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How Thomas Pynchon made a fan of David Kipen

July 16, 2009 |  4:23 pm

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David Kipen, the National Endowment for the Arts' literature director, National Reading Initiatives, loves many many authors and the great kaleidoscope of books they've written. But mention "Gravity's Rainbow," "The Crying of Lot 49," "Vineland," Mason & Dixon," "Against the Day," "Slow Learner" or "V," or breathe the name of the author of those works, the reclusive, National Book Award-winning Thomas Pynchon, and Kipen's enthusiasm is boundless. He shared some of it with Jacket Copy's Carolyn Kellogg.

JC: Would you describe yourself as a Pynchon fan?

DK:
Yes, though I like Pynchomane too. I think we do literature a disservice when we separate admiration too carefully from fandom. Pynchon's my touchstone. I'm his fan like I'm a Dodger fan: I root for him, find him endlessly fascinating and feel a purely unearned pride that he has the best record in the league. I'd say I follow Pynchon, but that might make him nervous.

JC: Could you explain more by what you mean when you say Pynchon is your touchstone?

DK:
In "The Study of Poetry," Matthew Arnold suggests that every critic needs a touchstone. By this he means a few lines from a cherished writer (or, in the present case case, familiarity with one writer’s complete corpus), against which the critic can then measure all other writers and, alas, usually find them wanting. It's a gratifyingly Western expression, deriving from those mysterious rocks against which assayers used to rub each new nugget to ascertain whether a metal was base or precious.

In junior high, my touchstone was the South African writer Alan Paton's "Cry, the Beloved Country." Then, in high school, I chanced to read Virginia Woolf. She instantly became my new touchstone ... until she had the misfortune to rub up against Charles Dickens. Now I've found my presumably final touchstone, and it has the specific gravity of pure Pynchonium.

It all comes down, tritely enough, to this: If I were stranded on a desert island and could only take two books with me, I'd take two copies of "Gravity's Rainbow."

One might get wet. ...

JC: Could you share a Pynchon passage that you like, and explain why?

DK:Sooner or later, all literary judgments become subjective, so I'm going to quote the passage from "Gravity's Rainbow" that, more than any other, first made me a Pynchomane -- and I still don't fully understand how it works. Maybe if I understood it better, it wouldn't have the same impact on me.

It's a surreal fantasia of white male sexual paranoia, set back during Tyrone Slothrop's Harvard years. He and some pals -- including the young Jack Kennedy -- go out for a night of jazz at the Roseland Ballroom. Slothrop adjourns upstairs to the men's washroom to barf discreetly, only to watch his beloved harmonica slip out of his shirt pocket and down the toilet.

There's nothing for it but for Slothrop to dive halfway in after the instrument, leaving his nether regions perfectly vulnerable to the predation of who knows what characters even now materializing behind him:

He feels the cold Lysol air on his thighs as down come the boxer shorts too, now, with the colorful bass lures and trout flies on them. He struggles to work himself farther into the toilet hole as dimly, up through the smelly water, comes the sound of a whole dark gang of awful Negroes come yelling happily into the white men's room, converging on poor wriggling Slothrop, jiving around the way they do singing `Slip the talcum to me, Malcolm!' And the voice that replies is who but that Red, the shoeshine boy who's slicked up Slothrop's black patents a dozen times down on his knees jes poppin' dat rag to beat the band...."

Now, your reaction to this passage may well be some form of "Wha?" or "Ew,"' or, quite possibly, "That tears it, I'm de-bookmarking Jacket Copy once and for all.'" Perplexity and revulsion were duking it out when I first read this too, but alongside them dawned a growing amazement that one slapstick scene could transmit on so many different wavelengths.

The sensual precision ("cold Lysol air"), the deadpan comedy ("colorful bass lures and trout flies"), the effortless ventriloquism ("jes poppin' dat rag to beat the band'"), the historical omnivorousness (Malcolm X did in fact have a shoeshine concession in the Roseland while JFK was in Cambridge) -- all of it! I simply hadn't known that fiction could be so bottomlessly funny and provocative.

It mocked and savaged and pitied and generally made hay out of America's racial conundrum in a way even my hero Randy Newman couldn't touch. Pynchon had me, and he's had me ever since. Someday I mean to write his biography -- a gesture of gratitude he'll probably greet with the heartfelt temporary restraining order it very possibly deserves.

JC: Which Pynchon book would you recommend to someone who hasn’t read him before?

DK: His juvenilia collection, "Slow Learner," especially his introduction and the last story, "The Secret Integration." That one's astonishing, truly the best bunny slope to Pynchon you could ask for. It's also his only trick ending -- unless brilliance counts as a trick -- and if it's about the best trick ending ever, why should we be surprised?

JC: Is that recommendation also your favorite? Would it be fair to say you have a favorite of his works?

DK:
"The Secret Integration" is my favorite short story. But having a favorite Pynchon novel would be like having, for me at least, a favorite lung.

JC: What aspects of his books appeal to you?

DK:
I'll resist the Pynchonian impulse to catalog, and limit myself to three: language, wit and emotion. People who think Pynchon lacks emotion make the same mistake as folks who find Stoppard cold and unfeeling. They haven't figured out that laughing, crying and thinking are three dishes best served all mushed together.

JC: What makes Pynchon such a singular passion for you?

DK:
You want me to go all Freudian on you? My dad died when I was 6. My revered big brother went away to Berkeley the following year. There haven't been a lot of handy male role models in my life suitable for emulation -- with semi-predictable consequences for my occasional attempts to act like a mensch. But along about my sophomore year in college, along came Tom. He was brilliant, funny, humane and too absentee ever to let me down. If biographical criticism applies to readers as much as it does to writers, I'd say I was ripe for conversion. But Pynchon met me more than halfway. Freud and Traven are brilliant, funny, humane and reclusive too -- maybe Traven isn't all that funny, I'd have to double-check -- but I never fell as hard for them as I have for Pynchon. Put it this way: I may have been predisposed, but he was prepossessing. I was susceptible, but Pynchon was virulent.

JC: Do you consider Pynchon a postmodernist?

DK:
Yes, and I consider Shakespeare an Elizabethan dramatist, and Dickens a Victorian. By which I meantersay, yes, of course, but that's not the half of it. Still, at least postmodernism means something, which modernism never quite has, for me.

JC: Do you find anything about reading Pynchon difficult?

DK:
I could be a wiseass and say "stopping," but that risks scaring away some tenderfeet who might wind up loving Pynchon, if only showoffs like us would just give it a rest once in a while. And I could invoke Shakespeare again, but once ought to be some kind of limit for that. Hell, it took me 73 pages into the Rainbow to lose all objectivity. It may take you longer, or forever. All I know is, if it feels like punishment, stop. If it feels like work, try again later. And if it feels like hearing yourself think on your best day ever, welcome aboard.

JC: What you would do if you happened across the notoriously reclusive Pynchon on the streets of NY?

DK:
Respect his privacy, of course. Then think better of it and ask to be his authorized biographer.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Image (right): "Against the Day" illustration. Credit: Henrik Drescher / For The Times

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