With a cast of hundreds, including a giant octopus and a troupe of escaped chimpanzees, and written as a kind of prose-poem that shifts in register from pastoral to pulp, the book is impossible to summarise. Reading it for the first time I found myself unable to understand more than a third of it, and re-reading it now, aged 48, I’m not sure I understand much more. Pynchon’s knowledge and deployment of everything from Pavlovian psychology to German expressionist cinema to genocide in Africa is astonishing, but hard to keep up with. Still, I can see why the book had such a huge impact on me. Sentence to sentence, the writing is almost impossibly gorgeous. While he’s best known for his analysis of technology, Pynchon’s descriptions of the natural world – almost annihilated in the war – are heartbreaking. Also, he’s funny – really funny. Also, and this was what really got me, he’s angry. His depiction of the war can be read as an allegory of American atrocities in Vietnam, and his vision of a future where technology is used to control, subdue or monetise every element of human experience feels more prescient every day.
There is no love in this book – that’s what struck me this time around. I found myself wondering if the many depictions of cruelty, violence, misogyny were really necessary, if Pynchon’s vision was bleaker than it needed to be. But then you look at the news, you know? Climate change, the capture of the state by corporate interests, tech billionaires turning whole populations into lab rats? And you start to think that the real difficulty of this famously difficult novel may, after all, be that Pynchon saw it coming.
This article was first published in the Irish Independent