After a delightful month breezing through The City and The City, the pulpy and energetic Boxer Beetle by Ned Beauman (which for my money is everything a debut novel should be), Cat’s Cradle by Vonnegut and Hegarty on Advertising (mixing business with pleasure) I decided I’d gathered enough reading momentum to make an attempt on Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.
Swinging by the bookshop and picking up a rather nice ‘deluxe’ edition, complete with lovely rough cut pages, beautiful cover art and that wrap around, extended cover thingy you can use to hold your page (Google tells me these are called ‘French flaps’ which made me giggle in spite of myself…) I was feeling good. And did I imagine a slight glimmer of respect in the eyes of the guy behind the till?
Anyway, new volume purchased I made my way home to my usual reading spot on the couch to crack the spine, where it ( or I, depending on how you look at it) failed the Come Dine With Me test. Miserably.
The Come Dine With Me test is something each book I read must pass, as my flatmates will have this program (or Snog Marry Avoid or Gok Wan’s fashion fix or Embarrassing Bodies) on the TV at all times. Come Dine With Me is a blanket term term for all distractions. The book I am reading has to hold my attention against a back drop of loud noises, jingles and mesmeric, hypnotic flashing lights. It must keep me absorbed on the tube, at lunch time, in the midst of seething crowds, mobile phone ring tones, rehearsing actors…in the noisy world I live in, I use fiction as a bomb shelter to protect me from over exposure to external stimuli. What use is a bomb shelter if you can’t get into it?
Some books do make you work harder than others though. A void was a bit of battle, but one I fought and found ultimately rewarding…but the shame I feel at failing at Joyce is a heavy burden to bear… So, into the isolation of the bedroom I went. Determined. Undefeatable. I proceeded to read the same page about seven times. I got caught in a prose feedback loop. The words just wouldn’t go into my head. They hit my ocular cortex and ran off like water on goretex.
In the cafe this lunch time, a colleague asked “Good book?” I nodded that, yes, it is. “What’s it about?”
“I…I have no fucking clue whatsoever.” I admitted.
Gamely, I started reading with a highlighter in hand. I’ve been illuminating in neon green any term, word or reference I don’t understand so it can be looked up, and the passage reread. The pen will be finished before the book, no doubt. The first 25 pages look positively radioactive.
With over 400 characters and a plot like an Escher painting …Rainbow has a reputation as being one of the most picked-up-then-put-down-books of all time…I have bitten off more than I can chew.
“Gravity’s Rainbow is bonecrushingly dense, compulsively elaborate, silly, obscene, funny, tragic, pastoral, historical, philosophical, poetic, grindingly dull, inspired, horrific, cold, bloated, beached and blasted. . . .” (Richard Locke, The New York Times Book Review)
On the year of its release the trustees of the Pulitzer Prize overturned the judges’ decision to award it the coveted prize, and so no work of fiction received the Pulitzer Prize that year. This is what I’m dealing with.
I sometimes think (perhaps wishfully) that when a book is too complex for me to read it’s advocates are simply to vain to admit they to don’t get it, and consequently give it a place in the canon so as not to be embarrassed if it is good. But then I think…maybe I’m just not very bright ( after all, I am inordinately amused by the term ‘French flaps’…)