Tag Archives: Pynchon

Since Jeremy Corbyn emerged as a serious candidate for the Labour leadership, media coverage has been governed by a politics of fear and the language of catastrophe. The Guardian’s recent ‘long read’ – long, perhaps, for any who have a limited attention span, admittedly the kind of reader the media usually prefer to contemplate – has described les événements as ‘an earthquake’ and ‘the political shock of a generation’; and this same newspaper had managed, earlier, to follow Corbyn’s successful debut at Prime Minister’s Questions with a note of caution, describing an ‘era of political disaggregation, [in which] Labour is fragmenting more than most’ – all before ending with the apocalypse, citing a ‘cabinet minister’ who spoke of ‘destroy[ing] the Labour brand’. When Corbyn became party leader, government ministers lined up to mimic speak-your-weight machines, repeating word-for-word (one we prepared earlier) a message about the ‘threat to national security’. Within the Labour party itself, of course, there have been forecasts aplenty that this is the end, we’re all doomed (for Margaret Beckett, ‘the worst political mistake I have ever made’). However, anyone who does wish to be serious about Corbyn’s leadership will acknowledge that he and John McDonnell have simply moved the debate a little to the left. Even Lord Turnbull, a former Osborne supporter, now says the government’s economic policy has been politically motived (as 2015 winds down and the days get shorter, it hardly needs Yanis Varoufakis to make that particular claim). To defend the increasingly indefensible, then, the politics of fear risks risible melodrama, but that is the form it must take.

It should be of some interest that political discourse can only be presented as fear and melodrama. It is not simply a question of ‘biased reporting’ (evident though distortion and, often, blatant lies have been in most print and broadcast media output). Rather, the issue has become the way in which the speaker must affirm their allegiance to a norm, one that designates Corbyn as, not only marginal to the political consensus, but representative of the unsayable. One might refer to a dominant ideology or the Overton window and call this norm ‘neoliberalism’, which quickly becomes ‘common sense’ and must be defended with what might come across as religious zeal: Thatcher’s ‘no alternative’ 30+ years on. Not least, it is significant that popular support for Corbyn soon attracted the dismissive term Corbynmania, as though dismissing it as irrational was the only way to cope with the possibility that such a candidate might, just might have widespread support (and opinion polls must be spun to suggest that the opposite is the case). This New Statesman article, for example, describes the process in terms of some kind of psychological determinism: if the words ‘mob’ and ‘fanatic’ don’t appear, they can be easily inferred.

It is evident that Corbyn has ‘moved political debate leftwards’; but that form of words fails to fully capture the simple fact that the language of politics-as-is has become demonstrably inadequate. One might easily mock the government’s (or, perhaps, to be as precise as Downing Street would wish it, that should read the Conservative Party’s) rhetoric about national security; although it might not appear so amusing when a military coup scheduled for 2020 is taken into account. This is the politics of fear and nothing new, of course (how many times have the tabloid press so bravely exposed ‘the most dangerous man/woman in Britain’?); and it makes for a convenient tactic for those who wish to pre-empt discussion. However, any discussion of political discourse should go further to ask how language not only describes but also constructs consensus. To illustrate this point, consider France’s ‘Je suis Charlie’ phenomenon. Two recent books describe the aftermath to the Charlie Hebdo killings in January 2015, when there was a desperate need to produce and advertise a consensus on free speech and opposition to terrorism, even if it meant closing down discussion.[1] Given the hypocrisy involved, it was not just about ‘a defence of free speech’; and there was a perceived need to redefine French national identity in such a way that it precluded any questioning of ‘Je Suis Charlie’. The issue was reduced to a simplistic ‘with us or against us’ (as George Bush put it following the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001).

Melodramatic gibes and empty rhetoric about a threat to national security notwithstanding, none of this means that Corbyn’s leadership of Labour has become, somehow, the equivalent of a terrorist attack involving loss of life. Further, it is pretty obvious that ‘Je Suis Not Jeremy’ has proven less successful as a marketing campaign than ‘Je Suis Charlie’, even if the need for a disclaimer probably makes the point: the construction of these cases rests on an assumption that ‘we are at war’. Corbyn’s refusal to sing the national anthem becomes almost treasonable, even when that anthem can be so easily ridiculed and that story has been followed by one suggesting he would fail to kneel before the Queen when joining the Privy Council. However, the latter story might have no more substance than many that have been written about Corbyn. If French national identity is based on some kind of post-Revolution ‘equality and fraternity’, British national identity (still) includes a notion of politics-as-tradition; and so a fear that Corbyn and the so-called ‘new politics’ might be about to tear up the rule book is what generates this particular case of ‘with us or against us’.

The hysterical language of the so-called War on Terror can be adopted and adapted without ridicule and might pass without comment, so established is it as common sense. And so, by way of conclusion, it is worth thinking here about Thomas Pynchon’s take on the manufactured response to the attack on the World Trade Centre (aka ‘9/11’, nothing if not a branding exercise, arguably the reason why he refused to use that term in Bleeding Edge). In his 2003 Foreword to a new edition of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty‑Four, Pynchon addressed precisely this issue when he wrote of the modern surveillance state (part of what Foucault would call a disciplinary society) and ‘social control on a scale those quaint old twentieth-century tyrants with their goofy mustaches could only dream about’.[2] He is making a point that invokes the enforced conformity Delphy and Todd describe when they discuss ‘Je Suis Charlie’: the kind of totalitarian society that we might have in mind when we think of ‘quaint old … tyrants’ isn’t what we should expect to see today. If Conservatives do currently dream of ‘destroy[ing] the Labour brand’, their fantasy is given substance by the logic of advertising: the Labour Party could disappear as easily as did Woolworth’s if, indeed, it is no more than just another brand.

Nonsense about national security might be no more than we should expect from David Cameron; and talk about overthrowing an elected government might be no more than we should expect from Murdoch newspapers (quoting an ‘unnamed general’ who, like The Guardian’s cabinet minister, might or might not exist – the purpose of the story is to ‘get it out there’). The point is that the debate – instead of confronting head-on the supposed inadequacies of Corbyn’s politics, and his opponents cannot claim they haven’t been the time and space – must necessarily position the speaker in relation to politics-as-is, as though the alternative is a step into the abyss. It is problematic for the anti-Corbyn front (both within and without Labour) that he cannot be denied, as Thatcher might have put it, the oxygen of publicity. Both Corbyn and McDonnell as shadow chancellor have roles that mean they must be allowed a platform; and so the unsayable quickly becomes both sayable and, perhaps, common sense. If that isn’t enough to make voters fearful, something might well be happening.

[1] Christine Delphy, Separate and Dominate: Feminism and Racism after the War on Terror, Verso, 2015; Emmanuel Todd, Who is Charlie?, Polity Press, 2015.

[2] Thomas Pynchon, Foreword, in George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Plume Centennial Edition, 2003, xvi.

For anyone who has not yet seen Inherent Vice, what follows will include spoilers.

A first viewing of Inherent Vice (2014, hereafter IV14) brings one up against the differences between Anderson’s film and Pynchon’s novel (2009, hereafter IV09). The two narratives share characters and some locations, and plots do coincide. Dialogue has often been taken from the novel, although Pynchon’s text is frequently modified in some way. In short, the film is perhaps most interesting for being different; and the inherent vice in question is that which attends any adaptation/translation/representation, the impossibility of ‘keeping it the same’. There is, and should be, a sense of loss.

Despite this, some reviewers have considered the film a faithful adaptation, although they might not be agreed that this is a virtue. What is interesting here is the way fidelity is judged. For example, William Tucker thinks the film ‘impressively loyal to its source material’; ‘[it] does a superb job of capturing Pynchon’s paranoid tone throughout its convoluted and disjointed narrative’, while ‘[t]he seemingly endless number of characters also reinforces the complex, interconnected network of a Pynchon novel’. That ‘impressively loyal’ suggests that adaptation was a major challenge, one that Anderson has survived, even if what follows is an odd juxtaposition of ‘convoluted’ and ‘disjointed’. Tucker does seem to suggest that Anderson has found a filmic equivalent to Pynchon’s novel. Elsewhere, by way of contrast, Lee Weston Sabo is less enthusiastic. That the film is ‘more or less a faithful adaptation of Pynchon’s novel’ counts against Anderson; his decision ‘to adhere so closely to the novel indicates a lack of desire to transform or elevate the work’. Again, it might be thought odd that Anderson has ‘adhere[d] so closely …’ etc, if the film is only ‘more or less a faithful adaptation’.

At this stage it might be worth noting the omissions that render IV14 less than faithful, if ‘being faithful’ means simply ‘what happens’, reducing both film and novel to the most superficial elements of plot and dialogue. Joanna Freer goes into some detail; to her list of omissions might be added anything to do with Doc’s family, as well as much of the novel’s discussion of family discourse, not to mention the ARPAnet. Having jettisoned most of the novel’s discussion of family, Anderson must therefore find a new way of dealing with the narrative significance of Coy’s return, of which more later. Further, given that much has been made of Pynchon’s references to film and television, it might also be said that, in IV09, a central theme is television as a source of information about the world, specifically coverage of the Manson trial and basketball play-offs that run through the novel (this combination is not accidental). None of this is retained. Generally, these omissions help bring to the fore Doc’s relations with Shasta and Bigfoot: that these characters are juxtaposed  is evident in the novel but features more prominently in the film.

Freer suggests that the Las Vegas sequence, omitted from the film, is a ‘fairly lengthy excursion [that] does little in the novel to move the plot forward’. However, this omission means that Trillium’s relationship with Puck is necessarily abandoned, and this one example can be used to briefly illustrate the complexity of Pynchon’s narrative; in turn this gives an indication of the challenge to Anderson as screenwriter. In IV09 Doc’s response to the Trillium-Puck marriage (246-248) is echoed by his response when Coy eventually returns to his family (362-363), but a couple of pages later he finds out that Trillium is in hospital (366). These passages take their place in Pynchon’s detailed discussion of family; and it is apt that Doc finds out about Trillium from the ARPAnet (Sparky’s computer recognising hospitals as family members). Doc’s reunion with Puck (‘You look like somebody I ran across once’, 317) now has entirely different narrative connotations.

None of the above is meant as a criticism of IV14. Anyone who wants to read Pynchon should do so without expecting a film version that does the job for them. Further, as Albert Rolls points out, neither IV09 nor IV14 offers the kind of closure associated with a conventional text and the film ‘is about something other than its plot’. Any interest in the adaptation should be to work out its purpose. Rolls suggests that the film might be considered ‘a piece of Pynchon criticism’ and so, instead of bemoaning the absence of some aspect of the novel’s narrative, one might consider Anderson’s selections as a commentary.

Unfortunately, reviewers have likely spent more time reading each other and/or press releases, and the following comments can be taken as typical of the way film and (by extension) novel have been presented to audiences and possible new readers. Doc is ‘a stoner Philip Marlowe’ (here); or a ‘stoner beach-bum PI’ (here); and he ‘stumbles in a narcotic haze through LA at the fag-end of the 1960s’ (here). As a ‘lackadaisical detective’, he ‘smokes pot like it’s going out of fashion and rarely knows what day of the week it is never mind what case he’s working on’ (here). Anyone who bothers paying attention to film or novel might question such sloppy judgements, of course. No matter, character and narrative become fused, and it is ‘a frustratingly hazy movie which never quite makes sense’ (here). Perhaps ‘you can tease out noodles of story line here and there’, but it remains ‘chewed-over Chandler’ (here). Anderson can be charged with failing to produce a realist narrative (the same can be said for Pynchon before him, of course).

Lee Weston Sabo’s review is more substantial than most but still follows the script: the film is ‘a gumshoe comedy where a pot-smoking beach bum of a private investigator tries to unravel a bizarre conspiracy’. For now it is worth commenting further on Sabo’s review, given the discussion of another point made frequently, IV14’s relationship to The Big Lebowski, ‘an obvious and direct source’; both Doc and BL’s the Dude are ‘burned-out pothead version[s] of Philip Marlowe who can hardly keep [their] thoughts straight’. However, this is where one can be misled by an obsession with the dramatised use of recreational drugs. In BL the Dude has more in common with the Hitchcockian figure (Roger O Thornhill in North By Northwest, say; or Richard Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps) who inadvertently finds himself involved in a plot that will dislocate him and challenge his sense of self. In the Hitchcock plot, as in BL, solving a mystery is essential if they are to get back their identity.

The stoner/pothead motif has proven to be something of a distraction when discussing both IV14 and IV09 before it: Kathryn Hume has commented on the narrative function of Doc’s drug-taking in the novel (12-13) and it is clear that he is not ‘just another pothead’ who (joke alert!) happens to be a detective. That Doc, like Marlowe but unlike the Dude, is a licensed private eye is a key point too readily overlooked; he might spend a lot of time stoned or getting there, but both novel and film contain many references to professionalism, or professional ethics, too many to be overlooked. The descriptions above, and many others that are similar, fail to do justice to Doc’s resilience and, in particular, the encouragement he receives (in IV14) from Sortilège when, following the return of both Mickey Wolfmann and Shasta, any mystery regarding their respective disappearances has been apparently resolved.

The role of Sortilège as narrator/guardian angel will be discussed later. For now it is worth noting that Ali Chetwynd has written on the importance of duty in Pynchon’s recent fiction, a significant development in his writing; and so, for example, ‘Doc becomes less preoccupied with uncovering the Golden Fang than with what he can do for those of its victims, like Coy, that he has encountered in his search for information’ (932). According to Chetwynd, then, a quest for the truth has become less important than doing what is right. This is one way of addressing the narrative function of family relations since Vineland; and also points the way to a useful comparison of IV09 and IV14, given the way Pynchon’s narrative has been edited for the film. However, reference to Chandler’s Marlowe novels is unavoidable, so Chetwynd’s article might also suggest an approach to IV09’s relationship to Chandler’s novels. In particular, one might consider a distinction drawn between the earlier novels, in which the narrative is confined to a short period of time (hours/days) and those that follow, where the narrative unfolds at a rather more leisurely pace. In the latter, Marlowe’s agency is less likely compromised by a quest for truth (‘following leads’). A dope haze might affect one’s perceptions of the world; it should not be used as an excuse to abandon morality.

In an afterword to Simenon’s Dirty Snow William T Vollmann refers to Marlowe’s ethics: ‘… with each passing decade, Marlowe’s corpse decomposes evermore rapidly into a skeleton of outright sentimentality’. And so, ‘[t]o some readers he already seems as quaint as Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer’ (247). Given the reference here to nineteenth-century historical romance, one might end, then, with a nod in the direction of James J Donahue’s Failed Frontiersmen, which includes a chapter on Pynchon, albeit with no more than passing reference to IV09. Possibly, IV14 should be seen as, in part, a commentary on IV09’s commentary on the political values of the counterculture that Doc inhabits, if awkwardly.

To be continued.

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.

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.

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.

David Cowart’s Thomas Pynchon & the Dark Passages of History (2011, details here) is made up of chapters published at different times, from the late-1970s to one (‘The Historiographer Historicized: Pynchon and Literary History’, 189ff, offered here as a conclusion of sorts) that has also been published, in a shorter version, in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon (Dalsgaard, Herman & McHale eds, 2012). Dark Passages discusses all of Pynchon’s work but I shall confine myself to comments on Against the Day (AtD, 2006).

Chapter 6 (‘Pynchon, Genealogy, History’) begins by emphasising ‘the centrality of historical questions’ to Pynchon’s work (159), and Cowart here brings in Foucault. Indeed, the chapter heading echoes Foucault’s own ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ (in The Foucault Reader: An Introduction to Foucault’s Thought, Paul Rabinow ed, 1984), an essay cited when Cowart refers to Foucault’s use of genealogy as a kind of historiography: ‘gray, meticulous and patiently documentary’ (160). Previously Cowart has focused his attention on the content of Pynchon’s novels, hence the importance accorded German culture in Chapter 3 (57ff). Now, to put it in perhaps simplistic terms, he addresses form to describe the work of genealogy: ‘the genealogist-historian lays bare the play of power that so swiftly seeks to disguise its workings’ (160). Hence, ‘readers who find the overall point of Against the Day elusive’ might still ‘recognise the technique as that of the genealogist’ (160); and then, a few pages on, ‘Pynchon … aspires to the calling of fictive genealogist, the most historically meticulous of storytellers’ (164). But what does this mean? Cowart has already concluded the reference to Foucault’s work by suggesting that Pynchon, the novelist, might be better at ‘imagining a world in which various oppressive forces can be countered, dismantled, resisted’ (161); and one might ask if this is what Pynchon, indeed, is – and always has been – about. Nonetheless, for Cowart, the novelist enjoys a licence denied the historian/genealogist (ie Foucault); and so ‘what hybridizes Pynchon’s work is his contempt for objective distance, his passion for justice-based chronicle’ (165). It is the ‘justice-based chronicle’ – ‘Pynchon insists on writing the history of the marginalized or, as he calls them, the preterite’ – that gives the novelist an advantage here.

With regard to AtD Cowart now goes on to refer to Scarsdale Vibe’s lengthy speech, the ‘orgy of self-congratulation’ (168) that opens Chapter 67 in AtD. He concludes that ‘the author makes his political views clear, but such extravagance is balanced and framed by incremental intimations of other ideas the more powerful for their oblique presentation’ (169). Here we see, juxtaposed, the real beliefs of the text’s author – which pre-exist the text but shape the writing of character (‘Pynchon makes no effort to temper the expression of his disgust’) – and ‘other ideas’, the ‘oblique presentation’ of which will emphasise the role of the canny reader in deciphering the text: one must ‘peel the onion of appearances’ (169). Do these ‘other ideas’ also belong to the author? Presumably so, but Cowart appears to distinguish between the mere content of Vibe’s speech and another kind of expression: the example he gives is AtD’s use of ‘artful indirection’ in the writing of World War I (170), eg Franz Ferdinand’s visit to the United States rather than his assassination (171, followed on 173 by War references that ‘do not gather to a narrative climax’ but ‘fall as solitary pebbles in history’s great, echoing bucket’). Given the way Cowart moves rapidly from Vibe’s speech to a consideration of the writing of War, we might ask if, indeed, we are expected to conclude that ‘artful indirection’ is absent from the passage that features Vibe’s speech.

At the start of Chapter 67 (AtD, 1000-1001) Vibe addresses a like-minded audience (the L.A.H.D.I.D.A.) of rich white men. On 1000 the narrative indicates (‘Scarsdale well into what by now was his customary stem-winder’) that some at least will have heard it all before: hence ‘the expected arm gesture’. The speech is a performance, a rehearsal of agreement; however, on 1001 it ends with Vibe betraying the distance between him and Foley Walker. Vibe speaks generally of those ‘whose future … was always to toil for us’ and then avoids eye-contact with Walker. The latter (‘attentive back in the shadows’) might now be aligned with the ‘observer’ of the opening paragraph on 1000, implicitly an outsider called upon to interpret what he sees, an outsider with whom the reader might be positioned. If we read the speech as no more than the author’s heavy-handed signposting of political views we miss the substance. On these two pages, then, the speech constructs the general while the narrative disrupts that overview with the writing of agency (a feature of the text that I shall discuss in my next post). If nothing else we might also recall the times when AtD offers that kind of political statement, or history lesson, as a speech delivered by a character: as examples, consider the narrative function of speeches by the Cohen (230-231), Ratty (808-809 and 937-938) and Danilo (828).

What Foucault calls effective history ‘deals with events in terms of their most unique characteristics, their most acute manifestations’ (‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,’ 88). One can indeed see here the strategy adopted by AtD, where the content of the Vibe speech (and the others indicated above) is challenged in the writing; and one would have liked more than the brief references to Foucault that do appear in Dark Passages (Foucault does not feature at all in Chapter 5, ‘The Luddite Vision: Mason & Dixon’, originally published in 1999; and should also be considered influential in the writing of Vineland and Slow Learner).

Which is not to say that Pynchon has been directly influenced; it would matter little if he announced he had never heard of Foucault, let alone read his work. Concluding his discussion of V, Cowart offers Pynchon as ‘one of [the] most important harbingers’ of  Said’s postcolonialism and White’s postmodern historiography (56), intellectual developments he associates with the 1970s, although that should not lead us to suppose that Said and White have been directly influenced by their reading of Pynchon. Elsewhere, Cowart relates Pynchon’s work to the history of criticism, specifically Watt (23) and Frye (200) in the 1950s; and White is also discussed in relation to Frye (45). In such passages Dark Passages starts to outline the manner in which the Pynchon-text emerged (and has continued to re-emerge). However, given the genesis of the book over more than 30 years, it is not surprising that there are two brief references to Shawn Smith’s Pynchon and History: Metahistorical Rhetoric and Postmodern Narrative Form in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon (2005); and no references to Amy J Elias’ description of a metahistorical romance in Sublime Desire: History and Post-1960s Fiction (2001), even though Cowart does mention the challenge postmodernism poses to historical fiction (161-162, with implicitly a reference to the effective history outlined by Foucault).

Thomas Pynchon published Against the Day (AtD) in November 2006. At that time, the response from reviewers was mixed; and some, perhaps, did not bother to finish reading the novel. Perhaps the best review was written by Bernard Duyfhuizen (2007) and published some months after Against the Day appeared. In his opening paragraph Duyfhuizen notes that he has now read the novel twice; this careful approach was in marked contrast to the dismissive attitude of many other reviewers publishing at the end of 2006 (a selection can be accessed here). Since 2007 there have been papers by Ickstadt (2008, details here) on Against the Day’s relationship to earlier novels; Kohn (2008/2009) on idiosyncratic writing; Aghoro (2009) on identity and bilocation; and Staes (2010) on the writing of time. Furthermore, Gilles Chamerois (2008) has edited an issue of Graat devoted to Pynchon. In addition, there are now two full-length collections. Pöhlmann (2010) edited Against the Grain; Reading Pynchon’s Counternarratives (AtG); and Severs & Leise (2011) edited Pynchon’s Against the Day: A Corrupted Pilgrim’s Guide (CPG; available with the usual omissions at Google Books here).

Alert to the way critical discourse is being constructed, we should note that A Corrupted Pilgrim’s Guide, the most recent collection, contains references to only one of the papers listed above: Ickstadt’s (2008) paper, published in Pynchon Notes, is cited twice. Given that we are discussing an emergent field in studies of Against the Day, one might anticipate some recognition of less traditional web-based sources. Leise’s introduction mentions in passing and that is it. Without doubt, the timing of A Corrupted Pilgrim’s Guide might have precluded any serious consideration of papers by Aghoro (2009) and Staes (2010); however, the Graat issue was seemingly published in good time and might have been acknowledged. There is, of course, no mention in A Corrupted Pilgrim’s Guide of Against the Grain. One of my purposes, then, is to consider Against the Grain and A Corrupted Pilgrim’s Guide as, to borrow Against the Grain’s subtitle, counternarratives.

I begin here with the two introductions and consider the ways in which they construct the critical field for Against the Day. In Against the Grain Pöhlmann (2010) begins by suggesting we should ‘reconsider the postmodernism of Pynchon’s writing’ as Against the Day ‘significantly transcends the limitations of that concept’ (9) or ‘exceeds the conceptual framework of postmodernism’ (11). A Corrupted Pilgrim’s Guide, however, begins with an introduction by Leise (2011) that considers the early reviews with which I began this post, concluding that ‘the scale and intensity of so much disappointment deserve consideration’ (3). For Leise, the central debate is that between a critical approach devoted to characterisation and (psychological) realism and one that dwells on, and draws attention to, the writing of fiction.

In particular, Pöhlmann (2010: 17) introduces a ‘[p]ostnationalism, which I define as the theory and practice of challenging the hegemony of nation-ness’. For Pöhlmann Against the Day ‘dismantles the myths and symbols that work to transform the narrative of nation-ness into a metanarrative’ (19). Here he refers to the Chums passage on the Fourth of July (AtD, 111-112, cited in AtG on 19-20) and one is reminded of Chapter 8 when ‘Dynamite’s National Holiday’ (AtD, 81) is the occasion for a retrospective account of Webb Traverse’s family life (88-96): Webb’s career as a bomber is inseparable from his career as a husband and father, and we might see how the (at the very least) ironic renaming (and reorganising) of the Fourth of July is juxtaposed to the genealogical (specifically, I would argue, in the Foucaultian sense) account of personal history.

Pöhlmann also suggests that reading Against the Day should also affect the way we (re)read earlier novels: ‘instead of making the [new] novel fit the oeuvre, one does well to read the oeuvre anew and see how it is changed by the addition’ (10). This is a key point and, for my own part, for example, returning to Vineland after Mason & Dixon emphasised the importance of that novel as a transitional text mediating between Mason & Dixon and the earlier Gravity’s Rainbow. Not least, that we might challenge the ‘author-function’ (10) explains the presence, in Against the Grain, of chapters that do just that by scarcely, if at all, mentioning Against the Day. By way of introduction to A Corrupted Pilgrim’s Guide, Leise also considers the way in which the reception of Against the Day was shaped by perceptions of a Pynchon-text. Here, with regard to, specifically Mason & Dixon, Leise juxtaposes one approach to reading Pynchon, looking for ‘a presumed trajectory of more believable, even likeable, characters’, to another, aware that Against the Day ‘follows the track of generic exploration’; hence, ‘its highest genius lies in the ability to occupy so many genres of American ideological indoctrination to dramatically repurposed effect’ (4). This is not so far removed from Pöhlmann’s concern with postnationalism.

According to Leise (2011: 5) Pynchon is interested in ‘not just the history but also the literature that composed the narrative of America’. By way of response I would frame the argument a little differently and say that Pynchon has always dealt with how we know what we (think we) know, as opposed to, more simply, what we know. As an illustration of how Pynchon dramatises this concern there is the frequent use of the tourist as a figure in Against the Day, or tourism as a way to position the reader (see in particular Chapter 40 with Dally in Venice, 568ff). This has been a feature of Pynchon’s writing from the outset, and early examples include the story ‘Mortality and Mercy in Vienna’ (1959) and the essay ‘A Journey into the Mind of Watts’ (1966), which should always be read alongside The Crying of Lot 49 (1966).