On Pynchon

The existence, or impending existence, of a new novel by Thomas Pynchon was announced today. I have all his previous books (seven written over a period of about fifty years, a pace that I definitely approve of), though he’s a hard author to get close to: I’ve only finished three and started four up till now. The unfinished one is, of course, Gravity’s Rainbow (GR) and somewhat perversely, I have two copies of the thing. Of the three unstarted, both Mason & Dixon (MD) and Against The Day (ATD) seem too dense and intimidating, while Vineland just begs me to read The Crying Of Lot 49 (L49) or Inherent Vice (IV) one more time.

It’s no coincidence that I began reading (and acquiring unread) Pynchon novels slap bang in the middle of trying to write my PhD thesis. It was just the right to be unsettled by books that strip away the world around you and replace the things you thought you knew with uncertainties, paranoid conspiracies, and deranged alternatives. It was just the time to experience the reader’s equivalent of vertigo – my initial comparison was to sea sickness but no part of that experience is as enjoyable as these novels – and to get shaken up a bit.

V remains my favourite. In many ways I think the plot of V is as follows (spoilers ahead, but not really): you are reading a novel called V, it jumps around in time a bit, and the people involved and the events that occur might be related to one another. Might. I think that there’s no sense in mentioning Cairo, or art thefts, or alligators, or genocide, or anything else because you, the reader, are the engine that puts it all together in the end. You the reader, hold V out in front of you – the shape of the letter is the shape of the book in your hands (though not with an eReader) and you are the connection between the plot lines that diverge away from you (or, if you like, that converge within you).

Well, that’s what reading Pynchon does to you: sets up crazy ideas in your head and lets you run with them. Every single one of his books stirs in something from outside the book and sets the book at the heart of some other weird universe that tangentially intersects with our own – the concept of alternate reality begins in Pynchon.

Other writers that I love don’t have this looseness in their writing. Murakami appears to be random on first reading but once you have read a few, the symbols and codes are there for you to see – this is meta-textuality by canon rather than Pynchon’s oddness. Ballard always straightjackets his plots: form follows function and the function is to be one single (usually deranged or cynical) point – always a bullet for a specific gun. Meanwhile, Cormac McCarthy – the author to whom I ran when Pynchon got a bit too much to handle – is as direct as Pynchon is obtuse: something as intense as Blood Meridian makes for an interesting counterpoint to L49. I have not come across any other author remotely like him, his writing is truly unique.

The reason it has taken so long – until today’s announcement – to bash out a post about Pynchon is GR: it’s the elephant in the room. I’ve taken it on about five times now and have only managed part one – even if that alone is more than most novels in itself. It’s composed of twenty one subsections that apparently correspond to the major arcana of a Tarot deck (the tower, the hanged man, death, etc) but I can’t seem to divine any meaning from it. I don’t even know for certain if the “cards” are in “order”, or whether they are randomised and represent a “reading” of sorts. The section that corresponds to “The Lovers” seems to be in the correct place but none of the others sections seem to correspond obviously to their card, perhaps it is a game of textual analysis that is beyond me despite my interest.

GR gives me trouble because I can’t let the writing just flow over me and I think that in order to get anywhere you have to. If you try to latch on to all the peripheral characters or subplots or trifling concepts like meaning and plot and structure, you get snagged – and all the fibres you have knitted together get frayed. I always have to stop with GR, I get disheartened and put off by it coming apart at the seams in the way that it does.

I have had more success with other dense interconnected novels in the past though. Take Nicola Barker’s Darkmans – this also stretches out multiple characters and weird happenings and seemingly incongruous plot points (such as weird islamic cults, medieval jesters, antique roof tiles and the Romney, Hythe & Dimchurch miniature railway) – but tellingly the author cannot resist the temptation to draw it all back in. It helps that Barker’s writing has a clear voice that commands you to read on, perhaps one developed in response to dissatisfaction with other postmodern writers, but with GR all you get are occasional pronouncements (usually “you’re going the wrong way!”) in between bursts of static. This might sound rather daunting but the challenge is rather entertaining and in fact the way that Darkmans suffers by (admittedly inappropriate) comparison with GR is that it feels like a bit of a cheat when things get tied off nicely rather than being left frayed and open.

The dilemma remains one of whether I should finish GR (well actually whether I should start again) or just give up. The trouble is, I know it is good and I know that it will be worth it. Besides, if someone can read it all and then post about 5000 words on the internet about how much they hated it (boy I wish I still had that link to share with you!), then it must be worth getting through one way or the other. Also I’m morbidly fascinated about the giant octopus scene I’ve heard so much about…

Perhaps Pynchon’s novels are what Proust would have written had he grazed idly across Wikipedia on his lunch break instead of contemplating Madelines (Full disclosure: I have not yet read a jot of Proust but intend to, eventually) or perhaps Pynchon’s writing and plots are the equivalent of Melville’s exhaustive exposition of whaling minutiae, but writ across the whole breadth of the twentieth and twenty-first century experience. Or perhaps, after everything, Pynchon is Pynchon, and an eighth novel to add to the canon is indeed cause for celebration.


Thomas Pynchon is a novelist whose output consists of a few, weighty yet important works including V, the Crying Of Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow. He’s not prolific and today his eighth novel Bleeding Edge was announced and is scheduled to be released in July this year, 50 years after his first. I am really excited by this.

You May Also Enjoy

Why I Love On The Road
· Books, Thomas Pynchon, Thirteen, Fiction

⇠ A Jigsaw

Album Digest, February 2013 ⇢