Waxing Press

Book Review: Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

book reviews, tastemakingIan Wissman

When it comes to literature and the aesthetics of writing, I'm a Mooreman. I believe in art's power and need to present a real challenge to its viewer/reader/auditor with intellectual rigor and a fascinatingly unique perspective. That entertainment is a secondary or tertiary value of any piece of fiction (or art in general) comes as a shock to those who let me expound on why I like "difficult" fiction, but base entertainment seems often valueless with middling rewards. Sure, I indulge from time to time in pulp and rote genre fantasia, but those digressions tend to leave no lasting or inspiring impressions on me. And, in truth, real entertainment comes to me through that aforementioned intellectual rigor and struggle with a book. Dense prose and demanding concepts that require legwork on the reader give me intense pleasures, especially rewarding when my brain makes new connexions beyond the text, affecting the way I think and feel and express. To me, the true value of reading a book is the expansion of my capacity to communicate, to make myself clearer in a world of voices unable to articulate with precision. And this is why I love a book like Thomas Pynchon's National Book Award-winner, Gravity's Rainbow.

One problem with writing about Gravity's Rainbow is that a seminal book such as this has been written about endlessly for the past 44 years. I'm left only with my ability to articulate why challenging fiction is necessary and why it needs to be pursued if, as a civilization, we're to maintain our humanity. So, I'm going to write circuitously about my appreciation for challenging and demanding fiction to express my love of Gravity's Rainbow.

First, let's recognize that "entertainment," that ever-present-but-elusive thing, is highly subjective and often polarizing--it's what makes me cringe when colleagues talk about a show like The Big Bang Theory but fail to recognize the nuanced and shaggy beauty of the bizarre and discombobulating new season of Twin Peaks. But, it's not entertainment value that drives the cringe; it's level of intellectual accessibility, and the ability to forestall the concrete for ambiguousness. That is, where I'm sure I could find some chuckles in the aforementioned sit-com, the heartier pleasures come from the deep, complex interpretive work one must do to "get" and "enjoy" the latter. With Gravity's Rainbow, nothing is taken for granted: the reader is never condescended to, never abused. In fact, the book teaches you in its early chapters how to read it, setting up the chess pieces of its literary game early on. Each character intro is suffused with the necessary info to track their narrative arcs. No more succinctly is this done with Katje's introduction, which opens with her being filmed and ends with Grigori, the octopus, being conditioned with the very film.

One sees Grigori 100 pages later, but in a new, unexpected context. However, astute reading will recognize him and the connexions to Pavlovian conditioning and feel that hearty pleasure of connexion-making, and re-contextualized story-telling. Other character details, such as Tyrone Slothrop's harmonica playing, becomes key clues and indicators that signify more complexity to readers as they build motifs throughout the book. As Tyrone basically dissolves into nature, glimpses of his dissolute self appear to other characters through these clues--the harmonica heard in the distance, the Hawaiian shirt passing in the periphery of a crowd. Meaning-making is done on the part of the reader in these moments, rewarding the reader's acuity and recall.

Think about a key trope in a really great stand-up set: The callback. While it can sometimes feel forced, it's often appreciated when a comic strives for it, because it rewards the audience's keen attention to the details of the comic's "narrative" of jokes, fostering a kind of "in-ness" between artist and audience. The same is done in literature's greatest feats, like Gravity's Rainbow, where the nudge-nudge-wink-wink of consistent callbacks doesn't wear on you, but rather makes the text bloom and blossom in your mind. It reminds me of the comment complaint about films based on books: "The book was better," the expected and cliched refrain (there's always truth to cliches, otherwise they wouldn't be cliches). What's at the root of this universal feeling is that the film missed some essence of the book that you perceived--typically from the intellectual rigor you put into reading the book over the film. I feel similarly about "difficult" or "challenging" literature in comparison to lighter, less demanding novels. Because of the work needed to "understand" the book's plots, characters, ideas, meanings, et. al., the deep, deep satisfaction of these fictions outshines those pulpy pleasures.

Is reading Gravity's Rainbow a must for everyone? No. Surely not. It's messy and complicated, fraught with really problematic stuff that won't tickle the fancies of many readers. But those who look to books to challenge their perceptions, don't be daunted by difficulty. Trust in yourself. Trust in the author. And enjoy the hell out of the ride.

Book Review: The Vorrh by B. Catling

tastemaking, book reviewsIan Wissman

Last year I read The Vorrh, an ephemeral dream of a book that took inspiration from Roussel's Impressions of Africa to create a new mythical fantasy set in the early 20th century. The Vorrh, an infinite forest in the heart of Africa, fabled to have the Garden of Eden at its center, deteriorates the minds of men who spend any amount of time within it. Populated by cryptozoological beasts of Catling's own creation, and some built on historical legend, The Vorrh is the first book of a planned trilogy also featured historical figures such as Roussel himself, and photographic genius Eadweard Muybridge, whose passages about capturing motion in still image were some of the most interesting, poetic pieces of prose I'd read in a long time. And keep in mind, this is a genre novel.

"Nebuchadnezzar" by William Blake, 1795

"Nebuchadnezzar" by William Blake, 1795

I'm pretty interested lately in the intersection of genre and literary fiction because there's a burgeoning space for it. Literary writers giving great treatment to genre tropes, images, aesthetics, themes, motifs--the work of China Miéville and Mark Z Danielewski's The Familiar series would be the best examples of contemporary writers doing it now. There's a rich history of it, and genre can be great and informative when done beautifully. The Vorrh did it all wonderfully. However, this time around, it feels that Catling may have bit off more than he could chew while being unable to re-capture some of that same magic of the first entry in the series.

Firstly, the book is overstuffed with moving parts that have so much promise but never pay off. Starting with book's namesake creatures: the Erstwhile--forsaken angels who it is fabled were left in the garden to protect the Tree of Knowledge from Adam, but left behind on Earth and have just been rotting away here since. They have some interesting scenes throughout, with the primary Erstwhile character living in a mental facility in London, but there's absolutely no pay off with these beings--they foretell no plot point or thematic element other than maybe to build on/confirm the idea that the center of the Vorrh is Eden. But then why do they occupy so much page space? Secondly, with so much of the book taking place in Europe in 1924-1925 with a German Jew in London, there are a few mentions of him hiding his identity, but again, not much pay off or real use is made of it. The settings, themes and ideas don't bloom because it seems Catling may have been working overtime to pack too much into this book rather than focus on the prose. The promise of real dangers of life between two looming wars should weigh in the balance, along with the pressures of identity. The balance is lost, which is a shame because the Erstwhile known as Nicholas in the mental hospital has multiple, shifting identities as Nebuchadnezzar of William Blake's famous monotype print, but also as this angelic being from the origin of time, and a few more even more surreal ones. In all, there are a lot of fragments of ideas with just no general full thought behind them, or rhyme or reason to their purpose. Which is unfortunate, because these fragments are fully ripe with the same magnitude of intrigue that this books predecessor has, it just gets a little overstuffed and mismanaged this time around.

Which gets down to the aesthetic of the book. Where The Vorrh had an ephemeral, out-of-time and imagistic quality, less reliant on plot than themes and motifs, The Erstwhile breaks down into feeling very much like a genre book driven by an "extraction plot" halfway through. Ishmael, the cyclops-hero of the first novel must enter the Vorrh to retrieve the slave labor race of people who have wandered in and become distracted/lost in search of something. Once it turns into this sort of basic genre plot-driven affair, the prose takes the backseat, losing its love-labored poetic quality. Shed of the ephemeral features, the book sacrifices what makes it unique and becomes a catalog of "weird stuff" told plainly, which just isn't that interesting.

As a trilogy, I'm hopeful this one perhaps was acting as a setup for the final book, to get things in order, however, with so many moving parts, I worry that there's just too much to work for in concluding the final book that it won't suffer from the same loss of "magic" that this one did. Perhaps this is just the problem of some series anyway? The Vorrh perhaps was just lightning in a bottle, a beautiful moment in a glimmer.

The first one can be read as a standalone book, by the way, and I would rabidly recommend it to anyone and everyone vehemently. Reading on is up to you. The Erstwhile is still worthwhile, and I can't imagine I will skip this trilogy's conclusion when it hits the shelves.

Release Party for An Accidental Profession

news, new releases, release partyIan Wissman

We're excited to announce the details of our release party for Daniel S. Jones's An Accidental Profession. The event will be held at the Northside Yacht Club (4231 Spring Grove Ave, Cincinnati, OH 45223) on Friday, June 16th at 7:00 PM. See our Facebook invite and RSVP.

Jones will be reading a selection from the novel as well as signing copies of the book, which will be available for purchase all evening.

We will also be providing hors d'oeuvres for the event (meat and vegetarian options available). Northside Yacht Club will be creating a themed cocktail for the event--more details to come on that.


An Accidental Profession Available in Stores

newsIan Wissman

Friends in Cincinnati, Ohio will be delighted to know that they can now purchase copies of An Accidental Profession at Shake It Records in Northside. We're currently working on finding a home for the book at more locations throughout the city as well as more places online for you to purchase An Accidental Profession. We'll have more news soon, too, about our release event featuring a reading and signing by Daniel S. Jones.


Choosing An Accidental Profession

tastemaking, new releasesIan Wissman

If you're unfamiliar with this site, you may be wondering a whole host of things: Where am I? What is Waxing Press? What is An Accidental Profession? Why should I read this book? I write books, should I submit my book to Waxing Press? So, to answer most of those questions, I'd like to answer a bigger one: why did we choose An Accidental Profession to inaugurate Waxing Press and set us out into this world? It's an easy one. So allow us to elucidate:

Firstly, it's uproarious in its degradation. Told through the lens of anonymity on all accounts, the narrator unshackles the chains to tell the secret lives of the most unsavory, unsympathetic creatures you could ever meet. Somehow, they're all believable in their un-savoriness, and, to apply the cliche of a train wreck, you cannot bear look away. You invest in their horrible acts, somehow rooting for them to score with the best looking guy or gal in the office--married or not. It's a carnival pleasure of sorts. There's Chaucerian ribaldry, there's tales of comeuppance, it's the workplace fiction-as-fact tell-all of modern life in the American corporate office--where so many find themselves because it offers a handsome paycheck, comfortable living, but a miserable quality of such. It is somewhere you found yourself one day, unplanned. An accidental profession.

Further, captured in the book is that kind of zeitgeist of existential Bartlebian office-life dread, with a critical, soul-dividing narrative of forlorn love. Is it love or lust?

I could go on, but I don't want to dictate what the book is and isn't to you. So let this stand as a couple of the reasons why we chose this book for Waxing Press. I really hope others can find the same universal sensibility in it. If not, at least there's a lot of weird office sex in it.

Welcome to Waxing Press

new releases, newsIan Wissman

Our first title, An Accidental Profession by Daniel S. Jones will be available for pre-order in a matter of days. Please check back soon or sign up to our mailing list using the form to the the right to be notified when it becomes available. In addition to being able to purchase print and digital editions of the book we'll also have some Waxing Press merchandise available through this site as well. If you prefer to use Amazon directly to order digital books on your Kindle-enabled device, An Accidental Profession as a digital book will be available to purchase on Amazon, but please note, the digital edition purchased through our site will have formats compatible with all eReader devices including Kindle. You can read more about it in our FAQs section.

Going forward, this blog space will feature book reviews from our staff's reading lists, some short thought pieces on writing, literary aesthetics and style, as well as other literature news and whatever else we want to share with you.

Please sign up for our mailing list using the form to the right to begin receiving news about forthcoming releases and other stuff. We won't share your info with anyone else, and we won't even email you very much--just when we're too excited about news here at Waxing Press.