Structure vs character in Pynchon’s work
I must have been in my 20s when I first encountered Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity‘s Rainbow”. I was very confused and very dazzled: dazzled by how this book seems to go off in all directions at once. So many things happen, and most of them never get resolved. It was fascinating. I dug through this book, inching forward slowly like a miner in a coal seam deep below the surface of the earth.
In his books, Pynchon takes all these storylines, and weaves them and knots and tangles them, and finally you have a big ball, with strands coming out in all directions. You don’t know quite what to do with it, but it’s also fascinating. Glittering. Intriguing.
With that in mind, I was really surprised when I read Inherent Vice, which came out in 2009. It’s shaped like a noir detective novel. But unlike a typical whodunnit, we don’t understand more as the book goes on. Instead, things become progressively less clear. This is a great way to baffle both people who eat normal detective novels, and people who read Pynchon’s other books.
Inherent Vice feels different
Only recently did I understand why Inherent Vice feels so different from the rest of Pynchon’s work. The reason is that the book really centers on the main character, Doc Sportello, as he bumbles through late-60s LA in a druggy haze. We get to know Doc close up, with all his losses, his fears, his confusion and his disappointments. It’s a very intimate portrayal. The structure of the detective novel is meanwhile pretty conventional, though admittedly some pretty weird things happen within that well-established frame.
Compare that to Against the Day (2006), which I’m currently reading again, for perhaps the fourth time. Here, like in Gravity’s Rainbow, the book’s structure is the real star. There are dozens of characters in the book, and perhaps two handfuls of central ones. But there’s not one of them that we get as close to as we get to Doc Sportello.
Pynchon’s Unseen University
Instead, we get a daring edifice of a book, bursting at the seams with themes like mathematics, chemistry and alchemy, anarchism, unions, and electricity - and that’s just the first 100 pages or so. It’s absolutely overwhelming and confusing. And also very funny. It’s sort of like Terry Pratchett’s Unseen University, where the building itself is behaving weirdly, not to mention the people within.
My personal theory is that the people who (like me!) love these books, and who keep coming back to them again and again, actually enjoy exactly this aspect. We want to be overwhelmed and swept away. (The motive of “being taken” is quite prominent in Gravity’s Rainbow, now that I mention it.) Pynchon takes us by the collar and drags us headlong into one adventure after another, and making sense isn’t the primary concern – it’s all about the thrill of the ride.
These are, of course, very much the experiences of the Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow - another main character we don’t really get close to, even after more than a thousand pages.