WARNING: This book is “difficult.”
But not really. Before cracking it open I’d always heard (or, rather, read) comparisons to Joyce’s Ulysses or Finneagan’s Wake and other epic mind-benders that are more talked about than they are read. While it would be easy to lump GR in with the rest of that crowd I have to say that, other than the length and overall sense of what-the-fuck-is-going-on-I-do-not-understand, the comparison ends there. Joyce/Grass/et all never wrote anything nearly as hilarious, as hallucinatory, as encyclopaedic, as fully and completely filled with equal amounts paranoia and sexual perversion as Pynchon fits into these 760 pages of sometimes stream-of-consciousness, sometimes occult V2 rocket worship, sometimes actual goddamn rocket science.
Is this book confusing? Yes. Is this book challenging? Certainly. Does this book demand patience and cooperation from the reader? Absolutely. Pynchon has never been an author who spoon feeds his audience, which is part of why I love reading his work. There will always be something I miss on every page, which is absolutely fine with me because this book, while filled with the minutest of details, isn’t about how the details add up to form the whole; in fact, one could argue that a Pynchon novel is never a complete whole but instead is an amoeba-like mass with no distinct shape or plot. Things happen, and are sometimes confusing. Oftentimes things are hilarious. Occasionally things are so disturbing that my jaw drops further than I thought physically possible. It’s all one big roller coaster ride full of ups and downs, twists and turns and loops that seemingly never end or begin, except there is no defined track in the physical world, it is all being constructed only moments before the car reaches the next piece, barely making it through without crashing and burning in the process.
I’ve been reading GR since late January, with a few minor interruptions for other books on the side. Right now I have something less than 200 pages left before I’m “finished;” but this is not a book one simply puts down. You get away from it for only a while before it allures you with its siren song screaming across the sky and Pynchon comes crashing down upon you once again, like a rocket bombarding London during WWII.
My apologies for not updating in the last few months. Life sure has a way of throwing a wrench in one’s plans. I promise to be better about updating the blog in the future.
That said, I have been reading despite all that’s been happening around and to me. I’m sure there will be a few books that I’ll forget to mention here, but so far this is a tentative list of books I’ve read in the last several months and which I’ll post reviews of (provided I can remember enough):
- Cormac McCarthy - Blood Meridian
- Kurt Vonnegut - Hocus Pocus
- the Tao Te Ching
- George R.R. Martin - A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice & Fire, Book 3)
- Edward Gibbon - The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
And probably more that will come to me in the middle of the night when I’m futilely attempting to sleep.
Vonnegut on Kafka
I have a terrible habit. An addiction, really - I rarely am able to read only one book at a time. It’s frustrating, because sometimes books that I begin and love get pushed aside because some book I’ve been searching for at the library for weeks has suddenly become available, or I just put down the first book for a few days and pick something new up from the shelf without realizing what I am doing. I’m sure I am not alone in this. Usually when this happens I am able to finish within a reasonable amount of time, such as with Cloud Atlas, partly because it was so entertaining. (I’ll admit though, I started re-reading Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities this past December and I’m still only about halfway through it.)
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, in case you have not heard of it by now (or if you haven’t seen my previous post about it), consists of six semi-connected/partially-related stories, set in various times and locales varying from the mid-1800’s in the Polynesian islands to post-apocalyptic Hawai’i some 500 years in the future. Everything happens chronologically, sort-of - each of the first five stories is abruptly halted halfway through by the beginning of the next story, with only the sixth being told uninterrupted. Mitchell then goes through in reverse chronological order, thus mirroring the first half of the book. Though this ploy initially seemed like a mere gimmick to me (as I mentioned in my previous CA post) this device actually works out nicely - each following story sheds some minor detail on the one preceding it, which then adds to the later enjoyment of the second half.
Mitchell’s writing style in Cloud Atlas is superb. Each section has its own dialect (i.e., the 1800’s uses some words with different spellings [“compleat” instead of “complete”, etc.] and censors itself from profanity, the near-future ‘corpocracy’ [Corporation-controlled dictatorship] uses a form of doublespeak a la Orwell’s 1984, the present remains largely unchanged, albeit with a few British-isms). Figuring out the exact meanings within some time periods was half the fun I had reading those sections. But Mitchell goes beyond just the way the characters speak and presents each section in its own style, thus giving further individuality to every “chapter” - the second section consists of a series of letters (thus making sure the reader only gets the ‘partial truth’), another section is entirely made up of an interview (question-and-response) and, my personal favorite, a mystery novel complete with very short sub-chapters and fast-paced action and plot. Some reviews I have read of Cloud Atlas complain that, because of the difference in styles, the sections of the book should have been written as their own stand-alone stories and not combined. I disagree wholeheartedly, as only one or two of the stories in the book are strong enough to stand up on their own. Though the unifying ‘theme’ of the book is relatively weak to consider this novel as “serious literature,” it still works nicely when all the sections are combined.
I will not go into detail of the plots of the stories because, honestly, the plot is less important than the presentation. Suffice it to say that the book has car chases, indigenous warfare, political intrigue, environmental disaster, swashbuckling high sea adventures, sci-fi dystopia, and, my favorite section of the book, an apprentice to a famous composer. There’s even a half-assed romance or two, which, surprisingly, fit their respective stories quite well.
As I mentioned before, Cloud Atlas does not rank amongst the pantheon of “Great Classic Literature” (cue dramatic music), but it is also miles more intelligent than your average bestseller (something like 50 Shades of Grey or The Da Vinci Code, the latter of which, I will confess, has kept me from finishing this book and this review in a timely manner). I will say that, as a piece of contemporary fiction, Cloud Atlas does contain more literary merit than I would have expected (for those of us, myself included, who can get a bit snobbish with our taste in books). Overall it was a thrilling, entertaining read. It kept me guessing, it kept me thinking, it was paced very well without dragging (at least, not too much). There are a few aspects that I was initially disappointed in, but by the end of the book I was very happy. I would recommend Cloud Atlas to anyone who is looking to be entertained at an engaging level without having to dumb things down.
More quotes on Exclamation Marks
- In the family of punctuation, where the full stop is daddy and the comma is mummy, and the semicolon quietly practises the piano with crossed hands, the exclamation mark is the big attention-deficit brother who gets overexcited and breaks things and laughs too loudly. ~Lynne Truss
- An excessive use of exclamation marks is a certain indication of an unpractised writer or of one who wants to add a spurious dash of sensation to something unsensational. ~H. W. Fowler
- So far as good writing goes, the use of the exclamation mark is a sign of failure. It is the literary equivalent of a man holding up a card reading ‘laughter’ to a studio audience. ~Miles Kingston
- Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have a knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.~Elmore Leonard
- And all those exclamation marks, you notice? Five? A sure sign of someone who wears his underpants on his head. ~Terry Pratchett
From Writers Write
In my creative writing seminars at Uni I’m infamous for hating exclamation marks- I am so glad I’m not the only one.