What I Won’t Be Reading

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.

14 Responses

  1. Emperor’s New ClothesI agree
    Emperor’s New Clothes

    I agree Levi. I’ll even go one further and say that Pynchon is one of the most overrated current writers. The reason why he’s popular is not because he’s any good – it’s precisely because he’s unreadable.

    The thing is, most people, whether they are aware of it or not, conform to a certain fashion when they choose books to read. The critic who reads Pynchon thinks, consciously or not, ‘Oh boy, I don’t understand it all. But if I say that in my review, people will accuse me of being an unsophisticated critic/reader. I better say it’s good, just in case it is.’ Likewise, I’m fairly sure all of the people you respect do this. I actually have nothing against Pynchon – he writes the way he wants and he’s honest about it. But the people that promote him (the media, intelligensia) aren’t being honest at all. Pynchon has nothing to say to the average reader, or even a very intelligent and sensitive one. It’s time someone pointed out the emperor has no clothes. Too many authors are famous by virtue of their unreadability.

  2. H to the IzzoHells to the
    H to the Izzo

    Hells to the yes, nephew! I think that you should read and like whatever you want, litsnobs be damned! Take back the library! Remember the Alamo! oh wait …

    But seriously, I think it is pretty silly that there seems to be the mindset that there are a certain set of books you have to have read and LIKED in order to be a true literature aficionado. I call bullshit right along with you. I don’t think this means we have to say that those books don’t have value or that others can’t enjoy and worship them, but the idea that saying you just don’t like or enjoy something shouldn’t automatically mean that, well, you probably just don’t get it. George Michael summed it up nicely when he sang …


  3. tough readGravity’s Rainbow
    tough read

    Gravity’s Rainbow is certainly a tedious and confusing read–I encountered its unpleasantness a while back. There certainly are a lot of Pynchon fans…I respect their opinions…but I don’t know how they do it. If I ever attempt Pynchon again I’ll tackle one of his shorter works.

  4. crying loti read The Crying
    crying lot

    i read The Crying Lot of 49 a month ago for the first time. i did have trouble reading the first couple pages and about halfway through the book, but overall i found it a very easy read. now, i don’t admit to codmpletely understanding the entire book, but i felt that it conveyed a certain atmosphere that must have existed in the early 60s: paranoia with red scare and kennedy asssination, the new scene of southern california with LSD, sex, and garage rock bands. And the whole history of the postal service through the ages left me baffled and somewhat amused at the time and i left the book not knowing whether to trust the author, the main character, or even the world, but i think that is precisely the feeling the pynchon wanted me to leave the book with.

    i’ve never read gravity’s rainbow, but i’m sure i’ll go to the library and give it a tackle. most of my friends find it unreadable.

  5. A qualified vote for PynchonI
    A qualified vote for Pynchon

    I agree that Pynchon is a difficult read. However, I found V and The Crying of Lot 49 enjoyable and quite funny in parts. Everyone should take a crack at V, but if you can’t get into it – move on. We all have books or writers like that.

    Gravity’s Rainbow is a different matter. I consider this to be Pynchon’s masterpiece. It is very hard to read. Is it worth it? I think so. Pynchon explores the Nazi U2 rocket program, colonialism in Africa, and a lot of other ideas that he puts an interesting slant on. But what fascinates me is that almost everything he writes has a druggie perspective. He is not only interested in what the characters do, but what they are on. Still, it’s not easy. It took me a couple of months to finish it, and one night I fell asleep while reading it and I was almost crushed under the weight. It does have some very interesting comments about American society. For example, somewhere he says (this is from memory) “Coca Cola took the cocaine out of coke, thereby condemning a generation of Americans to alcoholism.” Hmm…

    Vineland is ok, hard to read, but interesting. In one sentence he makes a plot transition from the past to the future by playing with the verb tenses. I thought that was interesting.

    I don’t recommend Mason-Dixon. In this one, he writes in the actual language of the period that Mason and Dixon lived in. I mean, come on. Still, he does a good analysis of their drug usage, especially coffee and alcohol.

    I did recently learn something interesting about Pynchon. He and Richard Farina at one time were room-mates – I think at Cornell.

    So, there are some writers that are hard to read. The writer I have trouble with is Joyce. I have tried to climb to the top of Ulysses a couple of times, only to turn back, far from the summit. Burroughs, too, can be difficult – especially in The Ticket that Exploded and The Nova Express. Proust is another one. Should you try to read them? I think so. If you have to bail out, who cares? You read because you enjoy what you are reading, or you are learning something, or you see something in a different light. But to have impressive literary credentials… ?

    As for Richard Brautigan, there was a guy who could write very simply, but very, very well. That may be the hardest thing of all to do. Take for example “Trout Fishing in America.” No Pynchon-style conspiracies, no complicated sentences, but still a hell of a book.

    What’s the answer? It’s like they say here in France: it depends.

  6. Are you ready for
    Are you ready for Pynchon?

    Possibly Pynchon is the literature preferred by the academic-literary elite. Myself, I haven’t been able to read him, but I read Catch-22 in ’04 for the second time–at the age of 43–and then knew that this was the good shit. Delillo’s Underworld also rocks.

  7. at least you’re consistenti
    at least you’re consistent

    i love tom pynchon.

    i’ve never read much about him… mostly your complaints.

    but i’ve read almost all he’s written.

    it took months for me to read gravity’s rainbow.

    and months for ‘mason & dixon’ which is an amazing take on 18th century colonial america. pre-revolutionary. an interesting thing to think about. the way things got to the way things is.

    one of the higher truths about richard brautigan is that he is always readable. fast. simple. also a positive attribute of kurt vonnegut. the communication is clear.

    with pynchon the communication is a whirlwind. you are stuck in a spin. that spin is important.

    it takes some work to read pynchon. i’ve started but not seriously read V. and it took re-starting gravity’s rainbow to finish it. but i’ve read it more than once by now.

    hell, i’ve never finished ulysses. i always forget what’s going on and get wrapped up in the spin and the beauty of the words.

    and tom pynchon can take you for similar rides.

    i always thought ‘crying of lot 49’ was the easy book. maybe that’s just because of the shortness. what a breeze. it aint over 700pps.

    i’m glad to hear there’s a new pynchon book. i will read it. right after the new cormac mccarthy book.

    i guess there’s a feeling of the world and its madness that resides and resonates through pynchon that agrees with my general thoughts and patterns and the spin of my magnetic field.

    speaking of fields, the ballteam from my hometown beat the ballteam from your hometown. i really enjoyed the series and i was, i admit, sad to see the mets lose since i listened to them on the radio all season long.

  8. I appreciate your points,
    I appreciate your points, Mindbum.

    And thanks for your expressions regarding St. Louis vs. New York. You know I’ve always liked St. Louis, home of T. S. Eliot and Chuck Berry. We hated losing to your Cards but you guys earned it.

  9. make it newThe only Pynchon
    make it new

    The only Pynchon I’ve read is Lot 49, random parts of Gravity’s Rainbow, and his short story collection Slow Learner. The funny thing is, I found his twenty page intro to Slow Learner the most interesting thing I’ve read by him. I had much more respect for him after reading that because I realized he didn’t take himself too seriously. He ripped apart his own short stories and even criticized Lot 49, saying something along the lines of: I forgot everything I had learned up to that point while writing it (something like that). He also said his philosophy as a young writer was “make it literary”. I’m pretty sure that sums up around 73.141592654 percent of all wannabe writers, including me. It made me laugh anyways.

    As for his fiction… I found Lot 49 to be slightly amusing, but that’s about it. Gravity’s Rainbow is what really interests me. It’s not unusual for me to pick it up occasionally and read a few pages. Of course it’s psychotically dense (which is why after reading a few pages I set it back down). I plan to actually sit down and read that mother during Christmas break…I swear… Lately when reading excerpts of GR I’ve found myself laughing. Maybe those rumors about Pynchon being funny are true. His “characters” are put in such absurd situations that I find it hard not to laugh. The only possible alternative is to view the situations as they would be viewed real life: hellish nightmares. This is where I think Pynchon has some value. His mood fits the times. We all have more information and stories sweeping over us than we can ever hope to absorb. We are usually manipulated by big shots in media and politics that we will never see except for on TV, if that. Despair. Paranoia. Absurdity. The modern world. Thomas Pynchon.

    Yeah, I probably won’t read GR over Christmas break.

  10. Pynchon apparently doesn’t
    Pynchon apparently doesn’t think much of Litsnobs, either, because he really could have been their king all of these years — he could have had 10,000 readings full of adoring, drooling litfans and instead he is a recluse — that tells you a bit about his writing. It is personal, something you have to understand inside yourself the way you make sense of your surroundings. I really think Pynchon, in Gravity’s Rainbow, was trying to recreate the WWII world, the mind that gave birth to our present world view and, obviously, since so few of us actually lived it, it’s going to be a very difficult mind to enter but, you can penetrate it — it is possible. But, obviously, like Joyce, Pynchon’s ideal reader has an ideal insomnia and some kind of need not to be understood the way folks understand their school work, but lived and felt and stepped into. I don’t know why but I’ve always felt Gravity’s Rainbow to be The Grapes of Wrath of the Postmodern Generation — except instead of inciting a counter-cultural rage as Grapes did it is so dense and difficult it has only incited a series of intellectual poses because, I think, if the thousands of folks who quote GR actually understood it the way I think I do, there would be an honest to god revolution in the way we view our government or rather our meritocracy. I mean the central theme of the book suggests that Standard Oil Corporation committed treason and helped the Nazi’s by inventing with German scientists a fuel for the rockets the Germans then turned against us — Halliburton leaps immediately to mind, a kind of echo that is contemporary and the same kind of thing. Yet, I don’t understand why people don’t demand Pynchon come clean — I mean, if he knows these things for certain and other conspiracies why be so cryptic about it? I think you can compare Pynchon to Solzhenitsyn pretty well as far as being political dissidents as long as you understand that while conditions in the USSR demanded Solz. openly attack his government Pynchon had to take the Dante route — that is, Gravity’s Rainbow might best be thought of the way you think of the Divine Comedy, as an imaginary Journey through a Hell of sorts that introduces you to a cast of Pynchon’s political enemies. At first I thought the problem was one of courage — that Solz. was simply more courageous that Pynchon — but I’ve come to think that being a political dissident in the richest and most powerful country in the world is a bit more complicated than that. Pynchon has to pretend not to be a dissident. That’s why he’s so hard to read but, if you can unravel some of the messages they are worthwhile.

  11. I thought Crying of Lot 49
    I thought Crying of Lot 49 was about messages in general and how these messages are being shaped, stolen, influenced, controlled and in some cases suppressed by unseen forces that have their roots in a past we only know a little bit about. I found it very interesting that the Psychiartrist was a Nazi (if I remember right, wasn’t he raided and arrested, a paranoid? it was about ten years ago I read it) and that the Postal service history was I think a metaphor for the distribution of messages THEY want to get through. I think Lot 49 brings some of the themes explored in V. to bear on contemporary California life but also on the age of electronics and ‘systems’ in general. For Pynchon a theme can be stated in the faintest echo or image in the text — the image of the circuit board city, for instance, the city being a circuit board in the larger ‘stereo system’ of southern california radio broadcasting (KCUF put a mirror up to that one!) I think the competing mail system and the image of Maxwell’s Demon (the demon or was it dynamo that sorts out information in the box?) along with this ciruit board America and the constant references to Muzak and constant radio broadcasting, I think Pynchon is using these images to bring you to the shocking realization that your life, life in this America, is controlled by forces we are not aware of and that are, upon closer examination, maybe even a bit sinister. So, I don’t think of it as a period piece or that it has anything to say to any generation in particular — Pynchon is a strange kind of prophet for, the controls that were only in utero back in his day are enormous pressures now and just think can you go anywhere anymore without hearing music? If you can find somewhere there are about 1,000 different gadgets you can buy to pump the music directly into you head and pump the thoughts right out of it!

  12. Pynchon/VollmannYour bias

    Your bias against these authors stems from some sort of odd, self-proclaimed illiteracy and a natural hatred for complexity, even when it is formally warranted. Also, it seems you have difficulty reading commas and semicolons. Like virtually all other writers for all other litblogs, I think you should stop writing, pick up a Mcsweeneys, stop talking about target audiences, leave the great authors to the big girls and boys. We do care.

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