Reading Pynchon #6

The book review is advertising, its function both informational (‘you might be interested in knowing of this new publication’) and persuasive (‘and these are reasons to consider buying it, or not’). The prospective reader might welcome the information; and regard for the review (writing or author-as-authority) might make its conclusions persuasive. If the book in question is non-fiction, the review might be welcomed as an essay that exists in its own right. However, the review of a novel might include spoilers, and might aim to avoid this particular sin; and there does not seem to be a happy equivalent of the film trailer. What should we expect when a novel is reviewed?

Recent reviews of Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge (BE) include, predictably, claims that Pynchon is a recluse alongside, as a space-filler, one of the few photographs available; readers might be forgiven for thinking Pynchon has published nothing other than V and Gravity’s Rainbow (GR). There will be a generic plot summary lifted from the novel dust-jacket and, perhaps, other (equally inept) reviews; and BE has been labelled Pynchon’s 9/11 novel, a bit like saying GR is the WWII novel. Moreover, since this is the 9/11 novel, many reviewers had the bright idea of quoting the opening line of GR instead of wondering why, throughout, Pynchon refers to ‘11 September’. Sometimes, there is the nagging suspicion that, in many cases, the named reviewer has not even read BE; if they started it, they likely failed to finish it carefully. Such reviews are little more than announcements dressed up as some kind of comment, and the reviewer has little authority.

Elsewhere, it was just as predictable that the New York Times would offer another anti-Pynchon piece by Michiko Kakutani, who has (I think) read and finished BE.[1] From Kakutani we get ‘weirdly Pynchon Lite … an uncomfortable hodgepodge of genres’ and one can see the attempt to force BE into some kind of pre-existing model: expect ‘chick lit …, the private-eye procedural and Tom Wolfe‑ian satire’. The review as advertising poster insists that BE must resemble something else. And so BE ‘is a scattershot work that is, by turns, entertaining and wearisome, energetic and hokey, delightfully evocative and cheaply sensational; dead-on in its conjuring of zeitgeist-y atmospherics, but often slow-footed and ham‑handed in its orchestration of social details’.

Sooner or later we must come to ‘social details’ and realism, the requirement that a novelist gives us more of what we already know. Kakutani, well, complains of ‘lots of tired complaints about “sewers of greed” and consumerism in millennial Manhattan’ without bothering to consider – let alone seriously – the role that consumerism plays in the novel, Pynchon’s writing of the way that ‘11 September’ was packaged as any other consumer good (or, indeed, the way reviews package the novel for consumption). Indeed, the ‘11 September’ chapter recalls the treatment of WWI in Against the Day: as ever, what interests Pynchon isn’t what we know but how do we know it, how knowledge and experience are mediated, always at a distance. After all, who wants to know?

And more of what we know, of course, includes the characters who populate novels. For Kakutani there is Pynchon’s ongoing failure to produce realistic characters: that his ‘people have always verged on the cartoonish’ is, it seems, a weakness, and BE offers ‘especially poor specimens, neither resonant nor satiric in any memorable way’. So Pynchon can be criticised because his characters refuse to let the reader say ‘I know that’; and he has now, supposedly, produced a satire without characters who play that game. However, it might be more productive to address the character’s function in the narrative. To do so would be to begin with the first sentence and the introduction of ‘Maxine Tarnow, though some still have her in their system as Loeffler’ (1). As she is linked to ‘her boys’, who are ‘maybe … past the age where they need an escort’, the reader might infer that one of those names comes from a husband, but which one? Her identity questioned, her perspective (‘Guys, check it out, that tree?’) is challenged. A few pages later, Reg wonders about her professional role (‘Don’t you people have an oath …’ etc, 11), and then doubles Maxine with Rachel Weisz (‘you’re lookalikes’, 12). This is just to pick out a few moments at the start of the novel; given her presence throughout, with no other character able to challenge her status, the narrative will closely scrutinise Maxine’s role in both ‘family’ and ‘profession’. As so often, the questioning of characterisation is based on the reader’s reluctance to let go of their belief in a comforting psychological plausibility, one that positions them outside the text; that Maxine remains elusive is a challenge to the reader in the act of reading.

Reviewers like Kakutani have dismissed BE because Pynchon has failed to produce a novel they can safely classify on the basis of what they – and their imagined readers – already know. There is an assumption that ‘my readers’ should be warned off. Perhaps this assumption is based on the known readership of a particular newspaper or magazine: people who read The New York Times will not like BE, or (given Pynchon’s mockery of the Newspaper of Record) we want to establish that this is not a worthy novel, not one they should even think about enjoying. Perhaps readers then cite the review as evidence that the novel does not warrant any time and effort on their part, quotations from a review offered as statements of fact. This is mere speculation; but one imagines that busy people seek reasons not to read something as eagerly as they seek reasons why they should read it.

Similar reviews are found in the British media, for example those by Theo Tait (The Guardian) and Talitha Stevenson (The Observer). Note the way in which Tait seeks to undermine Pynchon when writing ‘… with, we read, “legions” of “devotees”’ or ‘alongside words such as “cult” and “devotees”’. This attack on the author through the kind of people who read his books is followed by a reference to ‘James Wood, probably the Anglosphere’s leading highbrow critic, [who] has damned [Pynchon] as a purveyor of “juvenile vaudeville” and “hysterical realism”’. We might ask what happened to the scare-quotes round ‘leading highbrow critic’, but no matter. Stevenson, by way of some contrast, chooses to echo Kakutani: ‘Pynchon invokes the tones of multiple genres – detective story, chick lit, teen lit, sci-fi, Tom Wolfean social satire’. Well, I suppose I do prefer her spelling of the Wolfe-derived adjective.

There is again the obsession with realism, and Tait begins with BE’s supposed topicality: ‘Over the last few months, we have learned that the internet is, among other things, a vast platform for state surveillance’ – all of which ‘might be called a Pynchonesque development’. However, later in the review and again reminiscent of Kakutani, he is somewhat disappointed that Pynchon has not done as expected: BE ‘apparently seriously, gives airtime to various boring 9/11 myths’, which ‘seems especially odd when the Bush presidency offers so much well-attested Pynchonesque material – from the torture memos to Halliburton to Abu Ghraib – to be getting on with’. Again, the demand that a novel merely tells us what we know, disappointment disguised as an aesthetic judgement: and why would Pynchon be less interested in myths than stories covered, however surprisingly, in the news media? Moreover, Maxine’s pursuit of myth is inseparable from the way her family and professional roles are written in those chapters.

As with Kakutani’s effort, each of these reviews offers readers a reason to avoid BE. For Stevenson, ‘it’s hard to believe Pynchon has any interest in non-American readers, [although] most of us have seen enough about America on film to know what he’s getting at’. And one can imagine the recycling of put-downs such as Tait’s apparent distaste for something he calls postmodernism: ‘… it looks particularly grievous when, like so many postmodernists, he tries to hack a path back through all that irony and pastiche to sincerity’. So Pynchon is a postmodernist. Earlier we saw Tait’s reference to ‘Pynchonesque material’, from which we might expect nothing more substantial than ‘irony and pastiche’ – how that relates to the expected focus on ‘torture memos …’ etc is anyone’s guess.

This kind of genre-writing is an odd kind of criticism. The introduction to fiction should avoid spoilers; and it might be paradoxical that any attempt at storytelling might make little or no sense to the reader until they have read the novel. Yet the three reviews discussed here have been critical of a novel that does not do what they think it should have done; there is little evidence of a willingness to engage with the text on its own terms. Put another way, the problem with such reviews is that, unlike BE itself, they are so predictable.

By way of contrast, there is this simple observation from Lethem, following his brief attempt to fit BE into Pynchon’s oeuvre:

I’m acting as if we all know what it is to read Pynchon. In fact none of us do, for figuring out what it is like to read Pynchon is what it is like to read Pynchon. You’re never done with it.

Is this (‘anything goes’) a cop-out? Who wants to know?

To be continued …

[1] Having said that, some kind of balance is provided by Jonathan Lethem in that newspaper’s Sunday edition. Other reviews/review essays worth reading include, in no particular order, those by Christian Lorentzen; Bruce Stone; Justin St Clair; Nathaniel Rich; Evgeny Morozov; Michael Jarvis; Ed Park; Albert Rolls and David Auerbach. Some are longer than the typical review; as it happens, this encourages a thoughtfulness not found elsewhere, although that might not always be the case, of course.

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