On Not Reading Thomas Pynchon  

 by Kenny Brechner

    It’s no secret that Thomas Pynchon’s novels are hard to get through, in an unpleasant sort of way. For most authors this would be considered a danger sign, an indication that the book was defective in some way. Difficulty and challenge are often components of pleasant, and rewarding reading experiences. Not so with Pynchon. The unpleasantness of his books is seen as a badge of honor, they are regal mountain fastnesses, the excruciating climb to whose summits are indicators of the prowess of the successful reader.

    The idea of unpleasantness in a book is a strange one. With most things we expect some sense of the marriage of form and function. We expect a cup to hold liquid, and one with a hole in the bottom would not be called a great cup by anyone who had to clean up its errant contents. Not so with Thomas Pynchon novels. The reading experience is known to be a dreadful slog, the main thing is to be able to make a claim of having enjoyed the discomfort.

    People in the book industry know that readers want to be able to say that they’ve read a long Pynchon book. Jason Rice of Bookazine, a regional wholesaler, recently circulated an email regarding the new release of Pynchon’s 1085 page novel, Against the Day, Rice basically suggested training for the event by reading Pynchon’s one relatively short early novel, The Crying of Lot 49. "The new Harper Perennial edition of The Crying Of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon, is now in our warehouse. Every Pynchon fan should read, or re-read, this book. It is also a good place to start if you are new to Pynchon, or if you are having trouble getting through another one of his titles (V., Gravity's Rainbow, Vineland, Mason & Dixon)."

    Pynchon himself wrote the publisher’s catalog blurb about his new book, Against the Day. Speaking of himself in the third person (a distasteful practice, and hence a benefit here) he notes that "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."

    Thanks indeed. Enjoying stupid songs, strange sexual practices, and obscure languages spoken idiomatically and non idiomatically, does sound somewhat hazardous. Perhaps when Pynchon refers to "what the world might be with a minor adjustment" he means a world where people actually enjoy reading his books.

    That such a world is not immediately at hand is readily apparent to anyone who opens, or even tries to lift, Against The Day. Indeed the staff member who opened our carton nearly wrenched her shoulder pulling the first copy out. As far as the text goes, one instantly encounters characters with names like Darby Suckling, Randolph St. Cosmo, Lindsay Noseworth, and Chick Counterfly. There are references to "tableware bearing the Chums of Chance Insignia," "lavatorial assaults from the sky" and "lessons of unpremeditated habitude".

    The tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes starts to poke its head in here. What if these names don’t merely sound stupid; what if they are stupid? What if Pynchon’s books are hard to read because they’re bad, and quite simply not worth reading. What if the mental anguish of trying to read them is an indicator, as most anguish is, that one should seek to put a stop to the source of discomfort. What if the decision not to read Pynchon illustrates good judgement and not a reason to have poor self esteem?

    It is hard to say. The Emperor really was naked, but he was still the Emperor. Against The Day really is a dreadful book, but it’s still a Thomas Pynchon novel. In the end we all must judge for ourselves. Should we read something enjoyable or read a Thomas Pynchon novel? What should we pull out of the refrigerator for lunch, a freshly made fruit salad, or a fungus ridden platter whose original nature is no longer determinable. Such choices are always difficult.

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