What Would Thomas Pynchon Do?

Like his protagonists, Thomas Pynchon appears to remind us, in his absence from advising us, that we must rely on our own smarts, arrayed against mystery and cynicism and corruption.

The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Length: 209 pages
Authors: Inger H. Dalsgaard, Luc Herman, Brian McHale
Price: $28.99
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2012-01

As the editors of A Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon conclude in their collective, even utopian, ambition to scope out this reclusive writer's ascent and flight patterns: "We are all in this together."

This helpful compendium opens up for both specialists and generalists this "difficult" writer's works. It encourages readers to enter the discussion about them. My review sums up the contents of a compact but valuable resource. Given that the chronology of Pynchon's life and works by John M. Kraft must be far sketchier than that for perhaps any other living author, Kraft sensibly concludes, after summing up what can be verified, "We hardly need to know the life to appreciate the works."

As the introduction by editors Inger H. Dalsgaard, Luc Herman, and Brian McHale reminds us, their "Pyndustry" formed to dissect Pynchon's fiction need not be as hermetic as it may at first seem to the outsider. "It is the sense of sharing in a collective enterprise of readers that transforms a cult of insiders into a community." With only his works to study, the author absent, we are "left to our own devices". This 2012 anthology aims at fellow academics, but it provides a more accessible guide to the canon, poetics, and issues than monographs devoted to recondite topics.

Part I surveys the canon. "Early Pynchon" by Herman examines the first stories and racial themes and revision in V. It's a limited look at that novel, but many contributors agree that Pynchon's 1963 full-length debut represents but a frenetic trial run for the two "masterpieces" that would follow.

Although dismissed by the author as a misfire, his first, The Crying of Lot 49, appears alongside Vineland and Inherent Vice as a California novel. Pynchon's newest, Bleeding Edge, reviewed by me as "Humor and Hysteria in Thomas Pynchon’s 'Bleeding Edge'", burrows into congenial tales of attempts to break out of the "meatworld" and the crackdown that follows not only a counterculture but the start-ups. Bleeding Edge draws Pynchon back from his adopted Golden State to his native New York, but post-9/11, it entangles wired technology hatched and incubated in Silicon Valley.

Thomas Hill Schaub locates "New Age libertarianism" rather than "liberal pluralism" as the Californian novels' political stance. He tracks the "consensus" for the 1964-71 period they evoke. The Crying of Lot 49 traces a "secret withdrawal" from conformity, appearing in 1966’s flower-power promise. The other two novels track state backlash, and from the rueful benefit of hindsight, they from their publication in respectively 1990 and 2009 lament the passing of communal alternatives and individual initiative during the rise of Nixon and Reagan, as sinister forces regroup to compromise or marginalize those who tried to fight the power.

Gravity's Rainbow is rooted in Pynchon's service to this same state, in his 1960-62 career as a technical writer in Seattle at Boeing. Steven Weisenburger documents Pynchon's role in the bureaucratic complicity that enables the military and such corporations to ally with global economies and murderous technology. Rocket World's domination, in Pynchon's 1973 indictment of mass death, proves how the post-war national security state follows the Second World War's operations, carried out by a "Power Elite's relentless sovereignty". Ethical or practical resistance by a few may be admirable, but given the fate of many in Gravity's Rainbow it appears such stances remain quixotic.

Certainly Mason & Dixon plots this tension between rationalization and imagination, the little guy versus the big picture. This relentless push of modernization and profit, as America championed in colonial times, captures a period which changed "all from subjunctive to declarative, reducing Possibilities to Simplicities that serve the ends of Governments". Such an 18th century style and orthography of this 1997 epic enlivens Pynchon's exploration of another historical epoch. While less immediate than the mid-20th century, Kathryn Hume explains, this period also pits protagonists against a world-system of intricate "lines" laid down by mathematicians and surveyors to extend imperialist ambitions. Slavery, mystery, and science contend. Layers and networks, typical elements of Pynchon's fiction, give clues and orient or disorient readers within such complex webs.

Widening the rampage of overlying overlords in Against the Day to roam 30 years around the turn of the last century, the pre-WWI foundation for that similarly immense 2009 send-up of early 20th century literary genres defines Menippean satire. Bernard Duyfhuizen tallies 170 characters and at least a dozen pastiches of fictional categories in its sprawl. Its "dime novel" elements involving silent-era film in Los Angeles, as this critic astutely cites, anticipate the cinematic hard-boiled patter and louche gumshoe satire of Inherent Vice set 50 years later on the coast near that same city. They also, typical for Pynchon as his novels unfolded, overlap, as the Traverse family introduced in Vineland edges Against the Day into an earlier work as published, even as it hints ahead via its anarchistic struggles to hippie reactions against capitalism in the California novels, chronologically.

After overviews of the major texts, Part II elucidates poetics. David Cowart's investigation of literary history enlivens the author's promise. "Pynchon seduces the reader with something like the big picture: read this and you'll understand the age and its enormities." Cowart wonders if Pynchon leads the way in innovation, away from modernist tropes, or whether he responds to endemic cultural trends. The evidence marshaled favors Pynchon as leading the way, although Cowart appears to strain credulity when attempting to attribute prescience to the appearance of Pynchon's novels within years or stages of political upheaval or social unrest. What seems more convincing is that by Vineland the quest narrative--however unfulfilled--in his previous novels diminishes amid "increasing difficulty". Pynchon while lightening his tone and intensity somewhat by the '90s intensifies his range. His target widens as his novels grow encyclopedic. Melville created one such narrative; Pynchon, many.

Delving into theory, the following essays prefer a more professorial, less playful stance. McHale sums up postmodernism adroitly. He links Christopher Jencks' "double-coding" within architectural designs winking at those in the know while delighting or puzzling the general public to Pynchon's blend of high-art themes and pop-culture references. McHale argues that postmodern ontology, a concern with being, replaces the modernist search for epistemology, to address meaning. Cowart concurs that the early quests of V. and The Crying of Lot 49 have disintegrated by Gravity's Rainbow; that work ends with explosions, dispersions, and reversions. Erasures, forking paths, nesting, layers all fool characters -- and any who attempt to navigate and master the labyrinth.

Pynchon's intertexts, as David Seed charts, exhibit their own twists and turns. Characters and themes start to blur and shape-shift. The final essays gathered in Part III under Issues can drift into their own hermetic recesses. Sometimes theory overwhelms the application to specific passages in the texts. If a chapter on humor, which gains all but five citations in the index, might have substituted or supplemented this section, its inclusion would have leavened the seriousness of this section. Pynchon's wordplay, songs, and slang, and his inherent vice that drives him to keep his awful or sly punchlines coming do not earn the depth they deserve here. Amy J. Elias for history, Jeff Baker for politics, Deborah L. Madsen for alterity, and Dalsgaard for science and technology, all the same, offer directions to suggest deeper pursuits for these respectable topics.

In a coda of "how to read Pynchon", Hanjo Berressem notes how readers responded critically during each stage of Pynchon's trajectory. The prophet of doom and miscommunication appeared ready for the Space Age amidst its countercultural flight from the threats "slouching towards universal disorder, heat-death, noise and, ultimately, to near-static". The post-structuralist craze found deconstructionists thrilled with a "violently centripetal" lurch into futility, disorder, and self-referential metafiction. (That may explain at this time my own hesitation to immerse myself, as a grad student, into his works, as they were inculcated as mocking, monolithic, dire, and airless testaments to dead zones.)

By the '90s, the changes during the Reagan administration may have tempered such critical frenzy. Pynchon's sensitivity to the realities of contemporary life, beyond satire, puns, puzzles, and irony, turned some to reconsider the aesthetic arguments within his novels. The progression in the humanities over the next 15 years towards New Historicism placed Pynchon's fiction within the "complete counter-history of America" in its mission to (as Mason and Dixon dramatizes) "save the realm of the fictional from the forces of relentless factualization and rationalization".

Some critics here propose that reading Pynchon, we can follow his example to challenge the system that supplants our initiative with a perpetual commodification of our dreams and desires for fulfillment. Bleeding Edge continues this critique, but it too shrinks back from any clear resolution of its own shaggy-dog plot. Those who seek in Pynchon's passages an escape from their mundane concerns may find that the paths fork and bend back into our own reality with its often elusive lack of lasting satisfaction. Like his protagonists, Pynchon appears to remind us, in his absence from advising us, that we must rely on our own smarts, arrayed against mystery and cynicism and corruption. As the editors of A Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon" conclude in their collective, even utopian, ambition to scope out this reclusive writer's ascent and flight patterns: "We are all in this together."

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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