Broadly speaking I have two great literary loves. Sure I enjoy plenty of grand historical fiction, and certainly I won’t argue the objective worth of any literary giant with you. But when I’m browsing in a bookstore, or sitting at home in front of the fire, I will inevitably buy, or pull from my shelves, a great work of contemporary fiction, or (and I use this word because many people think of these as disparate categories, although you’ll find some crossover in one of Sean’s posts) something that qualifies as a contemporary detective drama.
In these categories, I have many favorites, but in almost any reading physicist’s list (and I am no exception) of great contemporary authors you will find Thomas Pynchon, even if they have only read Gravity’s Rainbow. In my other category, I really do have a favorite, and it is Ian Rankin. Rankin’s plots are tightly constructed, and his deeply-flawed-but-fundamentally-good protagonist, Inspector John Rebus, is a wonderful example of the type. But it the coupling of these staples of the genre with a nuanced understanding of Rebus’ territory – modern day Edinburgh – that puts Rankin in a class of his own, closely followed, in my opinion, by Peter Robinson.
When I read Rankin, I can feel the chill of an Edinburgh winter, smell the inside of a rundown pub, taste the beer. I become invested in his battles in this world because it is, in my experience of similar parts of the country, such a faithful description. Because of this, I buy into Rebus’ tribulations to an extent to which no plot device on its own could ever entice me.
Pynchon and Rankin are two pillars of my literary world, but I must confess, even though I am aware enough to see that many of the qualities that I admire are common to them both (they are both bawdy, for example), I have never thought of them in the same mental breath.
But all this changed on Saturday, when I read a wonderful essay in The Guardian, written by Ian Rankin, and in praise of – you guessed it – Thomas Pynchon.
It turns out that Pynchon is one of Rankin’s heroes, and that Rankin has done his hero proud as he bubbles over in excitement at the impending release of Pynchon’s new work
… once more I would begin to inhabit the shadowy, conspiracy-driven theatre of the absurd that seems to be Pynchon’s imagination. It’s a place that constrains and hypnotises the general reader, and exerts an even greater pull on the true fan. My wife and children would lose sight of me for as long as it took to read the book, and afterwards I would be shell-shocked, wide-eyed, and seeing everywhere around me the signs of another world, similar to the one I seem to inhabit, but darker, odder, and altogether funnier.
It will be a challenging book – Pynchon’s novels are nothing if not challenging – and I’ll be first in the queue to buy it, because (in an all-too-Pynchonesque twist) the joint UK and US embargo on reviewing the book meant I was not able to read it prior to commencing this appreciation. Nevertheless, let us begin.
This infatuation goes all the way back to Rankin’s student days
Pynchon seemed to fit the model I was learning of literature as an extended code or grail quest. Moreover, he was like a drug: as you worked out one layer of meaning, you quickly wanted to move to the next. He wrote action novels about spies and soldiers which also happened to be detective stories and bawdy romps. His books were picaresquely post-modern and his humour was Marxian (tendance: Groucho). On page six of The Crying of Lot 49, the name Quackenbush appears, and you know you are in safely comedic hands.
It is pointless for me to try to do justice here to Rankin’s homage to our common hero, but I hope those of you with a literary bent will take a look at the article. I particularly liked the suggestion that, while one of Rankin’s inspirations is a “literary giant”, this might be a two way street
Yet his books are romps and detective stories. In Lot 49, the heroine Oedipa Maas begins to feel like “the private eye in any long-ago radio drama”. Pynchon has also credited the spy novels of Graham Greene and Le Carre and the thrillers of another Scot, John Buchan, as inspiration, alongside likelier suspects such as Jack Kerouac (and Pynchon does remain the most Beat of contemporary literary authors).
If you aren’t familiar with Rankin’s work it is well worth a look. You don’t need experience of gritty British pubs, and you don’t need to know Edinburgh. You just need to recognize realism when you read it.
Oh, and the plots are a lot of fun too.