I love Thomas Pynchon because he reminds me—with sentences that I can get lost in, with jokes I guffaw at, with erudition that I can only pretend to understand, with a vision so broad that it inspires awe—that I know much less about the world than I sometimes think I do. His novels are useful correctives against my ego, cold splashes of water against my brain. He’s one of the few American novelists who discusses science and technology’s influence on culture (and vice versa) on more than abstract, theoretical terms.
Sure, he’s hard. Sure, he throws in everything but the kitchen sink into his fictions. Sure, his novels are messy. But life is hard, complicated, and messy. At least with Pynchon there’s wild sex, singing robot ducks, and characters who break into song.
He emerges from a literary tradition that reaches farther back than the 1960s counterculture, farther back than James Joyce and the early modernists. I don’t mean just that he apes Gilbert & Sullivan, 19th-century kings of comic opera. His multi-generational, many-charactered novels, with subplots that dance and weave around each other, with social connections that are seen both up-close and from heights, have their roots in the triple-decker novels of the Russians and Victorians.
A big part of me thinks that the brainy novels about systems–sometimes (un)fairly called the my-thick-novel/cock-is-bigger-than-your-thick-novel/cock school of maximalist postmodernism (David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, William T. Vollmann, Jeffrey Eugenides, Neal Stephenson, Jonathan Franzen)–has its roots, ironically, in a woman’s work:
That great Frenchman first carried out the conception that living bodies, fundamentally considered, are not associations of organs which can be understood by studying them first apart, and then as it were federally; but must be regarded as consisting of certain primary webs or tissues, out of which the various organs—brains, heart, lungs, and so on—are compacted, as the various accommodations of a house are built up in various proportions of wood, iron, stone, brick, zinc, and the rest, each material having its peculiar composition and proportions. No man, one sees, can understand and estimate the entire structure or its parts—what are its frailties and what its repairs, without knowing the nature of the materials.
That’s from George Eliot’s Middlemarch, perhaps the greatest of all English-language novels from one of the greatest of all fiction writers. Its understanding of the world as a system of webs—of interlocking designs that confound us when viewed too closely but equally confuse us when we look only as the webs and not the individual threads as well—is a shadow that looms large over postmodernism. Her voice—which interrupts itself and changes direction, which is carefully observant but rarely judgmental, which is exuberantly learned but also comfortable with the colloquial—resonates. The above passage, with its metaphors of anatomy and architecture for human civilization and the individual, informs Pynchon’s use of the sciences to explain humanity.
Unlike Eliot, the strands of Pynchon’s webs often hang loose, swinging tantalizingly in the breeze. Eliot either had the comfort of thinking that everything wraps up neatly in the end, or the expectation from her audience that she’d tie it all together. Pynchon allows for neither option. That’s part of what makes him so unsettling. But it’s also why I pay such careful attention. I’m never sure if I’m being introduced to a major character or simply a digression—usually, it’s a little of both—so I end up sharpening our focus, rereading passages, refusing to skim over sections that are initially daunting.
Even then, not everything coheres. Pynchon writes novels, not encyclopedias. As such, he assumes that you as reader enter into his world, and that he can create a world that feels full enough to sustain life and to explore at length. He’s not going to explain what each acronym means. He’ll explain complicated mathematical and engineering ideas, but only within the context of the novel. His characters will make knowing references to things you’ve never heard of.
And so, as a reader, I’m forced to look beyond myself and his books to make sense of Pynchon’s prose. That sounds like I’m insulting him, but I’m not. Pynchon regularly makes me turn to encyclopedias, to the internet, to library books. Even though I enter his dazzling worlds when I crack open a new book, his ideas and prose send me out into the world beyond his fiction, beyond my life. Whereas most writers draw us in, Pynchon regularly kicks us out, and says, “go explore, kiddo, and come back when you know something new.” I spent five months working my way through Mason & Dixon—the last novel I wept openly at while reading, but that’s a story for another post—and, as I did, I consulted Greek philosophy, a history of surveying, and dug up articles about early astronomers and the Transit of Venus. I didn’t even know what the Transit of Venus was, nor did I care, before reading the novel. I learned more about how the world operates (or operated) through that novel than I did in a 11th-grade world history class.
For all this, Pynchon is by no means my favorite American writer. I love him but he’s often too gnarled to embrace fully, too full of great ideas to allow for great characters. (Again, the exception here is Mason & Dixon, one of the finest American novels published in five decades, where Pynchon finally weds honest emotion with all the formidable learning and linguistic gymnastics.) But he gets the synapses firing like few other writers can, and he challenges us to move beyond ourselves—and daringly, beyond his prose as well.
The master is back; I pick up my copy of Against the Day at lunch. We’ll see how it goes.