Pynchon, Thomas (Vol. 6)
Pynchon, Thomas 1937–
Pynchon, an American novelist, is considered a major experimental novelist for his two extraordinary works, V. and Gravity's Rainbow. With a plethora of technological detail, dense prose, and dark humor, Pynchon searches for a glimmer of human truth in the "cultural shock" of contemporary experience. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)
Thomas Pynchon made his intentions clear from the outset. The title of his first important short story is 'Entropy' … and it contains specific references to Henry Adams. Whereas some novelists would prefer to cover the philosophic tracks which gave them decisive shaping hints for their novels, Pynchon puts those tracks on the surface of his writing. Indeed his work is about those tracks and, more largely, the whole human instinct and need to make tracks. Adams wanted a theory which would act as a 'trail' in 'the thickset forests of history' and even if we change that metaphor of the forest for that of the urban wasteland, thick with the rubble and dead of our century of total wars, the need for a trail or a track may still remain. A philosophy, a theory of history, a law of thermodynamics—any one of these may be a 'trail' and their significance may reside not so much in their verifiable applicability as in the human compulsion to formulate them. Pynchon sees all this quite clearly, and while his work is certainly about a world succumbing to entropy, it is also about the subtler human phenomenon—the need to see patterns which may easily turn into the tendency to suspect plots. (p. 78)
Norbert Wiener said in The Human Use of Human Beings that it is always likely to be a problem whether we interpret whatever it is that makes for disorganization in nature as merely a neutral absence of order (the Augustinian view, he called this), or as a positively malign force dedicated to the annihilation of order. He added "The Augustinian position has always been difficult to maintain. It tends under the slightest perturbation to break down into a covert Manichaeanism." This is crucial for an understanding of many contemporary American writers who are either sufficiently perturbed themselves, or are aware of the perturbations in the characters they write about, to have made the tendency to begin to see the world in Manichaean terms a recurrent motif in recent novels, Pynchon's above all. The temptation to regard all signs of entropy in the world as the work of hostile agents is like the demonism in the work of William Burroughs. Both represent attempts to 'give destruction a name or face' (to take a phrase from Pynchon's short story 'Mercy and Mortality in Venice'), and both those reactions to the world reveal themselves in the individual as a continuous leaning towards paranoia. (pp. 80-1)
It would be too glib to say that [V] is an 'Augustinian' novel about 'Manichaean' people; it would also be misleading, since the novelist is clearly inwardly affected by the Manichaeanism of his characters, just as he is by the pessimistic theories of Henry Adams. But he manages to preserve his distance, particularly by locating the main plotting instinct in one character, Stencil. He is the man who is trying to make the connections and links, and put together the story which might well have been Pynchon's novel. By standing back from this dedicated pursuer and collector of notes towards a supreme fiction, Pynchon is able to explore the plot-making instinct itself. To this end his own novel has to appear to be relatively unplotted—leaving chunks of data around, as it were, for Stencil to try to inter-relate. Inevitably this is only an illusion and we need not belabour the point that when a strange bit of Maltese history turns up, Pynchon put it there, and when Stencil finds a clue it is only because his author laid it for him. The point is that by taking bits of history from different countries at different times during this century and putting them in the novel with no linear or causal relationship, Pynchon is able to explore the possibility that the plots men see may be their own inventions. The further implication of this—that such things as the concentration camps may be simply a meaningless accident—is responsible for the sudden depths of horror in the book. (pp. 81-2)
[While] the endlessly ramifying and superimposed plots of the book defy summary, the general theme of the operation of entropy on every level serves to relate the disparate temporal and geographic material the book contains. Every situation reveals some new aspect of decay and decline, some move further into chaos or nearer death. The book is full of dead landscapes of every kind—from the garbage heaps of the modern world to the lunar barrenness of the actual desert. On every side there is evidence of the 'assertion of the Inanimate'. Renaissance cities seem to lose their glow and become leaden; great buildings progress towards dust; a man's car is disintegrating under tons of garage-rubble. Benny Profane's late feeling that 'things never should have come this far' is appropriately ominous if you allow the first word sufficient emphasis. For the proliferation of inert things is another way of hastening the entropic process. On all sides the environment is full of hints of exhaustion, extinction, dehumanisation; and V. is a very American novel inasmuch as one feels that instead of the characters living in their environment, environment lives through the characters who thereby tend to become figures illustrating a process…. [What] common process links remote imperialist incidents with contemporary automation, tourism, Hitler, and the Whole Sick Crew (if there is any linking common process)—this is what the whole book is about. (p. 83)
If one theme of the book is the acceleration of Entropy, another is the avoidance of human relationships based on reciprocal recognition of the reality of the partner. Instead of the recognitions of love, there are only the projected fantasies of lust. These two phenomena—entropy and the dread of love—may well be linked in some way, for they show a parallel movement towards the state of lasting inanimateness, and share an aspiration to eradicate consciousness and revert to thing-status. (p. 84)
In the world depicted by Pynchon there is very little chance of any genuine communication. Language has suffered an inevitable decline in the mouths of these stencillized and objectified figures…. One result of this decline in language is that people scarcely manage to converse in this book, and if they do they fail to establish any real contact.
But if the characters in the book seldom truly talk to each other, they often look at each other. As might be expected, various forms of voyeurism are part of the normal behaviour patterns of a world where any attempt at human inter-subjectivity has been replaced by the disposition to regard people as objects—inside the field of vision but outside the range of sympathy, if indeed any such range exists…. Voyeurism is another way of evading true selfhood and denying or avoiding the possibility of love. Most of the characters 'retreat' from the threat of love when it presents itself, and even the sympathetic Benny wastes himself in avoiding dependencies, and disengaging himself from any field of gathering emotional force. It might be added that Pynchon finds it difficult to suggest what genuine love would be like in this world. Some characters from older civilizations and cultures seem to have retained an ability to love. But the guarded maxim of the black jazz musician, McClintic Sphere, 'keep cool, but care' is about as much genuine emotion as the book seems to allow. As such it is unconvincing. This may be part of the vision of the book: in this world people have lost contact with the forms and modes of loving. At the same time it is in part a result of Pynchon's stylistic and formal decisions. You cannot render great emotions in a comic strip, and "Keep cool, but care" is just such bubble talk or the sort of slogan—jargon mongered by advertisements. In proximity to the multiple parodic references which the book contains, any potentially serious emotion is bound to turn into its own caricature and join the masquerade as a costumed sentimentality. (pp. 86-7)
The book recognizes that … fantasies may be necessary to maintaining consciousness and purposive motion; yet it reveals the solipsism that is implicit in them as well, for one of the subjects of Pynchon's book is the inability of people to love anyone outside their own fantasy projections. (p. 89)
Pynchon writes about all kinds of spies and agents. Their epistemological stance—looking for possible clues to possible plots—is only a projection of that of the novelist himself. Perhaps, indeed, they create the patterns of hostility they set out to trace; perhaps, too, does the novelist. Stencil's ingenious linked detections spread back in time and across space. Is this creative vision which sees a truth beneath the drifting contingencies of life; or is it a paranoid fantasy, an obsession akin to an oblivion? If the latter, then is Benny Profane's uncoordinated empiricism of the eye which looks out and sees no plots and learns nothing, true vision? We can hardly expect to adjudicate finally between them. (p. 93)
What Pynchon manages to suggest is that the fantasies we build to help us to live represent, in fact, an infiltration of that death we think we are so eager to postpone. They represent an avoidance of reality, by substituting for it a fetishistic construction. One man in the book has a private planetarium which is a highly complex mechanism of moons and planets, pulleys and chains, and yet which is, after all, 'a parody of space.' If our constructed fantasies are effectively parodies of reality, then this has certain implications for the self-conscious author of the overall fiction of the book. For a particular literary style is a construction analogous to that private planetarium, a personal way of organizing things in space, and thus to some extent a parody of it. Of course there need not be any deliberate attempt to burlesque and ridicule reality present in the construction, and one does not readily think of Tolstoi or George Eliot as 'parodying' reality. The matter of attitude comes up here, and it is a distinctive trait of many contemporary American writers that they are very quick to be suspicious of any one stylistic version of reality and regard it as inescapably parodic.
In this connection we should note Pynchon's systematic stylistic evocation (often parodic) of previous writers as he deals with different episodes in different times and places. Conrad, Evelyn Waugh, and Lawrence Durrell are in evidence in many of the historical and colonial episodes; Melville, Henry Adams, Nathanael West, Djuna Barnes, Faulkner, and Dashiell Hammett are among the American writers whose work is in some way detectable; Joyce and Nabokov are clearly present in the way the book is organized; and there is one of Borges' mysterious kingdoms at the heart of the book. This is not to suggest that the book is merely a pastiche, a collage of scrambled sources. Pynchon's point seems to be to remind the reader that there is no one writable 'truth' about history and experience, only a series of versions: it always comes to us 'stencillized'. In such a way he can indicate that he is well aware of the ambiguities of his own position, constructing another fiction and at the same time underlining the fallacies involved in all formal plottings and organizations of space.
In addition I think it is part of Pynchon's intention to demonstrate that the various styles of writers of this century who, in a sense, have imposed their private dreams on us, are like those iridescent surfaces with which we adorn the walls of our galleries and cover the countries of our dreams. The attendant implication is that under all this decorative sheen there lies the cold truth of the void. One result of this is, I think, that Pynchon himself has written, no doubt deliberately, what amounts to a 'hollow' book. He brilliantly shows how man produces the painting on the side of the sinking ship; at the same time the detectable element of near compulsive parody serves to call into question the value and validity of any one style—indeed of style itself. What is felt to be true is the emptiness under the coloured surface, the ice at the pole, the rock to which we all return, the final stillness of the level sea. The book itself is a 'dream of annihilation'. (pp. 97-8)
Pynchon … writes both to demonstrate the need for fictions and to impugn or revoke their validity. This attitude he mimes out in the process of writing his book, for apparently at home in many styles, he finally trusts none….
It is worth pointing out here the connection between problems of narration and problems of identity in the contemporary American novel. In V. there is a character called Fausto, a man-of-letters who indeed writes his own book within the book. It is a sort of apologia and he says this about his activity. 'We can justify any apologia simply by calling life a successive rejection of personalities.' Where Fausto divides himself up into 'successive identities' which he has taken on and then rejected, so Pynchon takes on and rejects successive styles in his book. For both, this is a way of seeing past all the fictions which fix the world and the word in particular patterns and styles, and as such it is an activity very common among contemporary American writers. But whether man can live beyond all fictions, whether, even when faced by the pathos and mockery of the dream dump, it would be desirable, let alone possible, to put an end to man's addiction to fantasy, is not explored. Perhaps the advice of Mark Twain's Satan to mankind is the relevant consideration here—"Dream other dreams, and better!" (p. 99)
Tony Tanner, "Patterns and Paranoia or Caries and Cabals," in Salmagundi (copyright © 1971 by Skidmore College), Winter, 1971, pp. 78-99.
Mr Pynchon is often accused of knowing too well what he's about—of having a neat theoretic solution at hand that makes the length and detail of the novel redundant. Actually, almost the reverse is true [in Gravity's Rainbow]: significances are dirt cheap round here; they are as much a part of the intransigent stuff of life and death as groans or belches. The sinister plots that oppress the characters of Gravity's Rainbow are their own. All the lives, all the deaths, press upon the hero's particular life like a force from outside, yet he himself is a part of the pressure on those others. Each act is irrevocable, soon—now—it will always have happened like this and no other way. Your free actions are stolen from you; as you do it, it clicks into place, part of history, and you've performed the ritual pratfall once more.
And so this massive book resolves itself, with comic despair, into a concatenation of episodes, rich in illusionist detail, tripping over into frantic farce. It's very hard to read—impossible, it has to be said, to read continuously—not because of density or obscurity, but because it's so nearly devoid of hierarchy or perspective…. Every character is in the foreground, even memories take the form of total recall. You couldn't find a more democratic novel: it positively prevents you from classifying, summarizing, subsuming the past in the present; you're bound to read it as though it's all happening now…. Mr Pynchon's marvellous inventiveness is almost entirely without nuance, without resonance: the characters, the situations, the words are fixed, comic quantities. You may laugh, or cry, roll in the aisles or leave the cinema—whatever you do, you're still a helpless spectator.
"Waiting for the Bang," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), November 16, 1973, p. 1389.
Pynchon uses all the freedom of post-Joycean fiction to pack his narrative [Gravity's Rainbow] with an extraordinary range of allusion, comment and metaphor, taking the reader on a fresh journey with virtually every paragraph. So all-embracing is the scale of reference that a statistician's grid over a map of wartime London can be compared, creatively, to the use of a sieve by ancient Roman soothsayers. I imagine Pynchon as a more orderly equivalent of the diarist Aubrey, a donnish jackdaw converting every scrap of information or fragment of jargon into binary code and feeding it into some vast back-garden data-bank. With his apparent grasp of all kinds of sociological detail he would seem to be Renaissance man returned to span the disciplines of a bewilderingly complex society, from pop music to the habits of the sexual underworld, from Pavlovian behaviourism to theories of rocket propulsion. (pp. 62-3)
Through the countless digressions and different styles, a gusty enthusiasm keeps the hard-hit narrative buoyant, and Pynchon has a master's command of elegiac prose. But if, despite everything, the fiction stands up, it is decidedly short on sympathy for the characters it manipulates. For the most part they do things to each other, with cruel obscenity or comic exuberance, rather than make love. Slothrop himself, ultimate indignity for a character, disintegrates completely. (pp. 63-4)
Clive Jordan, in Encounter (© 1974 by Encounter Ltd.), February, 1974.
Pynchon's first story was entitled 'Entropy', a word used in the second law of thermodynamics and in common parlance taken to mean that everything in the universe is running down. The vision of a world in decline, heading irreversibly for the terminal wasteland and scrap heap, permeates Pynchon's work. The theme itself is not new; it is what Pynchon makes of it that reveals, for me, the most original imagination to have appeared in American fiction since the war. His first novel was called simply V., an immensely long and complex book which centres on two figures named Stencil and Benny Profane who in an unusual but brilliantly handled way echo that archetypal fictional pair, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza—the deranged dreamer who is constantly seeking to rearrange reality according to his fantasies and imagination; and the foot-loose empiricist who takes things as they come, or, we might say, allows himself to be taken by things as they beset him…. Pynchon is dramatising the dangerous tendency to allow an obsession to take over one's reading of reality, so that one may begin to see plots and connections everywhere, and fantasized inventions present themselves to the mind as interpretative perceptions. One name for this is paranoia and it is a recurring theme in all Pynchon's work. But he also explores the alternative. What is it like to live with a sense that nothing is connected to anything, in a state of volitionless rambling, with no clues to follow, adrift in pure contingency and randomness? Pynchon calls this 'anti-paranoia'—'a condition not many of us can bear for long.'… Are we surrounded by plots—social, natural, cosmic—or is there no plot, no hidden configuration of intent, only gratuitous matter and chance? And pain and loneliness, for by either version these are real. This is a crucial part of Pynchon's vision. Not only does he see a world apparently hastening to return to the inanimate state; he sees a world in which many human beings seem willingly to accelerate this process—in particular by avoiding human relationships and treating themselves and other people as objects. (pp. 80-1)
Pynchon's characters move in a world of both too many and too few signs, too much data and too little information, too many texts, but no reliable editions. As you read [Gravity's Rainbow] you seem to pass through a bewildering variety of genres, activities, types of discourse—at different times the text seems to partake of such different things as pantomime, burlesque, cinema, cabaret, card games, songs, comic strips, spy stories, serious history, encyclopaedic information, mystical and visionary meditations, the scrambled imagery of dreams, the cold cause-and-effect talk of the Behaviourists, and all the various ways men try to control and coerce realities both seen and unseen—from magic to measurement, from sciences to séances. At one point, one character is reading a Plasticman comic; he is approached by a man of great erudition who engages him in a conversation about etymology. Here is a clue for us: we should imagine that we are reading a comic, but it is partly transparent, and through it we are also reading an encyclopaedia, a film script, a piece of science history, and so on. There is only one text, but it contains a multiplicity of surfaces. This is not such a bizarre phenomenon as it sounds. We can all read and decode the different languages and genres Pynchon has brought into his book. Modern man is above all an interpreter of different signs, a reader of differing discourses, a compelled and often compulsive decipherer. But never before has there been such an uncertainty about the reliability of the texts…. Reading Pynchon's novel gives us a renewed sense of how we have to read the modern world. At times in his book it is not always clear whether we are in a bombed-out building, or a bombed-out mind, but that too is quite appropriate. For how many of those rockets that fell on London fell in the consciousness of the survivors, exploding in the modern mind? And, looking around and inside us, can we be sure how much is Real Text, and how much ruined debris? (pp. 83-4)
Pynchon is a genuine poet of decay and decline, of the disinherited and the lost, of lateness and absence, of a world succumbing to an irreversible twilight of no-love, no human contact. In situating his novel at this point in time, I think Pynchon is concentrating on a crucial moment when They seemed to set about imposing a new order on the world, an order apparently addicted to energy—and the whole novel is very relevant to our ecological concern at how technological man is simply using up his own planet—but an order which is ultimately addicted to Death. (pp. 84-5)
They work by all kinds of control—hence the number of references to Pavlovian conditioning and Behaviourist experiments, and Pynchon is by no means alone among American novelists in wondering to just what lengths They will take their methods of control (William Burroughs seems to be an influence here). Sensitive figures, not yet totally taken over by Their System, react to their intimations of some global conspiracy with the by now familiar paranoia which, in the world of this book, may figure in a parodic comic song or be the subject of a quotation from an essay by Pavlov. In general paranoia is defined as 'nothing less than the onset, the leading edge, of the discovery that everything is connected … not yet blindingly One, but at least connected'. Of course, everything depends on the nature of the connection, the intention revealed by the pattern. Everything was connected in Dante's world too, but con amore. Just what connects things in this world of Pynchon's is what worries a lot of the characters in the book. (p. 85)
The disassembling of Tyrone Slothrop may read like a comic-strip story crossed with a spy-thriller. But it has worrying implications and suggests disturbing parallels. The last comment on the possible whereabouts of Slothrop is this: we would expect to look among the Humility, among the gray and preterite souls, to look for him adrift in the hostile light of the sky, the darkness of the sea….' This idea of the 'preterite', as Pynchon uses it, refers to those who have been 'passed over', the abandoned, the neglected, the despised and the rejected; those for whom the System has no use, the human junk thrown overboard from the ship of state (a literal ship in this book, incidentally, named Anubis after the ancient Egyptian god of the dead).
Set against the Preterite are the Elite, the users and manipulators, those who regard the planet as existing solely for their satisfaction, the nameless and ubiquitous 'They' who dominate the world of the book. It is one of the modern malaises which Pynchon has diagnosed that it is possible for a person to feel himself entering into a state of 'preterition'. But the idea of humanity being divided into a Preterite and an Elite or Elect is of course a basic Puritan belief. In theological terms the Preterite were precisely those who were not elected by God and, if I may quote from one of those chilling Puritan pronouncements, 'the preterite are damned because they were never meant to be saved'. In redeploying these terms, which after all were central to the thinking of the people who founded America, and applying them to a cruel division which is at work throughout the world today, Pynchon shows once again how imaginatively he can bring the past and present together with startling impact. (p. 87)
Tony Tanner, "V & V. 2," in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1974), February/March, 1974, pp. 80-8.
[Gravity's Rainbow] explodes in words and disconnected images the way its World War II setting destroys Pynchon's parameters almost as soon as he creates them. It is a cold, compulsive imagination that works with a jumpy intelligence. Nothing is beyond his scope for description, though the same quality shows up also as a lack of a communicating discipline. He seems intent on showing just how his fertile and wild imagination can go to work on shifting, dissolving ground that he destroys before he manages to explain it….
Against the pandering to public taste of the American fiction industry, Pynchon strikes out in the other direction, which unfortunately has the appearance of being equally unfruitful. Despite the richness of images and plethora of events, the book moves in a chilling back street of vapid sterility. Lacking the proportion or perspective of an Edmund Wilson, Pynchon feels no need to explain himself—even to himself, it seems. His uninhibited, unchannelled meanderings were previously subordinated to development of character and even, a little, to plot. These have been abandoned, though there is still the ostensible mystery search that popped up more often in the other novels to bring the reader back to some benchmarks. Even now, the reader can share the excitement of a mind feverishly working away on itself, but only so far, before the air gets soaked in the chilling laugh of a maniac. (pp. 65-6)
Frank Lipsius, in Books and Bookmen (© Hansom Books 1974), March, 1974.
Thomas Pynchon is an author in search of a metaphor, a fictional scheme to ask and answer the question of what prevails in the physical and in the spiritual universe—order or disorder, distinction or chaos, pattern or the existential blur? Most obviously in his earlier works, Pynchon experiments with metaphors from modern physics in his fictional investigations. The key metaphor of "Entropy," an early short story, is explicit: the disintegration of human society and the intellectual world is like the "heat death" of the physical universe predicted by thermodynamics. Nature, according to the second law of thermodynamics, must reach a state of maximum entropy (disorder) and minimum available energy. All change will cease. In V., Pynchon's first novel, metaphors from thermodynamics are again present but reduced in scope. We still have the increasingly disordered universe, but there is also mystery, a hint of a way to order. Herbert Stencil, one of the main characters, of V., fights back by sorting through the chaos in hope of finding some pattern to cling to. The Crying of Lot 49 retains both the search for order and the all-pervasive entropy image. The two patterns merge in brilliant analogy, as the searcher-for-order becomes a duplicate of "Maxwell's demon," a hypothetical invention created by the real nineteenth-century physicist Clerk Maxwell, who designed the concept specifically to challenge the second law of thermodynamics.
In Gravity's Rainbow Pynchon has found another universally applicable metaphor, giving what is probably the final answer to his questions. The metaphor again originates in modern science, which so clearly plays an important part in the novel. Equations of calculus decorate the pages, and from the quantum mechanical behavior of elementary particles to the Friedmann geometry of the curved universe, we are teased with facts about chemistry, physics, mathematics, and cosmology. Even the microscopic Maxwell's demon reappears…. The central image from science, which Pynchon develops into a striking parable of all existence, is nothing less than the thermodynamics of life itself. While the general tendency of physical processes is towards increasing disorder, twentieth-century biophysics has realized that life violates this pattern…. Life is that "conjuror's secret by which—though it is not often Death is told so clearly to fuck off—the living genetic chains prove even labyrinthine enough to preserve some human face down ten or twenty generations …". (pp. 345-46)
Entropy management means that order can only be produced along with a compensating amount of disorder, the same widespread chaos that always puzzles Pynchon's characters. Death and decay are the disorder that makes possible the endless variety and renewal of life. (p. 346)
The delineation of Pynchon's central metaphor … may seem to belong to the realm of the abstract, the theoretically expressed, but not to the detailed events and the artistic fabric of a 760-page novel. This impression, however, is misleading. While outlining the unifying images of his book, Pynchon at the same time manages in almost documentary fashion (which makes plot-summary a hopeless endeavor) to catch the radical diversity, complexity, and incoherence of the concrete. At once in pursuit of the stasis of ideas and the dynamics of actual events, he unites both in one wild, authentic, cinematographic happening. The law of physical order and disorder becomes a metaphor for the state of social affairs. (p. 354)
Paranoia again looms large in Pynchon's novel—as in all of his works. Only this time it is no longer a suspicion but a necessity. For what else can Slothrop and all the others become but paranoid, when they continuously catch glimpses of plots and thermodynamically defiant structures without ever seeing the whole. Under such circumstances history itself sponsors the foundation of such periodicals as the 1920s German magazine "Paranoid Systems of History" (p. 238). People see tips of many icebergs in Gravity's Rainbow and sometimes quite naturally conclude that a conspiracy of icebergs is under way. In Pynchon's own terms, "paranoia, it is nothing less than the onset, the leading edge, of the discovery that everything is connected, everything in the Creation, a secondary illumination—not yet blindingly One, but at least connected …".
The proverbs for paranoids and the ever-present references to the anonymous "They" play endlessly on this theme. But in contrast with Pynchon's other novels, this time we are given to understand why paranoia has to be the dominant condition of the human mind. The reason is that all we usually see on our wide trajectory of ascent and descent are isolated beginnings, apexes, ends, or various other substructures of the rainbow curve of existence. Are we really to blame for our attempts to imagine the rest or for our attempts to proceed from the awareness of partial control to the suspicion of total control? (pp. 357-58)
But all these cases of paranoia uniformly originate from the situation of life which Pynchon has been describing for us in his central metaphor. This is even valid for the strange phenomenon of antiparanoia which finally counterbalances paranoia just as certainty had its opposite in uncertainty, control in randomness, and ascent in descent. "If there is something comforting—religious, if you want—about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long"…. It is this occurrence of antiparanoia which finally throws a sharp light on what Pynchon himself is doing. Pynchon's gigantic effort in Gravity's Rainbow can be seen as the effort of a writer who fully realizes the potentials of paranoid as well as antiparanoid delusions. His answer to the challenge of this dichotomy is the attempt to expose at once the dangers of both by showing that their respective ideals, structured order and entropic chaos, do not stand in final opposition to each other. If there is any single message cutting loud and clear through the infernal din of Gravity's Rainbow, it is the message that order and chaos (and hence paranoia and antiparanoia) should not be seen as antagonists of the either/or type but as elements of one and the same universal movement. And without these elements there would be no such movement, no rainbow curve of existence, and no living universe for gravity to reign over. (pp. 358-59)
Alan J. Friedman and Manfred Puetz, "Science As Metaphor: Thomas Pynchon and Gravity's Rainbow," in Contemporary Literature (© 1974 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 15, No. 3, Summer, 1974, pp. 345-59.
In the fiction of Thomas Pynchon, the urge toward abandonment of anxieties and self is given detailed and complicated expression…. Gravity's Rainbow … should be seen as fulfilling the death-caused apocalyptic strain in his imagination. (p. 25)
As with the other Black Humorists, death for Pynchon is the driving force, the efficient cause of behavior, but in Gravity's Rainbow Pynchon removes its effects from the personal realm to a destructive conspiracy in the tissues of history itself. That some lead the world to suicide and that most applaud or, at least, foolishly concur with the "progress" toward Zero prove that the old mediations of our mortality, personal and cultural, have surrendered to the apocalyptic "dream of annihilation." "Their" irreversible pursuits are summarized by Jamf: "the absolute. Life and death. Win and lose. Not truces or arrangements, but the joy of the leap, the roar, the blood" (… my italics). (pp. 27-8)
Thomas LeClair, in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © James Dean Young 1975), Vol. XVII, No. 1, 1975.
In Pynchon's fiction the obscene so finely wrought in [Djuna Barnes'] Nightwood and sparingly told in [John Hawkes'] The Cannibal is epically extended and retold. Like Hawkes, Pynchon writes novels that are "hard, ruthless, comic"…. [The] most intense suffering that occurs in his fiction is intellectual, not physical, and in this regard Pynchon is the most violent of our modern writers, typically amassing great volumes of knowledge in specific detail only to mystify and confound the obstinate knowers who search in his texts for the right reading, for the true interpretation. He is interested not in those who operated the ovens at Dachau but in those who devised them, in those systems and technologies that enabled the Eichmanns, gave them timetables and switches to pull. All the enigmas painstakingly left unresolved in V. and The Crying of Lot 49 … are resumed and massively rephrased in his most recent novel, Gravity's Rainbow. Characters recur (notably Mondaugen and Weissman from V.), themes and motifs recur, anarchic parties begun in the short story, "Entropy"…, reconvene, there are historical and geographical intersections, Henry Adams and James Clerk Maxwell are once more recited, and Tyrone Slothrop, recognizably doomed, undertakes in this novel the same quest that harried and frustrated Herbert Stencil in V. and Oedipa Maas in Lot 49. But to conclude from all this evident continuity that Pynchon still coolly inhabits the world projected in the earlier fiction is to misread the significance of Gravity's Rainbow.
The first two novels are essentially Melvillean masquerades in which Pynchon himself operates as the confidence man. They are, in effect, positionless, centered only by the movement of the questions asked. In Gravity's Rainbow Pynchon moves from poised inquiry to statement. (pp. 113-14)
From the start Pynchon has played knowledgeably with the Manichean perspective in his writing, spelling it out on numerous occasions, but always stating it as the probable, as a thesis, the curious strain that runs through Calvinism and which becomes curiouser and curiouser as history leans on its New Jerusalem…. Children are readily drawn to a Manichean conception of the world, it is noted in V., particularly children who must deal with the inexplicable cruelties of war. The allure of Gnostic and Manichean thought in Pynchon's writing is obvious. For the Manichean stands outside history, free, not at all surprised by the evil he discerns in this sublunary world. (pp. 114-15)
As all his critics have noted, Pynchon's application of the second law of thermodynamics to the modern world generally follows the thesis advanced by Henry Adams in The Rule of Phase Applied to History (1909). History is subject to the rule of entropy, Adams argues, and is therefore intensifying its processes as it approaches its apocalyptic close, piling event upon event in the last wild thrashing of human time. In Pynchon's interpretation, however, this thesis is subtly turned. As it appears in V. and Lot 49, history is, if anything, a vile invention specifically designed to interfere with the random exhaustion of human energy. By constantly devising (through its lesser demons) totalitarian systems of mediation, institutionalized versions of the Demon, it seeks to keep the social world of men going. History is not natural, but an imposition of human will, a rebellion. The Hegelian Idea of Freedom that ostensibly answers our questioning gaze when we turn from the "slaughter-bench" of history reveals itself in V. (and most powerfully in Gravity's Rainbow) as the perverse Adversary, the Idea that impels Europeans into Africa to hound the ahistorical Hottentots up out of their holes into consciousness, into awareness of the master/slave relationship. What obsesses Pynchon is not the entropic end of history, but the spectacle of historical repetition. And in rendering this vision he refers us to John Adams, not Henry Adams, the John Adams who diligently studied the political science of Machiavelli. How does a state escape the turning historical wheel that generates aristocracies out of monarchies and democracies out of aristocracies, turning again and again, toppling innumerable Romes? The constitution Adams envisioned stabilizes that endless and bloody round, serves as a perpetual motion machine demonically checking and balancing political exchanges of power. It is the essence of the American Dream, the perfect social contract, an agreement based on synchronic principles and yet open to diachrony. And through the operative intelligence of that text, a constitution fashioned to sense political disequilibrium, America brings history to its poised culmination—the wheel turns no more. James Clerk Maxwell is not only an important physicist, but also, in the contrivance of that theoretical box, an American poet.
Yet the constitution fails, yielding to the corporate bylaws of GM, the governance of Yoyodyne, an aerospace firm whose original business was the construction of gyroscopes for children. As Christianity hardens into orthodoxy, it engenders heresies; as the Taxis postal system begins to monopolize discourse in the post-Renaissance, the Trystero System emerges as its counterforce; so, too, does Pierce Inverarity's technological, IBM-controlled America constantly create its conspiratorial other. In its presence as an abstraction, the Demon broods like the Gnostic Demiurge over all this cyclical, circular, and ultimately absurd molecular behavior, this Sisyphean labor of the secondary demons, the incessant rut of their desire. The Idea of History is the Idea of the Demon. Thus Oedipa sits passively inside the box of American history at the end of Lot 49, waiting to be acted upon, waiting for the Demon to come and cry her fate. (pp. 118-19)
In Gravity's Rainbow the "knight of deliverance" appears: Blicero, the suprasexual fashioner of the Schwarz-gerät, the black apparatus that will enable the V-2 rocket to break free of gravity and enter the realm of radiance. Yo-yoing like Benny Profane in V., Slothrop wanders through the novel, an escaped pawn in the technological chess game of the Second World War. In his search for the meaning of his fate, as he tries to find an elusive and mysterious rocket, a particular rocket cryptically noted in captured SS manifests, he becomes increasingly irrelevant, increasingly ludicrous, finally a cartooned figure—Rocketman in a pig mask. Pynchon turns savagely on him, this typically American Ishmael, because in effect it is the typically American Ahab, Blicero, who now commands his attention. This disconcerting shift in narrative focus has confused many of the novel's readers, turning them into amazed and nervous Starbucks. (p. 119)
Where are we, then, at the conclusion of Gravity's Rainbow? Looking at the moon. "Is the cycle over now," Blicero speculates, "and a new one ready to begin? Will our new Deathkingdom be the Moon?"… in Pynchon's fiction the ground is far from defined, far from safe. For one thing, this admirable Ahab wears the uniform of a Schutzhäftlingsführer. Gravity's Rainbow begins with an epigraph citing Wernher von Braun's belief in a spiritual existence after death, and of course von Braun was one of the principal engineers who designed the V-2. Like the fictive Blicero who stands apart from the concerns of the preterite, the muddle of politics, von Braun has always insisted that his work on the rocket was dedicated to a higher vision. Unlike Hitler and Goebbels who saw in it the instrument of revenge, Wagnerian tympani, and unlike Gerhard Degenkolb, Walter Dornberger and Albert Speer who were fascinated by the technological aspects of the rocket, von Braun's eyes were presumably lifted upward, beyond good and evil, toward the purity of space. Pynchon appropriates that version of von Braun and transforms it, turning von Braun's convenient piety into the knowledge of the Manichean who knows, above all, that liberation is attained only against nature, against the pull of gravity. The thrust of von Braun's rocket is thus the same act as the thrust of Blicero's cock up Gottfried's ass, a denial of the woman's belly, earth's womb.
Through the mock-historicity of V. and Lot 49, as we have seen, Pynchon himself elusively plays Stencil's game of "approach and avoid," beguiling his readers with mazes of information that lead nowhere. In their dark, Stencil, Oedipa and Slothrop feel their way along the walls of the womb-world that confines them, looking for an opening, looking (to use an apt phrase) for the light at the end of the tunnel. No such light is ever shed. Yet Pynchon's Manichean view of their dilemma is itself constrained, not wholly realized or believed…. The true struggle in Gravity's Rainbow is … between Pointsman and Blicero, Demon and Demon, between modes of death. And here Pynchon's fiction reenters the sphere of history. For these two eminent figures are allegorical representatives not of Light and Dark, Good and Evil, Spirit and Matter, but of the Bourgeois and the Heroic.
In his "hard, ruthless, comic" approach to the history of the Second World War, Pynchon refuses one by one the liberal pieties and moral postures that typically inform such histories. He writes instead a comic novel whose locus is V-bombed London, the concentration camp, destroyed Berlin, throwing in at the end, off-stage, the dull bang at Hiroshima. Yet out of all the burlesque and parody, the caricature and comic routines, he strives to retrieve, or at least reinvent, the value of evil. For what threatens Slothrop's humanity is not the violence of war, but the blankness of peace. He is most alive when the London air is taut with the screaming imminence of his death. Life is lived best amid those tight chances, lived most intensely when there is no complacent middle securing it, only sharp perilous extremes. The ethic Pynchon finally renders in Gravity's Rainbow is the ethic of the desperado, not the ethic of the survivor inclosing himself in cool ironies. So the novel is extravagant in style, conception, technique, an extravagance that often overspills into self-indulgence, but which nevertheless constitutes the core of the book. It is through this extravagance that Pynchon insists on his otherness, his anarchic criminality. (pp. 123-24)
Neil Schmitz, "Describing the Demon: The Appeal of Thomas Pynchon," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1975 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XLII, No. 1, 1975, pp. 112-25.
Thomas Pynchon knows the high cost of living better than anybody except the devil. Pynchon is the evil genius of our time, the man with the quickest eye for what makes this an age of rapacity and sexual hate. He is the American Goya whose dazzling canvases are lit from hell, whose message is: Death Rules.
The dream of this age is the dream of vulnerability conquered. Pynchon's first novel put life together as a diabolic pact in which you could trade your soul for insurance against hell on earth. At twenty-five he dared to say that what his generation required was salvation from death and life. His novel V. showed the way to eternal experience without anger, pain, or fear….
Pynchon's symbol for human salvation was not the cross, but the partridge in the pear tree: the bird lives off the pears; his droppings fertilize the tree so it can make more pears; the bird makes more droppings. Nature is a Newtonian motion machine powered by crap. Among people, too, salvation is symbiosis. The prime mover shows you how to keep it going without upsetting the bird! Pynchon's Christmas present to his generation was the God who was a birdbrain machine. (p. 82)
V. herself is female serenity, the clean, eternal balance of emotional control. She absorbs the force of war, of all male thrusts, as erotic curios, and returns them when as mother she abandons, as protectress she corrupts, as lover she murders, as transvestite priest she damns. She is the destructive, indestructible objet d'art who mutilates her body to adorn it with golden feet and a glass eye. She is always young, always fascinatingly beautiful…. V. is a self-contained autoerotic machine. V. is the crucial pivot, the profane fulcrum on which you can survive forever. V. is vulnerability conquered.
Life is best as a machine! The degree to which men and women want each other to be ever-ready erotic tools, needing neither tenderness nor love, is one sign of sexual hate. Pynchon is saying that men control their destructiveness through Profane-like passivity and disengagement; that women conquer their vulnerability to men, life, and death by becoming virtual automatons who cannot feel a thing. "Keep cool, but care," someone advises. The only way to contain your destructiveness is to deadlock the two, to be the partridge and pear tree locked in endless, profane life, forever content.
"O Trees of life, when will your winter come?" asked Rilke. For Pynchon winter came somewhere between V. and Gravity's Rainbow. Pynchon stopped playing the V. game, stopped telling us how to survive. He broke the balance of V., released the deadlock between destructiveness and control, melted the Cold War into an open battle in which the rats surfaced, and violence broke free for a war between life and death. Death won. Pynchon became the devil, the fantasist whose rainbow has its origin in gravity, the spirit of the down. Gravity's Rainbow is death's fantasy that life exists. (p. 85)
Points and pointlessness, meaning and meaninglessness are opposite sides of the same delusion, diversions into the traps of control or chance and away from the fact that life is uncontrollable. For Pynchon, only physicists give clear unequivocal statements that death has his undisputed hegemony in the universe, that life moves from order to disintegration, from differentiated structures to dispersed, undifferentiated matter, according to the second law of thermodynamics. Pynchon's law of human entropy orchestrates the life of the nation, the couple, the family, the individual into a symphony of death centuries in the unrolling, its pattern inaudible to any one listener because a lifetime unfolds only the most minuscule movement tricked out by the devil as the song of life. (p. 87)
The devil of male industriousness, the polluted orgasms of industry, the male mind that creates structures, forms, controls that kill life, Pynchon's devil is a formalist; his evil is his ability to rape nature with elegance, with all the classiness of Thomas Pynchon's symmetrical alignments. Impersonal, scientific intelligence did Slothrop in….
The history of death is the history of parental love. Slothrop is granted a buffoon's revelation of creation when he throws up in a barroom toilet and drops his harmonica into his slop…. You are your parents' droppings, the remains of their discontent! Slothrop emerges from the wasteland without realizing the extent to which he is made of excrement. But Pynchon knows, he knows it all. He tells you how this culture turns life into plastic shit. (p. 88)
The American Oedipal situation is the place where you lose your valence, your attraction to everything, your enthusiasm for life. This is the game where the mother who would like to kill, and the father who controls, team up against the son who has to outwit them both. Pynchon believes "Perilous Pop" is the antagonist of every Western, every comic strip…. Pop and his gang may not kill you, but they kill everything that makes life worth living. They steal the Radiant Hour from the day, steal life itself. Can anyone get it back?
Pynchon's rescue team is a catalogue of the kinds of people he feels this culture is producing, people bent on contemporary bliss…. Slothrop is the "glozing neuter" who cannot recognize himself as a man or a machine and whose fate is simply to run down ignorantly in the dimness of his vision. None of them finds the Radiant Hour.
The American street is full of people looking for the Great Glow in the gold-star night with a pickup. Pynchon's Platz is full of antigravity forces—people popping pills, morning-glory seeds, the "winerush" that rockets upward, making "the woman screaming, the knife in your hand, your head down a toilet all unreal." The sensory trip is the new dope. If you take it you see the profane light.
True radiance begins with Byron the Bulb, the bright boy light bulb whose immortal beam screams "You're dead" in neon. His real name is Thomas Pynchon, the writer who staked his immortality on being the man who illuminated the death at the heart of all experience. What happened to Pynchon between V., the wildly sophisticated survival manual, and Gravity's Rainbow, the brilliant analysis of how you died? What happened to a writer who was not profane enough to take his own advice: "Keep cool, but care?" What challenged Pynchon's balanced gravity? Pynchon does not say. (pp. 88, 90)
Pynchon had the clarity, the guts to see that what makes people kill and hate is not a lover's rejection but a beloved's responsiveness. Given a choice between exaltation or sensory amusement, people prefer the limited kick. What they cannot transcend is their gravity, the depression that has an umbilical force binding them back to the stern down of Father Death and pained Mother Greta. (p. 90)
Pynchon sold his soul to the devil for his own inviolability, his irrefutable alignment of all human endeavor on the axis of death. He is the artist of man's limitations, the best voice of a generation whose great discovery was exactly the finite nature of all human reality. Pynchon did his bit to limit life further by boxing experience into one either/or: the mechanical symbiosis of V. or no life at all. But Pynchon went still further in affirming limitation as the sole purpose of existence. Given our destructiveness, our need to kill, to sully life, our mission on earth, Pynchon concludes, must be to celebrate the devil. "Our mission is to promote death."
Kepler conceptualized gravity as the Holy Ghost for "physical and metaphysical reasons." It was God's love, he thought, that swept the planets around the sun and kept them in place and in harmony. Pynchon conceptualized gravity as a parabolic rainbow also for physical and metaphysical reasons. The rainbow is Death's hate, Death's grimace, the tragic mask of the heavens pulled down forever in one inviolable affirmation of depression. And in his myth of himself as death incarnate, Pynchon transcends his limitations, puts himself beyond the pale of human pain and cruelty. He allies himself with the ultimate aggressor, the impersonal force of the entropy god. In the throes of his pessimism, by force of his pessimism, Pynchon still pursues his own invulnerability.
The dream of vulnerability conquered is the dream of the age. Pynchon has an unbeatable sensitivity to the evil the dream contains, an analytic brilliance at extracting the villainy behind every smile, a stunning accuracy about everything wrong with emotional life in this culture now. He got caught between the dream and his hatred for it. His pain, his vulnerability, his great and ruined expectations keep breaking through his fierce intellectual hardness. Pynchon's own refusal to stop demanding that life be perfect caring or perfect emotionlessness, his inability to stop making conditions that life cannot fulfill, his own bottomless pain, weld into a pessimism so unassailable it becomes an argument against pessimism. Pynchon's indictment of every human impulse is his crucifixion on the modern dream. It is so intense it has a cautionary force against gravity. Pynchon's most eloquent moral is himself. (pp. 90, 92)
Pynchon is quite simply the genius of his generation. He is the Antichrist who offered up his own destructiveness to illuminate yours. Pynchon is the one man who realized that the moralist of our time would have to be the devil. (p. 92)
Josephine Hendin, "What is Thomas Pynchon Telling Us?," in Harper's (copyright © 1975 by Harper's Magazine, Inc.; reprinted from the March, 1975 issue of Harper's Magazine by permission), March, 1975, pp. 82-92.
Extend the world of V. beyond the book's final chapters, and you eventually intrude on the unlit, motionless world of the later Beckett. Extend The Crying of Lot 49, and you soon come in sight of Prospero's island and the seacoast of Bohemia. The processes of V. isolate; those of Lot 49 create community. (p. 184)
The achievement of The Crying of Lot 49 is its ability to speak unwanted words without a hint of preaching or propaganda. The book's transformation of the impersonal language of science into a language of great emotional power is a breathtaking accomplishment, whose nearest rival is perhaps Goethe's Elective Affinities. Equally remarkable is the book's ability to hover on the edge of low comedy without ever descending into the pond of the frivolous. The risks Pynchon takes in his comedy are great, but all the "bad" jokes, low puns, comic names, and moments of pure farce that punctuate the book have a serious function: the book, through its exploration of stylistic extremes, constantly raises expectations which it then refuses to fulfill. Its pattern of comic surprises, of sudden intrusions of disparate styles and manners, is entirely congruent with the thrust of its narrative…. A serious vision of relation and coherence must include comic relationships, and recognize comic varieties of attention. (pp. 218-19)
The themes and methods of V. and The Crying of Lot 49 also animate [Gravity's Rainbow], yet they do so with far greater profundity and variety. Gravity's Rainbow is eight times as long as The Crying of Lot 49, and it includes at least three hundred characters, all joined to a plot that on a first reading appears uncontrolled, but which, on a second reading, reveals an extraordinary coherence. (p. 219)
Pynchon's subject is the response made by men and women to their recognition of the connectedness of the world. In V. the decline into entropy is the universal norm. But the central issue of the book is not this decline per se—if it were, the book would be little more than an ingeniously articulated conceit—but the possibility of a transcendent coherence and connectedness by which the same process of decline occurs in everything and at every scale. What Stencil finds "appalling" at the end of V. is the possibility that there is a design to history, that the world functions according to processes that lie outside the comfortable parameters of science or the humanistic arts. Similarly, in The Crying of Lot 49 Oedipa recognizes the continuity that informs the apparently disconnected elements of the world, a continuity of which the Tristero is the emblem, as the woman V. was the manifestation of the earlier book's continuity. Both novels, however, oppose to their "real" connectedness the alternative possibility of false or merely mechanical relationships: in V., the relations between human beings and machines, or the international conspiracies imagined or created by the people among whom V. moves; in Lot 49, the possibility that the Tristero is Oedipa's fantasy or an elaborate practical joke. In each case the false continuity is a symptom or cause of paranoia….
The process enacted throughout [Gravity's Rainbow], the analogue of entropy in V., is the process (described by Max Weber) through which religious charisma yields to economic and psychological pressure to become rationalized and routinized, to become reduced to bureaucracy. Gravity's Rainbow is a book about origins, and, in Weber's account, charisma in its pure form exists only in the process of originating. This process Pynchon describes most vividly in terms of the first few moments of the rocket's ascent, the originating moments through which its entire trajectory is irrevocably determined. The action of the book takes place in 1944 and 1945 (it is remarkable that the finest novel yet written of the Second World War should be the work of an author whose eighth birthday occurred on V-E Day), the originating and perhaps determining moments of contemporary history. The moral center of the book is the difficult but required task of recognizing the secular connectedness of the present scientific and political world—and the even more difficult requirement to act freely on the basis of that recognition. The secular patterns of the present, Pynchon indicates, are the product of originating moments in the past, but free action must take place here and now. The book's one-or-zero choice is the choice whether to live in the contingency and risks of freedom, or to remain trapped by the same determinism that binds the inanimate (though charismatic) rocket. The V-2 is the real descendant of the woman V.
The Crying of Lot 49 has a story by Borges as its concealed and unacknowledged source; in Gravity's Rainbow Borges's name at last surfaces, and it appears often. Both Borges and Pynchon write fantasies, but while Borges's fantasies are built upon curiosities of language or mathematics, Pynchon's are extensions of man's capacity for evil and for love. Borges's language is one that is triumphantly capable of delight and astonishment, but Pynchon writes from the knowledge that language can also hurt and connect. Gravity's Rainbow cataclysmically alters the landscape of recent fiction, and it alters the landscape of our moral knowledge as well. It is a more disturbing and less accessible book than its predecessor, and demands even more intelligent attention, but its difficulties are proportional to its rewards. The Crying of Lot 49 is an exceptional book, Gravity's Rainbow an extraordinary, perhaps a great one. The enterprise of Pynchon's fiction, its range and profundity, remain unparalleled among the novelists of our time. (pp. 219-22)
Edward Mendelson, "The Sacred, the Profane, and 'The Crying of Lot'," in Individual and Community: Variations on a Theme in American Fiction, edited by Kenneth H. Baldwin and David K. Kirby (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1975 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Duke University Press, 1975, pp. 182-222.