Chasing Gravity

Apynchon_houseccording to a Facebook quiz “Which Writer Are You?”—you know, one of those mildly interesting time wasters—I Am Thomas Pynchon.  I learned this back in 2009.

Hrm, I think was my reaction.  That guy on “The Simpson’s” episode with a bag over his head?

Even though I’m a writer and avid reader, I hesitate to call myself a true “literary” person.  I majored in journalism, not English, so I actually didn’t read a large portion of the traditional Western canon, and when I earned my MFA, we read mostly contemporary writers, plus my focus was nonfiction.

So my only inkling as to who Thomas Pynchon was was from a 2004 cartoon, where he appears with a paper bag over his head and tells an editor that he loved the book Marge Simpson wrote as much as he loved cameras. 

 Really, Facebook?  I thought.  This guy?  Not Kerouac?  Not a female author, perhaps?

I decided I better learn something about my new identity.  So I launched myself into a can’t-fail Internet study (ahem, the first half-dozen Google hits), and discovered that Pynchon has written eight books, all with incredible critical praise, that he is notoriously camera shy, and basically nothing else.  I also found it written somewhere that his Gravity’s Rainbow is one of the most challenging books to read.  I took this as a personal challenge—to learn why it’s “the literary equivalent of a jumbo jet,” to learn who Pynchon is, and perhaps to learn why Facebook has labeled me so.

Coincidentally—in fact, maybe too coincidentally—a short time later I learned Pynchon had published a new book, Inherent Vice.  I’d purchased Gravity’s Rainbow but admit I was intimidated by its almost-800 pages—the first 25 of which I’d read and reread, trying to make sense of, a half-dozen times.

I decided to warm up with Inherent Vice, as its setting at the end of the 60s appealed more to me anyway than the end of WWII.  And I did really like it.

Next I thought, well, maybe I’ll train a bit more and read The Crying of Lot 49.  I loved it as well.  OK, I told myself.  Time for the marathon.

I’ve now been reading Gravity’s Rainbow for about a year and a half, if you count the stabs I took at it in 2009 and the attempts I made late last year, never getting past page 30 or so.  Finally, this spring I tried again, and am currently on page 651.  I’ve passed the introductions of the statisticians and the Pavlovians, the passed the bondage in the forest, passed the trained octopus and Slothrop’s escape from the casino, passed the coprophilia, passed the hot-air balloon custard-pie fight, passed the rocket engineer’s annual visits with his perhaps-imposter daughter, passed the apprentice witch, passed the sadomasochistic boat trip, passed the Shekhinah, passed the marijuana smuggling trip, passed the black market mission with the pornographer where the aerodynamics man is kidnapped, passed the cocaine deal, the pig suit, the bath house, the castration of Major Marvy, and all the clues to the rocket’s location and all the paranoia in between.  I’m now at the tale of the cognizant, immortal light bulb named Byron.

I like it, though I admit most of it is probably beyond my ability to grasp.  At times I think the protagonist Slothrop is meant to suggest to readers there really is a They out there, a Big Brother System controlling everything that characters like Jessica are blind to, and we’re blind, too, if we don’t see it.  And then again at times I think the absurdity of Slothrop (and others) indicates Pynchon is almost making fun of paranoids, suggesting there is no grand control out there.

And I still I have no idea why Facebook thinks I Am Thomas Pynchon.

Mr. Pynchon, please feel free to illuminate me (on either account).

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