Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for September 2013

My ten great books #6: Gravity’s Rainbow

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Gravity's Rainbow

(Note: For the rest of the month, I’m counting down the ten works of fiction that have had the greatest influence on my life as an author and reader, in order of their first publication. For earlier entries in the series, please see here.) 

If there’s a thread that runs through many of the books I’ve mentioned here so far, it’s that they’re often the work of massively erudite authors who are deeply ambivalent—or ironic—about their own learning. Norton Juster and the tireless annotators of the Sherlock Holmes stories seem content with knowledge for its own sake, but as for the rest, Borges ends up trapped in his own labyrinth; The Magic Mountain constructs an edifice of ideas on the verge of being blown up by a meaningless war; Proust notices everything but envies those creatures of instinct, like Albertine or Françoise, who can relate to the world in simpler terms. Gravity’s Rainbow may be the ultimate expression of this discomfort, an incredibly dense, allusive, and omniscient novel about the futility of information itself. No other work of contemporary fiction is so packed with technical lore, references, jokes, and ideas, and its technical virtuosity is staggering. Thomas Pynchon has occasionally been dismissed as a shallow trickster or showoff, but his style is inseparable from his larger concerns. Only by writing the encyclopedic novel to end all others can he qualify himself to sound a deadly serious warning, which is that all the plans, structure, and information in the world can only wither and die in the face of more fundamental truths: death, loneliness, dissolution.

In the meantime, though, there’s plenty to enjoy: limericks, pie fights, burlesque imitations of vaudeville and musical theater, puns of exquisite corniness (the German city of Bad Karma, the Japanese Ensign Morituri), and countless vignettes of incredible beauty, cruelty, and inventiveness. That last word has a way of being applied to works that don’t deserve it, but here, it’s fully justified: Gravity’s Rainbow invents more in its seven hundred pages than any other novel I know—every paragraph threatens to fly out of control, only to be restrained by its author’s uncanny mastery of tone—and the effect is both exhilarating and alienating. There aren’t any real characters here, just puppets with amusing names, and there’s never a sense that this is anything more than a construct of Pynchon’s limitless imagination. (There’s a good case to be made that this was a conscious artistic choice, and that depth of character would only make the novel more unwieldy than it already is.) Like most encyclopedic works, it includes veiled parodies of its own ambitions, like Mitchell Prettyplace’s definitive eighteen-volume study of King Kong, including “exhaustive biographies of everyone connected with the film, extras, grips, lab people,” or Brigadier Pudding’s Things That Can Happen in European Politics, a comprehensive analysis of possible political developments that is constantly overtaken by real events. It’s all futile, of course. But on any given page, as we’re swept up by Pynchon’s enormous talent, it doesn’t seem so futile after all.

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September 30, 2013 at 9:00 am

Quote of the Day

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September 30, 2013 at 7:30 am

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“I could buy myself paper, a pen, a pencil and a brush…”

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Peter Weiss

This language was present whenever I wanted it and wherever I was. I could live in Paris or in Stockholm, in London or New York, and I carried the language with me, however light I traveled…I could buy myself paper, a pen, a pencil and a brush and could create pictures whenever and wherever I wanted…That evening, in the spring of 1947, on the embankment of the Seine in Paris, at the age of thirty, I saw that it was possible to live and work in the world, and that I could participate in the exchange of ideas that was taking place all around, bound to no country.

Peter Weiss, Vanishing Point

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September 29, 2013 at 9:50 am

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Lewis Carroll on how to write a letter

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Lewis Carroll

Put the date in full. It is another aggravating thing, when you wish, years afterwards, to arrange a series of letters, to find them dated “Feb. 17,” “Aug. 2,” without any year to guide you as to which comes first. And never, never, dear Madam (N.B. this remark is addressed to ladies only: no man would ever do such a thing), put “Wednesday,” simply, as the date!

That way madness lies.”

Here is a golden Rule to begin with. Write legibly. The average temper of the human race would be perceptibly sweetened, if everybody obeyed this Rule! A great deal of the bad writing in the world comes simply from writing too quickly.

Don’t repeat yourself. When once you have said your say, fully and clearly, on a certain point, and have failed to convince your friend, drop that subject: to repeat your arguments, all over again, will simply lead to his doing the same; and so you will go on, like a Circulating Decimal. Did you ever know a Circulating Decimal come to an end?

Lewis Carroll, “Eight or Nine Wise Words about Letter-Writing”

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September 28, 2013 at 9:50 am

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My ten great books #5: The Phantom Tollbooth

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The Phantom Tollbooth

(Note: For the rest of the month, I’m counting down the ten works of fiction that have had the greatest influence on my life as an author and reader, in order of their first publication. For earlier entries in the series, please see here.) 

The Phantom Tollbooth is the best fictional handbook I’ve ever seen on how to be alive. It’s supposedly written for children, but if anything, the lessons it holds are even more urgent for adults, who need to be reminded from time to time of what a young child understands instinctively. I’ve noted before that you can’t fully appreciate the horrors of the Terrible Trivium, “demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit,” until you’ve held your first job. This isn’t to say that children don’t understand boredom, busywork, or meaningless wastes of time: when we romanticize our own childhoods, it’s easy to forget that much of a child’s life is spent waiting around for something to happen. The difference is that adults construct these traps for themselves. Norton Juster’s great book is a manual of escape, not into fantasy, but into reality—that is, into the possibilities of life that we ignore because we tend to take them for granted. Other children’s fantasy novels offer up a vision of a world that is more beautiful than ours, and they leave us wishing that we could visit Narnia or Hogwarts just for a little while. Juster leaves you hungry for the books and people and ideas that are there for you to explore right now, if you’re willing to master a few simple tools: words, numbers, perspective, time, curiosity, and sense of humor. As the Senses Taker warns:

I’ll steal your sense of purpose, take your sense of duty, destroy your sense of proportion—and, but for one thing, you’d be helpless yet…I cannot take your sense of humor, and, with it, you’ve nothing to fear from me.

Of course, none of these lessons would count for anything if the book itself weren’t such great fun. Juster sometimes reads like Douglas R. Hofstader or Joseph Heller for the grade school set: he loves puns, wordplay, and sly inversions of familiar ideas, but all of these good jokes are windows into deeper truths. It’s all too easy to jump to Conclusions, which in The Phantom Tollbooth is a very crowded island, but you can only get back after a long swim through the Sea of Knowledge. You emerge from the Doldrums—where the schedule, with its four naps, looks a lot like the routine of the residents in The Magic Mountain—by thinking. When you’re faced with such terrors as the Triple Demons of Compromise, the Horrible Hopping Hindsight, and the Gorgons of Hate and Malice, your best chance of rescue lies in marshaling all the wisdom you’ve acquired along the way. And you especially need to remember the very important thing about Milo’s quest that couldn’t be told to him until he returned:

“It was impossible,” said the king, looking at the Mathemagician.
“Completely impossible,” said the Mathemagician, looking at the king…
“Yes, indeed,” they repeated together, “but if we’d told you then, you might not have gone—and, as you’ve discovered, so many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”

It’s a lesson I’ve tried to remember, with varying degrees of success, for most of my life—but I occasionally need a reminder. And thanks to Milo, and Norton Juster, I always know where to find it.

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September 27, 2013 at 9:00 am

Quote of the Day

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September 27, 2013 at 7:30 am

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My ten great books #4: Labyrinths

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Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

(Note: For the rest of the month, I’m counting down the ten works of fiction that have had the greatest influence on my life as an author and reader, in order of their first publication. For earlier entries in the series, please see here.) 

To understand the stories of Jorge Luis Borges, it helps to begin with the encyclopedia. Not the fantastic encyclopedia of Tlön, which describes an imaginary country—its fishes, its playing cards—in monumental detail, or even the countless unreadable encyclopedias, with their autobiographies of the archangels and the true story of your own death, that populate the infinite Library of Babel. I’m talking about the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which Borges read extensively. Borges sometimes strikes us as a monster of unbelievable erudition, and there’s no doubt that he was deeply familiar with such subjects as the cabala and the history of philosophy, as well as such authors as Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Kafka. Yet his true intellectual heritage was that of the reader of encyclopedias, a connoisseur of enigmatic facts filtered through the perspective of an army of anonymous compilers, superficially orderly but opening into ever darker mysteries. Many readers, including myself, were first drawn to Borges for the richness and quality of his mind, which tosses out fascinating ideas in a paragraph or aside in an otherwise densely textured story. Dig a little deeper, though, and you find a man who is profoundly ambivalent about his own learning, to whom a book can be a paradise, a labyrinth, or the hybrid creature of a nightmare. If Proust is the ultimate noticer, Borges is our ultimate reader, and he has troubling lessons for those of us who spend most of our lives among books.

That said, it’s foolish to discount the incidental pleasures of his fictions, which include some of the finest mystery and fantasy stories in any language. Borges appeals to us because he descends from the line of storytellers that includes Edgar Allan Poe, G.K. Chesterton, and Robert Louis Stevenson, and his best stories can be enjoyed simply as works of virtuoso cleverness: “The Garden of Forking Paths” is a philosophical fable that includes a twist worthy of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, where it first appeared in English, and “The Immortals” packs more wonderful ideas into fourteen pages than most authors could manage in ten times that length. (All of these stories appear in Labyrinths, still the strongest anthology of Borges, which collects his best work from the fifties. My other favorites include “Death and the Compass,” “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” “The Lottery in Babylon,” and “Three Versions of Judas.”) The more of Borges we read, though, the more disturbing he becomes. Borges was a master librarian who finally lost his eyesight, an irony he would have found too obvious to include in his own fiction. His best works are about other kinds of blindness: overinterpretation, the conflation of the reader and the text, the unreliability of apparently solid narratives, and the uncanny relationship between ideas and the shape of the world around us. “Death and the Compass” is the tale of a perfect detective, a Holmes, undone by a villain who constructs a puzzle to lure him to his death, and it’s hard not to identify both with Borges himself, weaving the web that traps both the author and his readers.

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September 26, 2013 at 9:00 am

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