--- layout: post status: publish published: true title: Where to start with Thomas Pynchon? wordpress_id: 190 wordpress_url: http://www.martineve.com/?p=190 date: !binary |- MjAxMC0xMC0wOSAxNjo0MzozMyArMDIwMA== date_gmt: !binary |- MjAxMC0xMC0wOSAxNjo0MzozMyArMDIwMA== categories: - Literature - Thomas Pynchon - Academia tags: - Pynchon - Literature comments: - id: 103 author: mathew author_email: firstname.lastname@example.org author_url: http://mathew.blogactiv.eu date: !binary |- MjAxMC0xMC0wOSAxNzoxMTowNiArMDIwMA== date_gmt: !binary |- MjAxMC0xMC0wOSAxNzoxMTowNiArMDIwMA== content: All I can add here is that I read them more-or-less chronologically until and including vineland, and it didn't kill me! If someone needs to be led by the nose and start with an 'easy' pynchon, then why the hell bother!? - id: 104 author: Warwick Smith author_email: email@example.com author_url: '' date: !binary |- MjAxMC0xMC0wOSAxNzoyMTowMSArMDIwMA== date_gmt: !binary |- MjAxMC0xMC0wOSAxNzoyMTowMSArMDIwMA== content: ! "For all the brilliance I found reading GR and Lot 49 (my only Pynchon adventures so far), I don't know that I'm in a hurry to go down the rabbit hole again.\r\n\r\nI often think that there's a particular kind of reader who loves Pynchon precisely because he's \"difficult\" - that is, they like the puzzle-solving game of decoding his work. So some of his biggest fans do him a disservice by reducing him to a sort of literary crossword-compiler. \r\n\r\nI certainly didn't get all the references, allusions and codes in Gravity's Rainbow, nor did I try to. But it remains with me clearly for its amazing synthesis of history, politics and narrative and the intensity of its writing (oh, and the revolting coprophilia).\r\n\r\nSo - based on the two I've read - why put it off? Get stuck into GR and dont' worry if it makes only a strange kind of sense." - id: 105 author: Tweets that mention Where to start with Thomas Pynchon? | Martin Paul Eve -- Topsy.com author_email: '' author_url: http://topsy.com/www.martineve.com/2010/10/09/where-to-start-with-thomas-pynchon/?utm_source=pingback&utm_campaign=L2 date: !binary |- MjAxMC0xMC0wOSAxNzo1NjoyMCArMDIwMA== date_gmt: !binary |- MjAxMC0xMC0wOSAxNzo1NjoyMCArMDIwMA== content: ! '[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by mathewlowry, Martin Eve. Martin Eve said: New blog post: Where to start with Thomas Pynchon? http://www.martineve.com/?p=190 [...]' - id: 6153 author: mark kohut author_email: firstname.lastname@example.org author_url: http://markkohut.tumblr.com date: !binary |- MjAxMS0wMS0yOSAxMTo0ODo0NCArMDEwMA== date_gmt: !binary |- MjAxMS0wMS0yOSAxMTo0ODo0NCArMDEwMA== content: ! "I think it is very true that many who read and love Pynchon do love the crossword puzzle-like aspect---i underrated him for years because of that...BUT, finally wise enough with Against the Day (I hope), I FELT all that was not a puzzle in the vision from the beginning....\r\nLike a janeite, I am always rereading\r\nPynchon." - id: 6206 author: Jim Lawrence author_email: email@example.com author_url: http://www.jimzovich.livejournal.com date: !binary |- MjAxMS0wMy0wNyAxNDozMzowMSArMDEwMA== date_gmt: !binary |- MjAxMS0wMy0wNyAxNDozMzowMSArMDEwMA== content: ! 'I would recommend Inherent Vice for a beginner. It''s his most obviously ''readable'' (easiest?)work, and a fun ride. Now I shall crudely pimp my blog, which contains a review of IV: jimzovich.livejournal.com' ---
In the course of the last day I have been observing, and engaging with, an ongoing Twitter discussion (see: Dystopia2009 and MarkKohut) as to which Thomas Pynchon novel should be recommended to Pynchon newbies.
This might sound like a question of little import: just read the damn stuff. Indeed, this is the traditional advice offered by the Pynchon Wiki:
Don't believe what They tell you. Don't believe what you've heard, and here's what you've probably heard: Thomas Pynchon's novels are brilliant but difficult; the multiple plots twist and turn and rarely resolve; there are a gazillion characters; you'll need a dictionary and an encyclopedia to understand all the scientific metaphors and obscure words. This is the rap, and there is some truth to it. But it's not the whole truth, not nearly. As one seasoned reader of Pynchon put it, "difficult, schmifficult!"
To plunge down the rabbit hole of Pynchon's fiction is to commence a journey into another world, a world infused with magic and mystery, a wonderfully labyrinthine world where "real" history and fiction intersect and dissolve into dream. "Shall I project a world?" wonders Oedipa Maas, the heroine in Pynchon's second, and some say most accessible, novel, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966). Thomas Pynchon projects a world, and so does the reader. Onto Pynchon's richly detailed and often ambiguous landscape the reader projects his/her own interpretation in order to bring the work "into pulsing stelliferous Meaning" (Lot 49, p.82). This provides, as another long-time fan expressed it, "the tremendous pleasure bestowed on the reader of being in on a joint venture of a sort."
However, in spite of the faux modesty of this advice, Pynchon is a notoriously "difficult" writer. Gravity's Rainbow, for instance, has over 400 characters; the range of allusive historical and cultural reference can bewilder an unfamiliar reader; and his experimental literary style of character-shift and anachronic narrative temporality are confusing.
Leaving aside the question of "why" one should read Pynchon (I'll defer to the Pynchon Wiki here: the reward from these texts is phenomenal and they will haunt the reader for years to come), where should the curious reader start with Pynchon?
The traditional starting point, as partially echoed in the WikiHow article "How to read a Thomas Pynchon novel" and undergraduate courses worldwide, is to start with The Crying of Lot 49. This short and relatively accessible text acts as a mise-en-abîme for much of Pynchon's fiction, featuring, as it does: classical music played on the Kazoo, digressive asides, characters who accrue only a single mention before disappearing and an introduction to Pynchon's curious syntax. However, it by no means captures the awe-inspiring breadth of Gravity's Rainbow, which marks the highpoint (in my mind) of Pynchon's fiction.
Gravity's Rainbow, though, is sure to put off a good few people who might be tempted to plow through if they reap the rewards of Lot 49. Mark Kohut suggests that Pynchon's latest novel, Inherent Vice, could be a valuable starting place for its comedic tone and focus upon the era in which Pynchon wrote Gravity's Rainbow. This, again, is not unproblematic. There is a significant shift throughout Pynchon's career, marked in the turning point of Vineland and seen in Mason & Dixon, Against the Day and Inherent Vice towards what we might term, with thanks to Edward Said for the phrase, Pynchon's "late-style". This apparently self-conscious turn away from the odiously reductive label of metafiction towards the humanistic and more overtly political concerns of Pynchon's writing (which were, nonetheless, certainly present in V., Lot 49 and Gravity's Rainbow) is valuable in its own right.
However, yet again I feel that recommending anything post-Vineland as a starting point for someone interested in reading Pynchon will deprive them of the grandeur of the early work and, certainly with Against the Day, convince them that vast passages of Pynchon are tedious and overwritten. (Note: I am a big fan of Against the Day, but it took me several readings to appreciate it and I would not expect a newcomer to devote such effort to an author of which they were unsure.)
Verdict-wise, three different stances have emerged from this discussion.
Dystopia2009: I would not advise starting with AtD. I would now recommend either V. or CL49 to a new #Pynchon reader. #ThomasPynchon
MarkKohut, while considering Inherent Vice, says: I usually say read him chronologcally, stories first; Like/Get them and hope V. is not too offputting.
As for myself, I would say the following: if you don't have time for Gravity's Rainbow, read The Crying of Lot 49. If you really want to know what it's all about, read GR.