- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 12, 2006

NEW YORK

Zak Smith is a painter, a rebel and an Ivy Leaguer, a Yale University graduate with a green mohawk, an apartment of wall-to-wall illustrations and a passion for comics, classic novels — and Thomas Pynchon.

About 10 years ago, Mr. Smith had a feeling he should try Mr. Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow,” an instinct consummated from the very first page. Mr. Smith didn’t just read the book, he reread it, marked it up and went back to it so many times that his paperback copy is held together by duct tape.

He also began seeing the book in pictures, eventually drawing hundreds of mostly expressionist sketches — one for every page of Mr. Pynchon’s 700-page World War II novel — that were exhibited at the Whitney Museum in 2004 and now hang in the permanent collection at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and will come out as a book this fall.

“A lot of the ideas that were in Pynchon were hovering around in my head — technology and the future and the present, true things and science fiction, and making them into pictures was almost a way to exorcise these ideas,” says the 30-year-old Mr. Smith, a resident of Brooklyn.

Thomas Pynchon doesn’t have the readership of Mitch Albom or Danielle Steel, but he is the rare writer who inspires such obsession by words alone. For more than 40 years, he has built and sustained a legend through such encyclopedic novels as “V” and “Gravity’s Rainbow,” avoiding all press contact or even publicity photos. For his new book, the 1,000-page “Against the Day,” publisher Penguin Press didn’t even issue a formal announcement, but assumed, correctly, that simply including it in the fall catalog would take care of the job.

“Pynchon fans tend to take his work seriously I think because, beyond the intrinsically interesting subject matter and intriguing stories, his books are so rich and complex, touching on so many topics,” says Pynchon fan Doug Millison, a writer, editor and Web design consultant based in El Cerrito, Calif.

Mr. Pynchon is now 69, but time, and the Internet, have advanced in his favor. It’s been nine years since his previous novel, “Mason & Dixon,” came out, and fans have fully digitized their passion, building an online community worthy of an author who as much as anyone brought a high-tech sensibility to literary fiction. Numerous Web sites and a “Pynchon News Service” have been created, and a team of experts is busy assembling a Wikipedia-like page for “Against the Day.”

“It will, I predict, quickly become a focus of the several hundred reader-researchers worldwide who read Mr. Pynchon and write about his works in academic and popular media,” Mr. Millison says. “The Internet has made it easy for Pynchon’s academic critics and lay readers to find each other and sustain an online discussion that’s continued now for over a decade.”

Mr. Smith believes that Mr. Pynchon’s readers share a handful of characteristics, presumably not unlike the author’s — liberal politics, an interest in technology and a broad and unpredictable range of interests.

Fans, who have gathered to talk Pynchon in London, Malta and elsewhere, all have their stories of conversion. Tim Ware, who runs the Web site www.thomaspynchon.com from Oakland, Calif., recalls having a hard time getting through “Gravity’s Rainbow,” at least the first time around.

“I went back and looked again at the first page and everything just sort of snapped into view, and I thought, ‘This guy is a genius,’ like those who walked the Earth in the 19th century,” says Mr. Ware.

“And I got rather messianic about it, and I wanted my wife to read it. I started creating an index of all the characters, because there were so many and it was so hard to keep track of them.”

Mr. Millison also was turned on by “Gravity’s Rainbow.” He was an Army private — a company clerk “just like Radar O’Reilly” — in Korea in the summer of 1973, when he read the novel, which came out that year and won the National Book Award.

” ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ hit me hard, especially the parts set in Europe during and just after World War II. I’d never read a writer whose voice on the page came so close to echoing the sound and feel of the Cold War ‘50s and ‘60s, hip and angry and complex,” he says.

“I’ve read each of the novels at least twice, studying the text closely both times. I also collect first editions of Pynchon’s novels, and first editions of the novels for which Pynchon has written endorsements, cover blurbs or support quotes that have been used in advertisements.”

Charles Hollander, a Baltimore-based “independent scholar” of Mr. Pynchon, first read him as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University. It was 1963, the year Mr. Pynchon debuted with “V.” Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” was becoming a counterculture classic, but Mr. Hollander believes that “Catch-22” was more about the veterans of World War II.

“Pynchon was the guy who wrote for my generation, so much so I heard people joke at parties that he had a receiver by which he could read others’ late-night falling asleep thoughts,” he says. “The reason … [Mr. Pynchon] is important to me and his ‘fans’ is he seems a bit ahead of the curve in seeing what is important, and what will become the important issues we are faced with.”

He is as remote from the general public as J.D. Salinger, but Pynchon experts say they care more about his work than about the man himself, who reportedly lives in New York with his wife and agent, Melanie Jackson. Both Mr. Hollander and Mr. Ware say they know people friendly with Mr. Pynchon who insist he is not “some guy squirreling away in his attic,” according to Mr. Hollander.

“My sources tell me he is pretty social, in his style. I think he avoids the media because he sees the media as an arm of the establishment, a means of social control that he won’t be a party to,” Mr. Hollander says.

“I’ve stayed away from the cult of personality. I don’t play in that zone,” Mr. Ware says.

“His reluctance to speak with the press or have his photograph taken kind of plays into the style of the novels. There’s a lot of mystery and ambiguity in them, and a lot of mystery and ambiguity about the author. When you know things about the author, you begin to insert those feelings into the books. Not having any information makes the reading experience a little purer.”


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