Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Pynchon, Ebooks, and the Encyclopedic Novel

Thomas Pynchon’s back catalog was released in the Kindle store last week after a long and conspicuous absence. This is a cause for celebration, as he was one of the few giants of American literature whose books were unavailable in ebook format. (Combined with the ebook debut earlier this year of William Gaddis’s revered and seminal tomes The Recognitions and JR, this is shaping up to be an annus mirablilis of sorts for ebook readers who love serious fiction. Next to join the ebook world, hopefully: John Barth, William H. Gass, and Donald Barthelme.)

It was never clear why Pynchon’s books were unavailable in digital form all this time, but the press releases strongly imply that it was his call and he finally gave his blessing to Penguin, his publisher, to release ebook editions of his novels. A few of the articles being written about this event are explaining Pynchon’s acquiescence by making cracks about his reputation of being a paranoid sort, speculating that his past reluctance stemmed from a wish to prevent his books from being swallowed up by the same systems and networks that he writes so critically and suspiciously of, at times.

I’ve always had a different theory. Pynchon is a writer of what are commonly referred to as “Encyclopedic novels,” a label given to books that are stuffed with an incredible amount of information about a wide range of topics. Readers of encyclopedic novels frequently encounter words they don’t know, concepts they don’t understand, and historical events they’re unfamiliar with. This is intentional—at least part of the point of these books is that they are supposed to be mimetic of the experience of real life in the respect that we are constantly subjected to a barrage of information and visual/aural/tactile stimulation which we are in constant struggle to make sense of.

If you pay attention and read it closely, you can usually learn a lot by reading an encyclopedic novel, in a way that is not dissimilar from the way you’d learn a lot by reading a real encyclopedia or a dictionary or textbook—which of course turns a lot of horrified readers away, readers who would never in a million years consider reading a reference book for fun.

While potentially rewarding, encyclopedic novels are usually as difficult to read as one imagines they would be. They are purposely overwhelming and disorienting. The good ones succeed in doing this without making you want to throw the book across the room, but even if you get through one, chances are that whole chunks of it will still be opaque to you because you probably won’t look up every unknown word or familiarize yourself with every obscure reference or keep track of what is oftentimes a cast of hundreds of characters.

You might see where this is going.

Reading an encyclopedic novel in ebook format mitigates many of its difficulties. The standard features of the devices that allow you to view ebooks—whether it’s an e-reader or app for tablet or PC—include built-in dictionaries and continuous connection to the internet. Getting the definition of a word is as simple as pointing at it, and, for everything else, Google and Wikipedia are a tap away. Suddenly these notoriously hard books seem a lot less daunting.

That is the main reason I intentionally chose Moby Dick as the first book I read on my Kindle. It is regarded as a predecessor to the long, complicated novels that became the foundation of 20th century literature; it’s the ur-encyclopedic novel. It has a reputation for being difficult and remains too intimidating for most readers. But I had a hunch that the Kindle would not only make the novel easier to read but also enhance my appreciation and understanding of it, and I was right. All the sailing terms—the capstans and mizzenmasts and whatnot—were instantly understood with no significant interruption of my reading experience. I wrote about this in a previous blog post, but the internet connection allowed me to look stuff up on Wikipedia that would’ve just flown over my head had I been reading it as a physical book. Ultimately, I got way more out of Moby Dick than I would’ve without the Kindle. (And it’s actually a great read, way more exciting and fast-paced and fun than you’ve been led to believe.)

Now, a Pynchon book is like the pinnacle of the encyclopedic novel. He puts in more allusions, references, obscure words, historical events, etc. than any other author. His novels are overwhelming by anyone’s standards and you just have to go with it and accept that you won’t understand everything about his work, or even most of it. (One of the most intelligent novelists out there, Alexander Theroux, said he understood “maybe 82%” of Pynchon’s books.) And, as strange as this might sound (especially if you’ve never read him), that’s part of the appeal. You’re pretty much ensured a unique, singular reading experience with a Pynchon novel; it’ll be unlike anything you’ve ever read before. It can be frustrating, like getting lost in a mystery you know you will never solve or discovering a hall of locked doors behind which you know there is incredible treasure, but just the intimations of that treasure is enough to make getting through a Pynchon novel a rewarding experience.

Pynchon probably derives at least some sly joy or amusement from writing these books that for 99% of the population are pure head-scratchers. Who knows how long it takes him to track down every little factoid, scavenging through the annals of the world’s history to find a perfect thematic tidbit to complement what he is writing about. It probably takes him a long, long time—he’s not what you would call a fast worker, commonly taking 10+ years to publish a new book. In the not-too-distant past, when a “book” meant exactly one thing—something made with paper and ink and glue—Pynchon could be reasonably assured that all the secrets he hid in his books would remain unsolved to all but the most intrepid scholars (or the people who bought books written by those intrepid scholars). But now, every term can be googled, every historical event can be wikipediaed, every word can be tapped on for the definition. The encyclopedic novel has never been more accessible to the average reader. Its secrets are more easily uncovered, its challenges more readily expugnable. (Go ahead, click it. See? Easy.) That must rankle Pynchon at least a little, and it explains his reluctance to relinquish his work to the digital arena.

Most of my Pynchon experience on the Kindle will be a revisiting of work I’ve already read as DTBs, with one notable exception. I’m probably the weirdest Pynchon fan in the world—I’ve read all his work except for Gravity’s Rainbow. V., Vineland, Against the Day, even Mason & Dixon—I’ve read them all. I’ve been purposely holding off on Gravity’s Rainbow, his National Book Award-winning magnum opus. Why? Well, I started reading him around the release of Against the Day in 2006 and, knowing his history and age, I was worried we might never get another Pynchon novel again so I wanted to save what is probably his best work for a rainy day (or month, considering the length), the same way one savors an unopened bottle of vintage wine. Of course, the 2009 release of Inherent Vice gave us another book in the Pynchon collection, one I devoured gratefully.

Speaking of Inherent Vice, I notice that it is still not available in the Kindle store. I’m sure no one will remember this, but it was available for pre-order in the Kindle store back in 2009 and then disappeared a couple weeks before the hardcover release. I remember being excited to read my first new Pynchon book in ebook format and then being deeply disappointed to have that opportunity snatched away from me. At the time I could find no explanation of why IV was pulled from the Kindle store—no one besides me cared, apparently. And even now: no Inherent Vice. Weird. (It is rumored that it will be adapted by Paul Thomas Anderson into a movie starring Robert Downey, Jr. and if that comes to pass, they have to release it as an ebook, with Downey posing dramatically on the cover. That will be especially weird, a Pynchon book with a movie tie-in cover.)

Anyway, the release of the Gravity’s Rainbow ebook is as good an occasion as any to finally stop denying myself the pleasures of what I assume to be one of the best books of the last 100 years. I still have to finish War and Peace (on page 431), but now I have extra incentive to speed through this Russian masterpiece already and get to a novel I’ve been anticipating for some time, and experience it in a way that they could only dream of back in 1973.

DHS

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