Why everyone should (at least try to) read Thomas Pynchon

Late capitalism is a pyramid racket on a global scale, the kind of pyramid you do human sacrifices up on top of. 

Reading Thomas Pynchon’s novels is hugely entertaining. It enables you to see the world in new and unexpected ways, to entertain new possibilities about reality. While poets often do this in an oblique way, Pynchon does it in a manner which teases the brain but is also relatively easy to make sense of. To get to grips with his novels nevertheless takes effort, but it’s one which is hugely pleasurable and deeply rewarding. That first quote was from his latest (and possibly last) novel, ‘Bleeding Edge’ (2013). This is from his first, ‘V’ (1963):

The only consolation he drew from the present chaos was that his theory managed to explain it.

And this from ‘Mason & Dixon’ (1997), from the mouth of a talking dog:

“Once, the only reason Men kept Dogs was for food. Noting that among Men no crime was quite so abhorr’d as eating the flesh of another human, Dog quickly learn’d to act as human as possible,— and to pass this Ability on from Parents to Pups. So we know how to evoke from you, Man, one day at a time, at least enough Mercy for one day more of Life. Nonetheless, however accomplish’d, our Lives are never settled,— we go on as tail-wagging Scheherazades, (…) nightly delaying the Blades of our Masters by telling back to them tales of their humanity. I am but an extreme Expression of this Process.”

Seeing as I am currently, while waiting for my wife to give birth to our first child, enjoying “that mysterious exemption from time that produces most internet content” (‘Bleeding Edge’, p428)*, I wanted to share with ‘the world’ just what a joyous experience it can be to read Pynchon’s work. Once again, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It took me, I would say, seven attempts over twenty-five years to get past the first few pages of ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ (set during the Second World War, published in 1973). I’m very glad I did, because once you accept that those first couple of pages are actually a dream sequence, on page 9 you get this:

With a clattering of chairs, upended shell cases, benches, and ottomans, Pirate’s mob gather at the shores of the great refectory table, (…) crowded now over the swirling dark grain of its walnut uplands with banana omelets, banana sandwiches, banana casseroles, mashed bananas molded into the shape of a British lion rampant, blended with eggs into batter for French toast, squeezed out a pastry nozzle across the quivering creamy reaches of a banana blancmange to spell out the words C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre (attributed to a French observer during the Charge of the Light Brigade) which Pirate has appropriated as his motto . . . tall cruets of pale banana syrup to pour oozing over banana waffles, a giant glazed crock where diced bananas have been fermenting since the summer with wild honey and muscat raisins, up out of which, this winter morning, one now dips foam mugsfull of banana mead . . . banana croissants and banana kreplach, and banana oatmeal and banana jam and banana bread, and bananas flamed in ancient brandy Pirate brought back last year from a cellar in the Pyrenees also containing a clandestine radio transmitter. . . .

Some internet genius has made a diagram in case you should want to recreate the banana breakfast:

banana-breakfast.pngAnd on the next page of the novel there’s a song about bananas:

There’s a constant strain of wackiness in all Pynchon’s novels. He uses a huge amount of humour and a lot of (often extremely silly) songs. Talking lightbulbs, mechanical ducks and a sentient (and actually very cute) ball of lightning called Skip all feature in his books. His characters often appear to be animated: that talking dog he describes as walking with ‘no more than one wag of the Tail per step’. He’s often using these tropes to talk about science: ‘objects’ that appear to be inert but may be more alive and conscious than we think. The science parts are apparently extremely well-researched or very elaborately made up and also eye-glazingly complex. Some passages test your patience and might make you inclined, on the first reading, to put the book down, walk quietly away and just pretend that you’ve read it. One disturbing secret about Pynchon’s novels is that you have to read them twice: the first time is practice.  You also need to concentrate, using what Daniel Kahnemann calls “System 2” thinking: not automatic and emotional but deliberate and attentive.

The stories he tells are open-ended and feature hundreds of characters, many of whom may appear only once or twice. It’s often a challenge to work out who is speaking: is this passage a memory, a fantasy, a dream? Whose it it? What happened to the person we were introduced to two pages ago? It helps that the characters’ names are entertaining. The narrator of ‘Mason & Dixon’ (which is set in the 1760s) is called Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke. There are others called Fender-Belly Bodine, Sauncho Smilax and Mucho Maas. This works to help you remember the characters and also to remember that what you are reading is a work of the imagination. The main character in the book (and now film) ‘Inherent Vice’ (2009) is called Doc Sportello (‘sportello’ in Italian means counter, like in a bank. This may be important; it may not). Paul Anderson’s film is actually a pretty good introduction to Pynchon’s work, in that it’s huge fun to watch but it hurts nicely in the head to make sense of what’s happening. The best book to begin with, however, is ‘The Crying of Lot 49’ (1966, 142 pages), which features the funniest parody of a Jacobean revenge play in mid-1960s postmodern fiction.

For all his zaniness and occasional abstruseness (especially with regard to science), Pynchon’s work is concerned with very pressing themes. Although he may be talking about German colonialism in late 19th century Africa, 18th century myths about the hollow earth or recipes for baked potatoes, he’s also talking with disguised urgency about the world we live in now. That may be the reason he likes to use anachronisms. Pre-Independence America didn’t feature shopping malls, coffee chains or goth teenagers, but they all appear in ‘Mason & Dixon’. One major theme in all his books is history and remembrance. History is ‘at best a conspiracy, not always among gentlemen, to defraud’ (‘Gravity’s Rainbow’). ‘History is not Chronology, for that is left to lawyers – nor is it Remembrance, for Remembrance belongs to the people’ (‘Mason & Dixon’). ‘Vineland’ (1990) insists on the need to remember. It was widely misunderstood when first published. Pynchon’s unofficial mentee David Foster Wallace hated it. There were complaints that is was superficial, obsessed with obscure details of popular TV shows, and vastly inferior to the immensely complex ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ seventeen years earlier. But actually it was an elaboration of the prediction in that novel: ‘there’ll be a thousand ways to forget’. One late ’60s hippy character comments:

“They just let us forget. Give us too much to process, fill up every minute, keep us distracted, it’s what the Tube is for, and though it kills me to say it, it’s what rock and roll is becoming — just another way to claim our attention, so that beautiful certainty we had starts to fade, and after a while they have us convinced all over again that we really are going to die. And they’ve got us again.”

Upon which Pynchon wryly editorialises: ‘It was the way people used to talk’.

‘Vineland’ had therefore a deeper message about the history of workers to survive in the face of brutal repression, and the ways in which (pace Gramsci) the dulling effects of TV serve to complement that repression. Pynchon’s novels depict and are in themselves attempts to map networks of power, and thereby to escape the wire mesh power throws over us so it can build upon us, to paraphrase the plutocrat Scarsdale Vibe’s terrifying speech at the end of ‘Against the Day’ (2006).

That novel is set around the turn of the 19th century but Pynchon was keen to stress that it is a book about now and the future**. In his own distinctive way, that is. This is the synopsis he himself appears to have written upon its publication:

With a worldwide disaster looming just a few years ahead, it is a time of unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places. No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred.

That worldwide disaster in the context of the novel was of course the First World War and the novels shows the apparently inexorable drift towards it. It contains a warning:

“When peace and plenty are once again taken for granted, at your most languorous moment of maximum surrender, the true state of affairs will be borne in upon you. Swiftly and without mercy.”

Events converge in Pynchon’s work as they do in history and in life, often (to quote ‘V.’) ‘according to an ominous logic’. ‘Bleeding Edge’ is set around the time of both 9/11 and the aftermath of the dotcom crash. If events coincide, there must be some connections, some hidden logics which connect them. You might think that as it’s the only one of his novels to be set in the last 30 years, it would be the only one to address the Internet. You’d be wrong. The following quote comes from ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’, which was mostly written during the 1960s:

Is it any wonder the world’s gone insane, with information come to be the only medium of exchange?

…and this one from ‘Vineland’ (1984):

If patterns of ones and zeroes were “like” patterns of human lives and deaths, if everything about an individual could be represented in a computer record by a long strings of ones and zeroes, then what kind of creature could be represented by a long string of lives and deaths? It would have to be up one level, at least — an angel, a minor god, something in a UFO. It would take eight human lives and deaths just to form one character in this being’s name — its complete dossier might take up a considerable piece of history of the world. We are digits in God’s computer, she not so much thought as hummed to herself to sort of a standard gospel tune, And the only thing we’re good for, to be dead or to be living, is the only thing He sees. What we cry, what we contend for, in our world of toil and blood, it all lies beneath the notice of the hacker we call God.

A character in ‘Bleeding Edge’ elaborates on the remark in ‘Inherent Vice’ (2009, set around 1970) that “everybody’s gonna wake up to find they’re under surveillance they can’t escape”:

“(the) Internet was their invention, this magical convenience that creeps now like a smell through the smallest details of our lives, the shopping, the housework, the homework, the taxes, absorbing our energy, eating up our precious time. And there’s no innocence. Anywhere. Never was. It was conceived in sin, the worst possible. As it kept growing, it never stopped carrying in its heart a bitter-cold death wish for the planet, and don’t think anything has changed, kid.

Call it freedom, it’s based on control. Everybody connected together, impossible anybody should ever get lost, ever again. Take the next step, connect it to these cell phones, you’ve got a total Web of surveillance, inescapable. You remember the comics in the Daily News? Dick Tracy’s wrist radio? It’ll be everywhere, the rubes’ll all be begging to wear one, handcuffs of the future. Terrific. What they dream about at the Pentagon, worldwide martial law.”

The main character’s two children in the same novel are described near its end as:

…standing just like this, folded in just this precarious light, ready to step out into their peaceable city, still safe from the spiders and bots that one day too soon will be coming for it, to claim-jump it in the name of the indexed world.

And although these lines describe the atmosphere in the wake of 9/11, they may also strike a tone when we reflect on the role of hackers in the recent US election:

…the bleak feeling, some mornings, that the country itself may not be there anymore, but being silently replaced screen by screen with something else, some surprise package, by those who’ve kept their wits about them and their clicking thumbs ready.

Pynchon has also been extremely prescient when it comes to environmental questions – “for the living green, against the dead white”. Both that and this come from ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ again:

Taking and not giving back, demanding that “productivity” and “earnings” keep on increasing with time, the System removing from the rest of the World these vast quantities of energy to keep its own tiny desperate fraction showing a profit: and not only most of humanity—most of the World, animal, vegetable, and mineral, is laid waste in the process. The System may or may not understand that it’s only buying time. And that time is an artificial resource to begin with, of no value to anyone or anything but the System, which must sooner or later crash to its death, when its addiction to energy has become more than the rest of the World can supply, dragging with it innocent souls all along the chain of life. Living inside the System is like riding across the country in a bus driven by a maniac bent on suicide . . . though he’s amiable enough, keeps cracking jokes back through the loudspeaker . . .

There are, even more than is the case with other Pynchon novels, several genres woven together in ‘Against the Day’. One is time-travel science fiction:

“We are here among you as seekers of refuge from our present—your future—a time of worldwide famine, exhausted fuel supplies, terminal poverty—the end of the capitalistic experiment. Once we came to understand the simple thermodynamic truth that Earth’s resources were limited, in fact soon to run out, the whole capitalist illusion fell to pieces. Those of us who spoke this truth aloud were denounced as heretics, as enemies of the prevailing economic faith. Like religious Dissenters of an earlier day, we were forced to migrate, with little choice but to set forth upon that dark fourth-dimensional Atlantic known as Time.”

There’s a hopeful note in ‘Inherent Vice’:

“The good news is that, like any living creature, Earth has an immune system too, and sooner or later she’s going to start rejecting agents of disease like the oil industry.”

..and its hard to argue with the sentiments expressed by March in ‘Bleeding Edge’:

“Maybe it’s unbeatable, maybe there are ways to fight back. What it may require is a dedicated cadre of warriors willing to sacrifice time, income, personal safety, a brother/sisterhood consecrated to an uncertain struggle that may extend over generations and, despite all, end in total defeat.”

In terms of 9/11, you don’t have to be a puerile internet conspiracy theorist to see that the planes did not fly into the World Trade Center by accident:

“The Trade Center towers were religious too. They stood for what this country worships above everything else, the market, always the holy fuckin market”

“A religious beef, you’re saying?”

“It’s not a religion? These are people who believe the Invisible Hand of the Market runs everything. They fight holy wars against competing religions like Marxism. Against all evidence that the world is finite, this blind faith that resources will never run out, profits will go on increasing forever, just like the world’s populations–more cheap labor, more addicted consumers.”

…while, in this mood of paranoia which suffuses Pynchon’s fiction, other characters remark:

How could predicting market behaviour be the same as predicting a natural disaster?

“If the two were different forms of the same thing?”

(…)

“No matter how the official narrative of this turns out,” it seemed to Heidi, “these are the places we should be looking, not in newspapers or television but at the margins, graffiti, uncontrolled utterances, bad dreamers who sleep in public and scream in their sleep.”

Pynchon is mostly renowned as a writer of conspiracy and paranoia, trying to discern those ‘secret lusts that drive the planet’. In his novels paranoia is a tool that helps us interpret reality. His characters (and therefore we readers) struggle to make sense of, to map reality, and the way in which those efforts conflict with ‘control’, the desire of power to index everything, to turn it (and us) into ‘ones and zeros’. Hence there is a libertarian strain to his work. It’s no accident that rumours spread in the 1970s (partly fuelled by his habit of avoiding journalists) to the effect that he might be the Unabomber. It’s even possible that there are some Pynchon fans who voted for Trump. I hope not. It would go against his respect for our human vulnerabilities and his insistence on holding open the possibility of other realities in the past, present and future.

At a certain point reading Pynchon (and similar literature) compelled me to start writing. Doing so is partly a form of reading more deeply, and also a way of finding others who’ve had the same experience and of trying to persuade more people to read (and think) the same things. What is, after all, the point in my having read these books? What do I do with the knowledge I’ve acquired? I’m privileged to have the time and education to read such books. Reading serious fiction is also a way of taking life more seriously; I know I have a culturally-derived tendency not to do so:

“On this island,” says Yashmeen Halfcourt, “as you will have begun to notice, no one ever speaks plainly. Whether it’s Cockney rhyming codes or the crosswords in the newspapers—all English, spoken or written, is looked down on as no more than strings of text cleverly encrypted. Nothing beyond. Any who may come to feel betrayed by them, insulted, even hurt, even grievously, are simply ‘taking it too seriously.’ The English exercise their eyebrows and smile and tell you it’s ‘irony’ or ‘a bit of fun,’ for it’s only combinations of letters after all, isn’t it.” (‘Against the Day’)

In the face of life’s single lesson: that there is more accident to it than a man can ever admit to in a lifetime and stay sane (V.), if you want to learn to understand the world in 2017, need to find (as we all do) an antidote to Trump, and would like to have a huge amount of fun and frustration in the process, read Pynchon. Should you need some help from people who know even more about Pynchon than I do about wasting time writing pointless blogs, listen to the podcast. It’s also huge fun.

 

* I’m also trying hard to avoid thinking about earthquakes.

** ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ was set during World War 2 but its relevance to the Vietnam era shouldn’t be underestimated.

*** Incidentally, a propos of nothing, occasionally nobody asks me where the quote at the top of each page is from. It’s from ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’.

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