Adventures in Book Reviewing

Is it just me, or does it make little to no sense to have people who openly admit their hatred for an author review said author’s work?

The early reviews of Pynchon’s Inherent Vice have been, at least in the various New York press, similarly negative.  What’s interesting is that they have tended to be equally dismissive of Against the Day. (Kakutani went so far as to describe Against the Day as “pretentious,” but I cannot for the life of me figure out what it is feigning to be other than, well, a Pynchon novel.)  Curiously, I don’t recall this being articulated so clearly and loudly in its reviews.  (Most just said it was, in varying degrees, unreadable — code for, I think, “I didn’t read it all, but wanted the money for writing this review.”   Another code for this same sentiment is: “This is a flawed masterpiece.”)  It is, as Adam said I were discussing just now, as though reviewers are using this shorter novel to more fully express their disdain for being expected to read Pynchon’s more typical (i.e., longer) stuff.   In short, they conclude: “We hate Pynchon when he’s being ambitious, and then we hate him even more when he writes a shorter book that’s more fun.”

Pynchon & McCarthy on Catastrophe

I recently finished Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, and for some reason I found it resonating in weird ways with Cormac McCarthy’s most recent novel, The Road. They are, of course, very different novels; and, indeed, were written by very different authors. But I was struck by how each, in their own ways, own up to a world facing catastrophe.

For Thomas Pynchon, the catastrophe (most notably, WWI) has yet to happen, but it looms throughout his novel. Indeed, the full weight of what is to come manages even to pierce the time-continuum and forcibly project emissaries of a futuristic world upended by humanity’s self-made destruction. His is a meditation on technological and economic aspirations that instrumentalize individuals, their labor, and most fundamentally, the very core of existence, time.

For Cormac McCarthy, the catastrophe has already taken place. A piercing white light in the distance, a self-made disaster once again, is all that is disclosed about it. The effect, however, is clear—the body itself has become instrumentalized as food for the cannibalistic gangs of survivors.

While both Pynchon and McCarthy offer insightful critiques of the self-destructive tendencies of contemporary culture, they do so most powerfully in their evaluation of human sociality & love. What I found most interesting, though, and given my disposition this is hardly surprising, is that neither are concerned to demonstrate some semblance of hope. Like the great theoretician of catastrophe before them, Theodor Adorno, they do not suggest that relationships, be they familial or otherwise, might save us, either from what comes or what has already come. In many respects, they treat sociality & love like Adorno might aesthetics (music, in particular): as an immanent power trangressive to existing regimes of instrumentalization. This, we should note, despite its fragility, contingency, and transience — they are, to my reading, both very careful not to idealize love. By all accounts, such love is useless (e.g., in The Road, the father’s walking to the coast with his son only extends their being together, not the the hope for their ultimate survival) and/or capricious (e.g., in Against the Day, most noteworthy relationships are at first glance nothing but gratuitous, random sex; not to mention either short-lived or misdirected), but ultimately highlights a level of intimacy that goes against traditional expectations and norms. It is, in effect, out-of-place and/or inconvenient; when it is not doomed to failure, it survives only in misery.

For all of this, and perhaps cause of all this, Pynchon & McCarthy present love as not fully appropriated for profit and instrumentalized debasement. On the contrary, its vagabond, moribund, untenable status are marks of its survival, and of its status as a remnant of what is possible before and after the catastrophe. In this it manages to transcend those all-encompassing powers whose authority extends even to their own self-willed destruction — that of a world so intent on surviving a certain way that it is willing to kill itself trying, through the ultimately suicidal violence of it means of production (& consumption) and the waging of its wars. In short, Pynchon and McCarthy can be said to intimate a kind of alternative ontology of survival, resistance, and existence: one that cuts across classical individualism and humanism, and brings us closer to the sense of a subjectivity that is a sociality, of a being-with others.

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