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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Forward from Gravity’s Rainbow Illustrated
It’s no secret that Matt Kish has been scrawling his way down the Congo for the illustrated edition of Heart of Darkness (keep track of his journey by checking out his tumblr); but since the alchemy of turning words into pictures is in itself a bit of a trip, we bring you (from Issue 29), one possible road map for how this type of amalgamation can take shape.
So . . . what the fuck?
So why does a guy best known for portraits of half-naked punk-porn chicks decide one day to sit down and illustrate every single page of a relentlessly difficult classic of twentieth-century literature?
Last year a newspaper wanted an article out of me on roughly that topic. If there was a punk-porn/Pynchon connection I didn’t know what it was but I told the guy I’d give it a shot and hung up the phone. I did know there was a go-go dancing, fire-eating, tattooed anarchist lying on my bed, and I knew she was busy reading Vineland out loud—and that was about it.
A few days later, I went to Los Angeles and met lots of pornographers. The first pornographer had the muted post horn from Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 tattooed on his arm. He told me to read Steve Erickson.
The second pornographer told me about a third pornographer who I had to talk to because he was like the original punk pornographer and he was doing it before anybody so I asked what’s this guy’s name and he said, “Benny Profane.” I called Benny:
“Benny Profane, you’re named after a character in V. and you make dirty movies. Can you please explain to me the secret connection between Thomas Pynchon and punk-porn?”
Benny said nobody’d ever recognized his stage name and said some stuff about hmmm . . . maybe, the concept of preterition and girls with chipped teeth and stuff. I mailed him a disk of all the Gravity’s Rainbow pictures I’d done; he mailed me some porno movies.
Benny then says he’s a big fan and it’d mean a lot to him if he could maybe use the Gravity’s Rainbow pictures in a movie he’s doing for Hustler. I say no problem and I say it’d mean a lot to me if I could fuck some girls in the movie he’s doing for Hustler.
Six months later I have a vigorous second career as a porn actor and Steve Erickson is writing the introduction to my book.
The Pynchonish Style of Thought.
Now I suspect Pynchon fans will find all that thoroughly gratifying and not just because it ends with one of them getting to have sex a lot. It’s gratifying because it pretty much validates the real-world utility of the Pynchonish style of thought: go off looking for the answer to some maybe-meaningless question, collect and connect the obscure clues, find out that the world is weirder and wider than you’d imagined and so are you.
Or, to put it another way: Pay attention to everything interesting because everything is connected.
People often call this style of thinking “paranoid,” but that word connotes something pathetic rather than something that might be creative or useful. Gravity’s Rainbow in particular seems to have been written by someone who began with no other project than to observe, write essays about, and know the history of nearly everything that interested him in the one-eyed hope that, in the end, it would all be connected—the hope that after 760 pages some thread connecting warfare, behaviorism, and bad limericks would emerge and that this thread would be relevant, if not to the entire world, then at least to the life of the author.
Painters do that, too. The one who lived near the mountain painted the mountain, the one who liked bullfights painted the bullfight, the one who watched the light pass through the greasy glass and hit the orange peel on the kitchen counter painted the light passing through the greasy glass and hitting the orange peel on the kitchen counter—not because they knew that looking closely at these things would tell them something but because they hoped it would.
In Gravity’s Rainbow, this style of thought extends all the way down to the language—all those long, detailed, poetic, discursive, intricate, elusive sentences. Sentences that demand to be examined inch by inch and always do much more than they say.
So, like a lot of people, I sat down one summer and read 760 pages and the style of thought contained in those pages inspired a powerful shock of recognition and the shock bounced around my head for years afterward like a ball of fireflies. Unlike most of those people I had both an urge to catch as many of those fireflies as I could and a job that turned this activity into a pleasant and fascinating way to spend my working hours instead of a cranky, dorky, and borderline-psychotic waste of spare time.
But that’s a little deceptive—I didn’t really do “spare time” during the GR project. People often ask how long it took—I worked on it during nine months of fourteen-hour days and seven-day weeks. I threw away tons of drawings. I did a few other pieces during that time but mostly it was Gravity’s Rainbow all day every day. Some days, looking up the Mendoza rifle on the Internet at three in the morning or trying to figure out a new and interesting way to draw two people having a conversation in a room for the twentieth time, it seemed like the stupidest art idea on Earth. I initially tried to draw every page in order, but after a while I pretty much went after any image I could get excited about and then went through at the end and filled in the gaps. I could only pushpin about a third of the pictures to my bedroom wall at any given time and so I was constantly hanging and rehanging the pictures. My wall looks like a termite city.
People ask about my “obsession” with Gravity’s Rainbow, but I wouldn’t say I was obsessed—I was just doing the thing the way it needed to be done. The book is, above all, complex and gorgeous; the pictures had to be complex and gorgeous.
The book was in my head as much as some Bible scene or bunch of grapes or Peruvian factory-worker plight was in the head of some other artist, and I decided to deal with my subject in the hope that, once dealt with, it would make sense, and so I dealt with my subject, as all artists do, with the only style I have, and my style is nothing if not thorough.
. . . which makes these illustrations a
What the Book Is and Is Not
Page 49: “. . . the sight of your blood spurting from the flaccid stub of artery . . .”
. . . and there I am in the drawing, the blood spurting from what’s left of a skinny, tattooed arm. Because when I read that sentence (or one of the very few others in which Pynchon uses second person) I think of me—just as when you read it you probably think of you. So in trying to be thorough as well as faithful to my understanding of the words, I very occasionally ended up making pictures that simply wouldn’t do if I’d actually been hired to illustrate this book. Instead of drawing some sort of WWII-era British everyman or -woman mutilated for that picture, I chose to be faithful to what I saw in my head when I read that sentence rather than to what some art director would’ve demanded.
That having been said, I am conventional and sober-minded enough that when Pynchon writes, say, “ambulance,” I see an ambulance in my head, not a washrag. I might even go look up a 1940s German ambulance to make sure I get it right. So don’t worry, this book is not some hippie word-association game.
On the third hand—“Silver and black. Curvewarped reflections of stars flowing across, down the full length of, round and round in meridians exact as the meridians of acupuncture” (page 699). OK, dude, you draw that. Sometimes—maybe half the time—Pynchon’s language requires interpretation, which is one of the reasons it was fun to draw (How can I make a thing that looks like a benzene molecule and a snake at the same time? How can I make an angel in the sky that you’re not sure you’re actually seeing?), and one of the reasons it might be fun for you to compare notes with me as you read, and one of the reasons that any attempt to make a definitive set of illustrations for Gravity’s Rainbow would be doomed from the start.
That’s why there are no words opposite the pictures in Gravity’s Rainbow Illustrated. There is nothing official about what I saw when I read. It is just my end of a three-way conversation about a book between you, me, and the guy who wrote it.
Zak Smith lives in works in Los Angeles. His work is, somewhat surprisingly, included in several public collections including The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; The Saatchi Gallery, London; and The Whitney Museum of American Art, where his work was included in the 2004 Whitney Biennial. His work has also been exhibited at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; The Contemporary Museum of Art, Baltimore; The National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC; and The Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. In addition to his memoir, We Did Porn, two books of his art work have been published–Pictures of Girls and Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow.