We're shutting down for the holiday weekend so don't expect much in this space until Monday when we return with a special edition of 3MI featuring Jonathan Lethem on the subject of rediscovered '30s great Daniel Fuchs. Jim Ruland also promises continuing Pynchoniana (see below), and we might even have a special day of Stephen Elliott guest blogging. A fun-filled TEV week ahead, so enjoy your holidays, be safe and come back rested and ready for action on Monday.
Who was that that said “I contain multitudes”? I think it was either Walt Whitman or Traci Lords, but I’m feeling a little lost in the multiverse that is Against the Day. It’s not that I’ve run out of things to say—on the contrary, I’ve barely scratched the surface, but this short week is already over. Maybe I’m still hungover from the Pynchon release party on Monday night. Maybe I’m still peeved about the negative reviews. Whatever the case may be, it’s obvious we’re going to have to continue this conversation next week.
So stand-by for a response to Kirsch and Kakutani. Hold fast for an ass-clown proof Pynchon primer. Prepare yourself for a look at Against the Day that doesn’t completely suck. And since my agitated state has left me all but useless for careful considerations, I turned to Duncan Murrell, a writer, editor, journalist and recovering Marine, for a more sober assessment of Pynchon’s merits. Murrell’s perspective is interesting as he collects Thomas Pynchon first editions and has a personal connection to the writer.
TEV: How long have you been collecting Pynchon first editions? How did you come to start collection Pynchon first editions?
DM: How long have you been on fire? (I kid.) I think I've been collecting his first editions since I was 19 or so, after I'd read something else he'd written, the introduction to another writer's novel. That book had been my mother's parting gift as I went off to college. I wanted to know Pynchon after that, and since this is impossible, I went and found Gravity's Rainbow in a used bookstore in Ithaca later that year. It was years after that, after buying others, that I realized I had a collection. I should say that it was also years before I actually read one of those shiny, fine, untorn and only slightly discolored books. My mother is a collector, if by "collector" you mean someone who collects things so she can understand herself. She has countless collections: christening cups, apple peelers, Sandwich glass, wind-up toys, 18th-century Maryland silver, Japanese woodblock prints, Danish landscape painters, and an edition of Salvador Dali's "Alice in Wonderland," which has never left the fucking box. It drives me crazy. But I'm my mother's son, so I began collecting books. My mother started collecting books after I began, and now she has a fantastic collection, all gems that she found for cheap. (It's not worth it to her unless it's cheap, or fairly so.) So, among other things, she's got a complete Saul Bellow collection, which she won't let me read. I have to go out and find used paperbacks of Bellow. I now collect rattlesnake rattles, and I have four handmade hot dogs that are now more than twenty years old. They live in my freezer.
TEV: What's your best "find"?
DM: The first edition of The Crying of Lot 49 that I found in the Library of Babel, next to "The Plaster Cramp." I just snatched it, kicked an Inquisitor in the mouth, and jumped into the hexagonal emptiness beyond the rail. That's how I roll. I also found my Vindication there, but it fell out of my pocket.
That would have been cool. Truly, though, I've had no great finds. I don't have my mother's patience. She makes great finds, I just find. Since Vineland, it's been easy: go out to the store, get the first edition, wrap it in plastic, put it on the shelf. I've stumbled on all of the rest but one. I went out looking for a good first of The Crying of Lot 49. (You wouldn't believe how many people apparently used that book as a trivet. Lesson: do not put your pot of stew down on your books, that's what I'm saying.) I'm happy to have it because I love that cover. The sidewalk, the horn drawn in chalk. It's pretty. That's my best find, the one that I actually wanted. The others just threw themselves at me. There are supposed to be some extraordinary editions of Gravity's Rainbow out there. Accounts of them are something like myths. I'd like one of those. Also, anything in Danish.
TEV: Why Pynchon?
DM There's something about Pynchon that's very sweet. Sweet like a fox. I have to admit that the bit of Pynchon I go back to more than anything else is not one of his works of fiction, but the introduction to his friend Richard Farina's book Been Down So Long Looks Like Up To Me. You might remember Farina from that Positively Fourth Street, by David Hajdu. Farina was married to Mimi Baez. Influenced Dylan, who was a little jealous of Farina. Farina also influenced Pynchon, who was not jealous of him, during their time together at Cornell. Farina-like figures pop up all over Pynchon's fictional worlds (Tyrone Slothrop, from Gravity's Rainbow, is one), and although BDSLLLUTM is obviously an apprentice work, it's fairly obvious that it had some impact on Pynchon. Considering that Farina died on Carmel Valley Road after riding a motorcycle away from a book party celebrating the publication of that first novel, Pynchon's introduction to that novel -- only available in subsequent editions -- is moving and funny and self-deprecating. I love it. Book collectors, by the way, generally consider the edition of BDSLLLUTM with Pynchon's introduction to be more valuable than the first edition.
TEV: There’s always a tendency to overstate Pynchon’s influences because we know so little about them, would you agree that some things – Pynchon’s stint in the Navy, his friendship with Farina – have been understated?
DM: In the introduction, Pynchon seems to suggest that without Farina's "dangerous presence, not wearing a jacket or tie, more hair than was fashionable, always sitting with the same group of people. Quiet, but intensely there, checking things out," he might have always been a buttoned up, repressed writer without Farina's influence and friendship. And Lord knows, there's nothing repressed about him now. Yet, you can still detect that tentative, shy, self-deprecating person in much of Pynchon's humor, and in his concerns as a writer.
TEV: You went to Pynchon’s alma mater, Cornell. Did that help foster a connection to Pynchon and Farina?
DM: Pynchon and Farina were among the first students of Cornell Prof. James McConkey ( "Court of Memory," many others) and I was one of Jim's last students. (He's still alive, but not teaching so much.) McConkey couldn't be more different than those two, but I used to enjoy hearing him talk about them, particularly Farina.
TEV: What sets Pynchon apart from other writers? That sounds like a lame question, but I guess what I’m driving at is what makes Pynchon unique?
DM: I have always loved Pynchon's bits, his set pieces, his contained moments of theatricality, his bullshitting, his musical comedy. I'm not talking about his style and attitude toward narrative, which also contains these elements. I'm talking about the dropped in moments, self-contained and ephemeral. They're unnecessary, of course, if you're the sort of person who has to always be moving from here to there at the most efficient rate possible. I think these moments are part of Pynchon's greater idea for novels, that the best become obsessions for the reader, and it's out of kindness that he gives us a break. These are the moments when you're encouraged to engage your primitive brain, take a breath, get high.
TEV: Like Byron the Bulb?
DM: Exactly. I remember best the little things, such as that excerpt in Gravity's Rainbow from a fictional philologist's work, called Tales of the Schwarzkommando, in which the spiritual leader of a group of rocket-worshipping engineers resolves a conflict between observed and divine knowledge:
"Proud man," said the Nguarorerue. "What are these data, if not direct revelation? Where have they come from, if not from the Rocket which is to be? How do you presume to compare a number you have only derived on paper with a number that is the Rocket's own? Avoid pride, and design to some compromise value."
Pynchon at his best: wry and in love with the farcical potential of gnomics, religionists, and scientists.
TEV: I love that your favorite scene is from one of the counterfactual histories embedded in the novel!
DM: While we're at it, we should admire some of the other book titles Pynchon has invented over the years (thanks Wikipedia):
An Account of the Singular Peregrinations of Dr. Diocletian Blobb among the Italians, Illuminated with Exemplary Tales from the True History of that Outlandish and Fantastical Race
The Courier's Tragedy, by Richard Wharfinger (a Jacobean revenge play in five acts)
How I Came to Love the People, Anonymous
The Italian Wedding Fake Book, by Deleuze & Guattari
King Kong: 18 vls. by Mitchell Prettyplace (a 'definitive study')
Neil Nosepicker's Book of 50,000 Insults, The Nayland Smith Press, Cambridge, 1933
On Preterition, by William Slothrop ('among the first books to've been not only banned but ceremonially burned in Boston')
Plotting the Stealth and Intrigue of the Jacobean Revenge Plays, by Dr. Emory Bortz
Things That Can Happen in European Politics, by Ernest Pudding
The Wisdom of the Great Kamikaze Pilots (with illustrations by Walt Disney) That list not only cracks me up, but I think it's a pretty good introduction to the Pynchon attitude.
TEV: Like breaking out in song.
DM: I love that little musical number from Gravity's Rainbow, sung by Seaman Bodine of the U.S. destroyer John E. Badass (Jim Ruland served on that ship, right?), [Ed. Yes.] who is supposed to be Saure's contact. It's a little song about drugs and genies, and discovering that your generous, hash-happy genie is "a narco man, and he busted me right whur I lay." It's funny sad. Who hasn't been betrayed by their genies?