While walking to work yesterday I got through The Story of Byron the Light Bulb near the end of Gravity’s Rainbow. When I got in to the office, I immediately sent Canelli a copy of the story, insisting he read it. I was particularly smitten by it because (1) it’s a very entertaining and imaginative story, and (2) it’s also very, very clever (which really should go without saying). Actually, there’s a third point: I felt like I could adequately understand it without the ever-present help from our friend Steven C. Weisenburger.
As I said in my email to Canelli, the first thing that struck me about this story was that it read like Pynchon was using Stewart’s Calculus as a source of writing prompts. (This is such a brilliant idea!–that is, when the author is competent enough to pull it off.) It’s a common exercise when exploring probability densities to calculate the mean light bulb life spans. But then here’s a light bulb that…
Statistically (so Their story goes), every n-thousandth light bulb is gonna be perfect, all the delta-q’s piling up just right, so we shouldn’t be surprised that this one’s still around, burning brightly. But the truth is even more stupendous. This bulb is immortal! It’s been around, in fact, since the twenties, has that old-timery point at the tip and is less pear-shaped than more contemporary bulbs. Wotta history, this bulb, if only it could speak—-well, as a matter of fact, it can speak.
This is the launching point into Byron the Light Bulb’s story. And it’s an incredible story. But, as it turns out, it’s also more than a story: it’s another incredibly creative satire on a real cartel from the beginning of the 20th Century. I’m left wondering, with all the ~577 different conspiracy theories Pynchon uses in the book, how many of those are flights of fancy and how many are grounded in real events and cartels?
Throw in the next stop along this track of thought: probability densities of rocket strikes in London, as Roger Mexico calculates them, where the light of life is being snuffed out, versus the probability densities of Tyrone Slothrop’s sexual escapades (also in London), where light from Baby Heaven could be brought down to Earth. This was a connection I made that I felt particularly proud of, which, now in retrospect, seems kind of obvious.
Final note on this: Pynchon loves going off on incredibly weird multi-page tangents just to fire off a single joke or pun. I’m beginning to think Byron the Light Bulb is some sort of jab at Lord Byron. I’ve consulted with Canelli about this. We’ll see what he thinks. In the meantime, read about two “infamous” puns in Gravity’s Rainbow.