Reading Pynchon #1

Thomas Pynchon published Against the Day (AtD) in November 2006. At that time, the response from reviewers was mixed; and some, perhaps, did not bother to finish reading the novel. Perhaps the best review was written by Bernard Duyfhuizen (2007) and published some months after Against the Day appeared. In his opening paragraph Duyfhuizen notes that he has now read the novel twice; this careful approach was in marked contrast to the dismissive attitude of many other reviewers publishing at the end of 2006 (a selection can be accessed here). Since 2007 there have been papers by Ickstadt (2008, details here) on Against the Day’s relationship to earlier novels; Kohn (2008/2009) on idiosyncratic writing; Aghoro (2009) on identity and bilocation; and Staes (2010) on the writing of time. Furthermore, Gilles Chamerois (2008) has edited an issue of Graat devoted to Pynchon. In addition, there are now two full-length collections. Pöhlmann (2010) edited Against the Grain; Reading Pynchon’s Counternarratives (AtG); and Severs & Leise (2011) edited Pynchon’s Against the Day: A Corrupted Pilgrim’s Guide (CPG; available with the usual omissions at Google Books here).

Alert to the way critical discourse is being constructed, we should note that A Corrupted Pilgrim’s Guide, the most recent collection, contains references to only one of the papers listed above: Ickstadt’s (2008) paper, published in Pynchon Notes, is cited twice. Given that we are discussing an emergent field in studies of Against the Day, one might anticipate some recognition of less traditional web-based sources. Leise’s introduction mentions in passing and that is it. Without doubt, the timing of A Corrupted Pilgrim’s Guide might have precluded any serious consideration of papers by Aghoro (2009) and Staes (2010); however, the Graat issue was seemingly published in good time and might have been acknowledged. There is, of course, no mention in A Corrupted Pilgrim’s Guide of Against the Grain. One of my purposes, then, is to consider Against the Grain and A Corrupted Pilgrim’s Guide as, to borrow Against the Grain’s subtitle, counternarratives.

I begin here with the two introductions and consider the ways in which they construct the critical field for Against the Day. In Against the Grain Pöhlmann (2010) begins by suggesting we should ‘reconsider the postmodernism of Pynchon’s writing’ as Against the Day ‘significantly transcends the limitations of that concept’ (9) or ‘exceeds the conceptual framework of postmodernism’ (11). A Corrupted Pilgrim’s Guide, however, begins with an introduction by Leise (2011) that considers the early reviews with which I began this post, concluding that ‘the scale and intensity of so much disappointment deserve consideration’ (3). For Leise, the central debate is that between a critical approach devoted to characterisation and (psychological) realism and one that dwells on, and draws attention to, the writing of fiction.

In particular, Pöhlmann (2010: 17) introduces a ‘[p]ostnationalism, which I define as the theory and practice of challenging the hegemony of nation-ness’. For Pöhlmann Against the Day ‘dismantles the myths and symbols that work to transform the narrative of nation-ness into a metanarrative’ (19). Here he refers to the Chums passage on the Fourth of July (AtD, 111-112, cited in AtG on 19-20) and one is reminded of Chapter 8 when ‘Dynamite’s National Holiday’ (AtD, 81) is the occasion for a retrospective account of Webb Traverse’s family life (88-96): Webb’s career as a bomber is inseparable from his career as a husband and father, and we might see how the (at the very least) ironic renaming (and reorganising) of the Fourth of July is juxtaposed to the genealogical (specifically, I would argue, in the Foucaultian sense) account of personal history.

Pöhlmann also suggests that reading Against the Day should also affect the way we (re)read earlier novels: ‘instead of making the [new] novel fit the oeuvre, one does well to read the oeuvre anew and see how it is changed by the addition’ (10). This is a key point and, for my own part, for example, returning to Vineland after Mason & Dixon emphasised the importance of that novel as a transitional text mediating between Mason & Dixon and the earlier Gravity’s Rainbow. Not least, that we might challenge the ‘author-function’ (10) explains the presence, in Against the Grain, of chapters that do just that by scarcely, if at all, mentioning Against the Day. By way of introduction to A Corrupted Pilgrim’s Guide, Leise also considers the way in which the reception of Against the Day was shaped by perceptions of a Pynchon-text. Here, with regard to, specifically Mason & Dixon, Leise juxtaposes one approach to reading Pynchon, looking for ‘a presumed trajectory of more believable, even likeable, characters’, to another, aware that Against the Day ‘follows the track of generic exploration’; hence, ‘its highest genius lies in the ability to occupy so many genres of American ideological indoctrination to dramatically repurposed effect’ (4). This is not so far removed from Pöhlmann’s concern with postnationalism.

According to Leise (2011: 5) Pynchon is interested in ‘not just the history but also the literature that composed the narrative of America’. By way of response I would frame the argument a little differently and say that Pynchon has always dealt with how we know what we (think we) know, as opposed to, more simply, what we know. As an illustration of how Pynchon dramatises this concern there is the frequent use of the tourist as a figure in Against the Day, or tourism as a way to position the reader (see in particular Chapter 40 with Dally in Venice, 568ff). This has been a feature of Pynchon’s writing from the outset, and early examples include the story ‘Mortality and Mercy in Vienna’ (1959) and the essay ‘A Journey into the Mind of Watts’ (1966), which should always be read alongside The Crying of Lot 49 (1966).

1 comment
  1. Vineland as a transition from GR to MD – yes! I was just thikimg along these lines. Vineland is more a novel about history than about TV. The thing about ATD exceeding the boundaries of postmodernism – couldn’t that be better expressed as ‘expanding’? And the line about new works obliging us to reassess the old ones is great, reminds me of Walter Benjamin – the present can redeem the past, a successful revolution can turn past failures into triumphs. This is so great btw I’ve interrupted my own reading of it to comment!

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