I noticed recently that I had unconsciously allowed my reading habits to slip, relegating books to subway commutes and the bedside. This had to change. Here’s a quick overview of the notables I’ve picked up since.
Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville
I’ve long heard this book referred to as some kind of steampunk masterpiece. What it is, is a bit more like a Discworld novel that decided to take itself really seriously. Its world is a surreal mishmash of grotesque, discordant fantasy elements, and the bulk of the first half is just Mieville piecing it together in copious detail. There’s some evocative stuff here, but the novel’s commitment to being as grimdark as possible ultimately proved wearying in the second half, and the ending in particular killed off whatever sympathy I had for the characters.
The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson
It seemed like a good way to ring in the fall. Jackson’s blend of psychological and supernatural horror is as creepy as its reputation suggests, mainly due to the way Jackson’s prose somehow captures that lizard-brain sensation of things being wrong in ways that are impossible to rationally parse. It was adapted into the famous Robert Wise movie, The Haunting, which is probably one of the few instances of a movie adaptation being at least the equal of the book.
The Arabian Nights
Unabridged of course. And still mostly unread – I’m only at Night 87. But its famous story-within-a-story weaving of medieval Arabic lore makes it an ideal text to pick up and put down at your own leisure; you only need to keep track of things for a few pages at a time, and it seems fitting that when older characters or scenarios return, you should only half-remember them in a dreamlike manner.
The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon
Pynchon has long been a lacuna in my reading of American letters, which is unfortunate, as he does seem to be heir apparent to the sort of gonzo-maximalist style of novel writing epitomized by Moby-Dick, where the “plot” functions mainly as a hook for constructing a kaleidoscopic tome that rambles on about whatever it pleases, throwing genre and stylistic conventions out the window.
The Crying of Lot 49 isn’t really that, though, being under 200 pages and being relatively focused. It felt a lot like a kind of literary The Big Lebowski, in that it functions as a comedy with a complex mystery plot which ultimately turns out to be a shaggy-dog story. In this case, the restless housewife Oedipa Maas finds herself drawn into a conspiracy after a rich former lover dies, and unexpectedly leaves her co-executor of his estate.
It convinced me that Pynchon is, indeed a great prose stylist and a (mostly) funny guy, but it felt a tad on the shallow side, being mainly about the jokes and 60s SoCal culture.
Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon
Yeah, I just can’t. It may be Pynchon’s most celebrated book, but its obsessive cataloguing of fetishes and kinky sex proved to be too off putting. And after Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five, I can’t say I have too much interest in the weird postmodern WWII tragicomedy subgenre.
Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon
This, on the other hand is really great (so far – I’m only about 200 pages in). It’s a fictionalized account of the scientific exploits of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, responsible for the so-called Mason-Dixon line separating Pennsylvania and Maryland. Pynchon deliberately writes in an archaic, 18th century style while still keeping his own postmodern weirdness, and the combo magically works somehow. So far, the story is a satire of 18th century Enlightenment values, which I am very much down for; while also genuinely celebrating the development of the modern sciences (Pynchon himself having a background in physics).
Of course, having prematurely stated my enjoyment of it, I should expect things to inevitably sour by the time I reach page 300.