The US literary world can be divided into two camps: those who think Thomas Pynchon is a very clever guy, and those who also think he's a great writer. As it happens, I'm of the former camp. While I admit that Pynchon's writing is packed with all sorts of ideas, ultimately the novels strike me as more crudités than smorgasbord: the appetisers keep coming (and coming, and coming), but the main course never arrives. Pynchon's hallmarks are his tentacular - I might almost say his amorphous - prose, which can and does snare just about any philosophical concept or pop cultural phenomenon in its grasp; and his sense of satire, which can be awfully funny if your taste runs to broad humour. Neither of these traits is necessarily ruinous, but it's Pynchon's particular conflation of them that can limit his appeal. Given a choice between pathos and bathos, Pynchon errs on the side of farcical melodrama again and again (and again), and while I admire him for his efforts to undermine traditional narrative tyranny with humour rather than resorting to a Barth-style hatchet job, all four of his novels offer the same one-dimensional commentary on contemporary US society, and, in the end, a thirty-year writing career hasn't produced a single memorable or even recognisably human character.
LRB 18 July 1996 | PDF Download