V. by Thomas Pynchon, 1963. Glossy's score: 1 out of 10.
This is one of the worst books I've ever finished reading - plot-wise, stylistically and in every other sense.
Its sentences aren't structured in a conventional way, but instead of leading you in surprising, interesting directions they make you trip, fall and bump into corners on an excruciating journey to boring and banal conclusions. It's like listening to a dim stutterer or driving over potholes to a party that gets cancelled.
A lot of time is spent on describing the characters' motivations. None are realistic or amusing. Many of the inner voices blur together. Like all boring, small-minded men, Pynchon is into the occult. By analogy with numerology I'll call his obsession with the letter V alphabetology. It's relentless. His attempts at creating a sense of mystery are utterly inept. By the way, for anyone who's curious and masochistic, the worst passages are located at the end of chapter 9.
There is a lot of obscure, archaic, technical and foreign vocabulary in this novel. It was all obviously copied from reference books in a naive attempt to convince readers that the author was smart. The use of math and science for this purpose made me feel especially sorry for those disciplines. None of these terms help to advance the plot or make any line funnier or any point clearer.
Pedophilia is many times more common on these pages than it was in any of the settings or periods described. Pynchon's prose annoyed me to such an extent and at such length that I was in no mood to write that off as an artsy affectation. He exhausted my entire stock of generosity in regards to his personal character by p. 100, and there were about 450 more to go.
The implied politics are of the most conformist sort imaginable for the author's time and place - Black jazzmen are cool and Western imperialists are bad. Pynchon flaunts being unconstrained by conventional morality, the need to make sense, realism, the desire to please readers or be understood by them, but the one sacred thing he won't transgress is liberal politics.
As someone who's lived most of his life in New York I was curious about Pynchon's descriptions of it in 1956. He has a bus driver listening to Tchaikovsky on the radio - utterly unthinkable now. The parents of one of the main characters never lock the doors of their apartment on Houston St. - even more shocking. The city was in decline then, which Pynchon implicitly acknowledged in scenes featuring Puerto Ricans, but in some senses this was a decline from higher heights than the ones to which it has since come back.
At one point he claims that the look and feel of the subway during rush hour is much worse than at other times of the day. "Vertical corpses, eyes with no life". This could never have been true. When I started commuting to work many years ago I noticed how much smarter, more alert, more civil, better looking and better dressed rush hour public was compared to the people who ride the subway at other times. I still feel that way.
The least bad portions of the book describe raucous, alcohol-soaked life in the US Navy, where Pynchon once served. The worse the writer, the more sense there is in the "write what you know" advice. A true pro can make aliens, foreigners or even people of the opposite gender sound interesting. A hack can only ever be good at autobiography.
Kingsley Amis used to say that Americans are best at popular culture and terrible at the prestige sort. One of the best prose stylists I know of is Brendon, the guy who used to write about celebrities for the WWTDD site. A brilliant man doing stunningly original things in a commercial medium while pretending to be an ignorant fool - that's very American. It makes me think of the War Nerd, Dave Barry, the actor Jim Carrey (Anglo Canadians are the same way) and many others.
But there's a flip side to this. When they do try to be pretentious, when they write Literature or make art films, or compose art music, it's crap. Which it not always is in Europe, not even now. Why?
I'm guessing it's because there was never any real upper class in America. Fewer people to make you feel socially insecure, less shame in being an ordinary guy. For this or whatever other reason, the best artistic talent in the US goes into commercial work - funny movies, genre literature, standup comedy, etc. Prestige work gets dregs like the author of this book.