Thomas Pynchon Goes Digital

The books of the elusive contemporary author, Thomas Pynchon, are to be published digitally for the first time. Dr Samuel Thomas, who has written on Pynchon and the Political, and who has recently spent time studying Pynchon-related archives in Argentina, wonders what this will do for Pynchon’s reputation.

As an event in contemporary publishing (and as an event in what will soon enough become part of literary history), there’s no doubt that this is significant news. However, making predictions about the impact of e-books and digitization more generally is, in some respects, a dangerous game. The ground here is constantly shifting beneath our feet and it’s difficult to do more than speculate about the potential impact of this.

With that in mind, the most interesting thing for me about Pynchon’s decision to go digital is how it relates to some of the dominant themes of his fiction. Pynchon’s engagement with technology is marked, simultaneously, by a profound fascination and a deep ambivalence. In his introduction to a special edition of Orwell’s 1984, Pynchon writes about “the wonders of computer technology” as a “a development that promises social control on a scale those quaint old 20th century tyrants with their goofy moustaches can only dream about.” And it’s also important to remember that this is a man who once published an extraordinary essay in The New York Review of Books called ‘Is it OK to be a Luddite?‘ The union of the ‘Two Cultures,’ the sciences and the arts, that might characterise his work is a very weird and knotted one — sometimes coloured by apocalypticism, sometimes by a tough-minded earthly politics, sometimes by wild irreverence and humour. Over the course of his career, Pynchon has explored the complex ways in which we all, in one way or another, become complicit (or “snarled up”) in the machineries of capital, technocracy and repression, and indeed how we might learn to love the various poisons being fed to us (which come in analogue, digital and many other forms).

So what are the implications here?

Firstly, let me make it clear that I’m not at all suggesting that this is a relatively facile question of cashing in and mellowing out. And I wouldn’t presume to know what Pynchon, as an artist living out there in “the bare mortal world that is our home” — to borrow a lovely phrase from Mason & Dixon — might be motivated by in finally agreeing to this. I’ve always been uneasy about trading on his status as the great ‘mystery man’ of contemporary fiction and I try my best to treat his invisibility (which is something of a misnomer anyway) with the respect that it deserves. Going digital is obviously a decision that has not been taken lightly though and it coincides with other important developments, such as Pynchon narrating the video used to promote 2009’s Inherent Vice (although typically, there’s some controversy as to whether it’s really him) and the news that this most recent novel might be filmed by Paul Thomas Anderson (of Magnolia and There Will Be Blood fame). It’s also worth noting that Inherent Vice contains some intriguing material about the ‘ARPAnet’, the forerunner of today’s omnipresent cyber culture.

Will this increase the number of people reading Pynchon? Can e-books play a role in ‘democratising’ his demanding work?

These are big, loaded questions and I think it would be a mistake to answer them too hastily. Plus, he has a remarkably diverse readership which goes a long way beyond the caricature of the ‘cult fiction’ fanboy. So e-books will mean different things to different people in different contexts. From a scholarly perspective, however, digital (and therefore searchable) copies of his work will be a godsend – especially when it comes to the novels in the “hefty-to-whopping” range. And given the fact that Pynchon scholarship online is rapidly developing in all kinds of exciting directions, there is certainly something to welcome in this news when looked at as part of a more general picture. The Pynchon wikis, for example, have developed in a very impressive way and back issues of the heroically rigorous journal Pynchon Notes are now available to download. A new open access venture called Orbit: Writing Around Pynchon (which I’m involved in) will be putting out its first issue very soon.

At the same time though, ‘old-fashioned’ scholarly methods show no signs of going away and I think we should try to see this situation in terms of overlaps and complementarities. Believe it or not, my most recent research project involved trawling through archives in Buenos Aires. Those long hours spent with dusty papers meant that I was able to identify some previously unknown sources for the Argentinean episodes in Gravity’s Rainbow. And incidentally, the first copy I bought of that amazing novel, now held together by sellotape and positive thinking, is one of my most treasured possessions. As Pynchon writes in his essay on Luddism (which holds up to scrutiny very well after almost thirty years), “all the cats are jumping out of all the bags and even beginning to mingle.”


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