The Life Between the Lines

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Book Reviews

Today, for the second time in my life, I finished a Thomas Pynchon novel.  Now the hard part: how to convey the dizzying nature of this journey when all I have are snapshot memories and fragments of awoken dreams staggering around the underworld of my consciousness.  I read most of Against the Day in twenty page segments, and so it took me quite a while, but I don’t think there was a single sitting that went down without my crashing headlong into a delectable passage of prose that resulted in my hopping up out of my seat immediately– (thump! as the mouth of the book chomps down on its mark)– taking a few deep breaths, and bouncing gaily on the balls of my feet.

(Wow… Holy @#$%~!  Shake it off…  Breathe…)

Just because.

Well no, dammit, not just because.  Because.

There are times in our lives when the meaning behind the moment is a fairly abstract concept at best, and yet I sense that when we reach the end and look back, the incredibly complex pageantry of cloud-like feelings that arises will prove to be the smoke from one, irrefutable, perpetually exploded grenade of knowing: something happened.  Something happened, because someone was transformed– us included– and that transformation was always and forever the meaning of our lives.  Everything else was just shadowy movements.

Was it planned?  Was it ad hoc?  Was it worth it?  Does it even matter now?

Something happened.

This realization is initially nothing but an inexplicable feeling.  You’re not sure what it is, but for better or worse you have it.  It has you.  Like all good art, reading Pynchon is depth-plumbing and evocative, an encounter riddled with cracks and with spaces in between the lines you are drawn to reach out and fill with the marrow of your own living.  Reading Pynchon is like piloting a horse-drawn carriage with oblong and wobbly wheels through a mine field of half-buried pinatas.  They burst open with impact, filling the air with the ticker tape innards of ten thousand fortune cookie fortunes, all of them hastily dashed onto flimsy papers just one week prior by a whole country full of unemployed prophets.  You grab hold of one, and are reminded the reason you have any response at all is because you know It– this concoction of symbols you have confronted– and It knows you.

The last paragraph in the book contains this passage: “For every wish to come true would mean that in the known Creation, good unsought and uncompensated would have evolved somehow, to become at least more accessible to us.  No one aboard Inconvenience has yet observed any sign of this.  They know– Miles is certain– it is there, like an approaching rainstorm, but invisible.  Soon they will see the pressure-gauge begin to fall.  They will feel the turn in the wind.  They will put on smoked goggles for the glory of what is coming to part the sky.  They fly toward grace.”

Our lives, too, will end in a flight towards Grace.  If Against the Day was nothing but a roundabout reminder of this truth, it was well worth it.  The journey was effulgent with symbol and scene, mayhem and mechanism– some real, some dreamt, some both at once.  Pynchon’s parallel but interwoven worlds would not have resonated with me had I not been able to understand his allusions to birefringent crystals, radionics, Hamiltonians and quaternions, vectors and imaginary numbers, or had I been unable to read lightly enough to simultaneously render the curious admixture of comedy, sarcasm, tragedy, and debauchery in a common light.  But that’s just me.  I suspect that if there were these hidden, esoteric gems that twinkled as I walked by, there were that many more that I missed, that lie in dormant wait for the passage of another.  To say I should have read the book twice before trying to write about it is an understatement.

The challenge of reading this novel is to simply be present with the passage in front of you.  That is also, I think, where lie the richest rewards.  Is it not the same with living our lives?  It is tempting to want to understand the overall arc of the story, and we are accustomed in reading novels to at least think we are able to connect each scene to the characters’ desires and trajectories, but I find with Pynchon I have to eschew these common conventions more often than not, and embrace the indeterminate moment.  Only in the end, after it is over and I look up and look back, do I realize… everything has been made new.  Something has been safely and miraculously birthed in between the lines, lines that were oh so distracting with their anarchist bombardiers, Mexican brujo-shamans, the love child of a vigorous menage a trois, cornucopias of ethnic dishes and rare distillations, civilization-liquefying mathematical weapons, the ghosts of dead fathers, the doppelgangers of robber tycoons, and forays into the minds of mercury-infused alchemical tinkerers.

Despite all of that, Something… has happened.  It was never discussed, never obvious, never plain to the casual viewer, (which is what you had to be to take this ride at all), but it has emerged in the end, and has left me that much more aware of the meaning behind the moment, that much more dumbfounded at the paraphernalia of existence.


  1. I haven’t read Pynchon, so now I’m going to have to read this latest. Amazon says: “unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent…” This colourful description suggests there’s something about the content that resembles what you have written here – although I much prefer your, ‘one, irrefutable, perpetually exploded grenade of knowing’. And I know what you mean by having get up and walk around arms flapping at my sides, deep breathing, in a duck-like walk, astonished at the purely creative. Thanks for letting us know about this…


    • Ha! Yes, the phrase “duck-like walk” would have saved me ten minutes of grasping for the proper words…

      Well, as to Pynchon, you may really enjoy it, or be wholly turned off, and I am not feeling big on predictions this evening. My stepson gifted me Gravity’s Rainbow a couple years ago, and I spent the better part of a summer choking that one down. It’s really a fascinating experience- to find a passage that blows your mind, and to realize, you have no idea what exactly is happening. Only later, when you try and explain what you are reading to someone else, do you discover, there is this thread running through it.



  2. Steve says

    Thank you for that incredible review Michael. As you and I have occasionally discussed, although David Foster Wallace would not acknowledge it publicly to any great extent I believe Thomas Pynchon was the single biggest influence on his writing. According to D.T. Maxx’s biography, DFW first read Pynchon’s WWII masterpiece Gravity’s Rainbow and was often seen with a dog eared copy of that novel with him. Strangely, DFW would in later years curiously deny he’d ever read anything by Pynchon. Their writing styles are similar, without question. Both writers (DFW deceased since 2008) command your attention, and with good reason. Both have these wonderful gems in every paragraph, although DFW’s paragraphs are like climbing Mount Everest. You’re actually almost physically tired at the end of one. Yet at the same time you want those gems! I was having coffee in Wolfeboro and was on my last 100 pages of Infinite Jest when one of the townies I know said hello and was surprised, he said, to see someone so far along in completing it. I told him Infinite Jest is the worst book I couldn’t put down. Pynchon is not that way, however. As you said Pynchon seems to make every paragraph count. One never gets the sense that Pynchon is guilty of the biggest sin of many popular writers working today: Editorial Narcissism. In that I mean that it seems to me that many popular writers today, in my opinion, just don’t know when to stop writing, don’t want to cut anything. For example novels such as John Irving’s A Widow for One Year could have been 1/3 it’s length and would have been a better novel. Same thing with Infinite Jest and, really, most Stephen King novels (there’s a reason King’s first hit, Carrie, was only just over 300 pages and now he’s typically hitting the 800-1,200 page range – no publisher would have looked at him in the 1970’s with a debut novel at 800-1200 pages) . So now I need to plan out when I’ll also read Against The Day. It’s in he queue.


    • Thanks, Steve. I need to get some DFW in the rotation, I know. It is on the list. I figure after about 2-3 years off, you know, when the neurons have settled, I’ll give Gravity’s Rainbow another read. There are these moments in Pynchon that stand out and cannot be denied: shooting cream pies from the bucket of a hot air balloon at WWII fighter planes, the inverse correlations between Slothrop’s permiscuous love-making and the soon-coming impact of German missiles, and the crackle of everyday conversations in which everyone is on the verge of catching fire.

      Thanks for the note!



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