Jul 24, 2007

thomas pynchon - part 1

Any attempt to review a Thomas Pynchon book can only be viewed as an exercise in folly. Pynchon is a writer who seems to thrive on ambiguity, innuendo, the slow accumulation of infinitesimally small details and utterly oblique references. I'm not sure if it's a challenge to the reader or a game in which he wants to see how many details of true importance he can sneak by his readership. He really puts Gene Wolfe to shame in this regard.

Going into my 'read the complete works of a given author' mode that I'm in right now, I knew this. This is no great revelation. So to compensate for this writing style I read extremely slowly and extremely carefully. To supplement this I referenced numerous sources of criticism (books and websites) on Pynchon and his works. So far I've read 4 Pynchon books but probably 8 books in total. When you realize many of his works clock in at a bazillion pages, it's no wonder I haven't reviewed a book on this site for a while.

I also consulted the usual book reviews and realized no one really fares any better in describing and reviewing a Pynchon book. Most reviews use the time old sell out approach of saying, 'This book is about X' or 'Pynchon explores the themes of Y" Does anyone understand what someone means when they write "so and so explores the themes of Y"? I never understand what people are saying. I assume they have no idea what they are saying either. You'd never say something like "Einstein explores the workings of gravitation with his theory of special relativity'. Well you might, but then you'd follow this up with some statement about what the hell Einstein said about gravitation. No one ever does this in a book review of Pynchon (or most other writers for that matter).

And you know why? Because they know that if they said that they'd be wrong. No one really has a friggin clue what Pynchon is doing here. It's all guesswork. Some understand that and are okay with it and others live a lie. I even suspect that on some level Pynchon is just toying with the concept of chaos in his books. That there's nothing to latch onto other than chaos. Maybe there is no structure. Sure you can say things like Pynchon touches on the themes of coincidence and fate. And you'd probably be right. But what kind of touching he is up to is any one's guess.

And then the names. Oedipa Maas, Dudley Eigenvalue, or Mike Fallopian. Are these just inside jokes, just plain jokes, or allusions to something deeper? I haven't a clue.

So why read a book that is impenetrable? Well first, Pynchon is awfully funny. Not rip roaring funny. But consistently oddball funny. Example...
Nobody would talk except to argue about what they would mix the vodka with next when what they had ran out. That week they tried milk, canned vegetable soup, finally the juice from a dried-up piece of watermelon which was all Teflon [a character's name] had left in the refrigerator. Try to squeeze a watermelon into a small tumbler sometime when you reflexes are not so good. It is next to impossible. Picking the seeds out of the vodka proved also to be a problem, and resulted in a growing, mutual ill-will.
You can also feel the awkward prose Pynchon uses in that sequence. A number of times I needed to reread it to insert the correct pauses.

Or this funny passage where a woman is about to play strip poker with someone she is not keen on being naked with
Oedipa skipped into the bathroom, which happened also to have a walk-in closet, quickly undressed and began putting on as much as she could of the clothing she'd brought with her: six pairs of panties in assorted colors, girdle, three pairs of nylons, three brassieres, two pairs stretch slacks, four half-slips, one black sheath, two summer dresses, half dozen A-line skirts, three sweaters, two blouses, quilted wrapped,baby blue peignoir and old Orlon muu-muu. Bracelets then, scatterpins, earrings, a pendant. It all seemed to take hours to put on and she could hardly walk when she was finished. She made the mistake of looking at herself in the full-length mirror, saw a beach ball with feet, and laughed so violently she fell over, taking a can of hair spray on the sink with her. The can hit the floor, something broke, and with a great outsurge of pressure the stuff commenced atomizing, propelling the can swiftly about the bathroom. Metzger rushed in to find Oedipa rolling around, trying to get back on her feet, amid a greaty sticky miasma of fragrant lacquer. "Oh, for Pete's sake," he said in his Baby Igor voice. The can, hissing malignantly, bounced off the toilet and whizzed by Metzger's right ear, missing by maybe a quarter of an inch. Metzger hit the deck and cowered with Oedipa as the can continued it's high-speed caroming. The can knew where it was going, she sensed, or something fast enough, God or a digital machine, might have computed in advance the complex web of its travels but she wasn't fast enough and knew only that it might hit them at any moment. The can collided with a mirror and bounced away leaving a silvery reticulated bloom of glass to hang for second before it all fell jingling into the sink; zoomed over the enclosed shower, where it crashed into and totally destroyed a panel of frosted glass; She could imagine no end to it; yet presently the can did give up in midflight and fall to the floor. She lay watching it.

"Blimey", someone remarked, "Coo." Oedipa took her teeth out of Metzger, looked around and saw in the doorway Miles multiplied by four. It seemed to be the group he'd mentioned. There also appeared a number of girls' faces, gazing through armpits and around angles of knees. "That's kinky," said one of the girls.

"Are you from London?" another wanted to know. "Is that a London thing you're doing?"
Second, there is some beauty in the chaos. The infinite list of characters, the diversions and digressions, the bizarreness of events. It is all beautifully done. It's a little like talking with someone who is really smart when they are high and when you are also high. You realize the conversation is rambling. It's disjointed. It stops and starts. Segues are missing. But it's fun. And somehow it all makes sense in the moment. The next day you think to yourself, 'what the hell were we talking about. Was that just gibberish'?

The problem I do have with Pynchon is also his writing. I mentioned I read slowly to increase comprehension. But even if I wanted to read this quickly I couldn't. His phrasings are odd because they mimic real speech. But they don't have the pauses and inflections that cue you into what someone is saying. Take the Nixon tapes for example. Read excerpts here. It's almost incomprehensible unless you go slowly and understand all the back-history of the people and events. This is Pynchon in a nutshell. It is a hard friggin slog through his books and one reason why I decided to take a pause before tackling his three large tomes.

So the question you might ask yourself is do I really want to torture myself like this. Probably not is my guess. However there is a very easy way to see if this is for you. And that is to read The Crying of Lot 49. It's very short. It's one of the better books I've read so far. And it's prose is more fluid than the other books. Basically, if you can't deal with this book, I don't think you will be able to read the others.

Okay time to find some light fare on my bookshelf...

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