Thomas Pynchon Pynchon, Thomas (Vol. 11) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Pynchon, Thomas 1937–

Pynchon is an American experimental novelist and short story writer often associated with the black humorists. His labyrinthine, encyclopedic novels reflect the formlessness of contemporary history and depict the powerlessness of the individual before contemporary technology and a seemingly imminent apocalypse. In his novels all events seem to be linked to vague conspiracies, his protagonists becoming involved in vain quests to seek the root of these mysteries. Considered by many critics to be the most important American novelist to emerge in the past twenty years, each of his three novels has garnered a major literary prize, most notably a National Book Award for Gravity's Rainbow. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 6, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

John Vernon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Chance meetings in Pynchon's novels are exploited as parodies of realism by being accepted as part of the normal, necessary order of events. A line of action that is entirely arbitrary, that is taken by chance, links perfectly with others that are stumbled upon, and all of them lead somehow to the right place. Yet this right place, whether it be V. or a full disclosure of the Tristero system, is never finally reached. The clues that Oedipa Maas assembles about the Tristero in Lot 49 are all happened upon accidentally, through a Jacobean play, a lavatory wall, a chance meeting with another character in a labyrinthine munitions plant, and so on. The atmosphere of a multitude of possibilities is created, an infinite proliferation of plot lines; yet the one that is followed is the only one, the right one, the way out; and yet again, it brings us no closer to an answer, an identity, a V., a meaningful pattern, than we were to begin with. (p. 65)

John Vernon, in his The Garden and the Map: Schizophrenia in Twentieth-Century Literature and Culture (© 1973 by The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois; reprinted by permission of the author and the University of Illinois Press), University of Illinois Press, 1973.

Gore Vidal

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I find it admirable that of the nonacademics Pynchon did not follow the usual lazy course of going for tenure as did so many writers—no, "writers"—of his generation…. The fact that he has got out into the world (somewhere) is to his credit. Certainly he has not, it would seem, missed a trick; and he never whines.

Pynchon's first novel, V., was published in 1963…. Cute names abound. Benny Profane, Dewey Gland, Rachel Owlglass. Booze flows through scene after scene involving members of a gang known as The Whole Sick Crew. The writing is standard American. (p. 119)

From various references to Henry Adams and to physics in Pynchon's work, I take it that he has been influenced by Henry Adams's theory of history as set forth in The Education of Henry Adams and in the posthumously published "The Rule of Phase Applied to History." For Adams, a given human society in time was an organism like any other in the universe and he favored Clausius's speculation that "the entropy of the universe tends to a maximum" (an early Pynchon short story is called "Entropy"). (p. 120)

Pynchon's use of physics is exhilarating and as an artist he appears to be gaining more energy than he is losing. Unlike the zero writers, he is usually at the boil. From Adams he has not only appropriated the image of history as Dynamo but the attractive image of the Virgin. Now armed with these concepts he embarks in V. on a quest, a classic form of narrative, and the result is mixed, to say the least.

To my ear, the prose is pretty bad, full of all the rattle and buzz that were in the air when the author was growing up, an era in which only the television commercial was demonically acquiring energy, leaked...

(The entire section is 726 words.)

James Rother

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Let] us postulate one overriding function of this contraption called V., namely to call attention to history not as a nightmare from which we're trying to awake, but as a fantasy into which we've been mythically herded. It should be pointed out that V. proposes no history at all, not even a fake one, since to be historical is to be fictional in the least rewarding sense…. Such history-oriented fictions—and it makes no difference whether the history is personal or public, social or psychological—all accept the whims of chronology, the arbitrary daydream of events poised in sequence. Yet we have every reason to believe that this long-accredited view of the universe is as false as the Ptolemaic Disneyland it managed to replace, that it is only in our contrived histories of what never was that events could not stall into psychic tableaux, pockets of occurrence. Far from being the metaphorical vehicle of experience, time is simply its tenor; and far from being endlessly fluid, it stalls constantly, folding itself neatly into synchronisms whose raison d'être lies hidden in the accidents of consciousness that give rise to their perception. Thus V. is everyone and no one, eternal and non-existent; she is Cherchez la femme and Sweet Cheat Gone, maximum Vicissitude and maximum Velocity. Indeed, she must be considered what one of Pynchon's anti-figures, Dnubietna, engineer-poet of the Anglo-Maltese school …, observes history...

(The entire section is 433 words.)

Robert Martin Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

On its surface, V is an incredibly active novel, with an immense cast of characters as vigorously in motion as a swarm of paramecia in a drop of swamp-water. They penetrate the sewer systems of Manhattan, yo-yo up and down the East Coast, rattle around Egypt, Florence, Malta, and South Africa; they change appearances, change identities, couple like rabbits, group and regroup, diffuse and drop out of sight as fast as motes in a beam of sunlight. The activity isn't completely pointless, since plots and semi-connected actions form and reform, sometimes unbeknownst to the participants, sometimes accidentally; but often all pretense of sequential behavior disintegrates in a whirl of miscellaneous partying, a picturesque but gratuitious act. In the end, the various plots don't cohere, the individual actions are spaced out. Why does Paola Maijstral feel she has to enter a black whorehouse in order to become, or in spite of the fact that she is, the preferred girl of McClintic Sphere? Why after a spell there does she feel inclined to go back to Pappy Hod, with whom life seems distinctly less preferable? These things, and many others, happen, but without apparent motivation, or at least only with such motivation as the reader wants to impute to the character after the event. Uncertainty and actual provocation are built into the structure of the fiction…. [The] plot (in the sense of "what happens to the characters," and even in the sense of "how the characters' inner life develops") is not the vehicle of the book's main interest. Its function, and the function of all that frantic, superficial activity, is to distract and impede, not to express. One can't say that it does or doesn't function in other ways as well; there's an uncertainty principle at work as we read, in that no action is so far-fetched or remote that it can't, perhaps later, tie up on some level with another; and the construction isn't so tight that what looks important can't be simply forgotten or erased by a coincidence.

In any event, all the hurry and scurry in the novel—drunken brawls, promiscuous beddings-down, aimless wanderings, mistaken identities, weird acts of violence, and arbitrary linkages—lead nowhere. For one tale that is tied up in pink ribbon—probably sardonic—like that of Paola and Pappy, there are dozens that the author leaves hanging in mid-air, without bothering to conclude them…. And apart from all the characters who simply split off the action and disappear, the action plot itself is meaningless. Profane, the schlemiel-Redeemer, makes the point about all his "experience" at the end of the book, when he says "offhand" (but he means "in deepest seriousness"), "I'd say I haven't learned a goddamn thing."

What is important to the book takes place outside the realm of the characters' actions, and to a large extent outside their comprehension; and it's only indirectly, semi-allegorically connected with Stencil's search for V. That is more in the nature of a private anxiety, since the woman in whom the principle of V was momentarily embodied, insofar as she was an individual at all, was dead well before the action of the novel starts…. The search for V is therefore pointless and obsessive as it's carried on after the war; it goes beyond the person, beyond even the several perhaps-conspiracies of which she may have been an intermittent agent, into her existence as a malignant or at best indifferent principle of nature…. The fact that a number of other people can get caught up in a search-program as flimsy as Stencil's shows by strong implication how loosely they're attached to the texture of everyday life. Yet the fact is that everyday life itself includes alien and even hostile elements, as is shown most gruesomely in the discovery after her death and dismemberment that the lady largely consisted of inanimate prosthetic materials—a wig, a glass eye, false teeth, a wooden foot, a star sapphire imbedded in her navel. Thus, though the search for V as protracted by Stencil is insane, her reported nature ties her closely to a theme running through the entire book, the encroachment and usurpation of the inanimate world on the animate. V as a physical principle needn't be sought anywhere because she (it) is present everywhere; V as a person can't be sought, because she is dead. There's a potent unspoken connection here. (pp. 170-72)

As a sensitive schlemiel,...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When we read a Pynchon text we may be disconcerted by it, but we usually find ourselves comfortable with at least one of its elements: setting. In fact, Pynchon's mise en scène may be the only reason for calling his books novels. He is as archeologically precise about places and things as Flaubert, although he should probably be compared to the Flaubert of Salammbô. In that text, Flaubert transports Emma Bovary's problems back to Carthage, rendering both Emma and the setting abstract. Pynchon, on the other hand, creates a false familiarity in the mind of the reader which makes him forget that what he is reading is not a study of people in a historical setting but the clash of personified ideas...

(The entire section is 2984 words.)