Thomas Pynchon Pynchon, Thomas (Vol. 9) - Essay

Pynchon, Thomas (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Pynchon, Thomas 1937–

Pynchon is an experimental, award-winning American novelist in the "black humor" tradition of Barth, Heller, and Vonnegut. Utilizing his strong technical and scientific background, Pynchon explodes in his novels traditional literary form, speech, and style to paint a self-destructive world. Richard Schickel has described Gravity's Rainbow as a novel which, "turning ever inward on itself, like one of the characters it contains,… must inevitably self-destruct in our hands." Pynchon is also the author of V. and The Crying of Lot 49. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

Pynchon's descriptive brilliance and architectonic inventiveness are such that one sometimes forgets the simplicity of the formula on which he builds his 900-page structure [Gravity's Rainbow]. (p. 47)

Gravity's Rainbow, at least at first glance, reveals many of the same generic features as [Barth's] Giles Goat-Boy. It, too, presents an enormously ramified fictional structure meant to give an encyclopedic account of the relentless destructiveness of history in our era. Here, too, the menace of apocalypse is conveyed with a kind of savage hilarity, the characters purposely reduced to grotesquely named cartoons, verbal slapstick abounding, bizarre and lurid fantasies spinning out of historical centers, orgiastic scrambles and endlessly deviant sexual couplings deployed to incarnate the perverseness and the cynical exhaustion of the human spirit. The general effect of Gravity's Rainbow, however, is quite different from that of Barth's book, this novel being alternately repellent and engrossing, intolerably tedious and illuminating, but not finally trivial….

Pynchon is fundamentally a philosophic writer—at times, one suspects, too inexorably philosophic for the formal needs of the novel—and he [explores] basic questions of probability and determinism, entropy and order, randomness and paranoid system, in intricate detail. Possessing an extraordinarily well-stocked mind, he is able to put to active use as much precisely observed lore—from science, history, and popular culture—as any living writer in English.

Indeed, Gravity's Rainbow often seems only residually narrative, less a novel than an "anatomy," one of those eccentric baroque compendia of bizarre associative learning like Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) and Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici (1643). Pynchon is a brilliant stylist with a love for mimetic detail (though the overall conception of the book is schematic and mythic rather than mimetic), and this novel is studded with impressive set-pieces, from the evocation of a dozen generations of a family in a New England graveyard near the beginning to the great lyric description of the ultimate flight of the rocket at the very end. Most appropriately for a novel in which the central symbol is a complex instrument of technology, the writer is able to shape the imagery and conceptual materials of science and technology into vital elements of his style. (p. 48)

For all these indubitable resources, Gravity's Rainbow is a novel that satisfies one unevenly in segments rather than as a whole. The problem is not that it lacks structural unity. On the contrary, Pynchon is the most artfully designing of the new American novelists, and the seemingly disparate pieces of his novel are interwoven with an elaborate tracery of verbal, imagistic, folkloric, theosophic, pop-culture, and scientific motifs. The difficulty is rather in Pynchon's schematic conception of the movement of history which is his subject. I would argue, in fact, that he closely resembles Barth, Barthelme, and Vonnegut in finally not taking history very seriously, despite the overwhelming density of actual historical detail in the book…. The ingenuity of Pynchon's method is sometimes pointedly suggestive in making it difficult for us to distinguish between historical fact and fictional invention…. [He sometimes presents] not history but paranoid fantasy using historical materials—or eschatological symbolism drawn out of history, which amounts to the same thing—and I don't think Pynchon himself really escapes the schematic simplicity of the paranoid vision merely by naming paranoia repeatedly as an explicit theme and attributing it to his principal characters. (pp. 48-9)

Pynchon, the most intelligent of the new American writers, keenly perceives the problematics of the concepts with which he is working but is nevertheless trapped by them as a novelist. If the end of history is at hand, historical time being only a welter of statistical events, without causal links, all bent on destruction, there is no objective ground for narrative structure; calculated formal design must substitute for anything like development in the novel; and perhaps most crucial, there are no criteria for selectivity in the novelist's shuttle between history and invention.

Let me briefly elaborate this last point because I think it may explain how Gravity's Rainbow can be at the same time a complex architectonic structure and a lamentably flabby novel. If history is no longer a realm of concatenation, if there are no necessary connections among discrete events and no possibility of a hierarchy of materials ranged along some scale of significance, any associative chain of fantasies, any crotchety hobbyistic interest, any technical fascination with the rendering of odd trivia, can be pursued by the novelist as legitimately as the movement of supposedly "significant" actions. The end of history, in other words, is a writer's license for self-indulgence, and Pynchon utilizes that license for page after dreary page of Gravity's Rainbow…. (p. 49)

The lack of selectivity leads to local flaws; the unwillingness to make differential judgments about historical events results in a larger inadequacy of the novel as a whole…. One would never guess from this novel, for example, that there were after all significant differences between a totalitarianism unsurpassed in its ruthlessness and political systems that had some institutional guarantees of individual freedoms, or between a state that was dedicated to fulfillment through genocide and one that was not. It is precisely for this reason that Pynchon's Europe of 1944–45 seems so much like a "moonscape," despite all the seemingly documentary detail.

Such leveling of historical distinctions is disastrously encouraged by the post-Freudian cliché through which Pynchon sees all events and around which he elaborates his central symbol. The Rocket is, of course, a monstrous phallus, Eros turned to Thanatos, the Death Instinct having absorbed all mankind's libidinal energy…. Virtually all the ingenious contrivances of plot and character in Gravity's Rainbow are finally illustrations of this single idea. History reduced so exclusively to the working out of the Death Instinct is metapsychological myth, no history at all, and what it generates in the novel is a proliferation of variations on one unswerving formula that in the end tells us nothing new about the challengingly ambiguous interplay of people and power in real historical time. (pp. 49-50)

Robert Alter, "The New American Novel" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1975 by Robert Alter), in Commentary, November, 1975, pp. 47-50.

From his very earliest work, Pynchon's apparently encyclopedic knowledge, verbal ingenuity, and particular obsessions are apparent. Certain themes and subjects recur constantly: song, sexual perversion, suicide, science, slapstick, sewers, shit and Southwest Africa are some of them. Pynchon's fictional people are also distinctive from the very beginning of his career. There seem always to be two basic types of characters, those questing after some profound mystery, and those poor suckers who unwittingly are caught up in someone else's mad quest. Isolation and ignorance are the ground rules of the human condition in a bleak and unpredictable world. There is Pynchon's humour too, and Pynchon is a master of every variety from slapstick to parody, all of it based on the theory that no laugh, no matter how cheap, is ever worth passing by.

Pynchon's early stories are competent, workmanlike efforts, formally more conventional than one might expect. They are flawed by an overload of literary allusions, with those to T. S. Eliot, Conrad, Henry Adams and Shakespeare the most frequent. They suffer, too, from being a little too neat, with every strand so carefully tied that the stories exhaust themselves in their unfolding. What they do reveal is Pynchon even at the start of his career employing his most characteristic technique, the use of material from disciplines other than literature as fictional metaphor. (p. 40)

Pynchon has continued to use cognitive models from discourses other than literature, like ethnology or sociology, but especially science, as fictional metaphors. V., for example, carries on Pynchon's extension of the notion of entropy, but it contains a great deal more besides. In fact, like most first novels, it deals with far too much. It is several novels under one roof: a New York novel (obligatory for American authors), a Navy novel, an undergraduate novel, a war novel and an historical novel. Through all the overwriting, however, Pynchon's considerable talent is clearly visible. His creation of V., a magnificently decadent woman who moves in and out of the major events of recent European history (and who may be Henry Adams's 'Virgin'), is a really traditional novelistic symbol which Pynchon uses to organise the book's loose structure. As V. grows older, she replaces more and more of her body with prosthetic devices, until she is almost entirely a mechanical thing, perhaps like modern European society itself. Chiefly through her experiences, Pynchon explores the idea that modern culture is obsessed by the sexual love of death. (This idea, inadequately but tantalisingly adumbrated in V., and several of its characters, will reappear in GR [Gravity's Rainbow].)

The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon's second novel, surprised his growing cult audience by being as tight and restrained as V. is diffuse and self-indulgent. Even so, it manages to include, among other diversions, a running parody of Jacobean tragedy that must be one of the funniest pastiches ever written. The novel's theme is paranoia, and it narrates the discovery by the heroine, Oedipa Maas, of a plot to take over the world existing not only in the present, but throughout the historical past as far back as the Renaissance. Pynchon was on to something: long before Watergate was even a twinkle in CREEP's eye, he had tagged paranoia as the American national disease. Lot 49 is also a book about the way American society has become an information machine, in which communications are manufactured and propagated faster than they can be absorbed…. Paranoids sift the endless number of signs bombarding us, and use them to create structures of meaning. They re-interpret empty data into complete, coherent systems. Paranoids are therefore not only creative, they are the true heroes of our time. We abdicate in the face of overwhelming odds—they fight back. (pp. 40-1)

[The] labyrinthine complications of [Gravity's Rainbow] are virtually impossible to understand, often even to follow. V. was considered absurdly complex, but compared to GR (which might well be called 'V-2') it is crystalline in its clarity….

Pynchon's belief is that the explanation for [the] mass death wish is essentially historical, and much of the novel is an effort of historical analysis, finding the roots of the malaise in our distant past. (It is in large part the historical nature of its subject-matter which makes GR such a difficult book to read.)… It should be said that [his] is hardly an original insight [into the death instinct], and that Freud and Norman O. Brown, both of whose work Pynchon knows well, have said much the same thing long ago. Pynchon's originality is to be found rather in the way he shows this instinct in operation, and in the way he postulates it came into being. And, paradoxically, he locates the original evil in that most understandable and most noble of human urges, the desire to make sense of the world around us. (p. 41)

[Pynchon's language] has always been idiosyncratic, and,… I suspect, this is not a difficulty for English readers alone; Pynchon's language is difficult, and would be perceived as difficult by a reader of any nationality, American or otherwise. What may be of more moment is the resistance to this difficulty.

To allow oneself to be put off by this difficulty is in effect to state that one is not willing to work to read a novel…. Perhaps … there has always been an aliterary quality about the best novels …, requiring that one move from the word outward to the world, and henceforth experience it anew, with one's perceptions of it permanently altered. It is precisely this kind of effort in which Pynchon is engaged in GR: perhaps, then, [a] comparison with Joyce, or for that matter with another more explicitly social novelist, Dickens, would not be all that far-fetched. (p. 43)

F. S. Schwarzbach, "Pynchon's Gravity," in The New Review (© The New Review Ltd., 11 Greek Street, London WIV 5LE), June, 1976, pp. 39-43.

[My intention is to offer] a usable handle on the [ideas in Gravity's Rainbow] by demonstrating Pynchon's pervasive indebtedness to the school of psychoanalytic culture criticism best exhibited in the two major works of Norman O. Brown—Life against Death and Love's Body….

The structure of GR is episodic, with vignettes from multiple plot lines intertwining like the molecules of a dozen covalent chemicals dumped together at once. As indicated by the stylized square film-projector sprocket holes used to divide the chapters, Pynchon's chosen artistic metaphor is the novel as movie; and, while the idea of the omniscient narrator as camera eye has long been cliché, Pynchon's handling of the device is consistently fresh and imaginative. GR is basically a takeoff on the historical-novel genre, as processed by the makers of B-grade movies about, and of, the period of World War II…. GR constitutes a revisionist analysis of a turning point in contemporary history: the resolution of the European power struggle and the transition to the postwar balance of terror and the on-again-off-again cold war that we still live with.

Like Pynchon's two previous novels, V. and The Crying of Lot 49, the plot of GR takes the form of a quest attended by numerous interlocking conspiracies. As before, narrative "plot" is continuous with conspiratorial "plot." (p. 873)

Movie techniques pervade even the finest details of Pynchon's narrative presentation. For the movie audience the mere sequence of scenes is sufficient; if we fail to catch the connections favored by the director, we invent others equally adequate to our needs. Thus, a scene in GR typically plunges us into a chaos of human appearances and material appurtenances objectively described, and we perforce read on, foundering haphazardly toward an understanding of the present action—of what is simply going on. Pynchon composes, it would seem, by first projecting an imagined scene on the screen of his mind and then transcribing what he has observed according to the unmediated sequence of raw perception. Moreover, the main significance of hardly anything of importance is ever revealed at first mention. As a result, it is virtually impossible to assimilate the book in a single reading. GR is designedly difficult to read because Pynchon is determined to have the manner of his fiction mirror the complexity of contemporary existence.

Furthermore, Pynchon's view is "phenomenological," in the sense that official pronouncements and the interpretations of establishment historians are meaningless in the face of the reality of the event, the immediate impact on the human organism and its hope for a viable future…. The determining factor in Pynchon's allegory of the human condition is the unholy alliance that has developed between, on the one hand, media, technology, and the inanimate in general and, on the other hand, the will to power of those who control the dominant commercial and bureaucratic structures. (p. 874)

From the beginning Pynchon's writing has been haunted by an awareness of T. S. Eliot's fundamental point—that a totally secular culture is absurd and unworkable. Having killed all the old gods, we turn and, out of the strangest materials, reify new and more terrible gods. The one line in GR that could serve as motto for all the rest occurs in Walter Rathenau's lecture … to the gathered "corporate Nazi crowd." "All talk of cause and effect is secular history, and secular history is a diversionary tactic."…

[In] innumerable ways GR reads like a historical product of the late fifties, when the Cold War was most intense…. [One] reason [for this] is that this period produced the book that provides a conceptual framework into which the literary content of a fiction such as GR can be subsumed. In the Introduction to Life against Death Brown anticipates the thrust of his entire argument and adumbrates the deepest fears of the fifties intellectual…. Brown begins with the Freudian postulate that the essence of Homo sapiens is repression. Individual man represses himself in the name of deferred gratifications and, through the institutions of society, collaborates in a condition of general repression. Repression of the self precedes social repression….

History is also viewed [by Brown] as the product in human praxis of the gap between what men tell themselves that they want and what unconsciously they really want. (p. 875)

[It] should be apparent that GR, a sixties novel born late, is shot through with the particular style of Freudian thinking represented by Brown. The issue here is the use Pynchon made of those ideas identified preeminently with Brown.

In V. we recognize the influence of Henry Adams' dark meditations on the second law of thermodynamics. But entropy is naturally conceived as a sort of straight-line decline toward inanition, leading to a gradual cessation of all the motions of life. In GR Pynchon reverses his theme but picks up another of Adams' concerns, the acceleration of history, and his metaphysical speculations now center on the far more violent implications of gravitational pull—the exponential acceleration of falling at thirty-two feet per second per second…. [Within] the structure of Pynchon's social speculations, gravity in the macrocosm corresponds to the mechanism of repression in the little world of man, the microcosm. (p. 876)

[Pynchon's point is that] repression gives us individuality and culture, a collective history, as gravity gives the earth form and configuration. Physics provides the metaphor for metaphysics, and for social theory as well. Gravity is the ultimate metaphor in the novel for the human repression that is its theme.

At the limit of Brown's analysis there are only two alternatives, each achieving through different means the same end: the disappearance of man and the abolition of human history…. Brown and Pynchon … not only mutually fear the fiery consummation of the world but, paradoxically, seem simultaneously to long for it. "To bring this world to an end: the consummation devoutly to be wished, the final judgment" … this I take to be one meaning of Pynchon's title. God sent the rainbow to Noah as a promise that the world would never again be destroyed by flood, but made no promise excluding fire, and Revelations suggests that fire will indeed be the mode of the final judgment. (pp. 876-77)

Pynchon and Brown … agree that the reason social amelioration is impossible is that the slaves love their chains. They must; else the situation would be otherwise. This interpretation is not likely to endear Pynchon and Brown to anyone with Marxist leanings, but, as it turns out, they both explicitly reject Marxism as a political philosophy and theory of human nature, and for the same reasons: its materialism ignores the fact that the world is a projection of spirit, and its much touted dialectical method is merely a cover for a perverted millennialism, itself an excuse for totalitarian structures.

The primary locus for the theme of repression in GR is, not Marxism, but a strangely similar dogma—namely, Calvinism, particularly the form we encounter in Slothrop's Puritan background…. In one way or another Pynchon manages to trace back to early Calvinism some of the major perversions of the modern world…. Thus Pynchon's view of historical development agrees with Brown's: "whereas in previous ages life had been a mixture of Eros and Thanatos, in the Protestant era life becomes a pure culture of the death instinct."… (pp. 878-79)

Brown traces some of our most unpleasant symbolic associations back to early Protestantism and its peculiar origins. For Luther, an entire moral complex of anal repulsions associating blackness, excrement, and death was cathected by his special concept of the Devil—traditionally the Black Man, and seen by later fundamentalists in the Negro. The explanation of the Schwarzkommando offered to his colleagues by Gavin Trefoil [in GR] of the psychoanalytic wing of Psi Section exhibits the same insight as Brown's "Studies in Anality": "He had not meant to offend sensibilities, only to show the others, decent fellows all, that their feelings about blackness were tied to feelings about shit, and feelings about shit to feelings about putrefaction and death. It seemed to him so clear … why wouldn't they listen? Why wouldn't they admit that their repressions had, in a sense that Europe in the last weary stages of its perversion of magic has lost, had incarnated real and living men …"…. Now in context this is both dramatic—and to that extent provisional—and wildly comic; is nevertheless as close as we are likely to come to the meaning of the whites' relation to blacks in the novel. (p. 880)

[In LAD Brown argues] that genital organization is constructed by the death instinct. In other words, our adult concentration on the end pleasure of genital organization is viewed as a direct product of those particular Western neuroses that are reflected in our social environment, characterized as it is by commerce, technology, and war. In every important case, sexual behavior in GR conforms to the social criticism implied in this theory. There is no totally healthy sex in the novel because the characters are all participating willingly in a society committed to the death instinct. Each of the sexual oddities is traceable to some peculiarly Western social perversion. (pp. 882-83)

Under conditions of general repression we cannot hope to escape the returns of our negations or of our assertions. The villain is nothing less than human nature itself, and the diseased rationality it employs. As with the "dream of annihilation" in V., there is a horrid secret at the center of GR, a secret that the narrator hesitates to reveal directly because it sounds mad; it can never be proved, only felt. But the idea is simple: man's uniqueness in the creation is a function of his sickness, of the fact that he is the one true aberration in nature…. Unable to be satisfied with simply being here, being alive, collective man, through repression both personal and social-historical, has pursued the death instinct nearly to the extreme of sacrificing all nature to the logic of his compulsion. (p. 883)

The end of GR is, in ordinary terms, pessimistic: the Counterforce fails, Slothrop is lost, Blicero's romantic affirmation offers only sterility and death, the Schwarzkommando are eliminated from history, the bomb falls on us all in Los Angeles, the world ends. The expressions of hope along the way have been few; but Pynchon does recognize, as a minor character puts it, the possibility "that some chance of renewal, some dialectic, is still operating in History."… Dialectics, in fact, becomes the charm Pynchon holds up, as he finishes his novel, against the vampire logic of one-way time; and this is precisely the straw at which Brown grasps for the conclusion of LAD…. Brown defines dialectics as "an activity of consciousness struggling to circumvent the limitations imposed by the formal-logical law of contradiction."… According to the Aristotelian law of contradiction nothing can be, or be in, its opposite…. And the law of contradiction is a close description of Calvinist dualism: things are divided into two separate and opposite categories and then pushed apart, polarized as much as possible…. Dialectical consciousness, on the other hand, would be "the struggle of the mind to circumvent repression and make the unconscious conscious"; it would be "a manifestation of Eros"; and it would be "a step toward that Dionysian ego which does not negate any more" [according to Brown]….

Throughout GR Pynchon pits dialectical consciousness against the dead hand of dualism. Dialectical reality receives notable expression in the vision of primal unity attributed to the non-Westerners and associated with the natural world as it existed prior to Western consciousness. (p. 884)

As a matter of esthetics, the dialectical impulse common to Pynchon and Brown is evidenced mainly in their increasing reliance on metaphor and symbolism. Brown escapes the logical difficulties of LAD by shifting in LB to the abstract realms of transcendental mysticism; and toward the end of GR Pynchon escapes the strictures of his realistic story line by increasingly fading into surrealism and thematic fancy, playing variations on themes already established. Brown, however, uses the term "symbolism" in rather special ways. As he puts it in the chapter on "Unity," "Symbolism is mind making connections (correspondences) rather than distinctions (separations)…. In other words, Brown's symbolism is conceptual and associative.

Pynchon employs this sort of symbolism, and he is also interested in what the symbol-making impulse tells us about human nature. The runaway symbolism in GR (e.g., the double S) sometimes just points to Pynchon's favorite notion that all of reality is invariably a mental construct. If we take the specific constructions too seriously, not only do we miss the point, we become the point. There is a neat correlation between the omnibus feminine symbolism of the mons veneris in V. and the omnibus masculine symbolism of the rocket in GR; but the hopeless paranoid projections that impel the endless quests of V. should serve as warning. The subject is not the "meaning" of the symbol but our very Western propensity to seek meaning, to project it into the most empty vaginal void, if necessary. On another tack, the lapses into surrealism in GR … operate as confirmations of the inadequacy of a perceptual structure based on the reality principle, and the same goes for the thematic use of drugs and movie-director talk….

Pynchon is also trying to say something about the ultimate illusion, which most of us are not yet ready to accept as such, the illusion of personality. Brown insists that "psychic individuals" are "an illusion" … and that "The inner voice, the personal salvation, the private experience are all based on an illusory distinction."… In GR the illusory nature of the phenomenal world and the transparency of the individual are evidenced by dreams and archetypes, among other means…. Dreams and dreaming pervade the narrative, to the extent that the line between various waking and sleeping, conscious and unconscious, states is instructively blurred. And Pynchon would agree [with Brown's assertion] that "there is only one psyche, a general possession of mankind" …, with the reservation that archetypes themselves seem to be to some extent culturally determined. (p. 885)

Symbolism in GR also takes the form of "signs," especially of the sort dear to the early Calvinists, for whom nature was God's book, and every natural object or occurrence appeared as evidence of a spiritual state or allegorical lesson. Here for once Pynchon is in sympathy … with all the idealists throughout history who have thought that, even if the external world is real, and not just God's movie, we can have no direct knowledge of it, so that the only "rational" way to approach the world is to view it as a system of symbols relating to inner states or spiritual realities…. Everything is a sign, nothing is "real." In the modern wasteland, with all the monotheistic gods dead and Pan still suppressed, the signs are evidence of spiritual waste. (pp. 885-86)

One unstated metaphor is that of the book itself as rocket flight. It begins with a V-2 going up over the Channel and ends with an ICBM falling on Los Angeles, and the final section … disintegrates into flying fragments like a rocket exploding, ending, like all such charismatic events, with a loud and resonant silence. Matter and manner are thus joined, fused by the white-hot heat of intellect. Yet this fusion is accompanied by a special sort of tension, located in the reader and generated by Pynchon's deliberate stepping-up of the degree of surrealism to an almost intolerable level….

Two specific factors create tension in the reader: violations of historical chronology and the progressive disintegration of the narrative into chaos. The fiction of linear time is fruitfully violated by reminiscences of American adolescence and by snatches of media and street experience in Los Angeles from the period the novel was being written…. In the final movement Pynchon is bravely attempting to compose sequences "forever beyond the reach, the rape, of literal-minded explication."… One way is to load the narrative with more fresh, evanescent suggestiveness than it can bear….

Another weighty means of blowing up the narrative (thereby forcing the reader to take up the burden of meaning personally, or give up) is [, as Brown says,] "to reconnect words with silence; to let the silence in."… Brown and Pynchon are both fighting "Against gravity; against the gravity of literalism, which keeps our feet on the ground."… The solution advocated in the final chapter of LB, "Nothing," is silence: "Get the nothingness back into words. The aim is words with nothing to them; words that point beyond themselves rather than to themselves; transparencies, empty words. Empty words, corresponding to the void in things."… The stakes are high, the goals many: a purgation and cleansing, setting the stage for a fresh start; repealing repression, annihilating all inhibitions; and, the sine qua non, making the unconscious conscious. (p. 886)

The tension generated by the final section—between the reader's expectations for literary endings and the author's determination to defeat those expectations—is itself a paradigm of the dialectical imagination. The choice is between, on the one hand, an artifice completed, fixed, and therefore dead and, on the other, the pulse of life; and the synthesis of elements is an art form, the novel genre itself, brought back to life. A similar dialectical tension exists in an absolute sense between style and content in this novel. The content affirms death, since it tells the truth: that we are all like Slothrop, who is "in love, in sexual love, with his, and his race's, death."… The style affirms life, since the intuitive basis of that marvelously poetic and spontaneous prose is the author's own enactment of what Brown calls "an erotic sense of reality."… The nihilism of GR is only apparent; it is actually anarchy that Pynchon affirms, and the medium is the message. The orgasmic rush—the continual nowness—of Pynchon's present-tense style is a direct transcription of the life instinct. By joyfully embracing and celebrating all the death instincts of Western man in a style of unmediated euphoria, GR dramatizes the perpetual struggle of life against death. And thus we disaffirm the supposed pessimism of GR. The solution is Rilke's, as quoted by Brown: "Whoever rightly understands and celebrates death, at the same time magnifies life."…

Pynchon's style is also his primary evidence against determinism. He shares with most contemporary novelists an obsession with man's freedom…. It is strange how critics keep looking to the mere content of novels for some kind of hope—for confirmation of the old humanistic concept of the self, or for evidence of the resistance of human goodness against the inroads of greed and power, or for some overt moral; whereas, strictly speaking, and from a psychoanalytic point of view, there isn't any hope—certainly not of the kind they entertain. We are all under sentence of death. But Pynchon does have a kind of hope, though like Brown's hope it does not attach to anything in this material-political world. Nothing really matters but individual freedom, and Pynchon knows that the best defense of freedom is … the miracle of language itself—language, an irreducibly intuitive symbolic process. (p. 887)

Lawrence C. Wolfley, excerpted from "Repression's Rainbow: The Presence of Norman O. Brown in Pynchon's Big Novel," in PMLA, 92 (copyright © 1977 by the Modern Language Association of America; reprinted by permission of the Modern Language Association of America), October, 1977, pp. 873-89.