Reading Pynchon #5

In this second post discussing aspects of David Cowart’s Thomas Pynchon & the Dark Passages of History (2011), specifically his reference to Foucault’s work on genealogy as a way of reading Against the Day (AtD, 2006). I want to explore further what Cowart thinks AtD is ‘about’. In Chapter 7 (‘The Historiographer Historicized: Pynchon and Literary History’), we find, after Mendelson, a reference to ‘Pynchon’s encyclopedism’ (198). Cowart writes of Pynchon’s work generally: ‘Pynchon seduces the reader with the promise of something like the big picture: read this book and you’ll understand the age and its enormities.’ And then, a couple of pages later, this encyclopedism is related to Frye’s work on Menippean satire, ‘characterised, from antiquity into modern times, by its ungainliness, its voluminous, encyclopaedic ambitions, its scatology, its digressiveness, and its descents into the fantastic’ (200). Pynchon is here constructed as a writer whose narrative is discursive, availing itself of no end of connections; yet to suggest the reader might believe they will, or indeed ought to, ‘understand the age and its enormities’ is to invoke a very simplistic view of the transmission of knowledge. It is striking that this (modernist) line of inquiry remains blissfully unaware of Foucaultian genealogy. One might make the point that the perceived encyclopedism of Pynchon and others (as listed) is a way to resist closure (on ‘the labyrinth’ as a possible, Foucaultian, alternative to ‘the encyclopedia’ see Gerhard Hoffman, From Modernism to Postmodernism: Concepts and Strategies of Postmodern American Fiction, 2005: 414ff).


To better understand Pynchon’s supposed encyclopedism in relation to Foucaultian genealogy, we might return to the essay quoted at the beginning of Chapter 6 (‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ in The Foucault Reader: An Introduction to Foucault’s Thought, Paul Rabinow ed, 1984). Here, Foucault suggests that genealogy ‘must record the singularity of events outside of any monotonous finality’ (Foucault, 76). This ‘monotonous finality’ would be the closure brought about by generalisation; hence, ‘the singularity of events’ must avoid the predictability that generalisation confers. Later, in deconstructing the quest for origins that conventional history is concerned with, Foucault insists that ‘[g]enealogy does not resemble the evolution of a species and does not map the destiny of a people’ (81). Cowart does not explore these arguments in relation to AtD, even though, in this chapter, he goes on to claim that ‘Pynchon … aspires to the calling of fictive genealogist’ (Dark Passages, 164). Subsequently, there is an apparent confusion of form and content: ‘Against the Day sketches the genealogy of the world conflict that sets its stamp on the twentieth century’ (174), which recalls the suggestion that AtD be grouped with the first three novels in dealing with ‘the unfolding of the twentieth century’ (60). By implication, the novel itself, as written, is somehow separable from ‘the world conflict’ that provides subject matter. This might be what Cowart means by encyclopedism. However, it is not the genealogy that Foucault has outlined.


Cowart suggests that AtD belongs to ‘a neo-Continental or global period’ (59); and we might ask if this is an attempt to deconstruct the nation state (as suggested in Sascha Pöhlmann’s ‘Introduction: The Complex Text’ in Against the Grain: Reading Pynchon’s Counternarratives, Pöhlmann ed, 2010). Again, we never really find out, given the treatment of content and form. On 18 there is a reference to the novel’s ‘extraordinary geographical range’ and Pynchon’s ‘global perspective’; and then, on 173, he mentions the way Pynchon chose to introduce his novel (the jacket ‘blurb’ posted on in August 2006, some three months or so before the novel was published). This ‘witty description of the novel’ is used to bear out the view that ‘[t]he past actually mirrors the trajectory of the present’ (emphasis in the original). However, there is no attempt to follow up this particular construct as a way of addressing discourses of globalism, and this is what I would now like to do.


In August 2006, reading the blurb with nothing else to go on, it was striking to see how the narrative flowed, as the first paragraph, below, illustrates:


Spanning the period between the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and the years just after World War I, Against the Day moves from the labour troubles in Colorado to turn-of-the-last-century New York to London and Gottingen, Venice and Vienna, the Balkans, Central Asia, Siberia at the time of the mysterious Tunguska event, Mexico during the revolution, postwar Paris, silent-era Hollywood, and one or two places not strictly speaking on the map at all.


In a few lines we have chronology (‘the period between …’ etc); specific events (‘the Chicago’s World Fair …’ etc); as well as geographical locations. The listing of signifiers in this way – in itself a very Pynchonian construct – encourages the reader to ask how the narrative will link them.


Further, we should read the blurb in tandem with the novel extract published in Penguin’s catalogue (4-5, still available here). One can infer that publication of these two texts (unlike the Guardian’s publication of a version of Chapter 8 in November 2006) were sanctioned by Pynchon as a way of introducing the novel (if the strategy invokes the cinematic trailer, an alternative to the absent film it suggests, one has only to think ahead to the trailer produced, in 2009, for Inherent Vice). The extract is taken from Chapter 25, and features the meeting of Willis Turnstone and Jimmy Drop (309-310). Willis is ‘freshly credentialed from the American School of Osteopathy’ (309) and here confronted by Jimmy ‘in classic throwdown posture’ (310). Most obviously this scene articulates an uneasy relationship between tradition and modernisation, as signified by Willis’ ‘antiquated Colt, in whose use he was far from practiced’ (309). Yet one should also take into account that Willis, as an osteopath, is far from representative of an unproblematic modernisation or Weberian disenchantment (much later in the novel, on 996, he will introduce Frank to Zhao, the acupuncturist). Not least, juxtaposition of these texts draws on a macro-micro spatial metaphor: the blurb constructs a macro level, and begs the question as to how the narrative relationship between ‘events’ and ‘places’ is going to be written, not least with a final comment (‘one or two places not strictly speaking on the map at all’) that emphasises the writing of social reality. The Willis/Jimmy extract then offers a micro-level or interactionist alternative, one that, again, draws attention to the contested nature of any knowledge. We shall find this spatial metaphor challenged again and again throughout AtD.

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