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Brian Wilson via Wikimedia Commons // Not Pictured: Thomas Pynchon (obviously)
Brian Wilson via Wikimedia Commons // Not Pictured: Thomas Pynchon (obviously)

Thomas Pynchon and Brian Wilson's Miserable Evening Together

Brian Wilson via Wikimedia Commons // Not Pictured: Thomas Pynchon (obviously)
Brian Wilson via Wikimedia Commons // Not Pictured: Thomas Pynchon (obviously)

Brian Wilson and Thomas Pynchon have more in common than one may immediately think. Both are deeply experimental artists driven further and further away from the public eye—Wilson barely leaving his bedroom for huge swaths of the 1970s, Pynchon more or less successfully shunning the press in the 52 years since the publication of his first novel, V.

Wilson and Pynchon are often referred to as a "voice of their generation," a label they would each likely shirk with vehemence for their own visceral reasons. They both lived or live in California (Pynchon: 1960s to early '70s; Wilson: His entire life) and produced works about the state or set therein (Pynchon: The Crying of Lot 49 and Inherent Vice; Wilson: Pretty much everything except maybe "Salt Lake City"). It was during their overlapping California chronologies that the two spent time together. It was only for an evening, and by all accounts, it was absolutely miserable.

In his infamous 1977 Playboy article “Who Is Thomas Pynchon … And Why Did He Take Off With My Wife?,” writer Jules Siegel relates an amusing story about Pynchon's love of the Beach Boys. The article isn’t available in full online (you can read the first few pages here), but ThomasPynchon.com extracted the relevant passages, which begin with Siegel telling his friend about an assignment to write a profile on Bob Dylan:

"‘You ought to do one on The Beach Boys,’ [Pynchon] said. I pretended to ignore that. A year or so later, I was in Los Angeles again, doing a story for the Post on The Beach Boys [ultimately published by Cheetah magazine]. He had forgotten his earlier remark and was no longer interested in them. I took him to my apartment in Laurel Canyon, got him royally loaded and made him lie down on the floor with a speaker at each ear while I played Pet Sounds, their most interesting and least popular record. It was not then fashionable to take The Beach Boys seriously.

"'Ohhhhh,” he sighed softly with stunned pleasure after the record was done. ‘Now I understand why you are writing a story about them.’"

Siegel wound up introducing Pynchon to Brian Wilson in 1966, the year both The Crying of Lot 49 and Pet Sounds were released. Siegel recalls taking the novelist to Wilson's "Babylonian" Bel-Air mansion. According to that same Playboy article, "Brian then had in his study an Arabian tent made of crimson and purple Persian brocade." Pynchon, Siegel, and Wilson sat together inside the plush tent. For light, Wilson had a lamp that was made from an old parking meter and needed to be fed with pennies for it to work. It kept going off, so he brought in an oil lamp, but the famously nervous musician "kept dropping the oil lamp and stumbling over it." According to Siegel, "Neither he nor Pynchon said anything to each other."

The evening seems straight out of a Pynchon novel—Tyrone Slothrop finding himself inside a pseudo-Arabian Night somewhere in the Zone.

For his 2006 Brian Wilson biography Catch A Wave, Peter Ames talked to Siegel about this painfully awkward meeting. "Brian was kind of afraid of Pynchon, because he’d heard he was an Eastern intellectual establishment genius," Siegel told Ames. "And Pynchon wasn’t very articulate. He was gonna sit there and let you talk while he listened. So neither of them really said a word all night long. It was one of the strangest scenes I’d ever seen in my life."

Two quote-unquote voices of their generation meeting at the peak of their creative powers, sitting in an Arabian tent and not saying a damned word to each other. It's almost perfect.

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12 Facts About Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness
George C. Beresford/Getty Images
George C. Beresford/Getty Images

Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella about venturing into the moral depths of colonial Africa is among the most frequently analyzed literary works in college curricula.

1. ENGLISH WAS THE AUTHOR’S THIRD LANGUAGE.

It’s impressive enough that Conrad wrote a book that has stayed relevant for more than a century. This achievement seems all the more impressive when considering that he wrote it in English, his third language. Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857, Conrad was a native Polish speaker. French was his second language. He didn’t even know any English—the language of his literary composition—until age 21.

2. HEART OF DARKNESS BEGINS AND ENDS IN THE UK.

Though it recounts Marlow's voyage through Belgian Congo in search of Kurtz and is forever linked to the African continent, Conrad’s novella begins and ends in England. At the story’s conclusion, the “tranquil waterway” that “seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness” is none other than the River Thames.

3. THE PROTAGONIST MARLOW IS CONRAD.

The well-traveled Marlow—who appears in other Conrad works, such as Lord Jim—is based on his equally well-traveled creator. In 1890, 32-year-old Conrad sailed the Congo River while serving as second-in-command on a Belgian trading company steamboat. As a career seaman, Conrad explored not only the African continent but also ventured to places ranging from Australia to India to South America.

4. LIKE KURTZ AND MARLOW, CONRAD GOT SICK ON HIS VOYAGE.

Illness claimed Kurtz, an ivory trader who has gone mysteriously insane. It nearly claimed Marlow. And these two characters almost never existed, owing to their creator’s health troubles. Conrad came down with dysentery and malaria in Belgian Congo, and afterwards had to recuperate in the German Hospital, London, before heading to Geneva, Switzerland, to undergo hydrotherapy. Though he survived, Conrad suffered from poor health for many years afterward.

5. THERE HAVE BEEN MANY ALLEGED KURTZES IN REAL LIFE.

The identity of the person on whom Conrad based the story’s antagonist has aroused many a conjecture. Among those suggested as the real Kurtz include a French agent who died on board Conrad’s steamship, a Belgian colonial officer, and Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley.

6. COLONIZING WAS ALL THE RAGE WHEN HEART OF DARKNESS APPEARED.

Imperialism—now viewed as misguided, oppressive, and ruthless—was much in vogue when Conrad’s novella hit shelves. The "Scramble for Africa" had seen European powers stake their claims on the majority of the continent. Britain’s Queen Victoria was even portrayed as the colonies' "great white mother." And writing in The New Review in 1897, adventurer Charles de Thierry (who tried and failed to establish his own colony in New Zealand) echoed the imperialistic exuberance of many with his declaration: “Since the wise men saw the star in the East, Christianity has found no nobler expression.”

7. CHINUA ACHEBE WAS NOT A FAN OF THE BOOK.

Even though Conrad was no champion of colonialism, Chinua Achebe—the Nigerian author of Things Fall Apart and other novels—delivered a 1975 lecture called “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” that described Conrad as a “thoroughgoing racist” and his ubiquitous short classic as “an offensive and deplorable book.” However, even Achebe credited Conrad for having “condemned the evil of imperial exploitation.” And others have recognized Heart of Darkness as an indictment of the unfairness and barbarity of the colonial system.

8. THE BOOK WASN’T SUCH A BIG DEAL—AT FIRST.

In 1902, three years after its initial serialization in a magazine, Heart of Darkness appeared in a volume with two other Conrad stories. It received the least notice of the three. In fact, not even Conrad himself considered it a major work. And during his lifetime, the story “received no special attention either from readers or from Conrad himself,” writes Gene M. Moore in the introduction to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: A Casebook. But Heart of Darkness managed to ascend to immense prominence in the 1950s, after the planet had witnessed “the horror”—Kurtz's last words in the book—of WWII and the ramifications of influential men who so thoroughly indulged their basest instincts.

9. T.S. ELIOT BORROWED AN IMPORTANT LINE.

Though Heart of Darkness wasn’t an immediate sensation, it evidently was on the radar of some in the literary community. The famous line announcing the antagonist’s demise, “Mistah Kurtz—he dead,” serves as the epigraph to the 1925 T.S. Eliot poem “The Hollow Men.”

10. THE STORY INSPIRED APOCALYPSE NOW.

Eighty years after Conrad’s novella debuted, the Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now hit the big screen. Though heavily influenced by Heart of Darkness, the movie’s setting is not Belgian Congo, but the Vietnam War. And though the antagonist (played by Marlon Brando) is named Kurtz, this particular Kurtz is no ivory trader, but a U.S. military officer who has become mentally unhinged.

11. HEART OF DARKNESS HAS BEEN MADE INTO AN OPERA.

Tarik O'Regan’s Heart of Darkness, an opera in one act, opened in 2011. Premiering at London’s Royal Opera House, it was reportedly the first operatic adaptation of Conrad’s story and heavily inspired by Apocalypse Now.

12. THE BOOK ALSO SPARKED A VIDEO GAME.

In a development not even Conrad’s imagination could have produced, his classic inspired a video game, Spec Ops: The Line, which was released in 2012.

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Dan Bell
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Design
A Cartographer Is Mapping All of the UK’s National Parks, J.R.R. Tolkien-Style
Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park
Dan Bell

Cartographer Dan Bell makes national parks into fantasy lands. Bell, who lives near Lake District National Park in England, is currently on a mission to draw every national park in the UK in the style of the maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Kottke.org reports.

The project began in September 2017, when Bell posted his own hand-drawn version of a Middle Earth map online. He received such a positive response that he decided to apply the fantasy style to real world locations. He has completed 11 out of the UK’s 15 parks so far. Once he finishes, he hopes to tackle the U.S. National Park system, too. (He already has Yellowstone National Park down.)

Bell has done various other maps in the same style, including ones for London and Game of Thrones’s Westeros, and he commissions, in case you have your own special locale that could use the Tolkien treatment. Check out a few of his park maps below.

A close-up of a map for Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park in central England
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Cairngorms National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Cairngorms National Park in Scotland
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Lake District National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Lake District National Park in England
Dan Bell

You can buy prints of the maps here.

[h/t Kottke.org]

All images by Dan Bell

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