Epiphany and Vocation

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I reached this passage in Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon’s new novel:

“These are Wahhabists. They’re pretending [destroying Buddha statues is] spiritual, but it’s political, like they can’t deal with having any competition around.”
“Shawn, I’m sorry. But aren’t you supposed to be above this?”
“Whoa, overattached me. Think about it— all it takes is, like, a idle thumb on a space bar to turn ‘Islam’ into ‘I slam.’”
“Thought-provoking, Shawn.”
A glance at the TAG Heuer on his wrist, “Hope you don’t mind if we run a little short today, Brady Bunch marathon, you understand . . . ?” Shawn’s devotion to reruns of the well-known seventies sitcom have drawn comment all up and down his client list….Beaming at her with that vacant, perhaps only Californian, the-Universe-is-a-joke-but-you-don’t-get-it smile which so often drives her to un-Buddhist daydreams seething with rage. Maxine doesn’t want to say “airhead” exactly, though she guesses if somebody put a tire gauge in his ear it might read a couple psi below spec.

Reading this filled me with despair. It’s difficult to explain why, but I’ll try. It’s awful. It is not only stupid, but also massively proud of itself, like something out of Tom Robbins. It is, however, worse than anything Robbins has published.

What’s sad is not that Pynchon has declined, but that his decline is meaningless. He has already published many great novels, and they are dense enough to be read, re-read, and glossed, for as long as literary criticism endures. His decline is visibly presaged in those great novels, too, because they are too paranoid, too clever, and too insoluble, and at the same time too affable. It is clear from each novel’s own inner anxieties, about its own lack of compromise, that at some point he will have to try being more obvious, more fun, and more linear. This will ruin him — as, in fact, it has — and he will die before ever finding enough time to be great again.

If his decline is visible from atop those shimmering peaks, then of course that means that novels like The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow are better because of the very contradictions that will eventually keep Pynchon from continuing to write like that. That is the nature of vocation. It is indifferent. It is unreasonable. It is relentless.

The biggest misunderstanding of life, on the part of the Milennials, is not the idea that they are special individuals. The line “you are not a beautiful and unique snowflake,” from Fight Club, is comforting nonsense. You are a beautiful and unique snowflake, and so is everyone else, and that fact alone is staggering and bizarre. At the same time, nobody is responsible for their beautiful strangeness, or for the uniqueness of their place in history. It happens to them. Writing and teaching have happened to me, in that way, and so it goes for the whole of my personal life as well.

That thing Rorschach says in Watchmen — about how the world will cry out to be saved, and he will whisper “no” — is also a bunch of nonsense. You don’t choose whether to love people and work for their good. You end up doing it because nothing else is really sustainable — I mean morally…spiritually…not just practically. Life is full of the lesson that nothing, and no-one, survives for long without moral conviction.

The mistake, rather, of the Milennials, lies in believing that vocation is a heated, blissful endeavour, full of exhaustion and triumph. It is very strange, and terribly sad, to realize that one’s path is set, and that it is a fixed path precisely because it is a decent one. It is strange to realize that many bad decisions, many regrets, do not matter, or even turn out to be essential. It is strange to realize that “following your bliss” almost always means wronging someone, or lots of people, in small and large ways. Because it is so demanding, doing what you love is a sudden and painfully conscious encounter with those opposites of passion, death and the everyday pettiness of life. It is peaceful to do what you are fitted for, but it is cold, utterly cold. I wanted Pynchon’s book to be good. I knew it wouldn’t be. I wanted it to be good even after I’d started reading it, and could see the bad ideas multiplying on every page. Still, closing the dumb thing, and putting it away, was like being tattooed with ice.

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