BOOK REVIEW: Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon (part 1)

To finish this beast is, as my partner put it, not always in one’s best interests; after all, it seems to come with a certain kind of academic and/or literary capital, won from the world in the act of finishing: I defeated you, I beat you back, o monstrous labyrinth, look at me, now I am the master.

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Aside from whether I actually liked it or not (I did, in places his prose made me afraid to write, in other places envious to a degree I’ve not felt before, in others, bored shitless), there were several things I felt it useful to note down. This post is more of a fly-bye on the style; the next post will look a bit at GR’s themes.

Set-pieces, senses

Pynchon really likes a set-piece. Not always, but often, these set-pieces are nestled inside nestled stories. They are immediately recognisable (Slothrop eating weird, colourful, revolting sweets, the banana festival, the anthropophagic dinner-time conversation, but also the custard-pie fuelled flight from colonel Marvy). Most of these have some relation to food, and perhaps that’s why I remembered them so particularly: vivid because mixed-sense. It’s worth noting, as a technique, that a series of variations on a few key elements works on the imagination better than a long list of different items – i.e. the mad sweet episode.

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Sentences

At the beginning I was literally noting down an image or a sentence every page. This grew so exhausting I stopped about 200 pages in. Most memorable for me were Pynchon’s descriptions of weather. Usually these shone – colourful, or inventive, or both – and kept me sewn into the book’s weird flow.

“An autumn sunrise dispensing light glassy and deep over then all” (p.131).

He also has a thing for long sentences. I love long sentences, and particularly Pynchon’s – they have this tendency to start with a certain kind of thing (object, subject, action) and morph/travel somewhere else. Some sublime sentences include:

“The pig and Slothrop settled down to sleep among pines thick with shreds of tinfoil, a cloud of British window dumped to fox the German radars in some long-ago rais, a whole forest of Christmas trees, tinsel rippling in the wind, catching the starlight, silent, ice-cold crownfire acres wild over their heads all night.” (Pynchon, GR, p.601).

Aside from the sheer weirdness of a night-time forest of decorated Christmas trees, I love the “ice-cold crownfire” coming right after the sleepy pig image. The shift is awesome. This stuff is so good to me – so elegant, quick, witty, even – it hurts me a little bit, and I would say this sort of shift or transformation is pretty much common in GR.

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“He is constant back there, westward, the African half-brother and his poetry books furrowed and sown with Teutonic lettering burntwood-black – he waits, smudging the pages one by one, out across the unnumbered versts of lowland and of zonal light that slants as their autumns come around again each year, that leans along the planet’s withers like an old circus rider, tries to catch their attention with nothing more than its public face, and continues to fail at each slick, perfect pass around the ring.” (Pynchon, GR, p.409)

The movement from plot/character background to an expansive imagine of the light slicing around and around again is really nice.

“From beyond the pale of electric light comes a rush of girls, shivering, aroused, beruffled, to witch St. John Bladdery away under cover of pretty pastel synthetics and amorous squeals.” (Pynchon, GR, p.708).

I seem to recall this happening a lot in the book – choruses of girls rushing and out. They populate forests, chase-scenes, numerous brothels/bars/taverns. I mean, surreal is an over-used word when describing this sort of thing. I think I mean – filmic. It makes it feel like a filmic dream. It makes it feel like the world is taking the piss. I don’t know what it makes it feel like, to be honest, but the presence of these unexplained extras adds this strangeness to the narrative that I find enchanting. Unexplained zaniness; plausible, somehow, in the way a dream-sequence is plausible to the dreamer.

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PUBLICATION: ‘MiNI’ and ‘Vanishing City’

Just a quick one – I have two short pieces coming out from Typehouse Literary Magazine in September, a magazine based in Portland. It’ll be great to have some work out on the other side of the pond and I’m really looking forward to getting these stories out into the world.

‘MiNI’ came out of the Comma Press course run by Zoe Lambert, way back in 2012 (written about a week after I submitted my PhD for examination). It’s about life in the trenches.

‘Vanishing City’ is a story that deals, as you might have guessed, with a Vanishing City. It came out of a bit of reading I did around the secret life of objects.

I will add links here in due course.

PUBLICATION: ‘The Egg’

One of my short pieces ‘The Egg’ has been picked up by the lovely people at The Cro Magnon, a fine-looking zine packed with some smashing words and a good deal of food for thought. Check it out here.

READING: Gravity’s Rainbow

I am currently working through Gravity’s Rainbow, a beast of a book I’d started once but never finished, and experiencing a sort of mixed admiration for Pynchon that I haven’t felt towards the writer since Infinite Jest – admiration in that the text is in many parts wonderful, the prose elaborate and striking; mixed in that the text is often difficult, obscure and/or baroque to the point I am occasionally bored by it. I’ve assailed the first part and am ploughing towards the end of the second, and I fully intend to finish it, but it is nevertheless taking up time in the evening and requiring of willpower to do so – and the rewards are coupled with a strong desire he’d just given the thing a good edit.

Why would I put myself through Gravity’s Rainbow having only recently finished Infinite Jest a few months ago? Well, partly because most of the novels I read following IJ felt small in scope and brief in effect, even if they were also fantastic. That’s partly a testament to Foster Wallace as a writer, and his success in IJ. There’s also a challenge to it – I’d be lying if I denied it. The tome is around 900 pages long. And I read The Crying of Lot 49, felt like I had a handle on what he was getting at. So I figured – why the hell not.

Why the hell not indeed. I should state for the record that Pynchon is a genius and each piece of his work I’ve encountered is awesome: his ideas are complex; his prose is measured and melodic; his sense of humour spot on. This brilliance/virtuosity is matched I feel with the occasional flight into an experimentalism which might be fun to play with in a first draft but seems at points unnecessary. I’m only about 350 pages in – perhaps things will change once I’ve surmounted more of the book, perhaps not.

I will obviously toot my own horn here once I’ve finished it.

PUBLICATION: ‘The Causeway’

Just a quick note to say I will have my short story ‘The Causeway’ published at The JJ Outré Review in July.

This piece is really important to me as it’s one of the first times I started working nested stories into narrative in a serious way. But I don’t want to spoil anything further so I’ll let you have a read once it’s up by linking here.

BOOK REVIEW: A Pale View of Hills, Kazuo Ishiguro

What did A Pale View of Hills teach me?

It is Ishiguro’s first novel. An interesting read, if you go in for exotic vistas of a lost past presented via vignettes of day-to-day life (lots of 1950s-era Japan),  with a disturbing mystery simmering beneath. An interesting read if you like to watch the playing out of a simple, effective narratorial magic trick. It’s a slim enough volume to blitz over a few days. I liked it.

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But what did it teach me? By way of approaching an answer, my gut instinct is to explore the most important feature of the novel. And to do that I’m itching to talk about the ending. This blog, as I (should) state in every post, plays fast and loose with how much material I spoil. However, I’ve recently come across an interesting set of guidelines on writing effective reviews here and figure it’s more of a challenge to write a useful review without discussing how it all turns out. Not spoiling might even encourage the odd reader to pick the book up.

Ishiguro’s central concern seems to be a lack of information, to be specific, an unbridgeable gap between the things we know to be true in the present and the mysteries of the past. The premise of the book is as follows: a middle-aged Japanese woman Etsuko lives alone in England. She periodically remembers the events of a summer in Japan a long time ago, and in particular her interactions with another woman called Sachiko. As the novel develops through the aforementioned vignettes, we are invited to probe the accuracy and reliability of the narrator’s rememberings, and are directed eventually to the basic fundamental gap between what she says happens and what we can ever establish as fact.

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Cue theory. Cue hypothesizing on the nature of reality/memory/’the text’ vs ‘the real’. Cue the familiar hermeneutics that I find increasingly redundant, or of limited use, the further I get away from my PhD. Let’s talk about the prose instead.

I was in the kitchen one afternoon preparing the supper before my husband came home from work, when I heard a strange sound coming from the living room. I stopped what I was doing and listened. It came again – the sound of a violin being played very badly. The noises continued for a few minutes then stopped. (Kazuo Ishiguro, A Pale View of Hills, p.56)

The writing is pared down and confident. First person voice (develops very clearly and sustained throughout). Clear descriptors of simple singular actions. Straightforward judgments – a strange sound, a violin played very badly. The world is mostly built from passages like this – a series of actions, a bit of environmental description or setting, with feelings left undescribed – and then marvellous sections of dialogue.

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It feels very clean. I can’t remember reading a single flowery line or clunky metaphor. The only ‘criticism’ of the text is something that’s quite hard to justify or explain, actually, but on a few occasions the sentences felt like they need to be balanced a little, almost as if their weighting is off. I can’t really explain this sense of unbalancing only that I find it in my own work all the time, and A Pale View of Hills is Ishiguro’s first book, so I’d guess that it has an explanation in his relative youthfulness as a writer.

The dialogue is complex and clearly where the novel does much of its work. The relationship between the narrator and his father-in-law is rich, believable, and very enjoyable to read. For example:

I went through to the kitchen, put on some sandals and stepped down to the tiled floor. A few minutes later, the partition slid open and Ogata-San appeared at the doorway. He seated himself at the threshold to watch me working. 

“What is that you are cooking me there?”

“Nothing much. Just left-overs from last night. At such short notice, you don’t deserve any better.”

“And yet you’ll manage to turn it into something quite appetizing, I’m sure. What’s that you’re doing with the egg? That’s not a left over too, is it?”

“I’m adding an omelette. You’re very fortunate, Father, I’m in such a generous mood.” (Ishiguro, Hills, p.32)

This sort of (dare I say it) banter or back-and-forth seems effortlessly written, and comes very easily to the mind’s eye. Their conversations, and the dynamics between her, her husband and his father, were among my favorite bits of the novel to read.

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Finally, the novel is very tightly structured. A short section in the present is followed by three to five short anecdotes about Japan. This ‘unit’ then repeats. I’d be willing to bet that Ishiguro’s choice of lean, uncomplicated prose is used in combination with the predictable structuring to build a sense of complacency in the reader, all the better to set up the ending. Craft totally slaved to the book’s ‘purpose’.

So what did it teach me? For one, the power simplicity of style can have on amplifying weirdness, shock and horror. The way a likeable relationship can stimulate identification on the part of the reader. Yet more evidence that a strong theoretical/aesthetic concern seems to require an equal attention to/importance placed on craft for it to really work.

BOOK REVIEW: The Stone Thrower, Adam Marek

I picked up a copy of The Stone Thrower on a short story course I attended at Omniversity’s MadLab, fresh out of the PhD, with very little clue about what short fiction was other than I felt I should be writing it. Writers often tell other writers, new starters, and so on, to write short fiction as a way to practice. Marek’s book (along with his earlier collection Instruction Manual for Swallowing) were both instrumental in converting me from some vague idea about writing long fiction and practicing on short stories first of all, to writing short pieces as an end in itself.

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His second collection is loosely organized around a single central theme: the travails of fatherhood, although of course, it touched on a lot more that that (human-ape hybrids, tamagotchi-AIDS, nazi superman, etc). Marek explores his emotional concerns and anxieties with a an array of haunting, finely-tuned images that range between the surreal (in ‘The Stone Thrower’), to elements of magical realism (in ‘The Stormchasers’), to twists on contemporary fables (in ‘The Captain’). This makes for a fascinating collection, at least in terms of content/range.

Enough of the formalities – what did I really think? Well, for a collection as important to my current writing as Marek’s, I’m a big fan. Again, I’m likely going to spoil the whole thing for you so read the book then return!

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Take ‘The Stormchaser’. It’s about a Dad and his son out for a Sunday drive. It’s about a dangerous hunt for a tornado. It’s about distracting a kid from something dark, something largely left to our imagination. It’s about how we relate to kids, how we protect them from ourselves.

Part of what I love about the story, and what I think can be said about most of the other stories in the collection, is the straightforwardness of the piece. Marek conveys a whole range of nebulous elements through a simple plot structure:

  • Set up threat, misdirect away from mum
  • Focus us/ build up pathos with relationship between dad and kid
  • Reveal

Nothing fancy, but the intensity of the emotional payoff at the end is high, and the afterglow long. That’s something I really appreciate: the way a few words can move a person. These stories don’t require the patient study demanded by poetry, you can read them in a sitting, and they seem to be so alive. Maybe I’m just talking about good short stories in general.

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Other great pieces for me include the titular story, ‘The Stone Thrower’, and ‘The Captain’. The former for its concentrated potency (only 5 pages long, and totally memorable); the latter for it’s incredibly dark take on the superman mythos. With ‘The Captain’ Marek also shows off a more complicated plot structure, and moves his point of view around a bit, which is hard to pull off with a limited word-count.

TL;DR – Marek’s a solid writer, a bit of a role-model, and this collection is great because he sticks to a few key themes and explores them from different directions, writes tightly, doesn’t piss about, just does it.