You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

My Photo
Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Gravity's Rainbow

Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow is one of the most dense and difficult works I've ever managed to read. The narrative is convoluted and digressive. The characters are unhinged, paranoid, and solipsistic. There is a decent overview of the plot on Wikipedia, but I will try to give my own synopsis.

The story takes place at the end of World War II. London is being bombarded by Germany's V-2 rocket. Ned Pointsman is a doctor at the "White Visitation", a sort of asylum where war intelligence work is done. Studies are done following Pavlov's work on mental conditioning and psychology. They discover that the sexual escapades of Lt. Tyrone Slothrop match precisely with the location of the rocket attacks and predate them by a few days. Thus we learn that the rocket is entwined with sex, specifically Slothrop's. And Slothrop's sex life is warped by Pavlovian experiments done on him when he was young boy. There is a steady theme of paranoia, mixed with the reality that many of Slothrop's and other's actions are controlled or directed by a mysterious Them. There's an affair between Jessica Swanlake and Roger Mexico. There's a dark S&M game played by Katje and Gottfried in Denmark under the direction of their master Weissman, also known as Blicero.

In part 2, peace is breaking out and Slothrop is sent to the Casino Hermann Goering where he rescues Katje from an apparent octopus attack. They sleep together and then she disappears, and he sneaks away from his watchers to go on a secret mission. In Zurich he meets a member of an Argentinean freedom group that has commandeered a German sub and takes a message for him.

Part 3 is titled "In the Zone". This is the zone inside occupied Germany where there is much activity around the rocket. A group of Africans have been brought to form a Swartzcommando. They are trying to reconstruct a copy of the V-2 rocket, the 00000. Meanwhile a Russian named Tchitcherine is looking for their leader Enzian, who is his half-brother. Slothrop gets involved with a drug dealer, gets chased by American soldiers, gets captured and released by Tchitcherine, and meets a horror movie actress named Greta. Greta leads him to the Anubis, a sort of pleasure ship traveling on a German river. There he witnesses and takes part in an orgy. After getting washed overboard he wanders around a lot and enjoys his alter ego as the Rocketman.

In Part 4 Slothrop's narrative dissolves as the 00000 is reconstructed by Blicero and Enzian. The story is filled with various digressions such as Japanese kamikazes and sentient lightbulds. In the end the rocket is assembled with Blicero's sex slave Gottfried inside and fired towards England.

The exposition above can barely scratch the surface of the happenings in this book. There are many flashbacks and sub-plots. The themes revolve around paranoia, free will versus fate, and sex as power. The travels of Slothrop are told not in a traditional narrative but as a very imaginative, wandering stream-of-consciousness flow. At times we are not sure what is real and what is imaginary. Though the characters seem paranoid, eventually true conspiracies are revealed.

A few things stick in my memory: that the V-2 rocket strikes without warning since it travels faster than sound, and that has an affect on the psychology of those in London. That Slothrop's fate is tied to the rocket through Jamf's experiments on him, the man who created the rocket's plastic component Imipolex G. Slothrop loses his focus in Germany and doesn't really understand why he's there. The Swartzcommando in Germany is a kind of dark force of power that Tchitcherine is drawn to but that he wants to destroy. Slothrop's sexual escapades culminate on the Anubis with the orgy and Greta's daughter Bianca, who later dies. That Greta and Bianca are somehow linked to a rocket scientist named Pokler who gets visitations from a girl who may be his daughter or a series of impostors. That the sexual depravity in the White Visitation is mirrored by Blicero's at the cottage in Denmark, and it is Blicero who sends his "son" to be sacrificed on the rocket.

It is difficult to judge this book. At times it was enjoyable and occasionally funny. A lot of the time it was confusing. The novel's title refers to the trajectory of the rocket as it flies through the atmosphere and finally lands on its target. Certainly the rocket and its fate influence the story's arc, and engineering and mathematics are throughout the book. I think a good work of literature should be enjoyable with or without extra explanation, but this book is so complex that it is difficult to really appreciate it without extended footnotes. At the same time, I know there is good stuff there. I will give a B. I am glad to have gotten through it. Some long books are exciting and you don't want them to end, or you have mixed feelings about the end because you will enjoy it but it will all be over. This is not one of those books. It was a marathon read. I was exhausted after reading it.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Yellow Admiral

The Yellow Admiral is the 18th installment in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series. It starts with Jack and Stephen in England catching up with their family. Jack is distressed over the possibility of being "yellowed", or promoted to flag rank without any command, the yellow command being imaginary. Jack is dealing with political issues as an MP in the House of Commons. He leads the opposition to a land reform proposal that another powerful lord and admiral support. Despite the admiral trying to get him orders to go sea, Jack manages to get to Parliament and help vote down the measure.

Stephen Maturin is enjoying his wife Diana and daughter Brigid. He is concerned to learn that his fortune may not be safe in Spain, but then it all works out. Before leaving on a mission, Jack asserts to his wife Sophie that her rudeness to Clarissa Oakes is unwarranted since he has never been involved with her. Yet he soon receives a letter from Sophie informing him that she has knowledge of his affair in America. His attempts to reconcile are useless, until Sophie talks to Diana and Stephen and accepts him back.

Jack is assigned to the Bellona and gets into trouble when a pair of French ships slip the blockade. Then he gets into trouble for leaving formation to chase a French privateer. Stephen returns from a mission in France with plans for Jack to leave the navy when peace breaks out and take a command with the Chilean navy. When Napoleon is captured, Jack is ready to travel to Chile. He is on the first leg of his voyage to Chile when he gets word that Napoleon has escaped and the war is back on.

This book was a bit slower than most of the others. The conflict revolves around Jack's domestic duties and his identity as an MP. Stephen has his usual role as an intelligence agent. Their children get to know each other. Jack struggles with his life on shore and his life on sea, and faces the potential of leaving the sea behind with the end of his career. The voyage at the end with his family starts as a nice valediction until the news of Napoleon's escape. Overall, it's an adequate novel but not among the best in the series. B

Labels: , ,