Wednesday, January 10, 2007


7. Tweaking genres. Pynchon -- more than any other serious writer that comes to mind (i.e., one we have to take seriously) -- is able to manipulate and re-imagine any number of popular literary genres. Most of those genres I have a nodding acquaintance with, but one accepts that Pynchon reads or has read the kinds of books that rarely make their way onto any college syllabus, but which sell well and are translated all over the world. Romance novels; spy novels (he's spoken highly of Le Carré and one suspects he's spent amused hours in Ian Fleming's world, and who knows how many others of that type); gumshoe novels (late in the novel he brings back Lew Basnight seemingly for no other reason than to have a go at that type of story); boys' adventure novels (though I didn't read Tom Swift novels, which The Chums of Chance draw upon most obviously, my older brother had some around, and I'm sure I glanced through them, but I did read a series called The Three Investigators, published by Alfred Hitchcock, and I was amused to find in AtD phrases I recall from those tales of three boys sleuthing in southern California); tales of war (in which the Germans are evil incarnate) and espionage (especially the Cold War variety with those pesky Russians up to no good); sci-fi (H.G. Wells seems to be the main precursor here, but echoes of Dune can be found, and a reference to Star Trek); westerns of the Louis L'Amour variety, filtered through the kinds of westerns I'm more familiar with: the films of John Ford, Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, but also with winks toward that terrain so obsessively inhabited by Cormac McCarthy; the bildungsroman, here presented as a kind of sexual odyssey for the character Cyprian Latewood -- not exactly a "coming-out" story, but certainly playing upon the givens of such narratives; tales of showbiz impresarios and young Trilbies; any number of popular works that don't have much purpose other than to delineate the particulars of some ethnic group or other, sprinkled with plenty of italicized words to add an air of authenticity to what the characters say; this applies also to any number of subcultural tales in which the oppressed of some particular locality are in struggle against those who oppress them (Pynchon always pauses in his epic narratives to take a look at how "the preterite" are faring in any given time and place); and of course that genre made huge recently by The Da Vinci Code, in which "ancient clues" must be interpreted in order to elucidate a current crisis, as well as the genre getting its due in the novels of Richard Powers, in which new scientific developments change not only the course of life, but have explanatory power in terms of what the characters say and do.

This is to say that Pynchon's universe does not dwell in some literary absolute in which masterpieces read other masterpieces forever, but also it's to say that, in my experience, it's rare for anyone working in any of these genres to attempt or achieve what he does. Which is to say that everyone I've mentioned, and that whole host whose names I don't know, write such tales earnestly, even if only as entertainment, which is why they don't mix the signals. Pynchon mixes all the signals, thus achieving not only that genre (also popular, but usually for a smaller subset of the readership) known as satire (i.e., any work which does not necessarily take its premises or the world it depicts seriously), but also attaining a prose that is, at times, an end in itself. Often one comes upon passages in which the narrator (and the tuned-in reader) seem to say: who cares about the plot, who cares about the characters, just write!

8. The prose. Fans of Pynchon are mainly fans of how Pynchon writes. "No one does it better," as the old Bond song puts it, or to use a phrase from a song that was playing one day while I was reading, and which suddenly seemed to be commenting on whatever inexplicable event was occurring: "no one mystifies me like you do." This is not a question so much of following "the plot," but of being willing to surrender to what this kind of writing requires. (Granted, in its 1085 pages, there are some effects that become redundant, and there are a few similes that an editor should've caught -- having been used once, they shouldn't be used again; the most egregious thing the editor (assuming there is one) didn't catch: when Reef, Yashmeen and their daughter finally meet up with Frank, Stray (Reef's former wife) and Jesse, the son of Reef and Stray, the text tells us Stray (and not Yash) is the female in the first group. Whoops! More evidence that all TP's characters are interchangeable, or that Yash and Stray are the same person in different times and places? heh heh).

Reviewers who have found AtD wanting in comparison to GR (and one sympathizes with their having to read the book quickly) seem to have forgotten how hard it is to make any sense of the narrative of GR at first, how much it requires a steady forward push and gradual loosening of the expectations founded upon the works of much lesser writers. But GR trained many of us to inhabit Pynchon's universe -- but then Vineland and M&D, which don't inhabit that world in quite the same way, moved us away, again, from the kinds of assumptions GR worked with and AtD returns to. Those who read AtD without ever being enthralled by its prose, by the simple flex and flow and stretch of the characteristic Pynchon sentence, should maybe take up some other art to consider -- or, granted, perhaps they love fiction but not prose, the way some people who love movies get uneasy when one speaks of film or cinema -- i.e., an attempt to consider what the work manifests as an artifact of a certain medium, conceived in a certain time and place.

Those who find AtD wanting as "what the world needs now" are sanctimonious poseurs who assume to speak for what that might be; AtD at times suggests what is needed is a revolution; at times, a götterdammerung; at times, more faith in what knowledge of the world can bring to light (with the narrator fostering a kind of sentimental fondness for mystical or non-rational forms of knowledge, with, perhaps better than most venturers into the occult, a working idea of how "irrational" our world of physics, chemistry and biology really is). As to the "post-9/11" world which we live in (in some influential minds), Pynchon adds a few items to the table: acts of terrorism against huge resource-controlling entities have been common since the birth of explosives; throughout the world there have ever been those -- disenfranchised, persecuted, rebellious, or simply murderous -- who work to achieve concrete goals as "a blow" against the status quo (and at times they present much to be in sympathy with); the world we take for granted in our newshows and glib commentary, or even in our thought-provoking studies, is not "all that is the case." Those who find AtD wanting in not providing a definite enough vision of the Us vs. Them game afoot in its pages (as GR was able to do more effectively -- though perhaps reductively) might have to reflect on why that might be, and what one of the first major English language literary works of the 21st century is trying to tell them about that.

You say my kisses are not like his
Yeah, but this time I'm not gonna tell you why that is
I'm just gonna let you pass
And I'll go last
Then time will tell just who fell
And who's been left behind
When you go your way and I go mine.
--Dylan "(Most Likely) You'll Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine" (1966)

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