“Taking Time and Gathering Distance”

Nick Holdstock‘s n+1 essay about presenting an academic paper on Thomas Pynchon in Poland initially reads like a study in snark—an attempt to mock the kind of people who dedicate too much of their intellectual energy to the writer. After one scholar sputters about Against the Day and the (literally) explosive power of words, Holdstock looks around to see if any of his colleagues are detecting logic in that argument. “[O]n the pad of the man to my left there were no notes, just a drawing of a cat wearing a shirt and tie,” he writes.

But if Holdstock were only interested in mocking, he’d be mocking himself too; he was there to present his own paper, on Inherent Vice. And the core of his essay is actually a sincere conversion narrative about how his early distaste for Pynchon eventually morphed into a deep love for his writing. Working his way through Mason & Dixon, one of the few books to which he had access on a trip to China, he came to appreciate that there’s more than one way to write a good sentence:

At the time I was an acolyte of the Church of Raymond Carver. If I picked up the book again a few days later, it was only out of defiance, an unwillingness to be beaten by what seemed a wilfully impenetrable style. I read slowly, carefully, occasionally out loud, and somewhere along the way my idea of what constituted a Good Sentence changed. Instead of forming clipped phrases that cut, words could be more like unravelling yarn, travelling on wood or carpet, dropping abruptly from stair to stair, taking time and gathering distance.

An appreciation of some of Pynchon’s more elegant sentences follows, though by the end of the essay Holdstock is back to raising his eyebrows at his fellow Pynchon scholars. (One delivers “a narrative of personal confession…full of hard luck—culminating in his time spent frying chickens for KFC.”) Pynchon might be clearer than he’s given credit for, the message goes, but that’ll do nothing to curb the strange intensity of his biggest fans.

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