Pynchon’s batshit universe


I don’t know why I’ve waited this long to read Pynchon’s latest book.  Some of it is that I’m probably a little worried that it’s his last book.  As if by holding out, I can keep him around a little longer, which is goofy and morbid and dumb.  He’s still alive, and he’s actually been more prolific in the last seven or eight years (three books) than at any point in his career.  Maybe he’ll be like Philip Roth and hit this insane late-career peak.  (And then, like Roth, announce that he’s done.  Except that Pynchon would never announce something like that.)

Anyway, I finally caved and bought Bleeding Edge.  I’ve read two pages.  And here’s what I love: on page 2, we read this probably-throwaway bit about the Otto Kugelblitz School, named after “an early psychoanalyst who was expelled from Freud’s inner circle because of a recapitulation theory he’d worked out.  It seemed to him obvious that the human life span runs through the varieties of mental disorder as understood in his day–the solipsism of infancy, the sexual hysterias of adolescence and entry-level adulthood, the paranoia of middle age, the dementia of late life… all working up to death.”

Typical Pynchon weirdness, but a fun bit of backstory to the school.  That’s not what I loved.  It’s the next paragraph.  After reading about the school, we expect to jump back into Maxine’s story, because the diversion into crazy Pynchon-land is over.  Except it’s not.

“Great time to be finding that out!” Freud flicking cigar ash at Kugelblitz and ordering him out the door of Berggasse 19, never to return…

And more about Kugelblitz for the rest of the paragraph.  Full of lunatic immediacy and period detail (Berggasse 19, for example, where Freud lived and worked).  It reminded me of the first time I read Lot 49, being startled by the way Pynchon was willing to fly off in any direction for the sake of a joke, an idea, a metaphor, or a collision of all those things.  And “fly off” is a good description, because his digressions always seem like they’re exploding outward, building in intensity as he goes, and leaving some pretty fucking strong psychic residue over the rest of the story.

Anyway, I read that paragraph and it just made me glad he’s still around, that I still have this book ahead of me.  Because the most characteristic thing about Pynchon isn’t that he’s going to be difficult, or erudite, or batshit insane, but that he’s going to be frequently and substantively surprising.  Which, if you’re going for a characteristic thing, has to be one of the top things you could go for as a writer.

Having spent a lot of the spring and summer making my way through V, I also like finding myself back inside the head of the older Pynchon.  I liked but never loved it; it felt overengineered, the work of a pretty great writer (even in his twenties) who is trying too hard to be a great writer.  Everything else with Pynchon feels different, like he stopped trying to write that kind of book, and instead just opened his head and said fuck it, this is what matters to me.

Glad I waited, and glad I’m heading in to this now…

About the author

Tom Howard

Tom Howard is the author of Fierce Pretty Things (Indiana University Press, 2019).

He received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Fierce Pretty Things won the 2018 Blue Light Books Fiction Prize, and his individual stories have won the Ninth Letter Literary Award in Fiction, the Indiana Review Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award for Fiction, the Carve Magazine Prose & Poetry Contest, the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction, the Innovative Short Fiction Prize, the Willow Springs Ficiton Prize, the Rash Award in Fiction, and the Robert J. DeMott Award for Short Prose.

He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.

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