In anticipation of the release of Bleeding Edge this week, I thought I’d write a bit about my nearly 20 year fascination with the works of Thomas Pynchon.
I first stumbled upon Pynchon while working in the circulation department of La Salle University’s Connelly Library. Most likely, this was in 1995 because I only worked in the department a little over a year. I remember V. (Perennial Classics) (1963) being returned to the library and the cover (Bantam Books first US edition) and description intrigued me. I checked it out and my reading life hasn’t been the same since.
As much reading as I had done up to that point in my life, I had never encountered anything quite like V. It challenged my notions of what fiction can be in ways nothing else had. Its expansive, complex narrative thrilled me. Set in 1956, V is about the search for the eponymous woman but historical flashbacks raise serious questions as to whom this woman really is.
Soon after finishing V, I hungrily went after Gravity’s Rainbow (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) (1973) and was similarly thrilled. It plays with narrative structure even more definitely than its predecessor. Like with V, providing any kind of summary is pretty futile. The plot focuses on the trials of Tyrone Slothrop during and shortly after World War II, but it a far cry from any war narrative that went before.
At the time that I first discovered Pynchon, his most recent work was Vineland (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin) (1990). The rumor was that this novel was a minor effort written quickly to meet the expectations of his publishing contract while he was working on a massive novel about the formative years of the United States. Vineland certainly is not as substantial as V or Gravity’s Rainbow but has much to recommend it.
Seventeen years passed between Gravity’s Rainbow and Vineland and another seven passed before the release of his historical novel, Mason & Dixon: A Novel in 1997. This probably was the first time in my life that I ever made a beeline for a bookstore on the day a book was released.
The novel is a fictionalized account of the lives of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon and Pynchon returns to form with a grand, expansive novel. Narrated in a highly stylized voice of the 18th Century, Mason & Dixon is a challenging book. Unlike Pynchon’s previous novels, Mason & Dixon is told in pretty much a straightforward chronology. Although different in voice and chronology, it still bears many of the hallmarks of his works. I’ve read Mason & Dixon a couple of times but have never entirely warmed up to it. It’s brilliant in concept but, for me, lacks in execution.
Given Pynchon’s small output over those years, it is always difficult to get one’s hopes up for future books. If you dismiss Vineland as a minor work, then 24 years passed between Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon. So, it has been a pleasant surprise that Bleeding Edge will be his third novel in the 16 years since Mason & Dixon.
Pynchon’s next book, Against the Day (2006) is another expansive, historical novel, spanning the years between the the 1893 World’s Fair and the years following World War I. In some ways, this might be my favorite. And it was probably the second time in my life I made a beeline to a bookstore to get a book the day it came out. Although it is huge (1000+ pages) and features numerous narratives, it is not quite as daunting and I found it to be a little more emotionally engaging than some of his other works.
Inherent Vice: A Novel (2009), which has drawn some comparison to Vineland given that it’s likewise set in California and is much shorter and more accessible than most of his work, also feels slight but it is a fun adventure. Paul Thomas Anderson of There Will Be Blood fame is currently directing a film version starring Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Jena Malone, and Benicio Del Toro. There have been rumors that Anderson wants to do a film version of Gravity’s Rainbow as well but that would be quite the undertaking, so it makes sense that he is filming Pynchon’s most accessible work. I liked Inherent Vice was wasn’t thrilled by it. I’ll definitely want to read it again before the movie comes out. I’m a big fan of Anderson’s films and think he will do a great job with the material.
Which brings me to Bleeding Edge. This is the fourth time in my life that I’ve gotten to experience the anticipation of a new Pynchon novel and the excitement has not waned. Although, in this day and age, I have pre-ordered the novel and will let it come to me. For the previous books, I read a lot about them before they came out, but this time around, I’ve decided to avoid any reviews and approach it with fresh eyes.