Tag Archives: Fools’ Guild

Me and Thomas Pynchon Are Like This

   Those who know me know that Thomas Pynchon is my favorite author, bar none. He’s the guy I order in advance in hardcover, the one I keep when others get recycled. He’s the one I reread, hoping to catch more of what I missed, and God knows I miss a lot, because he is much smarter than me and one of the great historical researchers in American fiction.

   He is also, famously, a recluse. The last picture of him dates from the 1950’s. He does live in New York City. Apparently, he married late in life and produced a son who is now in his twenties. A television news crew once stalked him and obtained footage, but he purportedly talked them out of showing it.

   He also has appeared on television twice — but both were on “The Simpsons,” where even his cartoon image wore a paper bag over his head. He is rumored to have been an extra in the film adaptation of “Inherent Vice,” but I haven’t seen actual confirmation or identification of him. There’s a befuddled-looking guy in glasses who wanders by a window at one point, and there’s a scene full of people in hooded costumes. Both are plausible.

   So, being the fan-boy that I am, I have fantasized about meeting him. I have also fantasized that he, needing a break from his exhaustive research, has read my mystery novels, which are by no means Pynchonesque but have involved a large amount of historical research.

   My books involve the members of a fictional Fools’ Guild. In the first, Thirteenth Night, we meet the Guild right away, tucked away in the foothills of the Dolomite Mountains.
Imagine my shock and delight, then, when Against The Day came out, and I ran into this passage on page 724: “When Foley Walker returned from Göttingen, he and Scarsdale Vibe met at an outdoor restaurant in the foothills of the Dolomites …

   Complete coincidence, right? Right? Couldn’t have anything to do with me, right? Right? Except, I wouldn’t be a proper Pynchon paranoid if I couldn’t overanalyze this passage. There’s an entire Wiki devoted to this book, but it doesn’t say anything more than that the Dolomites are mountains in Italy. But what are they? How did they become the Dolomites?

   It turns out that they were named for an 18th Century French geologist named Déodat Gratet de Dolomieu. He discovered a mineral which was named dolomite in his honor, as were the mountains where I suppose he discovered it.

   Dolomite, the mineral, had the quality of being able to double-refract light when it is shone through it. Astute readers of Against the Day will note that it shares this quality with Icelandic spar, which is one of the obsessions of the characters in the book.

   So what. Big deal. [Quote from “Buckaroo Banzai,” another Pynchon tribute movie.] Well, here goes the real craziness.

   First: I erred in using the name Dolomite. My book was set in the 13th Century, and the range wasn’t named for Dolomieu until the 19th Century. I hadn’t bothered fact-checking this because WHO THE FUCK RENAMES AN ENTIRE MOUNTAIN RANGE? [Answer: The Italians, obviously. And after a French guy. Jeez.] So, in Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon was caught out by obsessive fans referring to the movie “The Return of Jack Slade,” which didn’t come out until after the events of the book took place. In an annoying response, he annotated every pop reference in his next book, Vineland, with the year it came out. So, perhaps his reference to the foothills of the Dolomites was not merely a reference to the location of my Fool’s Guildhall, but an expression of solidarity with historical research that can fall short. Right? Right?

   But, if you think that I’m relying on that for my connection, you are mistaken. I mean, I am, but it’s not my major selling point. Take a deep breath, fasten your safety harness, pop a Dramamine — here we go.

   It turns out that the mineral dolomite, while possessing double refracting properties, is an inferior lens for that purpose when compared to Icelandic spar. One might argue that dolomite is to Icelandic spar as pyrite is to gold. And pyrite, of course, is also known as Fool’s Gold. One might argue that dolomite could also be called Fool’s Spar.

   At least, if one were me. And one is.

   I have never written Mr. Pynchon about this, because that would be an insane thing to do. So instead, I have put it out here in a blog, because nothing in a blog ever appears insane.



Casting about

Ming-Na Wen has returned to network television as Melinda May in Joss Whedon’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Disappointing, badly written first season, unfortunately, and for those of us who remember her wonderful breakthrough in “The Joy Luck,” it is sad to see her reduced to the Hollywood you’re an Asian Woman, so you can be the kick-ass martial arts chick syndrome. Mind you, she can at 51 wear the catsuit Diana Rigg wore at 24 in a much different “Avengers,” as well as carry through fight scenes that Rigg never could, so props to her, but she’s woefully underused.

Seeing Ms. Wen invariably reminds me of a conversation I had with my mystery writer buddy S. J. Rozan at some Bouchercon several years back. She was talking about how she would cast her series featuring Lydia Chin and Bill Smith [read them if you haven’t], and Wen’s name came up. Wen would have been good had it been done then. The time lapse since that conversation has taken her out of contention. Lydia Chin is, of course, a Chinese-American detective with some serious martial arts chops, but those are rarely deployed — the detecting is the thing.

It’s fun to mentally cast one’s characters, and I wonder how often the actors selected match the writer’s intent. Colin Dexter loved John Thaw’s portrayal of Inspector Morse, and the books that came out after the BBC series began seemed to reflect the actor more and more. On the other hand, the fans may have their own idea of a character in mind. There was a huge brouhaha when Tom Cruise was cast as Jack Reacher. “Reacher is tall! Cruise is not!” screamed the fans, forgetting that Cruise not only is a damn good actor, but also possesses the most credible physicality in fight scenes of any major Hollywood star. I’m sure that Lee Child’s reaction to the casting was along the lines of “I like people who are going to make me money.” [The movie underperformed, but a sequel is in the works.]

A question writers often get is, “Who would you cast in the movie of your book?” This sends us into reveries of endorsing checks with large numbers to the right of and beneath our names, walking down red carpets in tuxes, appearing on national talk shows while trying to appear modest and witty, yet self-deprecating. The truth is, unless you are also the executive producer, you, the writer, will have no control over any part of what happens once you sign away the rights. And you agree to this because the first part of the fantasy, that large-dollar amount check, overwhelms everything else.

I have nothing against this process. [It’s only happened to me once, with a short story that came thisclose to being made, with a screenplay by an Oscar-winner and another Oscar-winner lined up to star. Fortunately, I didn’t spend the money I didn’t get before I got it, which I didn’t. Long story for a short story.]

As to who I would cast — I try not to think about it. I’m writing characters who need to come to life on the page, as opposed to barely fleshed-out movie proposals disguised as a novel. I tend to underdescribe them, which might be a fault, but I prefer to give a bare bones description and let the readers flesh out the rest with their imaginations. There will be bits and pieces — Theophilos, my jester, is tall, skinny and flexible enough for tumbling and acrobatics, but we don’t know much more. His age wasn’t pinned down precisely until the fifth book, An Antic Disposition, which was his origins book. Claudia, née Viola, is given a little more since we see her through his eyes, but not much.

Did I play the casting game with them? Yes, of course. I had the movie fantasies like anyone would. But these characters started forming in the mid-Nineties. The actors I would have cast then? A tall actor with a good singing voice who was adept at physical comedy — Kevin Kline leapt to mind, and if the movie had been made immediately, he would have been great. But he’s 66 now. For Viola at that time, I needed a woman who was a chameleon, short and thirty-ish. I was a big fan of Jennifer Jason Leigh. Still am, but she’s 53.

Even if Hollywood buys the rights, it takes years to get anything actually made, and therein lies the problem. So, if anyone comes knocking, I’ll sign away my characters with alacrity. [Maybe I can get them to let me write the screenplay — nah, who am I kidding?] And I’ll hope to God they get it right. Or make it better. As much as I loved Baum’s Oz books, I’m glad that MGM made Dorothy old enough to be played by Judy Garland. It would have been a much poorer movie if she had been the age depicted in the original Denslow illustration.

And I’m a patient man. Matt Smith isn’t old enough to play Theophilos yet. But he will be. And I hear he can sing.