Main image
8th December
2008
written by Tony
1966

1966

I will preface, for those of you who don't want to read a rant, that I liked this book (look to the last paragraph for more on Lot 49 itself). However. I still don’t like Thomas Pynchon, and as a result, most of this review will be about the bloated disgrace that some modern literature has become. You see, Lot 49 is unlike any of Pynchon’s other works in nearly every way (it’s only 150 pages, for one). So there isn’t a lot to say about it in context of itself. So instead, I’ll focus on the reasons behind why I was so surprised when I ended up liking it, reasons that deal with how much I hate Pynchon's other work. I wanted to read Pynchon before, so I picked up some of his stuff while at a bookstore. Apparently Gravity’s Rainbow is about a man whose erections signify V2 rocket attacks. That just sounds tiresome. So, in my quest to read some Pynchon, I instead tried Against The Day and, honestly, it just didn’t work out. I’ve heard all the talk about what a literary genius Pynchon is and how his works are pithy and wonderful and all of that. Everyone seems to think so, though I haven’t spoken to someone who has read one of his books to completion who feels this way. In fact, I haven’t ever spoken to someone who has finished one of his books at all. Interesting. I like to compare Pynchon to the modern artists of the 60s who did things simply because they were an exercise in taking things to logical extremes. Congratulations, you’ve done something new, but, because it is so perverse and abstract no one is capable of relating to it, so you’ve done it for no one but yourself (I do believe there is merit in this, but let’s call a spade a spade). Critics call it revolutionary, make it seem like understanding it is beyond the normal intellect and that this somehow elevates it to a place that is superior to other work. I’m no populist, but if you create something that no one can possibly connect with, there needs to be a tacit understanding that this is a self indulgent act that serves no function outside of justifying your own ego and need to create. I’m talking to you, Pynchon. And maybe you too, James Joyce, but not right now. This idea that Pynchon is somehow a literary transcendental is pervasive. So much so, that when I sold Against the Day to a used book store, the clerk (who had not read any Pynchon) asked me how I felt and when I told him honestly, he got a little defensive and sniffed “well, that’s kind of what he’s known for.” I know that. I know he’s famous for complicated plots that you can’t possibly keep up with and books that stretch well into the 800-900 page arena (with tiny, tiny type and little to no line spacing). It wasn’t that I was intimidated by the size, or the language, or the subtlety or really anything about the book at all. The writing wasn’t particularly difficult or even beautiful. It was how distracted and self-indulgent the whole thing was that killed it for me. It invoked this Dickensian feeling of being paid by the word. Or maybe by the letter, in this case. The writing just lacked focus, clarity and any real interest. When a book comes to a point where you can’t keep up with anything that is happening because there is just too much, it’s time to simplify. Thoreau, now that’s a writer I can get behind. Sometimes. He was kind of crazy. I will say, I really liked the first 120 pages of Against the Day, even said to Steph that I thought she would like it. I mean, come on, a dog who barks in Italian and is part of the crew of a Jules Verne-esque powered balloon which belongs to a guild of air sailors who travel the world doing interesting jobs for hire? Brilliant. Such potential. But. New plots appear. All happening concurrently, and all seemingly related. A private eye, an anarchist, an evil businessman, a destroyer of bridges, two English fops, all of the English fops’ over-seas friends when they return to England, an electrical engineer who is the son of a destitute family, still the balloon crew, some photographer cum magician (or vice versa), some quasi-religious group and its members. There were more that I forget. Did I mention I only made it to page 380 (of 880)? Right. And the narrative would jump from story to story all the time. Sometimes from one paragraph to the next, with no real immediate indication of the change in focus. It was too much. I don’t have trouble following things, even overly complex things, but this book required notes. And supreme concentration, just to simply know who Pynchon is talking about at a given moment. So Against the Day was an epic fail for me. It is one of a very, very small number of books that I quit all together before I finished. I even finished Foucault’s Pendulum, and I mean come on, you want to talk about a pretentious blowhard, let’s talk about Umberto Eco (and you can talk to Steph about The Name of the Rose). So, when Steph waved Lot 49 at me in the bookstore, I assumed it was only to torture me. But then I remembered those magical first 200 pages of Against the Day, and looked at the slim Lot 49 and thought, maybe he won’t lose focus in this one, because he won’t have the chance. And it was true. The story was engaging, the writing was catchy and the satire didn’t get too out of hand (there was one character with the surname Fallopian, but I can deal with that). So maybe if Pynchon put out a collection of short stories I would be in to that. Who can say? Steph claims his "short" stories would just be normal novels. Ha! All in all, I enjoyed this quick read and would recommend it to anyone who wants a diverting mystery with some fairly engaging characters. There is a secret society, murders, disappearances, stamps, everything you could want. And he wraps it all up neatly (kind of, though I won't spoil anything here!) in 150 pages! How unexpected of you, Mr. Pynchon. 4 out of 5

4 Comments

  1. Xavier Marcó del Pont
    12/10/2008

    Oh my…

    This “blogger” (to be civil, and avoid using a different word) condemns Pynchon, Joyce, Eco, and Beckett (who surely is alluded to as one of “the modern artists of the 60s who did things simply because they were an exercise in taking things to logical extremes”) on account of his own inability to tackle difficult texts.

    Sad, really. His shortcomings as a reader should not reflect badly on the quality of the aforementioned writers. In fact, if he finds it so hard to read, I see no point in him writing at all. Even in blog form. Particularly if he has not been able to finish any of Pynchon’s books. How deluded must he be to complain about the effort involved in reading the texts? How self-centred and petty? Without question, the effort involved in reading Pynchon’s books is dwarfed by the effort involved in writing them.

    There is a saying in French, that goes along these lines: Only dogs and bitches piss on monuments.

    Enough said.

  2. Laslo
    12/10/2008

    Ummmm….Pynchon does have a short story collection out.

    Personally, I ENJOY the work one has to put into reading Pynchon. That is half the fun. He really isn’t that ‘difficult’ to grasp either. Perhaps you don’t enjoy his humour, but I do.

    Maybe try Vineland. It’s really accessible and not really that long.

    Pynchon is a bloody genius who should get the Nobel one day.

    Cheers.

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