Reading Pynchon #2

In my last post on recent Pynchon criticism I briefly compared the introductions to Against the Grain: Reading Pynchon’s Counternarratives (ed Pöhlmann, 2010) and Pynchon’s Against the Day: A Corrupt Pilgrim’s Guide (ed Severs & Leise, 2011).

In A Corrupt Pilgrim’s Guide the first group of essays is gathered under the heading ‘Narrative Strategies’ and this is where we find ‘Plots, Pilgrimage and the Politics of Genre in Against the Day’ by Amy J Elias, author of Sublime Desire: History and Post-1960s Fiction (2001), where she describes a metahistorical romance based on the radical historiography associated with Foucault and White. In her contribution to Corrupt Pilgrim’s Guide she argues that pilgrimage becomes an alternative to both hero quest and picaresque, ‘a form of journey narrative with a chronotope appropriate for our own time’ (Elias 2011: 32). Pilgrimage, then, is a way of understanding the postmodern narrative. In keeping with Severs’ Introduction, Elias here focuses on character, noting that the quest requires some kind of character development, lacking here; and the picaresque, while ‘eschew[ing] depth of characterisation’ (30), borrows from both realism and romance without ever resolving that contradiction (32).

According to Elias in Sublime Desire the metahistorical romance comes in the final part of the twentieth century, a response of sorts to war, Holocaust and nuclear weapons. As such it resists any notion of Western progress, but it also rejects the modernist alternative of alienation. The historical sublime is that which cannot be represented, bringing into play deferral and allusion: any discussion of history will expose it as a narrative, which means there are always alternative versions, and alternatives to those alternatives (Elias 2001: 51ff). Further, in her contribution (‘History’) to The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon (eds Dalsgaard, Herman & McHale, 2012), Elias develops the concept of the sublime subjunctive as a way of describing the way the narrative is organised round the opposition of alternative, not to say conflicting, narratives (Elias 2012: 129).

To discuss the usefulness of these ideas I shall now briefly consider Pynchon’s writing of warfare in Against the Day. Elias (2011: 32) says that the pilgrimage is ‘directed to a shrine site’ and, by way of example, ‘Reef, Cyprian and Yashmeen travel from one secular, tourist “shrine” to another – Venice, the Riviera – until they arrive at the military-industrial complex’s true shrine of death in the Balkans’ (33). I cite this passage because, in my previous post on Pynchon criticism, I commented on the frequent use of tourism in Pynchon’s writing. Moreover, my ongoing explication of the novel has just come to the end of Chapter 64 and I have in mind the sections following Reef/Yashmeen’s separation from Cyprian (AtD 962ff). As Reef puts it to Cyprian just before they leave him: ‘Figure on heading west, through the mountains to the Adriatic coast. Any hot springs, hotel de luxes up that way you could recommend?’ (961). Their goal (the shrine their pilgrimage takes them towards) is whatever constitutes safety and, upon reaching Corfu, ‘the first thing they did was go to the Church of St. Spiridion, patron saint of the island, and light candles and offer thanks’ (972). A page later, surprised, Yashmeen finds her father, who says he has been waiting for them, knowing they would end up at Corfu (973). The point of course is that their journey has been unpredictable and inscrutable/unreadable, and yet, as Auberon Halfcourt explains it here, anything but.

Further, we might consider the way the narrative has been organised. The characters we follow are always located in relation to the war, ie action that is always elsewhere, even if ‘[e]ach day brought them closer to the horizon of the unimaginable’ (964; although, on the one occasion when Reef’s personal safety might be said to be threatened, he is rescued by Ramiz and the narrative tells us it has something to do with the Chums of Chance, 969-970).

Most clearly, the writing brings representation into question by emphasising discourse. There is ‘a storm of fearful hearsay from gatherings at street corners and well-heads’ (963), the first reference here to the way the war is constructed through talk. A page later there is the aftermath of, ‘[a]ccording to rumor’, defeat for the Turks with evidence in the form of ‘Turkish soldiers either cut off from their units or in flight’; ‘Monastir was said to be a Serbian objective now’ (964). In the same section, there is the precarious nature of ‘collective dreams’ leading to ‘a popular, perhaps someday a national, delusion’ (964). Finally, ‘as if they were only out here on holiday’ (968, recalling Reef’s suggestion on 961 that this might be some kind of tourist jaunt), there are ‘postal cards illustrated with scenes of the War’; ‘[s]ome of the photographs showed terrible scenes of slaughter and mutilation, reproduced not in simple black and white but varying shades of green’ (968), as close as we come to that which cannot be represented.

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