Thomas Pynchon Pynchon, Thomas (Vol. 18) - 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 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.)

Richard Poirier

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)


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W. T. Lhamon, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Thomas Hill Schaub

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Marjorie Kaufman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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William M. Plater

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Geoffrey Cocks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Douglas Fowler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lawrence Kappel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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