Who was the cool novelist to read when you were in high school? For me, it was Thomas Pynchon, author of Gravity’s Rainbow, which I was reading when I graduated, read all summer, and continued to read when I started college.
I still haven’t completely finished it, having lost my way in the endless and completely surreal third section that seems to take place in the immediate aftermath of World War II. I did finish his first two novels, V. and The Crying of Lot 49.
Pynchon popularized the thermodynamic concept of entropy as a metaphor for history; and his basic theme was the paranoid search through cryptic evidence for clues that might make sense of a world that seems increasingly chaotic. These themes were expressed most clearly in The Crying of Lot 49, which for a time was something everyone read; it was barely 200 pages and though bizarre, it had a limited number of characters to follow, unlike the huge populations and decades of history covered in his other two books. The plot turned on the main character’s discovery of a centuries-long, secret war between rival postal services — which might not exist.
(I’m omitting Pynchon’s later novels, Mason & Dixon and Vineland, only because by the time these were published, the minimalist style of fiction had replaced the Joycean surrealism school that Pynchon commanded, so he was less in vogue. Vineland didn’t deliver, and while Mason & Dixon was fun, I couldn’t get through it. Although, now that I’ve become interested in astronomy, it might be worth another look, since the real Mason & Dixon played an intriguing little role in the history of astronomy.)
Pynchon’s mystique was aided by the fact that he had not let himself be photographed since high school, and lived like someone in witness protection. However, gonzo-esque journalists of the 70s would report on him, eyewitness accounts. Supposedly: He was a math genius. He was overwhelmed when he heard the Beach Boys. He wrote a lot of Gravity’s Rainbow while high, and later when editing it didn’t remember entire episodes. He lived in Mexico. He lived in Manhattan Beach. (Garrison Frost, of the South Bay-focused blog The Aesthetic, interviewed people who knew him when he lived there in the late 60s and early 70s, and wrote a great piece, arguing that Pynchon having written Gravity’s Rainbow in Manhattan Beach should be commemorated locally.) He lived in Redwood country. He lived in New York. His family’s pedigree went back to the Mayflower. He was not, in fact, strange; he was friendly and polite.
Thomas Pynchon has a new novel coming out in December. Amazon has a page where you can pre-order it. For about a day, there was a blurb on the page — written by Pynchon himself! Then, mysteriously, it was taken down.
However, on one of the forums that now accompanies items on Amazon, someone named Reid Burkland re-posted it. Here it is:
“Spanning the period between the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and the years just after World War I, this novel moves from the labor troubles in Colorado to turn-of-the-century New York, to London and Gottingen, Venice and Vienna, the Balkans, Central Asia, Siberia at the time of the mysterious Tunguska Event, Mexico during the Revolution, postwar Paris, silent-era Hollywood, and one or two places not strictly speaking on the map at all.
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.
The sizable cast of characters includes anarchists, balloonists, gamblers, corporate tycoons, drug enthusiasts, innocents and decadents, mathematicians, mad scientists, shamans, psychics, and stage magicians, spies, detectives, adventuresses, and hired guns. There are cameo appearances by Nikola Tesla, Bela Lugosi, and Groucho Marx.
As an era of certainty comes crashing down around their ears and an unpredictable future commences, these folks are mostly just trying to pursue their lives. Sometimes they manage to catch up; sometimes it’s their lives that pursue them.
Meanwhile, the author is up to his usual business. Characters stop what they’re doing to sing what are for the most part stupid songs. Strange sexual practices take place. Obscure languages are spoken, not always idiomatically. Contrary-to-the-fact occurrences occur. If it is not the world, it is what the world might be with a minor adjustment or two. According to some, this is one of the main purposes of fiction.
Let the reader decide, let the reader beware. Good luck.”
I wonder how central the Tunguska event is to his story. I wrote about it here.
Another Pynchon-LA connection: In the months after the 1965 Watts riots, he wrote “A Journey Into the Mind of Watts,” which ran in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. It was one of his few works of non-fiction. Clicking on the title will take you to the whole essay. Here’s a sample:
In the daytime, and especially with any kind of crowd, the cop’s surface style has changed some since last August. “Time was,” you’ll hear, “man used to go right in, very mean, pick maybe one kid out of the crowd he figured was the troublemaker, try to bust him down in front of everybody. But now the people start yelling back, how they don’t want no more of that, all of a sudden The Man gets very meek.”
Still, however much a cop may seem to be following the order of the day read to him every morning about being courteous to everybody, his behavior with a crowd will really depend as it always has on how many of his own he can muster, and how fast. For his Mayor, Sam Yorty, is a great believer in the virtues of Overwhelming Force as a solution to racial difficulties. This approach has not gained much favor in Watts. In fact, the Mayor of Los Angeles appears to many Negroes to be the very incarnation of the little man: looking out for no one but himself, speaking always out of expediency, and never, never to be trusted.
The Economic and Youth Opportunities Agency (E.Y.O.A.) is a joint city-county “umbrella agency” (the state used to be represented, but has dropped out) for many projects scattered around the poorer parts of L.A., and seems to be Sam Yorty’s native element, if not indeed the flower of his consciousness. Bizarre, confused, ever in flux, strangely ineffective, E.Y.O.A. hardly sees a day go by without somebody resigning, or being fired, or making an accusation, or answering one–all of it confirming the Watts Negroes’ already sad estimate of the little man. The Negro attitude toward E.Y.O.A. is one of clear mistrust, though degrees of suspicion vary, form the housewife wanting only to be left in peace and quiet, who hoped that maybe The Man is lying less than usual this time, to the young, active disciple of Malcolm X who dismisses it all with a contemptuous shrug.
“But why?” asked one white lady volunteer. “There are so many agencies now that you can go to, that can help you, if you’ll only file your complaint.”
“They don’t help you.” This particular kid had been put down trying to get a job with one of the larger defense contractors.
“Maybe not before. But it’s different now.”
“Now,” the kid sighed, “now. See people been hearing that ‘now’ for a long time, and I’m just tired of The Man telling you, ‘Now it’s OK, now we mean what we say.'”