Max Renn is president of Toronto’s Civic TV, “the one you take to bed with you.” He’s always looking for the next provocation to broadcast: sex, violence, and mayhem are all welcomed. Screen shock is victimless, he claims, saying “I give my viewers a harmless outlet for their fantasies and their frustrations.” But Max wants more for his meager Channel 83. He’s “looking for something that will break through.” He finds the ultimate shock in the form of a pirated video: a dramatized snuff-film called Videodrome, shot in a small red room, with black-garbed torturers and their female victims.
Videodrome, David Cronenberg’s classic 1983 film, is perfect viewing for 2017 — the year a man baptized by television becomes president. The film is an homage to all things small screen: local-access, low-budget, low-resolution. Max, played by a smirking James Woods, will do anything to titillate his viewers, but he’s a sneaky moralist. “Better on TV than on the streets,” he says of violence. Max thinks that he’s controversial, but he soon learns that other provocateurs have what he lacks: a philosophy.
In response to criticism of his network’s programming, Max appears on a television talk show, where he flirts with Nicki Brand (played by Debbie Harry), radio host of The Emotional Rescue Show. They go back to his apartment, and he jokingly asks if she wants to watch Videodrome to get in the mood. He’s taken aback when Nicki likes it, and further unsettled when he sees gashes on her neck. Max prefers fantasy, but Nicki’s flesh has been wounded. When she later jokes that she’s going to audition for Videodrome herself, Max pleads for her to stay away from those “mondo video weirdo guys.”
Max soon learns from an agent who secures programming for the station that Videodrome is an actual snuff film. Partially because he wants the show for Civic TV — but mostly because he fears for Nicki’s safety — Max tries to find the origin of the video. The trail leads Max to the Cathode Ray Mission, its red and blue sign complemented with the Sacred Heart. A crowd of homeless people sift into the building, where they kneel in front of televisions. They suffer from the disease of electronic disconnection: “watching TV will help patch them back into the world’s mixing-board.”
Max is there to find Brian O’Blivion, who is described as a “media prophet professor.” The mysterious professor is absent. “I am my father’s screen,” his daughter Bianca says. She recognizes Max from the show, quipping “you said some very superficial things: violence, sex, imagination, catharsis.”
In his audio commentary for the film, Cronenberg admits that the professor was inspired by the “communications guru” Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan taught at the University of Toronto while Cronenberg attended, but to his “everlasting regret,” he never took a course with the media icon. Cronenberg said that McLuhan’s “influence was felt everywhere at the university” — a mystical-tinged description that McLuhan would have appreciated.
McLuhan earned his doctorate from Cambridge with a dissertation on 16th-century satirist Thomas Nashe. He once sullied the comic strip Blondie for its representations of masculinity. By the time Cronenberg was enrolled at the university, McLuhan was that now rare commodity: a public intellectual. An honest-to-God pop philosopher. Jefferson Pooley notes that McLuhan underwent a “metamorphosis from pious agrarian to media mystagogue.” By the time of The Medium is the Massage — now a half-century ago — McLuhan was giving presentations to IBM and General Electric, and regularly appearing on television.
Tom Wolfe visited McLuhan, and narrated with disbelief: “he sits in a little office off on the edge of the University of Toronto that looks like the receiving bin of a second-hand book store, grading papers, grading papers, for days on end.” Douglas Coupland thinks what is most endearing about McLuhan is that he was “a classically trained scholar realizing that there’s this thing coming down the pipe — the Internet — yet because he didn’t understand the ultimate interface, he was frustrated in his inability to describe it clearly.” Here was a digital Johannes Gutenberg, suited up as “this fuddy-duddy guy in 1950s Toronto.”
How do we expect our prophets to appear? McLuhan was old school. He was the oldest of institutions, in fact; a Catholic. A convert by the way of G.K. Chesterton and Jacques Maritain. McLuhan said converts enter the church through the back door — “coming in through the effects of the church, and not through its teachings. When you come in the front door you have first to swallow all the doctrines and all the teachings, which is what happens to the kids you see in school.”
McLuhan considered prayer “constant, nonstop dialogue with the Creator.” He attended Mass daily; he was known to sometimes shorten his classes to attend midday service. His son recalled they would say the rosary as a family at night. Like many converts, McLuhan was conservative in his approach toward the Vatican II reforms. He was not particularly fond of the institutional church, and was surprisingly critical of the Jesuits — those fellow global-villagers.
From the outside, these contradictions might seem to denude his identity. Yet paradox is not only endemic to Catholicism, it is downright Christological. Here was an old man telling us about new media. McLuhan taught us that the difference between aphorism and bumper stickers depends on the medium. He was misunderstood, appropriated, re-mixed. He said of his own work “I don’t pretend to understand it.” No sola scriptura here.
Hugh Kenner once wrote “Like Andy Warhol, whose works we don’t need to see to appreciate their point, McLuhan is the writer his public doesn’t need to read.” Of course the reference to Warhol — a fellow eccentric Catholic, who called Videodrome “A Clockwork Orange of the 80s” — is apt. No doubt that Videodrome is a McLuhan-drenched film, but does the film share his Catholic ethos? (For McLuhan, Catholicism was the medium, the message, and the massage).
McLuhan was a scholar of James Joyce, a purveyor of print. He documented the advent of the electric eye, but he didn’t desire it. Although he had “nothing but distaste for the process of change,” he said you had to “keep cool during our descent into the maelstrom.” Max can’t keep cool. He is infected by Videodrome; the show’s reality subverts its unreal medium. Max discovers that Professor O’Blivion helped create Videodrome because “he saw it as the next phase in the evolution of man as a technological animal.” Sustained viewing of Videodrome creates tumors and hallucinations. Max is being played by the remaining originators of Videodrome, whose philosophy sounds downright familiar: “North America’s getting soft, and the rest of the world is getting tough. We’re entering savage new times, and we’re going to have to be pure and direct and strong if we’re going to survive them.” Videodrome is a way to identify the derelicts by giving them what they most crave — real violence — and then incapacitate them into submission.
McLuhan’s idea that “mental breakdown is the very common result of uprooting and inundation with new information,” and his simultaneous interest in, and skepticism of, the “electric eye” finds a gory literalism in Cronenberg’s film. Videodrome is what happens when a self-described existentialist atheist channels McLuhan — but makes McLuhan’s Catholic-infused media analysis more secular and raw. Cronenberg was able to foretell our electronic evolution, the quasi-Eucharistic way we “taste and see” the Internet. The film’s gore and gush might now strike us as campy, but Videodrome shows what happens when mind and device become one. “Death is not the end,” one character says, but “the beginning of the new flesh.” We’re already there.
In a 1978 debate with William Gass at the University of Cincinnati, John Gardner said the fiction of Anthony Trollope is rarely taught “because it’s all clear.” In contrast, “every line of Thomas Pynchon you can explain because nothing is clear.” The result: “the academy ends up accidentally selecting books the student may need help with. They may be a couple of the greatest books in all history and 20 of the worst, but there’s something to say about them.” Gardner warned that “The sophisticated reader may not remember how to read: he may not understand why it’s nice that Jack in the Beanstalk steals those things from the giant.”
Neither Gardner nor any other single critic is the final word on what belongs in a classroom, but I admit some deference to his voice. His books The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist were influential to me as a young writer, and his playful debate with Gass has been invaluable in showing my students the tension within American fiction during the late ’70s. Yet Gardner’s polemical On Moral Fiction soured me a bit. He opted for a bullhorn where a flute might have been more appropriate. Gardner’s critical shouting was a show, a way to carve out a niche for his own literary identity. In a later interview with The New Orleans Review, Gardner is more measured: he calls Pynchon “a brilliant man, but his theory of what fiction ought to do is diametrically opposed to mine, and while I think he’s wonderful and ought to be read — besides which it’s a pleasure — I don’t want anybody confusing him with the great artists of our time. He’s a great stunt-man.”
I end my senior AP Literature course with the stunt man. The first text I give my students is Gass and Gardner’s debate; we finish with The Crying of Lot 49 by Pynchon. Between Gardner and Pynchon, the students read a significant amount of poetry, as well as novels by Graham Greene, Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, William Faulkner, and plays by Eugène Ionesco and Jean-Paul Sartre. I end with Pynchon because his fiction is difficult, dated, and frustrating: exactly what my students need to read before they go to college.
Difficult, dated, and frustrating requires some explanation.
Pynchon is difficult because of his syntax. Consider the first sentence of The Crying of Lot 49: “One summer afternoon, Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.” Pynchon’s sentences are labyrinthine and recursive: full of noise. As his sentences become paragraphs, and his paragraphs span pages, the novel becomes a whirlwind of paranoia; a test of a reader’s endurance and patience.
Pynchon is dated. The novel’s first chapter contains references to The Shadow and Lamont Cranston, parodies of television legal dramas and ’60s local radio station DJs, and Timothy Leary’s consciousness-bending theories. The next chapter introduces Miles, a manager of a local motel, who is “maybe 16 with a Beatle haircut and a lapelless, cuffless, one-button mohair suit,” whose band is called “The Paranoids.”
Pynchon is frustrating. Although my students read difficult books, ranging from Morrison’s layered representation of trauma in Beloved to DeLillo’s absurd mash-up of linguistics and football in End Zone, each previous novel builds toward a resolution. Pynchon tricks, trips, and nearly pummels the reader with herrings of every color. Oedipa’s search is continually diverted with distractions, and that’s before she learns of The Tristero or Trystero, the multinational, historical conspiracy that has culminated in an underground postal system, W.A.S.T.E.
Pynchon has written six novels since The Crying of Lot 49, so why teach this early book that Pynchon himself said was a work “in which I seem to have forgotten most of what I thought I’d learned up till then?” Because I know that students, pushed by a teacher who believes in them, will rise to the difficulty of the material presented.
We read Pynchon for the same reasons that others might not.
Pynchon’s difficult syntax forces students to juggle two methods of reading: reading for language, and reading for content. That previously quoted first sentence has a lot of noise, but it is not cacophonic. Pynchon’s convoluted syntax mirrors Oedipa’s increasingly chaotic world. His sentences force students to rethink their assumptions about the purposes of not only traditional prose, but also experimental language. I do not intend Pynchon’s work to convert them to more postmodern interests in literature; rather, Pynchon’s fiction is like a literary workout that forces them to build from the ground up as readers. When students read easier works of literature, they might become deluded into thinking that all language is employed in the service of clear communication. Pynchon’s paradoxes make them return to other, non-literary texts with a bit more skepticism and independent thinking.
Although Pynchon’s references and comedic timing within The Crying of Lot 49 might feel dated, the novel helps students understand mid-’60s American fiction, particularly work from the West Coast. One might update the curiously self-deprecating band The Paranoids for our present as Big Data, a Brooklyn-based act founded by Harvard graduate Alan Wilkis. In a recent interview with NPR, he spoke about his “paranoid electronic pop project,” and how “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the Internet.” Big Data’s great debut album, 2.0, leads with “The Business of Emotion,” a send-up of the “Facebook mood experiments:” “Feel good, make you feel good / I’m looking for emotion so I know just what to show you.” Students realize that, more and more, they are becoming Oedipa, buried in data: “They knew her pressure points, and the ganglia of her optimism, and one by one, pinch by precision pinch, they were immobilizing her.”
Finally, student frustration with Pynchon evolves into curiosity. Rather than becoming angry at Pynchon’s lack of linear progression and profluence, students are often intrigued by his parlor tricks. For years they have been taught to unearth and discover meaning in texts — English educators love to use manual labor metaphors, but don’t always want to get their hands dirty — yet The Crying of Lot 49 makes students consider what happens when a work of art might not have any traditional secrets to reveal. The movement toward skills-based education in the humanities has also created an effort-return mentality: the expectation that a text can, or should, be distilled into a single sentence. Don’t we want students who know how to handle messes?
There are many other difficult novels that could fit the aforementioned criteria. What is special about Pynchon and The Crying of Lot 49?
Published in 1965, Pynchon’s novel fits nicely within the decade of media theorist and “electronic prophet” Marshall McLuhan’s essential works: The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), Understanding Media (1964), and The Medium is the Massage (1967). As Mark Greif notes in The Age of the Crisis of Man, his excellent consideration of American fiction between 1933 and 1973, “Pynchon [puts] a TV set in every room of his fiction — often to drive the action.” McLuhan’s “electric light” illuminates Pynchon’s fiction.
Oedipa is the protagonist that McLuhan might dream of, a woman thrust into an electronic world she did not create but is forced to understand. Early in the novel, Oedipa and Metzger, her part-time lover, part-time legal mentor, visit The Scope, a nightclub on the outskirts of Los Angeles with “a strictly electronic music policy.” A “hip graybeard” explains “They put it on the tape, here, live, fella. We’ve got a whole back room full of your audio oscillators, gunshot machines, contact mikes, everything man.” As Oedipa drives through San Narciso on a Sunday, “She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit.” Oedipa’s world is wholly electronic; in fact, considering Pynchon’s sensibility as a jester-Catholic, holy electronic.
My students watch McLuhan’s 1976 appearance on The Today Show and are entertained by his dissection of the presidential debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. “I never saw a more atrocious misuse of the TV medium,” he quips, and calls the moment when the sound cut during the debate a “rebellion of the medium against the bloody message.” If the bloody message is linear, progressive, and climactic storytelling, Pynchon’s novel is rebellion through performance. Greif notes that “‘Man’ as a being and a concept is put into jeopardy for Pynchon, not first by high-technological machines or weapons but by the use of ordinary materials and the creation of mundane objects — the changing status of the parts of men, and the insertion of inanimate things into their bodies and daily habits.” I don’t want students to smash their iPhones, but I do want them to think twice about what type of data they offer their devices.
At its worst, Pynchon’s prose is a beautiful failure. At its best, Pynchon’s prose is revelatory. I agree with Greif that, in the end, The Crying of Lot 49 and Pynchon’s canon as a whole are concerned with data: “whether remains are transmitted beyond each individual communication, buried in the material facts of the founding of the system of communication, and whether this residue may shadow and smudge the prospect of those who join such a system, without them even knowing it.” Not a bad lesson for students to learn, somewhere between thinking of giants, beanstalks, and other noise.