At some point, apparently on a whim, though how can a fellow be sure, Slothrop decides to raise a mustache. Last mustache he had was at age 13, he sent away to that Johnson Smith for a whole Mustache Kit, 20 different shapes from Fu Manchu to Groucho Marx. (Pynchon 213)
The Pynchon Wiki provides context for Johnson Smith. It says, “A mail-order company officially established in 1914 that sells novelty and gag gift items such as x-ray goggles, whoopee cushions, fake vomit, and joy buzzers. They often advertised in comic books” (Ware). Based on what we know of Slothrop’s appreciation for comic books, a novelty mustache kit fits his character and makes for a classically humorous image. However, the two example mustaches mentioned will be the figures I look into.
This section appears in GR at a point where Slothrop’s realized They are out for him. Tantivy and Bloat have already disappeared, and Slothrop’s identified Katje and Sir Stephen as conspirators. The text suggests Slothrop grew the mustache “on a whim,” but then immediately casts doubt on that with the addition of “how can a fellow be sure[?]” The quote suggests to me that Slothrop, whether intentionally or not, has already begun to slip into a new persona and disguise, because he’s already decided to flee.
This quote, though, is followed by a conversation where Katje and Slothrop discuss what kind of mustache he’ll grow. He says “bad guy,” but Katje doesn’t think the villainous look suits him, and she points out a few different examples of “good guy” mustaches.
Initially I wanted to look exclusively at Groucho Marx, because his name appears three times within a hundred pages, and a fourth time later in the novel, according to the Pynchon Wiki. I was surprised that the same reference was repeated so many times, but that’s the definition of Pynchonian multiplicity. And weirdly, Fu Manchu often appears in conjunction with Marx. So I’ll provide brief details on both figures and their notorious mustachios.
Julius Henry “Groucho” Marx (1890-1977) was an American actor and comedian from New York. He was one of five brothers who all went on to the stage, often performing musical comedies. After some success in theatre, the Marx brothers started making Hollywood movies. After Hollywood, Groucho started working in radio (Bland).
Groucho’s famous mustache comes from the brothers’ first Broadway success, I’ll Say She Is. He would normally glue a fake mustache on for the show, but when he arrived late at the theatre for a performance, instead of taking the time to do so, he used greasepaint to achieve the same effect (Bland).
So basically, Groucho Marx’s famous mustache wasn’t even real. He preferred the rapidity of the greasepaint ‘stache and never glued one on again. He was also never seen without a cigar in hand, bushy eyebrows, stooped walk, and a few one-liners (Nehrenz). One thing he doesn’t seem to do is traditional stand-up comedy; he’s more in the line of musicals and TV appearances. However, if you’re curious and up for a laugh, I’ve included two links to see him in action:
Changing gear now, Fu Manchu is a fictional character who originally starred in the novel The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu (1913) by Sax Rohmer, but who became so popular as a villainous archetype he was adapted into other media, like film, TV, and radio (“Fu Manchu”). Interestingly enough, his most popular appearance came in a 1965 film called The Face of Fu Manchu, where he was played by Christopher Lee (also Count Dooku and Saruman, for those who get the references).
In all of my research, I kept coming across this quote to describe Fu Manchu. So I’ll leave it in the author’s hands:
Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, … one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present … Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man. (The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu)
That phrase “yellow peril” already sets off triggers to some of the character’s more controversial aspects. Rohmer was a newspaper reporter who covered Chinese criminals before he took to authorship, and though he denies that Manchu was based on those figures, I don’t really buy it. Also, Fu Manchu books were banned from publishing during WWII, and were generally believed to contribute to the yellow peril stereotype (“Fu Manchu”).
Now that I’m enlightened to these figures’ identities, the juxtaposition that occurs in the text seems so insane in its delicate craftiness. Squaring these two against each other based on their mustaches is one thing (Marx’s is thick and ostentatious, Manchu’s is very fine), but the characters themselves seem to represent the best and worst of the 20th century. Marx is a clean, working-class humorist while Manchu becomes a diabolical, foreign criminal genius and purveyor of Chinese stereotypes to Western audiences.
This undoubtedly planned comparison also hearkens back to the scene where Katje and Slothrop discuss whether Slothrop will grow a good guy or a bad guy mustache. Groucho Marx and Fu Manchu pretty much embody those opposite connotations.
Bland, Frank. Groucho Marx (Julius Henry). The Marx Brothers, n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2014.
Fu Manchu. Wikipedia, 6 Mar. 2014. Web. 23 Mar. 2014.
Nehrenz, John. Groucho Marx. The Internet Movie Database. n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2014.
Ware, Tim. Gravity’s Rainbow Wiki. MediaWiki, 21 Nov. 2006. Web. 21 Mar. 2014.