Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Great Failure of '07

It's time to confess something. I need to get it off my chest. It's a deep, dark secret that haunts me every day of my life since it happened. Okay. Here goes: I cannot finish Thomas Pynchon's Against The Day, no matter how hard I try. Sigh.

There's a larger, overarching secret that goes with this. I have never finished a Thomas Pynchon novel. And I've tried. For somebody who's into books and has a Bachelor of Arts in English, it's sad to admit to as much, especially since my favourite part of literature is modernist and post-modern American literature. It's required reading and it's highly influential on scads of authors.

But I can't do it.

I purchased
Against The Day in hardcover, way back when, in December of '06, a month after the hefty tome had been buckling store shelves. I was excited and jazzed. At the time, the only attempt I had ever made was Gravity's Rainbow, and that hadn't gone well. I brought it with me on a trip to Kelowna, BC, and I ended up reading a John Grisham instead *shudder*.

I was excited because of the billion reviews I had read, and the great things I was hearing when I was still posting on barbelith.com, I thought that this might my chance. Start with
Against The Day and work backwards. I was also really into reading Mason And Dixon (as the five years before I was reading The Baroque Cycle, which made me jazzed for anachronistic historical adventure).

All of the pieces were in place for me to love this novel. But what happened? Where did I go wrong?

I started out strong. I really like the Chums of Chance, Kieselguhr Kid, and Frank Traverse. All of their stories were fascinating and pulpy. Then the novel starts to run around in circles, introducing boring figures such as Cyprian Latewood and Yashmeen Halfcourt. The spy story featuring Lew Basnight became a primary focus while the revenge story that opened up the novel was put on the backburner.

I thought that I would love the doubling themes, and the fantastical places and events, but they retracted from the experience for me. Combine that problem with the lack of a central plot or three-dimensional characters, and you're left with "a lay of the land" not finishing
Against The Day.

As a critical thinker, and a student of literature, I'm able to recognize the pure artistry of the work. There's complex themes being dealt with here, and I can see them. Pynchon is using the doubling and the obsession with Iceland spar and light, and the nature of politics and war and all these grand themes to say something about basci human nature and of space-time, as Pynchon is forever fascinated by science and pseudoscience and where they meet.

I can also appreciate the synthesis of pulp fiction and style into one grand sort-of coherent work. With each grouping of disparate plots, there is a distinct and noticeable shift in prose, as Pynchon wears that style like a technicolour overcoat.

But
Against The Day leaves me cold. Dead cold. I'm 700 pages into the novel and I just cannot finish it. I feel no desire to move on with it.

Appreciating the work of art and enjoying the work of art usually go hand in hand for me. One of the complex studies of literature is where art for art's sake meets entertainment. Consider Armagideon Time's thoughts on the infamous Beach Party movies. He writes of a professor who
came right out and stated "These are historically important plays. They are important works of literature. You should all be familiar with them. That said, I would rather sit through a community theatre Starlight Express than suffer through a Broadway production of Enemy of the People with an all-star cast."
Thomas Pynchon is having a hard time entertaining me, and I can't simply spend my time reading something I'm not enjoying when I could be appreciating and savouring other valued works of art, whether or not their quality is on the same level, a nebulous thing to argue.

So, Thomas Pynchon... I may yet finish Against The Day. Maybe I'll do it out of spite. No, that's too harsh. I enjoy parts of it. But currently, Tom Perrotta and Irvine Welsh call to me, whispering to me that I will be entertained.

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