Sunday, 6 November 2011

Thomas Pynchon: Entropy and Zeitgeist

I remember first attempting to read Pynchon as an English Lit undergraduate. The book that I chose, ominously, was his postmodern masterpiece 'Gravity's Rainbow'. At that time, I suppose the most literary novel that I had ever read was 'The End of the Affair' by Graham Greene or maybe something by JG Ballard ...I attempted the first one hundred and fifty pages or so of 'Gravity's Rainbow' and gave up. It was completely unlike anything I had ever read before, and I swiftly realised that I had no grasp on the material I was reading and no idea what was going on. Pynchon would remain untouched and unread by myself for at least another decade. The only two scenes that left an impression on me (and rather a rotten, disturbing one at that) were the notorious scenes with Katje/Ernest Pudding and Slothrop diving into the toilet to reach for a lost harmonica (which Irvine Welsh also pays homage to in 'Trainspotting')

I revisited Pynchon much later. The first novel that I completed reading was 'V'. Here again, was a novel which defied labels of genre or plot description, and yet possessed a story that was haunting and fascinating in the telling. Essentially, it's a collection of short stories bound by an overarching narrative which reaches a conclusion as two separate strands coalesce at the conclusion (forming a V-shape design, as the title of the novel) Elements of 'V' are 1950s social commentary and satire, part of it is a surreal detective story, the rest of it might be considered fantasy, science fiction or a precursor of steampunk fiction.

'The Crying of Lot 49' is equally cryptic, a slim volume whose mysteries belie its brevity. I don't believe that its Pynchon's finest work but its a bitesize introduction to his style and thematic techniques. It could be said that this shorter work is the first part of a Californian trilogy, followed by 'Vineland' and 'Inherent Vice'. Several characters re-occur, as the stories take place between the 1960s and 1990.

And back to 'Gravity's Rainbow' of course. Even after completing the novel and re-reading it, it is still a novel that defies description. In some ways it is like an adult comicbook story, with a second world war spy plot merged between slapstick scenes, fantasia and dark satire. The title, 'Gravity's Rainbow' refers to the central premise and focus of the novel: the creation and launch of a V-rocket and its arc across the sky until it descends and hits its intended target. The novel explores the psychology of war and draws parallels between violent conflict and human sexuality/identity. Pynchon's humour and sense of the absurd should never be underestimated either.

In some ways, of all Pynchon's novels, I enjoyed 'Mason & Dixon' and 'Against the Day' the most. 'Mason & Dixon' contains the usual Pynchonian themes and flights of fancy, but there was a warm beating sentimental heart to the story, which might not be said for his earlier work. I also enjoyed Pynchon's archaic style of writing to suit the eighteenth century period that this novel is set in. Meanwhile, 'Against the Day' is a remarkably fecund, epic and original novel. Thematically, I sense that Pynchon began seven or eight different stories or novels, and then realising that they were related by time period and theme, interwove them and bound them together. However, the novel is not a conventional narrative and can be extremely challenging to read. In my opinion though, 'Against the Day' does not suffer for this, and the book ambitiously captures the zeitgeist of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century period, where scientific and mathematical advancement moves the world into a new era, a different kind of evolution and entropy. The central theme that binds each character and their story is 'light', and its relation to the material world and the cosmos, and how its energy is harnessed by humanity on the cusp of technological and rational exploration.

Pynchon's novels are too complex to summarise and analyse properly in a brief blog post- reams of PhD dissection and analysis have been devoted to this author. I really do recommend that you read them. They are not easily accessible to the casual reader. I suggest 'V' or the 'Crying of Lot 49' as an initial introduction, then 'Vineland' which is essentially an American political satire. If you find Pynchon readable, then tackle one of the three epics- 'Gravity's Rainbow', 'Mason & Dixon' or 'Against the Day'.

Pynchon's style is unique and challenging. If authors of fiction hold up a mirror to the world in order to reflect reality and observe fine detail; Pynchon's mirror is warped and distorted, and we may observe monsters lurking there which disturb and haunt us. Pynchon's depiction is that of a kind of hyper-reality: a world of paranoid conspiracy, shadowy agencies, metaphysical gambits and cartoonish, farcical escapades.

'Mason & Dixon' is my personal favourite, and I also enjoyed 'Against the Day', which shares similar themes to 'Gravity's Rainbow'. An interesting contrast between those two later novels and 'GR' is the fact that I did not want to put them down, I was enjoying so much Pynchon's prose, which is endlessly fertile. Whereas in 'GR' the relentless invention and labyrinthine plotting became as sickly as candy floss, or a carousel ride where your head is spinning so badly that you want to get off.

As an extra note of interest, you can find Zak Smith's illustrations for each page of 'Gravity's Rainbow' here at these links, and I've included Smith's illustration for p.36 of 'Gravity's Rainbow' below ("...You've raped me. And I'm the Red Bitch of the High Seas...") and for p.59 ("...a black alley kitten with white little feet...") :

...You’ve raped me. And I’m the ReYou'd Bitch o

he High Seas...


  1. Just discovered another very good introductory article about Pynchon here, by Jack Joslin: