Archives: Thomas Pynchon

Railyard Skyline

The sun will come up on the last day of 2009 soon, and I’ll probably do a rambling post on the decade gone, the first decade of THE FUTURE, kind of at an angle to what we all thought the third millennium AD would bring us. Some time this weekend. I need to gather up a first draft of thoughts on the last 10 years, in order to better know how to set upon goals for the next.

One thing I’d like to do again some time in 2010 though is some deep reading.

In sorting through some papers in preparation for a possible move, I found some old university lit class essays. Many of them are painful to read now. Not because they are poorly written (some are, some aren’t), but because a lot of them are obviously, blatantly parroting back whatever political or philosophical opinion the instructor of that course held. It’s really embarrassingly obvious that I had no ability to form a real opinion of my own. I know I wasn’t trying to ingratiate myself for the sake of good grades, though (surprise) all the papers I have that reflect back the instructor’s beliefs got very good grades. I liked these teachers, and I was fascinated by their opinions, and I think at that time I was unconsciously trying their worldviews on to see how they fit.

I’m quite a bit older now, and though I’ve continued to read voraciously, I haven’t read anywhere near as analytically, or as deeply, as I did in those classes.

For example, here’s a bit of an essay on The Duchess of Malfi:

Men like to ride horses to exhaustion in this play. “Castruccio is come to Rome, Most pitifully tired with riding post.” Ferdinand “hath took horse, and’s rid post to Rome.” Later in the same scene Bosola says, “Pluto, the god of riches, when he’s sent by Jupiter to any man, he goes limping, to signify that wealth that comes on God’s name comes slowly; but when he’s sent on the devil’s errand, he rides post and comes in by scuttles.” Keeping within the play’s metaphoric structure, we can believe that both Castruccio and Ferdinand have ridden to Rome on the devil’s errand…

I used to love to tease out textual clues like that, and find clever ways that the structure of something, or the images it referenced, supported character or theme. It was a useful pleasure when I was an actor, since finding out these little connections was the key to building a nuanced performance. But I’d guess in the last ten years I haven’t tried reading anything this deeply at all.

I recently finished a first read through Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, but even though that book really demands a close reading I found I wasn’t able to muster up the attention for it. I glossed a lot. Then, in doing some digging around online for other people’s impressions of the book, I found this essay that suggests that an odd, throw away reference that Pynchon put into The Crying of Lot 49:

In Mexico City they somehow wandered into an exhibition of paintings by the beautiful Spanish exile Remedios Varo…

In his essay Pynchon’s Inferno, Charles Hollander argues that this reference is meant to make you curious about Remedios Varo, lead you to try researching him, discover little information but be exposed to the name Marcus Terentius Varro (whose name is a cognate of the painter’s), an ancient Roman satirist who wrote in a style called Menippean Satire, a form which:

He developed the form into a medley, or mixture of humor, philosophy, song, and rhyme on any topic that struck his fancy at the moment, managing to scoff at all the fad and fashion of the time while avoiding, or submerging, any political bitterness he might have felt.
– Hollander:Pynchon’s Inferno

This is also the form that Gravity’s Rainbow takes, and Hollander is convinced this odd clue in The Crying of Lot 49 is Pynchon tipping his hand to anyone who happens to be looking, revealing the workings behind his chosen style.

Now, that’s all quite a stretch, and these days information on Remedios Varo is not hard to come by. Maybe Pynchon just knew his paintings, and one he remembered fit his purpose for the image he was looking for. This could be true even if he was intentionally working in the style of Menippean satire. This could all be essentially an elaborate conspiracy-theory-style chain of concoctions unintentionally invented by a source happy scholar digging for influences. But so far all the Pynchon I’ve read is very keen on conspiracy theories, and it does not seem so unlikely to me that he may be playing games with scholarly readers like this. His novels do echo the form of satire described.

Coming up with potential clues like this is the kind of depth I would like to go into again in reading something this year. I don’t know what yet. Maybe more Pynchon. Maybe something else.

A possibility is this great program I read about here, the St. John’s College Summer Classics in Santa Fe, New Mexico:

A Summer Classics seminar is not a lecture, nor is it a book club. At St. John’s, seminars are lively, in-depth, highly participatory conversations on the reading at hand. Discussions begin with an opening question presented by a tutor, but can take on myriad dimensions. Everyone contributes in some way to the conversation, bringing ideas to the table whether they have familiarity with the topic or not. Listening is just as important as speaking, as connections among ideas make for stimulating conversation. No previous knowledge of the author, text, or subject is required; participants should refer only to works the group studies together. Our conversations are not debates. Challenging others’ ideas or offering alternative thinking is encouraged as long as the goal is insight, not didacticism.

These week-long seminars take place in July, and are limited to 16 participants each. Groups are led by two members of the St. John’s College faculty, or occasionally, guests from other institutions.

Frankly it sounds like heaven. These last ten years have just burned by too fast. Time to limp a bit in Jupiter’s service.

(See how I brought it back around there!)

Just finished Cyberabad Days, it was much much better than I anticipated, and I had high expectations already.

Although this was a short story collection, and although the short stories were scattered through the years predating and postdating the year 2047, which was the year the associated novel River of Gods was set, the stories were so dense, and circled around several linchpin events (the damming of the Ganges, the adoption by different subcontinental nations of the US sponsored Hamilton Acts, the advent of genetic Brahmans) that the whole collection takes on the feel of a full second novel. It was easily that layered and rewarding, and actually advanced the narrative past that of the novel that spawned it.

Well, well worth it. I haven’t read near future science fiction this complete and natural seeming since Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars colonization books.

Now, I’m moving on to The Road. Want to read that before the film comes out. In between I’m reading a book called Schuyler’s Monster, which is an autobiographical memoir of a father learning how to raise a daughter who can’t use language. This is a really good book, well written and compelling in an everyday life kind of way.

After that, I must decide – back to Infinite Jest in an attempt to plow through to the end, or start a project I want to complete this year: reading all of Thomas Pynchon in chronological order. I’ll probably do Jest first, just to get it out of the way.

Trying to get words around what I dislike so much about Infinite Jest – it seems largely pointless. A jumble of excruciatingly long sentences with no destination in sight. There is definitely a lot of world building going on, and that’s something I usually respond well to. Footnotes that lead to greater depth of setting and character, a detailed fictional history built in and around the familiar. It’s actually a bit science fictional in several ways. But somehow all of this seems to be in the service of crude, unimaginative satire. That’s a shame, because the characters aren’t, for the most part, simplistic, and the quality of observation in the author’s voice is many times profound. But somehow, in this book, it all seems squandered on tarted up teenage angst and insecure sniggering mockery. I’m about 100 pages in and I just had to set it aside because it was making me tired and bored. I’ve been told it becomes worth the effort after 200 pages or so, and I’m likely to at least push through that far, but I’m not convinced any attraction to the text at that point wont simply be evidence of a kind of Stockholm Syndrome taking effect.

180 Degrees

What are these things? Photo-sketches, I guess.

I’m going to ramble about a book for a little bit. A few days ago I started reading Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s madhouse of a semi-satirical epic. I’ve heard nothing but praise for this book, but frankly I’m not enjoying the experience of reading it. I’m something like a hundred pages and several multi-page endnotes into a thousand page commitment, and so far I’ll be damned if I could say with any confidence who anybody is or what is happening. It’s not that the prose is opaque, it’s more that the segments about wildly different and unrelated characters jump threads from one to another with seemingly arbitrary whimsy, and each of these threads consists mainly of incredibly long-winded rambling descriptive passages that just give you nothing to hang anything on.

World-building in a novel is a plus for me, and this one certainly has that. It may be that nothing much concrete has happened because there is a lot of world-building groundwork to lay. I’m giving it the benefit of good recommendations and plowing forward in the hope that this is what is going on. But another annoyance here is that the world-building is largely satirical, which almost automatically makes me less than interested. It’s not that I can’t appreciate the cleverness of satire, it’s that satire tends to counter my ability to intellectually invest in any of the characters or arguments the book might advance. It’s as though the pose of disdain required for satire causes me to take the author himself less than seriously, and I guess mockery comes easily, and suggests shallowness.

Not that I think this book is callow. From all I’ve heard it is profound and moving. I just haven’t come across the profundity yet, and I’m very far from moved. It is really a chore to pick up again. This is definately a case, I think, of an author’s style working against his intelligence as far as my engagement with the piece is concerned.

Thomas Pynchon is another one who I’ve been unable to penetrate as a result of the fog of his style. I’ve got two of his books lined up to try tackling again after DFWs. I must be feeling masochistic.

An interesting side-note to this: When I’m reading a book that is either amazing or confounding, I’ll usually Google around looking for people’s opinions to see if they help me figure out where I stand in relation to the piece. It’s usually eye-opening, there are usually facts or observations I did not know of that deepen my understanding. So, though it’s early for it, I did this for Infinite Jest and found a couple of blogs that people set up to journal their reading of this book.

A little later, unrelated to this book, I came across a couple of blogs journaling readings of the equally challenging idiosyncratic comic book epic Cerebus by Dave Sim.

The idea of blogging your way through a reading of a large, difficult book is interesting. Sort of like a critical seminar of one. I imagine it must really help to assemble a lasting understanding.