Pynchon This, Pynchon That

The Rabbit’s  March Hare personae means he’s still waiting for his copy of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice (tomorrow! tomorrow!).  In the meantime, we’re reading the reviews. As usual, novelist/reviewer Walter Kirn shines a light. He’s an admirer. Even Salon’s Laura Miller, who so hated Against the Day, finds the latest to her liking. Rereading her review of Against the Day made us recall how (to put it kindly) mixed the reviews were on that lengthy, wacky tome and how, to the Rabbit’s ears, many reviewers missed the point or just couldn’t handle so many unsecured plot lines (see the many letters that follow Miller’s Against the Day screed for perfect examples of die-hard Pynchon fan reaction, reviewer slurs and confused murmurings of the sort that Pynchon always seems to spawn). When the Rabbit was confronted with the assignment, he had–in perdictable March Hare style–the advantage of being late if not last. His sorely-missed editor at the I.E Weekly (we love you Rich!) asked for reaction to the notice. For no good reason, here’s that review. Please write in and tell us what we already know: that there’s little explanation of what goes on in the novel (and so much does!), that we give little space to its central characters (all 87 of them) and that, well, we just didn’t get it. But isn’t that the point with Pynchon novels?

Up To His Old Tricks

Why won’t critics let Pynchon be Pynchon?

Once a novelist is declared one of our best living writers are critics obliged to kill him off? Or does he do himself in? In the strange and stranger case of reclusive Thomas Pynchon both seem true.

Pynchon came screaming across the literary skies during a ten year period beginning in in 1963 with V, The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow. Nothing in existence compared to these wild, expansive books and Pynchon’s place as god of his own comic universe seemed secure. He was buried in critical praise and awards. His esteem grew when the Pulitzer committee refused to consider Gravity’s Rainbow because of a few grossly risqué scenes (how well we remember the dominatrix who after consuming a piece of gristly meat squats over Brigader Pudding’s open mouth and delicately drops a turd).

Then, in a trajectory suggested by the German missiles celebrated in Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon fell to earth. Over a decade passed before the short-story rehash Slow Learner was issued. Then came Vineland–Pynchon’s most forgettable novel–which revisits the 1960s, an era chronicled in The Crying of Lot 49. Mason & Dixon, published in 1997, marked a return to form but was so large and cumbersome with dialect that it defied casual reading.

Even as Pynchon’s work changed, it stayed the same. An endless cast of cleverly-named characters stumble through scenarios pulled from real and imagined history. Paranoia, singular and collective, is rampant. Destiny overpowers individuals, improbable science mixes with out-and-out fantasy, and drugs, no matter the period, are imbibed. Plots–several per novel–seem more comic book than high literature. And somewhere along the way, someone breaks into song.

Against The Day arrived late last year and marks a return to the Pynchon of old. It begins with the hydrogen skyship Inconvenience climbing aloft in 1893 with boy-book heroes the Chums of Chance bound for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It ends some time after the First World War with the skyship now a destination rather than a means to one. In between, there’s more action—and characters– than one can shake a stick of dynamite at, all of it centered on the contract killing of a blast-happy miner who’s accused of being an “anarchist.” Revenge, such as it is, comes slowly, oh so slowly.

Reviews of the thousand-page-plus tome were mixed but stirred with poison. Louis Menard of The New Yorker asks “What was he thinking?” and calls the novel “shapeless, just yards and yards of Pynchonian wallpaper.” In the Los Angeles Times, novelist Christopher Sorrentino also invoked the author’s name to damn it, calling the book “Pynchonesque.” Michiko Kakutani, currently The New York Times foremost critic, said the book read “like the sort of imitation of a Thomas Pynchon novel that a dogged but ungainly fan of this author’s might have written on quaaludes.” It was as if Pynchon had erred by writing as only he can.

In our humble view, Against the Day is a great book worthy of its author’s best. If it were a movie, it would be trumpeted as “colossal,” “epic” and “breath-taking.” That “wallpaper” Menard complains of is actually well-hung art, more foreground than background. And the trance like character of the tale–make that tales– is deeper than any downer might induce. Pynchon’s universe is an entwined, inexplicable place much like real life. Not every story we live has a neat ending. Pynchon’s go on and on.

The genius here lies in the parallels Pynchon draws with contemporary times. The promise of new technologies (in this case, electricity) become meaningless in the face of class struggle and war. Politicians are clueless and corrupt. Big business threatens individuality and hope springs from the promise of the impossible. Immigrants are the object of complaint and security is a booming business. Something frightening is gathering in the distance. The book’s title leaves no doubt how Pynchon feels about the 21st century. It’s the same ol’, same ol’ all over again.

As always, Pynchon delivers this serious message with comedy, irony or both. The book bounces from Chicago, where the soon-to-be assassinated Austrian Archduke wants to take some sport in shooting Hungarians working the Windy City’s stock yards, to Colorado, Belgium, Mexico, Venice and Hollywood as well as the very center of the earth. A strange vessel cruises beneath the Middle Eastern sands looking for lost cities. There’s a race to build a time machine–the presence of stranded visitors from the future prove it’s possible–and a convention celebrating mayonnaise. Just when things threaten to turn dull, we meet a talking parrot named Joaquin who, since a run-in with a Corpus Christi housecat, expresses a preference for gringo pussy. How can you not love it?  Cabbage Rabbit

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