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Julian Meynell's Books

I like Books.

Gravity's Rainbow

Gravity's Rainbow - Thomas Pynchon As I read more and more of the "Great Books" I become more and more comfortable with rejecting received opinion about the relative merits of books. Gravity's Rainbow is a book that is regularly given as a candidate for best book written after World War II. While the book is exceptionally clever, I think that there is more than a little of the Emperor's New Clothes going on here.

Gravity's Rainbow has a well deserved reputation as one of the most difficult novels ever written. I think that there is a certain tendency for writers to be celebrated if they are obviously very clever and develop a highly literary but deliberately obscurantist style. The more I read, the less impressed I am by these stylistic acrobatics.

I don't mind difficult books and quite enjoy them, when the difficulty appears to have been forced on the author and the author had no choice but to write a challenging work as a result. I would include in such works, things like Pale Fire, Last Exit to Brooklyn, Wuthering Heights, The Divine Comedy, The Idiot and even books that no one thinks of that way such as Moominvalley in November. All those books, each in their own way, presents serious challenges to the reader and I could easily have picked many other similar examples.

There is another school that includes such people as Joyce, Faulkner, Lowry and Pynchon where the writing is deliberately obscurantist where it does not have to be. I am told that these books have to be read many times to give up their meaning, but a great book gives up lots of meaning pretty much all the time, every time through. A great book struggles to communicate its depths and those depths also repay rereading. This book celebrates style over substance, like Ulysses, I don't believe it would be so celebrated if it wasn't such a chore to get through.

The book has many merits. It has for instance, a striking and well done shit eating scene and another scene where an Octopus is lured with a crab. Both are very well done. The prose is technically proficient, but Pynchon tries to jar the reader with that prose. There is nothing wrong with that, but he tries to jar you with every sentence. This gives the reader a feeling of being shaken around like riding a cart on a cobblestone street. In doing this, Pynchon is trying to invoke the paranoia, epistemic uncertainty and dislocation of the characters and I understand this, but it seems to me just bludgeoning to do that for 800 pages. Furthermore, Kafka could do the same thing better in ten pages with paragraphs that were not just beating you up. In fact, if you compare Pynchon to Kafka, which is a good comparison, you see that a lot of their concerns are the same and that they are trying for a similar effect. But whereas, Kafka's structures are carefully and meticulously constructed, Pynchon uses a jack hammer.

Pynchon's style is to fill his book with references of all kinds. References to popular vaudeville music can lie right alongside references to the details of rocket science. He has a large knowledge base, but this is thrown in the readers face. I have a pretty large knowledge base too, and I got the bulk of Pynchon's references. I suspect that his references are more impressive if you have to look them up. When you get them initially, "Why are you referencing that?" becomes a more obvious and often unanswerable question.

Pynchon's books are technically very well written. He can write well. He can also put together a good scene. This book is about paranoia, conspiracies, causation, time and personal identity. It questions modern theories of these and as such is a postmodernist work. It also appears to be about madness, brainwashing and drugs. It adopts its dislocations and difficulties to not just present but to live its epistemic stand. It participates in its own view. That's all very clever and all.

On the other hand this book is something that you have to grind at. You have to read it as a chore. Sure there are good bits. Sure his word choices are interesting, sure there are interesting ideas tossed around everywhere. But in the end it is a chore to read and pomo ideas are in the end ultimately a big waste of time having nothing to do with real genuine human experience, but just being self-indulgent escapism of the over-educated upper middle classes. It is not a pure waste of time but its close.

But my god, it's not a masterpiece. Masterpieces are fun to read.