In Night of the Iguana, a play first performed in 1961, but evolved out of a short story over a period of about fifteen years, Tennessee Williams expressed anger at our species for ruining our planet.
In the movie of 1962, starring Richard Burton as a disgraced priest, his character, at the end of his rope, spits out his frustration at "Man's Inhumanity to God."
The pain that we caused Him. We poisoned his atmosphere, slaughtered his creatures of the wild, polluted his rivers. We've even taken His noblest creation, man himself, and brainwashed him into becoming our product, not God's. Packed, stacked, and canned.
Fascinating that Williams chose that metaphor to describe our destructive actions. Occurs that this is one industrial practice that has become a word in our language. "Canned" refers not just to fish, but to music, too, and thought — the fact has become a verb. Become a past tense.
Thought of this when just yesterday I came across a passage in Thomas Pynchon's pretty hilarious recent novel, Inherent Vice, on pretty much the same theme, in a completely different style:
Let me set it up. Our anti-hero is a mediocre long-haired private eye named Doc living in Southern California in the l970's. He isn't afraid and might have Sam Spade potential if he would just stop smoking so much weed. He like Spade of course is after a complicated woman who might have a thing for him but is trouble. But she's hard to find, and meanwhile he's hanging out with an attorney friend who happens to like a particular soap opera. An ad for a brand of canned tuna comes on the televison. Our anti-hero's buddy, Sauncho, who's a little obessive but not stupid, kind of flips out. Doc happens to be in the bathroom pissing. He hears Sauncho screaming and comes out.
"Everything cool?" [Doc says]
"Ahh…" [Sauncho] collapses on the couch. "Charlie the fucking Tuna, man."
"It's all supposed to be so innocent, upwardly mobile snob, designer shades, beret, so desperate to show he's got good tase, except he's also dyslexic so he gets "good taste" mixed up with "taste good," but it's worse than that! Far, far worse! Charlie really has this, like obsessive death wish! Yes! He wants to be caught, processed, put in a can, not just any can, you dig, it has to be StarKist! suicidal brand loyalty, man, deep parable of consumper capitalism, they won't be happy with anything less than drift-netting us all, chopping us up and stacking us on the shelves of Supermarket Amerika, and subconsciously the horrible thing is, is we want them to do it…"
"Saunch, wow, that's…"
"It's been on my mind. And another thing. Why is there Chicken of the Sea, but no Tuna of the Farm?"
Might help to see the character from the commercial:
Pynchon's novel, by far his funniest in my experience of his work, will be on a few movie screens this year, in a film directed by P.T. Anderson, featuring Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, and Benicio del Toro, who might deliver the rant above. Could be fun.
One thought on “Nature in a can: Tenn Williams and Thom Pynchon”
I’m in the middle of “Inherent Vice,” reading it slowly and enjoying it tremendously, and yes, it’s very funny and accurate about SoCal in the 1960s. Can’t imagine a successful Thomas Pynchon movie adaptation, but who knows? His latest, “Bleeding Edge,” set in 2001 New York City, is also very funny even though the material is pretty dark.