If rating books, ranking writers, and giving awards for literature is laughable—and it is—then the biggest joke of all has got to be the Nobel Prize for Literature. Now and then, rumors float out from Stockholm, like puffs of Papal smoke, purporting to give an insight into the Swedes’ mysterious thought processes. Recently, it was suggested that the Nobel committee dare not award Thomas Pynchon the ‘big prize’, as they’re terrified he’ll turn them down (as he did the Howells Medal in 1975).
Of course, this is to simultaneously miss and reinforce the point: the Nobel committee, as an institution, needs Pynchon much more than he, as an author, needs them. In years to come, the fact that Pynchon never won the Nobel will ultimately reflect far more negatively on them than on Pynchon himself.
But if we set aside, for a moment, any misgivings we may have about the absurdities inherent in applying comparative terms such as ‘better’ or ‘best’ to books, then Against the Day, Pynchon’s freewheeling, coruscating, triumphantly life-affirming epic, was far and away the best book to be published in 2006, and its paperback publication last year also made it the best book of 2007. Time Out magazine wrote of Gravity’s Rainbow in 1973, “Pynchon leaves the rest of the American literary establishment at the starting gate”, and in the intervening years he has come back around the course to pass them again. This book is really a lap of honor.
Jazz critic Al Collins once said that being asked to “say a few words” about recently deceased be-bop genius Charlie Parker was like being “pushed off a cliff and being requested to stop falling half way down”. So it is with any attempt at describing a Pynchon novel. Everything you find room to say displaces something else, and any bald statement is incomplete without a phalanx of caveats, provisos, and footnotes. Theme and motif have always been at the heart of Pynchon’s fictions, and a huge part of his art resides in its interconnectedness—a “stringing of rings and chains in nets only God can tell the meshes of”—meaning that the nature of what you are trying to describe prohibits linear description.
So it would be both foolish and pointless to try going into a detailed plot summary but, in the broadest possible terms, the narrative alternates between two main strands. One follows a Shakespearean tragedy of betrayal and revenge, set in an old American West that’s fading fast, while the other, much more unruly, sprawls and straggles across half of Europe, picking up tributaries of picaresque plotline and adding constantly to a bulging cast of idiosyncratic characters as it passes through London, Paris, Gottingen, Venice, Vienna, Ostend, Sarajevo ... and on into the inscrutable East. Meanwhile, in the background, the Century turns, the First World War rumbles by, and the early days of Hollywood’s ‘shadow factory’ flicker into view.
There are plenty of Pynchon’s usual postmodernist shenanigans; but enjoyable though these are, they should not be allowed to obscure the simple fact that Pynchon is the finest prose stylist alive, and one who is—contrary to the standard critical view—more than capable of handling emotion. Consider the following passage, describing a father and daughter roaming the American heartland, the girl’s mother having run off with another man, seemingly on a whim:
Planted rows went turning past like giant spokes one by one as they ranged the roads. The skies were interrupted by dark gray storm clouds with a flow like molten stone, swept and liquid, and light that found its way through them was lost in the dark fields but gathered shining along the pale road, so that sometimes all you could see was the road, and the horizon it ran to. Sometimes she was overwhelmed by the green life passing in such high turbulence, too much to see, all clamoring to have its way. Leaves sawtooth, spade-shaped, long and thin, blunt-fingered, snowy and veined, oiled and dusty with the day—flowers in bells and clusters, purple and white or yellow as butter, star-shaped ferns in the wet and dark places, millions of green veilings before the bridal secrets in the moss and under the deadfalls, went on by the wheels creaking and struck by rocks in the ruts, sparks visible only in what shadow it might pass over, a busy development of small trailside shapes tumbling in what had to be deliberately arranged precision, herbs the wild-crafters knew the names and market prices of and which the silent women up in the foothills, counterparts whom they most often never got even to meet, knew the magic uses for. They lived for different futures, but they were each other’s unrecognised halves, and what fascination between then did come to pass was lit up, beyond question, with grace.
It’s a great example of the way Pynchon can compress an immensity of character and emotion into a very short space. One essential element in his ability to do this is the sheer virtuosity and beauty of his prose, its poetry and jazz rhythms, which he uses to build up a sense of artistic wonderment which he then discharges with that little laconic snap of emotion at the end. It says so much more about the relationship between a father and daughter, who’ve both been abandoned by the same woman, than if he went on and on about the pair’s emotional connections for page after page.
Pynchon’s unfathomably deep sense of humanity also fuels his left-leaning political views, which have been on display throughout all of his work, in particular his championing of the underdog, contempt for authority and revulsion at the horrors visited upon the rest of us by our political masters, what Pynchon has called “the succession of the criminally insane who have enjoyed power since 1945”. And Pynchon makes his anger at the current occupants of the White House crystal clear in Against the Day, blasting ‘Christer Republicans’ and lampooning their Orwellian language:
‘Freedom’, then’s the time to watch your back in particular—start telling you how free you are, something’s up, next thing you know the gates have slammed shut and there’s the Captain givin you them looks. ‘Reform’? More new snouts at the trough. ‘Compasssion’ means the population of starving, homeless, and dead is about to take another jump. So forth. Why, you could write a whole foreign phrase book just on what Republicans have to say.
This is a book which should be required reading for anyone who loves words, who values literature. Yes, it is uneven, perplexing, and occasionally even frustrating. But it’s crammed with bravura literary feats, wrestles big themes whilst exhibiting a wry sense of humor, and Pynchon creates a world as fully imagined, as persuasive and immersive and compelling, as anything by Dickens or Tolstoy.
What really sets Pynchon apart from other contenders for the title of Greatest Post-War American Author is that while you might think of another author’s book as being an astonishingly good piece of writing, deserving of all praise, a Pynchon book has something extra, something so richly strange that you come to regard each one as a unique, life-enhancing artifact. And the sense we get of Pynchon the man, as refracted through his work, provokes in us that elusive sensation known as “elective affinity”: you admire the work of a Roth or a Bellow, but you feel you really like Pynchon the person.
We have to hope that this is not Pynchon’s last book. But if it is his last work, then what a beautiful, bittersweet, wise, warm-hearted and generously good-natured way to bow out—something to be cherished forever, whose sheer artistry towers over our increasingly barren cultural landscape, beaming beneficently down. Pynchon doesn’t need literary prizes. As his friend Bob Dylan once put it, the need to compete or prove himself faded away long ago: “I’d already gone the distance, just thinking of a Series of Dreams”.