Hawking Up Hairballs

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A Literary Note

As I mentioned earlier, I'm rereading Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. I'm taking my time about it too, only reading ten pages or so a day. Right now, I'm about a quarter of the way through the book. It'll take me a couple more months to complete it.

I'm reading other books in the meantime, of course. Just recently I finished How Fiction Works by James Wood. It's an interesting little work that's worth reading, even though there's a lot I disagree with in it. Wood espouses the New Yorker school of fiction. He dislikes the tag of realism, but that's what he embraces as the best of fiction. In order to make his points, he will quote passages and deconstruct them. There are some, and one by Philip Roth comes to mind, that just leave me scratching my head. (I would reproduce the passage here, but I've already returned the book to the library.) He enthuses over the passage. He really likes the way Roth jumps from colloquial speech to an extraordinarily pedantic phrase within the spaced of a couple of sentences. To Wood's mind, this brilliantly illustrates different levels of diction, and how it enhances the passage in which it occurs. I read it over several times. The passage just seemed forced and, yes, pedantic.

Wood is also fond of David Foster Wallace. I don't understand the appeal of Wallace. I've read small bits of his work and they've all left me flat. I've not been inclined to make the effort to read one of his books. Anyway, Wood quotes a rather long passage from Wallace that is nothing but colloquialism, slang, and cliches. He says that Wallace goes on for two pages like that and, to Wood's mind, it illustrates the shallowness of the character whose perception of the world it represents. Bullshit. It read incredibly sophomoric to me in that it's such an cheap literary trick, the sort of thing you would expect from a somewhat precocious high-school senior who aspired to become a writer.

That said, Wood makes a comment about Gravity's Rainbow in one of his footnotes. He says that it has less in common with modern realism and the character-driven narrative than it does with the 18th-century picaresque novel. I don't know why, but that hadn't occurred to me before, even though it is obviously true. It may also explain why some of Pynchon's novels, like Vineland and Against The Day don't really work. Pynchon's characters lack depth and his novels aren't driven by their development. Hence, as Wood points out, Pynchon's villains, like Captain Blicero in Gravity's Rainbow, aren't truly frightening, though Blicero should be, given what he represents. Pynchon's best work is driven by sheer rhetorical brilliance, and when that's lacking, his work suffers. Gravity's Rainbow has it in spades though, and that's why I keep going back to it.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home