Monday, November 03, 2008

A Companion to V.

Stephen Weiseburger's Gravity's Rainbow Companion is a hugely helpful book for anyone looking to penetrate Pynchon's magnum opus. It doesn't unlock all of the novel's secrets--I kind of doubt that any book could do as much--but it does provide the copious scientific/mathematial/political/cultural context necessary for the reader to at least approach the novel on an even footing. I highly recommend it.

Here, on the other hand, we have J. Kerry Grant's Companion to V. Is this book truly necessary? you might well ask. The first time I read V., I didn't have no goldurned guidebook, and I did just fine. It's a great novel, but it's orders of magnitude less allusive and perplexing than GR. Curiosity overtook me, however, so I decided to see if the guidebook would enhance my experience upon rereading it.

Short answer: no. I can confirm that V. remains a brilliant book, if, on reflection, not quite on the level of GR or Mason & Dixon, but the guide proved to be generally unhelpful.

Since V. contains much less esoteric material that needs glossing than Gravity's Rainbow, how does Grant fill up the pages here? By including much more interpretive material than Weisenburger did, culled from a wide variety of critics. This seems like a potentially useful approach, but in practice, it's almost worthless. There are useful bits and pieces here and there, but not too often. Grant takes a seemingly random assortment of phrases, ideas, and paragraphs as they come up in the text and provides interpretive speculation, sometimes his own but mostly from other critics. There's no guarantee that a passage that you find perplexing will be glossed, and there are plenty of glosses that make you ask, was this really necessary? It's all very arbitrary.

The real problem with this is that it doesn't aid the reader at all in gaining any sort of holistic understanding of the novel. The bits and pieces of interpretation never add up to anything, and taken out of context as they are, they sometimes feel almost meaningless. You might argue that, as a postmodern novel, V. resists any kind of global interpretation, but that seems to me to be a highly disingenuous argument, and it doesn't make the guide any less unhelpful.

In addition to interpretation, Grant does gloss historical names and concepts, but this is just as bad as if not worse than the rest of the book. There's a distinct feel of laziness here; one often gets the impression that a lot of these entries were the result of cursory google searches. No joke: he sites online encyclopedias. What exactly are we paying for here? There are many sections for things that didn't need to be glossed: did Grant really imagine that it would be at all helpful to anyone to include entries for non-obscure figures like Grace Kelly and David Ben-Gurion? Of course not. They're there to take up space, and that's ALL they're there for. Meanwhile, "boys rape our young girls behind victory garden walls," a mnemonic device for resistor codes--something a trifle more esoteric, I would have thought-- goes entirely unremarked. I don't want to sound too harsh, because obviously a significant amount of effort went into this book, but one does sense a certain 'path of least resistance' quality at times.

I've also gotten ahold of a copy of Grant's Companion to the Crying of Lot 49, in preparation for teaching the novel next semester. I haven't gotten very deeply into it, but my first impression is that it's as bad as the Companion to V. or worse--which is a shame, since Lot 49 is significantly more mystifying than V. These books aren't completely without value, but they're not very good either. I think a guide to Mason & Dixon would be great, but might I suggest, in the kindest way possible, that someone other than Grant be responsible for that one?


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