This continues on from the post (see below) about what I liked, more or less. This is a little less positive. NB: I still liked it. But it left me with an puzzlement I can’t explain easily – the below is my attempt.
Perhaps it has to do with the fact that GR is very complex, steeped in theory, and very interpretable. What The Book Means is a tricky area for me. On the one hand, I have a more or less academic background, and can appreciate intellectual analysis on its own terms. But on the other, in my very limited experience, analysis tends to replace the object of art with another object, something that is half-artful, and half-intellectual, blends the boundaries between the two, perhaps, but nonetheless takes me away from what I am interested in: how to make a reader feel.
There’s a Sarah Waters quote out there that talks about how literature is a game of affects – assembling affects to produce an overall pleasing or beautiful experience for a reader. I’m not really qualified to set out some theory on literature, or to contest/examine her terms in real detail, but I still feel that there’s something in what she is saying: the ideas are good but the affects are the priority. A writer is a shaper of affects. Hence, in my last post, a focus on sentences, style, over the book’s hidden themes.
Pynchon is chock-full of Clever Ideas. I felt some symbolic resonance with some of these: the idea of paranoia, it’s relationship with meaning-making, with a repressed homosexual lust; the idea of a disruption to or overwhelming of cause-and-effect; the idea of death(drive) and life(drive), transcendence and immanence; the shifting perspectives and unstable point of view; the overproduction/mass/excessive production of narrative, personality, character, as a feature of late capitalism; the attempt to create a sense of how the world is now, in our society, with all its wild unstable complexity, it’s forces, its size. Even the idea of Slothrop as a character who eventually disappears into nothingness, his renowned ‘dispersal’ amongst the chaos of the Zone, is intellectually interesting to me – particularly in relation to the things I was interested in during my research.
But – and it’s a large, ponderous, hippopotamus but… I feel a little like this is beyond me – beyond usefulness, even pointless. Pynchon has interesting things to say about the world; but I suppose what I’m getting at is the book is often very unpleasant to read, dull, considered abstruse, and while of course continually interesting to the dedicated (academic?) reader, fails, I think, if it can’t communicate those things in a way to people other than a dedicated academic, interpretative reader.
It reminds me a little of my uncomfortable encounters with queer theory. Difficult, obscure, even purposefully abstruse style/prose undercuts, to my mind, the power of a theory centred at heart on liberation, makes it exclusory, makes it complicit with the structures it critiques. Pynchon’s book requires, asks for, even seduces, a certain kind of interpretative ambition from its readers – or at least, I felt it ask me to consider its ideas as intellectually fascinating, as masterable – which would draw us on to the same interpretative dance he (I think) aligns with a monstrous power/paranoia. I understand that he may be using this alignment to make a point about power/knowledge/paranoia, but it’s not the only point he makes in the book, and certainly not the most interesting/useful… so why, I want to ask him, force us towards interpretation? Why not focus on greater care for your reader? I’m not saying spell stuff out. But he could have cut, polished, attended to emotional connections. Do you really care about Slothrop? Mexico? Gottfried? Katje? Blicero? Not really. Not like I care about Don Gately, nor Mario Incandenza, nor Joelle van Dyne.
I think my reaction to GR is so mixed because, in part, I’ve been in – and more or less exited – a world that lauded intensive interpretation. Moving towards a world wherein assembling affects becomes the focus, most of the intellectual excitement I now find in literature comes from ‘how did they make me feel that’ rather than ‘what did that mean’; and that, itself, comes with its own value-shift – from a rigorous, logical, axiomatic/argumentative position to something fuzzier, less distinct, less requiring of intellectual mastery and more demanding of emotional sensitivity. I’m not saying by the way that fiction writing is some mythical Feminine domain (which I have access to and you, stupid academic, don’t). Or that we shouldn’t think about books. Maybe I’m saying I don’t have the capacity to theorize and disassemble (if disassemble can be taken for ‘look at how x does stuff, how x works) at the same time. Or not right now anyway.
I also think, having been through a Viva process, having seen and heard first-hand how academic arguments are put together, and how theses are defended, who makes meaning, who holds the keys to power, to argument, to interpretation, I’m currently perhaps somewhat suspicious of anyone touting an interpretation of a text, but particularly academics. I have, I think, at least today, a kind of paranoid response to this stuff: any and all theorizing is to be distrusted. Theorists are shadowy. You don’t know what they want, what they’re really like, why they’re pushing an agenda. Which makes GR a tough cookie, as the book lends itself so well to theory (and my response also somewhat ironic, I guess, considering the content). I embrace anti-paranoia – there is no meaning, nothing is connected.
My reading of GR also took place in the shadow of Infinite Jest. Foster Wallace’s book – pushing a less aggressive, more humanistic agenda but maintaining the anger and the intellectual challenge – made me think and it made me feel. GR mainly made me (asked/demanded me to) think. The writing in both – informative in terms of style, weighting, imagery, and to an incredible degree. Only Infinite Jest really kindled in me a sense of awe.