Tag Archives: thomas pynchon

National Book Award winners, number 26: 1974’s Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon.

20 May

1.

In 1974, Thomas Pynchon won the National Book Award for his immense, overpowering linguistic tour de force Gravity’s Rainbow, a novel that is stranger, more idiosyncratic, more nonsensical, more upsetting than any summary or review can convey.

The novel has no conventional plot. It’s by turns a horrifying exploration of science gone wrong; an erotic picaresque journey through post-war Europe; a series of confounding scenes of madness and paranoia; bizarre sexual encounters, including one of the great orgy scenes in American letters; and a dumbfounded American G.I. who seems to be able to predict where German V-1 rockets will land by his erections. The entire enterprise seems a paean to entropy, decay, destruction, the thanatos syndrome. There’s weird sex galore, including enough coprophilia and sodomy to make the Marquis De Sade blush.

There’s something haunting and desolate amidst the random absurdities, however, something blasted out and nuclear, something impossible and disruptive, like radioactive dust. The book feels devised by a deeply angry man. The rainbow in the title is the new covenant with man; with God out of the picture, we’re left with the arc of man-made missiles operating according to the laws of hard science. Gravity’s rainbow ends with destroyed cities, ash and rubble.

Gravity’s Rainbow was the first big, sprawling, dense, post-modern novel I ever read. I was enthralled thrilled challenged excited irritated depressed. I read it when I was 19, traveling across the country by car with my cousin. Along with Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, Rainbow was and is the beginning of literature for me. It exists with a holy fire, a divine glow. I didn’t understand all of it. I absorbed it (or it absorbed me).

Confounding, erotic, challenging, eclectic, the silly mock-epic with enough madness to fill a dozen asylums.

Confounding, erotic, challenging, eclectic, the silly mock-epic with enough madness to fill a dozen asylums.

Thomas Pynchon has haunted me ever since. Here’s the first line, one of the most famous in American literature: “A screaming comes across the sky.”

2.

Pynchon is the key writer in the post-modern school. The novels tend to be labyrinthine, linguistically dense, self-aware, ironic, abounding in the absurdities of the human condition, with bouts of psycho-sexual violence. The key texts are John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy, Don DeLillo’s Underworld, to a lesser extent Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, the story collections of Donald Barthelme and the theoretical writings of Roland Barthes. (Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five probably belongs with this group, too.) The movement is a clear byproduct of the late 1960s. There’s a whiff of the ivory tower in a lot of the postmodernist work, as well as a streak of slapstick silliness, a distaste for sentimentalism and a hard-on for vulgarity. The movement stems from the modernism of James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, only blended with pop culture and ironic distance; marbled with a disbelief in language, absolutes or the old forms; structured with long, poetic often beautiful sentences; and (often) punctured through with a lack of emotional resonance. As the very fine compendium of oddball writers, Cult Fiction put it, the books are dedicated to (Groucho) Marxism.

The low-brow/high-brow mash-up can’t be overstated. As a group, the postmodernists—none of whom would want to be labeled this way, I’m sure—adore degraded culture. To a writer, they utilize street argot[1], pidgin English and patois. They love comic books, science fiction serials, B-movie plots. Yet many of the post-modern novels exist in a theoretical framework, with pages of jargon and oddball diction, weird forays into the extremes of scientific research. And of course the near-impenetrable prose, the specialized diction, and the at-times stilted dialogue.

Their ranks include the William Gass and William Gaddis, Tom Robbins, Edward Abbey, Joan Didion, and half a dozen more.

As a group they’ve been reviled, revered, dismissed, disregarded, adored, emulated. But over the last fifteen years, excepting Pynchon and DeLillo, they’ve lost steam as a cultural force, and have slowly been passed over and forgotten.

They’re children—including David Foster Wallace, George Saunders, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Lethem (one of the great colliders of high and low fiction), William T. Vollman—have taken over.

3.

Gravity’s Rainbow is the biggest, the weirdest, the shaggiest, the densest of the post-modern novels. There’s orgies and hellfire and an octopus that records people and a light-bulb that becomes self-aware, burning away his consciousness one volt at a time. Of all the novels I’ve read, it’s an experience more than a novel, and a love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing. Pynchon has legions of fans, and almost as many naysayers. He’s a writer of inexplicable talents, who as often as not squanders them. (His non-fiction is fabulous.)

As I get older, Rainbow’s influence wanes. I think V. is a better novel, stranger, more unsettling, with tighter writing. Ditto for The Crying of Lot 49, one of the most absurdly plotted novels ever written, about an illegal, underground mail system called Trystero, and a heart-breaking ending where nothing is answered or resolved.

Pynchon is a recluse. He’s also driven, dedicated, unwavering, uncompromising and dogmatic in his style. He’s entered some type of hyper late-phase productivity, publishing three novels in a handful of years. His books have a manic energy to them, some propulsive force, and an often exaggerated 1950s comic book dialogue style.

He’s an immense presence in the American literary landscape. There’s something Pynchonian about his influence. He’s often used as a qualifier for other writers’ work, but he stands in a category all his own. Even the comparisons to DeLillo are off the mark; Pynchon is sillier, funnier, cornier, wilder, and less stringent a writer than DeLillo. DeLillo sees life as a trap. Pynchon sees life as a cruel game. The game is hilarious because we can never know the rules.

Great review here.

The prose is heated, jarring, visceral, sometimes silly, always complex. Here’s a taste of his cacophonous summation of the Dodo bird, being massacred by the German colonials, narrated in part by a German named Franz:

“This furious host were losers, impersonating a race chosen by God. The colony, the venture, was dying—like the ebony trees they were stripping from the island, like the poor species they were removing totally from the earth. . . . To some, it made sense. They saw the stumbling birds ill-made to the point of Satanic intervention, so ugly as to embody argument against Godly creation. Was Mauritius some first poison trickle through sheltering dikes of earth? Christians must stem it here, or perish to a second Flood, loosed this time not by God but by the Enemy. The act of ramming home the charges into their musketry became for these men a devotional act, one whose symbolism they understood.”

 

And, a few paragraphs later, this, as he witnesses the ongoing extinction:

“It is the purest form of European adventuring. What’s it all been for, the mudering seas, the gangrene winters and starving springs, ourb one pursuit of the unfaithful, midnights of wrestling with the Beast, our sweat become ice and our tears pale flakes of snow, if not for such moments as this: the little converts flowing out of eye’s field, so meek, so trusting—how shall any craw clench in fear, any recreant cry be offered in the presence of our blade, our necessary blade? Sanctified now they will feed us, sanctified their remains and droppings fertilize our crops. Did we tell them ‘Salvation?’ Did we mean a dwelling forever in the City? Everlasting life? An earthly paradise restored, their island as it used to be given them back? Probably. Thinking all the time of the little brothers numbered among our blessings. Indeed, if they save us from hunger in this world, then beyond, in Christ’s kingdom, our salvations must be, in like measure, inextricable. Otherwise the dodoes would be only what they appear as in the world’s illusory light—only our prey. God could not be that cruel.”

4.

1973 was a very fine year for literature, especially around the world. Milan Kundera published his second best novel, Life Is Elsewhere. J.G. Farrell released The Siege of Krishnapur. Iris Murdoch, Mervyn Peake, Patrick White, Mario Vargas Llosa, Graham Greene, J.G. Ballard, Martin Amis, and Julio Cortazar all published notable novels.

Things were crowded here, too. In the U.S., Robert Pirsig published Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Tim O’Brien released If I Die in a Combat Zone. Cormac McCarthy published his ultra-violent Child of God. Gore Vidal released his fascinating, and underrated, novel of historical revision, Burr. Kurt Vonnegut put out his oddball, and strangely unsettling novel Breakfast of Champions. Rita Mae Brown released Rubyfruit Jungle. Underground favorite Jerome Charyn put out Tar Baby. And in the popular realm, James Jones, Roger Zelazny, Robert Ludlum, Rex Stout, Jaqueline Susann, Jack Vance, Irwin Shaw, L. Sprague de Camp, and August Derleth all released new books.

A titanic list. The American literary landscape was evolving. MFA programs were beginning to unload new voices into the mainstream. The two big trends of American literary fiction—maximalism (or metafiction or postmodernism) and regionalism (or minimalism)—were colliding in the 1970s. Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie, for example, published their first collections of short stories in 1976. Regionalism tended towards small moments of emotional devastation, hard drinking blue collar people. Both trends feel a bit dated now.

But Pynchon stands apart, somehow both sillier and more serious than his contemporaries. If you can stomach it, Gravity’s Rainbow is an earth-shattering experience.

 

[1] DeLillo’s entire body of work can be understood by his constant theme of the imperfections, and degradation, of language.l Boo

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National Book Award winners, part 17: 1964’s The Centaur, by John Updike.

19 Dec

(In seventeen beautiful bullet points . . . and five fabulous footnotes.)

• In 1964, John Updike won the National Book Award for The Centaur. He beat out Thomas Pynchon, Bernard Malamud (I reviewed him here), Mary McCarthy and Harvey Swados[1].

• John Updike is a prodigiously, otherworldly talented writer. He is electricity. He is gasoline. He is a primal force in American letters, for good and for ill. He wrote great books, good books and bad ones.

The Centaur isn’t a great book. The Centaur isn’t a good book. The Centaur is exactly, precisely, a very, very bad book.

• I have a love/hate thing with Updike. I consider Rabbit, Run to be a foundational novel of the 20th century. It’s a terrifying character study of a privileged man living without consequences. And through all the damage he causes, he feels immense self-pity and persecution. Rabbit remains a template for the bulk of our pop culture antiheroes. Who is Don Draper, really, other than a poor Rabbit Angstrom still in possession of his secrets?

The worst novel of Updike's I've read.

Of Updike’s work I’ve read, this is the worst. And it won the National Book Award. Go figure. 

• Updike is skilled, powerful, eloquent, passionate, ambitious and driven. This Updike is unsentimental and a great chronicler of the conflicted interior lives of his characters. But Updike is also arrogant, imperious, privileged, predictable, pedantic and sex-obsessed.

• Updike sees sex as the prime mover of human experience, the great motivator in people, and thus writes a handful of stories over and over. Cheating spouse seeks redemption. Unfulfilled lust turns sour. Middle-aged affair allows for late-in-life renaissance. Man allows pursuit of sex to ruin his life. He loves describing genitals, especially of middle-aged women; he famously described one woman’s vagina as an “ancient cave,” and here he describes another woman’s vagina this way: “its walls were snug, its odor was green, there was a sweetness in the chapel.” He saw the ache that accompanied the loss of widespread religious belief, and the various ways people create their own ways of punishment and penitence for their sins. Sex takes the form of penitence for some, salvation for others (hence the word choice of “chapel”). To Updike, Sex can be religion and religious expression. He says it over and over: you can achieve transcendence in the bedroom. It just exacts a price.

• Updike, more than any other great writer I can think of, should have published less. Thirty novels, fifteen collections(!) of short stories. Plus nine volumes of poetry (he’s a very fine poet), a lifetime of criticism and some very fine essays collected in some thirteen volumes. Taken as a whole he published a few yards of writing, the output of three or four authors. He is correctly held in the highest critical regard as one of the most important 20th century novelists.

• A distinguished life of letters and a formidable intellect, yes, but here his talents are mostly squandered.

• Updike the critic set out some very fine rules to reviewing. The one that stings is rule number five: “If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s oeuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?”

• I’ll try and follow his advice. The failure of The Centaur is in the conceit. Contemporary writers should stay away from Greek mythology. Or, more accurately, contemporary writers should avoid updating Greek myths for their own purposes[2]. Updike takes the story of Chiron and Prometheus and overlays it on top of the story of a school teacher and his awkward son. All the characters have mythological cognates, and the novel shifts into feverish passages of the Greek myths. It’s an ambitious, challenging idea, but it doesn’t work. The two narratives rest uneasily next to each other. Updike is trying to imbue everyday life with a mythic permanence. He wants to show how our decisions resonate with cosmic significance. But the Greek myths in his novel distract from the significance of his characters’ daily lives.

• Put another way, Updike accomplishes the exact opposite result of what he set out to do. He diminishes his real characters by juxtaposing them with the gods and heroes and saints.  This failure is not mine, it is Updike’s alone.

• Updike should have won for Rabbit, Run, but he lost that year to The Waters of Cronos (just shocking; I reviewed Cronos here). Updike was a hotshot at a young age. He incubated his talent first at the Harvard Lampoon and then later at the New Yorker. He was eventually a judge for the National Book Award. He was a pedigreed insider with writing and editing chops. I believe he was given the award for his entire career to date, and not for this.

• Why? Because he didn’t deserve to win. 1963 was an intriguing year for fiction, with cult works appearing next to mainstream novels by big-name writers. Jim Thompson[3] published The Grifters. Charles Webb released The Graduate. John Rechy published his epic, gay road novel, City of Night. Kurt Vonnegut published his very fine Cat’s Cradle. Sylvia Plath published her fantastic, autobiographical novel of existential despair, The Bell Jar. Walter Tevis—a great writer who hasn’t yet been rediscovered—released his literary science fiction novel, The Man Who Fell To Earth. Susan Sontag published her novel, The Benefactor. John Hawkes[4] released Second Skin. Pearl Buck and Taylor Caldwell released novels. So did Thomas Pynchon.

• What I love about the period of the mid-sixties into the mid-seventies in fiction—and film—was the traditional and classical novels rested side by side next to grand, experimental works. A new type of novelist appeared, returning to the linguistic playfulness of the modernists, but infusing it with paranoia and self-awareness. Thomas Pynchon is one of the key figures to this new school, along with Donald Barthelme, Don DeLillo, William Gaddis, John Barth and Edward Abbey. These authors were the leading lights of a generation, inventive, challenging, baroque, and wordy. Pynchon’s V., perhaps his finest novel, is dense, linguistically playful, ambitious, byzantine, labyrinthine, druggy, difficult and weird. Yet, if you give in to the novel’s cadences, it’s a blast.

• Around the world, a new batch of authors began to appear. Julio Cortazar published his influential, experimental Hopscotch. John Le Carre released his spy epic in miniature, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Future Noble Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa published The Time of the Hero. Keith Waterhouse released his great comic novel, Billy Liar[5]. Pierre Bouille published his Planet of the Apes. Future Nobel Prize winner Gunter Grass released Dog Years. John Fowles published his creepy The Collector.

• What’s clear from the above lists is that American fiction, and world fiction, was hitting a turning point, a flowering if you will, into a more bizarre, experimental phase. The madness of the Cold War was everywhere, drug culture was entering the mainstream, and the civil rights movement, the youth movement, and the feminist movement were all in full bloom, with the gay rights movement just around the corner. The form of the novel was responding, fracturing, evolving.

• The awkwardness of Updike’s Centaur is, perhaps, part of this evolution. And like The Centaur, he stands uneasily between two worlds. He is a modernist and a classicist, a realist and a fantasist. He’s a contradiction, sexy, sexist, and mean-spirited, yes, but also loving, big-hearted, and empathetic. Don’t mistake my criticism. He is a fantastic writer, a presence I plan to grow old with, reading his work as the years pass by.


[1] Whoever this is.

[2] Amongst hundreds of novel ideas, I recently scribbled down a retelling of Hephaestus, thrown down from Mount Olympus, making his way back to his home, limping, poor and alone, meeting oddball characters along the way. The kicker is that he’s forgotten who he is. I know, I know, I should heed my own advice.

[3] Thompson, with his best works, exists as a crude, American Dostoevsky; he wrote intense, first-person pulp that elevated the genre.

[4] I’ve always considered him British, even though I know he’s not; The Lime Twig is a superb novel, a crime story stripped of any finery and refracted through some insane person’s perceptions.

[5] Adapted into one of my all-time favorite movies.