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  • Writer's pictureLori Brack

Historical Pynchon avoidance

The professor teaching the modern American novel that summer wore white polyester trousers so we could see his colored briefs. He went over the syllabus the first day and waxed academically profound about how brilliant he thought Thomas Pynchon was.

This was 1976 or 1977.

A woman across the room from where I was sitting asked why there weren't novels by women on the syllabus, and the prick in white pants said, "Because women aren't writing interesting books." The woman who asked then calmly left the room and I envied her, but instead I walked out with the other students. My path took me to the registrar's office where I dropped the class and added 20th Century Art to the Shakespeare class that would have me reading two plays a week in that 6-week summer semester.

Therefore! I decided never to read Pynchon, but you know how things go. I wrote a book of poems about a dead letter detective (to be published this spring), and during and after the writing, I researched and studied and indulged in lots of postal history and lore. Then, I ran across an article about the best short novels. The Crying of Lot 49 was on the list, described as being in part about mail delivery.

Reader, I read it! And I enjoyed most of it, but especially the main character, Oedipa Maas, a California housewife/detective who is curious and confused. I can relate. Pynchon's language is playful and intricate, sometimes even lyrical. He leaves the mystery unsolved. Like Oedipa, the reader ends by not knowing much, but having enjoyed the ridiculously named characters and the circuitous and overlapping route she takes in her attempt to learn about a perhaps mythical private postal service. Supposedly, letter writers drop their mail into containers on the street marked W.A.S.T.E. Oedipa tracks down the image of a post horn from a women's bathroom to the lapel of a man in a bar, to chalk marks on a street.

And last night, I fell asleep halfway through a likeable Yale professor's lecture on the book. She was wearing khaki slacks and in my sleep, I was grinning.

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