Friday, December 01, 2006

Join the Chumps of Choice!

"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!'"
-- "Advice for Newbies" at

Look carefully at that cover shot. See how, under the type announcing the title & author, some ghostly images appear? Its the title & author again, twice more, in different typefaces, straining to break the surface of the paper and be seen, but suppressed by the black gothic letters of the topmost words.

Isn't that intriguing? Don't you just want to grab Pynchon by the lapels and demand an explanation?

The cryptic (ho, ho) image on the front cover is only the first of hundreds of delicious -- and oh, so often unfathomable -- conundrums that lie in wait for the intrepid reader of Pynchon's latest. It clocks in at a mere 1,100 pages of dense type -- a mighty, mighty daunting prospect indeed.

And yet...and yet...

From the jaunty boys'-adventure-story parody -- The Chums of Chance! -- of the opening pages, I'm absolutely sucked in. I resist the urge to plow forward into it, enticed by the utter wonder of Pynchon's effortlessly mesmerizing virtuosity. I want to savor; Pynchon's no spring chicken, and at an average of 12-15 years between his books, we may not get too many more of them. I can't tell you the number of times I've had to set one of his volumes down after a careful reading and parsing of one of his knotty paragraphs and whistle in wonder: How the hell did he just do that?

And he's funny! Is there any other "serious" novelist who's as funny as Pynchon? I think not, sir! But the jokes are deeply embroidered in; often constructed so you don't get them until a second, third or fourth reading. In Gravity's Rainbow, we are informed that one Brigadier Pudding, a secret coprophile, has published a book on current events titled What Can Happen in Europe. Not until my third or fourth time through the book did Pudding's true title hit me: Shit Happens in Europe! O-or there's a long and ornately filigreed paragraph in Mason & Dixon, invoking the Greek gods of Love, the Air, and the Forest -- but when you parse it out and reduce it to its simplest expression, it becomes "Ass, Gas or Grass -- Nobody Rides for Free." Then there's the lovely scene, again in Mason & Dixon, of the collier Mary & Meg feeling its way out of port on a foggy morning, following the clanging bell of a Tagareen Man -- a ship-to-ship vendor -- and you wonder why you suddenly find yourself humming:
Hey, Mister Tagareen Man,
Play a song for me
In your jingle-jangle morning
I'll come following you...
I've been jawing with Will Divide over at Huck and Jim, as enthusiastic a Pynchonian as I am -- ask him about his M&D ampersand tattoo! -- and we got to thinking: How about a group read?

So that's what I'm proposing, here. Anyone within the Jingosphere is hereby invited to kick off your shoes, read a chapter or two, and follow along in the company of friends. I know at least some of you are serious fans -- show yourselves!

The way I think it'll work is, we "assign" a few pages, say 30-40, each week, and at the end of the week we pop in and discuss. Will and I are willing to provide our blogs for the forum, and any other participants who have their own blogs are encouraged to volunteer to host for a given week.

Come on! Any takers? It'll be fun!

I note that Against the Day already has a pretty ornate page at Wikipedia, and the intrepid scholars at HyperArts have started an Against the Day wiki that looks like a really great source of information.

During the composition of this post, it occurred to me that a nice reply to that awful lecturing-nanny grammar book
Eats, Shoots and Leaves might be Eat, Shit and Die...


Anonymous said...

Sure! Just got to procure me the book. I've read just about everything by Pynchon, except Mason & Dixon, and a couple of them more than once, such as V and Gravity's Rainbow.
When do we begin?

Neddie said...

When do we begin?

TBD as yet. I'm waiting to see if we get enough participants -- really, four or five should be enough, but the more the merrier.

Glad to have you aboard!

Lance Mannion said...

I'm in. But I want pages 147-177.

Neddie said...

Consider them yours, Lancelot. Welcome to the good ship Inconvenient!

Employee of the Month said...

When you talk about de-construction,
Don't you know you can count me out - IN!

Mark Smeraldi said...

Definitely in.

Will Divide said...

You know, I've managed to live this long without reading The Princess Casamassima (Big House, btw), but if I have to, I have to...

Name the day, so that I may prepare against it.

Will Divide said...


E.Wurzel said...

Oh, yes.

Bought it a week ago,haven't set sail in it yet.

I knew there had to be a good reason for buying it and not starting to read it at once.

Count me in.

Blue Wren said...

Your enthusiasm is inspiring, Nedster. Althought M&D is currently in use here as a doorstop, I'll just put the old cat there instead. Should work. Sign me up!

Akatabi said...

Reading it in my favored posture of the odalisque, the weighty tome tends to cause cramping in the flexor pollicis, but what the hey.

H. Rumbold, Master Barber

Anonymous said...

Hi, there.

John B. (of Blog Meridian) pointed me in your direction, and I would love to join your group.

Anonymous said...

I'll be reading the book and your related blog posts silently, I hope there won't be any quizzes.

Kevin Wolf said...

Shit, Neddie. Here I thought I was off the hook since I asked this week if anybody has - or even should - read Pynchon the general consensus was that it probably wasn't worth the trouble.

I knew you'd weigh in. (Aw, man, I hoped you would.)

Blue Wren tipped me off to your challenge.

Here's my thing, being absolutely honest here: When I read your blog I feel like an idiot. I've seen that you dig Pynchon, which adds a layer of idiocy. I'm intimidated. Not to put too fine a point on it but I'm a dullard.

All the references, man. I don't know. The guy in the NY Times, whose name I'm too lazy to look up, hated the new book (it's a lazy meta-Pynchon from the master himself, he seemed to say), while John Leonard in The Nation just coasted through it no prob (and picked up on the boy's adventure thread, as you did). But the names, numbers and gnosticism are numbing. And I haven't even read it.

Still, I'm tempted to do this. I'm looking for reassurance. Yeah, I'm needy...

Neddie said...

Teoria del Caos: Bienvenido a bordo! Tu presencia nos agradace, y ¡ojal√° que nos divertemos!

Kevin: Difficult-schmifficult! Intimidating-inschmimidating!

To approach Pynchon as something to be feared is to sell yourself short. As a wise fellow at Pynchon-L once pointed out, underneath all the literary hugger-mugger there beats a rock-and-roll heart. He's not some kind of Chinese puzzle to figure out and feel ashamed if you fail; he's just a guy who's got the same concerns and fears and hopes as you do -- he just happens to express them through some of the most amazingly compact and loaded prose you've ever read.

If all goes as I hope it will, we'll discuss not only the words on the page, but a bewilderingly huge variety of side-topics suggested by the novel. It'll be, I hope, the best feet-steaming-by-the-potbelly-stove, checkers-on-the-pickle-barrel bullshit session you've ever participated in.

Now, as to Pynchon's detractors:

No, he's not a Modern American Master Storyteller. Stephen King, he's not. Dick Francis, no. He's an ahhhhhhrtist. He is to the American novel what Picasso is to the representative canvas: He rips it to shreds, tears it into tiny little pieces, reassembles it into a completely unrecognizable mish-mash, and dares you to make sense of it. But the beautiful thing about him is, it does make sense!

Bringing the Grateful Dead into the question is a demoralizing equivalency. Likewise Robert Anton Wilson -- my very definition of a barnacle. It's like saying, "Well, I liked "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little (Dark) Star" a bit, what's this "St. Matthew Passion" all about? And then rejecting Bach because there's too many notes, dig?

As for the critix, I'd say that "it's a lazy meta-Pynchon from the master himself" is a serious misunderstanding of Pynchon's career. The guy's 70 years old, fer crissakes -- shouldn't he be allowed a chance to sum up his own oeuvre? This may very well be his last novel -- is it just too awfully vieux jeux to let him have his valedictory?

To sum up, Kevin: Pynchon's detractors couldn't write their way out of a paper bag; Pynchon has at least a claim to being the most important voice in American letters in the last half-century; reading Pynchon is ribtickling, gut-laff-engendering fun, and you'd be among friends who will gently explain jokes to you if you don't get them.

What's not to like?

Will Divide said...

Indeed, it was the daily Times reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, (who reads way too much) who savaged ATD. The Sunday Times Book Review raved over it (in a good way) a week ago. In the New Yorker, Louis Menand gave a very respectful accounting, though making many of the same points as Kakutani, in the Nov. 27 issue.

Ned's correcto. Tom's a ton o' fun. Don't worry about not getting everything, because, well, frankly, there is too much going on and you will NEVER get it all, the author will make sure of that.

In fact, if anything characterizes TP as a writer of fictions, it is his rawther blythe indifference towards complete explanation. There is a space in his stories that his characters and readers tend to slip through equally.

This is, though, a convention of the novel - especially the pulp variety - which goes back to Cervantes. Dickens and Chandler and Kafka are no less guilty than our man Tom, only he gets his kicks by making those spaces bigger, more obvious.

Ned, I wrote the aol address last night, though it may have been purged as spam?

glue birl said...

This sounds like so much fun. You literary types are such partiers. Feeling somewhat the way Kevin does, I had no intention, when I first read this post, of joining in. I thought I'd just lurk a lot. But, now I think I might give it a shot. And if I actually read this book and get even one thing about it, I think I might deserve a trophy. Or a medal. Whatever. Just something to put on my mantle. Preferably something large, ornate and shiny.

Jeddie, I broke yahoo. That's why my email address isn't working. Here's my new one:

Pretty clever email address, huh?

Since I broke yahoo, I don't have the email address you talked about on my blog. So, please email me with the "good news!"

theuglyeditor said...

"I can't hardly wait!"
Perhaps we should discuss it in song. Count me in.

Ol' Pal D said...

Oh yes, yes yes-y yes. I hosey cynical and grouchy, and I'll fight any of you for it, just so's you know.

When do we drop?

Neddie said...

Pal D!!! Yay! Cracking good to have you aboard!

I'm in the process of setting up a separate blog for this little party, and when it's ready I think the fun can begin. Watch this space -- I'll announce it big-time when it's ready to roll. I'm thinking within the week.

Anonymous said...

Ok, I usually just lurk, but I'm out of the shadows for Pyncho, just need to pick up a copy tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

I'm in, though I'm not sure if I can keep up.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like fun. It'll be just like grad school again. I can get drunk and say really stupid things in front of a group. Count me in... Just need a day or two to run to Borders.


QRED said...

Speaking as someone entirely unfamiliar with this author beyond the first 5 pages of this book, which I do not yet own, I have this one innocent question: Am I likely to relysh Pynchon if I could not finysh Myst?

Will Divide said...


belledame222 said...

I've never been able to get all the way through a Pynchon book--closest was Vineland, and that wasn't all that close. mostly i used to just bird-dog 'em for the kinky and/or funny bits.

in the latter category, the Disgusting English Candy section in "Gravity's Rainbow" is one of the funniest things, like, -ever.-

i couldn't finish Myst either.