The Fuss About Pynchon

[20 November 2006]

By John Carvill

The announcement in June of a new book by Thomas Pynchon, the Leviathan of contemporary literature, caused a splash in the literary world whose ripples continue to spread. Actually, announcement is very much not the word for how we first learned of Against the Day. Fittingly for the enigmatic author, the details weren’t officially announced until they’d already begun to trickle out via backchannels, in fits and starts, without any apparent coordinated fanfare. You could liken it to opening a bottle of champagne and having the cork come twisting off in your hand with a subdued pffftt rather than the traditional pop and the cork’s ricochet around the room. Whether by design, accident, or simply because of today’s Internet-attenuated media, the first signs of the book were rumors percolating out of Penguin Press, followed by the appearance on Amazon.com of “Untitled by Thomas Pynchon”, due in December and boasting an encouragingly hearty 992 pages. As if that weren’t exciting enough, the Amazon listing also contained a description of the novel, purportedly by Pynchon himself, written in a lighthearted and self-deprecating style:

The sizable cast of characters includes anarchists, balloonists, gamblers, corporate tycoons, drug enthusiasts, innocents and decadents, mathematicians, mad scientists, shamans, psychics, and stage magicians, spies, detectives, adventuresses, and hired guns…  Meanwhile, the author is up to his usual business. Characters stop what they’re doing to sing what are for the most part stupid songs. Strange sexual practices take place. Obscure languages are spoken, not always idiomatically. Contrary-to-the-fact occurrences occur.

That the blurb soon disappeared from the Amazon page, with Pynchon’s publishers seeming to deny all knowledge of it, did nothing to dim the fires of anticipation set alight among Pynchon’s ardent fan base. The story of the disappearing blurb provoked intense speculation, some claiming it was an obvious hoax, others that it was clearly a marketing stunt. In the end, Penguin Press merely denied knowledge of how the blurb had come to appear prematurely on Amazon but did not repudiate the blurb itself, which we were assured was genuine. Since then the blurb has been reinstated, the release date has been brought forward to November 21, and the page count has been revised twice—upwards—to 1,120 pages, a record even for Pynchon. And we still haven’t mentioned the short excerpt from the book, which appeared on the William Gaddis mailing list, made its way onto the Pynchon list, and provoked just as much controversy as the blurb before being confirmed as authentic. 

So why does all this matter? With a new novel due, only his sixth in more than 40 years, it seems as good a time as any to have a look at what makes Pynchon such a powerful cult figure. There are other great writers among his post-war American peers, but only Pynchon is Pynchon. His spirit seems magical, fusing so many ideas and elements together in wholly new ways, like some sort of benign rocket shaped like the Chrysler Building, blown corkscrewing at lightning speed out of the golden bowl of Charlie Parker’s alto sax, screaming across our skies, trailing spores of radiant genius, each as unique and beautiful as a snowflake.

Unfortunately, Pynchon profiles in the mainstream media often rehash the same clichés, half-truths and misconceptions centered around the long-established myth of his being a recluse: never been photographed, no one knows where he lives, and he never opens his mouth in public because he’s obsessed with his bad teeth. Pynchon himself has theorized that recluse is “a code word generated by journalists… meaning, ‘doesn’t like to talk to reporters’”. Nevertheless, the alleged reclusion seems to hold journalists spellbound, as if that were the author’s most intriguing aspect: “My God, if he doesn’t want to talk to us, well, what does he want?” The famous story about Pynchon jumping out a window and hopping a bus for a ride 200 miles away to avoid an early journalistic pursuer down in Mexico City may or may not be apocryphal, but there’s no denying that Pynchon’s insistence on letting his books speak for themselves has served only to highlight just how special they are.

You could spend a lifetime getting lost in Pynchon’s works, but what’s also interesting about him is the strength of his cult following. This goes way beyond an admiration for a man who’s given the world such dense works of literary fiction as Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon. Pynchon’s following doesn’t just border on unreason; in many cases it crosses over, goes native and takes up permanent residence in outright fanaticism.

Though cult icon can be a mercurial term, certain authors are unmistakably bound for quintessential cult status. Traditionally, subject matter has played a huge role; any author whose material (and/or behavior) is oddball, outré, or taboo enough to work the self-appointed guardians of a nation’s morals into a lather will acquire cachet. Think Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin for sex, Anthony Burgess for violence, Joseph Heller for anti-authoritarianism, Herman Hesse for spirituality, Irvine Welsh for drugs, Norman Mailer for politics, and William Burroughs for sex, drugs, a dash of politics, and a side order of violence. But if an author needs certain facets to garner a cult following, Pynchon attracts like an electromagnet. He not only ticks all the boxes, he runs out of boxes and has to draw new ones in until he eventually falls off the bottom of the page altogether.

The right combination of sex, drugs and rock and roll might have earned a writer cult status in the olden days; today something extra is required. The real outsider writers are the analogues of Robin Hood or Bonnie and Clyde, figures we hold to our hearts despite (and often because of) their unpopularity with the authorities. As Pynchon himself has said, “We always end up loving these folks, we cheer for Rob Roy, Jesse James, John Dillinger, at a level of passion usually reserved for sports affiliation.” Which writers are outlaws? Put it this way: If a totalitarian regime was coming to power, whose books would be the first to be squeezed out of circulation as the boot came down?

V. by Thomas Pynchon

Like fellow literary outlaw William S. Burroughs, Pynchon has a predilection for drugs, scatology, and unconventional sexual goings-on. But Pynchon is a much more politically engaged writer, whose sociopolitical outlook can be classed as broadly left-leaning and antiauthoritarian. Pynchon’s sympathies are firmly with the underdog, the oppressed, the underrepresented. His fiction is laced with dualities—the privileged versus the passed over; the animate versus the inanimate; order versus chaos—many of which are manifest in his first novel, V. From that book’s opening scenes of sailors drinking and fighting in the bars and streets of Norfolk, Virginia, we follow archetypal schlemiel Benny Profane to New York, where his fate becomes intertwined with that of Herbert Stencil, a man struggling to impose order on the past by searching for the novel’s mysterious eponym, who may or may not be manifest in any number of characters, places or entities beginning with the letter V. Also present is Pynchon’s overarching preoccupation with the forces driving history, often invoked in striking metaphors:

Perhaps history this century, thought Eigenvalue, is rippled with gathers in its fabric such that if we are situated, as Stencil seemed to be, at the bottom of a fold, it’s impossible to determine warp, woof or pattern anywhere else. By virtue, however, of existing in one gather it is assumed there are others, compartmented off into sinuous cycles each of which had come to assume greater importance than the weave itself and destroy any continuity. Thus it is that we are charmed by the funny-looking automobiles of the 1930s, the curious fashions of the 1920s, the particular moral habits of our grandparents. We produce and attend musical comedies about them and are conned into a false memory, a phony nostalgia about what they were. We are accordingly lost to any sense of a continuous tradition. Perhaps if we lived on a crest, things would be different. We could at least see.

Pynchon also establishes an association between sex and death, with the story of German army Lieutenant Weissmann, “a professional Aryan even in name”, stationed in southwest Africa and participating in orgies while his host reminisces enthusiastically about the genocide of the Herero people. Weissmann later returns to Germany to work with rockets, another Pynchon concern, as evinced by one of the most famous openings in literature: “A Screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.”

So begins Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon’s majestic, forbidding masterpiece, a work which defies all attempts at summary or coherent exegesis. Multilayered and multifaceted, it has crouched on the cultural landscape since 1973, brooding implacably, and nothing to compare it to has yet emerged. The book reads like a long lamentation for a world gone awry, leavened by the darkest humor and laden with hallucinatory and phantasmagoric imagery, like Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast re-imagined by Robert Crumb. Pulling out one narrative strand from Gravity’s Rainbow is like trying to fill a wine glass from a fire hose, but if we follow what’s going on at the start of the book it’ll provide a useful illustration of how Pynchon weaves themes, motifs and plot lines together, piling layer upon layer, connection upon connection, building up themes and characters by a subtle process of accretion.

Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

In London, during the dying days of WWII, we follow American GI Tyrone Slothrop, who has a troubling tendency to suddenly and unaccountably find himself with a raging erection, which he usually makes useful, thanks to a series of obliging local girls. For reasons possibly not known to himself, Slothrop maps these amorous encounters in his cubicle, each conquest a star on his map of London.

Slothrop’s map is regularly photographed, and the photos passed to Roger Mexico, a statistician working at the White Visitation, a former mental hospital which now houses Psi Section, a unit dedicated to psychological warfare. Mexico works either with or for (he’s never really sure) Pavlovian psychologist Ned Pointsman, who uses stray dogs and Grigori, a giant octopus, for his experiments.

Another episode follows Captain Geoffrey ‘Pirate’ Prentice and his friend Osbie Feel, who’re involved with Katje Borgieus, a glamorous Dutch double agent who’s been sending messages out to England from German-occupied Holland, from where the V2 rockets pounding London are launched. While Osbie amuses himself by expertly oven-drying and preparing Amanita Muscaria mushrooms, Katje is being filmed:

“In silence, hidden from her, the camera follows as she moves deliberately nowhere longlegged about the rooms, an adolescent wideness and hunching to the shoulders.”

When Katje glimpses Osbie’s oven, the narrative follows her gaze inside and into a flashback involving another oven, one around which she, fellow captive Gottfried, and their captor, an SS Captain commanding a rocket battalion, played a bizarre S&M role-playing game based on the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. We learn what happens when rockets malfunction after launching: “Often the rockets, crazed, turn at random, whinnying terribly in the sky, turn about and fall according each to its madness so unreachable and, it is feared, incurable.”

That “whinnying” is a typical Pynchonian touch, suggesting a distressed horse and exemplifying the animate-inanimate theme. When Katje escapes, the narrative slides back to the present, where Osbie, smoking some mushroom fragments and “lost in a mooning doper’s smile”, listens to Prentice describe why he carries an old-fashioned, heavy Mendoza pistol rather than the standard-issue Sten. Pirate says it’s his “crotchet,” a word with many etymological resonances, another Pynchon trademark. Crotchet in this context means eccentricity, and is the root of the more familiar ‘crotchety’, but it also means hook, and it seems to set Katje off thinking about her ancestor, Frans Van Der Groov, who exterminated dodoes in Dutch Mauritius in the 17th century using his heavy haakbus, i.e. hook-gun, an old-fashioned weapon, but Frans said he didn’t mind “the extra weight, it was his crotchet”. The slaughter of the dodoes has obvious genocidal resonances and, as well as the Holocaust, reminds us of the earlier genocide of the Hereros. In due course, we will also learn that the rocket-battalion commander is actually Weissmann, who has adopted the SS code name ‘Blicero’, meaning White Death.

Next, we fade back out to Osbie chatting with Pirate, who says he doesn’t know what the filming is all about, but it’s “something that involves a giant octopus.” Then we cut to ‘The White Visitation’ where Grigori floats in a tank, watching a projector screen:

“In silence, hidden from her, the camera follows as she moves deliberately nowhere longlegged about the rooms, an adolescent wideness and hunching to the shoulders…”

So the episode ends with the same words used to describe the film being watched as were used to describe it being made, giving the episode a circular structure and highlighting the numerous correspondences, resonances, doublings and synchronicities: The episode also connects the two ends of a rocket’s journey, the firing site in Holland and the target location of London, at both ends of which we have a captain, and so on. This multi-layered meshing of connections, presented in a fragmented, nonlinear narrative, is typical of Pynchon’s dizzyingly complex technique.

Gravity’s Rainbow is often very funny, but it’s also deeply subversive and political, presenting a dense tangle of interconnections which form a sort of hidden history of World War II and beyond. Pynchon relegates the obvious villains—the Nazis themselves—to the sidelines and instead concentrates on a number of entities lurking behind the scenes, in particular those multinational corporations who had a “good war,” who were well-placed to profit no matter which side won, companies such as Shell Oil, whose Dutch subsidiary’s headquarters had a transmitter on the roof which helped guide the rockets, built with slave labor, to London. Pynchon casts a cold eye on the connections between commerce and death:

Don’t forget the real business of the War is buying and selling. The murdering and the violence are self-policing, and can be entrusted to non-professionals. The mass nature of wartime death is useful in many ways. It serves as spectacle, as diversion from the real movements of the War. It provides raw material to be recorded into History, so that children may be taught History as sequences of violence, battle after battle, and be more prepared for the adult world. Best of all, mass death’s a stimulus to just ordinary folks, little fellows, to try ‘n’ grab a piece of that Pie while they’re still here to gobble it up. The true war is a celebration of markets.

Most sinister of all was the vast, cephalopodic IG Farben cartel, which exerted immense economic and political power, produced Zyklon B poison for the gas chambers, and had close contacts with the Standard Oil Company in the U.S. In the book, IG Farben is responsible for Imipolex G, a type of plastic used as a protective sheath around rockets, a material which plays a crucial role in connecting many of the book’s central elements. Its chemical structure, formed by manipulating polymers and aromatic rings, resembles the structure of Gravity’s Rainbow itself. The book is full of circles, rings and mandalas, and many episodes have a circular structure. It has been compared to a mosaic, or a kind of 3-D jigsaw, with no guiding picture or assurance that all the pieces are in the box.

Pynchon is often perceived as difficult, but he never appears to be saying, “Look at all this clever, complicated business which I, the Great Oz, have figured out for you.” Instead, he seems to say, “This is a bunch of highly intriguing stuff I’ve been mulling over; here, you have a go.” In Gravity’s Rainbow, They and Them are always capitalized. They are organized, in control, omniscient, pulling the levers of power behind the scenes. We are powerless, confused, out in the open, running around with our pants around our ankles and suffering from the condition that is perhaps most associated with Pynchon, paranoia. Pynchon outlines a number of Proverbs for Paranoids: “If They can get you asking the wrong questions, They don’t have to worry about the answers”.

Pynchon is famously erudite; after studying both engineering and English literature at Cornell University, he worked as a technical author for Boeing on projects such as the BOMARC missile. Boeing, which he reportedly dubbed “the kite factory,” may have provided Pynchon with the engineer’s quadrille paper on which he hand-wrote Gravity’s Rainbow and certainly provided the model for Yoyodyne, the defense contractor featured in Pynchon’s earlier novel, The Crying of Lot 49, in which he explored the concept of entropy and information theory, in a lysergic melding of technology, conspiracy, paranoia, and the quest for patterns and meaning. Lot 49 reads like a morose meditation on how the 1960s, having escaped the monochrome world of the 1950s, bloomed into full Technicolor flower, driven by pop music, sexual liberation, and psychedelia, only to turn into a bad trip in the wake of the JFK assassination. Both Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby could easily have been Pynchon characters come to life, embodying that shadowy nexus of government, organized crime, espionage, and political assassination.

Vineland by Thomas Pynchon

After Gravity’s Rainbow came a long wait, during which rumors swirled and anticipation built to fever pitch. Pynchon broke the silence in 1990 with Vineland, possibly his most accessible yet most underrated work, its exuberant narrative taking the reader on an white-water raft ride through the cultural detritus of the 1980s, cramming in rock music, Godzilla, unsuccessful kamikaze pilots, mall culture, machine-gun toting female ninjas crashing Mafia weddings, and a thousand fast-food variations, including the Bodhi Dharma Pizza Temple and the Galaxy of Ribs.

The book begins in California in 1984, with affable aging hippy Zoyd Wheeler, a man whose ideals and sensibilities are firmly rooted in the 1960s, waking up to morning in Ronald Reagan’s America. Vineland follows the ‘Nixonian Reaction’ against the 1960s through to the 1980s when campus protesters have been supplanted by business-minded proto-yuppies, aspiring only to designer suits and stock options and perfectly happy with “the whole Reagan program”: “dismantle the New Deal, reverse the effects of World War II, restore fascism at home and around the world, flee into the past”. But in assessing the ultimate failure of the various revolutions of the 1960s to consolidate the forward progress they had made, Pynchon directs a lot of anger and frustration at weaknesses within the 1960s movement itself. He alternately satirizes and sentimentalizes the decade, sometimes simultaneously, as when he notes how TV was used as a tool to ridicule, undermine and ultimately negate the 1960s.

“Whole problem ‘th you folks’s generation,” Isaiah opined, “nothing personal, is you believed in your Revolution, put your lives right out there for it—but you sure didn’t understand much about the Tube. Minute the Tube got hold of you folks that was it, that whole alternative America, el deado meato, just like th’ Indians, sold it all to your real enemies, and even in 1970 dollars—it was way too cheap….”

Vineland soon developed a reputation as an aberration amongst Pynhcon’s works, a sort of runt of the literary litter, and came to be regarded as Pynchon-lite. Some critics echoed Greil Marcus’s famous reaction to Dylan’s Self Portrait album: “What is this shit?” Pynchon’s more academic and intellectual readers may not have cared for all the low-brow pop-cultural references. What had happened to the sprawling epic Pynchon had been rumored to be working on, they wondered, based on the story the British surveyor and astronomer team who’d given their names to the line separating the American North from South? That book, Mason & Dixon was eventually published in 1997 and contained Pynchon’s latest curveball: The entire novel was written in 18th century syntax and grammar, with heavy sprinklings of odd punctuation. Many impatient reviewers didn’t take the trouble to acclimate to it and wrote it off as a gimmick. But the novel possibly rivals Gravity’s Rainbow in scope and complexity, and displays the classic Pynchon prose—rhythmic as jazz, smooth as a rhapsody. In a sense, it restored Pynchon’s critical reputation after what Harold Bloom had called the “disaster” of Vineland and also reinvigorated the sense of excitement and expectation attending a new Pynchon novel.

Pynchon doesn’t have a serious rival for the title of ultimate cult writer. His material, methods, style, and unique narrative voice, combined with his poetic prose, dark sense of humor and unbridled sense of fun, have given him an undentable aura. Grappling with Pynchon’s work can be daunting, its convoluted complexity making any attempt to impose a coherent meaning on it seem like wrestling a huge Russian Doll which wandered into one of those telepods from The Fly only to be merged with a Rubik’s Cube someone had left lying in the corner. But time and again, Pynchon warns against getting hung up on meaning, and he does it with such verve and elegance that it leaves you reeling. Here’s Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow, just beginning to succumb to paranoid panic, driven by the accelerating sense that he is the target of some sort of conspiracy, that They are out to get him:

He gets back to the Casino just as big globular raindrops, thick as honey, begin to splat into giant asterisks on the pavement, inviting him to look down at the bottom of the text of the day, where footnotes will explain all. He isn’t about to look. Nobody ever said a day has to be juggled into any kind of sense at day’s end. He just runs.

Pynchon is full of passages like that: you read them and realize that in the little cloakroom of your heart, where you hang all the things that make life worthwhile, unique and enjoyable, another hook has just been occupied. In this celebrity-obsessed age, fixated on superficiality, we need him more than ever. Cast aside synthetic substitutes, junk food for the soul, and take a bite of the pungent, organic mushroom offered up by the man from Oyster Bay, Thomas Ruggles Pynchon Jr.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/the-fuss-about-pynchon/