What the hell is Pynchon in Public Day?

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Pynchon in Public Day is tomorrow, May 8th–that’s Pynchon’s birthday if you’re keeping score. (He’ll be 78 tomorrow. Last year I put together links for his auspicious 77th birthday).

For the past couple of years, I’ve seen the phrase Pynchon in Public pop up in my Twitter timeline, often as a hashtag. I had a (willfully) vague idea about what Pynchon in Public was all about–like, reading Pynchon publicly, posting the W.A.S.T.E. horn in public places, leaving books about. Making the secret sign. Etc.

But so and anyway: I’ve been reading or re-reading Pynchon more or less non-stop for the past two years, after diving for reasons I can’t recall into Against the Day, following that up with Mason & Dixon, and then going through The Crying of Lot 49 and Inherent Vice again. (In the deepest and most sincere spirit of my Pynchon-reading-experience, I abandoned Bleeding Edge twice during this time). I’m rereading Gravity’s Rainbow now after just having finished it (after years of false starts). Reading it again is like reading it for the first time, and as I progress (and sometimes retreat) through the Zone, I experience a sympathetic fragmentation, a scattering, a sense that the novel is consuming me. Another way of saying this is that Gravity’s Rainbow is a scary book, and all of Pynchon is scary in the sense that it’s all just one big book. It kinda sorta worms its way into the ear of one’s consciousness, wriggles (Ruggles?) behind the old brainpan, performs a paranoid song and dance routine. Other fun and games too.

Wait, what?

Sorry. I didn’t mean to riff about myself so much there. What the hell is Pynchon in Public? I’m getting to that. What I meant to do in the last paragraph was maybe offer some kind of interpretation as to Why is there a Pynchon in Public day?: To spread the infection? To share? Declare? Perform publicity in the (supposed) absence of the man himself?

There is a website, of course. From Pynchon in Public:

Suggestions for the day itself:

  • Reading books, in public, by or about Thomas Pynchon.
  • Reading work of his ‘heirs’, such as David Foster Wallace, Jennifer Egan, David Mitchell, Rachel Kushner, Neal Stephenson and Dave Eggers.
  • Reading work of authors who have cited Pynchon as an influence. These include: Don DeLillo, Ian Rankin, William Gibson, Alan Moore, Bruce Sterling and David Cronenberg.
  • Organising a local version of the W.A.S.T.E. postal network, as described in ‘The Crying of Lot 49′. See www.plot49.com and Silent Tristero’s Alternate Mail Project for some UK local examples.
  • Organise a ‘Philately Gone Wild’ club night. Patrons could come dressed as their favourite Pynchon character, covered in mute post horn symbols in body paint or Weimar era cabaret stars.
  • Launching model V-2 rockets in an appropriate safe open area.
  • Adopt a Pynchon character’s name for the day.
  • Promiscuous posting of the Muted post horn – Start using the muted post horn symbol as often as you can. Ideas include: business cards, stickers, button badges, real or temporary tattoos, notes in newsagents windows, mail-art, avatars on Facebook or other sites, razor cut in a haircut, on bookmarks left in library books and on a T-shirt as you jump up and down in front of local news crew covering a soap star opening a supermarket. W.A.S.T.E. Please remember to obtain permission form property owners or managers before posting.

Launching a V-2 model rocket sounds like a bit of fun, but I’m probably not sufficiently prepared. Obtaining permission does not sound like fun.

But maybe I’ll make a bookmark or something–put the muted horn on it, say, visit my favorite local indie bookstore, and slip it in some unsuspecting volume. And maybe on the back I’ll crib a line or two from a favorite poem of mine, this old dead American poet from whom Frederick Slothrop bagged his epitaph:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

11 thoughts on “What the hell is Pynchon in Public Day?”

    1. The Crying of Lot 49 is maybe the simplest starting point, because it’s short, but it’s also dense and maybe not his best (although I think it’s good). It was the first one I read, way back when, and I read it and reread it again recently and it’s fine stuff. Inherent Vice is also a good simple starting place, and I think it pairs well with the movie, and could make a nice introduction to Pynchon’s style and themes. Gravity’s Rainbow is pretty difficult. Mason & Dixon is my favorite, maybe. Against the Day is really accessible too, despite being really, really long. I also loved V. when I read it 15 years ago, but I haven’t read it since then. But all kinds of people have all kinds of thoughts on this and I am no expert.

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  1. It is a fitting time to share a Pynchon story. Back when i was an undergrad at Cornell, I took a class in the History of the Book. The class met in the evening at the Olin Library Rare Book Room, and was run by the two rare book librarians, Don Eddy and Jim Tyler. As one could expect, I spent a good deal of time at the Rare Books room during and after that class, and one of the Great Things in the collection was a poem, handwritten in pencil if I remember correctly, entitled “Canzone for an Octopus.” I remember painstakingly copying it down in a notebook, and I still have it somewhere. It was years before I saw that octopus again, burbling up from the surf for some strategic performance art in Gravity’s Rainbow. Of course it wasn’t the same octopus…or was it? At any rate, that poem is still there, I am sure, in its singular form. Next time you are far above Cayuga’s waters, you should go look for it, sit with it, and the world will have one more thing for you all of a sudden.

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