Thursday, December 17, 2009

Me and Mr. Pynchon

In life, I've found, we have two kinds of friends.  First, we have the friends we admire.  These are the friends who send us Christmas cards with pictures of their pets and children, the friends who throw dinner parties and attempt dishes out of cookbooks illustrated with photographs of the food.  These friends own appliances, knit, and regularly wash their hair.  These are the friends whose sheer competence dazzles us, gives us hope, that we too will one day have some similar measure of control over our own lives.

Then there are the other friends.  These are the friends we can't take anywhere.  These are the friends who barrel through life, leaving a scattered trail of McDonald's wrappers and parking tickets in their wake.  These friends alternate between stunning us with their intellectual brilliance and describing their gynecological problems in graphic detail.  These friends trash our apartments, drink our booze, crash our computers, and scare our dogs.  These friends give us presents they found in the garbage, and those presents are lovelier than anything else we own.

Of course, this is a vast oversimplification: in life, our friends are generally some amalgamation of these two categories -- they wouldn't be bearable otherwise.  But for the sake of argument, let me offer that we generally love and admire others because they either maintain a degree of control that we cannot, or because they allow an amount of chaos that both frightens and excites us.  For me, writers are the same way.  Steven Millhauser, Charles Baxter, Richard Yates, Raymond Carver are, for me, all examples of the first category: though their work is at times really freakin weird, there's a sanity, a logic, to the way that images and characters are conveyed.  When reading, say, The Feast of Love -- an intensely ambitious, formally experimental novel, mind you, and one of my all-time faves -- I still had the sense that Baxter inhabited the same world that I did: his mall coffeeshop, his Humane Society, his football stadium were all instantly recognizable to me, and within them, he was articulating thoughts that I might have had myself, if only I'd thunk a little harder.

Thomas Pynchon, on the other hand, has always been, for me, squarely in the second category.  Though I believe that a sort of skewed logic usually -- probably? -- underlies the choices he makes in his work, I am not going to sit here and pretend that I know who or what the Kenosha Kid is supposed to be (I never did).  Pynchon's work has left me laughing, annoyed, stupefied, wowed, puzzled, turned on, grossed out, and bored, and in many ways, it would be easy for me to dismiss it now.  When I first read the guy, I was in college, still infatuated with the Beats, and wild for anything -- intellectual or otherwise -- that would blow the conservative Midwestern sensibilities of my childhood to smithereens.  Pynchon, with his pornographic imagination (I adored his original title for Gravity's Rainbow: Mindless Pleasures), his panicked, drugged-out antiheros, his steamroller intellect, and his compulsive distrust of authorities and systems, even the mail, for Chrissake, became my patron saint. 

In his New Yorker essay "Mr. Difficult," about his complicated relationship with the work of William Gaddis, Jonathan Franzen describes his experience reading The Recognitions for the first time: "I sat and read the next seven hundred pages in something like a fugue state, as if planting my feet on a steep slope, climbing. I was reluctant to leave my ultrasuede perch for any reason... I was alone and unprepared on a steep-sided, frigid, airless, poorly mapped mountain. Did I already mention that The Recognitions has nine hundred and fifty-six pages?  But I loved it."  I read Gravity's Rainbow -- after two other "long books," A Hundred Years of Solitude and Anna Karenina -- during an internship at a library in my hometown the winter I was nineteen.  Alone in a cubicle with not nearly enough to do (and a roll of toilet paper for my consistently runny nose), I wandered beneath those endless arches of sex and death, a sleepwalker in Pynchon's dream.  When I'd finally finished the novel, I decided to go for something lighter -- only a week or so remained before I returned to school -- and picked up a copy of The Whore's Child, a short story collection by Richard Russo, whose Empire Falls I'd read for a class and liked okay.  It was a mistake.  I couldn't even get through the first story.

"I feel like I have the bends," I told a friend.  "Compared to Pynchon, everything's shit."

Now, though, many years and an MFA later, Pynchon no longer towers over my intellectual landscape, laughing maniacally and killing everything else in sight with a rocket launcher.  I don't write like Pynchon -- other authors, mostly the sane ones, have influenced me more -- and though I've reread Slow Learner, The Crying of Lot 49, and large chunks of V. over the years, I haven't gone back to Gravity's Rainbow in a serious way since that enchanted winter.  Vineland, Mason & Dixon, Inherent Vice, and -- until recently, of course -- Against the Day have had to wait their turn behind, among many others, Murakami, Link, Auster, Christopher, Nabokov, Ishiguro, Chabon, Calvino, McCarthy, and both Shelley and Shirley Jackson.

Yet, returning to Pynchon now, after all this time, I find, almost to my disappointment, that he's still got the old magic in spades (and this time, with more anarchists).  Against the Day is, if anything, more beautiful, heartbreaking, panoramic, and simply weird than the other three novels of his that I've read, and I'm only 119 pages in.  Watch for more updates as this old buddy continues to make a mess of my (intellectual) life... and for God's sake, if he wants to crash on your couch, let him in.  It's worth the chaos.  Take it from one who knows.


V. Wetlaufer said...

Uh oh, which type of friend am I?

Just kidding. I know. The 2nd one.

I think this is a great way to describe authors, and poets for me definitely fit into these categories, though I've never thought of it this way until now.

The Chawmonger said...

Um... I'm going to go with "amalgamation" on this one...