Against the Day Weblog

November 20, 2006

Reader Beware… Guardian review.

Filed under: Reviews — basileios @ 11:28 am

You can spot the Pynchon afficionado even in the first lines of this Against the Day review in the Guardian. It felt as if I was reading about myself in some paragraphs. Bring it on!

Thomas Pynchon’s fiction is like a drug, plunging the addict into a shadowy world of paranoia and conspiracy. As an earnest young student, Ian Rankin became hopelessly hooked. And still is. The crime writer pays tribute to his hero – ‘the greatest, wildest, most infuriating author of his generation’

When rumours began to circulate concerning an impending novel from the reclusive American author Thomas Pynchon, I was sceptical. There had been rumours before: they are part and parcel of the parallel universe encountered in Pynchon’s work. But then a news release appeared, apparently written by Pynchon himself. The book would be around 1,000 pages long, appear towards the end of the year, and be called Against the Day. This was a cause for despair. It meant that once more I would begin to inhabit the shadowy, conspiracy-driven theatre of the absurd that seems to be Pynchon’s imagination. It’s a place that constrains and hypnotises the general reader, and exerts an even greater pull on the true fan. My wife and children would lose sight of me for as long as it took to read the book, and afterwards I would be shell-shocked, wide-eyed, and seeing everywhere around me the signs of another world, similar to the one I seem to inhabit, but darker, odder, and altogether funnier.

The press release itself is vintage Pynchon. Set in the first two decades of the 20th century, the author says of the book: “With a worldwide disaster looming … it is a time of unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places. No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred.” He goes on to admit that “the author is up to his usual business … it is what the world might be with a minor adjustment or two”, and ends with “let the reader beware. Good luck.”

It will be a challenging book – Pynchon’s novels are nothing if not challenging – and I’ll be first in the queue to buy it, because (in an all-too-Pynchonesque twist) the joint UK and US embargo on reviewing the book meant I was not able to read it prior to commencing this appreciation. Nevertheless, let us begin.

I spent the summer of 1981 cooped up in the library at the University of Edinburgh, writing a dissertation on the short stories of Thomas Pynchon. I’d been studying English Literature for three years, enduring Hardy, Wordsworth and Pope on my way to the promised land of “US Literature”. The first “serious” novel I’d ever enjoyed was Catch-22, which had appeared as a set text in high school. I’d gone on to read Kerouac and Kesey, and was hooked on the modern American novel. Even so, Pynchon came as a revelation. I was 20 when I worked my way through The Crying of Lot 49, V and Gravity’s Rainbow. The workload was punishing: I think a single week was dedicated to Pynchon (meaning a one-off lecture followed by a tutorial). But that tutorial was followed by a longer discussion in the nearby pub, where our enthusiastically bearded tutor was joined by a proselytising postgrad and a lecturer who specialised in the post-war British novel. The three put up a convincing case for Thomas Pynchon as the greatest novelist of his generation. Not that they needed to try too hard.

Pynchon seemed to fit the model I was learning of literature as an extended code or grail quest. Moreover, he was like a drug: as you worked out one layer of meaning, you quickly wanted to move to the next. He wrote action novels about spies and soldiers which also happened to be detective stories and bawdy romps. His books were picaresquely post-modern and his humour was Marxian (tendance: Groucho). On page six of The Crying of Lot 49, the name Quackenbush appears, and you know you are in safely comedic hands.

Some of my fellow students had cheated, opting to read only Lot 49. It’s by far the shortest of Pynchon’s novels, and has (for the most part) a linear structure with a readily-identifiable central character to lead the reader through the plot. (Pynchon himself, retrospectively, seems no great fan of the book.) However, I preferred those denser, longer books – V and Gravity’s Rainbow. The more they puzzled me, the more I felt the need to unravel their meaning.

I inhaled the various intoxicating conspiracies and rumours: that Pynchon was actually J D Salinger; or he was a computer programme; or a cabal of other authors; that he had visited his London publisher but wanted only to talk to the person in charge of children’s books, and then only to snaffle some publicity posters for his kid’s bedroom; that he had stayed at the home of novelist Ian McEwan in Cambridge; that he was researching the Mason-Dixon line. (This last turns out to have been true, even if the rumour started in 1982 and the eventual novel didn’t see the light of day until 1997.) I learned also that there were precious few photos of the author in existence, and that a researcher had visited his old high school only to find that all photos and files relating to Pynchon had disappeared. (Latterly, Pynchon himself has made fun of his reticence, appearing in two episodes of The Simpsons with a brown paper-bag over his head but voicing his own lines.)

The mystique surrounding the author became part and parcel of the idolatry. After reading The Crying of Lot 49, I drew a post-horn on the back of my army-surplus jacket, using a black marker-pen, a ruler and the circumference of a tea-saucer. A friend meantime went one better, starting a new wave band called Thurn and Taxis. (These days, when I see the word “taxis” anywhere, I don’t think of black cabs but of a secret alternative to the US postal service.)

Pynchon didn’t garner mere admirers or allow anything like fence-sitting: you either hated him or you were a zealot. It’s a mark of his abilities that a quarter of a century on, I can remember much of the bar-room conversation about him, and none at all about The Scarlet Letter, Robert Frost, or Edward Albee.

Pynchon’s first book V was also the first I read as a student. It is a convoluted conspiracy thriller, and as the narrator himself says: “its particular shape [is] governed only by the surface accidents of history at the time”. This may go some way towards explaining why one moment the reader is with “the whole sick crew” at a drunken modern-day party, and the next is transported to 1899 and a terrific period-piece about diplomacy and spycraft prior to the first world war. A place called Vheissu is mentioned, as is a woman called Victoria Wren: either one may be the enigmatic and intangible V of the title.

Pynchon’s world of paranoia, conspiracies, and shadowy government agencies is so persuasive that the fan begins to see signs and signifiers everywhere – even mistyping Pynchon’s name as Punchon seems indicative of something. But what? Whatever the answer, he was manna to us literature students. With his playfulness (what Barthes would doubtless have called jouissance) and his codifying tactics, he seemed the writer that deconstruction and its ilk had been waiting for. An undergrad could compose a 1,000-word essay on the ramifications of the title of the law firm in the opening pages of Lot 49 (Warpe, Wistfull, Kubitschek and McMingus, in case you were wondering). A lecturer could pontificate for half an hour on the multiple meanings of the character name Pierce Inverarity (Pierce in verity? In veracity? Inverse rarity? Was there a town called Inverarity in Scotland and could Pynchon know of it?)

He even had his own “fanzine” – an academic journal dedicated to his work and with the absurdly prosaic title of Pynchon Notes. As far as I was aware, no other living author had received this accolade – it was the sort of thing more associated with rock bands – and I duly submitted a paper (though I forget now if it was ever accepted, or what its thesis might have been).

The problem with Pynchon, however, is that people tend (now as then) to treat him with po-faced reverence, and this can put off as many readers as it attracts. The author himself seems to admit that he dug a hole when he called one of his early short stories “Entropy”. In Lot 49 he makes mention of the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell and thermodynamics, and continued his apparent interest in quantum mechanics in Gravity’s Rainbow

All of this appealed immensely to the stoners of the 1970s. It was a time of The Dancing Wu-Li Masters and Godel, Escher, Bach – books which linked quantum engineering to eastern religion, to be discussed over a well-stoked bong with a side of Tangerine Dream playing in the background. The Illuminatus trilogy was big at that time, too, with its talk of cabals and “immanentising the Eschaton” (maybe a young Dan Brown was taking notes). Literary criticism meantime was turning towards scientism. The Derrida school of deconstructionists drooled over Pynchon while semioticians sharpened their troping-shears.

All of which makes him seem worthy rather than readable. Yet his books are romps and detective stories. In Lot 49, the heroine Oedipa Maas begins to feel like “the private eye in any long-ago radio drama”. Pynchon has also credited the spy novels of Graham Greene and Le Carre and the thrillers of another Scot, John Buchan, as inspiration, alongside likelier suspects such as Jack Kerouac (and Pynchon does remain the most Beat of contemporary literary authors).

The names he gives to his characters can make me laugh out loud or wish I’d thought of them first: the saxophone player McClintic Sphere; the schlemiel Benny Profane; the English spy-cum-mechanical doll Bongo-Shaftsbury. Then there’s the US Navy roughneck Pig Bodine, who began life in an early short story (“Low-Lands”) and would reappear in several books. I liked Bodine so much that I spoonerised his name when creating a character called Big Podeen, an ex-sailor who appears in my first crime novel, Knots and Crosses

Interviewers and Inspector Rebus fans often express surprise when I say I was influenced by Pynchon. I’m a crime writer after all, a genre writer. I set all my books in Scotland and use a recurring central character. But the mass of whodunits is indebted to the grail myth, something Raymond Chandler made clear within the first few pages of The Big Sleep and Pynchon’s books often involve innocents on the run, or hunting some answer to a central mystery. This same secret knowledge is what I craved as a young student, believing that there was a meaning to the world beyond all our everyday transactions. Pynchon seemed to provide tantalising glimpses of patterns and route-maps, which is why I fell into his web. And sat down in the university library to begin a quest of my own.

The few short stories Pynchon had published were hard to find in 1981. A few appeared as individual pamphlets; others had to be borrowed from Ivy League libraries in the USA. As the weeks passed, I became so knowledgeable that I was able to put the esteemed critic Tony Tanner right – at least in the margins of my copy of his book City of Words. As I pick that book up now, it falls open, spine irredeemably cracked, at the chapter on Entropy in Fiction. Twenty-five years ago, I corrected Tanner on the identity of Pynchon’s first published story (“The Small Rain” rather than “Entropy”) and also on the title of another short story (“Mortality and Mercy in Vienna” rather than “Mercy and Mortality in Venice”). But now I have a problem, because I do seem to recall reading and writing about this second story, yet it makes no appearance in Pynchon’s collected early stories. If time allowed, I’d be off on another quest to seek the truth. Somewhere out in the garage, in one of 100 cardboard boxes, lies my dissertation, along with the original source material, including a photocopy of “Mortality and Mercy in Vienna”. Unless, of course, it has mysteriously vanished.

Three years after I finished working through Pynchon’s short stories, he collected them in a book called Slow Learner, and provided a generously autobiographical introduction which rendered much of the theorising in my dissertation utterly redundant. Four of the five stories in that volume were written while he was still at college. Of “Entropy” Pynchon says: “I thought I was sophisticating the Beat spirit with secondhand science”, which stands as a pretty good description of some of his novels, too.

The self-deprecating tone of Pynchon’s introduction helps to humanise the author. Suddenly, the notion that he could have been a computer programme seems risible. He admits that in his early days he would consult a thesaurus for “cool” words, without bothering to check their dictionary meaning. This reminds me of a short story I wrote in an English class at high school. The teacher enjoyed it, but had spent some time trying to work out why I’d called it “Paradox”. The answer was that I’d taken my title from a Hawkwind song, without bothering to discover its meaning.

So there I was at university, trying to write my own stories while studying the college-written stories of a writer I admired. What I couldn’t know at that time was that Pynchon had taken some writing classes at Cornell, and had been taught by Nabokov (whose wife later remembered the student’s neat handwriting). But my enthusiasm for Pynchon led me down some difficult and futile roads. With Tony Tanner as my guide, I tried reading William Gaddis and John Barth, Donald Barthelme and Stanley Elkin and Robert Coover. Kurt Vonnegut I loved, but Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy robbed me of precious and irretrievable hours for precious little reward. Richard Brautigan seemed charming but ethereal and over-whimsied to the point where I just wanted to punch him in the face. To most of these writers, I applied half-digested gobbets of structuralism and semiotics (not taught at Edinburgh, so studied extra-curricularly; when I could have been chasing girls, I was chasing Roland Barthes instead).

I remember that my parents – solid working-class – had struggled with the idea that I would study literature at university. Their notion was that you went to college to learn a profession – the law, medicine, accountancy. What would I do with an English degree? The only answer I could give was “teach”, though really I knew I wanted to be a writer. But did I want to be a writer like Thomas Pynchon? I didn’t think so, mainly because I didn’t think anyone like him could exist in the UK. His work was saturated with Americana and popular culture, with a beat sensibility which was alien to me.

At the time he had come to prominence (the early 1960s), England was focussing on the austerity fictions of Alan Sillitoe and John Osborne. The eventual experimenters would be the likes of BS Johnson and John Fowles, and I knew I didn’t want to write like either of them. I wanted to live in Pynchon’s mad universe, wrestling a giant octopus, grappling with a mechanical spy, or shooting albino crocodiles in the sewers beneath some chaotic American city.

What strikes me now, re-reading those early novels, is Pynchon’s prescience. In V, he describes a cosmetic surgery nose-job, something taken for granted now but surely exotic in 1963. In similar vein, the urban myth of baby crocodiles flushed down lavatories and growing to roam the sewer system was unknown to me until the 1970s, yet Pynchon was writing about it a decade earlier. His research also seems impeccable. A mature student at Edinburgh got excited by his descriptions of the curious flavours of sweets in the second world war London. “He’s got it just right!” she gasped, and we marvelled once again at our hero’s erudition. (In Mason and Dixon he shows that he also knows about the eccentric English pastime of cheese-rolling.)

Re-reading his books in preparation for this essay, however, has also caused me a few cringes, due to the nature of my youthful marginalia. V finishes with a xebec out at sea, and it is probably acceptable that I’ve added a note to say that a xebec is a small three-masted vessel. Less helpful, perhaps, to have added that “the ending seems incomplete, the fragmentation goes on”. Earlier marginalia include “This is very weird indeed” and a youthful summary of the book (“It doesn’t matter who or what V is, just so long as she/it exists, giving Stencil something to strive towards”).

By the time I reached Gravity’s Rainbow, the quality of critical appraisal had hardly improved: “Nearly everything one expects in a novel goes out the window with Pynchon … a clear logical progression is hardly evident; things are jumpy, confusing, absurd. Pynchon dedicated the book to his friend and fellow writer Richard Farina, and my note on the dedication page wonders if this is the same Richard Farina who gifted a dulcimer to the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones (as used on the Aftermath album).

Once into the novel itself, I note among other things a cameo by Pig Bodine and that pages 466-7 are P-O-R-N. I also take the trouble to underline the sentence “Nobody ever said a day has to be juggled into any kind of sense” and add the note “Likewise Pynchon’s novels!” But, having read the relevant paragraphs several times now, I’ve still no idea why I added the letters NB in large capitals above page 521, nor why there is a Captain America bookmark (“This page protected by Captain America”) halfway through the book (though I feel Pynchon would approve; maybe he even placed it there).

Having completed my undergraduate degree (receiving good marks for that dissertation), I eventually decided to see if I could arrange funding for a PhD. My subject was to be Pynchon. However, I was informed that it would be difficult to arrange funding from the Scottish education system for a PhD on an American writer when I intended remaining at Edinburgh University. I knew in my heart I wanted to stay in Edinburgh, so I opted for Muriel Spark instead (having cannily asked a lecturer which authors might be most acceptable to the funding body).

But my time with Pynchon was not over, even though later books have of necessity been read as “a civilian”. There’s no longer a gang for me to join for a few pints and conspiracy theories. The band Thurn and Taxis never really got anywhere, and my post-horn camouflage jacket got lost or thrown out. I now read Pynchon’s work in isolation, baffled by Mason and Dixon (its time-frame too similar to Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor for my liking), and seduced by Vineland

In fact, Vineland is a pretty good place for the novice to start. It’s a likeable book with a linear narrative and a single, identifiable hero in Zoyd Wheeler. Zoyd is another of Pynchon’s slacker heroes (reminding me forcefully of “The Dude” in the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski ). He’s in trouble with various government agencies and hangs out with a bunch of counter-culture survivors. It may turn out to be the most “normal” novel Pynchon ever writes.

His blurb for the new book hints that it will take place between the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and the aftermath of the first world war, and will move between Colorado, New York, London, Gottingen, Venice, Vienna, the Balkans, Central Asia, Siberia, Mexico, Paris, Hollywood and “one or two places not strictly speaking on the map at all”. Characters will include “anarchists, balloonists, gamblers, corporate tycoons, drug enthusiasts, innocents and decadents, mathematicians, mad scientists, shamans, psychics and stage magicians, spies, detectives, adventuresses and hired guns”, not to mention Nikola Tesla, Bela Lugosi and Groucho Marx. Classic Pynchon territory, in other words, and sounding like a true successor to his bonkers masterpiece, Gravity’s Rainbow

Pynchon has published only six novels (including Against the Day ) in 43 years, yet his popularity in the UK seems constant. The latest paperback of Vineland has gone into 18 printings in six years, hinting at a readership beyond the groves of academe. There are plenty of fan sites on the internet, too, though some seem content to linger on the more outre aspects of his work. And Pynchon Notes still exists.

Having given up Pynchon to do my PhD thesis on Muriel Spark, I found her a subtle writer, using a minimum of words and fuss to engage great universal themes – the seeming antithesis of Pynchon. But Spark is also a wonderfully biting satirist, and has said that harsh Juvenalian satire is the only valid literary reaction to the absurdity of modern-day life. She was thinking of her own body of work, no doubt, but could just as easily have been talking about Thomas Pynchon, the greatest, wildest and most infuriating author of his generation.

Pynchon himself describes Against the Day as 1,000 pages of “stupid songs, strange sexual practices … obscure languages” and “contrary-to-the-fact occurrences”.

To which I say: bring it on.


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