301 Moved Permanently

301 Moved Permanently


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Heavy Reading

Google “most challenging novels of all time” and you will get thousands of results with lists of books that are notoriously difficult to read. Almost always included are Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, usually for its daunting length, The Road by Cormac McCarthy for its violent and sexual subject matter, Kosmos by Witold Gombrowicz for its surreal, existential plot, Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce for the disorienting style of prose, and Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon’s magnum opus, which appears for all of these reasons. The story is set in Europe near the end of WWII and concerns a secret Allied psychological warfare agency and their discovery of an apparent link between the sexual encounters of an unassuming American lieutenant named Slothrop and attacks from Germany with the recently invented V-2 rocket. Slothrop could be called the protagonist, but with a cast of several dozen characters, many of whom disappear arbitrarily and without explanation, it is hard to say if this novel has a protagonist, or even a central plot for that matter; Slothrop’s journey to discover the roots of his psychosexual connection with the V-2 rocket is frequently interrupted by disjointed, hallucinatory anecdotes about, among others, a pair of Laurel-and-Hardy-like kamikaze pilots and an immortal sentient lightbulb planning to overthrow the government. The convoluted story unfolds in sentences that sometimes span several pages, jump forward months at a time, drift in and out of fantasy, use indiscernible technical engineering jargon and include everything from song lyrics to calculus formulae. Pynchon’s writing is confusing and at times unintelligible, but it is also impressive in its scope, eloquent and funny. Many of his scenes read like Monty Python sketches—the ones that you didn’t quite get, but still laughed at. The key to navigating this novel is to disregard character and plot, and instead rely on the continuity of theme and imagery as a guide. I enjoyed this book once I abandoned all hope of understanding what was going on.

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