Friday, July 31, 2009

LOL @ (or with) Thomas Pynchon

Let me preface this by saying I'm not a Thomas Pynchon fan - I mean, I read Crying of Lot 49 and would like to read more Pynchon some time but I'm not among his faithful followers. Anyway, The Wall Street Journal today reports that Pynchon has released a piece of, gasp, genre fiction that has got the literary blogosphere baffled. Why, everyone wonders, is this literary giant dabbling in such a shallow art form? Is he being clever? Satirical? Just having fun? Just following his heart?

Or, are some of the distinctions we make in literature artificial? Are genre labels and the assumptions that come with them boxes that we try to squeeze things in. Is Pynchon writing a detective novel simply because it's what he's creating?

I've a lot more to say on this - it's an idea close to my heart and interests and has been for years - but I won't get into it now. You can probably imagine where I come in this: if I haven't made myself clear (or if you're just finding this blog) I think the way we analyze and divide literature is frequently but not always artificial. My personal preferences in fiction have always been either to capital-L Literature that is as entertaining as genre fiction or to so-called genre fiction that is as powerful or dynamic as capital-L Literature. This blog's old favorites - Maugham, Trevanian, Orwell - come to mind.

I'm less interested in Pynchon and more interested in the topic but my gut is anyone as reclusive as Salinger but who appears on The Simpsons has probably got a sense of humor and lives by his own rules. I mean, the reason for distinctions and analysis are clear and sometimes necessary but most of what interests us in fiction does or should transcend categories. More later; this is an old discussion with me.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Moon and Sixpence

Some time ago, when I was first really getting into Maugham, I was asked which Maugham I would recommend to a new reader. At the time I suggested The Razor's Edge and the stories, especially the Ashenden stories and, if ambitious, Of Human Bondage.

Recently got around to The Moon and Sixpence and have to say this really would be a great starting place for getting into Maugham. It has everything I like in a Maugham novel; a compelling human story that stretches from English drawing rooms and literary society to Paris art haunts and back streets to the South Seas; characters that, like the setting, are invested with authority by Maugham, among them crazed, visionary artists, vulnerable and manipulative women, earthy sailors and rogues, and of course the author himself as narrator and guide; story; language, as only Maugham seems to do it, full not only of narrative and dialogue but observations and insights. For my money, this is a masterpiece of Maugham.

Daniel Woodrell in a Day

Several years ago - sheesh, it must have been the mid 1990s, like 95 or so? I read a novel by Daniel Woodrell. It was one of those occasions where I started reading the book over my morning coffee and, having nothing to do that day that couldn't be out off, I simply continued reading, all day, til I had finished the novel, in one sitting. I was absolutely floored by it. It was Give Us a Kiss.

Ever since then, I'd been meaning to read more Woodrell and I finally got around to it recently on a day trip to Chicago for work. This time it was Tomato Red. Oddly, I started reading the book in the morning at the airport, continued on the cab back to the airport, the flight back, car ride home and, whattaya know, finished the whole damn thing. In a day.

What great days those were, because Daniel Woodrell is an excellent novelist. He gets a lot of praise for the subject matter he covers - he calls it "country noir," tough, thoughtful crime novels set in the Ozarks or other parts of the South - but, really, he's just a great writer with a great voice, a gift for words, subject and dialogue. His characters are Faulknerian in setting and outlook, crafty and worldly while still being backwoodsy like Faulkner's characters, but also modern and unique to Woodrell. Give Us a Kiss is about a writer who returns to his Missouri homeland and gets involved in a family fued over a pot crop. Tomato Red is about "them such as us," a smart white trash guy who falls in with a family of toughs and, due to his need to belong, to create family, follows what seems to be his tragic destiny.