Pynchon’s Representation of Reality and the Supernatural

“‘Here, fellow,’ coaxes Roger.  ‘Nice bottle of ether here for you,’ opening the flask, waving it in the cellar entrance, then switching on his beam.  Dog looks up out of an old rusted pram, bobbing black shadows, tongue hanging, utter skepticism on his face.  ‘Why it’s Mrs. Nussbaum!’ Roger cries, the same way he’s heard Fred Allen do, Wednesday nights over the BBC.

‘You vere ekshpecting maybe Lessie?’ replies the dog (Pynchon 44).”

The above quotation comes from a chase scene, in which Roger Mexico is attempting to capture a dog for one of Dr. Pointsman’s Pavlovian experiments.  The doctor originally intended to seize the dog himself, but was forced to assign the task to Mexico after getting his foot stuck in a toilet bowl.  Armed with an open bottle of ether to sedate the dog, Mexico tries to approach the dog, but quickly becomes affected by the ether fumes he inhales.  When he finally is in a position to sedate it, he cries a famous line from a popular American comedic radio program, Allen’s Alley.  To the audience’s surprise, or at least my surprise, the dog’s responds to Mexico by saying Mrs. Nussbaum’s famous response.  Her character would say, “You were expecting maybe [a famous celebrity of that time period]?”  Appropriately for the dog, he chooses Lassie, also mispronouncing the name as Mrs. Nussbaum would—although in a German accent.  Once again flaunting his encyclopedic knowledge base, the author seamlessly ties in a popular culture reference.  Here in that reference, Pynchon throws in affectation by a hallucinogenic drug and some kind of hallucination representing a warped reality that both intend to build on one of the novel’s themes of reality versus the supernatural or an alternate reality.

This passage convinced me that Gravity’s Rainbow, indeed, has its humorous moments.  It seemed to me until this point of the novel that the plot was consumed by a dark sense of perversion, death, and general pessimism.  The humor Pynchon interjects here broke that up for me, and demonstrated that this novel could have brighter moments, although darkly humorous in their own right.  I think it even approaches being evocative of a scene from a strange cartoon.  It has some of the elements: a witty talking animal onto the humans’ tricks, an uncoordinated dog-catcher, and a partner-in-crime who’s rendered largely immobile by an inane object—here, appropriately a toilet bowl.  What makes the scene amusing is the utter absurdity of it all.  I feel that the nonsensical scene forces us to parse the reality of the novel from the reality we live in.  Of course, dogs can’t talk and it is highly unlikely that they are able to express emotion as obviously as Pynchon describes.  We are told that Mexico is also inhaling a good deal of ether vapors trying to capture the dog, but are left to assume it to be the cause of Roger’s hallucination—if it is even actually a hallucination.  We’re also left to assume the entire event is a type of warped reality, since it’s also highly unlikely that someone would get his foot actually stuck in a toilet bowl—a toilet bowl!  Pynchon leaves the task of parsing realities solely up to the reader.  Maybe in the realm Pynchon creates in his entire novel a remarkable talking dog and casually stepping in an abandoned bathroom fixture isn’t outside the realm of possibility.

Yet, assuming that the chase scene does feature hallucinations due to hallucinogenic drug inhalation, it draws a parallel to Slothrop’s toilet scene.  Both Mexico and Slothrop hallucinate and experience things impossible in our reality.  The plot of the novel constantly fades in and out of that reality with subtlety that is difficult to pick up on.  Constant vigilance is required for the reader to notice when a shift in the novel’s reality occurs and what that shift even is or what it represents in the overall context of the work.  I personally am inclined to think that Pynchon presents such scenes to feature the schlemiels of his story and their importance to the plot.  The audience is amused by their antics, which make no logical sense, as the characters are under the influence of drugs and are immersed in a kind of reality of their own creation.  We as readers must determine what is truly crucial to the plot itself and Pynchon’s purpose in relating those nonsensical scenes.

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4 Responses to Pynchon’s Representation of Reality and the Supernatural

  1. mjw113 says:

    I think what’s within the realm of possibility in this novel is an interesting factor to consider. It didn’t occur to me that a foot stuck in a toilet bowl or a talking dog were entirely out of that realm of possibility in this novel, since we’ve already been informed that this group of intelligence agents (excluding Roger Mexico) has psychic powers. I think that realm of possibility and how Pynchon anchors scenes in reality in this story will be something worth noting, though. For instance, as you mentioned in the “Lassie” scene, Roger Mexico had just inhaled a large amount of ether. That meticulous rooting in reality will be an interesting thread to follow in the more surreal moments of this story.

    Also, I like a lot of what you had to say here, but I didn’t personally see the “Lassie” scene as the first comedic moment in the novel. There was the slapstick gem of Teddy Bloat slipping on a banana peel while Pirate made breakfast, which I think is funny if only for the fact that it found a place in what’s been described as the most important novel of the twentieth century. There was also the darkly comic death of the man who suffocated in a bathtub full of tapioca pudding, which seemed to come completely out of left field. With that said, I do agree with your point that this novel’s humor is a result of absurdity, and it will be fun to see what Pynchon does with it moving forward.

  2. Patricia, great post, and a very perceptive and incisive close reading of this moment. (And Mike, I’d go you one further, the first comedic scene of the novel is Bloat falling onto the bed that Pirate kicks over. I also would probably put Ulysses ahead of GR, but GR takes the cake, at least for me, in terms of postwar US novels.)

    Talking dogs are actually something that Pynchon returns to in the first part of Mason & Dixon, and in that novel at least, there is very little question that it is happening in the “real” space of the story. (There’s also an indestructible talking mechanical duck, among other things.) But your point remains the same. Pynchon’s worlds are slippery w/r/t the real. I wonder what might be important about portraying a reality in which such unreal or supernatural things can happen. If, as I’ve suggested, one of Pynchon’s primary concerns is History (w/ a capital “H”), then how does incorporating alternate, fabulous, fantastic, and supernatural “histories” help him confront and account for History in his text? How do these fabulous moments contribute to an engagement with the realities of History?

  3. Beth says:

    I really enjoyed this post, because this was one of my favorite parts of the novel that we have read so far. I thought it was pretty funny that he got his foot stuck in the toilet bowl, and as you said, it kind of brought humor to a novel that, at times, is the complete opposite. This passage to me, brought my attention back to the novel, and I feel like the parts of it like this are what keep a readers interest. This book has some points where I really cannot focus on what is going on, mostly because it is so difficult to read, but I think incorporating the humor a little bit brings the interest back for me. I do like that Pynchon makes this book humorous at times, because it definitely makes for a more enjoyable read.

  4. msk58 says:

    I also really enjoyed this scene in the novel because it was so silly. I agree that maybe Pynchon puts these humorous scenes in his novel to grab the reader’s attention. However sometimes it is hard to pick up on the shifts between reality and fantasy. Often I don’t realize a scene is delving into the fantasy until something utterly absurd happens. Thus I totally agree with Patricia that concentration is crucial to reading this novel in order to discern what is supposed to be real and fantasy.
    I would also go a bit further and say that Pynchon’s humor in this scene is supposed to be satirical. Even in this particular scene, two smart scientists are incapable of capturing a dog. It seems rather embarrassing for them regarding their intellect. You would think that they would come up with a more advanced technique of coaxing the dog to them rather than blindly chasing it. Perhaps this is Pynchon’s way of mocking or discrediting the scientists by implying that they aren’t as reasonable or logical as they may seem. This is a bit concerning because they are trying to figure out a pattern to the bombing so that people can avoid them. This may be extending a bit farther from the quote here, but even later in the novel we see that the scientists drop to the conclusion that the bombs are caused by Slothrop’s erections. Whether this is actually the cause of the bombing or not, (we probably won’t find out), but either way this conclusion seems rather silly and unreliable. Thus, these men of reason could be creating a false perception of reality for themselves and to others whom they expound their knowledge to, in which everyone could be forced into believing in a delusional reality.

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