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.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Time Pieces

A couple of weeks ago I bought my first mechanical watch, a Sinn 556I. I wore cheap electronic watches in my teens and twenties and started going watchless after I got my first cell phone.

Why would one pay $1,000 for something like this? It's pretty. My mood improves when I look at beautiful things. The hour and minute markers, the hands, the Sinn logo and the leather strap are especially elegant.

The movement is Swiss, but the rest of the watch was made in Germany. It's heavier than you'd think from the pictures and very solidly-built - I love seeing stereotypes confirmed. Here's a video review.

The classiest-looking watch I know of that's cheaper than that is the Orient Bambino. It costs about $150.

The best-looking watches are completely out of my reach though. Here are some pictures of the Patek Philippe 5970:

It costs more than $140,000. Next is the A. Lange & Söhne Datograph for about $100,000:

Here's Vacheron Constantine's Malte Chronograph:

I know what you're thinking: get a fake. A few days ago I made the 10-minute trip from my job in downtown Manhattan to Canal Street, the Western hemisphere's epicenter of fake stuff. The Patek Philippes they sell are beyond terrible. If that was my budget, I would have done better with the Orient Bambino above.    

Here's a cool interview with a Swiss watch industry executive. The decor of his house is mind-boggling. Forget the Van Goghs, look at the chairs, the chandelier, the china in the cupboard. 

Back to reality, I also bought a new alarm clock last year. I got tired of my old electronic one and scoured the internet for a better-looking replacement. Everything looked terrible until I searched E-bay for vintage clocks. This is what I ended up buying:

It was made by a German company called Junghans in the 1950s and cost me $250. It's not as accurate as a smart phone and I have to wind it daily, but screw convenience. It's a beautiful thing. They literally don't make any better-looking alarms anymore. Most likely never will. And the old ones are breaking down all the time. Here are some pics of the Junghans clocks I passed on: