Sunday, 21 September 2014

Against The Day by Thomas Pynchon

Against The Day a is 1000+ pages thick epic novel by Thomas Pynchon. It tells the somewhat absurd and humorous, but deeply emotional stories of a variety of characters, taking place in the years 1893 to 1923. They include, among others: The Chums of Chance, a group of adventurers who, in a loving parody of period pulp science fiction, fly around the world in the airship Inconvenience; Lew Basnight, a detective whose life is destroyed due to a crime he doesn't remember committing; Merle Rideout, the daughter to a travelling photographer, who as an adult sets off to find her mother who had run off with magician; Yashmeen Halfcourt, an orphan who is raised by English occultists and Cyprian Latewood, bisexual spy for the British empire, who begins to question his employer.

The centre of the book is however, the Traverse siblings, Frank, Kit, Reed and Lake. Their Father Webb Traverse is miner and an anarchist-syndicalist, who uses dynamite in his struggle against capitalism. Webb is however murdered by the villainous capitalist Scarsdale Vibe and his sons swear revenge. They soon get sidetracked however by their own stories.
The book is an absurd epic, but Pynchon manages to combine his absurd plots with very real human emotions and deep characters. As a writer, he is often accused of being emotionless and dry, something he ably disproves with this book. Amidst all the absurdity and humour, very real and resonant themes and emotions of loss and love develop. The characters struggle to love in an cold and cruel capitalist world, and must deal with death in various forms.

Pynchon is also an incredible stylist and the prose of this book is simply incredible. Here we have both humour and heart-rending emotion. Even if one loses track of the various plot threads, the prose makes one want to continue nevertheless.  I especially liked the parodies or pastiches of various genres of fiction. The Chums of Chance sections are for example written in a pulp adventure style, Lew Basnight's story is in the style of a detective novel and parts of the story of the Traverse family in a western style. There is a also a brief but very good pastiche of Lovecraft relatively early in the book.

Pynchon's use of motifs in the novel is also impressive. There is a central motif or theme in the book of doubling. The Chums of Chance, for example encounter Russian counterparts of themselves and at the end of the book gets transported to a parallel earth. There is two minor characters, the professors Werfner and Renfrew who are doubles of each other and whose names is a palindrome. The magician who Merle Rideout's mother runs off with, can create identical doubles of a person. In a memorable passage, fiction is described as giving the reader a "dual existence" between material reality and the world of the book. Finally, the book is dominated by the image of the Icelandic spar, which double refracts light.

Another central theme is the time period of 1893 to 1923 itself. Pynchon ably describes how the optimism of the age, which both the form of the liberal capitalist idea of eternal progress and the socialist dream of a better world, came to an end in the First World War and the brutal repression of the socialist movement in the United States. This is depicted partially through The Chums of Chance, who being pulp adventurers of course embody this optimism, and who comes to question everything they stand for, as the war approaches and eventually break out.
Pynchon gives powerful and harrowing depictions of both the war and the Ludlow massacre (a central moment in the repression of the US socialist movement), in which he doesn't parody, but rather evokes the writings of Siegfried Sassoon, Erich Maria Remarque, Upton Sinclair and other writers who have depicted the same horrors.

But Pynchon doesn't give in to despair and is thankfully unfashionable enough as writer to give the reader a hopeful and happy ending. Despite everything, hope should not be abandoned, Pynchon seems to argue. The Chums of Chance eventually construct an new positive world-view after the war has ended and starts to build an utopia aboard their airship, which leads to one of the most moving and optimistic ending sentences in all of literature:  "They will feel the turn in the wind. They will put on smoked goggles for the glory of what is coming to part the sky. They fly toward grace."

A fitting ending to one of the best novels I have ever read. A true epic, skilfully told with both love and humour.

Friday, 19 September 2014

"The Ocean at the End of the Lane" by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is, in part, a novel about childhood, written from an adult perspective. The story is told by an unnamed narrator, who in the present remembers the events of the book, which happened when he was seven years old, which was about forty years ago.

His parents, in order to make ends meet, take in a lodger. He is a cruel opal miner from South Africa, who due to his gambling debts, steals the family car and commits suicide in it. However, due to him committing suicide in a magical place, his death summons forth a Lovecraftian monster from another universe. Thankfully, three women live on a farm at the end of the lane, The Hempstocks, who fight against the monstrous being. The Hempstocks are of course not human at all, but in fact powerful supernatural beings, of whom the oldest is even older than the universe. On their farm is a duckpond, which is in fact the ocean of the title.

One of Neil Gaiman's strengths as a writer has always been his ability to ground the fantastic in mundane reality. And that ability is very much in evidence here. The story is partly autobiographical and it is not hard to recognize Gaiman in the lonely and bookish child, who lives "more in books than.. anywhere else" and grows up to be an artist. He fills the book with little details, obviously from his own childhood in the 1960s, that make the story and its world interesting and convincing.
His stylistic strength as a writer is here too, the book is a delight to read. The text flows in a way that is very rare and it is very quotable. The characterization is very strong too. I particularly liked the portrayal of the narrator and his father, and their relationship. As anybody familiar with The Sandman might expect,  Gaiman's non-human characters are also very well drawn, both the monstrous villian and the Hempstocks (who, by the way, reflect the archetypes of Maiden, Mother and Crone).

As I said before, this is a book about childhood and it is one of the best books I have read on the subject. Gaiman brilliantly captures the wonder of childhood: “I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I took joy in the things that made me happy.”

But as the quote implies, Gaiman is very much aware of the vulnerability of children, which is the source of much of the horror of the novel. Indeed, the narrator seems much more vulnerable to human adults, than to the inhuman monstrosities he must face. At one point, the Lovecraftian monster that is the villian of the book even transforms itself into an adult human, and by doing this becomes more of a threat to Gaiman's boy hero than it was before.

This way, Gaiman cleverly connects this mundane human fear all children have, with a grand cosmic, Lovecraftian horror, where the reality we know is, as he delightfully puts it, merely "a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger". This dark perspective is put into contrast by the Hempstocks, who act as a powerful, but benevolent counterforce to the immense monsters, who haunt the cosmos.

This is a rare book. It is a novel about childhood, which doesn't fall into shapeless nostalgia, but instead retains the wisdom that comes with growing up and applies it to childhood in order to bring light to it. Gaiman manages to keep both the wisdom of age and the ability of a child to see an ocean in a pond.