I wanted to thank everyone who read along and added helpful and even curious comments both here and on my blog. While I like to be a purist about reading, I realize that it’s kind of foolish to think you can read certain texts in a vacuum.
I am able to come full circle with a comment about Ulysses. My co-worker decided that he was finally going to read Ulysses (it feels good to write that). He is doing it with no outside help (he doesn’t even want me to tell him what’s going on, so I didn’t even tell him about our discussion here). And it’s amazing hearing what he takes from it and also what he simply doesn’t pick up on.
He didn’t seem to have a basic understanding of the set up of the book–that it is a day in the life of Dublin. And I can see that if you don’t know that Sandymount strand is in Dublin, it might not be readily apparent that that’s where the book is set (at least right away). Without such basic knowledge, though, I wondered if it was even possible to understand what was happening in the book. [Mind you, I had literally no idea what Gravity’s Rainbow was about either]. I had a college course about Ulysses (complete with Ulysses Annotated, so I knew a lot of what was going on in the background. Of course, when he talks to me about Ulysses, I want to tell him about all the various things that each section symbolizes, or why things are done the way they are. But I’m holding my tongue to keep his purity in tact.
Having said that, he is picking up on a lot of stuff and is getting a lot of the story. And it’s always fun to hear him come in with a new insight to what he read that morning. But I wonder if it would be more enjoyable if he “knew” more.
And now with the insights that I’ve been getting here, I wonder if Gravity’s Rainbow would have been more interesting if I knew the connections I’ve been reading about here. I would say yes, very probably. Like my co-worker, I didn’t want any spoilers (that’s why I didn’t read Weisenberger, as I understand spoilers–if that is even possibly with GR–were present, heck, unavoidable. But I’ll bet knowing more about what the Kabbalah stuff meant would have made some of these sections more interesting.
So, Joyce threw everything he could about Dublin (and some of the world around him) into Ulysses. And Pynchon seems to have thrown into Gravity’s Rainbow everything he knew about the World circa 1945, with a bit of 70s politics thrown in as well. And it’s obvious he did his homework. I never would have guessed that so much of the stuff he talks about was real–can you really fit a light bulb into a kazoo? And without Wikipedia cheat sheets I wouldn’t have appreciated nearly as much. Of course, I read the Wikipedia stuff after i read the section, when I was skimming it for things to post about, so i was able to keep some of my purity in tact.
I guess the point is that no one can ever hope to know as much as an author about a subject. Either because the author lived it or because the author did more research than you have, or even because it is simply his or her perspective on events. In the case of Gravity’s Rainbow, I may not have understood everything that happened in the book, but holy cow did I learn a lot more than I ever knew about WWII, conspiracy theories and paranoia.
On another note, I had hoped to post something here every week, but I learned that bosses really don’t appreciate employees writing blog posts on company time (spoiled sports). So I’m sorry I couldn’t help keep the discussion going regularly. But at the same time I also found myself almost literally speechless about what to talk about. Aside from some serious WTF questions, this book had me kind of stymied for insights. Well, not insights per say, but coherent insights.
I’m appreciative of the book for making me think so much (and making me think such crazy things) and I appreciate you all for helping me focus my thoughts.
I feel like I would perhaps like to read this book again (although not anytime soon). But since I just learned that V. has some of the same charcaters in it, perhaps i should go back and read that one first. I wish that GR was available as an audiobook! That would be interesting in terms of narrator as well.
Speaking of insights, here’s an interesting review of the book from The New York Times. Holy spoiler alert about Gottfried! But there are some interesting cultural insights (since it was written in 1973), that we might not pick up on in 2012. I believe there’s a few errors, too. It’s also fascinating to see such a lengthy book review in a newspaper!
So, what’s next everyone, JR? [I actually wrote this post before Daryl submitted his survey. JR was kind of a joke, but I’m delighted that it was an option!]
Tangentially, I was wondering if there was any kind of acknowledged list of difficult books out there? I mean, right now it seems like Infinite Zombies is a major resource for such a list. There are a few resources that I’ve seen online, although most of them are just people’s personal lists of tough books. Given the world’s penchant for making lists, I’m surprised no one with any authority has created The Top 20 Hardest Novels. I’m pretentious enough to think that I have most of them in my house (whether I have read them or not). But I always wonder if I missed one.
The final word belongs to Slothrop (and others): oboy.
Hmm, I guess I didn’t really say all that much about Gravity’s Rainbow there, did I?
I was very glad to have you along for the ride again, Paul, and I continue to marvel at the thoroughness of the summaries you provide over at your blog. JR‘s probably my personal top pick for a next book, though it may be the sort of book, now that I think of it, that’s not terribly well suited to a group read. Second for me is probably the Saunders, though so far that’s in last place (with only four surveys filled out, so hopefully there’s more data to come).
Are there any breaks in JR at all?
Only the breaking of your spirit as you try for the first 300 pages to figure out how to read the dang thing. 😉
What are your nominations for the 20 hardest novels? It’s been a long time since I read Gravity’s Rainbow but I didn’t have the time to read along on it. However, I will hope to browse the posts here if I do get around to a reread soon. I would have though JR was relatively easy to read (beside The Recognitions) I intend reading both again in the next couple of years and would be interested to join in on a group read.
John Cowper Powys is one of those writers of long difficult books who tends to get overlooked. He can be uneven but his best are brilliant – Owen Glendower, A Glastonbury Romance…
It’s been years since I read JR and years since I’ve read all of The Recognitions (though I started a reread of it in the last year), but my sense is that JR is a lot harder because it’s so vastly different from the sort of fairly conventional narrative that Gaddis uses in The Recognitions, which is practically Victorian in narrative style compared to JR.
I guess I found the references in The Recognitions more difficult. JR, despite it’s stylistic difficulty, I found more self contained which made it an easier read for me.
I’m actually rereading Carpenter’s Gothic at the moment and his writing really is a thing of wonder. You can hear the characters draw breath as you read the dialogue and see them doing things that aren’t described.
I’m going to answer this by making a new post. Maybe other will chime in if it’s got its own heading.
I really want to thank you for sharing all of this, even though I didn’t attempt GR with you. In a way I’m jealous of your friend encountering U for the 1st time, but then my 1st read was in a college course, & I firmly believe the reason I fell in love had everything to do with timing: the right book at the right time with the right teacher. It’s a kind of alchemy, I think.
Strange , this page turns up with a black color to it, what color is the primary color on your web-site?