Pynchon News Is Good News

Shortly after it was released, Thomas Pynchon’s Against The Day was gifted to me and quickly became one of my favorite novels of all time. This novel is a monster. And because it’s so huge, and his previous novel Mason & Dixon came a decade prior, and it was also huge, and Pynchon is getting on in years, I had this impression it might be his last book.

Fortunately I was wrong and he quickly tossed off Inherent Vice, a hilarious detective novel set at the end of the hippy era. Supposedly, Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie adaptation of Inherent Vice is filming now with rumors of a ensemble cast full of stars. But what’s even more exciting is that Pynchon has a new novel coming out later this year. The novel is called Bleeding Edge and it is set in New York between the collapse of the dot-com bubble and September 11, 2001.

Read the first page of Bleeding Edge here.

I’ve read just about everything Pynchon has written, and his longer novels are my favorite. I particularly love Gravity’s Rainbow and Against The Day because there is so much going on in them, so many different angles to the narratives, and so many different ways to read them, that every person who reads the novel comes out of it with a different experience.

A while ago I picked one angle and wrote a review of Gravity’s Rainbow.

Article first published as Book Review: Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon on Blogcritics.

GRAVITY’S RAINBOW by Thomas Pynchon

Dubbed “The most profound and accomplished American novel since the end of World War II” (The New Republic), Gravity’s Rainbow is a massive, freewheeling, paranoid journey through Europe at the tail end of the Second World War. Novelist and esoterica buff Thomas Pynchon is in top form for this, his third novel. A dense, challenging epic, Gravity’s Rainbow is highly rewarding for those with the attention span and patience to take it on.

From the first line we know the concept of The Preterite, or passed-over, is going to be a prominent theme. “A screaming comes across the sky…” A screaming what? The allusion is to a rocket, faster than sound so its target has no way to hear it coming. And the hunt for this preterite rocket, codename “00000”, and its mysterious black device, the S-Gerat, is a loose analogy of our main character, Tyrone Slothrop. In Pynchon’s own post-modern, self-reflexive words, “Some called [Tyrone] a ‘pretext.’ Others felt that he was a genuine, point-for-point microcosm.” (p. 753) This atypical approach to writing defies expectations, assuring Gravity’s Rainbow a prominent place in the history of the novel, even if it is often overlooked.

Pynchon loves to play with the form. The book introduces a madman’s variety of characters in a stunning array of literary styles. Often hilarious, sometimes shocking, Gravity’s Rainbow is no simple story. Perhaps not since Ulysses by James Joyce has an author swung through the canopy of styles so freely, offering up slapstick, scientific realism, hallucinatory stream-of-consciousness and more. The novel slides from one heterodox story to the next, immersing the reader in the chaos spread across Europe by World War II. Some characters hide, some fall in love or dive into obsession to distract from the reality of wartime, while others charge in headfirst, hungry for glory. And all the while, the real question is being asked – why? Why was there a war? Who made the decisions leading up to it, and how was it determined that war is the best option?

Tyrone isn’t introduced until page 61, but even before that we get a sense of his complicated personality. Tyrone has been the subject of bizarre, pseudo-Pavlovian conditioning that somehow leads him to be sexually aroused just before a rocket strike. Stranger yet is that he seems to have subconscious knowledge of exactly where the rocket will hit, though he thinks he’s just following his libido. We begin to understand that Tyrone’s motivations are not wholly his own. Like everyone in the war, Tyrone is deeply affected by a terrifying situation beyond his control. And like the 00000, we sense that he will only become aware of his true role in all this when it’s too late.

Gravity’s Rainbow has been called meta-historical fiction. The historical context of the story is completely true, but Pynchon draws the reader into the mania of the characters, little tangents and cul-de-sacs of fantasy that elevate the story to the realm of mythology. This sounds intellectual and heady, and it is, but the story never feels dry; sex, drugs, love and mystery drive the plot forward with a knowing humor that is both laugh-out-loud and profound.

Following a variety of WWII fringe groups brings the story into even stranger realms. Shadowy organizations like The White Visitation, PISCES, and Operation Black Wing look at the war through lenses of parapsychology and the occult. Delving into Nazi legend, corporate conspiracy, Kabbalah, the elusive Schwarzkommando, ballistic hermeneutics and a unique brand of rocket mysticism, Gravity’s Rainbow offers up a paranoid dream for hippies and soldiers alike. The novel seems to say that some special form of mass insanity must be responsible for something on the magnitude of a World War. What the cause of this insanity is, exactly, is a little more elusive.

Tyrone is an American-born rocket specialist, a guidance man who frequently peeks his head up into the realm of superhero. His irresistible urge toward sex and predilection for drugs find him stumbling into situations oblivious to the big picture, though he often ends up in the right place. When a hashish pickup goes awry Tyrone raids an opera costume trunk and becomes “Rocket Man”, a stylish WWII hero if ever there was one. Tyrone is not a typical hero, just as Gravity’s Rainbow is not a typical novel. Tyrone is both Preterite and Elect. He is a Chosen One, the special subject of strange experiments in behavioral conditioning. But he always manages to stay out of the limelight, passed over at crucial times while danger misses him by a hair. In one of the more brutal scenes in the book, pair of doctors search a spa for Tyrone, who by now is dressed as a giant pig. Through a case of mistaken identity, Tyrone avoids a horrible future that would more than dampen his sex life. Both his preterition and election save him from the worst of the war.

The same goes for the novel. It is a Bible of countercultural intellectualism, an underground epic for dope smokers and mystics that by its undeniable brilliance was awarded a National Book Award. On the other hand Gravity’s Rainbow was passed over for a Pulitzer Prize despite a unilateral vote. The Pulitzer committee decided instead to hand out no prize that year, presumably because of the morally questionable material throughout the book. Despite the real horrors of WWII and the Nazi party, apparently this fiction was too much for the Pulitzer board to handle. A book like this will likely never be given the prestige it deserves because it deals with too many fringe elements in a sympathetic way. Gravity’s Rainbow blurs morality, details too much real-world corruption and power politics, discloses too much about the business of war, GE and IG Farben, looks at behavioral conditioning and fetishism, and all with strong undertones of anarchy. Books like this are almost always passed over by the Establishment.

Gravity’s Rainbow takes place in the tumultuous fallout of war, and much like the victims of a rocket strike, swirls and writhes to recover what has been destroyed. “My mother is the war,” says mathematician Roger Mexico. Drastic times call for drastic measures, and in a war like this one everyone is affected. Everyone reacts in his or her own way to the visible and invisible causes of war. Despite the chaotic and multifaceted paths taken by our heroes, the many become unified in their loves and fears, all raising a glass in song at the absurd, sublime condition of our world. Nothing is the same after the war. And those who make it through the dense prose of Gravity’s Rainbow will remember it as a benchmark novel like no other.

Gravity’s Rainbow is a novel to be read and re-read, a companion to be studied over a lifetime. Thanks to the grandness of the story, the prodigal complexion of the prose, and Pynchon’s ability to weave minute detail and lofty abstraction into the telling, Gravity’s Rainbow reveals more and more of its secrets with subsequent reads. It grows with the reader, like an old man dispensing wisdom through the years, unafraid to offend or enlighten.

Imagine THAT

I tend to think of Art abstractly, as an idealized magical process. New things are created where before there was nothing. It generally starts with an idea or intuition out of which grows the impetus to create. Usually that first idea or an intertwining between two ideas comes with a great spark of enthusiasm that represents some sort of ecstatic truth. People would ‘get it’ perfectly if they could only feel exactly THAT.

But at the end of the day, art is something we perceive. I play a linguistic joke on myself when I talk about art without relating it to something in the world that someone is looking at, listening to, contemplating, or experiencing in some fashion. Creating something real that can bring others to that same ecstatic truth is Art. Artists attempt to elicit an experience or a process in their audience. But creating a worldly artifact that can be used by someone to achieve THAT is a process of its own.

Different art forms work differently this way. Some forms of art translate well into our everyday reality. For instance, if I think of a great idea for a book all I have to do is write the book (put words on page), publish the book (print/digital), and I’m done. On the other hand, if I come up with a great idea for a movie, I’ve got a lot more work cut out for me.

Literature, music, painting, and maybe dance are some of the most direct translations of an ecstatic idea, or THAT. In these art forms there is less process or activity for the idea to be lost or degraded. Each activity an artist takes to realize their ecstatic vision of truth takes the artist further from the world of ideas and closer to something that can be perceived by an observer. Even writing can dull the creative spark. Putting an idea into words is a challenge. A greater challenge is finding the right words and putting them into the right structure to guide a reader to a specific intuition.

This is the reason many serious artists don’t like to speak about their work. The ecstatic vision of truth doesn’t come neatly packaged in a few words, an image, or a soundbite. Usually it’s something numinous and mysterious, and the act of creating is the artist’s attempt to make that idea into something intelligible.

When a filmmaker is asked “What is your film about?” they better not have a snappy answer ready. If David Lynch could tell us what Lost Highway is about in one sentence, he shouldn’t have made it. Also, if it was that simple, we shouldn’t have spent 2 hours 25 minutes ingesting it. Fortunately the film exists as a process and a complete whole apart from any explanation. It opens up worlds of intuition for each observer to explore.

With film there are many distinct stages of creation, so the idea can get very far from THAT, the original creative spark. This can be a good thing because each stage demands its own creative treatment and different artists contribute their vision and talent to the final product. At the same time this can be a terrible thing because the successive stages of creation can dilute the power of the original idea. By the time the script is written, the crew and cast hired, the film shot, edited, blended with sound that’s been recorded, foleyed and mixed, and finally presented, the director might look at the screen and think, “This has absolutely nothing to do with my original idea.” The movie Bad Timing by Nicholas Roeg began with a straightforward script and was shot in a straightforward manner. Fortunately in the editing process they discovered a strange take on the material and the film became a beautiful example of non-linear storytelling. The finished product was surely closer to the original creative spark than Roeg expected from his linear script.

Film may be the most challenging art form because it contains so many types of art. Cinematography, production design, costume and make-up, sound recording, acting and more contribute to the overall essence put forth by the script, and this all must be wrangled by a director (who may or may not have written the script, and may or may not get it). The director ultimately, often unfortunately, answers to the producer. The producer is a business man who may or may not have any artistic talent whatsoever.

But film can be one of the most rewarding art forms because it is so absorbing. Film uses our aesthetic eye (like painting), our aesthetic ear and sense of rhythm (like music), our thinking mind (like writing), and our intuition (our own feelings), concerted to give us a two-hour experience, a process which hopefully will enrich us.

Of course, masterpieces in any art form stay with us forever. Good art shows us a vision of life we couldn’t seen without it. And whether we ever make it to exactly THAT, the process of discovery is the important thing.

 

P.S. Follow me on Twitter @EricRSchiller for my micro-blog book report on each chapter of Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. It’s possibly the craziest book I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a lot of crazy books.

 

 

Writing Near and Far

The next book on my reading list is The Stand by Stephen King. Most bestselling novels share one impressive self-evident fact – they are very readable. Stephen King, John Grisham and George R. R. Martin are masters of the craft. Somehow I have only ever read one other Stephen King novel. It was The Shining, and I was disappointed. (Here’s why.)

I read bestsellers for the same reason that I watch blockbuster movies. I’ve spent a lot of time on the other side of the fence snubbing my nose at commercially successful filmmakers, writers, etc., while remaining unpublished myself, so I’ve decided to try to undo some of my pretentious conditioning. These people sell books because they are masters at writing in the active voice.

Active/Passive

When two people speak casually they fall into rhythm without having to think about their subject. If one person tells a story, he or she speaks continually, with no pauses to think about the logical ordering of words. This natural dynamic creates a polarity between them: Person A uses short words in sentences easy to understand; Person B listens and gives minimal feedback until a break in the flow occurs, or they think of something and interrupt. Or they pull out their phone.

Likewise, most bestselling authors use short words in sentences easily understandable. Their prose is fluid and well-ordered and we, as readers, follow along quickly, understanding everything that transpires. Because the prose is so direct and active, we lock ourselves into “input” mode, accepting ideas in order without breaking off in distraction at our own tangential thoughts. We absorb the writing because it puts us in a passive, receptive trance.

I read The Associate by John Grisham very quickly. The first few chapters flew by and I went to bed. In the morning I realized I didn’t like the main character and wasn’t intrigued by the plot. Nevertheless, while I read the book I wasn’t thinking about these things, I was simply reading along. The deeper I got into the book the more greedily I read, even as I was rolling my eyes about the story. It was like an addiction, like being addicted to Fruit Loops even though they ruin your mouth for the day. At the end of the book I complained that it offered no food for thought. The reading experience was one of the easiest and most natural of my reading career. That says something.

George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones is written in a very plain voice. His prose draws no attention to itself and we’re left with pure story. It took more than 2000 pages for me to realize that A Song of Ice and Fire is the work of a master. The prose is third-person and seems omniscient, but each chapter features a different character, invisibly bringing the reader deeper into each character’s reality by subtly detailing how diverse characters act and react, notice or miss detail in a complex world.

This style of writing is processed immediately, meaning A) it is comprehended at once; and B) it is not mediated by thought.

The Other Side

Another style of writing is at least equally masterful, though you don’t see people reading these books on the subway. Some writers write in a more complicated, elliptical style and effectively ask the reader to think in parallel with the prose. This risks losing the reader to distraction because readers have idiosyncratic mental correspondences, and each reader ends up thinking something slightly different. In this category I include authors like Thomas Pynchon and Jorge Luis Borges, whose stories open into big ideas for the reader to take or leave.

These works can be tough to digest as the reader must make leaps of thinking to understand the ordering of the prose. A book like Gravity’s Rainbow is so dense with ideas and correspondences that every reader ends up with his or her own version of the story. What I get from the book will differ from what you took from it, and that contrast will show us both something about how we perceive the world. I find that interesting.

Borges’ short stories compress such huge ideas into so few pages, each gleams like a diamond. The worlds of Philip K. Dick may seem naively constructed, but the ideas put forward make his work great. The Schrodinger’s Cat Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson happens through shifting quantum realities where characters spontaneously change names, personalities, etc., and it is only the ideas that carry the story through.

The Synthesis

Balance matters. There’s a correspondence between symmetry with beauty. Use both sides of your brain, and read both types of literature. Then, and only then, consider going outside for some exercise, right after another cup of coffee.

A long while ago I decided would read what I wanted without worrying it might be over my head. It can be frustrating because we feel dumb when we don’t understand. But understanding things is a matter of time and will. When you come across an unfamiliar word, you have the option to look it up in a dictionary. Doing that developed my ability to “stick with” tough books. I’m positive this practice has increased my attention span. Unfortunately I can’t say whether I’ve become smarter, or better at bullshitting because I know more words. Either way, it’s rewarding to finish a difficult book.

I used to write vague screenplays and abstract stories that must have left amorphous impressions on the few people who read them. Now I make efforts to absorb the style of these bestsellers hoping to balance myself out. There is no denying that King and Grisham write clearly and precisely, and that’s admirable. That economy of style is difficult to master, and it’s one of the reasons Ernest Hemingway won a Nobel Prize. Hopefully with this blog motivating me to write clearly, concisely, and regularly, I’ll find some balance, round out my style, and publish in a professional market.

 

“They lived for different futures, but they were each other’s unrecognized halves, and what fascination between them did come to pass was lit up, beyond question, with grace.” – Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day