Pynchon’s eyeball: the elusive and enticing search for meaning

Two weeks ago I posted about the color scheme of pink and green in Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice (2009). So I completed that novel last week and was struck with no epiphanies. I guess that lack of an “ah-ha!” moment when I finished reading the final page should have come as no surprise. Good reading of good novels doesn’t work that way. It’s all about rereading. I wrote in that post about how contemporary fiction, at least for the last 100 years, is about puzzles composed of words and symbols by writers for readers. If that is true for writers like Nabokov, Joyce, Proust, and others, then the initial reading, no matter how careful or thorough, will not suffice to notice, much less solve, the problems that arise upon a first reading. If you want to get it, you’ve got to look again.

Does Pynchon agree with me? Maybe not. Just as every strong artist reacts against the established Masters of the preceding era, so too might Pynchon be writing in a way that casts doubt on the whole “novel-as-a-puzzle” enterprise. If Nabokov’s Pale Fire is THE masterpiece literary puzzle (it is), then Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 might be the greatest reaction to it, wherein every avenue to truth leads into shadows of doubt. And is Inherent Vice in that vein of agnosticism? Or is it begging to be reread for reasons other than because it has amusing scenes and killer sentences? The law of diminishing returns says, when applied to less than superior novels, that future readings will provide ever-decreasing amounts of pleasure. In this way, the “less-than-genius” work will always carry with it an expiration date, for each person (one or two readings is enough) and for each generation.

So how about Inherent Vice? Is it a literary puzzle or fine stoner pulp? Maybe now is a good time to reconsider that eyeball at the beginning of the novel:

The sign on his door read LSD INVESTIGATIONS, LSD, as he explained when people asked, which was not often, standing for ‘Location, Surveillance, Detection.’ Beneath this was a rendering of a giant bloodshot eyeball in the psychedelic favorites of green and magenta, the detailing of whose literally thousands of frenzied capillaries had been subcontracted out to a commune of speed freaks who had long since migrated up to Sonoma. Potential clients had been known to spend hours at the ocular mazework, often forgetting what they’d come here for.

Maybe pink and green are put into scenes sporadically in order to signal to the reader that stoner associations have been given the green light to flow freely, but they are all leading nowhere? Kind of like the author saying, “Be my guest, look around, snoop and follow your nose, but you’re not going to find any singular Meaning.” Isn’t that what the etched eyeball represents? Incredible, captivating detail, and yet people come and lose themselves in it and forget their normal business. Applied to literature, Pynchon’s metaphor is clear: ‘Readers come to my novels (or movies like The Shining) and start connecting the dots so obsessively, with such tunnel vision, that they lose sight of what they’d come to find.’ What do we come to novels to find? No answer. This is quintessential Pynchon, a trick he pulls off time and time again in The Crying of Lot 49. In fact, it just might BE the strongest interpretation of that great novella: We, the readers, are lured into a search for meaning that will ever elude, and ever entice, us.

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Posted in Thoughts on Writing, Reading & Books | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

By Prescription Only: Faces

The deadline for Faces, our next BPO, is next week! Please send submissions by October 17th.

Please send your submissions to: contact@drugstorebooks.com.

  • Theme: Faces
  • Length: 3,000-8,000 words
  • Format: MS Word 97-2003 (If you’re using a recent version of Word then please save as a .doc and not a .docx file, this will help smooth out compatibility issues.)
  • Title: Centered, Times New Roman 16 point; with a byline below also centered and in 14 point
  • Text, font and size: Justified; Times New Roman, 12 point
  • Spacing: Single, with block quotes separated by an empty line on both sides; paragraphs indented but section breaks separated by an empty line and three centered asterisks
  • Footer: www.drugstorebooks.com (on the left) © Your Name 2014 (on the right — stretched to fit the length of the footer)
  • Quotation conventions: Double quotes (“faces”) with embedded single quotes (‘faces’) for reported speech, single quotes for reported thoughts, double quotes to mark text off (i.e. so-called “~~”), song titles, etc.
  • Italics: Use for emphasis, book/magazine/TV show/film/album titles
  • Referencing: Any standard academic convention is fine as long as it’s used consistently; both footnotes and end notes are acceptable, though any applicable footnotes will not be included in the opening section posted on the site
  • Deadline: 17 October

If you’re wondering how it will all pan out, here’s Nick’s “No Contest” from our last round as an example. Please note too that all of our previous entries are available on the By Prescription Only: Themed Writing page. All submissions will be edited by us but the final decision regarding any suggested changes to the content will be left up to the author. The author will also retain full copyright privileges and ownership; we’re here to display your work and help it reach a broader audience, not to profit from it. We’re looking forward to reading what you come up with!

Next week, Nick Cody will be back with more thoughts on reading, writing & books.

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Posted in Greetings & Announcements | Leave a comment

The Color Scheme: Pink and Green in Pynchon’s Inherent Vice

Pity the critics. Imagine being a book reviewer, slave to the deadline, when one afternoon Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon lands on your desk like a fat, dead fish. You have the weekend to read and review it. Your readers are waiting. I suppose the dread of this situation would apply to most novels by Pynchon as well as a majority of contemporary novels blessed or cursed with the tag literary fiction. Like it or not, for the past one hundred years, the modern novel seems to be predominately an affair of puzzles. From the micro level of deciphering the meaning of long, meandering sentences that literary types like to employ–with the occasional obscure vocabulary word or allusion placed along the garden path as a stepping stone or trip wire–to the macro level task of explaining how it all hangs together, reading good fiction is not so much about appreciating beauty as it is about making sense of it all.

The book reviewer, in this sense, is like a professor of a lax institution at grading time. The limited information available tells him that the student is pretty bright, and heck, no one ever complains about receiving an A, so he writes “brilliant, ingenious, clever, magical, amusing” or any platitude that he thinks he can get away with. Leave it to the next guy to try and explain this 800 page behemoth. My job is finished: my reputation and paycheck secure.

Keeping such absurdities in mind, I will not attempt to explain, solve, evaluate, or assess Pynchon’s 2009 novel, Inherent Vice. All I will say from an appreciative standpoint is that Inherent Vice is a genuine pleasure to read, reminding me of the Coen brothers’ film The Big Lebowski, except it replaces bowling balls with surf boards.

My goal here is modest: describe the reading process in relation to one of its puzzles. As you might have gathered from this blog’s title, the colors pink and green figure prominently in this beach noir tale set in southern California circa 1969. Since the question Why Pink and Green? is temporarily on hold, a better starting question might be, How do I know that these two arbitrary colors have anything to do with the novel?

At first, a sensitivity to pattern comes into play. You notice a detail here, an echo there. It makes you feel smart. And that feeling keeps you in the game, in pursuit of a better sense of the puzzle. Of course, one or two instances doesn’t make a pattern, so catching it requires a retention of what you’ve read in addition to an attentiveness as the story unfolds. An example is in order here. The novel opens with Doc, a hippie private eye, meeting his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Pynchon and character names! another puzzle or what?). She wants help with a job. Jump to page 14 and Doc is arriving at his office where we are given this description, “The sign on his door read LSD INVESTIGATIONS, LSD, as he explained when people asked, which was not often, standing for ‘Location, Surveillance, Detection.’ Beneath this was a rendering of a giant bloodshot eyeball in the psychedelic favorites of green and magenta, the detailing of whose literally thousands of frenzied capillaries had been subcontracted out to a commune of speed freaks who had long since migrated up to Sonoma. Potential clients had been known to spend hours at the ocular mazework, often forgetting what they’d come here for.”

If you’re like me, you have a good guess about the meaning of “magenta” in that sentence, but you want to be sure so you google it. Yep. Pink. Hardly a page later and you have a bit more detail from Doc’s office. “In Doc’s office were a pair of high-backed banquettes covered in padded fuchsia plastic, facing each other across a Formica table in a pleasant tropical green.” Fuchsia fits with that sentence and that setting, using detailed description to bring life to this oddball character’s place of business. But you feel there also MUST be some connection to the pink-and-green combo from the previous page. The pairing of magenta-green and fuchsia-green each in their own sentence a page apart is too much of a coincidence to just let it slide. From now on, we will be alert for a repeated occurrence.

About 60 pages later, we get another sighting. And ten pages after that one, more pink and green. Hibiscus and green on page 77. Pink and Asian indica on page 85. Nobody needs Google to know what color grass is. And it goes on: “li’l pink trike heading out through the beet fields,” (page 112). At one point there are two references on one page, “green and fuchsia lunchroom booth” and “pink, but poison green” on page 147.

The pattern has been noted and the coded signals received, but what does it all MEAN? All of this “mazework” creates a tension. Can we be satisfied with the pursuit of questions instead of establishing answers? Is the answer in that eyeball? I’m going to finish reading the thing and if I figure it out, I’ll write about it. If I don’t, I won’t. I’m not a book reviewer and this shit is free. But if you wanted to help out, you can cut into the action by picking up a copy and shooting me an email. I’m fairly sure if you see Inherent Vice in the bookstore, you won’t miss the cover.

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Posted in Thoughts on Writing, Reading & Books | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

How Should I Publish?

First of all, some terms.

Exhibit a) Indie publishing, aka self-publishing, or, if you prefer, self-pubbing (which sounds a lot like the process of turning oneself into an alehouse).

Exhibit b) Traditional publishing, aka trad-publishing (© Andrew Oberg, 2011) and its obvious derivative trad-pubbing (conjuring images of a ghastly Oxbridge bar crawl), and then, finally, the term the industry seems to be pushing, legacy publishing.

Exhibit c) the many-headed hydra, being a hybrid author.

But before we start…

*Disclaimer 1. I’ve yet to publish fiction via any medium (except for BPOs on here, shameless plug 1, shameless plug 2, shameles plug 3). As such, my opnions have been formed by regularly reading writers’/agents’ blogs and by my experiences working with other writers here at Drugstore Books over the last four years.

*Disclaimer 2. If you read this a few months after the publishing date, a little/some/all of it may be out of date. Things are changing so quickly that might even be the case already.

*Disclaimer 3. I’m getting close to finishing a novel I’ve been working on for a few years sodding ever and therefore feel reinvigorated by the nuances of the current publishing climate after many years where I couldn’t have given a monkey’s. Indeed, my lust for the high life has become so acute that I recently bought a 1986 Lamborghini Countach on ebay with my credit card. (The ocelot skin seat covers are divine, unless you’re vegan.) This, however, is not really a disclaimer at all, more like a daydream that’s been foolishly typed out.

Indie

When we first started this website, there were still mutterings on the internet about ‘Vanity Publishing’. No more. Indie publishing is not a reluctant last resort; it’s a bona fide choice.

Its main strengths (in no particular order) are: total creative freedom; speed of project completion; it’s fast enough to respond to trends; control over cover design; control over marketing campaign (if you can afford one); you can release via multiple services and platforms (CreateSpace, Lulu, Smashwords, books printed at a print shop etc.); niche genres are welcome and well-suited; and, the author can start earning immediately.

On the negative side, you’re on your own throughout. You have to do everything yourself or outsource stages beyond your capabilities (feedback, revisions, proofreading, artwork/covers, marketing). In addition, you have to organize getting your book reviewed, set up book readings and signings, and arrange radio interviews and schedule promotional work at book festivals — all at your own expense. If you live outside the U.S and sell less than $100 worth of stock then Amazon will never send you any royalty payments. Marketing your book is now a full-time job.

Legacy

It’s probably still true that a book distributed by a legacy publisher has more cachet than an indie-published book. This is because, at the very least, the reader is guaranteed a basic minimum standard of quality (edits, proofreading, printing). It also implies that industry professionals, at the very least, see some kind of commercial value to the project.

Positive things for the writer include: being able to discuss the project with an agent and get feedback on early drafts; in-house editing and proofreading services; in-house designers for artwork/covers (this I see as a plus because making covers might be lots of fun, but they need to be done by a professional); at the very least, listing in trade journals; probable marketing campaign strategy and support; getting the book into bricks and mortar stores; and, crucially, some form of royalty payment.

Negatives include: getting from being unrepresented to published takes a very long time; even when you’re represented, getting published takes a long time (the legacy machine is slow); reduced control over the book’s content; no control over artwork (and you might hate it); royalties aren’t what they used to be (broadly speaking, for debut writers); marketing isn’t what it used to be (broadly speaking, for debut writers). In fact, modern writers are expected to promote their work tirelessly through social media, book signings and book readings, festivals, radio etc. The publisher will open doors, but much legwork remains. In short, congratulations on getting an agent and publishing deal but hold off on that ’86 Countache with ocelot seats for a while.

Hybrid

Hybrid can mean many things to many people. It can mean self-publishing one of your books and legacy publishing the next. It can mean selling ‘paper book’ rights to a legacy publisher and handling ebook sales yourself (for the same book). Some agents will not take on a client whose book has been self-published. Others most definitely will. Some agents scour Neilsen BookScan looking for writers whose sales have acquired ‘traction’ and then offer to represent them. (I read an interview where an agent mentioned that 5,000 copies sold gets people’s attention.) Even million-seller authors have switched to indie publishing after long careers with legacy publishers (if you don’t believe me, Google it), and authors who started out as indie publishers have gone the other way and been signed by agents and publishers.

If you’re querying agents having already indie-published the same book, do your research and make sure you’re approaching indie-friendly agents. In a nutshell, being a hybrid author means being flexible, at ease in both worlds, and choosing different methods of publication, project-by-project, or, even within one project.  It goes without saying that much promotional work needs to be done and that rests with you, the writer.

Final Thought

The common thread here seems to be that in 2014, unless you’re a best-selling author, the onus on real world marketing and raising the book’s profile online rests squarely with the author.

I guess, these days, being a writer is the best of times and the worst of times all at the same time.

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Posted in Writing Craft & Self-Publishing | 7 Comments

By Prescription Only: Faces

Work is a terrible thing. In light of that universal truth, we’ve extended the submission deadline for Faces, our next BPO, to October 17th.

Please send your submissions to: contact@drugstorebooks.com.

  • Theme: Faces
  • Length: 3,000-8,000 words
  • Format: MS Word 97-2003 (If you’re using a recent version of Word then please save as a .doc and not a .docx file, this will help smooth out compatibility issues.)
  • Title: Centered, Times New Roman 16 point; with a byline below also centered and in 14 point
  • Text, font and size: Justified; Times New Roman, 12 point
  • Spacing: Single, with block quotes separated by an empty line on both sides; paragraphs indented but section breaks separated by an empty line and three centered asterisks
  • Footer: www.drugstorebooks.com (on the left) © Your Name 2014 (on the right — stretched to fit the length of the footer)
  • Quotation conventions: Double quotes (“faces”) with embedded single quotes (‘faces’) for reported speech, single quotes for reported thoughts, double quotes to mark text off (i.e. so-called “~~”), song titles, etc.
  • Italics: Use for emphasis, book/magazine/TV show/film/album titles
  • Referencing: Any standard academic convention is fine as long as it’s used consistently; both footnotes and end notes are acceptable, though any applicable footnotes will not be included in the opening section posted on the site
  • Deadline: 17 October

If you’re wondering how it will all pan out, here’s Nick’s “No Contest” from our last round as an example. Please note too that all of our previous entries are available on the By Prescription Only: Themed Writing page. All submissions will be edited by us but the final decision regarding any suggested changes to the content will be left up to the author. The author will also retain full copyright privileges and ownership; we’re here to display your work and help it reach a broader audience, not to profit from it. We’re looking forward to reading what you come up with!

Next week, me again with another look at self-publishing v’s traditional.

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Posted in Greetings & Announcements | 2 Comments

Fair Play

Everyone knows nowadays that the modern masters of word play include James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov knew it too. In one interview he generously admitted that, “my English is patball to Joyce’s champion game.” Although it is arguable whether he was a touch too modest in that assessment, there is no denying he knew Joyce’s Ulysses well, having taught it for many years at Cornell. To my knowledge he never lavished that kind of praise on any other contemporary writer of English.

What of patball? Those who know patball and can envision a palm slapping at a bouncing ball will get the tennis reference implied in “Joyce’s champion game.” Nabokov also knew his tennis. He played non-professionally and gave lessons as an expat in Europe. Scenes on tennis courts are sprinkled throughout his novels, including the most famous example from Lolita.

Tennis is an apt metaphor for writing when you consider the spin a player puts on a ball with various ground strokes, volleys, and serves. Word play is the spin of writing. And when you consider that patball has basically none of it, anyone familiar with Nabokov’s style can conclude he was falsely denigrating his own writing to highlight the genius of Joyce. Fair play.

Since I have written enough about Nabokov in other posts, I’d like to look at a couple of contemporary practitioners, of the lesser sort, in this brief reflection on word play.  Furthermore, I’ll stick to Nabokov’s metaphor and playfully choose two other writers who both know their tennis.

First, a look at the style of David Foster Wallace and his beast of a book, Infinite Jest. The protagonist of this work, like the adolescent DFW, is a gifted young tennis player, Hal Incandenza. With this passage we are taken into a boys’ locker room where exhausted players try to recoup after practice. Here are the lines:

“Besides Hal, who’s atavistically dark-complected anyway, the ones here with the least piebald coloring are the players who can tolerate spraying themselves down with Lemon Pledge before outdoor play. It turns out Lemon Pledge, when it’s applied in pre-play stasis and allowed to dry to a thin crust, is a phenomenal sunscreen, UV-rating like 40+, and the only stuff anywhere that can survive a three-set sweat.” (p. 99)

“Group empathy is expressed via sighs, further slumping, small spastic gestures of exhaustion, the soft clanks of skulls’ backs against the lockers’ thin steel.” (p. 100)

I like the internal rhyme and alliteration of the first passage’s “three-set sweat.” The sound effects punctuate the meaning: three sets of tennis, between two players of skill, is exhausting. The second passage, with its repeated “k” sounds in “clanks”, “skulls”, “backs”, “lockers'”, uses word play not to dazzle, but to slow the reader down. Impeded by those “k’s”, a reader simply can’t trip lightly along that line. We are slowed to reflect the tired, aching slowness experienced by the characters.

The second writer for this discussion gives us this passage:

“Snide, he often ended complimentary statements with muted, rude asides: She’s the kind of girl who’d do anything for you (for a price).

Another from a tennis court:

Nice shot! (Jackass).

The word play consists of internal rhyme (snide/aside) on opposite ends of the sentence, delivering a delayed sound effect. It functions to emphasize the deviant nature of the character (the assonance of muted/rude) while adding a bit of music to his description.

The writer of that sentence also knows a bit about tennis. But don’t ask about my backhand.

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Posted in Thoughts on Writing, Reading & Books | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

New look

Despite our laziness and general curmudgeonly attitude towards anything “new” or “fanfangled” or, dare some suggest, “better”, we here at Drugstore Books are not entirely tuned out to the wider world. As such, we’ve decided to give the site a little facelift. Rather, we’ve decided to pay someone to give the site a facelift as we have no idea what we’re doing. But not to worry! The site you have grown to love will still be old-timey and full of the charm that only three hopelessly outdated and talentless middle-aged men could bring to it. We’ll be taking a break over the summer while everything gets done and then will be back in September with new content to go with the new look. In the meantime, don’t forget about our next By Prescription Only short story and essay showcase, which will be here before you know it.

We wish all of our readers a very happy and fulfilling summer. Till then!

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Posted in Greetings & Announcements | Tagged , , | Comments closed

Take one of these and then get to work

If any of you are like me then you’ll consider summer a dreadful time of suffering and woe, but not to fret because this year at least we here at Drugstore Books have what you need to get through it. That’s right, our next By Prescription Only short story and essay showcase is right around the corner. Our new theme is Faces, a topic rife with possibilities and pus! (Err, sorry…) So note the guidelines below, break out those typing fingers, and send your submissions to: contact@drugstorebooks.com.

  • Theme: Faces
  • Length: 3,000-8,000 words
  • Format: MS Word 97-2003 (If you’re using a recent version of Word then please save as a .doc and not a .docx file, this will help smooth out compatibility issues.)
  • Title: Centered, Times New Roman 16 point; with a byline below also centered and in 14 point
  • Text, font and size: Justified; Times New Roman, 12 point
  • Spacing: Single, with block quotes separated by an empty line on both sides; paragraphs indented but section breaks separated by an empty line and three centered asterisks
  • Footer: www.drugstorebooks.com (on the left) © Your Name 2014 (on the right — stretched to fit the length of the footer)
  • Quotation conventions: Double quotes (“faces”) with embedded single quotes (‘faces’) for reported speech, single quotes for reported thoughts, double quotes to mark text off (i.e. so-called “~~”), song titles, etc.
  • Italics: Use for emphasis, book/magazine/TV show/film/album titles
  • Referencing: Any standard academic convention is fine as long as it’s used consistently; both footnotes and end notes are acceptable, though any applicable footnotes will not be included in the opening section posted on the site
  • Deadline: 26 September

If you’re wondering how it will all pan out, here’s Nick’s “No Contest” from our last round as an example. Please note too that all of our previous entries are available on the By Prescription Only: Themed Writing page. All submissions will be edited by us but the final decision regarding any suggested changes to the content will be left up to the author. The author will also retain full copyright privileges and ownership; we’re here to display your work and help it reach a broader audience, not to profit from it. We’re looking forward to reading what you come up with!

Next week, me again with an exciting announcement about what’s up ahead.

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Men of Principle: Two (Blog Second)

Last week I began to build the case for Diggory Venn, in Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native, as a man of principle. Here’s the concluding part.

Despite his self-imposed outcast status (a reddleman), Venn is no passive observer in the narrative. He pops up everywhere, mainly to try to protect and serve Thomasin, but he’ll also help out any passing heath folk who may need it. Some of his actions may be somewhat unbelievable — for example (*spoiler alert), rivals are floundering in the weir after a failed attempt to rescue Eustacia (one’s wife, the other’s mistress), and it’s the reddleman who knows his backstroke from his butterfly, diving in and rescuing both men (although only one survives).

Although melodramatic, his superhero-like-ability perhaps chimes with Venn’s otherworldly aura that Hardy establishes throughout. Hardy uses Venn to sum up that fateful event at the weir later that day in the Quiet Woman Inn:

“Two were corpses, one had barely escaped the jaws of death, another was sick and a widow.”

That Venn should deliver that line is telling because, by this stage of the novel, he is the closest any character has come to being an extension of Egdon Heath. It’s as if the heath is speaking directly to the reader. (On another level, the heath is itself a separate character with its landscape, seasons and pagan rituals — especially so given the classical narrative timeframe of ‘a year and a day’.) If Hardy’s overriding statement about the human condition is man’s struggle in a detached, even callous, universe, then what does that say about Venn? Assuming that, to a certain extent, Venn embodies theme then Venn’s destiny is to wander that “blasted heath”, red-skinned and alone until he falls from his wagon and his bones powder in the earth. (Book Sixth was added to satisfy readers of the day. Few today would agree that Venn’s true destiny is ‘to get the girl’ as the final book concludes. This ending breaks the Aristotelian timeframe and pollutes both theme and characters.)

It’s not by chance that I chose Castillo and Venn as my two men of principle. The same impulses make them tick and similar traits and philosophies are at the heart of each character, namely a dogged insistence to fulfil their ‘duty’ and a certain altruistic chivalry. From their backstories, both characters are devoured by loneliness after monumental woman trouble (Castillo thinks his wife is dead, Venn is spurned by Thomasin). Castillo, that moustachioed Ingmar Bergman character who somehow wanders into eighties Miami, lets his work consume him, trying to fill his personal void by battling organised crime and a corrupt legal system. Despite losing out on his shot at happiness, he appears and acts joyful that his presumed-dead-wife has re-married and has a child with another man, although we can guess at the maelstrom he must be feeling inside. Regardless of the problems it causes him, he uses his position as a lieutenant to protect her and her husband (who, in the end, turns out to be a rotter).

Diggory Venn, however, goes one better: believing he will never have Thomasin, he knowingly facilitates her quest to marry Wildeve, a man he knows to be a bounder and a cad. This is after having previously been spurned by her, which in turn drove him to give up his occupation as a dairy farmer (a respectable job) to stalk the heath peddling reddle. Being a reddleman seems to function as both an act of self-flagellation — perhaps mourning his lost hope — and the perfect occupation to facilitate his grand scheme, which is to help Thomasin in her future endeavours (including marrying a jerk). He does this because his love for her is so deep he wants her to be happy despite the misery it will cause him. (If I were him, I would’ve gone for that sultry firecracker, Eustacia; Thomasin I find to be mousy and a complete bore).

Allusions to the cosmic, an all-consuming sense of duty and a steady self-discipline bind Venn and Castillo together as characters, but it’s their selfless reaction to lost love that makes them men of principle, their actions perhaps best summed up by the title of the Sting song, “If you love somebody, set them free.” In a world of snark-infested irony, these characters may seem hopelessly unfashionable. But as that old lecturer who used to read The Return of the Native to us once said (in a hammed up Wessex accent): “Fashion? Fashion be for fools.” (He didn’t actually say that, but it made for a neat ending.)

Next week, Andrew Oberg returns from a two-week pachinko binge with details about our next BPO.

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Men of Principle: Two (Blog First)

A month or so ago, I blogged about men of principle and then followed up the post with a look at laconic characters. I encountered this next man of principle as a young student. Lazy toad that I was, one particular A-level lit lecturer was the perfect match for me because he read course novels during class time — leaving me plenty of time to experiment with the ‘counterculture’ once the lights had gone out (and usually by about ten o’clock my lights had gone out as well).

This lecturer was a stage actor who taught a few classes on the side, so for him it was quite natural to drop into different voices — cad-like inn keepers, sickly simpletons, retired ship’s captains — he could do them all with aplomb and treated each class as a performance. Incidentally, the subject of this post isn’t that bright-eyed, thesp of a lecturer (although I’m sure he was ‘principled’ in his own way, too). No, my man of principle rose from my old teacher’s lungs and then leapt from the pages of the novel he was reading to us: my next man of principle is the “reddleman”, Diggory Venn, from Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native.

For those of you who haven’t read the novel, a reddleman earned his corn by travelling the countryside marking sheep with red ochre, which was known in the local dialect as “reddle”. Because of this work, Venn was a drifter. He was also stained from head-to-foot in red dye and was therefore, in the minds’ of ‘heath folk’, a bogeyman who prowled the peaks and gullies. During the 1840s (the book is set thirty years before its publication), suntans were not de rigueur; proper ladies cowered under parasols, their dainty Victorian limbs hidden by gazebos that passed for shawls and skirts; meanwhile, peasants the colour of copper toiled in the sun slashing furze. Being the colour of a Royal Mail pillar box wasn’t a particularly good look — that is if you ever hoped to marry — and that’s at all, let alone ‘well’.

Like many novels of the time, the marriage banns are a central plot device in The Return of the Native. Being red from toes-to-temples meant that Diggory Venn was fresh out of luck on that front (Hardy references Venn’s hue endlessly, so I feel obliged to follow suit). I should also point out that Venn is devilishly handsome (Mephistophelean being the adverb of choice). Naturally, being a man of principle, Venn has a strong jaw (after all, one way or another he’s going to get socked in it enough times). Think, perhaps, of a young Clint Eastwood, although not as tall. And painted red.

The writer and critic E.M Forster talks of narrative “connectors”, plot facilitators who bring together disparate story threads by virtue of circumstance and/or character, and Venn is certainly that. He’s a man in the shadows, a man of whispers, moving around Egdon Heath observing, intervening, delivering news and gossip, actions that, with Hardy’s deft ironic touches, have far-reaching story consequences.

Like Castillo, the subject of my last post, Venn is shrouded in mystery and otherworldly. Castillo, with his inner-Zen, makes the toughest cons and cops mumble and splutter while Venn is a literal embodiment of local superstition, a child-scarer and portal through genres into magic-realism. For example, in Chapter Seven, Book Third, Venn, who’s been watching a dice game from the shadows, steps in and wins all the money in an impossible run of good fortune, risking his own shekels to aide Thomasin, the woman who spurned him and drove him from the respectability of a dairy farmer to a life of peddling reddle.

Venn’s unwavering love of Thomasin is at the heart of his character, shaping his backstory and affecting most of his thoughts and actions throughout the novel. So what makes him a man of principle? Come back next week to find out.

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Posted in Thoughts on Writing, Reading & Books | Tagged , , | 3 Comments
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