Here’s an interesting piece about the legacy of Chinggis Khan in Mongolia. It’s important to realise that perceptions of Chinggis Khan in his home land are very different from those prevalent in the West. As the article suggests, whatever one’s views of his achievements, he was clearly a remarkable leader who built and maintained an extraordinary empire. The article also references Chinggis Khan’s contribution to the ‘art’ of management. I’m not sure whether his methods are easily transferable to 21st century corporate life, but that hasn’t stopped some from trying.
After weeks of losing myself in Thomas Pynchon’s extraordinary Against the Day, I felt in need of a literary palate cleanser. So, on my way out to a day-job trip to Munich, I grabbed an old copy of Ross Macdonald’s The Moving Target which was sitting on my bookshelves. I’m not a great re-reader of books – not through any point of principle, but just because I struggle to keep up with all the new stuff that I find myself buying. But I was drawn back to Macdonald, who I hadn’t read for a few years, partly by a recent TV showing of Harper, the fine film version of this book (Paul Newman changed the name of Macdonald’s PI, Lew Archer, because he wanted to play characters whose names began with ‘H’. Hollywood, eh?).
I have to confess that I’d half-forgotten how good Macdonald was. This is very much Chandler territory, geographically and spiritually, but Macdonald’s possibly even better than Chandler at revealing the hollowness underpinning the Californian dream (somehow, having spent my youth reading these books, it’s not entirely surprising to find that California now has, quite literally, run out of money and is pinning its economic hopes on, um, marijuana). He’s at least Chandler’s equal, too, when it comes to coining a phrase or conjuring up a scene or character in a few choice words. You know you’re in good, if not exactly safe, hands when, in the first few paragraphs, you’re told: ‘The light-blue haze in the lower canyon was like a thin smoke from slowly burning money’.
I was reminded, re-reading this, that Warren Zevon was a massive fan, and later friend, of Macdonald’s. It’s a pity they never formally collaborated, as Zevon did with writers like Carl Hiassen and Thomas Mcguane. Their joint take on California would have been something to hear. I haven’t found an excuse to write about the late, great Zevon for a while, so I might come back to that thought. In the meantime, I’ve now got all those other Macdonald books to go back to. The palate cleanser may just have become the main course.
An interesting piece from the Guardian about the contrasts of life in Mongolia – the burgeoning wealth from the mining sector, and the suffering of those who live the harshest of lives in some of the most inhospitable conditions on earth. The themes are familiar enough. The question, I suppose, is whether Mongolia ever will realise its economic potential. And, if it does, whether the benefits will ever reach the majority of its people.
The ever-reliable UB Post reports, slightly startlingly, that Micky Rourke is in line to play Genghis Khan in a new film to be directed by John ‘Red Dawn’ Milius. An intriguing prospect. As always, though, the UB Post cuts straight to the key question about Rourke: ‘Hmm…What made him to look Mongolian?’
When it was announced, a year or so back, that Thomas Pynchon had produced a crime novel, I wasn’t sure whether to be depressed or delighted. Depressed because, frankly, who needs competition from Thomas Pynchon? Delighted, though, because Pynchon is probably my favourite writer, and I was keen to see what he’d do with the genre. I duly bought the book, Inherent Vice, on its release.
But I had a problem. I’d also bought Pynchon’s previous novel, Against the Day, on its release. And my problem was that, three years on, it was still sitting, reproachfully unread, on my shelves.
I’d wanted to read it, you understand. I’d wanted to read it very much. But I’m a one book at a time sort of person, and each time I’d picked up Against the Day it just seemed too much. The book runs to over 1100 pages in my hardback edition, and virtually every one of those pages is filled with very closely printed type. This is a long book. And a heavy, ungainly one. The thought of devoting a significant portion of my life to reading it was too intimidating. I kept telling myself I’d take it on my next holiday. And I did. And brought it back, still unread.
But with the publication of Inherent Vice, I had a different dilemma. You might have guessed by now that I’m mildly anal in my approach to reading – only one book at a time, once I’ve started a book I always finish it (even The Golden Bowl. Really), and, yes, I prefer to read books in order of their publication, even when it doesn’t really matter. So it would be against the rules for me to read Inherent Vice before Against the Day. And just because they’re my rules doesn’t mean that I’m allowed to break them.
The upshot is that, a few weeks ago, I finally embarked on those 1100 pages. And this weekend I finally reached page 1185. You’ll have noticed I’ve not done much blogging in the meantime. Not done much living, probably.
And was it worth it? Well, yes, of course it was. This is Pynchon, after all. And Against the Day feels closer in spirit than his last couple of books, Vineland and Mason & Dixon (both wonderful in their respective ways), to what I still regard as his masterpiece, Gravity’s Rainbow. Like that book, Against the Day ranges across the world, visting the US, Europe, Asia and, in Pynchon’s words, ‘one or two places not strictly speaking on the map at all’. It’s set around the turn of the last century, and takes in the Balkan conflicts, the Mexican revolution and, oddly briefly, the First World War (though the threat of that war looms over much of the book). It has an extraordinary set of characters, and a series of interlinking plots that range from domestic tragedy to international conspiracy. Its style incorporates spoofs of boy’s own adventures, westerns, science fiction, spy thrillers and – perhaps preparing the ground for Inherent Vice – PI novels. Pynchon has said, with his tongue perhaps in his cheek, that the novel describes “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.” Of course not.
In short, it’s a wonderful novel. If it’s not quite as startling as Gravity’s Rainbow, that’s probably just because we now know what to expect from Pynchon – or, at least, we now know how unexpected his offerings can be. The most common complaint about Pynchon from those who are non-believers is that his characters, with their cartoon names (literally in some cases – here we find an Al Mar-Faud, who speaks like Bugs Bunny’s nemesis), never become fully realised human beings. There’s some truth in that, and certainly Chuck Jones and Tex Avery hold prominent positions in Pynchon’s pantheon. But Pynchon’s novels aren’t intended to be naturalistic – it’s that cartoon dimension that enables them to shift effortlessly from fully-researched history into to fully-realised fantasy. And here I found the domestic vignettes were often as poignant as the grand set-scenes were startling.
Worth the wait (and the weight), then. As for Inherent Vice, well, I’m not quite ready for more Pynchon just yet. But I will be soon.