Thursday, July 28, 2005

Thomas Pynchon: Reigning Emperor of Smart-Ass Lit

I'm not sure why this appreciation of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow is being re-packaged and re-sold as a "Summer Issue" - seems to me Bookninja linked to the same essay last fall. But it's a good essay, and a very provocative one for those of us who read GR in our twenties and treated it like The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

In the early 90s I was yet another scrawny, scruffy acolyte in the Cult of Pynchon. Like most of the other smart-asses in these twitching lower ranks, I eschewed biblical commentaries (A Gravity's Rainbow Companion, etc.) in favor of uninformed Reader Response, thinking the free-associative synapses in my young brain could intuitively connect all the dots for me. I dived into this fray of words, and came out the other end with vague notions of what I'd spent the last month doing. Clearly I'd have to read every word the man had published.

I went back to his earlier stuff - The Crying of Lot 49, Slow Learner, V. - and bought Vineland hot-off-the-press. By the time Mason & Dixon came into being, I'd read enough Pynchon to last the rest of my life. Gravity's Rainbow is the author's "inescapable" book - everything prior to it reads as if it is leading up to it; everything after reads like a baffled act of recovery.

I have a mild hunch that the act of becoming a parent quickly reduces the appeal to such darkly luminescent works as GR. GR explores, among other things, the weight of war. What is the value of family, economy, any perceived social safety-net, in the face of random obliteration? Pynchon asks these questions with the bravura of a young man too intelligent for his own good. He risks all, and discovers ... well, it's been 15 years since I last read the book. I've forgotten just what he discovers, and I'm not at all sure I ever knew.

Did Pynchon become a father after he wrote GR? Vineland ("For my mother and father") is enough of a meditation on the the sunnier (and predictably crazy) hopes and dreams of the American Family to pose the question. I could almost posit that the novel's opening scene as a metaphor of the author's life: protagonist Zoyd Wheeler, preparing to do his yearly public dumb-ass stunt to qualify for mental-disability benefits.

Whatever. All I know is, since I've become a father I've become disinclined to read Pynchon. For one thing, his books demand too much; if I'm irritable with my kids after reading a few pages, that's not a good thing. I still have his books on the shelf, however, and reading this essay gets me thinking a re-visit of Gravity's Rainbow might just be in order. In small doses, of course.

1 comment:

F.C. Bearded said...

I've tried twice to read GR - once when I was much younger, then again last year. Failed to finish both times, though I "got" quite a bit more of it second time around than first. But I have to be honest: I'm still too thick for this book; and though it jumps and flirts and screeches around chaotically, rather like my own mind does, that unfortunately does not make for easy reading. So when I could follow the jumps around, I couldn't grasp what was being said; but now that I can derive some understanding of it, I can't follow the damned thing any more.