Three potential starting points for reading Thomas Pynchon

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Today is Pynchon in Public Day, so here are three books that I think may make good entry points for those interested in, but perhaps unnecessarily daunted by, Thomas Pynchon. My intuition is that many readers’ first experiences reading Pynchon may have been like mine: I read The Crying of Lot 49 as a college assignment, found it bewildering and baffling, and despite understanding almost none of it, I then attempted Gravity’s Rainbow (the key word is attempted (failed will also do in a pinch)).

Many readers start with The Crying of Lot 49 because it’s short. While I like the novel (I wrote about it here), it’s also extraordinarily dense, a box so crammed with jokes and japes that some fail to spring out at full force. Lot 49 is a much better reading experience after you’ve read more of Pynchon.

Lots of readers new to Pynchon plunge into Gravity’s Rainbow, probably because it’s famous. I love love love Gravity’s Rainbow, but along with Mason & Dixon (which may be my favorite Pynchon novel), I do not think it is a good starting place for Pynchon. Gravity’s Rainbow is a rich, ringing vortex, a seven-hundred-and-something pager that almost necessitates that its reader immediately reread it. Gravity’s Rainbow is a very funny and very tragic book, and I think it is the work of genius that its reputation suggests—but it’s also one of the few books I can think of that get put on lists of Big Difficult Novels that is, actually, Difficult.

So here are my suggestions for starting places for Pynchon.

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Against the Day, 2006.

Okay. So maybe you’re saying, Waitisn’t that one, like, really long? Reader, you’re correct. At 1,085 pages Against the Day is Pynchon’s longest novel to date. But it’s also one of his most accessible, and, most importantly, it offers a condensation of Pynchon’s Big Ideas and Big Themes. (I wrote a list of 101 possible descriptors for Against the Day, if you’re interested in a short take; I also riffed on the book at some length in a series of posts).

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V., 1963.

V. is Thomas Pynchon’s first novel. It’s also the first Pynchon novel I read and loved and (possibly) understood. Like Against the DayV. lays out many of the themes and styles (and even a character or two) that appear elsewhere Pynchon’s oeuvre. In a loose sense, V. feels like a dress rehearsal for Gravity’s Rainbow. Oh, it’s also pretty discursive—in fact, you can read chunks of it almost as short stories. In fact, here’s a good way to break into Pynchon: Get V., and read Ch. 9–it stands on its own as a long short story, the tale of Kurt Mondaugen—and colonialism, siege paranoia, dark dread, etc.

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Inherent Vice, 2009.

I’ve heard Inherent Vice dismissed as “Pynchon lite,” which may be true—I’ve read the book twice now and if its shaggy threads connect, I can’t see it (unlike, say, Gravity’s Rainbow, which resolves like a complicated math problem). Still, Inherent Vice makes a nice gateway drug to Pynchon—it’s funny and loose, and even though it rambles through an enormous cast of characters and settings, it’s ultimately far, far more contained than sprawling novels like Mason & Dixon and Gravity’s Rainbow. Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation also makes an interesting visual counterpart to the novel—which it somehow simultaneously condenses and expands. Inherent Vice—the novel—also seems to me a kind of bookend or sequel to The Crying of Lot 49. (I wrote a bit about that here).

Last thought: Ignore my suggestions. Pick any novel that interests you by Pynchon and dive in. Don’t get too frustrated if you’re not sure what’s going on. A lot of the time, that’s the point of it all. Enjoy it.

[Ed. note–Biblioklept ran a version of this post on 8 May 2016].

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Sunday Comics

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A page (and some details) from Bill Sienkiewicz’s adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. The Classics Illustrated edition (February 1990) is one of my favorite Moby-Dicks.

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Bulgakov, Bowles, Gass (Books acquired 31 March 2017)

I like to shuffle around my favorite used bookstore on Fridays if I have a loose hour. This afternoon, I picked up three: A first-ed. U.S. hardback Bulgakov, an Ecco-Press-imitating-Black-Sparrow-Press Paul Bowles, and a stately-but-too-stately-too-prestigish-(as-opposed-to-“prestigious”) copy of William H. Gass’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. 

I read the devastating  “The Pedersen Kid,” the first novella in the In the Heart of the Heart of the Country collection of collected novellas a few years ago when I checked this book out of the library. Some helpful joker inscribed a map in this copy:

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Said joker also appended three ball pen inked cursive notes to the end of the tale:

“Coming-of age

Christ / resurrection

Oedipal”

I think I read the next story (it’s much shorter), “Mrs. Mean,” but I confess I can’t recall it right now. I do remember returning the book to the library though.

The design of the Paul Bowles Ecco Press edition of The Spider’s House kinda sorta matches the design of In the Heart of the Heart of the Heart of the Heart (Nonpareil Books, btw). I recently finished Up Above the World (after reading and being slightly-disappointed in the more-lauded debut The Sheltering Sky). I liked Up Above the World’s sinister slow-burn. My understanding is that The Spider’s House is considered superior, so we’ll see. (2017 is turning into The Year I Finally Read Paul Bowles).

Mikhail Bulgakov’s samizdat Soviet-era novel Master and Margarita has improved in my memory; reviewing my review of it a few years ago, I find that I remember it fondly, and stronger. (I wrote that it “sags at times”; I don’t remember the saggy bits, but I recall its fun effervescent evil bits).

Anyway, I couldn’t pass up on this first-edition U.S. copy (1968 Harcourt, Brace & World) of Bulgakov’s novel The Heart of a Dog (English translation by Michael Glenny, with jacket design by Applebaum & Curtis, Inc.).

I also took note of this cover for Edges, a 1980 sci-fi anthology edited by Ursula K. Le Guin and Virginia Kidd (and featuring authors like Thomas Disch and Gene Wolfe)—but I didn’t pick it up, mostly because I didn’t particularly have any desire to read it, even though a much younger version of me out there would’ve loved to read it. I mean, I was thinking about that younger version of me out there; maybe that version—a different version of course—will find it.

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Untitled — Hans-Georg Rauch

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From HG Rauch’s En Masse (Collier, 1975).

FALLOUT PROTECTION FOR…

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My wife’s grandmother recently passed away and my wife took a bunch of her old photos and papers, including this DOD pamphlet from 1966. The scan above is the back cover/front cover. Here’s the first inside page, with a cheerful note from LBJ:

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Here’s my favorite section:

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Akira — Tomer Hanuka

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Wittgenstein at the Cinema Admires Betty Grable — Eduardo Paolozzi

Wittgenstein at the Cinema Admires Betty Grable 1965 Sir Eduardo Paolozzi 1924-2005 Presented by Rose and Chris Prater through the Institute of Contemporary Prints 1975 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/P04766

Experience — Eduardo Paolozzi

Experience 1964 by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi 1924-2005

PK Dick’s Martian Time-Slip/Kafka regret (Books acquired and not acquired, 12.28.2016)

Two bucks.

Cover art by Darrell Sweet.

Here’s my riff on Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time-Slip.

I regret not picking up this edition of Kafka’s Amerika that same day:

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I reviewed Schocken’s latest translation of Amerika (not the one above) on Biblioklept like over eight years ago. I still have the black hardback, but I’d maybe exchange it for this beauty.

Two lovely Kafkas (Books acquired, 11.29.2016)

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Two volumes of Franz Kafka’s letters are forthcoming next month from SchockenLetters to Friends, Family, and Editors; and Letters to Felice.

Both covers are designed by Peter Mendelsund (as are all those lovely Schocken Kafka editions).

Schocken’s blurb for Friends, Family and Editors:

Collected after his death by his friend and literary executor Max Brod, here are more than two decades’ worth of Franz Kafka’s letters to the men and women with whom he maintained his closest personal relationships, from his years as a student in Prague in the early 1900s to his final months in the sanatorium near Vienna where he died in 1924.

Sometimes surprisingly humorous, sometimes wrenchingly sad, they include charming notes to school friends; fascinating accounts to Brod about his work in its various stages of publication; correspondence with his publisher, Kurt Wolff, about manuscripts in progress, suggested book titles, type design, and late royalty statements; revealing exchanges with other young writers of the day, including Martin Buber and Felix Weltsch, on life, literature, and girls; and heartbreaking reports to his parents, sisters, and friends on the declining state of his health in the last months of his life.

And Felice:

Franz Kafka met Felice Bauer in August 1912, at the home of his friend Max Brod. Energetic, down-to-earth, and life-affirming, the twenty-five-year-old secretary was everything Kafka was not, and he was instantly smitten. Because he was living in Prague and she in Berlin, his courtship was largely an epistolary one—passionate, self-deprecating, and anxious letters sent almost daily, sometimes even two or three times a day. But soon after their engagement was announced in 1914, Kafka began to worry that marriage would interfere with his writing and his need for solitude.

The more than five hundred letters Kafka wrote to Felice—through their breakup, a second engagement in 1917, and their final parting in the fall of that year, when Kafka began to feel the effects of the tuberculosis that would eventually claim his life—reveal the full measure of his inner turmoil as he tried, in vain, to balance his desire for human connection with what he felt were the solitary demands of his craft.

I bought this for the cover (Book acquired, 11.22.2016)

I was looking for something else today—a book that might have been one of Pynchon’s sources for the Kabbalah stuff in Gravity’s Rainbow—when I came across this Penguin edition, Witchcraft and Sorcery, 1970, ed. Max Marwick. (I found a Pynchonian connection—easy to do, I know—when I opened the book to an essay entitled “Witchcraft amongst the Germanic and Slavonic Peoples”).

October — Alex Colville

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summon monsters? open the door? heal? or die?

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I found this flyer for a 2001 Takashi Murakami show somewhere in Tokyo. I never made it to the exhibition. I just found the flyer again in an old folder of old stuff.

Storyboards for the Coen Brother’s film Blood Simple

Three Books

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Expelled from Eden: A William T. Vollmann Reader by William T. Vollmann. Edited by Larry McCaffery and Michael Hemmingson. 2004 trade paperback from Thunder’s Mouth Press/Avalon Publishing. Cover design by David Riedy; cover art by Moira Brown.

This book features an illustration of its author on the cover. It is also a book I can dip into at any time.

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Diaries by Franz Kafka. English translation by Joseph Kresh and Martin Greenberg (with Hannah Arendt). Trade paperback by Schocken, 1988. Cover design by Louise Fili. Cover illustration by Anthony Russo.

This book features an illustration of its author on the cover. It is also a book I can dip into at any time.

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Hawthorne’s Short Stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Edited by Newton Arvin. Mass market paperback by Vintage. No designer/artist credited, and I can’t make out the signature over Hawthorne’s left shoulder. But this blog’s readers are smart and have good taste and identified the artist as Ben Shanh (I should’ve recognized the signature, after posting Shanh’s painting Peter and the Wolf on this blog a few years ago). This book is close to falling apart.

This book features an illustration of its author on the cover. It is also a book I can dip into at any time.

Film poster for Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life — Tomer Hanuka

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Biblioklept reviews of The Tree of Life here and here.

(Not really) Three Books (2666 Books)

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2666 by Roberto Bolaño. English translation by Natasha Wimmer. First edition three-volume slip case edition from FS&G. Design by Charlotte Strick.  The image on volume one is a detail from Gustave Moreau’s Jupiter and Semele; on volume two, Academy by Cy Twombly; on three, a detail of a page on sea sponges from Albert Seba’s Cabinet of Curiousities. I’ve posted the images below for reference.

As I come near the end of this year-long Three Books thing, I find that I can’t not include Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666, which is probably my favorite novel of the last twenty years. I initially resisted including it in one of these Three Books posts simply because it is, sort of, one book—and this particular edition is in a more readable three-volume set. But it’s also, maybe, five books—five “parts” anyway, which work together intertextually to tell a grand epic of love murder terror war reading writing etc. Too big to pin down in this puny post. I seem to be always reading the thing, or always wanting to read it. In any case, I’m almost positive it’s the book I’ve written the most review for on this site. A lazy edit from the Biblioklept “Reviews” page:

True Detective, Bolaño’s 2666, Werewolves, Etc

Wherein I Suggest Dracula Is a Character in Roberto Bolaño’s Novel 2666

Intertexuality and Structure in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666

Roberto Bolaño’s Powers of Horror

Bolaño’s Werewolves

Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 Revisited

2666 – Roberto Bolaño

(The intertextuality is probably the least bad of those reviews, maybe).

Normally I just scan the covers for these Three Books posts, but when I unshelved and unslipcased 2666, I found that it was more…fun? natural? (those aren’t the right words)…it seemed better to put the books next to each other. Intertextuality by osmosis.

I have a vivid memory of buying this book at Green Apple Books in San Francisco in December of 2008 and then starting it on the plane ride home and then just sort of, I don’t know, consuming it, sucking it down like candy poison wine (these are bad metaphors). I’ve read it in full a few times since and it’s like an infection, it’s under my skin. I want to read it again, of course.

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Jupiter and Semele, Gustave Moreau
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Academy, Cy Twombly
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Sea Sponges, Albertus Seba