Among the Holy of Holies of Prose Fiction in U.S. English; or, on Thomas Ruggles Pynchon

The present article gives a broad survey view of the contemporary American novelist Thomas Pynchon's fictional output from 1963 to 2009. In so doing, it attempts to highlight a key issue of the Pynchonian page: aesthetic space and its negotiation by the participant-reader, an operation that affects the sensibility and mindset of the reader well beyond the reading process. Pynchon's own atypical mode of reality is also highlighted to illuminate the sorts of creative opportunities he has created for himself as an author-recluse. The text also articulates some leading thematic areas of attention in Pynchon's artistic universe, as well as throwing light on particular preoccupations that inform the overall rhetorical and ideological content of Pynchon's compositional work.

Thomas Ruggles Pynchon (1937-) has now managed to answer his critics with not a mere scattering of prose works but now an output that even exceeds his key textual antecedent in the cultural form of the novel, James Joyce (1882-1941). His first novel V (1963) was highly acclaimed by such critics as Harvard’s Richard Poirier; Pynchon’s second novel The Crying of Lot 49 (1965) inspired lavish praise from Cambridge’s renowned Sir Frank Kermode. So, the stage was set for what remains Pynchon’s summa, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) a novel that holds the dubious distinction of being the only text ever to be unanimously nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction by the literary jurors and yet rejected by the business minded set that divvy out the award fiscally speaking. This is perhaps to the point, for Pynchon has long been held to be an important anti-statement or anti-art cultural figure sensitively attuned to the problems of culture and power and of how intimately inter-imbricated these two can be.

Pynchon followed up on his chef d’oeuvre with a slender volume some eleven years later in 1984 entitled Slow Learner and Other Stories. In December 1989 came the much-awaited fourth novel from Pynchon’s hand titled, Vineland. This was perhaps the most relaxed and discursive of his outputs to date, which took on board a kind of post postmodern linear narrative in its aesthetic scaffolding. In 1997 one of Pynchon’s post provocative texts to date appeared, Mason & Dixon, a work that employs eighteenth-century syntax to excellent rhetorical effect including the not inconsiderable pleasure of irony that came from his purportedly most post modern of hands. It is a narrative text that Pynchon had reputedly been working in for several years sometime after his completion of Gravity’s Rainbow, and its density betrays the effort that went in to composing the thick tome. As a book that much concerns male friendship, it has few rivals in the republic of U.S. literature.

At this point of fulfillment, we have encapsulated Pynchon I (V) the period of apprenticeship, Pynchon II (The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow), Pynchon III (Slow Learner and Other Stories and Vineland), and Pynchon IV (Mason & Dixon). Pynchon V surfaces with the notoriously long (1085 pp. or 1220 pp. in at least two versions) and difficult information overload text that taxes the patience of even the most diehard Pynchon-fan, Against the Day (2006). This text takes place between the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and the outbreak and aftermath of World War I so until the early 1920s. The latest Pynchon title, Inherent Vice (2009) constitutes a kind of semi autobiographical book by Pynchon that looks nostalgically back to the California of the late 1960s and early 1970s or so we may imagine it as thus. This comprises in bare outline the fictional output of one of American’s most reclusive writers in the last half century of time.

What is truly important about Pynchon is how he forces his readers to negotiate the aesthetic space of his works in a kind of non-controlling way that might teach us to read, to think and to move within the informational space of the page in a way that does not take on board the idea of interpretation so much as the very non teleological processes of reading, thinking, imagining, etc. as co-creative activities undertaken with the author for a strong experience of co-resonation. The ideal textual examples of this sort of formal quality can perhaps best be found in The Crying of Lot 49 and in Gravity’s Rainbow, both of which function as a kind of cultural pair relationship and that may as such highlight for us the notion of a kind of anti-statement or anti-art narrative art that is not so much about the contents of these novel works as I have already mentioned, as about the new forms of so called interpretive movement that they might produce and inspire in us.

As such, Pynchon’s corpus of texts pushes us into thinking of new ways of conceiving of our relation to the world and to the objects that populate it. This would be a political gesture on Pynchon’s part as against a certain spirit of globalization that uses every last square meter for the profit motive.

Some key thematic concerns in Pynchon include paranoia, experience, silence, community, the commodification of life, and the spectacularization of reality. If community is the sacred (one or two people can after all constitute community), then it is the memory of the secret dream of a collective kind of experience still as of yet to come for a work such as Gravity’s Rainbow, which closes with the words, “Now everybody-“ (760). Or: to get at the ontology of male friendship, which Mason & Dixon does better than many books in the past one hundred years that I know about, would be to arrive at one key current for the construction of a proper community.

Perhaps we should speak of not only a new mobility, but a new nobility to life after the engenderment of the Pynchon page. To eschew the globalization of catastrophe we might manage to pursue, over against the blinkered community of our time, a meaningful community. Move on is movement, and moving consciousness signifies a turn of change. A certain kind of moving consciousness perhaps is what the Pynchonian page attempts thereby to elucidate if not to initiate.

The depth and imagination of Pynchon’s work owes something to the fact that he has managed to avoid the spectacularization of his person. The great to do with his reclusivity goes hand in hand with his extraordinary single-minded dedication to his craft; for his meaningful solitude has produced meaningful compositional work.

Each valley and each peak of Pynchon’s mountainous prose, with the technical achievement on display, requires that the reader climb some of the way by herself (or by himself), so as to fully appreciate the hard work that must go into the experience of making meaning. To encounter the space of Pynchon’s prose is to radiate towards and to embrace literary substance, and another experience of globalized space, which is to say of aesthetic space. So, the creation of new forms and modes of intersubjective, spatial and temporal space are what Pynchon’s work creates.

It should also be pointed out that time and again Pynchon’s artistic work proves on the side of the ledger of the under-rated, the marginalized, the forgotten, and the neglected. For those who are systematically belittled, Pynchon wants to rejuvenate and to give a proper modicum of recognition for the true and community-inflected structures of inter-subjectivity.

The literary establishment has not necessarily perceived the full import of Pynchon’s work. For example, he is often just given an entry text such as his early short story, “Entropy”, in anthologies such as The Norton Anthology of American Literature, which scarcely does justice to his imaginative output.; neither has he won the Nobel Prize.  For we must yield to the evidence, which articulates that Pynchon has produced the best novels in the past five decades ongoing in American English and perhaps even world English. I recall once reading the British critic Terry Eagleton designate Pynchon as “the most important living writer” and it is also not surprising that another major critic, the American theorist Leo Bersani, has written an outstanding piece on Pynchon called “Pynchon, Paranoia, Literature” from his The Culture of Redemption (Harvard University Press, 1990) that puts Pynchon in a lineage that includes the likes of Melville, Flaubert, and Joyce. So we believe that the critics are mistaken and that the radical critical mind is correct (viz., Eagleton and Bersani).

What is particularly impressive about Pynchon is how he is able to include more popular culture in his narratives than perhaps any other writer to date; this is perhaps paradoxical given how Pynchon is considered a difficult and even a writer of élite literature and yet that truth has a paradoxical structure is now a cliché after the intellectual work of such figures as Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Žižek, inter alia.

The values of money and power are perhaps not entirely given center stage by Pynchon, and yet it is clear that he is against the pridefulness of capital and of the reductive power it breeds. Pynchon’s stylishness is such that one of the shining summits of his artistic universe calls for a resistant and rebellious sensibility against the dominant value ideas of the day of money and of power. For the real criteria of success for Pynchon reside in authenticity, tenderness, courage, tenacity and selflessness. The prodigious strength of the lexical choices of Pynchon’s prose requires a patient force of reading-time from the reader to do the Pynchon artwork any modicum of experiential or interpretive justice.

Another important facet about Pynchon is his staggering wish for the sacred. The very real advantages of the wealth of the sacred Pynchon’s works suggest can be found as a way for a more noble and mobile mode of reality. And here it is the love of memory for what has yet to come into existence that outfits the sacral sensibility in the cultural consciousness of the world.

This all goes against the state of constant treachery say that well summarizes the main plot folds of Against the Day. This is something momentous and it betokens Pynchon’s dialectical intention, which is often to engage the negativity of the chance of interpretation if not of the world of fictional actuality so as to be positive in the final accounting.

A scholar’s imaginative energy must go into Pynchon’s work to an unusual extent and the same goes for the general reader; curiously, Pynchon is perhaps even more popular outside of the academy than within it (a distinction that he shares with Toni Morrison 1931-present). This would seem a kind of Benedictus de Spinozan moment wherein the general population appears better able to decide for itself what it would like to be exposed to. Pynchon should perhaps be called the father of the post-modern novel. This would not be to ascribe some paternal function to him so much as to recognize the space that he has opened up for others to follow.

The prime motor driving the Pynchon plot might be said to be not merely paranoia, among other already-mentioned aspects, but even more the search for meaning, which constitutes one true thread for the postwar postmodern individual and collective experience.

To inaugurate an important ideological and aesthetic break would be perhaps one deep unconscious wish of Pynchon’s fictional work. For what is important about Pynchon’s art is how it creates a certain kind of distance from the reader through his capacity to provoke more deep thinking on the reader’s part about some vitally important questions of the day such as the aforementioned we have broached. If he were to have a closer distance to the reader, he would not be able to produce such critical thinking and critical discourses.

With the likes of Thomas Pynchon in the aesthetic heritage of narrative fiction, we can safely say that our contemporary sources in fiction still have value, even as the onslaught of the aesthetic unit of the image in photography, in film and so forth continue to burgeon. Pynchon’s work again is uncommon in this regard in that his works such as The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow are taken to be filmic novels in their use of cinematic techniques and achieved cinematic effects; Gravity’s Rainbow is remarkable for its engagement with German Expressionist film of the 1920s and of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, not to mention as well a bevy of film noir motion pictures.

Among post war American fiction writers, Pynchon’s contribution is recognized as colossal in the cultural consciousness of not only the United States, but of the literary world in English. One will perhaps wonder why I did not go into greater detail about the contents and forms of Pynchon’s prose texts, but that would be to give away what this critic would like the reader to do: to climb that mountain herself. For such would be to arrive at one peak in prose achievement of the past fifty years.

Who can say who will take the mantle in the next fifty?

So, within this framework of a single author, we can sum up the lesson of our piece: Give Pynchon a chance, and pick up one of his books. If it net the death of interpretive pride and the birth of interpretive humility so be it.