Advice for Pynchon Newbies
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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are a gazillion characters; you'll need a dictionary and an encyclopedia to understand all the scientific metaphors, historical references and obscure words.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 summed it up, "difficult, schmifficult!"
To plunge down the rabbit hole of Pynchon's fiction is to commence a journey into an alternate world, a world somewhat like our own but, as Pynchon put it "Maybe it's not the world, but with a minor adjustment or two it's what the world might be." It's a world infused with magic and mystery, wonderfully labyrinthine, 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."
Like Gravity's Rainbow (1973) and V. (1963), Mason & Dixon is a large and complex work. But one must be reminded that beneath the wide-ranging erudition and complexity there beats a rock 'n' roll heart, and the daunting mystery and "high seriousness" is counterbalanced by flights of zany (and often dark) humor. And, of course, there is simply the sheer beauty and breathtaking power of the writing, the subtly interwoven plots and themes, the rich detail and, as Penny Padgett (who helps maintain the Thomas Pynchon Home Page) put it, "the way you can find something amazing on just about every page, the way these amazing things have a way of connecting to each other, giving you that 'aha!' experience every time you look closer."
Previous to the 1997 publication of Mason & Dixon, I put the question of how a "Pynchon newbie" might best approach this new Pynchon novel to the Pynchon List, an email list-serve group on the internet composed of bright and opinionated folks who delight in discussing and arguing the significance of events and characters in Pynchon's canon, quoting favorite passages, discovering ever new connections (and occasionally suckered by "Kute Korrespondences") and endlessly probing the seemingly infinite moiré of interconnected meanings. With the publication of Mason & Dixon still a month away, the most common reference made was to Gravity's Rainbow, considered by most to be Pynchon's most awesome work...so far.
New readers should try leaving the hallowed-ness at the door and just enjoy the ride first time out. If they're smitten they'll come back again. Keep a dictionary handy, and maybe a desk encyclopedia if you get hooked.
Just enjoy it. Once you're hooked by the humor, the density of detail and the, well, magic . . . you can always go back and try to understand more of it later. Hell, read it for fun next time too. You find yourself getting more of it each time; and that's half the pleasure.
David L. Pelovitz
Just enjoy the ride. If you must have linear narrative, take notes--by the end of any of the books you'll find that events are ordered into an ominous logic. If you must have closure, you may be SOL with Pynchon. As far as background material goes, just be willing to let yourself not know some of it but be willing to go out and do a little research when a topic seems interesting to you.
I tell Pynchon newbies:
- It's the most fun you can have without risking arrest in many states.
- Leave your preconceptions at the door and enjoy your new and exotic surroundings.
- If something baffles you, read on for the next moment of searingly bright light and don't worry about it. With time and re-readings everything (well, many things) will be made clear.
- Difficult, schmifficult!
Four short principles for newbies:
- Read each word, one after the other. Gravity's Rainbow is a deeply interconnected stream of jazz you can't skim it.
- Let the stream affect you without trying to figure it out. Give up to it.
- Commit to getting through the first 50 pages. It's something very different than most other stuff you've read; not harder, just harder to hear.
- If, after 1, 2 & 3, you still don't connect, don't write it off, just put it away for a while.
Andrew Dinn, a once prodigious and erudite contributor to the Pynchon List, provided the following advice to new readers of Pynchon approaching Gravity's Rainbow, advice that is quite apropos to entering the world of Mason & Dixon:
The major difficulty in reading Gravity's Rainbow is one of form, of knowing where the hell we are and what is going on. ThoughGR is often touted as a formless novel, this is a serious misnomer which misreads lack of plot for lack of narrative coherence.
Who is speaking? It can sometimes be difficult for the reader to track who is narrating a scene, as Pynchon will frequently and subtly shift between i) narration by an external, impersonal narrator, of which there are several distinguishable by their tone of voice and their treatment of the subject; ii) narration from the POV of a given character, achieved either by colouring the narrative with the character's 'voice'--adopting vocabulary, idiomatic tics etc.--or by narrating one of the character's passing memories or fantasies, usually with an accompanying change of narrative voice; and iii) dialogue--often attributed but, when unattributed, so clearly demarcated thanks to Pynchon's mastery of accent and dialogue that the identity of the speakers is rarely in doubt.
Where and when is the narrated action taking place and how the hell did we get here from where we just were? Many of the switches of narrator/perspective involve switching into alternative contexts, contexts from which we usually emerge back into the previous one. In particular, the switch from external to internal narrative often starts off by moving from an outside view to the perspective of the chosen character on the current scene. But it is usually effected in order to switch into that character's memories or fantasies which often belong to a totally different time and place to the enclosing narrative. So, at first it appears that the book is chock full of sudden and arbitrary jumps in chronology and location interlarded with strange song and dance numbers or bouts of weird sex or whatever. But these peculiar and confusing sequences are for the most part merely intrusions from the psyches of the characters into a relatively conventionally plotted story.
The step down into a character's memories can often run to several pages or even whole sections of narrative and this may itself involve recursive descents into the memories or fantasies of characters in the embedded scene. Sometimes all this rich exposition may underline and explain a single line of dialogue or a passing thought of the character in the enclosing narrative. The material presented may also serve to help the reader comprehend later (and occasionally earlier) developments. Bear in mind then that GR is a hierarchy of narratives, rather like a hypertext in which a given line or paragraph at one level in the narrative can suddenly open up into a whole section of underlying expository narrative. Be prepared to switch to and fro from one scene to another at the drop of an allusion but expect also to find a coherent trail linking each such scene to a global narrative.
I would like to thank the following members of the Pynchon List for their thoughtful contributions to the "Advice to Pynchon Newbies":
Monte Davis · Andrew Dinn · Jimmy Trumm · Steven Maas · Paul Mackin · Penny Padgett · David L. Pelovitz · Ted Samsel · Tom Stanton · Joe Varo · Skip Wolfe