Defying gravity

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.

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