The fact that I don’t love Thomas Pynchon is statistically nearly impossible.
Any literary heat map of my favorite writers would find Pynchon near the center, hovering somewhere between Brautigan, Vonnegut, Kesey, Burroughs, Thompson, Acker, Coetzee, Auster. And yet I can’t stand his thick, impenetrably clever prose. I find his hysterical habit of packing multiple cosmic curlicues, pop-culture puns and obscure historical references into every sentence simply obnoxious. I don’t like a writer who keeps trying to distract my attention when I’m trying to read.
But, well, here’s the thing. All my friends and literary comrades and people I respect love Thomas Pynchon. I guess they find his convoluted style fun and challenging. Who knows? My friends have Pynchon tattoos, have named their bands or websites after Pynchon, have even written adoring Litkicks articles about Pynchon. I don’t understand why all these smart people love him so much and I don’t, and I feel very isolated in this position.
I want to like Pynchon, especially since the kind of cutting social satire that I understand his books add up to ought to be right up my alley (if only I could stand reading them). My dislike of Thomas Pynchon is not fashionably correct, the way my dislike of Philip Roth or Cormac McCarthy is. (In this sense it is, however, exactly like my dislike of David Foster Wallace, and I can summarize how both of these opinions make me feel: It’s lonely out here.)
With that said, a new Pynchon novel is definitely an event, and everyone I know is super-excited about Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon’s brand new novel. Here’s Carolyn Kellogg in the Los Angeles Times.
Each new Pynchon novel presents a different way to parse his bibliography, and “Bleeding Edge” makes a solid case for a divide between books set roughly in present moment and not, Now versus Then. Now includes “Bleeding Edge,” “Vineland,” “The Crying of Lot 49” and the frame of “V.” The Then books are “Gravity’s Rainbow” (1944-45 seen from the vantage of 1973), “Inherent Vice” (1970 seen from 2009), “Against the Day” (circa 1900 via 2006) and “Mason & Dixon” (the 1760s by way of 1997).
The Then books have a deliberateness to them, a deep dive into a specific set of ideas dappled with carefully chosen historic details. The Now books have the quality of an exploration, of digestion in progress. “Bleeding Edge,” in particular, seems to be a data dump that’s being processed on the page.
All of Pynchon’s works are crammed with cultural references; here they seem less mysterious and significant than in previous novels. In “Bleeding Edge,” Pynchon seems like a kid playing in a ball pit, having an awful lot of fun tossing around whatever is brightly colored and within reach.
Carolyn Kellogg clearly knows her Pynchon, though it’s not clear that she’s blown away by Bleeding Edge. Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times also suggests that this Pynchon work has problems:
In his latest novel, Bleeding Edge, Mr. Pynchon tackles Sept. 11 head-on. And he also addresses the other great contemporary subject — the Internet and its transformation of our world — that happens to mesh so completely with his enduring fascination with hidden connections, alternate realities and the plight of people caught up in the gears of a ravenous and gargantuan techno-political machine.
The result, disappointingly, is a scattershot work that is, by turns, entertaining and wearisome, energetic and hokey, delightfully evocative and cheaply sensational; dead-on in its conjuring of zeitgeist-y atmospherics, but often slow-footed and ham-handed in its orchestration of social details. All the author’s familiar trademarks are here: a multitudinous cast with ditsy, Dickensian names; shaggy-dog plotlines sprouting everywhere, like kudzu; large heapings of coincidence; and a plethora of jokes, ditties, dead-end digressions and trippy, playful asides about everything from Benford Curve anomalies to Beanie Babies to the mysteries of the “Deep Web.”
It’s worth remarking that Thomas Pynchon’s career has now been going on nearly as long as Bob Dylan’s. As Ed Park says in BookForum:
That is a lot of years. I’m also intrigued that this novel covers New York City’s Silicon Alley scene during the years of the dot-com boom, the dot-com crash, the millennium and the World Trade Center attack. This is, of course, a setting and an era that I have written extensively about myself. I’m still not going to read the book.
You can, though. You’ll probably love it.