Reviewed by Tony Kapolka
Well before the World Wide Web, a theory circulated that Bob Dylan was Thomas Pynchon. The argument connected them by Richard Fariña, Pynchon’s college roommate. Pynchon would be Fariña‘s best man when he married Mimi Baez, sister to Dylan’s then-lover, Joan. But no one had ever seen Pynchon and Dylan together; not at Fariña‘s wedding, nor at his early funeral. Fariña, however, was close to both men, on record as having read pre-publication drafts of Pynchon’s V and Dylan’s Tarantula. The theory asserted that both novels were equally inscrutable.
Pynchon would ascend to literary greatness, while Dylan gained acclaim as an astonishing lyricist. Before this year’s Nobel announcement, the betting site Ladbrokes.com posted them each at 50/1 odds to win 2016’s literature prize.
Dylan’s win encourages a re-examination of his memoir, Chronicles: Volume One (Simon & Schuster, 2005).
Published more than a decade ago to strong positive reviews, Chronicles was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle award (losing to De Kooning: An American Master). With the new attention on Dylan, it is having a resurgence. In September, Billboard ranked it first on their list of 100 Greatest Music Books of All Time.
Chronicles touches on three principal periods in Dylan’s life. It begins and ends with his contract with Leeds Music Publishing, a contract arranged by John Hammond, the scout who discovered Dylan. Beyond this genesis, Dylan sequentially relates his New Morning (late 60s/1970) and Oh Mercy periods (late 80s). Dylan’s prose feels confessional; biographies published since Chronicles have all made good use of his revelation, although pains are taken to point out where Dylan’s veracity is in question. No one can identify Ray Gooch and Chloe Kiel, characters from chapter two, as real people. But Dylan has a long history of self-mythologizing, something his interview with a Columbia publicist demonstrates aptly:
“How did you get here?” he asked me.
“I rode a freight train.”
“You mean a passenger train.”
“No, a freight train.”[…]
I hadn’t come in on a freight train at all. What I did was come across the country from the Midwest in a four-door sedan, ’57 Impala… (8)
As always, Dylan is the Trickster. “I didn’t know what age of history we were in nor what the truth of it was. Nobody bothered with that,” he tells us. “If you told the truth, that was all well and good and it you told the untruth, well, that’s still well and good.” (35) While no reader could fail to swoon at Ray and Chloe’s imaginary library with “an overpowering presence of literature, […] The stuff that could make you bugged-eyed.” (35-6), Dylan’s four sentence description of Thucydides’ The Athenian General (a book that just doesn’t exist) is a clear warning that he is making stuff up. Readers, take note.
Proper biographers have yelped at omissions. Daniel Epstein wrote “For some reason he conflates the years 1988 and 1989 so that in effect 1988 ceases to exist in memory. It’s like a blackout.” Rather, I’d say the details were not consonant with Dylan’s goal to entertain. Again, he gives us fair warning: “…life is more or less a lie, but then again that’s exactly what we want it to be.” (71) Much of the time Dylan is putting us on and the experience is a pleasant one. “It puts you under the hum of his voice…” David Dalton said, “as if it’s coming unfiltered from him into your head.” Publishers Weekly got it right: “he lingers not on moments of success and celebrity, but on the crises of his intellectual development.” Chronicles is a thinker’s memoir.
Modern technology would work against Dylan to create controversy. Scott Warmuth, writing in the New Haven Review, calls Dylan out for a number of textual appropriations. Chronicles is “a book that is meticulously fabricated, with one surface concealing another.” Therein Dylan marks some phrases as unsourced quotations – such as a description of Hanoi as the “brothel-studded Paris of the orient.” With google-fu, Warmuth tracked that one back to Time Magazine, March 31, 1961. He found Dylan lifted other short phrases, often omitting the quotes. There is no doubt that lesser crimes have ended the careers of other writers, however the view that this is simply plagiarism misses Dylan’s love of intertextual word play. There’s nothing new under “the sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken.” Epstein might cite guitarist Larry Campbell, who described Dylan as “pounding out sentences in capital letters for convenience and the better to read them without eyeglasses,” but I think of his composition of Renaldo and Clara as revealed by Allen Ginsburg where Dylan filmed improvised scenes, indexing and arranging them deliberately on note cards. Dylan doesn’t create truth; his skill lies in cutting up what he sees to better expose what is already present. His recent Revisionist Art show, spoofing magazine covers at a New York Gallery in 2012, confirms Dylan’s love of collage. The New York Times, reviewing his mock-ups, accused him of “full-on photo-appropriation” and bad art. “Bob Dylan,” critic Roberta Smith wrote, “may be a genius but he’s no polymath.”
Others disagree. This year he’s been commissioned to weld a found-metal sculpture gateway for the new MGM National Harbor resort (shades of his Catchfire cameo). The resort opens in early December – perhaps this is the conflict preventing his attendance at the Nobel award ceremony.
Dylan’s book contract with Simon & Schuster called for three volumes of Chronicles, and rumors circulate that a second volume is partially complete. Pynchon fans had to wait seventeen years for Vineland, so Dylan remains in good company. I can’t help but suspect that Pynchon, like Dylan, will skip the ceremony when he wins the Nobel next year.