Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Book Review of "The Crying of Lot 49" by Thomas Pynchon

I consider myself a conspiracy theory connoisseur.  On one hand I mock them because they're so silly.  But I'm also fascinated by them because I love trying to understand why somebody could believe them.  And I'm drawn to them because, at various times in my life, it has been convenient to think of myself as a victim.  When the world seems full of conspirators controlling my life, it is easier to weather my failures.  If I can blame my lethargy on water fluoridation and my lack of writing success on corporate cabals, I don't have to work to change myself. 

The last decade has seen an explosion in conspiracy theories.  I'm very interested to see some oldies-but-goodies return to popular consciousness, such as the Bavarian Illuminati.  I'm also fascinated by some newcomers, such as the Reptoids.  Others have returned in new forms: the communist water fluoridators of yesteryear have been re-imagined as corporate masterminds.  Conspiracy literature has exploded as well, notably the novels of Dan Brown.  

Of greatest interest to me, however, is a small movement of public consciousness which derives ironic pleasure from the contemplation of conspiracy theories.  The theories are cast in a silly light, with many, any and all conspiracies being true at the same time.  It is given game-form in Steve Jackson Games' Illuminati.  In literature, it's The Illuminatus Trilogy.  This intellectual tree has borne hilarious fruit since the 80's, but the seed of the tree was planted in the 60's.  The name of that seed is The Crying of Lot 49, a novella by Thomas Pynchon.

Oedipa Maas learns that her ex-boyfriend Pierce has died and named her executor of his estate.  She travels to San Narciso, California, to settle his affairs.  As she does so, she begins linking clues, partly left by Pierce, others by happenstance.  Soon, she becomes convinced of the existence of a secret mail-delivery system called W.A.S.T.E.  An elaborate alternate history of Europe and the United States is spun, featuring armed conflict between the Thurn und Taxis delivery company and the U.S. Postal System versus a group of evil postmen called the Tristero.  As she learns more, the people she knows and loves are gradually eliminated or isolated.

Pynchon's writing style is cerebral.  It takes some work to decipher many of his sentences, not only because they can be structurally strange, but because some of them last for more than a page.  Yet these sentences are not ponderous like those of previous authors who attempted ultra-long sentences.  Rather, they're free-flowing and goofy.

The point of this book is its journey, not its end.  For the alternate history is funny and elaborately researched.  There are a lot of silly moments that left me laughing.  However, the ending is just not there.  Without giving away anything, the story ends right before where a climax would have been in a normal book.  After so much time spent fleshing the history of the Tristero, the book ends just before Oedipa has direct contact with it.  This is, no doubt, intentional and some readers may gain a lot of postmodern pleasure from it.  However, I love a good ending, so for me, I have to say that I saw what Pynchon was going for there, but I wanted more. 

What truly struck me about this book is that it seems like its from the wrong decade.  The style is similar to the confused, acid-soaked writing that came from the 70's, yet it is ten years early.  Truly, The Crying of Lot 49 was a work ahead of its time.  It might still be ahead of its time.  I say all these nice things about it, yet I recognize that I didn't enjoy it that much.
3 muted post-horns out of 5

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Book Review of "A Clash of Kings" by George R. R. Martin

A Game of Thrones, the first book in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, is about as perfect as fantasy fiction gets.  I had high expectations when I picked up the second book, A Clash of Kings.  Would it have the same beautiful characters?  The same expectation-defying plot?  The same attention to medieval life and battle?  The same breathless page turns to see what happens next? 

The answer, sadly, is "no".  But that doesn't mean that Clash isn't great.  I'm still enamoured of Martin's universe and I've already picked up the next book in the series. 

I mentioned in my review of Thrones that Martin occasionally slipped into cliche in his description and fretted that in later volumes, after experiencing success, he might be less vigilant about editing his prefab phrases.  This is, indeed, the case in Clash: the entire writing style seems less intensely accurate and more relaxed.  The book is longer than the first and I suspect that, had Martin's editor or internal editor been more vigilant, certain events and passages could be removed to make the action tighter. 

In fact, the entire book seems less intense.  This is evident in the first half.  Martin takes time to prepare his massive conflicts, and his protagonists, mainly the Stark family, spend a lot of time being depressed and fretting over characters that we either don't care about or haven't met.  I confess that I lost my copy of the book for half a year.  If Clash had the been the manic page turner that was its predecessor, I would have been desperate to find it.  But I wasn't. 

Well, I found Clash of Kings in the zippered top pocket of a suitcase I had laid in the basement.  Eventually, the sails of this becalmed book fill.  Once more I found myself swept into the battles, intrigues and surprises of the unhappy isle and its bloodsoaked throne. 

The book continues to follow the viewpoints of the same characters who survived the first book.  Two more characters are featured, Davos Seaworth, a low-born smuggler turned knighted sea captain serving the now-dead-king's brother, and Theon Greyjoy, a hostage returned to the Viking-esque, brooding, troublemaking Greyjoy family.  Unfortunately, I didn't like either of these characters much.  Davos is dull.  Theon chapters are hard to read because he's an infuriating dink.  However, their antics were far overshadowed as my favourite characters, Tyrion Lannister, the Stark girls, and Daenarys Targaryen continued to brighten the book. 

I won't get into the details of all the awesome stuff that happens.  If you loved the first book, you will find the second worthy.  It's just not quite as perfect. 
4 off-camera battles out of 5