Category Archives: Thomas Pynchon

“How many times’d you end up sucking on the rug?”

I don’t have the inclination or the wherewithal to collect first editions, and there’s something about the antiquarian trade that strikes me as unseemly and beside the point, but goodness the catalog [PDF] for the Bruce Kahn Collection is gobstoppingly beautiful. Kahn, a Michigan-based mergers and acquisitions lawyer, has acquired a collection of first editions of 20th century (mostly) American fiction that’s in impeccable shape, from John O’Hara to Philip Roth to Toni Morrison to Cormac McCarthy and on and on. None of it’s cheap: Plenty of the items run into five figures, with a copy of Appointment in Samarra running to $30,000. (If money’s tight, you can drop $2,500 for a signed proof of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.)

Perhaps more interesting than the books themselves are the various scribblings included. The copy of John Irving‘s The World According to Garp (apparently sold) is inscribed with a note about the author’s take on the book’s ending: “The meaning of life? ‘We are all terminal cases’, but I find that no surprise and no cause for cynicism or depression. It’s all the more reason to live purposefully and well.” The highlight of the collection on that front, though, is a 1974 handwritten letter from Thomas Pynchon to his friends David Shetzline and his wife, Mary Beal. Writing on graph paper (Pynchon apparently has a thing for graph paper), he recalls his disinterest in attending an impeachment rally in Greenwich Village. From the catalog:

“Maybe I am wrong not to show up, after all think of all that great neurotic pussy that always shows up at things like ‑‑ oh, aww, gee Mary, I’m sorry! I meant ‘vagina,’ of course! ‑‑ like that, and all the biggies who’ll be there…” He goes on to describe that he is having “what the CIA calls a ‘mid‑life crisis,’ looking for another hustle, cannot dig to live a ‘literary’ life no more…” A “lump of hash I lost somewhere in Humboldt County 3 years ago” figures into what becomes an increasingly textured, complicated narrative, the way his fiction does, at the same time that it represents his side of an obviously ongoing dialogue, and elicits further contact from the recipients: in referring to stories of bad LSD circulating, he asks “You might as well tell me. How many times’d you end up sucking on the rug?”

The letter is yours for $25,000.

Pynchon, the Musical

Plenty of literary novels have inspired musicals—Winesburg, Ohio, Moby-Dick, and The Color Purple, to name a few—and a few band names too. But I’m hard-pressed to think of a novel that’s inspired a musical composition. So until a commenter corrects me, I’ll think of Sam Shalabi as a pioneer; he’s written a 60-minute free-improv suite based on Thomas Pynchon‘s 2006 novel, Against the Day. Performed with a Montreal collective called Land of Kush, the piece has five sections named after the novel’s five sections, and Shalabi tells the McGill Daily he was particularly inspired by one of the book’s main themes:

The novel “is structured around light,” he explains, “and [light] becomes a character in a really interesting way.” One narrative thread traces the groundbreaking scientific advances made in the West in the years leading up to World War I – the discovery of the photon, and the connection between electromagnetism and visible light – that led to a widespread obsession with illumination. Nikola Tesla, one of the pioneers of the second Industrial Revolution, makes a cameo; Tesla “was doing many interesting things with light,” says Shalabi, “but was seen as a freak.” The story, he further explains, “is about those moments where no one knows what’s going on, but it’s all really exciting.”

I haven’t read the book, so I can’t speak to how well the piece evokes it. But on the evidence of the sample available on Constellation Records’ Web page for the album, the album stands on its own quite well—it’s busy but tuneful, full of the kind of martial drumming and chanting that would excite any modern day freak-folk and psych-rock fan. A sample from part four, the title track, is available as a free download.

Land of Kush, \"Against the Day\"

Disaster Lit

The Literary Saloon points to a new online magazine, Triple Canopy, an arts-and-literature publication whose design stakes out an interesting middle ground between dull seas of text and clunky PDFs. One of the more interesting features in issue No. 1 is “Thinking Through Images,” in which photographer Craig Kalpakjian and editor Sarah Kessler discuss the intersection of imagery, disaster, and literature. In particular, they look at Three Mile Island, a meteor crash in Siberia, staring directly into the sun–that last not a disaster per se, but the two find a way to connect it to Don DeLillo‘s White Noise, and there’s some commentary on Thomas Pynchon and Will Self in there as well. The conversation is a tad pretentious, but Kalapkjian’s images are compelling, and the conversation is worth a look.