Saturday, September 21, 2013

8 Seconds of Inherent Vice

I just started reading the most recent Thomas Pynchon novel Bleeding Edge last night. Its pretty good so far and I'll try and get a full review up here next week, but in the meantime I thought I'd reblog this little primer on Pynchon I came up with last year with Bleeding Edge now added to the list: 
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Now don't ask me how I know but I know that a lot of you out there have never finished a Thomas Pynchon novel; you've tried but it's never quite worked out. You sat down in a comfy chair with a mug of tea and a packet of McVities Chocolate Digestives and everything was great for a bit but then you found yourself hurling Gravity's Rainbow across the room in exasperation. This is a problem for me. I like Pynchon very much and I want you to like him too so I thought I would provide you with a little reading list primer that will help you get into the books...
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1. Inherent Vice: read this one first. It's a crime novel set in a slightly exaggerated version of 1970's LA. It's full of stoners, groovy language, flower power with a crazy missing persons plot. Its got lots of pop culture references that anyone should be able to get if they've been paying attention at all for the last couple of decades. It's more or less Robert Altman's Long Goodbye crossed with a Cheech and Chong movie, and, of course, Paul Thomas Anderson's real movie version of this book will be out next year...
2. The Crying Of Lot 49: after reading Inherent Vice you should be able to handle Lot 49 which is basically set in the same milieu and is only a little bit weirder and more discursive.
3. Bleeding Edge: a paranoid shaggy dog detective novel set in the Manhattan of 2001 just before the 9/11 attacks. It begins with a Westlake quote and its a spicy blend of Westlake, Hammett, DeLillo and Woody Allen. (With an unfortunate David Foster Wallace cruise ship rip off/homage thrown in there for good measure.) It's pretty funny and it concludes a thematic trilogy of sorts of that began with Inherent Vice and Vineland.
4. Vineland: America in the early 80's. Reagan, Star Wars, George Lucas, Brock Vond. And again most people should be able to get the refs. As I say Inherent Vice, Vineland and Bleeding Edge form a kind of paranoid alternative history contemporary trilogy that should be accessible to most general readers.
5. Gravity's Rainbow: Pynchon's WW2 novel which won the National Book Award. His best book? Probably, yes. It's quite a difficult text but by no means impossible to read especially in a trade paperback edition with big clear print. You'll need to know your mid twentieth century culture quite well to get all the refs this time. And just to warn you, amidst the humour and horror there is a pretty gross scene involving coprophilia.
6. V: my favourite Pynchon. A literary romp through early twentieth century history. Very abstract, strange and off putting for the uninitiated. But a great read once you get the momentum of the story. 
7. Mason & Dixon: the story of Mason & Dixon surveying the land that will become the North and South of the USA. This is my second favourite Pynchon. It's written in eighteenth century prose so it could be tricky for some people, but not for those with Clarissa, Tom Jones or even Neal Stephenson under their belts. 
8. Against The Day: This is for completists only. A dense, difficult story of turn of the century America. My favourite scenes were set in a beautifully crafted wild west Denver. 
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Additionally: Mortality And Mercy In Vienna, a strange out of print novella that I read in the Columbia University stacks before it got stolen and Slow Learner a nice collection of short stories, the highlight of which is probably Entropy.