Monday, January 8, 2007

WHY READ PYNCHON


This weekend I read through the final parts of Against the Day and I found myself contemplating -- as one will when reading from page 697 to page 1085 of a book one has somewhat lost the thread of -- what it is that makes Pynchon worth reading. The question comes to mind because books of such size naturally try one's fixed concentration, but also because what happens in Pynchon novels is quite unlike what happens in any other fiction I'm familiar with.

1. Imaginative audacity. There is seemingly no end to the expansion of the tale simply because there is seemingly no end to what Pynchon is willing to imagine. The events that befall his characters are sometimes tied to actual events, sometimes not, but the version of history that Pynchon employs is, first and foremost, the one that is congruent with the world he imagines. And the world he imagines is loony, loopy, absurd, chaotic -- or organized according to a logic that, like the Quaternion mathematics that keep cropping up, is based on alternatives of space and time that, if possible in theoretical physics, are not generally observed to be functional in the biosphere. This means that "the Pynchon universe" is not really "biocentric." It's not about biographical lives which, for the most part, is all that most fiction is able to delineate. Even so-called science fiction rarely (I'm not up on the genre really) attempts to tell its story as though the tiresome creaturely "laws" of our planet are suspended in the narration itself.

2. Cinematic characters. This imaginative departure from the time-bound world we and most of our literary characters exist in means that Pynchon's characters don't function with the same degree of gravitas that most readers of "serious literature" come to expect. It's often said that Pynchon characters are cartoonish -- generally this is said with a certain degree of deprecation, or simply from a wish to be accurate, or as a means to suggest amusement. But one thing that has remained a constant of Pynchon's fiction is that his characters are not so much cartoonish as cinematic. They all live lives that occur in the vast film that is their narrator's imagination. In this film, all the female characters are played by charming starlettes, all the male characters are played by any number of character actors from the great age of cinema (up to the '50s let's say), but they are given to us by a narrator who knows that psychological nuance, in cinema, is simply a trick of the light, or, more interestingly, is a different "reading" or enactment breaking through the initial one. A world rendered in such a way entails a rather different fictional sleight of hand. One could say, somewhat facilely, that Pynchon gives us Warhols, not Rembrandts, with the implication that the nuance of a Rembrandt is only possible before light has been seized and frozen in photography. The patina in Pynchon is old movie patina, and it resonates for all who -- as the voice at the end of GR says "have always been at the movies -- haven't we?"

to be continued...

2 comments:

renew said...

"[...] no end to the expansion of tale [...]"

As Luc Sante wrote in his review of AtD in the NY Review of Books:

"Digression is the constant, not the exception. Sequences that seem to follow the traditional order of novelistic development tend to fade into extended prose poems, which turn into pages of abstruse speculation, which then, just as the reader's eyes begin to glow with a semblance of comprehension, tumble into slapstick, sometimes involving song-and-dance routines. Ideas powerful enough to drive whole books are prodigally thrown away, while the most gratuitous passing notions are taken up and pursued to the point of exhaustion. Some sequential and organizational decisions may have been made with the use of dice, or yarrow stalks, or tea leaves. Very occasionally, Homer nods."

Since Pynchon's characters are "cinematic," as you say, would you like to see them in a movie, maybe even an adaptation of one of his novels (disregarding the fact that it's probably impossible to adapt them for the screen), say a '40s/'50s style film?

All of this sounds very promising. Though many critics/reviewers tore the book to pieces I'm still looking forward to reading it later in the year.

Donald Brown said...

Sante is dead on about how decisions are made -- which readers have suspected was the case since Tarot card layouts for characters were included in GR, as though the author was doing readings for characters to see what would come next. Tarot cards feature a bit in AtD too, but only in a passing subplot never fully realized. As Sante says, promising ideas surface and then submerge, never to be given their due.

In answer to your question: a resounding NO! Film can't possibly provide an equivalent to Pynchon. Like Ulysses (filmed twice in embarrassing fashion), only a true cinematic master could manage something. In the case of Ulysses, I imagine perhaps someone along the lines of Greenaway. For Pynchon, I can only entertain the idea of a supreme effort of animation, so that all characters literally are cartoons. Some scenes might be managed, but I don't think a screenplay could do justice to any of his novels.