Pynchon and Paranoia

From Justin St. Clair, in a recent book review:

“Suddenly you’re wondering what the hell Pynchon was doing in the Quad Cities.”

I know the feeling well. Not that I was ever in the Quad Cities myself: I’ve always skirted the Midwest in my travels. But it seems that the reclusive (yet peripatetic) Thomas Pynchon has been there: he included a tiny detail about it in his latest book, “Bleeding Edge”. That’s one of Pynchon’s hallmarks, to throw a bewildering array of real-world details at his works of fiction. The word for that trick, or nervous tick, is “verisimilitude”, which is the idea that if a narrative artists includes in their work enough bits and pieces of the world as they themselves have experienced/seen/imagined it, then that will give their art the feeling of “being real”, of being grounded in something resembling consensual reality. This is a trick Becker and Fagen used to great effect in so many Steely Dan lyrics.

Thomas Pynchon gets around. Or he used to, back in the day. He is, by all accounts, a bit more settled now. But perhaps he has notebooks full of little vignettes, tiny bits of set and setting left over from his rambling days, stacks of “scenes” jotted down years ago, all carefully filed away for future use the way an old professor stores notes and observations in a filing cabinet near his desk.

And so some arcane little detail about Mr. St. Clair’s home town makes its way into a new book by one of the greatest legends of modern fiction, and Mr. St. Clair is a little creeped out by it. I have no sympathy: one should know what one is getting into by now, if one has any sort of relationship with the novels of Thomas Pynchon. Some things are not for the faint of heart. You but your ticket, you take the ride.

I read “Gravity’s Rainbow” years ago, very quickly the first time, then again at a slower pace. It was mind-blowing, the searing kaleidoscope of words, the staggering amount of imagery and detail and insight cascading into a blur of cognition and buzzy confusion. There were patterns to it that I discerned but didn’t quite grasp , patterns that I still don’t know to be entirely comfortable or even safe to comprehend.  I got truly paranoid at one point, lurking in the library in old Savannah, looking over my shoulder once or twice to see of anybody saw me sifting through old books and periodicals. I was trying to verify how much of Pynchon’s outrageous yarn was “true” and how much was “fiction”. This sounds odd, I know, but only if you’ve never read that particular book.

“Bleeding Edge” is at the top of my reading list, at any rate. I hope to finish with school by summer semester, 2014, and then maybe I’ll have time for the odd bit of pleasure reading.


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