Reading Pynchon #7

Typically, reviews of BE have focused on developments in the Internet and the events of September 2001. The shorter reviews I discussed in my last post failed to consider Pynchon’s writing as writing; for the most part they were happy to dismiss his failure to produce realist fiction for readers solely interested in judging the way ‘2001’ had been represented in ‘2013’. This, supposedly, is what BE is ‘about’. However, at the very least, the longer reviews featured in this post do suggest ways of challenging this complacency.[1] On the whole these longer reviews are more thoughtful; the space made available to them has allowed writers to engage more seriously with the novel. Arguably, the worst reviews, recycling plot summary and gossip, are a substitute for reading the novel; whereas better reviews supplement the reading of a text that itself interrogates the act of representation.

To discuss history-writing in the BE reviews, then, is to consider how they address the writing of ’2001’ and the illusion of a contemporary moment in which ‘the autobiographical’ has featured prominently. Michael Chabon encourages the reader to ask what it means to say the novel is ‘set in’ 2001: parenthetically, he qualifies the statement with ‘spliced into’, a term that invokes montage, a key feature of modernist texts generally and film in particular. This is the way films used to be edited in the days when film was film. So one might ask the purpose of its entry here as, in parenthesis, ‘spliced into’ is spliced into the statement that a novel can have a setting. The novel has been inserted into what we think we know and therefore transforms that knowledge. Elsewhere, reviewers put – or splice – themselves into the setting, if not the novel itself; and this strategy also attempts to transform through montage. Christian Lorentzen begins with an autobiographical account (‘I worked in Silicon Alley for a few months in the spring of 2000 …’ etc) that functions as a kind of (unwitting?) parody of the fiction Pynchon’s narrative will disparage, the kind with authorial certainty about what happened. I was ‘there’; I could even be in the novel, somewhere, maybe hanging out with Jerry Seinfeld. Meanwhile, Joshua Cohen tracks the Pynchon family back to the Middle Ages before also indulging in autobiography (‘I was thirteen or fourteen when I found the Playboys in the basement and the Pynchon novels on a shelf in my father’s office’). However, this latter example is more interesting insofar as Cohen suggests that reading is inseparable from the circumstances in which it takes place. His account toys with hindsight, then finds it less than dependable if certainty is the aim: ‘I’ve read [the Slow Learner] introduction a dozen times,’ he begins before saying he cannot make up his mind about Pynchon’s claim that fiction, when valuable, comes ‘from deeper, more shared levels of the life we all really live’ (SL Introduction, 21, cited in Cohen). Cohen then refers to the influence of a surface reality – Pynchon in the navy or working for Boeing (perhaps Lorentzen’s time in Silicon Alley has a similar role) – as a possible guarantor of some kind of authenticity; before concluding (I would like to think with irony) that ‘[a]ll of this information came to me via the Internet’. With a focus on surface reality, reviewers frequently highlight Pynchon’s research and the novel’s period detail (for example, ‘Pynchon has the detail right’ – Lorentzen; or ‘The current of nostalgia that runs through the book’ – Stone; or even ‘achingly precise topical references to the contemporary technocultural and pop-cultural landscape’ – Jarvis). In response one has only to ask what happens to Rachel’s hair: such ‘detail’ has to be considered in narrative context, and perhaps BE is just as much pastiche as Mason & Dixon.

The SL passage discussed by Cohen deals with what Pynchon calls ‘[t]he old Baedeker trick’ as a response to Long Island, ‘a giant and featureless sandbar, without history, someplace to get away from but not to feel very connected to’ (SL, 20-21). That is, the recent past does not feel like history if one is too close to it; history is always elsewhere. BE is aware of the tendency to read in this way (as with ‘achingly precise topical references’); however, as reading is always situated, readers to come will discover their own BE, as with, for example, Maxine’s ongoing attempt to discover the truth about Nicholas Windust. For Jarvis, ‘Pynchon is writing a historical novel’ and BE ‘demonstrates how quickly the present becomes the unremembered past’. By way of contrast, Stone is more critical in describing ‘the whirrings of a historical novel, a little feeble, an accurate snapshot of what was (and is) rather than some more revolutionary glimpse of what might be’. Jarvis is commenting specifically on Reg Despard’s reference to a Napster of the future (BE, 348-349), what became YouTube; and one might say, following Pynchon’s construction of the Deep Web, ‘the present’ always contains remnants of ‘the past’ (Raymond Williams, for example, makes a comparable distinction between residual and emergent cultures).

All of which brings me to the Jonathan Lethem quotation with which my last BE post ended: ‘… figuring out what it is like to read Pynchon is what it is like to read Pynchon’. We have an idea of what a Pynchon novel will be, what it will look like; and these expectations, based on what went before, are likely disappointed. For some, that disappointment will mean the dismissal of a writer past his prime; for others, disappointment might be more closely related to the refusal to write the ‘9/11 novel’ the reader was expecting. Other readers might want to be disappointed insofar as they hope for a novel that, intriguing, provides a kick-start to the task of reading anew. For Lethem has given us a parody autobiography; he poses as the Pynchon reader with a checklist, and then confesses ‘I’m acting as if we all know what it is to read Pynchon’. Elsewhere, ‘know[ing] what it is to read Pynchon’ features prominently (see Park on ‘the systems novel’ or Auerbach on ‘Decoherence Events’, for example).

But what do these assumptions about the novel’s predictability have to do with the writing of history? The autobiographical elements identified here suggest a knowing subject whose backward glance is secure, not to be questioned; and autobiography can also take the form of a shared cultural history, as in the Italian restaurant scene with Rocky and the waiter (BE, 65-67). Here, the writing of history is contested on a personal level (the passage is highlighted by Rolls at the start of his review, 1-2); and this would be the case for Pynchon himself, were he inclined to be autobiographical in line with a surface reality. For example, Rich draws attention to the novel’s geographical setting on ‘the Upper West Side, where Pynchon has lived since at least 1990, which makes the novel the closest thing to an autobiographical statement he has ever produced’. Well, BE’s designation of that location as the ‘Yupper West Side’ might advise caution there. Nonetheless, there has been a common assumption that this is a novel that Pynchon had to write as, in Chabon’s words, ‘a response to the Pynchonisation of consensus reality’. Fortunately, Chabon himself is having none of that; to come full circle, to return to the representation of 11 September 2001, he suggests that dramatic irony – the reader’s knowledge of what will happen to the World Trade Centre – is a new departure for Pynchon. He says this is not the kind of history that Pynchon has previously favoured because such events have become part of everyday knowledge – Chabon refers to Pearl Harbour or the Kennedy assassination – and so we ‘think’ we ‘know’ what ‘really’ happened. In other words, such events can be integrated into the reader’s autobiography. This is a valid point; if we treat BE as a novel ‘about’ the events that have become known/mythologised as – or hidden behind – ‘9/11’, we risk forgetting about the writing, just as ‘autobiographical’ might be reduced to ‘factual’ or ‘more authentic’. From the Stencilised history of V onwards, Pynchon has never shown the slightest interest in writing ‘what really happened’; he has always preferred to investigate the relationship between history-as-then and reading-as-now. In turn, this means his writing has always had to consider the particular demands of the topic he deals with.

This might be one reason why the chapters that deal with 11 September do so obliquely; there is no sustained attempt to reproduce what happened. Throughout, the narrative positions the reader with Maxine, and refuses to engage with a character who could report back, who could say ‘I was there, this is what happened’. A different novel might have allowed Horst to be at work so he might subsequently tell his tale of survival; but Horst overslept (BE, 319-320), and will spend most of his time thereafter asleep in front of the television – that mediating force granted the power and authority to establish ‘9/11’ in the popular imagination. The conspiracy theories that emerge are acts of resistance to a media-imposed consensus (see Rolls, 4), and the novel becomes ‘a counter-discourse on 9/11’ (5). Discussing dramatic irony, Chabon emphasises ‘our sense of characters closing in on a fixed, a predetermined outcome’; that is, dramatic irony draws attention to the act of reading. This might be why the schoolteacher attempts to ban fiction in favour of reality (BE, 335); the former exposes the act of reading (even when, in school, reading is reduced to something called ‘personal response’), while the latter renders reading invisible. Beginning his review with ‘spliced into’ as a description of the relationship between text and ‘real 2001’, Chabon renders that relationship problematic.


[1] This post will address the writing of history and neglects some aspects of BE’s engagement with the Internet, so I have little to say here about Evgeny Morozov’s discussion of cyberflanerie; I would suggest this review (and see also this earlier essay) has provided the most thoughtful response of any to BE’s representation of ‘the city’ and the way in which Pynchon’s narrative moves characters.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: