Reading Pynchon #10

1

What starts here will become a page-by-page commentary on M&D, similar to the one I have already completed on AtD. Generally, I shall work out what I want to say about the relationship between two novels that, arguably, represent Pynchon’s major achievement.

Reading is always rereading, of course. When M&D was first published it appeared seven years after VL and 24 years after GR, and was seen by some as ‘a return to form’ after the aberration that was VL. Even then, reading M&D led inevitably to a reappraisal of each the earlier novels; in time, this has allowed the construction of a middle period for Pynchon, beginning with the short texts published in the early‑1980s (including the Introduction to an autobiography known as SL). In this middle period, I would suggest, there is a more explicit interest in narrative as narrative, the telling of stories. If, then, GR concludes the early period, texts of this middle period make up a transitional phase that leads to the late period of 1984 Foreword, AtD, IV and BE. Those who maintain GR is Pynchon’s ‘masterpiece’ might too readily dismiss the last two novels on that list, and even AtD as well; but one should be able to see how these texts mark Pynchon’s thinking through of the relationship between his fiction and the politics of the post‑1989 world.

And it should go without saying that, if reading is always rereading, no (re)reading can ever be more than provisional.[1]

2

I first read M&D when it was published in May 1997. Publication coincided with, for me, a long weekend following the British general election that led to Tony Blair’s appointment as prime minister. Relieved to see the back of a Conservative government, I nonetheless ignored the news and spent the weekend reading Pynchon’s new novel; like many others, I never had any confidence in Blair as a Labour prime minister. Tom Watson says we should stop dissing Blair; I would simply point out that, even without mentioning the Iraq War, a government that frittered away a 179-seat majority and five million votes might – tactical voting in 1997 notwithstanding – have a little explaining to do, and should have achieved rather more than it did, had there been any intention to seriously be a Labour government.

And no, it isn’t irrelevant to mention this election and government here. Shortly afterwards, Blair fell into line as the Clinton government’s makeover of NATO found an excuse to bomb Kosovo.[2] Blair it was whose ‘doctrine’ (‘I can have one if I want it; you don’t have to be president’) justified a foreign policy based on the rhetoric of some kind of universalised humanitarianism;[3] and one can see how this contemporary writing of ‘universal rights’ (always, of course, to be honoured selectively) had already found its way into M&D as, on their travels, Mason and Dixon confront racism (or racisms). Subsequently, when the ‘blurb’ for AtD, hinting at the novel’s concerns with globalisation, was published in August 2006, I suggested that a key narrative concern might be less to do with ‘location’ than with the way transition and movement became as important as named characters. M&D had already juxtaposed its narrative of space (the journeys undertaken by Mason and Dixon) to one of time (Cherrycoke as a – possibly unreliable – narrator), and Pynchon’s concerns were apparent from the outset.

Chapter 1 of M&D, for example, is split into two sections, the second of which offers a narration by Cherrycoke, now distanced from the family setting that, in the first few pages, has confined him. His narration here lifts Cherrycoke out of both place and time, resembling as it does the voiceover that, in a film, will mark the transition to a flashback (commencing in Chapter 2). One can see, then, straightaway, an interest in confronting C18th pastiche with the way the film medium has shaped perceptions of storytelling more generally.[4]

3

If M&D is now 20 years old, the world that produced it has become a world in which the publication of AtD was not only possible but might coincide with that of The Shock Doctrine. One should address the relevance, to AtD’s focus on power, of discussions since 2001, of ‘neoliberalism’ and ‘terrorism’.[5] If terrorism in the 1960s and 1970s was, supposedly, a product of affluence within Western societies, by the time Pynchon could put Bush II into both the Foreword and AtD, Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ had come up against Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’ as US hegemony was problematised anew.[6]

Previously, Nixon had appeared in both GR and VL as the post-1945 Bretton Woods system underwent some modification. Publication of M&D in the mid-1990s, then, can be tied to historical processes that, 20 years on, make the novel different (as any text must always become different); while reference here to the Blair government has been a reminder that, currently, British politics is being transformed, the neoliberal paradigm dismantled, even as, globally, US foreign policy goes on invoking ‘liberal democracy’ as a more seductive ideology.[7]

Next up … Chapter 1.

[1] For the application of Hayden White’s ideas on historiography to Pynchon’s fiction, see Shawn Smith, Pynchon and History: Metahistorical Rhetoric and Postmodern Narrative Form in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon, Routledge, 2005. This book is one of the many excellent ‘recent’ (or ‘recentish’) studies of Pynchon’s work. However, in preceding Pynchon’s last three novels, of course, Smith’s take on M&D in particular illustrates the point I have tried to make here.

[2] For a summary and references, see my recent post, Labour and NATO.

[3] See, for example, Mark Bevir and Ian Hall, The rise of security governance (in Bevir and Hall eds, Interpreting Global Security, Routledge, 2014).

[4] Henry James might be of interest to Pynchon for his narratives of European‑American culture clash, something he has in common with Nabokov; but his books also foreground, as a feature of literary modernism, the montage that is more obviously a feature of film. On film and fiction, see Seymour Chatman, Coming to Terms The Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film, Cornell, 1990. Consideration of film and narrative is one way of linking M&D to VL before it and both AtD and IV coming after it.

[5] Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Penguin, 2008 (first published 2007). The writing of global politics as Pynchon made his way from VL to M&D to AtD and beyond is central to any reading of the novels. On neoliberalism, see David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, OUP, 2007 (first published 2005); Yanis Varoufakis, The Global Minotaur: America, Europe and the Future of the Global Economy, Zed Books, 2015 (first published, 2011); or Simon Springer, The Discourse of Neoliberalism: An Anatomy of a Powerful Idea, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016. On terrorism, see Mike Davis, Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb, Verso, 2007; or Lisa Stampnitzky, Disciplining Terror: How Experts Invented ‘Terrorism’, CUP, 2013.

[6] See, for example, Perry Anderson, American Foreign Policy and its Thinkers, Verso, 2015.

[7] Nonetheless … as accounts of an emergent alternative democracy, see Naomi Klein, No Logo, Fourth Estate, 2010 (first published 2000); and Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, Penguin, 2015 (first published 2014). Further, on television, making for an interesting comparison, there has been The Newsroom (Aaron Sorkin, 2012 onwards) as a successor to The West Wing (Aaron Sorkin, 1999-2006).

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