Have you ever found yourself influenced by something that you didn’t enjoy? It’s easy to understand mimicking a work you love, but to do this with something that caused you inner turmoil is a bit harder to understand.
This has been my relationship with Thomas Pynchon.
I’ve tried to read a Pynchon book every year since hearing about him. I read about how his novels were complex labyrinths of language, door-stops written in an almost unintelligible language.
From there I was intrigued.
I started with an easy entry point in The Crying of Lot 49, one of his more accessible (and shorter) novels. I read it on a train in the Netherlands in a couple days. Some of the jokes were good, but the plot was difficult to follow and some of the material was dated. A conspiracy involving the postal service in the age of the internet was like someone writing about a criminal typewriter ring.
I then moved through Vineland, Bleeding Edge, and V before determining that I did not enjoy reading Pynchon. But there was always something pulling me back. I appreciated the way that Pynchon has thousands of mini-stories within the one narrative, the mix of poetic intimacy and low-brow poop jokes. I really wanted to like his books, but I couldn’t seem to find any enjoyment. Really, I just wanted to finish the damn things.
So I felt like I owed it to myself to read his magnum opus, Gravity’s Rainbow before calling it quits.
Unfortunately, Gravity’s Rainbow didn’t change my mind. I found myself sort of annoyed by the finish, only because it had the potential to be one of the greatest things I’ve read but didn’t amount to much.
But back to the influence part. Because I appreciated the structure, I’ve found myself composing stories featuring a vast array of characters and mixing them up as caricatures and flesh and bone characters. It’s fun to write, but hopefully I can deliver something a bit more fun than Pynchon has been for me.
A quick (attempted) plot summary involves a guy named Slothrop, who wanders around WWII-era Europe seducing women. He later joins a rebel group in Africa, who began as a fictional group used as propaganda before they really organized. Military officials find that a V-2 rocket strikes every time Slothrop appears in a certain city. They wonder if he’s responsible for the attacks or if he has telepathic powers. We never really learn the answer to this. But the ending, featuring a V-2 rocket stuffed with a human, is truly too bizarre to be understood (at least by me).
In addition to Slothrop’s story, there are 100’s of characters, some imaginary, some who only exist for one paragraph and serve no larger purpose other than a quick joke. There are flashbacks, fantasies, time travel, weird, non-sensical dialogue that’s unattributed to characters. Reading this book is as disorienting as staring off the cliff of a skyscraper.
What else happens? A lot. More than I could ever capture in a blog post. The allusions run so deep, the figures so obscure, that I just stopped because much of they didn’t appear to pertain to the plot. I often think that Pynchon’s novels are elaborate jokes or just an opportunity for him to prove how smart he is. I don’t doubt that Pynchon is brilliant; I just wish he would dumb it down a bit for me.
If you want a real challenge in the mold of Finnegan’s Wake or Ulysses (2 books I like much more) then go ahead and give it a try. I’m aware that I may have missed something or completely didn’t “get it.” If you do “get it” please explain this thing to me, please.