The revival of the city that never sleeps

“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 as Sappho said some place back in some college course, Maxine forgets, 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. Reflections from the street into the windows of city buses fill the bus interiors with unreadable 3-D images, as surface unaccountably transforms to volume. 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. Even the lightest umbrella-to-umbrella contact can be erotic.”(Pynchon 101-102)

As a native New Yorker, this paragraph especially stands out to me as an impeccable description of one of the alterations New York City can undergo to ultimately create an extraordinary effect on its natives. We spoke a lot in past class discussions about the effect of light, especially with reference to the first paragraph of Bleeding Edge, and how it has a positive connotation, how it may offer a sense of rebirth or hope to a more often than not harsh city. What I appreciate greatly about this paragraph, however, is that Pynchon chooses to focus on rain and how something as simple as an alteration of weather can create significant change in a city.

Maxine, as we see initially in this paragraph, “can’t resist, she needs to be out in the street.” In a life that is as busy as she leads, as is the same for other New Yorkers, it is rare to find a moment of valuable insight, such as the one Pynchon shares here with his readers. He speaks of a reconvergence of the various things a typical workday had “scattered” away as Sappho–a poet who dedicated much of her poetry to both men and women–stated at some point in Maxine’s distant and seemingly unattainable past. The next few lines of the passage speak more to the society in Manhattan–how it is filled with crowds of people who are almost on autopilot, walking (and doing so quickly) simply to get to their next destination, their next objective. These people in the rain suddenly gather a certain depth and personal purpose that they ironically do not usually have. For me, like the light may serve as hope in the first paragraph of the novel, rain seems to be a reawakening force reviving the most ruthless of New Yorkers into individuals who are suddenly seen “taking houseplants for walks in the rain,” or creating an intoxicating sensation through the slightest contact of passing umbrellas or even more impressively, paradoxically reviving a city that never sleeps through liquification of its incessant traffic noise.

As a passage that follows Maxine’s exposure to the bleeding edge technology, I cannot help but perceive this to be a sort of magical description of an out-of-body experience that can maybe extend the sense of an avatar to all the individuals walking the streets of the big city. There are a “million pedestrian dramas, each charged with [intense] mystery.” This in itself may serve to be a compelling allusion to the idea of a vast society of nameless individuals within the realm of technology–each Manhattan schmuck instead of yakking as per usual, now almost singing into his technological apparatus. I even more so appreciate Pynchon’s reference to Sappho because she seems to be a figure that represents something taboo, something rare and unusual in her time. The concept of bleeding edge technology is something I also perceive to be taboo and, yet, so remarkable in its potential. This passage is absolutely one of my favorites so far in the novel.

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2 Responses to The revival of the city that never sleeps

  1. djs125 says:

    After reading through your post, this scene is so much more clear to me. I was actually confused when I read this part of the novel because I didn’t quite understand the idea of wanting to be in the rain as Maxine did, or wanting to take your plant for a walk. But now it all makes sense after you explained it through your eyes as a native New Yorker. I grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, so I didn’t quite get all of this because when it rained where I’m from you would just go hang out inside and enjoy what there is to do inside. But I see how being in New York, maybe cooped up in an apartment all the time seeing the weather change outside were create a great sensation and make you want to go outside and enjoy it. And me personally, I like when it rains because of that fresh rain smell everything gets, and I can only imagine how much better it makes New York City because as we discussed in class that day about the sunlight and how NYC is known for a loud, smelly city and the rain would just cover that up. I, too, really like this passage from the book after understanding it further from your post!!


  2. danwillisdan says:

    In this passage, the idea that “surface unaccountably transforms to volume” seems quite accountable to me. Rain fills the space between object and observer, which makes the perception of depth and distance much more intuitive. Pynchon describes this as a visual phenomenon, and then goes on to describe how “Manhattan schmucks” on rainy days become singers, dancers, lovers and nurturers. The rain makes everything and everyone appear deeper, more mysterious, more worthy of consideration than in dry weather. It seems at first to fit neatly into the novel’s greater concerns about technology and selfhood. And yet, technology in the book seems to reduce, obscure and flatten people’s identities. Perhaps Pynchon is saying that the basic humanness of being outdoors during a rainstorm is more conducive to genuine connection than the artifice of the distributed network? Or perhaps he’s being more optimistic? Perhaps, the increasing influence of technology in our lives allows us to almost triangulate our relative positions as humans, and each extension of the self is an externalized raindrop adding both depth and isolation to our experiences?


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