The Perfect Literary Storm

By Mark Trodden | November 20, 2006 11:20 pm

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.

  • Douglas

    Holy crap! I just moved into Edinburgh! Well now you know who I’ll be looking for at Oxfam…. Thanks for the book suggestions!

  • cynic

    Rankin/Rebus are excellent – what’s your take on the UK TV verision (if you’ve seen it)?

  • Mark

    Hi cynic. I love them. I pay a lot for cable TV basically so that I can get BBC America to see things like that occasionally.

  • LitPark

    Found you via your mention of Pynchon. It’s been fun poking around and seeing where physics geeks intersect with literary geeks.

  • Andrew Jaffe

    Since I’ve read all of Pynchon, I guess we agree on that one. I am abuzz with excitement like everyone else…

    Until then: which Rankin books should I start with?

  • Blake Stacey

    I just got my copy of Against the Day from the bookstore down the street. The mere presence of it on my desk (gotta wait until work is over, gotta wait, gotta wait. . . arrgh. . . !) makes up for queuing at the DMV this morning and getting turned away on a Brazil-esque technicality.

  • Sean

    Now I am jealous … I ordered mine from Amazon, so I have to wait. Probably for the best.

  • Matt

    For what it’s worth, Michiko Kakutani gave Against the Day a pretty negative review in The New York Times (reg req’d).

  • WeemaWhopper

    I got started with Pynchon with Vineland, which didn’t make me a fan. Lot 49 was better, but still left me wondering why. Perhaps I should have gone right to Gravity’s Rainbow.

    Don’t know Rankin, but one Southern California detective writer who is amazing is Ross MacDonald (well, was amazing, he died in the early 1980’s). He nails post WWII Southern California.

  • Jacob Russell

    What about Richard Powers, a novelist who has a background in physics and music, and draws on both? The Goldbug Variations and Plowing the Dark both explore the tensions at the boundry lines between science and the humanities.

    Pynchon is srong on ideas, but such deadly prose…

  • Jacob Russell

    What about Richard Powers, a novelist who has a background in physics and music, and draws on both? The Goldbug Variations and Plowing the Dark both explore the tensions at the boundry lines between science and the humanities.

    And how could I forget, Galadea 2.2 and Prisoner’s Dilemma!

    Pynchon is srong on ideas, but such deadly prose…

  • NoJoy

    WeemaWhopper, I recommend Mason and Dixon before Gravity’s Rainbow. In my opinion, if you don’t like M&D, you don’t like Pynchon, and you shouldn’t kill yourself trying to read GR. Have you read V? I thought it was easier to read than M&D and GR, and better than Vineland (but not as good as M&D).

    When someone first introduced me to Pynchon, he recommended the order Lot 49, V, GR (this was before Vineland or M&D came out). I would modify the list to put M&D between V and GR. Where to put Vineland is a hard call for me, since I think it’s easier to read than M&D but not as good.

  • Jim Harrison

    Some books have to read in particular ways to be appreciated. The Rembrance of Things Past is deadly dull if you try to read it quickly, but slowly savoring the works of Jules Verne would equally intolerable. Most novels, especially modern novels, are written to be read straight-through and only once—they are the literary equivalent of MREs. On the other hand, Pynchon’s novels, like the works of Cervantes and even more those of Rabelais, are best read and reread over a long period of time. I’ve read some chapters of Gravity’s Rainbow ten or twelve times, but I’ve only read the whole thing through once and have never figured out the overall plot of the work as a whole. (Masterplots hasn’t either, by the way. I’ve checked.)

  • Stu

    Do cosmologists read SciFi? If so, what are your favorites?

  • Fermi-Walker Public Transport

    I read not too long ago I read Audrey Niffenegger’s “The Time Travelor’s Wife” and was completely blown away. It was the best SciFi novel I have read in a very long time, but then I am an astronomer, not a cosmologist so you might want to take my opinion with a grain (or shaker) of salt.

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  • Joel Grant

    I have the new Pynchon book and I believe it may come to be regarded as his masterpiece. Given some extra time I will type in a few of the most amazing passages I have come across. One question to ponder is this: whence the title “Against the Day”?

  • Mark

    I ran across it in the bookstore yesterday but put off buying it because I’m pretty sure someone has it on their Christmas list for me. You guys are pushing my patience though.

  • Joel Grant

    Mark wrote:

    I ran across it in the bookstore yesterday but put off buying it because I’m pretty sure someone has it on their Christmas list for me. You guys are pushing my patience though.

    If you hold off you are a patient man. But consider that “Mason & Dixon” was published in 1997 so what’s a few more weeks?

    When I get a chance I will type in a couple of sentences from the new book to whet the appetite. Whatever any critic says about this novel, I can assure you that Thomas Pynchon has not lost his knack for intense and vivid prose.

  • Mark

    Yes, but I read that pretty smartly as I recall.

  • Joel Grant

    Here is a paragraph from “Against the Day”:

    Planted rows went turning past like giant spokes one by one as they ranged the roads. The skies were interrupted by dark gray storm clouds with a flow like molten stone, swept and liquid, and light that found its way through them was lost in the dark fields but gathered shining along the pale road, so that sometimes all you could see was the road, and the horizon it ran to. Sometimes she was overwhelmed by the green life passing in such high turbulence, too much to see, all clamoring to have its way. Leaves sawtooth, spade-shaped, long and thin, blunt-fingered, downy and veined, oiled and dusty with the day – flowers in bells and clusters, purple and white or yellow as butter, star-shaped ferns in the wet and dark places, millions of green veilings, before the bridal secrets in the moss and under the deadfalls, went on by the wheels creaking and struck by rocks in the ruts, sparks visible only in what shadow it might pass over, a busy development of small trailside shapes tumbling in what had to be deliberately arranged precision, herbs the wild-crafters knew the names and market prices of and which the silent women up in the foothils, counterparts whom they most often never got even to meet, knew the magic uses for. They lived for different futures, but they were each other’s unrecognized halves, and what fascination between them did come to pass was lit up, beyond question, with grace.

    p. 70

    Now that sounds like Pynchon to me.

  • Mark

    Stop taunting me Joel Grant – my will is strong – I will wait until Christmas :)

  • Joel Grant

    Mark wrote:

    Stop taunting me Joel Grant – my will is strong – I will wait until Christmas

    And now you have a little something to tide you over. Enjoy!

  • ither

    Having read The Crying…, and V., decades ago, Mason and Dixon has been lying on the shelf for years, mostly because I found V. to be clever, but turgid. As for Rankin, if you like detective noirs, try Valin (locus Cincinnati). Rankin himself reads too much like a screenplay, as if written to be adapted by the BBC. Robinson (Yorkshire) is similar to Rankin, but better. Lastly, I just have to flog one of my favorites, James McClure, who wrote a series in the 70’s placed in South Africa.


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About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


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