london

THE SECRET AGENT BY JOSEPH CONRAD

In the aftermath of a tragedy people often look towards artists, towards novelists, musicians and poets also, for comfort, the kind of comfort one finds when someone is able to capture an event, or feelings, that you yourself find incomprehensible or unfathomable or inexpressible. For example, after 9/11 there was a rush to proclaim certain kinds of art as speaking for the time[s], and it was then that Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent received a lot of attention, it being a novel concerned with a plot to blow up a well-known building. Subsequent to the attacks on the Twin Towers, this book has now come to be known as The Great Terrorism Novel, and is seen as a kind of prophetic/prescient work. Yet, there is something about the The Secret Agent, something about the particular brand of terrorism that it deals with, that people often choose to ignore or simply misunderstand; or perhaps, if one was being especially cynical, which I almost always am, one might wonder if a lot of the journalists who put the book forward have actually read it.

Adolf [yes, Adolf] Verloc has two jobs. One is to run a seedy shop in London with his wife and her simple-minded brother, and the other is as the secret agent of the title. However, Verloc is no James Bond; he is an observer, and informer; that is, until one day he is told, by the shady Mr. Vladimir, who is some kind of foreign ambassador, that observation is not enough. He must, says Vladimir, prove to be indispensable if he wants to remain on the payroll. This being indispensable involves blowing up Greenwich Observatory, the aim of which is to stir England into decisive, even extreme, action against criminal/revolutionary/terrorist elements or organisations. It is Vladimir’s idea that in order to do this one must get the attention of, to wake up so to speak, the middle classes.

‘The imbecile bourgeoisie of this country make themselves the accomplices of the very people whose aim is to drive them out of their houses to starve in ditches. And they have the political power still, if they only had the sense to use it for their preservation. I suppose you agree the middle-classes are stupid?’

Mr. Verloc agreed hoarsely.

‘They are’

‘They have no imagination. They are blinded by an idiotic vanity. What they want just now is a jolly good scare.’

This is blistering stuff. The terrorists are not crazy Arabs hellbent on destroying democracy and taking over the world, as some commentators would have you believe was the case with 9/11, this is violence and terrorism used against an ignorant or complaisant people in order to enrage them, in order to manipulate them into doing what you want them to do. So, far from providing balm for the masses, The Secret Agent is actually more likely to fuel conspiracy theories; its take on the political world is, in fact, far closer to the popular conspiracy theory that the World Trade Centre attacks were an inside job, that they were brought down in order to give the US government a reason to wage war in the Middle East.

‘You give yourself for an “agent provocateur.” The proper business of an “agent provocateur” is to provoke.’

One of the first things you will notice about The Secret Agent is that although the novel is purported to be set in London, there is not a great deal that is recognisably English about it. All of the revolutionaries, for example, have continental-sounding names – Ossipon, Verloc, Michaelis, etc – despite it being the case that they are meant to be British citizens. Furthermore, Conrad’s capital city is a particularly gloomy place; even taking into account that London may have been dirty and so on, there is something almost phantasmagorical, but certainly very odd, about the way the Pole presents it. In Bleak House Dickens writes about the fog and such, but Conrad’s London appears to be permanently in darkness, with a palpable threat of violence or madness always in the air; Indeed, the sense of madness or mental strain that pervades the work is reminiscent of Dostoevsky [although Conrad was, apparently, not a fan].

A blank wall. Perfectly blank. A blankness to run at and dash your head against.

For a novel so obviously, relentlessly, political and satirical it would be easy to see the characters as mere symbols, or representations, or one-dimensional puppets. Yet there is also a strong human aspect to the work. First of all, there is the conflict resulting from the task given to Verloc, by which I mean that of the observer who is forced to be an active participant. It takes a special kind of person to do this sort of thing, to bomb a building; most people are capable of standing by and letting it occur, but it’s a different thing, takes a different kind of personality, altogether to be the one holding the explosive, to detonate it. As one would imagine, if you force someone to act who is more suited to observing the consequences are likely to be disastrous.

Secondly, there is the relationship between the simple-minded Stevie and the Verlocs. Stevie does have a representative or symbolic function in the novel: he is innocence and confusion and, one could also say, chaos [at least mentally/emotionally]; he is, in a sense, both the moral conscience of the novel and a human mirror of the emotional state of Mr. Verloc himself [as well as perhaps all revolutionaries]. Yet he also provides the most tender moments in the book, such as his sympathy for the whipped horse and the poor driver of the horse, and all of the tragedy. Stevie is a tragic figure because he is a wholly trusting and loving brother and brother-in-law. Mrs. Verloc sacrifices herself in order to provide a safe and comfortable home for him, while Mr. Verloc ultimately takes advantage of him in an apparently mindless, yet cruel manner.

I hope that so far I have gone some way to summing up some of the book’s strengths and points of interest, yet it would be remiss of me not to mention that many readers raise serious objections. Of these objections most are related to Conrad’s style. On this, there is no doubt that The Secret Agent is at times a mess of adverbs and repetition; no character does or says anything in the book that isn’t, in some way, over or unnecessarily described and repeated. For example, Verloc is said to ‘mumble’ or speak ‘huskily’ with such frequency that it is liable to cause mirth or extreme irritation in the reader. Indeed, if you were to be brutally honest, this over-reliance on certain words, and excessive number of adverbs, is the kind of thing you would expect from the most amateur of YA authors, not one of the most renowned novelists of the 20th century.

So, does this mean that Conrad was a bad writer? Or that The Secret Agent is a badly written book? That is certainly one way to look at it. One might say that as Conrad was a Pole writing in English it is understandable that his vocabulary would be limited and his sentences idiosyncratic. Yet I don’t quite agree with this. All of his novels are dense and difficult but, unless my memory is faulty, this is the only one written in this particular way. Furthermore, some of the repetition, for example ‘Ossipon, nicknamed Doctor’, occurs on subsequent pages in the text, and, for me, it is absurd to think Conrad wouldn’t have noticed. This suggests that these flaws were perhaps intentional, that it was a style choice. However, one is then, of course, faced with coming up with some way of justifying that style choice.

The Secret Agent features intellectually dull men, incompetent revolutionaries with radical ideas or, in Verloc’s case, an incompetent secret agent. As with Stevie, Conrad’s banal yet convoluted style in a way mirrors the mental, intellectual state of these characters. Furthermore, as previously noted, the novel’s atmosphere is that of confusion and anxiety and potential violence. The repetition, the overall strange writing style, to some extent, makes the reader feel how the characters themselves feel; it is, whether one likes it or not, disorientating, and that does not strike me as a coincidence. Indeed, it is worth noting that the novels that The Secret Agent most closely resembles, to my mind, are The Foundation Pit by Andrei Platonov and Petersberg By Andrei Bely, both of which are also written in a bizarre style that some readers have wanted to proclaim as bad writing [or translation].

While many argue that The Secret Agent’s style is unsophisticated the same could not be said of the structure. In the early part of the novel each new chapter deals with a different character, often introducing a previously unknown one. Rather than follow Verloc as he carries out his assigned task, the narrative moves around, shifts perspective; and during each of these shifts characters will discuss both past and present events, thereby only gradually revealing what is going on. For example, one finds out during an early chapter featuring Ossipon and the Professor that someone has blown themselves up, and that it is assumed that it is Verloc. But you never see the event itself, and you don’t find out what actually happened until much later. There is, therefore, no linear timeline of events; much like a detective, you have to piece together the timeline yourself, and this is particularly satisfying.

However, towards the end of the novel the focus narrows, and in the last 50 or so pages Mrs. Verloc comes to the fore. There is a long passage between her and her husband that is difficult to discuss without spoilers, but it is a truly brilliant piece of writing. Conrad manages to show grief and shock in a way that is more accurate and moving than I thought possible in a novel. For me, it is worth reading The Secret Agent for this long passage alone. Yet, that is not necessary, one need not only read Conrad’s work for this passage, because it gives you so much more: farce, tragedy, murder, satire, mystery, and so on. It may not be The Great Terrorism Novel, it may not comfort the masses the next time a bomb explodes, scattering far and wide the flesh of hundreds or thousands of destroyed bodies, but it is a fucking great book.

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HANGOVER SQUARE BY PATRICK HAMILTON

The homies used to tell me that she wasn’t no good
But I’m the maniac in black, Mr. Snoop Eastwood
So I figure niggaz wouldn’t trip with mine
Guess what? Got gaffled by one time

[Bitches Aint Shit by Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg]

The above proves that it can happen to the best [or worst, depending on your point of view] of us. We’ve all been there: infatuated with someone who is clearly rotten to the core. Indeed, a friend of mine is currently embroiled in just such a situation, the poor sod. The lady in question is clearly not interested in my buddy; she ignores him most of the time, takes his money, has him chauffeuring her [and her family!!] around. And what is his response to this obviously unpleasant behaviour? He has just bought a flash car in order to try and impress her. Oh yes he has.

You see, there’s no helping, nor reasoning with, people like my friend. Short of a physical intervention one will never be able to prevent him from succumbing to the temptation to return to the poisoned stream that both refreshes and harms him. He is, rather unfortunately, just like George Harvey Bone, the main focus of Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton. The novel opens with Bone returning from a holiday, intent on murdering a young woman called Netta. Evidently he went away in order to forget about her, to get over her, and evidently it hasn’t worked. [As a side note, anyone who travels to Maidenhead in order to make themselves feel better is asking for trouble anyway].

Once the reader is introduced to Netta one instantly understands why George wants to kill her. That she doesn’t have any redeeming qualities is necessary, however, because it emphasises just how desperate, just how far gone, Bone is. She is a manipulative, callous, money-grubbing, tart-without-a-heart. Her sidekick Peter, whom Bone also despises, mostly out of jealousy, is just as loathsome. Moreover, just in case we find ourselves, during the reading of this book, able to go either way in our appraisal of these two characters Hamilton makes sure to tip us over the edge into clear antipathy by making them fascist sympathisers [Peter especially].

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[An English pub in the 1940’s]

Bone doesn’t always eye Netta with murderous intent, of course. He only wants to kill her when experiencing what he calls his dead moods, which he compares to the shutter of a camera coming down. In the novel there is no sort of diagnosis, or psychoanalysis, but these moods are clearly some form of psychosis. When in them George becomes to a large extent unresponsive to external stimuli, is less easily manipulated, is angrier, but is confidently full of [an unsavory] purpose. Hilariously, Netta likes him more when he is like this, although I am pretty sure the moral of Hamilton’s tale isn’t to get the girl: be mental and vow to kill her.

When not in a dead mood Bone is exceedingly compliant. He does Netta’s bidding without complaint, he follows her around, he pays for her drinks, takes her out to expensive places; he is a pathetic specimen who serves as the butt of Peter and Netta’s wholly unfunny jokes. Crucially, Bone knows that he is being treated badly; he isn’t entirely deluded, but feels as though he can’t help himself where this girl is concerned, that he needs her on whatever basis is available to him.

I’m not going to say anything about how all this turns out, whether happily or unhappily, but I do want to make a point of saying how funny I think Hangover Square is. For a novel principally concerned with alcoholics, horrible fuckers, madness and murder it is to Hamilton’s great credit that he manages to make it very funny indeed. My favourite moment being when Netta mistreats Bone [again], and he incredulously declares something along the lines of she must be capable of feeling something! Oh no, my poor Bone, no no no no.

BLEAK HOUSE BY CHARLES DICKENS

Ok, let’s get this out of the way, let’s talk about Esther. There’s no denying that she is, initially, about as likeable as the organiser of a kitten-killers convention. As most people are aware, Bleak House alternates between Esther’s 1st person account of events and an omniscient 3rd person narrator. The opening chapter, with that famous description of London fog, is a candidate for the greatest beginning to any novel ever. Five pages in and I was pretty much madly in love. And then she poked her head over the trench and my face immediately went into spasm, as though someone had popped a mega sour sweet into my gob. Yet, Esther is perhaps more interesting than some give her credit for [I’m looking at you Charlotte Bronte]. Her instant [un]appeal is based on her apparent saccharine sweetness, her overwhelming mimsiness; Esther appears to adore everyone, see the best in everyone, find everything charming and delightful. Now, we all know that life ain’t always charming and delightful, it is quite often a hard kick in the bollocks; nor are people always well-intentioned. We know this, but Dickens knows it too of course.

Part of Esther’s role in the novel is to provide a contrast; she may be almost unrelentingly of a sunny disposition, but it is possible that without her the book would be too caustic and miserable because, make no mistake, Bleak House is pretty dark. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily make her less annoying. Indeed, there is something intriguing about people’s [and I include myself in this] reaction towards characters like Esther. Why are happy, optimistic characters so unbearable for some of us? The response is often that they are unbelievable, unrealistic, but, I’d wager, most of us know an Esther. Ok, maybe not someone so endlessly perky, but someone like her; people like her undeniably exist, and, yeah, they annoy me in real life too, but that is my hang-up, it can’t, or shouldn’t, be used as a stick to beat Dickens with.

In any case, when judging Esther it is worth remembering her situation. She begins her narrative with an admission that she was ill-treated as a young child, had only a doll for a friend. A stern and loveless upbringing is bound to have a profound effect upon you. In Esther’s case one could suggest that it creates an intense gratefulness for anything that she can interpret as kindness or goodheartedness. Not only that, but she is rescued from a potentially awful and terrifying future by a guardian, Mr Jarndyce, is given a home and shown affection. Wouldn’t someone in such circumstances be on their best behaviour? Wouldn’t they also want to overlook any potential faults in the significantly more pleasant people who now inhabit her world?

Furthermore, I believe that there is evidence that Esther is not quite as goody-goody as she appears to be at first glance. She does criticise people, but she does so in such a passive-aggressive way that it is easy to miss. Take her response to Mr Skimpole [who is, incidentally, one of the greatest characters in the history of fiction]. Early in the novel he asks her to pay a debt for him, and she excuses this behaviour as the innocent behaviour of a child. Now, I was close to trying to use the pages of the book to slit my wrists at this point. How could you possibly interpret someone asking a poor person, who has so little money of her own, to pay a debt as an act of innocence? It’s quite the opposite, of course. That Esther is seemingly incapable of seeing the act for what it is, and the man for who he is, is infuriating. But, then, about a 100 pages later she says something along the lines of maybe Skimpole isn’t a perfect child, an innocent, maybe he just wants to convince people he is in order to avoid responsibility for his actions. Fucking yes! That’s exactly it! She immediately adds something like, of course I’m wrong, he is a perfect child no doubt, but the cat is already out of the bag; she has given us a glimpse of what she really thinks.

Now, lets talk about the wackness, the flaws, the shit, because there is more of it than I expected. I explained what a boom moment is in my Infinite Jest review, but I’ll reiterate it here for those who missed it. It is when a boom mic becomes visible during a TV show or film, thereby reminding you that what you are looking at isn’t real and has been staged. It is, for want of a better phrase, a breaking of the spell. And boom moments in literature work in the same way. It is when the author does something so senseless or stupid or naff or irritating that it draws you back, brings you back into the room, and makes you aware of your surroundings, your aches and pains or whatever. Of course, generally speaking, Dickens is about as subtle as being fisted by Lady Gaga, but, still, even by his own standards, there are some pretty big boom moments in Bleak House.

The most glaring examples, for me, were the times Esther and her gang of bozos would randomly drop in on a poor family to, er, sympathise, or some shit. The problem with these scenes is that they are so incredibly heavy-handed; although they serve the purpose of introducing new characters I still felt that the scenes themselves were clumsy and badly executed; I felt that they were written primarily to enable the author to point and say look at these poor people, aint it terrible how they live! And, yeah, it is terrible, and, yeah, fair play to the man because he was one of the few, certainly the most popular, writers to highlight the plight of the working/under class. But that doesn’t make it good literature, and you’d expect better from a genius, which Dickens undeniably was, because he could have made the same point[s] in a more subtle manner and introduced the characters a little more seamlessly. There’s no doubt about it, his moralising, his satire, is of the sledgehammer kind; you’re not forced to work to tease out the meaning, for Dickens bludgeons you over the head with it and leaves you for dead.

Bleak House is often written or spoken about as the quintessential London novel, and, as i know the place well, I might be in a position to to say whether this is the case. Certainly, the grime and the poverty evident in Dickens’ novelistic world could be considered part of the capital experience, but that could equally be said of anywhere. Nabokov, that famous Londoner, wrote that Bleak House has nothing to tell us about London at the time it was written; that the book doesn’t serve as a kind of social commentary. I don’t know if that is the case, for I know very little about London during Dickens’ time. However, I’d say that matters little as a writer doesn’t have to have journalistic inclinations to be able to capture the essence of a place. One could say that what Dickens gave us is a fantasy London, his London, much like Joyce’s Dublin in Ulysses. Dickens’ success as a writer, and Joyce’s too, is to make you believe in his world, is to convince you that the book encapsulates something of the essence of a place even if it what you’re reading doesn’t actually resemble the reality of life at that, or this, time.

However, having said that, I did see some of what I hated about the place in what Dickens wrote. Whether those things I hated are particular to that great city, well, I don’t know. Certainly, they were particular to my experience of it. What I’m talking about is the sense of self-importance; almost everyone I came across thought that they were doing something significant or were on the cusp of something significant. Dickens’ city isn’t full of scenesters and hipsters, models, and musicians, like mine was, but many of his characters appear to share the same belief that I encountered in many of the people I met there. Furthermore, probably the defining aspect of my time there was the understanding [and it didn’t take me long to acquire it] that everyone would crawl over your still-twitching carcass in the pursuit of their own wants and desires; and that attitude is definitely apparent in Bleak House in a large number of the cast [Esther and her pals aside]. Also, Skimpole struck me as particularly London-esque character. God, I met loads of Skimpoles; y’know, people who are essentially wasters, but like to clothe this lazy, self-serving, attitude in pseudo-poetic hippy-ish ramblings as though having a soul too delicate for this world excuses everything and gives them a right to lay about doing fuck all.

Finally, it was only in London where one could walk the length of one street and find the richest people imaginable at one end and the poorest at the other. Those extremes of situation, the disparity between social classes living so closely together, has only ever struck me in London, nowhere else, and Dickens captures that in his book. Of course, the evils of money and money-chasing is one of Dickens major themes in Bleak House, as is people who live with a sense of entitlement.

Speaking of themes, I haven’t encountered anything less likely to make me want children, less optimistic about the parent-child dynamic, since Eraserhead. There isn’t a parent-child relationship in Bleak House that isn’t dysfunctional. The richer characters all neglect their children or abuse/use them in some way. On that, there is a very funny scene when a lady, whose name escapes me, explains how her children all willingly give their pocket money to charity, when in fact it is made clear that the mother forces them to do so and they couldn’t be more resentful or unhappy about the situation. Dickens deals with the poorer characters less savagely, and yet there is very little joy in their relationships with their children either. In one instance a mother wishes her child dead because she pities the situation it will grow up in; in another passage a baby actually dies; and, although her circumstances improve, a young girl, Charley, is left to fend for herself and her brothers when the father of the family kicks the bucket. The only reasonably happy family in the book, funnily enough, is the one put together by Jarndyce [a sort of foster family, if you like], when he becomes the guardian of Esther and takes Ada, his niece, into his home. He also takes Richard in, a character who I liked very much, perhaps because he reminded me of myself. Richard can’t stick to anything, can’t seem to find his feet. He is for a while engaged to Ada, even though they are cousins. Which is cool and all, even though their children would probably end up looking like The Thing.

All we have to do when reading Bleak House is to relax and let our spines take over. Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle.

The above is what Nabokov had to say about Bleak House. Now, Vlad was a picky bugger, and that is some high praise, right there. So, the book must be good, right? Joyce also spoke about his admiration for the great man, and I saw plenty of Ulysses, in particular, in Bleak House. Not only superficially, as a large novel about a major city, but stylistically too. In fact, there is a lot in the book that pre-empts what the famous modernists are praised for. Take page 147, where Dickens writes something like, Why, Mrs Piper has a good deal to say, chiefly in parenthesis and without punctuation and then proceeds to write a paragraph in that style. Then there is the playing around with first and third person narrators; and the rambling nature of the thing, the seemingly disconnected episodes. And surely Pynchon is a fan, because Bleak House reads like his wet-dream. Funny names? Yep. Long, complex? Uh huh. Technical language? Yeah. Crazy-zany characters? Indeed. And this is without even mentioning the police procedural aspect, which Dickens is credited with making popular. In fact, Bleak House is so forward-looking that you could probably mistake it for Thomas Edison from a distance.

As I near the end of my review I’d like to give praise to Dickens’ wonderful cast of supporting characters. His world is populated by oddballs and Bleak House is inhabited by some of his most memorable and amusing. My favourite is Mr Turveydrop, who is obsessed with deportment, and considers himself to have been patronized by the Prince Regent, despite clearly coming from a somewhat lowly background. And what about the Frenchwoman Hortense? Yes, I was very much taken with her; she is a spiteful, catty, broad who eventually sees Mr Tulkinghorn get his comeuppance. In a novel with quite a few prissy women she was the proverbial breath of fresh air. I’ve read that some people find this abundance of eccentrics tiresome, but that, to me, is almost like complaining about having too much money or getting too many blowjobs.

Closing statement  

Roberto Bolano, in 2666 I believe, wrote about how people are often drawn to the perfect novels, books like Madame Bovary, but that the better, or certainly more satisfying, works are the less lauded ones, the [mostly] longer, darker, and messier novels [often by the same great writers]. As I recall he actually listed a few titles, and he didn’t mention Bleak House, but you could certainly add this book to the list. No, it isn’t as tight and flawless as Great Expectations, but it is more ambitious, experimental, and perhaps more human.

GRAVITY’S RAINBOW BY THOMAS PYNCHON

One of the things that most irritates me is the idea that someone would read books like this one purely in order to show off or impress people. I see comments like that all the time, have had them directed at me, things like: you didn’t actually enjoy it; you only wanted to make yourself seem intelligent. Wha? Who exactly would it impress? Some faceless dude on the internet? Well, gee. Or will some super hot girl on a train make lingering eye contact with me over the top-edge of my copy of Finnegans Wake? One can but hope. Thing is, does anyone actually give a shit about the difficulty of what other people are reading, y’know, out in the real world? From the hostile reaction readers like me get on forums and message boards you’d think that you could walk into a nightclub wearing a I’ve read Proust t-shirt and be mobbed. It simply doesn’t happen. None of my friends care either. They couldn’t give a fuck. Most of them haven’t even heard of 90% of the books I read; and their eyes glaze over if I try and talk about them.

Of course, when choosing to read any book, the themes, the plot [or content] have to appeal to me in some way, but, assuming that is the case, that I have two novels to choose from both of which appeal to me, and one is straightforward and one is not, why would I pick the difficult novel? The simple fact of the matter is that I like, actually genuinely enjoy, being challenged, being stretched. As the serious reader in my circle of friends and acquaintances I’m often invited to borrow best-selling books – detective novels mostly, or thrillers – and I always politely decline, not because I’m judging anyone, merely because I know that I don’t get off on that kind of thing. I need to be made to think. Recently I went on holiday and I took with me a hefty collection of Anton Chekhov’s short stories and Riders in the Chariot by Patrick White. I don’t do beach reads. In a way, I wish I did. I’d probably be a lot more at ease in myself. Anyway, it was for this reason – this desire to be challenged, to be made to work – that I took up Gravity’s Rainbow [GR].

To my mind, GR’s reputation as unreadable or alienating is overstated. I mean, it’s only a book, and they’re just words, yo.  If you can read, then you can read GR, only it might require a little bit more patience than your regular kind of novel and you might have to accept that not every reference, not every paragraph in fact, will make sense, will be familiar, recognisable. I think a lot of the time when the term unreadable is thrown around by people it simply means: I hated it. Which is fine. I hate a whole shit-tonne of things. But I think it’s unfair to try and turn others off reading something purely because you didn’t like or enjoy it. However, it would be remiss of me not to mention some of the stuff that traditionally turns people away from GR:

  • There is some science
  • And maths
  • And psychology
  • There are a bunch of acronyms, some of which are never explained
  • There is a huge cast of characters, and you won’t keep them all straight in your mind
  • There are extreme flights of fancy, that drop in on the reader without warning and appear to have no connection to what the author was writing about at the time

More so than the obscure references, the science, etc, I feel as though the real impediment to enlightenment vis-a-vis GR is Pynchon’s style, his syntax in particular. This is especially true of the first 200 or so pages, which are by far the most challenging. I must admit that the way the man puts together a sentence, his grammar and his word-order, is weird, is sometimes baffling. The style reminded me a lot of Faulkner, actually, especially Absalom Absalom. Like with that book there are some sentences here that appear to be random words strung together in no particular order; the words themselves aren’t obscure, they simply don’t naturally follow each other. Another thing that the two books have in common is what I call selective grammar. What I mean by that is that for a page or two the grammar seems conventionally correct, so obviously the author knows his business, and then one will suddenly come across a large chunk of text that appears to be missing the necessary commas, full-stops etc. Occasionally distracting or even tedious that might be, but it is not especially tough to navigate. Perhaps the most irritating thing for me, about GR and the style, was the way the story would shift perspective from one character to another without warning, almost in the middle of a sentence. And it would sometimes take a paragraph or two to realise that it had happened. That feeling of catching up with the book, of sometimes being one step behind, instead of riding along with it, was frustrating.

After the first two hundred plus pages the book becomes so so so much easier to read; if Part 1 is like being caught outside in a storm without an umbrella, then entering Part 2 is like stepping through your front door out of the rain; suddenly everything is clearer, more comfortable. There is *gasp* some straightforward plotting, but, more importantly, the writing is cleaner, more accessible. It is as one luxuriates in Part 2’s ease that one might start to wonder why Part 1 is the way that it is. With the marked difference between the two parts it is almost as though Pynchon wants to disorientate you, only to lead you toward enlightenment. It’s a kind of literary tough-love. In a lot of novels it is the main character who moves from psychological confusion to clarity, in GR it is the reader. But that, of course, still doesn’t explain why. One could say that as Part 1 is set mostly in war-torn London the disorientation is appropriate; most of the numerous characters are living in circumstances in which bombs are dropping all around them and at any moment one could take them out. The characters who don’t appear to be as concerned about death are at least professionally or psychologically under extreme duress. The war, in all its mind-fuckery, its horror, is being brought to bear on everyone in Part 1. In effect, then, your confusion, your disorientation, mirrors theirs and vice versa. Likewise, the world of Part 1 is in a state of disintegration, of collapse, and the characters are attempting to impose order on this chaos, just as you, the reader, are trying to impose order on the chaos of the text.

A lot is made of the book’s flat characters; it is the one of the chief criticisms of GR in particular, and the author’s work in general. By flat what these dissenting voices mean is that the characters are under-developed, simple, one-dimensional. They don’t, they say, feel like real people. We never, they continue, get to know them. Two things strike me as interesting about the flat characters accusation. Firstly, where are these novels which have characters in them that feel like real people? The critic Michael Hoffmann once wrote of Ebenezer Le Page that it is one of the few books that gives you the full man. I’ve always found that absurd. No book can actually give you a full man. As far as I am concerned, all characters in all novels are flat if what you want are real people.

I feel as though what readers are actually wanting from characters in books, when flat is thrown around as a criticism, are people who have a detailed back story and who subsequently grow or change or learn lessons and behave in ways that make sense to them, the reader. Don Quixote is flat, they’d say, because he does the same things over and over again. GR’s Slothrop is flat because we are told very little about his life and his feelings, beyond his paranoia, confusion and fear of death. My response to that is: yeah and so what? This is the second point of interest for me: why are some readers so put off by what they see as flat characters? Why is flat wielded as something with which to strike down a book or writer? Maybe it’s just me, but I like different things; I am able to appreciate a book that tells me, in detail, a bunch of stuff about a character’s mental life, but I am also equally able to enjoy a cornucopia of characters who merely serve the author’s themes or ideas. Books aren’t real life, the characters in them are not real people, so why do we insist that they must strive to be so? Search me.

Another fallacy when discussing Pynchon’s fiction is to label it cold and unemotional. I genuinely don’t get that. Of course, it is wrong on a literal level, because his work is obviously full of emotions such as fear and paranoia etc, but even if you put those aside, as I don’t think they are the kind of emotions people are missing in Pynchon’s work, I’d still say it’s a bad call. I’d say that Pynchon is one of the most sentimental and compassionate authors I have read. In fact, I think he takes it too far on occasions and his stuff can become mawkish. Take Jessica and Roger, who are two vulnerable and confused people who are unsure whether they are genuinely in love or whether they merely need each other in the appalling circumstances of war. All of their interactions are shot-through with longing and tension and doubt. Consider, also, the justly lauded dodo killing scene; the clumsy, not-made-to-endure dodos are clearly a stand-in for man, particularly those in war situations, civilians and soldiers. There is an atmosphere of pathos throughout almost the entirety of GR.

So, I hope I have gone some way to at least debating, if not refuting, some of the popular criticisms of Pynchon’s work. I also hope I have maybe gone some way to convincing those of you who have been previously put off by its reputation that it is possible to read Gravity’s Rainbow, that it isn’t nearly as intimidating as some would like you to believe. However, in light of all that I have written, one question remains for me to ask myself: why did I give up on the book? Because, yeah, I did abandon GR about half-way through. I didn’t want to say that at the start of the review because I think it would have been counter-productive. Why did I give up? Cards on the table? I was bored. I kinda felt as though Pynchon had made his point and was starting to repeat himself, was starting to get on my nerves. I felt as though if I gave up I wouldn’t be missing anything, and that’s perhaps, like with a relationship, the point at which you know you ought to part ways. In all honesty, I just don’t think Pynchon and I are a good fit, because although I like the idea of his books I hardly ever love them, in the reading. The only one I have genuinely loved is Mason & Dixon. That’s a great book. But the rest of his stuff? Meh. I simply can’t get excited about it. He just doesn’t push my buttons.