Thomas Pynchon

One of the recent reader requests is to give my opinion of him.  It's pretty simple.  The first half or so of Gravity's Rainbow is extraordinary.  V is a superb novel, his most consistent work, and it is best read by not trying to make much sense of it.  The Crying of Lot 49 feels like an excellent novella but over time it slips away from you and is probably a minor work.  The rest of it I cannot finish — or even get far in — and my best guess is that it is wheel-spinning and it will not last.  I haven't tried the latest book and it is not high on my list.  He's certainly an important figure and worth reading and indeed rereading.  But I view him as belonging to the somewhat distant past.

Here is the Twitter stream on Thomas Pynchon, as good a place to start as any.

The request by the way comes from this blog.  Here is a post on Vincent Ostrom, husband of Elinor, and an oddly neglected figure in recent times.


why is twitter not a waste of time? i ranked the first thirty comments on the stream and here was the median:

Finally. Long drive. Now I'm kicked back, eatin cashews & raisenettes, reading thomas pynchon. phoenix 2nite! Yucca tap room
1 day ago from TwitterBerry

I love reading Pynchon, but "Against the Day" is my favorite. Best characters, and although it's indeed sprawling seldom does anything seem rushed. More importantly, the sentences are consistently beautiful:

"As nights went on and nothing happened and the phenomenon slowly faded to the accustomed deeper violets again, most had difficulty remembering the earlier rise of heart, the sense of overture and possibility, and went back once again to seeking only orgasm, hallucination, stupor, sleep, to fetch them through the night and prepare them against the day."

All of his novels have that one-degree-from-normal feeling - there's always a creeping feeling that Something's Up. "Inherent Vice" takes that to its logical conclusion by having the hero be a stoned PI; who, after all, is more likely than that to have creeping dread?

A few years ago, someone asked me for a recommendation for a smart 16 year old boy. One recommendation that I gave was "The Crying of Lot 49", since I'd read it in 1973 as a 16 yr old and loved it. The person then asked me what it was about. I couldn't remember. I've stopped giving recommendations, since I had a similar problem trying to explain why Green Henry was so good about a month later. I liked Crying, V, Gravity's, & Vineland, but I can't tell you why.

Vineland is worth another glance. Rabid Pynchon fans seem to dislike it (or like it least), but it's got a bit more heart than most of his stuff. Inherent Vice is a decent beach read, though you're better off checking out Johnson's Nobody Move.

The second half of GR is an absolute joyride. Between the tale of Byron the Bulb (the ultimate resistor, the little light that'll keep on shining) and the account of the death of Anton Webern, it has some of Pynchon's strongest writing. Mason & Dixon has a tender surface, with its playful use of archaic language, but one containing an ever-deepening darker undertone. He manages to use the smallest details here — for example the development of Ketchup over Dutch trading routes — to extend the web of connections in the book and Pynchon's refusal to be heavy-handed and direct about the Mason-Dixon line itself is a powerful move. The three "contemporary" novels (CL49, VL, IV) are superb snapshots of Californian life in some of its most absurd moments, and IV, in particular, manages to connect all the dots, in its Weird Noir fashion, in the most disconnected of American cities and it's full of smart little details (like a view to a shipping lot full of the then-novel Japanese import cars).

Having recently re-read the entire Pynchon corpus, it is, however, Against the Day which seems the most rich and accomplished of the novels. Most reviewers appear not to have gotten past the first dozen pages or so, in that they focus on story elements that are largely ornamental to the book as a whole. A particular accomplishments here is the stylistic references to genre literature which are neither exercises in the manner of Ulysses or Queneau nor simple historicising devices. (It is also worth pointing out how contemporary Pynchon's novels are, whether in the steam punkishness of AtD or the Weird Noir of IV).

I chose, in my recent read-through, to take the books in a rough chronology of the time periods covered, beginning with M&D's 18th century and ending with VL's 1980's. From this perspective, Pynchon has now covered a good part of modern history, and while there are only few direct narrative connections among the books, the thematic consistency is astonishing and the narrator, Pynchon himself, emerges as an astonishingly powerful moral voice in the face of all the uncertainties of modernity: Keep cool but care.

I'm with Jenny. That's exactly what I think, and also I have been unable to finish any of his other books than the ones you mention, although i have started all, except for the latest.

Don, based on my memory, Crying was mainly about a private postal service run by crazy libertarians who somehow secretly competed with the US Postal Service, because they didn't think the government should run such things. The more it slips away from you over time...

I've read practically everything Thomas Pynchon has written, from the early short stories like "Entropy" on.
I didn't think there'd be a book I liked better than 'V', and then GR came along. I can remember the excitement when it was published: the NYT daily book review of GR was a 2-day review by Chrostopher Lehmann-Haupt.
Mason&Dixon and Against the Day are underrated by some TP fans. In both, Pynchon seems to capture the true voice, the language of the ordinary citizen, the sound and grammar and vocabulary of the respective era, which makes it feel alive in front of you. It is a virtuoso feat equivalent to the physics and chemistry of GR.
Some passages I can read over again, just for the incredible beauty of the language. Thanks, Jim, for reminding me of one of those.

No. Wait. Slow Learner is worth reading, if only for the introduction.

Comments for this post are closed