The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Thursday, March 15, 2007

We'll Fish There

"Beyond the Zero" is the first two hundred pages of the greatest novel ever written. Alas, Gravity's Rainbow is not that novel. Thomas Pynchon's genius operates only at short wavelengths: half a page can change your heart, but a whole novel is a chaotic heap of glories, like the ruins of Atlantis.

Fluent and brilliant users of language -- Martin Amis, William Gibson, or the incomparable Nabokov -- are praised for their "sparkling" or "crystalline" clarity. This metaphor is deserved, but its implied passivity is also apt. Mr. Pynchon's stroboscopic, obfuscatory, blazing prose is of a different kind.

Here is his description of wartime English carolers, from Gravity's Rainbow:
So this pickup group, these exiles and horny kids, sullen civilians called up in their middle age, men fattening despite their hunger, flatulent because of it, pre-ulcerous, hoarse, runny-nosed, red-eyed, sore-throated, piss-swollen men suffering from acute lower backs and all-day hangovers, wishing death on officers they truly hate, men you have seen on foot and smileless in the cities but forgot, men who don't remember you either, knowing they ought to be grabbing a little sleep, not out here performing for strangers, give you this evensong, climaxing now with its rising fragment of some ancient scale, voices overlapping three- and fourfold, up, echoing, filling the entire hollow of the church -- no counterfeit baby, no announcement of the Kingdom, not even a try at warming or lighting this terrible night, only, damn us, our scruffy obligatory little cry, our maximum reach outward -- praise be to God! -- for you to take back...

Any of Pynchon's novels is filled with smaller-scale creations, overwhelming works that lack even canonical names: the Angel of Lubeck, the Disgusting English Candy Drill, the Lightbulb's Monologue, and innumerably more.

Mr. Pynchon is also an electrical engineer, and scientifically literate. Who else would write an ode to the Poisson distribution:

There do exist levels were chance is hardly recognized at all. But to the likes of employees such as Roger Mexico it is music, not without its majesty, this power series













terms numbered according to rocketfalls per square, the Poisson dispensation ruling not only these annihilations no man can run from, but also cavalry accidents, blood counts, radioactive decay, number of wars per year....
Mr. Pynchon's failure to scale up has two major sources, beyond the inscrutability of his plots. The first is his mythmaker's reliance on suggestion, indirection, and ellipsis, which is effective in any given instance but cumulatively irritating.

The second, and more important, is his and his characters' tendency -- none the weaker for being self-aware -- to paranoia. Paranoia cannot be made plausible, and the novel must remain frustratingly vague or else become risible. The vague "levels" in the passage above show a light touch of this, but it is laid down more and more heavily as Gravity's Rainbow progresses.

In case even that is too subtle, Mr. Pynchon's next novel Vineland is a blunt, ill-tempered, hectoring reprise of the same themes -- though its fleshed-out villian, the overly competent Brock Vond, is the one character worthy of respect in the whole sorry show.

Paranoia is also a distinguishing feature of the earlier novella The Crying of Lot 49. Here it is less of a problem; in fact, it provides the only interest or novelty in a book utterly lacking in competing merits. This is widely assigned to college classes, presumably on account of its brevity. It would be much better to follow Mr. Cowen's suggestion and read the first fifty pages of Gravity's Rainbow; it would even be better to read fifty pages torn out at random.

I have not read Against the Day, and cannot say anything of value about it.

V. is less brilliant, and less incoherent, than Gravity's Rainbow -- but still past the redline in both categories. Mr. Pynchon's vignettes (the Nose Job, MG Love, the Siege Party) are more extended but equally distinctive. These larger building blocks are not arranged into any recognizable overall structure, but the poetic and somewhat melancholy novel is still a wonder to read:
Do they even see the wandering bums,
The boys with no place to go,
Or the drifter who cried for an ugly girl
That he left in Buffalo?
Dead as the leaves on Union Square,
Dead as the graveyard sea,
The eyes of a New York woman
Are never going to cry for me.
Finally, Mason and Dixon takes an energetically anachronistic writing style, applies it to a series of implausible or impossible incidents loosely strung along a flat and unsurprising plot, and somehow emerges as a worthwhile and (a first for Mr. Pynchon) moving tale.

[Mr. Cowen's own reply is here.]