Two Encyclopedias, Fat and Thin
Ditching Pynchon for James Brown
Against the Day
by Thomas Pynchon
(Penguin Press) $35
Live at the Apollo
by Douglas Wolk
(33 1/3) $9.95
One (apparently diligent) reviewer of Thomas Pynchon's new 1085-page novel wrote that "the only people who will actually finish Against the Day are diligent book reviewers." Not every book reviewer is diligent, though. I haven't finished Against the Day, although I said at some point that I would review it for this paper. One day I opened my book bag and with one hand hauled out my copy of Against the Day, a giant slab of pages that I could never set down on a table without imagining the creaking strain of delicatessen scales underneath. With the other, I fished out a tiny book I had been carrying around for weeks and already knew to be delicious.
Irresponsibly, undiligently, I opened the tiny book instead, finished it that afternoon, and my bookmark in the Pynchon hasn't moved since.
It is stupid to be constantly talking about the size of Against the Day. It's a way of avoiding the book itself and its vast, intricate, and rare knowledge, and I'm a little ashamed to be doing it. But it's also stupid to ignore what it's like to read a book of that scale, especially one that doesn't draw you heedlessly in but rather fends you off at every turn with new characters, unexplained situations, and veiled references. Its vastness and your stamina become part of the story. But its encyclopedic size is part of the appeal: It carries the promise of complete knowledge, of a system solved and fully explained (although every Pynchon fan knows that promise will be frustrated and even mocked).
But not every encyclopedia needs to be large. There's a line of books that carries a different promise of complete knowledge, complete not because the books are so vast, but because they limit themselves to a topic so small you can imagine fully comprehending it. In Continuum's 33 1/3 series, each little book shares its name with its subject, a single long-playing record. They are like trading cards, these books, and they've always made my mouth water. I started with ones about my favorite records, which didn't quite live up to their promise, but the last one I bought was Douglas Wolk's book about a record I had never heard: James Brown's Live at the Apollo. I got the CD, too. I guess I wanted an education, since most of what I knew of James Brown came from Eddie Murphy.
That was the tiny book in my bag, and it is indeed an encyclopedia, the best kind: as intensely compressed as the 31-minute recording it describes, drawing on a store of arcane and vital information to describe the wide network of lives, riffs, and records that came together on one night in Harlem when Brown turned from a chitlin-circuit favorite to a national star. Wolk can trace layer upon layer of R&B imitation and re-creation, following a guitar lick or a shard of lyric or a personal style or an entire song as they get taken up by copycat hits and resurrections, and tracking the shadowed paths of people before and after they were drawn into the James Brown spotlight. And his George Trow–style format—with short, headlined sections—perfectly matches the abrupt yelps and tempo shifts of the record itself and the relentlessly tight hit-making of the star of the show. (By comparison, Peter Guralnick's chapter on Brown in his classic Sweet Soul Music feels too linear to fully capture such a strange record and such a bizarrely compelling performer.)
Wolk's only misstep is to bring in the Cuban Missile Crisis, which peaked the week of the Apollo show, to add a rainbow of gravity to his story. You don't need to think you might be blown up the next day to lose your shit at a James Brown show. As his greatest follower in pint-sized megalomaniac funk once sang, "We're all gonna die." Who needs Khrushchev when you have King Records headman Syd Nathan? And who needs the threat of nuclear obliteration when you've "Lost Someone," when you're "Bewildered," when you're shouting on your knees, "I'll Go Crazy"?
There's no point in telling an artist how to run his game, but what if, instead of releasing a white monolith that daunts even his fans, Pynchon put out ten 100-page books from the same material? (How I'd love to see the Chums of Chance storyline captured in a single little book.) The vast mystery of their intersection could remain, but can you imagine how eagerly readers would snap up the pieces of the puzzle? It would be a hit! They'd be lined up around the block, like the mourners last month waiting to see the body of James Brown, dead at the Apollo.