I first came across Thomas Pynchon in Santa Cruz, at a girl who I liked's apartment. She was sort of seeing a guy—a guy who made no effort to be "nice" to me, which per my reactionary sensibilities I considered "mean," though looking back I guess he was rather absent about the whole matter, and it was I who was the neurotic prick. That we both liked the girl at whose apartment we kept crossing paths didn't help. He was always smugly carrying around the Penguin Classics edition of Gravity's Rainbow, with the rocket-blueprint design on the cover. Sometimes he left it at her apartment, the subliminal used condom tucked away as an ego bomb, the mysterious thickness (of the book) pulling me in. I flipped through it and had no idea what I was reading. Each sentence was straight up "off," a language that—while comprised of familiar pieces—felt completely foreign, like I had been lobotomized and was greeting my semblance for the first time in the mirror. I felt both intimidated and annoyed. The guy who was banging the girl I liked and Thomas Pynchon seemed to belong to some secret society of assholes. And I wanted in.
I bought a yellow legal pad and a regular pencil, even though Thomas used graph paper and a mechanical one. I took notes, writing down each character and the page they were either described or invoked on, annotating their relationship to entities, plots, agencies, other characters, etc. I also came up with a loose timeline using assumptions gathered from what I considered hints. Faulkner, Joyce, and Gaddis already did this, but this guy was violent about it. Over time the pad evolved from a single list to amoeba-like structures circling relationships interwoven with threads tying orbs of fragmented plot together. The world at large became co-conspirators who wouldn't look me in the eye. Pynchon's fiction, despite its glad artifice, had become reality. The pages had been tussled, flipped, consulted, and listlessly flicked so many times that each one curled and softened into a petal. My pad had turned into a yellow rose. My mind was mush.
Pynchon’s newest novel, The Bleeding Edge, comes out next week. Penguin released a teaser, which I skeptically read up to the point, a few paragraphs in, where a boy named Ziggy tells his mom that a tree "doesn't suck." Pynchon detractors, especially since Inherent Vice, have noted how he seems to be inadvertently parodying himself, swinging from affected hipness to solemn dry prose. When Against the Day came out, my roommate at the time—who eventually dropped out of law school due to a crippling World of Warcraft addiction—could be heard in his room hypnotically flapping the wings of a dragon, on which he was flying to another island, with speakers on, past 2:00 AM, as I quietly freaked out in bed.
I suffer from anxiety and catastrophic thinking, and while such roommate "kookiness" may see mild to some, I became near suicidal. Instead of confronting him, I imagined myself jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge to escape the torture of an unrelenting roommate. I bought Pynchon's massive tome because I wanted to hide inside it. Maybe it was unfair to hold the book liable for my happiness, or sanity, but I was let down. The Nixonian paranoia of the 70s felt urgent, haunting—particularly in the Bush era, when the novel came out, at a time when we knew we were being fucked. And so, I left the Chums of Chance in the sky and sold the book to Green Apple, a used bookstore furnished out of a house, took the cash, and headed for a bar.
By the time I finished his other books, a year later and wigged out as fuck, the girl I liked had moved to Italy. The jerk Pynchon fan had joined one of those bands, languid and talented, that enjoy taking their sweet-ass time between sets. Should I ever find a guy with a "W.A.S.T.E." tattoo, I'm going to ask him how it was, banging my beautiful girl. Faith makes fiction possible. Delusion makes reality possible.
Oedipa Maas winds up in North Beach, and I found myself café hopping down Columbus Avenue, tracing her steps. A significant chunk of the North Beach population is made up of residents who went insane in the 60s and never left. Instead of searching for the apparitions of Ginsberg and Kerouac in City Lights, you can just buy a postcard. My friend, who desperately moved into a low-rent boarding house on Grant Street for a month or so after graduation, told me about a neighbor who did nothing but jerk off all day, and never cleaned up after himself. "It smells like cum," he said, pointing to his window from the alleyway. This friend eventually got a Master's degree and is now in finance. Beautiful women hold on to him in pictures taken at vista points at the ends of long but pleasurable hikes. He emails me when he's in town on business and we eat bloody steaks on his per diem. On the whole we were both kind of sad back then. We didn't have money, but we had our art. I wasn't liked back, he lived near cum. I'm glad he's better.
Enter V., the mysterious woman whose initials serve as plot outline for the novel: two lines entropically yet irrevocably converging to one point. Some wonder if it's Vera Nabokov, to whom Vladimir's novels were all dedicated, who helped grade Pynchon's papers when he was a student at Cornell. V. would become a blueprint for his own invisible omnipresence, an idea of somebody "out there" which I often, in my young loneliness, mistook for random women on the bus. I used to take bus lines through their entire routes, the long doughnuting inbound to outbound, reading Mason & Dixon placed on my lap like a square newborn. May this essay serve as an embarrassed confession of who I was and still am. I watch the eyes of passersby, wondering if they notice my relatively obscure novel, judging them for not. Put cynically, Pynchon fans may have indeed found a conspiracy: their own literary hubris. A girl sat next to me as Jeremiah Dixon sat on a roof looking at the constellations. I would never ask her for her name, or where she was headed that night, we in the back of the bus like the ghost of Rosa Parks, in some meek alternate universe. I focused in on the paragraph I feigned to read, some blurry rectangle comprised of small marks. It always happened the same way: she'd reach over me, pulling the line for her stop with an aristocratically forced smile. I'd take that smile home with me, on the Polaroid of my mind, slowly disappearing like Marty McFly's siblings, back to the future of doing the same route again, the following Saturday night, looking for her. Thomas Pynchon was never my pimp, however much I tried to get laid by him.
Missing the masochistic dedication of reading novels over 1,000 pages, I recently acquired Against the Day again. In the endless autofellatio of serpent eats tail, I rode my bike to Green Apple for a used copy. There was one first edition hard copy, pages not even touched past the first 40. A disappointing yet reasonable thought occurred to me. Was this the same book? Had seven years passed with this major buzzkill on the shelf, perennially dropping in value? As bookstores become mausoleums, each urn honoring the ashes within, we are free to send our bouquets elsewhere: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Hulu, Netflix. Every fresh MFA wants to perform CPR on the dead novel, forcing hot air into used lungs. Some come close, others get on the cover of Time, others hang themselves. It's a somber thought, but when a genius stays alive he tends to become Paul McCartney. I'm glad John died.
In Italy, the girl who once lived in Santa Cruz would now gather fallen leaves by lakes, dry them at home, place them inside cards, and mail them to me using ornate postage stamps wetted by a tongue I still wonder about. Email killed sentiment; texting killed our plans. I feel like an old man trying to keep up with these kids, mourning a time when novels were devastating. "She really likes you, you know?" said her roommate, an art student who was saving up used tissues and tampons for an undisclosed art project. "Really?" I asked, in the sincerity of my self-hatred. The world would be simpler if she just went away. The leaves I found inside the card cracked in my hands, baring their spines, fractaling outward in the obstinance of life, reaching out for the sun, conceding to dusk. Pieces of leaves fell to the floor next to my toes like a dirty hermit's nail clippings. I placed the book face down, flayed open, using the world as a bookmark. There I was, crying alone in my room that occasionally smelled like cum. That was the last time I wanted mail.
Jimmy Chen is 70 percent water and 30 percent internet.