Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.

Monday, October 7, 2013


Back in the late seventies, Aloes Books was publishing Thomas Pynchon’s early, at that time uncollected, short stories.   They came as separate pamphlets, and the only place in London I knew to buy them was a bookshop called, if memory serves, Agneau Deux.  There I fell into conversation with the guy behind the counter who had it on reasonable, though apparently very hush hush, authority that Pynchon was actually living in London at that time.  There was a small but significant frisson in knowing that I was walking the same streets as the great “recluse.”

Between 1996 and 2003 I lived in New York (more or less – I mean I actually commuted between London for some of it) and obviously I walked the streets, because that’s what I do wherever I am, and it’s what people do in New York whether they want to or not.  And I did know by then that Pynchon was living in New York too.  His novel Mason and Dixon was in the works, and there had apparently been sightings of him in the corridors of his publisher, Henry Holt.  Word was that he looked pretty much like any other sixty year old novelist.  I guess I had become more cynical or realistic, and the frisson of walking the same streets as Pynchon wasn’t quite what it had been 15 or 20 years earlier.

With the newly published Bleeding Edge Pynchon has written his New York novel (a thing many novelists feel the urge to do) and to some extent his 9/11 novel (a thing that many novelists feel very, very uneasy about).

Of course Pynchon walked the streets of New York: and if we doubted it, there’s a pretty low quality picture (seen above) taken in 1998 by James Bone, then of the London Sunday Times, showing Pynchon and his son walking on the Upper West Side.  The authenticity of the picture is slightly contested, but I’m happy enough to believe it’s Pynchon, the first new picture published in over 40 years.  And yes, he looks pretty much like a 60 year old novelist.

Anyway, the book contains this pretty great description of New York pedestrianism:
“Next day, evening rush hour, it’s just starting to rain … sometimes she can’t resist, she needs to be out in the street.  What might only be a simple point on the workday cycle, a reconvergence of what the day scattered … becomes a million pedestrian dramas, each one charged with mystery, more intense than high-barometer daylight can ever allow.  Everything changes.  There’s that clean, rained-on smell.  The traffic noise gets liquefied … Average pushy Manhattan schmucks crowding the sidewalks also pick up some depth, some purpose – they smile, they slow down, even with a cellular phone stuck in their ear they are more apt to be singing to somebody than yakking.  Some are observed taking houseplants for walks in the rain.”
Gotta say I never saw anybody walking in the rain with their houseplants in New York, but I completely believe it.

Flaneurism is all over Pynchon’s works: it’s pretty much an inevitable part of any detective or “quest” novel.  Still, I do believe that this passage below is the only place in the Pynchon oeuvre (and of course I stand to be corrected) that he uses the word flaneur. One of the characters, Emma Levin, is dating Naftali a former member of Mossad, now working as a security guard for a diamond merchant: (yep Pynchon has kind of gone Jewish for this novel).

         “‘There he is.  My dreamboat.’  Naftali is pretending to lounge against a storefront, a flaneur who can be triggered silently, instantly into the wrath of God.”
         Wouldn’t we all like to that kind of flaneur? 

         Oh, and another thing, if you make it to page 354, there's an appearance by two characters, Promoman and Sandwichgrrl, described as cyberflaneurs.  But really, aren't we all flaneurs in cyberspace

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