Monday, March 19, 2018

`We Know the Topography of Its Blots'

A magician I knew who specialized in parties for children once listed for me the words guaranteed to get a laugh out of preschoolers. Most will not come as news to parents. My friend didn’t “work blue,” as comedians used to say, so the list is G-rated. The ones I remember are monkey, underwear, potty, butt and banana. The last one surprised me, as it had surprised the magician at first. Something about the sound of the word and the shape of its referent, he learned from experience, cracked up kids. So much so that he added a toggle switch to a plastic banana and worked it into his act. For the adults in the room he added the obligatory Donovan allusion.

My younger sons and I were riffing on bananas the other day after seeing a cartoon involving the banana-peel-on-the-sidewalk gag. This in turn reminded me of the “Banana Breakfast” scene early in Gravity’s Rainbow. “Pirate” Prentice grows bananas in his rooftop hothouse in London and prepares a sumptuous morning meal:

“. . . banana omelets, banana sandwiches, banana casseroles, mashed bananas molded in the shape of a British lion rampant, blended with eggs into batter for French toast, squeezed out a pastry nozzle across the quivering creamy reaches of a banana blancmange to spell out the words C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre . . . tall cruets of pale banana syrup to pour oozing over banana waffles, a giant glazed crock where diced bananas have been fermenting since the summer with wild honey and muscat raisins, up out of which, this winter morning, one now dips foam mugsfull of banana mead... banana croissants and banana kreplach, and banana oatmeal and banana jam and banana bread, and bananas flamed in ancient brandy Pirate brought back last year from a cellar in the Pyrenees also containing a clandestine radio transmitter . . .”

And so on. I found my copy of the novel and read the passage aloud. It’s typical Pynchon silliness and earned a few laughs from my sons, though I had to explain kreplach. I hadn’t opened the book in years and last read it in 1973, when I reviewed it for an “underground” magazine published in Bowling Green, Ohio. It’s a first-edition paperback (“A Viking Compass Book”), stained and creased but still readable. I remember buying it in a mall bookstore in Youngstown, Ohio. I wrote my name and the date on the front endpaper: March 21, 1973 [on that date, John Dean uttered the memorable phrase "a cancer on the presidency"]. That same page and the front cover are stained with what appears to be coffee. The cover price is $4.95. On Page 4 my younger self (I was twenty) underlined this sentence: “There is no way out. Lie and wait, lie still and be quiet.” I have no desire to reread Gravity’s Rainbow but the book is familiar in my hands, and most of the annotations and underlinings make sense. I remember what Charles Lamb wrote on Oct. 11, 1802 to Coleridge:

“. . . a book reads the better which is our own, and has been so long known to us, that we know the topography of its blots, and dog's ears, and can trace the dirt in it to having read it at tea with buttered muffins, or over a pipe, which I think is the maximum.”

1 comment:

Unknown said...

“The Big Mike had the advantage of being tough – stack it and it will not bruise. Its skin was moister when peeled than the skin of other bananas, which is why people stopped slipping on banana peels when Big Mike went extinct.”

--Rich Cohen, The Fish that Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King