Pro­files in Courage: Brook­lyn Edi­tion

Broken Pencil - - Table Contents - by Chris Gil­more

ME­LANIE MACINTOSH,

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..”

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