Book Notes

Zak Smith thumbs through his tattered copy of Pynchon's
Zak Smith thumbs through his tattered copy of Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" in his apartment Nov. 2 in Brooklyn, N.Y. (Kathy Willens / Ap)
Sunday, November 26, 2006

Pictures of Pynchon

All of Zak Smith's obsessions, he says, trace back to his teenage years in Prince George's County. "The same sort of projects are interesting to me," he explains. "I liked girls then. I like girls now." He also likes comics and big philosophical novels. Thomas Pynchon's 1973 novel Gravity's Rainbow has long been his favorite book.

Here's where the obsession comes in: In 2003, Smith spent nine months holed up in his Brooklyn apartment drawing Gravity's Rainbow page by page. In the process, Pynchon's images popped out at Smith in ways they hadn't when he was just reading the book for pleasure. "I noticed that grids or graphs or grid-like shapes were in the language a lot," he says. He also ran across a lot of challenging pages containing little more than two people talking. "You're like, I don't know what I'm going to do with this," he recalls. And the book hardly ends with a visual bang: "The last page is the same two people talking!"

Smith trained as a fine artist at Yale and Cooper Union -- his specialty is portraits -- so it makes sense that the end result of his endeavor is less an illustrated novel than a series of eerie, high art interpretations. None of the 760 images contains any of Pynchon's text, for example, though each is numbered to match a page in the novel's Viking Press edition.

When the Whitney Museum displayed the series in its 2004 Biennial show, it took up an entire wall. Pynchon fans hovered around it pointing out their favorite spots. There was Pirate among the banana trees! There was Slothrop in the pig costume! There were the B-57 bombers!

Now fans who missed the show can join the fun: Tin House has collected Smith's drawings into a volume called Gravity's Rainbow Illustrated, which will be released November 28th, just a week after Pynchon's new novel, Against the Day, hit stores.

It's not likely that Smith will take on that 1,085-page book, though. "All my work is very labor-intensive," he says, "so I don't like to do the same project twice." In fact, his last big series, "100 Girls and 100 Octopuses," was conceived as the "anti- Gravity's Rainbow." An arrangement of 98 surreal paintings, each showing a woman in a room with an octopus, the series has no narrative in it at all. Only when he was deep into the project did Smith realize he'd been foiled: The image of the girl with the octopus appears in Gravity's Rainbow, too.

-- Marcela Valdes

The Other Simpson Story

While O.J. was setting new lows in the publishing world, Homer and the gang were welcoming some of the literary world's brightest stars to Springfield. In last week's episode, Lisa helped bartender Moe arrange his angst-ridden musing into a critically acclaimed poem, which garnered him an invitation to the Wordloaf Festival. ("Warning: Philip Roth May Be Moody.") There was Tom Wolfe in his signature white suit. And Gore Vidal ("I don't need your sycophantic laughter -- I have some on tape"). Asked by fawning fans to name the biggest influences on their work, Michael Chabon said, "I'd have to say my good friend Jonathan Franzen. I thought his novel The Corrections needed none." Franzen, in turn, replied, "I'd have to say my biggest influence is Albert Camus."

"You were supposed to say me!" Chabon cried. "I blurbed you."

"Yeah, and it looks real sweet on my dust jacket. How do you like me now?"

"That's it, Franzen. I think your nose needs some corrections. . . . Oh, you fight like Anne Rice."

-- Ron Charles

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