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New to Pynchon?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Readers new to Thomas Pynchon can ask for no more ingratiating, indeed laid-back, an introduction than "Inherent Vice." But it is, in some sense, Pynchon Lite, as was his earlier serio-goofy California novel, "Vineland" (1990).

Many colleges teach "The Crying of Lot 49" (1966), partly because it's short and because of its humor -- it focuses on a secret alternative postal system and includes an actual pastiche of a Jacobean play, "The Courier's Tragedy." The volume "Slow Learner" (1986) collects Pynchon's few short stories.

But his major books are:

-- "V." (1963): Pynchon mixes history, spy novel and '60s zaniness (at one point the hero Benny Profane hunts alligators in the sewers of New York), while characters search for or encounter various incarnations of a woman whose name begins with V.

-- "Gravity's Rainbow" (1973): This encyclopedic novel, set mainly during the last days of World War II, has been regarded as the greatest achievement in post-1960s American fiction, and remains Pynchon's masterpiece. Paranoia, conspiracy theory, entropy -- these are just some of its elements: "A screaming comes across the sky."

-- "Mason & Dixon" (1997): Twenty-four years passed before Pynchon brought out "Mason & Dixon." Set in late 18th-century America, this historical novel, with fantastic elements, is a meditation on what America might have been and what it became. Its central image is that of division, boundaries, chains, lines -- all the visible and invisible constraints of American life. It is, I think, Pynchon's finest achievement after "Gravity's Rainbow," but relatively little read.

-- "Against the Day" (2006): This thousand-page historical metafiction received mixed reviews at best and many downright hostile ones. Set between the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and the period just after World War I, it concerns -- according to a summary composed by Pynchon himself -- "a time of unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places." It features scientists and inventors, anarchists and drug-takers and comedians, and takes place in many parts of the world. The general view seems to be that parts of it are excellent but that the whole is, in Henry James's phrase, a loose and baggy monster.

While Pynchon's density and formal originality can discourage some readers, it's important to note that his books are often wildly funny, packed with Monty Pythonesque characters, bad puns, sexual slapstick and paranoid craziness.

-- Michael Dirda

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