Three Books (that are good starting points for reading Thomas Pynchon)

Today is Pynchon in Public Day, so today’s Three Books blog offers 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 by Thomas Pynchon. First edition Penguin hardback, 2006. Jacket design my Michael Ian Kaye.

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. by Thomas Pynchon. Vintage UK trade paperback edition (1995). Cover by Paul Burgess.

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 by Thomas Pynchon. First edition hardback, Penguin, 2009. Jacket design by Tal Goretsky and Darren Haggar; image credited to Darshan Zenith and Cruiser Art.

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.

Three More Purple Books

Last week I crammed my thoughts about the death of Prince into one of these “Three Books” posts I’ve doing each Sunday for around 30 Sundays now (I plan to do 52, if anyone cares or counts). I grabbed a bunch of purple books and scanned them, and I still have the scans saved, so today’s Three Books are, I guess, books that I deemed not-quite-purple-enough for last week’s post. My thoughts on Prince remain the same: I’m still vaguely shocked at his death and shocked at my shock at his death. I tried to write a Thing on Prince’s sexy dystopian visions, but I failed.  Give me the electric chair 4 all my future crimes.

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Point Omega by Don DeLillo. First edition hardback, Scribner, 2010. Jacket design by Rex Bonomelli using a photograph by Marc Adamus. I reviewed Point Omega when it came out, noting that it “is not a particularly fun book nor does it yield any direct answers, but it’s also a rewarding, engaging, and often challenging read.” The book got somewhat mixed reviews, but I think in retrospect it’s quite underrated. DeLillo wrote one of the earliest paraphrases of the Bush Wars here (without really writing a summation and without really writing a war novel), and I think about the book often—whenever I read a little digital clipping about Cheney or Wolfowitz or Rumsfeld or any  of the Old Neocon Gang—and the hacks and mouthpieces who supported them.

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Masscult and Midcult: Essays against the American Grain by Dwight Macdonald. Edited by John Summers. Published by NYRB, 2011. Cover design by Katy Homans; the cover image is a detail of Cedric Delsaux’s photograph 88, Las Vegas Casino 1. I reviewed Masscult a few years ago. The book has some perceptive essays, and its title essay is essential cultural criticism.

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Native Son by Richard Wright. Mass market paperback edition by Harper Perennial, 1993. Cover design and illustration by David Diaz. This book was part of a class set I used years ago when I taught AP English Literature. It left with me when I left that job.

Books acquired, almost for their covers alone, 4.25.2016 (Elkin, Fine, Michaux)

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I swung by my favorite used bookstore this afternoon; it’s right near the grocery store and I needed to pick up some mint and some ricotta. I was hoping to pick up Elena Ferrante’s novel My Brilliant Friend at the bookstore. I started the audiobook of My Brilliant Friend today, after finishing the audiobook of Adrian Jones Pearson’s novel Cow Country  this weekend. (Full review of Cow Country forthcoming but a real quick review: great performance/reading of a very strange book which I enjoyed very much, but which I also suspect will have very limited appeal. Cow cult classic to come). But so anyway, I’m really digging the Ferrante, and decided I wanted to obtain a physical copy to reread passages (and maybe share some on this blog). My store had several copies of four of Ferrante’s novels–but no Friend. While scanning the section, my eye alighted (alit?) on a strange-looking hardback spine—Warren Fine’s Their Family. I turned it around and the cover…well, I knew I was gonna leave with it. Knopf, 1972—a few years before Gordon Lish was to become editor there, sure, but interesting bona fides I suppose. Fine does not seem to be beloved by anyone on the internet, and his books seem to have failed to go into second printings of any kind. The Fs are near the Es, and I glanced over the works of Mr. Stanley Elkin, who has his own section there, somehow. I finally broke through the second chapter of his novel The Franchiser this weekend (it’s all unattributed dialog, that chapter, sorta like Gaddis’s JR); I’m really digging The Franchiser now that I’ve tuned into the voice. (It also helps to not try reading it exclusively at night after too many bourbons or wines). Again, the spine of the novel looked interesting so I flipped The Dick Gibson Show around and, again, I knew I was gonna leave with it. Henri Michaux’s Miserable Miracle I found in the “Drugs” section—which I was not perusing (because I am no longer 19)—well I guess I was perusing it, but that’s only because it happens to be right next to this particular bookshop’s collection of Black Sparrow Press titles, which I always scan over. Anyway, the Michaux’s Miserable Miracle was turned face out; NYRB titles always deserve a quick scan, and the cover reminded me of a Cy Twombly painting. Flicking through it revealed a strange structure, full of marginal side notes and doodles and diagrams and drawings. And oh, it’s about a mescaline trip, I think. You can actually read it here, but this version is missing all the drawings and sidenotes.

Oh, and so then I forgot to go pick up the ricotta and the mint.

Untitled — Hans-Georg Rauch

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

Three Books

Mitsou by Balthus. Preface by Rainer Maria Rilke (English translation by Richard Miller).  Small first edition hardback published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1984. Design credited to Peter Oldenburg; the cover illustration is by Balthus. Mitsou is Balthus’s story of loving (and losing) his titular pet cat. He was thirteen when he composed the story in 40 ink drawings (the drawings resemble woodblock prints, but aren’t). He gave the illustrations to his mother’s lover, Rainer Maria Rilke, who got them published. My wife gave me this book as a gift before we were married, and I love it. It’s sad.

Moses, Man of the Mountain by Zora Neale Hurston. First edition hardback by J.B. Lippincott, 1939. No illustrator or designer credited, by my edition is missing the original jacket. A retelling of the Exodus story.

 Man after Man by Dougal Dixon with illustrations by Philip Hood. First edition hardback from St. Martin’s Press, 1990. Book design by Ben Cracknell; cover art by Philip Hood. It’s Hood’s illustrations that make Dixon’s “future anthropology” of the human race so fascinating. A discursive sci-fi novel of sorts, posing as a textbook.

Three Books

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Has Man a Future? by Bertrand Russell. 1961 Penugin U.S. paperback. Cover design by Richard Hollis, using a photo credited to USIS.

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I’m Not Stiller by Max Frisch. English translation by Michael Bullock. 1961 Penguin paperback (Great Britain). Cover by John Griffiths.

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The Last Summer by Boris Pasternak. English translation by George Reavey. 1961 Penguin paperback (Great Britain). Cover illustration of the author by his father, Leonid Pasternak.

The Death of Zhora — Chris Thornley

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Subject 41 — Chris Thornley

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Chris Thornley (aka Raid 71) channeling Milton Glaser’s iconic Dylan poster in this illustration of Tetsuo of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira.

Three Books

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The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories by Nikolai Leskov. English translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. First edition hardback from Knopf’s Borzoi imprint. Jacket design by Peter Mendelsund. There are still a few tales in here that I haven’t read, most notably the titular novella.

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The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien (and arguably, Christopher Tolkien, whose edits gave the book shape and form). 1983 first American edition trade paperback by Houghton Mifflin. No designer credited, which is a damn shame because I love this book cover. This is maybe the first book I recall buying with my own money.

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Miruna, A Tale by Bogdan Suceavă. Translated from the Romanian by Alistair Ian Blyth. 2014 trade paperback by Twisted Spoon Press. Cover design by Dan Myer. A strange and remarkable novella set in the Carpathians that moves time and history into fantasy storytelling.

Three Books

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Professor Noah’s Spaceship by Brian Wilsdsmith. First edition hardback by Oxford University Press, 1980; distributed through Macmillan Book Clubs. Design, cover, and art by Brian Wildsmith. This book is too beautiful.

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See Again, Say Again by Antonio Frasconi. First edition oversized hardback published by Hacourt, Brace and World, 1964. Cover design, fonts, and woodcuts by Antonio Frasconi.

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Do You Hear What I Hear? by Helen Borten. First edition hardback reprint by Flying Eye Books, a division of Nobrow; the book was originally published in 1960. Illustration and design by Helen Borten. Nowbrow kindly sent me a copy of Do You Hear What I Hear?—the book is beautiful, the text is lovely—Borten’s technique is to represent sound—or rather the feeling of sound (which is to say, the feeling of the feeling of sound) through language and art. Like any great children’s book, Do You Hear What I Hearis best read out loud, and my five-year-old son loved it so much that I had to read it again to him immediately after the first reading. We’ve read it a few times since then. Great stuff.

Three Books

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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Mass market paperback by Bantam, 10th ed., 1986. No designer credited, but the cover illustration is a 1981 painting by Doug Johnson, and it is the sole reason that I’ve held onto this copy for over a decade now, since I first used it as part of a class set for an eleventh grade English class I used to teach. Perhaps from a technical standpoint, I stole this book.

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Chimera by John Barth. Mass market paperback by Fawcett Crest, 1973.  No designer credited, and the cover artist isn’t named in the colophon or on the back–but the cover is signed. Perhaps the original hardback, which shares this illustration, credited the artist. I read this book in the right place and at the right time—I was a junior or senior in college, obsessed with postmodernism as a technique (rather than postmodernism as a description), and Chimera’s intense gamesmanship enchanted me. I’m pretty sure I read it after Lost in the Funhouse, and that after Wallace’s Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way. I bought this copy eight or nine years ago (having read it first as a library book), and attempted a reread and was…less impressed. Still, it would be hard for me to overstate how much Chimera did for me—how much it showcased the possibilities of literature and storytelling.

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The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories by Carson McCullers. Mass market paperback edition by Bantam. No designer or cover artist credited—which is too bad because I love the image. The most recent date on the colophon is 1971 but I am pretty sure the book was published in 1996. I bought it in 1997. It was assigned reading for a creative writing class, and that—along with Johnson’s Jesus’ Son—were the only good things to come out of that misery. (My instructor would not shut the fuck up about “craft,” and he singled out the simile I was most proud of in one of my stories as “a bit much”).

Today’s Three Books’ mass market paperbacks are part of a small cadre of a once-large selection, winnowed away over the years, usually given away to students, etc. (I have an extra copy of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in my car, should you need one).

Three Books

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Pierre, or The Ambiguities by Herman Melville. First edition hardback, Harper Collins, 1995. Color illustrations, many blatantly erotic, including the cover, by Maurice Sendak (in the mood of Billy Blake). Design by Cynthia Krupat. The editor Hershel Parker has reconstructed the original, shorter version of Pierre that Melville sabotaged (according to Parker) by adding convoluted subplots (in revenge against the Harper brothers who did not wish to publish the book). This is the so-called “Kraken Edition”; the title comes from a letter Melville sent to Hawthorne. If Moby-Dick was the whale, Pierre was his giant monstrous squid.

 

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My Romance by Gordon Lish. 1993 Norton trade paperback. Cover design by R.D. Scudellari. There are two paragraphs in this 142-page novel; the first starts on page 1 and ends on page 142; the second begins and ends on page 142 and is all of one sentence.

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Erotic Poems, an Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets collection. Borzoi/Knopf, tiny hardback 1994. Jacket design by Barbara de Wilde. Happy Valentine’s.

Three Books

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Angels by Denis Johnson. 1989 Vintage Contemporaries trade paperback. Cover design by Lorraine Louie. Cover illustration by Chris Moore.

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Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson. 1986 Vintage Contemporaries trade paperback. Cover design by Lorraine Louie. Cover illustration by Rick Lovell.

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The Stars at Noon by Denis Johnson. 1988 Vintage Contemporaries trade paperback. Cover design by Lorraine Louie. Cover illustration by Rick Lovell.

Three Books

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Airships by Barry Hannah. 1994 trade paperback by Grove Press. Cover design by Rick Pracher. The cover painting is Chrysanthemum by Hannah’s contemporary, the photorealist painter Glennray Tutor. Hannah wrote an essay about Tutor’s work called “Deep Pop,” declaring

Once one’s amazement at the astonishing precision in the paintings of Glennray Tutor has had time to sink in, the opportunity arises to contemplate the visual eloquence in his depictions of the small artifacts of life, and how such compositions can say profound things about the nature of our existence.

I reviewed Airships on this blog some years ago.

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Ray by Barry Hannah. 1994 trade paperback by Grove Press.  Cover design by Rick Pracher. The cover painting is the center panel of Glennray Tutor’s triptych Whistling Moon Traveler. I reviewed Ray on this blog the same year I reviewed Airships.

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Bats out of Hell by Barry Hannah. 1994 trade paperback by Grove Press.  Cover design by Rick Pracher. The cover painting is the left panel of Glennray Tutor’s triptych Dragon Boat. I did not review Bats out of Hell, but some of the sketches contained therein appear in Hey Jack!, which I did review.

Three Books

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J R by William Gaddis. 1993 trade paperback edition by Penguin. Cover art is a detail of an Associated Gas and Electric Company stock certificate “Courtesy of William Gaddis.” No designer credited.

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Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. 1997 first paperback printing edition by Abacus (Great Britain). No designer credited.

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The Lost Scrapbook by Evan Dara. First paperback printing by Aurora, 1998. Cover design by Todd Michael Bushman.

Three Books

The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller. 1964 paperback by Penguin Books. Cover drawing by the English cartoonist and art critic Osbert Lancaster.

The Blood of Others by Simone de Beauvoir. 1964 paperback by Penguin Books. Cover art by Anthony Common.

The Holy Sinner by Thomas Mann. 1961 paperback by Penguin Books. Cover art by the English artist Brian Wildsmith, who is perhaps most famous for his marvelous children’s book illustrations.

The Punctuation of Moby-Dick

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(Design by Nicholas Rougeuxvia).