Tuesday, November 25, 2008

"From Hell's heart I stab at thee......"

I told Alan Cheuse, and now I'm telling you. Thomas Pynchon's lit'ry destiny is to become the Herman Melville of the 20th century. Melville was never a best seller, though he attracted attention with his "wicked book", Moby Dick. His publisher did not sell all 3,000 copies of the first printing. All of his work was out of print by 1876; Melville died in 1891.

Biographies of this obscure author began to appear in the 1920's. The "Melville Revival" was on. Even Lewis Mumford, an American historian of technology, penned a decent bio. Moby Dick contains a great deal of technical detail on whales, the hunting of them, and all aspects of whaler life, so I can see Mumford's attraction. I enjoy them as well.

This level of detail makesMoby Dick an 'encyclopedic' novel, just like Gravity's Rainbow, The Recognitions, Cryptonomicon (A 3-page essay on the proper way to eat Cap'n Crunch cereal,gotta love it!), and Soul Mountain. This style of novel is tricky to pull off, as too many tangents will lose the novel's forward motion. The success(or not)of the novel depends on the reader; if they throw it against the wall at p.26, it may be deemed a failure. Encyclopedic novels generally are not experimental; they just have a great deal of interesting (or not) information in them.

I have recently seen T Pynchon's latest novel, Against the Day, on the bargain/remainder pile at the local big box bookstore. It is the start of Pynchon's fade. Don't worry: his rep will enjoy a resurgence in the 2020's. You heard it here first.


Barrett Bonden said...

Good metaphor, that about tangents flying off and endangering forward progress. Never had any problems with Moby Dick but Gravity's Rainbow required very close attention and with V I made the fatal mistake of breaking off for a week round about page 150 and had to re-start. Preferred the former to the latter because it had wider scope and because the cast list was more interesting. Pynchon belongs to a list of authors (Proust, Joyce) which I never recommend but would provide a reaction if asked. Somehow, possibly through osmosis, from a quick reference here and a citation there, you embark on such books knowing they will be difficult and you accept that. They deserve a special category title: say, anti-airport novels.

Relucent Reader said...

Thank you for the comments, sorry for the delay getting back to you, have been away for Thanksgiving.
"Wider scope", certainly.
I enjoy difficult books, esp. at this stage of my life.I daren't tackle Thomas Wolfe again. I feel one can only read him at the age of 19, all that surging and seething. I like the category, "anti-airport novels", I will use it if I may. I remember reading an interview w/Ian Fleming about his Bond thrillers. He meant them to be throw away 'airport' novels. He wrote some corker opening lines too: remember the first line of Casino Royale? To paraphrase, as I do not have a copy at hand: "There is nothing like the stink of a casino at 4:00 a.m.". First editions of Casino Royale were going for $30,000- $60,000 a couple years ago. Some throw aways, eh?