It's OK to Not Be A Luddite: Thomas Pynchon, Digitized

For all the bombed out, drug adled techno-anxieties that scream across the works of American novelist Thomas Pynchon, news of the reclusive author's e-book foray is, at first glance, the equivalent of a 20-megaton V-2 rocket blast. But, sure enough...

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Jun 13 2012, 8:00pm

For all the bombed out, drug-addled techno-anxieties that scream across the works of American novelist Thomas Pynchon, news of the reclusive author’s e-book foray is, at first glance, the equivalent of a 20-megaton V-2 rocket blast. But, sure enough. Thomas Pynchon is going digital.

As of today, the full Pynchon catalog – a collection of short stories and seven novels – is available for download through Penguin Press. “It wasn’t exactly the elephant in the drawing room,” Ann Godoff, Penguin’s president and editor-in-chief, told the New York Times. “But we felt that the moment was right.” Godoff added that there has been a yearslong push to digitize the challenging, paranoid, characteristically dense and dark comedies of Pynchon, who’s best known for penning 1973’s Gravity’s Rainbow, that sprawling anti-war yarn you’ve been telling every potential love interest since university that you just pored over and found “really, really profound,” even though after seven unsuccessful passes the tome just sits there atop your IKEA Expedit. Admit it.

But hey, the old man seems to have come around. There’s even a slick book trailer, partly designed by Michael Beirut, above.

Not to say Pynchon, for one, fully welcomes our new Tablet Overlords, but rather he’s likely just warmed up to the idea of expanding his audience: "I think he wants to have more readers," Godoff said. “He didn’t want to not be a part of that.”

Pynchon accepting the National Book Aw… syke

As with so much of Pynchonalia, it almost makes sense. Pynchon’s novels teem with technology and scientific “progress” – the unwieldy land surveyance tools of Mason & Dixon, the V-2 rockets and “Schwarzgerät” (“black device”) of Gravity’s Rainbow, and on and on.

“You’d think he’d already have embraced this [digitization],” Robert McLaughlin, a noted Pynchon scholar and English professor at Illinois State University, told me. But McLaughlin, who did his dissertation on Gravity’s Rainbow and whose review of Mason & Dixon was blurbed on the cover of that book’s paperback run, is quick to point out a marked techno-ambivalence that spans much of the Pynchon backlist. “When you read the novels he doesn’t necessarily present technology as a good thing.”

In a 1984 op-ed in the Times, “Is It O.K. To Be A Luddite?”, which McLaughlin said sides more with those noble knitting-machine destroyers of 19th Century England than it blasts their resistance to perceived job killers, it’s as if the media-shy novelist saw it all coming around the bend. Wrote Pynchon:

Public feeling about the machines could never have been simple unreasoning horror, but likely something more complex: the love/hate that grows up between humans and machinery – especially when it’s been around for a while – not to mention serious resentment toward at least two multiplications of effect that were seen as unfair and threatening.

Now everybody: E-readers certainly threaten bookstores and booksellers far and wide, and really, how in hell will Penguin pull off formatting and paginating texts that are as visually detailed as they are textually dense? Who knows. But hey, a $10 copy of V doesn’t sound all that unfair, does it?

Reach this writer at brian@motherboard.tv. @thebanderson

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