Who is Thomas Pynchon, and why did he make me a nerd?

The May long weekend is my traditional time for cracking open my big, fat summer-reading book for the season.

The May long weekend is my traditional time for cracking open my big, fat summer-reading book for the season.

This year’s choice is going to be heavy reading in all senses of the word—Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, which weighs in at around three kilograms and just under 1,100 pages.

Though have procrastinated taking on this challenge over the past couple of years, the promise of good summer weather seems have charged me up for it at last.

I mention this undertaking here not because I plan to do any kind of book report (I am only 100 pages in to the thing; and, anyway, this is a column about technology, not literature).

I mention it because I have already been struck by how the presence of internet resources have already altered—and, in some ways, depleted—the kind of readerly challenge an author like Pynchon has traditionally posed.

Thomas Pynchon is, by pretty much anyone’s definition, a “difficult read.”

Though I admire his work to a point only just short of idolatry, I am not in the habit of recommending him to friends and acquaintances, because he is very much an acquired taste, for two reasons.

First, he is not at all a conventional novelist, providing you with exciting plots, rounded characters, and some kind of social, political or existential message.

Pynchon novels are phantasmagorias of odd ideas, full of weird characters with strange motivations and odd-ball names like Tyrone Stothrop, Reverend Cherrycoke or Bloody Chiclitz.

Plots and characters do not so much progress or develop as swirl around each other in an unpredictable swarm of seriousness, comedy and sometimes just plain silliness.

What he produces are not so much novels as prose poems (studded with silly musical numbers) on an enormous scale.

The second reason he is so difficult is that his themes and range of references are outside the experience of most readers.

He is deeply read not only in literature and history, but also in science and technology.

In fact, most of his full-scale novels (his shorter novels, The Crying of Lot 49 and Vineland, are more moderate, casual efforts) have at their hearts some cluster of scientific ideas he is playing with, much as a jazz man plays with a set of variations on a theme.

Both his first novel, V, and his most famous one, Gravity’s Rainbow, are almost unintelligible if you do not have some understanding of the scientific principles of informational and thermodynamic entropy.

These theories look alike, and are played off against each other in the course of the narratives, but are actually not logically related, except in the poetic way Pynchon makes them work together.

In the old days, getting through a Thomas Pynchon novel was like an extended, intellectually advanced game of trivial pursuit.

When I first made my way through the 900 pages of Gravity’s Rainbow, back in the mid-‘70s, I would spend many hours in the university’s library, looking up names, scientific terms, and historical events culled from the pages of the novel, trying to get my head around what they meant, and what they were doing in the book in the first place.

Amongst the small cult of “Pynchon freaks,” as we called ourselves in that drug-cultured time, there was both competition and camaraderie in sourcing out and sharing arcane knowledge about Pynchon’s work.

Now, years later, as I begin Against the Day, I have less physical and intellectual energy, and virtually no other “freak” to compete or share with.

But I do have the internet—a resource that both eases the pain and dulls the pleasure of struggling through Pynchonean arcana.

There is already, for instance, a quite creditable wiki site dedicated specifically to page-by-page annotation of Against the Day (against-the-day.pynchonwiki.com).

No more hours leafing through index cards in a cavernous library catalogue room.

Most of the annotations I immediately need to know about are all here on the website; those that are not, I often quite easily find by web searches of my own.

References that neither the wiki site nor I can source out are probably things I will never figure out, anyway, so I don’t worry so much about them.

The positive effect of this new state of affairs is that I can relax a little, intellectually, and just enjoy Pynchon’s incomparable control of prose style, and his sometimes doped-out wackiness (I think the guy, now aged 72, still smokes a little pot).

The negative effect is that the stimulus to learn new and difficult things is much reduced, because the need for immediate answers is so much easier to achieve.

I can date the turning point in my own intellectual history, as I evolved from hippy-dippy literary man to techno-nerd, to the things I learned either directly or indirectly in the course of reading Gravity’s Rainbow.

It is unlikely that, even if I had the same youth and enthusiasm I had then, I would learn or change quite so much, now, because knowledge so easily gained is also knowledge easily forgotten.

On the other hand, maybe the internet made life, literature and obscure research easier for Pynchon, too, as he worked up his next novel, Inherent Vice, which is apparently due out this August.

If so, the more power to him.

Maybe both he and I can both take things a little easier, this late in the day.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie

who lives in Whitehorse.

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