Monday, June 3, 2013

V. (1963)

Now and then, it takes a few honest tries before I can get certain books to fit inside my skull. Square pegs, round holes, we will sell no wine before its time, all that. It took several attempts over a handful of years before Blood Meridian screwed down in there, for example. Same with Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter, and, for reasons I am unwilling to discuss, World War Z.

Thomas Pynchon's debut novel V. was no different, first time I picked it up in 1990, shortly after finishing Vineland. Reading it now for the 6th or 7th time (though it's my first go-round in over a decade), it's somewhat easy to forget why -- I'm now well-acquainted with the basic structure, and am no longer fooled when Pynchon goes off on some labyrinthine philosophical/scientific/pseudo-historical tangent, or introduces, often with fanfare or at least an elaborate pun, some new character who then all but disappears for the rest of the novel. Like many first-time readers, I found myself unduly vexed by these basic Pynchonian stylistic nuances and peccadilloes, which are present in even his most streamlined narratives. It's a little like being a novice sailor or kook surfer -- first, frustrating impression will be that a body may move in only one direction: the way of the wind or the wave. But an old salt knows energy moves in multiple directions; you take your pick and plot your course. The wind, the waves, those are just symptoms of a power ready to be harnessed.

So Profane's aimless drift and Stencil's misdirected quest are now Beaten Paths; instead of worrying over the map, I can just enjoy the scenery: those smaller details that spread out from all angles, often telegraphing ideas that will be expanded upon, or at least queerly mirrored, in novels to come. At the forefront is Pynchon's morbid fascination with self-dehumanization, which is far more creepy than the aspect of being dehumanized by a collective, whether bureaucratic or conspiratorial, under the aims of social control. In V., the characters are ready to take matters into their own hands: No one wants to be who they are, and are haunted by ideas of unrealistic, unholy perfection. There are no attempts at self-discovery or even improvement beyond the shallow, the physical -- only yearnings for others, unattainable Others.

And forget the Machine Age, these characters are entering a Machine Consciousness. Pulses and hearts tick like frantic clockwork. Spongy brains whir. Women seduce automobiles. Eyeballs contain secret sprockets and gears. (Pynchon didn't start dabbling with steampunk in Against the Day, he started it here, before the practice even had a genre title.) But we are not machines, with parts that can be swapped out when they fail; we are humans, and there's only so much improving we can do before time moves us off the playing field. Herbert Stencil, searching for a wispy historical phantom known only by the titular initial, has at best a vague grasp of this essential concept. But only because he is obsessed with history, and possessed of a knack to always begin his investigations just as the principles from whom he most needs answers all disappear behind the layered veils of passing time.

But I, like the novel itself, digress ...

I used to pick up every book with the fevered intention to finish, like it was some kind of assignment, a grade I'd get in Heaven. No more of that crap, here in my old-ish age. I'm not shy about putting a book down, for good -- or even reaching for the trash can, if necessary. Novels better not get bogged down in rambling detail, or neglect atmosphere at the risk of moving too quickly, or be too clever, or have stupid dialogue, or obvious or strained humor, or be written by a clod who uses exclamation points, or ever, ever feel the need to mention a character's last experience in noninvasive lighting.

But every now and then, I put a book down not for any aesthetic such reasons, however petty, but because I know I'm not ready for it. It's not you, I tell the book, it's me. Still, I often wonder about my fascination with the prose of Thomas Pynchon, why I always stick with it when I really prefer pulp-era science fiction or crime or weird horror, no apologies. Let's face it, I ought not like it. I don't like Tom Robbins or David Foster Wallace or most of what gets labeled as "post-modern literature." I've put down a lot of those books; their challenges and rewards aren't for me. But I found a kindred spirit in Pynchon for some reason, despite the stupid names he bestows upon his characters. And I keep coming back to these novels, time and again, which is unusual for me (short stories by Bradbury and Lovecraft are one thing, but I plow through a novel once, I'm typically finished. Friends who are driven to re-read Austin and Fitzgerald and Twain on a cyclical schedule are gifted with an impulse I lack). There's an scene in V. where a painter struggles with a painting because the light keeps shifting in the room, but Pynchon uses that to illustrate how our perception of art (among other things) changes over time, and we should use that to examine ourselves. He's got something there.

Then again, maybe it's as simple as a pattern set early in my reading life by The Hobbit and its obscure, out-of-print sequel, The Lord of the Rings. Those books involve long, intertwining plot lines, not to mention a ComicCon's-worth of weirdly named characters. (Against the nomenclature of what seems like nineteen-thousand generations of kings-in-exile, Russian novels are cakewalks.) But I loved them, I loved them from the first pages, and when I was about halfway through The Fellowship of the Ring, I tried to talk my sister into reading them too. But, nah, she'd already tried, and gave up just a few chapters into The Hobbit. Too many dwarves, too many weird names. This really disappointed me, that part of every reader that wants to share the experience of a deeply-loved book. And I suppose I vowed then that I would never let anything so trifling as a menagerie of characters, however all bizarrely named, get in the way of a great reading experience. That's the only explanation I have for why I forgive Pynchon all these insanely stupid names. Dewey Gland, after all. Jeebus.

I was operating on the motto Make It Literary, a piece of bad advice I made up all by myself and then took.
     -- Thomas Pynchon, on the subject of his early writing, from the introduction to Slow Learner

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