Nobel Prize 2014: my picks

Since I have never correctly picked (well, Tranströmer, kind of) the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, my picks should not be given much attention. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to offer my suggestions. So here are five of them. With a few exceptions, I am not trying to second guess the academy. They are not unlikely to offer it to another boring candidate. It is my belief that, starting with Vargas Llosa, they started giving the prize to candidates that won’t be likely to upset the white male dominant culture of criticism. Tranströmer was the one poet whose name was touted every year, as well as perennial nobel contender Mo Yan. The pattern of the new “sure that makes sense”-prize became most obvious last year when Alice Munro won. If they wanted to give it to a white, female, important, accomplished Canadian writer of short stories, why not give it to Mavis Gallant, who, in my opinion, is significantly better than the already excellent Munro. Before 2010, I have no doubt this would have been given to Gallant. But maybe the double whammy of Le Clèzio and Müller intimidated the academy into its present, boring, if not objectionable course.  I sincerely don’t want to think what the “sure, why not” option for 2014 could be. Philip Roth? Murakami? My heart weeps. Let’s just go on to my picks. 🙂

ONE  My #1 wish every year is to give it to a poet, being a poet myself and writing a dissertation on poetry. I also think the genre is criminally underrepresented. But factually, it’s probably not (was Churchill the last nonfiction winner?). So in first place is poetry, and the three living poets that I consider most excellent/deserving. I used to put Bei Dao on the list (and not just because he’s charming in person), but two years after Mo Yan’s win, that’s not going to happen. So my list of poets is headlined by John Ashbery who I consider not only to be an absolutely excellent poet, but whose influence both on American poetry of his time, and on our reading of older poetry is importand and enduring. Additionally, his work in translating French poetry and writing on art is both accomplished, but also draws him out of what the academy perceives as American insularity. His work is personal and generous, smart and emotional, international and profoundly American. A close/equal second for me is Syrian poet Adonis, whose work, as far as I read it in French, English and German translation, offers poetry that is both lyrical and intellectually acute. He is a politically passionate poet whose sensibilities prevent him from writing bland political pamphlets. What’s more, he is critically important to Arabic poetry as a scholar, teacher and editor. In a region, where weapons often speak louder that words, and words themselves are enlisted to provide ammunition rather than pleasure, Adonis’s work provides both clarity as well as lyrical wellspring of linguistic nourishment. His work in preserving and encouraging a poetic culture in a war torn environment is not just admirable and fantastically accomplished, it is also worth being recognized and highlighted. The third poet is Yves Bonnefoy, the most significant and important living French poet. Since I have only read his poetry (with great pleasure) and not studied it or his broader work, here is someone else’s excellent discussion of Bonnefoy. Moreover, Bonnefoy, like Ashbery, has been writing about art and produced fantastic translations (from English). So as we see, my first pick is actually three and could be longer (Jaccottet, the Swiss French genius would come to mind, maybe Zagajewsky). But I feel like there’s only room for one poet on a shortlist, for reasons that don’t apply to writers of novels who are often only perceived as “writers”.

TWO The same applies to nonfiction which has not had a winner in decades. So I will mention more than one here, #1 surely should be Umberto Eco. While he’s also a novelist, and perhaps more widely known as such, his work in the fringes of philosophy and in literary criticism and theory is significant, wide ranging and influential. I don’t think any other writer as important and accomplished and widely read in his field is still alive. What’s more, his work is fantastically well written, at least in English translation. Similar things apply to my other pick in this category, Hilary Putnam. I always thought Stanley Cavell should be considered, with his wide range from philosophy to literary and film criticism, but as long as Hilary Putnam is still around, a nonfiction Nobel that is not awarded to him or Eco would be upsetting, Putnam’s increasingly mystical examinations of reality and language are blindingly well written and incredibly influential, even among the many people disagreeing with him.

THREE The novelist that I most want to win the prize is Ngugi wa Thiong’o. There’s his literary skill. His early novels written in English, as well as the more allegorical Wizard of the Crow and the recent, clear-eyed and powerful memoirs, all of this is written by an excellent writer. He moves between genres, changing techniques and eventually even languages, all with impressive ease. So he’s a very good writer, but he’s also politically significant. As the literary conscience of a tumultuous Kenya, he highlights struggles, the oppressed and shines a light on how his young country deals with history and power. In the course of his literary and cultural activism he was eventually imprisoned for a while by Kenyatta’s successor. After his release he was forced into exile. Yet through all this, he continued, like Adonis, to work with and encourage cultural processes in his home country. Starting with his decision, in the late 1970s, to stop writing in English, instead using Gikuyu and translating his books into English later. He supported and helped create and sustain a native literary culture that used native languages and interrogated political processes in Kenya. A cultural, politcal and linguistic conscience of his home country, it’s hard to come up with a living writer who better fits the demands of the academy. Of the writers I root for, this one is the only one who would also fit the “obvious choice” pattern of recent decisions.

FOUR Now. I think Thomas Pynchon, together with William H. Gass and Joyce Carol Oates, is the best and most important and accomplished living American novelist. I think his work is unbelievably well written, brilliantly conceived and incredibly influential. His thinking is generous and humane, his work being engaged against epistemological and political violence. He has tackled and succeeded in writing a multitude of different kinds of books. There are very few significant contemporary writers whose work is not marked in one way or another by Pynchon. Now, at the same time, he said he wouldn’t accept the prize and I completely understand why this would keep the academy from giving him the prize. Nobody needs a Marlon Brando moment at the ceremony. That said, my pick for #4 is not Pynchon. I advocate a joint award for Pynchon and John Barth or even Pynchon, Barth and Robert Coover. It’s been a while since we had joint Nobel Prizes in Literature but it’s not unheard-of. John Barth, even more than Pynchon, is a profound and enduring influence not just on American literature post-1960, but on world literature. Young postmodern novelist, say, Austrian firebrand Clemens J. Setz, are unthinkable without Barth’s work that continued into the 1980s. While his work since then has been of much lesser impact, the academy has shown itself willing to award writers whose best work had been behind them for quite a while. The two mid-oughts awards for Lessing and Pinter are pretty clear evidence of that fact. Giving an award to Pynchon and Barth would be an overdue recognition of the excellence and importance of American early postmodernism. Well deserved.

FIVE So the fifth pick I am least sure. There are a couple of excellent/important writers who are too young to win it, among them Romanian writer Mircea Cartarescu and Russian emigré novelist Mikhail Shishkin. Juan Goytisolo appears to be worthy, but I haven’t read his work enough to have an opinion worth sharing. Similarly, due to accessibility problems, I have only read parts of the work of Gerald Murnane who is unbelievably great. But older parts of his work are out of print, and newer parts have not been published outside of Australia yet. First book, no, first page of his I read I could not believe how good he is, but, again, mostly not been able to read him. A writer I did read, Pierre Guyotat, is a much older writer I would not mind being recognized for his excellence and significance. But the recent death of Siegfried Lenz, who was more than deserving of the award, reminded me of the now best German living active novelist: Reinhard Jirgl. A disciple of Heiner Müller, Jirgl rose from being a mechanic and stage hand to winning German literature’s most prestigious award, the Büchner Preis. Jirgl’s work, originally prevented from being published in the GDR, initially was highly influenced by Müller, whose mixture of stark physicality, and strenuously literary, even stiff, language pervades Jirgl’s Genealogie des Tötens, a book that collects his earliest manuscripts that were prevented from being published in the GDR. Another influence on that book, and more, on his later work, is Arno Schmidt. In his later work, Jirgl interrogates impotence and the violence of social relationships and injustice. His language is literary and inventive, and as his work progresses, he increasingly changes and manipulates the limits of the form of the literary novel, by offering Cortázar-like shortcuts through the sequence of the novel (Abtrünnig) or by engaging with the genre of science fiction (Nichts von euch auf Erden). Quietly, he has become part of the intellectual, historical and moral conscience of Germany, a country increasingly unafraid (again) of waging war on others, and a country that is trying to exculpate itself from its awful early 20th century history. Jirgl has won almost every German prize imaginable but his powerful and gorgeously written work has not found recognition outside of Germany and France. Maybe it’s time.

Ishmael Reed: The Free-Lance Pallbearers

Reed, Ishmael (1999), The Free-Lance Pallbearers, Dalkey Archive Press
ISBN 1-56478-225-5

Called “a great writer” by none other than James Baldwin, Ishmael Reed’s reputation always had to contend with accusations of misogyny and with the barriers that a career of writing difficult-to-place novels involves. His writing, in all his books, straddled the divide between the experimental and postmodern fiction of Burroughs, Coover and Pynchon, and the strong political convictions and concerns of Ellison, Baldwin and Morrison. Between Coover and Morrison, there never was any real room for a writer like Reed, although his talent, his gift for writing is beyond any doubt. Reed is a black writer who does not cozy up to the expectations of topics or treatment of these same topics. His acidic style eats into both white and black narratives. There are various ways this works out in his work, but in his debut novel, The Free-Lance Pallbearers, published in 1967, he strikes all these chords, in a simple, almost crude way. He juxtaposes images, caricatures, quotes and screams of pain in one flame-hot bugger of a novel, which is far from flawless, but it is its numerous strengths that keep Reed’s boat afloat here.

And what a boat this is. On finishing the book, you will be both exhilarated and confused. Exhilarated because it’s a grand trip, calling up literary, cultural and political references with a surprising ease, dispatching real-life politicians and writers, as well as the debris of a whole culture in quick, tossed-off surreal snapshots of an inner-city waste land. The book sings, screams and hums with voices, music and noises, and moves from one sketched, unstable location to another. It demands your full attention, and it sets your brain in motion, constantly. This, however, especially the instability of its places and characters, leads to a good deal of confusion. There is nothing that interests Reed less than providing a realistic setting, realistic characters, living an unexamined life chartered by conventions. In his attempts to break free of these shackles, however, he has in his first novel thrown the reader into a largely unstructured sea of signs and symbols without giving him any kind of dry land to stand on.

The Free-Lance Pallbearers is the work of a jittery writer, one who burns with ideas and this book is a kind of explosion of those ideas. The plot is clearly a parody of the established plots of well-received black fiction, like Ellison’s searing Invisible Man, Wright’s Native Son or even some books by Baldwin, and it’s generous with criticism of different kinds of narratives, but it doesn’t offer a counter narrative, which has the effect of setting the reader adrift in Reeds thoughts and obsessions. At the same time, we, the reader, are not allowed to seek dry land outside of the novel, reading it dispassionately, drawing up schemes and lists, foot- and endnoting it all. If we do that, we lose much of the intended impact of the book.

It is meant to confuse the reader, it is meant to confront him with his reading habits, with his easy expectations of what a ‘black novel’ could or should be. It’s confrontational, which we see right at the beginning, in the very first paragraph which gives us an idea of the novel to come:

I live in HARRY SAM. HARRY SAM is something else. A big not-to-be-believed out-of-sight, sometimes referred to as O-BOP-SHE-BANG or KLANG-A-LANG-A-DING-DONG. SAM has not been seen since the day thirty years ago when he disappeared into the John with a weird ravaging illness.

These lines are spoken by the novel’s protagonist, Bukka Doopeyduk, who narrates the whole book until its bitter end. He lives in a country that is named after its fat white dictator Harry Sam, who refers to his own country as “ME”. Harry Sam resides on a toilet, and the state of his bowels, the consistency of his excrement, and the quality of the sewage water below him are constantly debated in the book, they are a matter of political faith, and careers, lives even, depend on the correct replies to the political catechism active in Harry Sam (the country). I never claimed that Reed’s criticism was subtle, it mostly isn’t, especially not with regard to politics. Overt recreations of political actions, debates, “SHE-GOAT-SHE-ATE-SHUNS”, are among the least subtly satirized targets, but they are also mostly a smoke-screen for the other targets and re-enactments.

Like many writers of his time, Reed seeks to locate the political in the private and expose the workings of the former by scrutinizing the structure and functions of the latter. He does not, however, try to imagine a ‘normal’ household and use the resulting images and situations as a source. Instead he staggers, no, he jumps ahead, and projects parts of everyday life onto the grotesque canvas of politics, showing one within the framework of the other, but both seen very clearly. And vice versa: what, in The Free-Lance Pallbearers, remains of regular relationships, is blown up with Reed’s satiric lens and corroded by his political thinking. It is this aspect of his work that has earned him the accusations of misogyny, because his invariably male protagonists find in relationships, especially in marriage, the mark of repression, the yoke of societal control.

The same applies to homosexuality. In The Free-Lance Pallbearers, Reed uses homosexuality as a negative trope, it denotes sleaziness, dishonesty, and, like women, is depicted as profoundly threatening to Bukka, Reed’s hapless protagonist. This kind of depiction is not an accident, it doesn’t happen, like so many other things, in passing, no, it’s the culmination of the book’s most powerful, and arguably most important scene in the whole book, Bukka’s confrontation with Harry Sam (the person) himself. This changes the speed and tone of the book, and it is this section that gives the book its shape, that determines what the book is ‘about’. That the negative depiction of (male) homosexuality is a central part of this section seems especially problematic.

However, to read Reed like this is to overlook the use he makes of Bukka, Bukka’s language, and beliefs and what these things say about Bukka’s relationship to his fellow black men, and about The Free-Lance Pallbearers‘ relationship to other novels dealing with ‘the black experience’. Reed purposefully eschews clever writing, or rather: writing that’s clever for the sake of being clever. Reed published this novel the same year that Pynchon published his Crying of Lot 49, which is a nice little tale, but considerably less well realized than all his other books. Interestingly, it’s major flaw, i.e. the bland, and obvious sequence of symbols, of allegories and tropes, is one of Reed’s main objects of ridicule, while at the same time they both make heavy use of some very similar tropes, symbols or images, for example waste, garbage, excrement.

The difference is that in Pynchon, it is a trope, one symbol in a series of them, one allusion of many, whereas Reed, as I just explained, uses it as a direct mirroring of real excrement, real shitting, one of the most private acts of them all, an act that even some married couples hide from each other. All this has an additional metaphorical layer, but it works first and foremost on a direct, almost literal level. His confrontations rely on the brute impact of his caricatures and parodies, not on an intellectual analysis of its symbolic structure. At the end of his book, no dog hangs from meat-hooks, it’s a human being, visited by his parents who demand to given their due. Bukka, as a character, is the only one who doesn’t fit all that; he’s clearly artificial, a literary ghost, a black Candide “cakewalking” through this waste land.

In Bukka, Reed has created a character that is both a reflection of the books, culture and society criticized, as well as the means to criticize them. Just as the book as a whole can be read as a send-up of the traditional black novel, the awakening of a black man to the social and political reality around him, the state he is in and the society that is the reason for this state, so Bukka Doopeyduk is Reed’s send-up of the idealized black protagonist, and of the clever, fashionable black writer at the same time. Parts Candide, parts Malcolm X (including, I think, direct quotes from the Autobiography), Bukka isn’t like Wright’s Bigger, because he is more than that, he’s Wright, so to say, himself. Bukka is the narrator of the book, but his language differs strongly from the language of everyone else in the book and he’s accordingly being made fun of. Bukka is straining to speak ‘proper’ English, full, well-turned sentences, devoid of dialects or sloppiness. He does not, of course, succeed, at least not completely; we notice this partly through a slightly deviant grammar, and partly through orthographical errors.

It is the latter that create the most direct link to the writers made fun of, since these mistakes are often silent ones, mistakes of writing, not of speaking. Bukka the writer is sometimes, fascinatingly, at variance with Bukka the protagonist. While Bukka the writer is in control of everything, since he tells it all, Bukka the protagonist is frequently silenced, even made to mouth speeches that he didn’t write and wouldn’t approve of. Bukka the writer wants to be clever but what he mainly does is suck up to the structure that is currently governed by Harry Sam. It is his distaste that we find in the depiction of homosexuality, of women, even of Bukka Doopeyduk himself. Indeed one could say that Bukka is betrayed by the narrator, in effect by himself. This is an ingenious mirroring of another kind of betrayal in the book, that of Bukka by some of his fellow black men, who have entered into “SHE-GOAT-SHE-ATE-SHUNS” with Harry Sam (the person) and give up their brother at the drop of a dime.

This is maybe Reed’s most powerful criticism, and his most well made point: how control is not just control of the body with punishment à la Surveillir et Punir, but how it’s also control of one’s own narrative, and how that isn’t a “choice” that we consciously make, but that that’s a narrative that’s written by a different writer, like us, but unlike us (to mangle a line by Wallace Stevens). Bukka is trying to order, to give shape to the life he encounters, but he, like the reader, is swept away by the waves of ideas that Reed blasts at us. There is no life except in a distanced, processed way here, but the tumble and chaos of Harry Sam (the country) could be a better attempt at conveying the exigencies, the contradictions and the cultural problems of that life. In an essay from 1970, Reed once related this joke:

I have a joke I tell friends about a young Black poet who relies upon other people’s systems, and does not use his head. He wears sideburns and has seen every French film in New York. While dining at Schrafft’s he chokes to death on nut-covered ice cream and dies. He approaches the river Styx and pleads with Charon to ferry him across: ‘I don’t care how often you’ve used me as a mythological allusion,’ Charon says. ‘You’re still a nigger – swim!’


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Thomas Pynchon: Inherent Vice

Pynchon, Thomas (2009), Inherent Vice, Jonathan Cape
ISBN 9780224089487

Ah, Inherent Vice. So. Right, why don’t I start at the beginning. Here’s what I won’t talk about so much. Inherent Vice, Pynchon’s eighth novel, is, as all his books, saturated with references. Unless I am completely mad, there are references to all his books, smaller and larger ones, but I don’t have the memory or the time to chase them all up or at least a presentable portion of them so there’ll be none of that. I do have to mention it, though, mostly because Inherent Vice, even more so than his other books, spends a great deal of time giving shout-outs to other books, writers and pop-cultural references in general. These references, and I am referring only to those of an explicit kind, get so that it becomes a kind of rhythm, a melody of its own within the book, but it’s never obtrusive or annoying. What’s most important: it’s never ‘clever’. To be honest, it felt to me as if he were mopping the floor with peers and epigones like Don Delillo and Bret Easton Ellis, who have perfected the enumeration, the cataloging, even, of American consumerism, into an art form, a sub-genre of its own, even. Unless my memory plays tricks on me, this is the first time that Pynchon goes all out on us in that way as far as explicit references are concerned, and he does it in a way that is so light-handed yet precise, that he puts whole shelves of other writers to shame.

Actually, this is true about many aspects of Inherent Vice. The language in general is light and accessible, so that I have heard many people who could not finish Gravity’s Rainbow, declare their joy and relief at finding the master’s new novel ‘readable’. However, appearances may deceive. I took quite some time reading the book the first time around, for two reasons, both language related. The first is that Pynchon, especially in the first third, employs a subtly rhythmical language, the sounds of words slap into each other, merge, a phrase at the end of one page may echo another at the beginning of the same page, alliterations abound. A few times, after reading half a page I noticed that I hadn’t actually read it, in the sense of understanding it. I just followed the sounds in leaps and bounds. That took a while adjusting to. Overall, the point of this use of language is, I think, that Pynchon deliberately used that light register and I mean, he used it, as a tool if that makes sense.

Typically, light language is used to ferry the reader from plot point to plot point, without taxing him overmuch. Many of these writers could have made a movie for all they care about the actual language employed. What I think I noticed in Inherent Vice is the fact that Pynchon is aware of the register of the language he uses and that he doesn’t use light language to get somewhere in terms of plot, but he uses light language in order to use light language. I’m not sure that all the playfulness is intentional, I think it’s a side effect of the attention that Pynchon lavishes upon his language. There are few other living writers who are so invested in language without stiffening up the text. Because this is the most beautiful thing about this: it IS a light read, not just a “light read”. People resistant to his pyrotechnics do enjoy the book. It takes a master like Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Jr. to do both of these things at the same time.

The other element is also important for Pynchon in general and quite dominant in his latest novel, as well. It’s his, well, let’s call a spade a spade and Pynchon an obsessional writer. He’s obsessed with names, and I’m not just about people’s names or place names either. It would be easy and superfluous to recount all the inanely funny puns that Pynchon has turned into names for his characters, most famously, probably, Crying of Lot 49‘s Oedipa Maas. As I said, this book is full of them, as well. But it doesn’t stop there. It didn’t in his past books and it sure as hell doesn’t here. Pynchon textualizes his landscapes, by turning every word that could carry references to the real world into a name with a symbol system attached to it. Places etc. are far more important in the way that they can be dismembered and made sense of within the textual logic of the book at hand or, indeed, the broader oeuvre. Yes, like much of this review, this is banal, because if you’ve ever read Pynchon, this will be bloody obvious to you, but I found that quite a few people started to do stupid maps blending the California novels and certain known places of residence of Pynchon himself, which, uh, but let’s not go there.

Let’s just return to the business of names and naming. Instead of compiling a list which could go on for at least a paragraph or two, I’ll close this paragraph of mine by mentioning one of the most insistent instances of Pynchon’s use of names. It’s “The Golden Fang”, which, to not spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the novel, is basically some shadowy organization. You’ll see. The point is that this name crops up every so often, with all sorts of things changed. The signifier changes, by having that name in translation or in paraphrase, and the signified as well, as the organization keeps appearing differently depending on context and plot position; we will also encounter actual fangs or fang-like objects, and, in one of the book’s best moments, Pynchon actually anatomizes not the ‘fang’ part of the term but the golden by discussing different alloys and the copper contingent in it (which, to turn this process of morphing the term partly around, is a pun again, of course, since cops and mobsters are not necessarily antagonists in the society depicted in the book.

Since I’ve now hinted at the plot, I might as well talk some more about it, to the extent that that’s possible without spoiling it for those who haven’t read the book yet. It’s basically a noir novel with a hippie sleuth as protagonist. As is customary in that genre, as far as I know, he uses a third person personal narrator. The private eye in question is Doc Sportello, and one day an ex-girlfriend of his, Shasta, comes to visit him, telling him about a criminal plan in which she is enmeshed. She wants out but instead she disappears and a very rich, famous and important man, her lover, disappears with her. Sportello has a few run-ins with the police, suffers from loss of consciousness and loss of memory, meets beautiful ladies and grim fellas as he stumbles on along the wondrous yellow brick road of a very typical noir plot. There are important and salient ways in which Pynchon departs from the genre but the book is remarkable in that it does follow genre conventions rather closely, more so than in any other Pynchon novel that I can remember. The plot and hapless Sportello within it, gives off a distinct Chandlerian smell, it’s enough to send one back to the source.

But to that smell, the sweet smell of dope attaches itself very early on. Sportello is a hippie. The book may be a noir but for the most part, it’s suffused by the light and the sun in southern California, and by no stretch of the imagination can the novel be called “hard-boiled”. There’s not much that’s hard about Sportello, although he isn’t stupid or easy prey. He does carry a weapon and in crucial situations is even known to hide one in his shoe, unobtrusively. I called him hapless, but that’s just because the typical noir plot tosses its detective around like a storm a small boat. Actually, and surprisingly, Sportello, as the book repeatedly reveals, is smart and a very capable detective. The softness of him is more a kind of hippie mentality. He is trustful and a gentle soul overall. When he finds out something about the company that the major police officer assigned to the case is keeping, Bigfoot Bjornsen (“named for his entry method of choice”) he isn’t jaded, or cynical. He is personally offended and angry. When people do things that he considers morally wrong, he becomes angry. His deliberations, resulting from that kind of thinking, can sometimes seem a tad childish (and Sportello constantly has to refrain from making quips and jokes. He’s a trickster by nature. Just the honest kind.) but they aren’t.

Doc Sportello is a wonderful creation, he is the book or rather: he’s its warm, beating heart. This book could have been a cold, annoyingly clever mess, brainy but emotionally empty, but Sportello is the reason why that isn’t the case. Sportello is committed. Things are important to him, it’s why he’s such a good sleuth. Everything. Start with drugs: in Sportello’s world, drugs can enhance your mind, and disable you at the same time, which may sound banal, but consider: Sportello does not take drugs as a novelty act, his attitude towards drugs reflects the importance of drugs to many people in his time, the great potential of taking something that would open your mind to new possibilities, grander vistas. Again, banal, maybe, but it’s important to this book and to Pynchon and to Doc Sportello. I am not saying that Pynchon isn’t having a huge amount of fun at Sportello’s expense, he certainly is, but it’s not malicious and it’s fun that Sportello would have appreciated. And this fun saves many parts of the book from a dour earnestness that looms over sections where Sportello ponders how similar he’s become to a policeman. It looms but it never breaks out. Pynchon’s mastery and his use of the light register keep everything smooth and humorous. He’s not necessarily ‘zany’, it’s a much more controlled and versed brand of humor.

Another element of the genre that Inherent Vice belongs to is its treatment of women. As has been pointed out ad nauseam, the hard-boiled novel is focused on masculinities, affording women usually second-rate treatment, structurally even undercutting strong depictions of women. It’s a broad field of study, and any quick perusal of the MLA will point you to a few texts that may satisfy your appetite for information. Anyway. What Pynchon does is very interesting. I think he is intent upon reproducing the feminity as it would appear in any book of that genre. Its women are one of the very central aspects of the hard-boiled novel and Pynchon’s dedication to genre this time around means he can’t do anything about it at this point. However, in his usual fashion, he proceeds and attaches a multitude of mirrors to the walls of the novel, so that the problematic women of noir novels, while not usually explicitly vindicated, are vindicated through all sorts of little devices. One of the most blatant ones is, of course, a series of ties. These ties have been painted for a very rich man and each tie bears the likeness of one of the man’s many ex-lovers. Not their faces, mind you, but their whole bodies, in all their naked glory. What’s more, they are usually depicted in sexual poses, submissive more often than not. This whole tie business is a powerful trope for different kinds of power issues in the book and one could tie a whole, coherent reading of the whole novel around those ties and their connections within the novel.

Yet another central concern of Inherent Vice are oppositions, north and south, for example. In an aside, we learn of a migration of hippies north to where Pynchon’s 1990 novel Vineland is set, with people like Larry Sportello basically left behind in South California. This particular opposition is, for example, mirrored in one of the most powerful sections, as far as landscape and imagery is concerned: pursuing a lead, Sportello gets on the road to Vegas, where we learn that there’s a prosperous south, the part of Las Vegas where the “Strip” is found, and a more dilapidated north, which has not achieved a comparable popular success. The decay in a casino in north Vegas seems like straight from a movie, with lonely singers performing to no audience; that scene also has a dreamlike, a wistful quality, of a failed vision, squandered energies, a disappearing era. Building projects of the failed variety abound as well in Inherent Vice, repeatedly reinforcing another opposition, that of success and failure. As has been pointed out, the detective in the hard boiled novel shares qualities with that other grand cultural archetype, the cowboy. Frontiers, successes, masculinities, there are countless issues all bound up in this and this is not the place to anatomize them.

I have mentioned a few issues in this review and I assure you that these are but a fraction of what’s going on in Pynchon’s grand new novel, which alludes to heavy linguistic topics like Korzybski (the ‘inherent vices’ of language, so to say), and others like Schrödinger’s Cat. But most of all, it’s a quick, fun read that bears the traces of a lifetime’s experience and development as a writer. Any allegation of repetition severely misses the point. Pynchon has honed his skills to a fine point, he frequently falls back on past books, but every word in this book reveals the mastery that Pynchon has, by now attained. Elements are used in different contexts, are serenaded by a different music. There will be those who apply an autobiographical reading to the book, which I would resist. The book has its hooks firmly in the web that has been created by his past books. And, of course, in other books and texts, movies, songs. Pynchon is greedy, an omnivore, that has always been true for his work and it’s true for this one. And we the readers profit from this. We ride shotgun on his tours through America, and if there’s a similarity in his books, that’s to be expected. As I mentioned, he’s an obsessional writer, who has tried out different tools to get at the sweet nut in the shell that American pelts him with. And yes, he uses similar tools as well. But he works on his tools and develops them further just as he works on the cultural representation of America. He is a great writer, committed to his vision and to his writing. Inherent Vice is an amazing book.


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Book of the Year

Since I have not mentioned it here before, and most of my regular readers will know about it anyway, I will only mention it in passing: the book I am most looking forward this year is Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. To prepare, I will reread all Pynchon novels (except for Crying of Lot 49, which I don’t really like) and you will have to suffer the consequences (i.e. the reviews). Here’s the blurb for Inherent Vice, which appears, as the last one, to have been written by the master himself.

It’s been awhile since Doc Sportello has seen his ex-girlfriend. Suddenly out of nowhere she shows up with a story about a plot to kidnap a billionaire land developer whom she just happens to be in love with. Easy for her to say. It’s the tail end of the psychedelic sixties in L.A., and Doc knows that “love” is another of those words going around at the moment, like “trip” or “groovy,” except that this one usually leads to trouble. Despite which he soon finds himself drawn into a bizarre tangle of motives and passions whose cast of characters includes surfers, hustlers, dopers and rockers, a murderous loan shark, a tenor sax player working undercover, an ex-con with a swastika tattoo and a fondness for Ethel Merman, and a mysterious entity known as the Golden Fang, which may only be a tax dodge set up by some dentists. In this lively yarn, Thomas Pynchon, working in an unaccustomed genre, provides a classic illustration of the principle that if you can remember the sixties, you weren’t there . . . or . . . if you were there, then you . . . or, wait, is it . . . Part noir, part psychedelic romp, all Thomas Pynchon—private eye Doc Sportello comes, occasionally, out of a marijuana haze to watch the end of an era as free love slips away and paranoia creeps in with the L.A. fog…