As I was about halfway through Thomas Pynchon’s most recent novel Bleeding Edge, I hit that state of bliss his books can bring me to. I was relieved. I hadn’t liked his previous novel Inherent Vice so much. It was Pynchon-lite—it had the conspiracies, the goofy humor, even the songs, but the prose never really took flight, as if an overzealous editor had gotten hold of it, pinioning Pynchon’s imagination into relatively tidy sentences. And at first glance, Bleeding Edge seemed to resemble Inherent Vice more than any of his other books, so I was prepared for another shrug of a book. Happily, it proved to be much more satisfying, even if it never reached the exhilarating weirdness of his best books: Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, and the admittedly shaggy Against the Day.
But what made the book so enjoyable, I asked myself. It is a strange book, a Pynchon book. It doesn’t really have a plot so much as intimations of one, the strands of which are tested out as the narrative unfolds. Some are pursued, some abandoned, some resolved, some not, and they proliferate so that it becomes hard to articulate more than the most basic outline of a plot.
The characters, on the other hand, aren’t conventionally compelling. Most lack the psychological depth that one expects in “serious” literature. In fact, some of Pynchon’s most memorable characters feel transplanted from cartoons. For example, I agree with the characterization offered on the Against the Day Wiki (yes, Pynchon’s novels have Wikis; they help one negotiate the density of allusion that is the texture of Pynchon’s novels) that Against the Day’s “Bad Man” Bob Meldrum, “(with his huge mustache and quick temper) is very similar to the Loony Tunes [sic] character Yosemite Sam.” Eventually, I felt like the entirety of Against the Day was an immense, historical tragedy populated with Looney Tunes characters.
And I loved it!
So I was explaining this to someone, how I loved Pynchon’s novels but didn’t know exactly what it was about them that gave me such pleasure. I had ideas, but did they really capture why I liked his books? And did they illuminate what made his books so unique? As I was pondering these questions, I ran across Jonathan Lethem’s review in The New York Times Book Review, in which he seemed to get at the very issues I was wrestling with. He even quotes a paragraph/sentence from Bleeding Edge that I loved when I’d encountered it, rereading it several times to take it in and savor it. Here’s what Lethem has to say:
But wait. I’m acting as if we all know what it is to read Pynchon. In fact none of us do, for figuring out what it is like to read Pynchon is what it is like to read Pynchon. You’re never done with it. He’ll employ a string of citations to real and imaginary Bette Davis movies, say, or riffs on basketball, much as Pollock uses a color on a panoramic canvas or Coltrane a note in a solo: incessantly, arrestingly, yet seemingly without cumulative purpose. Instead, they’re threads for teasing at, or being teased by. Try Bette Davis, who often played good/bad twins or sisters: she resonates — uh, maybe? — with Pynchon’s Poe-like attraction to characters split into sinister mirrored doubles. Or try basketball, which in Pynchon’s scheme appears to connect disparate persecuted tribes like Mayans, Jews and African-Americans — yet why then does Horst (“a fourth-generation product of the U.S. Midwest, emotional as a grain elevator”) twice hold his head in both hands “as if about to attempt a foul shot with it”?
What this misses, though, is the sheer vitality and fascination, the plummets into beauty and horror, the unique flashes of galactic epiphany, in Pynchon’s method. Our reward for surrendering expectations that a novel should gather in clarity, rather than disperse into molecules, isn’t anomie but delight. Pynchon himself’s a good companion, full of real affection for his people and places, even as he lampoons them for suffering the postmodern condition of being only partly real. He spoils us with descriptive flights. Here’s uptown Manhattan in the rain: “What might only be a simple point on the workday cycle . . . becomes a million pedestrian dramas, each one charged with mystery, more intense than high-barometer daylight can ever allow. Everything changes. There’s that clean, rained-on smell. The traffic noise gets liquefied. Reflections from the street into the windows of city buses fill the bus interiors with unreadable 3-D images, as surface unaccountably transforms to volume. Average pushy Manhattan schmucks crowding the sidewalks also pick up some depth, some purpose — they smile, they slow down, even with a cellular phone stuck in their ear they are more apt to be singing to somebody than yakking. Some are observed taking houseplants for walks in the rain. Even the lightest umbrella-to-umbrella contact can be erotic.”
It’s good, and it’s not at all out-of-line with my own thoughts, so right now, that’s where I’ll leave it. But I’ll be sure to be returning to it when I once again begin the journey that opens with: “A screaming comes across the sky.”