CBR12Bingo – White Whale
This might be the whalest of my white whale books. Heck, even as far as White Whales go, I have read Moby Dick a handful of times, and while it’s scattered, it’s completely readable to me. So this one though is all over the place. So while I have read this now, there’s a near infinite number of bits scattered all over my brain. To think of it as a complete text feels wrong, in the sense of reading it as a whole novel that functions together. I am not saying it’s not that (but I don’t know if it is) it’s that I can’t make sense of it in that way. So the novel begins with a small scene in an apartment in London in the wake of an incoming V2 rocket attack in 1944. The rocket takes on a lot of symbolic weight throughout the book, and specifically the characters themselves often talk about the symbolic weight of the rocket. Looking up V2s in the first place, it’s clear that they represent a lot more than the reality they occupy. Germany shot 3000 V2 rockets during the war and killed about 5000 people. The idea that a a rocket some thirty feet tall and shot from a few hundred miles away killed about 1.5-2.5 people per attack (or none at all) speaks to the asymmetric reality of the weapon, but the amount of terror and fear they represent greatly outsizes this. As a reference, the Allied bombing of Dresden cost about 40 American lives while killing 25,000 German civilians. And civilian mass deaths happened all over Europe. But the bringing of civilian death to the everyday reality of war is presaged by the rockets in some meaningful ways. So that’s just the central image, but the book itself is about a LOT of things, and they happened in scattered and erratic order, written in deeply complex, frenetic, but also spiraling and layered language. But it’s also a book with a lot of humanity. While Pynchon’s work is often punctuated and described with “entropy” as its central force (and especially as he published a short story with that title), this novel functions as much through paranoia.
In addition to this, because our “lead” character, as much as we have one here, Tyrone Slothrop, is, like Thomas Pynchon, from an New World/New England family. So a lot of how this novel is structured, ie taking the son of a son of a son of a Puritan family, give him enough knowledge of the chaotic systems at play in the history and machinations of the world, give him a sense of being able to predict the fall of rockets (whose own central locations systems have gone haywire) and watch his possibly lose his mind. We often find Slothrop researching and thinking through his Puritan family heritage and thinking his way through it. This leads him to think about the contrasts built into American Calvinism between the Elect (the saved) and the Preterite (the rest of us). So to understand the systems of the world, or at least to try to, is to try to work through your place in them. Most of us don’t think about these things, and good for us.
So the experience of this novel then is to try to read a story while almost everything in the world is being narrated and represented at once, or at least so much that we have to work through so many layers to grasp it. What this often looks like is have a sex scene being described while bodily functions like pissing and shitting are also happening, and tastes, and sounds, while a song plays in one person’s head and so on (Und so weiter). Early on, we get a description of Slothrop’s war desk which is layered with papers, coffee stains, ashes, and about a million other things happening at once, congealed, crusted, one thing and many at once. And well, that’s this novel. Oh, and the narrative voice jumps and jumps and might exist in 1945, but is definitely also located in 1972, as it references other novels contemporary this one
I have read some difficult novels (Krasznahorkai’s Satantango) and I have read some long novels (War and Peace) and some really long, difficult novels (Ulysses, Miss MacIntosh My Darling, Infinite Jest), but as a function of both at the same time, this one stands out. And if you ask me did I like it? I have no idea.