Profiles in Courage: Brooklyn Edition
28 Part-time life coach and full-time vegan activist, Melanie, recently finished, after two months of steadfast reading, Thomas Pynchon’s 800-page novel, Gravity’s Rainbow. Melanie described the experience as “life-changing” and “utterly fulfilling,” adding, “I can finally go dumpster diving with my friends without feeling silly!”
Melanie’s journey (which was extensively chronicled on her Facebook fan page) became a source of inspiration to the community. “It makes me feel like anything’s possible,” a local barista said, fingering her wooden ear gauge. “If she can make sense of all those subplots, then so can I.” Melanie’s dedication was also noted by friends and neighbours, who called her achievement “nothing short of heroic, like climbing Mount Everest with your mind.”
According to Melanie, the trek up the mountain was no easy feat. After numerous false-starts and Fuck-it-i-can’t-takeit-anymore breakdowns, Melanie’s longtime partner, Laird — a Pynchon-lover himself — diagnosed her condition as “feeling the weight of the Gravity without the lift of the Rainbow. A common problem,” he said, “for the uninitiated.” But with Laird’s encouragement, Melanie was able to complete the novel in under nine weeks. “And,” she added proudly, rolling up her yoga mat, “with comprehension.”
Every morning, before meditating and feeding her rescue ferret, Melanie forced herself to read at least ten pages of Pynchonian prose. She even told Laird not to let her drink breakfast — a blend of organic, gluten-free grains and legumes — until she had completed her goal. More than happy to comply, Laird would trim his beard, play his bassoon, and water his cactus, checking in every now and then on his protégé, who was quickly becoming a full-blown “Pynchonite.”
“Everyone I know has read the novel,” Melanie claimed. (When pressed, she refused to name names.) “They talk about it constantly. Quizzing each other, singing the songs, trading interpretations, inside-jokes, rehashing their favorite
sections, quoting obscure passages…” Melanie’s neighbour, Dr. Alfred P. Gerund, who wrote his thesis on post-pynchonian dialectics, could “tell you exactly what happens on every page, regardless of the version you’re reading.” He was particularly adept, according to Melanie, at recalling the original 1973 Viking edition.
Admittedly, Melanie’s friends looked down on people who hadn’t read the book — or who had tried to read it and failed — as lazy, unintelligent, and “hopelessly bourgeois,” not to mention “categorically unworthy of this thing called life.” They also detested people who read Pynchon’s epic “to look cool” or who had a “Sparknotes understanding” of its brilliance. “They treat it,” Melanie said, “as a kind of spiritual text, and as a deeply spiritual person myself, I’ve always wanted to sample the Kool Aid.”
Initially put-off by the bizarre sex scenes, Melanie forced herself to read every sentence, no matter how triggering, in hopes that the trauma would make her a “tougher, more adventurous reader.” If anything, they made her feel better about her own “unsatisfying — and frequently disturbing — sex life with Laird.” When asked for her thoughts on the novel’s depiction of sadomasochism, not to mention scatophilia, she forced her lips into a quivering smile, and said, “I loved it,” at which point her eye began to twitch.
Like many undergraduates, Melanie had read Pynchon’s earlier novel The Crying of Lot 49 in a course on American Literature, but when she admitted to enjoying the book, Laird had scoffed and shaken his head, stating that Gravity’s Rainbow was so “obviously superior” that to mention them in the same sentence was like comparing David Gilmour Pink Floyd to the “infinitely better” Syd Barrett Pink Floyd and that any further discussion on the subject would be like arguing over the shape of the Earth or whether GMOS are inherently harmful. Melanie characterized the exchange as “a wake-up call, to say the least.”
Afraid of being labelled a “Pynchon Poser,” Melanie dedicated even more time to reading. She doubled her speed and even started to look online for critical essays, in hopes of padding her knowledge base. “They really helped me make sense of things,” she admitted, lighting a joint. “It’s so much better when you understand who the characters are and what the story’s about.” Eventually, she found herself skimming the more traditional passages, preferring instead the difficult, enigmatic sections, which some critics have called “indulgent,” “infuriating,” and “outright ridiculous.” “I wanted more digressions about the V-2 rocket,” Melanie said, “more stuff about Grigori the Octopus.”
By page 600, Melanie had overcome her initial doubts and learned to ignore the most nagging of questions: What’s the point of the songs? Why is Mickey Rooney one of the characters? Is it just me, or is this book really dull? Couldn’t it easily be 400 pages shorter? “No!” she finally declared, slamming her fist on a handmade cherrywood table that she found on the side of the road. “A thousand times, no!” Boredom and frustration were prerequisites of enlightenment. Literature wasn’t supposed to be accessible, let alone fun; it was supposed to rewire your brain. “Like a lobotomy,” Laird told her, “without the peace of mind.” (In hindsight, Melanie couldn’t be sure if Laird meant “peace” or “piece,” but given his desire to be “read as an open-ended, rhizomatic text,” she assumed that he probably meant both.)
For two more weeks Melanie persisted, and before she could say Slothrop, she had finished the postwar masterpiece — an achievement that did not go unrecognized by Dr. Gerund, who shook her hand firmly and gave her a copy of his thesis, adding, “To borrow, not keep.” Melanie was overwhelmed. Friends applauded; neighbors high-fived. Even her drug dealer, Chad, seemed impressed. “It’s the most significant thing she’s done,” he said, oiling his unicycle, “since she dropped out of Columbia.”
When asked what she planned to do next, Melanie replied with a happy sigh, “I have no idea! Maybe take a vacation. I feel like I’ve earned some time off.” Laird agreed. But not too much time off. There were more intellectual mountains to climb, and she wanted to reach as many peaks as she could.
Literature wasn’t supposed to be accessible, let alone fun; it was supposed to rewire your brain.. “liike a lobotomy,” Laird told her, “without the peace off mind..”