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Thomas Pynchon changed my life...

'I began to exercise. I became a vegan. I volunteered at NGOs.' Illustration: Satwik Gade  

I have always been an average kind of reader, like most normal people I know. I would usually read only when I was in between things. You know, like when I was on a flight and there was no Internet access. Or when I reached a restaurant 15 minutes early and my phone battery was low. Or when there was literally nothing on TV. I used to read then.

I was slow and lazy and careless. I’d spend weeks or months on a book when I felt like it. Sometimes I’d start something, lose interest, and revisit it next summer. Then, I’d realise I had no idea what was going on, and I wasn’t going to read sections I’d already finished, so I’d abandon the book altogether. At times I’d drop food on a book, usually achaar; the smell was annoying and the stains looked ugly, so I’d throw it away. Often, books just disappeared.

But my intentions were always noble. I read because that’s what you’re supposed to do, and it makes you smart. It’s what you put in social media in the ‘About Me’ space. The act of reading lends a person the quality of gravitas.

I read so that I could fit in around self-professed intellectuals and stand out among unrefined commoners. I read so I didn’t have to look blank when I was asked what I’m reading these days. I also did it to avoid a feeling of extreme guilt; a sort of self-imposed burden.

But all this is in the past. It’s changed now. Flipped on its head. I am a savant. A bookworm. My book-consumption is off the charts.

It happened four months ago, when I picked up a colourful-looking book called V by the post-modern writer, Thomas Pynchon. I had briefly considered buying his Gravity’s Rainbow — I often read long, superficially daunting books because they give me a readymade excuse to ditch them halfway — but that thing weighed as much as a grand piano, so I went with the shorter, almost 500-page V. Little did I know then that I’d just made the single biggest mistake of my adult life. See, basically, reading Pynchon is impossible.

In the period since, I’ve managed 249 pages. That may seem like a pitiful amount, but you should take into account that with Pynchon, you have to read every page at least three times. So that’s technically a minimum of 747 pages, of which I’ve understood exactly zero. Each paragraph takes excruciatingly long just to finish, and by the time I’m done with one chapter, I’ve completely forgotten what happened in the sections preceding it.

I’ll attempt to describe the plot now. (Don’t worry, it’s spoiler-free; I couldn’t give out any secrets even if I wanted to.) There are a billion different characters. Some are in a bar, some are on a mountain of some sort, some are engineers, some are stealing something, some are spies, others are chitchatting aimlessly. The Dickensian approach to naming characters makes it impossible to remember what they’re called. Right now, I can remember Pig Bodine, Eigenvalue, Stencil, Vera, and Evan (don’t ask me their genders, please). A dentist’s waiting room makes an appearance.

The story, I gather, is about a McGuffin-like element, the titular ‘V’, although it’s not quite clear to me what the fudge V is. Is it a thing? Is it a place, like Venezuela or the fictitious Vheissu? There are characters named Victoria and Vera — could they be V? Everyone goes on and on about V. People break into song randomly; they speak in foreign languages I don’t understand (I don’t understand Pynchon’s version of English either, but that’s a different matter).

It’s a sprawling storyline with loads of action — lots of sex, violence, thefts, conspiracies, spying, drunkenness, mysteries and subterfuge. It’s all there — and it’s up to me, the reader, to make sense of it. Which I cannot. Could it be… does this mean… am I not actually as smart as I used to think I was? No, that can’t be.

I could retcon it and claim I bought the book because I’d read how he was a grand influence on one of my all-time favourite authors. Or that I was fascinated by the mystery and intrigue around the man himself. How he’s an exquisite craftsman who must be read. Or how I watched Inherent Vice, a film based on the eponymous Pynchon novel. I loved the movie — found it hilarious — but I also couldn’t tell its head from its hind. What should have been a red flag was mistaken, in my misplaced zeal, to be a neon-lit invitation to read Pynchon.

The plot is complex and elaborate, but that’s not so bad; it’s a maximalist approach stylistically. But then comes the language. I could be wrong but I think it’s written in a rare regional dialect from a place in northern England called Impossible. Sentences mosey on endlessly, changing tack and shifting pace with no prior notice. They take on different lives as per whimsy, and it’s an unforgiving process (often with considerable jargon and historical context thrown in) that demands that you keep up; and all this without even getting into the number of times each page will send you rushing to the dictionary (what, for instance, does “dimity” mean?), meaning you’ll lose your place on the page frequently, turning into a new situation in a new location with never-heard-before characters. And then the chapters abruptly end.

There are times when I wait for hours — cold and frightened — for a full stop to appear, hoping at the same time that an asteroid will fall on earth and destroy us all. I fantasise about burning the book Fahrenheit 451-style. Or ripping out each of the 489 pages meticulously and eating them. I want to wash the book in running hot water and then crumple up the pages so that they disappear.

But I can’t. For what it’s worth, I’ve taken it upon myself to finish this book. It’s because despite all the horrors it has brought to my existence, I feel like there’s something magical in there, and I absolutely must read on because the pay-off will be worth it (it has to be). I can sense that there’s greatness in there, and I have to persist. I can’t ditch it like I ditched all the others. This is no ordinary novel. I decided this a while ago.

So, that’s when I started looking for creative ways to avoid reading V without offending my conscience. I began to exercise every day. I became a vegan. I started waking up early. I began volunteering at NGOs and making hefty anonymous donations to charities. I embraced spirituality and the benefits of olive oil in my food.

And I began reading other books, so that I would not feel bad about skipping V that day.

And that is how Pynchon changed my life. I have already finished perhaps a hundred books since I began V. I don’t mean to boast, but now I am like Chacha Chaudhary or Vicki from Small Wonder — basically a supercomputer. I can speed-read complex academic essays faster than most people can finish their Garfield comic, with my finger dancing across the page, struggling to keep up with the pace at which I’m ingesting gruelling concepts.

I can swallow subjunctive clauses, tmeses and apocopes like I would chicken nuggets. Dangling modifiers and dependent clauses are petrified of me. Themes, motifs, character motivations appear to me on Page One. I can grasp not only the what, where, when but also the why. Sartre, Proust, Joyce? Please. Give me something challenging.

Just not as challenging as Pynchon’s V.

Akhil Sood is a freelance culture writer from New Delhi who wishes h e’d studied engineering instead.


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