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lit reviews the ancient past

Reflections on my Pynchon obsession

Book­fo­rum recent­ly pub­lished a trib­ute to Thomas Pyn­chon called "Pyn­chon from A to V," writ­ten by crit­ic and Pyn­chon mani­ac Ger­ald Howard. Most Pyn­chon fans dis­cov­er that their love dare not speak its name because when it does, it instant­ly labels one as a lit­er­ary snob and smar­ty­pants. Like expe­ri­ence in armed com­bat, love of Pyn­chon and Gravity's Rain­bow is best deliv­ered in the for­mat of mem­oir, and Howard's affec­tion­ate tale of his own Pyn­chon obses­sion inspired me to recon­sid­er mine.Let's first get the unavoid­able and unfor­tu­nate real­i­ties out the way: Gravity's Rain­bow is dense and unfriend­ly. Pynchon's char­ac­ters appear from nowhere, have biz­zare names, and dis­ap­pear with­out a trace. Poof! Gone. Most vex­ing of all, read­ing Pyn­chon in gen­er­al, and GR in par­tic­u­lar, requires wran­gling zil­lions of intri­cate con­spir­a­cies with­in con­spir­a­cies, many of which seem to have no bear­ing on the Point of the Book, what­ev­er the heck that may be.Howard's GR expe­ri­ence was sim­i­lar to mine, a kill-or-be-killed, fin­ish-or-die-try­ing affair. I read GR when I was 23. It was a time of con­fu­sion, blus­ter, dis­trust, cut with con­fi­dence that my recent­ly-acquired BA in Eng­lish had giv­en me unique insight into the world; in oth­er words, I was GR's ide­al read­er. It could be argued that few read­ers who aren't young, male lit majors would sub­ject them­selves to a 760 pages of pun­ish­ment thin­ly masked as intrigue. Who else would have the faith, or time, to read and re-read page after page, mem­o­riz­ing seem­ing­ly point­less details because any detail may sud­den­ly become some­how rel­e­vant? At the time I read GR, I had just moved to a big city that seemed pop­u­lat­ed by the very peo­ple who pop­u­lat­ed Pynchon's pages — shad­owy peo­ple with sin­is­ter secret lives. Per­haps their shad­owy, sin­is­ter appear­ance was a result of the fact that I didn't know any­one, had a ter­ri­ble job, no girl­friend, no band and very lit­tle mon­ey. More­over, I didn't know what I want­ed to be doing, who I want­ed to be. Like the pro­tag­o­nist Tyrone Slothrop, I was filled with unease and con­cern. And yet at the same time I was hav­ing TONS of fun. Doing absolute­ly noth­ing except mar­veling at the mys­ter­ies of every­thing around me. I loved it, but I want­ed it all to end, and I want­ed to fig­ure it out — all at the same time. And the book! The book pro­vid­ed a very faint hope of actu­al­ly under­stand­ing some­thing, any­thing. Immersed in the world of GR, all of life was a puz­zle to solve, a knot to unrav­el, a refined and glam­or­ized ver­sion of my own world. Slothrop was me: a con­fused mix of unease, hope, and good times. Of course, vast sec­tions of the book near­ly crushed me. I often com­plete­ly for­got what had hap­pened on the pre­vi­ous page, or who a char­ac­ter was. I must have re-read enough pages to read the book twice.But I was pro­pelled by the illu­mi­nat­ing, invig­o­rat­ing pas­sages that laid bare the ele­ments that so many recent bach­e­lors of arts seek to under­stand — the imper­son­al forces at the heart of civ­i­liza­tion, the greedy cor­po­ra­tions gov­ern­ing our dai­ly lives, the evil truth behind the hap­py facade. Pyn­chon brings these things to life in pas­sages of over­whelm­ing, all-encom­pass­ing knowl­edge (nowa­days imi­tat­ed by the likes of JFranz, DFW, etc), and with­in them exists a char­ac­ter quite famil­iar to my younger self — a hope­ful, curi­ous guy who wants to know the answers but can do no more than uncov­er mys­ter­ies of greater magnitude.Readers rebuffed by its com­plex­i­ty might argue that GR's great­ness is a col­lec­tive delu­sion of the few read­ers will­ing to endure the pun­ish­ment, the end­less parade of biz­zare­ly-named char­ac­ters, the nar­ra­tive digres­sions lead­ing to fur­ther digres­sions that ulti­mate­ly become the nar­ra­tive, the prob­lem of the pro­tag­o­nist dis­ap­pear­ing some­where around page 500 — the list goes on. To them I say this: You real­ly need to make it to the end to under­stand. Bet­ter yet, don't expect to real­ly under­stand any­thing. Then you'll be ready to start.

  • Book­fo­rum: "Pyn­chon from A to V."