25 September 02003

Text and Index: supporting the reading of culture

In 1987 when I made my second, eventually successful, attempt to read Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, I started keeping notes. These notes comprised a brief précis of the developments in each passage and the cast of characters (new and reappearing) involved. I have a good memory but I needed this charting to keep track of the multiple enfoldings and criss-crossing of the narrative.

My recent web searching shows that I was in good company, and there are a very rich set of online and offline resources devoted to helping readers get more out of this book.

Although I only started my notes about a quarter of the way through, by the end they ran to some tens of pages, and constituted, I felt, a significant resource. I put them away, in case I ever had the appetite to read the book again. I lost them, found them again when I packed to move house, and now I think/hope they are in one of my storage boxes.

Tim Ware's Gravity's Rainbow web site accomplishes a similar kind of job, more rigorously and extensively than mine — so now you can check the entry for Mucker-Maffick, Oliver "Tantivy" to see where he crops up, as well as locating references to other topics from masturbation to the Masons. (My modest contribution to Tim's work was to remind him of an association that I and others have made between the Kenosha Kid in Gravity's Rainbow and Orson Welles, who was born in Kenosha — hence the kind mention of my name on the thanks page.)

This kind of index representation is peculiarly suitable for Pynchon's work. It can stand on its own as a form of re-reading of the original, like John Cage's mesostic readings of Joyce's Finnegans Wake. And it evokes other para-textual conceits like J.G. Ballard's short story The Index which comprises just the index for a 'lost biography' of an imaginary 20th Century historical character.

Further surfing reveals a bewildering number of scholarly references concerning Gravity's Rainbow. On the web, Larry Daw's summary comes closest to my notes in form. The Modern Word site also includes an Illustrated Complete Summary, though this is interesting primarily for showing one more instance where a multimedia Flash presentation is not as well-suited to some jobs as a more prosaic format, such as the plain text index. There are "Companions" and "Reader's Guides" in book form, and the Pynchon Notes journal has been running since 1979.

These are the kind of reference works I said a few weeks ago that I expected, but failed, to find on the web for Peter Greenaway's films. It has given me an idea for a broader framework for "companion" resources that aim to educate and enrich experiences of literature, art, film and music. I hope to come back to this.

(See also my review of the Tate's online offerings to complement some parts of its collection.)

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Cultural Calendar, Curatorial on 25 September 02003 | TrackBack
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