Author Topic: Pynchon  (Read 1313 times)

Pynchon
« on: August 11, 2020, 02:05:31 PM »
I'd like to know what you think about this incredible and incredibly frustrating writer. I'm working my way through his novels, I've read most of them now with the exception of Mason and Dixon and the two recent lighter books. I'm halfway through Vineland.

Here are some possible opening gambits to start talking.

1)His worldview has things in common with that of conspiracy theorists, but where conspiracy theorist believe in a nameless and somewhat shadowy but unified "Them" behind things, Crying of Lot 49 is excellent on imaging the specifics of how the world is affected by petty squabbles between aristocratic factions.

2)The opening pages of Lot 49 capture superbly contemporary feelings of data overload, but do so in a still somewhat comprehensible manner- Lot 49 is not, in itself a mentally overwhelming or exhausting book to read, even though these are the emotions its heroine is experiencing. From Gravity's Rainbow onwards, the aesthetic changes a bit- not only is GR a hard book to read, it's also a book which seems to be written not to be fully comprehended. GR is the first novel I've read where using something like a reader's guidebook seems really beside the point, because a guidebook which explained everything would necessarily give too much emphasis to things which you are not supposed to see as too important, or fully comprehend. GR, Vineland and Against the Day all have moments where you feel you're struggling to see the main story through a wall of noise. While a lot of that noise in GR is itself striking and interesting, in Vineland a superb humanistic story about a hippy woman who betrays her friends to an undercover agent is buried beneath a load of irritatingly wacky caper nonsense. (Just like Homer Simpson likes Woody Allen films, except for that nervous fellow who's always in them, I find myself in Vineland thinking that TP is a genius, if only he wouldn't be so Pynchon-esque)

3)There is obviously a lot of interesting commentary online about TP, but a lot of it seems to underplay the extent to which his books are about sex and relationships- the very very extreme S and M stuff in GR, and it's ludicrous central plot, about a man who gets an erection moments every time a German rocket is about to hit, seem mostly to be considered in symbolic or metaphorical terms. But I think the inclusion of a somewhat "straight" love story between two ordinary people struggling to make their relationship work during wartime is structurally important in the book, in terms of encouraging us to think of the weirder sexual relationships in the book as relationships, rather than as bits of edgy anti-bourgeois shock writing. People who get bored by the scenes where Jessica and Roger talk tenderly to each other should remain silent about the scene where Brigadier Pudding eats shit. Though they are unlikely to share much of common readership, I read Sally Rooney's Normal People recently and thought that is shared something of a sitting-on-the-fence position towards S and M: S and M scenes are depicted, but the sadists are genuinely evil and the masochists are confused and abject people. I am not sure whether the pro-S and M lines towards the end of the book, about S and M having the potential to overthrow all power structres, are tounge in cheek or not.

4) GR is by far and away the most inspired book, and in some sections seem amazingly prescient. In particular, the relationship between pornography and political reactionary points of view that comes across when you read the sections about Leni Polker and her husband Franz Polker seem really related to what's going on. Other section in Lot49 and GR seem to predict the internet in funny and surprising ways. GR also contains so much good unPynchonesque stuff, in particular the many lyrical passages about London in the winter in the 1940s in the opening section, and the more extreme bits of avant-garde writing in the closing section,

5)Though many novelists have flirted with anti-capitalist positions, Against the Day is kind of shockingly in favour of anti-capitalist violence, in a way which is kind of startling.

Pingers

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Re: Pynchon
« Reply #1 on: August 29, 2020, 10:56:52 PM »
I've only read Vineland, but I've read it three times. It's not that I don't intend to read the rest (I do), it's just that Vineland is almost the perfect novel as far as I'm concerned. To me, Pynchon presents as the perfect outsider, someone who understands the milieu but is sufficiently outside it to offer scalpel-sharp critique. His portrayal of late '60s hippies as too naïve and drug-bent to achieve meaningful victories over the callous soldiers of the status quo headed by Brock Vond is too true for comfort. At the same time, the writing is superb. There is a chapter that starts with a lighting engineer's description of lighting a set that is pure poetry.

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Re: Pynchon
« Reply #2 on: August 29, 2020, 11:20:46 PM »
I never saw these the same way again after reading the Crying of Lot 49


Re: Pynchon
« Reply #3 on: August 31, 2020, 02:32:34 AM »
I've only read Vineland, but I've read it three times. It's not that I don't intend to read the rest (I do), it's just that Vineland is almost the perfect novel as far as I'm concerned. To me, Pynchon presents as the perfect outsider, someone who understands the milieu but is sufficiently outside it to offer scalpel-sharp critique. His portrayal of late '60s hippies as too naïve and drug-bent to achieve meaningful victories over the callous soldiers of the status quo headed by Brock Vond is too true for comfort. At the same time, the writing is superb. There is a chapter that starts with a lighting engineer's description of lighting a set that is pure poetry.

Thanks for replying. I'm really intrigued that you describe Vineland as 'perfect':  there's so many bits in it that I found irritating distractions, but you're making me wonder if maybe I'm missing something about the stuff about the bits I didn't like- e.g. the bits about DL in Japan and her relationship with Takeshi I find a really frustrating digression, but maybe they thematically fit the story in some way I'm not seeing.

As for how much of an outsider to hippy activism Pynchon was, there's a really strange bit near the end of Gravity's Rainbow that reads like a direct, not-in-character, non-fictional confession of involvement in some sort of unnamed political violence, obliquely described. It's quite jarring- even if it's ultimately part of the fiction, it certainly reads like you're meant to think it's a version of the author talking. The section ends......1966 and 1971, I tasted my first blood. Do you want to put this part in?. The rest of the novel is set in the 1930 and 1940s.
 I was listening to this podcast about Pynchon the other day, the guy presenting veers a little too close to conspiracy theory at times, but he at one point made some interesting speculations about whether, in the light of this bit in GR, it was reasonable to speculate that Pynchon's low profile could be because he'd done something in the past:
https://shoutengine.com/DeathIsJustAroundtheCorner/

Pingers

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Re: Pynchon
« Reply #4 on: August 31, 2020, 12:29:54 PM »
I had the exact same reaction to the Takeshi and DL sub- story on the first read, but the second time around it seemed to make perfect sense. I don't know why, other than maybe I was just expecting and therefore ready for the absurdism.

Yours is an interesting comment on the political violence; there are parts of Vineland where extreme violence against the state is presented as a raw counterpoint to the weak idealism of the 'standard longhairs'. Possibly Pynchon did get involved in something heavy, certainly Vineland is a critique of Aquarian twattery in the face of ruthless state tyranny.

Anyway, it's only my idea of a perfect novel, I'm sure most would disagree.

Re: Pynchon
« Reply #5 on: September 04, 2020, 11:34:09 PM »
This thread has encouraged me to finally start the copy of Crying I’ve had on the shelf for three or four years. Every time I’ve picked it up I’ve been momentarily put off by its obvious weight (in spite of its physical brevity) but am now 50 pages in - and although I find myself occasionally drifting away from the central meaning sometimes in mid-sentence - it’s very entertaining and extremely funny.

I have a feeling that after this the next ‘easiest’ for me will be Inherent Vice. Any recommendations of what order to go in after that? My sense is from Vice to V to Gravity’s Rainbow, as that seems like a gradual build of difficulty. This might seem stupid but it can really help me with challenging authors to be bought into their worldview/style. Obviously will probably take me years to get around to.

Must admit to grudging love for these authors who are obviously amazingly intelligent but manage to be much funnier than me on my best day.

Re: Pynchon
« Reply #6 on: September 06, 2020, 02:51:22 AM »
Though the first chapter of Lot 49 does brilliantly depict the data-saturation of contemporary (1966) life, (the curious can take a look at the first chapter here):
https://genius.com/Thomas-pynchon-the-crying-of-lot-49-chapter-1-annotated

...if you're fifty pages in, (the start of Chapter Three), you're just at the point where the main story begins, so do press on!

The question of difficulty is a really funny one with Pynchon, because although Gravity's Rainbow is, at a quick glance, much more difficult on a sentence by sentence level than e.g. Inherent Vice, there's a level of ambition and seriousness in GR that's very beguiling, and I felt more motivated to continue with it than I did with any of his other books. Also, the poetic, dense style made me less concerned with understanding every single detail and more concerned with enjoying the feel of the sentences and picking up the main threads.
Personally I didn't enjoy V and found Against the Day very enjoyable, but I think that's not a widely shared view:
https://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/20/books/20kaku.html

Re: Pynchon
« Reply #7 on: September 11, 2020, 12:22:46 AM »
This is why I find it hard to talk about difficulty with Pynchon-
say you go to an art gallery and you watch some underground avant-garde experimental film: you might not fully comprehend what's going on, but you don't really mind because you get that's part of the deal with this kind of work and you let it wash over you and enjoy whatever you can take from it.
Now say, by contrast, you're watching an episode of Columbo or some other detective drama and you can't follow some elements of the plot: this is much, much more frustrating because full comprehensibility is part of the contract with that kind of artwork- you can't help but see the incomprehensibility as a fault.
All of Pynchon is somewhat confusing, but the most 'difficult' book, Gravity's Rainbow is also the one that's most obviously like the first, less frustrating scenario, and some of the 'easier' books like IV are a bit more like the second scenario.

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Re: Pynchon
« Reply #8 on: October 08, 2020, 12:53:59 AM »
The only thing in GR that really frustrated me was the odd obscure historical reference I'd have to look up. The other famously challenging bits I knew I'd have no chance of parsing, so when the book got more out there I'd just push on and, as AO, just let it wash over me. I think that works in the book's favor, it put me in a sort of confused trance that added to the paranoid and uncertain vibe of the whole thing. I don't know how to put this in a way that doesn't sound a bit stupid. But it's a book you have to let take over your brain.

I think it's definitely the best of his books I've read (only read the first 3). It has the best balance of all his different elements - the wackiness doesn't feel like it takes over the story etc. I've only gotten into him over the past year or so but he has really influenced my worldview. In GR I especially love the portrayal of the British army at the end of WW2 as a bunch of fragmented warring factions with no clear idea of what they're doing or who they're doing it for.
« Last Edit: October 08, 2020, 01:10:05 AM by fucking ponderous »

touchingcloth

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Re: Pynchon
« Reply #9 on: October 08, 2020, 08:29:55 AM »
Most Pynchon is just a poor pastiche of Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff.

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