On Nabokov and (reading) transitions


I started reading Pale Fire this week.   And while there might not be any really good book to jump to after Gravity’s Rainbow, this is definitely not the ideal transition.

It’s tough to move from one major writer to another, no matter how good the respective books are.   It seems very much like moving from one romantic relationship to another, without a break-up in between — instead there’s just loss and grief, at least if you really loved the book.  It’s hard to shake off the rhythms of one writer for another, hard not to think this doesn’t sound right at all, this isn’t the way it’s done.

There are no throwaway sentences with Pynchon.  Even the simple passages are interesting, because he always goes for the unexpected image, word, metaphor.  And of course it’s all packed in so densely that you start to think this is way we’re supposed to read books — very, very slowly.  (Not that Inherent Vice or even Lot 49 are tough reads, but they still demand a kind of active reading.)

What to make of Pale Fire, then, and my reaction to it.  So far I’m not pleased.  It’s possible that the joke is far over my head, that something extraordinary is happening to unite Shade’s poem and Kinbote’s unbearable commentary.   And I can see that it’s an interesting idea, how the book plays with ideas of authorship and the act of creation.  But I dislike virtually everyone in the book, and the disconnect between the poem and the commentary only seemed funny at first, then started to get tiring.  Am I just expecting something different, and so I’m not able to appreciate the book’s originality?  Should I be reading all kinds of subtext into Kinbote’s fictional kingdom and his exiled king?

I’m only halfway in, so there’s always a chance it’ll come together for me.  But can you really say you’ve enjoyed a book if half of it put you to sleep, even if the other half was amazing?  I’m pretty sure I haven’t even smiled.

But there’s something more to it than that.  You shouldn’t have to completely get what a book is about — all those great subtexts — in order to enjoy it.  It has to function on its own, too, as a story, or at least as some lyrical outpouring of language.  If it only works on an emotional level if you decipher the hidden meaning, then there’s something big and important missing.

About the author

Tom Howard

Tom Howard is the author of Fierce Pretty Things (Indiana University Press, 2019).

He received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Fierce Pretty Things won the 2018 Blue Light Books Fiction Prize, and his individual stories have won the Ninth Letter Literary Award in Fiction, the Indiana Review Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award for Fiction, the Carve Magazine Prose & Poetry Contest, the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction, the Innovative Short Fiction Prize, the Willow Springs Ficiton Prize, the Rash Award in Fiction, and the Robert J. DeMott Award for Short Prose.

He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.

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By Tom Howard


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