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Gravity's . . . compass?

Posted by Joshua Glenn  December 6, 2007 12:57 PM

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Brainiac, who has been under the weather, and struggling with computer problems, is pleased to introduce a post from guest blogger Mark Feeney, Globe arts writer and author of "Nixon at the Movies: A Book About Belief" (2004).


The film version of "The Golden Compass," the first volume in Philip Pullman's best-selling "His Dark Materials" trilogy, opens Friday. This has occasioned considerable discussion of the book's anti-clericalism, such as Donna Freitas' "God in the Dust," in the Nov. 25 Ideas section, and of Pullman's literary influences. It's a pretty irresistible subject, since they range from Milton and Blake to Ursula K. Le Guin and Glenn Gould (the book's second chapter is called "The Idea of North," the title of the pianist's most celebrated radio documentary).

What about Pullman's own literary influence, though? More specifically, what about the role "The Golden Compass" may have played in shaping, or even inspiring, Thomas Pynchon's "Against the Day"?

"Against the Day" came out in November 2006. Pynchon's previous novel, "Mason & Dixon," appeared in April 1997. Now it's certainly possible he had begun work on "Against the Day" before or during the writing of "Mason & Dixon," though considering the sheer bulk of both novels -- and how wildy different they are -- that seems unlikely. "The Golden Compass" came out in April 1996. Pynchon has a well-known interest in SF and fantasy, and at various points his novels flirt with both genres. (Think of Imipolex G and the Kirghiz Light, in "Gravity's Rainbow.") So it's not unreasonable to think Pynchon might have read the book, and at a time when he would be either contemplating or actually working on what would become "Against the Day."


That novel very much continues Pynchon's monumental love/hate affair with technology, most memorably expressed -- a whopper of an understatement -- in "Gravity's Rainbow." In "Against the Day," theoretical physics gets added to the mix. Fascinating yet sinister technology? The narrative centrality of theoretical physics? "The Golden Compass" has even Pynchon beat: zeppelins, "anbaric" lightning, a spiritual guillotine, Dust!

The plot of "Against the Day" is harder to summarize than that of any other Pynchon novel (which is really saying something). Let us just note that two major elements in the book are a band of aeronauts who float from one adventure to another, and several Western gunslingers. That sentence should immediately remind "Golden Compass" readers of one of that book's more vivid secondary characters, pistol-packing Texas aeronaut Lee Scoresby. Also polar regions and Oxford figure in "Against the Day," if nowhere near as prominently as in "The Golden Compass."


All of which may add up to something -- or nothing. In the sniffing out of clues, sources, and allusions in Pynchon texts there is no end or definitive answer. You never know when something might be just dust in the wind -- unless, of course, it's Dust in the wind.


PS: Read Mark Feeney's obituary for Elizabeth Hardwick here.

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1 comments so far...
  1. I agree - there is even an reference to Iceland spar and its refractive properties in both books.

    Posted by david lee December 31, 07 09:53 PM
About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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