Before I knew that magical realism was a thing, I loved Tom Robbins. Before I fell hard for postmodernism, I fell for Tom Robbins. Before I had develo...moreBefore I knew that magical realism was a thing, I loved Tom Robbins. Before I fell hard for postmodernism, I fell for Tom Robbins. Before I had developed a literary taste that I can be proud of, there was the beacon of hope for me that is Tom Robbins.
There aren’t many things I loved in high school that I still love now: Listening to the same Dashboard Confessional CD on infinite repeat, running to Livejournal to unselfconsciously document every oh-so-significant spike in my emotional temperature and wearing brightly colored tights under fishnet stockings are all things I’ve let slip into the past but Robbins has seen me through all the milestones and minutia of my teenage and twentysomething years.
Jitterbug Perfume was not my first foray into the weirdly wonderful and wonderfully weird worlds that Robbins builds from the gossamer threads of imagination unbound (I'm actually not sure which one popped my Robbins cherry but I do know I first read this one during my last summer of college when I was a live-in nanny -- which was a surprisingly good summer for bibliomania, actually). It is, along with Skinny Legs and All, tied for the honor of being my favorite of his, and both novels are longtime mainstays of my desert-island reading list. So when my craving for Robbins got to be too demanding to be delayed any longer and the heady of perfume of spring was calling too loudly for the only companion novel that successfully captured the power of scent in words, I knew I could rely on this book to deliver everything I needed and more.
It is tempting (like, it is taking an inordinate amount of self-control to fight the impulse) to say something about how beets are the beating heart of this novel but that's only because I have a sick, unironic penchant for puns. Really, this is a story that spans 1,000 years (or about as long as I've been staring at the computer screen while waiting for this review to write itself C'MON BOOZE LUBRICATE MY THOUGHT PROCESS NOW) and connects Seattle to New Orleans to Paris to Bohemia of yore with the wafting of a fragrance. There's also a very loyal swarm of bees serving as the halo a modern-day Christ figure would wear and Pan comes and goes to prove that man creates and destroys gods with a fury and jealously no spiritual figurehead would ever dare to act on. And a fallen king who proves that love can last more than a lifetime and winds up behind bars in the process (if that's not a metaphor for modern times, I don't know what is).
You know, I thought a little liquid creativity would help me here but it is just so damn hard to express how much and why I love this book and how excited I am that, almost eight years later, it is actually even better than I remembered. This is so much more than beautifully playful prose, a caution against taking oneself too seriously lest you forget to stop and smell the beet pollen, more inventively evocative metaphors than a whole hockey team could shake some really long sticks at -- just to mention a few of the things that established my seemingly eternal entrenchment in the Tom Robbins fan club so many years ago. That's not to say that I wasn't thoroughly tickled by those elements this time around but the more subtle aspects of the storytelling were what really got to me during this most recent reading.
This book is a little disarming because it addresses so many issues, Big Ticket and otherwise -- life, death, love, immortality and the conflicted yearning for it, what happens on the other side of death, the individual vs. societal norms, the search for perfection, scientific pursuits, religion (and the lack thereof) -- in such a lighthearted, unexpectedly connected way that its moments of seriousness pack a brutal but enlightening punch. A character who triumphs over death for a good millennium is bound to lose more than he gains in his willful longevity, and his moments of introspective contemplation are a little hard to watch unfold, especially as some of the other characters are revealed to be carrying around the kind of sadnesses that compel them to keep moving; I can now appreciate that there is a definite Pynchonian element of contrasting goofiness of the highest order against some truly sobering sorrows to maximize the impact of each emotional extreme.
I was a little worried that, like so many things I've outgrown, my love of Robbins's unique storytelling might now be a thing of the past tense. But he so intricately layers and pieces together so much in his books that there is plenty to notice for a first time (like how Jitterbug Perfume really does follow the format of a hero's journey, complete with help of and hindrances from mythical beings, a never-say-die determination to reach the finish line, the occasional occurrence of wine-dark liquids, and even a visit from a cyclops) and even more to rediscover anew. (less)
I purchased "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" on a whim from my college bookstore and then never cracked it open. It perched itself on various shelv...moreI purchased "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" on a whim from my college bookstore and then never cracked it open. It perched itself on various shelves in a parade of rooms, patiently waiting to hit me over the head with its sympathetic characters and a personal relevance that I'm still not comfortable addressing in public forums.
Obviously, the part of my subconscious that runs the show when the more overt parts of me are too stupid to know elbows from assholes is what kept me waiting 'til now to acknowledge a book with which I've been sharing living space for more than five years. Because, sometimes, when a book crosses my path at the exact right time, it validates every overly romantic sentiment I have about literature and its necessity to the connection of human experiences.(less)
I came into The Year of Proustifarian Delights accompanied by a vague dread, worried that I was embarking upon a seven-book voyage of joyless obligati...moreI came into The Year of Proustifarian Delights accompanied by a vague dread, worried that I was embarking upon a seven-book voyage of joyless obligation that would ultimately prove I have too much dullard in me to chug along with anything other than the empty appearance of rapt literary euphoria. I feared that I'd be approaching these books like they were the kind of high-school required reading that sucks all the fun from the one pastime that's stuck with me ever since I learned how to unlock the English language's secret treasures more than two decades ago. Because one of my lifelong constants has also been unflagging self-doubt.
So imagine the flood of relief I felt when this book turned out to be the most pleasant surprise I've ever encountered in my literary travels.
By all rights, I should have hated this first volume of "In Search of Lost Time." I don't really have it in me to care that much about a precocious child's mommy issues. I am not at all interested in the trifling concerns of society-obsessed folk. And I absolutely want nothing to do with a bitterly hostile love affair, especially when it comes to watching its ugliness unfold from an insider's vantage point (seriously, Swann, what the everlasting fuck).
But here I stand on the other end of a book that brought me such needless apprehension, thoroughly enchanted by the magic Proust worked with "Swann's Way." His beautiful, seamless storytelling has proven that just about anything can make for a powerfully intoxicating reading experience when crafted by a master wordslinger. It's not just Proust's dazzling language that is the lone source of this novel's charms, though. That would be too easy. It's the ideas, the connections, the tangible humanity that proves our species' nature hasn't changed all that much in a century. That even with our nifty gadgets we're slaves to our lost pasts and need for love. That all anyone really wants is a little affirmation of our personal worth at the end of the day.
The emotions here are absolutely palpable. If I couldn't outright understand the rises and falls in a character's moods and luck, I sure could sympathize. Far from being banal, each moment of lowest woe and highest elation were the very stuff comprising the whole of the human experience. I wanted to reach across time (and, you know, the boundaries of fiction) to hug little Marcel when he was so thoroughly caught up in the tragedy of being denied his mother's nightly kiss just as much as I wanted to celebrate with Swann over the onset of a seemingly loving romance (before I wanted to kick him in the ass for mistaking obsession for affection, knowing from my own failed relationships how that unhealthy need for complete possession of another person ends).
The celebration of nature, music, food, books and human memory are all songs I know well. I found myself rereading passages not for a want of understanding but for the sheer joy of burrowing into some of the most achingly gorgeous prose I've ever had the joyful abandonment of losing myself in. Tell me more about thoroughly alien architecture! Describe in loving detail the perfumes and rainbow palate of spring to dull the pain of my American winter! Remind me that others have marveled over how a song that once embodied a love's rapturous early days can bring nothing but fresh heartache until the heart can distance itself from such pain to rediscover the melody's own merit as a living piece of art!
My only complaint? This book made me feel too much. Every stab of loss, every bad decision, every mawkish pity-party dragged me right along with the fictional person wallowing in such emotional dregs. It got exhausting.
Still. A round of hurrahs for the book that drove me to self-mastication and the discovery that, while I am sadly not as tasty as the teacakes of my shared appellation, this beautiful book sure is. (less)
Seven pages in, a passage that ostensibly illustrates the bond between M -- the titular smoking hybrid who's now safely mundane against the backdrop o...moreSeven pages in, a passage that ostensibly illustrates the bond between M -- the titular smoking hybrid who's now safely mundane against the backdrop of the modern world -- and one of his friendlier coworkers actually betrays the lonely core of the Minotaur’s five-millennia-old being:
Cecie keeps telling him she’d like to take him home some night, husband or no. The Minotaur waits hopefully. Husband or no.
(Believe me: It’s brutally sad in context.)
Not to be outranked on the Don't You Want to Actively Seek out This Character so You Can Befriend and Hug Him? scale of heartstring-tugging insights into a traditionally antagonistic creature, a paragraph on the 100th page's recto side brings the dual, tormented nature of M’s existence into aching clarity with a tiny inkling of what it does to someone to live as a monstrous outsider for five thousand years:
The architecture of the Minotaur’s heart is ancient. Rough hewn and many chambered, his heart is a plodding laborious thing, built for churning through the millennia. But the blood it pumps—the blood it has pumped for five thousand years, the blood it will pump for the rest of his life—is nearly human blood. It carries with it, through his monster’s veins, the weighty, necessary, terrible stuff of human existence: fear, wonder, hope, wickedness, love. But in the Minotaur’s world it is far easier to kill and devour seven virgins year after year, their rattling bones rising at his feet like a sea of cracked ice, than to accept tenderness and return it.
Seriously. If that doesn’t make you want to give the poor guy a giant hug and a tender pat on the snout -- especially considering that such a revelation comes on the heels of a fleeting but significant physical interaction with the imperfect waitress M is crushing on hard -- then you have neither a soul nor a beating heart to speak of and I cannot, in good conscience, encourage further communication with you because you're probably a zombie. Not if you can read ....and puts her hand on top of his. And puts her hand on top of his. And puts her hand on top of his without the awed reverence of a beast unaccustomed to gentleness absolutely demolishing your stoic reserve and tear ducts. Though you’re probably a lost cause anyway if you made it past page 49’s confession that touch comes so infrequently to the Minotaur that when it happens, sincere or not, it nearly takes his breath away, blinds him momentarily to all rational thought and allegiance without your breath hitching and that little premonition of danger making you fiercely protective of M -- or maybe that’s just me identifying with fictional characters to an unhealthy extent again.
This (debut, nonetheless) novel does so many things well beyond its sympathetic rendering of a mythical abomination. At one point, M’s constitution is described as one of “gritty resignation,” which can also be said about the narration’s tone. M is never pathetic or hopeless, traits one might expect from so tragic and long a fall (fortunately, his Labyrinth days are mostly hazy half-dreams; even M’s primal defenses are blunted by a self-control he’s exerting after eons of learning that both “possessing a capacity for evil unmatched” and “his own potential for tiny rages” can lead to the kind of dire consequences he no longer welcomes). He’s scared and nervous an awful lot, but mostly in regard to the damage he can unintentionally cause other people and the embarrassment he can bring upon himself, and has a downright endearing habit of bovinely poking at the ground with his very human foot when he isn’t sure of what else to do, but he soldiers on with a hard-won, Zen-like “state of indifference, sometimes blessed, sometimes cursed” that is completely expected from someone who has been everywhere once and who has passively watched the ultimately inconsequential rise and fall of countless civilizations.
I feel so strange saying that I loved this book because there were so many moments that killed me with their undercurrents of sadness. For every instance detailing M’s private and painstaking maintenance ritual (being half-bull, after all, creates skin problems and requires frequent horn grooming), it was the self-sufficient singularity of it that got me the most. He reacts to the smallest kindness with a touchingly disproportionate relief and gratitude. His bull’s mouth is not made for human words, so verbal communication is an onerous task: His economy of language and the obvious embarrassment he feels when attempting to speak make his few non-grunted utterances poignant, not piteous (there's an exchange with M and his boss that crescendos with M's submissive, disbelieving "Not fired?" and, I swear, those paired words have never sung with such emotional resonance before). And his heady desire for the mere ability to sing into the warm nights as he drives his lovingly maintained jalopy screams of a being who may be no longer trapped in a Grecian maze against his will but confines himself to his inner world, as rich as any terminal introvert's mental plane, because he knows he never had and never will enjoy a real place in what’s going on around him.
Even M’s bullish half is capable of empathy and despair. He certainly recognizes the cannibalistic nature of becoming his employer’s new beef carver and his emotional reaction to a televised bullfight – one of the few times he deigns to use the contraption, as ancient M “feels hostile toward most things electronic.... There is a threat in the very existence of such minute and exact circuitry that touches something primal in the Minotaur” – is terrible to consider in its personal relevance.
As sympathetically as M is painted within these 300-some pages, it is nearly impossible to suspend one's disbelief to allow the sexual encounters between a woman and a man-bull to be effortlessly romantic. As loudly and over-earnestly as I was rooting for the Minotaur to get some, the novel would have hit a mortally insincere snag had M gotten his rocks off without a hitch (and a few suspicions about his partner's stability). Just like the few unprovoked, unwelcome confrontations and scuffles M finds himself in by virtue of being "a freak," it was absolutely crucial to the integrity of the narrative for M's lone love scene in this book to come with some ugliness.
Because as much as you wanna take M's hand in yours for a little while to assure him that there are more than just a scant few decent people out there, the book straight-up questions what the hell an attractive, mentally sound woman would find arousing in such an unusual partner; also true to the gist of the story, however, there is a well-intentioned and genuine sense of companionship at the heart of a seemingly deviant behavior: What would compel a woman to kiss a man with the head of a bull? Pity? Curiosity? Genuine attraction? Maybe [she] recognizes the freakish parts of her own self and is drawn to the Minotaur through that alliance. Most likely it is a fluctuating merger of all these things that move her.
Quite simply, I love this book and can't wait to read it again. I love what it had to say about people by way of a thoroughly nontraditional (but also undeniably human) protagonist. I loved M himself with such unrestrained empathy that he might be my new favorite fictional character. I loved the casual metaphors, the easy allusions, the subtle themes. I loved its warmth. And I really loved how it was a perfect storm of things that reminded me of how much I love getting lost and immersed in damn fine storytelling propelling a damn fine tale.
Guys, seriously. Read this book. Read this book now.(less)
Hubs and I have a tradition of getting inked to celebrate the major milestones of our marriage. We are tragically overdue for our done-bought-a-house...moreHubs and I have a tradition of getting inked to celebrate the major milestones of our marriage. We are tragically overdue for our done-bought-a-house tats, which have less to do with buying our first home and are, instead, tributes to our literary heroes: HST for him, a whole mess of influential wordslingers for me, including the venerable Richard Python because, in a year that has been overflowing with some really great books and has (re)introduced me to some brilliant writers, it's my ever-growing affinity for T. Ruggs that stands out as 2012's most enjoyable development. My intended fleshy nod to Pynchon was lifted directly from this novella (I figured an otherwise unmarked book with a muted-horn bookmark would be an appropriately obscure enough tip of the hat) -- more than reason enough to revisit the book that started it all so many years ago, right?
I loved this when I first read it, though I realize that I didn't fully appreciate its myriad little treasures until now. What dazzled me on the brink of post-college life -- the word play, the deft navigation of a tricky plot, the delightfully symbolic and outright goofy names -- were just superficial (but still mighty rad) delights. Having a better understanding of the wonderful things that happen when Pynchon's at the helm made this nothing short of a densely packed little gift that just keeps on giving.
It's not a Pynchon novel without it also being an engineering lesson, a history class, a science experiment, a physics overview and a crash course in pop culture, all told in ten-dollar words. It had me researching the histories of both the U.S. postal service and philately (which I didn't even know was a word until this book forced me to look it up -- it's the study of stamp collecting), additional resources regarding Maxwell's Demon (though Pynchon laid it out pretty well), WWII tragedies masked as collateral damage, the effectiveness of LSD as therapy (thanks for laying that groundwork, Mister Huxley!) and God knows what else, which all prove my next point: It's also not a Pynchon novel without necessitating the consultation of at least three secondary sources and the whole damn internet. I learn more about a scattershot sampling of specialized subjects reading Pynchon than I do from any other life experience because the man crams three times as much story into his books than the page count suggests. I am just batshit over how even his meatiest tomes are deceptively short compared to the wealth of information they contain.
"The Courier's Tragedy" stood out so much more this time. Masterful imabic pentameter and a story-within-a-story that hasn't been this well executed since Shakespeare set the bar for such things at dizzying and humbling heights? Yeah, this book is proof that Pynchon rushes in where only The Bard dares to tread. (less)
I propose that the titular "V." is neither a person nor a place but a preposition.
What, really, is more personal than a first novel? It's that all-or-...moreI propose that the titular "V." is neither a person nor a place but a preposition.
What, really, is more personal than a first novel? It's that all-or-nothing, balls-to-the-wall debut effort that can either send a fledgling writer plummeting to dream-shattering depths with an effort that falls flat for any number of reasons or it can be the inaugural celebration all starry-eyed young scribes dare to hope for, that which heralds a staggering new talent to a canon populated by the many great wordslingers who've scribbled their way to well-deserved immortality. (For argument's sake, we'll work under the assumption that those flimsy flavor-of-the-month bestsellers that are so in vogue for their seemingly eternal 15 minutes will, in time, be forgotten and written off as yet another regrettable mistake born of groupthink's lapse in judgment while these truly remarkable feats of literature persist through the ages.)
If one is to write what one knows, how daunting must it be to know so much about such a wide range of complicated topics -- minute historical details of a time one either never experienced or was simply too young to fully digest, regardless of youthful precociousness; engineering equations requiring mathematical acrobatics and a more than adequate grasp on physics; an insider's take on the naval experience; an innate understanding of how to perfectly mix high-minded concepts and lowbrow humor with a dash of poetic lyric -- and attempt to whittle it all down into a tome that won't crush potential readers under the weight of both the volume itself and the awe-inspiring ideas roiling within?
The little we do know about literature's most elusive enigma points to pieces of Pynchon being flung along the narrative's parade route like confetti, adding flashes of biographical color to his intricately structured and beautifully written first novel that pits the animate against the inanimate and the internal self against the external veneer (and has the best-ever bonus of an Ayn Rand stand-in reduced to baby-talk in the presence of a pwecious widdle kittums-cat?). Aside from what can only be thinly veiled allusions to his Cornell days with Richard Fariña and their cult of Warlock -- regarding the Generation of '37: "And we did like to use Elizabethan phrases in our speech"; "A farewell celebration for Maratt on the eve of his marriage"; "Dnubietna leapt up on the table, upsetting glasses, knocking the bottle to the floor, screaming "Go to, caitiff!" It became the cant phrase for our "set": go to."; "The pre-war University years were probably as happy as he described, and the conservation as "good."", to say nothing of the nod to a novel called Existential Sheriff -- the internal conflicts of the writer seem to be scattered throughout V. like a breadcrumb trail back to the source himself.
Because Pynchon has be one conflicted dude. To be a notoriously private man juggling such derision for the spotlight with the compulsion to write for unseen but rabid fans, to churn out maddeningly, densely obscure works that are nevertheless guaranteed to meet both critical and commercial success (and increase sales of Excedrin in the following months), to posses such finely tuned right and left brains that he can be considered nothing less than an engineer-poet in his own right, to walk such a fine line between historical fictions and fictional histories -- is it any wonder that a man so in touch with dueling perspectives would build his first novel on the foundation of This v. That?(less)
I don’t usually finish a book and start a review in the same breath. But I also don’t usually allow myself to read more than one of an author’s works...moreI don’t usually finish a book and start a review in the same breath. But I also don’t usually allow myself to read more than one of an author’s works within a calendar year (many books, little time, etc. -- though of course Stephen King would be this year’s other exception because the Tower, all things yield to it): T. Ruggs, you magnificant bastard, I hope you know how many personal rules I’m violating because you’re the first time since auspiciously picking up my first collection of Bukowski poems that I’ve been able to add a This Writer Changed My Life For Always notch to my literary bedpost. Reading “Vineland” confirmed what “Gravity’s Rainbow” left me suspecting: I bloody love Thomas Pynchon. Rilly.
Finishing “Gravity’s Rainbow” left me with an almost obscene urge to help myself to another serving of Pynchon, which is an urge I’ve been fighting for months now. I finally caved, intending to take on “V” but settling for “Vineland” because part of the joy of Pynchon is the inherent madness, and I just can’t handle another meaty tome yet (the latter weighs in at a few pages shy of 400; the former.... uh, does most assuredly not). And because I haven’t talked about GR enough, I am still a little battered from that experience (my opinion on bananas might be forever changed, too). I needed something a little less daunting first. Enter: “Vineland.”
This book was so good. Now being able to pinpoint a Pynchonian pattern – a few: musical outbursts, sleuthing plots, oddball character names, stunning tangents that really aren’t that tangential after all, a natural vocabulary only found in the most ruthless of Scrabble opponents – helped me identify what I adore most about Pynchon’s prose. It’s his ability to concoct some of the most overtly zany scenes in literature, to confront the reader with these in-your-face storms of hilarity for the sake of maximizing the subtle tragedies he gently lets the story consider, leaving the reader to marinate in sadness. It’s an effect that would be any mixture of sloppy, condescending, formulaic or tedious if attempted by anyone else but Pynchon makes it work. The real success is that his characters who need be sympathetic are so when someone realizes that her best days are behind her or comes to the dawning realization that he’s being used by an entire government or has an ugly epiphany about the mother she never knew, it is the most heartbreaking scene in the world.
As for the effort involved in decoding the obscure references that are sprinkled throughout Pynchon’s books as liberally as the Bacon Bits on any salad worth eating, I was deeply grateful that T. Ruggs's novel begins the same year as I did, which meant I caught waywayWAAAAY more cultural allusions this time. The narrative flows better when I’m not running to a secondary source every three lines and I appreciated the opportunity to enjoy this book less haltingly, which isn't to say that I didn't need to have a few reference materials handy. There were enough hazy hippie memories to keep me on my toes, though I caught a number of those as often as I had a flutter of joyful recognition every time The Doors or Zeppelin or Pink Floyd or some other People's Republic of Rock and Roll favorite got a shout-out.
I feel a reread of "The Crying of Lot 49" and maybe "Inherent Vice" in my future. Color me fucking amped.(less)
Edit, 14 Sep. 2012: So. I've been thinking and talking about this book literally all year now while my Pynchonian love has been growing exponentially....moreEdit, 14 Sep. 2012: So. I've been thinking and talking about this book literally all year now while my Pynchonian love has been growing exponentially. Four stars it is for this maddening, wonderful, frustrating and surprising masterpiece of American literature because it has done nothing but endear itself to me the more I dwell on it. I'm leaving my review as I wrote it in January because I'm fucking lazy, okay? the vast majority of it is still true.
□ □ □ □ □
Holy crap, y'all. This book. This book! Thomas Pynchon's brain is a national treasure (albeit a kooky one), as it takes some mad skill to combine a smorgasbord of seemingly unrelated components -- among them: a giant adenoid, a metric butt-ton of intersecting conspiracies, applied physics (complete with equations that made me feel like a dimwit!), cannibalism, World War II, entropy, Plasticman, the occult, Pavlovian experiments, Mickey Rooney, light-bulb legacies, obscure '40s cultural references, disgusting English candies (is that redundant?), characters breaking into goofy songs with a frequency befitting musical theatre -- and throw them all together with a staggeringly cohesive and coherent result that's also a language-lover's dream.
My previous encounters with Pynchon are limited to one of his shortest works ("The Crying of Lot 49"), his newest offering ("Inherent Vice"), and a handful of short stories from a long-ago college lit class. I'll admit, while I've always enjoyed hanging out with the brainchildren of literature's most enigmatic figure, I was motivated to conquer "Gravity's Rainbow" for purely egotistical reasons: Many tackle the daunting tome but few reach the finish line, and I wanted to rank among the few who can count this post-modern insanity among their bookish conquests. I owe the Pynchon Wiki a great many thanks for deciphering some of the more arcane allusions tossed into the mix, otherwise I wouldn't've known what the hell was going on in more than a few instances and would have most likely abandoned the effort.
The two months I spent wading through "Gravity's Rainbow" were, indeed, punctuated by bouts of confusion and frustration. I can't remember the last time I did this much research on a book that wasn't required reading for a class. Nor can I recall a time when a work of fiction had me rereading passages and pages two or three times to make sure I knew which way was up. If not for perusing reviews by veteran Pynchon enthusiasts who offered assurances that one is not supposed to understand every nuance of this book the first time around, I probably would have thrown the novel across many rooms at various points. I came into this adventure thinking that it couldn't be that difficult and was thoroughly humbled within 20 pages.
But damn if this didn't return every drop of my hard work with a truly rewarding reading experience. Sure, I was consulting a dictionary or some kind of wikipedia every couple pages, and the breakneck discursiveness of the narrative did have me running in circles every so often. But! The inherent difficulty of this reading experience forced me to pay attention to every single word in the almost-800-page book. Demanding that kind of effort and focus absolutely made it easier for me to appreciate the kind of unusual talent that birthed this terrible and unconventional beauty. And you know what? I felt brilliant every time I understood an off-the-cuff historical reference (why, yes, I DO know why Prince Edward abdicated!) or genuinely laughed hysterically over one of the countless clever turns of phrase that made every "Just what the hell is going on here!?" moment worth the headdesking.
Pynchon's wordsmithing prowess is on full-force here (and is why I feel a little dirty giving this a paltry three stars), which is what kept me hurdling headfirst through the more-than-sometimes murky depths of his magnum opus. His penchant for veering completely off the topic did mean that I've forgotten more details than I've retained, but Pynchon's ability to polish a sentence to the point of making it seem effortlessly constructed more than compensated for that. Besides, I don't feel too badly about my inability to retain every excruciatingly minute detail because, from what I understand, half the joy of this book comes from the reread, which is partly why I couldn't justify slapping four stars on it after our first tango, especially when so much escaped my notice. Anyway. Any book that can be chock-full of made-up songs, hidden poetry and some of the most laboriously set up puns ever written appeases my inner language nerd enough to forgive any (fleetingly, in this case) less-than-enthusiastic feelings that cropped up during our long-term acquaintance. The exhaustive scope of the vocabulary Pynchon has at his command is on par with that of both his general knowledge and this book's terrain. Hell, even the nature of my readerly reactions -- outright laughter, near tears, gagging fits -- ran the gamut of physical responses.
While the stream-of-consciousness approach definitely got a little burdensome at points, it really did add so much to the story. Watching where some of these characters' minds wandered to made them seem so human and believable, which kept me caring about what was going on even when I didn't know what was going on. Pynchon does tell the story from lots of vantage points, often allowing one character to draw conclusions about another, but he also lets the reader in on what's really happening with the hundreds of people populating the story. The way that the choir of voices weaves dozens of individual plot threads into a rich tapestry of intersecting madness justifies every instance of wandering narrative.
Finally (because I'm getting tired of writing and want to go back to reading), the humor with which Pynchon writes is an absolute treat. I've never seen a writer get so much comical mileage from a well-placed "Really?" There are some flat-out ridiculous directions that the plot takes but it's really the writing itself that tickled my deranged sense of humor the hardest. I did get a serious kick out of Pynchon's preoccupation with kazoos, harmonicas and bananas, too. It made me want to start a marching kazoo band of my own, mostly because I've got a soft spot for making my own magically obscure allusions. (I'll settle for an adequate photo of the MST3K cereal novel, though.)(less)
There are two big things this book had working in its favor before I even cracked open Richard Fariña's under-appreciated final gem: The Pynchon conne...moreThere are two big things this book had working in its favor before I even cracked open Richard Fariña's under-appreciated final gem: The Pynchon connection (which is was what nudged me in the direction of this novel in the first place, albeit more than a year after "Gravity's Rainbow" mournfully introduced me to Fariña) and my own probably-over-romanticized-at-this-point affinity for my college experience, with Pynchon's intro (which includes an obligatory kazoo-choir reference!) being, of course, a voyeuristic delight of the highest order right until the moment it crashed back to heartbreaking reality and the novel's not-entirely-fictitious collegiate antics serving as a not-entirely-unpleasant reminder of why I was so reluctant to let go of college life.
And then, during the year's last handful of blessedly slow days at the Crappiest Place on Earth, I discovered that actually taking my lunch hour to hunker shoelessly down in the backseat of my car with a blanket and a book is pretty much the best thing to ever happen to my sanity professional life. Observe the photographic proof of my sublime on-the-clock refuge:
(Thank bouncing Baby Jesus that Fariña's Cornell chum desensitized me to complex equations interrupting literature.)
So now a novel that was published two days before its author's far-too-early death has found an even fonder association in my own personal landscape, thanks to my unyielding dissatisfaction with and need to escape from a job that takes me farther and farther from where I wanted to be at this point in my life.
I am so glad that I read this book now, rather than as a starry-eyed undergrad with dreams of running the NYT and writing The Greatest American Novel of My Generation on the side. I have a better sense of how life is not something that can be planned for, that growing up is fucking hard even with a willingness to let one's inner child have a say every now and again, that death is always lurking around every corner, and coming to this novel without even one of those hard lessons under my belt would have reduced this from a poignantly frenzied love song of youth's last discoveries to an instruction manual for college kids who just want to shake things up (not that there's anything inherently wrong with living in the moment and taking inconsequentially stupid chances, for those are the backbone of the best Hey, Remember When...? tales). I absolutely would have embraced any opportunity to cause a scene at a formal frathouse dinner like Gnossos Pappadopoulis (Fariña's thinly veiled stand-in for himself) did, just as I had also proclaimed myself in love with wrong guy after wrong guy based on a series of limited-engagement liaisons, as Gnossos did with Kristin, his obsession in green knee-socks and loafers.
My tendency to relate too personally with literary characters came out to play for keeps as Gnossos became a clearer and clearer picture; save for a few lapses into first-person narration, this is a story told mostly in third-person with a focus on GP, so it takes some time to get a sense of his motivation and how others perceive him (it takes a little longer to reconcile the two seemingly at-odds realities). And perhaps I was imposing my own inner workings on Gnossos but I left this book with a sense of awed kinship inspired by his mostly successful attempts to hide his soft heart under an ornery facade. He wants to feel, he wants to live, he wants to be earnest in his devil-may-care approach to throwing himself into living but he is woefully, painfully afraid of doing so because fully embracing life means also acknowledging that death is the inevitable end game.
Gnossos seems like the kind of maniac ringleader whose enthusiasm and passion attract unresisting friends and followers in droves but his attitude obscures a desperate desire to fall in love rather than indulge in a series of unemotional physical encounters, which is what it seems will finally help him stop fighting thanathos with an unequivocally driving life force. Had I not read Pynchon's "Entropy" in college, I would have probably missed the significance of how Gnossos has hermetically sealed himself inside every room he occupies in an attempt to artificially preserve life against the natural encroachment of death -- until his night with Kristin has him throwing open windows with the zeal of a man possessed. He is a character who fights the unpleasant reality with the much more pleasing act of losing oneself in the moment and clinging to that happiness as if that's all it takes to preserve that joy for eternity. As his attempts at pleasant stasis become more desperate and he loses control over situations that initially plopped him on top of the world, it becomes more obvious that this is a guy who wants freedom without responsibility -- and, in the end, isn't that what college is all about?
It's Bukowski once you've swapped the booze for drugs. It's Hunter S. Thompson with an overt awareness that death is nipping at his heels. It's Kerouac as a college kid. It's Pynchon with narrative restraint. But most of all, it's both proof that Fariña's early death was a huge loss to the literary world and a tribute to a screamingly talented artist who knew how to find the biggest truths in the smallest moments while laughing and kicking death in the ass. Because as much as Gnossos (and, presumably, Fariña) feared death, his ability to suck the marrow from every moment is the ultimate victory of life.(less)
This is another novel my fiance kept telling me that I needed to read. After watching the film adaptation (you know, where Humphrey Bogart is just spi...moreThis is another novel my fiance kept telling me that I needed to read. After watching the film adaptation (you know, where Humphrey Bogart is just spilling his sly brand of suave all over the place like he's got plenty to spare), I was properly intrigued.
From what I understand, Raymond Chandler perfected the crime novel. And it's evident that he knew what he was doing by his first book. Before they were cliches, the elements of the detective story had their roots in Chandler's very capable hands. Not even decades of weak imitation or being repeatedly beaten to predictability by lesser writers mitigate the walloping effect of Chandler's mechanics and plot lines.
That being said, I respect the genre, but it just isn't my cup of tea. Yes, Philip Marlowe just exudes cool to the point where it's almost dripping off the pages. Chandler's one-liners still sparkle and slice. The man knows how to keep his reader's attention, how to turn a phrase, how to develop a character with the arch of an eyebrow and the delivery of a single line. While he breaks the cardinal rule of writing (show, don't tell), the pithy observations are written in such a way befitting a professional detective who's mighty good at what he does. There isn't an unnecessary line in the book. The cast of supporter characters is no less compelling than Chandler's protagonist. It's all tightly written, neatly packaged and well presented. i do think I should have saved the film for later, though, as I'm fairly certain knowing how a crime novel ends kind of puts a damper on the experience.
It's got murder, greed, corruption, sarcasm, pornography, illicit kisses and more snappy dialogue than you can shake a stick at. It's definitely compelling and an addictive read, but it's also part of a genre that I'm not clamoring to read more of, regardless of how good it might be.(less)
God, I haven't read this book since tenth grade. I can't say anything else aside from the fact that I should probably pick this one up again sometime...moreGod, I haven't read this book since tenth grade. I can't say anything else aside from the fact that I should probably pick this one up again sometime soon so I can offer a valid argument for why I believe this book has rightfully earned its place as a classic.(less)
This book could have been a self-indulgent missed opportunity. It could have been cloying and annoying. It could have been dull beyond reason. It coul...moreThis book could have been a self-indulgent missed opportunity. It could have been cloying and annoying. It could have been dull beyond reason. It could have been a lot of less-than-impressive things but, fortunately, had the benefit of being penned by a fabulously capable hand. And, as a result, this wound up being a thoroughly engaging biography of a fictional family with poor Cal(liope) in the middle of a genetic maelstrom.
The slow unfurling of a family's faulty recessive gene and its journey across an ocean, a few continents and several decades before hitching a ride in Cal's unknowing body was absolutely riveting for all the ancillary stories it told along the way.
Cal, for a character who spent so much of his life unaware of both his own AND his grandparents' secret, is one of the most fully realized characters I've ever encountered, which is one of the reasons why I was so reluctant to finish this book. As loathe as I am to use the cliche, reaching the final page of this novel was like saying goodbye to a friend. I wanted the story to go on. I wanted to spend more time with these characters whose heritage I know more about than my own.
And, really, the writing -- everything from word choice to tone -- just added a world of additional enjoyment to an already fabulous reading experience.(less)
The writing throughout this collection was breathtaking in its beauty, but it was only "A Diamond Guitar" that really delved into into four-star terri...moreThe writing throughout this collection was breathtaking in its beauty, but it was only "A Diamond Guitar" that really delved into into four-star territory for me.(less)
I spent three months with this book, sometimes reading 10 pages at a time, sometimes reading more than 100 pages in a day. I need some time to process...moreI spent three months with this book, sometimes reading 10 pages at a time, sometimes reading more than 100 pages in a day. I need some time to process the myriad human tragedies that it pummeled me with over and over again. "People's History" was nothing if not dense and upsetting.
I will say that I wish I read this book year ago because it most assuredly affected my perception of the world. And the things I learned from this book are things I feel like I should have known eons ago. (less)