June 2, 2015

Two for Tuesday: President Obama should invite Thomas Pynchon to the White House


Let's get Thomas Pynchon invited to The White House!

Let’s get Thomas Pynchon invited to The White House!

Topics discussed: Paul and Linda McCartney, Wings, Paul McCartney and Wings, The Fireman, the big questions, President Obama, Thomas Pynchon, Alex’s family, Pontius Pilate, Satan, Jesus, Richard Farina, mustaches, V, The Crying of Lot 49, Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, Bleeding Edge, Inherent Vice, Against The Day, Vineland, Slow Learner, Entourage, Jeremy Piven, The Big Lebowski, Lindsey Graham, George Pataki, illegal wars, bees, Nazis, Buzzfeed, shit-eating, Seymour Hersh, Joshua Cohen, George W. Bush, Harper Lee, Philip Roth, Robert K. Massie, Robert K. Massie IV, Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, Richard Nixon, basketball, Walt Frazier, Joanna Newsom, Benicio del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Paul Thomas Anderson, blackmail, skywriting, perfumed envelopes, The Simpsons, the 13th Floor Elevators, petitions

Click here to sign a petition asking President Barack Obama to invite Thomas Pynchon to the White House. 

Mark: Alex! Everyone knows that Two for Tuesday is the publishing column people come to when they need answers to their most serious questions, right? I’m talking about questions like “Why do people read books?” and “Is book publishing a rotting corpse?” and “Which Paul and Linda McCartney song should I listen to?” Those are the big questions.

Alex: The answer to the Paul and Linda McCartney song question is simple: listen to all of Ram at least once a day, including the bonus tracks. (On a related note: I just realized we’ve featured music by Paul & Linda McCartney, but that means that I can still use Paul McCartney, Wings, and Paul McCartney and Wings. And, fuck it, why not, The Fireman. Maybe not The Fireman.)

People read books because they are good, and the publishing industry is a rotting corpse because it is smelly and gross. Sorry, I forgot that this was Two for Tuesday and that I’m supposed to answer these questions in the form of 3,000 words of rambling prose.

Mark: I’d just like to state for the record that if Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five” isn’t one of the two songs we include at the end of this post, I’m going to be very angry. A surprising amount of people don’t know that song, which is an outrage, because it rocks. (Also, I totally forgot about the bonus tracks on Ram. Thank you for reminding me. Maybe the coffee shop next door will play them! They played some great hits today!)

I asked you about the big questions, Alex, because today we’re tackling what is, I think, our biggest one yet. It’s one thing to declare, after extensive analysis, that people read books because they (the books? the people? Who cares!) are good. It’s quite another to try to reckon with the most fundamental, most urgent, most essential question of our time. That question is, of course: Should President Obama invite Thomas Pynchon to the White House?

Now, before we get going, I should say that other, lesser bloggers might be inclined to respond to this question with a simple “yes” or “no” or “what the hell are you talking about?” That would be foolish and dangerous. This is not the kind of question you evaluate briefly–you have to really reckon with it, let it inhabit you. And so, though we don’t like to let Two for Tuesdayers in on our secrets, I’ll tell our readers that we’ve been wrestling with this question for nearly ten months. We’ve tackled all of the implications, all the contingencies, all the scenarios. And we’re ready to declare our judgments.

Alex, I think that President Obama should invite Thomas Pynchon to the White House because it would be totally awesome, and because it would compel Pynchon to leave the Upper West Side, and then, maybe, at some point, Obama could tell us what it was like to hang with Pynchon. I think this an important step that the President needs to take. What do you think?

Alex: I don’t remember how this question first came up, but since it came up last week ten months ago I haven’t stopped thinking about it. I have literally not thought about anything else, including my work and my family, both of which have suffered immensely. We don’t have any food to eat, Mark! People are going hungry. My family misses me, because I am great and very attentive and fun.

But sometimes you have to take a break from everything to think deeply about an important question, like that time that Jesus went into the desert to think about if Pontius Pilate should invite Thomas Pynchonus to the Royal Palace and fight Satan. This is one of those times. (In this scenario, I am Jesus.)

It’s a tough question! A lot of things could go wrong. What if Thomas Pynchon is boring? What if he’s actually forty-seven feet tall and he accidentally stomps on a bunch of people? What if Obama asks him about being friends with Richard Fariña and he’s like “Wait, who?” What if he doesn’t have a mustache? (I assume that Pynchon has a mustache, and I would be CRUSHED if he doesn’t have an actual mustache, though I would accept it if he drew one on his face with a marker, or if he had Melanie Jackson, his superagent wife, draw one for him.)

But there are a lot of reasons to do this. One, Pynchon absolutely deserves to be honored because he’s written four masterpieces (V, Crying of Lot 49, Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon), one surprisingly astute take on The Way We Live Now (Bleeding Edge), the funniest entry in the stoner noir genre not called The Big Lebowski (Inherent Vice), one book nobody read (Against The Day) and also Vineland. That is an impressive resume! Definitely White House-worthy. If President Obama invites the Entourage guys to the White House–which I assume he will because he’s a cool guy–and doesn’t invite Pynchon it would be devastating to his legacy, even though the Entourage guys seem totally chill, except Jeremy Piven.

Two, Obama doesn’t really seem to have anything better to do, and Pynchon would definitely distract from the hellscape that is coverage of the 2016 election. I watched a lot of Bloomberg Business this morning and almost half of the coverage was about a fucking election that’s happening in 17 months. The only Lindsey Graham coverage I care about is coverage of him conceding the election in two and a half months when he realizes nobody cares what he has to say. So: this would be a win for the lame duck presidency. This is what lame duck presidents should do.

Three, it’s Thomas Pynchon!!!! At The White House!! I have more reasons but I’m gonna leave you with this image: Thomas Pynchon at the White House, wearing a bowling shirt (because he and President Obama are about to go bowling and eat pizza together and high five a lot).

Mark: Don’t forget about Slow Learner! That book includes Pynchon’s autobiographical introduction, which, in turn, includes the following remarkable lines:

My first reaction, reading these stories, was oh my God, accompanied by physical symptoms we shouldn’t dwell upon. My second thought was about some kind of wall-to-wall rewrite. These two impulses have given way to one of those episodes of middle-aged tranquility, in which I now pretend to have reached a level of clarity about the young writer I was back then. I mean I can’t very well just 86 this guy from my life. On the other hand, if through some yet undeveloped technology I were to run into him today, how comfortable would I feel about lending him money, or for that matter even stepping down the street to have a beer and talk over old times?

This is the kind of humility we need from our writers. Lindsey Graham wouldn’t know this kind of humility if slapped him in the face like [insert violent Game of Thrones reference here. My fiancee is watching Game of Thrones right now and lots of people are stabbing one another, but I don’t know any of their names].

Also, I think I’m going to read Against the Day soon, and when I finish it in five to six years, I will edit your entry above to read “one book nobody read except Mark, who definitely read it.”

Anyway, I think you’re understating the importance of Thomas Pynchon’s potential visit to the White House considerably. It’s true that the President needs something to take his mind off Lindsey Graham’s candidacy, as well as George Pataki’s candidacy. (Actually, he should probably keep his mind on Pataki’s candidacy, because it’s one of the funniest things ever.)

But I’ll go further: if Obama does not invite Pynchon to the White House, his presidency will be considered a failure. And it won’t just be considered a failure by the hundreds of thousands of people who contribute to various academic journals devoted to Pynchon, or the millions of people who devote their lives to tracking all encounters between literary figures and politicians, in order to prove some obscure point about the fundamental corruption of artistic purity in the twenty-first century. It will be considered a failure by the population at large.

Here’s why. We believe that our presidents can do anything: start illegal wars, convince children that bees are not a big deal, visit Nazi cemeteries. As Americans, we know that we can do no wrong, ever, and so our presidents can do even less wrong than that. They can do negative wrong. They are right more of the time than all the time.

But Alex, if President Obama cannot lure one of our greatest living writers to the White House–the man who writes “sez” instead of “says” and wrote a better novel about the internet than any novel written by people fifty years younger than him (though I haven’t read Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers yet); the man responsible for one of the great shit-eating scenes in contemporary literature; the man who may be our last great utopian–then he will prove absolutely worthless as a leader. If Pynchon does not visit 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue before Obama’s term runs out, we will have to retroactively erase Obama’s presidency from the record. No Buzzfeed interviews, no deceptive stories about the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, hell, no assassination of Osama Bin Laden! That’s what I’m saying, Alex. If Pynchon does not come to the White House, Osama Bin Laden will return from his watery (or, per Seymour Hersh, mountainous) grave.

Alex: George W. Bush awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Harper Lee, another famous “recluse” who really wasn’t that much of a recluse—she just didn’t like publicity—so there’s a precedent here. Also, Obama gave the National Humanities Medal to Philip Roth, so there’s a precedent for honoring critically-acclaimed white New York writers who were born in the 1930s. Which is important.

As for Pynchon’s willingness to come? Well, that’s tough to say. I think it’s safe to say that Pynchon leans left politically, but his writing, obsessed with systems and government power, indicates he may not like many of Obama’s policies, particularly the president’s commitment to spying on American citizens and drone strikes. Here’s Charles Hollander, an “independent Pynchon scholar,” in an excellent Nancy Jo Sales piece on Pynchon from 1996: “Pynchon writes in a kind of code about the increasing role of government in subjugating the individual to the state. He and his writing are both camouflaged because he fears the power of the state.”

Unsurprisingly, there aren’t many clues about Pynchon’s exact political preferences. He does not appear to have made any political contributions. (His wife, Melanie Jackson, has made only one, to Robert K. Massie’s son Robert K. Massie IV’s aborted 2011 Massachusetts Senate campaign. Pynchon and Jackson are friends with the elder Robert K. Massie, and have been thanked in the acknowledgments in at least two of his books.)

So Pynchon may or may not be interested in appearing for political reasons. But what better way would there be to break his no publicity streak than to appear at the fucking White House with Barack Obama? There would be no better way, except, I don’t know, doing a press conference on top of Mount Everest with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. It would be amazing! Pynchon at the White House! Pynchon sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom! All of these things are good things. Also, I know I mentioned this before, but in this scenario Thomas Pynchon is definitely going bowling. In this scenario, he perfectly recreates the iconic Nixon bowling picture and then he high fives Barack Obama.

Speaking of sports, I have a sneaking suspicion that Pynchon is a basketball fan, given the amount of attention the Lakers-Knicks 1970 NBA Championship gets in Inherent Vice. There’s no way that Pynchon doesn’t love Walt Frazier. This is another thing he can talk about with Barack Obama that does not involve the administration’s poor record when it comes to data and surveillance.

But Pynchon actually making it to the White House is beside the point right now. What we need is for Obama to invite him. How are we going to make that happen?

Mark: Well, the most important thing we can do is spread the word about the petition we created on the White House’s “We the People” site, where Americans can create petitions and then the president has to do whatever the petition says. (I’m pretty sure that’s how it works.) The link is here, and we only need 100,000 signatures by July 1. That should be pretty easy! But there are also other options to pursue.

For one thing, we need to blackmail Michael Schaub, President Obama’s favorite literary critic, and force him to continuously write posts about how Obama needs to invite Pynchon to the White House. Will we miss out on Schaub’s fine book reviews? Yes. But is blackmailing an excellent critic worth it when it’s in service of an important cause? Also yes.

We also need to find out if Obama has seen Inherent Vice. As we’ve discussed, I’m a big fan of that movie, as is every right-thinking person, so chances are that if the president has seen it, he will want to invite everyone who participated in it to the White House. I’d prefer for Obama to meet with Pynchon one on one, but if he has to meet him in a group, along with Joanna Newsom and Benicio del Toro and Reese Witherspoon and Paul Thomas Anderson, that’s fine, too. (If it turns out that Obama did not like Inherent Vice, then we’re fucked.)

We might also want to invest in an airplane, so that we can skywrite “Dear Obama, Pls Invite T. Pynchon 2 W. House. Cool? Cool.”  (I’m pretty sure you have to pay by the letter in skywriting.) I don’t know if there are any airspace restrictions over the White House, but there probably aren’t, so this should be a foolproof plan.

We should also ask our readers for help. Surely one of our readers is friends with the president. If you’ve hung out at the White House and are a Two for Tuesday reader, please write to mark at mhpbooks.com immediately, and we’ll put you to work. There is no mission of greater importance than this one.

Alex: This is a mission for literary culture in America. Obama is theoretically in favor of said literary culture. Maybe it’s time he puts his money where his mouth is and supports our country’s writers, publishers, and booksellers by inviting Thomas Pynchon to the White House. We need this lift, and the president can give it to us by sending a perfumed envelope to the Upper West Side. (Inside the envelope is an invitation to the White House.)

Once this is done, we’ll move on to Pynchon. Maybe he’ll only come if he gets to wear a bag over his head, like when he appeared as himself on The Simpsons. (That was great, by the way.) Maybe he’ll appear via hologram, because Washington D.C. has terrible bagels. (This is true, but I would not accept this outcome.) Maybe he’ll only go if the event is held at Politics & Prose. (I am 100% in favor of this, so long as Obama and Pynchon go bowling afterwards.)

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We need Thomas Pynchon to visit the White House and we need it to happen soon, because it just won’t be the same if it happens under the iron fist of President George Pataki. Sign the petition and join Mark and me in our campaign to get Thomas Pynchon to hang out with Barack Obama. It is the only way.

These columns are usually full of disagreement and discord, so I’d like to ruin this impressive moment of camaraderie by nixing your suggestion of choosing two monster hits from Paul McCartney and Wings’s magnum opus, Band on the Run. Why? Because there are more important things afoot than Paul McCartney—namely, wooing Thomas Pynchon—and also because I hate you. So, in honor of Pynchon, here are two psychedelic hits from one of his favorite bands, the 13th Floor Elevators.