Tuesday, June 1, 1999

Silver, by Matthew Remski

A Review of Matthew Remski’s Silver

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Summer 1999

By Matthew Remski
Insomniac Press ($14.99)

Rick Moody wrote in his review of Mason & Dixon that writers of his generation have exactly one author with whom they must come to terms: Thomas Pynchon. This is hyperbole, to be sure, but it’s no exaggeration to say that many of our best writers work in the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow in the way that folks like William Faulkner and William Gaddis worked in the shadow of Ulysses. William T. Vollmann and David Foster Wallace come instantly to mind, as do Carol De Chellis Hill and Richard Powers. Each of these writers is powerful enough and original enough to stand without GR as a crutch, but the influence is undeniable, and not talking about it would be like playing a game of literary Taboo. So then what’s a young, hyper-smart literary wunderkind to do but tackle the Rainbow head on?

This is exactly what Matthew Remski does in his new novel, Silver. Not just a Pynchon-esque novel, Silver is a long improvisation/meditation on Gravity’s Rainbow and its author, written almost exactly in Pynchon’s style. Hardly coy about his approach, Remski names his main character Tyrone Pynchon, fusing GR’s protagonist Tyrone Slothrop with Pynchon himself, and sets him down in pre-War Germany as an erudite, paranoid, and dissolute correspondent for the News of the World. Pynchon gets his NOW assignments through elaborately cabalistic means, sent by editors he’s never met, and the novel begins with him finding instructions tattooed in a Lewis Carroll-like spiral around a chance lover’s asshole: “Go to Berlin. Check out Mengele and the violinist, plus the Riefenstahl virus. Also look into the bunny trade….”

Resigned, Pynchon heads for the Reichstag, where his journalist’s credentials allow him to observe all manner of Nazi perversity. The violinist in question is a young Jew named Ghimel whose hands have been amputated and switched, his ability to re-learn the violin proving Mengele’s theory of the “ambidextrous and therefore unnatural, lawless, and uncentred nature of the Semite.” Ghimel serves as entertainer/lackey for the Nazi revelers, and his wrist wounds set up a powerful crucifixion motif that Remski explores throughout the rest of the novel.

Present in various capacities are Leni Riefenstahl, Josef Mengele, Klaus Barbie, and Hitler, as well as Hans Hugo Heffner, rabbit breeder, and Andrei Lupus Weber, Party composer. Mixing these historical and quasi-historical figures together, Remski addresses another of the book’s central motifs: the pornography of image, as illustrated by everything from film and propaganda to children’s toys (i.e. “Barbie” dolls). If there’s a central image to Silver, the way the Rocket is the central image to GR, it’s the Shroud of Turin—or more accurately a specific negative photograph of the Shroud, which Remski portrays as the ultimate pornography. The silver of the novel’s title refers to the silver used in photography, and the “Riefenstahl virus” is a cloud of silver that surrounds our Nazi pornographers, infecting everyone with whom they come in contact.

What’s interesting about the novel’s structure is that it surrounds Gravity’s Rainbow like Riefenstahl’s cloud of silver. The first forty-five pages all take place before GR, and, excluding a two-page “WWII Segue,” everything else takes place in GR’s aftermath. And true to Pynchon’s vision, Remski charts the Nazi diaspora all over the world. Weber and Eva Perón hit it off when the Nazis go to Argentina, the composer becoming her chief propagandist, and when burger-meister Ray Krok enters the picture, sights begin to be set on the ultimate destination: the States.

Around this point, the novel begins to break apart considerably, following the Rainbow’s trajectory downward into fragmentation. Tyrone Pynchon heads for America, aboard the U.S.S. Television, but he gets sidetracked by Their meddling, and as we see him fall more and more under Their control, he begins to disappear from the novel, à la Tyrone Slothrop. Taking several leaps in time, Silver follows the disparate storylines as they diverge and recross in masterfully orchestrated lurches toward modern-day America. We see Ghimel’s child born and then emigrate to the States. We meet wholly new characters—most notably doomed “Playgoy” bunny Dorothy Stratten—and wait for them to intersect with the rest of the crew. And, most importantly, we watch the Nazi aesthetic infiltrate and infect America.

As in Gravity’s Rainbow, however, there are counterforces at work, if only fatalistic ones—namely the authors Pynchon and Remski themselves. Not nearly as self-indulgent as it sounds, Remski turns the novel into a profound examination of authorship and identity, and even when it gets a little wanky, Remski has volumes to tell us about the nature of reading and writing.

So the question is, with all this rampant Pynchania, is it possible that Silver is a great book? None of the setting or subject matter is Remski’s own, nor are the prose style or pacing. Some of his themes and motifs vary from Gravity’s Rainbow, although not by much. For all of its lack of originality, though, I’d have to say that Silver may be one of the most wildly brilliant—and weirdly original—novels in recent memory. Like the premise of Borges’ story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” Silver is an astonishing experiment in mimesis. The prose style is so outrageously Pynchonlike that a few times I thought it was Pynchon and that Matthew Remski was just one of his characters. And when Remski really gets going, he can pull off feats so outlandish that they rival some of Pynchon’s best bits.

Overall, however, Remski is no Pynchon. Nobody is. As brilliant as Remski may be, his vision is much smaller, and his scope far narrower. For all its plenitude, Silver often finds Remski doing the things we expect and understand Pynchon to do—and usually stopping before things get too dense and the counter-counter-counter-plots get too confusing. Nevertheless, Remski is an out-and-out genius. And even though it contents itself with remaining under the Rainbow, Silver just might be a great book.

—David Wiley

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