Friday, November 19, 2010

Thomas Pynchon and The Crying of Lot 49

I have been trying for several months to read books by Thomas Pynchon.


It all began when I picked up Against the Day and read the first 10 pages. It had all the hallmarks of Books Lila Likes: it was large enough to serve an architectural function (1085 pages), the book jacket blurb and quoted critics' remarks included words I had to look up in dictionary, and (most importantly) the book was sarcastic.

At least, the 10 pages I read at the beginning were hilarious. They described, tongue-in-cheek, a ragtag but determined group of boys (and one literate dog), the Chums of Chance, and their ongoing adventures in their "hydrogen skyship" Inconvenience. The tone was just right, earnest enough to be read as honest or extremely contemptuous.
(Darby [Suckling], as my faithful readers will remember, was the "baby" of the crew, and served as both factotum and mascotte, singing as well the difficult treble parts whenever these adolescent aeronauts found it impossible to contain song of some kind.) "I can't hardly wait!" he exclaimed.

"For which you have just earned five more demerits!" advised a stern voice close to his ear, as he was abruptly seized from behind and lifted clear of the lifelines. "Or shall we say ten? How many times," continued Lindsay Noseworth, second-in-command here and known for his impatience with all manifestations of slack, "have you been warned, Suckling, against informality of speech?" With deftness of long habit, he flipped Darby upside down, and held the flyweight lad dangling by the ankles out into empty space---"terra firma" by now being easily half a mile below---proceeding to lecture him on the many evils of looseness in one's expression, not least among them being the ease with which it may lead to profanity, and worse. As all the while, however, Darby was screaming in terror, it is doubtful how many of the useful sentiments actually found their mark.
And there you have the shortest joke I could find in the first few pages. That's how it reads -- lengthy but sarcastic. A bit like Moby Dick or Jane Austin, a dated tone, but published in 2006.

I was delighted by this beginning and the prospect of a thousand more pages of the same. However, after about 20 pages on the Chums of Chance, the narrator got more interested in some incidental characters, and so the narration switched over to their story. After another ~20 pages, the attention-deficit narrator brought yet another side-story to center stage. And again. I stopped reading at 91 pages, when my page of notes tracking character names and relationships overflowed onto a second sheet. We still had not cycled back to any previously-introduced characters.

Total read: 91 of 1085 pages, or ~8.4%. I'll get back to it someday.


Undeterred and driven to figure out what Pynchon is doing, I picked up Gravity's Rainbow. This is the book I associate with his name, and his "most celebrated book" according to Wikipedia. This one didn't immediately grab me; the first scene is about making a banana breakfast while watching German bombs fall on London. It took me two readings of the scene to figure this out. Of course, eventually words like "banana" and "bomb" and other context clues are given, but at first reading, it was bewilderingly mid-scene. (Sort of like the cereal-eating scene in Cryptonomicon.)

Good! A book that's going to make me work. It also featured some very clever and erudite phrases and sentences.

In fact, as I read along, perhaps a few more erudite sentences than I'm used to. It's not that the sentence structure is hard to unravel; in fact, it's often very simple (if lengthy). Most of the sentences are fragments, apposite to some prior noun or subject or implied subject. It's hard to read. Unlike most authors, Pynchon makes no allowances for the fact that his readers are being introduced to the story. He uses names, nicknames, synecdoche, metonymy, for things he has not yet introduced. Reading his characters' conversations is more like overhearing them than participating. My reading comprehension is permanently five or ten pages behind my reading.

When did I abandon Gravity's Rainbow?
  1. World War II had ended some hundred pages ago, but the characters (not unlike actual participants in history) have no idea of the importance of this fact, and show every indication of refusing to resolve their personal storylines.
  2. The book progresses in a similar style as Against the Day: the main character, who we've been following fairly constantly since the book's beginning, lurches from obsessing about X to obsessing about Y. Then he obsesses about Z. Casually flipping back through the hundreds of pages I'd read, I noticed that the seeds of Z had been planted long ago in the story. I didn't notice them, of course, because the story is full of irrelevant details (again, like real life) and I was very focused on figuring out what happened 5 pages ago, which had nothing to do with Z. It was very frustrating to find that some apparent non-sequiturs from hundreds of pages ago were now important.
Total read: 419 of 887 pages, or 47%. I'll get back to it sometime.


In my ongoing quest to decipher Thomas Pynchon's writing, I picked up The Crying of Lot 49. It was much shorter (tractable) and also a pleasing color (I got this edition). Wikipedia offers this encouraging description: "Although more concise and linear in its structure than Pynchon's other novels, its labyrinthine plot..." Whoops! That was a good beginning. At least it's short, right?

Of course right!

So I read this whole book. Yay! 100% of all 178 pages. My eyes caught light reflected off the light and dark parts of the page, and, through a series of processes not fully understood by science, I formed a clear mental image of the book's characters, plot, writing style, and even themes and purpose.

This was hard work. I read the first 60 pages three times, because I kept getting to the beginning of chapter 3 and realizing I had no idea what was happening. Now, having finished it, I wouldn't recommend it to others: it was hard to read. The sentences never went the way I was expecting. The plot was very confusing. I'm still not sure if the book is set in reality, or some very close parallel reality.

The one part of The Crying of Lot 49 -- which is actually not about the crying of lot 49 until the last two pages -- that I enjoyed was a lengthy description of a preposterous play The Courier's Tragedy. This offered me some handholds: I know what to look for in play descriptions, how to read for symbols and meaning. And this one was delightful. It featured, amongst other things, several lengthy descriptions of gorey and unnecessarily drawn-out mob torture/executions. When the next character is due for a mob execution, it is described as "a refreshingly simple mass stabbing."

That, my friends, is what I will call my next band.

This post's theme word: obscurantism, "being deliberately vague or obscure; also a style in art and literature," or "opposition to the spread of knowledge."
This post written like H. P. Lovecraft.

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