I’m not exactly sure why I picked up a hardback first edition of Thomas Pynchon’s 1990 novel Vineland the other day. I was killing a spare hour in a used bookstore, and I started handling the thing—started skimming again. I’ve made a few attempts at Vineland but it’s never fully hooked me. I can’t get past page 92. But so well anyway I ended up getting it (for five bucks), perhaps as a means to motivate myself to finally finishing it next year. Vineland and Bleeding Edge are the only Pynchon novels I haven’t finished—I still don’t own Bleeding Edge, actually, having checked it out from the library twice and failed to make anything like a dent in it. The copy of Vineland I tried on before a few times is Penguin’s 1991 paperback. The cover is ugly as hell, and my copy is cut cover remainder; I found it in an inventory room in the high school I used to work at. There were at least a dozen remaindered copies of Vineland there. I doubt anyone misses this one:
I don’t think anyone has gotten closer than Thomas Pynchon to summoning the real audacity and insanity and scope of the American mind, as reflected in the American landscape. I read Pynchon all out of order, starting with Vineland, and I still remember the shock of pleasure I got at finally seeing the America I knew—strange shops and boulevards, built over former strange shops and former boulevards, all laid out there in valleys and dead-end forests, heaped on top of Indian cemeteries, peopled with nut jobs and hustlers and moral purists—actually present in a novel, and present not only in substance but in structure and language that both used and evoked the unruly, muscular complexity of the world itself.
In Pynchon, anything is fair game—if it is in the world, it can go in the book. To me there is something Buddhist about this approach, which seems to say that since the world is capable of producing an infinity of forms, the novel must be capable of accommodating an infinite number of forms. All aesthetic concerns (style, form, structure) answer this purpose: Let in the world.
This is why Pynchon is our biggest writer, the gold standard of that overused word inclusiveness: No dogma or tidy aesthetic rule or literary fashion is allowed to prefilter the beautiful data streaming in. Everything is included. No inclination of the mind is too small or large or frightening. The result is gorgeous madness, which does what great literature has always done—reminds us that there is a world out there that is bigger than us and worthy of our utmost humility and attention.
I have often felt that we read to gain some idea of what God would say about us if someone were to ask Him what we’re like. Pynchon says, through the vast loving catalogue he has made, that we are Excellent but need to be watched closely. He says there is no higher form of worship than the loving (i.e., madly attentive) observation of that-which-is, a form of prayer of which Pynchon’s work is our highest example.
George Saunders on Thomas Pynchon. From the Summer 2005 issue of Bookforum.
From the beginning of ch. 66 of Mason & Dixon; see also.