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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 in volved in vain quests to seek the root of these mysteries. Pynchon is 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, he won a National Book Award for Gravity's Rainbow. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 6, 9, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)
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In Pynchon's novels the plots of wholly imagined fiction are inseparable from the plots of known history or science. More than that, he proposes that any effort to sort out these plots must itself depend on an analytical method which, both in its derivations and in its execution, is probably part of some systematic plot against free forms of life.
The perspectives—literary, analytic, pop cultural, philosophical, scientific—from which Pynchon operates are considerably more numerous than those available to any writer to whom he might be compared, and it is therefore especially impressive that Pynchon insists not on keeping these perspectives discrete but upon the functioning, the tributary, the literally grotesque relationship among them. All systems and technologies, in his view, partake of one another. (p. 157)
We have few ways, for example, of measuring the effect of the media within which we live except by the instrumentalities of the media. Pynchon does not set out to rescue us from this condition, in the manner of Lawrence. He is in fact as partial to technology and to science as he is to Rilke, Zap comics, Glen Gould, Orson Welles or Norman O. Brown. He no longer perpetuates the dream of Wordsworth that poetry or a radical esthetics derived from poetry provides a basis for understanding and resisting any of the other systematic exertions of power over human consciousness. (p. 158)
The Crying of Lot 49 is in many ways a novel about the effort and the consequences of "carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of the Science itself." (p. 159)
Pynchon is a great novelist of betrayal, and everyone in his books is a betrayer who lets himself or herself be counted, who elects or who has been elected to fit into the scheme of things. But they are the worst betrayers who propose that the schemes are anything more or less than that—an effort to "frame" life in every sense—or who evade the recognition of this by calling it paranoiac. To be included in any plot is to be to that extent excluded from life and freedom. Paradoxically, one is excluded who is chosen, sorted, categorized, schematized, and yet this is the necessary, perpetual activity of life belonging to our very biological and psychic natures.
This is a distinctly American vision, and Pynchon is the epitome of an American writer out of the great classics of the nineteenth century—Hawthorne, Emerson, and Melville especially. The vision is not, as has been argued so often, one of cultural deprivation, but rather of cultural inundation, of being swamped, swept up, counted in before you could count yourself out, pursued by every bookish aspect of life even as you try to get lost in a wilderness, in a randomness where you might hope to find your true self. And it is that at last which is most deeply beautiful about Pynchon and his works. He has survived all the incursions which he documents, and he is, as I hope he will remain, a genius lost and anonymous. (pp. 161-62)
Richard Poirier, "The Importance of Thomas Pynchon," in Twentieth Century Literature (copyright 1975, Hofstra University Press), Vol. 21, No. 2, May, 1975, pp. 151-62.
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Pynchon's verbal complexities astound and confound, amaze and bewilder, because his mixed modes concern the ultimate formlessness of a world that for a decade now he has urged as much as described. Everything bears, and bears on, everything else in Pynchon's coming world; everything discovers some grosser or more petite example of itself; everything leads simultaneously to hope and despair….
How can Pynchon be persuaded of entropy's irreversibility and simultaneously of a second coming? How can he claim a winding down of the world and its winding up to spirit?
He manages these, in fact, by slipping beyond simple apocalyptic themes to a reimagining for these days of Apocalyptic as a literary genre—which he also parodies, as he parodies everything. V. and the rest of Pynchon's novels "behave" as if the End were past and most of the world didn't even know it, so needed an exemplary convincing. The persuasion largely consists of approximating tongued speech—the voice of apocalypse—and of an anti-organization which may be named Pentecostal. V. represents a mode in which the sacred and the profane are so profoundly mixed that an account which aims to experience the novel's primary subversions must attempt to discuss them together. (p. 163)
Pentecost is like entropy in its frightfulness, in its total opposition to customary ways of being in and thinking about the world, and in its position of both finality and gradualness….
Dealing most natively with language, Pentecost is therefore a concept perhaps more suited for a novelist than is entropy. It might be for this reason that Pynchon never mentions the word "entropy" in V., though he repeatedly writes of Pentecost and tongues. Still, Pentecostal imagery serves him more widely than for fiction-making. (p. 164)
Just as the novel's entropic instances do not mean the world is yet wholly entropic, the bulk of V. is para-Pentecostal, slipping near tongues. Pynchon mentions or employs some twenty languages or argots, including the MG language Rachel speaks to her car, mock Eskimo, Maltese, and Tuareg. In fact, the novel often seems "a tourist's confusion of tongues"…. With all this attention to language, and specifically to the language of the Pentecost, the feeling through the bulk of the novel is of a longing for transcendence, and an imminence of the spirit, but of no chance for it to occur…. (pp. 166-67)
The pressure of tongues against "wrong words" is one of the novel's topics. Straight language, like Christmas, has deteriorated and Benny is left with no adequate speech. He moves in the direction of tongues, however, as he becomes more and more paranoid. Paranoia is another indication in Pynchon's work of an alternative world beyond the customary one, for paranoids read signs of mystery and force that philistines never suspect. (p. 167)
Partly because the ecstasy of tongues is elusive and nearly impossible to warrant, and partly because the dominant mode of edification is historically just at its breaking point, there is no mass conversion in V. (p. 168)
Although he is not the first to use the idea of entropy in fiction, Pynchon is famous for his bridge between science and literature because he is the first to use the idea so fruitfully and so relentlessly. Still, the traffic goes both ways on Pynchon's bridge because he also takes tongues to entropy. (p. 174)
Pynchon's world is more and more besieged by Pentecostal promiscuity. And it is simultaneously more skewed by discreteness and scoured by edification as the momentum of enthalpic organization marches on. The world to come is permeating this one; the world to come is waging silent war with this one for hegemony; the world to come will not be this one. There are warring modes of edification and tongues with V. They correspond to an ancient struggle coming to a head beyond the novel, between this world and the one to come.
Pynchon's vision is different from Modern ideas of apocalypse because his understanding of it is not contemptuous. He predicts—even urges—a second coming that is frightening and selfless, transforming and subversive, irreversible and natural. From one perspective the coming is entropic, but it is also Pentecostal: the apocalypse strikes awe but is not awful…. Pynchon places people solely on their own terms—vulnerable, costumed, but essentially themselves for whatever they are worth, as much damned as graced, as much nothing as something.
If there is no longer an edifying normalcy of belief, if Paul's bequest is incredible now, then what? What's left is "foul ditch" promiscuity: the spirit of impulsive persistence against scaffolding policy, politesse, and polity—the same persistence which has informed Pynchon's fiction from V. to Gravity's Rainbow. What's left is anti-form: impulsive tongues. Pynchon stands in relation to the world as folk always have at beginnings, when their experience is honest and not yet demystified, when it is promising terribly and also terribly promising. (p. 175)
W. T. Lhamon, Jr., "Pentecost, Promiscuity, and Pynchon's 'V.': From the Scaffold to the Impulsive," in Twentieth Century Literature (copyright 1975, Hofstra University Press), Vol. 21, No. 2, May, 1975, pp. 163-76.
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The experiences of the main character—Oedipa Maas—and the reader are too much alike for the main point of [The Crying of Lot 49] to be other than precisely the terrible ambiguity with which it leaves us. (p. 93)
[In this book] Pynchon is exploiting the diametrically opposite meanings which "entropy" has in thermodynamics and in information theory. Metaphorically, one compensates the other. Here is the narrator describing the Nefastis Machine, an invention whose structure lies at the heart of the novel's semantic structure: "the system was said to lose entropy. But somehow the loss was offset by the information gained about what molecules were where" (… italics mine). Why "But"?
A loss in thermodynamic entropy is not a "loss" from a human standpoint. The importance of Maxwell's Demon is that the information it gains allows it to separate the fast from the slow molecules, thus countering entropy. The modern objection to Maxwell's model has been essentially Oedipa's: "Sorting isn't work?"… Therefore, the Demon requires some input from the Outside to "keep it all cycling"—this is, I take it, Oedipa's purpose as "sensitive."
Pynchon's description, however—if it is his, and not Nefastis' confused version, or Oedipa's filtered through the narrator—doesn't actually match this model…. [What] Pynchon gives us in that scene is both a decrease in thermodynamic entropy and an increase in information, or decrease in information entropy. [Edward] Mendelson has written, echoing the syntax of the passage: "the decrease of thermodynamic entropy is balanced by an increase in information entropy."… But Pynchon has not said "entropy"; he distinctly means information "about what molecules were where." There is, one assumes, a decrease in uncertainty.
I have no resolution. The text in fact does not yield the balance which it invites us to find there. But then this is characteristic of Pynchon's writing. (pp. 93-4)
Yes, Oedipa receives an increasing barrage of information. But its effect is one of paralysis: "This night's profusion of post horns, this malignant, deliberate replication, was their way of beating up. They knew her pressure points, and the ganglia of her optimism, and one by one, pinch by pinch, they were immobilizing her."… The word "malignant" of course returns us to the close of Chapter 1: "what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside…." And the word "replication" is a telling anticipation of Hilarius' paranoia: "They replicate: you flee them, turn a corner, and there they are, coming for you again."… (pp. 94-5)
I wish only to reassert the ominous, paralytic aspect of this information increase. The book closes, after all, with Oedipa's recitation of a sterile set of binaries, which exclude the middle: "how had it ever happened here, with the chances once so good for diversity? For it was now like walking among matrices of a great digital computer, the zeroes and ones twinned above, hanging like balanced mobiles right and left, ahead, thick, maybe endless."… It seems to me that Oedipa objects to the binary structure itself….
Another fact of this increase which tarnishes its benign aspect is its irreversible loss. The Crying of Lot 49 is a book about loss; loss as part of the transmutation of life…. A neglected part of Nefastis' explanation concerns loss: "one little movement, against all that massive complex of information, destroyed over and over with each power stroke."… There are several analogues to this loss…. What I take these analogues to suggest is that the truth existing in the present moment recedes into the past, and is never present to our knowledge; it is always destroyed by the action it empowers. The action itself remains meaningless, the Message undecoded.
In the words of Gravity's Rainbow, the "arrangements" continue to form, reform; messages are coded, decoded, recoded. But, "the central truth itself … must always blaze out, destroying its own message irreversibly."… The language intentionally anticipates the destruction of information coded into the sailor's mattress when it goes up in flames—in Oedipa's own "Revelation" of conflagration. The word "irreversibly" [which physicists also use] appears three times in the novel…. Pynchon's use of the word follows a progression: it is first used in connection with the "central truth" burning its own message; next, it characterizes our culture's direction, as Oedipa misses her turnoff and finds herself "on the freeway, heading irreversibly for the Bay Bridge."… Lastly, her vision at dawn in the sailor's beaver-board apartment: "It was as if she had just discovered the irreversible process."… The mattress will burn, the sailor will die. (pp. 95-6)
[The] information is reducible to a binary structure which Oedipa finds constricting; it is largely conceptual, and the human vehicles who sustain the continuity—Wharfinger, Driblette, the sailor, and the artifacts invested with their humanness—continue to die. The information: what does it tell us?
Mendelson sees this information as sacred. He argues that Oedipa discovers patterns which operate across time, and thus exist in a sacred, recurring present. But Oedipa's efforts … are fraught with maybes, dim visions, poor lighting, and the persistent possibility that it is all a joke woven by Inverarity into his will.
This ambiguity inclines me to read The Crying of Lot 49 as a parable of perception. This ambiguity is the qualifying frame which gives structural tension and honesty to the social, political, and religious ramifications of the novel.
Pynchon lumps together all those who "act in the same special relevance to the word": saint, clairvoyant, true paranoid, dreamer…. Oedipa is one of this group. So are Nefastis, Hilarius, Mucho. I cannot help seeing her as a Kabbalist, engaged in a "scholarly quest" like Stencil in V.….
Mendelson is correct in excepting Oedipa from the company of Hilarius and Mucho, but he does not notice how alike they are, and their similarity is important. (p. 96)
Oedipa's nighttime experience is framed by Nefastis and Mucho, both of whom ascribe reality to the metaphorical linkages they create. What distinguishes Oedipa from them is that she does not. She remains unsure, in the "Middle." (p. 97)
Many of the connections which Oedipa establishes are bogus. Like the metaphor of "entropy" in the Nefastis machine, the links created by her on the basis of "sound" … often join realities which bear no literal relation to one another. On a metaphorical level, however, they do. An example is the founder of the Inamorati Anonymous, who notices the post horn water mark on a stamp at just the moment he discovers his wife having sexual intercourse with his superior. He takes the horn as a "sign" and makes it the symbol of the anti-group which he founds—though he is unaware of the symbol's roots in the European wars among mail services. Yet metaphorically, the original Tristero y Calavera and the executive share a sense of disinheritance, and they assume similar stances in response to that: isolation, silence, waiting. Language, as metaphor, becomes the source of connection; and the connection has reality only in the language itself.
Oedipa/Pynchon (the narrator occupies a kind of Jamesian position within the consciousness of his characters—though this relation is subject to alteration, the distance fluctuates ambiguously as it does not in The Ambassadors) meditates: "The act of metaphor then was a thrust at truth and a lie, depending where you were: inside, safe, or outside, lost."… (p. 98)
I am moving toward a notion of the text of The Crying of Lot 49 as fully metaphoric, existing in the "middle" between Inside and Outside, between the zeroes and ones. It occupies the same linguistic space as Oedipa and the reader. If we look again at the formulation in the book, we see that metaphor itself is both a "thrust at truth and a lie"—it becomes disjunctive ("or") only as it is employed from one side or the other. The next sentence, with the above in mind, is crucial: "Oedipa did not know where she was." At the end of the book she is still between the zeroes and ones. (p. 99)
This is important: the Tristero whose existence she seeks to prove is her own death, as well as an "alternative to America's exitlessness." The escape from the tower means a recognition of one's own death as the price of freedom. (p. 100)
[With Oedipa's reference to "Book of the Dead"] Pynchon intends a multiple set of references…. The point of both [Tibetan and Egyptian] Books of the Dead is that the art of living is related to the art of dying. This returns us to one of the cultural themes in Pynchon: that our culture is predicated on a denial of death….
When Oedipa attends the auction, she enters a room whose imagery is that of the Tristero in its ominous, preapocalyptic aspect. The auctioneer is named "Passerine"—pertaining to passing (over). The room is the last of the book's analogues to Clerk Maxwell's model: it is a closed system, doors shut and locked, light cut off. Oedipa is inside, still sorting, waiting for some revelation. Nefastis had explained the Demon's need for information from Outside to "keep it all cycling." Oedipa echoes the phrase when she recalls Pierce had told her once, "that's all the secret, keep it bouncing."… Her meditation continues, "He must have known, writing the will, facing the spectre, how the bouncing would stop." It is difficult to read this ending as "invigorating." Yet Oedipa represents a source of energy within that system; so does the possible Tristero. The book leaves us, like Oedipa, in the midst of this ambiguity.
I am convinced that the most embracing framework for discussing Pynchon is structure, by which I mean that Pynchon's writings exhibit a tightly packed overlay of myths, psychoanalysis, social, historical, and political ideas, which share specific structures—just as Maxwell's model is the central figure of an Inside/Outside structure that pervades The Crying of Lot 49. We must resist the temptation to see his "meaning" as present in any one structure or set of structures. The search for pattern and the ambiguity of our findings locates this "meaning" dialectically above the patterns he employs. As a corollary of this, the importance of linear concerns such as character development and plot lines must be in the relation they bear to the static cluster of structures and images which permeate the narrative. (p. 101)
Thomas Hill Schaub, "Open Letter in Response to Edward Mendelson's 'The Sacred, the Profane, and "The Crying of Lot 49"'," in boundary 2 (copyright © boundary 2, 1976), Vol. V, No. 1, Fall, 1976, pp. 93-101.
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Gravity's Rainbow is an extraordinary web of links among characters and actions, doubles, role-playing and role-reversing. Images of coordinating systems, parallel ideals, cross it at every point and at every level of theme and plot. (p. 201)
[The pretty young things of Gravity's Rainbow] nurture life, offer a moment of warmth, light, safety, truth, wherever we find them. Preterites, given bottom billing on the program, they offer what they can and what they have, passing Slothrop along from hand to bed humbly, generously, hilariously, into that final Humility which Enzian, the Herero-Nguarorerue, knows he is to be denied and envies deeply. As reward, they are spared Pynchon's satire and given his gaiety and tenderness and compassion. (p. 203)
Yet the "girls" have no representative among the major female characters of the novel. They really do serve as "moments"—the little life-flow that Slothrop first understands them to be. Numerous as they are, they can unite in no lasting resistance to the breeding death. Their breasts warm hands in cold doorways; and the light they throw against the raging dark has energy no stronger than an "English firefly," Slothrop's metaphor for their peaceful postcoital cigarettes. Though least of all expendable, they are expended. (p. 204)
On the prism of creative force … is Jessica Swanlake—on the one hand, just another "young rosy girl in the uniform of an ATS private" …; on the other, a power strong enough to waken the dead. (p. 205)
Roger tells Jessica repeatedly, "My mother is the war"; and from that lady he carries, no matter how innocently, the genes of death…. [Ironically], it is just that Mother's son that renders Jessica's magic impotent. (p. 208)
As Jessica literally jumps into Roger's world as a bomb explodes at their first accidental meeting, so she has been allowed to bring him into life only so he can suffer dying. Like the wall-slogan of the Weimar Republic, the action suggests that it is not, in this world, better to have loved and lost, but deadly to have loved at all. And the war, triumphantly, is Roger's mother still.
With just enough exception to prove the rule, the war in fact is a fairly representative Pynchon mother. Until the "accident" of Jessica, she had drained Roger of hope and the joy of hope fulfilled—left him not heartless, but with a heart paralyzed, numb, uncommitted—given him, as he himself realizes, "a somber youth squarely founded on Death,"… and bequeathed him its component conviction that everything is predictable, unchangeable. The Mothers of Gravity's Rainbow, then, are a perversion of the "girls." Their wombs nourish life, but their children once born take from their breasts not only physical strength but a taste for death, an aptitude for dying. (pp. 209-10)
To wither further the old life-giving adage, it is, then, not only better not to have loved, but, best of all, not even to have been born. And Pynchon's concern with origins, with discovering where we first took the terrible turn into the nonhuman twentieth century, leads him to worry not only about the effects of such mothers on the child but how Mothers came to be converted from the loving "girls." If one can look upon V. in relation to Gravity's Rainbow as one views Joyce's Portrait in relation to Ulysses, as my colleague Richard Johnson suggests we do, we can discover passages in V. that explicate what Gravity's Rainbow directly renders. (p. 211)
It is just that terrifying unpredictability of accident and its power in the act of creation, that inscrutable life-giving force, operating on no rule of cause and effect or any other rational principle, that drives mothers, as the Pynchon of V. sees it, into secret alliance, ironically serving the Establishment of unrejuvenating death. (p. 212)
A girl, to endure the terrifying knowledge that her sexual joy is used by impersonal forces to convert her, will-she won't-she, into an incubator of life, has conspired to conceal her helplessness, her lack of control over the most intimate processes of her being, by creating the stultifying myths of Motherhood. (p. 213)
That Pynchon finds Slothrop as implicated as Greta is abundantly clear. Slothrop is not only an Orpheus who didn't even try, he is also—to Greta and her child—a Tannhäuser for whom the Pope's staff never flowers …, who never frees himself from the Venusberg of this novel, but wanders near its perimeters, the Lunesberg Heath, where the only underground orgies are rocket-assemblies. (pp. 214-15)
[Not] just Slothrop, then, or Greta, but all of us have joined in the corporate act of the murder of exploitable innocence…. Greta, the most fallen, the least human of Pynchon's mothers, is, after all, "Their" creation, "Their" tool. If Slothrop is weakened and used here by the debilitating morality of his Puritanic judgments …, Greta is vulnerable because "she always enjoyed it too much, chained up in those torture rooms."… Though both characters sense the horror of their destructive acts, neither really understands enough to reverse or restrain his moves. (p. 215)
[The] immensity of Pynchon's sorrowing love for the universally anthropomorphized beings of Gravity's Rainbow extends easily to the human shard that is Greta. (pp. 215-16)
Except for the narrating voice of the novel and the voices of those beyond the interface that separates what-we-agree-to-call-life from physical death, only Leni Pökler understands how "They" manipulate, how the Mothers, the Fathers, are made for Their purposes, and only Leni has the strength to resist Them…. (p. 216)
Leni's long daydream, which begins with a Lesbian fantasy, reflecting a primitive sexual attraction as part of her anti-Semitism, quickly dissolves itself into the life that might have been, a workers' paradise of sexual equality and joy…. (p. 218)
Pynchon nowhere softens or dilutes the solemnity and terrible courage of Leni's lonely struggle in the endless, shelterless streets…. Perhaps, by keeping her offstage, by shielding the scenes of her pain from direct presentation, Pynchon intends to preserve her from the too-easy pity of his readers. For whatever reason, in the Leni passages his prose is at its most ordinary, least witty, least allusive, least imaginative.
As a result, Leni seems to me one of the least attractive characters in the novel—quick, it is true, with hard-fought-for life and highly admirable, she nevertheless emerges two-dimensional, unlovable, unpitiable, cold. How much then is Pynchon saying, if his stylistic treatment of the most fully and consciously liberated woman in the novel strikes other readers as it does me? (pp. 219-20)
Gravity's Rainbow creates a world, a moving frighteningly close image of our own, gone "bad" because it once failed in love, once refused to understand that the true function of the Preterite was to define the election of the Elect, and so, misunderstanding, failed to love them and damned them instead to loneliness, fright, and a life-denying hunger to feel safe—and thereby replaced the wheel of life, the fecund cycle of rejuvenating death on which both Preterite and Saint might joyously have ridden, with the gear's mechanical imitation of movement and its continuing replication of depletion, pollution, death-engendering death. In such a world, what is it to say that, after all, the contributions of the sexes are equally dismaying? (pp. 225-26)
Marjorie Kaufman, "Brünnhilde and the Chemists: Women in 'Gravity's Rainbow'," in Mindful Pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon, edited by George Levine and David Leverenz (copyright © 1976 by George Levine and David Leverenz; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company), Little, Brown, 1976, pp. 197-227.
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The image of the artist alone in his room is a familiar one, almost mandatory for any contemporary writer suspected of self-conscious narration. Pynchon does not disappoint his readers. His first novel [V.] provides a stereotype so clearly drawn that no one can miss the point. Fausto Maijstral is a poet and he is alone in his room…. To occupy the room is to accept the closed system as the environment of fiction and entropy as the metaphor for memory. What is a story if it is not a digression? While Fausto is not the only storyteller in Pynchon's world, he is the only one who self-consciously talks about his craft. It would be a mistake to regard Fausto as a stand-in for Pynchon, but it would be a greater mistake not to recognize Pynchon's closed world in Fausto's room. The poet's confession may be as much Pynchon's playful apology for his earlier narrative voice as it is Fausto's…. (pp. 7-8)
If Pynchon's fictional world is a closed system, then it must be subject to entropy; and yet fiction is nothing more than language—a system of logic and order, even if the implicit order is not always obvious in its manifestations. How can order represent chaos?… In Pynchon reality lies hidden beneath the inherent logic of language. Fausto gives up the psychological self for eyes clear enough to see past logic and order. The reader, however, is in much the same position as the heroine of [The Crying of Lot 49]. (p. 10)
With his scientific background, Pynchon is particularly conscious of the role of the observer. Fausto claims eyes clear enough to see, for example, and Oedipa wonders about the central truth. Observation, whether visual or metaphorical, is a special problem for those within a closed system. The most distinguishing characteristic of Fausto's room is that it is "sealed against the present." Regardless of how much he may claim to see within memory, constancy of purpose will not permit him to see beyond it. (pp. 10-11)
Within Pynchon's fictional world there are two orders of observation: that of characters such as Fausto and Oedipa, whose world is limited to the fiction itself, and that of the reader, who looks at their world from outside it but who is also enclosed by his or her relationship with that world. The respective problems of observation are similar…. The act of observing, the manipulation of data, and participation in the world being described are as much the acts of a person who would live in the world as they are of a person who would write about it. The choice appears to be one of involvement or disengagement, and in Pynchon's stories we can see characters exercising their rights of choice. The gesture may be futile because there always lurks the question of what difference a choice makes, whether the truth even matters—screwed up or not. (pp. 12-13)
The only thing the reader can do with the facts of Pynchon's novels is try to impose some order on all the clicks and whistles, all the noise. That Pynchon intends to enclose his readers within his fiction is obvious. In V. and The Crying of Lot 49 he uses mystery-story plots, laid tantalizingly close to the surface, to involve his readers in the search for clues. In V., for example, Pynchon mocks the reader for becoming involved in the search for V.'s identity…. (p. 14)
Among the several strategies Pynchon employs for involving his readers in his fictional world, one of the most effective is his use of detail and fact. Not only do these facts bring the readers' act of observing to the level of consciousness, but they force the readers to sort out referents and referring fictions. (p. 15)
Clearly fascinated by the implications of cinema for the novel, Pynchon writes The Crying of Lot 49 almost as if it were a movie; it has a tightly controlled plot based on the highly successful mystery-movie formula, an economy of dialogue, plausible fantasy, and characters that are at least imaginable. (p. 16)
From his earliest stories to Gravity's Rainbow Pynchon explores the self that is all that is the case. Among his more fascinating exhibits are Herbert Stencil, V., Benny Profane, Fausto, and Pig Bodine of V.; Pierce Inverarity, Mucho and Oedipa Maas of The Crying of Lot 49; and Edward Pointsman, Blicero, and Tyrone Slothrop of Gravity's Rainbow. In the variety and complexity of their projections, these characters begin to suggest the limits of the world, and the isolation of the self. (p. 19)
Stencil, V., and Profane are Pynchon's first fully developed characters; they are, superficially, the prototypes of subsequent inhabitants of his world. As Pynchon's skill increases, the complexity and sublety of characterization reflect less a change in the author's view of the world than an awareness of his own cunning. These variations, however, are important because it is from them that we can infer our own reality. With The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon leaves, at least temporarily, the puppetry and plotfulness of V. for a media-induced realism familiar to all inhabitants of the late twentieth century. (pp. 25-6)
After seven years of silence, Pynchon offers still another, more complex, version of the self's closed system. The central characters in Gravity's Rainbow are forces like gravity and entropy; they are, for the most part, unseen and unnamed, but they control the novel and its human characters. With only token help from the likes of Tyrone Slothrop, the reader alone must sort out clues, impose a structure on the facts stated or implied. However, Pynchon develops a character trait only hinted at in V. and Inverarity: control. Both V. and Inverarity sought to order and structure events and things, and in the process they achieved their own disintegration—the despotism of an artificial order that nature abhorred, as Henry Adams would say. To the extent that Gravity's Rainbow is about anything, it is about the interaction of the forces of nature with the efforts of men to create their artificial orders and to impose them on nature. Identity, as a consequence, is usually only an extension of the despotism of order into the lives and thoughts of the more or less human agents of the meta-cartels and a global military-industrial complex. (p. 28)
In Pynchon's fiction, a clock is more than a metaphor. The face, arms, and hands of a clock may have lost their metaphorical qualities through familiarity. Pynchon, however, not only reminds us of the metaphor, but also suggests that the relationship of a clock with a body may be similar to that of time with identity. Both the clock and the body are the visible manifestations of more complex abstractions. As the clock-body metaphor becomes literal, time and identity become indistinguishable and merge onto the same axis. The greater the sense of time, the more definite the identity.
Nowhere is this principle more clear than in Herbert Stencil, whose life is pure movement, like a clock, directed toward the search for V. in a series of endless cycles and repetitions. (pp. 30-1)
Throughout time is seen in its decay toward timelessness and history is seen as the proof of sequence and order, assumptions made ridiculous by the buffoonery of a Herbert Stencil or almost plausible by the reflections of a Sidney Stencil. (p. 32)
Pynchon shows that history is all that is the experience of time. In Stencil, V., Inverarity, Pointsman, Blicero, and the others there is an obvious tendency toward determinism and control, manipulation rather than accident. In V. Pynchon explicitly draws upon Machiavelli to establish a basic dichotomy between virtù and fortune, which he continues to exploit throughout his novels. As a prototype, for example, V. represents an ultimate manifestation of human intervention and control dedicated to increasing the world's disorder and decadence; in subsequent novels, the model is perfected and enlarged. Yet V.'s own disintegration and disassembly are the result of an accident, the unfortunate fall of a beam during a bombing. By integrating the Machiavellian dichotomy with Henry Adams's view of a world of increasing entroypy, Pynchon generates a tension between control and order on one hand and accident and chaos on the other. History, of course, must plot events on the grid of these two axes and the reader is left to resolve Pynchon's ambiguities.
Although Pynchon uses Adams and Machiavelli to establish the tension between human control and accident, he certainly has Wittgenstein in mind as well, according to whom everything outside logic is accident. (pp. 41-2)
His system intact, drawing upon his sources as capriciously as is convenient, Pynchon takes energy for his machinery of time and history from the disintegrating tension between order and chaos, much as a time clock based on atomic decay. While most characters are revealed in their futile attempts to resist a universe running down by their own fictions of control and history, a few appear to have accommodated themselves to the inevitable….
Although his treatment of time and history grows more complex with each novel and he incorporates an increasing number of references, the system remains essentially constant; the direction of time is always related to entropy, and history is always an attempt to impose order on time. (p. 44)
[It] is obvious that Pynchon draws upon relativity theory and quantum physics to establish the relativity of the observer. Quantum physics, for example, does not specify how the world is, but instead gives the result of observation by an observer; thus two descriptions may be both valid and different. Change, or time lapse, as Gödel suggested in his article on the relationship of relativity theory with philosophy, is an appearance due to our special mode of perception as a result of the relativization of simultaneity. In short, time changes with motion relative to an observer and in accord with the assumptions the observer makes about his motion. This characteristic is vital to an understanding of Fausto, Oedipa, and Slothrop because they, unlike most characters, are self-conscious about their respective roles as observers and possess, perhaps intuitively, a sense of the relativity of their own motion through time.
The second scientific concept Pynchon incorporates is derived from relativity's impact on the present. The present moment was formerly spatialized at the zero point on an axis in which the past was represented by negative numbers and the future by positive numbers; the present was a cosmic now, universal, simultaneous and instantaneous. With the acceptance of relativity, the present moment became localized—an accidental and changing perspective within the timeless, four-dimensioned, relativistic universe. (p. 45)
Presented as a multiform metaphorical structure that defines the limits of Pynchon's fictional world, the closed system may be seen everywhere in his novels and stories. We feel entropy increasing as we are lured further into Pynchon's deliberate uncertainties. That the form of Pynchon's fiction may in fact be an example of the entropy of information theory—where equiprobability permits maximum choice in constructing a message—demonstrates the metaphor's pervasiveness at the level of the reader's own experience. However, the idea of the closed system is more than a frame for the way we read—and Pynchon writes—his fiction. His characters are aware of the closed system in their own world; thus we can see them involved with the very problems that occupy us. (pp. 53-4)
Pynchon has created a fiction that shows as well as speaks about the closed system, and he has created a philosophically complete world, one that is all that is the case. He has been deliberate, precise, relentless. The world he shows us is frightening; there can be no more fundamentally pessimistic view. Even his stories and novels seem to draw energy from readers as they struggle with a signal-to-noise ratio, study the verbal landscape as a map. If there is a return for energy lost, it most probably comes as information gained, perhaps as knowledge about a closed system as seen from outside it. (p. 61)
As they document the vicissitude of the closed system, Pynchon's stories and novels also define a loss—to us as well as to his characters. (p. 63)
If the closed system is the environment of Pynchon's fiction, then the ruined garden is its landscape. Space is evidence. It testifies to the fact of depletion and the work of entropy. (p. 64)
V., Profane, Fausto, the two Stencils, Inverarity, Oedipa Maas, Tyrone Slothrop, Blicero, and Enzian are all wanderers searching for information that will make their world a little less alien. The nature of their interaction with the land distinguishes Pynchon's fiction, elevates it from the intellectually curious to the artistically significant…. [The] earth itself has become the vehicle of metaphor, important more for its descriptive value than its actuality. (p. 65)
There are any number of reasons for Pynchon to select information as the new medium of quest and tour: it is sequential and cumulative; it must be searched out; it implies a conclusion or resolution; it may be preconceived and then redefined by observation; it may be imagined or real; it has consequences. It is also this century's most important commodity and exists as its own territory, free from geography and national boundaries. And yet information has no value apart from those who seek it and, potentially, use it….
Stencil is Pynchon's first fully developed tourist. Although the principal character of V., he is nonetheless conspicuously absent most of the time. Instead of Stencil, there is his track—a record of where he has been, clues he has pursued. Both Stencil and his name are maps of a landscape. (p. 72)
The tour is a form of ritualized observation. Pynchon borrows a metaphor from physics that helps explain the tourist's double vision. On several occasions in Gravity's Rainbow he refers to the "Heisenberg situation…. It appears we can't have one property without the other, any more than a particle physicist can specify position without suffering an uncertainty as to the particle's velocity—."… The same principle is expressed by Dennis Flange in "Lowlands," when he says that the act of observing changes the data being observed. Each of Pynchon's protagonists shows some variation of the principle in operation. In fact, Pynchon takes quantum mechanics as a model for representing the world in his fiction. (p. 101)
Although an analysis of Pynchon's fiction, particularly Gravity's Rainbow, in terms of quantum mechanics might reward the effort, even this partial suggestion of a metaphorical structure indicates the extremely complex relationship between illusion and reality. They represent a unity, but neither is more fundamental than the other. The parallels go beyond the coexistence of two orders of being, however. As Stencil, Oedipa, and Slothrop demonstrate, the more certain they become about illusion, the less certain they are about reality. (p. 102)
Nothing in all of Pynchon's fiction rivals his accomplishment in showing how technology and its secular allies have reshaped the world. From Inverarity's personal dream in The Crying of Lot 49 to the impersonal meta-cartel of Gravity's Rainbow, there is a shift of emphasis, a growing anxiety, that commands our attention; there appears to be a global conspiracy that will accept nothing less than its own image of reality. (p. 119)
The evidence of technology's landscape hardly needs documentation since it is omnipresent in Pynchon's novels, but two tangible results of technology—dope and film—recur with such frequency as to require special attention. Both are extended metaphors for alternate landscapes and both have an element of irreducible strangeness. They are alternate forms of the tour and, accordingly, media for the metacartel's controlling images of reality. In a world gone synthetic, with illusion accepted as reality everywhere, drugs offer no "real" escape. But by removing their users one step from the usual landscape, they do offer the possibility of an alternate perception of the world. (p. 120)
The landscapes of Disney, dope, film, and tourism depend on a conscious recognition of form, and therefore artificiality, for their effect in shaping experience. However, a sense of familiarity is also essential. Repetition, prior knowledge, and experience itself can make even the strangest landscapes familiar. Familiarity in turn makes a landscape appear real, allows it to function as land. Although Pynchon's novels offer some of the strangest landscape of contemporary fiction, they do nonetheless have a familiarity about them…. Through his use of facts and details carried over from the reader's own experience, Pynchon creates a sense of place and event that self-consciously calls attention to the coexistence of reality and fiction. (pp. 128-29)
In Gravity's Rainbow Pynchon's ability to recreate the sense of a place and time has increased although he is less interested in the physical than the mental landscape. His rendering of the bureaucratic idiocies of the White Visitation, for example, has an ambiance of truth to it that allows the fictional institution to represent any number of real counterparts…. (p. 131)
Details are discovered, selected, altered, combined, and with them a landscape is created. Perception, finally, is all that distinguishes illusion from reality, and illusion is always partial. Whether observed or represented, reality necessarily involves illusion because it has no form of its own and cannot make itself visible without an image being imposed. If one purpose of criticism is to invent such images, Pynchon has prevented definitive perceptions by forcing critics into uncertainty relations with his observable world and thus into distracting complexity. (p. 132)
Land and landscape are the poles of Pynchon's fictional world, related in the life of man's illusion. (p. 133)
If the final measure of life is death, then death must be implicit everywhere in life. It is a pervasive artistic theme that haunts all others. The two approaches to Pynchon's fiction already examined claim their separate metaphors, but it becomes obvious that they are only other ways of talking about the probabilities and uncertainties of death. Although entropy is a measure of probability, it implies the process of transformation…. Rebirth is an illusion; the only transformation is, as Walter Rathenau expressed so well, "from death to death-transfigured." Despite its other connotations, the tour conceals the same inherent truth: reality and illusion are continuous, functions of the same uncertainty relation. Both the isolated system and the tour take their shapes from the earth's change toward death, from the nature of things. Death in new appearances and death exalted are the ends of transfiguration, not rebirth. (pp. 135-36)
If Walter Rathenau, as an apparently disinterested party, speaks the truth about life's being a movement toward death transfigured, then the characters of Pynchon's novels and stories should reveal various degrees of the transfiguration, all of which confirm death. Amid the variety of human activities that validate Rathenau's conclusion, love is one aspect to which Pynchon repeatedly turns for evidence—even in spite of a certain sympathy for human compassion. Within the traditions of western civilization Pynchon has a complete love-death structure to draw upon, including Freud's compendium, which begins with the conclusion that the goal of all life is death. (p. 137)
The structure of death tends to pervert love to its own form—homosexuality, fetishism, narcissism, (p. 175)
Though overshadowed by the machination of system, a human tenderness persists throughout Pynchon's stories and novels: irrational love amid death, a caring.
Its occurrences are relatively scarce and often fragmentary. In Pynchon's stories, Nerissa, Aubade, and the children of Mingeborough show evidence of caring. Pynchon himself openly cares in his essay on Watts…. There are others who care quietly, secretly, afraid that admission might deprive them of feeling. (pp. 176-77)
Pynchon insists that the capacity to care is a fragile and rare emotion amid so many easy feelings mass produced and manipulated by the system that passes for life. The isolation of Mexico may be the most poignant moment in all Pynchon's fiction. It is a loneliness that hurts because it touches nerves of memory, childhood dreams of what life was supposed to be like. By comparison, other moments of passion appear fabricated, taken from movie-screen images. (p. 185)
Paranoia serves Pynchon well as a model, or extended metaphor, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its decontaminated, socially acceptable use as description of real, imagined, and unconfirmed conspiracies. Its logical structure—the process of relating evidence—implies a structure for his own fiction, not unlike a great scientific theory. Although the clinical paranoid would organize uncertainties out of existence, Pynchon bases his use of the paranoia metaphor precisely on uncertainties, because both ambiguity and the more specific implications of uncertainty relations nourish paranoia and make any psychosis difficult to establish clinically. The question of whether a conspiracy is real or not remains an open one, a matter of interpretation. Paranoia also offers the advantage of allowing him to work with a dialectic of good and evil, the persecuted victim and the enemy conspiracy, without obligation to substantiate, defend or even explain. (p. 189)
A conspiracy or plot is a defining characteristic of all Pynchon's novels. Although the uncovering of each conspiracy supplies the momentum for all the novels, and although the conspiracies each show all the characteristics of paranoia, the device is not simply repeated. In fact, the most paranoid among us might suspect that there is only one conspiracy and that the more we read the more evidence we uncover that points to some grand design we cannot quite see…. Any reader must be impressed with the fact that Pynchon not only returns to the idea of conspiracy for each novel, but he also increases the complexity of its function and of his own vision. It would be tempting merely to ascribe his preoccupation with paranoia to the disorder and suspicion of the decades since World War One, and the development of his vision to cynicism and experience. Surely these factors are involved, but more significant is the possibility that Pynchon views paranoia as a social and aesthetic form rather than as metaphor or psychosis—a form for relating the individual to community, to some external truth (or system of belief), for counteracting what appears as an increasingly entropic world. (pp. 189-90)
Pynchon is conscious—self-conscious—of the fact that his novels are local enclaves of organization taken from the chaos of infinite possibilities. It is perhaps surprising, then, that Pynchon would give his fantasy such definite and precise shapes when the dangers of entropy, routinization, analysis, and consumption are so great. Certainly one of paranoia's freedoms is precisely the capacity to create elaborately detailed structures from an irrational, even false, premise and then to abandon them. But we must assume that Pynchon's shapes are deliberate since the act of publishing his stories and novels is one that implies a response or reaction. He is providing information—a commodity of exchange—in what can only be viewed as an effort to increase organizaton, concentrate energy. Because it incorporates Pynchon's own act and because it is one of the most recurrent themes of his fiction, communication may provide the framework for discovering how various things come together. (p. 220)
In The Crying of Lot 49 communication becomes a subject as well as a theme. Oedipa Maas finds herself between two systems: one is the offical system—the hermetic tower like Fausto's room with the banal conversations of surburban routine and the redundant, exhausted forms of life as it appears to be, including "lies, recitations of routine, arid betrayals of spiritual poverty"; the other is the secret, mysterious system for the alienated and unassimilated people of the streets…. (p. 228)
Oedipa's encounter with the old sailor reveals to her the secret of how the sensitive can communicate (p. 230)
The mattress is a metaphor for memory, that which structures all communications and gives them their originality and redundance. Memory is unique to each individual even if all memories include the same standardized histories, the same shared symbols, and the same limited forms for expression. The saint, the clairvoyant, the true paranoid, and the dreamer all depend on metaphor as the relational form that can hold the original, the true, the cry that might abolish the night in its intelligible redundancy…. (p. 231)
The Crying of Lot 49 contains an aesthetically dense and dynamic model of communication. The Tristero, Inverarity's will, the Nefastis machine, Mucho's spectrum analysis, and Oedipa's metaphor are all complex and overlapping manifestations of information theory and the social theory of communication. Though Pynchon differentiates among various possibilities, he wryly leaves his readers with a riddle. It is only Oedipa's central role in the novel that relates all the parts and holds them together in her paranoia. There is a clear implication that metaphor as a thrust at truth and a lie offers Oedipa, at least, a viable mode of endurance for her particular circumstances, for the symmetry of two systems of communication. However, it is an alternative based on faith and transcendence, both of which are ephemeral qualities. (p. 233)
Pynchon permits Blicero's Rocket to retain its mystery even as he transforms it into the abstraction of the last section of [Gravity's Rainbow]. Rocket ooooo loses its identity to the Rocket system, which can be interpreted in a variety of ways. As a metaphor for communication, the abstracted Rocket corresponds loosely to the sonic object of information theory since it is this concept that helps explain how aesthetic information exists simultaneously with redundancy and intelligibility. If sound, such as music, is regarded as a temporal phenomenon, having direction in time, time can be mapped into space by recording. (p. 238)
The Rocket as sonic object has properties of both space and time. It is a perceptual form that integrates the multiple messages of Gravity's Rainbow, messages about control, death, illusion, and the promise of escape. It is a message carried between two silences, carrying the aesthetic Word about the earth's own transfiguration of death and the gravity that will reclaim all those structures devised to consume its energy. (p. 240)
Gravity's Rainbow is itself like the metaphorical Rocket, with a fight through time and space, a continuity, and an intelligible form. The paradigm for author and reader is perhaps described by the relationship between Blicero and Enzian, in which Enzian is the scholar interpreting the text, following Blicero's creation, recreating a similar, but slightly different, Rocket of his own. The flight of Pynchon's Rocket takes its readers through an Aether sea, and at Brennschluss, for a moment, rests in a sound-shadow whose silence defines the screaming that comes after. The abstracted Rocket, like … Oedipa's metaphors, is both a thrust at truth and a lie. It is a symbol of all the dialectical polarities that characterize Pynchon's fiction and that arise out of the basic duality of order and disorder, the duality that structures thermodynamics, perception, the self, paranoia, information theory, and communication theory, even Pynchon's novels…. Pynchon's fiction is undivided, parallel, and not serial as Leni Pökler said. It encompasses more dualities than can be easily named and therein lies its achievement: it is a relational form, a process. The stories and novels may seem occasionally strange and frequently chaotic despite a growing sense that everything is somehow connected. The novels have passed through contemporary literature as if they were rockets…. (pp. 241-42)
[Thomas Pynchon] has sought to recreate the strangeness and mystery of literature by showing us the world men have wrought with their knowledge, their technologies, and the cleverness of their own designs. (p. 242)
William M. Plater, in his The Grim Phoenix: Reconstructing Thomas Pynchon (copyright © 1978 by William M. Plater), Indiana University Press, 1978, 268 p.
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Gravity's Rainbow has taken science/speculative fiction beyond the genre's limits into metaphysics, metapsychology, and cosmology. Pynchon has accomplished this by questing at the innermost nature of homo sapiens and in so doing has called into serious question some of the basic and sanguine assumptions upon which contemporary notions of science fiction are founded.
First of all, Pynchon, in the Freudian tradition, is concerned with the dualism that is reflected in the designation of the species homo sapiens. For Pynchon, to quote the essence of Ernest Becker's commentary on "the psychoanalyst Kierkegaard": "The creatureliness is the terror." The consequence of man's condition—the dualism of self and body—is a fear and denial of death. (p. 368)
Additionally, Pynchon adopts Norman O. Brown's conception of history as neurosis. Brown notes that the maturation process of the human animal is unique in its prolongation of infancy and its postponement of puberty. The human child enjoys an existence initially shielded from reality by the parents; but this paradise comes at a price—the repression of timeless pleasure in the body as the parents invoke reality and enforce it with the threat of the loss of love which the dependent child needs and desires….
Finally, Pynchon sees science and technology as the most significant symptoms of the human neurosis, rather than the means to apotheosis that remains at the heart of science fiction as, for example, expressed by Ben Bova…. (p. 369)
In Gravity's Rainbow, technology in its most aggressive form, its military guise, actually becomes the central character in the form of the A4/V-2 rocket…. The whole thrust of the scientific revolution which has finally permitted man's escape from gravity is the latest entry in the "record to impose the human will upon the movements of time." War, then, is more than a threat to species extinction in the nuclear age: it is an expression of humanity's Promethean/Faustian drive….
With devastating irony, Pynchon has rendered the War an insane bureaucracy that obliterates individual heroics and male prowess (the nuclear phallus is "dangling") in a mass of markets and matériel…. Man is lost in confusion and impotence, his vaunted technology, his military expertise, his Faustian history-making compulsion swept downward not in a cybernetic dystopia but in the dark, random, relentless process of entropy. Pynchon's War is chaos…. (pp. 371-72)
The betrayal of the Cycle by the System in the shape of "its own tiny desperate fraction" is expressive of Pynchon's vision of the absurdity of human superiority, the ugly lie of cause and effect and its duplicitous religious and ethical analogue. Preterition. The concept of the Elect and the Preterit, or those passed over, is "evoked as an early mission of the paranoia conditioning us to look for signs of Election and rendering the rest of mankind and its evidences invisible, merely so much waste." The wish for salvation on the one hand is futile; the ugly myth of Election, on the other hand, is the terrified response of humanity to the fact of its mortality. (p. 373)
A condemnation of the Elect in the name of the Preterite employs an important critique of science fiction's tradition of elitism. An aristocracy of intelligence and scientific leadership has always been a pervasive characteristic of the genre…. The issue here is not one of knowledge versus stupidity, but the motivations for the uses of human intelligence. Indeed, the nature of the genre's creative process, that of extrapolation, may be described as a kind of manipulation, a concern more with the arrangement of pieces on a chess board or the solution to a puzzle than with the insight into human paradox that is at the core of Gravity's Rainbow….
The style of Gravity's Rainbow itself contributes to the distinction between it and traditional science-fiction novels. In place of the finely machined tensile surfaces of Clarke's prose, the physical fulsomeness of Theodore Sturgeon's stories, and the punning pyrotechnics of Philip José Farmer, Pynchon offers a welter of sounds and voices that are extracted from experience (non-literary genres from science, pop culture, and film to comic books, pulp magazines, and the litter of our materially profligate civilization), not honed in quiet extrapolation. (p. 374)
[It] is the valence of the human dualism itself which Pynchon weighs that makes Gravity's Rainbow a revolutionary masterpiece of speculative fiction. It is, after all, not science, that threatens us with dehumanization, but arrogance, dogma, and ignorance. Science fiction incorporates an indispensable appreciation for change: that is its strength. But this open-mindedness and search for knowledge must expand along the avenues established by Pynchon's explorations into our existence as curious and conflicted creatures…. The issue of freedom, human dignity, and responsibility (i.e., what we are and how we should behave) is not just one of extrapolations upon the individual versus the communal mode, but an ontogenetic and phylogenetic appreciation of the paradoxical nature of our being that will remain with us to the edges of our universe. The science and the curiosity that will take us there are not simply the products of reason—they are the symptoms of a dilemma. (p. 375)
Geoffrey Cocks, "War, Man, and Gravity: Thomas Pynchon and Science Fiction." in Extrapolation (copyright 1979 by Thomas D. and Alice S. Clareson), Vol. 20, No. 4, Winter, 1979, pp. 368-75.
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Many who have written on Pynchon seem much too anxious to present him as a humanistic novelist with redeeming social concerns, although they allow that he sometimes stoops to horseplay, despairing parody, or a few edifying chills in order to share his vision with us. But it seems to me more revealing to view Pynchon as a vastly capable writer of science fiction … than it is to insist that he is a humanistic novelist, or a satirist bent on mending the world. The impulses that created Gravity's Rainbow seem to me to have been largely gothic, and the novel makes extensive use of the only gothic locale that retains any mystery and terror for us in a thoroughly secular, disenchanted age: the laboratory…. Pynchon is creating a magic world more interesting than ours, and he frequently goes to science and technology for his vocabulary, metaphysics, costumes, and props. Isn't this a description of science fiction? I emphasize this point because it is so obvious to have been ignored. (pp. 51-2)
All of Pynchon's fiction presents to us a War of the Worlds. The evocation of H. G. Wells' famous science fiction novel is intentional, for it is helpful to think of Pynchon's works as science fiction raised to art by the power of genius. But we should not lose sight of the fact that his fiction is fantastic, and that the basic narrative energy in his novels derives from the clash between this world and what I will abbreviate as The Other Kingdom—between our world of logic and rationality and five senses, and a nightmare world that has begun to penetrate it and threaten it. (p. 52)
Albert Einstein claimed that he had discovered some of the secrets of energy and matter because he had never stopped trying to answer the questions little children ask. I think there is a significant parallel between Einstein and Pynchon, the mathematician who never forgot the first questions and the writer who has never stopped trying to resurrect the magic latent in our oldest fairy tales. (p. 53)
We must recognize that Pynchon does not use fairy tale magic or supernatural event in a merely psychological way, or as a metaphor only. His Other Kingdom is never directly described, but it is potent and malign. (p. 54)
The central figure in Gravity's Rainbow, the intelligence operative Tyrone Slothrop, begins toward the end of the book to "thin, to scatter,"… and at last simply disappears, no longer "any sort of integral creature."… Characters, animals, whole choruses burst into song or limerick; scenes of cartoon surrealism are spliced into more realistic narrative, and Pynchon evidently feels no obligation to maintain a consistent tone, perspective, or degree of verisimilitude. (pp. 54-5)
Pynchon does not enter into any covenant with the reader as to what is "real" and what is "fantastic." His fiction is fantastic in essence, not incidentally or symbolically. He does not hold a mirror up to nature, but steps through a looking glass into a realm governed by magical forces rather than logical ones, and we will misread his fiction if we expect it to be confined to the empirical world.
The spy is isolated in a twilight world of ominous potentialities and his occupational disease is paranoia, but Pynchon's fascination with that profession and that obsession runs much deeper than simple thriller melodrama or the portraiture of fear. A spy is in fact a good choice for a protagonist to carry forward a secular quest, especially one that intimates apocalypse, and if paranoia is without question Pynchon's favorite noun, motive, and atmosphere, the sinister designs which the protagonist finds himself uncovering turn out to be not his own obsessions but the spiderwork of the Other Kingdom. (pp. 55-6)
Spies, fairy tales, and the terrors of childhood are … properties which perfectly suit Pynchon's fiction and can serve as a shorthand to describe its atmosphere. The Other Kingdom conspires against us—just as we always knew it did. (p. 57)
In the nervous quickening of the air just before apocalypse, spies and children will be the first to sense what is coming, and it is in their sensibilities that the recognition will be most sharp and potent. Since all of Pynchon's fiction takes place in the moment just before apocalypse, his use of spies and the terrors of childhood is the essence of his tone and brilliantly appropriate to his most impressive effects…. It is always important to try to understand the significance of what you do not find in a writer's world, and in Pynchon's fiction we find very little that can be discussed without using the terms apocalypse, fairy tale, conspiracy, childhood, and spy. There are no successful marriages or complete families in his novels, no one holds down an ordinary job or advances in an ordinary career, and the bond between parent and child is usually omitted, but often poisoned or monstrous when introduced. (pp. 57-8)
All of Pynchon's favorites are nobodies and victims whose only real connections are with other consenting adults, not with their own families or children. Friendship and compassion are the cardinal virtues in Pynchon's world, and these virtues are in contrast to a backdrop of official "power and indifference,"… to those "vast and terrifying conspiracies," and to military and police brutality. Pynchon loathes organized authority, and he presents civilization's murderous repressions as rooted in Christian guilt over our own sexuality and fear of our own death. Gravity's Rainbow is a great tract in defense of extinct and endangered species…. Like children, Pynchon's favorites are powerless, and an outrage that is much like a child's incredulous disgust with the adult world's repressions, hypocrisy, and brutality surfaces in the consciousness of almost every one of them sooner or later…. This combination of outrage and helplessness is the purest tone in all Pynchon's fiction: the truth is colossal, terrible, imminent and unalterable. (pp. 58-9)
Gravity's Rainbow is saturated with references to Rilke and lines from his poetry, and it seems important in understanding Pynchon's magic world to point out that, of all poems of any worth, Rilke's are the most difficult either to describe or paraphrase, but that we can at least be certain they imply everywhere the overwhelming desire to drive beyond this life, these realities, this contemptible moment. The Duino Elegies or the Sonnets to Orpheus begin several inches off the ground and then immediately fly off toward the same Transforming, Transcending Kingdom of Beyond that Pynchon can't describe, either: Rilke is the consummation of that tendency of German thought that Jean-Paul Richter in the last century encapsulated once and for all with his claim that, if the French ruled the empire of the land and the British that of the sea, the Germans were sovereign in the empire of the air…. Pynchon loves Rilke because of this antirationalism, and if we subtract Pynchon's sense of humor and horseplay and his love of the animated cartoon I think he can be most revealingly placed in the context of what we might call German Expressionism, circa 1910–1930. Here we find the affirmation of instinct, Dionysius, female and antipaternal values, and a corresponding disgust with Wilhelmine Germany, with stern, paunchy Bismarck, with any and every emblem of the tyrant-father. (p. 59)
A line can be drawn from every term enumerated [in German Expressionism] straight into Gravity's Rainbow, and it seems like a promising place to start in assessing Pynchon's relationship to the previous. But what any age chooses to make of its great fantasists constitutes nothing less than its intellectual essence, and one can only say with confidence that people will continue to be fascinated and alarmed by Pynchon for a long time to come. He is at the least a gifted prose stylist who has added magic to an age badly in need of it. (p. 60)
Douglas Fowler, "Pynchon's Magic World," in South Atlantic Quarterly (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1980 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Vol. 79, No. 1, Winter, 1980, pp. 51-60.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1229
In its use of a symbolic and psychic geography, Gravity's Rainbow recalls romantic novels in which a region of adventure and magical possibility exists apart from ordinary, civilized "reality."… Thomas Pynchon invokes [a] long tradition of symbolic and psychic geography in his epigraph to Part 3 ("In the Zone") of Gravity's Rainbow with a characteristic allusion to popular culture: "Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore….—Dorothy, arriving in Oz." (p. 225)
Pynchon's psychic wilderness, the Zone, is a place of purgation the fires of which can transform being into something new and magical, not merely "real," but legendary. (p. 226)
The analogue of Kansas in Gravity's Rainbow is London in the winter of 1944 as the close of World War II approaches, the setting of Part 1. London is the central base of the Allied bureaucracy, "where all the paperwork's done, the contracts signed, the days numbered."… There, people are intricately organized under various acronyms according to a power structure, leaving the individual highly visible and vulnerable, but innocently trying to make the best of it…. Tyrone Slothrop can be scrutinized and manipulated with absolute certainty in London because there is a power structure there capable of putting him in a fishbowl, and because he has a very specific history in time and space—he is, in fact, a footnote to the history of science, as the subject in his infancy of an unusual experiment in classical conditioning. (p. 227)
[Adventure,] love, and magical possibility are driven off the map to a separate, mythic region, and London becomes even more "charter'd" than William Blake had imagined…. The War brings about this extra-organized, super-efficient reality, for in times of crisis, political leaders cannot afford the luxury of emotion, imagination, and sensuality…. (p. 228)
[The] "reality" of Gravity's Rainbow exhibits a zany, paranoid warp, with a victim-protagonist like Slothrop in a laboratory cage as a model for civilized and organized experience, manipulated by a Pavlovian with "hands that could as well torture people as dogs and never feel their pain."… This gives the book a grotesque, over-dramatized, comic-book feeling. (p. 230)
The poetic Blicero with his romantic longing for transcendence (middle passage) and his love for Rilke, his Manichean despair of earthly life and of generation, expresses the same mentality as the more obviously villainous and comic "mad scientists," Jamf and Pointsman. The sexual and political implications of Jamf's organic chemistry and the presumption of authority in Pointsman's conditioning suggest how modern "reality," even in its scientific basis, persecutes and represses eros (as in the case of Roger Mexico) and exerts arbitrary control through deadly manipulation (as in the case of Slothrop). (p. 232)
The Zone is an existential carnival where national identities and allegiances can be shed and assumed, bartered like secondhand clothes because of the absence of national, civilized, ordinary, socially-defined reality. This Wild West and gangster atmosphere is mythic American, and the limited reality of common sense and empirical science is transcended. (p. 234)
Slothrop's experience in the Zone is, like his trip down the toilet, a descent into the heart of darkness in a surreal dreamland, a mythic journey through the underworld that reaches its nadir when Slothrop achieves his ostensible goal—the Schwarzgerät—without realizing it, in the engine room of the Anubis. (p. 235)
[The] Zone is most obviously otherworldly, surreal and hallucinated, in its potential for nightmare and garish revelation of "reality."
In the Zone, as in the sodium amytal dream, we see into the darkness of the white European unconscious, and the demons rush into the light: the body, dirt, earth, excrement, darkness, non-white people, mystery, death…. (p. 236)
[Pynchon] elaborates this theme with zany humor, sickening horror, and stunning fullness—how European science, technology, theology, arts, economics, politics, history express such obsessions by building monuments of resistance and rockets of escape from these organic realities, in a vain, monstrous attempt to gain power over them…. (p. 237)
[Slothrop's vision in the Zone] is clearly an alternative to the "reality" of the fathers, in which organic process is simplified, mechanized, abstracted, synthesized, and controlled….
He has indeed journeyed "over the rainbow," but without the Hollywood ending: Slothrop cannot return home like Dorothy, to the comforting familiarity of "reality." There is no returning from a black hole, only perhaps a moving through and beyond…. (p. 238)
In place of ordinary reality, the Zone offers mythic possibility because it is out of space and time, "lost to history." (p. 240)
The Zone finally allows Slothrop to consummate a fundamental American myth in which the individual becomes invisible, is absorbed by nature, the land, the people…. (p. 242)
Slothrop achieves a kind of immortality different from the perverse, doomed version of immortality sought by the white European Fathers…. (p. 243)
Within the Zone Slothrop is finally put into perspective as a minor figure in the story of Weissmann, Enzian, and Tchitcherine, just as America, however interesting or flamboyant in itself, is, finally, in any sort of global or historical context, only the modern extension of an old story begun in Europe in the Renaissance, a projectile from Europe. Slothrop is sympathetic and even lovable, but he is mascotsized, adolescent next to more mature, heavier figures such as Enzian and Tchitcherine. (p. 244)
To live beyond reality, as in the Zone, is not merely to find refuge in mythology or to escape with drugs and sex. It is to rediscover the cruelty and violence, the inadequacy of many of our myths—and perhaps to discard or transcend them, as in the case of Tchitcherine passing over his brother, and Slothrop escaping the controlling father. Finally, much of mythology is local and ephemeral, and because it tends to fix us on the map and the calendar, it must be given up. (pp. 249-50)
It is evidence of the ironic optimism of Gravity's Rainbow that the final and most cruel manipulation of Slothrop, sending him into the Zone as a secret weapon in an intelligence war, allows him to escape reality's control. In the midst of the grotesquerie and the suffering, there is a way out, an alternative. What is doomed, however, is the impulse, centrally expressed in the rocket, to escape gravity's rainbow, or the return to earth—the impulse to avoid mortality by sublimation; and what is doomed is a culture based on that vain struggle of "life against death," as Norman O. Brown puts it. Although Gravity's Rainbow shows us that we are now, and have been, witnessing white European culture's self-created apocalypse, it poses the possibility that while European culture and the "reality" it created have been burning out in a fiery return to earth since the end of World War II, this is not to be lamented, but rather understood and perhaps celebrated—at the very least, affirmed, because such cultural destruction provides a psychic wilderness of new possibilities. The values of a culture and its achievements and atrocities exist in time and are thus not eternal. But existence is not equatable with any single culture. Just being able to see the finiteness, the inevitable end of white European culture that with its objectified "reality" turns living beings into things, is to begin to recover nothing less than the experience of life and death as a single mystical process…. (pp. 250-51)
Lawrence Kappel, "Psychic Geography in 'Gravity's Rainbow'," in Contemporary Literature (© 1980 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 21, No. 2, Spring, 1980, pp. 225-51.
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