Cosmopolis
3 Beckett’s Proust and Falling Man
Proust: Time, habit, memory
Proust: Schopenhauer and Bergson
Time, habit, memory: Surviving the World Trade Center collapse
Habit as memory: Alzheimer’s disease
Habit as memory: Poker
Habitual compulsion
Eternal return in Falling Man
4 Intimate Time: The Limits of Temporality in Point Omega
Changing time
Film time
Modernist time
5 t: Precursors to Pynchon’s Reconsideration of Temporality in Gravity’s Rainbow
The V-2 and time
.t: Ballistic time
6 The Duration of Thomas Pynchon’s Hell
September 11 in Against the Day
The duration of Thomas Pynchon’s hell
Dual and dueling temporalities
Time travel
Counter-worlds: A counter-Earth or something more confronting?
Infinity and eternity
7 Pynchon’s Futurist Manifesto
Andrea Tancredi, anarchist Futurist
Simultaneity and dynamism: Futurism and Bergson
8 Inherent Vice and the Chronotope
Temporal oddities
“[T]he permanent smog he liked to think of as his memory”9
The internet
Doper’s memory

Citation preview

Terrorism and Temporality in the Works of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo

Terrorism and Temporality in the Works of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo By James Gourley


An imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

175 Fifth Avenue New York NY 10010 USA

50 Bedford Square London WC1B 3DP UK

www.bloomsbury.com First published 2013 © James Gourley, 2013 All previously unpublished material by Don DeLillo is reprinted with permission from the author. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publishers. No responsibility for loss caused to any individual or organization acting on or refraining from action as a result of the material in this publication can be accepted by Bloomsbury Academic or the author. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data A catalog record for this book is available from the Library of Congress. EISBN: 978-1-4411-3356-4

Typeset by Newgen Imaging Systems Pvt, Ltd, Chennai, India.

To Nikki


List of Figures Acknowledgments Note on the Text Introduction

viii ix x 1

1 Mao II: Prefigurations of Terrorist Time


2 The Futurity of September 10


3 Beckett’s Proust and Falling Man


4 Intimate Time: The Limits of Temporality in Point Omega 5 ∆t: Precursors to Pynchon’s Reconsideration of


  Temporality in Gravity’s Rainbow


6 The Duration of Thomas Pynchon’s Hell


7 Pynchon’s Futurist Manifesto


8 Inherent Vice and the Chronotope


Conclusion Bibliography Index

177 179 187

List of Figures

6.1 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4

The Light Cone Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ Seurat, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte Boccioni, The Street Enters the House Balla, Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash

131 144 150 157 158


To my colleagues at the School of Humanities and Communication Arts, and the Writing and Society Research Centre at the University of Western Sydney, from who I received a great deal of support. Many thanks for the assistance, encouragement, and intellectual guidance provided by Chris Conti, Ben Denham, Gavin Smith, Michael Symonds, Marise Williams, Lorraine Sim, Chris Eagle, Gail Jones, Kate Fagan, and David McInnes. Jason Tuckwell proved a constant foil, engaging concepts in discussion and providing an example of intellectual rigor. Thank you to Chris Peterson, whose analysis of earlier versions of this work was of great assistance. And, of course, my complete gratitude to Anthony Uhlmann, whose clarity of mind and breadth of knowledge provided great assistance. To my friends, who ensured I maintained perspective throughout the past four years. Special thanks must go to Nick Felton and Phil Horrell. And to my family, who I cherish always. Thanks to John, Odette, Jackie, Lil, Leigh, Pete, Jo, and Pam.

Note on the Text

Thomas Pynchon’s use of stylized ellipses throughout his novels creates difficulty in distinguishing authorial omissions in quotations. Pynchon’s ellipses relevant to a quotation have been included in their original form (. . .), while authorial omissions are indicated by an ellipsis in square brackets [. . .]. To maintain clarity, all authorial omissions from others works are also indicated by an ellipsis in square brackets.


The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, comprised the flying of American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 into the World Trade Center, American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon building in Virginia, and a failed attempt upon a target in Washington, DC, in which the passengers and crew of United Airlines Flight 93 diverted the aeroplane from its intended target, which ultimately saw the aeroplane crash into farmland in Pennsylvania. The attacks resulted in the loss of almost 3,000 lives, including all 19 of the hijackers aboard the 4 flights. The terrorist attacks have become the focal point of American foreign policy in the twenty-first century and have heavily influenced the allied military action in both Iraq and Afghanistan. As such, the September 11 attacks stand as the conclusion of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first: the September 11 attacks transformed America, and the world, producing a new era in which the threat of guerrilla-style attacks upon Western sovereign nations became reality.1 September 11 is an event, and a concept, that has dominated the first decade of the twenty-first century.2 The September 11 attacks prompted a great outpouring of writing in many spheres, including philosophy and literature. Jacques Derrida called the September 11 events a trauma, though not as concerning as the “threat that is worse and still to come”3 while Judith Butler saw them as the manifestation of an “unexpected and fully terrible experience of violence.”4 While there are vast reservoirs of opinion on this topic, this book analyzes the effects of the September 11 attacks on the literary milieu of the United States. This is not to elide the importance of those dominating figures, or indeed of other viewpoints: my project simply focuses on the means through which American letters has attempted to grapple with these events. I will refer to philosophical and theoretical analyses of September 11, but my main focus will always be the literary response to September 11, with theoretical and critical works assisting my interpretive focus. I have focused on two emblematic American authors, Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, for a number of reasons. First, DeLillo and Pynchon are canonical authors of the twentieth century, and reflect the dominant cultural focus of their peers and of the American, and Western, literary scene. Secondly, both are longtime residents Strobe Talbot and Nayan Chanda, eds, The Age of Terror: America and the World After September 11 (New York: Basic Books, 2001), ix–x. 2 See Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real! (London: Verso, 2002), 36–8. 3 Jacques Derrida, Rogues: Two Essays on Reason, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), 104 (Derrida’s emphases). 4 Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and of Violence (London: Verso, 2004), 5. 1


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of New York City, and as such, were radically affected by the September 11 attacks. And thirdly, as I will argue below, both DeLillo and Pynchon develop novels that specifically respond to the September 11 attacks, comprising part of the “September 11 novel” genre, that includes a large array of both American, Western, and international authors and their responses to the paradigmatic attacks on the United States.5 This book returns repeatedly to the question of time; the most noticeable, but also the most logical change we can identify in the novels of both Pynchon and DeLillo after the September 11 attacks is a change in their conceptualization of time. This is what Shawn Smith calls “the torturing of time [. . .] in narrative, to conform to a damaged perception of the world.”6 Time is not only time as we perceive it in our world, but also the linear time of narrative, the concept of duration, but also, the time in which we live. Considering the multiplicity of ideas encapsulated within the concept of time and the obvious relationship between the September 11 attacks and a change in time, it is no wonder that DeLillo and Pynchon attempt to work through a reconsideration of time within their novels after September 11. What I will emphasize throughout, however, is that time is not only a concern for both authors after the September 11 attacks. Rather, what we can identify in their works is a change in the consideration and nature of time by comparing novels written both before and after the event. DeLillo’s essay, “In the Ruins of the Future,” published less than two months after the September 11 attacks, provides an effective framework to introduce the many issues that the transformative events of September 11 have produced. DeLillo argues that America at the conclusion of the twentieth century had established itself as a technological, economic, and political powerhouse that was functioning permanently “in the future.”7 This futurity is emblematized by the Twin Towers, the image of American might that DeLillo has depicted repeatedly throughout his oeuvre, the same buildings that Habermas describes as a “powerful [.  .  .] projection toward the future.”8 As DeLillo The emerging September 11 novel genre has drawn a large amount of comment and analysis, most of it attempting an early classification of a genre whose subject, we can assume, will remain a focus for an extended period. See, for example, Alex Houen, “Novel Spaces and Taking Place(s) in the Wake of September 11,” Studies in the Novel 36, no. 3 (2004): 420–3; Anthony Kubiak, “Spelling it Out: Narrative Typologies of Terror,” Studies in the Novel 36, no. 3 (2004): 296–7, 300; Benjamin Bird, “History, Emotion, and the Body: Mourning in Post-September 11 Fiction,” Literature Compass 4, no. 3 (2007): 561–74; Kristiaan Versluys, Out of the Blue: September 11 and the Novel (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 1–17; Cheryl Miller, “9/11 and the Novelists,” Commentary 126, no. 5 (2008): 32–5; Richard Gray, “Open Doors, Closed Minds: American Prose Writing at a Time of Crisis,” American Literary History 21, no. 1 (2009): 129–36; and Michael Rothberg’s response to Gray in his “A Failure of the Imagination: Diagnosing the Post-September 11 Novel: A Response to Richard Gray,” American Literary History 21, no. 1 (2009): 152–8. Julian Murphet illustrates a certain skepticism for September 11 criticism, in his “Proposition: September 11 Has Changed Literary Studies,” in Australian Humanities Review, issue 29, 2003. The tenth anniversary of the attacks saw a return to the question of the September 11 genre: of note are Richard Gray, After the Fall: American Literature Since September 11 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011) and Martin Randall, 9/11 and the Literature of Terror (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011). 6 Shawn Smith, Pynchon and History: Metahistorical Rhetoric and Postmodern Narrative Form in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon (New York: Routledge, 2005), 11. 7 Don DeLillo, “In the Ruins of the Future: Reflections on Terror and Loss in the Shadow of September,” Harper’s Magazine 303, no. 1819 (2001): 33. 8 Giovanna Borradori, Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, trans. Luis Guzman, Pascale-Anne Brault, and Michael Naas. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 28. 5



continues, we are able to see the transformative moment he identifies, arguing: “[a]ll this changed on September 11.”9 He writes: Today, again, the world narrative belongs to terrorists. But the primary target of the men who attacked the Pentagon and the World Trade Center was not the global economy. It is America that drew their fury. It is the high gloss of our modernity. It is the thrust of our technology. It is our perceived godlessness. It is the blunt force of our foreign policy. It is the power of American culture to penetrate every wall, every home, life, and mind.10

DeLillo lists precisely those elements that define the America that both Pynchon and DeLillo wish to critique, to analyze, and to reconsider. We can also see the beginning of DeLillo’s reconsideration of time. The concept of America living “in the future” is explored in his novel Cosmopolis, written before the September 11 attacks and published after. DeLillo argues that the “catastrophic event changes the way we think and act, moment to moment, week to week, for unknown weeks and months to come, and steely years.”11 This change is not simply a reconsideration of the position of the United States in the world, but something far more pressing. DeLillo argues, “[t]he terrorists of September 11 want to bring back the past.”12 It is precisely this pressure, the uncertainty surrounding time in the years after the September 11 attacks that is the focus of this book. It is neatly encapsulated in the title of DeLillo’s essay, in which the West is now in ruins, ruins that remain in the future, struggling against the push into the past DeLillo sees as the main aim of the September 11 attacks. Indeed, Thomas Pynchon has also provided some small hints as to his interest in time. In his 2003 “Foreword” to the centenary edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Pynchon analyzes the novel in regard to two competing elements, prophecy and prediction. Prediction, Pynchon argues, is encapsulated by “a game some critics like to play, worth maybe a minute and a half of diversion, in which one makes lists of what Orwell did and didn’t ‘get right.’”13 Dismissing prediction, Pynchon valorizes prophecy, writing: What is perhaps more important, indeed necessary, to a working prophet, is to be able to see deeper than most of us into the human soul.14

Pynchon’s lauding of Orwell’s prophetic ability illustrates an awareness of time. To be sure, Pynchon’s comment is not of the complexity with which DeLillo analyzes time, but it nonetheless illustrates Pynchon’s awareness of the political, and artistic, implications of considering time only a year or so after the September 11 attacks. Pynchon’s approval 11 12

DeLillo, “In the Ruins of the Future,” 33. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid., 34. Jacques Derrida, comments that the modus operandi of al-Qaeda, fitting neatly with Habermas’ comment quoted above, “open[s] onto no future and, in my view, [has] no future.” Borradori, Philosophy in a Time of Terror, 113 (Derrida’s emphasis). 13 Thomas Pynchon, “Foreword,” in Nineteen Eighty-Four (New York: Plume, 2003), xv. 14 Ibid., xvi.  9 10


Terrorism and Temporality

of Orwell’s prophetic focus also reflects on his works. Aside from V. and The Crying of Lot 49 all of Pynchon’s novels retreat into the past, seeking answers to the current state of America, and the world, not in the present, but always in the past. In the same way that Dante temporally positioned his Commedia 20 years before the period in which he wrote the work, Pynchon, by focusing on the past, affords himself, and his works, a position of enforced prophecy. That is, the author, with the benefit of having lived in the period after the temporal focus of his work, is able to reflect upon the influences these past incidents have had on his present. Georg Lukács focuses in The Theory of the Novel on what he identifies as the “utopian” aspects of the novel, but also on the utopian nature of his conception of the novel.15 The utopian nature of the novel that Lukács identifies is what we see in the novels of both Pynchon and DeLillo. Both search for the root cause of the direction in which our society is heading, and propose an alternative view: not necessarily to alter the course in which society is heading, but to acknowledge the possibility of other avenues for society to take. The motivation for DeLillo’s Falling Man and Pynchon’s Against the Day, as I argue in the main sections of this book, is to grapple with the changes in the world that have been created by the September 11 attacks. In this sense, my argument is in accord with Lukács, who argues that: The novel is the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God [. . .] the objectivity of the novel is the mature man’s knowledge that meaning can never quite penetrate reality, but that, without meaning, reality would disintegrate into the nothingness of inessentiality.16

In DeLillo and Pynchon’s responses to September 11, their main aim is always to attempt to make clear the link between reality and meaning—indeed to produce some form of meaning from the events of September 11—the same event that Jean Baudrillard argues is a response to the lack of meaning within the Western world.17 Baudrillard’s argument informs my focus on time, with his emphasis on the modernity of the conflict subsequent to September 11 evidence of a change in the world, and crucially, in the nature of time. It says much for the artistic integrity of DeLillo and Pynchon that their responses to the September 11 attacks focus not on the outrage and the indignity that was experienced by America, but rather, they have seen a path for reevaluation through the reconsideration of time. The move toward a reconceptualization of time has the additional purpose of reorienting the artistic reaction to the September 11 attacks not to politics or to foreign policy, but back onto the purpose or art, and of literature, itself. The beginning of the twenty-first century might be seen as a time Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel: A Historico-Philosophical Essay on the Forms of Great Epic Literature, trans. Anna Bostock (London: Merlin Press, 1971 [1920]), 46, 48. Ibid., 88. 17 Jean Baudrillard, “The Spirit of Terrorism,” in The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 2002), 3–4, and cf. Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real!, 7. 15




for introspection, a time for analysis, in opposition to the largesse of the end of the twentieth century, paralleled in the excesses of the fin de siècle coincidentally the period which Pynchon returns to in what I will interpret as his “September 11 novel.” What is at stake for both Pynchon and DeLillo is precisely the value, purpose, and form of the novel itself. Lukács acknowledges the difficulty for the novelist in grappling with time, for it is “that ungraspable, invisibly moving substance.”18 The method through which the author can wrestle with the concept of time is through the formal requirements of the novel, or what Lukács terms the “form-giving” imperative of the author.19 Both DeLillo and Pynchon’s focus on time follows a similar path to that which Lukács identifies, utilizing time as the constitutive focus, both of narrative, but of conceptual breadth within the work as well.

Pynchon and DeLillo I have addressed my decision to pair the works of Pynchon and DeLillo, described by David Cowart with some little irony as “the mythic cousins of American postmodernism,” above.20 I wish, however, to return briefly to this issue with reference to one’s opinion of the other, contained in a letter that, as far as I am aware, has not been made available in this format beforehand. The letter is from Don DeLillo to the literary critic and novelist Frank Lentricchia. The letter was most likely written after 1996, and sets out DeLillo’s thoughts on his contemporary, on Gravity’s Rainbow, and on James Wood’s unequivocal analysis of modern fiction, from which the term “hysterical realism” emerged. Although I was unable to secure permission to reproduce the entire letter, the resource is still an important one. Aug 15 Dear Frank The importance of Gravity’s Rainbow is that it gave American writing an unapologetic global range—even a sort of cosmic range. It made a world with enough psychic links to the real world to induce in readers a new kind of referential relationship to the inner and outer hemispheres of their experience. GR made people extend their natural networks (forgive the term) deeper into the mysterious spaces between what they see and what they half-perceive and half-dream. His earlier work did this too. But GR dealt with mass death and global war and had a kind of operatic scope—Wagnerian, Jungian etc.21 Lukács, The Theory of the Novel, 121. Ibid., 90. David Wyatt tacitly confirms Lukács’ view when he argues that each war, including those resulting from the September 11 attacks, “engenders unique and answerable forms.” See David Wyatt, “September 11 & Postmodern Memory,” Arizona Quarterly 65, no. 4 (2009): 139. 20 David Cowart, Don DeLillo: The Physics of Language (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002), 7. 21 DeLillo Archives, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin, Box 97, Folder 8. 18 19

Terrorism and Temporality


From here, DeLillo disavows Pynchonian slapstick and argues for the importance of Pynchon’s work precisely because of its difference.22 Most tellingly, DeLillo aligns himself with Pynchon, implicitly approving of Pynchon’s renewed interest in language in Mason & Dixon.23 DeLillo’s analysis of Pynchon’s work is most perceptive in the first paragraph, in which he cites his approval of Pynchon “unapologetic global range.” This is, in my mind, an incisive analysis of what Pynchon attempts throughout his work. I believe, however, that this is something that DeLillo aspires to as well. We see this in Mao II, in which DeLillo moves his character (eerily reminiscent of Pynchon, the absent author, who coincidentally provided a note of recommendation for the back cover of the novel) from the United States, through the United Kingdom, to Greece, and finally the novel concludes with Bill Gray attempting to enter Lebanon.24 This is, I believe, reflective of the “global range” of DeLillo’s work as well. For this is precisely the focus that this work assumes. To write about the September 11 attacks does not suggest that I will ascertain a peculiarly American view of these events: rather, I aim to understand how these events have operated throughout the West. Unfortunately it is not in the ambit of my focus to address the East, a criticism that could be leveled at both Pynchon and DeLillo’s work as well. I provide full coverage of the interaction of the “pure event” and the West, to facilitate an understanding of how this seminal event refocuses the world of art and literature, and the effects it produces in the conceptual focus that is constructed through the literary representation of these events. In Chapter 1, I examine Mao II, a text that has been, especially after the September 11 attacks, interpreted as “prophetic,” anticipating the rise of fundamentalist terrorism that now exists within our world. Rather than concentrate primarily on the possibility of prophecy, I focus, instead, on the idea of the “quickening” of time, a concept that DeLillo derives from his reading of George Steiner’s In Bluebeard’s Castle, a work he made extensive notes on in preparation for the novel. It is through the process of the speeding up of time that facilitates my return to the prophetic nature of this novel, and especially its links with 2001’s Cosmopolis. Chapter 2 examines Cosmopolis, and makes use of the productive similarities between this novel and Mao II, despite the ten-year gap between the two novels’ publication. Cosmopolis is, in many ways, the emblematic novel of DeLillo’s response to September 11—written before the event and published after—and in this sense, the prophetic nature of DeLillo’s analysis becomes clear. What is also clarified is DeLillo’s conceptualization of time, which in this novel (derived from my research in the DeLillo Archives at the University of Texas at Austin) moves beyond Steiner’s analysis of time, to the work of Paul Virilio. Virilio maintains focus on the quickening of time, but provides an analysis which explains the effects of the quickening of time on the technological world that DeLillo depicts. Ibid. Ibid. Pynchon’s note is: “This novel’s a beauty. DeLillo takes us on a breathtaking journey, beyond the official versions of our daily history, beyond all easy assumptions about who we’re supposed to be, with a vision as bold and a voice as eloquent and morally focused as any in American writing.”

22 23 24



I then address DeLillo’s September 11 novel, Falling Man. In this novel, DeLillo returns to Samuel Beckett, a writer who is emblematic of DeLillo’s rejection of the encyclopedic form which characterizes his work up to Underworld. DeLillo focuses on Beckett’s monograph on Proust, and utilizes a very similar conception of time, while developing the twin concepts of habit and memory that are the centerpiece of Beckett’s analysis of À la recherche du temps perdu. Throughout these three chapters, I identify DeLillo’s conceptualization of time as contingent, a reactive time that is in reality the primary narrative focus of all three works. My analysis of DeLillo’s works seeks to confirm Mark Osteen’s contention as to the intertextuality of DeLillo’s oeuvre, identifying a key thinker that influences each of DeLillo’s novels I analyze.25 In Chapter 4, I examine DeLillo’s latest novel, Point Omega. Keeping Beckett as an emblematic figure for DeLillo, I argue that modernist film and film theory provides DeLillo with a means to move on from the September 11 attacks while remaining focused on temporality in all its complexity. In my focus on Pynchon I begin by analyzing his most famous work, Gravity’s Rainbow, for suggestions of the same reconceptualization of time I identify in DeLillo’s work. What we discover is that Pynchon has considered time from the 1970s, incorporating as a productive motif and the emblem of the novel the V-2 rocket, which disrupts time through its ability to travel faster than the speed of sound. Pynchon also addresses mathematical and philosophical analyses of time incorporating the temporal into this novel. I conclude with brief reference to Shawn Smith’s Pynchon and History, and utilize some of Smith’s perceptive analysis to emphasize the role that time plays in this novel. I then devote two chapters to Thomas Pynchon’s 1,100 page, 2006 novel, Against the Day. In Chapter 6, I interpret Pynchon’s novel through his inclusion of five factors that incorporate disjunctive temporality: his allusion to (and inclusion of) Dante’s Inferno, incorporated into a very specific series of references to the September 11 attacks. Using these allusions as a basis for establishing Against the Day’s conceptualization of time, I then investigate these issues with relation to time travel, bilocation, Pynchon’s positing of counter-worlds, and finally, his use of mathematical analogies to further explicate his understanding of time. In Chapter 7, I examine Pynchon’s analysis of the visual arts in Against the Day, and focus especially on his reference to Filippo Marinetti’s Futurists. In this chapter I return to the work of Henri Bergson, and two concepts, simultaneity and dynamism, which allow Pynchon to develop a complex and considered reconsideration of temporality in light of the September 11 attacks. Finally, I focus in Chapter 8 on Mikhail Bakhtin’s analysis of time in the novel. Pynchon’s 2009 novel Inherent Vice reflects an understanding of the importance of time, while also furthering the project I argue has begun with the publication of Against the Day.

See Mark Osteen, American Magic and Dread: Don DeLillo’s Dialogue with Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2000), 2.



Terrorism and Temporality

What is terrorism? After providing the bare facts of the September 11 attacks at the beginning of this introduction, it is useful to examine briefly exactly how both authors understand terrorism. For DeLillo, terrorism, and the act of terror, is something that always exists within the present of his world. Thus, in Mao II, terrorism is the act of the partisan, a literary representation of the terrorists that exist in the real world, who can garner a level of power that the novelist can only ever aspire to.26 George Haddad, the intermediary between Bill Gray and the terrorists of Mao II calls terrorism “pure trauma.”27 I understand this as pure violence, the physical effect of the terrorist act. In Falling Man, terrorism remains, for DeLillo, an effect. He presents a visceral understanding of the event—not focused on the representation of the event or how it was promulgated through the media, but the actual violence of the act—represented most effectively in the penetration of the victim’s body by the terrorist body, in what I will term the “biological shrapnel” metaphor. The penetration of bodies is represented not only through specific bodily penetration, but also through a more mental penetration. DeLillo, in describing the moment of impact between plane and tower, writes: A bottle fell off the counter in the galley, on the other side of the aisle, and he watched it roll this way and that, a water bottle, empty, making an arc one way and rolling back the other, and he watched it spin more quickly and then skitter across the floor an instant before the aircraft struck the tower, heat, then fuel, then fire, and a blast wave passed through the structure that sent Keith Neudecker out of his chair and into a wall. He found himself walking into a wall. He didn’t drop the telephone until he hit the wall. The floor began to slide beneath him and he lost his balance and eased along the wall to the floor.28

What DeLillo presents here is a reiteration of the biological shrapnel metaphor, but rather than the body of Hammad, the terrorist, penetrating the body of Keith, it is the two voices that interpenetrate and mingle, the shift from Hammad’s voice to Keith’s occurring in the moment of impact as the plane strikes the World Trade Center. The violence that DeLillo identifies in the terrorist act is real physical and psychological trauma. Terrorism is, for Pynchon, a different beast. The act of terror is far more general, not related to one specific historical event, but rather to the history of the powerful dominating the powerless. I do not perceive Pynchon as an apologist for the terrorist or for terrorism, but his oeuvre-wide project to advocate for the preterite at the expense The idea of the author-figure as terrorist, or aspiring to the power of the terrorist, will be examined below, although primarily with a focus on how this concept relates to Bill Gray’s actions. For further examination of the concept see Ryan Simmons, “What Is a Terrorist? Contemporary Authorship, the Unabomber, and Mao II,” Modern Fiction Studies 45, no. 3 (1999): 675–93 and John Rowe, “Mao II and the War on Terrorism,” The South Atlantic Quarterly 103, no. 1 (Winter 2004): 21–30, 37–8. 27 Don DeLillo, Mao II (London: Vintage, 1991), 131. 28 Don DeLillo, Falling Man (London: Picador, 2007), 239. 26



of the elect questions the conventional definition of terrorism.29 In Against the Day, Pynchon’s representation of terrorism departs from Baudrillard’s description of modern terror: “senseless and indeterminate . . . non-explosive, non-historical, non-political terrorism” and in its place assesses terrorism as specifically political, historical, and, indeed, explosive.30 Pynchon refers back to the anarcho-syndicalist struggle for labor rights, and more generally to the anarchist movement, both in the Americas, and in Europe.31 But even in this iteration of terrorism, uncertainties abound, as Lew Basnight appreciates when he realizes that the bombs that explode within Against the Day may have been set off not by the anarchists, but by the elect who would benefit from the turmoil created.32 Terrorism is then, for Pynchon, a historical event, an effect that has its cause both in the present and in the past. *  *  * Throughout this work, two major focuses are returned to throughout. The first being the pressure upon both authors to come to grips with the September 11 attacks in 2001, the second being the resultant pressure on the arts, and literature specifically. It is my contention that despite the tragedy of the September 11 attacks, this event allows both Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo to reassess their own work and their entire field, and to propose a new method for literature. Following on from Lukács’ argument that “form-giving” is the most crucial element of the novelist’s work, both can be said to respond to Lukács’ despairing view of modern literature, when he argued that “[l] iterary development has not yet gone beyond the novel of disillusionment.”33 Neither DeLillo, or Pynchon, exhibits any disillusionment with the world or with their craft. Rather, and in response to the September 11 attacks, they reassert the primacy of their interpretation of the world, and, crucially, the importance of their artistic endeavors, and those of their contemporaries, in grasping to explain, to interpret, and to produce new meaning from the tragedies of September 11, 2001.

See Bernard Duyfhuizen, “‘The Exact Degree of Fictitiousness’: Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day,” Postmodern Culture 17, no. 2 (2007): 14. 30 Jean Baudrillard, “In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities,” in In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, or, The End of the Social and Other Essays, trans. Paul Foss, John Johnston, and Paul Patton (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983), 51. 31 For a discussion of anarchism in Against the Day and Vineland see Seán Molloy, “Escaping the Politics of the Irredeemable Earth—Anarchy and Transcendence in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon,” Theory & Event 13, no. 3 (2010). Graham Benton, who presented an as so far unpublished paper on anarchism in Against the Day at the 2008 International Pynchon Week in Munich, highlights Pynchon’s knowledge and reference to anarchist theory in his “‘This Network of All Plots May Yet Carry Him to Freedom’: Thomas Pynchon and the Political Philosophy of Anarchism,” Oklahoma City University Law Review 24 (1999): 535–56. 32 See Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), 175–8. 33 Lukács, The Theory of the Novel, 151. 29


Mao II: Prefigurations of Terrorist Time

Introduction Don DeLillo’s 1991 novel, Mao II, is DeLillo’s most terrorism-focused novel published before the September 11 attacks on the United States. After September 11 critical attention was renewed in the novel, with some critics emphasizing the prophetic qualities of the text.1 In this chapter I will analyze Mao II in regard to its lengthy consideration of time. Considering the novel’s temporal focus it comes as no surprise to discover that in DeLillo’s notes and drafts for Mao II, held at the Harry Ransom Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, we can see DeLillo’s consideration and analysis of temporality, and a special focus on societal conceptions of time as discussed in George Steiner’s In Bluebeard’s Castle. In this chapter I will explicate how the conceptualization of time that DeLillo develops out of his analysis of Steiner’s work unfolds in Mao II, and how the prophetic paradigm the novel is now interpreted through inflects the temporal focus of the work.

In Bluebeard’s Castle DeLillo’s main notebook kept in preparation for the writing of Mao II returns a number of times to In Bluebeard’s Castle, focusing especially on one quotation that appears to have been very influential on the composition of the novel. DeLillo notes this sentence with interest: “[t]he quickening of time, the new vehemence of private consciousness, the sudden nearness of the messianic future.”2 These lines are from the first chapter of Steiner’s text, “The Great Ennui.” Interestingly, DeLillo does not quote Steiner verbatim, omitting “and historicity” after “vehemence” in the quotation above.3 This omission is an intriguing one, especially considering DeLillo returns to Steiner’s See, for example, Frank Lentricchia and Jody McAuliffe, Crimes of Art + Terror (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 29, and Peter Boxall, Don DeLillo: The Possibility of Fiction (London: Routledge, 2006), 157. 2 DeLillo Archives, Harry Ransom Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, Box 38, Folder 1. 3 See George Steiner, In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes towards the Redefinition of Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971), 14. 1

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comment a number of times in his notebooks. We may consider the omission evidence of DeLillo’s focus on the theoretical manifestations of time as opposed to the historical events Steiner interrogates. Steiner’s text argues that, contrary to many previous interpretations, the period from “the 1820s [to] 1915” is a period of ennui, resulting in an extreme outbreak of violence and aggression throughout the world, manifesting itself in the period of turmoil between 1914 and 1945, including both world wars.4 The so-called 100 years peace, Steiner argues, actually masks a developing and consistent sense of dissatisfaction both within the arts and society in general. The motivation for this building concern is derived, Steiner argues, from a shift in temporality. Time itself is the progenitor of the subsequent violence, especially manifested in a shift in our societal perception of time. During this period the population experienced an acceleration of time—the progress of change was understood to be faster than ever before—new technologies, and the possibilities they facilitated, emerged at a staggering rate. Steiner argues that the importance of this period manifested itself in an understanding that radical changes were taking place, and that these changes were no longer restricted to the elite, but now effected the entire Western population. He writes: As Goethe noted acutely on the field at Valmy, populist armies, the concept of a nation under arms, meant that history had become everyman’s milieu. Henceforth, in Western culture, each day was to bring news.5

Steiner exhibits a similar sentiment regarding the human perception of time. The late nineteenth and early twentieth century being: a time span more crowded, more sharply registered by individual and social sensibility, than any other of which we have reliable record. Hegel could argue, with rigorous logic of feeling, that history itself was passing into a new state of being, that ancient time was at an end.6

History, usually the domain of the past (“ancient time”), was being shifted quickly into the present, a condition that created a maelstrom of concern and confusion as to how time could be understood and interpreted. The previous concepts of past, present, and future were placed under interrogation, for they no longer seemed entirely appropriate, considering the immediacy, and growing speed, of events in this period.

The City: New York City Steiner emphasizes the role the city plays in this acceleration of time, arguing that the primary literary manifestation can be seen in the poetry of Romanticism. Steiner Ibid., 5. Ibid., 13. 6 Ibid., 15. 4 5

Mao II: Prefigurations of Terrorist Time


argues: “[i]n romantic pastoralism there is as much of a flight from the devouring city as there is a return to nature.”7 Steiner develops the same sentiments when he writes: The immense growth of the monetary-industrial complex also brought with it the modern city, what a later poet was to call la ville tentaculaire—the megalopolis whose uncontrollable cellular division and spread now threatens to choke so much of our lives. Hence the definition of a new, major conflict: that between the individual and the stone seas that may, at any moment, overwhelm him. The urban inferno, with its hordes of faceless inhabitants, haunts the nineteenth-century imagination.8

There are obvious parallels to be observed between the period Steiner is analyzing and the present day. Considering the historical immediacy of many of the events that motivate Mao II and the general aura of the 1980s as the decadent era to end all decadence, DeLillo’s motivation for presenting the city with some disdain appears clear. Indeed Mao II, in its analysis of 1980s languor shares many similarities with Donald Antrim’s Elect Mr Robinson for a Better World, and Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. Antrim’s focus is small-town America, but for Easton Ellis, as for DeLillo, New York City, commonly referred to be its residents simply as “the City,” presents itself as the perfect synecdoche for America in its entirety, while also existing as the ultimate world city: the epitome of the “urban inferno.” Mao II’s narrative that operates in the present begins in Chapter 1 after the “At Yankee Stadium” prologue’s narration of Karen’s Moonie wedding, and ties DeLillo’s temporal theorization to the acceleration of time Steiner identifies in the modern city. We encounter Scott, Bill’s assistant, in New York City, waiting to meet Brita, the photographer who will finally reveal Bill Gray to the world after all his years of seclusion. Two incidents within the first pages of this chapter establish the sense of isolation within the city and its alienating effects. The first is, in many ways, reflective of DeLillo’s more comedic approach (viz. White Noise) of the 1980s. As Scott leaves a bookstore he sees: a man in a torn jacket come stumbling in, great-maned and filthy, rimed saliva in his beard, old bruises across the forehead gone soft and crumbly. People stood frozen in mid-motion, careful to remain outside the zone of infection [.  .  .]. It was a large bright room full of stilled figures, eyes averted. Traffic pounded in the street [. . .]. A security guard approached from the mezzanine and the man lifted thick hands in a gesture of explanation. “I’m here to sign my books,” he said.9

Despite the perverse humor of the homeless man encroaching into a city space that he is explicitly excluded from, the reader is simultaneously alerted to the numbing effects of the city. The “zone of infection” is of more concern to the bookstore patrons Ibid., 20 (Steiner’s emphases). Ibid., 18–19. 9 DeLillo, Mao II, 20. 7 8

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than the actual condition of the individual. DeLillo’s conclusion reinforces the ennui at the heart of the city: “People saw it was all right to move again. Just another New York moment.”10 For this very brief period of time the accelerating time of the novel is stopped. A temporal disjunction, which, in its metaphorical nature, argues for the absurd, and accelerated, nature of time within the modern city. A second incident involving Scott reinforces this point. As he moves down a New York street he is confronted by a woman who he believes is trying to force him to take her child. She identifies him as trustworthy simply because he appears not to be a resident of the city. She badgers Scott, telling him: “‘[y]ou’re from out of town so I can talk to you.’”11 She proffers the child to Scott, saying: “‘[t]ake it outside the city, where it’s got a chance to live.’”12 DeLillo establishes, within these two short anecdotal passages, the concerns that exist within the City: how the metropolis operates both on a different temporal and ethical scale to the rest of the United States and to the rest of the West. DeLillo’s narrator observes as these two anecdotes are concluded: “[w]hen there is enough out-of-placeness in the world, nothing is out of place.”13 As Scott and Brita meet for the first time, their collective focus is New York. For Brita, a longtime resident, New York is her “official state religion.”14 Scott’s view of the city, however, as we have already been alerted to, is completely different. They first converse at a revolving bar, able to survey the entire city. When Scott suddenly realizes the bar is moving his disorientation is palpable. He professes confusion as to where they are in the world and Brita responds: “‘Isn’t it strange. New York has fallen.’”15 DeLillo’s allusion to Steiner, both in his notes, and within the novel also, confirms that it is the concept of the city which has fallen. The temporal shifts the city produces engenders the simultaneous sensation of decay, and of existence occurring outside, or in a disjointed, temporality. Scott’s observations to Brita allows DeLillo to emphasize the temporal change in the city: He watched Broadway float into the curved window and felt as if blocks of time and space had come loose and drifted [.  .  .]. The signs for Mita, Midori, Kirin, Magno, Suntory—words that were part of some synthetic mass language, the esperanto of jet lag.16

DeLillo reinforces the sense of temporal disorientation that the city creates, and now incorporates a spatial disjunction as well. The inhabitants of the city, locked in their routinized perception of time, require these forms of shorthand to survive. The section concludes with Scott considering the city once more: “What does Bill say? The city is a device for measuring time.”17 12 13 14 15 16 17 10 11

Ibid. Ibid., 21. Ibid., 22. Ibid. Ibid., 24. Ibid., 23. Ibid. Ibid., 27.

Mao II: Prefigurations of Terrorist Time


Interestingly, DeLillo makes use of a very similar phrase twice in his latest novel, published in 2010, Point Omega. DeLillo writes: “[c]ities were built to measure time, to remove time from nature.”18 And later: “the city that was built to measure time.”19 Obviously this concept is a central one for DeLillo, an understanding of time that seems to resonate for the author.20 For DeLillo, as for Steiner, the temporality of the city is a different temporality to that of the rest of the world. Time and its effects are understood in a different manner within the city. By constructing New York as “a device for measuring time,” DeLillo also emphasizes the critical relationship that exists between the metropolis and time: time exists, and occurs, differently in New York to any other city in the world. When Bill Gray escapes from Scott he does so in the middle of New York. DeLillo’s narrator immediately turns to a description of the sensation of the city to describe the impending acceleration of time. DeLillo writes: The rush of things, of shuffled sights, the mixed swagger of the avenue, noisy storefronts, jewelry spread across the sidewalk, the deep stream of reflections, heads floating in windows, towers liquefied on taxi doors, bodies shivery and elongate, all of it interesting to Bill in the way it blocked comment, the way it simply rushed at him, massively, like your first day in Jalalabad, rushed and was. Nothing tells you what you’re supposed to think of this.21

The acceleration of time implicit in the city has an interesting effect on Bill, limiting his ability with language, the one thing that defines him throughout the novel. Throughout Mao II, Bill is inevitably battling with language: the novel he is working on is never finished, and the writing he undertakes later on in the text is doomed to failure as well. Language, and the production of literature, is obfuscated by the power of time, and the inherent, and accelerating, speed of urban time.22 As DeLillo writes in his notes in preparation for Mao II: “[s]ense of quickened time [. . .] writer trying to keep pace with flying time.”23 For Bill, this is an impossible task: the quickening acceleration of time is something he cannot, finally, keep up with. Bill’s failure to keep up with Don DeLillo, Point Omega (New York: Scribner, 2010), 45. Ibid., 59. There is an example of further resonance with DeLillo’s use of the same concept in Point Omega as in Mao II in DeLillo’s notes to Mao II, where he creates a list of potential titles for the novel that becomes Mao II. His list is, presented as it was written in DeLillo’s notebook:“The Cult Writer Point Omega Mao II Storm King The Bicycle Dead The Shining Path”(DeLillo Archives, Harry Ransom Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, Box 38, Folder 1.)This observation is not intended to argue the similarities between Mao II and Point Omega, but rather to illustrate that the temporal analyses in Point Omega parallel similar lines of thought with those expressed in Mao II. 21 DeLillo, Mao II, 94. 22 Cf. James Gourley, “‘Whenever said said said missaid’: Diminishment in Beckett’s Worstward Ho and DeLillo’s The Body Artist,” in Anthony Uhlmann, ed., Literature and Sensation (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2009), 222–4. DeLillo, in his analysis of the Tuttle character from The Body Artist makes a pertinent observation on the power of time, writing: “Time itself is a culture [. . .] deeper than language or customs.” DeLillo Archives, Harry Ransom Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, Box 6, Folder 5. 23 DeLillo Archives, Harry Ransom Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, Box 38, Folder 1. 18 19 20


Terrorism and Temporality

time is ordained from the moment Bill sneaks from Scott’s care and loses himself in New York’s “noontime crowd.”24 DeLillo has observed “[t]he future belongs to crowds.”25 The crowd is the exemplar of the acceleration of time resulting from the exponential growth of the metropolis. Despite Bill moving willingly into the crowd, from this moment on the reader apprehends that Bill’s struggled with time will never be successful.26 Indeed, the “futurity” of crowds can be contrasted with George Haddad’s view, in which he argues “that history is passing into the hands of the crowd.”27 The dual pressures of the future, and history residing in the future, illustrate the temporal disjunction at the heart of Gray’s narrative.28 Surrendering to time leads Bill into the second half of the novel, and ultimately to his death. This is not the last time that New York figures in Mao II. A formative moment in DeLillo’s conceptualization of New York and urban temporality occurs earlier in the novel, as Brita conducts her photoshoot with Bill. He is intrigued by New York and asks Brita to describe it to him. DeLillo writes: Where I live, okay, there’s a rooftop chaos, a jumble, four, five, six, seven storeys, and it’s water tanks, laundry lines, antennas, belfries, pigeon lofts, chimney pots, everything human about the lower island—little crouched gardens, statuary, painted signs. And I wake up to this and love it and depend on it. But it’s all being flattened and hauled away so they can build their towers.29

There is a certain sense of irony in Brita’s description of her vision of New York encompassing “everything human.” And yet, the way DeLillo constructs this section, it is as if the reader can be led to believe that the city is a natural thing, the antithesis of Steiner’s arguments.30 Bill response to Brita’s description points out, however, that this irony is unsustainable: “‘[e]ventually the towers will seem human and local and quirky. Give them time.’”31 DeLillo argues, in fact, that the urbanization of New York, as evidence of Steiner’s argument of the acceleration of time, will never be familiar. Rather, the gradual numbing of the populace requires acceptance of less and less familiarity exactly because of the acceleration of time. Bill and Brita’s conversation continues, showing the denial of community that is explicitly related to the quickening of time. DeLillo writes: DeLillo, Mao II, 103. Ibid., 16. 26 Despite Bill’s ease in falling in with the crowd, the crowd does not always imply futurity. See Boxall, Don DeLillo, 161–3. 27 DeLillo, Mao II, 162. 28 Cf. Cowart, Don DeLillo, 119. 29 DeLillo, Mao II, 39. 30 There is an insistent similarity in the discussion between Bill and Brita of the City, and of the World Trade Center, with the description of the Twin Towers as “no less transient for all their bulk than some routine distortion of light” which DeLillo proposes in Players. See Don DeLillo, Players (London: Vintage, 1991 [1977]), 19. 31 DeLillo, Mao II, 39. 24 25

Mao II: Prefigurations of Terrorist Time


“I’ll go and hit my head against the wall. You tell me when to stop.” “You’ll wonder what made you mad.” “I already have the World Trade Center.” “And it’s already harmless and ageless. Forgotten-looking. And think how much worse.” “What?” she said. “If there was only one tower instead of two.” “You mean they interact. There is a play of light.” “Wouldn’t a single tower be much worse?” “No, because my big complaint is only partly size. The size is deadly. But having two of them is like a comment, it’s like a dialogue, only I don’t know what they’re saying.” “They’re saying, ‘Have a nice day,’” “Someday, go walk those streets,” she said. “Sick and dying people with nowhere to live and there are bigger and bigger towers all the time, fantastic buildings with miles of rentable space. All the space is inside. Am I exaggerating?”32

Bill maintains his ironic tone, full of the bravado that leads him to escape from Scott and emerge into New York. Despite the struggle against time that DeLillo plans for Bill in his notes, he engages with the urban city without thought at this stage of the novel. It is interesting to note, however, that in an earlier draft of Brita’s speech DeLillo develops Brita’s views fundamentally differently, and focuses again on Brita’s concern with the emblematic buildings of New York City: the World Trade Center complex. DeLillo writes: “I’m convinced they built two towers to make some awful point about thought control or state terror. show us what thought control looks like in its purest state.” [. . .] They built the first tower to show us what thought control looks like in its pure state. They built the second tower to put it into practice.33

This notation to DeLillo’s first draft obviously was not exactly what DeLillo was looking to say (especially noting that the entire section has been crossed out, as indicated above). We can see, however, that Brita’s characterization is altered by a consideration of the power of the World Trade Center. Further, the Towers stand as an example of the power of America as a whole. In the published copy of this section of dialogue, Brita’s confusion at her final conclusion (“I don’t know what they’re saying”), suggests she herself does not apprehend the process of accelerated time, nor the power that the Towers, and New York as a whole, exerts on its inhabitants.34 Ibid., 39–40. DeLillo Archives, Harry Ransom Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, Box 39, Folder 3. 34 A large number of critics have focused on the figure of the terrorist as a possibility for recuperating art after September 11. This work ties the supposed “prophetic” nature of Mao II with a desire to reassert the primacy of literature. See, for example, Adam Thurschwell, “Writing and Terror: Don DeLillo on the Task of Literature after 9/11,” Law and Literature 19, no. 2 (2007): 281–6, and Rowe, “Mao II and the War on Terrorism,” 26–9. 32 33


Terrorism and Temporality

Time, terror, and art Implicit in my argument above is DeLillo’s proposition that with the acceleration of time, the possibility of terror is heightened. Indeed, DeLillo poses a question during his research in preparation for Mao II, which is emblematic of this next section. He writes: “If time accelerates, does terror result?”35 This question is addressed throughout Mao II. In the same way that the acceleration of time is made manifest in the metropolis, the acceleration of time pushes society toward terror.36 Brita’s revelatory photoshoot with Bill effectively anticipates this concept, as it does in their discussion of New York. Brita travels constantly, making her the target of DeLillo’s “esperanto of jet lag.” Before a terrorist act has even been contemplated in the novel, Brita anticipates the possibility in conversation with Bill, saying: “‘there is no moment on certain days when I’m not thinking terror.’”37 She continues: They have us in their power. In boarding areas I never sit near windows in case of flying glass. I carry a Swedish passport so that’s okay unless you believe that terrorists killed the prime minister. Then maybe it’s not so good. And I use codes in my address book for names and addresses of writers because how can you tell if the name of a certain writer is dangerous to carry, some dissident, some Jew or blasphemer. I’m careful about reading matter. Nothing religious comes with me, no books with religious symbols on the jacket and no pictures of guns or sexy women. That’s on the one hand. On the other hand I know in my heart I’m going to die of some dreadful slow disease so you’re safe with me on a plane.38

Brita’s care in her travel is a result of the acceleration of time, manifesting itself in the heightened possibility of terrorism. DeLillo expresses this neatly at the end of the excerpt above when he contrasts the speed of an aeroplane with the slow death that she anticipates. It is as if Brita believes that death itself is one of the few phenomena that is not subject to the acceleration of time. Brita also signifies, in her conversations with Bill, as a form of artistic muse, the two artists, photographer and writer, engaging because of their shared understanding of artistic practice, and the challenges this practice is being placed under by the acceleration of time. It is instructive, then, that Bill unfolds into speech and delivers one of the more quoted-from arguments within the novel. DeLillo writes: There’s a curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists. In the West we became famous effigies as our books lose the power to shape and influence. Do you ask your writers how they feel about this? Years ago I used to think it was possible for DeLillo Archives, Harry Ransom Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, Box 38, Folder 1. For a clear analysis of the relationship between terror and art, and the slippage between a twentiethand twenty-first-century conception of terrorism, see Leonard Wilcox, “Terrorism and Art: Don DeLillo’s Mao II and Jean Baudrillard’s The Spirit of Terrorism,” Mosaic 39, no. 2 (2006): 89. 37 DeLillo, Mao II, 40–1. 38 Ibid., 41. 35 36

Mao II: Prefigurations of Terrorist Time


a novelist to alter the inner life of culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated.39

We can hear in this passage an echo of Salman Rushdie and his experiences suffering at the hands of what DeLillo and Paul Auster called the “tightened [. . .] binds between language and religious dogma.”40 And yet, this passage is intensely personal, the beginning of DeLillo’s characterization of Bill Gray that not only presents him as a writer struggling against the diminishing power of art and the growing influence of terrorism, but also against the acceleration of time that is central to the novel.41 As quoted above, DeLillo observes in his notes that Bill Gray is the “writer trying to keep pace with flying time.” Indeed, DeLillo makes this even clearer in a note made shortly after: How terrorism mocks the writer; effects change in consciousness, making the writer seem harmless, overshadowing his efforts to cause a shift in the nature of his time.42

Bill Gray’s character, then, emerges from the same tradition as the Romanticists Steiner cites in In Bluebeard’s Castle. Through this relationship, DeLillo develops the purpose of art to reclaim narrative as something personal, rather than totalizing. DeLillo returns to Steiner in his notes, quoting from In Bluebeard’s Castle: “The artist becomes hero. In a society made inert by repressive authority, the work of art becomes the quintessential deed.”43 After quoting Steiner DeLillo continues with his own thoughts: Or: The terrorist becomes the secret hero. In a society made inert by glut and bloat, the work of terror becomes the only meaningful act.44

Continuing on, DeLillo makes a similar argument, linking artists and terrorists, but also with the suggestion of a third element: a struggle against prevailing culture: Secret envy of artist for terrorist. The terrorist commits acts that can’t be absorbed and forgotten so easily. The terrorist makes an impact without irony, mockery, ambiguity, etc.45 Ibid. Don DeLillo and Paul Auster, “Salman Rushdie Defense Pamphlet,” www.perival.com/delillo/ rushdie_defense.html 41 For an extended analysis of DeLillo’s participation in the movement to exonerate Rushdie from the fatwa placed upon him, and the relationship between these events and Mao II, see Margaret Scanlan, “Writers Among Terrorists: Don DeLillo’s Mao II and the Rushdie Affair,” Modern Fiction Studies 40, no. 2 (1994): 229–52. 42 DeLillo Archives, Harry Ransom Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, Box 38, Folder 1. 43 Steiner, In Bluebeard’s Castle, 21. DeLillo’s note from DeLillo Archives, Harry Ransom Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, Box 38, Folder 1. 44 DeLillo Archives, Harry Ransom Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, Box 38, Folder 1 (DeLillo’s emphasis). 45 Ibid. 39 40


Terrorism and Temporality

It is obvious that DeLillo’s notes in preparation for Mao II strongly influence the comparison between art and terror within the novel. What is apparently excised from the novel itself is the more specific links between Bill’s novel, and indeed Bill’s writing in general, and these arguments. The reader may perceive that these links are implicitly made through the terrorist narrative in which the young Swiss writer is held hostage by a shadowy terrorist organization, their ultimate target being Bill himself. Considering Bill’s own novel, it is useful to consider the struggles with time he has always experienced in his writing. A subtle shift in Bill’s perception of temporality is communicated by DeLillo: “Used to be that time rushed down on him when he started a book, time fell and pressed, then lifted when he finished. Now it wasn’t lifting.”46 The acceleration of time has finally made Bill its subject: he can no longer escape the effects of time, be it manifested in his illnesses and self-medication, the novel that he cannot finish, or his desire to assist the Swiss writer being held hostage. In Bill’s final succumbing to the power of time we can see again that what results, both in the narrative, and conceptually, is a resulting growth in the power of terror.

Death and time If we can’t think of space without time, we can’t think of time without death.47

DeLillo’s temporal focus not only considers the effect of accelerating time on the metropolis and on art. Indeed, much of Mao II seeks to analyze these relationships and extend them, with Mao II finally concerned with the relationship between time and death. DeLillo’s major exposition of the relationship between time and death is expressed in chapter 12, halfway through part two of the novel. Part two is prefaced by a picture of what appears to be a section of the mourning crowd at the funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini (that took place on June 4, 1989).48 In fact, the picture details a “demonstration of bassadjis (Islamic volunteer soldiers) at the city stadium” in 1986.49 DeLillo introduces the nexus between time and death with reference to the crowds he has examined previously in Mao II. DeLillo writes, observing Karen and Brita watching the events of Khomeini’s funeral unfold on television: It was the body of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini lying in a glass case set on a high platform above crowds that stretched for miles. The camera could not absorb the full breadth of the crowd. The camera kept panning but could not inch all that way 48 49 46 47

DeLillo, Mao II, 54. DeLillo Archives, Harry Ransom Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, Box 38, Folder 1. See DeLillo, Mao II, 105. This is the description of the photograph for sale on the photographer, Jean Maumy’s, website. See www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=ViewBox_VPage&VBID=2K1HZS6SZOZOZ&IT=Zoom Image01_VForm&IID=2S5RYD1APRMZ&ALID=2TYRYDW9HV51&PN=17&CT=Album, last accessed March 22, 2012.

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out to the edge of the anguished mass. On the screen the crowd has no edge or limit and kept on spreading.50

Immediately after DeLillo’s description of the funeral, the reader is lead to a discussion of time and death, and an intriguing discussion of Karen’s apparent ability to manipulate conventional time because of Khomeini’s death. DeLillo writes: The voice said, Crowds estimated, and the picture showed the crowds of mourners and Karen could go backwards into their lives, see them coming out of their houses and shanties, streams of people, then backwards even further, sleeping in their beds, hearing the morning call to prayer, coming out of their houses and meeting in some dusty square to march out of the slums together.51

Karen is able to see time from a different perspective, delving back into what we understand as the past. I write “what we understand as the past” because Karen’s idiosyncratic view of time suggests that past, present, and future are all intertwined in the same concept, collapsed into a multidimensional temporality, the moment of Khomeini’s funeral pushing time itself toward immanence.52 Karen’s disjunctive experience of time manifested in her imaginative investigation of the mourners is replicated by her own temporal confusion. The televised report Karen and Brita are watching manipulates time, melding Khomeini’s death and funeral together. DeLillo’s first reference to the event represents the day of the Ayatollah’s death on June 3, 1989. The funeral takes place on the next day, June 4. The technological manipulation of time takes Karen aback: The voice said, Rivers of humanity, and Karen realized this was the next day now, the funeral, with crowds estimated at three million and everybody dressed in black.53

DeLillo’s representation of the crowds mourning Khomeini’s death mirrors the crowds of Moonies participating in their mass wedding at the beginning of the novel, the first scene in which the reader encounters Karen, and an event that provides a personal resonance for DeLillo’s character. DeLillo describes the experiences of that crowd in a similar style, emphasizing the power of time as subjectifying, but also returning to the acceleration of time: [T]here is a sense those chanting thousands have, wincing in the sun, that the future is pressing in, collapsing toward them, that they are everywhere surrounded by signs of the fated landscape and human struggle of the Last Days.54 DeLillo, Mao II, 188. Ibid. 52 Karen’s experience of time can be understood as reflective of her experience with the Moonie’s at the beginning of the novel. See especially Cowart’s discussion of the Moonie concept of “hurry-up time” in his Don DeLillo, 173. 53 DeLillo, Mao II, 188. 54 Ibid., 7. 50 51

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As DeLillo’s description of Khomeini’s funeral continues the parallels between the mourning described and the Moonie mass wedding at the beginning of the novel become clearer. The religious fervor of both events precipitates a shift in time: for the crowd, a sense of time becoming clearer and more concrete, whether it be the future coming closer, or the past encroaching. DeLillo’s statement that “the future belongs to crowds” might be modified in Mao II, to “time belongs to the crowd.” The crowds that have gathered in mourning for the Ayatollah appear, to Karen, to exist outside of time. Karen thinks to herself on seeing the television pictures of the extent of the crowds that “they were like pictures of a thousand years ago, [of] some great city falling clamorously to siege.”55 The mourning crowds not only remind Karen of the past, but also provoke her into a strange temporal manipulation, in which the images on the television screen lead her into consideration of the mourner’s past. We read: The living were trying to bring the dead man back among them. Karen’s hands were over her mouth. The living forced their way into the burial site, bloodying their heads and tearing at their hair, choking in the thick dust, and the body of Khomeini rested in a flimsy box, a kind of litter with low sides, and Karen found she could go into the slums of south Teheran, backwards into people’s lives, and hear them saying, We have lost our father. All the dispossessed waking to the morning call. Sorrow, sorrow is this day.56

DeLillo emphasizes the empathetic horror that Karen feels for Khomeini’s mourner’s. The trauma invoked in this section is palpable, especially in comparison to the sometimes emotionless attitudes of other characters. The power of Khomeini’s death, and the power he held over such a large population motivates Karen’s ability to see into the past. It is important to note that DeLillo specifically constructs the visceral reaction not as a mourning for the past, but for the future, a future without the guidance of their spiritual “father.” DeLillo’s emphasis of the link between time and death is not only manifested in Karen’s ability to manipulate time during her observation of the crowds mourning for the Ayatollah, but is also pursued through an analysis of the causal and philosophical links between time and death. As DeLillo imagines the responses of the mourners, the disjunctive causation that exists within this section is reemphasized. He writes: The living do not accept the fact that their father is dead. They want him back among them. He should be the last among them to die. They should be dead, not him. [. . .] The living beat themselves and bled. They ripped the funeral shroud and tried to take the dead man into their tide, their living wave, and reverse the course of time so that he lives.57 Ibid., 189. Ibid. 57 Ibid. 55 56

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Khomeini’s followers, in their earnestness, occupy an analogous position to the Moonies’ worship of Rev. Moon, and most crucially Bill Gray’s readers to the author. The incipient death of Bill drives the novel’s engagement with time. The futility of attempting to “reverse the course of time” as Khomeini’s followers attempt is the most productive irony of Mao II, and provides insight into DeLillo’s note that the writer must always struggle against time. Gray’s wider concern is the destruction of literary narrative that he observes in modern society. During the drafting of Mao II, DeLillo made a series of notes that reveal despair at the changing nature of narrative. He writes: News of disaster is the only narrative people need. The darker the news, the grander the narrative. News is the last addiction before what? I don’t know. Maybe no news.58

Karen’s previous experiences place her outside the conventional response to the narrative of disaster; reinforced by the temporally disjunctive perspective she maintains as she watches the mourner’s with horror. DeLillo’s note finds a subtle accord with Karen’s amazement at the news bulletin: Karen could not imagine who else was watching this. It could not be real if others watched. If other people watched, if millions watched, if these millions matched the number on the Iranian plain, doesn’t it mean we share something with the mourners, know an anguish, feel something pass between us, hear the sigh of some historic grief? She turned and saw Brita leaning back on the far arm of the sofa, calmly smoking. This is the woman who talked about needing people to believe for her, seeing people bleeding for their faith, and she is calmly sitting in this frenzy of a nation and a race. If others saw these pictures, why is nothing changed, where are the local crowds, why do we still have names and addresses and car keys?59

Karen’s response to the news broadcast is at odds not only with Brita’s, but with the reaction of the Western world. The disaster newsfeed is addictive while the affect of the event is emptied out; Karen’s horrified response and her awareness of the timeliness of this event distinguishes her from the rest of the crowd. The Western crowd owns the future, while Karen’s imagining of the Iranian crowd sends her insistently into the past. While Karen reacts to the Iranian mourners with such sympathy, her response to the conventional news narrative is different. Watching a news bulletin: There were times she became lost in the dusty light, observing some survivor of a national news disaster, there’s the lonely fuselage smoking in a field, and she was able to study the face and shade into it at the same time, even sneak half a second ahead, inferring the strange dazed grin or gesturing hand, which made her seem involved not just in the coverage but in the terror that came blowing through the fog.60 DeLillo Archives, Harry Ransom Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, Box 39, Folder 3. DeLillo, Mao II, 191. 60 Ibid., 117. 58 59

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The modern manifestation of terror, using Bill’s formulation, “midair explosions and crumbled buildings,” leads even the sensitive Karen into the future. The only possible movement of time is further into the future, the temporal pressure constantly impinging on the West. The attention DeLillo pays to the Ayatollah’s funeral, and Karen’s temporal manipulation implies a distinction between East and West, and between the futurity of the West and the tradition of the East. DeLillo emphasizes this distinction in later novels. In the following section we will see that Bill Gray’s travels from west to east will lead him not only toward his death, but toward a heightened experience of time.

Death and the novel As I have investigated above, DeLillo links the acceleration of time both with the imminence of death, and the ongoing threat of terrorism. The threat of terror is not just a challenge to the world, but also very personally to the writer. In the following section I will examine these threats and their relationship to two manifestations of the written word: Bill Gray’s constantly withheld (and constantly rewritten) novel, and the poet, Jean-Claude, held hostage by a shadowy terrorist organization. During Bill’s revelatory photoshoot with Brita, DeLillo makes clear the peculiar relationship between the terrorist act and the act of writing he envisions. Bill Gray states: There’s a curious knot that binds terrorists and novelists. In the West we become effigies as our books lose the power to shape and influence [. . .]. Years ago I used to think that it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated.61

During the same conversation he argues again that writing is losing its power to terror: [W]e’re giving way to terror, to news of terror, to tape recorders and cameras, to radios, to bombs stashed in radios. News of disaster is the only narrative people need. The darker the news, the grander the narrative.62

Later in the novel, Bill proposes a similar argument. His attitude is influenced now by a true experience of terrorism; he has seen a bomb explode in a room he was moments away from standing in. He sees the terrorist act as “completely logical.”63 He states: What terrorists gain, novelists lose. The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous. Ibid., 41. Ibid., 42. 63 Ibid., 155. 61 62

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[. . .] Beckett is the last writer to shape the way we think and see. After him, the major work involves midair explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative.64

Gray is not merely suggesting that the action novel has superseded more serious literature, but that our conception of narrative has shifted, dominated by cinematic expression that dominates the “sensibility” of the novel. Bill’s concern for the weakening of novelistic power is personal; his work in progress looms throughout Mao II, a continually deferred guillotine blade hanging above Bill’s exposed neck. From the day of Bill’s photoshoot with Brita, his pain is revealed. His work on the work-in-progress for the day is described as: “the scant drip, the ooze of speckled matter, the blood sneeze, the daily pale secretion, the bits of human tissue sticking to the page.”65 Bill’s writing is visceral, a painful struggle to drag from the body art which will have his desired effect on society. In Gray’s formulation of writing as a painful extrication from the body the reader can identify a number of resonances with Samuel Beckett’s writing, seen, for example, in Worstward Ho as the “ooze” that stands in for language.66 Beckett writes: “[o]oze back try worsen blanks.”67 This “ooze” is both language and the body, the crippling effort required of Beckett (and the author as cipher) to attempt to express satisfactorily. We can see a similar comparison between the body and language in the often quoted “German Letter of 1937,” in which Beckett argues for a “literature of the unword”:68 As we cannot eliminate language all at once, we should at least leave nothing undone that might contribute to its falling into disrepute. To bore one hole after another in it, until what lurks behind it—be it something or nothing—begins to seep through; I cannot imagine a higher goal for a writer today.69

Beckett’s system requires violence against language, a viscerality Bill directs against his own body. Indeed, we can see the violence that Bill forces upon his body in his frustrated desire to complete his novel, and the self-medication this requires. Once Bill escapes from Scott, from his cloistered and controlled life, his self-medication emerges more insistently throughout the narrative. Bill attempts to numb himself, and the insistent pain of his work-in-progress, through a speculative combination of different drugs. After the photoshoot with Brita, returning to his work he feels “an old watery moan deep in the body” which inflames his desire for Ibid., 157. Ibid., 28. 66 See Samuel Beckett, “Worstward Ho,” in Nohow On: Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho (New York: Grove Press, 1996), 107–8. 67 Ibid., 110. 68 Samuel Beckett, “German Letter of 1937 (to Axel Kaun),” in Ruby Cohn, ed., Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment (London: John Calder, 2001), 173. 69 Ibid., 172 (my emphasis). 64 65

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“some pink-and-yellow fluoride multivitamins.”70 Again, the work-in-progress is personified, manifesting itself not only in Bill’s various ailments, but emerging as a figure in Bill’s mind: a neutered near-human [. . .] humpbacked, hydrocephalic, with puckered lips and soft skin, dribbling brain fluid from its mouth. Took him all these years to realize this book was his hated adversary.71

After escaping from Scott, the medication is slightly sinister, “precut segments of three brands of amphetamine tablets.”72 As he recedes further from his former life, his desire for self-medication grows stronger. DeLillo describes the widening range of medicines Gray desires: Depressants, anti-depressants, sleep-inducers, speed-makers, diuretics, antibiotics, heart-starters, muscle relaxants. In front of him now were three kinds of sedatives and a single pink cortical steroid for intractable skin itches.73

All these different concoctions, and the different combinations possible, allow Bill to: shop among the colors for some altering force that might get him past a momentary panic or some mischance of the body or take him safely through the long evening tides, the western end of the day, a wash of desperation coming over him.74

The self-medication that Bill conducts is inevitably related to the panic and distress the work-in-progress continually generates within him. There is a perplexing relationship between Bill’s desire for self-medication and the predicament of Jean-Claude the Swiss poet-hostage. Bill’s medication seems primarily aimed at preventing a sort of temporal vertigo, to resist the power of the work-in-progress, and how it keeps pulling Bill, both back to the desk, and back into the temporality of writing. For Jean-Claude, however, no relief is available: for him, time is insistent and immediately present.

Jean-Claude and Bill DeLillo’s first reference to Jean-Claude, in free indirect discourse, makes the centrality of time to his experience clear. This is the same experience of time that Bill encounters 73 74 70 71 72

DeLillo, Mao II, 53, 54. Ibid., 55. Ibid., 103. Ibid., 122. Ibid., 123.

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through the powerful temporality of his work-in-progress, and the one he attempts to defer through his self-medication. DeLillo describes Jean-Claude’s experience: Time became peculiar, the original thing that is always there. It seeped into his fever and delirium, into the question of who he was. When he spat up blood he watched the pink thing slug into the drain and it carried time quivering in it.75

Jean-Claude’s experience describes almost exactly the same experience that Bill has had. While Jean-Claude is a hostage, Bill is a hostage to his work-in-progress, sneezing onto his page blood-filled mucus as he attempts to continue work on his novel.76 As such, the reader must be led to think that Jean-Claude’s experience of time correlates with Bill’s: the two hostages, for writing and for terrorism, experiencing a forceful and dominant temporality which is at the heart of DeLillo’s investigation of time in Mao II. Indeed, DeLillo has noted the centrality of time to the figure of the hostage. In his Mao II notebook DeLillo asks himself: Why does terrorism make an impact while mass murder does not? Because it’s calculated, not random; because it’s often played out over days and weeks; because hostages are kept for years.77

Both Bill and Jean-Claude’s existence is intimately focused on time. As hostages, both to literature and to terrorism (both alternatives apply to both characters), their existence is at once timeless and endlessly unfinished. Their experiences of time are inflected by the fact that the duration of their experiences can only be altered by death or release. So, for Jean-Claude, the experience of time is everywhere: “[t]ime permeated the air and food. The black ant crawling up his leg carried time’s enormity, the old slow all-knowing pace.”78 The terrorist’s torture of Jean-Claude provides, perhaps, the most revealing commentary on time throughout the novel. DeLillo writes that “[t]he pain extended long past the boy’s departure from the room. This was part of the structure of time, how time and pain became inseparable.”79 Thus, for Jean-Claude, as for Bill. The pain that Bill experiences, both the bodily pain, and the mental mortification of his work-in-progress, oozing and painful, are intimately related to time. As we see throughout the narrative of Mao II, despite the painful efforts of both Jean-Claude and Bill, the struggle against being the subject of time is futile. Jean-Claude fades from the narrative, while Bill’s life ends, subject at the end both to the terrorist plot and to his own never-ending novel. DeLillo’s theorization of time, terror, and art have shifted fundamentally throughout Mao II: the power of art is constantly under attack. This attack is the 78 79 75 76 77

Ibid., 107. See ibid., 55. DeLillo Archives, Harry Ransom Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, Box 38, Folder 1. DeLillo, Mao II, 107. Ibid., 108.


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defining reason for Bill’s decision to participate in Charlie Everson’s scheme to assist Jean-Claude. Bill’s decision is a reflection of his ultimate view of the power of language and of the novel: The language of my books has shaped me as a man. There’s a moral force in a sentence when it comes out right. It speaks the writer’s will to live [. . .]. This book and these years have worn me down. I’ve forgotten what it means to write [. . .] I’ve lacked courage and perseverance. Exhausted. Sick of struggling [. . .] I’m sitting on a book that’s dead.80

Despite the failure of his work-in-progress, the writer constantly claims, as DeLillo lays out, the desire to “effect a change in consciousness.” This fight is however, according to Gray’s despairing attitude, always doomed to failure, a reflection of the inherent failure of the work of art itself. The waning of art heralds the waxing of terrorism. DeLillo figures this as a clash, writing: “Terrorism is not a piece of global theater; it’s an attack on theater, on global communications, on the idea.”81 The desire to maintain the power of thought, of the idea, is the final struggle of Bill Gray’s life, and motivates his journey from the West to the East, and to his death.

New York to Beirut: Bill Gray’s journey toward death Irony immediately inflects the exchanges between Bill Gray and his longtime publisher, Charlie Everson. Bill’s virtual disappearance has extended to the businesses through which his work was disseminated. In their first meeting in many years Everson immediately identifies a change in his star author, saying: “‘[y]ou look like a writer. You never used to. Took all these years.’”82 The image that Bill Gray now embodies is, in fact, an image of failure, just as Bill’s work-in-progress haunts the author, a deformed sub-human being. DeLillo’s ironic eye, however, is not only focused on Bill. Everson is encapsulated entertainingly; DeLillo writes: The custom suit. The traditional loud tie that preserved a link to collegiate fun, that reminded people he was still Charlie E. and this was still supposed to be the book business, not global war through laser technology.83

DeLillo’s ironic vision relates writing and terror, manifested this time in the terror of the global corporation, rather than the terrorist act. The visual depiction of Everson Ibid., 48. There is a moment of congruity here with DeLillo’s own views on writing. In a 1982 interview with Thomas LeClair, DeLillo stated: “Over the years it’s possible for a writer to shape himself as a human being through the language he uses.” Thomas LeClair, “An Interview with Don DeLillo,” Contemporary Literature 23, no. 1 (1982): 23. 81 DeLillo Archives, Harry Ransom Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, Box 38, Folder 1. 82 DeLillo, Mao II, 95. 83 Ibid., 96. 80

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is at odds with his later embrace of terrorist methodologies, reinforcing the irony not only of his own dress but his comparison to Bill also. Everson’s aims are not always clear, although the reader quickly realizes that high-minded ideas for the defense of free expression are subordinated in his mind to the importance of securing Bill Gray’s next manuscript. His warm words of encouragement to Bill drip with irony: You have a twisted sense of the writer’s place in society. You think the writer belongs at the far margin, doing dangerous things. In Central America, writers carry guns. They have to. And this has always been your idea of the way it ought to be. The state should want to kill all writers. Every government, every group that holds power or aspires to power should feel so threatened by writers that they hunt them down, everywhere.84

Everson’s flattery of Bill and his mouthing of sentiments Bill wholeheartedly agrees in confirms the final opposition between the characters’ viewpoints. What Charlie sees as twisted (and the opposite of his commercial focus) is established as Bill’s final desire, to reclaim writing’s power. Charlie reveals Jean-Claude’s capture, and the plan he has hatched to mastermind the young poets’ release. The plan allows Bill Gray to revel in a sense of power, his name and his occupation being reinvested with symbolic and actual power. Charlie calls for: [A] news conference, small and tightly controlled. Day after tomorrow in London. We talk about the captive writer. We talk about the group that has him. And then I announce that the hostage is being freed at that moment on live television in Beirut.85

Everson is intent on creating a spectacle, hijacking the methodology of the terrorist and creating an event which confirms that “[n]ews is the last addiction.”86 Ultimately, Everson’s plan illustrates that his supposedly “high-minded” group is indeed little more than the Western manifestation of terrorist methodology, seeking to harness the media for an informational gain. Charlie’s original lack of scruples, embodied in his rampant focus on the bottom line, is doubled here with the brazenness of his plan. After traveling to London for the news conference, the incipient failure of Everson’s plan is linked to the inevitable failure of Bill’s work-in-progress. The first venue for the press conference has to be rejected after the site begins to receive anonymous bomb threats.87 The theatricality of Everson’s plan begins to unravel as the shadowy (and far more visceral) forces of terrorism amass. Everson arranges a second location, which he and Gray travel to, accompanied by the police, before this venue receives bomb threats 86 87 84 85

Ibid., 97. Ibid., 98. DeLillo Archives, Harry Ransom Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, Box 39, Folder 3. DeLillo, Mao II, 121.


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as well. Bill and Charlie are evacuated, and wait across the road “for the bomb unit to arrive and search the building.”88 DeLillo describes Bill’s reaction to this imposition: The point is control [. . .]. They want to believe they have the power to move us out of a building and into the street. In their minds they see a hundred people trooping down the fire stairs [. . .]. Some people make bombs, some people make phone calls.89

Despite Bill’s assurance DeLillo immediately draws us back to the irony of the entire scenario, as terrorism finally manifests itself, not this time in phone calls but in an explosion. The terrorist act intervenes in Everson’s plans, the suave businessman in the same limbo as Bill’s work-in-progress. The conflict is further complicated by Everson’s increasingly obvious motivation for Bill’s involvement in his plan: not only is Bill a seductive media presence, but their time together is time Charlie can spend convincing Bill to finally hand over the endlessly deferred manuscript. Despite Everson’s increasingly vociferous demands,90 Bill’s reaction is uninterested: “‘I’d just as soon have my books rot when I do. Why should they outlive me? They’re the reason I’m dying before my time.’”91 Bill is dying not only because of his struggle with his latest novel, but also because of the subordinated position literature and art are assuming. The growing power of terrorism means that his life is under threat. As Everson’s plan becomes less and less tenable, he introduces Bill to the terrorists’ intermediary, George Haddad. The reader discovers the depths of complicity in the sinister power of the “multinational publisher” that Charlie represents. Bill protests the innocence of the Swiss poet, and George’s reply reasserts the nexus between terrorist and novelist that is at the heart of the novel: Of course he’s innocent. That’s why they took him. It’s such a simple idea. Terrorize the innocent. The more heartless they are, the better we see their rage. And isn’t it the novelist, Bill, above all people, above all writers, who understands this rage, who knows in his soul what the terrorist thinks and feels? Through history it’s the novelist who has felt affinity for the violent man who lives in the dark. Where are your sympathies? With the colonial police, the occupier, the rich landlord, the corrupt government, the militaristic state? Or with the terrorist? And I don’t abjure the word even if it has a hundred meanings. It’s the only honest word to use.92

The diminishing power of the novelist makes the violent act of the terrorist captivating, providing the novelist with the enticing possibility of recapturing the power that their kind used to maintain.93 The power of terror is reinforced by Haddad’s comparison 90 91 92 93 88 89

Ibid., 124. Ibid., 124–5. See ibid., 133. Ibid., 128. Ibid., 129–30. Cf. Lentricchia and McAuliffe, Crimes of Art + Terror, 22–7.

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of London and Beirut. He argues: “‘Beirut has learned from the West. Beirut is tragic but still breathing. London is the true rubble.’”94 The West has become a victim of the acceleration of time, with London mirroring the declining power of the novelist; DeLillo contrasts this with the vitality of war-torn Beirut, despite the city being a “terrorist stronghold.” As Bill is lured to Beirut by Haddad, his work-in-progress is personified again, illustrating the final failure it is rapidly becoming. Bill’s novel is a looming presence, and one that cannot be ignored. DeLillo describes Gray’s work-in-progress: “[h]is book, smelling faintly of baby drool, was just outside the door. He heard it moan solemnly, the same grave sound that welled in his gut.”95 Gray’s physical degradation, and his quickening slide into ill health and death is mirrored by the intensifying presence and pain of the work-in-progress itself. As Bill departs for Athens to begin a dialogue with Haddad, the narrator concludes: “For the first time [Bill] thought about the hostage.”96 We realize that Bill’s action are only tangentially related to Jean-Claude; his focus is to reassert the power of the writer. After Bill arrives in Athens he considers Jean-Claude, who had so recently become an imagined figure rather than the means to an end. Gray’s motivations prior to this point did not really consider the hostage, but rather focused on the conceptual question of how Jean-Claude’s example illustrated the power shift between terrorists and writers. DeLillo describes Bill’s thoughts: He tried to put himself there, in the heat and pain, outside the nuance of civilized anxiety. He wanted to imagine what it was like to know extremes of isolation. Solitude by the gun. He read Jean-Claude’s poems many times. The man remained invisibly Swiss. Bill tried to see his face, hair, eye color, he saw room color, faded paint on the walls. He pictured precise objects, he made them briefly shine with immanence, a bowl for food, a spoon constructed out of thought, perception, memory, feeling, will and imagination.97

DeLillo portrays Bill’s imaginative faculties, his creative ability with word and image. The reader finally encounters the depths of Gray’s literary talent in the very moments that his writing is foundering toward failure. Bill’s reconsideration of Jean-Claude’s predicament facilitates an all too brief reinvigoration of Bill’s literary talent; this reinvigoration, however, is purely motivated by his desire to reclaim the emerging power of terror for art. Bill’s insistence on the power of the novel, despite being doomed to failure, is persistent. Again and again Bill maintains his belief in the power of language: You know why I believe in the novel? It’s a democratic shout. Anybody can write a great novel, one great novel, almost any amateur off the street [. . .]. Something 96 97 94 95

DeLillo, Mao II, 129. Ibid., 136. Ibid., 138. Ibid., 154.

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so angelic it makes your jaw hang open. The spray of talent, the spray of ideas. One thing unlike another, one voice unlike the next. Ambiguities, contradictions, whispers, limits. And this is what you want to destroy.98

The brute force of terrorism is placed in contrast with the democratic ambiguity of the work of art. As Bill moves closer and closer to his death, his failed work-in-progress prods him on, reminding him of the power he once had. Even in death, however, the novelist asserts a democratic spirit; Bill’s final statement stakes a claim for the novel even in death: “‘And when the novelist loses his talent, he dies democratically [. . .] wide open to the world, the shitpile of hopeless prose.’”99 After much to-ing and fro-ing, DeLillo finally poses a coherent means of distinction between art and terror: the democratic impulse of art is the opposite of terror, and thus the justification for Bill’s (and our) desire to present art as an effective means to reject repression. As Mao II proceeds inexorably to Bill’s death, he continues to try to write, and his struggles with language radically alter his relationship to the world. Bill is “near the point where he wanted to eliminate things that no longer mattered [. . .] and why not begin with words.”100 Mirroring Beckett, despite Bill attempting to eliminate words, he is still paradoxically caught in his desire for the “shitpile of hopeless prose.” Writing is, for Bill, “the only way he knew to think deeply in a subject.”101 He struggles, missing his typewriter, finding it difficult to develop the image of the abducted Swiss poet he continues to strive after. Bill cannot develop a complete image, questioning himself and the purpose of his writing: Who do they send? What does he wear? The prisoner perceives his own wan image in the world and knows he’s been granted the low-status sainthood of people whose suffering make everyone ashamed. Keep it simple, Bill.102

The free indirect discourse of this section indicates the difficulty of the writing process, but also suggests how Bill and Jean-Claude begin to merge. Bill’s visualization of the poet’s surroundings in captivity, reflect the sacrificial position Gray begins to adopt, both through the terrorist plot and in the narrative of the novel. Finally, and sadly, Bill succumbs to his inevitable death. He is hit by a car while crossing the road and abjures any medical attention. His life is simplified, meditating on Jean-Claude and experiencing a final clarity in his writing. DeLillo details: There was something at stake in these sentences he wrote about the basement room. They held a pause, an anxious space he began to recognize. There’s a danger in a sentence when it comes out right, a sense that these words almost did not 101 102   98   99 100

Ibid., 159. Ibid. Ibid., 160. Ibid. Ibid., 161.

Mao II: Prefigurations of Terrorist Time


make it to the page [. . .]. The work had a stunned edge, a kind of whiteness [. . .]. He smoked and wrote, thinking he might never get it right but feeling something familiar, something falling into jeopardy, a law of language or nature, and he thought he could trace it line by line, the shattery tension, the thing he’d lost in the sand of his endless novel.103

If time has accelerated beyond Bill’s control for much of the novel, the flow of time here is recuperated, the “pause” of his writing here contrasted with a minor allusion to an hourglass, the rapidly passing time that existed during Bill’s flailing attempts to continue with his work-in-progress. In the passage above the reader apprehends not only a rejuvenation in Bill’s writing, but also a fundamental, and final, failure. Although writing about the “basement room” has provided Bill with a new literary focus, it is a piece of writing that is doomed to failure: a piece of writing that will be just like the “endless novel,” continually reworked. Bill’s writing has become an intellectual exercise, his means for deep thought, and will no longer effect the consciousness of society, as his previous, successful work had. This failure reorients Mao II, in line with the arguments Steiner posits in the latter stages of In Bluebeard’s Castle. Steiner argues that the violence of the holocaust is reflected and anticipated in the desire for sacrifice and purity evident in those writers and philosophers that seem to anticipate the incipient violence.104 This is not exactly the case for Bill, and yet, his strong desire to provide some form of sacrifice for Jean-Claude suggests an anticipation of the violence of terrorism, and a desire to, by sacrifice, obliterate the power of terror. Steiner argues that the sacrificial poet (or novelist, or philosopher) “set[s] anarchic love against reason, an end of time against history.”105 Thus as Bill’s body, and writing, continues to move toward exhaustion, time begins to slow. The sacrificial moment approaches and with it another exhortation for the reconsideration of time. As Steiner writes: The thrust of will which engenders art and disinterested thought, the engaged response which alone can ensure its transmission to other human beings, to the future, are rooted in a gamble on transcendence. The writer or thinker means the words of the poem, the sinews of the argument, the personae of the drama, to outlast his own life, to take on the mystery of autonomous presence and presentness. The sculptor commits to stone the vitalities against and across time which will soon drain from his own living hand. Art and mind address those who are not yet, even at the risk, deliberately incurred, of being unnoticed by the living.106

The sacrificial element of Bill’s actions, in his writing and otherwise, is his final struggle against the acceleration of time addressed repeatedly in Mao II. Even as 105 106 103 104

Ibid., 167–8. See Steiner, In Bluebeard’s Castle, 41–3. Ibid., 43. Ibid., 89.

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he moves closer and closer toward his demise his writing continues to reflect a desire to reject the power of time, and of terrorism, and reclaim some of this power for art. As Bill Gray’s organs begin to shut down, the wider implications of terrorism and violence are overlayed onto Charlie Everson’s plan. The historical conflict between Christians and Muslims, and the states of Syria, Israel, and Lebanon flares again, closing the ferry crossing from Greece to Lebanon. As travel is difficult, Bill returns to his work: [H]e looked at the pages he’d written and didn’t think he could do anymore. It was too hard. It was harder than major surgery and it didn’t even keep you alive [. . .]. Writing was bad for the soul when you got right down to it. It protected your worst tendencies. Narrowed everything to failure and its devastations. Gave your cunning an edge of treachery and your jellyfish heart a reason to fall into deeper silence. He couldn’t remember why he wanted to write about the hostage. He’d done some pages he liked but what was the actual point?107

As Bill’s body fails, his writing also reaches a maximum point of failure. Bill uses his writing to keep him alive, and yet even in this regard his writing is a failure. Of course, Bill is still striving for a sacrificial rebirth, both of his writing and of his body, through attempting to help Jean-Claude, continually striving to reach Beirut and effect some sort of change which will remedy the power imbalance between writers and terrorists. Bill’s work-in-progress is still, even in the last days of his life, an eternal presence. At a nightclub, while waiting to travel to Beirut he thinks he spies the book across the room. It is “obese and lye-splashed, the face an acid spatter, zipped up and decolored, with broken teeth glinting out of the pulp.”108 The personification of Bill’s writing mirrors the dismal state of his own body, with a severely lacerated liver from the car crash. Bill’s death, on the ferry to Beirut is his final escape “from the gaping page.”109 DeLillo reinforces the fact that Gray’s life, and death, was always contingent on writing: “[i]t was writing that caused his life to disappear.”110 And finally Gray does disappear. He succumbs to his injuries, and a member of a cleaning crew from the ferry Bill has boarded steals his passport and other forms of identification, rendering his body unable to be identified, but finally, also, without the pressures of writing.

Conclusion Mao II provides an effective means with which to begin an analysis of DeLillo’s work on terrorism, and especially on the September 11 attacks, despite the fact that the novel 109 110 107 108

DeLillo, Mao II, 198. Ibid., 210. Ibid., 201. Ibid., 215.

Mao II: Prefigurations of Terrorist Time


was written a decade before 2001. DeLillo’s focus on time, seen in both his notes in preparation for the Mao II and in the novel itself, illustrate that time is not solely a concern after September 11. My analysis of Mao II also emphasizes the interpretation of DeLillo as a prophet of terrorism, an issue that will be assessed again in the following chapter. Finally, however, it is the connection that DeLillo establishes between art and terror that is fundamental. We can see in the arguments that emerge from Mao II a nexus that is undeniable, especially after terrorism strikes at the heart of the West, and the heart of both DeLillo and Pynchon’s hometown. In a sense, the analysis of the works that follow returns to Bill Gray’s argument, attempting to understand the sometimes inexpressible power of art and of literature that attempts to push back at the burgeoning power of terrorism. As we will see, DeLillo’s temporal focus in Mao II is continued, and expanded, in his novels from Cosmopolis on, and also reflects Thomas Pynchon’s focus on the same concept. It is the awareness of conceptual interactions that allows these two authors the most considered and the most appropriate responses to the trauma suffered by America in 2001.


The Futurity of September 10

Introduction Cosmopolis, published in April 2003, is DeLillo’s first novel published after the September 11 attacks in 2001. The novel appears to react to the catastrophic events of that day, and the effect they had, both on America and the world. In reality, however, the novel was effectively completed before the September 11 attacks. DeLillo points out, in an interview with Peter Henning published in the Frankfurter Rundschau, that he never felt any compulsion to alter Cosmopolis after the September 11 attacks occurred. Assuming that this statement includes an assertion of the breadth of focus within Cosmopolis, we can still see the effect of September 11 on the novel. Indeed, DeLillo argues that Cosmopolis “deals with the events of September on a deeper level.”1 DeLillo’s construction of September 11 is instructive: FR: DeL:

What does September 11 mean to you today? For me it marks that actual beginning of the 21st century. Because while the zeitgeist before the events was shaped by a belief in the omnipresent power of money and in America’s invulnerability, which was rooted in the late 90s, that belief has now been replaced by fear. On that day we entered into a new age of fear and uncertainty. If, up to that point in the US, we were occupied primarily with watching the streams of money in internet cafes or at home in front of the computer, we are now governed by different laws, more humane ones. The collapse reactivated worries and fears that were thought to be lost.2

By distinguishing Cosmopolis as not effected by the September 11 attacks but still in a sense anticipating them, DeLillo is afforded the position of prophet, as is alluded to in the German title of the Frankfurter Rundschau interview. DeLillo confirms his desire

Peter Henning, “Vielleicht sehe ich einiges klarer und früher als andere,” Frankfuter Rundschau, November 20, 2003: 28–9. 2 Ibid. 1

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for maintaining both the pre- and post-September 11 classifications, when he describes the genesis of the novel: DeL:

[. . .] I started out simply with the idea of letting my protagonist drive across town in one day, a person who is already living in the future and fails to notice how susceptible he is to the destructive mechanisms of the present.3

DeLillo distorts conventional temporality by inflecting what he argues is a pre-­September 11 novel with post-September 11 concepts, what Aaron Chandler calls a “productive ambiguity” with Cosmopolis a “kind of prelude” to September 11.4 These concepts are especially visible in his description of Eric Packer as “living in the future,” the same concept enunciated by DeLillo for the United States and the West in his “In the Ruins of the Future” essay.5 In this chapter I will therefore analyze Cosmopolis in light of these shifts in temporality—between pre-September 11 time, and post-September 11 time— emphasizing that the reception of the novel as prescient of the September 11 attacks is not necessarily a product of DeLillo’s ability to anticipate the future (viz. Adam Thurschwell’s comment that DeLillo was “exploring the traumatic symptomatology of the 9/11 terrorist attacks [. . .] before 9/11”6), but rather part of a larger project seen in DeLillo’s post-September 11 works in which time is presented as changed after the September 11 attacks. DeLillo’s insistence that Cosmopolis can occupy both pre- and post-September 11 temporalities alludes to the substance of my argument, in which I elucidate two anachronistic tendencies within the novel: the parachronistic, DeLillo’s incorporation of elements from the past, and the prochronistic, his incorporation of elements from the future. Thus I argue for Cosmopolis as a novel very closely related to the temporal theorizations of Paul Virilio, and the concept of dromology that Virilio developed in his works in the 1990s and the early 2000s. The construction of Cosmopolis as prophetic is not I would argue, uniquely productive, although the concept is not without interest in regard to my overall project; rather, the importance of illustrating the coherence of DeLillo’s conceptualizations of temporality solidifies how this effect was achieved. Finally I will argue, as I have emphasized in the title to this chapter, that there is a very different quality of time on September 10, 2001, as opposed to September 11. In Cosmopolis, effectively September 10 in DeLillo’s career, the future is still accessible, albeit as a conceptualization of time that requires stringent critique.

Dromology and anachronism Cosmopolis is a novel ultimately concerned with temporality, and especially a similar temporal phenomenon as that I have identified in Chapter 1, the acceleration of time. Ibid. (my emphasis). Aaron Chandler, “‘An Unsettling, Alternative Self ’: Benno Levin, Emmanuel Levinas, and Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis,” Critique 50, no. 3 (2009): 257. 5 See DeLillo, “In the Ruins of the Future,” 33. 6 Thurschwell, “Writing and Terror,” 278. 3 4

The Futurity of September 10


In Cosmopolis, the acceleration of time is taken to its limit, with both the past and the future impinging on the present. As such, I will illustrate the effects of the acceleration of time that DeLillo identifies, and the importance of anachronism within Cosmopolis. Prochronism is a type of anachronism, in which elements from the future are included in the work of art. For DeLillo, the motivation to analyze a concept such as this is very clear—for he believes, and has stated in his work—that the future impinging on the present is actually occurring right now, in the Western world. DeLillo makes a note in preparation for the writing of Cosmopolis that sheds light on this concept, but also illustrates the depth of his concern, anchoring the relationship between the shifting of the future into the present and the September 11 attacks on the United States. DeLillo writes, before September 11: It tells us that we must live permanently in the future, in the utopian glow of cyber-capital. Because there is no memory there and because this is where everything is faster, better, bigger and simultaneously shapeless, heightless & fleeting.7

This “it” is technology, the technological power of the United States and the Western world conspiring to pull the entire population into a futuristic present. The dominance of technology engenders a complete shift in temporality, in which the past and the future collapse in, rendering the present eternal.8 DeLillo’s note is not utilized in Cosmopolis: rather the sentiment and concept are the overall theoretical parameters of the novel as a whole. It is intriguing, then, that DeLillo’s note does finally emerge in his published work; not in the corresponding text to which the notebook related (i.e. Cosmopolis), but in his essay in response to the September 11 attacks, “In the Ruins of the Future.” Indeed, DeLillo’s note, made before the September 11 attacks, becomes the majority of the first paragraph of this essay. I quote below DeLillo’s entire first paragraph: In the past decade the surge of capital markets has dominated discourse and shaped global consciousness. Multinational corporations have come to seem more vital and influential than governments. The dramatic climb of the Dow and the speed of the Internet summoned us all to live permanently in the future, in the utopian glow of cyber-capital, because there is no memory there and this is where markets are uncontrolled and investment potential has no limit.9

We can see that there is little, if any, conceptual change from the note made before September 11 and the published version, in response to September 11. It is also crucial to establish the resonances that exist between the published version of DeLillo’s note DeLillo Archives, Harry Ransom Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, Box 9, Folder 8. The construction of the “eternal present” is analogously similar to Peter Boxall’s construction of the growth of abundance in which “space and time [. . .] might aspire towards limitlessness.” As Boxall observes, however, this superabundance, and its desire to supersede the limit is always shadowed by its opposite—for Boxall, waste, and in my formulation, an incipient reaction against the timelessness of the virtual present. See Peter Boxall, “‘There’s No Lack of Void’: Waste and Abundance in Beckett and DeLillo,” SubStance 37, no. 2 (2008): 57–9. 9 DeLillo, “In the Ruins of the Future,”33. 7 8


Terrorism and Temporality

and the novel it was intended for. Eric Packer, the central character of Cosmopolis, makes his money through international currency exchange, manipulating “global consciousness” through gigantic investment in the Yen, a strategy that is ultimately unsuccessful, and precipitates the unraveling of Packer’s life. Packer’s previous success, however, is reliant on a system of modeling that effectively anticipates the future. As DeLillo writes in description of Packer’s life, technology, money markets and the future are all linked together: He thought of the people who used to visit his website back in the days when he was forecasting stocks, when forecasting was pure power, when he’d tout a technology stock or bless an entire sector and automatically cause doublings in share price and the shifting of worldviews, when he was effectively making history.10

Eric Packer, the fictional dominator of money markets, on “a day in April, in the year 2000,” is successful because his technological system of modeling allows him access to the future, facilitating effective purchases and the ability to anticipate changes in the markets themselves.11 After the September 11 attacks this would appear to be no longer possible. For, as DeLillo states in “In the Ruins of the Future,” “[t]he terrorists of September 11 want to bring back the past.”12 This temporal change manifests itself in a deinterlacing of the present from the future. It is instructive then that DeLillo’s novels after the September 11 attacks exhibit little interest in technology, especially when compared to Cosmopolis. Much of DeLillo’s theorization of temporality within Cosmopolis is a literary manifestation of Paul Virilio’s concept of dromoscopy and the concomitant collapse of the past and the future, manifesting itself in the future and the past existing in the present, what Virilio characterizes as an “eternal present.”13 Indeed in DeLillo’s notes in preparation for Cosmopolis, he specifically notes Virilio’s Open Sky as a book he has read while researching the novel.14 Virilio’s concept of dromoscopy argues that technological advances, both scientific and material, have resulted in the requirement to add an additional axis to that of experience: this axis is light. Virilio argues that the development of real-time communication, achieved through satellites means that the world now operates at the limit of the speed of light.15 This technology causes the temporal distortion, in which the present subsumes the past and the future. As Virilio observes: Time (duration) and space (extension) are now inconceivable without light (limit-speed), the cosmological constant of the speed of light, an absolute Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis (New York: Scribner, 2003), 75. We should note that Cosmopolis takes place in a single day, as if DeLillo’s novel is a dromological appropriation of Joyce’s Ulysses. See Cowart, Don DeLillo, 220. 12 DeLillo, “In the Ruins of the Future,” 34. 13 Paul Virilio, Open Sky, trans. Julie Rose (London: Verso, 2008 [1997]), 136. 14 See DeLillo Archives, Harry Ransom Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, Box 9, Folder 8. Randy Laist proposes a reading of Cosmopolis relating the work to Virilio, although he focuses on both DeLillo’s novel, and Virilio’s work, as responding to the September 11 attacks. See Randy Laist, “The Concept of Disappearance in Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis,” Critique 51, no. 3 (2010): 257–75. 15 See Virilio, Open Sky, 9–13. 10 11

The Futurity of September 10


philosophical contingency that supersedes, in Einstein’s wake, the absolute character till then accorded to space and to time by Newton and many others before him.16

Time itself is fundamentally altered by the technological and scientific advances that are identified, by DeLillo, as being the basis of New York’s existence (and synecdochically the rest of the Western world). Thus Packer’s comment that “Freud is finished, Einstein’s next,” reinforces the fact that the new temporality emerging at the border between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries must be fundamentally different to conventional twentieth-century conceptions of time as precipitated by Einstein’s work at the beginning of the century.17 The acceleration of technological development up to a level in which the limit of speed is the speed of light means that past, present, and future collapse into the “eternal present.” As Virilio observes: Since time-light (the time of the speed of light) is now used as an absolute standard for immediate action, for instantaneous teleaction, the intensive duration of the “real moment” now dominates duration, the extensive and relatively controllable time of history—in other words, of that long term that used to encompass past, present and future.18

Scientific and technological advances that make the illusion of accessing the future possible (e.g. “real-time communication”) require the collapse of the past and future as concepts.19 What remains is the eternal present—past, present, and future collapsed into a single whole—and the rejection of history.20

Prochronism in Cosmopolis For DeLillo the collapse of the future into the present, mirroring the anachronistic process of prochronism, is manifested primarily through the dominant motif of the novel: the spycam that shows the future, despite Packer expecting only to see the present. From the moment that Packer emerges into the streets of New York on what will be the last day of his life, the technological apparatus of his limousine,

18 19

Ibid., 13 (Virilio’s emphases). DeLillo, Cosmopolis, 6. Virilio, Open Sky, 14 (Virilio’s emphasis). It is important to note that Virilio’s analysis of “time-light” as it applies to warfare exceeds the development of this concept as we will discover it in the V-2 of Gravity’s Rainbow (see Chapter 5). For Virilio’s application of dromology to modern warfare, see Paul Virilio, “War in Real Time,” in Desert Screen: War at the Speed of Light, trans. Michael Degener (London: Continuum, 2002 [1991]), 46–50. 20 Cf. Virilio’s specific application of this concept to aesthetics. Paul Virilio, Art and Fear, trans. Julie Rose (London: Continuum, 2003), 72. 16 17

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and especially the spycam, dominate his thoughts. Packer considers the array of technology within his limousine, what amounts to a mobile office, technological development rendering the public space of the office obsolete.21 Indeed we read: “[t] he context [of the technology] was nearly touchless.”22 DeLillo alerts us immediately to the manipulation of space whereby one does not require movement to interact with technology. Packer’s technological innovations, and the technological systems he uses privilege the temporal (accessing the future) over the spatial (the process of activating a machine by physical touch). From the very first time Packer contemplates his image in the small screen projecting the captured image from the spycam, the temporal disjunction is reinforced. During a conversation with an associate in which Packer is attempting to convince him that he has anticipated the market trend of the Yen correctly (i.e. seen into the future), Packer glances at the spycam screen. DeLillo writes: Eric watched himself on the oval screen below the spycam, running his thumb along his chinline. The car stopped and moved and he realized queerly that he’d just placed his thumb on his chinline, a second or two after he’d seen it on screen.23

No further comment is made on this first temporal disjunction within the narrative. The emergence of the future into the present is met with little surprise at all—the technological futurity of Packer’s limousine and his desire to anticipate the future movements of the value of the Yen render surprise incongruous for a character who is fundamentally situated in the future. We can see in this first manifestation of the future impinging on the present an allusion to the dromoscopic theory proposed by Virilio. DeLillo establishes the spycam as an exemplar of Packer’s visibility. He writes: His image used to be accessible nearly all the time, videostreamed worldwide from the car, the plane, the office and selected sites in his apartment. But there were security issues and now the camera operated on a closed circuit. A nurse and two armed guards were on constant watch at three monitors in a windowless room at the office.24

The purpose of the spycam is unveiled. It no longer has application as an interactive technology, but, rather, is required simply so that the fact of Packer’s existence can be monitored in real time. Virilio argues that technological development taken to this extent destroys the outside world.25 He theorizes that: such an end implies forgetting spatial exteriority as much as temporal exteriority (“no future”) and opting exclusively for the “present” instant, the real instant of instantaneous telecommunications.26 23 24 25 26 21 22

See DeLillo, Cosmopolis, 13. Ibid. Ibid., 22. Ibid., 15. See Virilio, Open Sky, 24–5. Ibid., 25.

The Futurity of September 10


This is the fundamental purpose of Packer’s spycam: to facilitate his surveillance all the time, to ensure that neither space, nor time, can intervene in ensuring Packer’s existence. Virilio then moves on to establish his conclusion: the speed of communication destroys conventional temporality entirely: Terminal—and final—sedentarization; a practical consequence of the emergence of a third and final horizon of indirect visibility . . . a transapparent horizon spawned by telecommunications, that opens up the incredible possibility of [.  .  .] a live (live-coverage) society that has no future and no past, since it has no extension and no duration, a society intensely present here and there at once—in other words, telepresent to the whole world.27

And this is indeed what DeLillo describes in the surveillance spycam that is so central to Cosmopolis, containing Packer within time, and, as the spatial becomes defunct (consider that his office is operated primarily through voice commands), forcing the individual into sedentariness. The future has already begun to impinge upon the present, precisely because there is no longer, in Virilio’s view, any means of differentiating past, present, and future. DeLillo’s inclusion of the future impinging upon the present is the most effective means for him to mobilize this philosophical concept in a literary work. It is important to note, despite the spycam being the most effective means for DeLillo to incorporate Virilio’s concept, it is not the only way in which the future impinges upon the present in Cosmopolis. As Packer’s day continues and the circus of analysts and advisors come and go from the space of the limousine, the reader is alerted to the fact that Eric seems to anticipate the future in other ways. Packer’s chief of staff, Jane Melman, is scrambled to meet the limousine in its journey across town, meeting Packer at a prearranged location. But for Eric, it is as if the meeting has already taken place. DeLillo writes: He knew what she would say to him, first line, word for word, and he looked forward to hearing it [. . .]. He liked knowing what was coming. It confirmed the presence of some hereditary script available to those who could decode it.28

Packer’s supposed ability to anticipate the future is not an ability with fortune telling, but, crucially, a process of decoding, alluding once again to the technological imperatives that dominate his life. Indeed, Packer’s parting words with the advisor he converses with prior to Melman entering the vehicle emphasize the technological element of anticipating the future. Chin, the advisor, states that he needs to reconsider, looking for trends in archived records of the financial market, looking back “into the misty dawn.”29 Packer has no patience for this, rejecting the suggestion and reasserting the power of the technological and his reliance on the market system.30 29 30 27 28

Ibid. (Virilio’s emphases). DeLillo, Cosmopolis, 38. Ibid., 37. Ibid.

Terrorism and Temporality


The next time the spycam displays the intrusion of the future into the present, Packer’s reaction is more quizzical. DeLillo writes: He saw his face on the screen, eyes closed, mouth framed in a soundless little simian howl. He knew the spycam operated in real time, or was supposed to. How could he see himself if his eyes were closed? There wasn’t time to analyze. He felt his body catching up to the independent image.31

DeLillo presents a more complex temporality here. In these early instances of Packer’s acknowledgment of the future appearing on the screen from the spycam feed, the confusion seems genuine: for Packer, the future is to be found through manipulation of money markets, not extant in his limousine. At this stage of the novel, he has not yet accepted the power of this image of the future. Thus, DeLillo concludes the paragraph by presenting Packer as attempting to reassert the conventional order of temporality: an ironic attempt considering both the conclusion of the novel and the fortune Packer makes and loses through anticipation of the future himself. The temporal distortion is doubly unfamiliar as the fallibility of “real-time communication” often produces a lag between action and transmission, rather than the opposite. As Packer and Vija Kinski’s progress across New York is halted by what Kinski terms “a protest against the future,” the temporal disjunction of the future in the present manifests itself once again.32 As with previous examples DeLillo crafts, the impinging of the future into the present is accomplished through the spycam, emphasizing the personal nature of the temporal shift—it is focused solely through Packer’s character—the one individual committed to living in the future. DeLillo describes the phenomenon: His own image caught his eye, live on the oval screen beneath the spycam. Some seconds passed. He saw himself recoil in shock. More time passed. He felt suspended, waiting. Then there was a detonation, loud and deep, near enough to consume all the information around him. He recoiled in shock.33

The gap between the present and the future is lengthening: Packer, in this example of the future encroaching on the present, has two separate sensations of occupying the future from the moment he engages with the spycam screen. At the same time Packer invokes himself four times, seemingly struggling against his virtualized incorporeality during this temporal disjunction. DeLillo’s phrase as the bomb blast occurs is of note as it emphasizes that the blast itself destroys the presence of the future in the present. Of course, the bomb consuming all the information around Packer also alludes to the technological systems of the money market, insistently attempting to read the future, which are the primary targets of this attack. Kinski presents a cogent analysis of the Ibid., 52. Ibid., 91. 33 Ibid., 93. 31 32

The Futurity of September 10


temporal disjunction Packer experiences, as he relates the sensation to her. She argues that Packer himself is the cause of this disjunction. DeLillo writes: Think of it this way. There are rare minds operating, a few, here and there, the polymath, the true futurist. A consciousness such as yours, hypermaniacal, may have contact points beyond the general perception. [. . .] Technology is crucial to civilization why? Because it helps us to make our fate. We don’t need God or miracles or the flight of the bumble bee. But it is also crouched and undecidable. It can go either way.34

Kinski alone appreciates the allure and the danger of such radical reliance on technology. The human reliance on technology facilitates access to the future but also poses grave threats to humanity as a whole.35 The final example of the future manifesting itself in the present through the spycam occurs at the denouement of the novel, as Packer willingly confronts Benno Levin, his would-be killer. Levin is a disaffected former employee intent on destroying Packer to gain a sense of fulfillment in his own life. Levin reacts violently against the technological systems of modeling the future that facilitated Packer’s rise and, of course, his fall. Levin’s admiration of the system is tempered only by his understanding of the unnatural state that it places humanity in. DeLillo writes: You tried to predict the movements in the yen by drawing on patterns from nature [.  .  .]. The mathematical properties of tree rings, sunflower seeds, the limbs of galactic spirals [.  .  .]. The way signals from a pulsar in deepest space follow classical number sequences, which in turn can describe the fluctuations of a given stock or currency. You showed me this [. . .]. You made this form of analysis horribly and sadistically precise [. . .]. But you forgot something along the way [. . .]. The importance of the lopsided, the thing that’s skewed a little. You were looking for balance [. . .]. But you should have been tracking the yen in its tics and quirks. The little quirk. The misshape.36

As Cosmopolis draws to a close we see the shape of an overarching argument, in which Packer’s technological systems that predict the future are no longer reliant on natural symbols, but are now solely facilitated by technology itself, a doubling that becomes self-defeating. Packer professes a realization that Levin is indeed correct, but even in this admission, cannot escape from a technological mode of thought. DeLillo writes: “Benno [. . .] was probably right. There was something in what he said. It made hard sense, charting sense.”37 Ibid., 95. Aaron Chandler identifies a conflict between Kinski and Packer, and theorizes this moment as a clash between the Heideggerean and Levinasian conceptions of time and futurity. See Chandler, “An Unsettling, Alternative Self,” 253–7. 36 DeLillo, Cosmopolis, 200. 37 Ibid. 34 35


Terrorism and Temporality

And thus, the inevitable comes to fruition. Despite Packer agreeing in principle with Levin, and despite the complete collapse of Packer’s global financial dominance, Levin feels he must still kill him.38 As the final machinations of Levin’s plot play out, Packer has one final exterior vision of himself. No longer in the limousine, the vision is provided not by the spycam, but by an “electron camera” contained in his wristwatch.39 After seeing a beetle on a wire on the screen, and being absorbed by the beauty of nature, the vision abruptly changes.40 DeLillo writes: something changed around him. He didn’t know what this could mean. What could this mean? He realized he’d known this feeling before, tenuously, not nearly so dense and textured, and the image on the screen was a body now, facedown on the floor. He felt a blood hush, a pause in midbeing.41

Packer has experienced the brief sensation of being able to view the future before, even, indeed, to feel that he was inhabiting the future while remaining within the present. Now, however, the future is insistently present, and Packer cannot escape from it. In the future-present, Eric Packer lies dead, an incorporeality that exceeds the technological rejection of the body Packer manifests in Cosmopolis. He attempts to refocus the camera, moving it back to focus on the beetle, attempting to bring another image on to the screen. In this final moment of the future impinging on the present escape back into the present, what occurred earlier in the novel, is no longer possible. The vision continues showing Packer’s body inside an ambulance and then placed in a body vault within the hospital morgue. With the less than imaginative comment, “O shit I’m dead,” Packer suddenly emerges into the realization of his demise.42 In these final moments, DeLillo reorients the prochronistic elements of his novel with Virilio’s arguments contained in Open Sky. The resonances between the passage below and Eric’s last moments are entirely clear. Development of technologies predicated on the speed of light, of real-time communication facilitate: the technological re-creation of one of our most ancient myths: the myth of the double, of an electromagnetic double whose presence is spectral—another way of saying a ghost or the living dead.43

Eric Packer’s life, predicated on predicting the future via rapid advances in real-time communication and modeling, finally subsides into a splitting of his body, in which the technological apparatus, so crucial for his success in the financial world, now perceives him as dead, while the natural experience of life shows the reader he is still alive. Packer 40 41 42 43 38 39

See ibid., 201. Ibid., 204. Ibid., 205. Ibid. See ibid., 205–6. Virilio, Open Sky, 39–40 (Virilio’s emphasis).

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is, however, no longer alive. The “light-speed” of technology has rendered him spectral even in the physical space he occupied, viewing his own corpse.

A counter-narrative? DeLillo provides more than a minor counter-argument to the insistent collapse of the future that the reader observes throughout the novel. He makes this counter-argument predominantly through the character Vija Kinski, Packer’s chief of theory. Kinski is the only character to arrive late throughout the novel for a scheduled meeting with Packer, and is dressed differently to the rest of the characters, wearing “a button-down business shirt, an old embroidered vest and a long pleated skirt of a thousand launderings.”44 In Kinski’s dress, and in her characterization, DeLillo constructs a character at odds with the views of the rest of the characters, a character who seems to emerge from the past, and thus a character who can present a counter-narrative within the novel. Kinski’s argument with Packer is crucial as she warns against his present course of investments, seeming to anticipate the future in her own way, seeing Packer’s demise both in the market and his final encounter with Benno Levin. DeLillo writes, detailing Kinski’s warning to Packer: [T]ime is a corporate asset now. It belongs to the free market system. The present is harder to find. It is being sucked out of the world to make way for the future of uncontrolled markets and huge investment potential. The future becomes insistent. This is why something will happen, maybe today [. . .] [t]o correct the acceleration of time. Bring nature back to normal, more or less.45

Kinski’s argument is prochronistic in that it anticipates the catastrophes, both financial and physical, that will befall Packer at the conclusion of Cosmopolis.46 At the same time, DeLillo engages with Virilio’s theories, arguing that just as money markets will “correct” themselves over time (that is to move toward equilibrium after an artificial high or low) so too will time correct itself, repudiating the moment in time in which past and future collapse into the present. Kinski is far more concerned with the collapse of the past than the future impinging on the present. She observes that “‘the past is disappearing. We used to know the past but not the future. This is changing [. . .]. We need a new theory of time.’”47 The human conceptualization of temporality resists the collapse of both the future and the past. Kinski’s invocation of “spectacle”48 as the main sensation of the future-present, refers DeLillo, Cosmopolis, 77. Ibid., 79. 46 Boxall, and following him, Laist, have argued that irrespective of the focus, on temporality, of the reader, there is an implicit reference to the September 11 attacks being this event that Kinski foresees. See Boxall, Don DeLillo, 229, and Laist, “The Concept of Disappearance,” 258. 47 DeLillo, Cosmopolis, 86. 48 Ibid., 80. 44 45


Terrorism and Temporality

not only to Packer’s demise, both physical and financial, but also to the September 11 attacks, famously referred to by Jean Baudrillard using the same term.49 As DeLillo himself argues, the terrorist’s aim in the September 11 attacks was to reinvigorate the past.50 It is in this sense that we can read Cosmopolis as prophetic, in that DeLillo argues for a “correction” of time, which we later come to realize has been manifested in the 2001 attacks on the United States.

Parachronism in Cosmopolis For DeLillo the collapse of the past into the present is manifested in Packer’s concern for the anachronistic quality of words and concepts that describes phenomena ill-suited to his futuristic present. From the moment that Packer emerges to begin the final day of his life the reader is alerted to the parachronistic qualities of New York City. DeLillo writes: He took out his hand organizer and poked a note to himself about the anachronistic quality of the word skyscraper. No recent structure ought to bear this word. It belonged to the old soul of awe, to the arrowed towers that were a narrative long before he was born.51

Packer argument is a curious one, especially considering how he seems to identify with the tower, observing that he feels “contiguous with it,” that tower and individual share “an edge or boundary.”52 The concept that DeLillo is enunciating here makes reference to the futurity of Packer’s life. He is a man, by the end of the novel, solely inhabiting the future, and as such considers himself in a relationship with the skyscraper, physically moving beyond the technological development that facilitated the building of these massive structures. Despite the curious comparison between building and individual, Packer’s observation is not without justification. Etymologically, Packer may indeed be correct. The term “skyscraper” emerged in the 1890s in the United States as a description of tall buildings, borrowing a term originally used to describe large sails on yachts, then variously, tall horses, tall men, bike riders riding high on penny-farthings and tall stories.53 Considering the organic and human nature of the objects described by the term before it was co-opted for the description of buildings, it is little wonder Packer views the term as anachronistic. The evolution of the skyscraper, and the obsolescence of the term used to describe it is tied, for Packer, to the technological possibilities that dominate his life, from 52 53 49 50 51

Baudrillard, “The Spirit of Terrorism,” 30. DeLillo, “In the Ruins of the Future,” 34. DeLillo, Cosmopolis, 9. Ibid., 8. Oxford English Dictionary, s.v.

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the advanced modeling systems that have allowed him to build his fortune, to his limousine, which includes, aside from the spycam, technological apparatus that allow him to have ever-present “medleys of data on every screen [. . .] flowing symbols and alpine charts.”54 The most ironic of the parachronistic references made in the early chapters of Cosmopolis, is Packer’s dismissal of the “hand organizer” he uses to make his note on “the anachronistic quality of the word skyscraper.” DeLillo writes: The hand device itself was an object whose original culture had just about disappeared. He knew he’d have to junk it.55

Later in Cosmopolis, Packer returns to the obsolescence of technologies that recall, for him, the past rather than the future. Packer argues that “[i]t was time to retire the word phone.”56 This brief reference reinforces the abortive temporality of the novel, in which those technologies that Packer is reliant on, both for communication and success in his occupation are the most abhorrent. What is left is the end result, the future. Rather than acknowledging the time that has passed for Packer to become successful, he delights only in the future. It is as if, considering the prochronistic elements of the text discussed above, and the fact that Packer finally seems to inhabit the future, that the present itself becomes obsolete.57 For DeLillo to communicate this fact he is required, instead, to dismiss those technological elements of the present that, for Packer, suggest the past. Virilio argues in Open Sky that the term “cosmopolis” is itself obsolete, in the very same way that “skyscraper” is for Packer, and in a similar sense to the technological obsolescence of Packer’s “hand organizer.” Virilio argues that the “cosmopolis” implies “the old industrial and political complex [which] will be superseded by an informational and metropolitical complex, one associated with the omnipotence of the absolute speed of [light].”58 Instead of the cosmopolis, the “omnipolis” will emerge, “whose major clinical symptom is the stock exchange system [.  .  .] computerized and globalized.”59 In this sense, DeLillo’s title for his novel is parachronistic itself: specifically constructing the past as emerging into the present. DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, then, must be seen as fundamentally aware of the competing forces of parachronism and prochronism, and the disjunctive temporalities that are present within the novel. Despite the wealth of technological gadgetry that dominates Packer’s limousine, the vehicle is not solely a cipher for DeLillo to argue the impinging of the future into the present. Indeed, when Packer and Kinski are briefly waylaid by the anticapitalism protest that Kinski describes as a “protest against the future,” Packer’s thoughts return to the car. But rather than return Packer’s thoughts to the technological elements of DeLillo, Cosmopolis, 13. Ibid., 9. Ibid., 88. The competition between prochronistic and parachronistic elements in Cosmopolis is explained clearly by Boxall, who argues that the novel incorporates the experience of déjà vu, but also “the premonitory encounter with an as yet unlived future.” Boxall, Don DeLillo, 224. 58 Virilio, Open Sky, 83 (Virilio’s emphases removed). 59 Ibid. (Virilio’s emphases removed). 56 57 54 55


Terrorism and Temporality

his vehicle that imply the future impinging on the present, DeLillo centers Packer’s thoughts on the past. The past is manifested in the limousine through an “inlaid fragment of ornamental Kufic script on parchment, late tenth century, Baghdad” a “priceless” artifact that has been incorporated into the design of the limousine, placed on the partition between driver and passenger spaces.60 Another example of the past impinging into Packer’s present is seen in the floor of the vehicle. DeLillo writes: The floor of the limousine was Carrara marble, from the quarries where Michelangelo stood half a millennium ago, touching the tip of his finger to the starry white stone.61

Of course, Carrara marble is associated not only with Renaissance art, but also the building of ancient temples throughout the West. DeLillo’s illustrates in these two examples of the past contained within the limousine that we cannot simply read the vehicle as prochronistic, an example of the future in the present. Rather, the parachronistic and prochronistic coalesce in the limousine, illustrating how both past and future meet, for Packer, in the present, reinforcing Virilio’s conception of time in the modern world in which past and future collapse into the present. DeLillo’s two examples of the parachronistic impinging into the present in Packer’s limousine are not coincidental. Both the Carrara marble flooring of the limo and the Kufic script attached to the partition between driver and passengers are related to the work of art, for the marble, a reference to Michelangelo, and for the script, an acknowledgment of the artistry of these creations. Virilio does not engage with the work of art within Open Sky, and indeed it is not a concern for his text, especially considering its focus on the political and geographic implications of the acceleration of time, and the telescoping of the past and future into the present. Virilio’s Ground Zero, one part of a three part analysis of the September 11 attacks on the United States (the other two works being The Spirit of Terrorism by Baudrillard, and Welcome to the Desert of the Real! by Žižek), reasserts a similar analysis of Western society as proposed in Open Sky, with two major differences. Both differences are, of course, related to the September 11 attacks that have intervened between the thesis proposed in Open Sky in 1997, and Ground Zero’s publication in 2002. The first difference is a growing awareness of the competing temporalities of the East as opposed to the West (an issue analyzed in Chapters 1 and 3), and the second being a growing awareness, on Virilio’s part, of the importance of art and artistic representation in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.62 Considering the parachronistic inclusion of both Eastern and Western archetypes of ancient art within Packer’s limousine, we must address the peculiar parachronism of DeLillo, Cosmopolis, 90. Ibid., 22. Jürgen Habermas proposes a contrasting argument to the assumptions revisited here, when he argues that it is, in fact, the East that has suffered the most in its own “accelerated modernization.” See Borradori, Philosophy in a Time of Terror, 32.

60 61 62

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these examples of art within the exemplar of Packer’s futurity, his limousine. In Ground Zero, Virilio writes: And I myself have written: “Here is no longer, all is now.” All the arts—and particularly the arts of re-presentation—were, then, to be fatally damaged, then destroyed, by the constant acceleration of technologies of presentation and reproduction both dromological and dromoscopic which, by reducing the space and time between subject and object to zero, were to eliminate, as a matter of course, not just the concepts of rarity and durée, but the nodal points of the potentiality and the “becoming” of works of art—its phenomenology.63

First, Virilio establishes the resonance between his argument here and in earlier texts (his quotation of his own work is from The Art of the Motor), in which the past and future collapse, leaving only the “now,” the living present of dromology. For Virilio the September 11 attacks are another manifestation of the acceleration of time and the telescoping of the present, and thus, September 11 does not present itself as a transformative moment in the way that has been proposed by other theorists and in other chapters of this book. Virilio, rather, despairingly identifies the degeneration and final failure of art simply in the fact of its destruction in the face of technological developments in “presentation and reproduction” the most obvious being real-time communication, the lifeblood of Eric Packer’s existence. What collapses then, in Cosmopolis, is finally duration, epitomized by the work of art. The work of art, the ultimate symbol of the extension and duration of time is futile. Following Virilio’s argument we can see a certain despairing logic in DeLillo’s placement of the ciphers of Eastern and Western art in Packer’s limousine. The work of art is subsumed into the technological, signaling the final failure of art. One other example of art within Cosmopolis reinforces the despairing view of artistic expression shared between DeLillo and Virilio. One of the two private elevators Packer has access to for entering and exiting his technology-filled apartment “‘is programmed to play Satie’s piano pieces and to move at one-quarter normal speed.’”64 Packer continues, arguing that the slowing down of the music is “‘right for Satie and this is the elevator I take when I’m in a certain, let’s say, unsettled mood. Calms me, makes me whole.’”65 Packer’s alteration of Satie’s work, an avant-garde composer noted for the brevity of his works, is a futile attempt to return the possibility of duration to the work of art.66 By slowing the music playing in his elevator, Packer attempts to elongate the 65 66 63 64

Paul Virilio, Ground Zero, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 2002), 51 (Virilio’s emphases). DeLillo, Cosmopolis, 28–9. Ibid., 29. We should also note that the slowing down of Satie’s compositions, that is the elongation of the time they take to play, is a motif reused by DeLillo in his latest publication, Point Omega. In Point Omega DeLillo focuses on Douglas Gordon’s videowork 24 Hour Psycho, in which the Hitchcock film is slowed down so that the movie takes 24 hours to be played. It is possible to argue that DeLillo may have seen this work before writing Cosmopolis, as 24 Hour Psycho was first exhibited in 1993. DeLillo seems to indicate that he did not encounter the work until it was exhibited in New York, from 2006. See Robert McCrum, “Don DeLillo: ‘I’m Not Trying to Manipulate Reality—This Is What I See and Hear,’” The Guardian, August 8, 2010.


Terrorism and Temporality

present moment, drawing in the past through the use of Satie, and the future through the technological manipulation of the music.67 Indeed, we can see a reflection of this desire to retain the present in Henri Bergson’s conceptualization of duration: Pure duration is the form which the succession of our conscious states assumes when our ego lets itself live, when it refrains from separating its present state from its former states. For this purpose it need not be entirely absorbed in the passing sensation or idea; for then, on the contrary, it would no longer endure. Nor need it forget its former states: it is enough that, in recalling these states, it does not set them alongside its actual state as one point alongside another, but forms both the past and the present states into an organic whole, as happens when we recall the notes of a tune, melting, so to speak into one another.68

Packer’s desire for music from the past suggests an effort to retain duration, to see past, present, and future as indistinct. His technological reliance and the development of technology render this wish impossible. Packer’s parachronistic desire for the past, in Kufic script, Carrara marble, and Satie’s compositions, finally illustrates the collapse of past and future, and indeed of duration. What is left is the living present of dromological time. For DeLillo, however, the September 11 attacks provide the means for reasserting the power of art and artistic practice. The despairing finale of art for Virilio, what DeLillo see as a terrorist claiming of the narrative of society, is the chance for DeLillo to call for the resurgence of art. DeLillo argues that literature provides an opportunity to reassert the importance of all art when he proclaims: “it is left to us to create the counter-narrative.”69

Conclusion Thus to the title of this section, the futurity of September 10. Despite Virilio’s countervailing argument, the September 11 attacks do indeed facilitate the reconsideration of time, and the rejection of the telescoping of past and future into the present. DeLillo’s preparatory note for Cosmopolis, finally published in “In the Ruins of the Future” is crucial to understanding the relationship between this novel and time. DeLillo identifies, before the September 11 attacks, a temporal imperative that pushes Eric Packer’s other lift plays songs from Brutha Fez, the Sufi rapper whose funeral Packer encounters in the latter stages of Cosmopolis. Fez’s character seems to be based on the rappers Tupac Shakur and especially Notorious B.I.G., both rappers’ dying in the 1990s. DeLillo retained newspaper clippings from coverage of Notorious B.I.G.’s funeral in his notebooks in preparation for Cosmopolis (see DeLillo Archives, Harry Ransom Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, Box 10, Folder 5). Needless to say, Brutha Fez’s raps are, for DeLillo, the epitome of modern music. 68 Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, trans. Frank Lubecki Pogson (New York: Dover Publications, 2001 [1913]), 100 (Bergson’s emphases). 69 DeLillo, “In the Ruins of the Future,” 34. 67

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the West into “liv[ing] permanently in the future.” It is crucial to emphasize that this situation has now changed.70 The September 11 attacks have, for DeLillo, completely altered a temporality that seemed unable to be changed. Rather than inhabiting the future, the West now has the possibility to reassess its engagement with time, because, as he puts it in “In the Ruins of the Future,” “[t]he terrorists of September 11 want to bring back the past.”71 Cosmopolis stands right on the cusp of this moment, written primarily before the September 11 attacks, but published after the attacks have occurred. It is obvious then that this novel serves as a turning point, not only for DeLillo’s oeuvre, but also for the American literary scenes analysis of both terrorism and temporality. Boxall presents the precipitousness of Cosmopolis in a different way, when he characterizes the novel in relation to Paradise Lost. He writes: “[a]s Milton’s God ‘beholds’ ‘past present and future’ in its post-apocalyptic simultaneity, from his vantage point on high, so all time and space is laid out before us.”72 What I have argued in this chapter develops the same idea: time as altered, and time as telescopic, not because of the imminent September 11 attacks, but because the movement of the West into the future makes the attacks inevitable.73 Eric Packer has the ability, within Cosmopolis, to experience both the advantages and the disadvantages of this futurity, a temporal disjunction which, in DeLillo’s writing is no longer possible. The September 11 attacks transformed both fictional and real world time, and this novel is the most effective example of this transformative moment, embodying both the past, through its pre-September 11 composition, and the future, in its post-September 11 reception. In this sense, and despite the negative reviews that the novel sometimes garnered, it is very useful for an analysis of DeLillo’s responses to the September 11 attacks. Despite Packer’s demise at the conclusion of the novel, there is still a sense of ambivalence as to whether technological innovation will be successfully negotiated by the West, or if the collapse of past and future is imminent for us all. In this sense, DeLillo’s post-September 11 novel, Falling Man, should be viewed as an attempt once again to address these concerns, albeit in a way that does not address technological domination specifically, but rather returns to analysis of America, and then New York. DeLillo does not adopt the despairing nihilism of Virilio, but uses this viewpoint as a counterpoint to the wry, but carefully hopeful tone, that emerges in his writing.

Cf. Peter Boxall, Since Beckett: Contemporary Writing in the Wake of Modernism (London: Continuum, 2009), 169–70. 71 DeLillo, “In the Ruins of the Future,” 34. 72 Boxall, Don DeLillo, 226. 73 Cf. Baudrillard, “The Spirit of Terrorism,” 11–12, and Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real!, 13–18. 70


Beckett’s Proust and Falling Man

Introduction Considering the paradigmatic nature of the September 11 attacks on the United States, DeLillo’s “9/11 novel” Falling Man, was highly anticipated. Much of this can be linked to the widespread acclaim for 1997’s Underworld, DeLillo’s previous novel. DeLillo’s writing reached a stylistic peak in Underworld. The novel replicates and develops the style and form of the “Great American Novel,” encompassing an encyclopedic view of America, and attempting to bring together influences and viewpoints from a diverse array of eras to present a synthesis of America as a whole. The publication of Underworld, with its broadness of style and wide range of analysis, necessitated a shift on DeLillo’s behalf in pursuit of another form or style, and a reconsideration of the “novel” itself. If DeLillo’s output up to the publication of Underworld is similar to his contemporary, Thomas Pynchon in terms of scope and style, then DeLillo turns away from Pynchonian encyclopedism after Underworld.1 In its place DeLillo turns to a more minimalist style and form in direct opposition to the encyclopedic style (and focus) of his previous works. This change in style is further characterized by a return to the works of Samuel Beckett, whose minimalism in form and focus becomes a guide for DeLillo.2 DeLillo’s shift toward a Beckettian mode can be seen not only in the abbreviated form of his post-Underworld output—characterized by the use of a smaller number of characters, and an attempt to present texts that elucidate the experiences of an individual, or a small number of characters— but also through DeLillo’s own reading and note-taking for his novels written after Underworld. The DeLillo Archives at the Harry Ransom Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin contain the Edward Mendelson sets out the definition of encyclopedism I adopt in his “Encyclopedic Narrative: From Dante to Pynchon,” Modern Language Notes 91 (1976): see especially 1267–71. 2 It should be noted that a number of critics have established links between DeLillo’s work and Beckett’s previously. See Boxall, Don DeLillo, 9–10, 168–9. Boxall has also examined the influence of Beckett on Falling Man in his Since Beckett, 166–75, 186–9. Interestingly, Andrew Hoberek, in a recently released piece, interprets DeLillo’s work in relation to American minimalism, and thus focuses on the similarities between DeLillo’s work and Ezra Pound. See Andrew Hoberek, “Foreign Objects, or, DeLillo, Minimalist,” Studies in American Fiction 37, no. 1 (2010): 104. 1


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majority of DeLillo’s research folios, notebooks, and drafts for all his novels from Americana to Cosmopolis. In the main notebook DeLillo used in preparation for The Body Artist, DeLillo returns a number of times to one single quotation from Beckett’s monograph, Proust, noting Beckett’s distinctive phrase: “[t]he poisonous ingenuity of time in the science of affliction.”3 DeLillo had previously considered this text, making notes on Beckett including on Proust and this specific line from the monograph in preparation for Mao II. I will argue in this chapter, however, that DeLillo’s utilization of Beckett’s formal influence and the conceptual content contained in Proust is nowhere more obvious and central than in Falling Man.

Proust: Time, habit, memory DeLillo has referred to Beckett, both in his published work and in his notes prior to Underworld, including describing Beckett in Mao II, as “the last writer to shape the way we think and see.”4 It is in Falling Man, however, that Beckett’s work is most influential. DeLillo continually alludes to the first three concepts that Beckett discusses in Proust: time, habit, and memory. Beckett identifies these three concepts as pivotal to À la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Beckett’s analysis of Proust was a commissioned text, one in a series of monographs on influential authors. Yet, Beckett’s Proust is not simply a critical monograph; as John Pilling argues, it should be understood more as a “creative encounter between one great writer and another.”5 Beckett’s analysis of Proust emphasizes the importance of time. In defining time, Beckett identifies two Proustian methods of representing time: habit and memory. He combines time with habit and memory, presenting the three as the most critical concepts to modernist narratology. Time, habit, and memory are all, of course, crucial to À la recherche du temps perdu; these concepts are reevaluated and redefined by Beckett, becoming in that process Beckett’s own concepts, despite their Proustian influence.

Time Beckett begins his monograph with the enigmatic sentence: “[t]he Proustian equation is never simple.”6 Time is immediately placed under interrogation when Beckett writes: For the purposes of this synthesis it is convenient to adopt the inner chronology of the Proustian demonstration, and to examine in the first place that double-headed monster of damnation and salvation—Time.7 DeLillo Archives, Harry Ransom Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, Box 6, Folder 5, Notes. Quotation from Samuel Beckett, Proust (New York: Grove Press, 1931), 4. 4 DeLillo, Mao II, 157. 5 John Pilling, “Beckett’s Proust,” Journal of Beckett Studies 1 (1976). 6 Beckett, Proust, 1. 7 Ibid. (Beckett’s emphasis). 3

Beckett’s Proust and Falling Man


Proust’s time, for Beckett, is inherently literary. Time is the ultimate ruler of literature as a whole, and especially within À la recherche du temps perdu. The function of time within literature is as a controlling force over the experience and life of a character, not as a controlling mechanism for the narrative itself.8 Indeed, time is characterized as violent: an author’s characters are generally not conscious of time, and then are suddenly “confronted” by the power of time and become “victims.”9 Beckett’s conception of time can be seen reflected in his own works: for example, the nameless characters of “Imagination Dead Imagine” and “The Lost Ones” are both subject and victim of time.10 The changes of light and heat in both stories communicate the physicality of time. Time is not, for Beckett, something that facilitates the progression of a narrative, but a concept that is in itself violent. We can see this reiterated later in Proust when Beckett constructs time as subjective to each character. Beckett writes: But the poisonous ingenuity of Time in the science of affliction is not limited to its own action on the subject, that action as has been shown, resulting in an unceasing modification of his personality, whose permanent reality, if any, can only be apprehended as a retrospective hypothesis. The individual is the seat of a constant process of decantations from the vessel containing the fluid of future time, sluggish, pale and monochrome, to the vessel containing the fluid of past time, agitated and multicoloured by the phenomena of its hours.11

This is, in itself, a reaffirmation of the subjective interpretation of time that Beckett proposes. Time is fluid, constantly moving, and infinite. Although each character is subject to time, it is in the experience of time that it is transformed from “monochrome” to “multicoloured.” The metaphor of the decantation of time from the future to the past means that time itself will never stop. Beckett’s most crucial observation on time, however, addresses the present. In his conclusion to the section on time, Beckett writes: At the best, all that is realized in Time (all Time produce), whether in Art or Life, can only be possessed successively, by a series of partial annexations—and never integrally and at once.12

Despite the constant “flow” of time, the work of art can never express this perpetual motion. The partial nature of the present is not a concept that Beckett himself created. This concept owes much to Zeno (of the paradoxes) and Henri Bergson. The episodic representation of time that Beckett alludes to here is ultimately refined, distinguishing Ibid., 2. Ibid. For example, in “Imagination Dead Imagine” these changes “would have seemed, in other times, in other places, an eternity.” Samuel Beckett, “Imagination Dead Imagine,” in Stan Gontarski, ed., The Complete Short Prose 1929–1989 (New York: Grove Press, 1995), 183; while the characters have been subject to these strictures in “The Lost Ones” since “time immemorial.” Samuel Beckett, “The Lost Ones,” in Gontarski, ed., The Complete Short Prose 1929–1989, 206. 11 Beckett, Proust, 4–5. 12 Ibid., 7.  8  9 10


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Beckett’s time from the obliterated time of Zeno’s paradoxes. For Beckett, as for DeLillo, the temporal and the spatial are different concerns. Beckett argues that time in literature cannot be fluid; the writer can only attempt to make effective use of the episodic (and linear) nature of the novel.

Proust: Schopenhauer and Bergson There is a strong relationship between a chapter from Bergson’s influential Creative Evolution, “The Cinematographic View of Becoming,” and Beckett’s conception of time.13 “The Cinematographic View of Becoming” is Bergson’s response to Zeno’s paradoxes and provides both mathematical and philosophical analyses of the paradoxes. In this chapter, Bergson argues that becoming, the application of time to the human world, should be separated into three distinct categories: qualitative, evolutionary, and extensive. He proposes that becoming is understood in an alien way in the human world, especially in the arts. To represent becoming artistically, he writes: Instead of attaching ourselves to the inner becoming of things, we place ourselves outside them in order to recompense their becoming artificially.14

As readers and as viewers of time, we are able to understand the relationship of past, present, and future in a way that those within an artwork cannot. Bergson goes on to argue that this ontology is fraught. The method that Bergson identifies in “The Cinematographic View of Becoming” is “discontinuous,” and opposite to what we experience in the world.15 Bergson then makes a comparison, pointing to the illusory nature of the cinematographic view of becoming as embodied in the first of Zeno’s paradoxes, that of the arrow flying from one point to another. He writes: At every moment, says Zeno, it is motionless, for it cannot have time to move, that is, to occupy at least two successive positions, unless at least two moments are The issue of time in Proust is a contentious one. Critical analysis of Proust has focused on Beckett’s references to Schopenhauer, assuming that he is the most dominant influence throughout the text. (The primary example is James Acheson’s “Beckett, Proust, and Schopenhauer,” Contemporary Literature 19, no. 2 (1978): 167–79.) There is a developing school of interpretation, however, whose members argue that it is not Schopenhauer, but Henri Bergson that maintains the strongest influence over Proust. A Bergsonian interpretation of Proust is proposed by Anthony Uhlmann, who provides evidence that Beckett had read Bergson’s work prior to the writing of Proust. Uhlmann quotes from a Trinity College, Dublin manuscript from one of Beckett’s students, whose notes include references to a lecture on Bergson. Uhlmann argues that we can be confident that “Beckett was well aware of the links which had been made between Bergson and Proust, and the different understandings of time each developed.” (Anthony Uhlmann, “Beckett and Philosophy,” in Stan Gontarski, ed., A Companion to Samuel Beckett (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 85–6; cf. Anthony Uhlmann, Samuel Beckett and the Philosophical Image (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 28–9.) Whatever the origin of Beckett’s ideas we can assume they were influenced by Bergson’s work. 14 Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur Mitchell (London: Macmillan, 1912 [1911]), 322. 15 Ibid., 324. 13

Beckett’s Proust and Falling Man


allowed it. At a given moment, therefore, it is at rest at a given point. Motionless at each point of its course, it is motionless during all the time that it is moving.16

This is the heart of the paradox: the linking of the temporal and the spatial in an example that must only deal exclusively with the spatial. Bergson refutes Zeno’s argument, pointing out that the arrow’s mobility does not then require an infinite series of analogous immobilities. Bergson writes: We thus obtain a series of absurdities that all express the same fundamental absurdity. But the possibility of applying the movement to the line traversed exists only for an observer who keeping outside the movement and seeing at every instant the possibility of a stop, tries to reconstruct the real movement with these possible immobilities.17

In a Bergsonian way the episodic nature of art, and, for Beckett, the literary, is undeniable: “At the best, all that is realized in Time (all Time produce), whether in Art or Life, can only be possessed successively, by a series of partial annexations—and never integrally and at once.” For Beckett, as for DeLillo, the temporal and the spatial are separate concerns. Both writers are focused on developing an understanding of the temporal which facilitates a theorization of literary time, and an understanding of how this facilitates the creation of an authentic literary work.

Habit Beckett, while talking about time, observes that both habit and memory are “attributes of the Time cancer.”18 Habit is a concerning concept, one that speaks of human frailty. It would be difficult to find a more withering passage within Proust, as Beckett writes: Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit. Breathing is habit. Life is habit. Or rather life is a succession of individuals; the world being a projection of the individual’s consciousness (an objectivation of the individual’s will, Schopenhauer would say), the pact must be continually renewed, the letter of safe-conduct brought up to date.19

As with Beckett’s analysis of time, habit is constructed as episodic. The nature of literature means that the individual (i.e. the character) can be split up, personality made subjective and split into myriad parts. Beckett’s definition of habit speaks to the mundanity of human life. As Versluys observes in his analysis of Falling Man, habit 18 19 16 17

Ibid., 325. Ibid., 327 (Bergson’s emphasis). Beckett, Proust, 7. Ibid., 8.

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functions as a repetitive ennui.20 We must note, however, that when habit is deferred even for a short amount of time, Beckett writes: “the boredom of living is replaced by the suffering of being.”21 We will observe the movement from habit to memory many times within Falling Man, especially in relation to Keith’s short relationship with Florence, whose briefcase he emerges with out of the World Trade Center, in which we see that the shift from habit to memory encapsulates DeLillo’s allusion to Beckett’s Proust and his harnessing of the productive theorizations Beckett creates.

Memory For Beckett, memory is a far more authentic experience than habit and one that is far harder to grasp. Beckett’s conceptualization of memory is complex. First, memory is fraught in and of itself: “[t]he man with a good memory does not remember anything because he does not forget anything.”22 This form of memory has been habitualized, and becomes what Beckett terms “voluntary memory.” The character who has a memory like this: is uniform, a creature of routine, at once a condition and function of his impeccable habit, an instrument of reference instead of an instrument of discovery.23

Beckett conceptualizes voluntary memory as inauthentic, and unable to access what he calls the “real.” As Beckett writes: [i]n extreme cases memory is so closely related to habit that its word takes flesh, and is not merely available in cases of urgency, but habitually enforced.24

Voluntary memory is a crucial concept for DeLillo throughout Falling Man, as he attempts to ascertain what the authentic experience of the September 11 attacks really was. He examines the concept through Lianne Neudecker’s work with sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease, in which voluntary memory is consciously developed as a means to retain the function of memory in any form. Involuntary memory, however, facilitates access to reality which can never be fathomed through voluntary memory. Beckett describes involuntary memory as: “explosive, ‘an immediate, total and delicious deflagration’” as opposed to the functional mundanity of voluntary memory.25 Beckett goes on in a more poetic vein: It restores, not merely the past object, but the Lazarus that it charmed or tortured, not merely Lazarus and the object, but more because less, more because it abstracts 22 23 24 25 20 21

Versluys, Out of the Blue, 33. Beckett, Proust, 8. Ibid., 17. Ibid. Ibid., 18. Ibid., 20.

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the useful, the opportune, the accidental, because in its flame it has consumed Habit and all its works, and in its brightness revealed the mock reality of experience never can and never will reveal—the real.26

Beckett’s claim asserts the centrality of the artist to the creation and perception of reality, a point that emphasizes the importance with which he views this concept. There is a similar motivation for DeLillo, who in Falling Man responds to what he describes as terrorist control of the world narrative.27 Falling Man and his search for involuntary memory of the event is his attempt to “create the counter-narrative” in response to the September 11 attacks.28

Time, habit, memory: Surviving the World Trade Center collapse One of the crucial interactions within Falling Man is between Keith Neudecker and Florence Givens, the owner of the briefcase that Keith picks up during his evacuation from the World Trade Center. The briefcase itself is a useful metaphor for DeLillo, its progress down the emergency stairs and into Keith’s hands serving as a temporally disjunctive anticipation of the collapse of the towers. The briefcase is passed from hand to hand while the tower is evacuating and DeLillo repeats the instruction four times: “This goes down.”29 Keith eventually returns the briefcase to its owner, and their interaction and brief relationship illustrates the method through which DeLillo melds Beckett’s concepts of time, habit, and memory together in the novel. Keith serves as an emblem of the trauma caused by the attacks. His perception of the city and the combination of time, memory, and habit comments directly on the September 11 experience. DeLillo reinforces the sense of oddity within New York City, writing: “[t]he ordinariness, so normally unnoticeable, fell upon him oddly, with almost dreamlike effect.”30 DeLillo constructs a sense of disorientation that speaks specifically to Keith’s apprehension of time. The oddity of New York is, in a sense, constructed by the fact that life and time have gone on. Life in the City continues, while Keith is anticipating a temporal disruption, a pause; the effect on Keith is powerful. Keith’s and Florence’s first attempt to discuss their memories and experiences is a failure. They are awkward together, engaging in a jilting conversation where questions and answers do not correspond. Eventually Keith seems to resolve to leave and moves toward the door. In this moment, DeLillo places Falling Man into congruence with Beckett’s ideas from Proust. DeLillo writes: Finally he moved toward the door and then picked up the briefcase. He paused, reaching for the doorknob, and looked at her, across the room, and she was smiling. 29 30 26 27 28

Ibid. DeLillo, “In the Ruins of the Future,” 33. Ibid., 34. DeLillo, Falling Man, 245. Ibid., 51.

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“Why did I do that?” “Habit,” she said. “I was ready to walk out the door with all your property. All over again. Your priceless family heritage. Your cell phone.”31

DeLillo links habit and repetition here, the familiar act of reaching for a bag now transgressive. The phrase “all over again” is important, as much of Falling Man concerns the strange process of memory in which an event is returned to over and over. We know from Proust that habit and memory are inextricably linked. DeLillo does not separate time, habit, and memory, but rather presents them in synthesis to analyze the effects of the September 11 attacks. Florence’s briefcase becomes an emblem of the first exploration of these concepts. During Keith’s and Florence’s encounter DeLillo exhaustively lists the contents of Florence’s briefcase. It contains: credit cards, Florence’s wallet, a bottle of “Poland Spring” water, a toothbrush, a cell phone, and a pack of cigarettes.32 It is no coincidence that the final two items, the phone and the cigarettes are described after habit is first mentioned, and that both items are associated with addiction: the pathologicization of habit. For Keith’s and Florence to get to the reality of their experiences in the September 11 attacks they need to together reject habitualized voluntary memory and instead begin to access their involuntary memories. Florence’s response to her cell phone is a rejection of habit: “‘I stopped needing it when I didn’t have it.’”33 Her response is not as equivocal for the cigarettes, but still implies a rejection of habit: “my guilty secret. But I’m down to four a day.”34 As we see the shift from habit to memory, DeLillo’s list of items in Florence’s briefcase remains significant. The most important is a voice recorder: an electronic means of guaranteeing memory. Florence’s voice recorder is discussed only fleetingly, but ensures that the concept of memory is central to their conversation. DeLillo writes: “Why do you have a better voice recorder than I had?” “I think I’ve only used it twice.” “I used mine but then never listened to it. I liked to talk into it.” “What did you say when you talked into it?” “I don’t know. My fellow Americans,” he said.35

Keith’s and Florence’s reaction is inauthentic, a prosaic acknowledgment of the power of the device. Irrespective of Keith’s glibness, the statement is important. DeLillo argues that memory is crucial to processing the September 11 attacks, and that this memory is a shared memory, accessible, or experienced, by America as a whole. Thus the reader can 34 35 31 32 33

Ibid., 53 (my emphasis). See ibid., 52–3. Ibid., 53. Ibid. Ibid., 54.

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identify the resonance in DeLillo’s use of a universal American expression, especially considering its favor in the speech of American presidents. Finally the authentic memory comes. Florence speaks first, her memories halting but evocative: “I was at my screen and heard the plane approach but only after I was thrown down. That’s how fast,” she said. “Are you sure you heard the plane?” “The impact sent me to the floor and then I heard the plane.”36

In the moment of involuntary memory we come across a temporal disjunction, similar to the V-2 rockets in Gravity’s Rainbow.37 DeLillo continues with his focus on Florence: She went through it slowly, remembering as she spoke, often pausing to look into space, to see things again, the collapsed ceilings and blocked stairwells, the smoke, always, and the fallen wall, the drywall, and she paused to search for the word and he waited, watching.38

The memories that Florence is accessing here are involuntary; they are not processed by consideration or even language, and are communicated immediately.39 The visceral nature of the images that DeLillo evokes here is important. DeLillo posits this conversation between Florence and Keith as truly real, both characters living their experiences again. Florence’s memories from in the Tower are then linked to the temporal. During the moments after the attacks, she was “dazed and had no sense of time.”40 DeLillo’s evocation of the temporal emphasizes the authenticity of the memories that Florence is experiencing at this point of the narrative. This authenticity then moves the character’s experience of time into line with Beckett, in which the time of involuntary memory is universal, an experience of memory “between the memory of a dream and the memory of reality.”41 The authenticity of this section is reinforced not only by the power of the memories being recounted but also through Keith’s and Florence’s reactions to each other throughout. Florence relates the fear she feels when she momentarily loses her footing on the emergency stairs. She stops herself and says: “I know I can’t sit here alive and Ibid. See Chapter 5. This disjunction approximates the effect of the hysteron proteron trope identified by Weisenburger in Gravity’s Rainbow but also by Joseph Conte in Cosmopolis. See Conte, “Writing amid the Ruins: 9/11 and Cosmopolis,” in John Duvall, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Don DeLillo (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 186. The technological aspect of memory interacts with the concept of the eternal return, and will be readdressed below. 38 DeLillo, Falling Man, 55. 39 The passage quoted above seems also to affirm DeLillo’s statement that memory functions “backwards.” See Marc Chénetier and François Happe, “An Interview with Don DeLillo,” Revue Française D’études Américaines 102, no. 87 (2001): 104. 40 DeLillo, Falling Man, 55. 41 Beckett, Proust, 20. 36 37


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safe and talk about falling down some stairs when all that horror, all those dead.”42 The authenticity of Florence’s memories is emphasized by Keith’s reaction to them. One moment in particular sticks out for him, when their memories briefly coincide—they both remember an individual moving up the stairs to, they presume, force open a lift: No reason ever to remember this if she hadn’t mentioned it. Means nothing, he thought. But then it did. Whatever had happened to the man was situated outside the fact that they’d both seen him, at different points in the march down, but it was important, somehow, in some indeterminate way, that he’d been carried in these crossing memories, brought down out of the tower and into this room.43

Keith’s and Florence’s memories from the past still exist in the present. The power of the September 11 attacks is reconfirmed by the desire of DeLillo’s characters to maintain memories of the reality of the attacks. This in turn illustrates the disjunctive nature of time after September 11 in which the present and past begin to merge. DeLillo refers to this act of memorialization later on in this text, in a section that resonates strongly with Florence’s reference to her voice recorder. DeLillo’s emphasis on the importance of technology, and the means through which it alters memory has two important points of congruence. First, Beckett himself had explored the manipulability of memory through electronic means, especially in Krapp’s Last Tape.44 The electronic manipulation of memory is returned to repeatedly throughout Falling Man. Keith and Lianne watch the endless retransmission of the September 11 attacks on the most ubiquitous of household objects, the television; DeLillo reiterates the importance of the electronic storage of these events: Every time she saw a videotape of the planes she moved a finger toward the power button on the remote. Then she kept on watching. The second plane coming out of that ice blue sky, this was the footage that entered the body, that seemed to run beneath her skin, the fleeting spirit that carried lives and histories, theirs and hers, everyone’s, into some other distance, out beyond the towers.45

This is indisputably a moment in which Lianne experiences Beckett’s “suffering of being.” The memory of the event is not solely hers, but extends beyond, encompassing both attacker and attacked, a concept of memory that is universal rather than individual, recalling Keith’s and Florence’s shared memories. We read: The skies she retained in her memory were dramas of cloud and sea storm, or the electric sheen before summer thunder in the city, always belonging to the energies DeLillo, Falling Man, 56. Ibid., 57 (my emphasis). 44 Consider, for example, the effect of Krapp’s recorded voice on Krapp in the final stages of the play. See Samuel Beckett, “Krapp’s Last Tape,” in Krapp’s Last Tape and Embers (London: Faber and Faber, 1989), 20. 45 DeLillo, Falling Man, 134. 42 43

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of sheer weather, of what was out there, air masses, water vapor, westerlies. This was different, a clear sky that carried human terror in those streaking aircraft, first one, then the other, the force of men’s intent. He watched with her. Every helpless desperation set against the sky, human voices crying to God and how awful to imagine this, God’s name on the tongue of killers and victims both, first one place and then the other, the one that was nearly cartoon human, with flashing eyes and teeth, the second plane, the south tower.46

It is tempting, especially because of the emotive nature of DeLillo’s prose, to argue that this entire section details the importance of memory. However, only the first half of this passage really engages with memories. Lianne’s memories do not pertain specifically to the September 11 attacks. Rather they are memories of other times, when “the boredom of living” has been replaced. The experience of September 11 narrated here is habitualized. The habitualization of September 11 is accomplished exactly because the memory is not human, but is the product of the videotape. Thus, even in the specific moment of violence which motivates Falling Man the moment itself cannot be pushed into memory but remains another invocation of “the boredom of living.” In the technological reproduction of memory, what appears to be authentic and an involuntary memory instead becomes habitual and voluntary.47 The technological repetition of September 11 has, especially at this stage of the novel enforced a return to voluntary inauthenticity. Beckett anticipates this, describing memory making way for the impetus: “to create the new habit that will empty the mystery of its threat—and also of its beauty.”48

Habit as memory: Alzheimer’s disease DeLillo addresses the complexities of memory through Lianne’s volunteer work as a counselor for sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease, an affliction that specifically targets memory, rendering an individual disassociated simply because of their inability to access their memories. Lianne’s patients write their memories of the September 11 attacks and the aftermath, both to exercise the mind and to record their memories for posterity. Lianne’s concern for her patients emerges from her own relationship to Alzheimer’s—her father committed suicide in response to the quick onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms—but also from her ongoing confusion after September 11. The session facilitator, Dr Apter, makes a clear observation the first time they discuss the counseling Lianne is providing. DeLillo writes: “From this point on, you understand, it’s all about loss. We’re dealing inevitably here with diminishing returns. Their situation will grow increasingly delicate. Ibid. Cf. Judith Butler’s analysis of the dynamics of grief in her Precarious Life, 28–32. 48 Beckett, Proust, 11. 46 47

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These encounters need space around them. You don’t want them to feel there’s an urgency to write everything, say everything before it’s too late. You want them to look forward to this, not feel pressed or threatened. The writing is sweet music up to a point. Then other things will take over.” He looked at her searchingly. “What I’m saying is simple. This is for them,” he said. [. . .] “It’s theirs,” he said. “Don’t make it yours.”49

Apter immediately establishes that memory is unreliable, ineffective and, finally, fallible. The reader encounters not memory but habit. Memory for Lianne’s patients has to be habitualized, so that some semblance of the function of memory can be retained in the face of the disease’s effects. Thus, as Beckett argues, habit or the habitualization of memory engenders loss of experiential authenticity. The habitualized memory DeLillo describes here has its parallel in voluntary memory, described as “[t]he memory that is not memory.”50 Voluntary memory is: the uniform memory of intelligence; and it can be relied upon to reproduce for our gratified inspection those impressions of that past that were consciously and intelligently formed [. . .]. It presents the past in monochrome.51

Voluntary memory is the only form of memory available to Lianne’s group: and this form of memory, as we see in Beckett’s formulation, is more habit than memory itself. The struggles of Alzheimer’s groups with their memories mean that they cannot ever gain access to an authentic appreciation of the September 11 attacks. Rather, they are mired in trivialities. At the same time they are unable to think in abstractions recalling Beckett’s argument that involuntary memory does not only take in memory, but experience as well. Thus, inhibited use of memory of Lianne’s patients (and the habitualized forms of the memories they retain) means that their thoughts are presented simply, without approaching the reality that Beckett argues is the truest aim for memory. DeLillo tracks the inevitable decline of Lianne’s patients: he presents the dulling of memory as mundane, a slow decline into another state. One character gets lost, disoriented, and finally has to be assisted to make her way home.52 Another has difficulty putting on his pants; he still has the ability to take them on and off, but cannot maintain the confidence that his pants are on correctly, checking that the zipper is in the front and that the legs are the right length.53 Another character gets lost on his way to the meeting, unable to recall getting on the subway for the journey downtown.54 The 51 52 53 54 49 50

DeLillo, Falling Man, 60. Beckett, Proust, 19. Ibid. DeLillo, Falling Man, 93–4. Ibid., 94. Ibid., 95.

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final Alzheimer’s sufferer referred to in this section, Curtis B., disturbs the veil between memory loss and violence. He loses his watch, finds it, and then can’t remember how to put it on his wrist. DeLillo writes: There was a spatial void, or a visual gap, a rift in his field of vision, and it took him some time to make the connection, hand to wrist, pointed end of wristband into buckle. To Curtis this was a moral flaw, a sin of self-betrayal. Once at an earlier session he read a piece he’d written about an event fifty years earlier when he killed a man with a broken bottle in a bar fight, gouging the face and eyes and then severing the jugular. He looked up from the page when he spoke these words: severing the jugular. He used the same deliberate tone, dark and fated, in his account of the lost watch.55

The habitualized memory of Lianne’s other patients is countermanded by the insistent corporality of Curtis’ memories. To link the loss of a watch and the violent act described above emphasizes the true power of memory. These are moments of loss, moments of violence, and with them comes the resonance of an authentic, involuntary memory, an experience that “opens a window on the real.”56 Lianne’s patients begin to fall into a steep decline. She imagines one patient, Carmen G., as steadily separating out into two people, the first her final self as she succumbs to the disease, and the second, her former self: “a spirited woman in her reckless prime.”57 DeLillo links memory to truth, writing: “[t]he truth was mapped in slow and certain decline. Each member of the group lived in this knowledge.”58 The reality of the patients’ affliction forces Lianne into a growing awareness of her emotional link to them. DeLillo writes: Lianne herself, bearing her father’s mark, the potential toll of plaque and twisted filaments, had to look at this woman and see the crime of it, the loss of memory, personality and identity, the lapse into eventual protein stupor.59

The slow disintegration of memory is an ironic antithesis to the violent impact of September 11. In one of the most crucial scenes of the novel, DeLillo describes Keith’s experiences in a hospital after the September 11 attacks, linking the violence of terrorism with the violence of the loss of memory. He writes: Someone took the glass out of his face. The man talked throughout, using an instrument he called a pickup to extract small fragments of glass that were not deeply embedded [. . .]. He would use a clamp for deeper fragments. 58 59 55 56 57

Ibid. (DeLillo’s emphasis). Beckett, Proust, 16. DeLillo, Falling Man, 125. Ibid. Ibid.


Terrorism and Temporality “Where there are suicide bombings. Maybe you don’t want to hear this.” “I don’t know.” “In those places where it happens, the survivors, the people nearby who are injured, sometimes, months later, they develop bumps, for lack of a better term and it turns out this is caused by small fragments, tiny fragments of the suicide bomber’s body. The bomber is blown to bits, literally bits and pieces, and fragments of flesh and bone come flying outward with such force and velocity that they get wedged, they get trapped in the body of anyone who’s in striking range [. . .]. They call this organic shrapnel.” He tweezered another splinter of glass out of Keith’s face. “This is something I don’t think you have,” he said.60

The organic shrapnel metaphor is crucial in understanding DeLillo’s focus on memory and is related to Carmen’s fear of falling into “eventual protein stupor.”61 The September 11 attacks are violent in the extreme, and the idea of a terrorist body being blown apart and physically penetrating the body of the victim is radically different to the slow decline waged upon the body by Alzheimer’s. Yet both these experiences are congruent with Beckett’s claim that when habit is escaped, “for a moment the boredom of living is replaced by the suffering of being.”62 Both Alzheimer’s and DeLillo’s organic shrapnel metaphor speak to a sense of emerging knowledge, and of a glimpse memory that is no longer habitual: it is the involuntary memory that Beckett praises so highly. Lianne’s patients, after having written their own September 11 experiences, question her experiences of the attacks. Her account is prefaced by a single line: “[s]he owed them a story, didn’t she?”63 Lianne relates again the story we have heard numerous times throughout the novel; Keith’s escape from the Towers, his arrival at Lianne’s home, and their progression uptown toward the hospital, Keith covered in glass and blood. DeLillo then shifts the narrative from the events of September to Lianne’s thoughts on communicating it: She wanted to stay focused, one thing following sensibly upon another. There were moments when she wasn’t talking so much as fading into time, dropping back into some funnelled stretch of recent past. They sat dead still, watching her. People, lately, watched her. She seemingly needed watching. They were depending on her to make some sense. They were waiting for words from her side of the line, where what is solid does not melt.64

Lianne’s memory is personal and real. She shows not only power over memory in the way that Alzheimer’s patients cannot have, but the ability to distinguish the authentic from the inauthentic, and has the possibility to access and reveal the real. Ibid., 15–16. Cf. Jürgen Habermas, in his description of the September 11 attacks as the manifestation of a “living weapon.” See Borradori, Philosophy in a Time of Terror, 28. 62 Beckett, Proust, 8 63 DeLillo, Falling Man, 126. 64 Ibid., 127. 60 61

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It is instructive that Lianne’s memory, a memory that is in essence involuntary and authentic, is also related to time. The September 11 experience for Lianne cannot be related by speech, but becomes a different process altogether, a “fading into time,” moving back into the past. Falling Man’s preoccupation with the past and the continual reanalysis of the September 11 attacks means that all characters strive for a sense of authenticity in their memories. Lianne’s memories of the attacks, as opposed to her patients’, maintain an authenticity that is specifically related to her ability to harness involuntary memory. Lianne’s “fading into time” specifically alludes to Beckett’s concept, and illustrates how involuntary memory accesses the real in a way that the habitualized memory of those affected by Alzheimer’s can never achieve. After Lianne relates her immediate September 11 experience the tone of her memories change, and DeLillo reinforces the authenticity of these experiences. He writes, forcing Lianne’s focus from the past to the future, and to Justin, her son: She could not look at him sleep. He became a child in some jutting future. What do children know? They know who they are, she said, in ways we can’t know and they can’t tell us. There are moments frozen in the routine run of hours. She could not look at him sleep without thinking of what was yet to come. It was part of his stillness, figures in a silent distance, fixed in windows.65

Lianne’s concern for the “jutting future” evokes the real as DeLillo places it centrally in the present: “moments frozen in the routine run of hours.” The next paragraph completes the nexus between past, present, and future: “Please report any suspicious behavior or unattended packages. That was the wording wasn’t it?”66 Lianne’s memories are episodic, as Beckett’s conception of time proposes. The present is communicated through the ubiquitous phrase, familiar to readers even now, while the past (the September 11 attacks) and the future (Justin) all coalesce into one sensation, communicated in three simple paragraphs. Shortly after, DeLillo reveals the extent to which Alzheimer’s has affected Lianne’s life. He writes: “My father shot himself so I would never have to face the day when he failed to know who I was.” “You believe this.” “Yes.” “Then I believe it too,” he said. “The fact that he would one day fail to recognize me.” “I believe it,” he said. “That’s absolutely why he did it.”67

The suicide of Lianne’s father illustrates the power of memory. Lianne, herself, will be threatened by Alzheimer’s, gratefully able to maintain control of her memories. Ibid. Ibid. 67 Ibid., 130. 65 66

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What follows is most instructive. Keith and Lianne turn back toward the television, and watch a news report, “a correspondent in a desolate landscape, Afghanistan or Pakistan.”68 Keith remarks later that time has somehow changed, linking memory to their experience of the present. And finally, Keith makes an ominous pronouncement: the time before September 11, 2001 is “the other life.”69 The memories created by the violence of the September 11 attacks have forced Keith and Lianne, and, by implication, America, to move into another “life,” another time. In Falling Man the world is transformed in the attacks.

Habit as memory: Poker While Lianne appears able to accept the effects of September 11 on her family and her city, Keith is far less able to do so. The trauma Keith suffers places him in suspension, between lives. He buries himself in a habit created prior to the September 11 attacks (the game of poker) and returned to in the aftermath of that trauma. His habit is initially developed after his separation from Lianne, the event that motivates her volunteer work with her Alzheimer’s patients as well. Keith’s poker playing indicates his reliance on habitualized memory to repress his memories of the September 11 attacks. Keith’s relative inability to process his experiences explains his desire to reside in “the other life” pre-September 11. DeLillo initially addresses poker in analepsis, describing Keith’s memories from before the attacks. These analepses function parachronistically, drawing the past into the present. The group of men “play, game-faced, testing the forces that govern events.”70 The invocation of chance is crucial to Keith, who survived where so many did not. Searching for clarity after the attacks, Keith eventually removes himself again from his wife and child, playing poker around the United States, apparently in search of the certainty he had before the September 11 attacks. Keith’s emotional disorientation is amplified by his changed apprehension of time. In the weeks after the attacks, DeLillo emphasizes Keith’s newfound awareness of time. He writes: He began to think into the day, into the minute. It was being here, alone in time, that made this happen, being away from routine stimulus, all the streaming forms of office discourse. Things seemed still, they seemed clearer to the eye, oddly, in ways he didn’t understand. He began to see what he was doing. He noticed things, all the small lost strokes of a day or minute, how he licked his thumb and used it to lift a bread crumb off the plate and put it idly in his mouth. Only it wasn’t so idle anymore.71

DeLillo describes Keith’s character as transformed by the reality he experienced in the World Trade Center. To utilize Beckett’s terms Keith’s changed perception of the temporal suggests an alteration of time, habit, and memory that requires a recuperation 70 71 68 69

Ibid., 130–1. Ibid., 131. Ibid., 96. Ibid., 65.

Beckett’s Proust and Falling Man


of the authentic in his experience. The September 11 attacks are transformative specifically because of the emotional nature of his experience: Keith lost members of his poker group during the attacks and also because he was part of the attack itself. Keith’s changed perception of time also relates Falling Man to Beckett’s contention that time must always be subjective for each character within a text.72 DeLillo constructs Keith’s poker group narrative primarily through memory. The return prior to September 11, 2001 provides DeLillo with the means to examine the function of habit. Keith’s poker group quickly develops a rigid set of habits that govern their games. In the course of one paragraph, DeLillo describes the habitualization of the game of poker itself. The group first reduce the “dealer’s options,”73 before finally settling on the “classical retro-format.”74 The group’s manipulations of habit are not conceptualized, they are justified solely as a “joke in the name of tradition and self-discipline”75 developing into a “shrinking of choice”76 and a “raising of stakes.”77 As the poker continues, more and more options are removed. Different variations of the game itself are outlawed. Food is no longer allowed during the games, and then the only drinks allowed are dark spirits. All conversation not related to the game is excised as well.78 Much of this habitualization is driven by Hovanis, a victim of the September 11 attacks, unemotionally dismissed as “dead now.”79 Bizarrely, the only dissenter, Rumsey, experiences the same fate, and is simply “dead now” as well.80 The poker players repeatedly discuss an emblematic story that encapsulates their idolization of habit: [F]our good friends, cardplayers in a game that had lasted four or five decades, were buried in the configuration in which they’d been seated, invariably, at the card table, with two of the gravestones facing the other two, each player in his time-honored place. They loved this story. It was a beautiful story about friendship and the transcendent effects of unremarkable habit.81

The veneration of the practical effects of habit contradicts the skepticism that Beckett proposes and of which DeLillo approves. Such stringent codification of habit is only possible for so long. The groups’ habits collapse: Then one night it all fell apart. Somebody got hungry and demanded food. Somebody else pounded the table and said, Food food. This became a chant that See Beckett, Proust, 5. DeLillo, Falling Man, 96. Ibid., 97. Ibid., 96. Ibid., 97. Ibid. Ibid., 97–9. Ibid., 97. Ibid., 99. It should also be noted that to be “dead” is a poker term that describes a player who is still playing a hand, but can no longer win, a phrase that is used by DeLillo later on in Keith’s poker narrative. See ibid., 118. 81 Ibid., 98–9. 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 72 73


Terrorism and Temporality filled the room [. . .]. Other prohibitions fell, banned words were reinstated [. . .] and they tried not to wonder what four other players would think of them, in this wallow of wild-man poker, tombstone to tombstone.82

The “falling apart” of Keith’s poker group anticipates the intrusion of the real into Keith’s world on September 11. The groups’ rejection of habit is constructed as a betrayal: a betrayal that Keith will feel doubly as he perceives the tragedies unfolding around him and his own luck in surviving the event. Before Keith’s poker narrative continues, DeLillo describes a scene in which Keith and Lianne are required to interact, illustrating their different reaction of habitualized rituals of poker. Prior to leaving his family Keith is watching a televised poker game, impassive to Lianne and Justin watching the television with him. For Lianne “[i]t meant nothing. It was outside her interest or sympathy. But the players were interesting [. . .] she thought, making a leap to Kierkegaard.”83 Lianne’s apprehension of inauthenticity in the televised poker game is opposed by Keith’s sensation of authenticity: “[h]e was thinking of being here [. .  .] and not thinking of it, but only feeling it, alive to it.”84 Keith’s perception of the game as authentic exemplifies his reliance on habit and his difficulty in processing the trauma of September 11. Lianne’s reaction to the players returns her thoughts to Kierkegaard, and her reading of his texts in her youth: She read her Kierkegaard with a feverish expectancy, straight into the Protestant badlands of sickness unto death [. . .]. Kierkegaard gave her a danger, a sense of spiritual brink. The whole of existence frightens me, he wrote. She saw herself in this sentence.85

Keith’s and Lianne’s reactions both convey the sense of authenticity in experience that Beckett argues is the most important aim for literature; the rejection of habit and voluntary memory for the real, a process both characters seek, but with different levels of success. Keith separates himself from his former life, moving nomadically around the United States playing poker. DeLillo constructs an emerging realization that poker and the rules and habits of the game provide a structure, not solely for the game but for those who play it. He describes Keith’s understanding: [H]e began to sense a life in all of this, not for himself but the others, a small dawn of tunneled meaning [.  .  .]. This was never over. That was the point. There was nothing outside the game but faded space. She blinked and called, blinked and folded.86 84 85

Ibid., 100 (DeLillo’s emphasis). Ibid., 117. Ibid. Ibid., 118 (DeLillo’s emphasis). DeLillo quotes from Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling and the Sickness Unto Death, trans. Walter Lowrie (Garden City: Doubleday, 1954 [1843]), 168. 86 DeLillo, Falling Man, 189. 82 83

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Keith believes he has rejected the inauthenticity of habit, unaware of the contradiction his compulsive desire to play a game based on the stylization of habit creates. DeLillo presents Keith as overwhelmingly numb and seeking a system that will allow him to assimilate his experience during the September 11 attacks into a new life. Slowly Keith bows to the power of habit, spending months mastering the game of poker to a level sufficient to make money playing the game professionally. He returns home to Lianne and Justin sporadically, but succumbs repeatedly to the habitual embrace of the poker game: “there was no language, it seemed to tell them how he spent his days and nights.”87 The habitualization of the professional poker world holds Keith in suspension and delivers him from reality: Soon he felt the need to be back there [. . .]. There were standard methods and routines. Taxi to the casino, taxi back to his hotel [. . .]. At the table he didn’t study players for tells, didn’t care why they coughed or seemed bored or scratched a forearm. He studied his cards and knew the tendencies [. . .]. He drank hard liquor sparingly, nearly not at all, and allowed himself five hours’ sleep, barely aware of setting limits and restrictions. Never occurred to him to light a cigar, as in the old days, at the old game.88

Keith’s regulation of his life is now so intrinsic that he doesn’t notice the habits he has fallen into at all. The sense of numbness and inauthenticity is pervasive—he does not look at anyone, “seeing essentially no one”89—except on the planes he catches, where he looks “at faces on both sides of the aisle, trying to spot the man or men who might be a danger to them all.”90 The pervasive irreality of Keith’s post-September 11 mindset is only occasionally punctured by reality. Poker, and the set of habits, rules, and rituals that are incorporated, wards off the possibility of involuntary memory and a return to the horror of his past experience. Keith finally encounters another member of the pre-September 11 poker group after attempting to defer his pre-September 11 poker memories for so long. Keith seems to anticipate the event but then simultaneously to deny the possibility and its symmetry: “When it happened he wondered why he hadn’t known it would.”91 DeLillo writes: [A] man was standing to do a series of flexing exercises, loosen the neck and shoulder muscles, get the blood running. There was an element of pure ritual in his movements, something beyond the functional [. . .]. The man was strangely familiar [. . .]. It had to be Terry Cheng, easing back into his chair now, dropping out of Keith’s line of vision, and of course this is who it was because how could any of this be happening, the poker circuit, the thunderous runs of money, the comped hotel rooms and high competition, without the presence of Terry Cheng.92 89 90 91 92 87 88

Ibid., 197. Ibid., 197–8. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid.

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DeLillo finally makes explicit the motivation for Keith’s interest in poker. Terry’s rituals are evidence of the same desire for habit that Keith exhibits. The exchange between Keith and Cheng is minimal, as they take their seats for the tournament and do not plan to meet up again, anxious not to interrupt their habit-focused existence. The timelessness of the casino, and of “the other life” after September 11 has effected both of them: “[t]he idea of later was elusive” and the reality each man signifies for the other is unwelcome.93 Soon afterwards, however, we encounter Keith and Terry again, at a major tournament this time, discussing their lives. Their memories of each other are indistinct, despite their only link being the poker games they engaged in before the September 11 attacks. It is not only their memories, however, that are faulty. The temporal change precipitated by the September 11 attacks has rendered Keith and Terry different people: “Did you smoke back then, when we played?” “I don’t know. Tell me,” Terry said. “I think you were the only one who didn’t smoke. We had a number of cigars and one cigarette. But I don’t think it was you.” There were isolated instants, now and then, sitting here, when Terry Cheng seemed again to be the man at the table in Keith’s apartment, dividing chips in swift and artful fashion after the high-low games. He was one of them, only better at cards, and not really one of them at all.94

Keith’s apparent confusion illustrates the disjunction in time, habit, and memory. It is instructive also, that both Terry and Keith have been changed by September 11, their character made subjective by the power of the September 11 attacks. Both have returned to their primary habit but are recreating the habit, making it appropriate to the time after the attacks. At the heart of Keith’s poker narrative is DeLillo’s use of the game, a combination of memory and luck as an approximation of life. He writes: The cards fell randomly, no assignable cause, but [Keith] remained the agent of free choice. Luck, chance, no one knew what these things were. These things were only assumed to affect events. He had memory, judgment, the ability to decide what is true, what is alleged, when to strike, when to fade. He had a measure of calm, of calculated isolation, and there was a certain logic he might draw on. Terry Cheng said that the only true logic in the game was the logic of personality. But the game had structure, guiding principles, sweet and easy interludes of dream logic when the player knows that the card he needs is the card that’s sure to fall. Then, always, in the crucial instant ever repeated hand after hand, the choice of yes or no. Call or raise, call or fold, the little binary pulse located behind the eyes, the choice that reminds you who you are.95

Ibid., 200. Ibid., 202–3. 95 Ibid., 211–12. 93 94

Beckett’s Proust and Falling Man


Poker is not truly a game of memory: counting cards is not possible, and one only needs to know the different hand formulations to have a reasonable chance of success. Poker instead is a game of habit and appraisal, attempting to read others’ expressions to one’s own advantage. Thus, when Keith disagrees with Terry’s argument that the only logic in poker is the “logic of personality,” he is instead arguing for the logic of habit. Through the game, Keith is allowed to fall into the habitual, the ability to make choices, rather than to be subjected to random acts of violence. Keith’s invocation of luck is also crucial in its application to Rumsey, a member of the poker group. In the previous poker scene, where Keith discussed poker with Terry Cheng, they briefly discuss Rumsey, a victim of the September 11 attacks. His fate is described in one throwaway line: “‘I heard he went out a window.’”96 Rumsey was given one final choice, to die in the collapse of the World Trade Center or to die after jumping from the tower. Poker thus facilitates Keith’s memorial to the choice Rumsey had to make. Rumsey was not afforded the luck that Keith has in his poker playing, but the game stands in as a habitualized memorial for Rumsey, one of the falling men of September 11 and of the novel. The last poker scene in Falling Man presents Keith’s thoughts on poker. His ruminations are generally prosaic, but include mention of both habit and memory which illustrate the progression of his character throughout the novel. Keith describes “rare moments” of awareness, when he is not completely immersed in the game and becomes briefly aware of his surroundings.97 Interestingly, it is at these times that “there was nothing outside, no flash of history or memory that he might unknowingly summon in this routine run of cards.”98 The game of poker is, in effect, removing Keith from his memories within the tower after the plane had struck the World Trade Center. As we will see below, much of the power of these memories is related to his friend and colleague in the poker group, Rumsey, who worked for the same business. The habitual nature of poker seems to have transformed Keith. He wonders if he is turning into “a self-operating mechanism, like a humanoid robot that understands two hundred voice commands, far-seeing, touch-sensitive but totally, rigidly controllable.”99 The narrator intervenes: You have to break through the structure of your own stonework habit just to make yourself listen. There it is, the clink of chips, the toss and scatter, players and dealers, mass and stack, a light ringing sound so native to the occasion it lies outside the aural surround, in its own current of air, and no one hears it but you.100

The “breaking through” is merely breaking into a new form of habit, as Beckett argues. In this final section, Keith is comforted by playing with his poker chips, allowing them to provide a distraction from Beckett’s “authentic real,” the reality of the September 11   99 100   96   97   98

Ibid., 205. Ibid., 225. Ibid. Ibid., 226. Ibid., 229.

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attacks. Indeed, in the casino, Keith is relieved of the memories of Rumsey’s demise, for, in a single sentence paragraph, surely meant to be interpreted not only in relation to poker: “[t]he lucky jack did not fall.”101 In the alternative habit of poker, the choices facing Keith are not life and death, but simply a game, one that defers the reality that drives the narrative of Falling Man and especially Keith’s deepest concern—the horrifying choice Rumsey may have been left with—to jump to his death or to be consumed by the encroaching flames.

Habitual compulsion Keith’s descent into habit reflects his impeded desire to mourn for Rumsey. Rumsey, however, has a much more conflicted relationship to habit. He does not indulge in habit the way Keith does but rather is compelled to do so. DeLillo writes: Rumsey had compulsions. He admitted this to his friend. He admitted everything, concealed nothing. He counted parked cars in the street, windows in a building a block away. He counted the steps he took, here to there. He memorized things that crossed his consciousness, streams of information, more or less unwillingly. He could recite the personal data of a couple of dozen friends and acquaintances, addresses, phone numbers, birthdays. Months after the file of a random client crossed his desk, he could tell you the man’s mother’s maiden name. This was not cute stuff. There was an open pathos in the man.102

This is not the sort of habitual behavior Beckett conceptualizes in Proust. The reader encounters something different, habit taken so far that it becomes involuntary. The affect of Rumsey’s habit is tied to the idea that there is a sense of the ordinary about Rumsey’s character. DeLillo’s describes him as: “ordinary in many ways [. . .] a broad and squarish body, an even temperament, but he took his ordinariness to the deep end at times.”103 Rumsey’s habit becomes a mean of controlling and ordering the world: He was compelled to count things including the digits that constitute the foreparts of a woman’s foot. He admitted this. Keith did not laugh. He tried to see it as routine human business, unfathomable, something people do, all of us, in one form or another, in the off moments of living the lives others think we are living. He did not laugh, then he did. But he understood that the fixation was not directed toward sexual ends. It was the counting that mattered, even if the outcome was established in advance. Toes on one foot, toes on another. Always totalling ten. [. . .] Ibid., 227. Ibid., 121. 103 Ibid. 101 102

Beckett’s Proust and Falling Man


The counting always led to ten. This was not a discouragement or an impediment. Ten is the beauty of it. Ten is probably why I do it. To get the sameness, Rumsey said. Something holds, something stays in place.104

What is perhaps most confronting about Rumsey’s reliance on habit is that his actions are not motivated by some great trauma, but simply by the complexity of the modern world. In this way, Rumsey’s involuntary habit is differentiated from the other habitual responses throughout Falling Man and indicates especially in Keith’s case that the recourse to habit is a product of the desire to mediate the effect of the September 11 attacks. Keith’s first habitual response to the September 11 attacks is necessitated by the injuries he suffered. Keith requires physiotherapy, a series of exercises he can do at home. Very quickly, the exercises become more than just a process to alleviate injury. Keith’s immersion in habit immediately after the September 11 attacks extends his more wide-ranging and engrossing poker habit. DeLillo writes: He found these sessions restorative, four times a day, the wrist extensions, the ulnar deviations. These were the true countermeasures to the damage he’d suffered in the tower, in the descending chaos. It was not the MRI and not the surgery that brought him closer to well-being. It was this modest home program, the counting of seconds, the counting of repetitions, the times of day he reserved for the exercises, the ice he applied following each set of exercises.105

Keith’s exercises are a restorative process, and yet DeLillo makes it clear that the allure of the exercises and the power of habit is not about healing an injury but a method of mediating the power of the September 11 attacks. Habit becomes a symbolic “countermeasure,” a means to retain and produce a “sameness” in the days after an event that transformed New York City and the world. Keith is focusing not on his rehabilitation, but on “the dead and maimed [. . .] the levitation of ceilings and floors, the voices choking in smoke.”106 For a September 11 novel that is, at times, remarkably disconnected from those paradigmatic events this is a truly moving reflection of the power of the event. Beckett’s examination of the renewal of habit explains Keith’s recourse to habit as an avenue to deny the reality of his experiences in the tower: [R]eality, intolerable, absorbed feverishly by his consciousness at the extreme limit of its intensity, by his total consciousness organised to avert the disaster, to create the new habit that will empty the mystery of its threat—and also of its beauty.107

Keith rejects his experiences, instead hollowing them out and excising them. Habit controls his previous experience. As he continues his exercises, DeLillo argues that 106 107 104 105

Ibid., 121–2. Ibid., 40 (my emphasis). Ibid. Beckett, Proust, 10–11.

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there is more than just a physical purpose, and yet the emotional realignment is not yet successful: “[h]e was not quite returned to his body yet. Even the program of exercises he did for his postsurgical wrist seemed a little detached.”108 As the exercises become more habitual, DeLillo describes them as “automatic.”109 Although they do not occur for long sections in the novel, Keith’s habits recur throughout. Just before the conclusion of Falling Man, Keith’s exercises return again. He is uncertain about the role of his poker career in his life, and has begun to perform other forms of exercise that provide an “offsetting discipline, a form of controlled behaviour,” rather than the heavily ritualized process of poker.110 Before DeLillo returns one final time to the moment of impact at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Keith performs the wrist exercises once more, without comment. It is as if, in this final machination of Keith’s habit, the performance has one real purpose: to lend regularity to the passage of days.

Eternal return in Falling Man As I have argued above, Keith’s memories of Rumsey are much of what is driving him to the habitualized behaviors of poker. The memory of Rumsey is a constant motivating factor for Keith, and one the reader encounters very early in Falling Man, during Keith’s surgery for his injuries sustained in the September 11 attacks: On the table he thought of his buddy Rumsey, briefly, just before or after he lost sensation. The doctor, the anesthetist, injected him with a heavy sedative or other agent, a substance containing a memory suppressant, or maybe there were two shots, but there was Rumsey in his chair by the window, which meant the memory was not suppressed or the substance hasn’t taken effect yet, a dream, a waking image, whatever it was, Rumsey in the smoke, things coming down.111

There is a suggestion of irony in this passage—Keith is unsure whether he has had two injections or one—yet he is adamant that his memory of Rumsey has had a powerful effect on him. Indeed, much of the novel is concerned with understanding, and explaining, the processes through which one can attempt to deal with the power of the September 11 attacks, whether that be through memory or habit. DeLillo does not make an argument for the primacy of involuntary memory like Beckett does—DeLillo cannot afford to be this equivocal, nor is Falling Man ever overtly theoretical—rather DeLillo harnesses Beckett’s concepts in an effort to create a “counter-narrative” or an assessment of the effects of the September 11 attacks on America. DeLillo makes obvious use of his ability to represent events from multiple viewpoints and to repeat 110 111 108 109

DeLillo, Falling Man, 59. Ibid., 106. Ibid., 143. Ibid., 22.

Beckett’s Proust and Falling Man


events a number of times, both to emphasize the importance and power of these events (and what more visceral image than that of the September 11 attacks) but also to illustrate how the perception and representation of these events can be mediated and altered via the influence of memory, as well as other factors. In DeLillo’s final presentation of the September 11 attacks, the reader’s focus is split between two characters Keith and Hammad, the terrorist character from whom we gain a few short insights. The narration shifts from Hammad to Keith at the exact moment that the plane strikes the tower. Keith is struck by an object as the plane hits the tower, and is overcome by a disorienting confusion. His major concern is to get to Rumsey, and to ascertain his condition. Rumsey is critically injured, “hit by something large and hard when the ceiling caved in or even before.”112 Keith attempts to pull Rumsey out of the debris in his office, intending to help him down the stairs and out of the tower. Rumsey is critically injured, and too unwieldy for Keith to carry. DeLillo writes: He looked at Rumsey, who’d fallen away from him, upper body lax, face barely belonging. The whole business of being Rumsey was in shambles now. Keith held tight to the belt buckle. He stood and looked at him and the man opened his eyes and died. This is when he wondered what was happening here.113

This contradicts what the reader encounters earlier in the novel when we are told that Rumsey jumped from the tower. As the final section of the novel continues DeLillo reinforces this confusion: [F]or an instant he saw it again, going past the window, and this time he thought it was Rumsey. He confused it with Rumsey, the man falling sideways, arm out and up, like pointed up, like why am I here instead of there.114

This moment refers back to moments before when Keith is attempting to help Rumsey, as DeLillo writes: Then something outside, going past the window. Something went past the window, then he saw it. First it went and was gone and then he saw it and had to stand a moment staring out at nothing, holding Rumsey under the arms. He could not stop seeing it, twenty feet away, an instant of something sideways, going past the window, white shirt, hand up, falling before he saw it.115

There are two temporal disjunctions at play here. The first is described in the excerpt immediately above. Keith sees something, presumably the falling man of the title, the individual that motivates David Janiak to create his requiem performance of the 114 115 112 113

Ibid., 241. Ibid., 243. Ibid., 244. Ibid., 242.


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famous image, and then afterwards realizes what he has seen. DeLillo encapsulates here the fallibility of memory. The second temporal disjunction is in comparison between the two passages quoted above: that is, the confusion Keith encounters in believing he sees Rumsey falling, when, in the process of evacuating the tower Keith convinces himself he is seeing the same man falling again, despite also having seen Rumsey die in his arms while attempting to help him prior to evacuating. This temporal disjunction is a product of Keith’s experiences in the attacks, a moment that dominates the rest of Keith’s life that we are privy to throughout Falling Man. Indeed, it is as if DeLillo is arguing that time itself is suspended once the initial moment of the first plane striking the building takes place. For as Keith is descending the tower we read: “[i]t did not seem forever to him, the passage down. He had no sense of pace or rate.”116 Time is disrupted from the moment the first plane hits the tower. In the repetition of the destruction of the World Trade Center, DeLillo constructs the familiar concept of eternal return. My motivation for this argument is derived from the novel itself (and the fact that the eternal return is a crucial concept for Pynchon’s novel Against the Day; see Chapter 6), but also as it was previously posited, in Cheryl Miller’s particularly scathing review article “9/11 and the Novelists.” Miller’s position on Falling Man is clear: she views the novel as a failed attempt to reconsider what she views as DeLillo’s positive view of terrorism enunciated in White Noise and Mao II. Miller argues that DeLillo is not, even after the September 11 attacks, able to “repudiate ‘the act of terror.’”117 She sees DeLillo’s use of eternal return as “nightmarish,” terrorism “presented in its most chilling form.”118 I don’t conceive of DeLillo’s use of eternal return in the same terms. Eternal return seems to be an effective means of conceptualizing time after the September 11 attacks—not in terms of understanding time as it applies to the real world—but useful for understanding novelistic or literary time. Miller’s criticism of DeLillo’s application of eternal return to the events of September 11 would respond to a simplistic understanding of the concept, in which the eternal return stands in as a cipher for nihilism, and nihilism is then interpreted as a senseless form of terrorist apologia. While Nietzsche’s conception of the eternal return, characterized as “terrible [. . .], existence as it is, without meaning or aim, yet recurring inevitably without any finale” seems bleak, the eternal return is in essence a call for stoicism, and an understanding of the essence of the world.119 Nietzsche proposes that acceptance of the fact of the eternal return facilitates something very similar to the sense of authenticity that Beckett understands as crucial to literature in Proust. As such, eternal return does not always call for an interpretation that includes time, and yet the temporal is crucial to the concept. DeLillo’s representation of the

118 119 116 117

Ibid., 245. Miller, “9/11 and the Novelists,” 33. Ibid. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, ed. Walter Kaufmann, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1968), 36. A similar conception, although incorporating the concept of momento mori, is developed by Nietzsche in “The Convalescent.” See Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin, 2003), 232–8.

Beckett’s Proust and Falling Man


September 11 attacks via audiovisual media allows the author an avenue to examine these concepts again. DeLillo’s repetition of the September 11 attacks does not occur only at the beginning and the end of the novel but becomes a motif that emerges through other concepts as well. DeLillo’s utilization of technology is a means through which he investigates the eternal return and begins to create his own conceptualization of it. DeLillo describes Lianne’s and Keith’s experiences of re-viewing the attacks: Every time she saw a videotape of the planes she moved a finger toward the power button on the remote. Then she kept on watching [. . .] [A] clear sky that carried human terror in those streaking aircraft, first one, then the other, the force of men’s intent [. . .]. Standing by the wall he reached toward her chair and took her hand. She bit her lip and watched. They would all be dead, passengers and crew, and thousands in the towers dead, and she felt it in her body, a deep pause, and thought there he is, unbelievably, in one of those towers, and now his hand on hers, in pale light, as though to console her for his dying.120

Lianne’s unease is a “deep pause.” This phrase suggests a number of different meanings, but the application of “pause” in technology, and specifically to the video recorder is crucial. The ability to manipulate time is central to this form of technology, and DeLillo harnesses this ability to emphasize the possibilities of the concept of eternal return, and also to illustrate that he is creating a new conception of the eternal return.121 The technological ability to manipulate time is then reflected in the alteration of tense in the middle of the excerpt above. Despite the fact that Keith was in the World Trade Center, and Lianne knows exactly what happened on September 11, DeLillo still narrates the September 11 attacks here as if they were taking place in the future. It is not as simple as this, however, because DeLillo’s narrator has the privilege (as the reader also does) of knowing what will occur, and yet the events remain in the future. What is also important to note in this passage is that Lianne is compelled to view the September 11 attacks over and over: this parallels Nietzsche’s exhortation to accept the eternal return but also emphasizes the inevitable cycle of time in the eternal return model. In Falling Man, DeLillo deals specifically with the concept of the September 11 attacks residing in the future. Keith and Lianne’s son, Justin, along with two of his friends, have a very different apprehension of the September 11 attacks to their parents. The three children monitor the skyline of New York City from their bedrooms, attempting to identify the next planes that will attack the city. Keith and Lianne are concerned: “[. . .] you’re saying, they’re looking for more planes.” “Waiting for it to happen again.” “That scares me,” she said.

DeLillo, Falling Man, 134–5 (my emphasis). This is the first of the three senses in which Jacques Derrida uses the term “loop” in his analysis of the September 11 attacks. See Borradori, Philosophy in a Time of Terror, 94–6 and n. 8, 188.

120 121

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[. . .] “That scares the hell out of me. God, there’s something so awful about that. Damn kids with their goddamn twisted powers of imagination.” [. . .] Finally she said, “The only thing I got out of Justin. The towers did not collapse.” “They were hit but did not collapse. That’s what he says.” “He didn’t see it on TV. I didn’t want him to see it. But I told him they came down. And he seemed to absorb it. But then, I don’t know.”122

Justin epitomizes the stoicism that Nietzsche requires to accept the eternal return while his belief that the towers did not fall illustrates the disconnection that child and parents have suffered from the event. Irrespective of the televisual evidence of the attacks, Justin is convinced that the same events will happen again. The possibility of repetition is crucial to this section of the novel. The three children believe they are receiving messages from “Bill Lawton,” their misinterpretation of “bin Laden.” After much coaxing, Justin admits to Keith and Lianne what bin Laden is telling him. He says: The whole point [.  .  .] is that he says things about the planes. We know they’re coming because he says they are. But that’s all I’m allowed to say. He says this time the towers will fall.123

DeLillo illustrates to the reader the instability of knowledge in the aftermath of September 11. He invokes the Nietzschean concept of eternal return, but complicates it, pushing it toward the Deleuzean disambiguation of the eternal return, in which difference is incorporated into the eternal return. The three sections of Falling Man, respectively “Bill Lawton,” “Ernst Hechinger,” and “David Janiak,” have a significance that is not immediately obvious. As stated above “Bill Lawton” refers to Osama bin Laden. The second part, “Ernst Hechinger” is the real name of Martin, partner of Lianne’s mother. The reader finds out that Martin had to change his name because of his involvement in radical left-wing terrorism in the 1960s and 1970s: Martin was a member of the terrorist group Kommune One during this period in West Germany. The third part of Falling Man is titled “David Janiak,” the name of the performance artist Falling Man who the reader encounters throughout the text. I will return to the Falling Man below but I first want to ponder DeLillo’s act of (mis)naming the three parts and an interpretation of this. Justin and his friends, who misname bin Laden Bill Lawton believe that we will attack again. In effect then, the September 11 attacks remain in the immanent present. The second misnaming we encounter, “Ernst Hechinger” refers to terrorism of the 1960s and 1970s. Martin, when arguing with Nina, Lianne’s mother, is adamant that DeLillo, Falling Man, 72. Ibid., 102.

122 123

Beckett’s Proust and Falling Man


there is a relationship between terrorism as we understand it now, and the terrorism he participated in the 1960s and 1970s. Nina says: He thinks these people, these jihadists, he thinks they have something in common with the radicals of the sixties and seventies. He thinks they’re all part of the same classical pattern. They have their theorists. They have their visions of world brotherhood.124

Simply considered then, there is a relationship that DeLillo is proposing between the September 11 attacks (the immanent, and eternally recurring, present of Falling Man) and the past. Similarly, the third misnaming that the reader encounters, “David Janiak” refers us to the future, or to the immediate present. The Falling Man replicates the famous photograph of a victim of the September 11 attacks choosing to jump from the tower rather than be consumed by the flames (a replication that Lianne thinks, when she encounters the performance, brings back the past) the same terrible choices apparently faced by Rumsey.125 This act takes from the present and projects into the future. As such, I want to argue that we have in these three different misnamings another manifestation of past, present, and future representing the eternal return. Irrespective of the temporality that is being referred to, all these events transfer their meaning metaphorically back to the events of the morning of September 11, 2001. This, I believe, is an effective motif on DeLillo’s part, which reasserts the concept of eternal return as it applies to September 11.

Conclusion Incorporating the concept of eternal return in Falling Man elucidates what I see as the vital importance of this novel. DeLillo’s synthesis and development of Beckett’s conceptualization of time as it pertains to memory and habit is crucial to explicate the technical aspects of the novel. It is, however, in the concept of the eternal return and its inherent ability to completely alter our understanding of time itself that the most fruitful ground is reached. For, in Falling Man, the fact that the traumatic events of the September 11 attacks are replayed and returned to over and over again implies not only the power of the event: crucially it proposes a complete reconsideration of the nature of time. Time, after the September 11 attacks, can no longer be simple and linear. Instead the absolute power of the event, and indeed the compulsion to talk, think, and write about the event, renders time nonlinear. Past, present, and future coalesce into one multidimensional phenomenon: the same time that we see DeLillo moving toward in Falling Man.

Ibid., 147. Ibid., 33.

124 125


Intimate Time: The Limits of Temporality in Point Omega

Introduction Much of the critical attention on Don DeLillo’s fiction in the past decade has sought to identify the various influences on his writing. Surveying writers, philosophers, and theorists, figures as diverse as Wordsworth and Baudrillard have been volunteered as crucial to DeLillo’s work. As I have argued in Chapters 1 and 3, Samuel Beckett has had a profound influence on DeLillo. In this final chapter on DeLillo I return again to Beckett’s influence. This time, however, Beckett’s influence is more oblique, and emerges from DeLillo’s participation in the late moments of the modernist project. This chapter looks at Point Omega, DeLillo’s 2010 novel, and examines the series of references to film and film theory scattered throughout the novel. At the heart of this short novel is a concern once again with time; in this case, though, time is considered through the lens of cinema. Briefly tracing the influence of Rudolf Arnheim and Sergei Eisenstein on Beckett, I then examine how Beckett’s Film might be considered an analogical counterpart to Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho, the cinematic centerpiece of Point Omega. Ultimately, DeLillo illustrates his fealty to the modernist period: both the thematic focus of Point Omega and the form through which it is communicated illustrate the high modernist program that DeLillo operates under in the years after Underworld and the September 11 attacks.

Changing time Point Omega consists of two narratives, tenuously intertwined. The main narrative details the despairing attempts of Jim Finley to convince Richard Elster, former US government advisor, to appear in a film that Finley intends to produce. The second narrative envelops the main plot, and concerns a shadowy unnamed character, perhaps Dennis, the glowering companion of Elster’s daughter Jessie. These two sections, one at the very beginning of the novel and one at the very end, are called “Anonymity” and “Anonymity 2.” The unnamed character’s experiences are simple. We read a sometimes

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rambling monologue delivered while viewing Douglas Gordon’s 1993 videowork 24 Hour Psycho, when installed at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC in 2006. In 24 Hour Psycho, Gordon slows down Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 horror masterpiece Psycho so that a full screening of the film takes exactly 24 hours. DeLillo’s unnamed character is intensely affected by this work; he considers its meaning, its formal elements, and its implications for the world; prosaically enough he attempts to perceive “an array of ideas involving science and philosophy and nameless other things.”1 Gordon’s transformation of Psycho is shocking; 109 minutes of film forced to occupy 1,440 minutes. The original soundtrack is removed, the black-and-white images slowly morphing across the minutes and the hours. The violent and hurried movement of Hitchcock’s film is transformed into a bizarre silent dance, where “the slightest camera movement was a profound shift in space and time.”2 In even the most familiar of scenes, the shower scene being the most famous example, 24 Hour Psycho transforms the original. Gordon’s instillation provides the impetus for DeLillo to again engage with temporality; this time, however, DeLillo is able to engage with the concept at a remove from the pressures of September 11. In the previous chapter I examined the links between DeLillo’s investigation of time and Beckett’s development of similar ideas in his critical analysis of A la recherche du temps perdu. Beckett proposed that time is the controlling force over characters and their experience. The writers’ experience, and indeed ours in the world are different. We can only experience time “by a series of partial annexations—and never integrally and at once.”3 These ideas suited Falling Man’s focus on the September 11 attacks. In Point Omega, DeLillo’s focus is no longer on the peculiar time in the immediate aftermath of September 11. Instead, he is aware of a broader change which effects the perception of time throughout the world. The power and importance of cinema is DeLillo’s subject: a medium which is more reflective of the world’s perceptions than the novel in the twenty-first century, and one which may nevertheless provide an insightful model for time in the novel. As the unnamed character watches 24 Hour Psycho he reveals his awareness of the various conceptions of time at play in the work, meditating on the importance of the film’s conceptual framework. He muses: What he was watching seemed pure film, pure time. The broad horror of the old gothic film was subsumed in time.4

The effect of this film is not theoretical. It is a “radically altered plane of time” in the screening room, but also in its effect on our perception of the world.5 Thus, in the second section discussing 24 Hour Psycho (“Anonymity 2”) the unnamed character reflects in more detail on the viewing experience. Because of his knowledge of the original film he can anticipate the future while viewing the slowed-down version, already aware of 4 5 1 2 3

DeLillo, Point Omega, 5. Ibid. Beckett, Proust, 7. DeLillo, Point Omega, 6. Ibid., 12.

The Limits of Temporality in Point Omega


the inevitable sequencing of the scenes. After registering the disjunctive temporality in Gordon’s work, the character concludes that: Real time is meaningless. The phrase is meaningless. There’s no such thing [. . .]. The rest has not happened yet.6

The vital importance of the film, both for the anonymous character, and for the reader, is that DeLillo posits this temporally manipulated cinema as a new way of perceiving the artistic process, and the artistic representation of the world. Our unnamed character has to work hard to perceive a coherent meaning. He is: watching and thinking for hours, standing and watching, thinking into the film, into himself. Or was the film thinking into him, spilling through him like some kind of runaway brain fluid?7

DeLillo presents 24 Hour Psycho as reflective of the high modernist tradition of constant, and difficult, interpretation, which reveals a higher meaning, a formal and theoretical structure which the reader (and viewer) must be cognizant of. The high modernist reading practice is encapsulated in our unnamed character’s understanding that: It takes close attention to see what is happening in front of you. It takes work, pious effort, to see what you are looking at. He was mesmerized by this, the depths that were possible in the slowing of motion, the things to see, the depth of things so easy to miss in the shallow habit of seeing.8

DeLillo’s representation of 24 Hour Psycho affirms the linguistic nature of film. Just as Eisenstein argued in 1929, the interpretive process required to parse the artistic film is a “reading” process, an action that combines the visual and theoretical faculties.9 This is the same reading process that Richard Elster lavishes upon the modernists he returns to once he has retreated to the desert, reading Zukofsky, Pound, and Rilke’s Elegies. Elster reads Rilke in the original, “working on his German.”10 Point Omega explicitly approves of high modernist difficulty, and the possibility of producing important meaning through modernist form and style.

Film time “Anonymity” and “Anonymity 2” lay the theoretical groundwork for the novel’s focus on cinema. 24 Hour Psycho and its cinematic temporality provides solace from urban  8  9

Ibid., 115. Ibid., 109. Ibid., 13. See Sergei Eisenstein, “A Dialectic Approach to Film,” in Jay Leyda, ed. and trans., Film Form: Essays in Film Theory (Harcourt: San Diego, 1946), 60. 10 DeLillo, Point Omega, 25.  6  7


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time, conventional time, the time of “endless counting down” which leads only to terror.11 The work of art is presented as the only means to counter this terror. Indeed, DeLillo argues that literature “was meant to cure” this terror.12 The “epic poem, the bedtime story” and “the film” all provide us with a means to escape the terrifying endlessness of time, and to perceive the world.13 Point Omega returns its readers to the modernist manipulation of time (viz. the most famous of modernist novels, Mrs. Dalloway, Ulysses, The Magic Mountain, etc.); for DeLillo the modern obsession with time is exemplified by his modernist touchstone, Samuel Beckett. Beckett’s work serves as a guide for DeLillo as he searches for a new paradigm of expression appropriate to the twenty-first century. Beckett’s only film, Film, engages with a different tradition to Hitchcock’s Psycho. In contradiction to the grotesqueries of the original Psycho, Beckett asked for Film to appear “comic and unreal.”14 Despite the comic unreality of the scenario Beckett developed in Film, the film is not without a serious theoretical focus. Film is prefaced by Bishop Berkeley’s “[e]sse est percipi,” “to be is to be perceived.”15 Film examines the “horror” of self-perception, with O (the first character) constantly recoiling from the perceiving eye of E (the second character). The camera initially stands in for E, chasing O along the street and into his room. O cowers from perception, frantically shrouding a series of symbolic eyes, and tearing a series of photographs to shreds. It is only at the conclusion of Film that E reveals itself as the self-perception of O, a tragicomic conclusion reflective of Beckett’s artistic preoccupations of the time. Beckett’s interest in film and its theorists is well known. Most notably, Beckett wrote to Sergei Eisenstein in 1936, applying for a position at the State Institute of Cinematography in Moscow and asking to be Eisenstein’s apprentice.16 Also in 1936, Beckett had spent some time reading the various theories of the cinematic avant-garde, notably borrowing and reading Rudolf Arnheim’s influential Film.17 Considering Beckett’s interest in the highly experimental modern film of the continent, it is unsurprising that Beckett’s Film reflects Eisenstein and Arnheim’s conception of cinema. Indeed, Film has routinely been examined with regard to these two major figures.18 Film’s style, along with the casting of Buster Keaton in the role of O, illustrates Beckett’s adherence to the cinema as presented by Arnheim. Arnheim argued that “film 13 14 15 16 17 18 11 12

Ibid., 45. Ibid. Ibid. Samuel Beckett, “Film,” in The Complete Dramatic Works (London: Faber and Faber, 1986), 323. Ibid. James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett London: Bloomsbury, 1996), 226. Ibid. For Film and Arnheim see John Hayes and James Knowlson, Images of Beckett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 119–24; Matthijs Engelberts, “Film and Film: Beckett and Early Film Theory,” in Linda Ben-Zvi and Angela Moorjani, eds, Beckett at 100: Revolving It All (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 152–65; for Film and Eisenstein see Antoine-Dunne, “Beckett and Eisenstein on Light and Contrapuntal Montage,” Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd’hui 11 (2001): 315–23, and for an article on the influences of Arnheim and Eisenstein on Film, see Mariko Tanaka, “Elements of Haiku in Beckett: The Influence of Eisenstein and Arnheim’s Film Theories,” Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd’hui 11 (2001): 324–30.

The Limits of Temporality in Point Omega


as art” was really only the province of the silent, black-and-white film (Film is black and white and silent (the “sssh” near the beginning of the film has not survived)).19 Arnheim believed that the technological development of sound and color deterred the director from engaging with the artistic elements of film, and instead encouraged a simplistic use of the medium as a means of mechanically reproducing the real world.20 In a letter to Thomas MacGreevy in 1936, Beckett similarly saw the underutilized potential in the silent black-and-white film, and envisaged a creative “backwater” existing for those inclined to experiment in the still little understood medium.21 Unsurprisingly, Film, written in 1963 and filmed in 1964, harks back to an earlier period of cinema. Silent, black and white, and with the comedic association of Keaton in the lead role, Film should be considered as Beckett’s attempt to try his hand at an artform that always intrigued him, written and filmed in a style that acknowledges the influences of both Arnheim and Eisenstein.22 24 Hour Psycho manipulates a much-loved American classic, producing a distorted version of the original: a new film that highlights the limits and the possibilities of cinema. Much of the unnamed character’s observations of the “videowork” (DeLillo’s term) are visceral, even the watching “must reach the degree of intensity required”; the character constantly asserts to himself the power of the film taking place in front of him.23 It is a “revelation.”24 DeLillo’s anonymous character, despite ridiculing the academic register of film analysis, represents the views of Arnheim and Eisenstein in his appraisal of 24 Hour Psycho.25 DeLillo writes: He understood completely why the film was projected without sound. It had to be silent. It had to engage the individual at a depth beyond the usual assumptions, the things he supposes and presumes and takes for granted.26

The anonymous character perceives film as more than entertainment, and as more than mimetic mechanical reproduction. Instead, film must set itself apart: “He understood for the first time that black-and-white was the only true medium for film as an idea, film in the mind.”27 24 Hour Pyscho, in the estimation of our unnamed character, is an affront to the “tourists from the movie malls.”28 The anonymous character sees 24 Hour Psycho as the epitome of continental cinematic modernism. As such, the temporal manipulation (in 24 Hour Psycho) and the corresponding theorization of time in Point Omega more generally can be traced back to its origins in Arnheim and Eisenstein’s 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 19 20

Beckett, “Film,” 323. Rudolf Arnheim, Film as Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), 106–11. Qtd in Knowlson, Damned to Fame, 226. Cf. Arnheim, Film as Art, 1–2. DeLillo, Point Omega, 5. Ibid., 8. See ibid. Ibid., 7. Ibid., 10. Ibid., 102.

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film theory. These two thinkers, who influenced Beckett so profoundly, have also influenced DeLillo’s understanding of film-time, a concept that has allowed DeLillo to retheorize narrative time in the twenty-first century.

Modernist time The layered structure of Point Omega belies the similarity that exists between all three sections. Despite 24 Hour Psycho’s obvious temporal focus (and the concomitant temporal focus of the unnamed observer), it is in the intervening middle section of the novel (comprising four long chapters, numbered simply one to four) where time is initially engaged with on a deep level. Richard Elster is stuck in the past. After his catastrophic disillusionment with the American government he retreats into the desert, ruminating on his past life, and living in a place where the operation of time is impaired, as if it is partially suspended. Elster acts, at least in part, as a cipher for DeLillo’s previous commentary on time; he exclaims to Finley that American needs to “retake the future.”29 As we have already seen in “In the Ruins of the Future,” DeLillo characterizes the desire to exist in the future as indicative of a certain style of living, economic and social policy combining to produce a society which is radically at odds with the natural ways of the world. Elster then, despite his apparent indifference to the power structures of the United States is not immune to the temporal power of that specifically American attitude. Elster’s reported desire might be thought of as at odds with other elements of DeLillo’s construction; this is a character who has retreated from New York, and the urban world, a world which he imagines is created specifically “to measure time, to remove time from nature.”30 Elster’s retreat into the desert is not intended to facilitate a rejuvenation of pre-September 11 American time, but instead provides him with a completely new experience of time. The time Finley and Elster encounter in their retreat in to the desert is not conventional. Elster states: “it’s not time passing, mortal time . . . time [in the desert] is enormous . . . [A] time that precedes us and survives us.”31 Indeed Finley will report to us later that Elster perceives time in the desert as “blind.”32 DeLillo’s characterization of desert time stresses its similarities with the stretched out duration of 24 Hour Psycho. Tellingly, Elster’s reaction to 24 Hour Psycho, which Finley bullies him in to viewing, is that the work presents “[s]tillborn images, collapsing time,” an image of time moving close to stasis.33 The paradigmatic event of Point Omega is the disappearance of Elster’s daughter, Jessie. The young woman is an enigmatic presence, arriving from New York after fleeing a problematic relationship with a nameless man (implicitly assumed to be the 32 33 29 30 31

Ibid., 30. Ibid., 45; cf. 59. Ibid., 44. Ibid., 64. Ibid., 61.

The Limits of Temporality in Point Omega


anonymous character viewing 24 Hour Psycho). Jessie disappears just as suddenly, escaping the suspension of the Elster-Finley relationship, perhaps abducted and murdered, perhaps simply having left the desert of her own volition. This trauma forces Elster into a condition close to catatonia.34 Elster’s perception of time is now inscribed directly upon his relation to the world; his trance-like state simply slows events down, extending the experience of time like the slow motion of Gordon’s film. Elster is himself aware of this. We read: “Time falling away. That’s what I feel here,” he said. “Time becoming slowly older. Enormously old. Not day by day. This is deep time, epochal time. Our lives receding into the long past. That’s what’s out there. The Pleistocene desert, the rule of extinction.”35

Time reaches its limits. Elster and Finley wait, eternally suspended one always awake and vigilant, despairingly hopeful of Jessie’s return. Elster’s catatonia places Finley at the center of the novel. His main mission (to convince Elster to participate in his planned film) is subordinated to his twin desires to care for Elster and to find Jessie. While in the early days he is cautiously optimistic, seeking out all available information, waiting for one transformative clue, Elster’s near-catatonia quickly becomes representative of the mystery both men confront. Unable to cope with the possibilities that may have occurred to his daughter, DeLillo tells us that Elster wants “pure mystery.”36 Considering Beckett’s influence on DeLillo that I have traced in Chapters 1 and 3, Film serves well as a thematic guiding influence on Point Omega. I do not suggest that Film serves any proprietary influence over the novel, but rather that the thematic focus of Film is developed in an analogous way in DeLillo’s novel. Only, according to Elster, in mystery do we reach fundamental truth; for mystery has an “elusive meaning [. . .] the deeper for being shapeless.”37 If there is intimacy in Point Omega it is here in an endlessly elided intimacy between two men in a timeless world, where each grasping effort at understanding is destined to failure; this failure might, however, still yield some insight. Finley eventually becomes the leader in the house, making the traumatic decision to leave the desert and accepting the finality of Jessie’s disappearance. This decision leads to Elster’s total paralysis. He is delivered out of the desert, driven back to the city and disappears from the narrative. Finley, however, approaches epiphany, resisting the atemporal power of the desert: I tried to think about the future, unknown weeks and months ahead, and I realized what it was that had passed out of mind until this moment. It was the film. I remembered the film [. . .]. On film the face is the soul. The man is a soul Cf. Charles Baxter’s insistence on the importance of the trance in DeLillo’s twenty-first-century fiction; “A Different Kind of Delirium,” New York Review of Books 59, no. 2 (2012): 22. DeLillo, Point Omega, 72. 36 Ibid., 83. 37 Ibid. 34



Terrorism and Temporality in distress [. . .]. The story was here, not in Iraq or in Washington, and we were leaving it behind and taking it with us, both.38

Film and film-time, forgotten during the traumatic events in the desert, is suddenly central again. Despite the temporal manipulations of 24 Hour Psycho being reiterated in the drawn-out time of the desert, it is in “Anonymity 2” that DeLillo solidifies his conception of cinematic time, and its importance to the novel. The work of art, opposed to urban time, calms the “endless counting down” that leads only to terror.39 DeLillo’s representation of 24 Hour Psycho owes as much to the theoretical influences on Beckett’s Film as it does to Gordon’s videowork itself. As we have seen earlier, the anonymous character reflects on the film in terms that are very similar to those adopted by Arnheim and Eisenstein during the 1920s and 1930s. DeLillo presents 24 Hour Psycho as a distorted throwback to an earlier film tradition; the black-and-white, soundless film recalls Arnheim’s insistence that it is only in the very simplest manifestations of film that its possibility as art is unlocked.40 Gordon’s achingly slow rendition of Psycho reveals another side to the original: the temporal distortion of 24 Hour Psycho transforms the film into a performance of the inherent beauty and complexity of film, at odds with the grotesqueries of the film’s narrative. Most notably, the anonymous character considers the archetypal murder scene, the apotheosis of Hitchcock’s film, in which Janet Leigh collapses in the shower, dying from her wounds. DeLillo’s description emphasizes the difference produced in Gordon’s work: all broken motion, without suspense or dread or urgent pulsing screech-owl sound. Curtain rings on the shower curtain spinning on the rod when the curtain is torn loose, a moment lost at normal speed, four rings spinning slowly over the fallen figure [. . .] a stray poem above the hellish death, and then the bloody water curling and cresting at the shower drain, minute by minute, and eventually swirling down.41

24 Hour Psycho produces its sensation through what Eisenstein calls “temporal disproportion.”42 The strangeness of this cinematic time reveals the importance not just of the film, but of the medium itself. Arnheim approaches the concept differently, arguing that it is in the manipulation of time itself that film produces its meaning.43 DeLillo adopts 24 Hour Psycho because of the complexity of time within the work. Aside from the obvious manipulations of time, we are aware of a further series of temporal oddities; not least among them that 24 Hour Psycho is a videowork produced in 1993, viewed in 2006, reperforming a film from the 1960s, and co-opting some of 40 41 42 43 38 39

Ibid., 98–9. Ibid., 45. Arnheim, Film as Art, 1–2. DeLillo, Point Omega, 9. Eisenstein, “A Dialectic Approach to Film,” 51. Arnheim, Film as Art, 98.

The Limits of Temporality in Point Omega


the ideas developed by the avant-gardes in the 1920s and 1930s. Also, the viewer of Gordon’s work who knows the original well will inevitably wait on scenes to conclude, knowing full well what is to occur next, just as enacted within the text. The conclusion of Arnheim’s argument in Film (republished as Film as Art) surveys the possibilities open to film in the coming decades. One possibility is the development of more technical temporal manipulation, slow motion being one of the exciting possibilities. Arnheim writes: It [slow motion] might, for instance, serve to slow down natural movements grotesquely; but it can also create new movements, which do not appear as the retarding of natural movements but have a curious gliding, floating character of their own.44

The unnamed character’s ecstatic observation of the shower curtain rings spinning and the bloody water sluicing down the plughole illustrates the blossoming possibilities available to the cinematic medium in the manipulation of time. The power of cinema itself is affirmed in the delight DeLillo takes in observing these details, in confirming (in concert with Arnheim) that as the realities of film are manipulated, “new realities [are] created.”45

Conclusion DeLillo had engaged with film in his work prior to Point Omega. Film features in Americana and Running Dog and most notably in Underworld, DeLillo’s final novel in the encyclopedic mold. While in preparation to write Underworld, DeLillo made a note in one of his main working notebooks, observing that “[f]ilm is a part of the structure of reality.”46 By the time of DeLillo’s composition of Point Omega the “structure of reality” had been profoundly transformed. The powerful lure of America’s futurity has been challenged by the terrorist attacks of 2001, the chastening experience of prosecuting two wars simultaneously, and the burden of a global financial crisis arguably precipitated by a specifically American approach to economics. Considering the challenges to an America that DeLillo has constantly sought to critique it is no surprise that these events have engendered a shift in DeLillo’s approach. Despite the common thread of temporal reconceptualization that runs through these four chapters, each of DeLillo’s novels has sought to identify some different element of time for examination. DeLillo’s twenty-first-century novels seek a new authenticity, presumably in response to the encyclopedic approach taken by Underworld. This strategy, when taken to its extreme (as done so in the 1997 magnum opus), is exhaustive: it is no coincidence that from The Body Artist on, DeLillo’s novels Ibid., 116–17. Ibid., 101. 46 DeLillo Archives, Harry Ransom Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, Box 60, Folder 1. 44 45


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are shorter and more intensely crafted. The author’s conceptual focus remains focused on time as we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century. DeLillo’s return to film, however, must serve as a reminder of cinema’s power—Point Omega documents this power and maps the way for a new presentation of DeLillo’s aims for the novel in the twenty-first century—a brief work, theoretically focused, and seeking to represent a world far more compromised and vulnerable than that of only 15 years ago.


Δt: Precursors to Pynchon’s Reconsideration of Temporality in Gravity’s Rainbow

Introduction Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel, is still regarded today as his best and most influential work. In this short chapter I will use Gravity’s Rainbow as a starting point to begin an examination of Pynchon’s conceptualization of time and his deployment of the concept throughout his work. In part, Gravity’s Rainbow will function as a counterpoint to the main focus of my analysis on Pynchon, which, when examining Against the Day and Inherent Vice, identifies the September 11 attacks in 2001 as a crucial transformative moment which drives Pynchon to reconceptualize temporality in his post-2001 output. Nevertheless, by examining Gravity’s Rainbow we can see that Pynchon, despite the changes seen in his later work, is well aware of the importance of time in the 1970s, and that his work can be interpreted successfully through the lens of temporality. Gravity’s Rainbow then, anticipates in curious ways the centrality of time in the twenty-first century and how both DeLillo and Pynchon go about encountering and engaging the concept. Like Against the Day, Gravity’s Rainbow grapples with the traumatic events of a recent historical memory. Pynchon’s focus on World War Two and the ongoing (when he was writing the novel) conflict in Vietnam reveals the author’s sensitivity to the most paradigmatic events of his generation, and simultaneously indicates that in only his third novel, Pynchon felt comfortable in addressing issues that transcended the United States. Gravity’s Rainbow plays on multiple ideas of time: Pynchon is interested in the abstract concept of temporality, but also interested in “times,” transformative eras which drives the creative impetus of this novel. In Pynchon’s presentation of the world, World War Two is a transformative moment, changing not only his understanding of the world, but also the reader’s awareness of the importance of history. Pynchon observes in Gravity’s Rainbow that “[t]he War [World War Two] has been reconfiguring time and space into its own image.”1 Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (London: Vintage, 2000 [1973]), 257.



Terrorism and Temporality

The V-2 and time The dominant image of the novel, the V-2 rocket, is the initial vehicle through which Pynchon’s post-World War Two figuration of time is developed. It is the terrifying capabilities of the V-2 that make it an appropriate motif for Pynchon’s conception of time. From the opening pages of Gravity’s Rainbow, looking from the 1970s (itself a period of huge social change) back to the World War Two era, Pynchon alerts his readers to the fact that the V-2 exceeds the limits of time and space as they were figured in the naivety of the 1940s. The rocket is beyond the realm of human experience: indeed, the rocket functions beyond the limits of the human body and perception. The immediate opening of the novel, Pirate Prentice emerging into the morning, heralds the first manifestation of the V-2; Prentice sights a burst of star-like light, shortly to be revealed as the “Most Secret, German rocket bomb.”2 Prentice ignores the weapon, a strange reaction considering the danger the V-2 poses. Pynchon reveals the reasons for his nonchalance: He won’t hear the thing come in. It travels faster than the speed of sound. The first news you get of it is the blast. Then, if you’re still around, you hear the sound of it coming in.3

The V-2’s defining characteristic, and the reason why the rocket is crucial to the novel, is the temporal disjunction the rocket signifies and produces. This first instance of temporal disjunction is a very human one—it is the break in causation precipitated by an object moving faster than the speed of sound—in effect, destroying the conventional assumption that a moving object will be preceded by the noise that it makes.4 As Ned Pointsman observes when discussing Tyrone Slothrop’s relation to the rocket, he has “‘only the reversal of rocket sounds to go on [. . .] and what appears to be a reversal of cause-and-effect.’”5 Hanjo Berressem identifies this as “the first time loop” of the novel, in which the reversal of causality implies a looping of time.6 The V-2 operates throughout Gravity’s Rainbow as a cipher for the inevitability of human mortality; of course, death is much more probable during the horrors of World War Two, and the dark irony with which the rocket operates is indicative of the looming presence of death Pynchon presents throughout the novel. Ibid., 6. Ibid., 7. 4 This reversal of causation is what Stephen Weisenburger identifies as Pynchon’s use of the “rare and all but forgotten trope” of hysteron proteron. See Stephen Weisenburger, “Hysteron Proteron in Gravity’s Rainbow,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 34, no. 1 (1992): 91–4. We should note, also, the impasse that seems to be reached between a “reversed causality” and the uncertainty principles discussed by Alan Friedman. See his “Science and Technology,” in Charles Clerc, ed., Approaches to Gravity’s Rainbow (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1983), 90–4. 5 Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, 90 (Pynchon’s emphasis). 6 Hanjo Berressem, Pynchon’s Poetics: Interfacing Theory and Text. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 123–4. 2 3

∆t: Precursors


The awful devastation of World War Two and the transformation in time this tragedy precipitates is manifested in Tyrone Slothrop, the central character of the novel. Stationed in London in the later stages of the War, Slothrop busies himself equally with analysis of V-2 rocket strike sites and “girl-chasing” in greater London.7 Slothrop has created a map of his successful conquests, a different colored star signifying various “Carolines, Marias, Annes, Susans, Elizabeths.”8 The map is significant, however, because each of Slothrop’s carefully placed stars is also the site of an imminent V-2 strike; Slothrop’s lovemaking appears to precipitate a rocket strike on the exact place where the amorous encounter previously took place. Just like the V-2, the weapon arriving before its sound, Slothrop’s map indicates the same breakdown in causation. The disruption of causation the V-2 produces is linked by Pynchon to the wider conceptual concern. Roger Mexico, in analyzing the link between Slothrop’s conquests and the arrival of V-2’s in their aftermath, believes that there is an unidentifiable stimulus, unable to be perceived by the general populous, that explains the relationship between Slothrop and the rocket. Mexico is attempting to maintain the certainty of conventional causation. Despite Mexico’s initially reassuring aim, Pynchon extends this hypothesis into more disturbing territory. He writes: But if it’s in the air, right here, right now, then the rockets will follow from it, 100% of the time. No exceptions. When we find it, we’ll have shown again the stone determinacy of everything, of every soul. There will be precious little room for any hope at all. You can see how important a discovery like that would be.9

Despite Mexico’s ostensible aim being to minimize rocket attacks on London, his concern is not the allied war effort, but the issue of determinacy. Beginning with the temporal disjunction inherent in the V-2, Pynchon, from the privileged viewpoint of the future, identifies the rocket as signifying a far more radical change in the world; an inability to access the future, and an inability for even the best intentions to save the world from the catastrophe it has produced. Stephen Weisenburger argues that even in the naming of the V-2, translated as “revenge-weapon-two,” the weapon is focused on the past: the V-2 is supposed to “literally get back at the Allie[d]” Forces for the destruction they had previously caused.10 London, and the world, is suspended in war, waiting for a future that seems inaccessible, pursuing a conflict whose causes are firmly in the past. As Mexico observes, an overdetermined world like the one he sees would radically eliminate hope: the population would exist purely in despair, unable to effect the future in any meaningful way. The breakdown of causation implicit in the V-2, and in Slothrop’s relationship to the rocket renders the population spectral, death constantly shadowing all. Pynchon exhibits the horror of World War Two, imagining a deathly rocket strike:  9 10  7  8

Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, 19. Ibid. Ibid., 86. Weisenburger, “Hysteron Proteron in Gravity’s Rainbow,” 91 (Weisenburger’s emphasis).


Terrorism and Temporality subsumed in the blast and he never hearing the approach, the sound too late, after the blast, the rocket’s ghost calling to ghosts it newly made.11

The V-2’s temporality renders the population ghost-like; there is no escaping an incoming V-2, no time to seek shelter, no warning of the imminent devastation. The population is dead before the event occurs, what Berressem calls “(the simulation of) death” the future entirely determined, and the future made obsolete, time transformed.12 As the V-2 looms ever larger within the novel, Pynchon makes it clear that the rocket plays a central role in his conceptualization of time. He writes: Imagine a missile one hears approaching only after it explodes. The reversal! A piece of time neatly snipped out . . . a few feet of film run backwards . . . the blast of the rocket, fallen faster than sound—then growing out of it the roar of its own fall, catching up to what’s already death and burning . . . a ghost in the sky. . . .13

Just as London is rendered spectral by the temporal power of the V-2, so is the weapon itself simultaneously transformed: the rocket is a ghost, eternally hovering. The temporality of the V-2 is completely at odds with how the world operated before the War. The technological development that facilitated the construction of these weapons has reached its apotheosis, the rocket contravening the governing laws of the world as we know it. Pynchon presents time as compartmentalized, the present looming, holding an ever-present danger. Time is fractured, precisely because World War Two rendered death eternally present: as Roger Mexico believes is manifested in “the explosion over his head always just about to come.”14 Mexico perceives this danger because the present and future are no longer clearly demarcated; they are confused, and it is this disjunction, the disturbing link between present and future, which is emblematic of Pynchon’s concern with time in Gravity’s Rainbow.

Δt: Ballistic time There is real significance in Pynchon’s reference to the connection between the time-manipulating V-2 and film, when he likens the rocket’s descent to “a few feet of film run backwards.” Two primary lines of argument are established. Initially, Pynchon’s allusion to film might be thought of as simply providing evidence for an interpretation of Gravity’s Rainbow which proposes that the novel is, in essence, a film. That is, what 13 14 11 12

Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, 138. Berressem, Pynchon’s Poetics, 193. Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, 48 (Pynchon’s emphases). Ibid., 58.

∆t: Precursors


the reader encounters in the novel is the reported experience of a film, narrated at some distance from the events the novel describes.15 Implicit in this interpretation is the temporal manipulability of cinema, which manifests itself in a presentation of immanent time instead of the conventional conception of time as past, present, and future. Indeed, as we have seen in Chapter 4, Rudolf Arnheim considered the greatest asset of cinema is its ability to constantly manipulate time.16 The rocket functions to assert the immanence of time in Gravity’s Rainbow. The second line of argument that accretes around the temporal disjunction of the V-2 focuses on the mathematics of rocketry, its relationship to calculus, and the change in time (Δt, “delta t”) that is crucial to these processes. As with the disjunctive temporality produced by the V-2 traveling faster than the speed of sound, Pynchon’s second reconsideration of time in relationship to the rocket conceives of time as compartmentalized. Just as the rocket alters our assumptions about time by arriving before the sound it produces, inverting our conventional understanding of time, the rocket’s movement as represented in ballistics destabilizes a simple understanding of the rocket’s passage through time. Even on the simplest level, the rocket’s progress is already always broken into discrete sections of time: countdown, launch, ascent, “brennschluss” (the moment in which the rocket reaches its highest point), descent, and impact. Pynchon’s representation of the passage of the rocket through space and time is reliant on his exhaustive knowledge of ballistics (perhaps derived from his time spent working at Boeing, as well as his study of engineering physics). Calculus enables us to specify the rocket’s passage in time and through space simultaneously. Calculus was first applied in ballistics not to the rocket, but to a much earlier missile, the cannonball. In thematizing the links between the rocket, film, and mathematics, Pynchon first explains the basic assumptions of calculus: Three hundred years ago mathematicians were learning to break the cannonball’s rise and fall into stairsteps of range and height, ∆x and ∆y, allowing them to grow smaller and smaller, approaching zero.17

In attempting to understand the passage of missiles, calculus performs a metaphoric compartmentalization of time so as to provide a much more specific description of the movement of the object. Calculus produces a pictorial representation of the missile, a graphical image that provides an approximation of the object’s relationship in, and to, space. The groundbreaking V-2, however, already warps conventional time; thus See, for example, John Johnston, “Post-Cinematic Fiction: Film in the Novels of Pynchon, McElroy and DeLillo,” New Orleans Review 17, no. 2 (1992): 90–7, Scott Simmon, “Beyond the Theater of War: Gravity’s Rainbow as Film,” in Richard Pearce, ed., Critical Essay on Thomas Pynchon (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981), 124–39, and Charles Clerc, “Film in Gravity’s Rainbow,” in Charles Clerc, ed., Approaches to Gravity’s Rainbow (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1983), 140–4, 148–51. 16 John Stark provides a similar understanding of film. See John Stark, Pynchon’s Fictions: Thomas Pynchon and the Literature of Information (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1980), 140–1. 17 Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, 567. 15


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the compartmentalization of time that calculus requires contributes to the strange temporality of this weapon. We read: This analytic legacy has been handed down intact—it brought the technicians at Peenemünde to peer at the Askania films of Rocket flights, frame by frame, ∆x and ∆y, flightless themselves. . . .18

Pynchon emphasizes the effect on time that calculus produces.19 Just like Zeno’s “Paradox of the Arrow,” time is constructed in calculus as partial and discrete, each frame of the filmed rocket flight rendering the rocket flightless, immobilized in space. Each exposure of the rocket fractures time, but means that we can specify exactly where in space the rocket is.20 The distorted temporality of calculus mirrors the manipulated time produced by film, hence Pynchon’s identification of cinema and calculus together, describing them both as “pornographies of flight.”21 Franz Pökler, a rocket engineer drafted in to work on the mystical 00000 rocket details the relationship between time and ballistics as developed within the novel. Pynchon writes: There has been this strange connection between the German mind and the rapid flashing of successive stills to counterfeit movement, for at least two centuries— since Leibniz, in the process of inventing calculus, used the same approach to break up the trajectories of cannonballs through the air. And now Pökler was about to be given proof that these techniques had been extended past images on film, to human lives.22

The “counterfeit” time of calculus and film and the compartmentalized disjunctive time they produce are manifested in the destruction of World War Two. Pynchon’s horror at the devastation of the War, and the possibility that at the very least the worst of these horrors could have been avoided, means that the reversal of time appears alluring, a possibility that holds much temptation, but also much risk, as the manipulated time of the V-2 attests to. In developing a conceptualization of time guided by the temporal disjunction of the V-2, Pynchon deploys the Δt, the change in time, as a metaphor for the transformations he presents in Gravity’s Rainbow. In ballistics terms, Δt relates to the specific moment in the course of a rocket’s flight in which the missile changes from ascent to descent. This occurs at the very top of the rocket’s parabolic arc, at the moment of brennschluss, Ibid. For a discussion of Pynchon’s discussion of ballistics and the historical precursors he follows see Stephen Weisenburger, “The End of History? Thomas Pynchon and the Uses of the Past,” Twentieth Century Literature 25, no. 1 (1979): 58–60. 20 Friedman establishes that the major mathematical operation is the role of calculus in allowing the modeling of the rocket’s path, rather than having to calculate every “infinitesimal interval.” See Friedman, “Science and Technology,” 73. See also my discussion of Zeno’s paradoxes in Chapters 6 and 7. 21 Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, 567. 22 Ibid., 407. 18 19

∆t: Precursors


where the rocket’s engine burns the last of its fuel, can no longer project itself upward, and begins its descent guided solely by gravity and the laws of physics. Δt is utilized in Gravity’s Rainbow not only in relation to the V-2, but when a more generic “change in time” is produced. The concept of the Δt is applied especially to Tyrone Slothrop, the main character’s transformation related to his perception of time. It has been widely observed that Slothrop, despite being the main character of Gravity’s Rainbow, disappears from the narrative, disintegrating into a series of more and more ephemeral traces. Pynchon applies the concept of the Δt to Slothrop at the very beginning of his disintegration. The novel’s narrator confirms that Slothrop is beginning “to thin, to scatter” and then illustrates the relationship between this disintegration and the concept of the ∆t.23 Pynchon writes: “Temporal bandwidth” is the width of your present, your now. It is the familiar “∆t” considered as a dependent variable. The more you dwell in the past and in the future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your persona. But the narrower your sense of Now, the more tenuous you are.24

Just like the fracturing of time Pynchon documents, Slothrop’s disintegration, falling victim to the Δt, is inevitable. His disintegration is not, however, simply his disappearance from the text. Slothrop is transformed, at one stage occupying the avatar of Rocketman, including donning a full costume to resemble the missiles that populate the final months of the war. Rocketman, inevitably, has physical properties that resemble the V-2; rather than subverting time, Rocketman is impervious to “geographical space.”25 Slothrop’s tenuous hold on time is offset by a matching ability to manipulate space, even reportedly claiming invisibility, fading out of space all together. Just as Slothrop is transformed in the course of his disappearance from the text, so too is time. As Slothrop scatters, the reader is instructed that what drives this change is his perception of time and his inability to engage with past or future; Slothrop exists in the immanent present, a rejection of what Pynchon dismissively class the “hopeless [. . .] one-way flow of European time.”26 Slothrop’s desire to escape the horrors of the War are mirrored by Pynchon, who posits the reversibility of time as a means to escape the terror of the World War Two era. European time is hopeless because it is irreversible. Slothrop’s whimsy is spent on his despairing hope that the horrors of the War will turn out to be reversible, to be like a dream, deniable and escapable. Gravity’s Rainbow is a truly historical novel, analyzing a point in history where, it is posited, everything went wrong. Slothrop imagines the possibility of an alternative, asking if he could “have been the fork in the road America never took, the singular point she jumped the wrong way from?27 In the final section of this chapter I will briefly trace the possibilities held in considering Gravity’s Rainbow as history. 26 27 23 24 25

Ibid., 509. Ibid. (Pynchon’s emphasis). Ibid., 379. Ibid., 724. Ibid., 556.


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Pynchon and History Shawn Smith’s monograph Pynchon and History, presents Gravity’s Rainbow primarily as a literary manifestation of Hayden White’s theories of historiography. Smith’s analysis follows the early explicatory work of Joseph Slade, and interprets the narrator of Gravity’s Rainbow as a Vietnam War veteran. Smith points to narratorial comments such as—“Between two station marks, yellow crayon through the years of grease and passage, 1966 and 1971, I tasted my first blood. Do you want to put this part in?”28— and argues that this pinpoints the period from which the text emerges; that is, the narrator is speaking from the period of the novel’s development and publication, in 1972 and 1973.29 Smith argues for an interpretation of Gravity’s Rainbow which focuses centrally on the presence of an “anachronistic narrator.”30 This interpretation provides crucial insight into Pynchon’s use of time within the novel. Smith’s convincing interpretation that the narrator exists outside the narrative time of the novel, beyond World War Two and its aftermath, illustrates the complexity with which Pynchon manipulates time in Gravity’s Rainbow, reflective also of the multiple conceptualizations of time that are considered throughout the text. As discussed in Chapter 2, the term “anachronistic” excludes some of the conceptual complexities that are included in the inclusion of perspectives, events, objects, and details that fall outside the specific temporal scheme of a text. Rather than accept Smith’s classification of Gravity’s Rainbow’s narrator as anachronistic, the narrator should rather be considered prochronistic. That is, the Vietnam veteran narrator of the novel effectively intercedes from the future. This classification is complicated by the fact that the novel was published in 1973 (before the conclusion of the Vietnam conflict), and we tend to conflate the time of publication into the Vietnam War “era” in general. Nevertheless, the novel is concerned primarily with the period from 1944 until around 1949; the narrator narrates the events from a period outside the main temporal focus of the novel. The final pages of the novel, however, place even this observation in question. If Smith is correct, and the rocket that features in the opening pages of the novel is transformed into “an ICBM one second from impact over Los Angeles’s Orpheus Theater sometime in the early 1970s” then, by the end of the novel, the narrator is no longer prochronistic, but is centrally within the temporal purview of the novel.31 It is this slipperiness, and ultimately the multiplicity of “times” conceived within the novel, which makes a focus on history and temporality with Gravity’s Rainbow important. From the episodic and cinematic structure of the novel, to the heavy influence of calculus and mathematics in general, and the ever-present Δt, time is conceived as shifting, a radically indeterminate concept both when in operation within the novel, and when perceived from outside the text. Gravity’s Rainbow is without doubt a sentimental novel, a text that looks to the past and sees (with a nod to Yogi Berra) the forks in the road America (and the world)

30 31 28 29

Ibid., 739. See Smith, Pynchon and History, 59. Ibid., 59. Ibid., 61.

∆t: Precursors


should have taken.32 Smith’s metahistorical approach affirms similar ideas to those I have pursued: in his monograph Smith identifies the formative moments of the Cold War in the final months of World War Two. Smith is focused on the V-2, seeing the weapon’s terrible temporal power as anticipating the awful reality of nuclear war. He writes: “[t]he Rocket alters reality, and hence the means available to the narrator of representing reality.”33 I agree with Smith’s claim, although I believe that Pynchon employs the V-2 as a metaphor for these changes, the temporal disjunction of the rocket both affirming the changed reality of the World War Two era while simultaneously performing that change. Smith’s geopolitical perspective narrows his analysis. He presents the V-2 as the dominant motif of the novel: however, he privileges the spatial over the temporal, arguing that the rocket’s arc, its spatial movement, is symbolic of the narrative impetus of the text, only incorporating time into the equation at this late stage. He writes: Time and space both come together and separate in the text as the forward trajectory of the narrative outpaces the closed, hermetically-informed “container” of its narrative field. Most of GR concerns itself with the past, the world of history. In the Nixon parody and the episode involving the futuristic “Rocket-Stadt,” however, the world of the present, which will become history, and the world of the future, the world of speculation and prophecy, intrudes to foreground the previously covert analogy between World War II and Vietnam-era America.34

Smith analyzes the novel incisively. By identifying the importance of the temporal indeterminacy of the narrator, he confirms the shifting conception of time Pynchon develops in Gravity’s Rainbow, an argument that also allows an emphasis on societal perceptions of history and this concepts’ relationship to time.35 Pynchon’s use of prochronism allows his novel to achieve an element of prophetic power, the dual concerns of history and time coalescing in the complicated structure of the novel, an observation I will reiterate when examining Pynchon’s twenty-first-century output in the following chapters. Smith concludes, illustrating the historical perspective of Pynchon’s focus: The progression from past to present to future demonstrates the historical, as well as narrative, “force” behind the representation of the rocket, whose trajectory literally pulls the text forward into the present and on into the future to mimic the V-2’s historico-political impact.36

This is the crucial force of the V-2; it “traverses time.”37 Indeed, we can see that Pynchon’s construction of the V-2 as “historico-political” motif occurs from the very 34 35 36 37 32 33

Cf. Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, 556. Smith, Pynchon and History, 63. Ibid., 67. See ibid., 95. Ibid., 67. Ibid., 71.


Terrorism and Temporality

beginning of the novel. In one of the first rocket strikes the characters of the novel are aware of, the narrator observes: “a rocket has suddenly struck. A terrific blast quite close beyond the village: the entire fabric of the air, of time, is changed.”38 The V-2 is transformative, simultaneously changing the world and emblematic of that change. The V-2, Pynchon’s motif of World War Two, is a powerful symbol, confirming the changes the world underwent during the period, a period Pynchon ironically labels “[s]till early, still innocent.”39 Shawn Smith’s reading of Gravity’s Rainbow, and the futureoriented focus it affirms, is a useful one. As Smith observes, history is not created fully made. Rather, it is the work of all society to assess critical events and contextualize their importance. Gravity’s Rainbow, perhaps, is “an aggregate of last moments,” and yet the novel illustrates Pynchon’s sensitivity to the world of ideas. Pynchon’s political focus is obvious in all his novels: in the following chapters we will see how he grapples with the most pressing of events to have taken place so far in the twenty-first century.40

Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, 59. Ibid., 501. 40 Ibid., 149. 38 39


The Duration of Thomas Pynchon’s Hell

Introduction This chapter sets out to explicate the conceptual focus of Thomas Pynchon’s 2006 novel Against the Day. Along with Chapter 7, this chapter focuses on time in Against the Day, illustrating how the novel’s broad scope facilitates analysis of this one central thematic concern. I will initially argue that in Against the Day Pynchon sets out a series of submerged references to the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. These allusions can be seen most clearly in a short section at the beginning of the second chapter of the novel, in which New York City, temporally dislocated, comes under attack. The conclusion to this section echoes the experiences of the population of New York after the September 11 attacks and focuses on one character, Hunter Penhallow, and his frantic attempts to escape from the carnage. The New York City of Against the Day is temporally dislocated not only because Pynchon alludes to an event that occurs around one hundred years after the notional setting of the novel (what I have termed a prochronistic allusion), but also because Pynchon’s references to the September 11 attacks are accompanied by a mirrored series of parachronistic references, into the past, in which he systematically links his disaster-stricken New York City with the Inferno of Dante’s Commedia.1 I thus establish that Pynchon mobilizes both parachronistic and prochronistic influences on this section of the novel, creating a text that engages with the fundamental nature of temporality and reconsiders time, both as it applies to the novel and narrative in general, and also to philosophical analyses of “real world” time, the time of human experience. To analyze temporality in Against the Day I then turn to four concepts that influence these ideas throughout the novel, discussing time travel, bilocation, Pynchon’s buried allusions to the possibility of a “counter-Earth,” and See David Cowart, “Pynchon and the Sixties,” Critique 41, no. 1 (1999): 5, for a similar interpretation of the anachronistic element in Pynchon’s work—in this case, Cowart is analyzing Mason & Dixon. Christy Burns’ “Postmodern Historiography” also discussed Mason & Dixon in a similar light. She writes: “Pynchon’s temporal or historical coordinates are the mappable difference, measurable via his synchronization of the 1760s charted alongside the 1990s.” Of course, for Against the Day, the synchronization is between the fin de siècle and the 2000s. See Christy Burns, “Postmodern Historiography: Politics and the Parallactic Method in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon,” Postmodern Culture 14, no. 1 (2003): 3 (Burns’ emphasis).


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competing mathematical theories from the turn of the century, examining how each of these narrative focuses simultaneously interact with time and facilitate Pynchon’s investigation of temporality throughout the novel.

September 11 in Against the Day Notwithstanding the epic spread of Against the Day in time and space, the most urgent section of the novel is a short section detailing a disaster-stricken New York, at the beginning of the second chapter of the novel. This six-page section (pp. 149–55) encapsulates the theoretical scope of the novel. The section begins with the Chums of Chance returning to New York, after having been deputized to watch over the Vormance Expedition, a group with shadowy aims involving geological profiteering. The Vormance group has brought what they believe is a meteor, but is actually a living mountain, a prehistoric spirit of the Earth, into New York City for scientific analysis and exhibition. This narrative is not without an element of the slapstick, as a brief exchange between a shadowy “Board of Inquiry [. . .] of the Museum of Museumology” establishes.2 Pynchon writes: “It deceived us into classifying it as a meteorite, you see. . . .” [. . .] “Your whole Expedition got hypnotized by a rock? that what you’re asking us to believe?”3

Aside from the humor of the scene, there is also an incipient warning of the seriousness to come, with the narrator posing a question to the reader that suggests the more serious issues to be addressed in this strand of the narrative: “But who could have foreseen that the far-fallen object would prove to harbor not merely a consciousness but an ancient purpose as well, and a plan for carrying it out?”4 Pynchon’s evocation of an “ancient purpose” warns the reader of the imminent threat to the city, and also serves to resonate with the interpretation of the events that follow as reflecting Islamist fundamentalist terrorism, a movement that justifies its action, in part, through reference back to both ancient scriptures and ideals. As the interview between the Board of Inquiry and the Expedition is taking place, New York City already lies in ruins. The narrator shifts from a focus on the discussion taking place to a view outside a window, through which can be seen New York burning and in the grip of disaster. Pynchon describes a scene that specifically calls to mind the horror of September 11, 2001, experiences personal but also shared throughout the world via television images: [C]harred trees still quietly smoking, flanged steelwork fallen or leaning perilously, streets near the bridges and ferry slips jammed with the entangled carriages, Pynchon, Against the Day, 149. Ibid. (Pynchon’s emphasis). 4 Ibid. 2 3

The Duration of Thomas Pynchon’s Hell


wagons, and streetcars which the population had at first tried to flee in, then abandoned, and which even now lay unclaimed, overturned, damaged by collision and fire, hitched to animals months dead and yet unremoved.5

The narrator’s description resonates with our collective understanding of the awful events. The “flanged steelwork leaning perilously” calls to mind the visceral images of the collapsed towers at the epicenter of the attacks, the rest of the section evoking the chaotic scenes that were broadcast repeatedly in the aftermath.6 Pynchon, however, is strict with the temporality of the narrative throughout the section. Despite the similarities with the September 11 attacks, he is careful to always maintain the period-style of the text: hence, the littered detritus of those trying to flee is of a society not reliant on the automobile but the horse and cart; yet the resonances with the event in 2001 are undeniable.7 Pynchon’s appropriation of the September 11 attacks centers not only on the images of destruction that we are all familiar with, but also attempts to present the entirety of the event, including the Mayor of the city “no more dishonest than the standards of the time provided for,” referring both to Rudolph Giuliani, but also appearing to retain an implicit scorn for the president of the time.8 The depiction of a heroic public force shouldering the burden of the rescue and cleanup processes resonates undeniably with the effectiveness of the New York emergency services after the September 11 attacks. Pynchon renames this force the White Wings, alluding to their heroism in the face of grave danger: The only organized units to brave the immediate aftermath were the White Wings, who with exemplary grit continued to go wading into the inconceivable cleanup job with never less than their usual cheer and discipline.9

Aside from describing the aftermath of the event, and the images and groups that are an indelible part of this collective memory, Pynchon also details the event itself. His depiction of New York under attack does not appropriate exactly the events of the September 11 attacks, but the basis of the entire narrative is underpinned by the events of 2001.10 The beginning of the event is described in suitably apocalyptic terms, the Ibid., 150. This is what David Wyatt identifies as the temporal disjunction of Against the Day: “it becomes a question as to which kind of terrorism and which turn-of-the-century [Pynchon] means to invoke.” See, Wyatt, “September 11 & Postmodern Memory,” 147.  7 Elizabeth Hinds observes a similar concept in Mason & Dixon. See Elizabeth Hinds, “Sari, Sorry, and the Vortex of History: Calendar Reform, Anachronism and Language Change in Mason & Dixon,” American Literary History 12, no. 1–2 (2000): 188–9, 197–203.  8 Pynchon, Against the Day, 150.  9 Ibid., 150. 10 Of the limited amount of critical material examining these ideas, Brooke Horvath provides an interesting line of thought by alluding to Pynchon’s generally sympathetic portrayal of anarchism, seemingly at odds with echoes of September 11. See Brooke Horvath, “Review of Out of the Blue: September 11 and the Novel and I Sing the Body Politic: History as Prophecy in Contemporary American Literature,” ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews 23, no. 3 (2010): 203. David Wyatt is more specific on the prochronistic references to September 11, in his “September 11 & Postmodern Memory,” 144–8.  5  6


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narrator stating that “[f]ire and blood were about to roll like fate upon the complacent multitudes.”11 In the immediate aftermath, we read: Later, fire alarms would go unanswered and the firemen on the front lines find themselves too soon without reinforcement, or the hope of any. The noise would be terrific and unrelenting, as it grew clear even to the wilfully careless that there would be no refuge.12

The resonances here with the September 11 attacks are obvious and strong. The chaos of the attacks is Pynchon’s main appropriation, and he effectively captures that confusion and tragedy of the event that dominates his reader’s recent memory. Even where the details of the events in this section of Against the Day depart from the events of the September 11 attacks, Pynchon still alludes to 2001. The mayor of the city, addressed previously is referred to again, a figure described as “[f]led, dead, not right in the head.”13 The figure Pynchon refers to here can be interpreted as referring both to Mayor Giuliani, but also to President Bush who appeared in New York in the days after the September 11 attacks. There is even mention of a figure who appears to be very similar to Osama bin Laden—the mastermind of the attacks—in Pynchon’s appropriation of September 11, his image projected onto the side of a building in the days after the disaster has struck, reminiscent of Big Brother’s ever-present visage in Nineteen Eighty-Four, a text we know Pynchon examined in the wake of September 11.14 Finally, however, Pynchon establishes that time is the most crucial concern in the New York September 11 section of Against the Day. The spirit that runs amok in New York is all-powerful, it has never been bested in its “as-yet-unwritten history.”15 Those attempting to escape from the disaster that is about to occur attempt to find “refuge in time.”16 And the event itself is linked to the passage of time, and our understanding of it, as Pynchon makes clear: This city, even on the best of days, has always been known for its background rumble of anxiety. Anyone who dwelt here gambled daily that whatever was to happen would proceed slowly enough to allow at least one consultation with somebody—that “there would always be time,” as citizens liked to put it. But that quarterless nightfall, events were moving too fast to take in, forget about examine, or analyze, or in fact do much of anything but run from, and hope you could avoid getting killed.17

Finally, and fundamentally, this catastrophe that erupts in New York is a catastrophe of time. Time is suddenly passing too quickly, and all that can be done is to attempt to survive, to escape the inevitability of passing time. In these six pages, Pynchon constructs an extensive series of temporal allusions that motivate much of the rest Pynchon, Against the Day, 152. Ibid., 152. The only “refuge” will be for Hunter Penhallow, who will fantastically escape from the “world brought low.” 13 Ibid. 14 See ibid., 153. 15 Ibid., 151. 16 Ibid., 152. 17 Ibid., 151. 11 12

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of the novel. He incorporates both parachronistic and prochronistic references and allusions, while also incorporating the speeding up of time DeLillo employs in Mao II to signal onrushing modernity, and change. The reader will also discover much later in the text that Hunter Penhallow’s escape from New York relies, at least in part, on some form of time travel. Thus, time is the fundamental concern of the New York September 11 narrative. Having identified the September 11 attacks as the motivating event for Pynchon’s focus on temporality, I will now move through a number of different concepts that Pynchon relates to time, always with an acknowledgment of the terrorist attacks on the United States as motivation.

The duration of Thomas Pynchon’s hell The New York September 11 section of Against the Day is dominated by the competing disasters of “fire, damage to structures, crowd panic, disruption to common services,” a list of events resonant with the September 11 attacks.18 While alluding to the modern-day catastrophe that motivates this section, Pynchon also includes a series of parachronistic references which provide balance to the temporal schema of the novel, and drive Against the Day’s investigation of the infernal. The downtown area of Pynchon’s New York, after being razed by the September 11-like horrors, is abandoned. Pynchon describes a propitiatory arch standing at the entry to the wasteland, erected by the state in memory of the event. The arch bears the inscription: “I AM THE WAY INTO THE DOLEFUL CITY—DANTE.”19 The reader encounters this arch again in Against the Day emerging in an indeterminately later period. In this new temporality the arch shows the passing of time. It is “gray and time-corroded, seeming to date from some ancient catastrophe, far older then the city” itself.20 The recurrence of the arch in Against the Day shows us the extent of the complex manipulation of time Pynchon pursues in the novel. He incorporates elements of an event from our present into the past time of the novel’s narrative, then creates a memorial to that event which appears to be older than the event the arch itself memorializes. The inscription on the arch is taken from the third canto of Dante’s Inferno, and is the first line of the inscription on the gates that Dante and Virgil see before entering into hell.21 The memorial arch is converted into the gates to hell, just as Pynchon’s conceptualization of time is transformed.22 On top of the novel’s already complex 21

Ibid. Ibid., 154. Ibid., 401. The full inscription on the gate is: “I AM THE WAY INTO THE DOLEFUL CITY, / I AM THE WAY INTO ETERNAL GRIEF, / I AM THE WAY TO A FORESAKEN RACE. / JUSTICE IT WAS THAT MOVED MY GREAT CREATOR; / DIVINE OMNIPOTENCE CREATED ME, / AND HIGHEST WISDOM JOINED WITH PRIMAL LOVE. / BEFORE ME NOTHING BUT ETERNAL THINGS / WERE MADE, AND I SHALL LAST ETERNALLY. / ABANDON EVERY HOPE, ALL YOU WHO ENTER HERE” (Dante, The Divine Comedy: Inferno, trans. Mark Musa (New York: Penguin, 2003), III.1–9, 89.) 22 Thomas Pynchon also imagined abandoned gateways to hell in Vineland (London: Vintage, 2000 [1990]), 383. 18 19 20


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temporal structure is added the concept of eternity. The arch itself responds strangely to time, but more importantly, if hell is somehow located in the earthly realm within the novel, then eternity must intersect with the other “times” of the novel. Over the course of this chapter we will see that Pynchon’s location of hell on earth, and the repetition of the Dantean arch which leads into hell establishes the eternal return as crucial to Against the Day.23 The concepts of eternity and infinity are central to the investigation and analysis of Dante’s Inferno and, to the conceptualization of hell itself. Jorge Luis Borges, whose essay prompted my analysis of the Dantean arch within the novel, and whose essay suggested the title for this chapter, sets out in his essay “The Duration of Hell” the conventional attributes of hell. Hell is, for Borges, definable by a number of strict guidelines: [T]he strict notion—a place of eternal punishment for the wicked—constituted by the dogma with no other obligations than placing it in loco real, in a precise spot, and a beatorum sede distincto, different from the place of the chosen.24

The representation of hell that exists within Against the Day may not exactly subscribe to the parameters that Borges sets out; nevertheless Borges’ emphasis of the specific spatial parameters of hell resonates with the earthly position of hell in the novel.25 Most important to any conception of hell is time. As Borges identifies: “[t]he attribute of eternity is what is horrible. The continuity—the fact that divine persecution knows no pause, that there is no sleep in Hell—is unimaginable.”26 Although Borges ultimately chooses to argue against the eternity of hell, the summary he makes of the eternal and infinite boundaries of hell are fundamental to the diabolic underworld of Pynchon’s novel. In Against the Day hell is constructed as the meeting point of the eternal and the infinite. A concept that is repeatedly linked to the infernal in the novel is the eternal return, which proposes that time is both eternal and infinite. In Nietzsche and Philosophy, which addresses Nietzsche’s construction of the eternal return in detail, Gilles Deleuze sets out the temporal requirements of eternity while implicitly establishing the temporal guidelines of hell.27 He writes: Nietzsche says that if the universe had an equilibrium position, if becoming had an end or final state, it would have already been attained. But the present moment, DeLillo posits a similar idea, albeit in a different conceptual mode, when he writes that the September 11 event is “heaven and hell.” See DeLillo, “In the Ruins of the Future,” 34. We should also note that the combination of New York, the archetypal globalized city, and hell calls to mind what Lentricchia and McAuliffe call the “vision of modern hell,” the “emerging wasteland of smoky cities”—violence and the infernal is inherent to the modern city. See Lentricchia and McAuliffe, Crimes of Art + Terror, 21. 24 Jorge Luis Borges, “The Duration of Hell,” in Eliot Weinberger, ed., The Total Library: Non-Fiction 1922–1986, trans. Esther Allen, Suzanne Jill Levine, and Eliot Weinberger (London: Penguin Books, 1999 [1929]), 49 (Borges’ emphasis). 25 Richard Hardack, interestingly, argues that Borges influences Pynchon’s conception of time, and especially, of time travel. See Richard Hardack, “Consciousness without Borders: Narratology in Against the Day and the Works of Thomas Pynchon,” Criticism 52, no. 1 (2010): 102. 26 Borges, “The Duration of Hell,” 49. 27 The link between Borges’ vision of hell and Deleuze’s conception of the eternal return is solidified in Borges’ own essay on eternal return, which presents the concept in very similar terms to that which 23

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as that passing moment, proves that it is not attained and therefore that an equilibrium of forces is not possible [. . .]. That is to say, past time being infinite, becoming would have attained its final state if it had one.28

It is the infinite nature of time in Nietzsche’s understanding that drives the importance of the eternal return.29 Deleuze’s analysis affirms the construction of hell as outlined by Borges, reaffirming the special nature of infinity and its effect on time. If past time is infinite, then eternal return is explicitly required in the temporal system because the world, still under the power of time, endures. Infinite time requires the eternal return to explain the continued existence of the world. Dante’s Inferno presents a unique spatial model for the temporal concept of eternal return, fitting analogously with the eternal and infinite characteristics of time itself.30 It is this model that Pynchon utilizes throughout Against the Day to explicate (and to spatialize) the temporal scheme he employs. Dante describes his vision of hell in the shape of a funnel, or, to use the mathematical term, a vortex.31 The vortex represents an infinite system; it becomes smaller and smaller and the lines of the vortex closer and closer together. Despite this the lines of the vortex never meet at a singular point in the depths of the figure. Of course, as a theoretical shape, the vortex is never reflected perfectly in the world. Instead we imagine (following Dante’s description) hell as an inverted cone, in which the vortical lines terminate at the center of hell, in which Lucifer is held captive by the ice of Cocytus. In this way, Dante’s vortical hell has a number of similarities to the first of Zeno of Elea’s paradoxes, “Achilles and the Tortoise,” another of Borges literary and theoretical obsessions.32 Zeno holds that the paradox of “Achilles and the Tortoise” is observed in the fact that, in a race between the two, with Achilles giving the Tortoise a headstart, Achilles must reach the position the Tortoise formerly occupied before moving on to pass the Tortoise. In the period of time it takes for Achilles to reach the Tortoise’s former position the Tortoise will have moved on, thus retaining a






Deleuze proposes. See Jorge Luis Borges, “Circular Time,” in Eliot Weinberger, ed., The Total Library: Non-Fiction 1922–1986, trans. Esther Allen, Suzanne Jill Levine, and Eliot Weinberger (London: Penguin Books, 1999 [1929]), 226–8. Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, Nietzsche and Philosophy, trans. Hugh Tomlinson (London: Continuum, 1983), 43–4. Cf. Stephen Weisenburger’s discussion of hysteron proteron and this device’s relation to “return” in Gravity’s Rainbow. See Weisenburger, “Hysteron Proteron in Gravity’s Rainbow,” 94–6. There is surprisingly little in the way of extended analysis on Dante and Pynchon. Mendelson uses Dante’s Commedia as a model for the encyclopedic nature of Gravity’s Rainbow. See Mendelson, “Encyclopedic Narrative,” 1267–75; while Mark Quinn presented a paper at the 2008 International Pynchon Week conference, “In the Shadows of the Masters: Dante, Joyce, and Pynchon,” that engaged with Pynchon’s allusion to the Commedia in Gravity’s Rainbow. The vortical shape of hell has a correlate in W. B. Yeats’ concept of the gyre as developed in “The Second Coming,” in Stephen Greenblatt, Carol T. Christ, Alfred David, et al., eds, The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. 2 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006). The despairing vision of this poem with the “blood-dimmed tide [. . .] loosed” then also implies a link to the “unreal city” of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” in Stephen Greenblatt, Carol T. Christ, Alfred David, et al., eds, The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. 2 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006). See Jorge Luis Borges, “The Perpetual Race of Achilles and the Tortoise,” in Eliot Weinberger, ed., The Total Library: Non-Fiction 1922–1986, trans. Esther Allen, Suzanne Jill Levine, and Eliot Weinberger (London: Penguin Books, 1999 [1929]), 43–7.


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lead. Separating time out into a series of discrete fragments, Achilles can never overtake the Tortoise let alone catch up to it, for he is always required first to reach the previous position of the Tortoise. This paradox is simply manifested in the idea of trying to walk toward a stationary object. The essence of Zeno’s paradox argues that before one can reach the object, one must first progress half of the distance to the object, then a quarter (half of the remaining distance), then an eighth, and so on ad infinitum, meaning that the wall can never be reached under the strictures of Zeno’s observations. Zeno’s paradoxes, the eternal return, and the vortical design of Dante’s hell are linked together because they each systematize the link between the eternal and the infinite. All three concepts, however, are not infallible. In fact Dante and Virgil, in escaping the fiery confines of the inferno actually break the power these concepts signify. In escaping the manifestations of infinitude encapsulated in the vortex, Zeno’s paradoxes and the eternal return, they illustrate the moment at which the power of these concepts fails. Dante describes this moment in Canto XXXIV. We read: [. . .] downward, tuft by tuft, he made his way between the tangled hair and frozen crust. When we had reached the point exactly where the thigh begins, right at the haunch’s curve, my guide, with strain and force of every muscle, turned his head toward the shaggy shanks of Dis and grabbed the hair as if about to climb— I thought that we were heading back to Hell. “Hold tight, there is no other way,” he said, panting, exhausted, “only by these stairs can we leave behind the evil we have seen.” When he had got me through the rocky crevice, he raised me to its edge and set me down, then carefully he climbed and joined me there. I raised my eyes, expecting I would see the half of Lucifer I saw before. Instead I saw his two legs stretching upward. If at this sight I found myself confused, so will those simple-minded folk who still don’t see what point it was I must have passed. [. . .]

The Duration of Thomas Pynchon’s Hell


“Before we start to struggle out of here, O master,” I said when I was on my feet, “I wish you would explain some things to me. Where is the ice? And how can he be lodged upside-down? And how, in so little time, could the sun go all the way from night to day?” “You think you’re still on the center’s other side,” he said, “where I first grabbed the hairy worm of rottenness that pierces the earth’s core; and you were there as long as I moved downward but, when I turned myself, you passed the point to which all weight from every part is drawn. Now you are standing beneath the hemisphere which is opposite the side covered by land, where at the central point was sacrificed the Man whose birth and life were free of sin. You have both feet upon a little sphere whose other side Judecca occupies;33

Note how much of an effort Virgil has to make to push into the area below Lucifer; it requires “strain and force of every muscle,” and leaves him “panting, exhausted.” Dante’s explanation of the force Virgil is required to use to break free from hell is crucial to our understanding of the relationship between eternal time and infinite space. Dante details not simply his and Virgil’s movement from one “space” to another, but their escape from the strictures of the paradox of the vortical nature of hell. They then move from one “time” (that of hell) to another, the time of purgatory.34 In his analysis of the eternal return, Deleuze refers to the relationship between space and time in regard to the infinite, arguing that “eternal return is [. . .] an answer to the problem of passage.”35 Deleuze relates the eternal and infinite, time and space, not by creating a composite concept such as space-time, but rather to establish the interrelatedness of the two. Pynchon’s use of the Dantean conception of hell, predicated initially on the infinite time of hell which is the basis of divine punishment, means that time must move Dante, “Inferno,” XXXIV.74–93; 100–17, 381–3 (first emphasis mine, second emphasis original). Unsurprisingly for a work of such breadth a Virgil appears in Against the Day, albeit almost 1,000 pages beyond my present focus, declaiming “Sometimes [. . .] I like to lose myself in reveries of when the land was free, before it got hijacked by capitalist Christer Republicans for their long-term evil purposes.” A prochronistic reference that affirms the centrality of Dantean reference to the novel. See Pynchon, Against the Day, 1058. 35 Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, 45 (Deleuze’s emphasis). 33 34


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cyclically so as to account for the infinitude of past time. It is my contention that both Dante and Pynchon do not understand the eternal return as simply a repetition of time. Instead, both allude to eternal return as it is posited a posteriori by Deleuze, in what amounts to a disambiguation of the concept. In Nietzsche and Philosophy, Deleuze modifies Nietzsche’s conception of the eternal return by arguing that the eternal return must not facilitate the return of the same, but instead the eternal return of difference itself.36 Deleuze famously concludes: “[t]his is why we can only understand the eternal return as the expression of a principle which serves as an explanation of diversity and its reproduction, of difference and its repetition.”37 The eternal return of difference fits neatly with the implicit stance repeated throughout The Divine Comedy, replicated even in the structure of the work, in which the Inferno is repeated differently in the Purgatorio, and again in the Paradiso. That is, setting aside the first introductory canto, all three parts of the Commedia consist of 33 cantos, a repetition contingent on difference. It is also important to note that after the moment of disorientation that Dante and Virgil experience when they emerge from hell they encounter a mirror image, the mountain of purgatory that they then must climb: they have emerged into the southern hemisphere and must ascend to the surface, just as they have descended into earth from the northern hemisphere during their journey through hell. Having read how Dante navigates his characters out of the paradox of infernal, vortical time, it is useful to see the similarities in Pynchon’s representation of the same process. The Dantean character in Against the Day is Hunter Penhallow, a young man who will blossom into a promising artist later in the text. Penhallow is caught in the worst of the apocalyptic event in New York; during Pynchon’s description of Penhallow’s escape the theoretical allusions between the Inferno and Against the Day are clear. Pynchon writes: He was abruptly lost in an unfamiliar part of town—the grid of numbered streets Hunter thought he’d understood made no sense anymore. The grid in fact had been distorted into an expression of some other history of civic need, streets no longer sequentially numbered, intersecting now at unexpected angles, narrowing into long, featureless alleyways to nowhere, running steeply up and down hills which had not been noticed before. He pushed on, assuming that far enough along he would come out at an intersection he could recognize, but everything only got less familiar. At some point he must have come indoors, entering a sort of open

Whether Deleuze’s understanding of Nietzsche’s concept is a reading of the concept that understands eternal return more clearly than previous readers over the past 120 years, or if, in the vein of much of his other work, Deleuze’s reading of Nietzsche’s eternal return is indeed a productive modification of Nietzsche’s preceding iteration of the concept is not a question possible to address in full detail here. Deleuze in his “Preface to the English Translation” asserts that he is reading Nietzsche’s concept literally, while the tone of his writing suggests a reconsideration. See Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, x, 43–5. Indeed, there is a strong similarity between Deleuze’s conception of eternal recurrence and Nietzsche’s presentation of the concept in his early analysis of the Greek tradition, especially in his focus on Anaximander and Heraclitus. See Friedrich Nietzsche, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks trans. Marianna Cowan (Washington: Gateway, 1962), 49–56. 37 Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, 45. 36

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courtyard, a ruined shell of rust-red and yellowish debris towering ten or twelve stories overhead. A sort of monumental gateway, unaccountably more ancient and foreign than anything in the known city.38

New York is transformed into hell, a city now adept at providing the “civic need” of eternal discipline and punishment. Of note is Pynchon’s manipulation of the topography of the city. Gone are the grid-like layout of streets and the relatively flat expanse of land that New York is sited on. Instead, New York’s topography is transformed into the vortical shape of Dante’s Inferno after Penhallow passes through New York’s Dantean arch: the spaces that he is moving through become smaller and smaller and more restrictive, just like the lines of a vortex as it reaches its deepest point. The final paragraph of the New York September 11 section of Against the Day then describes Penhallow’s journey out of Pynchon’s hell. He writes: How stupefied he must have looked. He followed the group dumbly down a flight of winding metal steps to an electric-lit platform where others, quite a few others in fact, were boarding a curious mass conveyance, of smooth iron painted a dark shade of industrial gray, swept and sleek, with the pipework of its exhaust manifold led outside the body, running lights all up and down its length. He got on, found a seat. The vehicle began to move, passing among factory spaces, power generators, massive instillations of machinery whose purpose was less certain—sometimes wheels spun, vapors burst from relief valves, while other plants stood inert, in unlighted mystery—entering at length a system of tunnels and, once deep inside, beginning to accelerate. The sound of passage, hum and wind-rush, grew louder, somehow more comforting, as if confident in its speed and direction. There seemed no plan to stop, only to continue at increasing velocity. Occasionally, through the windows, inexplicably, there were glimpses of the city above them, though how deep beneath it they were supposed to be travelling was impossible to tell. Either the track was rising here and there to break above the surface or the surface was making deep, even heroic, excursions downward to meet them. The longer they travelled, the more “futuristic” would the scenery grow. Hunter was on his way to refuge, whatever that might have come to mean anymore, in this world brought low.39

We should note that Pynchon reinforces the disorientation that Penhallow experiences here, from the “stupefied” look he adopts at the beginning of the passage, to his confusion at the end in which his understanding of the world is collapsing because of his immediate experience. This confusion parallels Dante’s experience as he is helped out of hell by Virgil. The disorientation that Hunter Penhallow experiences is not, however, solely produced by a general confusion—rather, it is exactly the same bodily disorientation that Dante experiences—a confusion as to whether the train-like technology Hunter is aboard is heading down or up, or whether the surface Pynchon, Against the Day, 154–5. Ibid., 155.

38 39


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itself is making “heroic excursions downward.”40 The experience Pynchon details here is exactly the experience of entering the threshold point of the earth, where northern hemisphere gives way to southern. Rather than the efforts of a guide (Virgil in the Inferno) to facilitate Penhallow’s breaking through this disorientation it is an unspecified “futuristic” machine that allows him to escape what is the vortical paradox of Pynchon’s apocalyptic New York. Penhallow escapes into the future, breaking out of the temporality of disaster-stricken New York, escaping also the power of hell implicit throughout this section.41

Dual and dueling temporalities The initial sections of this chapter have set out the main claim of my analysis of Against the Day: that the primary concept driving the narrative of the novel is Pynchon’s ability to set different temporalities side by side and to reject the absolute nature of time. This then facilitates his development of a fictional world in which time is relative and different “times” can be experienced simultaneously or in succession.42 The following analysis will extend this argument, taking four of the dominant narratives of the novel, time travel, bilocation, the possibility of a “counter-Earth,” and mathematics, and illustrate that by utilizing each of these concepts, Pynchon develops a world within his novel that is radically focused on time, and that this focus on time is derived from the horrifying events of September 11. As I discussed in Chapter 5, Pynchon sees these paradigmatic events as the result of previous decisions; much of Against the Day seeks to interrogate the processes which render the twenty-first century as it is and considers alternative paths possible, probable, or simply more desirable than the status quo.

Time travel Hunter Penhallow’s escape from disaster-stricken New York owes much to the concept of time travel as it is developed throughout Against the Day. Whether Penhallow’s escape from New York is a specific example of time travel (as I argue in Chapter 7), or movement from one temporal scheme to another (as argued above) is never made entirely clear.43 Irregardless, temporal confusion dominates whenever Penhallow is the focus of the narrative. After the readers’ initial encounter with the Chums of Chance we come across the group again in New York, this time on leave. The Chums have just concluded their This is the experience Jennifer Bloomer describes in the center of the vortex “which will again draw you toward the centreless middle which flings you out again.” Jennifer Bloomer, “Vertex and Vortex: A Tectonics of Section,” Perspecta 23 (1987): 39. 41 For further consideration of the “futuristic” machine that facilitates Hunter Penhallow’s escape from New York in this section, see Chapter 7. 42 Cf. Richard Hardack’s discussion of time in Against the Day. See Hardack, “Consciousness without Borders,” 100–1. 43 Hardack argues that the narrator of the novel occupies the position of “time machine.” See ibid., 104. 40

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initial pursuit of the Sfinciuno Itinerary—a map that appears to be a metaphorical manifestation of the spatial realm—and an item that leads the Chums to a growing awareness of time travel. After following a lead on time machines that leads them to a gang of criminal children described as “children of the depths,” the Chums are led through a devastated New York to the warehouse of Dr Zoot, who claims to possess a functioning time machine.44 As the Chums deputizing for the group, Darby Suckling and Chick Counterfly, pick their way through the devastation of New York they encounter the Dantean memorial arch: Passing beneath the colossal arch, they continued to grope along over fog-slick cobblestones, among decaying animals, piles of refuse, and the smoldering fires of homeless denizens of the quarter, till at length, the pungent triatomic signature having become overwhelming, along with a harsh buzzing that filled the vicinity, they stood before a stone gateway, the dwelling beyond largely invisible.45

Passing through the arch involves a temporal and spatial shift into a Dantesque hell, exactly what Counterfly and Suckling encounter here. The images of fire, decay, and death signal the characters’ presence in hell, as does the “pungent triatomic signature” here referring to the overwhelming smell of sulfur dioxide that is reputed to pervade hell.46 After securing entry into Dr Zoot’s workshop, Counterfly and Suckling are offered a chance to try the time machine. They encounter an experience more infernal than either had anticipated. Instead of the popular experience of time travel developed in works such as H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine (referred to specifically in this sequence), time travel is dangerous and awful. Pynchon describes their experience: They seemed to be in the midst of some great storm in whose low illumination, presently, they could make out, in unremitting sweep across the field of vision, inclined at the same angle as the rain, if rain it was—some material descent, gray and wind-stressed—undoubted human identities, masses of souls, mounted, pillioned, on foot, ranging along together by the millions over the landscape accompanied by a comparably unmeasurable herd of horses. The multitude extended farther than they could see—a spectral cavalry, faces disquietingly wanting in detail, eyes little more than blurred sockets, the draping of garments constantly changing in an invisible flow which perhaps was only wind. Bright arrays of metallic points hung and drifted in three dimensions and perhaps more, like stars blown through by the shockwaves of creation. [. . .] Thus, galloping in unceasing flow ever ahead, denied any further control over their fate, the disconsolate company were borne terribly over the edge of the visible world.. . .47

46 47 44 45

Pynchon, Against the Day, 402. Ibid., 401. Cf. Dante, “Inferno,” XIV.76–84, 198–9. Pynchon, Against the Day, 403–4.


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This is an uncanny representation of hell, and an unmistakable allusion to Dante’s famous vision, what Pynchon describes as a journey into “that apocalyptic sweep of masses.”48 Time travel is not a simple journey through linear time, but is rather a movement from one “time” to another. It is not clear whether time travel always results in the traveler being thrust into hell, but it is clear that time travel does not allow the simple notion of moving backwards and forwards in time, and being able to arrive at a specific date. In this sense, Pynchon’s representation of time travel sees him reject a linear conception of time and instead adopt a multidimensional understanding, approximating the concept of “four-space” referred to later in the novel.49 Time travel, for Pynchon, can never solely be a temporal experience: the shifting of time causes a commensurate shift in space. Thus, when Pynchon describes Counterfly and Suckling’s vision of “metallic points” drifting “in three dimensions and perhaps more” he implies not that Zoot has cheated the Chums and they are simply being moved through space, but instead that the radical temporal shift required in time travel actually causes a shift in space as well. Pynchon’s description of the exact moment of time travel illustrates this disorientation in space and time: The chamber shook, as in a hurricane. Ozone permeated its interior like the musk attending some mating-dance of automata, and the boys found themselves more and more disoriented. Soon even the cylindrical confines they had entered seemed to have fallen away, leaving them in a space unbounded in all directions. There became audible a continuous roar as of the ocean—but it was not the ocean— and soon cries as of beasts in open country, ferally purring stridencies passing overhead, sometimes too close for the lads to be altogether comfortable with—but they were not beasts. Everywhere rose the smell of excrement and dead tissue.50

The specific moment of time travel, while ostensibly excluding the spatial from the experience (the time machine apparatus fades away), actually reinforces the spatial as well temporal manipulation occurring. At the exact moment when Counterfly and Suckling travel through time they experience a serious spatial disorientation: the same disorientation experienced by Hunter Penhallow as he escaped New York and, most pertinently, the same as experienced by Dante as he is carried out of hell. This moment of vertigo in all three examples occurs at the precise moment when a shift in time occurs. The Dantean disorientation Pynchon employs suggests that the novel conceptualizes time in accordance with the tripartite vision of the universe Dante employed. As a consequence, multiple, infinite times can be placed alongside each other: time is relative, but not accordance with Einstein’s theory of relativity. Indeed, the issue at hand is not the competition between absolute (Newtonian) or relative (Einsteinian) time, but the possibility of still further conceptions of time existing, especially space and time operating together, coexisting, each contingent on the other.

Ibid., 409. Ibid., 431, 564. Cf. Berressem’s analysis of the Möbius strip. Berressem, Pynchon’s Poetics, 48, 121. Pynchon, Against the Day, 404 (my emphasis).

48 49 50

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Bilocation Having considered the interaction between space and time in regards to Pynchon’s representation of time travel, bilocation serves as useful point of comparison. Bilocation is a phenomenon that is generally thought of as spatial, but in Against the Day manifests effects on both space and time. Bilocation is important to the novel, but remains an obscure concept, the mystical element of the concept shrouded in mystery. Generally, bilocation has been understood as the reputed ability of Catholic saints to appear in two places at the same; in Against the Day, however, Pynchon sites this power not in the Catholic tradition but in a more naturalist worldview, describing bilocation as a “mysterious shamanistic power.”51 The same section of the novel defines shamanic time, describing how shamanic temporality rejects a linear representation of time, instead proposing that: “time is spread out not in a single dimension but over many, which all exist in a single, timeless instant.”52 Shamanistic time is similar to the “four-space” discussed in mathematical analogies later in the novel. Two important observations can be made from Pynchon’s consideration of bilocation: first, shamanic time is much more in tune with the vision of time Deleuze proposes when discussing existence and the eternal return in Nietzsche and Philosophy. The present, for Deleuze, is allied to “being,” while the active and positive understanding of the eternal return requires an understanding of time as immanent, existence as always “becoming.”53 Thus, we can equate shamanic time with Deleuze’s immanent time. Secondly, the use of bilocation in a shamanic context rather than a Catholic one might be thought to distinguish between Dantean-inflected time travel and bilocation. The temporality of the Commedia is not, however, specifically Christian. Instead, Virgil’s liminal position within Dante’s world, and the role he plays in allowing the pilgrim to escape the power of time within hell suggests that bilocation and time travel are more closely linked than one might initially consider. The most illuminating instance of bilocation in Against the Day is of two professors, Renfrew and Werfner, the former of Cambridge and the latter of Göttingen. Pynchon complicates this manifestation of bilocation: in the first half of the novel it appears as if Werfner and Renfrew are separate individuals rather than a single individual bilocating. The mystery of Renfrew/Werfner is exemplified by their first appearance in the novel, in which the two characters appear together—completing each others sentences—Pynchon poking fun at his readers’ attempts to understand the significance of the strange pair. Nevertheless, Renfrew and Werfner’s existence provides Pynchon with the opportunity to develop the importance of bilocation and its intersection with the temporal concerns of the novel. Pynchon writes: The professors’ manœuvrings had at least the grace to avoid the mirrorlike—if symmetries arose now and then, it was written off to accident, “some predisposition Ibid., 143. Ibid. 53 See Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, 43–5. 51 52


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to the echoic,” as Werfner put it, “perhaps built into the nature of Time,” added Renfrew.54

As the two characters are revealed to be one individual with a remarkable ability to bilocate, their occasional similarity is confounding: the impossibility of one individual existing in two places at the same time is related, by Pynchon, to the existence of cyclical time. During the early stages of the novel, the reader must grapple with the preternatural abilities the pair exhibit. The pair are a puzzle hidden within the text, even to the extent that their names, absolutely “mirrorlike,” require deciphering.

RENFREW The Professor’s names are hidden within each other, Renfrew the reverse of Werfner and vice versa. Despite the subterfuge that Pynchon employs while presenting the Renfrew/Werfner character, especially early in the text, he establishes the link between bilocation and other temporally manipulating phenomena throughout the novel. Renfrew/Werfner’s bilocation reinforces the argument made throughout Against the Day that time is not simply linear. Instead, time is multiple and continuous and, as in the example of bilocation, different “times” can coexist. When a character bilocates time is doubled, with two strands of the temporal existing simultaneously, with the character existing in both at the same time. As much is admitted further into the text, where Pynchon writes: staggering subsets, fellows—you see what this means don’t you? those Indian mystics and Tibetan lamas and so forth were right all along, the world we think we know can be dissected and reassembled into any other number of worlds, each as “real” as this one.55

Professor Heino Vanderjuice is speaking here, the Chums’ scientific mentor throughout Against the Day. Despite bilocation manifesting itself (at least initially) as a spatial manipulation of the world, Vanderjuice sees bilocation as effecting time. Just as the “Indian mystics and Tibetan lamas” reject linear time and adopt the shamanistic understanding of immanent time so too does bilocation indicate the possibility of several “times” existing at once. Contrary to the conventional approach to time, each of these different times are real. Time is radically altered from linear to partial, and each different time that exists within Against the Day is absolutely real and a successive complete reality.

Pynchon, Against the Day, 227. Ibid., 1078.

54 55

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The Renfrew/Werfner example of bilocation is worthy of further attention because early in the novel, Pynchon specifically links the two with Dante and his Inferno. When Renfrew and Werfner make their first appearance in the novel, they are pursued by Lew Basnight, a detective-figure working with the True Worshippers of the Ineffable Tetractys, or, TWIT.56 The TWIT believe there exists a human manifestation of each tarot card, and are seeking to identify and keep these individuals under observation. Basnight is taken with the leader of TWIT to observe Renfrew and Werfner, who are described as the manifestation of Tarot Card XV, the Devil. Renfrew and Werfner are, Pynchon writes: the two chained figures found at the bottom of the card, imagined by their artist Miss Colman Smith, perhaps after Dante, as simple naked man and woman, though in the earlier tradition these had been shown as a pair of demons, genders unspecified, whose fates were bound and who could not separate even if they wanted to.57

Pynchon establishes a relationship between Renfrew/Werfner and his previous allusions to Dante, while simultaneously reinforcing the similarity between the infernal temporality that exists in Pynchon’s New York and that created in the incidences of bilocation that occur within the novel. Thus Colman Smith’s depiction of man and woman tethered to the Devil illustrates bilocation’s similarity to, and relationship with, the threshold moment experienced by Dante and Virgil as they exit hell. While Renfrew and Werfner are not subject to the strictures of being eternally bound as the demons of the Tarot Card, their fate is intertwined, as they also represent the competing interests of East and West in the escalating conflict caused by the slow dissolution of the old European empires in the years before World War One.58 A number of other examples of bilocation in the novel allow the reader to develop a wider application for the concept. The version of bilocation that Pynchon employs in Against the Day is always linked to an Eastern viewpoint, related to the shamanic image of time, proposing time as many faceted and multidimensional. Two examples of this sort open out the concept, illustrating bilocation’s interaction with time and eventually with space as well. The first example of bilocation is reported by Fleetwood Vibe, the son of Scarsdale Vibe, the character to which most of the novel’s plots can be traced back to. Fleetwood is his father’s representative on the Vormance expedition, the mission that brings the living meteorite back from the Arctic wastes which subsequently wreaks devastation on New York. The expedition happens upon a shaman, Magyakan, who is bilocating during his time in contact with the expedition. Vormance describes Magyakan’s bilocation without skepticism: “‘not only is he here visiting with us but also and simultaneously [. . .] back in the Yensei watershed with his people as well.’”59 Magyakan speaks to the group, and prophesies the inevitability of Trespassers from the future impinging upon A reference to the worship of Pythagorean mathematics and the possibilities of transcendence within. Pynchon, Against the Day, 226 (my emphasis). 58 See ibid., 226–7. 59 Ibid., 143. 56



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the time of the novel, a substantial issue addressed below in my analysis of Pynchon’s “counter-worlds.”60 Bilocation is figured not simply as a manipulation of space but of time as well: as Hastings Throyle explains it, Magyakan’s comments are not really prophecy, for an individual who has the skill of bilocation already manipulates time.61 The spatiotemporal power of bilocation, combined in Magyakan with his nonlinear conception of time, means that he can speak of the future with an assurance that confronts the members of the expedition. Bilocation as Pynchon proposes it here really has little to do with linear time, and instead better represents the functioning of time as it occurs later in the novel when time is “future, past, and present [. . .] all together.”62 The second incidence of bilocation here initially appears more flippant, but prefaces Pynchon’s later amalgamation of the temporal and spatial. Lew Basnight, still in the employ of the TWIT, attends “the comic operetta Waltzing in Whitechapel, or, A Ripping Romance,” based on the Jack the Ripper murders of the 1880s.63 As he surveys the audience he sees who he thinks is Professor Renfrew, still believing that Renfrew and Werfner are two different people. During the intermission Basnight is introduced to Renfrew who, of course, is actually Werfner visiting London. Werfner is bilocating, adopting the second of his alternative personalities that conceal his ability for duality. Werfner and his companion, Max Khäutsch, see a strong parallel between the Ripper murders and an incident that occurred in Austria, in which the Austrian Crown Prince Rudolf was murdered, resulting in Franz Ferdinand ascending into his position. Khäutsch is convinced that Rudolf was murdered by the same individual that perpetrated the Jack the Ripper murders, the murderer bilocating so as to kill two individuals in separate countries simultaneously. The group argue the possibilities, their dialogue revealing the serious ideas behind the comic presentation: “Hundreds, by now thousands, of narratives, all equally valid—what can this mean?” “Multiple worlds,” blurted Nigel, who had floated in from somewhere. “Precisely!” cried the Professor. “The Ripper’s ‘Whitechapel’ was a sort of momentary antechamber in space-time . . . one might imagine a giant railway-depot, with thousands of gates disposed radially in all dimensions, leading to tracks of departure to all manner of alternate histories. . . .”64

There are two important ideas initially hidden by the comic hyperbole of this scene. The first is bilocation itself, formalized by Pynchon in this section. Indeed it is Basnight’s conversation with Werfner/Renfrew here that drives him to the ultimate Miles Blundell, one of the Chums, converses with a representative of the Trespassers’ later in the novel. The Chums briefly attempt to aid the Trespassers before ending their association, believing they are being manipulated into acting prejudicially to themselves and to their time. See Pynchon, Against the Day, 551–4. 61 Ibid., 143. 62 Ibid., 617. Hardack argues that bilocation is simultaneously a “doubling and eradication of time.” See Hardack, “Consciousness without Borders,” 106. 63 Pynchon, Against the Day, 678. 64 Ibid., 682 (Pynchon’s emphasis). 60

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conclusion that the two are the same individual. Basnight’s revelation only occurs once he has realized that bilocation explicitly impinges upon the order of time just as it does of space. Thus, Nigel’s interjection raising the possibility of “multiple worlds” refers to multiple relative times coexisting side by side as it does the spatial manipulation of bilocation. Secondly, the possibility that “certain hidden geometries of History” had conspired, via a bilocated Jack the Ripper, to murder Crown Prince Rudolf and replace him with Archduke Franz Ferdinand, thus precipitating Europe into overbalancing into World War One resonates with Nigel’s claim as well.65 What Pynchon posits here is not simply the bilocation of an individual and the resultant doubling of time this requires, but instead the bilocation of entire worlds. There are suggestions throughout Against the Day that further worlds exist outside the world of the novel (see the following section on “counter-worlds”); notwithstanding this, the bilocation of multiple worlds unveils the full scope of Pynchon’s complex temporality. Entire populations experience alternative courses of history to those accepted in an orthodox view of the world; time in Against the Day is different to the relative time of our world. As Basnight grapples with the complexities of bilocation he finally perceives the interruptedness of time as it exists in the novel: bilocation is characterized as a “disjunction,” primarily in time.66 Otto Ghloix, who advises Basnight, states that bilocation requires learning “the secret geographies of the [. . .] hidden lands.”67 The physical abilities of those who can bilocate (such as flying, walking through walls, etc.) shows us that, just as in Pynchon’s use of time travel, bilocation sees space and time joined together, the two rendered manipulable in the complex world of the novel.

Counter-worlds: A counter-Earth or something more confronting? The concept of a counter-world or counter-Earth functions within Against the Day as a specific sort of Pynchonian shorthand for the myriad alternate spaces that make up the novel. Each of these spaces is explicitly reliant on the temporal manipulation that frequently occurs throughout the novel, from Pynchon’s incorporation of the simultaneously parachronistic and prochronistic events of New York’s devastation by fire discussed above to the possible bilocation of Jack the Ripper, refigured as an agent of chaos precipitating World War One. In each of these instances anachronism is crucial, as Pynchon constantly reconsiders and refigures the past and the future. The rumored possibility of a counter-Earth, counter-Hell, or counter-Heaven, or the more general counter-worlds Pynchon proposes, appears initially to involve a less complex construction of time than is required for some of the other concepts he employs in the novel. The first inkling the reader receives of these possible counter-worlds

Ibid., 373. Ibid., 686. 67 Ibid. 65 66


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takes place while Fleetwood Vibe and Kit Traverse are surveying New York City, the main focus of Pynchon’s temporal manipulation. Vibe is convinced of the existence of alternate worlds, as Pynchon details: When I came up here by myself, it was to look at the city—I thought there had to be some portal into another world. . . . I couldn’t imagine any continuous landscape that would ever lead naturally from where I was to what I was seeing. Of course it was Queens, but by the time I had that sorted out, it was too late, I was possessed by the dream of a passage through an invisible gate. It could have been a city, but it didn’t have to be a city. It was more a matter of the invisible taking on substance.68

We might initially assume that the “invisible gate” refers to the Dantean arch sprung up in downtown New York.69 And to a certain extent this impulse is correct, for what Fleetwood is proposing is a portal through which access to the “invisible” is possible: access to parallel worlds, always in existence but only occasionally solidified into “substance.” Fleetwood continues, outlining his theory of counter-worlds: There are stories, like maps that agree . . . too consistent among too many languages and histories to be only wishful thinking. . . . It is always a hidden place, the way into it is not obvious, the geography is as much spiritual as physical. If you should happen upon it, your strongest certainty is not that you have discovered it but returned to it. In a single great episode of light, you remember everything.70

At this early stage of the novel the existence of counter-worlds is still theoretical, a spiritual idea rather than a physical one. Vibe is certain, however, that memory is somehow involved. The involvement of memory suggests he is imagining a world somewhere in the past, and his ability to return to a time previously left behind. For Vibe, the ability to access these counter-worlds combines the temporal and spatial, imagined as “being taken back into a dark womb.”71 His wistful desire to access this space anticipates the Chums’ search for the Sfinciuno Itinerary, which serves as a guide to Shambhala, “‘[a]n ancient metropolis of the spiritual’” that might also be thought to exist within every one of us.72 Vibe’s hope of accessing counter-worlds is finally pinned on the temporally manipulating possibilities that exist in mathematics, as he tells Traverse: “‘all I’m looking for now is movement [. . .] the vector [. . .]. Are there such things as vectorial unknowns?’”73 Pynchon implies that counter-worlds may be accessed through the quantification of unknown values, the theoretical analysis of the world rendering these possibilities actual. While sequestered in Venice the Chums’ receive news of their next mission, to find the famed Sfinciuno Itinerary, a map that will allow exploration into potential counter-worlds, and hopefully to Shambhala. All is not as simple as it seems: the 70 71 72 73 68 69

Ibid., 164. Cf. Pynchon, Vineland, 383. Pynchon, Against the Day, 165. Ibid., 170. Ibid., 628. Ibid., 165.

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Itinerary as Chick Counterfly points out, is “not a geographical map,” but something much more “abstract.”74 Pynchon writes: “‘The author of the Itinerary imagined the Earth not only as a three-dimensional sphere but, beyond that, as an imaginary surface.’”75 The Itinerary must be viewed through a complex contraption called a “‘paramorphscope because it reveals worlds which are set to the side of the one we have taken, until now, to be the only world given us.’”76 The Chums’ search for the Sfinciuno Itinerary reveals the possible counter-worlds that are set alongside the primary world of human experience. These worlds are entirely real, but nevertheless can also be thought of as imaginary. Against the Day establishes the possibility of parallel worlds, real and imaginary simultaneously, accessible if one possesses the appropriate map and viewing devices. Despite the cognitive leaps Pynchon’s counter-worlds occasionally require, the novel is adamant at rendering these various worlds into existence. By the halfway stage of Against the Day, the probable counter-worlds imagined now begin to impinge on the novel. In the Chums’ pursuit of Shambhala they happen across Roswell Bounce, another character disaffected by his treatment at the hands of Vibe Corp. He provides the Chums with access to his invention, the “Hypopsammotic Survival Apparatus,” which allows the wearer to walk under the sandy deserts of inner Asia (where Shambhala is rumored to be hidden) unencumbered.77 The properties of the suit are fantastic and (pseudo) scientifically explained: the suits manipulate time and space, treating the sand of the desert as if it were light and parting it as required. This is achieved by translating “oneself in Time,” a process which, as Counterfly points out, implies a “form of passage back in Time.”78 Using Bounce’s invention, reliant on Albert Einstein’s work that places light in an interconnected relationship to time, the Chums are able to access a counter-world, discovering entire civilizations beneath the sands. Dally Rideout and Kit Traverse experience counter-worlds that exist alongside the primary world of the novel in their fateful voyage on the Stupendica. For the Stupendica is not one ship but rather two, doubling as the: S.M.S Emperor Maximilian—one of several 25,000-ton dreadnoughts contemplated by Austrian naval planning but, so far as official history goes, never built.79

In fact the Emperor Maximilian had been built, and was hidden within the Stupendica. The ship “was a participant in the future European war at sea which everyone was confident would come.”80 This future war, World War One, does occur, but only for Traverse, with Rideout left behind in a previous world. Pynchon’s description of the irruption of the counter-world within the principal world of the novel is fantastic: All hell likewise had broken loose topside. As if syntonic wireless messages, travelling through the Æther, might be subject to influences we remain at present 76 77 78 79 80 74 75

Ibid., 248. Ibid., 249 (Pynchon’s emphasis). Ibid. (Pynchon’s emphasis). Ibid., 426. Ibid. Ibid., 515. Ibid.


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ignorant off [sic], or perhaps, owing to the unnaturally shaky quality of present-day “reality,” the receiver’s in the ship’s Marconi room were picking up traffic from somewhere else not quite “in” the world, more like from a continuum lateral to it . . . around midafternoon the Stupendica had received a message in cipher, to the effect that British and German battle groups were engaged off the Moroccan coast, and that a state of general European war should be presumed in effect.81

As the episode continues, the Stupendica transforms, with Traverse now aboard the Emperor Maximilian and later disembarking in Morocco, while Rideout remains aboard the Stupendica. The counter-worlds, previously theoretical, begin to impinge directly on the narrative. They snowball, multiple spaces and times coexisting simultaneously within the narrative. The European war that immediately breaks out for Traverse excludes Rideout, who remains on the Stupendica, eventually arriving in Venice and falling in with Hunter Penhallow, who is himself a refugee from the war (which he participated in prior to the conflict beginning for Traverse). The multiple times and spaces of the novel become contingent; Dally Rideout has no awareness of the war that has already taken place for Hunter Penhallow, is now taking place for Kit Traverse, and will take place in the future for herself. The final example of a counter-world I will address here, that of a counter-hell, is a more sinister possibility.82 Pynchon’s first reference to a counter-hell links the novel’s Dantean New York hell, time travel, and the counter-worlds that run laterally with the world of the novel. The existence of a counter-hell is suggested during the Trespassers narrative: Trespassers are refugees from the present, who have travelled back in time to seek shelter from the collapse of the capitalist system.83 Miles Blundell, acting as the conduit between the Chums and the Trespassers’ representative, Ryder Thorn, has a series of revelations as he discusses the possibility of the Chums’ assisting the temporal refugees. Thorn prophesies: “‘This world you take to be “the” world will die, and descend into Hell, and all history after that will belong properly to the history of Hell.’”84 It appears as if Thorn is actually referring to the imminent European war we know as World War One, referring to Flanders as “the mass grave of History.”85 Miles initially assumes Thorn’s prophecies to be incontrovertible (“‘Of course I believe you. You’re from the future, aren’t you? Who’d know better?’”).86 The truth is even more sinister than this: Thorn is describing his present, in which the European war has already taken place: “‘League on league of filth, corpses by the uncounted Ibid., 517–18 (my emphasis). As Seán Molloy observes, Pynchon has foreshadowed this concept in Vineland. Sister Rochelle argues that Hell and Earth are much more similar, and closer than we realize. See Pynchon, Vineland, 382–3. 83 As we shall see, Luc Sante’s pronouncement that Against the Day “concerns a hybrid experience of time: the past in the present and the present in the past” is only partially correct as Pynchon’s counter-spaces emerge. See Luc Sante, “Inside the Time Machine,” New York Review of Books 54, no. 1 (2007). 84 Pynchon, Against the Day, 554. 85 Ibid. 86 Ibid. 81 82

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thousands, the breath you took for granted become corrosive and death giving.’”87 His reality is truly hellish, stuck as he is in the “‘Halls of Night [. . .] cursed to return, and return.’”88 Thorn’s world is cast as hell, in which time is infinite and a torturous eternal punishment. The Trespassers’ are refugees seeking relief from eternity. Blundell realizes that time travel doesn’t require an awe-inspiring machine, but is rather a feature of the world of the novel: Miles understood that there had been no miracle, no brilliant technical coup, in fact no “time travel” at all—that the presence in this world of Thorn and his people had been owing to some chance blundering upon a shortcut through unknown topographies of Time, enabled [. . .] by whatever terrible singularity in the smooth flow of Time had opened to them.89

There are an infinite number of possible counter-worlds in Against the Day, only a few of which intersect with the primary world of the novel. The Trespassers’ world is infernal, a counter-hell, whether of divine provenance or created by the human catastrophe of the European war, which looms as a malevolent threat throughout the remainder of the novel. As the Chums drift away from their umbrella organization and begin their flight “toward grace,” they are presented with one final choice, the opportunity to align themselves with the heavenly or the hellish.90 This choice is manifested in their ability to access various counter-worlds through flight, the various altitudes they achieve dictating the worlds open to them. Pynchon writes: Chick Counterfly thought back to his first days aboard the Inconvenience, and Randolph’s dark admonition that going up would be like going north, and his own surmise that one could climb high enough to descend to the surface of another planet. Or, as the commander had put it then, “Another ‘surface,’ but an earthly one . . . all too earthly.”91

Miles Blundell has come to this recognition much earlier, recognizing the Chums’ “‘flight into the next dimension.’”92 Their airship, the Inconvenience ushers the Chums’ into manipulation of four dimensions, not three. Counterfly’s revelation is more nuanced, as Pynchon details: The corollary, Chick had worked out long ago, being that each star and planet we see in the Sky is but the reflection of our single Earth along a different Minkowskian space-time track. Travel to other worlds is therefore travel to alternate versions of 89 90 91 92 87 88

Ibid. Ibid., 555. Ibid. Ibid., 1085. Ibid., 1020. Ibid., 427.


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the same Earth. And if going up is like going north, with the common variable being cold, the analogous direction in Time, by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, ought to be from past to future, in the direction of increasing entropy.93

Pynchon confirms the multiplicity of counter-worlds of Against the Day, establishing the existence of counter-earths, counter-heavens, and counter-hells all existing simultaneously. If the Chums can access counter-heavens and counter-hells through either flying high or flying low, then the significance of the Chums’ journey into the “Telluric Interior” of the Earth is notable. This journey involves a complex skyfaring maneuver, in which the Inconvenience is manhandled into a tunnel pierced through the center of the earth, allowing quick and hopefully safe passage through to the other side. This “Telluric” passage appears an accessway to the infernal, especially considering the specific earthly connotations derived from the etymology of “telluric.”94 Further, this earthly passage draws the Chums “into some vortex inside the planet,” an allusion that is unavoidable to read as a reference to Dante’s construction of the Inferno as it has been manifested throughout the novel.95 By the end of Against the Day the proliferation of counter-worlds is irrefutable, and illustrates Pynchon’s manipulation of space and time, at the heart of which is the novel’s obsession with time, both as it drives the narrative and the playful array of narrative conceits the novel contains.

Mathematics To analyze the huge number of mathematical allusions and references Pynchon includes in Against the Day is an intimidating task. Throughout the following section I will analyze Pynchon’s inclusion of various mathematical concepts as a process of producing analogy: rather than focus exclusively on the specific mathematical concept in question, my method will extrapolate philosophical or theoretical analogies that interconnect with the thematic concerns discussed in previous sections of this chapter.96 The first of these mathematical analogies is one Pynchon pursues regularly in Against the Day. Throughout the novel Pynchon returns to the competing concepts of Minkowskian and Einsteinian space-time. These systems both posit manipulations of time that provide insight into the conceptualization of temporality within the novel. It must be noted that Pynchon’s thematization of these ideas is far wider than the focus of my work, especially in the interaction between time and space in the mathematical and physical concept of space-time. As such, I focus only on the elements of the novel which shed light on my previous analysis of time. 95 96 93 94

Ibid., 1020. Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. Pynchon, Against the Day, 115. This is the same approach suggested by Donald Koehler, who focuses on Pynchon’s “mathematical metaphors,” and similar to the methodology proposed by Stark. See Donald Koehler, “Mathematics and Literature,” Mathematics Magazine 55, no. 2 (1982): 69–74.

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I will begin by returning to the image of hell and its mirror image of purgatory that I identified as being present in the New York section of Against the Day. I argued that the presence of the Dantean “propitiatory arch” erected in New York after the prochronistic representation of the city engulfed by disaster posits hell as existing on earth in the world of the novel. Further, my analysis of counter-worlds populating the novel showed that Pynchon includes a number of infernal counter-worlds that exist separately from the hell created in downtown New York. We will also recall that Hunter Penhallow’s experience in extricating himself from fire-ravaged New York required the assistance of a “futuristic conveyance” and that his experience and the resultant moment of disorientation paralleled Dante’s experience as he was extracted by Virgil from Cocytus as it did the Chums’ experience of time travel. There is another link between these narratives that emerges out of Pynchon’s reference to Minkowski and Einstein’s mathematical theorizations of the universe. Einstein is almost entirely absent from Against the Day, being referred to only when a list of the figures to attend the First International Conference on Time Travel is provided.97 In contrast, Minkowski is referred to a number of times: in these moments Pynchon allows his readers insight into the mathematical issues that interrelate with the novel’s temporal focus. Perhaps the most insightful reference to Minkowski that Pynchon provides is when Merle Rideout and Roswell Bounce attend a lecture given by Minkowski on “Space and Time.”98 After all the attendees have left the lecture theatre, Rideout and Bounce remain behind, examining the mathematical formulas Minkowski had written on the blackboard during his lecture. Pynchon writes, presenting Merle and Roswell’s musings on the topic: “Three times ten to the fifth kilometres,” Roswell read, “equals the square root of minus one seconds. That’s if you want that other expression over there to be symmetrical in all four dimensions.” [. . .] “Well, it looks like we’ve got a very large, say, astronomical distance there, set equal to an imaginary unit of time.”99

In Pynchon’s representation of Minkowski’s mathematics, time is represented by the “square root of minus one seconds,” literary longhand for stating that time is imaginary (the square root of minus one being the emblematic imaginary number). In Pynchon’s reference to imaginary time, he elucidates the major development of both Minkowskian and Einsteinian space-time, which is to rigorously establish that time can no longer be absolute, but is always relative. As we have seen above, in relation to Dally Rideout and Kit Traverse’s journey on the Stupendica, and will be further analyzed in Chapter 7, Pynchon is at pains to establish the relativity of time in his world, with Dally Rideout (Merle’s daughter), Hunter Penhallow, and Kit Traverse, emerging into three separate See Pynchon, Against the Day, 412. Ibid., 458. 99 Ibid. (Pynchon’s emphasis). 97 98


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times, Penhallow having fought in a European war (the past), Traverse fighting in the European war (the present), and the war still to come for Dally (the future). In this sense, the entire narrative of Against the Day functions in accord with the Minkowskian conception of time as imaginary. Intriguingly, this concept interrelates with the possible presence of counter-worlds, and specifically the presence of hell on earth. What has not yet emerged is a more literal allusion that Pynchon makes use of in relating Minkowskian and Einsteinian space-time to the presence of hell in New York and the world of Against the Day. Roger Penrose, in his seminal text The Road to Reality, presents a synthesis of mathematics as it pertains to time (part of a text that seeks to map out the entire mathematical system in relation to physical and mathematical laws and the way they govern the universe). Penrose makes very clear the implicit relationship between time and light that was ultimately solidified by Albert Einstein and Hermann Minkowski.100 The mathematical analogy that Pynchon alludes to is developed from the interaction between space and time, and the understanding that both time and space are no longer absolute, but relative. These ideas were first explored in the work of James Maxwell (of Maxwell’s demon fame, discussed in The Crying of Lot 49), who analyzed the movement of light through space as it related to electromagnetism. Light here stands in as a cipher for time, because the massive value of the speed of light allows it to be used as a constant, making the focus Maxwell’s analysis of space. These ideas are encapsulated in the image of a light cone, also known as a null cone, represented in Figure 6.1. What is immediately evident in the light cone is that it is the exact mathematical correlate of the shape of Dante’s hell, and its mirror image, purgatory. Even more pertinently, the light cone incorporates past, present, and future into the same image. The passage of the light event is indicated by the arrow, showing the passage of time from bottom to top. If we consider again Hunter Penhallow’s experience in escaping from New York transformed into hell, and my argument that his experience must be perceived as alluding to the similar experience that Dante and Virgil go through in their escape from hell, we can see that Pynchon, alluding both to Dante, and to mathematics, presents Penhallow’s movement as from past to future, pushing through the point of disorientation (in the mathematical imagery, the present), and into the future.101 Pynchon’s use of this mathematical concept allows us further insight into the reconceptualization of time which is the ultimate focus of the novel. The light cone image suggests that both Dante and Penhallow are fleeing from the past into the future: this explains Pynchon’s reference to the train-like “conveyance” that facilitates Penhallow’s escape from New York as “futuristic” because, exactly as for Dante, his escape is predicated on breaking through the vortical power of time, through past, and present, to emerge into the future. Another point of interest emerges, for the image of the light cone is also a pictorial representation of “space-time.” As Penrose sets it out, the application of the light cone as approximation for the space-time of the world can be understood in two Roger Penrose, The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 399–401. Cf. Bloomer, “Vertex and Vortex,” 39, 44–5.



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Figure 6.1  The Light Cone

ways, following Minkowski’s analysis or Einstein’s. In Minkowski’s understanding of the elements in operation, we can assume one general certainty: nothing in the world can accelerate to faster than the speed of light. This implies that although there may be an infinite number of possibilities in the movement from past to future (considering the multiple straight line paths that can be taken from the past light cone through the present and into the future light cone), only one possibility will ever take place.102 Minkowski’s preference for the primacy of the speed of light has one final, and crucial, effect. It produces the universal rejection of time as absolute and the movement toward a mathematical understanding of time as relative.103 This is the same relative time we see at play throughout Against the Day, especially in the multiple times operating simultaneously, most obvious in the three part experience of time discussed above, in which Hunter Penhallow represents the past, Kit Traverse the present, and Dally Rideout the future. Penrose, The Road to Reality, 407. Ibid., 407.

102 103


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It is Einstein’s response to the light cone and his conceptualization of space-time which moves us to very fertile, although intensely technical ground. As with Minkowski’s understanding of the light cone, multiple possibilities are admitted within the Einsteinian understanding of space-time. As Penrose writes: “things can get decidedly more elaborate when we examine the global causality structure of a complicated Einsteinian spacetime ε.”104 What can arise in utilizing Einstein’s approach are “closed timelike curves” that “admit the possibility of [.  .  .] time travel.”105 These “closed timelike curves,” predicated simultaneously on the relativity of time and space and the effects of gravity on these concepts, create conditions where the possibility of time travel within the world (and the world of Against the Day) appears possible, but also presents an image of time which depicts the eternal return of time, required in the hell-like spaces of the novel. As discussed above, Pynchon’s conceptualization of hell is contingent on the eternal return, infinite time being the major predicate for the existence of eternity within the novel. In Einstein’s theory of relative time space-time can become warped because of the gravitational effect of planetary bodies. This then, in contrast to Minkowski’s analysis, allows for a number of different contingent times to be set alongside each other, effectively multiplying the number of light cones to present the multiple possibilities of time. Rather than these “times” being presented as parallel to each other (which presents only the possibility of multiple absolute times), these light cones are set into a loop, presenting a completely alternative view of the passage of time.106 This Einsteinian loop produces an effect which is analogous to the eternal return. As we can see in Figure 6.1, the light in the light cone moves from the past, through the present, and into the future. In Einstein’s conception of relative time, the multiple light cones are placed into a loop, all facing the same way. As time progresses, the light from one light cone (already progressed from past, through present, to future) enters the next light cone and progresses from future back to the past. This is the process through which time travel is posited in Einstein’s system. If this process is then played out in full and a complete loop of time occurs, light traveling through a multiplicity of light cones, when the light event returns to the first light cone we have a scientific replication of the concept of eternal return posited by Deleuze. Pynchon’s allusion to Minkowski and Einstein illustrates the temporal complexity of Against the Day. The complex series of links between Pynchon’s hell in New York, physics, mathematics, and time shows the bewildering breadth of knowledge contained within the novel. It is not within the ambit of this book to explicate all of these concepts, nor is there space available. Even in my analysis of the links between time and mathematics, the brilliance of Against the Day and its authors’ mind is on display. Much more could be made of the relationship between space, time, and light (an additional concept particularly relevant to Einsteinian physics) within the novel but it is sufficient here to show the complexity of Pynchon’s conceptualization Ibid., 408. Ibid., 409 (Penrose’s emphasis). 106 See ibid., 408–9, and especially Fig. 17.18, 409. 104 105

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of temporality and its links to the prochronistic references to September 11 at the beginning of the novel. *  *  * Pynchon reifies mathematics in one intriguing scene in which Kit Traverse, Yashmeen Halfcourt, and Günther van Quassel (a disciple of Minkowski) visit a museum of mathematical discoveries known as the Museum der Monstrositäten, the Museum of Monstrosities. Pynchon links his characters with the concepts they embody: van Quassel exists in “his own ‘frame of reference’” his body and personality subject to various “time-discrepancies,” clearly reflective of Minkowski’s theorization of space-time.107 As the three approach the Museum, van Quassel offers the following comment, sounding more like one of Pynchon’s narrators than a character. The three are entering “‘An older sort of Germany [. . .]. Deeper.’”108 Ironically, the building is futuristic rather than from the past, constructed from a “black substance [.  .  .] not so much a known mineral as the residue of a nameless one, after light, through some undisclosed process, had been removed.”109 This structure is unique, as the narrator observes: “Now and then a load-bearing statue was visible in the form of an angel, wings, faces, and garments streamlined almost to pure geometry, and brandishing weapons somehow not yet decipherable, featuring electrodes and cooling fins and so forth.”110 It is as if the building reflects the futuristic potential of the mathematics of the time, described earlier in the novel as being 20 years advanced of normal human thought.111 The Museum der Monstrositäten represents the entirety of mathematics as it concerns Pynchon, and the scope of mathematical reference in Against the Day. The museum is “not so much a conventional museum as a strange underground temple, or counter-temple, dedicated to the current ‘Crisis’ in European mathematics.”112 In the short four-page section dedicated to the three’s experience within the Museum Pynchon mentions the mathematics of Clifford, Knipfel, Weierstrass, Frege, Russell, von Imbiss, Kovalevskaia, Pythagoras, Hilbert, Cantor, and Hamilton. The museum is a truly strange space, housing life-sized, and disturbingly real, dioramas of a number of crucial moments in the history of mathematics. These dioramas manipulate time and space in very peculiar ways, as Pynchon describes: According to the design philosophy of the day, between the observer at the heart of the panorama and the cylindrical wall on which the scene was projected, lay a zone of dual nature, wherein must be correctly arranged a number of “real objects” appropriate to the setting—chairs and desks, Doric columns whole and damaged—though these could not strictly be termed entirely real, rather part “real” and part “pictorial,” or let us say “fictional,” this assortment of hybrid objects being 109 110 111 112 107 108

Pynchon, Against the Day, 599. Ibid., 632. Ibid. Ibid. (Pynchon’s emphasis). See ibid., 330. Ibid., 632.


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designed to “gradually blend in” with distance until the curving wall and a final condition of pure image. “So,” Günther declared, “one is thrust into the Cantorian paradise of the Mengenlehre, with one rather sizable set of points in space being continuously replaced by another, smoothly losing their ‘reality’ as a function of radius. The observer curious enough to cross this space—were it not, it appears, forbidden—would be slowly removed from his four-dimensional environs and taken out into a timeless region. . . .”113

The space of the Museum’s dioramas moves from the verge of irreality to reality as the eye moves from the backdrop to those items at the front of the installation. Our interest is not the contingent reality of the items that make up the diorama, but the final narratorial comment, in which it is suggested that the individual who walks into the diorama will eventually move from the four-dimensional space of the real world, into a space outside of time. Once again, Pynchon points us to the possibility of counter-worlds, and this space may well be a portal to the other worlds discussed above. Günther’s interjection, however, emphasizes the mathematical basis of the excerpt. Cantor’s set theory (the Mengenlehre) was a revolutionary piece of mathematics that established finally the full possibilities of infinity. Cantor developed a mathematical understanding of infinity, and Pynchon utilizes this discovery as anticipating his theorization of time in the novel, in which time, especially infinite time (e.g. eternal punishment in hell), is manipulable. It is this same sense that is implied here. As the museum section concludes it is not only the spaces within the Museum that are analogous with the shifting nature of time within Against the Day, but the Museum itself. A disembodied voice rings out, informing the three that the Museum is closing: “‘Children [. . .]. The Museum is closing now. The next time you visit, it might not be exactly where it stands today.’”114 The disembodied voice explains that: the cornerstone of the building is not a cube but its four-dimensional analogy, a tesseract. Certain of the corridors lead to other times, times, moreover, you might wish too strongly to reclaim, and become lost in the perplexity of the attempt.115

The museum, finally, embodies a complex mathematical concept, the tesseract. A tesseract is a four-dimensional cube represented in three dimensions.116 The museum is reliant on time even more than it is on space to exist. Thus, the museum exists in the contingent time of the counter-worlds and is not located spatially, but is located solely in time. Pynchon utilizes these concepts to develop, and then to reinforce, what is primarily an analysis of temporality, as we shall see in the analysis of analogies of infinity and eternity that are present within the novel.

115 116 113 114

Ibid., 633–4 (Pynchon’s emphases). Ibid., 636. Ibid. See David Foster Wallace, Everything and More: A Compact History of ∞ (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003), 23.

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Infinity and eternity Much of Pynchon’s mathematical thinking in Against the Day is centered on assessing what the world would be like if different theories and concepts had been accepted by scientific world: a hypothetical historical excursus on what would have taken place if, to borrow from Gravity’s Rainbow, the other fork in the road had been taken. The emblematic debate of this sort is the Victorian clash between the Vectorists and the Quaternionists, representing their respective mathematical beliefs, Vectors and Quaternions. These competing systems are posited by Pynchon in the novel as various methods of mathematical notation, forms for mapping numbers algebraically and physically, and most crucially, as analogies for the mathematical consideration of strange manifestations of temporality. Strictly speaking the debate between the Quaternionists and the Vectorists represents a battle between the two systems over their effectiveness “as competing mathematical notations used in mathematical physics.”117 An exchange from the early stages of the novel illustrates how this mathematical debate (which remained controversial for 20 years) is manipulated by Pynchon into a specific consideration of mathematics’ interaction with the temporal. Pynchon presents the discussions of another shadowy group, this one known as “The Transnoctial Discussion Group,” discussing “The Nature of Expeditions.” Two professors, Blope and Rao, represent the Vectorist and Quaternionist views respectively. Pynchon writes: “Time moves on but one axis,” advised Dr. Blope, “past to future—the only turnings possible being turns of a hundred and eighty degrees. In the Quaternions, a ninety-degree direction would correspond to an additional axis whose unit is √-1. A turn through any other angle would require for its unit a complex number.” “Yet mappings in which a linear axis becomes curvilinear—functions of a complex variable such as w = ez, where a straight line in the z-plane maps to a circle in the w-plane,” said Dr. Rao, “do suggest the possibility of linear time becoming circular, and so achieving eternal return as simply, or should I say complexly, as that.”118

Blope’s initial objection is justifiable if intriguingly conventional. The Vectorists view time as linear, the “Christian time” of the early parts of the novel. He protests that to accede to the influence of the Quaternionists allows time to be reimagined. But time is not reimagined here as the “shamanic time” that is contrasted to linear time in other parts of Against the Day. Rather, a turn in time (facilitated through the inclusion of another axis representing imaginary numbers (signified by “√-1”)) is now possible at 90 degrees. As Pynchon emphasizes, this would require another axis, another dimension, Thomas Dechand, “Pynchon, Cohen, and the Crisis of Victorian Mathematics,” Modern Language Notes 122 (2007): 1181. 118 Pynchon, Against the Day, 132 (Pynchon’s emphasis). 117


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and results finally in another time. Further, the now multiple times are neither parallel or linear, but run off at right angles from the conventional linear time we apprehend in the physical world. It is instructive to observe that the Vectorist understanding of time and Blope’s shock at the Quaternionists’ manipulations of time, specifically meshes with the theorization of counter-worlds discussed, and especially in the Chums’ belief that to travel north or up, and south or down, was a method of accessing these multiple worlds. The theoretical mathematics of the novel is represented so as to conform to the spatial examples offered throughout. Of course, the Quaternionists do not accept the specific attacks of the Vectorists, and propose a different understanding of time and its application to the world. Rao’s response to Blope is presupposed on an entirely different apprehension of time. From the beginning of Rao’s statement, time is no longer considered as rigidly linear. Instead, time always has the possibility of curving. The curving of time proposed here would seem to be little development from linear time, except for the inclusion of what Rao calls the “w-plane.” The “w-plane” corresponds to the addition of a fourth axis into the mapping of numbers, the fourth axis of course adding a fourth dimension, implicitly including time in the application of numbers to space (conventionally represented by the first three dimensions, x, y, and z). What the Quaternionist view proposes is not the curving of time in three dimensions, a view which suggests a concept similar to a cyclical view of history and time, but, as Rao acknowledges, eternal return. Through all this, the analogous image of time proposed by the Quaternionists is not a circle, but rather the vortex, the same image of time Dante employs in his depiction of hell, and the same image that is crucial to Pynchon’s construction of time and hell throughout the novel. What the reader encounters in these discussions of the nature of time is a fictional analogy of what Deleuze identifies as the synthetic nature of time.119 Deleuze writes: “The synthetic relation of the moment to itself as present, past and future grounds it[s] relation to other moments.”120 And with a slightly different focus, he comments: “the moment must be simultaneously present and past, present and yet to come,”121 an observation that accords with the view of time as “future, past, and present [. . .] all together” that is proposed in the novel.122 The “moment” in Deleuze’s lexicon can be equated to “becoming” the concept opposed to “being.” What is at the root of all this discussion, for Deleuze, is an appropriate theorization of time. Deleuze’s image of time is the eternal return, and specifically the eternal return of “difference and its repetition.”123 This new iteration of the eternal return is precisely what we see proposed by the Quaternionists, and throughout Against the Day: a view of temporality which is multiple, and the possibility of multiple times and multiple worlds. Blope and Rao therefore actually have very similar understandings of time, and their argument

121 122 123 119 120

See Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, 43–5. Ibid., 45. Ibid., 44–5. Pynchon, Against the Day, 617. Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, 45.

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above provides an effective summary of time as it exists within Against the Day, with both Blope’s averred image of multiple times running off at angles from each other occurring simultaneously with Rao’s vision for a mathematically coherent explanation of eternal return. Blope and Rao’s disagreement is derived from a specific physical concept that illustrates the importance of time to the novel, but also emphasizes the way mathematical discussion within Against the Day serves as a series of analogies for the reconceptualization of temporality. Pynchon demarcates the discussion as emerging from real world issues. He writes: We learned once how to break horses and ride them for long distances, with oceangoing ships we left flat surfaces and went into Riemann space, we crossed solid land and deep seas, and colonized what we found [.  .  .]. Now we have taken to the first few wingbeats of what will allow us to begin colonizing the Sky. Somewhere in it, God dwells in His Heavenly City. How far into that unmapped wilderness shall we journey before we find Him? Will He withdraw before our advance, continue to withdraw into the Infinite? Will He send back to us divine Agents, to help, to deceive, to turn us away? Will we leave settlements in the Sky, along our invasion routes, or will we choose to be wanderers, striking camp each morning, content with nothing short of Zion? And what of colonizing additional dimensions beyond the third? Colonize Time? Why not?124

Vormance’s rousing speech incorporates a literary analogy for the four dimensions of mathematics that this conversation engenders, the confrontation between Blope and Rao discussed above. America’s plains, the world’s oceans, and the planet’s airspace are the earthly manifestations of the first three dimensions, the three dimensions that we physically occupy to this day. Of course, the far more intriguing comment is Vormance’s last, where he questions the possibility of inhabiting time. What is proposed is the embodiment of time, the same project that we can identify both in the mathematical analogies that Pynchon pursues throughout the novel and that are also the main focus of the narrative of Against the Day. In this sense the two competing levels of the passages discussed above, mathematical analysis and literary metaphors, illustrate the new conceptualization of time achieved within Against the Day, where time becomes a new frontier. While much of the impetus for this project can be identified in the historical events Pynchon develops his narrative from, the effect is a consideration of time as physical, not just in the sense of time existing, but rather that the mathematics Pynchon employs facilitates the creation of a new apprehension of time, the fundamental root of the novel. This argument is affirmed later in the novel, when Merle Rideout stumbles across Candlebrow University, home of the International Conferences on Time Travel. Here Vectorists and Quaternionists are working together, combining forces to reject Euclidean Pynchon, Against the Day, 131.



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conceptions of space for the vortical time of earlier in the novel. This new understanding of space proceeds, ironically, with time as its main focus. Pynchon writes: We thus enter the whirlwind. It becomes the very essence of refashioned life, providing the axes to which everything will be referred. Time no longer “passes,” with a linear velocity, but “returns,” with an angular one.125

These comments continue on from an earlier lecture given by an unidentifiable professor, who argues that time as it is posited here, as a nonlinear manifestation of eternal return, being the eternal return of difference, is predicated on the vortical spinning of the earth and its analogy in the “classic prairie ‘twister.’”126 As with other incidents of Pynchon’s use of mathematics the reader is provided with a natural example of the mathematical concept in application, now widened from the vortices of hell, to vortices originating on earth as well. The “angular” time that Pynchon espouses then accords with Deleuze’s concept of the eternal return and the positing of alternate “times” that function at angles to the main linear time of the world. Although the Quaternionists are finally unsuccessful in their battle with the Vectorists, Pynchon’s novel provides a sometimes wistful look at what might have been if the opposite had taken place: the same project he undertakes with a number of other historical events, and which motivates the contrary history of the novel. The possibilities of the Quaternion movement are seductive, as Pynchon writes: Actually Quaternions failed because they perverted what the Vectorists thought they knew of God’s intention—that space be simple, three-dimensional, and real, and if there must be a fourth term, an imaginary, that it can be assigned to Time. But Quaternions came in and turned that all end for end, defining the axes of space as imaginary and leaving Time to be the real term, and a scalar as well—simply inadmissible.127

The view proposed here, that of an unidentified, but we can be sure, despairing, Quaternionist, fits neatly with the narrative of Against the Day, in which the historical accuracies of the text favor a different view of time to that which is now commonly accepted. Pynchon has adopted a theory of time very similar to that of the Quaternionists, in which the one concrete factor of the world is time, in all its manipulability, and that space is contingent on time. As we have seen in the discussion above, this conceptualization of time works not only with the proposition of counter-worlds, and counter-times, but also with bilocation and time travel, as well as the transplantation of events from disparate times, manifested in the novel through both prochronism and parachronism.

Ibid., 453. Ibid., 452. 127 Ibid., 534 (Pynchon’s emphasis). 125 126

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The final sequence of mathematical allusions I will examine is Pynchon’s discussion of transfinite mathematics, and specifically the analogies developed from the work of Cantor and Minkowski.128 Much of the groundbreaking work on transfinite mathematics took place during the period in which Against the Day is set. At its base, transfinite mathematics seeks to quantify the infinite: it is no surprise then that Pynchon identifies the importance of these concepts to his work, considering the importance he identifies in the relationship between the infinite and the eternal. Pynchon’s explication of the transfinite is primarily accomplished within the confines of Göttingen, a university town that functions as a cipher for the investigation of infinity: an investigation fundamentally controversial. The controversy is derived from the debate over the existence of transfinite numbers, and is exemplified by a clash between Kronecker and Cantor. Kronecker, representing mathematical constructivism, argues that the only numbers that “exist” are the positive integers (1, 2, 3, 4, .  .  ., n, n + 1,) and that all other “numbers” are mathematical constructs. As such, Kronecker rejects Cantor’s work in expanding both finite numbers and the transfinite.129 Pynchon manifests this unrest upon the entire town of Göttingen, describing how: “Fundamentalist Kroneckerites had been known to descend on Göttingen in periodic raids, from which not all of them returned.”130 Pynchon introduces the reader to the complexities of the transfinite through Cantor’s continuum, an expansive widening of the potentialities of numbers. Cantor’s early work is encapsulated in the development (but not really the discovery) of the fact that between 0 and 1 on a number line there is an infinity of possible points.131 Pynchon’s inclusion of Cantor at this stage is short, but nonetheless significant. He writes: “Kronecker did not believe in pi, or the square root of minus one—” “He did not even believe in the square root of plus two,” said Humfried. “Against this, Cantor with his Kontinuum, professing an equally strong belief in just those regions, infinitely divisible, which lie between the whole numbers so demanding of all of Kronecker’s devotion.”132

Cantor’s belief and work on irrational numbers and what lies between zero and one is analogously similar to the possibility of counter-worlds discussed above. While the disagreement between Cantor and Kronecker is emblematic, it is the work that is These mathematicians, and the possibilities of infinity in mathematics is the focus of David Foster Wallace’s Everything and More: A Compact History of ∞, published in 2003. Foster Wallace’s position as the inheritor of a Pynchonian encyclopedism is exciting, considering the similar interests the two display, albeit communicated in different styles; Pynchon in Against the Day and Foster Wallace in his self-styled “pamphlet.” The Harry Ransom Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin holds extensive correspondence between DeLillo and Foster Wallace: considering the critical and artistic affinities between Pynchon and Foster Wallace it is tempting to hypothesize correspondence between the two on a subject such as this. The thematic congruity between the two might be thought of as evidence of more than influence. 129 See Wallace, Everything and More, 219–27, and especially nn. 36 and 37. 130 Pynchon, Against the Day, 593. 131 n.b. the similarities with Zeno’s paradoxes discussed above. 132 Pynchon, Against the Day, 593 (Pynchon’s emphases). 128


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done by utilizing Cantor’s reconceptualization of numbers that is insightful for Against the Day. The conversation quoted above continues: But out here in the four-dimensional space-and-time of Dr. Minkowski, inside the tiniest “interval,” as small as you care to make it, within each tiny hypervolume of Kontinuum—there likewise must be always hidden an infinite number of other points—and if we define a “world” as a very large and finite set of points, then there must be worlds. Universes!133

Pynchon harnesses Minkowski’s extrapolation of Cantor’s work. Minkowski proposed the development of Cantor’s ideas from two dimensions into three. Thus rather than the number line, and an infinite number of points between zero and one, Minkowski’s conception of these ideas in three dimensions establishes the possibility of infinity being able to be identified within the smallest portions of space. The conclusion is obvious and is spelt out by Pynchon with Humfried’s exclamation that there must be universes encapsulated within these tiny theoretical sections of space, establishing the plausibility of counter-worlds and counter-times, just as it effects bilocation and time travel. Kit Traverse happens upon Yashmeen Halfcourt, and her response to his needling indicates the importance of mathematics and its application to the concepts central to the novel. Pynchon writes: There is a crisis out there [. . .]. And Göttingen is no more exempt than it was in Riemann’s day, in the war with Prussia. The political crisis in Europe maps onto the crisis in mathematics. Weierstrass functions, Cantor’s continuum, Russell’s equally inexhaustible capacity for mischief—once, among nations, as in chess, suicide was illegal. Once, among mathematicians, “the infinite” was all but a conjuror’s convenience. The connections lie there, Kit—hidden and poisonous. Those of us who creep among them do so at our peril.134

Pynchon emphasizes the broad scope he sees in these mathematical concepts: they not only encapsulate the concern with time that is crucial to the novel as a whole, but they also speak to the series of crises that are at the heart of both the narrative and the conceptual focus of Against the Day. The mathematical narratives are not included for the idiosyncratic fascination they produce, but because they are analogous to the other concerns of the novel, including the primary focus of a reconceptualization of temporality, achieved in mathematics by the reconsideration of infinity, and the concomitant retheorization of eternity. My purpose in examining the mathematical narratives of Against the Day has not been to explain each reference throughout the text, but rather to illustrate how the general mathematical narratives of the novel produce meaning especially in relation

Ibid., 594. Ibid.

133 134

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to the temporal focus of the novel. It is useful to point out an exchange between Kit Traverse and Scarsdale Vibe early in the novel, in which Traverse pleads to be allowed to pursue mathematics in Göttingen. Vibe is skeptical, assuming that mathematics cannot be useful. Kit cannot be dissuaded, arguing that “‘the real world, the substantial world of affairs, possessing greater inertia, takes a while to catch up.’”135 Indeed, Kit believes the mathematical discoveries taking place belong, properly, 20 years in the future. It is then the dueling pressures of prochronism and parachronism that are enticing within the mathematical sections of Against the Day: Pynchon analyzes time through Victorian mathematics, said to be ahead of time, while also developing a new conceptualization of time itself appropriate to the world after September 11. Indeed, the possibility of accessing the future is addressed by Pynchon in describing Ganeshi Rao, the Quaternionist discussed above, whose avowed aim is the “seeking of a gateway to the Ulterior.”136 The “ulterior” here is not only the hidden, but, precisely, the future. Fittingly, Pynchon describes Rao’s method for achieving his aim as “simply finding silence and allowing Mathematics and History to proceed as they would.”137 Although this is not precisely the course of the novel, it approximates Pynchon’s vision of an alternate history that maps out worldly possibilities and the results if certain events had happened to pass.

Conclusion Ryder Thorn, the Trespassers’ representative, and the one character from what approximates our present, observes that: “‘all investigations of Time, however sophisticated or abstract, have at their true base the human fear of mortality.’”138 In this observation Pynchon reorients the entire novel, returning the focus to the short early section in which the September 11 attacks, one hundred years in the future, impinge upon the narrative of the novel. The dueling temporalities of the novel are reemphasized in Henry Veggian’s formulation: Against the Day arrives from an indeterminate time to challenge these forces that compete to determine the future—that is to say, the present—as if this were the intention announced with the novel’s title.139

The brutality of those attacks, and the effect they have had not only on New York and America but on the entire world, reflects the ultimate work of Pynchon in this novel. The September 11 attacks push Pynchon, along with DeLillo, and indeed many others, into reconsidering time: not only time as a defining characteristic of mortality, but time 137 138 139 135 136

Ibid., 330. Ibid., 130. Ibid. Ibid., 553. Henry Veggian, “Thomas Pynchon Against the Day,” Boundary 2 35, no. 1 (2008): 207.


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in all its literal manifestations and figurative abstractions. Against the Day’s analysis of time speaks to the paradigmatic effect of those events in 2001, and the consistent focus on temporality Pynchon exhibits in this work illustrates the importance that he identifies within those events, but also in this novel as well. Pynchon does not propose an entirely new understanding of temporality in Against the Day, but considers the possibilities of what the world would look like if “certain hidden geometries of History” had shaped the world in a slightly different way.140

Pynchon, Against the Day, 373.



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Introduction This chapter examines the influence of the visual arts in a short section of Against the Day which takes place in Venice. In this section, Dally Rideout, fresh from her first encounter with her mother since childhood, builds a strong friendship with Hunter Penhallow. Penhallow is now living in Venice working as a painter after his traumatic escape from New York in the moments before the city was consumed by fire, an event which I have argued in the previous chapter should be interpreted as a prochronistic reference to the September 11 attacks on the United States of 2001. Penhallow is also struggling with his recent participation in the European war, attempting to understand how his experiences in that conflict seem to have occurred outside the time he now occupies. Rideout and Penhallow return repeatedly in conversation to the purpose of art, a discussion furthered by their interaction with Andrea Tancredi, an anarchist artist, who sees his work as related to the Futurists, Filippo Marinetti’s avant-garde artistic movement, which first emerged in Italy in 1909.1 Pynchon’s references to Futurist ideology and the implicit allusion to the work of Henri Bergson, who was a strong influence on the Futurists, provides a means for analyzing the temporal experiences of Penhallow, who occupies multiple times. Pynchon’s futurist narrative can then be extrapolated out to analyze the temporal focus of the novel as a whole, allowing the reader to understand the means through which Pynchon develops his complex analysis of time in Against the Day.2 Before engaging with futurism specifically, Pynchon emphasizes the artistic importance of Venice, reiterating the city’s influence on the arts from the Renaissance through to the avant-garde movements emerging during the period in which the novel is set. Venice is not, however, static. This is a city admired for its quality of light, but a city that is not always light: a city known for its contradictions and the possibility of In a sense, Pynchon’s allusion to art here parallels Oedipa Maas’ encounter with the Remedios Varo triptych in The Crying of Lot 49. See Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (London: Vintage, 2000 [1969]), 21. 2 For information on Bergson’s influence on Futurism see Sylvia Martin, Futurism (Cologne: Taschen, 2006), 14. 1


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violence hidden behind an artistic façade. Penhallow points this out to Dally Rideout the first time they meet: You’ve seen the old paintings. This has always been a town for seeing angels in. The battle in heaven didn’t end when Lucifer was banished to Hell. It kept going, it’s still going.3

The reference to Hell and Lucifer is intriguing, illustrating the regularity of reference throughout the novel. My analysis of references to Dante’s Commedia shows that Dante’s poem is one of the crucial allusions underpinning the structure of Against the Day.4 Intertwined with the allusion to the eternal diabolical struggle is an analysis of the quality of light which reputedly inspires so many painters in Venice. The symbolic battle between good and evil has its artistic corollary in the renaissance concept of Chiaroscuro, one that Penhallow spells out specifically only a handful of pages later.5 Chiaroscuro is a technique combining light and dark elements into the same work so as to emphasize the contrast between the two, and the quality of the light being portrayed (see Figure 7.1, Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ, a painting with a similar theme to Pynchon’s reference to Chiaroscuro). The terms used in the artistic mode

Figure 7.1  Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ Pynchon, Against the Day, 575. See Chapter 6. 5 See Pynchon, Against the Day, 582. 3 4

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(light and dark, etc.) show how Penhallow’s awareness of hell and heaven can be related to painting, creating an analogy between art and the power struggles of the novel. The Venetian section begins by emphasizing a series of dualities. The light and dark of Venice is the most obvious, incorporating the struggle between temptation and forbearance within Against the Day. The small part of Venice that Rideout and Penhallow inhabit, working and painting, serves as a model for Venice, and then synecdochically for the world of the novel. As Penhallow observes, this space is “self-repeating.”6 Penhallow’s situation is a complex one for Pynchon to establish, for the temporal confusion that he exhibits as to his exact experience in time is similarly disorienting for the reader. Pynchon describes Penhallow as: somehow fetched up here, demobilized from a war that nobody knew about, obscurely damaged, seeking refuge from time, safety behind the cloaks and masks and thousand-named mists of Venezia.7

Penhallow is seeking refuge from time, precisely because he doesn’t know where he really is located in time. The time he has experienced appears to him not to have occurred at this specific point in space, in Venice. The war that Penhallow has participated in is not known, and Rideout’s confusion when he confesses his situation is palpable. Pynchon notes their exchange: “There was a war? Where?” “Europe. Everywhere. But no one seems to know of it . . . here . . .” he hesitated, with a wary look—“yet.” “Why not? It’s so far away the news hasn’t reached here ‘yet’? [. . .]. Or it hasn’t happened ‘yet’?”8

The twisted temporality of Against the Day is illustrated in the final comments Rideout and Penhallow exchange. Their growing confusion in the adverb “yet” and its applicability to past, present, and future illustrates the immanent future is no longer present, let along imminent. Penhallow restlessly seeks assurance about time: his traumatic experiences leave him with the simple desire to solidify the concept—to make all time knowable—as we see reiterated in his comments after he confounds Rideout with the temporal relativity he has experienced: Political space has its neutral ground. But does Time? is there such a thing as the neutral hour? one that goes neither forward nor back? is that too much to hope?9 8 9 6 7

Ibid., 575. Ibid., 576. Ibid., 577 (Pynchon’s emphasis). Ibid. (Pynchon’s emphasis).


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Penhallow, since his devastating experience in New York, is obsessed with time, striving to understand it in all its complexity. The section under consideration sets out to solidify the reconceptualization of the temporal so crucial to Against the Day, and to draw together the disparate analyses of time present in the novel. As Dally Rideout and Hunter Penhallow draw closer, falling into a pseudoprofessional relationship, Rideout modeling for Penhallow while also helping him on his pitch to sell his paintings, Penhallow attempts to explicate the importance of Venice and its light to his painting and the art world in general. The example Penhallow uses is Tintoretto’s The Abduction of the Body of St. Mark from Alexandria. Rideout is shocked at the spirits that linger at the edges of the work, described by Pynchon as “ghostly witnesses, up far too late, forever fled indoors before an unholy offense.”10 Penhallow’s response to Rideout’s shock is telling, setting out not only an aesthetic ideal, but an analogous attitude that can be explained by his weird experiences with time. Pynchon writes: It’s as if these Venetian painters saw things we can’t see anymore [.  .  .]. A world of presences. Phantoms. History kept sweeping through, Napoleon, the Austrians, a hundred forms of bourgeois literalism, leading to its ultimate embodiment, the tourist—how beleaguered they must have felt. But stay in this town awhile, keep your senses open, reject nothing, and now and then you’ll see them.11

Penhallow’s delight in Tintoretto’s portrayal of the spirit world, signified by the swooping light-colored lines in the picture inflects the readers’ perception of the character; we delight in his sensitivity to Venice, to art, but also in his strange temporal predicament. Tintoretto represents the spirits that fearfully observe the unholy act are portrayed through light colors on a generally dark canvas. As with Figure 7.1, and Penhallow’s knowledge of Chiaroscuro, Pynchon relates the struggle between biblical good and evil with the light and dark of Renaissance art. Penhallow’s obsession with the light of Venice, albeit a common artistic conceit, suggests a means for Hunter to rise above his memories of war on two continents or perhaps to see vestiges of these experiences in the present. Later, he will switch from painting during the day to painting nocturnes, but he is still fascinated with light, even in the dark.12 Of course, the Tintoretto painting is important to Penhallow because he occupies the tenuous position of spirit throughout this section of Against the Day. He is captive to a temporality alternative to, or operating simultaneously with, the temporality he is subject to at other stages of the novel. Indeed, as he continues his analysis of The Abduction a few days later, the spirit seems to be his focus, despite his insistence he is discussing the body. Penhallow argues that The Abduction shows “‘another way to Ibid., 579. Ibid. 12 Ibid., 580. 10 11

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get past the body’” a concept repeated in Tancredi’s analysis of his own art, discussed below.13 Pynchon continues on with Hunter’s analysis: [. . .] not to deny the body—to reimagine it. Even [. . .] if it’s “really” just different kinds of greased mud smeared on cloth—to reimagine it as light.14

Pynchon theorizes painting as an exercise in the manipulation of light, a reconsideration that facilitates Penhallow’s growing understanding of the confusion of his position. Even in art, with the body made ephemeral time is still the crucial factor, for the body must be positioned in time. It is thus no wonder that what is fascinating for Hunter in The Abduction is precisely the spectral figures: those figures without a body who do not need to be bound by time, considering as we read above that they can still be encountered in Venice now, even with the influx of tourists and the commodification of the city. Penhallow’s veneration of Tintoretto’s work is motivated precisely by the analogous position he finds himself in; almost as if he is not so much incorporeal as atemporal. Hunter’s final analysis of The Abduction makes the link between art and time central, conceptualizing the subject as: more terrible—mortal, in pain, misshapen, even taken apart, broken down into geometrical surfaces, but each time somehow, when the process is working, gone beyond.. . .15

The breaking down of the body through art, calling to mind cubism among other abstract and avant-garde movements that Penhallow addresses, seeks to address not only space, but time as well, his fundamental concern. Art is reoriented to interact with, and analyze, time, a theme that plays out throughout the rest of this section of the novel. As Pynchon shifts from Renaissance theories of art to twentieth-century theories, we will see that the influence of time on artistic practice becomes more pronounced and reflects the concerns not only within this section of the novel, but of the novel as a whole. After Penhallow concludes his analysis of Tintoretto, the narrative focuses on his own art, and his switch to nocturnes. This change precipitates an alteration in Rideout’s thinking as well. As she accompanies Penhallow on his nightly sojourns, Rideout becomes more aware of the danger that exists hidden within the supposedly tourist-friendly spaces of Venice. Aside from “night predators,” who lay in wait for young people attempting to take advantage of their youth, sexually or otherwise, there is an even darker edge to the city.16 Rideout characterizes these manifestations of evil in exactly the same language that Hunter uses for his art: in terms of light and dark. Pynchon writes: Here in this ancient town progressively settling into a mask of itself, she began to look for episodes of counter-light, canalside gates into dank gloom, sotopòrteghi whose exits could not be seen, absent faces, missing lamps at the end of calli.17 16 17 13 14 15

Ibid., 579. Ibid. Ibid. (Pynchon’s emphasis). Ibid., 581. Ibid.


Terrorism and Temporality

For Rideout, in contrast to Penhallow, the city is populated predominantly by “counter-light”: darkness. The city is not entrancing for Dally, but menacing. Penhallow, painting nocturnes, can still see light: for Rideout there is no light at the end of a Venetian passageway (the sotopòrteghi), and even faces themselves don’t produce light, a direct contrast with the Chiaroscuro technique that intrigues Penhallow (note the light that emanates from the faces in Figure 7.1). Rideout slowly realizes that there is something of the infernal in her perception of Venice, reflected also in her reference to “counter-light,” utilizing a construction similar to what has been used elsewhere in the novel to posit the possibility of infernal “counter-worlds.” Pynchon writes: So there was revealed to her, night by night in ever more depressing clarity, a secret and tenebrous city, down into whose rat-infested labyrinths she witnessed children her age and younger being drawn, infected, corrupted, and too often made to vanish, like a coin or a card—just that interchangeably held in contempt by those who profited from the limitless appetite for young bodies that seemed to concentrate here from all over Europe and beyond.18

It is with this despairing state of mind that Dally views Venice. By opposing Rideout’s despair to Penhallow’s joy, Pynchon emphasizes the concept of the “counter” that he develops throughout the novel. In this section the reader is supplied with two oppositions: light and counter-light, and a more amorphous concept of Venice and counter-Venice; the positive and negative interpretations of the same thing. Penhallow sees no irony in his knowledge that the opposition between light and dark is exactly what entices so many people to Venice—it is the literal embodiment of Chiaroscuro—the combination of light and dark.19 Rideout, however, is unable to reconcile this opposition: It put her in a peculiar bind, her feelings for the city undiminished yet now with the element of fear that could not be wished aside, each night bringing new intelligence of evil waiting up the end of any little alleyway.20

Her emerging knowledge of the menacing side of Venice reemphasizes the concern that the possibility of a “counter-Venice” produces; the possibility of not only times, but spaces being manipulated by some unseen force. It is in this sense that Tintoretto’s The Abduction, so emblematic for Hunter, begins to influence Dally as well. The spiritual beings that proliferate the painting summarize the situation in Venice. Yet the beings at the edge of the frame of view in Dally’s perception of Venice are far more menacing than in Tintoretto’s work. Ibid. See ibid., 582. 20 Ibid. 18 19

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Rideout’s fear of the underbelly of Venice drives her to seek the guidance of Penhallow, who helps her into the care of “the seminotorious Principessa Spongiatosta.”21 Ensconced in the Principessa’s palazzo, Dally’s concern shifts from the unseen back to time and space. She is concerned by the appearance of Spongiatosta, who appears to exist outside of time. Pynchon’s description is intriguing as we read of “this bright-eyed dewdrop whom Time seemed not, or maybe in time’s case, never, to have touched.”22 The shift from “not” to “never” emphasizes the noncorporeality of Pynchon’s conception of time. This concern with the physical is mirrored in Rideout’s concern over the palazzo she now calls home. Her experiences are narrated thus: What intrigued Dally about the interior spaces at Ca’ Spongiatosta [.  .  .] were the rapid changes in scale, something like the almost theatrical expansion from comfortable, dark, human-size alleyways to the vast tracklessness and light of Piazza San Marco.23

The architecture of the palazzo mirrors Venice itself, incorporating not only furnished rooms, but waterways and bridges, as if the palazzo served as a miniature synthesis of the city. The Spongiatosta Palazzo confirms Penhallow’s description of Venice as the epitome of “the labyrinth principle.”24 Penhallow argues that a small area can, in effect, break out of its spatial boundaries by incorporating labyrinthine formations within formations, allowing the Spongiatosta Palazzo to become a “self-repeating microcosm.”25 The Principessa herself occupies a strange position not only in time but in space as well: There might in fact be more than one of the Princess—she seemed to be everywhere, and now and then Dally could swear her appearances were multiple and not consecutive.26

These strange manipulations of time and space serve as an introduction to Pynchon’s next theme, in which he examines the Futurist movement, emerging in Italy about the time this section is set. The Principessa appearing in “multiple” serves as an allusion to the concept of simultaneity, an idea crucial to the Futurists, and derived from the work of Henri Bergson, one of the preeminent thinkers of this time. As the Venetian section of Against the Day draws to a close, Penhallow and Rideout find themselves struck by the strange way that time operates in Venice, and are seeking answers to these problems. 23 24 25 26 21 22

Ibid. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid., 575. Ibid. Ibid., 583.

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Andrea Tancredi, anarchist Futurist Pynchon’s conclusion to the Venetian section of Against the Day sees the incorporation of a character not previously encountered in the novel. Andrea Tancredi is an anarchist and artist. Pynchon describes him in exacting detail: His name was Andrea Tancredi. Hunter knew him, had run into him around town at the fringes of Anarchist gatherings, in cafés at exhibitions of experimental painting. After having been to Paris and seen the works of Seurat and Signac, Tancredi had converted to Divisionism. He sympathized with Marinetti and those around him who were beginning to describe themselves as “Futurists,” but failed to share their attraction to the varieties of American brutalism.27

In this introduction, Pynchon establishes the exact aesthetic lineage of Tancredi, suggesting the importance of the artistic movements he addresses to the Venetian section as a whole. Pynchon first establishes the French avant-garde, post-Impressionist, influence on Tancredi, stating his specific painting style as divisionism, more widely known as pointillism (see Figure 7.2, Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, perhaps the most famous example of divisionism). Pynchon then establishes Tancredi as participating in the Futurist movement, established by Filippo Marinetti in Italy in 1909. The final artistic reference, to “American brutalism,” refers to the Futurist movement in architecture and urban design, which called for extensive

Figure 7.2  Seurat, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte Ibid., 584.


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urban development, generally focused on high towers and urban consolidation, and Tancredi’s rejection of this.28 The aesthetic Pynchon assigns to Tancredi is focused solely on the visual arts, and leaves aside some of the fascistic social policy that was an undoubted part of the Futurist movement. The Futurist movement was founded by Filippo Marinetti in 1909 with the publication, in Le Figaro, of a manifesto titled “The Founding and the Manifesto of Futurism,” referred to from here on as “The Manifesto of Futurism.” “The Manifesto of Futurism” sets out Marinetti’s idiosyncratic aesthetic, in which previous artistic movements are set aside in favor of a new movement of the moment. Futurism prescribed art as a radical process, and a process which sought to represent human experience in a way not attempted before. Marinetti combined ceaseless modernity, with an aestheticization of violence and war, to seek to “free this nation [Italy] from its fetid cancer of professors, archaeologists, tour guides and antiquarians.”29 In Marinetti’s description of the targets of his movement, we can see the applicability of this movement to Venice in Against the Day, a city that, as Pynchon reinforces a number of times, is beholden to the tourist.30 Violence is central to the Futurist movement. From the opening paragraphs of “The Manifesto of Futurism,” Marinetti makes the violent focus of his movement clear. He first argues for the destruction of mythology: At last mythology and the mystical ideal have been superseded. We are about to witness the birth of the Centaur, and soon we shall see the first Angels fly! . . . We have to shake the doors of life to test their hinges and bolts! . . . Let’s leave! Look! There, on the earth, the earliest dawn! Nothing can match the splendor of the sun’s red sword, skirmishing for the first time with our thousand-year-old shadows.31

Marinetti’s manifesto is not always strictly logical— so just as Futurism calls for the destruction of the “mystical ideal,” Marinetti also conjures up a new mythology—one that is, intriguingly, reliant on Dante’s Commedia. Futurism, however, “[does] not have an ideal Beloved who raised her sublime form all the way to the clouds” as Dante does, for Futurism is an almost entirely masculine movement.32 Aside from violence, the dominant concept of “The Manifesto of Futurism” is the perception of the world through time, and its emerging cognate, speed. Point four of Marinetti’s manifesto establishes the dominant concern for the Futurists: We affirm that the beauty of the world has been enriched by a new form of beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car with a hood that glistens with large pipes See Martin, Futurism, 15–16. Filippo Marinetti, “The Founding and the Manifesto of Futurism,” in Lawrence Rainey, Christine Poggi, and Laura Wittman, eds, Futurism: An Anthology (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009 [1909]), 52. Note also that Marinetti employs stylized ellipses in the same fashion as Pynchon. All original ellipses have been quoted as in the original. As throughout this text, authorial omissions when quoting from “The Manifesto of Futurism” are indicated by an ellipsis in square brackets “[. . .].” 30 See Pynchon, Against the Day, 582. 31 Marinetti, “The Founding and the Manifesto of Futurism,” 49. 32 Ibid., 50. 28 29


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resembling a serpent with explosive breath . . . a roaring automobile that rides on grape-shot—that is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.33

Marinetti argues that technological development, embodied in the emergence of the automobile, has created the possibilities for a new aesthetic, an aesthetic that takes its cues from speed and from the shift in apprehension of temporality that this new development in movement engenders. Marinetti’s argument has a similar focus to the works of George Steiner and Paul Virilio addressed in previous chapters. Futurism’s preference for this emerging aesthetic of speed as compared to the classical aesthetic figure of The Victory of Samothrace also implies a theoretical focus on the temporal rather than the spatial, another idea addressed in previous chapters, and one I will return to again in reference to the Venetian section of Against the Day. Marinetti reemphasizes the importance of the temporal in point eight of his manifesto. This time, however, he argues that futurism is moving beyond both the temporal and the spatial. He writes: We stand on the last promontory of the centuries! . . . Why should we look back over our shoulders, when we intend to breach the mysterious doors of the impossible? Time and space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, for we have already created velocity which is eternal and omnipresent.34

Speed is linked to time. In this iteration of the ideals of Futurism, however, the speed that Marinetti identifies in his movement actually destroys both time and space, rendering futurist art in the “absolute.” This concept, despite verging on the prosaic, focuses on ideas that elicited much debate in artistic and philosophical communities of the time. The primary concept is simultaneity, which Henri Bergson defines as: “the connecting link between [. . .] space and duration [. . .] the intersection of space and time.”35 Although Marinetti argues that time and space are destroyed in Futurism, they are actually drawn together. The concept of simultaneity is crucial both to Futurism and Against the Day, and I will return to the concept in greater depth below; showing how Pynchon mobilizes the concept of simultaneity through his inclusion and explication of Futurism. My summary of Futurism’s tenets has emphasized the violent nature of the movement: violence to past mythologies, violence to past aesthetics, violence to time and space. The final point that Marinetti makes in “The Manifesto of Futurism,” and one that pervades the entire movement, is of the more generalized violence of Futurism. Indeed Marinetti describes the manifesto as: “our manifesto of burning and overwhelming violence,” and a movement that is motivated by fire and destruction.36 As he observes in conclusion: “Art [. . .] can be nothing if not violence, cruelty, and injustice.”37 These final examples I have cited serve to emphasize my observation on the 36 37 33 34 35

Ibid., 51. Ibid. Bergson, Time and Free Will, 110. Marinetti, “The Founding and the Manifesto of Futurism,” 52. Ibid., 53.

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Futurist movement, that the Futurists derive a certain pleasure from the violent and the painful that alludes to the infernal. As noted above, Marinetti claims he has no Beatrice, and yet the infernal recurs again and again throughout the Futurist movement. In this sense, there is another allusive relationship between the Futurists and Pynchon’s use of the movement within his novel, and a relationship that illustrates the allusiveness of Against the Day, and the interconnectedness of the various conceptual and narrative strands of the text. Pynchon’s inclusion of Tancredi serves not simply as a cipher for the temporal concerns of Futurism. It is, in fact, Tancredi’s interaction with Hunter Penhallow that reveals the most intriguing of ideas. Dally Rideout and Penhallow are thrust into Tancredi’s company. They discuss the city, Penhallow claiming wistfully that he is in Venice “for the ghosts.”38 Tancredi’s response is dismissive, presumably equating ghosts with memories of the past. As we know, Penhallow’s experiences in time are more complex than this; he considers his experience in the European war, apparently interrupted and yet to occur in this part of the world, and even more pertinently, thinks back to his escape from New York City via some “futuristic” conveyance. It is this final incident that Pynchon emphasizes in the narrative between Hunter and Tancredi. He writes: Through God’s blind mercy, as he told it to Dally a few days later [.  .  .] after escapes from destruction and war in places he could no longer remember clearly, he had found asylum in Venice, only to happen one day upon these visions of Tancredi’s, and recognize the futuristic vehicle which had borne him to safety from the devastated City so long ago, and the subterranean counter-City it took him through, and the chill, comfortless faith in science and rationality that had kept all his fellow refugees then so steady in their flight.39

Penhallow is “lost” both in, and because of, time. Tancredi is a possible savior for Penhallow, simultaneously allowing Pynchon to analyze a series of temporal concepts related to Futurism. Indeed, in the excerpt above, there is an implication that the “futuristic vehicle” Hunter escaped from New York aboard is a time machine of some sort. These different manipulations of time provide the impetus for much of the novel. Fundamentally, however, what attracts Penhallow to Tancredi is his “visions,” that is, his art, and the way that Tancredi approaches time within his productions. Rideout is concerned by Penhallow’s revelations, and seeks an explanation in Tancredi’s work. The work she examines is titled Preliminary Studies toward an Infernal Machine, a work using the “palette of fire and explosion” echoing the violence that Marinetti calls for in “The Manifesto of Futurism.”40 It slowly dawns on Rideout that the work she is viewing is a theoretical representation of a time machine. Pynchon reinforces the idea, examined previously in Chapter 6, that constructing a time machine requires access to the infernal, and that time travel necessarily intersects with hell in some way. Pynchon, Against the Day, 585. Ibid. 40 Ibid. 38 39


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Initially, Tancredi is unforthcoming, not willing to confirm the link between the infernal and time travel. Penhallow describes the artist as an “‘infernal-machine specialist.’”41 The narrator informs us that “Tancredi showed a curious reluctance to speak of what the design might actually do. What chain of events could lead to the ‘effect.’”42 Despite Tancredi’s disinterest in explaining specifically the application or scope of his design, he is earnest about the seriousness of his hypothetical creation, as he explains: The term “infernal” is not applied lightly or even metaphorically. One must begin by accepting Hell—by understanding that Hell is real and that there move through this tidy surface world a silent army of operatives who have sworn allegiance to it as to a beloved homeland.43

Tancredi’s comment sheds light on the incidents throughout the novel in which Hell impinges upon the Earth. One of the best examples of this is Frank Traverse’s time in Telluride. Pynchon lets the reader in on the pun early, having Traverse imagine a “local lunatic” warning of the perils ahead in Telluride: “‘To-Hell-you-ride! Goin’ to-Hell-you-ride! Beware, ladies and gents! Inform your conductor! Warn the engineer! ain’t too late to turn back!’”44 Indeed, Pynchon returns again and again in the subsequent pages to the possibility of the infernal impinging on the Earth. Telluride is constantly inundated by the smell of “telluride ore, and tellurium compounds [. . .] believed here to rise by way of long-deserted drifts and stopes, from the everyday atmosphere of Hell itself.”45 Hell is not solely earthly, however. Traverse journeys to a mine called Little Hellkite, high in the mountains, in which the smell of telluride is even stronger, suggesting, especially when considering Pynchon’s distinctive enjoyment of suggestive names, that Hell may indeed populate the sky as well.46 All these observations of the incidence of Hell on Earth are of little consequence, however, without the issue of time being taken into account. Time is manipulable throughout Traverse’s stay in mining country: one incident is indicative of the shifts in temporality that abound when Hell is mentioned in Against the Day. Traverse, caught in a barroom brawl, hunkers down away from the confrontation, and encounters a sensation that suggests a shift in time. Others in the bar seem to hear memories from their past. For Traverse, however, the temporal shift is accompanied by a spatial shift. He is moved to “some distant geography where creatures as yet unknown thrashed about, howling affrightedly, in the dark.”47 A subtle allusion, no doubt (and almost exactly the same experience that Darby Suckling and Chick Counterfly experience when offered a ride in Dr Zoot’s time machine), but one that contains 43 44 45 46

Ibid., 586. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid., 281. Ibid., 282. See ibid., 297. This strange construction is discussed by Molloy in his “Escaping the Politics of the Irredeemable Earth.” 47 Pynchon, Against the Day, 293. 41 42

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sufficient reference to what we imagine as the “infernal” to reinforce the link between the infernal and time travel within Against the Day. For Tancredi the “silent army of operatives” are ever present but not readily identifiable to the reader. Despite the Traverse brothers’ desire to strike at Scarsdale Vibe (the only other time Tancredi appears in the novel), the threat from those aligned to Hell is shadowy. Pynchon, however, does set out an overarching aim for Tancredi, an aim that may well involve the “turning back of time.” He writes, in an exchange between Rideout and Tancredi: “But what of the died-again who have gone to Hell from a condition of ordinary death, imagining that the worst has happened and that nothing could now terrify them?” “You’re talking about an explosive device, vero?” “Not in Venice, never. Fire here would be suicidal insanity. I would not bring fire. But I would bring hell in a small bounded space.”48

Tancredi’s invocation of the “died-again” points to the jumbled temporality that exists, not only in the Venetian section, but throughout the novel. Tancredi’s final comment arguing that fire, the constitutive element of Dante’s Inferno, would not be appropriate in Venice suggests the parallels between Futurist theorizations of time and time travel and Hunter’s experience in the New York decimated by fire. While fire was appropriate for New York, the reader will also recall that twice Pynchon depicts a gate near the scene of the devastation, the same gate that marks the entrance to Hell in the Inferno. Thus while the fiery destruction of New York is related to the temporal, in the Venetian section we specifically encounter an anarchist attack on time: whether time machine or explosive device, time is Tancredi’s ultimate target. Tancredi’s final argument in his conversation with Dally Rideout is to make explicit the link between his infernal (time) machine, and painting, and the links between time travel and the Futurist movement that Pynchon is at pains to point out as crucial to the character. Fundamental to Tancredi’s artistic desire is the ability to represent different temporalities at the same time, what Henri Bergson, so crucial to Marinetti and the Futurists, termed simultaneity. We read: Some define Hell as the absence of God, and that is the least we may expect of the infernal machine—that the bourgeoisie be deprived of what most sustains them, their personal problem-solver sitting at his celestial bureau, correcting defects in the everyday world below. . . . But the finite space would rapidly expand. To reveal the Future, we must get around the inertia of paint. Paint wishes to remain as it is. We desire transformation. So this is not so much a painting as a dialectical argument.49 Ibid., 586. Ibid.

48 49


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The reader has the final argument of the Futurists revealed to them. Tancredi believes that his painting, and the Futurist movement, can perform prophecy, some form of temporal manipulation in which the future is revealed through the work of art. For Tancredi, this work of art is a theoretical proposal for a time machine; and a time machine that exists, as we know that Hunter was aboard this time machine in his escape from the fiery devastation of New York earlier in the novel. In this way, Tancredi’s argument for the dynamism of painting transfers also to any artistic practice, and suggests that Pynchon sees, in this novel, the ability to encapsulate many different temporalities, as has been discussed in this chapter and the previous.

Simultaneity and dynamism: Futurism and Bergson The two dominant concepts for the Futurists were those of dynamism and simultaneity, both of which are derived, in part, from the work of Henri Bergson. These two concepts define the Futurist aesthetic and establish the Futurists as unique in incorporating these concepts into what was primarily a visual movement. Simultaneity in the Futurist aesthetic involves the incorporation of different states of mind or different states of time, or both, within the work. The interpenetration of different states of mind or time suggests the possibility of representing multiple experiences in the one static work of art. The first Futurist art exhibition, presented in Paris in 1912, was accompanied by a catalogue titled “The Exhibitors to the Public”: in this text the authors, Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo, and Gino Severini begin the establishment of an artistic manifestation of Futurism and specifically linked their work to simultaneity. They write: In painting a person on a balcony, seen from inside the room, we do not limit the scene to what the square frame of the window renders visible; but we try to render the sum total of visual sensations which the person on the balcony has experienced; the sun-bathed throng in the street, the double row of houses which stretch to right and left, the beflowered balconies, etc. This implies the simultaneousness of the ambient, and therefore, the dislocation and dismemberment of objects, the scattering and fusion of details, freed from accepted logic, and independent from one another.50

The work that is referred to is Boccioni’s 1911 painting, The Street Enters the House (see Figure 7.3). Boccioni was primarily responsible for the drafting of the catalogue, and as such, we encounter the aesthetic ideal of the artist, applied to his own work of art. As we can see in The Street Enters the House, Boccioni’s painting does not accept the logic of the real world, but rather attempts to convey another logic, the logic of Giacomo Balla, Umberton Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo, and Gino Severini, “The Exhibitors to the Public,” in Lawrence Rainey, Christine Poggi, and Laura Wittman, eds, Futurism: An Anthology (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009 [1912]), 106.


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Figure 7.3  Boccioni, The Street Enters the House

sensation.51 It is in this sense that the Futurists aspire to represent simultaneity, for they can claim a more authentic representation of experience, freed from the strictures of conventional mimesis.52 Boccioni represents the interpenetration of multiple ideas and experiences into a singular representation. The Futurists’ interest in simultaneity is reinforced by their interest in dynamism, again a concept examined by Bergson. In the Futurist aesthetic, however, dynamism is conceived without the metaphysical overtones that occupy much of Bergson’s analysis of the concept. Dynamism, for the Futurists, represented the acknowledgment of the interconnectedness of actions and of time. Movement could not be thought of as a series of discrete motions but was rather a process, and one Cf. Kellman’s commentary on the relationship between Bergson and the Futurists and the contentious relationship between cinema and the novel. See Steven Kellman, “The Cinematic Novel: Tracking a Concept,” Modern Fiction Studies 33, no. 3 (1987): 472–3. 52 Mendilow proposes a similar concept in regard to the novel without, as far as I can ascertain, any knowledge of the Futurists. See A. A. Mendilow, Time and the Novel (London: Peter Nevill, 1952). 51


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which while broken down into parts through the human consideration of time, was nonetheless entire and whole in itself. The same Futurists that presented the first exhibition in Paris, and the same group that presented their Catalogue cited above, addressed their definition of dynamism in their “Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto.” In it they write: Indeed, all things move, all things run, all things are rapidly changing. A profile is never motionless before our eyes, but it constantly appears and disappears. On account of the persistency of an image upon the retina, moving objects constantly multiply themselves; their form changes like rapid vibrations, in their mad career. Thus a running horse has not four legs, but twenty, and their movements are triangular.53

The Futurist conception of dynamism is portrayed in Giacomo Balla’s Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (see Figure 7.4). In Balla’s work, we can see that not only is movement acknowledged as dynamic rather than discrete, but that the artistic portrayal of the series of movements which make up the dog’s walk also incorporates the concept of

Figure 7.4  Balla, Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo, Giacomo Balla, and Gino Severini, “Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto,” in Lawrence Rainey, Christine Poggi, and Laura Wittman, eds, Futurism: An Anthology (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009 [1910]), 64.


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simultaneity: in this work, the representation of a series of discrete moments of time, combined together and represented in the blur of the dog’s legs. For Andrea Tancredi, it is the simultaneity of time that is crucial for his work. It is through this concept, at the heart of the Futurist project that Pynchon reconceptualizes the Futurist movement. Consider Tancredi’s statement here to Rideout on the importance of time to his art: Of course it’s to do with Time [. . .] everything that we imagine is real, living and still, thought and hallucinated, is all on the way from being one thing to being another, from past to Future, the challenge to us is to show as much of the passage as we can, given the damnable stillness of paint.54

Tancredi’s analysis of time challenges the accepted linearity of temporality, and proposes an understanding of time similar to that proposed by Hastings Throyle earlier in Against the Day, who contrasts linear time with Shamanic time, which is “spread out not in a single dimension but over many, which all exist in a single, timeless instant.”55 Tancredi attempts to present in his art a synthesis of dynamism and simultaneity, illustrating his awareness of the temporality of the world. He points out that his chosen artistic medium is generally considered unsuitable for this project, but this is the challenge that motivated the Futurist painters examined above. And indeed, it is the same project that Pynchon pursues throughout Against the Day, establishing the possibility of portraying the simultaneity of different temporalities, and then pursuing this throughout the novel as consistent artistic practice. Tancredi’s aesthetic owes much to Henri Bergson’s revolutionary theorization of human experience. It appears as if Pynchon made use of Bergson’s Time and Free Will, first published in 1913, in preparing the Venetian section of Against the Day. Bergson’s statements on simultaneity especially seem to be a strong influence on the temporal aesthetic Pynchon’s Futurist avows. Bergson writes: When I follow with my eyes on the dial of a clock the movements of the hand which corresponds to the oscillations of the pendulum, I do not measure duration, as seems to be thought; I merely count simultaneities, which is very different. Outside of me, in space, there is never more than a single position of the hand and the pendulum, for nothing is left of the past positions.56

Bergson’s statement affirms the two primary claims that Tancredi makes: the first, that the mental and physical process of his art is specifically to aggregate a series of moments, of experiences: this is what Tancredi calls the “passage [. . .] of past to Future.” Secondly, Bergson reaffirms what Tancredi claims, but in a more objective way. Tancredi’s struggle against the “damnable stillness of paint” is the same issue that Bergson addresses when positing that outside the consciousness that establishes the Pynchon, Against the Day, 586 (Pynchon’s emphasis). Ibid., 143. 56 Bergson, Time and Free Will, 107–8. 54 55


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links between simultaneities time cannot be fused together. Each moment is discrete and does not relate to the next. Futurism seeks not to refute this point, but rather to attempt to represent the opposite of that possibility, that is, the subjective experience of the passage of time, including, it seems, the representation of the future. Tancredi comments again on his art, conceptualizing his practice: This is why [. . .] the energies of motion, the grammatical tyrannies of becoming, in divisionismo we discover how to break them apart into their component frequencies . . . we define a smallest picture element, a dot of color which becomes the basic unit of reality. . . .57

Tancredi’s use of divisionism, the layering of dots to build up color and image as seen in Seurat (referred to by Pynchon earlier in this section, see Figure 7.2), serves as an analogy to Bergson’s example of the watched second hand, or the watched pendulum. Each dot, in Tancredi’s Futurism, serves not only as color and image, but also as the representation of sensation, of time and experience. Thus a painting is not only constructed to convey visual experience but thought as well. In constructing Tancredi’s artistic practice in this way Pynchon indicates his knowledge of Bergson, who writes: [T]here is neither duration nor even succession in space [. . .] each of the so-called successive states of the external world exists alone; their multiplicity is real only for a consciousness that can first retain them and then set them side by side by externalising them in relation to one another.58

Tancredi’s divisionism is, then, extremely complicated. It incorporates the interpenetration of multiple times and sensations into the one work, the ultimate aim of Futurism. The final link, of course, is back to the experiences of Hunter Penhallow, caught in a temporal limbo between multiple temporalities: possibly having been rescued from disaster in New York by a time machine that now exists in the theoretical painting of Tancredi the anarchist Futurist. Bergson again lays light on the matter: If it retains them [the successive states of the external world], it is because these distinct states of the external world give rise to states of consciousness which permeate one another, imperceptibly organize themselves into a whole, and bind the past to the present by the very process of connexion. If it externalises them in relation to one another [.  .  .] it perceives them under the form of a discrete multiplicity, which amounts to setting them out in line, in the space in which each of them existed separately. The space employed for this purpose is just that which is called homogenous time.59 Pynchon, Against the Day, 586–7. Bergson, Time and Free Will, 120–1. 59 Ibid., 121. 57 58

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These are the conditions to which Penhallow’s life is subject. An awareness of his own temporal dislocation, and varied experiences in which the different temporalities of his life are strung out as a line before and after him. In Tancredi’s work, however, time, presented through simultaneity, regains some of its coherence, and Tancredi’s work approaches the experience of dislocation and relation that Penhallow’s life consists of. Finally, Bergson proposes a term that I believe fits well with Against the Day as a whole, “homogenous time.” In this sense, Against the Day can be seen as Pynchon’s rejection of simplistic conceptualizations of time, whether narrative or theoretical. Instead what he proposes is a radical recasting of temporality so that in his novel he can present different temporalities inhabiting each other, and strung out in Bergson’s analogical line. Against the Day adopts the theorizations of the Futurists and Bergson to present a unique theorization of time, and one that reacts to the concern with temporality evident after the September 11 attacks.

Conclusion What we have seen in the previous two chapters is two different approaches with which it is possible to access the complexity of Pynchon’s reconceptualization of time. Pynchon refers to a number of different concepts which all seek, at their base, to fundamentally critique the conventional, linear representation of time. In its place, the reader is left with a synthesis, a suspicious view of the way the world works. Against the Day is critically concerned with how events contribute to the unfolding of the future: the future, of course, moving very quickly to become the past, to become history. Considering my argument that the September 11, 2001 attacks are the motivating event for the production of this novel, it is entirely logical that Pynchon attempts to understand the ways in which time relates to these concepts. In this chapter, we have seen Pynchon’s consistent focus on parachronistic influences. What we must always keep in mind is that he is not only looking backwards despite his recourse to the past, and this is reinforced by his utilization of the Futurist movement, and reveals the dual temporal pressures that encapsulate this novel.


Inherent Vice and the Chronotope

Introduction Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon’s seventh novel, was published in 2009 hot on the heels of Against the Day. Inherent Vice appears doomed to play second fiddle, at least in the short term, as critics grapple with the complexity evident in Against the Day. In this chapter I will propose an interpretation of Inherent Vice which suggests that there is a certain coherence between the two. This coherence is manifested through both novels’ focus on time, although this focus is reiterated in Inherent Vice through a clearer structure, and a more coherent metaphorical approach to temporality. The reticence to delve into the world of Inherent Vice can perhaps be explained by some of the similarities between Inherent Vice and Pynchon’s 1969 novel, The Crying of Lot 49. Both are set on the west coast of the United States, shadowy organizations perpetrate Byzantine, and often incomprehensible, plots, and both retain a distinct whiff of the “medicinal” herb. Of course, Pynchon has previously dismissed The Crying of Lot 49, characterizing it is an amateurish effort in which he had “forgotten most of what I thought I’d learned up till then.”1 Considering the amount of critical material published on Lot 49 and its widespread use as an undergraduate teaching text, Pynchon’s pronouncement should strike us as a little severe. In any case, I wish to distinguish Inherent Vice from falling into a similar interpretive hole, and illustrate one means through which some sense of coherence can be developed from the novel. Inherent Vice constitutes the continuation of a project begun with Against the Day, a project focused on temporality and an investigation of how time can be used within the novel, and how time is perceived in the world. Inherent Vice emphasizes Pynchon’s continued interest in moments of temporal dislocation, when a character (or characters) suddenly find themselves perceiving time differently from our conventional understanding of time. Inherent Vice continues Pynchon’s representation of time as nonlinear and contingent. In this chapter, I will examine the construction of time within Inherent Vice, describing how time is immediately, and throughout the novel, posited as uncertain. Thomas Pynchon, “Introduction,” in Slow Learner (New York: Little, Brown, and Co., 1984), 22.



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This temporal uncertainty means that Pynchon communicates his approach to temporality through motifs: figures in the narrative that approximate, after Bakhtin, a chronotopic effect on the narrative. Finally, we will see that despite the competing temporal pressures of the novel and the uncertain temporality this envinces, at its core, Inherent Vice is a novel fundamentally concerned with history, and the way that events are perceived and can be understood from multitudinous perspectives.

Temporal oddities The opening pages of Inherent Vice establish Doc Sportello’s confused relationship to time. As Sportello encounters Shasta Fey, his one time squeeze and oft-desired love interest for the first time in a year, Pynchon orients the narrative as operating not only in the present, but simultaneously in the past as well. From the first sentence of the novel: “She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to” with Shasta “looking just like she swore she’d never look” the narration of Inherent Vice constitutes the present, but only as it is looped back through Doc’s memories of the past.2 This temporal loop is contingent on the fact that Doc himself narrates parts of the novel, and does this from an uncertain position in time, providing a perspective removed from the time of the novel. To add further complexity to the perception of time within Inherent Vice is the readers immediate understanding that, as well as the events of the novel being mediated through one of the character’s memories, these memories can be (and inevitably are) faulty. The uncertainty that is the foundation of Inherent Vice is reiterated in Fey’s first words to Sportello, attempting to grasp certainty in a world created specifically as uncertain. Pynchon writes: “That you, Shasta?” “Thinks he’s hallucinating.” “Just the new package I guess.”3

Sportello still occupies an uncertain position in the past, returning briefly to his memories of his desire for Fey,4 and her observations of his life and living arrangements, described by Pynchon as “everything that hadn’t changed.”5 In these opening paragraphs, Pynchon conceives the past and the present bleeding into each other, as the uncertainty of time within the novel manifests itself. This temporal uncertainty continues unimpeded throughout the novel (to which more below) and culminates in an image of harmony as the novel concludes, Sportello driving through the daily west coast fog, suddenly finding himself in a community 4 5 2 3

Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice (New York: Penguin Press, 2009), 1. Ibid. Ibid., 2. Ibid., 4.

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of drivers all banded together by their common need to be guided by the lights of the car in front of them. As the temporal uncertainty of Inherent Vice is resolved, this confusion is shifted to the spatial, with the narrator stating that “[t]he third dimension grew less and less reliable,” confirming the uncertainty that dominates this novel.6 The final image of the novel presents Sportello driving, perhaps into eternity: [M]aybe he’d have to just keep driving, down past Long Beach, down through Orange County, and San Diego, and across a border where nobody could tell anymore in the fog who was Mexican, who was Anglo, who was anybody. Then again, he might run out of gas before that happened, and have to leave the caravan, and pull over on the shoulder, and wait.7

In this final scene Sportello is finally allowed a conventional experience of time, and this ability to finally exist simply in the present constitutes the resolution of time within the novel. This freedom that Sportello enjoys is precisely also a freedom from his memories, which have constantly clouded his daily experiences. He no longer needs to constantly question the passing of time, instead allowed to wait “[f]or whatever would happen. For a forgotten joint to materialize in his pocket.”8 The freedom alluded to here does not, however, constitute the possibility of Sportello knowing the world. The joint that he is waiting for maintains the obfuscation of knowledge that is at the heart of the novel. Sportello’s faulty memories mean that the epistemological imperative in the novel always pushes us toward unknowability, just like despairing Oedipa Maas in The Crying of Lot 49.

“[T]he permanent smog he liked to think of as his memory”9 Throughout the majority of Inherent Vice, however, Doc Sportello cannot avoid his memories, a fate amplified by the faulty nature of his memories that mediate his experience of the world. Aside from his habitual cannabis use, Sportello also dabbles in various hallucinogenics, experiencing trips that compound within each other, his memories of previous trips accreting together and coloring his latest experience. One trip that Sportello experiences is proposed by Vehi and Sortilège, a couple who encourage and facilitate his experimentation. Sortilège is not only a facilitator of Sportello’s hallucinatory travails but also a fortune teller, able to perceive the impending. According to Sportello “[s]he had never been wrong that [he] knew about.”10 Sportello’s use of hallucinogens implies a desire to fix meaning: a desire that ironically returns only to make meaning more opaque than before. This trip, occurring during the middle stages of the novel allows Pynchon to ruminate on his twin textual focuses  9 10  6  7  8

Ibid., 367. Ibid., 369. Ibid. Ibid., 66. Ibid., 11.


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of memory and time. Sportello’s trip is immediately referred back to his previous experiences of LSD, and the memories he retains from these experiences. Pynchon writes: “At least it wasn’t quite as cosmic as the last trip this acid enthusiast had acted as travel agent for.”11 With Sportello operating as narrator and central character, his memories of past trips merge with the visceral experience he is undergoing in the present: his memories contribute to his experience, altering his apprehension of what would usually be a substance that facilitates temporal dislocation. In this instance, however, Pynchon develops the metaphor of merging times, of different moments bleeding into each other through the nexus of memory and the present. The description of the concluding moments of Sportello’s trip illustrate the conjunction of time and memory as it exists within Inherent Vice. Pynchon writes: Doc was left at this negligible altitude above the Pacific to find his way out of a vortex of corroded history, to evade somehow a future that seemed dark whichever way he turned. . . .12

Sportello’s trip functions in two ways, referring him back to the past because his experiences are constantly modulated by his memories: his memories of previous LSD trips seem to entirely cut him off from time. Contiguous with his inability to access the present is the emphasis on the future, Sportello’s trip including visions of Shasta, in the present, incommunicado and presumed kidnapped, and his knowledge that this requires action from him, affecting his future. Pynchon encapsulates these temporal complexities above, in which the past seems all-powerful, able to control Sportello. Ironically, it is the present and the future that will become more intimidating as the novel continues, although Pynchon’s representation of time reiterates the inability of Sportello to ever properly “inhabit” the present or the future because of the metaphorical bleeding together of different times, which requires all his experiences to be looped back through the past. In the final stages of the novel, the confused plots that Sportello has attempted to uncover appear to be explained, or at least to approach resolution. Shadowy figures provide Doc with photographs that explain what happened in his first period of lost consciousness (a result of “Doper’s Memory,” explored further below). Sportello’s analysis of these photographs allows Pynchon to expand further on how we understand time, and how it operates in Inherent Vice. He writes: It was as if whatever had happened had reached some kind of limit. It was like finding the gateway to the past unguarded, unforbidden because it didn’t have to be. Built into the act of return finally was this glittering mosaic of doubt. Something like what Sauncho’s colleagues in marine insurance liked to call inherent vice.13 Ibid., 108. Ibid., 110. Ibid., 351. Thomas LeClair’s short review focuses on this phrase and provides a slightly different interpretation. See Thomas LeClair, “For a Good Time, Read Tom,” American Book Review 31, no. 3 (2010): 25.

11 12 13

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As discussed above, the end product of the fallibility of Sportello’s memory, and past, present, and future as coherent and separate temporal categories, is the assertion of meaning as uncertain and unstable, the final evidence of the failure of a coherent epistemological system within the novel. In the following sections, I will analyze two motifs from the novel, the internet, and Sportello’s use of cannabis, as crucial to the construction and theorization of time in Inherent Vice. I will argue that Pynchon develops these motifs not from a single temporal point in the present, but also through reference to these motifs as they operated in the past, and how they will operate in the future. What is at stake is Pynchon’s coherent approach to time, which rejects a linear conception of time, and instead adopts the metaphor of times merging, or bleeding into each other, as an effective means for conceptualizing temporality as it exists in Inherent Vice, and in the world.

The internet Mikhail Bakhtin’s 1938 essay “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel: Notes toward a Historical Poetics” (referred to from here as “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope”) sets out to survey classical literature to understand the development of the novel through its treatment of time. Central to Bakhtin’s thesis is the concept of the chronotope, which he defines as “the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature.”14 Although the concept appears to unite the temporal and the spatial on the same level, reinforced by Bakhtin’s construction of “chronotope” which, he states, is “literally, ‘time space,’” the chronotope, and Bakhtin’s analysis of the development of the novel, privileges the consideration and representation of time over space, both in modern and classical modes.15 Indeed, Bakhtin observes that “literature’s primary mode of representation is temporal.”16 It is this final conclusion which I aim to emphasize in my reading of Bakhtin’s concept— that at the very base, the novel seeks to clarify man’s relationship to time—a conception of the novel that is absolutely in keeping with Pynchon’s oeuvre. “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope” sets out an understanding of time’s operation within the novel that identifies important concepts or motifs, and illustrates that it is these recurring motifs that are crucial to understanding the way in which time is engaged with in a specific work. My characterization of Bakhtin’s thesis specifically assumes that structural changes to society (in evidence both in the time in which Inherent Vice is set and when the novel was published) propel identifiable changes in the representation of time in the novel. The altered approach to temporality precipitated by a structural change in society is most effectively identified, by Bakhtin, in his brief Mikhail Bakhtin, “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel: Notes toward a Historical Poetics,” in Michael Holquist, ed., The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981),” 84. 15 Ibid. 16 Ibid., 146. 14


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analysis of Romantic poetry, and the change in the representation of time that he identifies in this movement, which he argues is caused by the rapid changes society underwent during the Industrial Revolution.17 Inherent Vice emerges from a critical time, in which the seismic cultural shifts that occurred in the 1960s can be clearly related to the shifts in society that have occurred in the decade after the September 11 attacks on the United States. Thus, just as Pynchon employs the metaphor of times merging in his treatment of temporality, so does the period of the novel’s production facilitate an ironic, and yet crucial, merging of time in its theorization and use within the novel.18 The definitive change to society of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is the development of what we now know as the internet. Unsurprisingly, Pynchon begins a theorization of the internet in Inherent Vice by including the recurring motif of what he calls the “ARPAnet” a primitive internet-type network.19 Pynchon’s “ARPAnet” is a representation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) operated by the US government and partner universities during the 1960s and 1970s, and the seminal example of many similar networks that contributed to the development of the internet as it exists today. Pynchon’s explication of his emerging internet motif is reliant, once again, on the metaphor of time as able to merge, or for multiple times to bleed into each other, developing out of this metaphorical application of time a complex conceptualization of temporality. Pynchon’s ARPAnet refers to a real-life network that existed during the narrative present of Inherent Vice. Pynchon is not, however, simply utilizing historical fact as emblematic of a change in perception of time as it existed in the 1960s. Simultaneously, the reader apprehends that the ARPAnet incorporates a prochronistic temporality, as Pynchon’s description of the network describes it in terms that present it as a system of the future, rather than the present. Pynchon details Doc’s conversation with his Aunt, Reet, who prophesizes the emergence of the internet in the future: “Someday,” she prophesised, “there will be computers for all of this, all you’ll have to do’s type in what you’re looking for, or even better just talk it in—like that HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey?—and it’ll be right back at you with more information than you’d ever want to know.”20

Despite the apparent “prophecy” that Reet delivers, the reader cannot simply interpret Pynchon’s ARPAnet as prochronistic. Because the novel is set in the 1960s, and the ARPANET existed in this same time period, there is also a parachronistic element to Pynchon’s development of the “emerging internet” motif. The irony with which the motif can be interpreted as both prochronistic and parachronistic is exemplified by the See ibid., 228. A number of critics have paired Pynchon and Bakhtin together, although none have done so, as far as I am aware, in relation to Inherent Vice. See Mendelson, “Encyclopedic Narrative,” 1274, and Theodore Kharpertian, A Hand to Turn the Time: The Menippean Satires of Thomas Pynchon (Cranbury: Associated University Presses, 1990), 15, 82–4. 19 Pynchon, Inherent Vice, 53. 20 Ibid., 6–7. 17 18

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parallel reference in Reet’s “prophecy” to Kubrick’s 1968 film, itself an example of the power of technological prophecy in the period Pynchon represents. Along with the parachronistic and prochronistic elements incorporated by Pynchon within his development of the emerging internet motif, we can also identify a further level in the motif ’s relation to temporality through the ARPAnet’s manipulation of time. It is this additional material that solidifies, while exemplifying, the function of the emerging internet as chronotopic within Inherent Vice. Sportello’s associate, Fritz, owns a computer that is connected into this primitive network, the main attraction of which is the manipulation of time it makes possible. Pynchon details a conversation between Sportello and Fritz: “[. . .] any excuse to feel like I’m surfin the wave of the future here, just got this new hire in, name of Sparky, has to call his mom if he’s gonna be late for supper, only guess what—we’re his trainees! he gets on this ARPAnet trip, and I swear it’s like acid, a whole ’nother strange world—time, space, all that shit.” “So when they gonna make it illegal, Fritz?” “What. Why would they do that?” “Remember how they outlawed acid soon as they found out it was a channel to somethin they didn’t want us to see? Why should information be any different?”21

The ARPAnet is characterized by its similarity to the hallucinogens that Sportello is so fond of, but also, the possibility the internet manifests in manipulating time. The manipulation of time that occurs via the internet utilizes the same metaphors in engaging with time as have been explored above. The ARPAnet allows the “wave of the future” to be accessible in the present, for Sparky to experience authority contrary to his age and experience, and for the experience of surfing the ARPAnet to be akin to the hallucinogenic experience. Pynchon invokes the creation and the merging of different worlds, indeed the merging of different times and spaces, theoretically realized in the time-focused world of the internet. The operational effectiveness of the ARPAnet grows as the narrative progresses, and reaches a point toward the end of Inherent Vice where the network itself begins to provide prophetic information, merging the future and the present through the information-processing ability of the internet. The prophetic ability of the internet, understandable also as the speeding up of time simulated by the quickening movement and accessibility of information is reiterated in Fritz’s ability to predict Shasta Fey’s reemergence before she makes contact with Sportello. The irony of the temporal focus of Pynchon’s emerging internet is that the ARPAnet takes up time, as Fritz realizes: “‘This ARPAnet trip is eating up my time.’”22 Pynchon conceptualizes his emerging internet chronotope in a similar way to his treatment of hallucinogenics. That is, despite these motifs existing in the linear time of the novel, the most important analysis of temporality is encapsulated in the concepts Ibid., 195 (Pynchon’s emphasis). Ibid., 258.

21 22


Terrorism and Temporality

signification themselves: thus the internet signifies the boundless time of this new form of information exchange. Through this technology, previous conceptualizations of time are superseded, and past, present, and future coalesce. Pynchon’s emerging internet chronotope presents us with time within the novel as dimensional but diffuse: past, present, and future exist all on one plane, different times bleeding into each other rather than the delineated linear conception of temporality. With the collapse of temporal distinctions as meaningful markers of time comes the collapse of memory. Pynchon’s exploration of the failures of Sportello’s memory facilitates the exploration of the interconnectedness of time and meaning, and the related operations they perform as chronotopic motifs within Inherent Vice.

Doper’s memory It’s just some local folks trippin, Never lasts that long, Good-time minutes go slippin, Next thing you know it’s dawn—23 (Lark, a Las Vegas chanteuse, singing as Doc watches on) Doc Sportello’s prodigious use of cannabis is the dominant motif of Inherent Vice.24 Throughout Inherent Vice Sportello’s predeliction for cannabis influences not only the narrative, but, more importantly, the conceptualization and perception of time throughout the novel. As detailed above, the narration of the novel means that the majority of the narrative is mediated through Sportello’s memory, a form of temporal looping in which different times bleed into each other. The problematization of time is at its most obvious here because Sportello’s memory is so fallible. Thus Doc’s consistent recourse to cannabis, and the faulty memory it produces is developed, by Pynchon, as a motif that becomes chronotopic, especially in the wide-ranging effect this motif has on time within the novel. The faults in Sportello’s memory that are attributed to “Doper’s Memory” are further explored in Pynchon’s metatextual comments on the genre of the novel.25 Indeed, Sportello perceives himself as a “hard-boiled dick,” although his police force nemesis, Bigfoot Bjornsen, believes that the conventional era is over and the novel is taking place in the “Glass House wave of the future.”26 Even in the contrast between (seemingly) infallible Bjornsen and fallible (by way of Doper’s Memory) Sportello, the contrast in attribution and perception of time is reinforced by Pynchon.

Ibid., 242. Of course, at least anecdotally, cannabis is (or was) also Pynchon’s biggest vice. See Andrew Gordon, “Smoking Dope with Thomas Pynchon,” in Ann Charters, ed., The Portable Sixties Reader (New York: Penguin, 2003), 228–38. 25 Pynchon, Inherent Vice, 281. 26 Ibid., 33. 23 24

Inherent Vice and the Chronotope


Bigfoot and Doc’s contrasting styles of detection reiterate a dominant strand of Pynchon criticism, especially in regard to The Crying of Lot 49. This analysis posits the concept of paranoia, so crucial in Lot 49, as indicative of an epistemological crisis. As Patrick O’Donnell argues, the fundamental conceit of the paranoid system is epistemological: that the world finally creates meaning.27 This concept is then routinely linked to Pynchon’s postmodernism, which constructs not only characters, but also readers as “detectives of sorts.”28 My concern is not, however, to reproduce the rhetorical focuses of previous Pynchon criticism, but rather to use this as a springboard into apprehending the epistemological heart of Inherent Vice. I thus wish to reserve judgment here on the status of Pynchon as postmodernist or not, and focus instead on some brief ideas developed by William Spanos. Writing on detective fiction in 1972, Spanos constructs the genre as a dominant epistemological method. What is produced in Lot 49, and in Inherent Vice, is instead the “anti-detective story.”29 I believe that Pynchon’s chronotopic motifs, and especially Sportello’s fallible (doper’s) memory epitomize the failed epistemology at the heart of the novel: an approach to the text which refers back to the 1960s, but also to the confusions of the our present at the same time. Pynchon develops these ideas further, manipulating the assurance of reality and the generic assumptions implicit in the crime fiction genre. In detailing a conversation between Fritz and Sportello undertaken after sharing a joint, the metaphor of temporal bleeding is reiterated through the bleeding of reality and fiction played out in the distinction between fiction and the world of the novel. We read: “Yeah, PIs should really stay away from drugs, all ’em alternate universes just make the job that much more complicated.” “But what about Sherlock Holmes, he did coke all the time, man, it helped him solve cases.” “Yeah but he . . . was not real?” “What. Sherlock Holmes was—” “He’s a made-up character in a bunch of stories, Doc.” “Wh—Naw. No, he’s real. He lives at this real address in London. Well, maybe not anymore, it was years ago, he has to be dead by now.”30

Sportello is, in opposition to the generic archetype, defined not by his assurance that he will solve the mystery, but rather by his confusion at the shadowy forces that populate the narrative, and thus defined by his inability to come to a coherent explanation for the way the plot plays out. It is ultimately Sportello’s reliance on cannabis that places

Patrick O’Donnell, “Engendering Paranoia in Contemporary Narrative,” Boundary 2 19, no. 1 (1992): 188. 28 Jerry Flieger, “Postmodern Perspective: The Paranoid Eye,” New Literary History 28, no. 1 (1997): 90. 29 William Spanos, “The Detective and the Boundary: Some Notes on the Postmodern Literary Imagination,” Boundary 2 1, no. 1 (1972): 155–6. 30 Pynchon, Inherent Vice, 96. 27


Terrorism and Temporality

Pynchon’s detective character outside conventional detective archetypes, and most crucially outside of conventional time within the genre.31 Indeed, Sportello exists not only outside conventional time in Inherent Vice, but, on occasion, outside time itself. It is his inability to explain his relationship to the narrative taking place that defines his participation in the events of the novel. Sportello’s appearance at the Channel View Estates, the ostensible mystery of the early stages of the novel, and the site of the shootout that gets him into so much trouble, is curious precisely because he is so stoned he cannot explain the events, or the passage of time. A firefight occurs at the Chick Planet “massage parlour,” an event that precipitates Sportello falling into unconsciousness. The narrator states: “Maybe it was all the exotic sensory input that caused Doc about then to swoon abruptly and lose an unknown amount of his day.”32 The fact that Sportello cannot ever account for his unconsciousness during the confrontation that occurs colors the narrative of the text, and the motif of Sportello losing contact with the world, and time, because he is stoned, is repeated throughout. Sportello’s return to consciousness after the shootout is spurred by the arrival of Bjornsen, the LAPD detective with whom Sportello has a long and colorful history (communicated, of course, solely through Sportello’s memory and its relation to the reader through the narrator’s access to his memories). Sportello’s history with Bigfoot “escalated” with an incident very similar to the Chick Planet incident, in which Sportello managed to sleep through a firefight after smoking “a joint [. . .] more soporific than [. . .] intended.”33 Bigfoot’s first words to Sportello outside Chick Planet link Sportello’s position outside time to his drug intake. Bigfoot observes to Sportello: “‘you have finally managed to stumble into something too real to hallucinate your worthless hippie ass out of.’”34 Of course, as it always does, Sportello’s memory fails, Pynchon relates Sportello’s flailing attempts at an explanation: “Bigfoot, I don’t know what happened. Last I recall I was in that massage parlor over there? Asian chick named Jade? and her Anglo friend Bambi?” “Wishful figments of a brain pickled in cannabis fumes, no doubt,” theorized Detective Bjornsen. “But, like, I didn’t do it? Whatever it is?”35

As Bigfoot makes clear and Sportello’s stoned response affirms, the root cause of Sportello’s confusion is “Doper’s Memory,” an affliction which, in Inherent Vice makes time central, and yet unable to be accessed with any regularity by Doc. Even more productively, Sportello’s failed memory obscures meaning itself, as Sportello denies, while being unaware of what he is denying. Indeed Doc’s most obvious correlate may not be a literary figure but a cinematic one. The Big Lebowski’s “Dude” approximates Doc Sportello’s confusion, and penchant for psychedelics. The Big Lebowski is reputedly based on Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, providing further evidence of a perplexing detective genre lineage. 32 Pynchon, Inherent Vice, 22. 33 Ibid., 25. 34 Ibid., 22. 35 Ibid., 23. 31

Inherent Vice and the Chronotope


As we have seen, Doper’s Memory is constructed by Pynchon as an inhibitor to the perception of, and participation in, time within the novel. This inability occurs precisely because the apprehension of time requires certainty for time as an absolute concept to function effectively. Pynchon, however, theorizes time as relative, primarily by positing Doper’s Memory not solely as a curse. Indeed Coy Harlingen (a character believed to have died in the early stages of the novel, but who the reader finds out has instead faked his death and escaped his previous life) argues that Doper’s Memory has its benefits. While discussing his colleagues from surf band, the Boards, Harlingen says that the Boards are “‘blessed, with heavy Doper’s Memory.’”36 The manipulation, and uncertainty of time, is then, in Inherent Vice, a concept with as many positive as negative associations. The bleeding of time caused by Doper’s Memory facilitates a creative interaction with the world not otherwise possible. As the mysteries Sportello pursues multiply in the later stages of the novel, he comes to spend some time in the communal house of the Boards. During this period he encounters a group of band members and associated hangers-on, enraptured by the temporal oddities of a soap opera known as Dark Shadows. Pynchon writes: This was around the point in the Collins family saga when the story line had begun to get heavily into something called “parallel time,” which was confounding the viewing audience nationwide, even those who remained with their wits about them, although many dopers found no problems at all in following it. It seemed basically to mean that the same actors were playing two different roles, but if you’d gotten absorbed enough, you tended to forget that these people were actors.37

Here again, Pynchon asserts that smoking dope facilitates a more intense perception of time. The merging and manipulation of time affirms the primacy of the bleeding metaphor Pynchon employs for temporality, now taking into account the possibility of the beneficial effects of Doper’s Memory. This concept enunciates a certainty in the manipulation of time that seems analogous to Bakhtin’s concept of the possibility of drunken creativity.38 Although the intoxicant is different the same principles apply, in which the ability to understand and to create meaning from complex ideas is made possible by the doper’s habit. There is, however, a further level of conceptualization of cannabis that exists within the excerpt above. Coy Harlingen is an avatar of this creative merging of parallel times, the reformed heroin addict escaping from the debilitating effects of his addiction, and “acting” as a number of different characters at the same time. Harlingen’s creativity is caused by dope smoking and his association with the Boards, and these two factors allow him to escape the shadowy forces that are insistently gathered around him. Thus, just as the effect of cannabis on the memory is seen by Harlingen as a “blessing” so too, is the effect of dope on his life: it becomes a blessing, and allows Harlingen to survive in the sometimes menacing world of Inherent Vice. Ibid., 86 (my emphasis). Ibid., 128. 38 See Bakhtin, “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope,” 178. 36 37


Terrorism and Temporality

Perhaps the strangest manipulation of time that occurs within the novel is an incident involving the then president, Richard Nixon. Sportello has just observed the Golden Fang, one of the shadowy organizations that lurk at the peripheries of the narrative, importing counterfeit 20-dollar notes, printed with Nixon’s face, not Andrew Jackson’s. Sportello, emerging from a dopey haze, wakes up at Penny Kimball, his current girlfriend’s place, and his attention is immediately caught by the television on which Nixon is addressing a meeting of Vigilant California, another of Inherent Vice’s shadowy organizations. Sportello is confounded because the picture of Nixon on the counterfeit 20-dollar bills is exactly the same as the image he sees on the television screen at the exact moment he awakes. Pynchon writes: “The two Nixons looked just like photos of each other!”39 The reason for Sportello’s confusion is obvious; the counterfeit bills require the events he is watching on the television to be from the past (although they are definitely live), a breakdown in conventional causation. As the narration switches to free indirect speech, the reader is instructed of the implicit temporal manipulation that is occurring: “Let’s see,” Doc inhaled and considered. This same Nixonface here, live on the screen, had somehow already been put into circulation, months ago, on millions, maybe billions, in false currency. . . . How could this be? Unless . . . sure, time travel of course . . . some CIA engraver, in some top-security workshop far away, was busy right now copying this image off of his own screen and then would later somehow go slip his copy into a covert special mailbox, which would have to be located close to a power-company substation so they could bootleg the power they needed, raising everybody else’s rates, to send information time-traveling back into the past.40

Sportello’s reverie is interrupted by Kimball reentering the room, attracted by the smell of the joint he is smoking. The temporal uncertainties of this incident are never entirely explained, although the ubiquitous joint in Sportello’s hand is the inevitable answer. The possibility of two Nixons existing in different times, or the possibility of some form of time travel is never discouraged within the novel. What is proposed, instead, is a change in focus, in which, as discussed above, the creativity of the Doper’s viewpoint is emphasized, and the merging of times is presented as a chronotopic effect of the dope-saturated nature of the novel. Sportello’s cannabis use allows Pynchon to emphasize Sportello’s alternative view of time, and to propose his understanding of time as useful in approaching the uncertainties of the world. Finally, the merging of times, manifesting itself in Pynchon’s use of the bleeding metaphor, is reiterated again in the dual historical focuses of the novel. The chronotopic effect of dope within Inherent Vice culminates in Pynchon’s reconsideration of the 1960s, in which the hippie community was both threatening (hence the repeated references to the Charles Manson family and their forthcoming trial41) but simultaneously alluring, a product of “brains all discombobulated with dope sex rock ’n’ roll.”42 41 42 39 40

Pynchon, Inherent Vice, 120 (Pynchon’s emphasis). Ibid., 121 (Pynchon’s emphases). See, for example, ibid., 38, 128, 208–9. Ibid., 69.

Inherent Vice and the Chronotope


Despite the creative and romantic possibilities within the doper movement, Sportello’s Doper’s Memory is always an impediment to certainty within the narrative, a compromising effect in the detective genre and far more appropriate to the antidetective text. As Sportello becomes a target for both the LAPD and then the FBI, his inability to verify, or even to account for time in which his memory fails, confirms the occlusion of meaning at the heart of the text. Pynchon details a conversation between Sportello and Kimball: “Besides, maybe you did do it, has that crossed your mind yet? Maybe you just conveniently forgot about it, the way you do so often forget things, and this peculiar reaction of yours now is a typically twisted way of confessing the act?” “Well, but . . .. How would I forget something like that?” “Grass and who knows what else, Doc.” “Hey, come on, I’m only a light smoker.” “Oh? How many joints a day, on average?” “Um . . . have to look in the log. . . .”43

The uncertainty of Sportello’s memory repeats the uncertainty of temporality within Inherent Vice. The destabilization of the detective genre, produced by the figure of the private eye without sufficient ability to maintain control of his mind and to produce sufficient deductive reasoning to provide insight into the confusing world of the novel all contribute to one final uncertainty: this is the paranoia at the base of the Doper’s Memory chronotope. The interruption of the conventional flow of time not only makes the experience of time uncertain, but also makes the concept of “times” or eras uncertain simultaneously. Thus, the chronotope of the Doper’s Memory is insistently referring back to the 1960s and 1970s—periods in which the world seemed more innocent—an innocence contrasted with the Manson murders, a precursor of the America to come. Even at the juncture of these two periods we can identify the merging of, and the communication between, different time periods, a hallmark of Pynchon’s metaphorical approach to time within his oeuvre. The dope-tinged experiences of the 1960s comment on the future, and the reader’s present, the future to which the 1960s looks, returns back the focus, reexamining the 1960s, and their dope-colored memories. The narrator of Inherent Vice observes as much in the analysis of the passage of time during the narrative, in which concepts are understood to have only relative meaning, and meaning that changes with time. Thus, Pynchon can insist that: “Circa 1970, ‘adult’ was no longer quite being defined as in times previous.”44 Innocence is in the process of destruction, in its place at the end of the 1960s remains only “a strenuous denial of the passage of time.”45 Indeed, Inherent Vice, written in 2009, argues for the 1960s as a seminal period within American culture, but a similar period which has significant similarities with our present, the most dominant being the significance of the conception and perception of time. *  *  * Ibid., 69–70 (Pynchon’s emphasis). Ibid., 172. 45 Ibid., 128. 43 44


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As the narrative threads of Inherent Vice are slowly (and partially) resolved the reader is pushed into a final reconsideration of time. The one character who rarely features throughout the novel and yet should be figured as the absent central character is Adrian Prussia, a loan shark and heroin dealer also known as “El Drano,” who played a role in the initial disappearance of Coy Harlingen. The reader is given insight into his role by Puck Beaverton, a sometime associate of Prussia. Sportello has been bailed up by Beaverton who, after forcing a PCP loaded joint onto Sportello, proceeds to explain some of the intricacies of the plot, and how time is always central. Pynchon writes: Adrian understood from the jump, Puck explained, that what people were buying, when they paid interest, was time. So anybody that failed to come up with the vigorish, the only fair way to deal with that was to take their own personal time away from them again, a currency much more precious, up to and including the time they had left to live.46

Pynchon here reorients his analysis of temporality, finally asserting the personal nature of time. Time is not simply a concept to be theorized, but an absolute arbiter of human experience. Thus Sportello’s complex relationship to time does not simply signify a narratalogical means to analyze time, but is, rather, an assertion of the primacy of time. This in turn clarifies the chronotopic effect of Doper’s Memory: Inherent Vice is a novel simultaneously of the 1960s and the first decade of the twenty-first century, two periods in which Pynchon identifies radical changes in the perception and conceptualization of time. The temporality of Inherent Vice is the antithesis of Bakhtin’s observations on the novel’s Greek predecessors. Bakhtin described the chronotope of the conventional “adventure novel” as “empty time [that] leaves no traces anywhere, no indications of its passing.”47 For Pynchon, writing both of the 1960s and the present day, time is characterized precisely by its traces, the bleeding together, and the merging of two different “times.” Thus his development of the Doper’s Memory motif becomes chronotopic precisely because Sportello’s cannabis use signifies temporal communication and multiplicity, as does Pynchon’s references to influential cinema and music that are developed within the novel. Inherent Vice does not simply reiterate the concerns of The Crying of Lot 49, but uses a framework that illustrates the simultaneous similarity and difference that exists between the 1960s and today.

Ibid., 320–1. Bakhtin, “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope,” 91.

46 47


I have argued throughout this book that the September 11 attacks of 2001 engendered a new focus on time. The reconceptualization of time and a reconsideration of temporality are hallmarks of both Pynchon and DeLillo’s responses to the September 11 attacks. Both authors’ in this sense return to the past, considering time in the same way the modernists’ did (who of course were responding in their own ways to the horrors of the Great War). Time is not, however, simply reactivated in 2001. I have argued when reading Gravity’s Rainbow and Mao II in relation to the September 11 attacks that DeLillo and Pynchon have shown their awareness of the centrality of temporality prior to those paradigmatic events. One further example of the analysis of time prior to September 11 is Pynchon’s 1993 essay “Nearer, My Couch, to Thee.” Riffing on Benjamin Franklin’s aphorisms, Pynchon traces the shift from sloth as religious transgression to a secular one, arguing that sloth is ultimately a crime against “uniform, one-way” time.1 Today, sloth is the domain of the couch potato, an outwardly produced dream beamed from the television standing in for the dream-in-sleep, the more traditional manifestation of reverie. For Pynchon, the invention of the remote control and the VCR changes the conventional definition of sloth, and, of time. Time in the world of the technological reproducibility of information “can be reshaped at will [. . .] controlling, reversing, slowing, speeding and repeating time,” precisely the experience of Keith and Lianne Neudecker in Falling Man.2 The reconsideration of temporality that Pynchon proposes in “Nearer, My Couch, to Thee” is the same image of time we have seen him champion in Against the Day, Inherent Vice, and also in Gravity’s Rainbow. Pynchon refers to the development of the remote control within Inherent Vice, describing an anachronistic object “large and crude, as if sharing design origins with Soviet sound equipment.”3 Despite the crudity of the early remote control, its power over time, and over humanity is already burgeoning: Doc Sportello, while watching television with a group in thrall to the temporal power of both screen and remote control comes to a realization. Pynchon writes: He realized the scope of the mental damage one push on the “off ” button of a TV zapper could inflict on this roomful of obsessives.4 3 4 1 2

Thomas Pynchon, “Nearer, My Couch, to Thee,” New York Times Book Review, June 6, 1993, 3. Ibid., 57. Pynchon, Inherent Vice, 127. Ibid., 128.


Terrorism and Temporality

The obsession with television and its remote control emphasizes society’s desire for linear time, controlled and normalized, a time that Sportello, and Pynchon as well, have little interest in. The September 11 attacks have prompted the reconsideration of time; for Pynchon this is a groundbreaking moment of change in a society dominated by apathy. Pynchon’s idiosyncratic and encyclopedic responses are apparently at odds with DeLillo’s twenty-first-century output. These two novelists, so consistently linked via narrative focus, thematic concerns, and formal approach have diverged in the past decade. Pynchon’s novels retain a characteristic zany broadness, while DeLillo’s output is much more overtly affected by changes in society and culture. As I have argued above, Underworld is the last of DeLillo’s texts that we might consider postmodern; one of the American emblems of postmodernity has returned to a modernist concern with form and style. Anachronism is the link that binds Pynchon and DeLillo. In their alternate ways, they have produced novels responding to the September 11 attacks that return to the past. The past provides perspective, and encourages the consideration of those paradigmatic events not simply in the geopolitical context of the twenty-first century, but over a far broader period of time. DeLillo’s twenty-first-century adoption of modernist style and form is a direct reflection of the changes in culture engendered by the September 11 attacks. His perception of the West as “living in the future” may still be pertinent, especially considering the growing liminality of the book in society, which has made the author’s position even more tenuous than DeLillo imagined when writing Mao II. Yet, just like Bill Gray, DeLillo has produced work that constantly pushes back against the assumption that literature will fade in importance. DeLillo’s style affirms the importance of the written word in the twenty-first century. Throughout my analysis of these two seminal authors my thoughts have returned to the way in which both writers (in very different ways) manage to argue for the importance of literature. The novel remains a pivotal means to examine the world, and a critical emblem of the desire to commune with the world, rather than to interact only on the most shallow of levels. Both Pynchon and DeLillo, despite their diverging formal approaches, show that the novel, at its very best, is a supreme tool for considering the world.

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Archival Material DeLillo Archives, Harry Ransom Research Center, University of Texas at Austin. Full archive catalogue available at: http://research.hrc.utexas.edu:8080/hrcxtf/ view?docId=ead/00313.xml&query=DeLillo&query-join=and

Index anachronism  2–4, 12, 14–16, 18, 20–4, 26, 33, 37–9, 41–53, 79–81, 89–90, 92, 96–8, 102–4, 105–9, 121–3, 130, 132–4, 141, 175, 177–8 Antrim, Donald  Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World  13 Arnheim, Rudolf  88–90, 92–3, 99 Film  88 Auster, Paul  19 Bakhtin, Mikhail  7, 164, 173, 176 ‘Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel’  167 Balla, Giacomo et al  ‘The Exhibitors to the Public’  156–7 Baudrillard, Jean  4, 9, 48, 50 Beckett, Samuel  7, 55–9, 63–4, 78, 85–6, 88 Film  88–9, 91 ‘German Letter of 1937’  25 ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’  57 Krapp’s Last Tape  64 ‘The Lost Ones’  57 Proust  56–62, 76, 80 Worstward Ho  25 Bergson, Henri  7, 52, 57–9, 149, 152, 155–61 Creative Evolution  58 Time and Free Will  159 bilocation  119–23 Boccioni, Umberto et al  ‘Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto’  158–9 Borges, Jorge Luis  110–11 ‘The Duration of Hell’  110–11 calculus  99–100 cannabis  163, 165, 170–6 Cantor, Georg  134, 139–41 set theory  134 chiaroscuro  144–6, 148 chronotope  164, 167–71, 174–6

cinema  85, 87–90, 92–3, 98–100 counter-worlds  122–8, 134, 136, 138–9, 148 Dante,  109, 112, 115–16, 118, 121, 130, 136, 151 Commedia  4, 105, 114, 119, 144, 151 Inferno  7, 105, 109–16, 118, 121, 128, 155 Paradiso  114 Purgatorio  114 Deleuze, Gilles  110–11, 113–14, 119, 136 Nietzsche and Philosophy  110–11, 114, 119 DeLillo  1–3, 5–7, 14–15, 17, 19, 33, 35, 48, 58–9, 78, 95, 141, 177–8 Americana  93 The Body Artist  56, 93 Cosmopolis  3, 6, 35, 37–53 Falling Man  4, 7–8, 53, 55–83, 86, 177 ‘In the Ruins of the Future’  2–3, 38–40, 52–3, 90 Mao II  6, 8, 11–35, 56, 80, 109, 177–8 Point Omega  7, 15, 85–94 Running Dog  93 Underworld  7, 55, 93, 178 White Noise  13, 80 divisionism (also known as pointillism)  150, 160 dromology  38, 40, 42 duration  2, 52, 160 dynamism  157–61 Einstein, Albert  128–32 Eisenstein, Sergei  87–9, 92 Ellis, Bret Easton  American Psycho  13 encyclopaedism  55, 93, 178 eternal return  78–83, 110–12, 114, 132, 136–8 eternity  110, 127, 135–41

188 fin de siècle  5, 11–12 parallels to period 1980–2001  13, 41 Futurism  7, 149–61 futurity  16, 41–2, 49, 51–3, 90, 115–16, 129–30, 141, 159 Gordon, Douglas  24 Hour Psycho  86–92 habit  56, 59–60, 62, 65–8, 70–8 hell  110–18, 121, 126–7, 129, 132, 144–5, 148, 153–5 history  12, 16, 101–4, 123, 135, 141, 146, 164 Hitchcock, Alfred  Psycho  86, 88 holocaust  33 infinity  57, 110–11, 127, 131, 135–41 internet  167–70 James Joyce  Ulysses  88 Khomeini, Ayatollah  death of  20–4 Kronecker, Leopold  139–40 Kubrick, Stanley  2001: A Space Odyssey  168–9 Lentricchia, Frank  5–6 light cone  130–2 Lukács, Georg  4–5 The Theory of the Novel  4 Mann, Thomas  The Magic Mountain  88 Marinetti, Filippo  7, 150–3 ‘The Founding and the Manifesto of Futurism’  151–2 mathematics  58, 99–100, 128–41 transfinite  139–41 memory,  56, 60–72, 75, 124, 166, 170–6 involuntary  60–1, 78 voluntary  60, 66–7, 72 Minkowski, Hermann  128–32, 139–41 modernism  85, 87, 178

Index New York City  1–2, 12–17, 41, 48, 61, 77, 105–9, 114–16, 124, 141, 155 Nietzsche, Friedrich  80–2, 110–11, 114 9/11 novel  55, 77 Orwell, George  Nineteen Eighty-Four  3, 108 parachronism  48–52, 105, 109, 138, 169 Penrose, Roger  The Road to Reality  130–2 postmodernism  17, 172, 178 prochronism  38–9, 41–7, 103, 105, 109, 133, 138, 168–9 Proust, Marcel  7 À la recherché du temps perdu  7, 56–7, 86 Pynchon  1–3, 5–9, 35, 55, 95, 108, 134, 141–2, 177–8 Against the Day  5, 7, 9, 80, 95, 105–61, 163, 177 The Crying of Lot 49  4, 130, 163, 165, 171, 176 Gravity’s Rainbow  5, 7, 63, 95–104, 135, 177 Inherent Vice  7, 95, 163–7 Mason & Dixon  6 ‘Nearer, My Couch, to Thee’  177 V.  4 quaternions  135–8, 141 repetition  62, 65, 80–3, 109, 114, 145, 149, 170 romanticism  12–13, 168 Rushdie, Salman  19 Satie, Erik  51–2 September 11 attacks  1–4, 8–9, 38, 48, 51, 53, 62–5, 68, 71, 105–9, 141–2, 161, 177–8 as end of 20th century  1, 69–70 responses to  1, 4–5, 34–5, 37–8, 52–3, 61–2, 77–8, 106–9, 178 simultaneity  152, 155–60 Smith, Shawn  Pynchon and History  7, 102–4



spectrality  46–7, 98, 153 speed of light  40, 129–31 speed of sound  96–8 Steiner, George  6, 14, 16, 152 In Bluebeard’s Castle  6, 11, 19, 33

Vietnam War  95, 102 Virilio, Paul  6, 38, 40, 50–1, 53, 152 Ground Zero,  50–1 Open Sky  40, 46, 49–50 vortex  111–16, 128, 136, 138

terrorism  8–9, 18–20, 24–5, 27–33, 82–3 time  2, 5, 7, 11–12, 14–15, 18–24, 27–8, 47–8, 56–8, 70–1, 83, 86–8, 90–101, 103–4, 108–10, 113–14, 118–20, 125, 130, 132–5, 141, 145–7, 149, 153, 155, 157–60, 164–7, 169–70, 172–8 time travel  116–18, 132, 153–6, 174

Wells, H.G.  The Time Machine  117 White, Hayden  102 Woolf, Virgina  Mrs. Dalloway  88 World Trade Center  2–3, 8, 17, 61 World War One  12, 122–3, 125–7, 130, 145 World War Two  12, 95, 97, 101, 104

V-2 rocket  7, 63, 96–101, 103–4 vectors  124, 135, 137–8

Zeno’s paradoxes  57–9, 100, 111–12