Unlike many undeniably smart people I know, I won’t be reading Thomas Pynchon’s newest presumed masterpiece, Against The Day, advance copies of which have postmodernists around the globe buzzing with anticipation (the official pub-date is November 21).
I should love Thomas Pynchon. He’s a smart-ass linguistic wizard with a rebellious counter-culture streak, and that’s why I’ve spent hours trying to appreciate his books. I attempted to dive into Gravity’s Rainbow, but the ornate prose felt impossibly thick and I could not reach page 3 as hard as I tried (and I really did try). V. was much better. I could feel the bebop rhythms and admire the intensely skillful prose. But despite this I could not find any semblance of a plot or care about any of the characters, and I found myself flailing in the first few paragraphs, unable to progress.
Maybe, I thought, I should try a shorter Pynchon, so I cozied up to a slim, unimposing paperback of The Crying of Lot 49. But I could still only feel repelled by sentence after sentence like this one:
She thought of a hotel room in Mazatlan whose door had just been slammed, it seemed forever, waking up two hundred birds down in the lobby; a sunrise over the library slope at Cornell University that nobody out on it had seen because the slope faces west; a dry disconsolate tune from the fourth movement of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra; a whitewashed bust of Jay Gould that Pierce kept on a shelf so narrow for it she’d always had the hovering fear it would someday topple on them.
I don’t want writers to write like this. I want reading to be fun, not exhausting. It starts to feel like a monotonous amusement park ride … just make it stop spinning.
Pynchon’s later novel Vineland is about a hippie commune. Browsing it, I could only think of a novel by another postmodernist of Pynchon’s generation, In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan, that I found so much more powerful and enticing. I value the naked simplicity and bold clarity of writers who dare to be easy to read. I don’t want a novel to be a puzzle — I want it to be an experience.
Please understand that I do not want to dampen anybody else’s joy in reading Thomas Pynchon. I will not say that I believe him to be a bad writer, because too many people I respect obviously like him. Perhaps I feel compelled to declare loudly that I will not be reading Pynchon only because I have been made to feel defensive about it. I am fully aware that the ability to recite quotes from Hubert Stencil and Benny Profane over pints of Guinness is considered a necessity for the literary smart set. But I won’t be reading the new Pynchon, nor exulting over any of the old ones, and I think we can just leave it at that.
Interestingly, there’s another major release by a different reclusive and talented artist on the same day Against the Day will be published. Jay-Z’s ninth album hits the stores on that day. Forget Hubert Stencil — I’ll be listening to hip-hop.