I spent a fair amount of yesterday, the last day of 2013, finishing Pynchon’s latest novel. 477 pages that I picked up and put down, enjoyed and resented, renewed three times at my local library.
My Pynchon belt now has three notches: The Crying of Lot 49; Vineland (my favorite); Bleeding Edge. I’ve delved into V., Gravity’s Rainbow, and Mason and Dixon. I would say haven’t we all, but I don’t know, have we? do people really still read Pynchon? try to read Pynchon? Are my rube roots showing? (Real questions.)
New Year: time for a bit of reflection/nostalgia. I discovered Pynchon via my older sister’s (Kath’s) bookshelf–the one she maintained at home while she was in college. She finished a book for a class. She deposited a book at home. I was a junior in high school–pretty sure I wasn’t smart enough to go to college (most of my teachers would have agreed)–quite sure I wasn’t as smart as my sister, salutatorian of her 1969 Roswell High School class (long before the days of multiple valedictorians). I’d like to talk to her about this novel (though she was losing her sight and suffering from a bit of dementia before she died on New Year’s Day, 2012). Maxine, the protagonist of the novel made me think a lot about a young Kath who was into programming in the early 70s. She and her husband and I all lived in Albuquerque where Bill Gates and Paul Allen would found Microsoft in 1975. Over backgammon games, while we cooked and ate, The Grateful Dead and Bowie providing background music, talk of computers filled the air.
The 40 years that have passed between now and then play some role in the novel. And this is where I got bogged down while reading. I guess we’d call what Pynchon does “riffing” (a word I’ve used maybe five times in my life). In any case this riffing almost always takes me out of the novel. In speaking of a character who has gone to D.C., Pynchon says something like “D.C. now” as Martha and the Vandellas call it. After a pile-up of stuff like that, I stop reading, close the book, put it down. Just “Walk away, Renée” as The Left Banke would say and now I’m pissed because I’m doing a Pynchon. Is this good? Am I just being manipulated? Why doesn’t someone edit the man? (real question)
I didn’t read any lengthy reviews of Bleeding Edge before deciding to read it. But last night I googled “reviews of Bleeding Edge,” and the two that popped up first are (of course) by Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon.
In his review, Pynchonopolis, Lethem does some riffing as he discusses Pynchon’s, uh, riffing, but also addresses the issue of whether or not we all, in fact, do know how to read Pynchon: “But wait. I’m acting as if we all know what it is to read Pynchon. In fact none of us do, for figuring out what it is like to read Pynchon is what it is like to read Pynchon. You’re never done with it. He’ll employ a string of citations to real and imaginary Bette Davis movies, say, or riffs on basketball, much as Pollock uses a color on a panoramic canvas or Coltrane a note in a solo: incessantly, arrestingly, yet seemingly without cumulative purpose. Instead, they’re threads for teasing at, or being teased by. Try Bette Davis, who often played good/bad twins or sisters: she resonates — uh, maybe? — with Pynchon’s Poe-like attraction to characters split into sinister mirrored doubles.”
Lethem represents the process of reading Pynchon as a kind of test. If I don’t know all this stuff, can I understand the novel? If I can’t understand the novel, should I read it anyway? If so, why? If not, why not?
The review is Lethem’s essay question response: yes, read it, but don’t be surprised if you’re not smart enough to figure it all out (to be fair, he does point out that the numerous threads of the “mystery” of the novel never really come together). He ends on a cutsie reference to Pynchon’s age and what the young author might riff up next. “In summary: Despite the lack of personal information supplied about the author, it’s plain, from the sweep and chortle of his sentences, from the irascible outbreaks of horniness, from the pinpoint rage at popular hypocrisy and cant, that young Pynchon is a writer of boundless promise, sure to give us a long shelf of entrancing and charismatic novels. I believe he has a masterpiece or three in him. I look forward to seeing what he’ll do next.”
In The Crying of September 11, Chabon suggests that “Bleeding Edge has been written, in part, as a response to the Pynchonization of consensus reality, a transformation that became irrefutable with the rise of the World Wide Web, with its name like that of a global crime syndicate out of some half-parodic James Coburn spy caper and its infinite interlinks a perfect metaphor for paranoia itself.”
I read these reviews the way a student might turn to SparkNotes. I wanted to know if I’d gotten it. I guess I did. I like essay reviews as much for what they reveal about the person writing them as for what they might tell me about a book. But I also like straight-up reviews: is the book good, bad, worth buying, worth reading, etc.
And for that reason, I like Talitha Stevenson’s review in the Guardian because she approaches the novel as an outsider, as a reader who is not American. While I think she has a rather narrow view of what it means to be American, I nonetheless appreciate the approach, largely because she refuses to take the test that Chabon and Lethem want to get the A+ on. She’s not trying to prove that she knows all the references; she’s writing as a reader.
“Though it’s hard to believe Pynchon has any interest in non-American readers, most of us have seen enough about America on film to know what he’s getting at when he refers to ‘The Yupper West Side’ of New York. (Even so, it’s worth noting that such provincial references if they were made in regard to London, or Berlin, would be found meaningless by an American audience and therefore unpublishable.) But there are times when the lexicon and signifiers have a mean-girl exclusivity. When Maxine comments on the lavishness of a Halloween party, her friend Vyrva scoffs: ‘This? Next to the Alley a couple years ago? The average startup party? This is a footnote, my dear. Commentary.'”
And she asks the question about Pynchon that nags at me:
“When March Kelleher, the leftwing, paranoid blogger in Bleeding Edge, invites the heroine, Maxine Tarnow, to recall ‘what Susan Sontag always sez’, Maxine responds: ‘I like the streak, I’m keeping it?’ But March – the novel’s voice of misguided sincerity – persists, correcting her: ‘If there’s a sensibility you really want to talk about, and not just exhibit it yourself, you need ‘a deep sympathy modified by contempt’.” Sontag’s idea strikes at the heart of what Thomas Pynchon has undertaken in Bleeding Edge. It prompts a question relevant to him and to all contemporary artists, from writers to directors to choreographers: if the present day is atomised, paranoid, infantile, obsessive, can a work of art capture this without taking on these attributes itself?”
While I had very mixed feelings about Bleeding Edge, I did finish it, and I am not the kind of reader who feels dutiful about finishing a book that I don’t like. I don’t think I could really recommend it, but I do feel like I want to give Gravity’s Rainbow another shot.
And that kind of pisses me off. Damn you, Pynchon! And happy new year!