At Human Random

some suburban fatality in the dwellings presently appearing at human random around it


In both paperback editions of Against the Day', the phrase remains as it originally appeared in the first edition. Thus, I'd assume if it were a typo that truly ran counter to Pynchon's ear and intent, it would certainly have been corrected. Of course, doubtless this will be debated for decades but, in my most humble opinion, it's a dead end. WikiAdmin 11:21, 10 April 2008 (PDT)

I believe this is an odd printer's error resulting in garbled syntax and marring a carefully patterned passage. My conjecture is based on internal evidence. The whole passage, a paragraph-long sentence running from the bottom of 476 to the top of 477, is an intricate, lyrical riff on the idea of its ominous closing phrase: "structures in their vanishing. . . ." It's a beautifully layered play on the drift of time and space as the panaorama moving outward from the Wall of Death evokes a movement in time as well, from the "legendary" to the "suburban." But right in the heart of it one runs nose first into the little knot quoted above. That "at human random" must be wrong. It makes no sense semantically (or grammatically, I think); it so obviously breaks the patterned flow of phrasing; even the sound is blocked—the vowels, "m" and "n" sounds are ugly and labor intensive. Of course, my first thought was that it was some coinage or that I had missed something, yet the more I pored over it, the more clearly out of place it seemed. But simply shifting the word "human" backward so it modifies "dwellings" yields:

"some suburban fatality in the human dwellings presently appearing at random around it"

which makes everything click into place. It makes sense on the content level, smoothly advancing the temporal reference points of the structures evoked by the passage and presaging the momentary arrival of the "wheelfolk and picnickers," and formally it is clearly more satisfying, especially the restored assonance and the cadence.

The phrase "at human random" seems right. The passage moves as gracefully as you say, in time and space. When "suburban fatality" enters the picture, the "dwellings" are implicitly "human" ones, so "human dwellings" would be inelegant. But at first (in time and space) they are not aligned; "at human random" describes an anarchic condition that comes before "boulevards" and "viaducts," which might be described as imposed, civic or industrial order. The phrasing in the text makes the contrast stronger in part because it surprises the reader. (It's also perilous to suggest typographical garbles—as opposed to single-letter errors—so early in the book.)


I’ve been considering a reply to the above post, not sure if this section of the wiki is set up for ongoing discussion, and not really wishing to initiate one either, for that matter. (Not even sure if I should write in first person.) But I think it should be noted that the above questions are of course exactly the sorts of things I had to consider before conjecturing that this is a mangled sentence. Obviously the argument to preserve the text as printed is powerful on its face. I think the above entry clearly lays out the grounds on which the case for the status quo stands. I am well aware that strong claims require strong evidence, and I feel that the internal evidence of the passage’s style is strong enough to support my position, despite the objections. In fact, it is out of deep appreciation of the text’s stylistc integrity that I venture this claim.
With regard to my responder’s specific points, they seem to be that (1) the phrase “human dwellings” I am proposing is itself flawed, and (2) the phrase “at human random” accurately evokes the random, anarchic entrance of a human presence.
(1) The phrase “suburban fatality” no more—and no less—implies “human” than any of the preceding structures named in the passage (“sacred ruins”; “Roman amphitheaters”; “ancient fortress towns”); so it’s not a question of human connection, whether explicit or implicit, but one of focus, of scale, and the addition of the word “human” clicks down the focusing ring one notch and starts a tonal softening signifying the imminent appearance in the passage of the actual humans (the “wheelfolk”).
(1.1) Far from being inelegant, the phrase “human dwellings” (when seen from the proper scale, i.e. as part of the above named sequence of human structures: “sacred ruins”; “Roman amphitheaters”; “ancient fortress towns” “human dwellings”) fits in perfectly, not only with the sense of time progression, but on the verbal level with the cadence and rhythm of the sequence as a sequence, and completes a quarternity just as the humans actually arrive in the next line. The whole pattern, of which this sequence is a seam, little conceptual and verbal weavings that thread throughout the passage, seems to justify the intuition that “human dwellings” is the right phrase.
(2) The argument that the phrase “at human random” instanstiates the effect of randomness or surprise that further somehow embodies an “anarchic” state of things seems an example of what the New Critics would call the Fallacy of Imitative Form. A text does not create surprise by using the word “surprise”; nor does it evoke confusion by being confusing; neither would it embody anarchy by being anarchic. The narrative artifice required to create a textual effect bears no necessary relation to the logical form of the effect as “actually” experienced. Ultimately, stream-of-consciousness is not a streaming consciousness, narrative dialogue between fictional characters is not mere transcribed speech—though wouldn’t all the fiction writers love it if it were?—and “realism” isn’t real. But what the phrase “at human random” unquestionably does do is make the flowing line of sound and thought trip over its own feet, as it were. Reading the whole passage aloud I think will really bring this point home.
Finally, I am not sure if the last point about where the alleged bad line occurs is actually an argument, but one clear response is that this is hardly a pristine edition. Note the impressive and growing “Errata,” which begin early on, like Line 1 of the copyright page, misidentifying the publisher, and many others which are also more than "single-letter errors." My own copy is further marred by several black ink splotches (488; 677), though two other copies I’ve seen don’t sport those. It is possible that someday the story of this printing will be a subplot of the story of this novel. With respect to my own conjecture, what’s needed is someone familiar with the ms. history. We need textual criticism here. Or someone to check with the publisher. Jam

I put in the first indented passage above (which definitely has too many quotation marks). You build a forceful case for your reading, and I withdraw the comment about "single-letter errors" and big transpositions as well as my objection to "human dwellings."

Still, I find "at human random" in the surrounding passage neither jarring nor illogical, and I'm willing to read it this way until the revised second edition comes out. --Volver 08:29, 14 March 2007 (PDT)

Sounds like a square deal to me.—Jam
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