One Punk’s Guide to Pynchon Novels By Sean Carswell
One Punk’s Guide to Pynchon Novels originally appeared in Razorcake #100, released in October/November 2017.
Illustrations by Brad Beshaw.
Original layout by Todd Taylor.
Zine design by Marcos Siref.
I stole my first copy of a Thomas Pynchon novel. I was at a flea market in the student union of Florida State University, the summer of 1991. I saw a battered copy of The Crying of Lot 49. The front cover would need tape to survive another reading. The margins were littered with the type of comments an undergrad writes while taking notes in class, wondering if this shit will be on the test. The price: 45¢. I read the first line of the book at the stand:
One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.
What? Kirsch in the fondue? Housewives getting drunk off spiked cheese? Correcting executor to executrix? Is executrix a real word? (It is). A novel about divvying up assets with this much energy and madness in a sentence? I was sold. Only, this was a time in my life when 45¢ was a little more change than I could spare. I intended to put the book back and check it out from the library, which was on the way home anyway. The guy who ran the book stand said something smart ass to me. I nodded, put the book down, and flipped through another box until he turned his head. I slid the book into the pocket of my plaid bermudas and headed home.
The next several hours were spent reading the book without a break. It’s so complex, with so many characters and plot threads to keep in mind, and so many scenes that make you stop and say, “Wait, did I just read that?” I felt like, if I put it down, I’d forget the one key piece of information I needed to make sense of this madness. It was sometime around 2 AM when I got to the end. I realized that I’d forgotten or lost track of several key pieces of information. This novel, like life itself, was too massive to wrap up tightly at the end. It’s full of loose threads, leads unpursued, roads not taken, cul-de-sacs, and the overriding sense that there’s something bigger—maybe more sinister than we can or want to imagine— out there, playing us like we’re monkeys in front of an organ grinder’s piano.
This is the first great thing about a Thomas Pynchon novel: it invites us to see life with more complexity. The world around us is chaos in the purest sense. If we get even a little philosophical, we see that we understand less than a tiny fraction of nature, life, meaning, language, societies, cultures, and ourselves. We construct narratives to make this tiny fraction of understanding seem bigger, more unified, to help us forget that what we know is a small drop in the giant sea of what we don’t. It’s scary to get beyond our narratives and dip our toes in the unknown. Pynchon helps us with that. His novels lead us up to that giant sea of the unknown. They slide our shoes off and seduce us. “Go on,” they say. “It’s just a toe. Dip it.”
I was so excited when I finished The Crying of Lot 49 that I crashed into my roommate’s room to tell him about it. Luckily he was alone in there. Awake. Not jerking off. He let me tell him about what I’d just read. Thank god he did. I had to put my thoughts into words or I never would’ve been able to sleep. I was so stoked by the book that he got inspired. The next morning, he started in on The Crying of Lot 49. He gave up after the first page.
This is the second thing about a Pynchon novel: it’s not for everyone.