Category: Hysterical Realism


V.

I’m a pretty smart guy. I’m not being cocky. That’s just how it is. Honestly, it’s a pain in the ass more than it’s a blessing. Try finding people to discuss movies and books with when you’d rather watch the latest Terrence Malick film or some old Italian neo-realist pictures than sit through the latest summer blockbuster. It doesn’t lend itself to watercooler conversations. That’s for sure. Still, I prefer to be challenged. Life’s too short to go around reading the book equivalent of comfort food (although sometimes the easier stuff is nice and gives my brain a rest, hence why I’m reading the newest Stephen King novel right now). You need to find material that pushes you every now and then. Otherwise, you’re never going to experience any intellectual growth. So, if you’re ever looking for an author that is going to push you to your limits, can I go ahead and recommend Thomas Pynchon? I’ve already reviewed the indescribably dense and complex (and border-line incomprehensible at moments) Gravity’s Rainbow many moons ago. It has a reputation as being one of the most “difficult” novels in the English language, and it totally is. However, after a semester where all I really read was manga because I didn’t have any of my real books with me in NYC, I decided to read Pynchon’s first novel, V. . I’m not going to lie. I actually think its far more amorphous and obscure than even Gravity’s Rainbow. While Gravity’s Rainbow had moments that left me completely baffled and confused, I felt like I understood the novel. I think I get what Pynchon was going for. V. has the same brilliant prose and construction that I associate with Pynchon but at the end of the day, I’m at a complete loss as to what the point of the novel was.

It’s not that I didn’t understand what was happening in the novel. I can recount the events that occurred. It’s tying them all together into any sort of meaningful thematic statement that is difficult (though knowing Pynchon that was obviously his intention). In the 1950s (though the story flashes back as far back as the turn of the 20th century), Benny Profane is a schlemihl (read: loser/bum/layabout) who gets involved with a group of pseudo-bohemians known as the Whole Sick Crew and gets into all sorts of misadventures in New York City including alligator hunting, gang violence, drug use, and escaping the military police that are after him and his friend Pig Bodine (who makes an appearance in Gravity’s Rainbow). At the same time, a man known as Stencil is on a quest to find the truth surrounding a mysterious woman known only as “V.” Stencil’s father may or may not have known V in the years surrounding World War I, and with the help of his father’s journals, Stencil, has devoted his life to solving this mystery. Along the way, in typical Pynchon fashion, we are given a history lesson in post-World War I Maltese politics, turn of the century Florentine conspiracies, and regular spiels on other, even more diverse subjects because this is Thomas Pynchon we’re talking about. Digressive novels is the name of his game (as well as being transgressive but this one was surprisingly tame compared to the parade of depravity in Gravity’s Rainbow).

Honestly, this is the kind of novel that you need to be in a discussion group while reading. Perhaps it’s just me, but any solitary reading of this novel is going to be surface-level at best. I even took my sweet time with the book (it took me a little less than a month to get through and to me that is reading at a snail’s pace), and I still felt mentally exhausted every time I put it down. No doubt, Thomas Pynchon is a genius. His prose is uncanny, and a friend of mine once said (and I totally agree) that reading his novels is like watching a David Lynch film. You’re not sure what you just read, but you know it’s brilliant. Although, I generally actually understand David Lynch films. Inland Empire is the only one I really have any actual confusion about. At the end of the day, with a Thomas Pynchon novel, you just pray that the parts that stuck were the parts that were important to the overall themes of the novel (although the way he deconstructs the whole concept of plot and theme and structure and the notion of things needing to mean anything is often far more important than his actual subtextual “thematic” statements). If you were to quiz me right now on the individual moments of the novel, I could probably recount them fairly well (I finished reading the book about four days ago) although I’d likely screw up the names of the legion of characters (once again, small in comparison to Gravity’s Rainbow). But if you were to ask me right now to say exactly what Thomas Pynchon was trying to accomplish with V., I’d have to throw my hands up in defeat and say I don’t know. I need more time to ponder on it.

I would love to write more about Thomas Pynchon’s novel. I know that it’s great (even if I don’t totally grasp it yet), but I just don’t know how much more I have to say. His insights into the life and outlook of a schlemihl like Benny Profane are fairly profound and tapped into much of the Beat Generation angst and disconnect that defined a generation of authors like Jack Kerouac. Similarly, if Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow was the definition of (justified) paranoia, then Stencil is one of the best literary representations of obsession that I’ve ever seen. However, I think the novel is meant to be more than just a sprawling character study of these two individuals. There’s (I believe) some commentary about the mechanisms of our ancestors and the turning of history that affect our lives in ways we can never comprehend because we never witnessed these tiny moments in history that would force our hands decades and decades later. See, it’s that kind of fucking novel. As I write about it, I come to new realizations about its meanings. Perhaps I should just free-thought respond to the novel but no one wants to read that. If you have any interest in post-modern literature and the school of hysterical realism, Thomas Pynchon is the undisputed master (along with David Foster Wallace). If the idea of using every single cell in your brain and still possibly coming up disappointed though doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time, you should probably leave Thomas Pynchon alone. I know I relish the challenge though.

Final Score: A-

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I’m already regretting my decision to preface my review of the video game, El Shaddai: Ascent of the Metatron, with a series of quotes that I associate with the 1960’s psychedelic movement. I don’t regret that decision because I’ve decided that El Shaddai wasn’t “trippy” enough to warrant that introduction but because I’ve come across a book that is so inherently psychedelic and acid-soaked in nature that only the product of that time could ever really introduce the book’s contents. I recently finished Tom Wolfe’s nonfiction novel, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and it has instantly become my new favorite nonfiction book that I’ve ever read, it is simply in competition for one of my favorite books period. Channeling the manic energy and hallucinatory nature of the era, Tom Wolfe has fashioned the ultimate account of the hippie generation with language and details that immerse you so deeply in their world, you may leave the book with a contact high.

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is a chronicle of one very specific subset of the hippie movement of the 1960’s. Actually, you could say that this story follows the progenitors of the entire San Francisco hippie scene. Beginning with the release of noted author Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) from prison for a marijuana charge and at the height of his reputation as the Godfather of the West coast psychedelic movement, the book is mostly spent in flashbacks to Kesey’s founding of a group known as the Merry Pranksters. After being exposed to LSD as part of a government experiment in the 1950’s, Kesey became an immediate disciple of the powers of “mind-expansion” and began to introduce it to his circle of literary friends and eventually to a whole generation of “heads”. Recruiting a group of fellow “believers”, Kesey embarked on a cross-country bus ride in a multi-colored Day Glo bus named “Furthur” on a trip to experience America and spread the word. Known for their elaborate costumes and aggressive promotion of acid, the Pranksters gained a reputation across the entire country that put them in touch with the law, Hells’ Angels, and was responsible for the success of the Grateful Dead.

The book is absolutely chock full of memorable characters and incidents. Ken Kesey will instantly draw you in with his sheer charisma and eccentricity, contrasted with his general down-to-Earthness (relatively speaking) as conveyed through Wolfe’s engaging writing style. For fans of beat generation classic, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, one of the principal protagonists of the book has his real life inspiration in Neal Cassady, the bus driver and hyper-active perpetual motion machine. There’s the arrogant acid manufacturer Owlsley, who ends up having a bad trip on his own acid. You get Mountain Girl, the youngest (at first) of Kesey’s devotees who isn’t afraid to go toe to toe with the Hells’ Angels and earn the respect of the most bad ass group of bikers in the country. You’ll meet Sandy Lehman-Haupt, the young sound engineer who will forever revolutionize all of the noises and sound effects you associate with the “acid rock” era while simultaneously battling his own inner demons under the influence of a not inconsiderable amount of acid. And this list is only really beginning to scratch the surface of all of the crazy and colorful characters who inhabit Wolfe’s pages.

Wolfe’s biggest strength, besides the simply fascinating nature of his true story, is the way, much like Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, that he places you in the mindset of his characters through beautifully descriptive language. This isn’t a cut and dry account of a bunch of hippies going on a road trip across the country. Through extensive interviews with the participants of the trip as well as substantial access to their large vaults of recordings of the trip, Wolfe uses his language as a way to let you know what this trip was like for those on the trip. You read it, and you almost get an idea of what it’s like to be these characters and be zonked out of your mind on LSD. He describes both the visual effects of their drug use but also the spiritual and emotional effects in such vivid terms, that you can’t help but feel as if you were there. By the end of this book, you feel as if you’ve ingested everything the characters ingested and that you’ve been on this massive spiritual and physical journey across America. Honestly, if you can read this and not feel a little bit curious about what was inspiring all of this madness, then you might be about as square as they get.

For any one who was part of the 1960’s social upheaval or any kids my age who just always felt they were born in the wrong era, this is a must read. Tom Wolfe writes in a simple and unpretentious prose so you don’t feel a need to constantly reach for a dictionary; yet that doesn’t stop his diction and vocabulary from being exquisitely beautiful and/or evocative. For those with more right-leaning political beliefs, this book will probably offend you and just re-confirm every negative suspicion you had about the hippies, but for those of you who are a little more open-minded and curious, you could find your long-held beliefs and presuppositions about the era challenged and bettered through Wolfe’s hard-hitting journalism. It’s one of those great books that isn’t too difficult to get through, as compared to Gravity’s Rainbow, but it still leaves you with so much to think about and analyze when you’re done. It’s a classic deserving of the title.

Final Score: A+

So, I finished Thomas Pynchon’s magnum opus Gravity’s Rainbow on Tuesday, a novel which has garnered a reputation as being one of the most important pieces of American literature written after WW II, but I’ve been delaying the actual writing of my review of the novel because every time I sit down to collect my over-all thoughts of the book, I get lost in a fractured and non-linear series of thoughts about not only Gravity’s Rainbow itself but the myriad topics and themes which the book hints at or straight out lectures on. I still, to this very second, find myself questioning the purpose and placement of every word and punctuation mark in his 776 page story and am trying to place it all within the context of a coherent and sensible tale. I will never succeed. Gravity’s Rainbow marks the first book I have read since Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce that has completely challenged at every turn, my conceptions of what a novel can be as well as strained my intellect to the breaking point by trying to follow Pynchon’s increasingly frantic narrative and digressions. It was easily the most difficult book I’ve ever read in my entire life, but at the end of the day, it was also one of the most rewarding as Pynchon weaves shifting and sweeping tale unlike anything I’d encountered  before.

Much like with David Lynch’s film Inland Empire, an attempt to describe the plot of the novel is a difficult exercise and potentially a futile one, as one of the major points of Gravity’s Rainbow was to deconstruct the very foundation of the novel and various plot conventions, but here it goes. Tyrone Slothrop is an American soldier living in London during the German Blitz of WW II. Every time that Slothrop has sex, a German V-2  rocket lands on the house within the next couple of days. A secret British government agency consisting of mystics, psychologists, and statisticians wants to find Slothrop and study him for reasons relating to his potential psychic powers. Eventually, Slothrop’s paranoia gets the best of him when he notices all of the strange people coming in and out of his life. He is eventually sent to Europe where he goes off on a self-proclaimed mission to find a mysterious German rocket known as the Schwarzgerat with the serial number 00000. However, he constantly finds himself side-tracked on a million different side quests on his journey such as drug-running, encountering witches, and becoming involved in other international conspiracies. Perhaps, the most significant side-plot of the novel is that of a Russian soldier and his African half-brother who are looking to kill one another in this WW II landscape while also searching for the mysterious Schwarzgerat.

Like I said though, Pynchon’s plotting is second to Pynchon’s prose (although even that is second to Pynchon’s inventive destruction of everything you thought you knew about how a novel should be written), and Pynchon’s prose is just second to known. He has an ability, through an extensive and poetic diction, to paint even the most disturbing and intentionally offensive scenes in this remarkable literary voice. While I often found myself (in a good way) lost as to how all of these different story threads inter-twined with one another, Pynchon’s marvelously evocative scene-setting and descriptive commentary always painted this complete picture of the action unfolding on screen. Using his stream-of-conscious style straight from the school of James Joyce, Pynchon also has a peerless ability to place me directly in the minds of the characters themselves and place the reader right into their darkest and most vulnerable moments.

Eschewing traditional plot structures such as the normal build and fall towards a climax and resolution that is part and parcel to all of Western literature, Pynchon completely re-invents what to expect from a doorstopper of a novel like this. There are nearly 400 named characters in the book, and about 40 characters that repeat through, twenty of whom that will have the story told from their point of view at one time or another. The story often switches between the points of view various characters without giving the reader a real clue as to when this has occurred, so you often have to be on your toes as to who is telling the story. Similarly, the book attempts to capture the ethereal and psychological elements of its characters through language itself. So rather than saying, these are the characters thoughts, you are simply given the characters thoughts and emotions and expected to piece together it all while wrestling with a narrative that goes forwards and backwards and in circles and zig zags until you give up on a concept of narrative linearity.

Paranoia is the fuel of the novel, and much how Tom Wolfe was able to capture the essential nature of the hippie movement in his seminal The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (which should be the next book I review for this blog), Thomas Pynchon is able to make paranoia come alive til it begins to infest you as the reader. I have a sneaking suspicion, though nothing in the book will ever truly confirm this, that the whole novel was legitimately one schizophrenic, paranoid delusion by the actual Tyrone Slothrop who was not the globe-trotting trouble-maker he was in the novel but simply a man whose mind had snapped in the face of WW II. The novel becomes increasingly disjointed and incoherent and progresses and I feel that is probably a symptom of Slothrop’s paranoia finally getting completely out of hand. At the end of the novel, a rocket strikes a movie theater, and I almost feel as if that is symbolic of the rocket destroying the book (which ends mid-sentence) and the final snapping of Slothrop’s mind.

The novel is frequently digressive and always transgressive in nature. By transgressive, I mean that Pynchon sets out to intentionally shock and offend the audience, and he will succeed. There was a disturbing scene (actually many) that Pynchon described in such vivid and graphic detail that I nearly threw up while reading the book. He is digressive in that nearly half of the book is either Pynchon as the narrator or various characters through dialogue expounding on seemingly irrelevant and in-depth speeches on an innumerable number of topics from classical conditioning, to statistics, to physics, to the technical aspects of rockets, to the Tarot, to popular culture, to whatever topic happens to be Pynchon’s fancy at the moment. I guarantee that by the end of this book, you will know more about several different areas you were unfamiliar with before. My only piece of advice in that regard as to have both a dictionary and an online translator handy as Pynchon isn’t afraid to make considerable use of foreign languages as a bilingual bonus and not explain it to those who don’t speak the language.

There are challenging books, and then there’s Gravity’s Rainbow. While this was easily one of the best books that I’ve read in my entire life from the point of the view of how stimulating it was intellectually and aesthetically, it was also exhausting. I could never read more than 60 pages of it at a time before I need take a break and let my mind rest. Whereas some books allow you to simply let the words wash over you as you soak in the adventure being presented, Gravity’s Rainbow is far more demanding and requires you to parse and analyze nearly every phrase and word in the book. It’s a mental marathon, and at 776 pages, it’s a mental marathon you’ll be at for a good long while. To put this in perspective, it took me nearly a month to read this, but yesterday at work, over the course of a couple of hours, I read nearly 200 pages of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. If you think you would be up for the mental challenge of this book, then I recommend it whole-heartedly. It will test you but when you finish it, you will feel vindicated in a way that few other books can achieve. I only ward away the easily offended as Pynchon will intentionally try to make you mad as well as those who just can’t handle the sheer insanity that this book is made out of. However, I’m glad I went along for this ride, and in a year or so, I relish the opportunity to re-read it and see if I can’t paint a more complete picture of Pynchon’s world a second time around.

Final Score: A+