Sunday, January 10, 2016

Review of T. Pynchon's V.

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 endless 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 shockingly inept. 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 a random bit of weirdness. He exhausted my entire stock of generosity towards 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 and the desire to please readers, 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 his Puerto Rican characters, 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 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 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 reasons 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.


  1. Replies
    1. I've only read this one. Can't imagine ever wanting to read any more of him.

    2. what if i told you roman polanski is thomas pynchon!? and he is the son of genrikh yagoda mass murderer of millions who was also writing about his crimes inder the name B. Traven i recognized their faces are the is very hard to get through pynchon much like polanski movies its very abusive especially to women girls...

  2. Laughably ignorant "review" - reads like a 10th grade paper by a C student. As per the math and science, you obviously aren't aware that Pynchon had a degree in engineering and worked at Boeing while writing V. The only thing this "review" succeeds in revealing is how poor your reading comprehension is, how little you know about your subject, and how behind the times you are in literature (it's 2015 and you still don't know what postmodernism is). That's kind of pathetic. You shouldn't be writing reviews - you should just read and shut up until you know what you're talking about.

    1. Postmodernism is just another word for crap.

      Most of the scientific and mathematical vocabulary that Pynchon uses does not advance the plot in any way. Neither does it make any line funnier or more moving nor any insight clearer. Its only possible purpose is to tell us that the author is smart and knowledgeable. Same thing with a lot of other obscure vocabulary that he uses.

      In literature you prove your smarts by entertaining smart people, not by filling your work with obscure words that you've just found in a dictionary.

      The Wikipedia says that you're wrong about Pynchon having a degree in engineering. He began studying engineering physics, but then abandoned it and got a degree in English instead. I've known a lot of people who switched majors from hard to soft subjects after they found out how hard hard subjects really are. It's a very common story.

    2. Wonderful - another sciolist who decries an entire genre as crap rather than judging works or artists by their individual merits. I know exactly where you're coming from - it's a very small hole. Enjoy your stay there and good luck.

    3. I have judged Pynchon's sorry work and listed some of its specific demerits in my review. Some things contradict our preexisting opinions and others confirm them. This was a case of the latter. This travesty confirmed my preexisting opinion of postmodernism as crap.

    4. I tried reading his gravity book and it was stupid and annoying why cant he just write normally

  3. Pynchon is sort of infamous for his postmodernist obscurity. You should have read his most recent novel, "Bleeding Edge", instead. It came out a couple years ago and is much less obscure and more like a regular novel and more accessible:

    It's set in New York City in the wake of 9/11, and revolves around the 9/11 attacks, the internet and blogs, and 9/11 Truther conspiracy theories, all of which should be familiar to you being in New York and being a regular at the Unz Review, which seems to indulge in some conspiracy theorizing and attracts some Truther types and other conspiracy theorists.

    1. Thank you for the recommendation. I may try Bleeding Edge.

      I described my experiences on 9/11 on this blog, by the way.

  4. Have you read any Paul Auster? He's a well known novelist and cousin of the late Lawrence Auster, the conservative blogger. He frequently writes about New York.

  5. "A true pro can make aliens, foreigners or even people of the opposite gender sound interesting." Heh. Tolstoy was very good at the latter; his 1st-person narrative in Family Happiness gave me the impression he conveyed the feminine mind better than most women authors. Of course, Anna Karenina and Natasha Rostova were excellent character-portraits too. Chekhov's "The Name-Day Party" is another example.
    Dostoevsky and Turgenev were pretty hopeless at describing realistic women - virtually all their creations are identical, though Turgenev did have one deliciously cutting portrait of a 'liberated woman' in Fathers and Sons. Try and write more often.
    - Yevardian