How to Read a Thomas Pynchon Novel

With novels that some critics have called "unreadable", paranoiacs and conspiracy theorists lauding his techniques, a reclusive nature and a lack of public interface, Thomas Pynchon has a mythic but daunting cult status. Some people read Gravity's Rainbow as a test of their reading ability and endurance; others actually enjoy it. Here is how to get started.


  1. Image titled Read a Thomas Pynchon Novel Step 1
    Choose which novel you'd like to read. Thomas Pynchon has written V., The Crying of Lot 49, Gravity's Rainbow, Vineland, Mason & Dixon, and Against the Day, with a collection of short stories called Slow Learner and a book coming out August 2009 called Inherent Vice.
    • Start with V. or The Crying of Lot 49.
    • Then proceed to Gravity's Rainbow and Mason & Dixon.
    • Bleeding Edge is his most recent book and reflects many of the themes that he's developed over a decades-long career, plus it is pretty accessible. Against the Day is also fairly recent, but much longer.
    • The Crying of Lot 49 is considered by some to be his finest work, but Pynchon himself has been highly critical of it; still, it reads easy and is his shortest book, so it's a good stepping stone for beginners.
    • V. is the first novel he published, so it makes sense to read if you want to start from the beginning.
    • Vineland and Slow Learner should only be read by die-hard fans.
    • Inherent Vice has a relatively fresh and new approach, but ultimately will lead you down the same path. It is probably a good choice because it's widely accessible now, just having come out, and much shorter and easier to read, while still engaging with much of his wit and themes.
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    Relax. If you're reading a Thomas Pynchon novel, chances are you enjoy reading. Pynchon's fame can make the idea of reading a Pynchon novel stressful. Nothing is going to be enjoyable if you go into it assuming it's going to be stressful. Start reading it like you would read any other book, and then adjust to his form.
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    Sit down to read it. Be comfortable, because if you're not comfortable you're not going to enjoy it. Don't read it on the fly because then you won't be able to follow it, but don't read it obsessively because then you won't be able to enjoy it.
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    Read at a brisk, but not manic, pace. Many people plan ahead for a large chunk of time to read Pynchon, and many people while reading Pynchon try to take it really slowly to make sure they understand everything. Most of the former never get that time allotted (life takes over), and many of the latter lose track of what's going on after a while. A book by Thomas Pynchon is still a book, and should be enjoyed as such. Read it fast enough that the story continues and you can keep track and remember what's going on, but not so fast that you're skipping passages.
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    Be patient. Keep reading, even if you feel you don't get it. Thomas Pynchon is a post-modern author, which means his stories can tend to stray towards self-reflexive, fragmented, and shifting forms and identity. If you're not understanding what's going on now, something completely different will happen later that will get you back on track. If he's going on what seems to be a long tangent, the tangent may have taken over the narrative. No matter what, however, whether it's a sex scene, a musical number, a play on scientific ideas, or something else, it will not be that long of a wait before something else happens that will re-awaken your interest (if your interest is lost in the first place)
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    Do not get caught up on all the characters, references, and themes. Thomas Pynchon is famous for juggling settings, historical events, ideas, and people in both analogous and anachronistic ways. Some people try to take notes and diagrams and try to delineate every single thread Pynchon weaves into the greater narrative. Such an attempt is useful only for the truly obsessive. For purposes of discovery, however, it is much better to read Pynchon and concentrate more on the stuff you already understand, and enjoy hearing what he has to say about the rest. One woman who tried diagramming all of the characters and their relationships in Gravity's Rainbow to understand what was going on still hasn't finished the book.
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    Do not take him too seriously. Pynchon is a writer of possibilities, and possibilities are not always actualities. Things in a Pynchon novel can be striking, logical, and even meaningful to a mystery you recognize in the real world, and still not refer to anything that actually exists in the real world. A lot of the joy in Pynchon's writing comes from what can be summed up in his statement for the inside flap of Against the Day: "Maybe it's not the world, but with a minor adjustment or two it's what the world might be." Besides, the guy was on the Simpsons a couple of times. Obviously, Thomas Pynchon does not take Thomas Pynchon too seriously.
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    By all means, take him seriously. It's fiction, but it's fiction that delights in drawing parallels and tangents to both related and unrelated concepts through passion, humor, and a stunning array of creativity. If you discover something that rings a bell in your head, congratulations: you've just experienced the Spark of Recognition, and Thomas Pynchon is great at igniting it. If he brings up a topic you're interested in, by all means, explore it. That is why one can't understand all of the topics presented, because they are all references to the specific interests of Thomas Pynchon himself, who is of course not interested in explaining it all to his readers. Reading Pynchon can be an intensely personal experience, which is actually why it's really hard to get any two Thomas Pynchon fans to talk about the same things.
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    Unlearn what you have learned. I've read a couple of those reviews that called "Gravity's Rainbow" "unreadable". They were written by people who operate under a certain theory of how literature inherently should be. Let the book go where it's going to go, because it's going to go there anyway. Resistance is futile.
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    Enjoy yourself. If there's anything that needs to be stressed, it's that Pynchon actually is as entertaining as well as anything else. For some reason, almost all of the critical analysis, fan reviews, Wikipedia articles, and other accessible writings about Pynchon tend to mention that fact rather infrequently. The people who most seem to "get" Pynchon are the ones who also seem to enjoy Pynchon, while the people who try to "get" Pynchon get nowhere. If you can remember that it's your free time you're spending, then remember that free time is best spent enjoying overexerting. If you're actually reading a Pynchon novel because it was assigned or recommended, be especially subversive and enjoy it. No reaction is better for appreciating the full bulk of something like enjoying it, even if it's for a minor aspect. Even though that statement seems obvious, for some reason people forget about it a lot.
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    Re-read. You'll probably want to, anyway, but now that you have a general sense of the idea of the novel, you can go back and appreciate those details everyone's raving about.


  • All of Pynchon's books are in print and most, particularly The Crying of Lot 49, Gravity's Rainbow, Against the Day', and Inherent Vice, are widely available in both book stores and libraries. If you've done research and feel really interested in finding out what he's about, you may want to buy the book to reread. If you are merely curious what everyone else is talking about, borrow from the library because his books are voluminous and you might want the shelf-space back; however, make sure that the library you borrow it from allows you to renew materials because it might take you longer than the borrowing period to read it.

Things You'll Need

  • A novel by Thomas Pynchon. See step one for suggestions on which novel to choose and where you should get it from.
  • Time, which needn't necessarily be a big continuous chunk of time, but at least enough time in each day to sit down and read it, over mostly consecutive days.

Article Info

Categories: Studying Literature