Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Pynchon Clearinghouse

One of my favorite authors, and also one of the most frustrating, is Thomas Pynchon. Clearly a genius, but for every Gravity's Rainbow there is a Vineland, for every Mason & Dixon, there is an Against the Day. Actually, I shouldn't badmouth the latter, as I have yet to read it past the first 150 pages. One storyline is compelling, but another is so excruciating that I had to put the book down. Anyway, I now present for your enjoyment and argument a few short notes I have made over the years on some of Pynchon's work.

Slow Learner

Five early stories, with some of the same rambunctiousness of Pynchon's later novels. The only story that particularly feels out of place is "Under the Rose", a foray into John Buchan territory - a real yawner. "The Secret Integration" and "The Small Rain" are perhaps the most successful stories. The remainder seem to have something essentially Pynchonian missing, but of course they were written as the author was finding his voice. Pynchon's introduction attempts to put these stories from the late 50's - early 60's into perspective, and acts as a sort of apologia for the deficiencies of the stories. Necessary reading for the die-hard fan only.


The Crying of Lot 49

A short and readable novel by Pynchon, with a characteristic blend of paranoia, zany humor, and pathos. Oedipa Maas and a supporting cast try to decipher an underground postal network with roots in the Italian Renaissance. Entertaining but ambiguous: is Trystero a real conspiracy, or a practical joke being played on Oedipa by her ex-lover? Pynchon has spawned many imitators since this novel's 1966 publication, but seen as a product of its time, it is a lively and intriguing cultural document.

Gravity's Rainbow

Almost 900 pages of rocket equations, 1940's hepcat slang, surreal visions, druggie humor, occult arcana, homoerotic fantasy, orgies, tenderness, paranoia, coprophagia, chemical formulae, colonial American puritan theology, and a guest appearance by Mickey Rooney. Threads of meaning come through in a story that shifts time, voice, and focus. Catalogues of depravity and broad slapstick, like Rabelais on acid. Gravity's Rainbow, for me anyway, is a slow read - dreadfully slow in places - and one knows that much has been missed in a casual read. The story of priapic Tyrone Slothrop and his unique connection with the V-2 rockets that blitzed London in the Second World War is ultimately a dark cautionary tale of the dangers of power and technology. My next reading will be accompanied by Weisenburger's indispensable A Gravity's Rainbow Companion, an essential roadmap to this complex novel.

Mason & Dixon

I loved this rambling, rollicking, daffy funhouse mirror of an 18th century novel. Weird and anachronistic, it is also one of the sweetest and clearest of Pynchon's works. The general outline follows the work of the famed surveyors of the Maryland/Pennsylvania hinterlands, but the personalities and adventures recounted here are classic Pynchon. The duo smoke hemp with George Washington (as Martha bakes up cakes to satisfy the munchies and a slave does a fair imitation of a Catskills comic), receive recreational shock treatments from Ben Franklin, converse with a talking dog, dodge an apparently psychotic mechanical duck, and befriend a Chinese feng shui master as they clear the path between the Penn and Calvert estates. This path, it is revealed, serves as a conduit for a vast, ancient, and unnameable telluric force. There are Jesuit conspiracies, lost souls, giant cheeses, and tender loves lost and found. Mason and Dixon are drawn in comic contrast, but they are complementary in their humanity and ultimately quite sympathetic figures. A grand, fun, and, in the end, wistful novel.

P.S. One of my favorite Pynchon websites, Spermatikos Logos, is at http://www.themodernword.com/pynchon/

2 comments:

  1. I think Vineland is quite underrated. It defies the reader's expectations, in that the focus shifts backwards, instead of forwards, and it's uncomfortable to read because it challenges beliefs readers are likely to have, especially about the 60's. If you go into it thinking that you're reading a novel about the 60's, about how the promise was lost and how America wound up in the Reagan years, then you're much likelier to roll with it.

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  2. t.s., thanks for your comment. I suppose the fact that I first read Vineland IN the Reagan years colored my judgement of it. If you ever come around here again, I'd be interested in your opinion of Against the Day. Much of what I've read has confirmed my initial disappointment with the novel, and the fact that a lot of opinion is that it doesn't get any better (I only got through the first 150 pages or so before giving up) was a major cause of despair.

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