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Thomas Pynchon in Context enables students, scholars, and other

readers to engage effectively with the global scope and prolific imagi-
nation of Pynchon’s work, providing the most up-to-date and author-
itative scholarly analyses of his challenging and canonical writing.
This book is divided into three sections. The first, “Times and
Places,” sets out the history and geographical contexts both for the
setting of Pynchon’s novels and his own life. The second, “Culture,
Politics, and Society,” examines twenty important and recurring
themes that most clearly define Pynchon’s writing – ranging from
ideas in philosophy and the sciences to humor and pop culture.
The final section, “Approaches and Readings,” outlines and assesses
ways to read and understand Pynchon. Consisting of forty-four essays
written by some of the world’s leading scholars, this volume outlines
the most important contexts for understanding Pynchon’s writing
and helps readers interpret and reference his literary work.

inger h. dalsgaard is Associate Professor in American Studies at

the Department of English, Aarhus University. She is the author of
numerous essays and articles on Thomas Pynchon and the co-editor,
with Luc Herman and Brian McHale, of The Cambridge Companion
to Thomas Pynchon (Cambridge, 2012).

edited by
Aarhus University
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© Cambridge University Press 2019
This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception
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First published 2019
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
names: Dalsgaard, Inger H., editor.
title: Thomas Pynchon in context / edited by Inger H. Dalsgaard.
description: Cambridge, United Kingdom ; New York, NY : Cambridge University Press,
2018. | Includes bibliographical references and index.
identifiers: lccn 2019001093 | isbn 9781108497022 (hardback : alk. paper)
subjects: lcsh: Pynchon, Thomas – Criticism and interpretation.
classification: lcc ps3566.y55 z943 2019 | ddc 813/.54–dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2019001093
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Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy of
URLs for external or third-party internet websites referred to in this publication
and does not guarantee that any content on such websites is, or will remain,
accurate or appropriate.

List of Contributors page ix

List of Abbreviations xviii
Chronology by John M. Krafft xix

Introduction 1
Inger H. Dalsgaard

part i times and places 5

1 Biography 7
John M. Krafft
2 Letters and Juvenilia 15
Albert Rolls
3 Nonfiction 23
Katie Muth
4 East Coast 31
Christopher Leise
5 West Coast 39
Scott McClintock and John Miller
6 Europe and Asia 47
J. Paul Narkunas
7 Africa and Latin America 57
Michael Harris
8 Geographies and Mapping 67
Sascha Pöhlmann
9 The Eighteenth Century 74
Elizabeth Jane Wall Hinds

vi Contents
10 The Nineteenth Century 82
Paolo Simonetti
11 The Twentieth Century 89
Steven Weisenburger
12 The Twenty-First Century 97
Celia Wallhead
13 History and Metahistory 104
David Cowart

part ii culture, politics, and society 113

14 Family 115
Mark Rohland
15 Sex and Gender 122
Ali Chetwynd and Georgios Maragos
16 Humor 130
Doug Haynes
17 Popular Culture 138
Eric Sandberg
18 Music and Sound 146
Justin St. Clair
19 Film and Television 154
John Dugdale
20 Real Estate and the Internet 162
Inger H. Dalsgaard
21 Politics and Counterculture 172
Joanna Freer
22 Drugs and Hippies 180
Umberto Rossi
23 Ecology and the Environment 187
Christopher K. Coffman
24 Capitalism and Class 195
Jeffrey Severs
Contents vii
25 War and Power 203
Dale Carter
26 Conspiracy and Paranoia 211
Samuel Chase Coale
27 Terror and Anarchy 217
James Gourley
28 Science and Technology 225
Gilles Chamerois
29 Mathematics 233
Nina Engelhardt
30 Time and Relativity 239
Simon de Bourcier
31 Philosophy 247
Martin Paul Eve
32 Religion and Spirituality 254
Richard Moss
33 Death and Afterlife 262
Tiina Käkelä

part iii approaches and readings 271

34 Narratology 273
Luc Herman
35 Genre 281
Zofia Kolbuszewska
36 Postmodernism 289
Brian McHale
37 Ambiguity 298
Deborah L. Madsen
38 Realities 307
Kathryn Hume
39 Material Readings 315
Tore Rye Andersen
viii Contents
40 Digital Readings 323
Joseph Tabbi
41 Internet Resources 332
Michel Ryckx and Tim Ware
42 Fandom 341
David Kipen
43 Book Reviews and Reception 346
Douglas Keesey
44 Critical Literature Review 354
Hanjo Berressem

Further Reading 361

Primary Bibliography 361
Novels 361
Short Fiction 361
Nonfiction 362
Letters 362
Secondary Bibliography 364
Index 381

tore rye andersen is an Associate Professor of Comparative Literature

at Aarhus University, Director of the Center for Literature Between
Media, and editor of the literary journal Passage. He is the author of Den
nye amerikanske roman/The New American Novel (2011), and he has
published a number of articles on American and British fiction and on
the materiality of literature in journals such as Critique, English Studies,
Orbis Litterarum, and Convergence.
hanjo berressem teaches American Literature at the University of
Cologne. He is author of Pynchon’s Poetics: Interfacing Theory and Text
(1992) and Lines of Desire: Reading Gombrowicz’s Fiction with Lacan
(1999), and co-editor of Deleuzian Events: Writing|History (2009) and Site-
Specific: From Aachen to Zwölfkinder – Pynchon|Germany (2008). His
book Eigenvalue: On the Gradual Contraction of Media in Movement /
Contemplating Media in Art [Sound | Image | Sense] was published in 2018.
dale carter is Associate Professor of American Studies and Director of
the American Studies Center, Aarhus University, Denmark. He is
author and editor of a number of books dealing with aspects of twen-
tieth-century American history, society, and culture, including
The Final Frontier: The Rise and Fall of the American Rocket State
(1988), which relates the US manned space program to Pynchon’s
Gravity’s Rainbow.
gilles chamerois is an associate professor at the University of Brest,
France. He has edited or co-edited two collections of essays on Pynchon
and published several articles on Pynchon and science, their subjects
ranging from anachronistic references to modern-day science in Mason
& Dixon to aeronautics and the figure of Nikola Tesla in Against the Day.
He has also published on film and has co-written two books on

x List of Contributors
ali chetwynd is Assistant Professor and Chair of English at the
American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. He works on antimimetic
fiction’s constructive argumentative capacities, and has published on
Pynchon, William Gaddis, Ben Jonson, and the philosophical antece-
dents of US postmodernism. With Georgios Maragos and Joanna Freer
he edited Thomas Pynchon, Sex, and Gender (2018), and he co-edits the
book reviews for Orbit: A Journal of American Literature.
samuel chase coale teaches American Literature and Culture at
Wheaton College in Massachusetts. His recent books include
The Entanglements of Nathaniel Hawthorne (2011) and Quirks of the
Quantum: Postmodernism and Contemporary American Fiction (2012).
He has recently lectured in Japan, Jordan, and Lebanon.
christopher k. coffman is a Senior Lecturer in Humanities at Boston
University. He is the author of Rewriting Early America: The Prenational
Past in Postmodern Literature (2019) and co-editor of William T. Vollmann:
A Critical Companion (2015) and Framing Films: Critical Perspectives on Film
History (2009). Among his other publications are chapters in McClintock
and Miller’s Pynchon’s California (2014) and Severs and Leise’s Pynchon’s
Against the Day: A Corrupted Pilgrim’s Guide (2011).
david cowart, Louise Fry Scudder Professor Emeritus at the University
of South Carolina, is the author of Thomas Pynchon: The Art of Allusion
(1980) and Thomas Pynchon and the Dark Passages of History (2015), as
well as other books on contemporary literature.
inger h. dalsgaard is Associate Professor of American Studies at Aarhus
University, Denmark. She is the editor of Thomas Pynchon in Context, the
co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon (Cambridge
University Press, 2012), and the author of numerous essays on Pynchon.
simon de bourcier is the author of Pynchon and Relativity: Narrative Time
in Thomas Pynchon’s Later Novels, as well as articles on Pynchon, David
Foster Wallace, and Neal Stephenson. He has degrees from the University of
Cambridge, Anglia Ruskin University, and the University of East Anglia.
john dugdale is the author of Thomas Pynchon: Allusive Parables of
Power (1990). He writes about books and the media for the Guardian
and the Sunday Times.
nina engelhardt is the author of Modernism, Fiction and Mathematics
(2018) and several essays on mathematics and science in Pynchon’s work.
List of Contributors xi
After receiving her PhD from the University of Edinburgh, she held
research and teaching positions at the Institute for Advanced Studies in
the Humanities, Edinburgh, and the University of Cologne before
joining the Department of English Literatures at the University of
martin paul eve is Professor of Literature, Technology, and Publishing
at Birkbeck College, University of London. In addition to several books
and many articles, he is the author of Pynchon and Philosophy:
Wittgenstein, Foucault and Adorno (2014). He is also the chief editor of
Orbit: A Journal of American Literature.
joanna freer is Lecturer in American Literature at the University of
Exeter. She is the author of Thomas Pynchon and American
Counterculture (2014), editor of The New Pynchon Studies: Twenty-
First-Century Critical Revisions (2019), and co-editor of Thomas
Pynchon, Sex, and Gender (2018) and a “Pynchonomics” special issue
of the journal Textual Practice.
james gourley is Lecturer in English in the School of Humanities and
Communication Arts, and a member of the Writing and Society
Research Centre, Western Sydney University. He is the author of
Terrorism and Temporality in the Works of Thomas Pynchon and Don
DeLillo (2013).
michael harris is Professor of English and Chair of the English
Department at Central College (Pella, Iowa), and the author of
Outsiders and Insiders: Perspectives of Third World Culture in British
and Post-Colonial Fiction. He has published essays on Pynchon, Joseph
Conrad, J. M. Coetzee, Patrick White, Salman Rushdie, Edna O’Brien,
Ngũgῖ wa Thiong’o, and the jazz musician John Coltrane, among
others. In 1998–99, he served as Senior Fulbright Lecturer in
Tanzania, and in 2012–13 as a Senior Fulbright-Nehru Research
Fellow in India.
doug haynes is Senior Lecturer in American Literature and Visual
Culture and Head of American Studies at the University of
Sussex. His research interests are in modern American literature,
visual culture, and critical theory. He has a special interest in
Pynchon and has published frequently on his work, as well as on
many other writers and artists. He is currently writing a book on
black humor.
xii List of Contributors
luc herman teaches American literature and narrative theory at the
University of Antwerp. As a Pynchon specialist, he has co-edited (with
Inger H. Dalsgaard and Brian McHale) The Cambridge Companion to
Thomas Pynchon (Cambridge University Press, 2012) and co-authored
(with Steven Weisenburger) Gravity’s Rainbow, Domination, and
Freedom (2013). Along with John Krafft, he has written a set of
essays on the typescript of V. at the Harry Ransom library in Austin,
elizabeth jane wall hinds is Professor of English at the State
University of New York, Brockport. She is editor of The Multiple
Worlds of Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon: Eighteenth-Century Contexts,
Postmodern Observations (2005) and author of Private Property: Charles
Brockden Brown and the Gendered Economics of Virtue (1997), along with
other works on Pynchon, the eighteenth century, and Critical Animal
kathryn hume is author of Pynchon’s Mythography: An Approach to
Gravity’s Rainbow, as well as articles or parts of books on Gravity’s
Rainbow, Vineland, Mason & Dixon, Against the Day, and Inherent Vice.
Other authors she has written on include Kurt Vonnegut, Richard
Brautigan, Italo Calvino, H. G. Wells, Ishmael Reed, Salman
Rushdie, William Burroughs, Kathy Acker, William Kennedy, Robert
Coover, John Edgar Wideman, Gerald Vizenor, Richard Powers, and
Neil Gaiman. She is currently working on contemporary uses of
tiina käkelä is a senior adviser in research services at the University of
Helsinki. After her thesis on the social role of death in Pynchon in 2007,
she has written several essays on Pynchon’s work, among which the most
recent are “Postmodern Ghosts and the Politics of Invisible Life” (2014)
and “‘This Land Is My Land, This Land Also Is My Land’: Real Estate
Narratives in Pynchon’s Fiction” (2019).
douglas keesey wrote his dissertation on Pynchon in 1988. His
Pynchon-related essays and reviews may be downloaded at digitalcom
mons.calpoly.edu. His publications also include books on Catherine
Breillat, Brian De Palma, Don DeLillo, Clint Eastwood, Peter
Greenaway, the Marx Brothers, Jack Nicholson, Chuck Palahniuk,
and Paul Verhoeven, as well as on erotic cinema, film noir, and twenty-
first-century horror films. He is a Professor of Film and Literature at
California Polytechnic State University.
List of Contributors xiii
david kipen is Lecturer at UCLA and critic-at-large for the LA Times.
Before that, he worked as Director of Literature for the National
Endowment for the Arts, where he midwifed the continuing one-city-
one-book initiative, the Big Read. He also writes for the New York Times
and other outlets. A translator of Cervantes’ The Dialogue of the Dogs,
he’s the author of both The Schreiber Theory: A Radical Rewrite of
American Film History (2006) and a proposal to write Pynchon’s
zofia kolbuszewska, Associate Professor in the Department of
English, Wrocław University, Poland, has published two books,
The Poetics of Chronotope in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon (2000) and
The Purloined Child: American Identity and Representations of Childhood
in American Literature 1851–2000 (2007), as well as articles on contem-
porary American literature and culture. She has edited a collection of
essays, Thomas Pynchon and the (De)vices of Global (Post)modernity
(2012), and is working on a project on Pynchon and the neo-baroque.
john m. krafft, Miami University Professor Emeritus, was a founder
and editor of the journal Pynchon Notes, which was published from 1979
to 2009. Recently he has collaborated with Luc Herman (University of
Antwerp) on a series of essays analyzing the evolution of Pynchon’s
V. from typescript to published novel.
christopher leise is Associate Professor of English at Whitman
College. Co-editor of William Gaddis, “The Last of Something”:
Critical Essays (2010) and Pynchon’s Against the Day: A Corrupted
Pilgrim’s Guide (2011), he is most recently the author of The Story upon
a Hill: The Puritan Myth in Contemporary American Fiction (2017).
scott mcclintock is Associate Professor of Arts and Humanities at
National University, San Diego, California. His publications include
Topologies of Fear in Contemporary Fiction: The Anxieties of Post-
Nationalism and Counter Terrorism (2015), and (co-edited with John
Miller), Pynchon’s California (2014), as well as articles in Comparative
Literature Studies, Clio: A Journal of Philosophy and History, and South
Asian Review. He lives in Big Bear City, California.
brian mchale is Arts and Humanities Distinguished Professor of
English at the Ohio State University. Co-founder of Ohio State’s
Project Narrative, he is also a founding member and former president
of the Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present (ASAP). He is
xiv List of Contributors
the author of four monographs on postmodern literature and culture,
and has co-edited four volumes, including The Cambridge Companion to
Thomas Pynchon (Cambridge University Press, 2012). He edits the
international journal Poetics Today.
deborah madsen is Professor of American Literature and Culture at the
University of Geneva, Switzerland. She is the author of
The Postmodernist Allegories of Thomas Pynchon (1989) and essays on
aspects of Pynchon’s work, including the legacy of the colonial Pynchon
georgios maragos is an independent scholar from Athens, Greece. He
wrote his PhD at Panteion University, Athens, on networks of informa-
tion in the literary works of Pynchon. With Ali Chetwynd and Joanna
Freer he has co-edited Thomas Pynchon, Sex and Gender (2018).
john miller teaches literature and writing at National University in
Costa Mesa, California. He is co-editor, with Scott McClintock, of
Pynchon’s California (2014) and has published articles on a variety of
topics, including the early modern prose of Francis Bacon, Robert
Burton, and Izaak Walton; the fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien and
Pynchon; the science fiction short story; hyperfiction and online
richard moss is a tutor at Durham University who teaches drama and
American fiction. He finished his thesis on Pynchon and theology in
2015. His current research interests are involved in postsecularism in
American fiction, and he is also writing on Pynchon and postmodern
notions of pornography.
katie muth teaches American literature at Durham University. She has
written on Kathy Acker’s experimentalism, Pynchon’s technical prose,
mid-century television writing, and politics and world literature. She is
the co-editor (with Lorna Burns) of the collection World Literature and
Dissent (forthcoming) and is researching a book about labor and the
postwar novel.
j. paul narkunas is Associate Professor of Literary Theory at John Jay
College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York (CUNY), and
has published on Pynchon and Margaret Atwood. His Reified Life:
Speculative Capital and the Ahuman Condition was published in 2018.
He is currently exploring how financialization, aided and abetted by
digital technologies, is instrumentalizing higher education in Edu-
List of Contributors xv
Futures: Private Equity, Philanthropy, and the Monetization of Higher
sascha pöhlmann is Professor of North American Literature and
Culture at the University of Konstanz, Germany. He is the author
of Pynchon’s Postnational Imagination (2010) and the editor of Against
the Grain: Reading Pynchon’s Counternarratives (2010). He is one of
the co-editors of the open access e-journal Orbit: A Journal of
American Literature, and has published essays on Pynchon’s works
in relation to Ludwig Wittgenstein, money, canonicity, and clothing,
among other things.
mark rohland is an administrator at Temple University in
Philadelphia. He has taught Pynchon at Temple and elsewhere, and
his published research focuses on children and families in literature. He
has worked as a professional academic advisor, and has given presenta-
tions on issues in the development of curricular awareness in college
students at conferences of the National Academic Advising Association.
albert rolls is an independent researcher who divides his time among
three pursuits: his career as an editor (most recently as the editor-in-
chief at AMS Press, Inc.), his scholarship (currently focused on
Pynchon’s writing), and his occasional teaching at CUNY and
Touro College. He has published on William Shakespeare, John
Donne, Alexander Pope, Charlotte Lennox, and Pynchon, among
others. His most recent book is Thomas Pynchon: The Demon in the
Text (2019).
umberto rossi co-edited (with Paolo Simonetti) Dream Tonight of
Peacock Tails (2015), a collection of essays on Pynchon’s V., and is the
author of The Twisted Worlds of Philip K. Dick (2011) and Il secolo di
fuoco (2008), an introduction to twentieth-century war literature. He is
a member of the Science Fiction Research Association.
michel ryckx is a data analyst who lives in Eindhoven. He manages
vheissu.net, a site about Pynchon’s works.
justin st. clair is Associate Professor of English at the University of
South Alabama. He is the author of Sound and Aural Media in
Postmodern Literature: Novel Listening (2013) and his work on
Pynchon has also appeared in Science Fiction Studies, the Los Angeles
Review of Books, Pynchon’s Against the Day: A Corrupted Pilgrim’s Guide
(2011), and The City since 9/11: Literature, Film, Television (2016).
xvi List of Contributors
eric sandberg is Assistant Professor at City University of Hong Kong.
His research interests range from modernism to the twenty-first-century
novel. His monograph Virginia Woolf: Experiments in Character was
published in 2014. He has co-edited Adaptation, Awards Culture, and
the Value of Prestige (2017) and edited 100 Greatest Literary Detectives
jeffrey severs is Associate Professor of English at the University of
British Columbia. He is the author of David Foster Wallace’s
Balancing Books: Fictions of Value (2017) and co-editor (with
Christopher Leise) of Pynchon’s Against the Day: A Corrupted
Pilgrim’s Guide (2011). He has also published several articles and
book chapters on Pynchon, including “‘A City of the Future’:
Gravity’s Rainbow and the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair” in Twentieth-
Century Literature (2016).
paolo simonetti teaches Anglo-American Literature at “Sapienza”
Università di Roma (Italy). He is the author of a book on postmodernist
American fiction, Paranoia Blues (2009) and the co-editor of a collection
of essays on Pynchon’s V., Dream Tonight of Peacock Tails (2015). He has
published extensively on a number of writers, including Herman
Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir
Nabokov, Bernard Malamud, Paul Auster, Robert Coover, Pynchon,
and Don DeLillo. He is currently working on a monograph on
Melville’s works after Moby-Dick.
joseph tabbi is the author of Cognitive Fictions (2002) and Postmodern
Sublime: Technology and American Writing from Mailer to Cyberpunk
(1995). His biography of William Gaddis, Nobody Grew but the Business
(2015), received an award from the Chicago Society of Midland Authors.
The editor of the electronic book review, Tabbi is also the founding
member of the Consortium on Electronic Literature (cellproject.net/).
celia wallhead is a graduate of the University of Birmingham and
holds PhDs from the Universities of London and Granada. After
teaching at the University of Auckland and the University of Wales,
she worked for the British Council in Granada. Since 1990, she has
taught English at the University of Granada and organized
a Pynchon Conference there in 2006. She teaches Pynchon and has
published on him in Pynchon Notes and Orbit: A Journal of American
List of Contributors xvii
tim ware is a musician, composer, business owner (HyperArts Web
Design), and Pynchon aficionado. In 1996, he designed and developed
the first Pynchon-focused website – ThomasPynchon.com – as well as
the Pynchon Wikis, a suite of wikis for each of Pynchon’s novels. He
lives in Oakland, California.
steven weisenburger is Mossiker Chair in Humanities and Professor
of English at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. He has
published extensively on modern and contemporary US literature, as
well as race and slavery in US history. His books include A Gravity’s
Rainbow Companion: Sources and Contexts for Pynchon’s Novel (1988;
revised 2nd ed. 2006), Fables of Subversion: Satire and the American
Novel (1995), Modern Medea: A Family Story of Slavery and Child-Murder
from the Old South (1998), and, with Luc Herman, Gravity’s Rainbow,
Domination & Freedom (2013).

Throughout this volume, page references are given to the original editions
of Thomas Pynchon’s longer works with the following abbreviations:

V V. (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1963)

CL The Crying of Lot 49 (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1966)
GR Gravity’s Rainbow (New York: Viking, 1973)
SL Slow Learner (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1984)
VL Vineland (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1990)
MD Mason & Dixon (New York: Henry Holt, 1997)
AD Against the Day (New York: Penguin, 2006)
IV Inherent Vice (New York: Penguin, 2009)
BE Bleeding Edge (New York: Penguin, 2013)

Editions with the same pagination as the original hardback are still com-
mercially available (from publishers such as Buccaneer, Penguin 20th
Century Classics, Back Bay Books, Picador and Jonathan Cape).
Useful conversion tables between these and other popular editions may
be found in various readers’ guides and companions, such as those by
J. Kerry Grant and Steven Weisenburger, and online wikis on specific

John M. Krafft

1937 Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Jr., is born on May 8 in Glen Cove,

Long Island, New York.
1945 World War II in Europe ends (VE Day) on Pynchon’s eighth
1952 Pynchon’s earliest known stories begin appearing, pseudony-
mously, in his high-school newspaper.
1953 Pynchon graduates from high school and enters Cornell
University as an Engineering Physics major.
1955 Pynchon joins the US Navy.
1956 During the Suez Crisis, Pynchon serves aboard the USS Hank in
the Mediterranean.
1957 Pynchon returns to Cornell as an English major.
1958 Pynchon collaborates with Kirkpatrick Sale on a musical, Minstrel
Island (never finished).
1959 Pynchon’s first two mature short stories, “The Small Rain” and
“Mortality and Mercy in Vienna,” are published. Pynchon
receives his BA and moves to Greenwich Village. He applies,
unsuccessfully, for a Ford Foundation Fellowship to work with
an opera company.
1960 Pynchon moves to Seattle to work as a staff writer for Boeing
Airplane Company’s in-house newsletter Bomarc Service News.
Two more short stories, “Low-lands” and “Entropy,” and the
technical article “Togetherness” appear.
1961 The short story “Under the Rose” appears.
1962 Pynchon leaves his job at Boeing, his last known salaried employ-
ment, and moves to Mexico.
1963 Pynchon’s first novel, V., is published.
1964 Pynchon tells friends he has recently been denied admission to an
undergraduate program in mathematics at the University of
California at Berkeley. His last short story, “The Secret
Integration,” appears.
xx Chronology
1965 Pynchon turns down an opportunity to teach at Bennington
College. In “A Gift of Books,” he praises Oakley Hall’s western
novel Warlock.
1966 Pynchon’s second novel, The Crying of Lot 49, and the essay
“A Journey Into The Mind of Watts” are published. Pynchon is
living mostly in California now.
1968 Pynchon’s name appears, along with more than 400 others, in an
advertisement protesting the US war in Vietnam.
1973 Pynchon’s third novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, is published.
1975 The American Academy of Arts and Letters awards Pynchon the
Howells Medal for Gravity’s Rainbow. He refuses it.
1983 Pynchon writes an introduction to the reissue of his late friend
Richard Fariña’s novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me.
1984 Pynchon collects five of his early short stories, with a reflective
introduction, in Slow Learner, and publishes the essay “Is It O.K.
to Be a Luddite?”
1986 Pynchon is invited to accept honorary fellowship in the Modern
Language Association of America but declines.
1988 Pynchon receives a five-year MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.
His review of Gabriel García Márquez’s novel Love in the Time of
Cholera, “The Heart’s Eternal Vow,” is published.
1990 Pynchon’s fourth novel, Vineland, is published. Pynchon is now
married to literary agent Melanie Jackson and living in New York
1991 The Pynchons’ son, Jackson, is born.
1992 Pynchon writes an introduction to the collection The Teachings of
Don B., by his late friend Donald Barthelme.
1993 Pynchon’s essay on sloth, “Nearer, My Couch, to Thee,” appears.
1994 Pynchon writes liner notes for the retrospective CD Spiked!:
The Music of Spike Jones.
1995 Pynchon writes liner notes for the band Lotion’s CD Nobody’s
Cool (1996).
1996 “Lunch with Lotion,” an interview conducted by Pynchon,
1997 Pynchon’s fifth novel, Mason & Dixon, is published. Pynchon
also writes an introduction to the reissue of Jim Dodge’s novel
Stone Junction.
1999 Pynchon writes “Hallowe’en? Over Already?” for his son’s
school’s newsletter.
Chronology xxi
2002 Playboy Japan publishes sarcastic remarks attributed to Pynchon
related to the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade
Center. Pynchon’s agent disavows them.
2003 Pynchon writes a foreword to the George Orwell Centenary
edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
2004 Pynchon lends his voice to the character “Thomas Pynchon” in
two episodes of The Simpsons.
2006 Pynchon’s sixth novel, Against the Day, is published. Pynchon
also writes a program note, “The Evolution of The Daily Show,”
for a tenth-anniversary celebration.
2009 Pynchon’s seventh novel, Inherent Vice, is published, and
Pynchon narrates a promotional video for it. The American
Academy of Arts and Sciences names Pynchon a Fellow.
2010 A play inspired by The Crying of Lot 49, directed by Klaus Gehre,
is staged in Berlin.
2013 Pynchon’s eighth novel, Bleeding Edge, is published.
An adaptation of V., directed by Daniel Schrader, is staged in
Berlin. Asteroid 152319 (2005 UH7) is officially named Pynchon.
2014 Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation of Inherent Vice is
2018 Pynchon receives the first Christopher Lightfoot Walker Award
for lifetime achievement from the American Academy of Arts and
Inger H. Dalsgaard

Thomas Pynchon has long had a place in the pantheon of Great American
Writers. His status lies in the scope of his work – the number of publica-
tions, the prodigious detail and expansiveness of his topics – as well as the
sheer quality of his writing, all of which quickly led to comparisons with
Herman Melville and James Joyce. His writing is widely taught (as part of
required literature survey courses at universities, for example), and remains
the subject of many scholarly articles, dissertations, and monographs not
just in the United States and other English-speaking countries, as one
might expect, but also across Europe and Asia. According to the database of
publications compiled on Vheissu.net, more than 400 doctoral disserta-
tions have been accepted and more than 100 monographs and essay
collections published on his writing already, mostly in English but also
in other languages such as Spanish, Italian, and German, with a handful
from publishers in Korea, China, and Japan. However, Pynchon is not just
a canonical writer within scholarly research and teaching communities.
Because of their scope and imaginative richness, his novels also have great
appeal outside academia, and many devoted readers share their interest in
his novels on websites dedicated to exploring his work. It is to help all such
readers and students that Thomas Pynchon in Context brings together forty-
four essays by some of the foremost specialists in the field, providing the
most comprehensive resource yet published on the many ways in which his
writing engages the wider world.
Given Pynchon’s sizable, diverse, and devoted readership, it has not
been unexpected, at least once a year and at least since Gravity’s Rainbow
was published in 1973, to find Pynchonites, Pynchonians, or Pynchon-
heads wondering if this would be the year a Nobel Prize in Literature
would finally be awarded to their chosen author. Fans of other novelists
will have similar hopes, no doubt, but like a reverse doomsday cult trying
to explain why the world did not end as predicted, followers of Pynchon’s
career can offer a number of good reasons every October why the Swedish
2 inger h. dalsgaard
Academy has again passed him over. One has been the suspicion that
Pynchon, who values his privacy to the point of being branded a recluse,
might not show up to a prize ceremony at which he would reveal his face to
the world after six decades without an official photo. If avoiding the
embarrassment of a no-show Laureate was a goal for the Swedish
Academy, however, Bob Dylan foiled that plan in 2016. That Pynchon
might not have accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature in the first place is
a more likely conjecture, insofar as Pynchon has politely declined literary
awards since 1975. Statements by the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish
Academy Horace Engdahl in 2008, which to some observers implied a bias
against American literature for being parochial and not part of world
literature, added another explanation for a dearth of American literary
Nobel Laureates since Toni Morrison in 1993. Whether or not fans of
Thomas Pynchon’s writing are primed to see conspiracies in many places,
readers of this volume have an opportunity to assess whether his writing
styles, topics, or settings are as isolated as he is perceived personally to be
(or as Engdahl seemed to imply American authors were in general). As the
selection demonstrates, there is nothing parochial or isolated about the
wealth of contexts relevant to his authorship, and being able to choose
forty-four different contexts for this collection has been an exercise in
restraint, though it may not seem so. As the editor and as a fan, I am
convinced that the great appeal of Thomas Pynchon’s writing lies in how
open it is to the world and almost everything in it.
Since the publication of his first short stories in 1959, Thomas Pynchon
has become a prolific author in more senses than one. Although seventeen
years intervened between the publication of Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), the
first of his “century novels,” and Vineland (1990), the second in the cycle of
what have now been called his “California novels,” the early twenty-first
century has so far seen three novels published: one of them more than
1,000 pages in length, the others more than 300 and 400 pages long
respectively. It is not, however, the simple quantity and size of his novels
that foster critical appreciation. Readers also appreciate – to the point of
being overwhelmed if unaided – the books’ unparalleled scope (in terms of
historical periods, geographic locations, and cultural, political, and social
themes), a quality that best justifies references to Pynchon’s “encyclopedic”
style of writing. Readers of his longer, “century novels” (Mason & Dixon,
Against the Day, and Gravity’s Rainbow in particular) might feel obliged
continually to consult an encyclopedia when reading these seemingly all-
inclusive texts. What this collection reveals, however, is that while they
teem with references and allusions, formal invention and generic parodies,
Introduction 3
encyclopedic knowledge and flights of imagination, it is both possible and
beneficial to identify significant and recurring themes, ideas, and events in
his texts. Thomas Pynchon in Context highlights many of these, bringing
together concise, focused, and clearly written essays by forty-seven
researchers whose work on the author has previously appeared for the
most part in specialized scholarly essays and monographs.
The essays in Thomas Pynchon in Context fall into three sections.
The first, Times and Places, not only sets out what is known about the
reclusive author but also discusses his novels in terms of their temporal and
geographical settings. These cover hundreds of years and almost every
continent, which means that although not much may be known about
Pynchon’s own whereabouts for the last six decades, there is plenty to say
about the wheres and whens of his novels. The second (and largest) set of
essays, Culture, Politics, and Society, identifies and helps map the most
significant fields with which Pynchon’s writing engages and in which it
operates. Although each essay functions independently, many also form
clusters that may be read in combination, ideally enabling either a deeper
understanding of connected themes or a fruitful dialogue, not least for
those seeking to research different angles on Pynchon’s work. The social,
political, and cultural contexts rehearsed in this collection may be the most
numerous. However, given the prolific nature of the “Pynchon Industry”
(which has grown impressively over the past four decades), this anthology’s
third and final section, Approaches and Readings, offers a thorough ground-
ing in the variety of stances from which Pynchon’s unique, highly complex,
but very rewarding fiction may be read and understood. Essays in this
section not only review and update classic ideas to which researchers still
refer when explaining Pynchon as a beacon in postmodern literature; they
also identify some of the newest departures in Pynchon studies, including
material and digital readings. This set of essays also includes an assessment
of the strong community of readers, fans, and academics active in both
online fora and the thriving market for academic publications on every
aspect of Thomas Pynchon’s writing.
No man is an island and no woman is isolated when getting to grips with
the wealth of information on, approaches to, and contexts for Thomas
Pynchon’s writing. The sense of community around and loyalty toward
these works undoubtedly helped me convince forty-seven men and women
from several different continents, ranging from younger scholars via emer-
itus/a professors to Pynchon experts based outside academic institutions,
to contribute their knowledge, insights, and hard work to this collection,
and I want to thank them all for doing so. I am particularly grateful for
4 inger h. dalsgaard
such commitment to the cause. It meant that many people made efforts,
provided encouragement, and volunteered additional information beyond
the remit of their particular essay when asked. Among them are John
Krafft, Albert Rolls, and Katie Muth, who between them made invaluable
contributions to the successful compilation of both the chronology and the
further reading list. Thanks to the encouragement of Ray Ryan of
Cambridge University Press and the efforts of his staff, the opportunity
to edit this in Context volume (the first on a living author) has enabled me
to expand on some of the ideas developed with co-editors Luc Herman and
Brian McHale in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon (2012)
about what would be useful to a community of his readers. I also owe
a considerable debt of gratitude to Aarhus University, Tobias Omø
Kristensen and to Dale Carter, who provided substantial practical support
in the making of Thomas Pynchon in Context, proving that a great author
can encourage a selfless and communal spirit when the goal is to help fellow
readers. Finally, it has been a particular joy to receive a generous offer from
the artist Etienne Delessert, known for previous illustrations for Pynchon
work, to create a new portrait of the author for this volume: no small
challenge, in the absence of authorized pictures of a writer who has long
guarded his image in the face of widespread public interest and curiosity.
Creating such a unique artistic interpretation to represent this novelist,
now in his eighties, seems a respectful way of serving both interests: his for
anonymity and ours for an icon. Though Pynchon’s own work may not
(yet) have been judged the most “ideal” or “idealistic,” in accordance with
the wording of Alfred Nobel’s will, there is a certain idealism among those
who truly love his work. I hope this collection proves a useful tool for all
those readers and students of Pynchon entering this world, and who
welcome a helping hand on their journey.
part i
Times and Places
chapter 1

John M. Krafft

Thomas Pynchon has so carefully guarded his privacy that relatively little is
known for certain about his personal life. He evidently prefers to have
readers focus on his fiction rather than on himself. His principled deter-
mination to avoid personal publicity has led to his routinely, but inaccu-
rately, being described as a recluse, has sparked some bizarre rumors – that
he was J. D. Salinger, or the Unabomber – and has provoked some spiteful
and self-serving revelations.1 After defying the norms of celebrity culture
for decades, Pynchon does seem to have let down his guard a bit: In 2004
he mocked his own reputation as a “reclusive author” by voicing
a caricature of himself with a brown paper bag over his head in two
episodes of The Simpsons, and in 2009 he narrated a promotional video
for his novel Inherent Vice.
Pynchon’s ancestors can be traced back to the time of the Norman
Conquest of England in 1066. His earliest ancestor in America, William
Pynchon (1590–1662), joined the Great Migration of Puritans to New
England in 1630, served as treasurer of the Massachusetts Bay Colony,
founded both Roxbury and Springfield in Massachusetts, and was
a successful merchant and fur trader, a magistrate, and an amateur theo-
logian. But he returned to England in 1652 after stirring up controversy by
publishing The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption (1650), a book
Massachusetts authorities judged heretical and ordered burned in the
Boston marketplace. William Pynchon’s American descendants have
included other merchants, politicians, clergymen, educators, scientists,
physicians, inventors, and financiers. They do not include the
“Pyncheons” satirized in Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables (1851),
who were modeled on Hawthorne’s own ancestors.2 The novelist’s father,
Thomas R. Pynchon, Sr. (1907–95), was an industrial surveyor, a highway
engineer, and a local Republican politician. His mother, Catherine
Bennett Pynchon (1909–96), was a registered nurse and a “founding
volunteer of the East Norwich Public Library.”3
8 john m. krafft
The eldest of three children, Pynchon was born on May 8, 1937, in Glen
Cove, Long Island, New York, and grew up in nearby East Norwich. This
scion of New England Puritans was raised a Roman Catholic. A half-dozen
of his earliest known stories appeared pseudonymously in the Oyster Bay
High School newspaper, Purple and Gold, in 1952–53. After graduating at
sixteen as class salutatorian and a prize-winning English student, Pynchon
entered Cornell University with a scholarship as an Engineering Physics
major. He remained in that program for only one year, then switched to
Arts and Sciences.4 As summer employment, he may have done the kind of
roadwork recalled by his characters Profane in V. and Slothrop in Gravity’s
Rainbow.5 After his sophomore year, he enlisted for a two-year tour of duty
in the US Navy, then returned to Cornell in 1957 and graduated with
a bachelor’s degree in English in 1959. Offered a Woodrow Wilson
Graduate Fellowship and the opportunity to teach creative writing at
Cornell, Pynchon reportedly preferred to concentrate on his own creative
At Cornell, Pynchon became friends with folk singer and novelist Richard
Fariña, and other aspiring writers such as historian and activist Kirkpatrick
Sale, with whom he collaborated in 1958 on a never-finished dystopian
musical, Minstrel Island. Other Cornell friends included playwright David
Seidler and freelance writer Jules Siegel. Reliable evidence that Pynchon
formally took a course taught by Vladimir Nabokov, author of the novel
Lolita (1955), is sparse and ambiguous,7 although Pynchon may have audited
Nabokov’s classes or otherwise known or worked with him informally.
Pynchon’s most famous instructor of record was M. H. Abrams, later the
founding general editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature.
The year 1959 saw publication of Pynchon’s first two mature short
stories, “The Small Rain” and “Mortality and Mercy in Vienna.”
“Low-lands” appeared in 1960 – despite a publishing executive’s
prediction that its author would “be selling used Chevrolets within
a year.”8 Pynchon’s best-known short story, “Entropy,” also appeared
that year, and was included in the next annual Best American Short
Stories. “Under the Rose,” published in 1961, won an O. Henry
Pynchon spent the last half of 1959 living in Greenwich Village – where
he and Fariña “‘would [. . .] listen a lot’” to jazz in nightclubs – and
working on V.9 He applied, unsuccessfully, for a Ford Foundation
Fellowship to work with an opera company, proposing to write an original
libretto or else to adapt science fiction by Ray Bradbury or Alfred Bester.10
From February 1960 to September 1962, he worked as a technical writer on
Biography 9
the staff of a house organ, Bomarc Service News, at the Boeing Airplane Co.
in Seattle.11 While there, he completed writing and extensively revising
V. (1963), which received the William Faulkner Foundation Award as
the year’s best first novel and was a National Book Award finalist.
“The Secret Integration,” Pynchon’s last-published short story,
appeared in 1964. Pynchon himself has said “The Secret Integration”
marked his progression from “apprentice” to “journeyman” (SL 3).
His second novel, The Crying of Lot 49, appeared in 1966 and received
a Rosenthal Foundation Award. Curiously, Pynchon has disparaged Lot 49
as a “story [. . .] which was marketed as a ‘novel,’ and in which I seem to
have forgotten most of what I thought I’d learned up till then” (SL 22).
Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), widely considered Pynchon’s masterpiece, shared
the National Book Award with Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Crown of Feathers
and received runner-up honors for the annual Nebula Award from the
Science Fiction Writers of America. It was also unanimously recom-
mended by the fiction jury for a Pulitzer Prize, but the Pulitzer advisory
board balked, members calling the novel “‘unreadable,’ ‘turgid,’ ‘over-
written,’ and in parts ‘obscene.’”12 Awarded the Howells Medal by the
American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1975 for “the most distinguished
work of American fiction of the previous five years,” Pynchon politely
refused it.13 However, in 1988 he accepted a five-year, $310,000 MacArthur
Foundation Fellowship, and in 2018 a $100,000 lifetime-achievement
award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The American
Academy of Arts and Sciences named Pynchon a Fellow in 2009.
Pynchon has published odds and ends of nonfiction, too. These include
one signed article on missile-handling safety (1960); essays on the Watts
riots (1966), Luddism (1984), and sloth (1993); a review of Gabriel
García Márquez’s novel Love in the Time of Cholera (1988); introductions
to books by Richard Fariña (1983), Donald Barthelme (1992), Jim Dodge
(1997), and George Orwell (2003); liner notes for CDs by Spike Jones
(1994) and by the indie rock band Lotion as well as an interview with that
band (1996); a piece about several social functions for his son’s school’s
newsletter (1999); a program note commemorating the tenth anniversary of
The Daily Show (2006); and numerous promotional blurbs for books by
other writers. In the seventeen-year interval between Gravity’s Rainbow and
Vineland (1990), he collected all his short stories except “Mortality and
Mercy in Vienna” into Slow Learner (1984), adding a reflective introduc-
tion. Many reviewers celebrated this introduction for being surprisingly
forthcoming, but other readers see it as a carefully guarded performance,
almost as if it were another short story. The novel Mason & Dixon appeared
10 john m. krafft
in 1997, Against the Day in 2006, Inherent Vice in 2009 and Bleeding Edge,
another National Book Award finalist, in 2013.
Though publicity-averse, Pynchon has spoken out publicly on some
literary and political issues. In 1965, in Holiday magazine, he praised
Oakley Hall’s “very fine [western] novel Warlock.”14 The next year, in
a letter to the New York Times Book Review, he mocked French novelist
Romain Gary for accusing him of stealing the name Genghis Cohen
for a character in The Crying of Lot 49. Pynchon’s name appears, along
with more than 400 others, on a 1968 open letter in the New York
Review of Books protesting the Vietnam War. Pynchon joined in offer-
ing words of support and encouragement, published in the New York
Times Book Review in 1989, to Salman Rushdie after the latter was put
under a fatwa by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini for writing the novel
The Satanic Verses (1988). Remarks attributed to Pynchon in a 2002
issue of Playboy Japan criticize the “affectless” reporting and the shal-
lowness of network news, describe both network and print journalism
as “propaganda,” and, sarcastically, recommend tobacco stock as
a good investment given the anxieties aroused by the terrorist attacks
of September 11, 2001.15 Pynchon’s agent disavowed those remarks on
his behalf. In a 2006 letter, which was released to the London Daily
Telegraph, Pynchon defended Ian McEwan, as a fellow writer of
historical fiction, against a charge of plagiarism for using details from
a memoir of World War II in his novel Atonement (2001).
In the absence of much hard information about details of Pynchon’s
private life, gossip about girlfriends, drug use, favorite TV programs and
pig fetishes, and trivia about eating habits and clothing preferences risk
being given undue weight. Gaps and possible contradictions in the record
are numerous, and what seems trustworthy may turn out to be untrue. For
example, Pynchon is said to have once considered “becoming a disk
jockey,” to have been “considered as a film critic by Esquire” in 1959, and
to have wanted the latter position perhaps in the mid-1960s.16
Apparently, Pynchon lived mostly in Mexico from late 1962 until 1964,
in Houston from 1964 to mid-1965, then mostly in various places around
California through the 1980s. According to unpublished letters to Faith
and Kirkpatrick Sale written from Mexico in 1963 and 1964, Pynchon
considered visiting them in Ghana but was prevented by a variety of
personal “traumata,” and by his making “[n]o real progress” on “three,
possibly four novels and assorted short stories I’ve been screwing around
with.”17 He wanted to do research in Italy and Yugoslavia, as well as
Africa.18 In late 1963 or early 1964, he nevertheless applied to the
Biography 11
University of California at Berkeley to pursue a second bachelor’s degree,
in mathematics, but was denied admission.19
Another letter to the Sales reveals a surprising side to the literary taste
and ambition of a writer early in his career who would soon become world
renowned as a quintessential postmodernist. Pynchon declared that “the
traditional realistic” novel was “the only kind of novel that is worth a shit,”
and added, “[that] is what, someday, I would like to be able to write.”20
In late 1965, Pynchon turned down an offer to teach at Bennington
College.21 The 1967 edition of the Cornell alumni directory lists Pynchon
as married and living in Oakland, California, around the time another
source places him in Berkeley.22 Still other sources place him in Manhattan
Beach, near Los Angeles, from roughly the mid-1960s to at least the early
1970s.23 (Manhattan Beach is generally taken to be the model for the
fictional Gordita Beach in Vineland and Inherent Vice.) A former landlady
is quoted as saying Pynchon moved in 1975 from Manhattan Beach to Big
Sur.24 In the early to mid-1970s he occasionally stayed in the Sales’
Greenwich Village apartment, below Donald Barthelme’s, “when the
Sales were away.”25 A 1974 letter Pynchon wrote from New York to nove-
lists David Shetzline and M. F. Beal expresses disillusionment with
national politics, disgust with cultural pretention, and disenchantment
with “a ‘literary’ life.”26
Pynchon is said to have “walked the 233-mile length of the Mason-
Dixon line” by the late 1970s, and to have spent some weeks or months
doing further research for Mason & Dixon in England at the end of the
decade.27 Driver’s license records give his address as Aptos, California,
during the 1980s, but whether he spent much time in Aptos or used it more
as an address of convenience while living elsewhere is uncertain.28 Since
about 1989, he has lived in New York City with his wife, the literary agent
Melanie Jackson. Melanie Jackson is a great-granddaughter of Theodore
Roosevelt and a granddaughter of Supreme Court Justice and Nürnberg
war-crimes prosecutor Robert H. Jackson.
Journalists’ determination to out Pynchon peaked around the time
Mason & Dixon was published. In 1996, New York magazine ran an alleged
photograph of Pynchon taken from behind; the next year, the London
Times published a head-on snapshot.29 That same year, a CNN camera
crew filmed Pynchon in his Manhattan neighborhood; but, in deference to
Pynchon’s telephoned objection, the network refrained from identifying
him in the street scenes it broadcast.30 Pynchon is reported to have told
CNN he believed “‘recluse’” was “‘code’” for “‘doesn’t like to talk to
reporters.’”31 The CNN footage is analyzed at some length in Fosco and
12 john m. krafft
Donatello Dubini’s documentary film thomas pynchon – a journey into the
mind of [p.] (2001). In it Richard Lane elaborately explains who in the
CNN clips he thinks is Pynchon, but some well-informed viewers believe
Lane is mistaken, and in the last couple of years journalistic outings, photos
included, have drawn relatively little attention.
Pynchon’s novels have also attracted other filmmakers’ attention.
Robert Bramkamp’s film Prüfstand 7 (2001) uses Gravity’s Rainbow as the
jumping-off point for “[t]he character study of a machine,” an extended
meditation on “the myth of the rocket.”32 The collective T.o.L.’s feature-
length animation Tamala 2010: A Punk Cat in Space (2002) alludes freely to
The Crying of Lot 49. Alex Ross Perry’s film Impolex [sic] (2009), with plot
and characters loosely resembling those of Gravity’s Rainbow, may be either
a knock-off or a tribute, or both. Paul Thomas Anderson made a film
adaptation of Pynchon’s Inherent Vice in 2014. In addition to films, plays,
and at least one poem, Pynchon’s novels have inspired the creation of
instrumental music, including settings of his lyrics, other vocal music,
elements of stories, graphic novels and videos, paintings, sculptures, Tarot
cards, bumper stickers, paper dolls, games, T-shirts, and refrigerator
Perhaps it is just as well that Pynchon the man, in his eighties, still
largely eludes us, despite the perverse fascination that would make an
unwilling celebrity of him. Although we may be tempted to speculate
about autobiographical traces in Pynchon’s writing, we scarcely need to
know much about his life to appreciate his fiction for its own extraordinary

1. John Calvin Batchelor, “Thomas Pynchon Is Not Thomas Pynchon, Or, This
Is the End of the Plot Which Has No Name,” Soho Weekly News, April 22,
1976, pp. 15–17, 21, 35; Jules Siegel, “Who Is Thomas Pynchon . . . And Why
Did He Take Off with My Wife?” Playboy, March 1977, pp. 97, 122, 168–70,
172, 174; Andrew Gordon, “Smoking Dope with Thomas Pynchon: A Sixties
Memoir,” in Geoffrey Green, Donald J. Greiner, and Larry McCaffery (eds.),
The Vineland Papers: Critical Takes on Pynchon’s Novel (Normal, IL: Dalkey
Archive, 1994), pp. 167–78.
2. Deborah L. Madsen, “Colonial Legacies: The Pynchons of Springfield and the
Hawthornes of Salem,” in Klaus H. Schmidt and Fritz Fleischmann (eds.),
Early America Re-Explored: New Readings in Colonial, Early National, and
Antebellum Culture (New York: Peter Lang, 2000), pp. 49–69, p. 49.
3. “Paid Death Notices,” Newsday, November 19, 1996, p. A50.
Biography 13
4. Lance Schachterle, “Pynchon and Cornell Engineering Physics, 1953–54,”
Pynchon Notes, 26–27 (1990), 129–37.
5. Siegel, “Who Is Thomas Pynchon,” p. 122.
6. Cf. Mathew Winston, “The Quest for Pynchon,” Twentieth Century
Literature, 21.3 (1975), 278–87, p. 284.
7. James Gourley, “Vladimir Nabokov and Thomas Pynchon at Cornell
University,” ANQ, 30.3 (2017), 170–73.
8. Quoted in Al Silverman, The Time of Their Lives: The Golden Age of Great
American Book Publishers, Their Editors and Authors (New York: Truman
Talley, 2008), p. 157.
9. Louis Nichols, “In and Out of Books,” New York Times Book Review, April 28,
1963, p. 8; Thomas Pynchon, quoted in David Hajdu, Positively 4th Street:
The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard
Fariña (New York: Farrar, 2001), p. 47.
10. Steven Weisenburger, “Thomas Pynchon at Twenty-Two: A Recovered
Autobiographical Sketch,” American Literature, 62.4 (1990), 692–97,
p. 696.
11. Adrian Wisnicki, “A Trove of New Works by Thomas Pynchon? Bomarc
Service News Rediscovered,” Pynchon Notes, 46–49 (2000–01), 9–34.
12. Peter Kihss, “Pulitzer Jurors Dismayed on Pynchon,” New York Times, May 8,
1974, p. 38.
13. William Styron, “Presentation to Thomas Pynchon of the Howells Medal for
Fiction of the Academy,” Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and
Letters and the National Institute of Arts and Letters 2nd ser., 26 (1976), 43–46.
14. Thomas Pynchon, from “A Gift of Books,” Holiday, December 1965, pp.
15. Motokazu Ohno, “Talk by Thomas Pynchon” [interview in Japanese],
Playboy Japan, January 2002, p. 32.
16. Winston, “Quest for Pynchon,” p. 284; Mel Gussow, “Pynchon’s Letters
Nudge His Mask,” New York Times, March 4, 1998, pp. E1, E8, p. E8.
17. Thomas Pynchon, unpublished letter to Faith and Kirkpatrick Sale,
March 27, 1964, in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center,
The University of Texas at Austin; Thomas Pynchon, unpublished letter to
Faith and Kirkpatrick Sale, March 9, 1963, in the Harry Ransom Humanities
Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin.
18. Thomas Pynchon, unpublished letter to Faith and Kirkpatrick Sale, June 2,
1963, in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of
Texas at Austin.
19. Pynchon, unpublished letter to Faith and Kirkpatrick Sale, March 27, 1964.
20. Thomas Pynchon, unpublished letter to Faith and Kirkpatrick Sale, June 29,
1963, in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of
Texas at Austin.
21. Scott McLemee, “You Hide, They Seek,” Inside Higher Ed, November 15,
2006, www.insidehighered.com/views/2006/11/15/you-hide-they-seek.
22. Gordon, “Smoking Dope with Thomas Pynchon,” p. 171.
14 john m. krafft
23. Garrison Frost, “South Bay Pynchon,” Aesthetic, n.d. [2003], against-the-day
Bill Pearlman, “Short Cuts,” London Review of Books, December 17, 2009, p.
22; Siegel, “Who Is Thomas Pynchon.”
24. Garrison Frost, “Thomas and Evelyn,” Aesthetic, September 5, 2007, web
25. Tracy Daugherty, Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme (New York:
St. Martin’s, 2009), p. 373.
26. Thomas Pynchon, unpublished letter to David Shetzline and M. F. Beal,
January 21, 1974.
27. Bill Roeder, “After the Rainbow,” Newsweek, August 7, 1978, p. 7;
Christopher Hitchens, “American Notes,” Times Literary Supplement,
July 12, 1985, p. 772; Tom Maschler, Publisher (London: Picador, 2005), pp.
28. “Mapping Thomas Pynchon,” Vheissu, www.vheissu.net/bio/whereabouts
29. Nancy Jo Sales, “Meet Your Neighbor, Thomas Pynchon,” New York,
November 11, 1996, pp. 60–64; James Bone, “Mystery Writer,” The Times
Magazine [London], June 14, 1997, pp. 26–29.
30. Joie Chen and Charles Feldman, “Who Has Seen Thomas Pynchon the
Writer?” The World Today, CNN, June 5, 1997, 10:44 pm EDT.
31. Phil Kloer, “Reclusive Novelist Breaks His Silence,” Atlanta Journal and
Constitution, June 5, 1997, p. 2C.
32. Robert Bramkamp, “The Curtain Between the Images,” Pynchon Notes, 50–51
(2002), 24–34, p. 26.
chapter 2

Letters and Juvenilia

Albert Rolls

Looking for Clarity

Thomas Pynchon’s letters are often sought after to provide clarity.
The approximately three dozen available complete letters – along with
extracts from others and juvenilia in letter form – supply material for
interpretation as we attempt to develop a clearer view of a life, or a mind,
that has been mostly mediated to us through autobiographical near-
silence. In an undated letter denying critic Charles Hollander’s request
to publish a collection of his short stories, Pynchon concludes,
“Of Course silence is hard to interpret. If it wasn’t they’d call it
‘English,’ or something.”1 Sometimes, silence would not do: In another
letter, one declining the prestigious Howell’s Medal for Fiction, Pynchon
tells Richard Wilbur, president of the American Academy of Arts and
Letters at the time, that there “appears to be only one way to say no, and
that’s no.”2
The lack of a personal, as opposed to an authorial voice, suggests
absence. When V. (1963) won the William Faulkner Foundation’s award
for best first novel, Foundation president John Cook Wyllie therefore
wrote to the book’s publisher, J. B. Lippincott, after a year of trying to
contact Pynchon, and declared, “If there really is such a person as
Mr. Pynchon, and if you ever see him, would you be good enough to
present him with this plaque with the Foundation’s compliments and
admiration.”3 Letters and early materials from Pynchon’s hand negate
such absence, promising an indirect presence. “English, or something,”
nonetheless, can be as hard to interpret as silence.
How much of a sense of clarity or presence a Pynchon letter is likely to
give, one might assume, will depend on the level of intimacy between him
and its recipient(s) and whether or not it was written for public consump-
tion. Those belonging to the public category include two letters of support,
for Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan, and one rebuttal: of Romain Gary,
16 albert rolls
who accused Pynchon of plagiarism.4 Private correspondence addresses
individuals of varying degrees of personal closeness. This category contains
friends, professional contacts, and strangers. Among the latter is Carla
Urban. In a private note Pynchon tells her he would be honored “to help
out,” supplementing her “love and support” with signed books for her son,
Michael, an admirer who had been diagnosed with lymphoma.5 In other
cases, Pynchon wrote to address professional matters: to discuss his
research on South-West Africa as well as to turn down invitations from
the Rockefeller Foundation to participate in an “experimental literary
program” and from Bennington College to teach.6
Distinctions are not stable: Professional contacts can be friends, and
private statements are not necessarily unfit for public consumption,
though Pynchon famously suppressed access at the Morgan Library to
letters he wrote to his first agent, Candida Donadio. Jules Siegel, whom
Pynchon met at Cornell, quoted from private letters without damaging his
friendship with Pynchon.7 Indeed, Pynchon recommended one of the
articles that contains a letter extract – a 1965 article discussing “black
humor” – to Peter Tamony, an American folk etymologist and friend,
who had asked Pynchon for information about the origin of the term
“black humor.”8 The Tamony letter reveals that Pynchon was comfortable
with the publication of some private communication – thereby belying his
reputation for wanting completely to conceal his private self. And it does
this more than do his introductions, which were written with the public in
mind, unlike the letters to Siegel.
It is not simply the words of a letter but also its context which enable us
to discover what is significant about it: A letter from 1983 to novelist
Donald Barthelme reveals Pynchon was traveling to California, so when
Pynchon tells Urban, in 1986, he is “in transit” and asks her to send books
to his agent, Melanie Jackson, we may conjecture that Pynchon was going
back to New York from California, although Pynchon is unlikely to want
Urban to know.9 The possibility is intriguing, given that Pynchon must
have spent time in New York in the years before his marriage to Jackson at
the end of the decade. Similar issues are found in more private letters for
a different reason. We lack the context the recipients have. In an undated
letter, probably from January 1959, to his then-dating college friends Patty
Mahool and Kirkpatrick Sale, Pynchon refers to what seems to be
a girlfriend of his as “the Octopus.” Her identity remains uncertain, unless
the “weird crew of young married types” they spent time with in Queens
refers to Siegel and his then-wife Phyllis.10 If so, the Octopus may be Lilian
Laufgraben, with whom Pynchon visited Siegel in Queens, NY.11 Without
Letters and Juvenilia 17
the context Sale and Mahool possessed, the details – along with talk of
Cornell professor William Dickey’s marriage and the reaction of some
friends to it; comments on his reading; praise of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut
and the passing on of other gossip – remain biographical particulars that
lack obvious significance.

Personal Positions
Other letters contain similar information about the goings-on of
friends, what Pynchon and the letters’ recipients are up to, and
Pynchon’s impressions of his surroundings in, for instance, Seattle
and Mexico. Among passages that recount the miscellanea of the day
are some that resonate beyond their moment. In the Mahool letter,
Pynchon illustrates what he later calls his “adopting Beat postures and
props” (SL 9), but he is being ironic. Observing that after leaving
Queens “he stayed up all night, roaming the negro streets,” he adopts
the position of those celebrated in Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1956) and
then draws attention to his posturing, adding “specifically penn station
[sic] and environs,” where there may have been “bums” but not “an
angry fix.”12 As if to make sure the irony is seen, he later writes, “I love
sick sick sick [sic] . . . [Jules] feiffer [sic] has this group up here
[Greenwich Village hipsters] defined perfectly, pinned to the cork
board and fluttering helplessly,” a statement surely resonating as
Eliotic to the young Pynchon, who described himself as “entrenched
on the T. S. Eliot side of no man’s land” about nine months later.13
Pynchon had always been, and remains, entrenched between some
version of the Beat, or romantic, and Eliot, or classical, sides of things.
Ironic retelling aside, no one spends all night among “bums” without
maintaining some fascination with the gesture. Such fascination is also
displayed in the unfinished 1958 collaboration with Sale on the musical
Minstrel Island. In it, a bohemian group – led by Hero, a folksinger and
songwriter, and including Jazzman, who in Pynchon’s draft “need[s]
a fix” – is pitted against an IBM-dominated society – represented by
Broad and led by Johnny Badass – which wants to impose its system on
the island. To save their enclave, the bohemians convince Hero to seduce
Broad because sex can rekindle the life-energy (a notion derived from the
psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich) that the IBM-structured system has extin-
guished. The influence of the Beats’ embracing of Reich is obvious, though
a parenthetical remark suggests Sale rather than Pynchon introduced the
Reichian conceit.14
18 albert rolls
Opposing Authority in Letter Form
Pynchon has also used letters as a fictional form: His attraction to enclaves
where dissent occurs dates back at least to his senior year in Oyster Bay
High School, 1952–53, when he wrote the epistolary sequence “Voice of the
Hamster” for his school newspaper, Purple and Gold. In this fiction, Boscoe
Stein, a student at Hamster High, which is located on a rock off the South
Shore, writes about his school to Sam, a student at Pynchon’s school.
The adult characters – among them the rumored-to-be heroin-using
trigonometry teacher and former bebop drummer, Mr. Faggiaducci –
superficially resemble Minstrel Island’s bohemians but do not form an
opposition. Each stands alone, and each adult’s subversive behavior is
not conscious opposition but symptomatic response to stifling conditions.
These conditions – which are inspected for institutional compliance by the
State Educational Inspector, J. Fattington Woodgrouse, grandson of the
school’s founder – are fostered by the enclosed nature of the rock.
The adults “warmly” welcome rather than resist Mr. Woodgrouse –
demonstrating their desire for conformity – but he suffers comic punish-
ments, leading to injuries and a mental breakdown. A source of opposition,
The Boys, emerges among the students. Their experiment to cause the
“psychoanalytic deletion of the super-ego” of Faggiaducci is the conscious
analogue to the destruction of Woodgrouse.15
Student opposition is not simply a reaction to confinement to the rock:
It leaks outside Pynchon’s fiction. After the last installment of “Voice of the
Hamster,” Purple and Gold printed “The Boys,” which describes the
maturation of a group, apparently the Math Club at Oyster Bay High
School, that was started for “goofing off and fooling around” after being
inspired by “a certain series of articles in the P&G.”16 Its members are
initially known only to “their own compact enclave” but emerge into
officialdom when they gather for a yearbook picture. “Mr. X.,” the school’s
own bop-influenced math teacher, is not initially there for the photo;
“The Boys” coax him into their collective by chanting “We want X!” just
as the fictional “Boys” push Faggiaducci into insanity by chanting “Do not
forsake me, Faggiaducci.” Seriousness to frivolity is the trajectory in both
stories, but Mr. X comes down to The Boys, beginning “a new era of
student-teacher relations.”17
Pynchon’s epistolary fiction incorporates his school’s culture, elements
of which are drawn into the narrative, while the school’s culture incorpo-
rates the fiction, the power of which is transformative. Analogously,
Pynchon’s own letters contextualize his work and are contextualized by
Letters and Juvenilia 19
it – as the use of Ginsberg’s “negro streets” discussed above discloses.
The letters then serve, in part, as framing devices, something David
Foster Wallace suggests when he builds part of Infinite Jest’s frame with
an allusion to the published Pynchon letter answering Romain Gary’s
accusation that Pynchon stole the name Genghis Cohen. Pynchon
described Gary’s problem as “perhaps more psychiatric than literary,”
a sentiment Wallace echoes when he notes that any resemblance between
one of his characters and an actual person is the product of coincidence or
“your own troubled imagination.”18 Framing separates interpreters from
the object and often clarifies their perception of it, an idea evidently
confirmed by the fact that of the two available Pynchon novel manuscripts,
only the one that can be framed by letters, namely V., has been discussed by
critics. The Vineland (1990) manuscript sits unexplored, the story behind
its transformation lost or yet to emerge.
The extant letters surrounding the preparation of V. for publication –
both those between Pynchon and Corlies Smith, his editor at Lippincott,
and those written to his college friend Faith Sale, née Apfelbaum (who
married Kirkpatrick Sale and began her editing career at Lippincott) – do
more than help us frame the process through which the novel emerged out
of the manuscript. They add nuance to our understanding of Pynchon,
undercutting the view that he is some kind of independent genius. That
notion, foreign to Pynchon’s own understanding of himself, was advanced
by the marketing department at Lippincott, which called V. “the most
important piece of fiction written since ULYSSES,” and later by Smith,
who said he suggested Pynchon make “a half-dozen minor changes [to V.];
Pynchon, ‘extremely reasonable,’ listened and agreed to three.”19
The statement makes it sound as if the difference between the manuscript
and the book was slight. Smith made three suggestions; Pynchon coun-
tered with fourteen, and Smith commented upon those.20 This summary
conceals the work that went into redrafting the manuscript, work for
which Pynchon did not take full credit, assuring Faith that without her,
Smith, and Catherine Carver, the copy editor who came up with the title,
the book would not be nearly as good as it is, while blaming himself for
failures he perceived.21

The Artist as Self-Critic

Whenever he discusses his work, Pynchon becomes a critic, another
manifestation of his classical inclinations, something hinted at when he
wrote David Hajdu about Fariña’s opposition to critical authority in
20 albert rolls
college. When someone became critic-like, “there would always be Dick,
pointing his finger, laughing, yelling, ‘Critic!’ ‘Who,’ you would say, ‘me?
Not me, man.’ ‘Eclectic,’ he would yell back, ‘academic, pedant. Ha!’ He’d
be right, of course. It helped keep you straight . . . He was like
a conscience.”22 For Pynchon, that conscience came to serve more as an
external than internal guide. It took him a while to embrace it at all. As late
as 1963, the last time he read Fariña’s novel before it was in proofs, Pynchon
ignored the Fariña-esque conscience, supposing the moment warranted
a critic to improve the work. Fariña wanted praise, not advice, and
Pynchon apologizes once the book is nearing publication, offering unqua-
lified approval: “Did my reaction in Carmel seem less enthusiastic? I was
being analytical then. Because you had asked me to. And there is that bit of
the nasty/analytical to us all, right? . . . If you want complaints, sorry,
I don’t have any,” an assertion he would never take seriously if it were made
about his novels.23 “Nasty” is not an adjective Pynchon normally conflates
with “analytical.” Letters show him valuing having errors pointed out. He
thus calls Carver’s copy editing a helpful diagnostic; notes he has saved
reviews and “personal reactions” so that he might, “in a year or so . . . study
them to see what went wrong with V ”; and accepts Kirkpatrick and Faith
Sale’s critique of the novel’s “lack of suspense.”24 His response to uncritical
praise seems to be “give me a break from these stories [about] how great
I am . . . I can’t handle it . . . and besides you know deep down that it’s
applesauce.”25 That response was made in the wake of the publication of
Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), which convinced Pynchon he was at least a “one-
shot flash-in-the-pan amateur.”26
Pynchon wrote Mimi Baez-Fariña after the death of her husband to say
he owed Richard Fariña more than he could say, “both personal and
writerly.”27 The debt reveals itself not in an internalization of Fariña’s
approach to life and work but in Pynchon’s coming to accept that his
rationalist inclinations could be put aside and that things, if not what they
taught, could be let go of. He thus acquiesces to a request from Arthur
Mizener, formerly his professor, to reprint “Entropy,” even though, he
notes, “I was and still am ashamed I ever wrote the thing.” After attempting
to explain its flaws, explanations omitted from the letter, he realized that
“an ego trip,” his critical voice, was dictating his response and that the
external voice has as much value. Pynchon thus notes, “I am doing very
little consciously beyond some clerk routine – assembling, expediting –
and that either (a) there is an Extra-personal Source, or (b) readers are the
ones who do most of the work, or all of the above. Which is not at all
a bring down to realize. Just the opposite.”28
Letters and Juvenilia 21
1. Thomas Pynchon, To Charles Hollander, n.d. [c. 1981]. Copy in author’s
possession. Whereabouts of all other letters cited in this chapter are identified
in the primary bibliography.
2. Thomas Pynchon, To Richard Wilbur, “Presentation to Thomas Pynchon of
the Howells Medal for Fiction of the Academy,” Proceedings of the American
Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Institute of Arts and Letters 26
(1976), 43–46, p. 45.
3. John Cook Wyllie, To Miss Isobel Holland, January 29, 1965, Special
Collections, Linton R. Massey Papers 1951–99, University of Virginia Library.
4. “Words for Salman Rushdie,” New York Times Book Review, March 12, 1989,
p. 29; Letter from Thomas Pynchon, posted with Nigel Reynolds,
“The Recluse Speaks Out to Defend McEwan,” Telegraph, December 6,
2006, www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1536152/Recluse-speaks-out-to-def
end-McEwan.html; “Pros and Cohns,” New York Times Book Review, July 17,
1966, p. 24.
5. See Thomas Pynchon, To Carla Urban, August 21, 1986.
6. Thomas Pynchon, To Thomas F. Hirsch, January 8, 1969; Thomas Pynchon,
To Gerald Freund, June 18, 1965; Thomas Pynchon, To Stanley Hyman,
December 8, 1965.
7. See Steven Moore, “The World Is at Fault,” Pynchon Notes, 15 (1984), 84–85,
doi.org/10.16995/pn.393, which reprints the letter quoted in Jules Siegel,
“The Dark Triumvirate,” Cavalier, 15 (August 1965), pp. 14–16, 90–91;
Jules Siegel, “Revolution,” Playboy, March 1970, 17 (3), pp. 185–93.
8. Thomas Pynchon, To Peter Tamony, February 4, 1966.
9. Thomas Pynchon, To Donald Barthelme, n.d. [c. 1983]; Thomas Pynchon,
To Carla Urban, August 21, 1986.
10. Thomas Pynchon, To Kirkpatrick Sale and Patricia Mahool, n.d. [c.
January 1959].
11. See Boris Kachka. “P.,” New York Magazine (September 2, 2013), p. 50;
Jules Siegel et al. Lineland: Mortality and Mercy on the Internet’s Pynchon-
L@Waste.Org Discussion List (Philadelphia: Intangible Assets Manufacturing,
1997), p. 89.
12. To Kirkpatrick Sale and Patricia Mahool, n.d. [c. January 1959];
Allen Ginsberg, “Howl” (l. 2), in Collected Poems, 1947–1980 (New York:
Harper and Row, 1988), 126–33, p. 126.
13. See Steven Weisenburger, “Thomas Pynchon at Twenty-Two: A Recovered
Autobiographical Sketch,” American Literature, 62.4 (1990), 697. Pynchon refers
to the first published collection by the distinguished cartoonist Jules Feiffer, Sick,
Sick, Sick: A Guide to Non-Confident Living (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1958).
14. Thomas Pynchon and Kirkpatrick Sale, Minstrel Island [1958].
15. Thomas Pynchon, “The Voice of the Hamster,” in Clifford Mead, Thomas
Pynchon: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Materials (Elmwood Park,
IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1989), 157–63, p. 161.
22 albert rolls
16. Thomas Pynchon, “The Boys,” in Mead, Pynchon, 166–67, p. 166.
17. Pynchon, “The Boys,” p. 167.
18. “Pros and Cohns,” New York Times Book Review, July 17, 1966, p. 24;
David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (New York: Back Bay Books, 2006
[1996]), p. viii.
19. Thomas Pynchon, V. [Advance Reading Copy] (Philadelphia:
J. B. Lippincott, 1963), front cover; Helen Dudar, “Lifting the Veil on Life
of a Literary Recluse,” Chicago Tribune Bookworld, April 8, 1984, pp. 35–36.
20. Corlies Smith, To Thomas Pynchon, February 23, 1962; Thomas Pynchon,
To Corlies Smith, March 13, 1962; Corlies Smith, To Thomas Pynchon,
March 20, 1962, Of a Fond Ghoul (New York: The Blown Litter Press, 1990).
21. See Thomas Pynchon, To Faith Sale, October 1, 1962; Thomas Pynchon,
To Kirkpatrick and Faith Sale, March 9, 1963.
22. David Hajdu, Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob
Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña (New York: Farrar, Straus, and
Giroux, 2001), p. 46.
23. Thomas Pynchon, To Richard Fariña, October 16, 1965.
24. See Thomas Pynchon, To Faith Sale, October 1, 1962; To Faith and
Kirkpatrick Sale, June 2, 1963; To Kirkpatrick and Faith Sale, June 29, 1963.
25. Thomas Pynchon, To David Shetzline and M. F. Beal, January 21, 1974.
26. See Thomas Pynchon, To Donald Barthelme.
27. Quoted in Hajdu, Positively 4th Street, p. 178.
28. Thomas Pynchon, To Arthur Mizener, November 25, 1970.
chapter 3

Katie Muth

Nonfiction prose accounts for more than half of Thomas Pynchon’s

Wikipedia bibliography and has been organized into six categories:
Technical Publications; Essays; Purported Interview; Letters; Reviews;
and Introductions and Liner Notes. Among items listed are a brief article
on missile airlift procedure from Aerospace Safety (1960), a disavowed
interview with Playboy Japan (2001), liner notes (1995) to the indie record
Nobody’s Cool (1996), and a short contribution to his son’s school news-
letter (1999). Some items merely cite quotations appearing in other places,
as with Jules Siegel’s 228-word quotation from a piece of personal
correspondence.1 Some items are brief: Pynchon’s contribution to
“Words for Salman Rushdie” (1989) turns out to be a mere sixty-eight
words for Salman Rushdie.2 At least three items appear with caveats to the
tune of “this could have been Pynchon but wasn’t.” Though we might
chalk up this odd accounting to idiosyncratic editors, Wikipedia’s is a fairly
comprehensive listing of Pynchon’s nonfiction, which remains uncol-
lected. The entirety of Pynchon’s nonfiction oeuvre – excluding letters,
known pranks, and pieces of unverified authorship – adds up to about
40,000 words, or not quite one-eighth the length of Gravity’s Rainbow
What can we learn from Pynchon’s nonfiction? The substantive writings
address a fairly wide range of topics. There are the Boeing technical support
articles; the introductions, notes, blurbs, and defenses nodding to the likes
of Oakley Hall, Richard Fariña, Gabriel García Márquez, Salman Rushdie,
Donald Barthelme, Spike Jones, Lotion, Jim Dodge, George Orwell, and
Ian McEwan. There is the “very strategic public statement” introducing
Pynchon’s early fiction in Slow Learner (1984); there is the early meditation
on South Los Angeles, “A Journey Into The Mind of Watts” (1966); and
there are the later reflections, “Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?” (1984) on time
and technology and “Nearer, My Couch, to Thee” (1993) on the sin of
sloth, from the New York Times Book Review.3 These essays, introductions,
24 katie muth
notes, and reviews are written for distinct and disparate purposes.
Sometimes, they appear to have been penned at the behest of a friend –
as when Kirkpatrick Sale, then an editor at the New York Times Magazine,
nudged Pynchon to write about Watts, or when his accountant gave him
an advance copy of her son’s album Nobody’s Cool.4 Sometimes they seem
to be labors of genuine affection – Pynchon’s Holiday blurb for Oakley
Hall’s Warlock (1958), for example; his introduction to Richard Fariña’s
Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me (1983 [1966]); or his liner notes
to Spiked! The Music of Spike Jones (1994).5 Sometimes they align loosely
with other publications. “Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?” followed Slow
Learner by a few months. “Nearer, My Couch, to Thee” came in the flurry
of nonfiction writing that appeared between Vineland (1990) and Mason &
Dixon (1997). No one clear motive unites them. Neither do they articulate
in toto a focused program.
Hence, critics read them piecemeal to fill gaps in the biography, to
explicate the fiction, and to authorize propositions about ideology, politics,
and philosophy. Take David Witzling’s extended treatment of “A Journey
Into The Mind of Watts” in which he concludes that the essay “stands as
perhaps Pynchon’s most liberal piece of writing in that it uses techniques
identifiable with realism in order to urge the white, liberal reader to
understand the situation of poor, urban African Americans.”6 Here, the
Watts essay demonstrates Pynchon’s engagement with the African
American literary tradition (specifically, in this case, with James Baldwin
and Ralph Ellison) as well as with Black politics more broadly. It supports
analyses of V. (1963) and Gravity’s Rainbow and illustrates the complicated
liberal ethos that grounds those readings. Witzling usefully and thought-
fully unpacks the text of the essay itself, but eventually “A Journey Into
The Mind of Watts” becomes a tool with which to expound Pynchon’s
ideological and political engagements and better understand the fiction.
Critics tend to subjugate nonfiction to fiction, to treat an author’s nonfic-
tion as somehow more transparent or less artful. An early Pynchon critic,
Joseph Slade, called the Watts essay “a skillful piece of journalism” that is
nevertheless “unremarkable.”7
This critical tendency is not unauthorized. In “Nearer, My Couch, to
Thee,” Pynchon compares fiction-writing to an “ungovernable warp of
dreams” bending the linear efficiency of urban life. “Life in that ortho-
gonal machine,” he writes of the gridded modern city, “was supposed to
be nonfiction.”8 If fiction is languorous dreaming, nonlinear, and sub-
versive, nonfiction is work and belongs to the rote machines of capital.
If fiction is ungovernable, its opposite logically must be governable.
Nonfiction 25
Pynchon himself seems to entice us to think of nonfiction as docile,
schematic, and utilitarian.
In its details, however, the sloth essay unravels the easy association of
nonfiction with utilitarian labor and the equation of literary fiction with
a Wildean assertion about the uselessness of art. “Nearer, My Couch” opens
with Thomas Aquinas’ reasoning in the Summa Theologica that sloth must
be a capital vice, since sloth “gives rise to” (or is a final cause of) other sins.
Then follows a quip in which two tormented souls on “medieval death row”
exchange innocence stories. One, a murderer, is in for “anger, I guess.”
The other is in for sloth. The first asks the second, “‘You wouldn’t happen
to be a writer, by any chance?’” From here unspools a history of the lethal
vice, venturing forth from its Aquinian origins to a capitalist in-between to
a future/present in which “we’ll sit with our heads in virtual reality, glumly
refusing to be absorbed in its idle, disposable fantasies.”9 This jibes with
a pat secular modernization narrative in which Christian heretics beget anti-
capitalist heretics beget heretics against capital’s co-option of sign and
mind. The acedians of Gen-X, if they want to be heretical, will have to
sin against the contents of their own besieged brains.10 However, this essay
makes interesting claims about the labor of writing and the fruits thereof.
Pynchon says that writers are “mavens of sloth.” They sit doing nothing
until genius strikes as naturally as a clearing of the bowels. Hence, “all that
glamorous folklore surrounding writer’s block,” Pynchon jokes. Writers are
melancholic and self-absorbed. “‘Acedia’ in Latin,” we are instructed,
“means sorrow, deliberately self-directed.” But writers are curious, too;
from “Uneasiness of the Mind” springs novelty, and novelty is valuable.
Idleness produces writing from which, in turn, “real money actually pro-
ceeds.” One of sloth’s venial offspring is a job.11
On the one hand, we have the mysterious incarnation of productive
sloth, on the other its dread co-option. In addition to Aquinas, this essay
features three key figures: Benjamin Franklin, Bartleby the Scrivener, and
the winner of the National Enquirer’s “King of the Spuds” contest. Each
bears a peculiar relation to writing. Franklin, the printer, merchandizes it.12
Bartleby, the copyist, refuses to do it, in good Deleuzean style.13 The King
of Spuds consumes it via television and tabloids. It is tempting to trace
sloth’s trajectory from its origins in sinful sorrow through its function as
anti-capitalist defiance to Pynchon’s contemporary sloth maven, the “top
Couch Potato.” Sloth’s laudable and ungovernable warp has become the
dominant mode in contemporary media, which as Newsweek noted
in May 1993 was becoming increasingly immersive and interactive, “a
compelling vision – both for couch potatoes and those who would harvest
26 katie muth
them,” the magazine opined.14 Pynchon, for his part, wonders whether
sloth’s future lies in “persisting in Luddite sorrow, despite technology’s
good intentions.” Here Pynchon returns to the writer who understands
the “convertibility of time and money,” who always has believed that
“time was a story, with a beginning, middle and end,” and who depends
for his livelihood on print media.15 Is this, then, the essay’s key proposal –
sloth as the double-edged freedom to reject God, capital, and new media
“Nearer, My Couch, to Thee” appeared in a New York Times Book Review
series on the seven deadly sins (plus despair, or, as Joyce Carol Oates put it,
“The One Unforgivable Sin”), which included contributions from a number
of “distinguished contemporary writers” – A. S. Byatt, Mary Gordon, Richard
Howard, Joyce Carol Oates, William Trevor, John Updike, and Gore Vidal.16
The editors took their lead from an earlier series commissioned by Ian Fleming
for the London Sunday Times and featuring pieces by W. H. Auden, Cyril
Connolly, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Edith Sitwell, Christopher Sykes, Evelyn
Waugh, and Angus Wilson.17 “We,” write the New York Times editors, “being
envious of the idea, invited eight devilishly clever writers to choose their
favorite transgression and go at it.”18 Pynchon’s essay was the first to run in
the series, appearing on June 6, 1993. “The Sins of Summer” reads the section
headline over a brilliant green and scarlet serpent, drawn by Étienne Delessert.
The bright serpent coils toward the reader with wide cartoon eyes, its fangs
clamped around a blue book as if delivering a guilty pleasure.
Delessert’s serpent was the first color image printed by the New York
Times. It marked the paper’s reluctant acceptance of color printing, and
launched the slow transition of the Times from staid black and white to
cheerful, contemporary color.19 The Times had been conservative in this
respect. Color printing carried with it a slight whiff of the tabloids, or of
the graphics-heavy weekly USA Today, which switched to full color in 1984,
only two years after its inception. One publisher called color printing
“more like television” and deemed it inappropriate for serious news.20
But color was increasingly necessary for advertising revenues (color adver-
tisements sold 43 percent more, claimed one estimate) and to compete with
other media for readers’ attention.21 By 1993, 97 percent of US newspapers
printed some pages in color at least once a week, and the paper of record
was behind the times.
Delessert’s snake, then, reads as a knowing wink – an acknowledgment
that some readers will associate the Times’ shift to color news with sinful
distraction and laziness. Pynchon’s essay toys with media morality, almost
certainly aware of its momentous situation, and Pynchon’s name lends
Nonfiction 27
gravitas to the cover’s playful allure. Just as with Fleming’s collection three
decades earlier, William Morrow collected and reprinted the essays in
a “single handy volume,” artfully produced and including Delessert’s
original illustrations and cover.22 The production of such a volume – and
the direct acknowledgment of its literary predecessor – clinches a clever
marketing move to underscore the Times, whether in black and white or in
color, as a purveyor of serious news and culture.
If Pynchon was aware of the dual circumstances in which his work
would appear – first in shocking color newsprint and then in a more
traditional literary binding – was he poking fun at the editors who
capitalized on his name? “Writers of course are considered the mavens of
Sloth,” he writes. “They are approached all the time on the subject, not
only for free advice, but also to speak at Sloth Symposia, head up Sloth
Task Forces, testify as expert witnesses at Sloth Hearings.”23 They are also
approached to write think pieces for the New York Times, defending print
media in the very nascent digital age, and deflecting the criticism that the
New York Times was becoming too much like the visual media – television,
billboards, ads – that clog our attention. Pynchon writes to assignment so
adeptly, we could miss the fact that he is writing to assignment.
We are accustomed to thinking about a novelist’s nonfiction as inter-
pretive scaffolding – as a statement of craft, ideology, or aesthetic theory.
Carolyn Denard, for example, frames Toni Morrison’s selected nonfiction
as a collection of “relatively little known pieces” that unveil “the back-
stories, the value narratives, the contexts of her life that have informed not
only her fiction but also her cultural and political worldview.”24
Nonfiction, in this view, provides the structures of meaning by which to
better understand an author’s novelistic work. It is hard, in the slim
nonfictional margins of Pynchon’s fiction, to find much that looks like
building material of this type. In spite of that fugitive characteristic,
Pynchon’s nonfiction discloses a writer deeply engaged with his work
and with the occasions of its production and appearance. Pynchon’s
nonfiction quietly reminds us that the author of the Vivaldi Kazoo
Concerto, the Disgusting English Candy Drill, the Usine Régionale à la
Mayonnaise, and the Marching Academy Harmonica Band practiced his
craft, too, in essays on torqueing bolts to spec, on handling mercury safely,
and on missile airlift procedure.25 It reminds us that writing novels is an art,
sure, but that all writing is work. “The duty of a writer – the revolutionary
duty, if you like – ,” said Gabriel García Márquez, “is that of writing
well.”26 Our critical habit is to locate Pynchon’s revolutionary force in
some mysterious savant genius. In its careful attenuation to situation and
28 katie muth
occasion, Pynchon’s nonfiction reminds us that, as the genius himself put
it in The Cathedral School Newsletter, “Tom is a writer.”27

1. See Jules Siegel, “The Dark Triumvirate,” Cavalier, 15 (August 1965), pp.
14–16, 90–91.
2. Thomas Pynchon et al., “Words for Salman Rushdie,” New York Times Book
Review, March 12, 1989, www.nytimes.com/books/99/04/18/specials/rushdie-
3. Luc Herman and John Krafft, “Race and Early Pynchon: Rewriting Sphere in
V.,” Critique, 52.1 (2011), 17–29, p. 20. On the introduction to Slow Learner,
see also Luc Herman and Bart Vervaeck, “Didn’t Know Any Better: Race and
Unreliable Narration in ‘Low-Lands’ by Thomas Pynchon,” in Elke D’hoker
and Gunther Martens (eds.), Narrative Unreliability in the Twentieth-Century
First-Person Novel (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008), pp. 231–46.
4. David Seed, “Pynchon in Watts,” Pynchon Notes, 9 (1982), 54–60;
Christopher Glazek, “The Pynchon Hoax,” New Yorker, August 10, 2009,
5. Pynchon and Fariña both read Warlock at Cornell in 1959. Though Pynchon
claims that he and Fariña “ran with different crowds” at Cornell, Fariña sent
Pynchon manuscript drafts of Been Down So Long in 1963, and there is some
indication that Pynchon shared drafts or proofs of V. with Fariña. Pynchon
was best man at Fariña’s marriage to Mimi Baez. See David Hajdu, Positively
4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña,
and Richard Fariña (New York: Picador, 2001), pp. 177–79. A decade before
writing the notes to Spiked! Pynchon noted that the “orchestral recordings” of
Spike Jones “had a deep and indelible effect on me as a child” (SL 20).
6. David Witzling, Everybody’s America: Thomas Pynchon, Race, and the Cultures
of Postmodernism (New York: Routledge, 2008), p. 151.
7. Quoted in Seed, “Pynchon in Watts,” 54.
8. Thomas Pynchon, “Nearer, My Couch, to Thee,” New York Times Book
Review, June 6, 1993, pp. 3, 57, p. 57.
9. “Couch,” pp. 3, 57.
10. Martin Paul Eve is undoubtedly correct in finding echoes of Michel Foucault
here. See “Whose Line is it Anyway?: Enlightenment, Revolution, and Ipseic
Ethics in the Works of Thomas Pynchon,” Textual Practice, 26.5 (August
2012), 921–39.
11. “Couch,” p. 3.
12. For a provocative reading of the essay vis-à-vis labor, capital, and the
Enlightenment, see Brian Thill, “Mason & Dixon and the American Sins of
Consumption,” in Elizabeth Jane Wall Hinds (ed.), The Multiple Worlds of
Mason & Dixon: Eighteenth-Century Contexts, Postmodern Observations
(Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2005), pp. 49–76.
Nonfiction 29
13. See Gilles Deleuze, “Bartleby, Or, The Formula,” in Essays Critical and
Clinical, translated by Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco
(Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), pp. 68–90. Did
Pynchon read Deleuze on Bartleby? Vineland’s notorious Italian Wedding
Fake Book suggests he might have done (VL 97). For a detailed discussion of
the Vineland reference, see Jeeshan Gazi, “On Deleuze and Guattari’s Italian
Wedding Fake Book: Pynchon, Improvisation, Social Organisation, and
Assemblage,” Orbit: A Journal of American Literature, 4.2 (2016): doi.org/10
.16995/orbit.192. For an extended discussion of Deleuzean thought and
Pynchon’s work, see Stefan Mattessich, Lines of Flight: Discursive Time and
Countercultural Desire in the Work of Thomas Pynchon (Durham, NC: Duke
University Press, 2002).
14. “Eyes on the Future,” Newsweek, May 30, 1993, www.newsweek.com/eyes-
future-193284. Other contemporary publications explicitly cited the rise of
immersive media as a boon for “couch potatoes.” See, for example, Peter Coy,
“There’ll Be a Heaven for Couch Potatoes, By and By,” Bloomberg,
November 1, 1993, www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/1993-10-31/therell-be-
a-heaven-for-couch-potatoes-by-and-by; or Barry Fox, “TV Galore –
A Couch Potato’s Dream Come True,” New Scientist, March 27, 1993, www
atos-dream-come-true. It is also worth noting that in 1993 the phrase “couch
potato” was entered for the first time in the Oxford English Dictionary.
15. “Couch,” pp. 3, 57.
16. Joyce Carol Oates, “The One Unforgivable Sin,” New York Times Book
Review, July 25, 1993, www.nytimes.com/1993/07/25/books/the-deadly-sins-
17. Angus Wilson et al., The Seven Deadly Sins (New York: William Morrow,
18. Editorial note, “Couch,” p. 3.
19. William Glaberson, “The Media Business; Newspapers’ Adoption of Color
Nearly Complete,” New York Times, May 31, 1993, www.nytimes.com/1993/
20. William O. Tyler, quoted in Glaberson, “Media Business.”
21. Glaberson, “Media Business.”
22. “Books from the Times,” New York Times, October 23, 1994, www
23. “Couch,” p. 3.
24. Carolyn C. Denard, “Introduction,” in Toni Morrison, What Moves at the
Margin: Selected Nonfiction (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2008),
p. xiii.
25. There is good reason to attribute to Pynchon a handful of unsigned articles
from the Bomarc Service News, including particularly “Torquing” [sic],
Bomarc Service News, 11 (June 1960), pp. 7–9 and “The Mad Hatter and the
Mercury Wetted Relays,” Bomarc Service News, 31 (February 1962), p. 16.
30 katie muth
The essay on airlift procedure, “Togetherness,” appeared with the byline
“Thomas H. Pynchon” [sic] and is widely recognized as Pynchon’s work.
See “Togetherness,” Aerospace Safety, 16.2 (1960), pp. 6–8. For an extended
discussion of Pynchon’s work for Boeing, see Adrian Wisnicki, “A Trove of
New Works by Thomas Pynchon? Bomarc Service News Rediscovered,”
Pynchon Notes, 46–49 (2001), 9–34; and Katie Muth, “The Grammars of
the System: Thomas Pynchon at Boeing,” Textual Practice, 473–493 (2019),
26. Quoted in Thomas Pynchon, “The Heart’s Eternal Vow,” New York Times
Book Review, April 10, 1988, p. 1.
27. Thomas Pynchon, “Hallowe’en? Over Already?” The Cathedral School
Newsletter (January 1999), p. 3.
chapter 4

East Coast
Christopher Leise

Thomas Pynchon’s early fiction shows relatively little interest in the history
of his regional birthplace. His childhood home scarcely influences more
than one short story: Introducing Slow Learner (1984) he confesses,
“I mistakenly thought of Long Island then as a giant and featureless
sandbar, without history, someplace to get away from but not to feel
very connected to” (SL 20). As in Slow Learner’s collected stories, virtually
nothing in V. (1963) distinguishes rural areas such as western Massachusetts
from upstate New York; likewise, little other than the multiethnic demo-
graphics of “Nueva York” separate it from Norfolk, Virginia. As his oeuvre
developed, however, the East Coast became a font from which flows of
power, control, and capital issued; after The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), he
scrutinizes East Coast hegemony as threatening freedom and privacy.
Despite a tone of frustration and disapproval, however, Pynchon repeat-
edly identifies historical near-misses where East-Coast culture might have
become better in particular ways. He seems unwilling fully to give up hope
for a better East and, thereby, a better nation and better world.

Mid-Century New York

As the backdrop for Herbert Stencil’s questionably meaningful quest to
invest identity into an initial, “V.,” found in his father’s journal, the East
Coast comes across unsettlingly like the Muzak-scored suburbs of the San
Francisco Bay area and soulless census tracts of Southern California.
Pynchon’s sense of place in the East Coast prior to Gravity’s Rainbow
(1973) mostly oscillates between indifference and disapproval. V.’s Rachel
Owlglass hails from the “Five Towns” region on Long Island’s south shore,
which present her with the same stifling conditions facing Oedipa Maas at
The Crying of Lot 49’s outset. On V.’s Long Island, “[d]aughters are
constrained to pace demure and darkeyed like so many Rapunzels within
the magic frontiers of a country” (V 25) – a country marked by vacuous
32 christopher leise
consumerism and ersatz architecture. For the forthrightly Beat characters
of “The Whole Sick Crew,” “Uptown [. . . was] taking over the world”
(V 57) – “Uptown” being “a bleak district with no identity, where a heart
never does anything so violent or final as break: merely gets increased
tensile, compressive, shear loads piled on it bit by bit every day till
eventually these and its own shudderings fatigue it” (V 149). V.’s East is
an America-at-large to be resisted or rejected by perversity and deviance
and other forms of noncompliance with an oppressive conformist order.

Colonial Massachusetts
Gravity’s Rainbow introduces depth to the East Coast landscape beyond the
social undergrounds and sewer systems offered in V. Tyrone Slothrop
shares biographical ties with Pynchon: The fictional intelligence operative
and the real Navy veteran descended from the earliest immigrants to the
Massachusetts Bay Colony. Albeit an influential businessman, William
Pynchon was not immune to the intensities of fervor that gripped the
religious dissenters’ communities. Having privately urged a more capa-
cious attitude regarding tolerance of ecclesiastical and political diversity to
Governor John Winthrop in 1647, William’s leadership qualities made the
Massachusetts Bay authorities wary of his ideas and potential actions. Like
Anne Hutchinson before him, Pynchon possessed the combination of
erudition and clout that could destabilize an obviously fragile social
order. Thus upon his publishing a manuscript on Christian theology called
The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption in 1650, the Massachusetts
General Court ordered that all copies be gathered up and burned. After
being fined by the general court, William returned to England, keeping up
his battle with New England’s Congregationalist sectarians.1
Despite Nathaniel Hawthorne’s superficial protestations to the con-
trary, William Pynchon or his New English lineage probably offered
inspiration for the naming of the Pyncheon family central to The House
of the Seven Gables.2 Equally fictional, William Pynchon becomes
a “western swamp-Yankee” (GR 25) called William Slothrop in Gravity’s
Rainbow and the first American ancestor to Tyrone Slothrop. Thomas
Pynchon takes considerable license in reimagining his colonial forefather;
whereas the real William wielded substantial power, the novel’s William is
a marginal figure, first a ship’s cook then a middling pig farmer. Gravity’s
Rainbow does capture an important component of seventeenth-century
politics, however, by pointing out how the theocrats’ core beliefs were as
poorly articulated as they were exclusionary.
East Coast 33
William Pynchon and William Slothrop both highlight a potential
future inherent in New England’s colonial projects. They opened up
possible trajectories of development that, though foreclosed upon, could
have turned out otherwise. As New England’s Congregationalists became
mythologized into types of America’s “founding fathers,” one can find
attempts to construct the latter as an inclusive body politic, despite the
darker and more repressive regimes that won the day. Referencing William
Slothrop’s fictionalized treatise called On Preterition, Gravity’s Rainbow
plainly asks:
Could [William] have been the fork in the road America never took, the
singular point she jumped the wrong way from? Suppose the Slothropite
heresy had had the time to consolidate and prosper? [. . .] It seems to Tyrone
Slothrop that there might be a route back [. . .] maybe for a little while all the
fences are down, one road as good as another, the whole space of the Zone
cleared, depolarized, and somewhere inside the waste of it a single set of
coordinates from which to proceed, without elect, without preterite, with-
out even nationality to fuck it up. (GR 556)

The subjunctive potential in Pynchon’s East Coast begins to blossom and

guide his vision of lost futures of the past, a motif that persists in his
subsequent longer novels.

Pre-Revolutionary Eastern Seaboard

After a detour through the West Coast in 1990’s Vineland, Pynchon’s
imagination returned once again to the US East Coast in parts of 1997’s
Mason & Dixon, which emphasizes colonial America’s inherently globa-
lized nature. This version of the East Coast extends upward into what we
now call Canada and below the Mason-Dixon Line, though not much
farther south than Virginia. In comparison with Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason
& Dixon engages more explicitly with the conflict between the British
imperial project and its exchange with other European and Native
American nations.
Contrary to the appearance that the colonies were inherently English-
cum-British, Pynchon depicts America on the verge of its independence as
comprising a globally diverse populace. The presumably French-descended
Le Spark household sits in land occupied by largely German immigrants
and their descendants. The novel also points to a greater degree of religious
diversity in colonial America than did Gravity’s Rainbow. It hints at
strongholds of radical Protestantism that include the large communities
34 christopher leise
of Amish Anabaptists as well as the Religious Society of Friends
(“Quakers”) in and around Philadelphia. Maryland initially offered
Catholics refuge in colonial America, while Canada remained influenced
by Jesuit missionaries.
Mason & Dixon posits the pre-Revolution East Coast as a site of contact
and exchange at a time of paradigmatic transition: Many of its characters
espouse commitments both to science (reason) and religion or spirituality
(faith). This conception of America’s East Coast resists the global West’s
predominant historiography, which sees itself moving rather more than
less straightforwardly away from retrograde “superstition” toward progres-
sive “rationality.” The novel instead delights in the place and period’s
syncretic openness – despite certain characters’ (including Benjamin
Franklin’s) imagined distaste for it:
“‘Demagogue’!” mutters Dr. Franklin. “Our excellent Sprout Penn, the
latest of his crypto-Jesuit ruling family, and his Satanick arrangement with
Mr. Allen, his shameless Attentions to the Presbyterian Mobility,— has the
effrontery to speak of ‘crushing this Demagogue’ [. . .] Milton thought it
a ‘Goblin word,’ that might yet describe good Patriots,— ”. (MD 266)

Against such parochialism, the novel laments the violence imposed upon
the Earth and its peoples with each tree felled in carving out The Line in
the name of pure empiricism.
Perhaps nothing more fully embodies Pynchon’s frustration with
Enlightenment thinking’s absence of full self-awareness than does
The Line. Agents of an ostensibly secular science that has never fully
purged itself of Christianity’s idealist roots actually impose
a transcendent concept, drawn from astronomical observations, onto
a medium whose contours and history reject such an artificial orthogonal
order. Even as the East Coast continued to be shaped by nonlinear flows –
of people (over land and water), capital, ideas, cuisines, drugs, and dreams –
The Line reified an absent King’s power in the form of an idealized
separation of place from place, population from population. But the land
pushes back in the form of a house that straddles The Line and therefore
jurisdictions, as well as of an indigenous trade- and warpath beyond which
the surveyors will not proceed.
Likewise, regionally specific genre forms play a profound role in shaping
the novel’s take on the transformation of the East Coast from British
colonies to US states and Canadian provinces. The Ghastly Fop, introduced
as a “Gothick” novel, blends two forms of captivity narrative, offering
a distinctive look into paranoid styles of early American writing. In the
East Coast 35
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, stories of British colonists being
captured and held by Native Americans numbered among the most
popular texts produced by American writers. Though these texts began
as simultaneous expressions of a discrete person’s and a community’s likely
salvation by the Christian God, they gradually morphed into salacious
“blood-and-thunder shocker” stories.3 By the late nineteenth century,
however, fears about American Indians gave over to fears about
Catholics, such that tales of convent captivity circulated widely. Mason
& Dixon makes good sport out of tying the two together; the fact that the
characters Eliza and Zhang cross diegetic lines from The Ghastly Fop
somehow into the Rev. Wicks Cherrycoke’s journal playfully embodies
an element of Pynchon’s politics. The “truth” of things often becomes
conditioned through narrative into the way they seem, so those with power
to shape the seeming exert prodigious influence over the way the world is
experienced by others who live in it.

Pynchon and the Fictions of Ownership

To the extent that Pynchon grapples much with Massachusetts in a pre-
World War II context, Gravity’s Rainbow gestures to racial segregation and
the paranoiac fear of Black male sexuality. He also criticizes the deep
interconnections between American corporate wealth and such entities’
profiteering from both sides contesting the European Theater before – and
subsequent to – the United States formally entering the war. This depic-
tion contests New Englanders’ predominant self-representations as morally
exceptional, especially relative to their southern American counterparts.
Though Mason & Dixon undoubtedly portrays the North as a superior
place for Black people in America, Pynchon nevertheless maintains the line
of resistance against those Bob Dylan labeled “masters of war”: Le Spark in
part provides for his well-appointed home by selling munitions.
The pernicious influence of corporations over State actions, particularly
companies interested in or originating from the US Northeast, remains
a consistent theme uniting Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, and Against
the Day (2006). Just as experiments on the Infant Tyrone inaugurate the
baby’s interpellation into multinational capitalism, so conflicts between
national East India corporations seethe under the many movements of
Cherrycoke, Mason, and Dixon as they traverse the globe. Mason & Dixon,
however, directs its attention specifically to the problems raised by capi-
talist ownership, a theme Pynchon continues to explore extensively in his
subsequent three novels.
36 christopher leise
Subtly but pervasively, Pynchon reminds his readers that surveying
properties, the activity that brought the future President Washington to
financial prominence, generated much wealth in the American colonies.
In this way, Mason & Dixon highlights the processes by which American
land was carved up and taken into private ownership – a European concept
that was utterly alien to indigenous peoples in North America. Against
the Day proceeds to foreground America at another moment of paradig-
matic change, opening in a year (1893) defined by its financial panic and
technological optimism. Focusing on the tension between capitalist
Scarsdale Vibe and laborers such as the Traverse family, the novel raises
difficult questions about the ownership of resources and capital. By 1907,
for example, J. P. Morgan exercised extensive influence over many of the
United States’ railroads, its telephone and telegraph systems, the former
Carnegie Steel Company, and General Electric. In Against the Day, the
political and economic power in American life radiates outward from the
Long Island Sound of Pynchon’s youth, a body of water connecting Long
Island to Manhattan to Connecticut. If one could not touch the Master in
Gravity’s Rainbow, in Against the Day you could hear him claim his
dominion – and shoot him dead, not that that does very much.
Against this type of tyranny, however, Pynchon holds forth the anti-
Thomas Edison (who exploited patent laws to claim ownership of ideas) in
the form of Nikola Tesla, a man who might have brought electricity freely
to everyone, were his ambitions not sabotaged by financiers Morgan and
Henry Ford. Tesla’s mentorship opposes Vibe’s educational support in the
struggle for influence over the future of Kit Traverse, whose development
Scarsdale Vibe would own but who nevertheless slips his control and
wanders against the Earth’s rotation, from Colorado to New Haven,
Connecticut, across Europe and through Central Asia. Here, Pynchon
recalls Cherrycoke’s claim in Mason & Dixon that “to turn Eastward, is
somehow to resist time and age, to work against the Wind, seek ever the
dawn, even, as who can say, defy Death” (MD 263). To avoid being owned
by Northeast corporate powers, even as a pawn in the family revenge drama
inaugurated by Vibe’s killing of patriarch Webb Traverse, Kit – somewhat
in the manner of Tyrone Slothrop – perhaps pulls a kind of vanishing act
that Bleeding Edge (2013) might call “getting constructively lost” (BE 76).
“He didn’t always know where he was, or [. . . where] he was going” (AD
1080), and hands his rational self over to something more mystical, “a
vector, passing through the ‘imaginary,’ the unimaginable” (AD 1082). Not
entirely unlike Slothrop’s dispersion across the Zone by Gravity’s
Rainbow’s end, though evidently more volitional, Kit eludes family and
East Coast 37
national history – what the boy-balloonist Chums of Chance might call the
“supranational idea” (AD 1083) – ultimately becoming un-locatable.
Staging an ultimate fantasy of privacy, Against the Day suggests no one
can own that which no one can track down.

New York, Before and After 9/11

Bleeding Edge continues examining how East Coast power brokers expand
their imperial grasp. Arch-neoliberal capitalists, including the tech-
billionaire Gabriel Ice and deep-state operative Nicholas Windust, com-
plement real-estate developers in the worsening homogenization of
US culture as initially diagnosed in V. “It’s all converging here,” the
narrator bemoans of the eastern end of once-rural Long Island, “the
defense factories, the homicidal traffic, the history of Republican sin for-
ever unremitted, the relentless suburbanizing, miles of mowed yards [. . .]
all concentrating, all collapsing, into this terminal toehold before the long
Atlantic wilderness” (BE 191). Meanwhile, formerly gritty Times Square
has become a “born-again imitation of [the . . .] American heartland”
(BE 52); Bleeding Edge’s urban spaces resonate with the suburbia without,
to the point where areas as inaccessible as Manhattan’s lower west side and
landfills “will all be midtown” (BE 267). As in Inherent Vice (2009),
gentrification manifests ethnic violence – for instance, the construction
of Lincoln Center displaces a vibrant Latina/o community. Bleeding Edge
juxtaposes the unfathomable wealth of venture capitalists with “[u]nshel-
tered people” (BE 2), indicating a sadness regarding an income disparity
headed further and further in the direction of disparity that would unite
the 2001 American economy with that of the late-1890s. There is, it would
seem, no place for Benny Profane in this New York – one can only wonder
if the “uptown everywhere” of V. would be more acceptable to Pynchon
than the suburbia he sees at New York’s modern urban core.
Whereas Against the Day’s capitalist class have become reified in the
form of higher education – several of Bleeding Edge’s evildoers are Carnegie
Mellon University alums – Windust represents “eastern-seaboard snot-
noses” (BE 110) who manipulate foreign governments to serve purely
ideological, and often genocidal, purposes. Ice, too, represents a new
type of developer: a web developer, but not in the sense of someone who
builds websites. Rather, he acquires, normalizes, and commoditizes the
new territory opened up with the Internet’s founding. He also seeks to
secure ownership over as much of the Internet’s infrastructure as he can.
Mason and Dixon’s Line carved transcendent order into the Earth and
38 christopher leise
railroads inscribed another kind of ordering logic across the “closed”
frontier (as Frederick Jackson Turner professed in an 1893 Chicago speech);
the Deep Web offers perhaps America’s last refuge for escaping capitalism’s
colonial might and intrusive, privacy-destroying power. At the same time,
the Deep Web is as much a target for capitalist exploitation as was Mason &
Dixon’s colonial land and Against the Day’s US resources; DeepArcher
becomes another egalitarian project from out of the American West
Coast – like the Traverses’ pro-Labor activism – corrupted by Eastern
financial interests.
Though the terror attacks on New York’s World Trade Center inargu-
ably scar characters in Pynchon’s East Coast, the damage did nothing to
disrupt what Pynchon portrays as the soulless co-opting of land by devel-
opers with little regard for history or humanity. Part of the tragedy,
Pynchon hints, is how New Yorkers failed to respond. Maxine Tarnow’s
friend and pop-culture scholar Heidi explains: “11 September infantilized
this country. Can’t you feel it, how everybody’s regressing? It had a chance
to grow up, instead it chose to default back to childhood” (BE 336). While
the United States’ eastern origins promised much, and its center of capital
still does – freedom, independence, and privacy – corporate greed and
governmental overreach conspire to spread its influence unduly across the
globe. Pynchon’s novels offer other trajectories, by modeling certain kinds
of escape into possible (if implausible) spaces of fiction and fantasy; they
also encourage readers to look to history for future opportunities when
resisters can effect meaningful change to the regnant order of things.

1. Philip F. Gura, “‘The Contagion of Corrupt Opinions’ in Puritan
Massachusetts: The Case of William Pynchon,” William and Mary Quarterly,
39.3 (1982), 469–91.
2. Deborah Madsen, “Hawthorne’s Puritans: From Fact to Fiction,” Journal of
American Studies, 33.3 (1999), 509–17.
3. Roy Harvey Pearce, “The Significance of the Captivity Narrative,” American
Literature, 19.1 (1947), 1–20, p. 6.
chapter 5

West Coast
Scott McClintock and John Miller

Three of Thomas Pynchon’s novels – The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Vineland

(1990), and Inherent Vice (2009) – are set primarily in California in the
1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. These “California novels” are shorter and less
structurally complex than the longer, encyclopedic, globe-trotting, and
quasi-historical works that have established his literary reputation (though
The Crying of Lot 49 is undoubtedly the most widely read and taught of his
novels). Two of the longer novels, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) and Against
the Day (2006), also conclude with episodes set in Southern California, in
the 1970s and 1920s respectively. Despite their formal differences, the
California novels deal with many of the same concerns that animate the
longer works, including perhaps most centrally, the struggles of individual
human subjects to understand and liberate themselves from the varied but
often obscured agents of determinacy – economic, political, psychological,
and existential – arrayed against them. In order to situate the California
fiction within the body of Pynchon’s work, it is worth exploring some of
the meanings attached to the common setting that Pynchon chose for
The West Coast in general, California in particular, and Southern
California especially are rich symbols not only in the American but in
the global imagination, thanks in large part to their representation in
popular media. California is, in Richard Rodriguez’s phrase, “America’s
America,” the place to which Americans and the rest of the world have
often looked to realize their various versions of the national dream.1
The history of American California can be written as a series of invasions
by men and women from outside the state seeking opportunities for easy
wealth and personal reinvention. The dream of a “promised land” of
natural beauty, temperate climate, and easy living just over the western
horizon, propagandized in often commercially motivated media images
and embodied in the title of Chuck Berry’s 1964 song, has all the power of
myth, both to inspire and to disappoint: Bound inextricably to the desires
40 scott mcclintock and john miller
invested in the California dream is the anxiety that Joan Didion famously
expressed, the “buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better
work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we
run out of continent.”2
This dream and its discontents are staples of California literature
dating back to Gold Rush writers like Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain)
and Bret Harte, but the theme finds its most distinctive expression in
the genre of “noir,” a label initially attached to a certain type of mid-
century American film and subsequently associated with works of
literature trafficking in the darker realities of middle-class American
dreams. Much of the classic “noir” fiction was written by screenwriters
working in Hollywood: California’s sunny but often ephemeral land-
scape provided an ideal setting for their ironic visions. Pynchon’s
California fiction frequently alludes to this genre and can be usefully
considered in relation to it. As does much noir fiction, all three of the
California novels involve plots of detection. Oedipa Maas in Lot 49
becomes an obsessive sleuth, seeking out and piecing together clues that
may reveal a hidden conspiracy after the death of her ex-boyfriend.
Vineland centers on Prairie Wheeler’s attempt to solve the mystery of
her mother’s disappearance, which ends up uncovering a murder. Doc
Sportello, the hero of Inherent Vice, is a private detective who is also
a pot-smoking hippie: The combination is not as far-fetched as it might
at first seem, as both archetypes share an outsider status and
a heightened tendency toward paranoia that suits Pynchon’s purposes
well. The California episode at the end of Against the Day also follows
a detective, Lew Basnight, through the original noir setting, Los Angeles
in the 1920s, on a typical noir quest to track down a missing woman.
Though the fecundity of Pynchon’s prose and imagination may seem
stylistically opposed to the gritty realism and clipped style typical of noir,
the genre suits his purposes in several ways. Central to its ironic vision is
a double revelation: That what appears to be wholesome and sunny is in
fact ridden with corruption and shadow, and that this first revelation leads
to no easy resolutions. Often the noir detective uncovers crimes but cannot
solve or heal them. Oedipa’s quest in Lot 49 remains famously unresolved
at the end; Vineland’s much-debated ending is also ambiguous. In Inherent
Vice, Doc wins a partial victory, reuniting a family and dispatching a small-
time bad guy, but conceding the larger cultural victory to the powers-that-
be. Perhaps more optimistically, the woman Lew is hired to track down in
Against the Day escapes, and another is freed from her abusive husband,
though the ultimate fate of both women is unknown.
West Coast 41
The detective plot has often been seen as a parable of the act of reading,
and for this reason it is an appropriate framework for Pynchon’s interests in
the nature of textuality. Most explicitly in Lot 49, the process of detection is
related to the process of reading. Oedipa’s attempt to understand whether
there is an intention or meaning to the “clues” she keeps encountering
clearly parallels the processes of making meaning from a text.
“Beware the caption writers of the 60s,” begins Warren Hinkle’s mem-
oir of the period.3 Concepts like “the Sixties” or “the counterculture”
should be approached with a skepticism that seems to be endorsed in
Pynchon’s descriptions of them and in the deliberate anachronisms seeded
throughout the longer novels suggesting analogues for the 1960s counter-
culture in earlier historical periods. That said, the 1960s were one of several
points in California history at which the conflicts and contradictions of the
California myth burst spectacularly into view, though as Pynchon makes
clear, the conflicts revealed are not particular to that time or place.
Postwar California had seen explosive growth: Between 1940 and 1970,
the population of Los Angeles County and its adjacent suburban counties
grew from a little over 3 million to around 10 million. That growth was led
by two industries in which Pynchon has a particular interest: defense and
real estate. In Lot 49, Pierce Inverarity has made his fortune as a major
shareholder of the defense contractor Yoyodyne and as developer of San
Narciso, the city built up around the Yoyodyne plant. Such synergy is
emblematic of the hidden structures of power that organize the surface life
of American communities in Pynchon’s paranoid vision: As Oedipa’s
investigations proceed, she uncovers Inverarity’s financial fingerprints in
almost every institution she encounters, from the local military surplus
store to the community college. Jeffrey Severs has suggested that Pynchon’s
time working for Boeing in Seattle, which preceded his residence in
California, may have inspired his descriptions of Yoyodyne and informed
important elements of Gravity’s Rainbow, suggesting a broader West Coast
influence on his work.4
Real estate development is in Pynchon’s vision a quintessentially
Californian enterprise. In Lot 49, San Narciso is, “[l]ike many named
places in California [. . .] less an identifiable city than a grouping of
concepts—census tracts, special purpose bond-issue districts, shopping
nuclei, all overlayed with access roads to its own freeway” (CL 24).
In Inherent Vice, the suburban development Channel Estates is being
built over the site of an earlier African American neighborhood, which
had itself usurped a Japanese American neighborhood following the
internment of World War II. In both novels, the authors of these
42 scott mcclintock and john miller
developments have absconded, leaving their creations behind to be inter-
preted for clues. One of Doc’s key sources is his Aunt Reet, a real-estate
agent with a “bordering-on-the-supernatural sense of the land” and of the
stories of its continual redevelopment (IV 7). The history of Southern
California, Pynchon reminds us, is largely a history of real estate, of
the repeated repurposing, resale, and rebuilding – in fact, “rewriting” –
of the landscape. It is perhaps an unsurprising irony, then, that when the
Manhattan Beach duplex where Pynchon reputedly lived while composing
Gravity’s Rainbow was listed on the real estate market in 2011, the ad
described it as “suitable for demolition.”5
One response to this unstable quality of the built landscape in the
postwar years was a reactionary attempt at social control. Real estate
“covenants” made it illegal to sell houses in certain developments to
nonwhite buyers, leading to the de facto segregation Pynchon wrote
about in “A Journey Into The Mind of Watts,” his essay on the Watts
Riots of 1965. Reactionary politics flourished in the suburbs, particu-
larly in the ex-urban areas like Orange County, where the John Birch
Society was a particularly strong influence in local politics. Anxieties
arising from the centrality of real estate to the “California dream” help
to explain its prominence as a motif in much noir fiction, as in
James M. Cain’s classic noir novel Mildred Pierce, subsequently made
into a classic film noir. The “Electra” triangle between Mildred, her
daughter Veda, and Monte in Mildred Pierce prefigures that involving
Frenesi, Prairie, and Brock Vond in Vineland, and two characters
discuss the differences between the film and the novel in Inherent
Vice (IV 360).
It is not surprising, then, that California also spawned radical repudia-
tions of the conventional vision of postwar middle-class prosperity. One of
the first shots of the youth culture’s rebellion was the Free Speech
Movement at UC Berkeley in 1964: When Oedipa walks through the
campus a year later in Lot 49, she notes its consequences, “swaying card
tables, long paper petitions dangling to earth, posters for undecipherable
FSM’s, YAF’s, VDC’s, suds in the fountain, students in nose-to-nose
dialog,” contrasting them with her own education only a few years earlier,
“a time of nerves, blandness and retreat” (CL 103). At the same time, down
the Bay Area Peninsula, where Oedipa lives in the fictional Kinneret-
Among-the-Pines, Ken Kesey was beginning to promote the use of LSD,
having been exposed to it in medical experiments sponsored by the
US military at a local Veterans Administration hospital: Oedipa’s psychia-
trist, Dr. Hilarius, is conducting similar LSD experiments on suburban
West Coast 43
housewives. The year after Lot 49 was published, the “Summer of Love”
made San Francisco a byword for the “hippie” movement.
Though less well-publicized than the San Francisco scene, Southern
California, where Pynchon was living in the late 1960s, had a thriving
youth culture of its own centered on the Hollywood music clubs, and
including the “freaks” who, like the hippies up the coast, flaunted social
conventions of dress and behavior, and who taunt the Nixon-like figure at
the end of Gravity’s Rainbow with obscene gestures and populist music-
making. Down the Harbor Freeway, racial divisions flared into deadly
rioting in Watts.
As an epicenter of the confrontation of these cultural forces in the 1960s,
California is an apt setting for exploring Pynchon’s interest in the struggle
of the “preterite” or “disinherited” of the Earth against the often shrouded
agents of determinacy. For early readers of Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow,
the setting was a contemporary one. When Pynchon shifts the setting of
the final pages of the latter novel suddenly and unexpectedly from Europe
in the 1940s to 1970s Los Angeles, the narrative voice shifts to the second
person: “You,” the reader, ride shotgun in the Nixon-like
Richard M. Schlubb’s VW Bug, and sing along with your fellow citizens
as you wait for the Bomb to drop on the final page. The subsequent
California novels assume an increasingly critical historic distance from
that setting, tracing a subtle arc in the cultural conflict and in Pynchon’s
attitudes toward it.
In Lot 49, published in 1966 and set in roughly the same time, Oedipa
Maas is awakened from her drowse of suburban life at just the moment that
the counterculture was sprouting from the bland pavements of suburbia.
The novel revolves around the revelation of a centuries-old network of the
“disinherited” of the world operating under the radar of the powers that
appear to organize the world that Oedipa had thought she’d been living in,
potentially “a real alternative to the exitlessness, to the absence of surprise
to life, that harrows the head of everybody American” (CL 170). As the
novel progresses, though, we learn that the Tristero has become in many
ways as paranoid and oppressive as the dominant ideologies against which
it purports to be struggling. Though it is a global conspiracy, mid-1960s
California is an appropriate place for it to reveal itself, bubbling up like tar
through seams in a cultural landscape riven by conflicting visions of
liberation and self-realization, from far-right libertarians to teenage Beatle-
wannabes to narcissistic real estate developers.
In Vineland, published in 1990 and set in the Orwellian year 1984,
Pynchon narrates the retreat of the counterculture that Oedipa had sensed
44 scott mcclintock and john miller
just about to bloom in 1966. The last vestiges of the hippie dream are under
siege on the far north coast of the state by combined corporate and
government forces. The novel flashes back to a fictional moment at
which the revolutionary impulses Oedipa had sensed on the Berkeley
campus come to fruition and are subsequently quashed. At the fictional
College of the Surf, along the “brief but legendary Trasero County coast,”
located very specifically between Orange and San Diego counties, where no
such county now exists, students declare the establishment of the People’s
Republic of Rock and Roll (VL 204). Their rebellion is betrayed through
the seduction of one of the revolutionaries by the infernal attractions of
“establishment” power, and like the Garden of Eden, the entire county is
erased from the map.
Inherent Vice, published in 2009, is set mostly in Los Angeles in 1970,
the year after the Manson murders, to which it frequently alludes.
The murders represent the perversion of the hippie dream of
a counterculture, and wherever Doc looks, he sees further signs of failure.
The liberation of consciousness promised by the drug culture has devolved
into the self-enslavement of heroin and other addictions; rock music,
which used to be an idyllic communal experience, “outdoor concerts
where thousands of people congregated to listen to music for free,” has
become an “over-the-counter culture,” with consumers “listening on head-
phones [each] to a different rock ’n’ roll album and moving around at
a different rhythm [. . .] some of them later at the register would actually be
spending money to hear rock ’n’ roll” (IV 176). One of the mysteries Doc is
called on to solve is the disappearance of real estate developer Mickey
Wolfmann: As it turns out, Wolfmann had a kind of conversion experience
and in “penance for having once charged money for human shelter” has
begun work on a free housing development in the desert outside of Las
Vegas (IV 249). But before Doc can close the case, shadowy forces retrieve
Wolfmann, reprogram him, and return him to the capitalist fold.
Wolfmann’s arc mirrors that of Frenesi Gates in Vineland, who is betrayed
by her own subconscious attraction to the power she is fighting against, but
ultimately rejects it: Both characters are torn by an internalized version of
a cultural “struggle that’s been going on for years,” now come to one of its
periodic heads in the ferment of late twentieth-century California (IV 347).
The natural and built geographies of California also play a role in
articulating these cultural conflicts. As noted above, the ephemerality of
California’s built landscape suggests a page on which the future may yet be
written and rewritten. Key scenes in the novels take place on its character-
istic freeways, complex symbols of both freedom and entrapment, of the
West Coast 45
difficulties both of asserting individuality and of connecting with others.
As she shuttles between Northern and Southern California, Oedipa
becomes more disconnected and uprooted, even as she pursues a vision
of hidden connections.
The state’s geography is particularly important in Vineland, whose plot
begins and ends in the far north of the state but stretches to its southern
end in San Diego. In between, the vast spaces of the state hide enclaves
used by both the forces of independence and resistance, and those of the
agents of oppression and determinacy. Lot 49 and Vineland also play with
the contrasting cultural stereotypes of Northern and Southern California:
In both cases the supposedly more authentic north is shown to be under-
mined by the same forces at work in the supposedly shallower south.
An increasing presence in the novels is the Pacific Ocean, the ultimate
boundary of the westering urge. In Lot 49 Oedipa imagines it as a symbol of
both “exile” and “redemption [. . .] some unvoiced idea that no matter
what you did to its edges the true Pacific stayed inviolate and integrated or
assumed the ugliness at any edge into some more general truth” (CL 55).
In Inherent Vice Doc lives in a beach town, where the Pacific is an
omnipresent mythic force: A wilderness just offshore to which holy men
resort (on their surfboards), the location of the sunken continent of
Lemuria whence the lost souls of the coast imagine themselves to have
been exiled, and finally the source of the fog in which Doc, on the freeway
at night, is left to ponder the possibilities of community and connection on
the novel’s final page.
Perhaps not surprisingly, critical discussion of the California novels has
reflected the contested ground that California represents in Pynchon’s
fiction. Earlier Pynchon critics such as Judith Chambers and Rachel
Adams connected Pynchon’s literary postmodernism with California’s
representation in popular culture as “postmodern America,” “a testament
to the exhaustion of the westering impulse once seen as so vital to the
nation’s manifest destiny . . . a place that values superficiality over depth.”6
In a more recent study of Pynchon’s political vision, Thomas Schaub
regards the arc of the “California novels” as moving from a more optimistic
view of the potential for resistance in Lot 49 to a bleaker assessment of the
failure of the counterculture.7 However, David Cowart suggests that
Vineland “retains a myth that its author celebrates rather than decon-
structs. Pynchon’s setting is a representation of the American land; and
he refuses to surrender the myth of American promise.”8 More recently,
Sean Carswell has argued that the political paralysis, fragmentation, and
isolation with which characters in Pynchon’s earlier novels respond to the
46 scott mcclintock and john miller
power they confront is replaced in the later works by more effective forms
of community and sites of resistance.9 Others take a middle path, arguing
that California represents neither an exemplar of postmodern “exhaustion”
nor a “promise”: Rather, like the unsettled American frontier of the eight-
eenth century in which Pynchon set his novel Mason & Dixon (1997),
California, as yet unsettled in a different sense of the word, remains
a “realm of the Subjunctive,” a contested landscape whose future remains
unwritten (MD 543).10

1. Richard Rodriguez, “Where the Poppies Grow,” in Stephanie Barron,
Sheri Bernstein, and Ilene Susan Fort (eds.), Made in California: Art, Image,
and Identity, 1900–2000 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000),
273–80, p. 273.
2. Joan Didion, “Notes from a Native Daughter,” in Slouching towards
Bethlehem (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1968), 171–86, p. 172.
3. Warren Hinckle, If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade (New York: Norton,
1990), p. ix.
4. Jeffrey Severs, “‘A City of the Future’: Gravity’s Rainbow and the 1962 Seattle
World’s Fair,” Twentieth-Century Literature, 62.2 (June 2016), 145–69.
5. Adrian Kudler, “Thomas Pynchon’s Manhattan Beach Duplex Asking
$1.05 MM” (June, 29, 2011), la.curbed.com/2011/6/29/10458620/
6. Judith Chambers, Thomas Pynchon (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992), p.
90; Rachel Adams, “The Ends of America, the Ends of Postmodernism,”
Twentieth Century Literature, 53 (2007): 248–72, pp. 252, 254.
7. Thomas Hill Schaub, “The Crying of Lot 49 and Other California Novels,” in
Inger H. Dalsgaard, Luc Herman, and Brian McHale (eds.), The Cambridge
Companion to Thomas Pynchon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2011), pp. 30–43.
8. David Cowart, “Attenuated Postmodernism: Pynchon’s Vineland,” in
Geoffrey Green, Donald J. Greiner, and Larry McCaffery (eds.),
The Vineland Papers: Critical Takes on Pynchon’s Novel (Normal, IL: Dalkey
Archive Press, 1994), 3–13, p. 9.
9. Sean Carswell, Occupy Pynchon (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press,
10. See, for instance, John Miller, “Present Subjunctive: Pynchon’s California
Novels,” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 54.3 (2013), 225–37.
chapter 6

Europe and Asia

J. Paul Narkunas

Although he is described as an American writer, virtually all of Thomas

Pynchon’s texts transport the reader around the globe, interrogating along
the way the permeable boundary between visible and imaginary worlds
that writing and representation foreground. Indeed, his books rarely follow
Aristotelian notions of plot with beginnings, middles, and ends, or con-
ceive matter as a timeless and universal substance. Instead, his literature
focuses on what he calls the “knotting into” (GR 3) of differing lines of
force: discontinuous histories, narratives, natural and supernatural forces,
political and social elements, events, myths, spaces, places, and people that
through their dynamic interaction construct the compendia of plots,
characters, and vignettes that comprise his books.1 Pynchon offers
a telling statement on his method in a blurb for Against the Day (2006):
“The author is up to his usual business [. . .] Contrary-to-the-fact occur-
rences occur. If it is not the world, it is what the world might be with an
adjustment or two. According to some, this is one of the main purposes of
fiction.”2 Pynchon’s novels are, therefore, alternative maps of the world, of
possible existences that demonstrate how reality emerges through the
convergence of social, historical, and linguistic forces, producing people’s
realities within and beyond the frames of nation-states that ultimately
organize and differentiate them in the world.3 Taking Pynchon’s statement
seriously, we will focus on his speculative imagining of alternative histories
within Europe and Asia, speaking not only to the geographical locales
produced as effects of power relations that we live through current geopo-
litical maps but also the leakages of history – the people who resist these
techniques of power designed to limit and control their lives.
Few lines of force have organized the world more concretely than the
opposition between reason and unreason. Pynchon explores the arbitrari-
ness of European reason and unreason throughout his texts, but most
elaborately in Mason & Dixon (1997) via the global circulation of
European Enlightenment, and the transposition of Europe to the
48 j. paul narkunas
Americas through empire building. Mason & Dixon is a fictionalized telling
of British astronomers and surveyors Charles Mason’s (1728–86) and
Jeremiah Dixon’s (1733–79) voyages to the Cape of Good Hope and their
later 1763–68 surveying of the line between Maryland and Pennsylvania to
resolve an inter-state boundary dispute before the Revolutionary War with
Britain. The mapping of spaces for Pynchon creates places as named
territories, which are techniques of control for westward imperial expan-
sion and eventual US Manifest Destiny. In the process, mapping annihi-
lates human differences (Native Americans, French, Jesuits, Chinese feng
shui), to be “measur’d [. . .] back into the Net-Work of Points,” while also
underscoring how the framing of language limits knowledge: “changing all
from subjunctive to declarative, reducing Possibilities to Simplicities that
serve the ends of Governments” (MD 345). The narrative forms of possi-
bility embodied by the subjunctive (the subjunctive in English is used to
form sentences that do not describe known objective facts) are colonized by
the declarative (the known), reducing life and language to the imperial
certainty of the British government and its quest for world universaliza-
tion. The boundary dispute between Pennsylvania and Maryland is the
manifestation of this certitude, drawing lines between peoples, and frus-
trating other forms of knowledge or self-conception to the British Empire
and eventual nation-state system, “the ends of Governments” (MD 345).
Or in the words of the feng shui master (an alternative non-Western mode
of perceiving the world, thereby deemed irrational), Captain Zhang:
“Nothing will produce Bad History more directly nor brutally, than
drawing a line, in particular a Right Line, the very Shape of Contempt,
through the midst of a People, — to create thus a Distinction betwixt ’em,
— [. . .] All else will follow as if predestin’d, unto War and Devastation”
(MD 615). Borders drawn are precursors to acts of war, which would
emerge soon enough with the American Revolution and the eventual
US Civil War with adversaries “measured” by the Mason-Dixon Line.
Pynchon’s novels map geographies and itineraries of people to diagnose
the production of spaces and places and question the lines of separation
between states and communities. However, he turns the spatialized geo-
graphical imagination on its head to emphasize sheets of time and history
whose accumulations produce geographical space. With Mason & Dixon,
he challenges the boundary between history and story that literature
provokes to envision a world of possibility before the various religious,
state, and economic forces monopolize the land that will become the
United States. In V. (1963), he conversely dramatizes life on the other
side of the nation-state system and the persistent haunting of British
Europe and Asia 49
Empire. Pynchon’s main characters travel through New York,
Alexandria, Cairo, Paris, Florence, and Malta, all in the quest to find
a mysterious character who is actually several, named V. This quest for
the mysterious and ever-changing V., represented symbolically by
indeterminate female characters, provides a metaphor for thinking
about the multivalent production and domination of spaces, places,
and bodies. Pynchon connects the capture of unknown places and
peoples within current knowledge categories as a form of violence,
which manifests, for example, through the colonial naming of an
identity to a body of land, as well as the patriarchal subjugation of
women’s bodies. Pynchon’s V. is narratively constructed through the
trajectories of the main characters, Herbert Stencil and Benny
Profane – themselves symbols of Cold War politics and the British
and American empires – who follow different itineraries, but even-
tually converge in Malta. Malta is an island in the sea between Sicily,
Tunisia, and Libya, a space between Europe and Africa along
a strategically important sea route, and thus has been colonized by
the Greek, Roman, Norman, Muslim, Arab, Spanish, French, and
British empires, only achieving independence in 1964.
Malta functions in Pynchon’s work tangentially as a palimpsest of
historical forces that accumulate traces of histories as well as subjugated
knowledges and experiences. As a result, Pynchon’s method evokes Michel
Foucault’s archaeological and genealogical methods, documenting and
tracing lines of force as the accumulated layers of history. Pynchon not
only constructs the known and ordered world modeled by maps, but also
all that exceeds the geographical frame of Europe, which seeks to engulf the
world along the biases of the British Empire. For example, V. ends with the
British Navy amassing in Malta during the Suez Crisis of 1956. Serving an
important strategic function during World War II, Malta was mercilessly
bombarded by Axis powers, and was still in ruins by 1956, a point Pynchon
stages with Pig Bodine sorting through Malta’s ruins as Britain prepares
again for war. The Suez Crisis is, however, an event that ironically signals
the end of British influence on global affairs by seeking to restore control
over an insolent colony (Egypt) which also solidified the American
century.4 V. may thereby delineate the vectors of history on a place for
Pynchon: “V.’s is a country of coincidence, ruled by a ministry of myth.
Whose emissaries haunt this century’s streets” (V 450). Consequently, V.’s
epilogue is marked 1919, the year that Stencil’s father, the personification of
British empire, drowns in the last pages of the book; the Maltese uprising
for independence (the June uprising) is put down by the British; and the
50 j. paul narkunas
Treaty of Versailles is signed. The latter reorganized the geopolitical
map by gifting various colonies including the Middle East to French
and British powers. The year 1919 also sets the geopolitical stage for
the second coming of the war to end all wars, and the 1956 Crisis.5
V. may also indicate therefore “versus” or the interplay of forces
rendered oppositional and that define political realities in times of
war, which sunder human connections to place – symbolized by
Malta’s history.
Indeed, Pynchon plots Europe as a series of points on a map
fluctuating due to wars; the maps trace various market, statist, and
technological forces of control. For Pynchon, war is the defining ele-
ment of geography, of what Europe and Asia are, have been, and will
become. In all of his books, wars hot and cold – including the economic
wars of capital’s global circulation (often around real estate) in Bleeding
Edge (2013), Vineland (1990), The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), and Inherent
Vice (2009) – frequently embody ever-changing structures of control
and power. Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) most directly engages World War
II and its aftermath, but indicates a thematic lineage with other texts,
one concerned with control for the preterites, and with the elect who
create and deploy religious, economic, and statist empires, often in
concert with each other, guided by the trajectories of technology to
make and rule European history. Gravity’s Rainbow exhibits the inter-
sections of technology and humans through the V-2 rockets and the
itineraries of Tyrone Slothrop, both points on a map for Slothrop’s
possible sexual conquests in London that also anticipate future V-2
rocket drops. Slothrop flees across a war-torn Europe from German,
American, and Russian forces who all want to monopolize his unique
“technological asset.” Indeed, Slothrop as “American” is incidental to
the special skill/asset he has, the ability to have erections that anticipate
V-2 rockets before they descend, which Russian, German, British, and
American forces are trying to monopolize or own outright. The nation
and its technique of edification, the map, seek to own the individuals
who reside therein. Ownership symbolizes the convergence of market
and statist forces.
War solidifies subjective divisions, an “us versus them” within and
among populations, the versus of V., and then arranges a hierarchy
among different human beings:6

The War, the Empire, will expedite such barriers between our lives.
The War needs to divide this way, and to subdivide, through its propaganda
Europe and Asia 51
will always stress unity, alliance, pulling together. [. . .] Yet who can assume
to say what the War wants, so vast and aloof it is . . . so absent. Perhaps the
War isn’t even an awareness—not a life at all, really. There may only be
some cruel, accidental resemblance to life. (GR 130–131)

War creates the boundaries between nations and empires that have been
the raw stuff of formulating peoples and more wars. Moreover, war
impersonates life, understood as differentiation, around unities – what
Pynchon calls “structures favoring death” (GR 167) – that represent invi-
sible forces of power given representation by national boundaries.
The various national and linguistic divisions within Europe foment the
hierarchical difference of peoples; they are recast, however, from the
biological categories of the Reich, in its effort to conquer Europe, into
the victors and the vanquished who decide what can be understood as
rational and truthful.
Wars also exercise power relations that have serious effects on the
subjects they produce, often underwritten counterfactually by the logics
of technology, markets, and states. Slothrop, for one, becomes several
different war-related subjectivities over the course of Gravity’s Rainbow,
including Ian Scuffling, wartime correspondent, Rocketman, Max
Schlepzig, a Russian soldier and Plechazunga (a tenth-century German
pig war hero). These latter are dissimulations from his previous subjectiv-
ities adopted to enable him to flee the various national interests chasing
him. Through processes of national “subjectification,” power maintains an
imperceptible and ubiquitous presence without de facto exercising force.7
The processes of subjectification function as techniques for creating and
managing humans within a population, and can be used by both markets
and states. War is the strategy of maintaining subjectivities, a point that
Pynchon performs by documenting Slothrop’s later narrative dissolution
when national forces after the war have lost interest in him. He ceases to
exist, except as an element of storytelling.
At the same time the interregnum between the armistice and the
negotiated peace offers possibilities for alternative human coexistence out-
side state and market formations that must be extinguished. We see this
with V. marking 1919, the post–World War II “peace,” the militaristic
police state of Vineland inaugurated (ironically) to secure individual free-
dom during Cold War America, or the period leading up to World War
I in Against the Day. For example, the Zone in Gravity’s Rainbow is an
interstitial space between rulers, after the fall of the German regime and
before the Allies have created the “new map of the occupation” (GR 328).
52 j. paul narkunas
The Zone refers to the nation-state system that lies in ruin after the war, the
fragmented national unities of the Westphalian order; instead, proximate
spaces of subjectivity and inchoate possibilities of agency organize the Zone
through the fluxes and flows of people: “The Nationalities are on the move.
It is a great frontierless streaming out here. [. . .] so the populations move,
across the open meadow, limping, marching, shuffling, carried, hauling
along the detritus of an order, a European and bourgeois order they don’t
yet know is destroyed forever” (GR 549, 551). The old order, much like the
British Empire in Malta in V., or the Americas in Mason & Dixon, is
destroyed. One character, Squalidozzi, comments on how this disorder
actually brings new possibilities, which the central orders cannot tolerate:
“In ordinary times [. . .] the center always wins. Its power grows with time,
and that can’t be reversed, not by ordinary means. Decentralizing, back
toward anarchism needs extraordinary times” (GR 264–65). Slothrop
traverses the Zone to bear witness to the writing of the new European
dispensation at the Potsdam Conference, which will divide up the occu-
pied lands and begin the new occupation of Germany by US military bases.
Throughout Pynchon’s texts, he marks treaties and their dates, for they are
the signs of power to document the movement from active war to more
passive wars of geopolitical intrigue. Indeed, Pynchon highlights how
World War II was less about the nationalism both the German and
Allies marketed and used, than the workings of the Elect, the elites, on
the preterite, those on whom history is exercised.
Yet, as Pynchon stages in Against the Day, the people are not always
distracted about state nationalism, and in fact form their national identities
as resistances to imperial forces. Against the Day dramatizes various unre-
solved “national questions” from the 1890s leading up to World War
I when states were consolidating “peoples” within their territories into
nations and citizenries that they governed in the Balkans, Central Asia (in
the context of oil’s discovery in Baku), and the Americas (Mexico and the
western United States). Against the Day turns to the “Eastern Question”
and the subsequent Balkan Wars to demonstrate how European imperial
forces, even as they are dissolving the Ottoman Empire (roughly 1908–22),
maintain their power by actively fostering genocidal racial and ethnic
struggles to replace previous religious divisions. The Russo-Turkish War
(1877–78) and Treaties of San Stefano (March 1878) and Berlin (July 1878)
divided the region according to the balance-of-power ambitions of the
British, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires. They created
and legitimated a world of ethnic intelligibility based on their own imperial
ambitions that had little to do with the “actually existing” people.
Europe and Asia 53
The ethnic, linguistic, religious, and/or national consciousness of the
human collectivities in the region, while nominally recognized through
minority treaties, required protection from often distant imperial protec-
torates, thus setting the stage for many of the ethnic genocides of the
twentieth century (Armenian, Jews, Bosnians). While speaking to Cyprian
Latewood, a British secret service agent, Danilo Ashkil notes Europe’s
universalizing tendency, despite its regional provincialism: “What North
Europe thinks of as its history is actually quite provincial and of limited
interest. Different sorts of Christian killing each other, and that’s about it.
The Northern powers are more like administrators, who manipulate other
people’s history but produce none of their own. They are the stock-jobbers
of history, lives are their units of exchange” (AD 828). Consequently,
Britain, Russia, Austro-Hungary, and the Ottomans would support spe-
cific factions within inchoate nationalist movements to discipline and
control peasant nationalisms by fostering client states to destabilize the
region and work within the political-economic ambitions of competing
European powers. Pynchon is documenting the legacy of Bismarckian
European realpolitik, suppressing other human collectivities as they mate-
rialize amidst the breakup of the nation-state system.
The system of treaties (the Treaty of Berlin, the Treaty of Versailles)
defines the realities of the people in Western Europe, who initially equate
nationalism with economic modernization to combat oppressive imperial
forces of domination. Inchoate nationalists are galvanized because these
imperial treaties dispossess them, leading to such suffering that they have
little to lose through armed struggle. Yet, according to Ratty McHugh’s
analysis on the cusp of World War I, a fluctuating map depicts the very
crisis of the nation-state:
Today even the dimmest of capitalists can see that the centralized nation-
state, so promising an idea a generation ago, has lost all credibility with the
population. [. . .] If a nation wants to preserve itself, what other steps can it
take, but mobilize and go to war? Central governments were never designed
for peace [. . .] The national idea depends on war. (AD 938)

War creates friction between peoples and solidifies nationalism. In almost

all of his work Pynchon diagnoses counterfactually the foundation of the
Pax Americana as war, most tellingly the wars in Asia throughout the
twentieth century.
Asia is the absent presence haunting much of Pynchon’s work. Few of
his texts are set in Asia, but instead they identify historical entanglements
of Asia with European and American imperial ambitions in the region.
54 j. paul narkunas
Pynchon connects Asia and the Euro-Americas through adherence to
modernization theory and capitalism, but also examines their different
orientations to the world. Against the Day references the rise of the Japanese
as an imperial power during the Russo-Japanese War, while Vineland
discusses Japan’s economic and cultural dominance in the 1980s.
However, Captain Zhang in Mason & Dixon offers an entirely different
orientation to the sacred, with feng shui to undermine Christian domi-
nance in the nascent Americas, which Pynchon juxtaposes with
Protestantism and the Jesuits. Similarly, throughout Against the Day Asia
is the backdrop for various imperial adventures of the Great Powers, this
time waged via the growth of railroads. “The railroads are the lines of
control” (AD 957) that would provide the first step in modernization and
thus European universalization. As David Cowart writes, Pynchon often
writes around the big events: the concentration camps in Europe in
Gravity’s Rainbow, the imminent Suez Crisis in V., September 11 in
Bleeding Edge, World War I in Against the Day.8 In order to envision
Asia, Pynchon avoids the extraordinary events in European settings; he
documents them tangentially by foregrounding intersectional historical
techniques and processes that are also being deployed in Asia when he
Consequently, two major historical issues in Asia always seem to under-
write his work: the Vietnam War and Hiroshima. V. is published in 1963
with the United States developing a client state in South Vietnam, provid-
ing an historical corollary with the Korean War (1950–53). Gravity’s
Rainbow documents the beginnings of the Cold War after World War
II, and through the rise of the Firm may identify the Cold War dispensa-
tion that would lead to wars in Korea and Vietnam in the aftermath of
China’s 1949 Revolution. For example, Pynchon’s focus on the transna-
tional cartel IG Farben in Gravity’s Rainbow recognizes that war created
national self-sufficiency to perpetuate the Nazi war machine throughout
Europe. The “rational” orchestrated monopoly, stifling competition
through consolidation of industries, is modeled on a war economy,
whereby specific corporations are often subsidized by the state for eco-
nomic development and expected to provide services in a timely manner
without catering to other clients. Boeing, Northop Grumman, the Rand
Corporation, and so forth would serve as examples during the Cold War in
the United States, a point that Pynchon is most likely evoking while
writing during the Vietnam War. The dropping of the atomic bomb on
Hiroshima ushers in the Cold War and the mutually assured destruction
(MAD) policy, brings eighty-eight Nazi scientists working on the V-2 to
Europe and Asia 55
the United States, and appears in Gravity’s Rainbow as an ironical blip:
“Do you suppose something has exploded somewhere? Really—some-
where in the East?” (GR 642). Hiroshima was not a military headquarters,
and had been spared by previous US bombing campaigns in order to
provide a perfect laboratory to measure the full devastation of the atomic
bomb. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are embodi-
ments of what Pynchon calls the Euro-American “Kingdom of Death” (GR
722) writ large on a non-white population.
In Against the Day, Pynchon evokes Hiroshima metaphorically with
the Kirghiz Light, and the Tunguska event. Tunguska was the largest
explosion ever recorded on Earth, leveling trees for 1,000 miles across
rural Central Siberia. The “heavenwide blast of light” (AD 779)
on June 30 just after 8:00 pm was seen 500 miles away and heard for
600 miles. Attributed at various points by Pynchon’s characters to
a “Quaternion weapon” (fourth-dimensional energy) (AD 784) that
may be unleashed in the future, to a freak accident by Tesla or his
Wardenclyffe lab taken over by others since Tesla loses his JP Morgan
funding (AD 794), Against the Day diagnoses a photovoltaic weapon
prefiguring uranium:9
Was it Tchernobyl, the star of Revelation? [. . .] Or something which had
not quite happened yet, so overflowing the tidy frames of reference available
to Europe that it had only seemed to occur in the present, though really
originating in the future? Was it, to be blunt, the general war which Europe
this summer and autumn would stand at the threshold of, collapsed into
a single event? (AD 797)

Pynchon’s evocation of Tchernobyl, simultaneously “the destroying star

known as Wormwood in the book of Revelation” (AD 784) and the site of
a horrible 1986 nuclear accident in Ukraine, and the weapon “originating
in the future” presupposed by World War I, has been perfected in the
atomic bomb, which killed 70,000–80,000 in the bombing and subse-
quent firestorm in Hiroshima.
Pynchon reminds us that the reality we live is a mixture of imaginary
places, knowledge and experiences of real-world spaces that make intel-
ligible our dynamic and ever-changing physical universe. In the process,
he unravels our common-sense notions of Europe and Asia as places.
Indeed, Europe and Asia may be little more than the reflections of
ever-fluctuating power relations, limiting how we think of space, his-
tory, and knowledge, and thereby stifling freedom with their dynamic
56 j. paul narkunas
1. In several places Pynchon acknowledges the importance to his work of
American historian and theorist Henry Adams, whose perpetual questioning
of knowledge and education is instructive here. Henry Adams, The Education
of Henry Adams (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), pp. 1068–69.
2. See against-the-day.pynchonwiki.com/wiki/index.php?title=Against_the_Da
3. In making this connection, I am drawing on Gilles Deleuze’s analysis of how
philosopher Michel Foucault was a cartographer of existence, providing dia-
grams of life and looking at the past in order to “write ontologies of the
present”: “A diagram is a map, or rather several superimposed maps . . .
From this we can get the triple definition of writing: To write is to struggle
and resist; to write is to become: to write is to draw a map.” Gilles Deleuze.
Foucault, trans. Sean Hand (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press,
1988), p. 44.
4. Alex von Tunzelmann, Blood and Sand: Suez, Hungary, and Eisenhower’s
Campaign for Peace (New York: HarperCollins, 2016).
5. See Margaret MacMillan, 1919: Four Months that Shook the World (New York:
Random House, 2003).
6. Michel Foucault characterizes as “state racism” those occasions where power
divides up the species and establishes a hierarchy. See Foucault, Society Must
Be Defended, Lectures at the College de France, 1975–76, trans. David Macey
(New York: Picador, 2003).
7. See Foucault’s later ethical work, but specifically the talks gathered in
Technologies of the Self (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987).
8. David Cowart, Thomas Pynchon and the Dark Passages of History (Athens, GA:
University of Georgia Press, 2011).
9. For more on Tesla in Against the Day, see Terry Reilly, “Narrating Tesla in
Against the Day,” in Jeffrey Severs and Christopher Leise (eds.), Pynchon’s
Against the Day: A Corrupted Pilgrim’s Guide (Newark, DE: University of
Delaware Press, 2006), pp. 139–63.
chapter 7

Africa and Latin America

Michael Harris

It is sometimes said that American writers are insular, and write only, or at
least primarily, about America. While this may be true in some cases, it is
hardly true of Thomas Pynchon. George Saunders has said that Pynchon
tries to cram the whole world into his fiction, and Saunders finds a hint of
Buddhism in Pynchon’s impulse to absorb the world, especially evident in
his longer novels.1 Of the many international locales Pynchon takes his
readers to, Africa and Latin America occupy a prominent place. Rather
than show how small our world is becoming, Pynchon seems intent on
preserving the largeness of the world – in terms of its cultural diversity – in
the face of the reductionist onslaughts of colonialism, Western cultural
domination, and technological advances that overshadow traditional ways
of knowing and seeing. Much of Pynchon’s fiction represents his charting
through several centuries of history the precarious survival of cultures, such
as those in Africa and Latin America, which represent alternative ways of
life, full of vitality that Europe and North America lack. Thus, if Saunders
is accurate about Pynchon’s desire to include the whole world in his work,
then Africa and Latin America represent vital parts of that world.
We might begin with two articles by Pynchon that appeared in the
New York Times Magazine and Book Review. The first one, “A Journey
Into The Mind of Watts,” represents his reflection on the race riots
that took place in Los Angeles in August 1966.2 Pynchon asserts that
Los Angeles suffers from a “racial sickness” based on the uneasy
“coexistence of two very different cultures: one white and one black.”
His target is the indifference of the white population, cocooned by
their total separation from the African American community living
a few blocks away: “Watts is a country which lies, psychologically,
uncounted miles further than most whites seem at present willing to
travel.” In his first novel, V. (1963), Pynchon traces this situation,
implicitly but clearly, back to the European colonial era and the slave
trade on the African continent.
58 michael harris
In the second article, “The Heart’s Eternal Vow,” Pynchon glowingly
reviews Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera.3 This
review, in which he admires the “Garciamarquesian voice we have come
to recognize from the [master’s] other fiction,” has a different tone than his
somber reflection on the Watts riots. He praises García Márquez’s
difference – his willingness to take on a threadbare topic and breathe new
life into it. As Pynchon puts it, “Suppose, then, it were possible, not only to
swear love ‘forever,’ but actually to follow through on it – to live a long, full
and authentic life based on such a vow, to put one’s allotted stake of
precious time where one’s heart is?” That, he goes on to say, is the
“extraordinary premise” of Love in the Time of Cholera. García Márquez,
a key figure in the Latin American literary “boom” of the 1960s and 1970s,
helped put that region and its frequently overlooked culture on the world’s
map. Pynchon shows in this review that Latin America, like Africa,
occupies an important place in his cultural lexicon; this is also evident in
his novels, such as The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), when Oedipa recalls an
exhibit of the work of the Spanish-Mexican artist Remedios Varo she once
saw in Mexico City.
Reading Pynchon’s fiction, one often feels directed back toward history.
Rather than “official history,” which he regards with distrust, Pynchon
examines overlooked and forgotten histories. For instance, he repeatedly
recalls the European colonial era of the eighteenth and nineteenth centu-
ries, as it played out in the so-called “developing world.” Colonialism is
such a key focus in Pynchon’s work that Louis Menand has asserted that
“nearly everything Pynchon has written is, essentially, a lament over
colonialism – political, economic, cultural, sexual.”4 In his first novel, V.,
Pynchon draws the reader’s attention to the colony of German South-West
Africa (now Namibia) in the years leading up to World War I, when the
Hereros and Hottentots rebelled against German colonial rule. He reima-
gines a little-known historic event – rarely discussed, even by historians at
the time – when the Germans attempted genocide against these two
groups. Pynchon looks back on the rebellion and the German response,
led by General Lothar von Trotha, with a grim sense of factual irony:
In August 1904, von Trotha issued his “Vernichtungs Befehl,” whereby the
German forces were ordered to exterminate systematically every Herero
man, woman and child they could find. He was about 80 per cent successful.
Out of the estimated 80,000 Hereros living in the territory in 1904, an
official German census taken seven years later set the population at only
15,130, this being a decrease of 64,870. Similarly, the Hottentots were
reduced in the same period by about 10,000. [. . .] Allowing for natural
Africa and Latin America 59
causes during those unnatural years, von Trotha, who stayed for only one of
them, is reckoned to have done away with about 60,000 people. This is only
1 per cent of six million, but still pretty good. (V 245)

Pynchon compares the Herero/Hottentot death toll to that of the

Holocaust of World War II, implicitly suggesting that this little-known
event on the African continent served as a trial run for the Germans’ later
“Final Solution.”
Complicating the recasting of this historic event is that it is filtered in
part through “Foppl’s Siege Party,” a decadent gathering of Germans in
South-West Africa in 1922, after the colonial venture has collapsed, who
recall von Trotha’s brutal treatment of the Herero nostalgically. This
interminable party ironically bears out Marx’s saying that “all great events
and characters of world history occur . . . twice . . . the first time as tragedy,
the second time as farce.”5 Chapter Nine, “Mondaugen’s Story,” moves
back and forth between the 1904 campaign and its 1922 recapitulation, in
response to a rebellion by the Bondel people. The narrative focus on the
Germans, blurred by alcohol, drugs, and an unsure grasp of reality, is
contrasted with the lucid, grounded perspective of the African survivors of
the genocide. Escaping Foppl’s party, Kurt Mondaugen sets off on
a journey without destination, only to be rescued by a solitary Bondel
man, whose scars from the von Trotha campaign include a missing right
arm. “The Bondel [. . .] let Mondaugen ride behind him [on his donkey].
At that point Mondaugen didn’t know where they were going. As the sun
climbed he dozed on and off, his cheek against the Bondel’s scarred back”
(V 279). The irony of this rescue parallels another in the present frame story
in V., in which the African American Navy shipman Dahoud saves the
white engineman Ploy from attempted suicide.
“Mondaugen’s Story” throws light on other aspects of V., especially the
1950s racial situation in the United States. This situation is evident in the
present narrative frame highlighting the experiences of two peripheral
members of the Whole Sick Crew, the jazz musician McClintock Sphere
and Paola Maijstral, who darkens her skin to assume the persona of Ruby,
Sphere’s girlfriend. Robert Holton has argued that it is in “themes of race
and colonial history that the continuity of V. lies,” and these themes serve
as a bridge between the 1950s present in New York and heretofore hidden
histories, including von Trotha’s extermination campaign.6 The romance
between Paola/Ruby and Sphere, for instance, ironically parallels
the abusive, sexual relationship between an unnamed German officer and
the Herero girl Sarah during the colonial era. As the narrator points out,
60 michael harris
“the Whole Sick Crew, was it not, linked maybe by a spectral chain [to . . .]
The Crew at Foppl’s” (V 296). After other German military officers dis-
cover the Herero girl and gang-rape her, Sarah ends her own life. Whereas
Paola, who is Maltese, can cross racial lines and assume a fluid identity,
Sarah cannot. In this episode, Pynchon uses German South-West Africa as
a synecdoche, much as Conrad did the Belgian Congo in Heart of Darkness,
to question the ends of European colonialism across the continent of
Similarly, Chapter Seven of V. features a central character from Latin
America. Significantly, this individual is not seen in his native land,
Venezuela, but in the colonial metropolitan center, in this case, Florence,
Italy, which impacts his representation. This outsider, known simply as the
Gaucho – “a tall, lumbering person in a wideawake hat” – serves in part as
a parody of the European stereotype of those from the New World (V 161).
His hat parallels the large cowboy hat later worn by Profane. Like Profane,
the Gaucho is aligned with youth, energy, and, to some extent, chaos, but
proves less reckless than Profane. In the underlying theme dealing with
Machiavelli’s call for a leader who combines the traits of the fox and lion
(cunning and courage) in The Prince, the Gaucho represents the lion.
In Florence to aid Signor Mantissa’s theft of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus
from the Uffizi, the Gaucho is arrested by the British Foreign Office in
cooperation with the Italian police before the heist can take place. One of
several cases of mistaken identity in Chapter Seven, he is interrogated by
the British about Vheissu, which they have confused with Venezuela.
The Gaucho realizes their mistake, and the fact that “occasionally the fox
had his uses as well as the lion” (V 181), so he plays dumb and is eventually
released. Although the Gaucho does his part, Signor Mantissa cannot go
through with the planned theft, and the Gaucho departs to join a violent
gathering at the Venezuelan Consulate, protesting a regime change in
Caracas. As Latin American representatives in the metropolitan colonial
center, the Gaucho’s group are made to feel like pawns in a larger colonial
game, or, in his words, “like apes in a circus, mocking the ways of men”
(V 211).
The present narrative set in 1950s New York City parallels Chapter
Seven in several ways. In Chapter Six, Profane, the outsider, moves in
with a Puerto Rican family, the Mendozas, finding employment with the
son Angel, and worrying about the daughter Fina and her problematic role
as “spiritual leader or Den Mother” of the Playboys, a Puerto Rican “youth
gang” (V 137). Like the Gaucho’s later participation in a violent protest, the
Playboys descend into a violent confrontation with an African American
Africa and Latin America 61
gang, the Bop Kings, culminating in a parodic version of West Side Story.
This short chapter highlights the plight of immigrants – from Latin
America, Africa, and elsewhere – and their struggle to find their place in
America, a scenario with roots in the cultural connections forged during
the European colonial era.
After von Trotha’s attempted genocide represented in V., it’s surprising
to see the Hereros re-emerge in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), this time in the
colonizer’s backyard. Prefiguring the relocation of the colonized to the
metropolitan center following decolonization, these Zone-Hereros, or
Schwarzkommando, cause concern to those referred to as “They.” Pirate
Prentice secures “the first intelligence that there were indeed in Germany
real Africans, Hereros, ex-colonials from South-West Africa, somehow
active in the secret weapons program” (GR 74). South-West Africa and
von Trotha’s extermination campaign become key reference points in
Gravity’s Rainbow, and several characters from Chapter Nine of V., includ-
ing Kurt Mondaugen and Major Weissmann, also called Captain Blicero
(adapted from “‘Blicker,’ the nickname the early Germans gave to Death”),
reappear in expanded roles (GR 322). If V. is organized around themes of
colonialism and race, then Gravity’s Rainbow is an assault on the long-term
effects of European colonial rule. These Zone-Hereros are particularized,
and several, including Oberst Enzian, the group’s leader, become major
figures in the latter novel. Enzian was brought to Europe by Weissmann,
whom he serves as “Herero aide” or “protégé” as well as Weissmann’s “own
faithful native, his night-flower” (GR 152, 404, 99). Supposedly “corrupted
by the Rhennish Missionary Society” (GR 100), Enzian is the product of
a brief union of Old Tchitcherine, who went AWOL from the Russo-
Japanese War, and a Herero girl he met in Africa. Likened to the “monster”
created by Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s novel, Enzian is estranged
from his “creator” or paternal “deity,” Weissmann, over whom he towers
(GR 427, 485). Instead of the animate/inanimate binary in V., Pynchon
consistently opposes black and white in Gravity’s Rainbow, reversing the
conventional negative black and positive white associations. Like
Frankenstein’s “monster,” Enzian emerges as more human and sympa-
thetic than his monomaniacal master.
The allegorical opposition between the Germans and the Hereros, West
and non-West, undergirds much of the novel. Pynchon has described the
relations between the Germans and the Hereros as “the imposition of
a culture valuing analysis and differentiation on a culture that valued
unity and integration.”7 Although transplanted to an alien land, the
Hereros continue to “carry on business every day with their ancestors”
62 michael harris
(GR 153); a meeting between Enzian and Slothrop leads the latter to recall
his own Puritan ancestry. Pynchon conflates the Zone-Hereros with other
oppressed groups, such as Native Americans, and Vietnamese and Tibetan
Buddhists: They chant a mantra “mba-kayere (I am passed over),” and
adopt the spiritual symbol of a mandala, which replicates the four fins of
the Rocket (GR 563). Andreas Orukambe tells Slothrop that “as confused
and uprooted as we were then, we knew that our destiny was tied up with
[the Rocket’s] own. That we had been passed over by von Trotha’s army so
that we would find the Aggregat” (GR 563). Life in the Zone has given these
Hereros strange “ideas about Destiny” (GR 362): They have split into two
factions, with one group pursuing their own Rocket and the other follow-
ing a program of “racial suicide. They would finish the extermination the
Germans began in 1904” (GR 317). Here Pynchon dramatizes what Homi
Bhabha describes as “a disturbing effect that is familiar in the repeated
hesitancy afflicting the colonialist discourse when it contemplates its dis-
criminated subjects: the inscrutability of the Chinese, the unspeakable rites
of the Indians, the indescribable habits of the Hottentots.”8 Gravity’s
Rainbow shows the psychopathology of European colonial rule evident
in the Zone-Hereros’ behavior. As Weissmann himself puts it, “In Africa,
Asia, Amerindia, Oceania, Europe came and established its order of
Analysis and Death” (GR 722). Pynchon points toward the future, with
the accelerated pursuit of the Rocket prefiguring our contemporary nuclear
arms race, and European colonial exploitation leading to a future racial
divide still felt around the world. Toward the end of the novel, the narrator
imagines a scenario in which a young Jack Kennedy receives a shoe shine
from Malcolm X (GR 688). Looking back, the reader recognizes those
future leaders representing the racial divisions that still plague the United
The narrative thread dealing with Latin America in Gravity’s Rainbow is
not as extensive as that following Enzian and the Hereros, but is never-
theless significant. The main Latin American representative is Francisco
Squalidozzi, an Argentinian whom Slothrop meets in Zurich. Like the
Gaucho in V. and the Mexican Jesus Arrabal in The Crying of Lot 49,
Squalidozzi is an anarchist, and is thus, to some extent, viewed positively.
In this case, his party of Argentine anarchists have kidnapped a German
U-boat in the hope of gaining asylum in Germany. Pynchon’s fascination
with Argentina is evident in Gravity’s Rainbow: He shows a familiarity with
Argentine writers, such as José Hernández, Leopoldo Lugones, and Jorge
Luis Borges, and with the country’s political history. When Slothrop meets
Squalidozzi, the latter is reading a newspaper, fifteen years old, containing
Africa and Latin America 63
an essay by Lugones that makes a distinction between the open pampas and
Buenos Aires, with its fences and property lines: “The pampas stretched as
far as men could imagine, inexhaustible, fenceless. Wherever the gaucho
could ride, that place belonged to him. But Buenos Aires sought hegemony
over the provinces. All the neuroses about property gathered strength” (GR
264). Lugones’ distinction echoes Fanon’s definition of colonialism as “a
world divided into compartments”: The colonizer establishes boundaries,
within which he can control the colonized.9 The mythical borderlessness of
the pampas mirrors the novel’s 1945 postwar Zone, as Squalidozzi explains
to Slothrop: “In the openness of the German Zone, our hope is limitless.
[. . .] So is our danger” (GR 265).
The Argentines’ participation in a film by Nazi filmmaker Gerhardt von
Göll complicates their representation. In effect, these migrants arrive in the
metropolitan center only to be viewed through an alien European colonial
lens. Von Göll, convinced that “the phony Schwarzkommando footage”
(GR 388) he shot earlier brought that group into existence, promises the
Argentines equally lofty powers. Like the War itself, von Göll is associated
with a potentially dehumanizing “Technology” (GR 521). The narrator
asks, “Will the soul of the Gaucho survive the mechanics of putting him
into light and sound?” (GR 388). Pynchon himself does not answer, as the
narrator interprets the ultimate message of Hernandez’s poem, and von
Göll’s film, Martin Fierro and its sequel Return of Martin Fierro, as “the
Gaucho sells out” (GR 387). Although von Göll sees that outcome as
inevitable, the question remains open.10
Pynchon shifts his focus to Africa in Mason & Dixon (1997) when the
two begin their journey to America with a stay in South Africa to observe
the Transit of Venus. In this case, the reader sees Cape Town through
a Western lens, since the narrator is Wicks Cherrycoke, an Anglican
minister, who recalls crossing paths with the British astronomer and
surveyor in South Africa before serving as their chaplain in America.
In Cape Town, Mason and Dixon find accommodation in the home of
Cornelius and Johanna Vroom, which turns out to be a disorienting
experience. Robert Young has argued that colonialism “was not only
a medium of war and administration, it was also a desiring machine.”11
The Vrooms dangle their female slaves before the two visitors, in hopes
that they might produce lighter-skinned offspring which would fetch
a higher price. As outsiders, Mason and Dixon focus on the “great
Worm of Slavery,” and note how in South Africa “Commerce without
Slavery is unthinkable” (MD 147, 108). Set in the 1760s, Mason & Dixon
goes further back in history than any other Pynchon novel, and the reader
64 michael harris
sees how the Dutch East Indies Company imposes a racial boundary
separating the Dutch from the indigenous areas, a forerunner of the
apartheid system instituted by South Africa’s white minority government
in the twentieth century. Later, Mason and Dixon will engage in con-
structing another boundary in America that will also be associated with the
issue of slavery. The hypocrisy of this system is embodied in Cornelius
Vroom, who markets his slaves’ sexuality, while forbidding “his daughters
to eat any of the native Cookery,” since “Spices encourage Adolescents into
‘Sin,’ by which he means Lust that crosses racial barriers” (MD 62–63).
Vroom’s perspective corroborates Young, who finds in colonialist dis-
course a “characteristic ambivalent movement of attraction and repulsion:
the sexual economy of desire in fantasies of race, and of race in fantasies of
desire.”12 Looking back, Mason and Dixon regard their experience in
South Africa as a “Parable about Slavery and Free Will” that they will
use to understand colonial society in America (MD 158). Mason sums up
their dominant impression, proclaiming Cape Town “one of the colonies
of Hell” (MD 71).
Mason and Dixon’s interlude in South Africa before arriving in America
allows Pynchon to make slavery one of the novel’s major themes. It remains
in the surveyors’ consciousness while they cut their famous colonial
boundary line. As Dixon remarks to Mason, “Slaves. Ev’ry day at the
Cape, we lived with Slavery in our faces [. . .] and now here we are again,
in another Colony, this time having drawn them a Line between their
Slave-Keepers, and their Wage-Payers” (MD 692). Their South African
experience resurfaces during Dixon’s encounter with the slave driver in
Baltimore, in which he seizes the latter’s whip and fends off his attack with
force, thus protecting the slaves from a beating. Although to all appear-
ances a spontaneous reaction to evil, Dixon’s moral intervention is actually
a product of his “training” in South Africa.
Against the Day (2006), Pynchon’s longest and most international novel,
makes numerous references to Africa, and follows one of its narrative
strands to Latin America, specifically Mexico. The reader sees Mexico
filtered through a Western perspective, but in this case the filter, Frank
Traverse, is unusually open to that culture. The novel juxtaposes two
contrasting approaches to Africa and Latin America, embodied in
Fleetwood Vibe and Frank. The plutocratic Vibes with their railroad
holdings seek to extract wealth from these global settings. By contrast,
Webb Traverse, an anarchist who dynamites railroads, has raised his sons
to resist the plutocracy. It is believed that Webb’s murder was ordered by
Scarsdale, the Vibe patriarch. Fleetwood Vibe, designated to explore areas
Africa and Latin America 65
where he might extend the Vibe financial empire, lands in South Africa to
earn a profit on “black African misery” (AD 536). Against the Day begins
shortly after “the Berlin Conference of 1878” (AD 226), which set off the
historic European “Scramble for Africa” and helped bring about World
War I, after which the novel ends. The competition for colonies among
European nations almost led to conflict between Britain and France during
“the Fashoda Crisis” in Egypt (1898–99), referenced in V., and the South
African War in 1899–1902.13 While in South Africa, Fleetwood gives an
innocent “Kaffir” suspected of stealing a diamond a choice: “to be shot or
step into a mine shaft half a mile deep” (AD 169). After the Kaffir carries
out the second option, Fleetwood feels “a queer euphoria expanding to fill
his body,” but is later haunted by “the unavoidable face of the dead man,
dust-whitened,” warning of a “grave imbalance in the structure of the
world, which would have to be corrected” (AD 169–70). The last time we
see him, Fleetwood is searching for a mysterious railroad in Siberia,
unconscious due to “too much [desire]” that he might be standing near
the mythic site of the Buddhist “Pure Land” (AD 791).
Desire and light are two major themes of Against the Day: By contrast to
Fleetwood’s pursuit of wealth, Frank’s sojourn in Mexico displays his
desire for enlightenment. Mexico is figured as an alternative world, rich
in ancient wisdom and beauty. Frank meets El Espinero, a Taramuhare
shaman, who, with the help of hikuli, a hallucinogenic cactus, initiates him
into an alternative world, changing his view of his life. Their mentor/
novice relationship puts Mexico in an exalted light. Thus, unlike the
utilitarian, rational, acquisitive Vibe perspective, Frank develops
a receptive, holistic understanding of people and the Earth, learning how
to fly and to receive messages from a rock and a statue of the Angel.
Whereas the Vibes are associated with the Technology of the Q-Weapon
and railroad acquisition, Frank is aligned with shamanistic knowledge he
gains in Mayan towns like Palenque in the state of Chiapas. Wounded
during his involvement in the political conflict in Mexico pitting Madero
against the Federales, Frank is also educated politically. Upon his return to
Colorado, he commits himself to Stray and Jesse, whom his brother Reef
abandoned, and supports the miners in their struggle against the company
and the Colorado militia. In effect, Mexico transforms Frank.
Although Pynchon particularizes Africa and Latin America by high-
lighting South-West Africa, South Africa, Argentina, and Mexico, those
global regions nevertheless also share a commonality in his work. This is
seen perhaps most clearly in Gravity’s Rainbow, which refers to the geolo-
gically ancient Gondwanaland, in which the two regions were joined: “Rio
66 michael harris
de la Plata was just opposite South-West Africa” (GR 388). Moreover, both
Enzian and Squalidozzi, representatives of those regions, become allies if
not accomplices of Slothrop, who, like their two groups, depends on the
temporary collapse of borders in the Zone for his freedom. Africa and Latin
America represent histories that Pynchon intentionally incorporates into
his complex tapestry: Both are among the “passed over,” the preterite that
hold a special place in his imagination. Although often overshadowed and
ignored among the wastes of the world, they might indeed hold “the key
that will bring us back, [and] restore us to our Earth and to our freedom”
(GR 525).

1. Gerald Howard, “Pynchon from A to V,” Book Forum, June/July/August/
September 2005, pp. 29–40, p. 30.
2. Thomas Pynchon, “A Journey Into The Mind of Watts,” New York Times
Magazine, June 12, 1966, pp. 34–35, 78, 80–82, 84, p. 35.
3. Thomas Pynchon, “The Heart’s Eternal Vow,” New York Times Book Review,
April 10, 1988, pp. 1, 47–49, p. 1.
4. Louis Menand, “Entropology,” in New York Review of Books, 44.10, June 12,
1997, 22–25, p. 25.
5. Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (New York: Verso, 2009), p. 1.
6. Robert Holton, “In the Rathouse of History with Thomas Pynchon:
Rereading V.,” Textual Practice, 2 (1988), 324–44, p. 333.
7. David Seed, “Pynchon’s Reading for Gravity’s Rainbow,” in The Fictional
Labyrinths of Thomas Pynchon (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 1988),
240–43, p. 241.
8. Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 112.
9. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove, 1963), p. 31.
10. See Samuel Thomas, “The Gaucho Sells Out: Thomas Pynchon and
Argentina,” Studies in American Fiction (2013), 40.1, 53–85.
11. Robert J. C. Young, Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race
(London: Routledge, 1995), p. 98.
12. Young, Colonial Desire, p. 90.
13. See M. E. Chamberlain, The Scramble for Africa (Harlow, UK: Longman,
chapter 8

Geographies and Mapping

Sascha Pöhlmann

The motifs of geography and mapping that are prominent in many of

Thomas Pynchon’s novels are closely connected to an issue that concerns
their own quality as fictional texts: representation. Pynchon’s narratives
routinely explore the connection between the word and the world, between
language and what it expresses, between fiction and reality, or between
a sign and what it stands for, and their explorations hardly provide
straightforward or simple answers but rather open up complex realms of
ambiguity and multiplicity. Geography and mapping provide a crucial
metaphorical tool in addressing those issues, as both are fundamentally
preoccupied with the representation of the world and its inscription, and
they engage in processes that are closely related to those of fiction.
In particular, the double meaning of “geography” is useful as
a framework here, since the term means “writing the Earth” not only in
the sense of representing it in a chosen medium (text, map, etc.) but also in
the sense of constructing the Earth in writing, inscribing it as much as
describing it. Both processes are inextricably linked, as they are in the
writing of fictional worlds, and thus geographies in Pynchon’s novels
always invite a self-reflexive reading in terms of their own textual practices
of representation and invention.
Pynchon’s early novels are not only rooted in postmodernism but have
actually helped define literary postmodernism, and as such their concern
with representation matches the poststructuralist semiotic critique of the
1960s and 1970s, which moved beyond the arbitrary yet functional con-
nection between signifier and signified that Ferdinand de Saussure pro-
claimed in his theory of the sign at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The nature and function of signs – in texts, images, or any other form – was
called into question by theorists such as Jacques Derrida, thoroughly
complicating what used to be considered a rather straightforward relation-
ship of representation by insisting on the constructive and yet fundamen-
tally unstable qualities of meaning. Instead of looking for the meaning of
68 sascha pöhlmann
a text and its singular “message,” poststructuralists would look for ambi-
guities and instabilities in order to point out that a text may have multiple
and indeed contradictory meanings that do away with the simplistic notion
of a “correct” interpretation. In particular Pynchon’s first three novels –
V. (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) – both
participated in this revision of literary semiotics and provided ample
material for its analyses, as they revel in a multiplicity of meaning while
at the same time commenting on processes of interpretation and the
vagaries of representation themselves.
One of those comments offers a useful and exact image that connects
geography, mapping, and fiction, which may be understood as a general
term for Pynchon’s literary aesthetics: parageography. In Mason & Dixon
(1997), British astronomer Charles Mason receives letters from the public
proposing solutions to the problem of determining longitude at sea, yet
they hardly prove useful, especially when “Occasionally Insanity roll’d a sly
Eyeball into the picture. Treatises on ‘Parageography’ arriv’d, with alter-
native Maps of the World superimpos’d upon the more familiar ones”
(MD 141). This definition resonates with the blurb for Against the Day
(2006), in which Pynchon states that, in this novel, “[c]ontrary-to-the-fact
occurrences occur. If it is not the world, it is what the world might be with
a minor adjustment or two. According to some, this is one of the main
purposes of fiction.”1 Both parageography and Pynchon’s parageographical
fiction represent the world in a complex way, in the mathematical sense of
“part real and part imaginary” (AD 634). Both provide alternative repre-
sentations that do not replace the more familiar ones or even reality itself,
but they are added to other representations to create a palimpsest in which
different narratives overlap, coexist, and compete with each other.
Notably, the passage does not state that these alternative maps are
superimposed upon the correct or faithful map, but only upon those that
are more familiar. This precise choice of words indicates that there is no
such thing as a single correct map that faithfully represents the world, just
as there is no single correct linguistic representation of it. Instead, any
representation – map or text – must necessarily be selective, partial, and
subjective, the result of a particular historical and social context, and
therefore always ideological. No representation can be complete, no map
can contain every bit of information about what it represents, and in fact it
must not contain too much information in order to work as a map (for
example, a subway map of a city only becomes readable if it omits most of
what does not pertain to underground transport). Similarly, a narrative text
only works as a narrative and a text if it constructs its world in sufficient but
Geographies and Mapping 69
not complete detail, for example by focusing on protagonists, settings, and
the like, regardless of their variety and number. Both maps and fiction are
therefore necessarily ideological in the choices they make in their repre-
sentation and construction of realities and worlds. Parageography thus
does not seek to replace one map with another, but rather keeps adding
map upon map to create a multiplicity of perspectives and representations,
just as historiographic metafiction – the genre of Mason & Dixon – does
not seek to replace one historical truth with another, but rather challenges
the very notion of a singular historical truth by multiplying it into different
truths that compete with each other while laying bare their respective
subjective basis. All these aesthetic strategies defamiliarize the versions of
the world that seem to be true beyond question because of their familiarity,
and they open up the potential to see and represent the world differently
(which is profoundly political).
While Mason & Dixon is the novel in which geography takes
center stage, Pynchon’s dialectic critique of it began much earlier,
and Gravity’s Rainbow in particular is rich in that respect.
It references a number of different maps that each fulfill different
functions, and which indicate that the power of mapping lies not
necessarily in accurate representation but in invention and construc-
tion. The one map that merely represents data in the novel is
criticized precisely for this imaginative impoverishment and its lack
of parageographical potential: Roger Mexico marks V-2 rocket strikes
and shows that their distribution follows a Poisson equation, but his
map is ultimately useless to people as it only considers what is and
not what could or will be, and fails to address the needs and desires
of its readers. This failure is made explicit when the drunk Reverend
Dr. Paul de la Nuit confronts him about it:
[T]he ancient Roman priests laid a sieve in the road, and then waited to
see which stalks of grass would come up through the holes. [. . .] They
used the stalks that grew through the holes to cure the sick. The sieve was
a very sacred item to them. What will you do with the sieve you’ve laid
over London? How will you use the things that grow in your network of
death? (GR 56)

This metaphysical quality of maps, here contrasted with a rationalist

understanding of representation for scientific purposes, relates to its irre-
ducibly imaginary component: Mapping the world always means invent-
ing and constructing it to some extent in Pynchon’s fiction, and the crucial
issue is not whether the map is “true” but what can be done with it.
70 sascha pöhlmann
This imaginary quality is essential to Slothrop’s map of women in
London, which he keeps for private reasons and according to a private
system of cartography. It is a map whose subjective perspective is high-
lighted rather than obscured, and which includes data that are neither
easily readable nor even necessarily congruent with any material reality
beyond the experience of the mapmaker. Slothrop admits that he had
a “gentlemanly reflex that made him edit, switch names, insert fantasies”
(GR 302), in other words deviate from the conventional expectation about
the relation between map and world. An analysis of his map – of interest to
the authorities because Slothrop’s multicolored stars correspond exactly to
V-2 strikes – shows “that the early data seem to show [. . .] a number of
cases where the names on Slothrop’s map do not appear to have counter-
parts in the body of fact we’ve been able to establish along his time-line
here in London” (GR 272). Yet while “[p]erhaps the girls are not even real”
(GR 19), and the stars might signify “sexual fantasies instead of real events”
(GR 272), the map nevertheless has meaning, if only for Slothrop, as it
parageographically adds to the familiar map of London a subjective per-
spective, “the elements of another modeling system, a palimpsest imposed
on the original map.”2 This identifies an emotional component in an
activity that is supposed to be strictly rational. As Professor Svegli spec-
ulates in Against the Day with regard to the Sfinciuno Itinerary, which may
be as much “geographical map” as “an account of some spiritual journey”
(AD 248): “maps begin as dreams, pass through a finite life in the world,
and resume as dreams again” (AD 250).
Significantly, such complex maps are reminders that representation is
not an idealist affair in which – to paraphrase Karl Marx – only the
interpretation of the world changes, but not the world itself. Instead, in
Pynchon’s novels there is an immediate connection between reinterpreting
the world and changing it materially, and acts of mapping are quite literally
geographical acts that rewrite the world as they represent and reimagine it.
This is evident in the most crucial geographical motif in Gravity’s Rainbow,
the Zone, which designates the anarchic space that has briefly opened up in
postwar Germany after the fall of the Nazi regime and before the Allied
occupation. One character, Squalidozzi, interprets the Zone as the result of
a great cleansing, since the war “has wiped out the proliferation of little
states that’s prevailed in Germany for a thousand years. Wiped it clean.
Opened it’” (GR 265). As a consequence, 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.”3 Since it is a space with “no locational
Geographies and Mapping 71
as well as no epistemological stability”4 in which “categories have been
blurred badly” (GR 303), the Zone is a “‘heterotopian’ environment which
resists a one-to-one mapping.”5 If at all, its “great frontierless streaming”
(GR 549) can only be mapped parageographically by a multiplicity of maps
and stories. Yet everyone in the Zone seems to understand that this open-
ness must be short-lived, and its necessary end is poignantly described in
geographical terms, since the Allies are already creating their “new map of
the occupation” (GR 328) that will bring the space of the Zone under
control once again and turn it from space into territory. Significantly, it is
the creation of the map and not the occupation itself that is instrumental in
exerting control, which testifies to the material power of geography in
Pynchon’s novels.
The most extensive exploration of this ambiguous power of geography
and mapping takes place in Mason & Dixon, in which a central plot element
is the boundary dispute between Maryland and Pennsylvania in pre-
revolutionary America. The protagonists are supposed to settle the matter
by mapping the territory and drawing a line both on paper and on the land
itself. Mapmaking in Mason & Dixon begins in comically idealist fantasy as
rulers simply imagine boundaries to be drawn with “‘Mapsiz’d sweeps of the
Arm. “Divide it thus, I command you!” They can’t be bother’d with the fine
details’” (MD 585–86). It ends in brutally material practice: As the surveying
party moves westward, they cut a “Visto” through the forest, and their
actions affect virtually anyone in their path. For example, the Price family
home turns out to be exactly on the projected line, and so the Prices may get
to choose which governed territory to move to – “Pennsylvania or Maryland,
take your pick” (MD 448) – but they definitely must move into sovereignty.
Most importantly, even Mason and Dixon themselves come to understand
their geographical acts as a colonial statement of imperialist aggression and
superiority. Despite the fact that they have been hired to settle a political
issue, they retain a belief in their autonomy, as if embarking on a rational,
independent pursuit of knowledge in the ideal of the Enlightenment that
just happens to be paid for by people in power. Yet they do realize that
geography is power, that they “mark the Earth with geometrick Scars” (MD
257) in order to allow others to exert control, and that “clearing and marking
a Right Line of an Hundred Leagues, into the Lands of Others, cannot be
a kindly Act” (MD 573):

Haven’t we been saying, with an hundred Blades all the day long,— This is
how far into your land we may strike, this is what we claim to westward.
As you see what we may do to Trees, and how little we care,— imagine
72 sascha pöhlmann
how little we care for Indians, and what we are prepar’d to do to you. (MD
The Line, then, is a violent tool of colonialist conquest, and “mapmaking is
another imperialistic transgression,” as it destroys what exists in the space it
dissects, bringing with it a new system that will deeply change the order of
being that previously existed.6 Mason and Dixon may choose not to cross
the Great Warrior Path with their Visto, respecting the Native American
line instead of overwriting it and thus rendering it meaningless, but there is
no doubt that it would not be long until somebody else would. Captain
Zhang explicitly describes geography as a means of control and power:
To rule forever [. . .] it is necessary only to create, among the people one
would rule, what we call . . . Bad History. Nothing will produce Bad History
more directly nor brutally, than drawing a Line, in particular a Right Line,
the very Shape of Contempt, through the midst of a People,— to create thus
a Distinction betwixt ’em,— ’tis the first stroke,— All else will follow as if
predestin’d, unto War and Devastation. (MD 615)
The settlers along the line know that it is supposed “to separate us, name us
anew” (MD 710), and Mason and Dixon’s line contributes directly to the
formation of an American identity and, ultimately, the creation of the
nation-state of the United States. Maps “function as means to interpellate
people into the officially sanctioned symbolic order of their societies,” and
Mason & Dixon retraces the process of how geography helped create that
symbolic order of the United States.7 The creation of a national territory –
the inscription of the national imagination upon the land – is perhaps the
single most important geographical act in modern history, and Pynchon’s
novels explicitly challenge and subvert these inscriptions of politics onto
the land and onto the identities of those who live there. Like Gravity’s
Rainbow and the Zone, Mason & Dixon includes its own space of resistance
to such inscription, not just in the West that is gradually being brought
under geographical (and thus political) control, but also in:
the notorious Wedge,— resulting from the failure of the Tangent Point to
be exactly at this corner of Maryland, but rather some five miles south,
creating a semicusp or Thorn of that Length, and doubtful ownership,—
not so much claim’d by any one Province, as priz’d for its Ambiguity,—
occupied by all whose Wish, hardly uncommon in this Era of fluid Identity,
is not to reside anywhere. (MD 469)
This “small geographick Anomaly” (MD 470) that does not belong to
anyone has a very real effect on those who live there: “To be born and rear’d
in the Wedge is to occupy a singular location in an emerging moral
Geographies and Mapping 73
Geometry” (MD 323), and it means resistance to the official inscriptions of
territory and identity that would culminate eventually in the construction
of a national imagined community.
Pynchon’s parageographical practice of superimposing alternative maps of
the world upon more familiar ones – along with his dialectic critique of
geography – serves many different purposes and may be interpreted in
a variety of ways, but its subversion of the national seems to me one of the
most pertinent. No other concept of imagining community in modernity
relies so strongly on the construction of territory in defining the sovereignty
of the nation-state, and no other concept has linked territory and identity so
thoroughly and dangerously. The national map is the most familiar one
today, and it is precisely the map that Pynchon’s novels complicate, revise,
and subvert, not just by presenting the postnational space of the Zone, but
by showing the geographical processes of writing the nation on maps, on the
Earth itself, and on those who inhabit it. In Pynchon’s novels, geography
offers both a means of power and a means of escape and critique; if there is
a single map to exert control over a territory by imagining it, then there are
always other maps that may challenge this dominant version – and
Pynchon’s novels themselves may well be considered these other maps that
complicate not just the relation between the word and the world, but also the
very notion of the world as something singular.

1. Thomas Pynchon, Blurb, Against the Day (New York: Penguin, 2006),
Pynchonwiki, against-the-day.pynchonwiki.com/wiki/index.php?
2. Bernard Duyfhuizen, “Starry-Eyed Semiotics: Learning to Read Slothrop’s
Map and Gravity’s Rainbow,” Pynchon Notes, 6 (1981), 5–33, p. 22.
3. Lawrence Kappel, “Psychic Geography in Gravity’s Rainbow,” Contemporary
Literature 21.2 (Spring 1980), 225–51, p. 234.
4. Tony Tanner, Thomas Pynchon (London: Methuen, 1982), p. 80.
5. José Liste Noya, “Mapping the ‘Unmappable’: Inhabiting the Fantastic
Interface in Gravity’s Rainbow” in Studies in the Novel 29.4 (Winter 1997), pp.
512–37, p. 513.
6. Arthur Saltzman, “‘Cranks of Ev’ry Radius’: Romancing the Line in Mason &
Dixon,” in Brooke Horvath and Irving Malin (eds.), Pynchon and Mason &
Dixon (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2000), 63–72, p. 65.
7. Robert L. McLaughlin, “Surveying, Mapmaking and Representation,” in Ian
D. Copestake (ed.), American Postmodernity: Essays on the Recent Fiction of
Thomas Pynchon (Bern: Peter Lang, 2003), 173–92, p. 180.
chapter 9

The Eighteenth Century

Elizabeth Jane Wall Hinds

The Fetish of Reason

“’Tis the Age of Reason, Rff?” (MD 22), declares the Learnèd English Dog
in Mason & Dixon (1997), and indeed the eighteenth century was marked
in the Western world by a belief in “progress” in science, medicine, and the
arts. Human life can be bettered, goes this Enlightenment thinking, by
using reason to understand and improve upon nature through “establish-
[ing] rational and standardized ways to study and manage nature and
society.”1 Overseen by professional organizations like the Royal Society
in London and the Academy of Sciences in Paris, Euro-American ideology
sought to “discover” the fixed “laws” of nature, which is to say observe and
classify into categories the natural, political, and social world, all under the
banner of “science”; in “Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?” Pynchon remarks of
this era that the laws of nature became “strictly formulated.”2 Some high
points of this trust in progress were the establishment of professional
scientific organizations themselves; Fahrenheit’s mercury thermometer;
Franklin’s experiments with and harnessing of electricity; radical improve-
ments in time-keeping and geographical boundary-making; calendar
reform; and the Linnaean classification of species. Mason & Dixon’s
mechanical duck, built by Jacques de Vaucanson, is a fictionalized
enhancement of one such experiment: The Duck evolves beyond machin-
ery, gains life and sentience, and falls in love with and stalks Chef Armand.
In historical fact, Vaucanson built several mechanical ducks; like others in
Europe and America, he built automata to experiment with the growing
body of knowledge about anatomy, hydraulics, and pneumatics, to educate
and to entertain people at traveling exhibits. Such was the belief in progress
during the era of Enlightenment that Vaucanson hoped to create a duck
that would in fact have something like “life,” if not sentience.
Like the search for physical laws, natural law – “laws” regarding indivi-
dual and collective human “nature” derived from empirical observation –
The Eighteenth Century 75
came to underwrite influential treatises on government and society, such as
Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract, William Godwin’s Political
Justice, and Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, documents closely involved
in the French and American Revolutions, social experiments born of these
various discourses of progress. Such pursuits of measurement and classifi-
cation also led to the commission of Charles Mason, astronomer, and
Jeremiah Dixon, surveyor, to clear a path, east to west, between
Pennsylvania and Maryland, thus establishing man-made geographical,
political, and social boundaries.
The ideology of progress, together with the practice of classification, is
most fundamentally represented by Swedish biologist Carolus Linnaeus’
taxonomy of plant and animal species.3 Not the first Western classification
of the natural world, it was adopted by the Royal Society, and through that
organization’s widespread influence became codified worldwide. Linnaeus’
system revolutionized taxonomy by classifying plants and animals accord-
ing to their reproductive systems. This system is still used today, most
evident in the two-part Latin names Linnaeus assigned to species; genus
and species are well-known classifications, such as amanita muscaria,
a fungus, and homo sapiens, humans. The effect of such classification was
both to discriminate in ever-finer distinctions the differences among
species, and to generalize by imposing the categories themselves on all
living things. The categories, however, were considered “natural.”
The progress involved in this taxonomy was the “discovery” of these laws
of nature. “‘God created,’ the Swede’s friends said. ‘Linnaeus arranged.’”4
The purpose of such classification was to demystify and contain, to
create out of nature a technology for understanding it, and from technol-
ogy, an ability to make nature useful. Franklin’s experiments with elec-
tricity are a case in point. First storing electricity, then stringing together
the storage jars, Franklin created a “battery,” which led to the concept of
electrical “flow.” From this point, he created more useful applications for
electricity, like his lightning rod, and even “electro-therapeutics,” a kind
of electric shock therapy. Franklin was one of the eighteenth-century
natural historians to make observation – a term running through Mason
& Dixon in its glib form “Obs.” – a fundamental scientific practice.
The idea was that experimenting with nature, looking closely, and
recording allowed a kind of pure knowledge of nature, seemingly
untampered with by human interpretation or intervention. Yet observa-
tion is never actually without interpretation, nor did it often end at just
observing: Looking led to ordering, which led to practical applications –
in short, to the uses of nature.
76 elizabeth jane wall hinds
Social and political theorists worked from similar principles, most
notably around the idea of “natural law.” Rousseau argued in his
Social Contract that humans in a state of nature were both good and
reasonable. He claimed that if “man” were to practice his natural
reason, he would freely participate in the good according to the
general will. The social contract, thus, promoted individual and col-
lective liberty only when man’s basic, reasonable nature was nurtured,
as Rousseau demonstrated in his Émile, which described the proper
rearing of a child. Rousseau’s ideas were widely influential in the
American and French Revolutions, as his ideas about popular sover-
eignty make clear. But although his ideas were seen as dangerously
radical, they fall right into line with the revered, cutting-edge science
of the century: They deploy a basic ideology of progress toward the
perfection of humanity by way of observation and experimentation.
Like his contemporaries in the physical sciences, he classified and
taxonomized: “Each age, each condition of life, has its suitable perfec-
tion, a sort of maturity proper to it.”5 In its experimental method and
in subject, Rousseau’s work lends an aura of quasi-scientific metho-
dology to his social theory.
Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, premised on the same
principles of natural law, saw humanity as individually and collectively
perfectible.6 Government should, therefore, support the reasonableness of
human nature by allowing absolute equality; any institution (system) that
promoted hierarchy was corrupt. An anarchist, Godwin saw actual govern-
ments as all corrupt, as they tended to support monarchy, unequal dis-
tribution of property, and marriage (which made slaves of women).
A “natural” (non-government influenced) pursuit of self-actualization
would, Godwin believed, bring humanity progressively toward
a government of equals.
Although Paine’s Age of Reason named the era itself, more influential was
his Common Sense, a pamphlet widely distributed in the American colo-
nies, advocating independence from Britain and the creation of
a government based on equality, a notion Paine connected directly to
natural law.7 He saw as fundamental the rights of liberty, property,
security, and freedom from oppression. Rousseau, Godwin, and Paine
were some of the radical egalitarians of the age, inveighing against the
monarchical, inegalitarian practices of majority European governments.
Even so, they shared with the majority a fundamental faith in reason, with
its scientific method of observation, classification, and taxonomy, which
formed a rather mechanical view of nature, human and otherwise.
The Eighteenth Century 77
As Pynchon offers in his Luddite essay, “by the Age of Reason,” nature had
“degenerated into mere machinery.”8
To an age that fetishized the machine – that would produce
Vaucanson’s duck and the electric battery, for example – it follows
that the ideological underpinnings of social and political theory would
be similarly mechanistic: If human nature is seen as a machine tuned to
reason, then social organization, even governments, could operate
mechanistically toward the goal of “progress,” generally considered
during the eighteenth century to involve more wealth and consequently
easier lives. Expansion of landholdings, increased sites for the greater
production and distribution of staples like sugar and cotton – in short,
colonial expansion and expanded ownership of resources – could be
had by nations that had more and better machines, and that operated
through its agents as machines. While the ideologies of science and
natural law rested on the seeming transparency of empiricism and the
free sharing of information, the extensive machinery of social organiza-
tions, including governments, had the paradoxical effect of operating
invisibly: The human agency behind governmental actions could easily
be rendered invisible by the mechanisms of corporations, as Mason and
Dixon slowly come to realize. “Whom are we working for, Mason?”
Dixon asks and gets the reply, “I rather thought, one day, you would
be the one to tell me” (MD 347).

The Machines of Governments

One of the most productive confluences of science and government during
the eighteenth century was the international practice of astronomy.
Advances in clocks, possibly the most useful machines in history, and
improved lens-making enabled the creation of more portable and powerful
telescopes. Like the fictional ones, the historical Mason and Dixon were
deployed, cutting-edge astronomical instruments in tow, first to observe
the Transit of Venus and later to mark the boundary lines between
Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Both mechanics to varying
degrees – Mason, the Assistant Royal Astronomer at the Greenwich
Observatory; Dixon, a land surveyor from County Durham – it was
their technical expertise that put these two on the royal payroll. They set
out in 1761 to observe the Transit from Sumatra, one of a number of
observers worldwide measuring and collating the data from this phenom-
enon to calculate the distance of the Sun from the Earth. Historically
accurate, too, is that Mason and Dixon were delayed on their way to
78 elizabeth jane wall hinds
Sumatra by a sea battle with the French. They took their observations from
the Cape of Good Hope instead.
Between 1763 and 1768, Mason and Dixon worked to clear a path, east to
west, across colonial British America to establish the well-known bound-
ary. Astronomical observations, calculation, and the consequent bound-
ary-marking were the sine qua non of eighteenth-century science.
The fictional Mason and Dixon experience geographical and political
phenomena that, despite the fabrication of the novel, had bases in imperi-
alist, colonial fact, such that Mason & Dixon becomes a commentary on the
observing, rationalizing, and taxonomizing of the era. Pynchon’s novel
exposes the complicity between the ideological goals of the Age of Reason
and the abuses of human rights inherent in the practice of global trade.
As Christopher Looby argues, Enlightenment projects like Linnaeus’ tax-
onomy enabled British and American imperialism.9 Or as Theodor
Adorno and Max Horkheimer describe succinctly, “[what] men want to
learn from nature is how to use it in order wholly to dominate it and other
When Dixon asks Mason, in the novel, whom they are working for, he
has visited the site of the recent Lancaster, PA massacre of peaceful
Conestoga Indians. After years of fighting between several Native
American tribes and English settlers over land ownership, an unsettled
peace had been established. But the Paxton Boys, a band of Scots-Irish men
from western Pennsylvania, formed to hunt and kill any Natives in the
area, peaceful or not. They brutally murdered six Conestoga in their
village, then followed the rest to a Lancaster jail in which they had
sheltered, where they murdered the rest. After his visit to the massacre
site, Dixon begins to see the connections between westward expansion in
America, the wars over land that this involved, and quite possibly, his and
Mason’s own culpability in the consequences of land-grabbing. They are,
Dixon realizes, bureaucrats sent to realize the imperialist goals of the
British government. As Alessia Ricciardi explains, “the project of the line
increasingly comes to symbolize the frontier’s violence . . . a reminder of
the pervasive ugliness of colonialism.”11 Later Dixon articulates how devo-
tion to the machine-like operations of scientific ideology supports the
machine of government: “Men of Science,” he says, “may be but the simple
Tools of others, with no more idea of what they are about, than a Hammer
knows of a House” (MD 669). “Mere” observation – Mason and Dixon’s
stock in trade – can masquerade as revealing the innate structures of nature
and society, and thus mask the creation of systems, the manipulation of
nature and society to further “the ends of governments” (MD 345).
The Eighteenth Century 79
More widespread was the other producer and outcome of colonial
expansionism, African slavery. If the discourses of progress served the
expansion of territory, it was for the acquisition of resources; the staple
resources that became more globally available through the eighteenth
century were spices, sugar, coffee, tobacco, and cotton, all produced by
slave labor. The East and West India Companies, both Dutch and British,
were paragovernmental entities that by the eighteenth century had what
amounted to their own armies and colonies throughout Asia, South Africa,
and the Caribbean. The African slave trade provided labor for their grow-
ing productions. What came to be known as “the triangular trade”
involved the Atlantic transportation of slaves, sugar, cotton, and products
like rum between Europe and England, West Africa, and the West Indies
and American colonies. There were popular and state-sponsored argu-
ments made against the African slave trade, but those tended to die away
when the luxury goods produced by slavery became cheaply available.
Significantly, everywhere Mason and Dixon travel, there are slaves, as
Pynchon’s Dixon eventually realizes, “Ev’ry day at the Cape, we lived with
Slavery in our faces,— more of it at St. Helena,— and now here we are again,
in another Colony, this time having drawn them a Line between their Slave-
Keepers, and their Wage-Payers, as if doom’d to re-encounter thro’ the
World this public secret, this shameful Core [. . .].” Slavery drove the
triangular trade, as Dixon knows: “Didn’t we take the King’s money, as
here we’re taking it again? whilst Slaves waited upon us, and we neither one
objected . . .” (MD 692). Brian Thill parses this aspect of Mason & Dixon in
suggesting that the eighteenth-century market was supported by consumers
who increasingly demanded luxury goods without considering the type of
labor that produced them.12 The “cruel Sugar-Islands” (MD 329) of the West
Indies, coffee from India and Indonesia, and cotton from the American
South sustained the slave trade. Thill maintains that Mason & Dixon calls for
a “radical awareness of the extent to which oppressive systems like chattel
slavery [and I would add, westward expansion in America] cannot be
understood . . . without recognizing how such systems are inextricably linked
with various modes of consumption.”13 What felt like progress – better
living – was the availability of more goods, cheaply, to more people.
Louis Menand calls Mason & Dixon “a lamentation at the horrors of
colonialism,” Indian removal and slavery being the most evident of those
horrors.14 The scientific and social practice of “Reason” endorsed not only
progress but also human rights abuses through its systems, which can have
the effect of hiding its working assumptions within the machines it builds.
Perhaps the most famous economic thinker of the era, Adam Smith,
80 elizabeth jane wall hinds
theorized a “hidden hand” of the market. Rooted in human “nature” –
psychology, as Smith develops it – the hidden hand operates by simple self-
preservation via the social contract of mutual preservation, making good by
doing good.15 The “market” was an invisible machine that produced actual
goods and wealth. What remained invisible were the taxonomies of
humans that operated the machine. In an era overtly in favor of equality,
the invisible assumption was that some kinds of humans were not equal,
were in fact not as human and did not require equality. The slave trade that
ran concurrently with the development of the US Declaration of
Independence could only be supportable by this logic: If “all men are
created equal,” it must be the case that slaves are not men. The logic of the
machine is the logic of taxonomy. By categorizing the “parts” of humanity,
some can be seen as not fully human. By this logic, nations gained the “self-
evident” right to have at least two orders of people. As scientists and
governments practiced the work of the mind, slaves were used to produce
goods. They were, in effect, machines.

1. Pedro Garcia-Caro, “’America was the only place. . .’: American
Exceptionalism and the Geographic Politics of Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon,”
in Elizabeth Jane Wall Hinds (ed.), The Multiple Worlds of Pynchon’s Mason
& Dixon: Eighteenth-Century Contexts, Postmodern Observations (New York:
Boydell & Brewer, 2005), pp. 101–24, p. 108.
2. Thomas Pynchon, “Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?” New York Times Book Review,
October 28, 1984. New York Times on the Web. www.nytimes.com/books/97/
3. See Carl von Linnaeus, Systema Naturæ [Stockholm], 10th ed., 1758.
4. Steven M. Wise, Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals
(New York: Perseus Books, 2000), p. 136.
5. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile, or Education, trans. Barbara Foxley
(New York: E. P. Dutton, 1921), p. 90. See also Rousseau, The Social Contract.
6. William Godwin, Enquiry concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on
Morals and Happiness (London: G. G. and J. Robinson, 1793, 1796, 1798).
7. Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776, Isaac Kramnick (ed.) (New York:
Penguin, 1986). See also Paine, The Age of Reason, Kerry Walters (ed.)
(Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2011).
8. Pynchon, “Luddite.”
9. Christopher Looby, “The Constitution of Nature: Taxonomy as Politics in
Jefferson, Peale, and Bartram,” Early American Literature, 22 (1987), 252–73.
10. Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans.
John Cumming (New York: Continuum, 1972), p. 4.
The Eighteenth Century 81
11. Alessia Ricciardi, “Lightness and Gravity: Calvino, Pynchon, and
Postmodernity,” Modern Language Notes, 114.5 (December 1999), 1062–77,
p. 1065.
12. Brian Thill, “The Sweetness of Immorality: Mason & Dixon and the
American Sins of Consumption,” in Multiple Worlds, pp. 49–75, p. 67.
13. Thill, ”Sweetness,” p. 56.
14. Louis Menand, “Entropology,” in New York Review of Books, 44.10, June 12,
1997, pp. 22–25, p. 25.
15. Adam Smith, An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,
5th ed. (London: A. Strahan, 1789).
chapter 10

The Nineteenth Century

Paolo Simonetti

If you read through all of Thomas Pynchon’s eight novels, David Kipen
has argued, they “fuse into one epic Pynchoverse, a crowded, panoramic
canvas of the republic, from its earliest colonial stirrings clear down to the
mounting, vertiginous terror of right now.”1 Pynchon’s “Yoknapatawpha
of American and Western civilization” seems, however, to have one big,
crucial historical hole, namely, the nineteenth century, the century that
saw a young, provincial republic become a powerful nation ready for its
imperialist overseas expansion.2 This is the reason why some Pynchon
aficionados (myself included) cherish the suspicion or hope that the reclu-
sive author may still have in store the last of his historical fictions, a novel
set in the nineteenth century that would constitute the final piece of his
huge puzzle. The rumor was spread by Salman Rushdie, who in his 1990
review of Vineland reported that a London magazine had announced “the
publication of a 900-page Pynchon megabook about the American Civil
War,” before he immediately dismissed it – “ho ho ho” – as an April fool’s
prank.3 Yet somehow the idea stuck.
Limiting the analysis to Pynchon’s actual, published works, one finds
several references to the nineteenth century. Against the Day (2006) opens
at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, an epochal event that retro-
spectively marked the end of the Gilded Age – the period named after
Mark Twain’s satirical novel, published in 1873 with the subtitle: A Tale of
To-Day. Despite the popular (and basically correct) view of an age of
rapacious greed, political corruption, rampant speculations, and unfettered
capitalism, those were also years of technical innovation and economic
development; the Chicago World’s Fair – a spectacular display of indus-
trial, cultural, and scientific advancements – revealed American military
and technological supremacy to the world: The Fair’s buildings were
illuminated by 200,000 light bulbs, thanks to Nikola Tesla’s innovative
polyphase alternating-current system. Communication is another great
issue addressed in the novel: Characters are obsessed by the propagation
The Nineteenth Century 83
of energy and the voice through the Aether, and they continuously experi-
ment with several nineteenth-century types of communications – optical
and wireless communication, “communication by means of coal-gas” (AD
114), even an unlikely “telepathic communication” (AD 532).
The turn of the century was indeed a period of radical change for
American society: On July 12, 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner delivered
in Chicago his famous lecture on “The Significance of the Frontier in
American History,” reflecting on the closing of the frontier that brought an
end to the nation’s westward expansion. Both Tesla and Turner appear in
Against the Day as heralds of the modern age: “Here’s where the Trail
comes to its end at last,” declares a character about Turner’s speech, “along
with the American cowboy who used to live on it and by it” (AD 52).
The first part of Against the Day is set in the wild West, though, as
a character explains, “it may not be quite the West you’re expecting”
(AD 53). Back in 1965, Pynchon expressed his fascination with the multi-
faceted myth of the West in a review of Oakley Hall’s novel Warlock (1958),
describing Tombstone, Arizona, during the 1880s as “our national
Camelot; a never-never land” where nonetheless “what is called society,
with its law and order, is as frail, as precarious, as flesh and can be snuffed
out and assimilated back into the desert as easily as a corpse can.”4
Moreover, Against the Day also focuses on fin-de-siècle anarchism, terror-
ism, and revenge, the rise of capitalism and the desperate attempts to
counter it. Pynchon often uses anachronistic language and frequent refer-
ences to present times and situations, so as to encourage the reader to
experience current events from a backdated perspective.
Pynchon’s nineteenth-century references go way beyond the mere repre-
sentation of characters, settings, or situations. As Brian McHale brilliantly
demonstrated, “Pynchon appropriates the conventions and materials of
genres that flourished at the historical moments during which the events of
his story occur.”5 So, naturally enough, the dominant genres throughout
Against the Day’s first half are typical late-nineteenth-century ones such as
the boy-inventor story, the British school story, the dime-novel western,
the European spy fiction, and the adventure novel à la Stevenson; in fact,
Against the Day can be considered “a virtual library of entertainment
fiction.”6 According to McHale, Pynchon uses a “logic of synchronization”
to systematically demystify and complicate popular genres, in order to
“close the gap between the genre conventions . . . and what one imagines
the historical experience . . . must have been like.”7
In his 1984 essay “Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?” Pynchon described Victor
Frankenstein’s creature in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel as “a major literary
84 paolo simonetti
Badass,” the hero of any “Luddite novel,” if such a genre actually existed.
According to Pynchon, the Luddite movement, which “flourished in
Britain from about 1811 to 1816,” was composed by “bands of men,
organized, masked, anonymous,” who nevertheless were “trade unionist
ahead of their time”; they were praised even by Lord Byron, who called
them “Lutherans of politics.” In his essay, Pynchon provocatively sug-
gested that the whole Gothic fiction, as well as “the Methodist movement
and the American Great Awakening,” were all sectors “on a broad front of
resistance to the Age of Reason.”8
Nor does Pynchon restrict himself to the revision of popular genres; his
works resonate in various, unpredictable ways with some of the major
nineteenth-century literary figures. In his 1982 monograph Tony Tanner
related Pynchon’s reclusiveness to a “persistent strain in the writing of
American authors which reveals a suspicion of all kinds of ‘biography’ and
a growing hostility to ‘publicity’,” mentioning writers such as James
Fenimore Cooper, Emily Dickinson, and Henry James. In another pas-
sage, Tanner linked Pynchon’s interest in “plots and codes” to the works of
Edgar Allan Poe.9 In an essay published in 2001, meanwhile, David
Thoreen underlined some parallels between Vineland and Washington
Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle.”10
Ironically, Pynchon’s namesake appears in one of the most important
novels of the American Renaissance: In 1851, Reverend Thomas Ruggles
Pynchon (1823–1904), great-grand-uncle of the writer and rector of St. Paul’s
Church, Stockbridge, and Trinity Church, Lenox, picked an argument with
none other than Nathaniel Hawthorne; Pynchon claimed that the famous
author had used his surname in The House of the Seven Gables (1851) without
asking his permission, marring the good name of the family. Hawthorne
wrote him a letter of exculpation, declaring that he thought the field “was
clear of all genuine Pyncheons,” as the character’s name is spelled in the
novel, and assuring his correspondent that “the reputation of [his] family
can run no hazard of being tarnished by the novel.”11 In a letter to his
publisher, however, Hawthorne related the story in a different tone:
I have just received a letter from another claimant of the Pyncheon estate.
I wonder if ever, and how soon, I shall get at a just estimate of how many
jackasses there are in this ridiculous world. My correspondent, by the way,
estimates the number of these Pyncheon jackasses at about twenty; I am
doubtless to be remonstrated with by each individual. After exchanging
shots with all of them, I shall get you to publish the whole correspondence,
in a style corresponding with that of my other works; and I anticipate a great
run for the volume.12
The Nineteenth Century 85
Too bad Hawthorne never wrote such a “Pynchonian” book!
The towering nineteenth-century literary figure in Pynchon’s oeuvre is,
in any event, Herman Melville. Since the publication of V. (1963), critics
have often mentioned Melville and Pynchon as “the Great American
Novelists” by comparing the wide scope of their fiction: Both wrote big,
encyclopedic novels that changed the course of American literature and
disrupted the traditional literary conventions of their times. As early as
1976, Richard Poirier called Pynchon “the epitome of an American writer
out of the great classics of the nineteenth century – Hawthorne, Emerson,
and Melville especially.”13 Coincidentally, in the first of the Simpsons’
episodes in which Pynchon makes an appearance, Marge Simpson,
inspired by the framed picture of a boat entitled “Scene from Moby-Dick
,” decides to write a sea-novel very similar to Melville’s masterpiece.14 It was
later endorsed by Pynchon, though in an ironic way. Since we know that
Pynchon himself edited the script of the second Simpsons’ episode in which
he appeared, he may well have wanted to obliquely acknowledge Melville’s
influence on his work.15
There are striking similarities in Pynchon’s and Melville’s literary
careers: Both published early pieces in high-school or local newspapers
before taking to the sea; both had significant experiences on faraway
islands, and when they returned to the US they became writers (this is
probably one of the reasons why islands and ships abound in their works);
V. opens on Christmas Eve and ends with a sinking ship, paralleling the
voyage of the Pequod in Moby-Dick. Both writers created memorable
isolatoes – in Melville’s famous definition of the Pequod’s crew, mainly
composed of islanders “living on a separate continent” of their own, “not
acknowledging the common continent of men.”16 Very similarly, Pynchon
describes the “preterite” as “the many God passes over when he chooses
a few for salvation” (GR 555); both terms basically describe the same
condition of exclusion, intellectual solitude, and marginalization, referring
to outcasts alienated from the human community.
In a sense, the authorial personae Melville and Pynchon fashioned
for themselves resonate with their peculiar isolatoes: Both authors
strenuously defended their privacy, even if in doing so they must
have appeared rude or odd to acquaintances, friends, and relatives.
Though not a strictly reclusive author (he became so in his old age),
Melville hated publicity and disliked having his picture taken or
published. When his friend Evert Duyckinck asked him for an article
and a daguerreotype for publication in Holden’s Magazine, Melville
replied in a very Pynchonian way:
86 paolo simonetti
How shall a man go about refusing a man? – Best be roundabout, or plumb
on the mark? – I can not write you the thing you want . . . As for the
Daguerreotype . . . that’s what I can not send you, because I have none. And
if I had, I would not send it for such a purpose, even to you. – Pshaw! You
cry – & so cry I. . . . The fact is, almost everybody is having his “mug”
engraved nowadays; so that this test of distinction is getting to be reversed;
and therefore, to see one’s “mug” in a magazine, is presumptive evidence
that he’s a nobody.17

Years later, George Putnam himself – the New York publisher who had
published Melville’s later novels – asked him again for a daguerreotype,
offering to pay for a session. Melville’s reply is not much different from the
Pynchon’s caustic jokes we are familiar with: “About the Dagguerreotype
[sic], I don’t know a good artist in this rural neighborhood.”18
In their works, both writers metafictionally play with their authorial
personae: Pynchon in oblique ways, with inside jokes that in the Simpsons’
episode, for instance, become explicit parody; Melville more openly,
especially when he made the hero of Pierre a “juvenile author” and
described an encounter between Pierre and a magazine’s editor that is
eerily similar to the episodes of harassment periodically experienced by
“Good-morning, good-morning; – just the man I wanted: – come, step
round now with me, and have your Daguerreotype taken; – get it engraved
then in no time; – want it for the next issue.” So saying, this chief mate of
Captain Kidd seized Pierre’s arm, and in the most vigorous manner
was walking him off, like an officer a pickpocket, when Pierre civilly
said – “Pray, sir, hold, if you please, I shall do no such thing.” – “Pooh,
pooh – must have it – public property – come along – only a door or two
now.” – “Public property!’’ rejoined Pierre, . . . I beg to repeat that I do not
intend to accede.” – “Don’t? Really?” cried the other, amazedly staring
Pierre full in the countenance.20

Pynchon has as yet never mentioned Melville in his fiction, though he

talked extensively about “Bartleby” in his 1993 essay on sloth, “Nearer,
My Couch, to Thee,” giving an original interpretation of Melville’s
renowned novella. In the essay, Pynchon posed an interesting question
about the writer’s role: “who is more guilty of Sloth, a person who
collaborates with the root of all evil, accepting things-as-they-are in return
for a paycheck and a hassle-free life, or one who does nothing, finally, but
persist in sorrow?”21 We can infer that to promote one’s works through
photos, interviews, talks, and presentations means for Pynchon – as for
Melville – to “collaborate with the root of all evil,” that is, the corrupt
The Nineteenth Century 87
literary celebrity system. At the beginning of his essay, Pynchon argued
that “writers are considered the mavens of sloth” and that Melville’s
“‘Bartleby’ is the first great epic of modern Sloth.” Toward the end,
however, he turned the statement around, arguing that the writer’s task
is “to look at the world cleanly and clearly, inside and out, and report back
to anyone who is willing to listen”; according to Pynchon, this is exactly
what Bartleby does by refusing to comply with the system. We must
conclude that Pynchon sees Bartleby as the quintessential “revolutionary”
Melville does something very similar in his first novel, Typee (1846):
After having described the indolent natives and their habits as more
civilized than those of the Western countries, the narrator states:
“In truth, I regard the Typees as a back-slidden generation. They are
sunk in religious sloth, and require a spiritual revival.”22 Melville scholar
John Bryant reasonably argued that “the drastic reversal in Melville’s
affections for Typeean life is too severe to be taken seriously,” so that the
main character, Tommo, “is merely playing a part . . . Tommo is laughing
at our laughing at the natives.”23 In the same way, in his essay Pynchon
scorns our scorning of the writers’ sloth. Bryant described Melville’s
“aesthetic of repose” as implying “a range of mental states: a sensual
indolence and sleep of reason, but also a wakeful balance of awareness and
calm.”24 This may well be the core of Melville’s influence on Pynchon’s
poetics: Melville’s aesthetic of repose is not too different from McClintic
Sphere’s motto “Keep cool, but care” (V 366), often considered a key to
understanding Pynchon’s fiction.

1. David Kipen, “David Kipen’s Great American Novel: The Works of Thomas
Pynchon,” Los Angeles Times, June 30, 2016.
2. David Cowart, Thomas Pynchon and the Dark Passages of History (Athens, GA:
University of Georgia Press, 2011), p. 167.
3. Salman Rushdie, “Still Crazy After All These Years: Vineland by Thomas
Pynchon,” New York Times Book Review, January 14, 1990, p. 1.
4. Thomas Pynchon, “A Gift of Books,” Holiday 38, 6 (December 1965), pp.
5. Brian McHale, “Genre as History: Pynchon’s Genre-Poaching,” in
Jeffrey Severs and Christopher Leise (eds.), Pynchon’s Against the Day.
A Corrupted Pilgrim’s Guide (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press,
2011), pp. 15–28, p. 19.
6. McHale, “Genre,” p. 20.
88 paolo simonetti
7. McHale, “Genre,” pp. 21, 23.
8. Thomas Pynchon, “Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?” New York Times Book Review,
October 28, 1984, pp. 1, 40–41, pp. 40, 41.
9. Tony Tanner, Thomas Pynchon (London: Methuen, 1982), pp. 12, 22.
10. David Thoreen, “Thomas Pynchon’s Political Parable: Parallels between
Vineland and ‘Rip Van Winkle,’” ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short
Articles, Notes and Reviews, 14.3, 45–50.
11. Thomas Woodson, L. Neal Smith, and Norman Holmes Pearson (eds.),
The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Vol. XVI,
The Letters, 1843–1853 (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1985),
p. 446.
12. Woodson, Smith, and Holmes, Letters, p. 443.
13. Richard Poirier, “The Importance of Thomas Pynchon,” in George Levine
and David Leverenz (eds.), Mindful Pleasures. Essays on Thomas Pynchon
(Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1976), pp. 15–29, p. 29.
14. The Simpsons, “Diatribe of a Mad Housewife,” first aired May 31, 2005.
15. Michael Calia, “Read Thomas Pynchon’s Script Edits for The Simpsons,” Wall
Street Journal, August 29, 2014.
16. Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, or, The Whale (Harmondsworth: Penguin,
1992), p. 131.
17. Lynn Horth (ed.), The Writings of Herman Melville. Vol. XIV, Correspondence
(Evanston and Chicago, IL: Northwestern University Press and
The Newberry Library, 1993), p. 180.
18. Horth, Correspondence, p. 261.
19. See P. Simonetti, “Portraits of the Artist as an Undergraduate Prankster:
Images of Youth in Pynchon’s Writing,” in Bénédicte Chorier-Fryd and
Gilles Chamerois (eds.), Thomas Pynchon (Montpellier: Presses
Universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2013), pp. 193–222, pp. 193–94.
20. Herman Melville, Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (New York: Harper & Brothers,
1852), p. 346.
21. Thomas Pynchon, “Nearer, My Couch, to Thee,” New York Times Book
Review, June 6, 1993, pp. 3, 57, p. 57.
22. Herman Melville, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (New York: Wiley &
Putnam, 1846), p. 229.
23. John Bryant, Melville & Repose: The Rhetoric of Humor in the American
Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 178–79.
24. Bryant, Melville, p. 4.
chapter 11

The Twentieth Century

Steven Weisenburger

When Slow Learner appeared in April 1984, readers understood Pynchon’s

title in light of the introductory essay’s self-deprecation, his sense that the
stories are amateurish. Yet it also pointed to a climactic scene of Orwell’s
Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith has been arrested for
a “Thoughtcrime,” for falling in love, a banned affect because it steals
dedication owed to the total state. Love contradicts “Hate Week,” when
Big Brother gins up solidarity and outrage against the state’s enemies.
Smith’s reeducation to this core logic of domination is the task of his
torturer, O’Brien, who demands that when he holds up four fingers
Winston shall see five, because “the Party says” he must. Smith repeatedly
tries, fails, and pleads – “How can I help seeing what’s in front of my eyes?”
Each time Smith refuses to relinquish empirical truth O’Brien dials the
voltage nearer the fatal mark. This Pavlovian “reeducation” finally prevails.
Smith “sees” five fingers and O’Brien taunts him: “You are a slow learner,
Winston” (SL xiv).1
Pynchon’s fictions have always stood in solidarity with the Winston
Smiths, and against the apparatuses of surveillance – helicopters, hidden
microphones, and two-way “telescreens” – that secure Orwellian domina-
tion. Yet these strong allusions went unremarked, along with how Slow
Learner’s release coincided with the date (“April 4th 1984”) above Winston
Smith’s first diary entry, which he makes in grave contravention of laws of
the nation of Oceania.2
Pynchon soon gave us another nudge. His “Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?”
essay celebrated in its opening a joint anniversary: Orwell’s novel, and
C. P. Snow’s 1959 lecture on the “two cultures,” humanistic and scientific,
seen as irreparably at odds. Pynchon doesn’t think so, seeing
in October 1984 a digital revolution that provides ordinary people access
to “flows of data more vast than anything the world has ever seen,” thus
vanquishing – he then believed – the two-cultures dividing line in addition
to rendering obsolete old-school Luddites and the factory system they
90 steven weisenburger
loathed. Now they were “a cheerful army of technocrats” serving the
military industrial complex while “the data revolution” made it “less
possible to fool any of the people any of the time.” By 2013, with
Bleeding Edge, Pynchon had lost that optimism for late capitalism and its
digital tools. The novel mounts a bitter critique with origins in earlier
His May 2003 foreword to Nineteen Eighty-Four stated the case. What
had “steadily, insidiously improved since [1984], making humanist argu-
ments almost irrelevant,” were integrated circuit chips and devices expo-
nentially faster and more powerful; also, vulnerable to hacking and “social
control” on a scale previously unimaginable, gutting Fourth Amendment
rights and reinvigorating in the US a long-dormant “will to fascism” and
acceptance of authoritarian rule.4
Vineland (1990) sits dead center in this web of texts; its story, on the
forefront of a global digital boom. It critically presents 1960s naïve idealism
and incipient violence, its vulnerability to the lure of police authority, and
its capture by emerging digital media and data storage. The novel also
presents this failure as a recurrent, all-American trait. Frenesi Gates’ gen-
erations of labor activists and socialist radicals were each chastised by police
until they returned, however grudgingly, to the sheepfold. Reunited that
summer of 1984, they nostalgically brag or grumble – each “unapologeti-
cally liberal” – about the labor-versus-capital “struggle” (VL 289). And
until the novel’s last sentences it is uncertain whether the youngest des-
cendant, Zoyd and Frenesi’s daughter Prairie, will break that pattern or
like her mother and grandparents yield to the allure of authoritarian power.
Vineland’s storyworld is overtly Orwellian. Doublespeak abounds, so
that “Witness Protection” (VL 27), for example, is actually witness coer-
cion; and DEA cop Hector Zuñiga explains, in a striking oxymoron, that
Frenesi has been detained fourteen years “in a underground of the State”
(VL 31) where “servitude” to one’s jailors is “freedom.” Surveillance of
Frenesi has produced boxes of files, most of it gathered secretly, mocking
how she and her cohorts regarded themselves as savvy enough to dodge the
spying, in learning for example how to use a transistor radio to locate bugs,
or how to identify tailing police cars, techniques Frenesi learned from her
labor-activist father, Hub Gates. Once sure she could suss out undercover
FBI agents or paid snitches, she was arrested for murder, became a snitch,
and embraced state domination as easily as she once vilified it (VL 268).
Vineland poses its ethical crux early on, when DEA agent Zuñiga asks
Zoyd: After Frenesi’s grand words, and abject betrayals, “Who was saved?”
(VL 29). Our answer at novel’s end: Zoyd’s daughter Prairie, who saves
The Twentieth Century 91
herself, thanks to the mentoring of DL Chastain. Having turned her back
on the family reunion and taken a sleeping bag into Vineland’s forest,
Prairie first yearns for Brock Vond’s aura of fascist power: “I don’t care.
Take me anyplace you want” (VL 384). Then her lost dog Desmond shows
up, “roughened by the miles” and with a “face full of blue jay feathers . . .
thinking he must be home” (VL 385). He’s avenged the birds’ thefts of his
dog-kibble, narrated 381 pages earlier, a turn foretold in the novel’s epi-
graph from bluesmaster Johnny Copeland’s “Every Dog’s Got His Day”
(VL 4). Desmond’s revenge complements Prairie’s leaving her dysfunc-
tional family for the forest, on her own, like Natty Bumppo or Huck Finn.5
The point being that the quote William James cribbed from Ralph
Waldo Emerson that Jess Traverse annually recites at the family’s
Vineland reunions – about “divine justice” punishing “tyrants” and
“monopolists” who tilt the bar of justice their way – has, over four
generations, failed them (VL 369). Readers therefore accept at their own
peril Emerson’s word as the novel’s final answer to intrusive, militarized
dominion. Emerson’s dictum ought to be read instead as the credo of an
American liberal meliorism, and Thomas Pynchon has been writing
against that for nearly sixty years. Instead Johnny Copeland gets it right:
“somewhere down the line” every dog will have his day. So despite an
aircraft carrier off the Vineland coast, surveillance helicopters and AWACS
planes overhead, state police patrolling Vineland County as Army troops
turn flamethrowers against supposed pot fields, and Reagan having green-
lighted the “REX 84” plan for reactivating Nixon-era detainment
“camps” . . . despite all this Orwellian political repression, much of it not
fictional, Vineland in its last pages metes out justice to Brock Vond.
The denouement recoups Copeland’s blues wisdom over Emerson’s
meek liberalism. And Desmond the dog finds his way home.6
Prairie Wheeler’s underground education in these things is indebted to
her mentor and foster mother DL Chastain. We never learn how, just that
someone’s (perhaps DL’s) hack of federal databases yielded a great digitized
trove of federal and state print materials on Frenesi Gates, and that this
hacking occurred shortly before this tranche was, among others, deleted
from a federal mainframe computer. So as Prairie views those materials on
DL’s computer, the fairy tale that relatives had recited about her mother –
loyal soldier for the countercultural left, forced “to go underground,” but
captured and interned – evaporates before the truth that Frenesi had
conspired in murdering a comrade, become a paid snitch, then the lover
of this “Brock guy” (VL 27–28, 101, 141). That recognition and the con-
cluding plot-turn happen solely because of DL Chastain. Alone among the
92 steven weisenburger
novel’s main characters, she acts on the plain ethical precept that one is
responsible for the lives of others. She’s enabled by accidents of proximity
to and personal experience with the main players, and the wit and grit to
study and redress this familial and historical smashup. As Vineland’s ama-
teur detective or better still its accidental spy (see below), she possesses the
digital skills as well as the street-savvy and the moral compass to answer
Hector Zuñiga’s question to Zoyd Wheeler at the novel’s beginning. It’s
DL who saves Prairie Wheeler. She awakens the girl to an Orwellian polity
that sends her father habitually into blithe clouds of dope smoke.
How might these texts orbiting around Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four
send us back into Pynchon’s other fictions, such as Gravity’s Rainbow
(1973)? Start with how the Pavlovian conditioning of Tyrone Slothrop
has none of the brutal shock-treatment scenes of Winston Smith’s con-
ditioning under O’Brien’s torturing hands. Instead the conditioning
occurs in a Harvard psychology lab, his father having sold Infant Tyrone
as an experimental subject in exchange for the boy’s admission and full
tuition to Harvard, yet his conditioning is far more invasive and insidious.
Professor Jamf’s initial discovery is of the toddler’s uncanny mechanism –
a digital one-or-zero (Eros-or-Thanatos) erectile response to the absence or
presence of Imipolex-G that is so well secured that even the smell of that
experimental polymer plastic brings on the erectile response, which later
manifests well in advance of stimulation, an uncanny or “ultra-paradoxical”
response (GR 85–87). This alone had made Slothrop an item of psycholo-
gical as well as industrial and (later) military interest, requiring his period-
ical surveillance even before the war. Hence “They” compiled reams of
reports on this enigma of organic chemistry and psychology. With the V-2
blitz Slothrop and his psyche become constant surveillance targets, espe-
cially as he manifests precognition, a power to “dowse” V-2 blast sites in
advance of a launch, sparking an urgent call to instrumentalize his uncanny
power (GR 490). With the war’s end Slothrop’s powers draw him (and the
surveillance) to the V-2’s birth-sites: the Peenemünde test facility, and the
underground Nordhausen assembly facility and concentration camp. Not
long afterward he vanishes into the Zone of occupied eastern Germany,
slipping – like a runaway slave? – the shackles of his surveillance.
Gravity’s Rainbow gives exquisitely close attention to the modern tech-
nological and aeronautical challenges German rocket scientists solved,
years ahead of their Allied counterparts. Interestingly, though, Pynchon
depicts the surveillance of Slothrop as an entirely premodern venture: visual
tracking by corporate and military snoops, but no modern-age phone-taps
or planted microphones. The spycraft in Gravity’s Rainbow replicates the
The Twentieth Century 93
1899 practices of those bourgeois agents depicted in Pynchon’s 1962 story,
“Under the Rose” (GR 286, 283).
In his 2003 Foreword to Nineteen Eighty-Four Pynchon indicts Big
Brother’s regime for waging an “unrelenting war on memory, desire, and
language as a vehicle of thought.” This indictment applies with equal or
even greater force to the quarter-century of psy-war waged on Tyrone
Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow. During those years American, German, and
British corporate, political, and military agencies collude in the invasion of
Slothrop’s mental life, his fantasies (about a young Malcolm X, in Boston,
for example), and especially his desires. “Control” is the watchword and
objective in all these efforts. And in thus routinizing and commandeering
the epistemic and affective functions by which Slothrop knows and strives
in the world, and accomplishing this Pavlovian work without the messy
brutalization of Orwellian electroshock conditioning, their work is both
cleaner and insidiously more efficacious – progressive, but perversely so –
than the tortures visited on Winston Smith. This is how those clever Yanks
and Brits are able to commit such crimes under the banner of modern,
liberal sovereignty.7
Overshadowed by Gravity’s Rainbow, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) will
always seem the more meek and less consequential of the two fictions. Two
issues emerge as central to its plot. First is the sense, Oedipa’s mainly, of
immanent “revelations” in the form of an historically crucial “pattern” that
portends previously undreamed degrees of sociopolitical control. Second is
the sense that, as Manny DiPresso screams it to Oedipa, surveillance is
pandemic: “All the time, somebody listens in, snoops; they bug your
apartment, they tap your phone” (CL 63). For her the “printed circuit
card” epitomizes innovative technologies that will exponentially increase
such powers. And the labyrinthine corridors, rooms, and buildings of the
Yoyodyne complex, its employees increasingly “replaced by an IBM 7094”
mainframe computer, vaguely figure a looming change – the microchip –
for which she has no name (CL 82–84, 115). Oedipa’s sleuthing around the
edges of this emergent future uncovers nothing but loose ends. Savvy
readers, though, see Pynchon’s storyworld poised on the digital-age thresh-
old. That 7094 computer, released in 1962, still used solid-state transistor
technology but was rendered obsolete two years later by new silicon chip
components. Digital technologies, and their uses for social control and
surveillance, had made that quantum leap a year before the novel was
Oedipa, in Lot 49, thinks of herself as “walking among the matrices of
a great digital computer, the ones and zeroes twinned above, hanging like
94 steven weisenburger
balanced mobiles . . . maybe endless” (CL 181). Bleeding Edge figures the
dark apotheosis of that digital world, strikingly captured in Luis Molina’s
jacket-photo of a seemingly endless server farm showing no signs of human
presence. A “total Web of surveillance” is how Maxine Tarnow’s father
understands that increasingly entrenched regime: digital video surveillance
everywhere and specially engineered computer chips and software pro-
grams with “backdoor[s]” for oversight and control by who knows who,
while hackers trace “every keystroke” and Silicon Alley digital firms like
hashslingrz and W.T.F. may be FBI and/or CIA fronts, or virtual base-
camps of jihadist groups (BE 420, 104–05, 108–09). Rereading Bleeding
Edge after the 2016 US presidential election, its most prescient moment is
Maxine Tarnow’s receptionist matter-of-factly describing a Moscow-based
hackers’ school “created by the KGB,” whose “mission statement includes
destroying America through cyberwarfare” (BE 264). Such writing brought
on sharply critical reviews.
It seems every reviewer found the novel recycling “Pynchonian” themes
of conspiracy and paranoia wrapped around a detective fiction plot. Yet
decades earlier Pynchon had posed an alternate generic view of his work.
In that introduction to Slow Learner (SL 18–19) he describes an abiding
interest in spy novels, especially those following the pattern of John
Buchan’s classic, The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915). In this original of the
“accidental spy story” Richard Hannay is an everyday citizen, an ex-pat
farmer caught up in international intrigue when German spies misidentify
him as a British agent who, having learned the identity of a highly placed
German mole in the British military command, must be eliminated. In this
and scores of similarly modeled stories – Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film
adaptation of Buchan’s novel or his 1959 classic, North by Northwest – the
accidental spy triumphs over skilled adversaries because, though “an
ordinary sort of fellow,” he possesses the untapped resources of improvisa-
tion, guile, and violence needed to survive and to save his country. These
premises explain why the accidental spy tale is both related to yet markedly
different from the detective stories. Its scope is national/international and
geopolitical, rather than local and criminal. The fates of nations hang in the
balance but are decided by mundane protagonists hardly resembling
a skilled professional detective. In North by Northwest, New York advertis-
ing agent Roger Thornhill, and in Bleeding Edge the New York digital-age
fraud investigator Maxine Tarnow, are caught up in webs of murderous
espionage far beyond their ken. But there is a periodized difference.
In Hitchcock’s modernist tale Roger triumphs, while Pynchon’s postmo-
dernist tale ends on the warning of Maxine’s father. What seems like digital
The Twentieth Century 95
“freedom” is technology driving toward total “control,” a “total web of
surveillance, inescapable . . . the handcuffs of the future” (BE 420).
In January 1984 Apple introduced its first Macintosh PC with a stunning
Superbowl television ad: Big Brother on a great telescreen is addressing an
arena of rapt skinheads, until a woman athlete hurls a hammer through the
screen as a voiceover promises: “you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.”
That digital age optimism is plain, in Vineland; by Bleeding Edge, it is long
Surveillance, as invasion of privacy and as the secret and abiding desire
of modern sovereignties, a mania for control during peacetime as well as
during war, appears throughout Pynchon’s oeuvre, including Mason &
Dixon (1997) and Against the Day (2006). Some texts – The Crying of Lot
49 and Inherent Vice (2009) – do work detective story conventions. Yet
Oedipa Maas has something of the accidental spy about her, as does Roger
Mexico in Gravity’s Rainbow. Vineland ’s DL and Bleeding Edge’s Maxine
tightly fit the mold. Critics and scholars have always too easily categorized
Pynchon as a paranoid conspiracy fantasist. Bleeding Edge, like his writings
orbiting around Nineteen Eighty-Four, invite us to reread the twentieth-
century novels as – in Hanjo Berressem’s wise account – the work of “a
relentless and ruthless realist” who also operates from an abiding contempt
for modern media.9

1. George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, “Foreword” by Thomas Pynchon
(New York: Plume/Harcourt Brace, 2003), pp. 258, 279.
2. Terry Reilly remarked on Pynchon borrowing the title Slow Learner from
Orwell’s novel but goes no further. See Reilly, “A Couple-Three Bonzos:
‘Introduction,’ Slow Learner, and 1984,” Pynchon Notes, 44–45 (1999), 8.
On Winston Smith’s diary: Nineteen Eighty-Four, pp. 7–8.
3. Thomas Pynchon, “Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?” New York Times Book Review,
October 28, 1984, pp. 1, 40–41; C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1959).
4. Pynchon, “Foreword” to Nineteen Eighty-Four, pp. xvi–xviii, p. xv.
5. Johnny Copeland’s “Every Dog’s Got His Day” was the A-side of a 1971 Kent
records 45 RPM disc – now a rarity. The track was reprised on several 33 RPM
discs, equally rare. Pynchon’s alternate phrasing, “Every dog has his day,”
suggests he knew another bluesman’s rendition.
6. On “Garden Plot” see Luc Herman and Steven Weisenburger, Gravity’s
Rainbow, Domination, and Freedom (Athens, GA: University of Georgia
Press, 2013), pp. 67–68. On the April 1984 “REX 84” see Christian Smith,
Resisting Reagan (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996), pp. 310–18.
96 steven weisenburger
7. Pynchon, “Foreword” to Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. xxi.
8. For example, Jonathan Lethem, “Pynchonopolis,” New York Times,
September 12, 2013; Michiko Kakutani, “A Calamity Tailor-Made for
Internet Conspiracy Theories, A 9/11 Novel by Thomas Pynchon,” New York
Times, September 10, 2013. “1984” (Dir. Ridley Scott: Fairbanks Films, 90
seconds), widely available online.
9. Hanjo Berressem, “. . . without shame or concern for etymology: 11 September
in Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge,” Electronic Book Review (August 3, 2014),
chapter 12

The Twenty-First Century

Celia Wallhead

Of the three novels Thomas Pynchon has published so far in the twenty-
first century – Against the Day (2006), which begins with the Chicago
World’s Fair in 1893 and ends just after World War I, Inherent Vice (2009),
set in late 1960s California, and Bleeding Edge (2013) – only the last takes
place, like his earlier The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), in a contemporary setting.
It fictionalizes the period around September 11, 2001, “The Day Everything
Changed” (BE 378), and brings us up to date, for if we place Pynchon’s
novels in chronological order of the periods covered in the plot, they
encompass almost the whole trajectory of US history since just before
Independence. Pynchon’s novels employ the major events, even if
approached tangentially or on a small, often insignificant scale, along
with the genres of the period in which the plot is set, as well as myriad
subgenres and discourses.1 They continue in the vein of his earlier work of
postmodern perspectivism, with its skepticism toward metanarratives.
One thing these three novels have in common is that they are overtly
about investigation, whether it be espionage, as with the Chums of Chance
in Against the Day, or the work of detectives like Larry “Doc” Sportello in
Inherent Vice and Maxine Tarnow in Bleeding Edge. Inherent Vice can be
considered a parody of the detective novel and an indulgence on Pynchon’s
part in hippie nostalgia. Maxine is a decertified, Jewish fraud investigator,
who continues to work independently from her own detective agency.
The Russian spies, Misha and Grisha, of Against the Day, also appear in
Bleeding Edge, so as with Against the Day and Vineland (1990) we have
connections to earlier work through characters, as if Pynchon is setting up
a small world within the global view he creates.
He includes a momentous and unexplained occurrence about two-
thirds of the way through most of his novels: “some significant or well-
known event” or (as David Auerbach calls it) “decoherence event,” as “our
working models of reality cease to function together.”2 In Against the Day it
was the Tunguska Event of 1908; here it is obviously 9/11, which happened
98 celia wallhead
three-quarters of the way through the calendar year, and the account of
which comes three-quarters of the way through Bleeding Edge – as if to
equate the decline of the year with the nation’s decline in some (particu-
larly moral) respects, thereby supporting Kathryn Hume’s argument that
Pynchon surprised his readers by expressing unusually strong personal
views, perhaps in “desperation over the course America was taking.”3
To what extent, however, is Pynchon’s latest novel, upon which we will
concentrate, a stylistic or thematic departure from his earlier work?

Form: Narrative Strategies

Because of its setting, Bleeding Edge can be seen as part of a specific twenty-
first-century genre. To date, there have been dozens of “9/11 novels” deal-
ing with the events of the day of the attacks or portraying the aftermath;
Don DeLillo’s Falling Man (2007) is one of the better-known “psychic/
personal trauma” novels to address the issue.4 The authors of these books
generally accept the official 9/11 Commission Report from 2004,5 which
concluded that the perpetrators were Mohamed Atta and eighteen other al-
Qaeda members. In his enjoyment of conspiracy theories, however,
Pynchon offers a version in which the identity of the perpetrators is not
so certain. Twenty-eight pages of the report, especially to do with whether
the Saudi Arabian government was involved, remained to be declassified,
enabling Pynchon to play with possible culprits in a wider perspective.
As with earlier work within the genre of historiographical metafiction,
especially Mason & Dixon, he mixes real historical figures like the hijackers
and members of the George W. Bush administration with characters he has
created, allowing his narrator a free hand to manipulate and comment
upon so-called historical accounts.6
Some 9/11 novels are considered examples of “acting out” the attack on
the towers of the World Trade Center, while others, particularly those
portraying the aftermath, may be “psychic/personal” trauma novels.
Bleeding Edge is not strictly speaking an “acting out” of the attack itself,
as there is no “inside” view. We could have been given such a view had
Maxine’s ex-husband Horst gone in to work that day and managed to
survive to tell the tale. Instead, the narrator focuses upon Maxine and is
able to give us an “acting out” of the post hoc situation in such a way that we
can see how different people close to the event saw, thought about, and
discussed it. The focus Pynchon’s narrator chooses is to have Maxine and
her sons, in spite of their physical proximity, experience it initially, like
most people, through the media of radio and television, which in the
The Twenty-First Century 99
twenty-first century bring traumatic events such as wars into the living
room, but also through accounts of those in other communities – such as
neighbors or work colleagues. Pynchon’s wide and multiple perspective
includes the event also as we see it and ponder it now with an array of
political viewpoints.
The main narrative strategy consists of the unidentified third-person
narrator setting up a framing device whereby Maxine’s family is trailed.
Domestic matters come first: The mother takes the two boys to school and
then goes about her work. The narrator is not omniscient, but Pynchon has
this voice use Maxine as a center point, in contact, through different
relationships, with all the characters. Among a large cast of male protagonists
in Pynchon’s works, she is a new-millennium, East Side version of Oedipa
Maas, protagonist of The Crying of Lot 49. Perhaps with the (re)turn to ethics
in considerations of trauma toward the twentieth century’s end, Pynchon
introduces a change in his female investigator protagonist. While Oedipa
discovered a dark side to America, she was not a professional sleuth and her
search was to discover something for herself, the meaning of the legacy Pierce
Inverarity had left her; Maxine has been decertified because she has uncov-
ered corruption in high places (nothing new in Pynchon’s revelations), and
her intentions are morally good toward society.
The voice can be informal and witty, not so ludic as in previous works
like Mason & Dixon, but it becomes serious when dealing with the atrocity
and the fear emanating from it. Even before the attack, there is a very long
sentence of foreboding: “Faces already under silent assault” prognosticate
an “unquiet” future (BE 311–12). As the narrator relates the events of 9/11
from the point of view of Maxine and her family’s personal experience, the
tone is largely anti-government, as if they mistrust any attempt to take
advantage of the situation to control the people. The government-
controlled media are said to be fomenting the campaign to face “the
challenge of global jihadism, joining a righteous crusade Bush’s people
are now calling the War on Terror” (BE 327). Outside these media sources,
other views prevail: “Out in the vast undefined anarchism of cyberspace
[. . .] dark possibilities are beginning to emerge” (BE 327). It is these dark
possibilities – the Saudi Arabian government involvement, the so-called
Jewish plot, the US government involvement or connivance – that the rest
of the novel explores.
Pynchon links the momentous event with Maxine’s professional life by
having her investigate the irregular financial dealings of dotcom billionaire,
Gabriel Ice, including significant payments to defunct websites and Arab
destinations. A contact, computer expert Eric Outfield, has been working
100 celia wallhead
on an Ice-owned website and cannot decide whether Ice is a patriot
providing anti-jihadist capital or a traitor sending money to the Emirates
to finance the attacks: “‘It’s a front all right, but it’s really the CIA,
pretending to be jihadist’” (BE 344). Maxine receives a recording showing
Stinger missiles being prepared on top of a Manhattan building belonging
to Ice, apparently to hit the planes if the hijackers did not go through with
the mission, with a sniper as back-up if this in turn failed (BE 323). Thus
Pynchon links the national disaster with the familial and personal.
Pynchon can suggest myriad possibilities by having his narrator track
Maxine in all her relationships, as she discusses the event with the different
members of her family – her more actively Jewish brother-in-law having an
explanation that obviously varies from that of Maxine and her down-to-
earth father, her neighbors, and work acquaintances. By daring to offer an
array of different possibilities, Pynchon draws upon the ambiguity of the
situation, knowing that one day, if the truth emerges, he may be proved
right or wrong. As Michael Chabon says:
The greater, national, and world-historical meanings of the fall of the towers
are still being discovered, and the full extent of the changes wrought by that fall
will not be known for decades. But there can be little doubt that 9/11 marked
a turning point in the history of American parenting, and laid bare the
bankruptcy of all our comforting lies. It’s in the hope of attempting to convey
some of the pain of that exposure that Pynchon takes his radical chances.7

Chabon’s reference to American parenting reminds us that Pynchon has

addressed the family in most of his novels, usually with a negative perspec-
tive, outlining the disastrous outcomes of parental absence.

Context: Twenty-First-Century Society

One similarity between Maxine and Oedipa Maas is that Pynchon uses
both to investigate “the social and moral condition of the country.”8
The narrator refers to contemporary events, from “the dotcom disaster
last year” (BE 4) and the Clinton–Monica Lewinsky affair (BE 424) to
Britney Spears’ “Oops, I did it again” (BE 7). Advances in women’s rights
are also articulated insofar as Maxine is a version of Oedipa Maas much
more at home in a man’s world, as revealed even in her (bad) language and
exclamations: “fucking Dizzy, please” (BE 6). Toward the end of the
twentieth century, women had been admitted to almost all areas of the
armed forces, and it is now accepted that certain women can choose to face
life-endangering action on their country’s behalf. Maxine is shot at while
The Twenty-First Century 101
accompanying Windust in their investigations surrounding Gabriel Ice
and his possible involvement in 9/11.
The network surrounding Maxine highlights the increasingly militar-
ized nature of the world. As the novel progresses beyond the attacks, not
only is the imminent infantilization of the country discussed, especially by
Maxine’s friend Heidi (BE 334–35); symbolized by the heroics of the
firemen and police (obviously male and white by a great majority), the
masculinization of the country is also implied in a character like Windust.
Heidi’s discussion of the death of irony and the government’s exploitation
of people’s vulnerability in order to control them – Windust tells Maxine’s
father that the government has a dossier on him (BE 100) – afford Pynchon
a chance to discuss life in the early twenty-first century under the perma-
nent threat of terrorism. His example involves family life: Maxine allows
her sons to go to school alone although their life is still in danger.
As with The Crying of Lot 49, Bleeding Edge’s title signifies major themes,
“bleeding” and “edge” suggesting trauma as well as the idea of cutting-edge
computer technology. In Francisco Collado-Rodríguez’s words, “the wri-
ter draws a portrait of contemporary life where the old limits between
death and life, here reflected in the new version of the binary physical/
virtual, are continuously trespassed by a posthuman being that has
emerged from the current application of bleeding-edge technologies to
our vital experience.”9 The reference here is to the magical world of
DeepArcher that Pynchon reproduces to show how the virtual world has
for some overtaken the real one, for better or worse. For all the “contem-
porary idealism regarding the potential of the Internet,” Joseph Darlington
emphasizes that Pynchon shows the Deep Web turning dystopian.10
Innocent video games like those Otis and Izzy play lead to more sinister
material, translating into violence in the world of “Meatspace” (BE 359):
For example, the death of Lester Traipse, who was using Gabriel Ice’s
Internet security service, hashslingrz, to syphon off money for himself. For
some, it may replace heaven as a more credible afterlife (Maxine sees
Windust’s avatar); yet it is in the Deep Web’s hidden underworld that
conspiracies to sabotage society in all its aspects are hatched. From corpo-
rate and public power bases, individuals can act with impunity through
this hidden world’s erasure of identity and responsibility. Oedipa had
found that “excluded middles” were “bad shit” (CL 181), and here too
things are not black and white: The events surrounding 9/11 have incom-
mensurable, complex reverberations.
After the trauma of 9/11, it was claimed by some commentators that
irony had died, along with ambiguity (a hypothesis Pynchon addresses
102 celia wallhead
through the character of Heidi), obliging the country to return to
serious responsibilities.11 Others have subsequently asserted that irony
did not die with 9/11 but is very much alive.12 Writing a dozen years
after the event, Pynchon continues to use postmodern irony and
ambiguity as a major strategy. Insofar as the use of irony, conspiracy,
and historical metafiction have been familiar strategies throughout his
work, his new twenty-first-century departure may be the way he nests
both his female detective figure and his narration within family,
parenthood, and friendships. Family activities, like a visit to a pizza
parlor, are solace to Maxine in her daily struggle against corruption
and evil; they may not be “specially admirable,” she says, “but hell,
she’ll take it” (BE 315).

1. See Brian McHale, “Genre as History: Pynchon’s Genre-Poaching,” in
Jeffrey Severs and Christopher Leise (eds.), Pynchon’s Against the Day.
A Corrupted Pilgrim’s Guide (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press,
2011), pp. 15–28, p. 19.
2. Michael Chabon, “The Crying of September 11,” New York Review of Books,
November 7, 2013; David Auerbach, “Review: Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding
Edge,” The American Reader, September 17, 2013 theamericanreader.com/rev
3. Kathryn Hume, “The Religious and Political Vision of Pynchon’s Against
the Day,” Philological Quarterly, 86, 1–2 (Winter 2007), 163–87, p. 164.
4. For studies of the “psychic/personal” or the “cultural/collective” approaches,
see Sonia Baelo-Allué, “9/11 and the Psychic Trauma Novel: Don DeLillo’s
Falling Man,” Atlantis, 34.1 (2012), 63–79; and Juanjo Bermúdez de Castro,
Rewriting Terror: The 9/11 Terrorists in American Fiction (Alcalá de Henares:
Universidad de Alcalá, Servicio de Publicaciones, 2012).
5. Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United
States, 2004, www.9-11commission.gov/report/.
6. Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction
(London: Routledge, 1988); Patricia Waugh, Metafiction: The Theory and
Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction (London: Routledge, 1984).
7. Chabon, “The Crying of September 11,” p. 12.
8. Francisco Collado-Rodríguez, “Intratextuality, Trauma, and the Posthuman
in Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge,” Critique: Studies in Contemporary
Fiction, 57.3 (2016), 229–41, p. 230.
9. Collado-Rodríguez, “Intratextuality,” 229.
10. Joseph Darlington, “Capitalist Mysticism and the Historicizing of 9/11 in
Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge,” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction,
57.3 (2016), 242–53, p. 242.
The Twenty-First Century 103
11. Roger Rosenblatt, “The Age of Irony Comes to an End,” Time, September 24,
12. See Justin St Clair, “Pynchon’s Postmodern Legacy, or Why Irony Is Still
Relevant. Review of Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon,” Los Angeles Review
of Books, September 21, 2013; Martin Paul Eve, Literature Against Criticism:
University English and Contemporary Fiction in Conflict (Cambridge: Open
Book Publishers, 2016).
chapter 13

History and Metahistory

David Cowart

For many centuries, much of Western humanity subscribed to the precept:

“History is nothing but the demonstration of Christian truth.”1 But that
conviction gradually gave way to secular dreams both positive and nega-
tive – history as a great march toward some omega point of political and
social justice or, as Orwell surmised, toward some definitive form of
totalitarian control. At the end of the twentieth century, Francis
Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis was widely misunderstood as augury
of a more or less literal apotheosis. None of these dreams has assuaged what
Mircea Eliade, at mid-century, called the “terror of history,” the recogni-
tion of time present and time past as merely complementary forms of
But the desire to know the past never flags, and from the beginning of
his career as novelist, Thomas Pynchon has gravitated to historical themes –
not that his work bears any resemblance to popular fictions set in the past,
a genre “condemned . . . to a fatal cheapness.”3 Pynchon seems always to
have been aware that “what most people think of as history is its end
product, myth.”4 Disinclined to perpetuate popular perceptions of the past
and its major personalities, the author of Mason & Dixon and Against
the Day aims, withal, at something more than simple revisionism (the
calculated, often shocking reinterpretation of past events, commonly at
the expense of received ideas and cherished nationalistic illusions). Rather,
he seeks out the seemingly incidental or inconsequential in historical events
and creates a canvas replete with detail that enables us – or obliges us – to
rethink our notions about the past and the ways in which it flows into and
shapes subsequent history, including the present.

Pynchon’s Metahistorical Method

Few American readers of the early 1960s had heard of the Herero, Damara,
Bondelswarts, and mixed-race Bastaard peoples of what is now Namibia –
History and Metahistory 105
nor of the brutal campaign waged against them by a German expeditionary
force under General Lothar von Trotha in 1904. But when Pynchon
recreated that bloody episode in his superb first novel, V. (1963), readers
learned more about the history of colonialism – and genocide – than any
number of academic treatises could supply. Among other things, they
learned that von Trotha “is reckoned to have done away with about
60,000 people.” The narrator adds, with bitter irony: “This is only
1 per cent of six million, but still pretty good” (V 245). Fictionalizing events
in German South-West Africa at the turn of the century, the author creates
images and actions that go to the diseased core of imperial thinking. Joseph
Conrad, in Heart of Darkness, had indicted colonialism from a modernist
vantage point, but he could not free himself from a tendentious European
paternalism (nor was he willing, really, to interrogate British – as opposed
to Belgian – pretensions to humane subjugation of pigmented peoples).
Pynchon brings postmodern perspectivism to bear on all the presumptions
of empire.
Citing an insight of the nineteenth-century man of letters John Ruskin,
Pynchon once described the historical novelist as someone gifted with “a
capacity responsive to the claims of fact, but unoppressed by them.”5 What
liberates Pynchon’s imaginative yet scrupulous treatment of the past is his
understanding that “story” and “history” are, etymologically, the same
word. The fiction writer understands – as the actual historian may not –
that history, insofar as it is narrated, is storytelling, storytelling whose
fidelity to some clear standard of “what really happened” was and always
will be problematic – a “polite fiction,” as it were. What, after all, “really
happened” at Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963? Which presidential
candidate really carried Florida in the 2000 election?
Pynchon seems to have been influenced by (or simply thought along the
same lines as) Fernand Braudel, who, along with colleagues of what came
to be known as the Annales school of historiography, effected something of
a scholarly revolution in the late 1950s and early 1960s by writing history
centered on the minutiae of geography and everyday life. This was granular
historiography, and Pynchon discovered early on that it enables the histor-
ian or the historical novelist to know and represent the past from the
ground up, rather than from the top down. Yes, Philip II was the King of
Spain in the sixteenth century, but what was daily life for his subjects, small
as well as great? What conditions of climate or topography shaped their
lives? Like a practitioner of the Annales school, Pynchon fixes on small-bore
history, the incidental, the out of the way, the seemingly inconsequential
that, cumulatively, yields annals that have little to do with great events and
106 david cowart
personalities (students of critical theory will recognize, too, a version of
Foucault’s “archaeological” approach to understanding human
Pynchon brings to his fictions an acute sense of the competing
perspectives from which history can be constructed. As postmodern
storyteller, this author is skeptical of foundational doctrines – “meta-
narratives” – of every stripe (and especially those of historical meaning
or purpose). Again, the perfect example is V., in which Pynchon
devises a brilliant myth to account for or enable understanding of
a century replete with carnage. He presents a mythic female – her
various names all begin with “V” – who turns up at assorted sanguin-
ary moments in the twentieth century. The embodiment of the century
and its signature bloodshed, she emerges as a postmodern avatar of the
figures – Venus, Virgin, White Goddess – Henry Adams and Robert
Graves taught their readers how to conceptualize. But no sooner do
readers congratulate themselves on comprehending Pynchon’s conceit
than they must recognize that the novel’s ingenious overarching ratio-
nale is completely factitious. For those still living the twentieth cen-
tury, its history refused to settle into shapely narrative form – it was
absurd yet not comic, painful yet not tragic, and even its ironies
refused coherence. (Nor does coherence reveal itself to twenty-first-
century retrospect.) History – especially twentieth-century history –
cannot be ordered by a metaphor, however elaborate, however similar
to the metaphors or metanarratives that served civilizations of the past.
But even as it gives the lie to mythography and indirectly impugns
historians blind to the fictive drift of their enterprise, the V. narrative
enables and enacts a new kind of history.
Pynchon here anticipates by a decade the theoretical insights of
Metahistory (1973), Hayden White’s magisterial challenge to traditional
historiography. Arguing that historical narrative is always “emplotted” in
ways that misrepresent the vagaries of actual events, White showed how
important nineteenth-century historians turned their material into suspi-
ciously familiar tropes: The past, in their pages, is inflected as romance,
tragedy, comedy, or satire. (Students of criticism’s own history will recog-
nize the literary typology of Northrop Frye, a major influence on White.)
History, White suggests, must become metahistory; historians must strive
to be aware of the fictive undertow, must aim not for “objectivity” but for
more self-consciousness. They must surrender the culturally circumscribed
vantage, recognize bias and disabling monovision. They must write history
that is self-interrogating, history that accommodates the “incredulity
History and Metahistory 107
toward metanarratives” that art historian and philosopher Jean-Francois
Lyotard flagged as a central feature of postmodernity.6
Not that metahistorical fiction dispenses altogether with the generic and
rhetorical conventions of storytelling. Pynchon’s 2013 novel Bleeding Edge
is characterized in the jacket copy as “a historical romance of New York in
the early days of the internet, not that distant in calendar time but
galactically remote from where we’ve journeyed to since.” Historical
fictions such as V. and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), by the same token, are
examples of a venerable form called Menippean satire (best exemplified by
the Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter or Rabelais’ Gargantua et Pantagruel or
Apuleius’ Golden Ass). As such, they feature encyclopedic scope, grotesque
or outlandish incidents, abundant digression, scatology and raw language,
indifference with regard to the norms of literary decorum, and general
iconoclasm. What better form to capture or reflect the tidal disorder of the
past? Pynchon discerns in history itself the supreme Menippean satire.
A vast canvas, then, but worked with the finest of brushes. Such an
approach works well with literary indirection. In Bleeding Edge, again,
Pynchon depicts Americans feeling “down [. . .] on the barroom floor of
history, feeling sucker-punched” by the events of 9/11 (BE 339), which,
however, are not allowed to overshadow other cultural circumstances,
notably the growth of digital technology and the accelerating reticulation
of the World Wide Web (neither impeded by the collapse of numerous
dotcom enterprises in the late 1990s). In the aftermath of enormity,
Pynchon scrutinizes, withal, the government’s battening on and manip-
ulation of the collective anguish experienced by the American people.
Indeed, the author quite specializes in resisting expectation honed on
standard, mythmaking, jingoistic responses to the events that shock
whole generations and “change the course of history” – often in dubious
ways. Many readers of the epic World War II novel Gravity’s Rainbow
wonder at the author’s disinclination to pay more attention to the most
salient events of the struggle – the battles, airborne assaults, atomic
weaponry, concentration camps, attempted extermination of whole races
and classes: Jews, homosexuals, Roma. Pynchon prefers, here, to come at
enormity obliquely – better to make the reader ask “what about the
Holocaust?” than to present image or narrative that must inevitably
traduce the agony of millions, make it gratify the prurient appetite for
atrocity, for a pornography of abjection. What the author does, instead, is
to present miniaturized versions, little allegories, of the unspeakable that
only gradually allow themselves to be perceived as standing for much
bigger things. Thus a bizarre sequence detailing the slaughter of the dodoes
108 david cowart
on Mauritius in the seventeenth century suggests the meaningless annihi-
lations of the twentieth. The anguish of what Paul Fussell called “military
memory” is similarly distilled in the notorious scene in which Brigadier
Pudding, who somehow did not perish at Passchendaele in the previous
world war, abases himself before a dominatrix in whom he recognizes his
own personal Domina Nocturna, twisted embodiment of survivor’s guilt.7
Katje Borgesius, a desperate and jaded refugee from occupied Holland,
plays this role with horrific verve, scourging poor Pudding and ordering
him to fellate – and masticate – what emerges from her anus.

Ludic Historiography
Pastiche (the clever imitation, often satirical or subversive, of some familiar
genre or style) plays an important part in Pynchon’s heteroclite historio-
graphy; thus he incorporates, sometimes at book length, versions of the
prose characteristic of the period being recreated. As Brian McHale
describes this practice, “Pynchon appropriates the conventions and mate-
rials of genres that flourished at the historical moments during which the
events of the story occur. His genre-poaching is synchronized with the
unfolding chronology of his storyworld.”8 A master of postmodern pas-
tiche, Pynchon gives his readers John Buchan-style agents and settings in
V.; a parody of seventeenth-century revenge drama in The Crying of Lot 49;
and, in Gravity’s Rainbow, a narrative of the 1940s that unspools as a movie
and breathes the cinematic conventions of that period. As McHale has
pointed out, recreations of Tom Swift-type boys’ stories figure prominently
in Against the Day – a novel whose temporal settings include the early
twentieth century, which saw such stories become popular. Mason &
Dixon, set in the eighteenth century, observes that era’s orthography and
narrative conventions throughout its great length (by way of reminding
readers of the ludic element in this exercise, the author peppers the text
with artfully disguised anachronism: references to Popeye, Daffy Duck,
Star Trek, and Madison Avenue’s Jolly Green Giant).
Another feature of historicizing as practiced by Pynchon is his
penchant for twinned temporal settings. His plots often unfold in
parallel: a present in 1984, say, and a past twenty or so years earlier
(this is Vineland, from 1990) or a present just after the American
Revolution and a past, again, some decades earlier (this is the schema
of Mason & Dixon, from 1997). V., too, unfolds along a double tem-
poral axis, one plot line set in the novel’s present (1956–1957), the other
tracing global events forward from 1880 to 1943. Compounding the
History and Metahistory 109
complexity of historical imagining, a more remote temporal setting –
again, that of Mason & Dixon – reveals itself as seed of a later historical
climacteric: The surveying of the Mason-Dixon Line augurs the terrible
civil war a century thereafter. Elsewhere, the past functions as minatory
mirror of the present. Thus the 2006 novel Against the Day (whose
global action ranges from 1893 to 1923) tends to allegorize an era – our
own – at a distance, again, of a hundred years. In promotional copy for
this novel, its temporal setting is characterized as “a time of un-
restrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and
evil intent in high places. No reference to the present day is intended or
should be inferred.” (The ironic last sentence was later dropped, as
perhaps giving too much away.) Here, too, Pynchon invokes with some
frequency “the doubly-refracting calcite known as Iceland spar” (AD
114), a crystal through which, strangely, one sees things twice.
As recurrent “image,” it complements doubled characters and plot
elements – all, evidently, in service to an idea of history itself twinned.
Pynchon was not always so committed to preterite temporality. Nearly
all of his short stories feature settings in the present (the exception is
“Under the Rose,” which, modified, would become part of V.). But since
the stories all date from the earliest part of Pynchon’s career (late 1950s and
early 1960s), they, too, have acquired an historical patina, if only as
documentation of mid-century material culture. The one novel that is
strictly contemporaneous with its publication (set in 1964, published in
1966) is The Crying of Lot 49, but this text, too, lends itself to reflections on
Pynchon’s historicizing. Its central conceit concerns a clandestine postal
system, the Trystero, which has supposedly existed in the shadows for
centuries. More than one character engages in historical research, and the
reader encounters set pieces that range from deft imitations of 1930s cinema
and Jacobean drama to accounts of long-ago clashes between agents of
Trystero and rival postal couriers (those of Thurn and Taxis in the Old
World, those of the Pony Express in the New). More importantly, perhaps,
Lot 49 is the first of a series of fictions set in the 1960s, a kind of American
hinge decade – especially to those who (like Pynchon and his first readers)
lived through it. As Lot 49 is now experienced as historical documentation
for many born too late to experience the 1960s firsthand (and for those
who, as the old joke goes, experienced them so well as not to remember
anything), so do Vineland and Inherent Vice (2009) (the other volumes in
the California saga) take on more and more historical gravitas – no matter
how madcap their action. The difference, of course, is that, with the
passage of time, the temporal setting of these fictions now figures in the
110 david cowart
national imaginary as documentation of the past (or, more accurately, its
affect). This is history indeed.
Pynchon also historicizes the sequent toil of science, one paradigm
succeeding another, reality itself repeatedly reframed and redefined.
As a John Donne could contrast Copernican and Ptolemaic astronomy
early in the seventeenth century, so Pynchon depicts, in Gravity’s Rainbow,
the displacement of Newtonian physics (one character embraces Pavlovian
psychomechanics) by relativity and the mathematics of probability
(another character plots Poisson distribution graphs). Mason & Dixon
dramatizes, among other things, the Enlightenment’s elbowing aside of
magical thinking in all its guises. Charles Mason, an astronomer, finds it
difficult to give up fantasies of his lost wife’s communicating with him
from beyond the veil. Jeremiah Dixon is obliged, in a kind of dream
sequence, to perpend the fate of elves, fairies, and other imaginary beings,
their habitat progressively eroded by the triumph of scientific reason,
echoing the lament of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Sonnet – To Science,” which
elegized the vestiges of supernaturalism in the eighteenth century.
Blending Poe and Thomas Kuhn (author of The Structure of Scientific
Revolutions, a book contemporaneous with Pynchon’s first novel), the
author of Mason & Dixon moralizes what may be the greatest conceptual
paradigm shift in Western history.
A Faulkner character says that “[t]he past is never dead. It’s not even
past.”9 As understood and realized on the page by Pynchon, this insight
reminds us of the perennial legitimacy of fictions that strive to represent that
past. Such fictions, at their best, uncover the manifold ways in which a more
or less remote history breathes through and shapes a more proximate past or,
indeed, the present. One recognizes the “bleeding edge” of this enterprise in
the work of historicizing novelists such as Thomas Pynchon. Via postcolo-
nial and metahistorical orientations, then, Pynchon emphasizes perspectivist
historiography. In one novel, twinned plots unfold along parallel historical
axes; in another, the past mirrors our present. He imitates genres appropriate
to or associated with the historical period he depicts. Most importantly,
perhaps, he historicizes epistemic paradigm shifts. In self-referring texts that
interrogate every received historical premise, this author calibrates and
recalibrates the very grammar of metahistory.

1. Johannes Buno, Historia universalis (1672), quoted in John Eliot Gardiner,
Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven (New York: Knopf, 2013).
History and Metahistory 111
2. The Eliade phrase is the title of Chapter Four of The Myth of the Eternal Return
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1954).
3. Henry James, The Selected Letters of Henry James, Leon Edel (ed.) (New York:
Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy, 1955), pp. 202–03.
4. E. L. Doctorow, “The Art of Fiction,” No. 94 (interview with George
Plimpton), Paris Review, 28.101 (Winter 1986), 23–47, p. 33.
5. Thomas Pynchon, “Words for Ian McEwan,” Daily Telegraph, December 6,
2006, p. 17. I do not find this exact phrase in Ruskin; I believe Pynchon is
echoing Denis Donoghue’s characterization of Ruskin’s thought in Speaking of
Beauty (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), p. 160.
6. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge,
trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, MN: University
of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. xxiv.
7. Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1975), p. 328.
8. Brian McHale, “Genre as History: Genre-Poaching in Against the Day,” Genre,
42.3–4 (2009), 5–20, p. 10.
9. William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (1951, New York: Vintage, 2012), p. 73.
part ii
Culture, Politics, and Society
chapter 14

Mark Rohland

During the family reunion in Vineland (1990) that resolves the novel’s
action, protagonist daughter Prairie Wheeler notes she is “[f]eeling totally
familied out” (VL 374). After finishing Pynchon’s novels, especially those
after Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), readers, too, could feel totally familied out.
The adventures of a variety of families and family-like groups are impor-
tant in each novel. However, this significance has been overlooked by
scholarly readers – understandably, with so much else of academic interest
to puzzle out in the books. Pynchon’s “decentered subjectivity,” well
described by McHale, has caused readers to attend to unusual, “postmo-
dern” aspects of Pynchon’s fiction at the expense of traditional aspects such
as families.1 Yet the early novels feature children and neglectful parents,
and in the novels after Gravity’s Rainbow, families become increasingly
central and noticeable. The action from Vineland on often illustrates
troubled families remedying their troubles. Families or family-like groups
(such as cults) appear in all Pynchon’s main plots, even when family
members are conspicuous by various forms of absence. Ongoing thematic
concerns of Pynchon’s like alienation, the attraction to death, the perils of
science, the power of history, and the limits of knowledge are expressed
through parents and children. The following reviews the secondary litera-
ture on families in Pynchon, surveys specific instances of families, considers
the significance of Pynchon’s families for his vision of American culture,
and examines families in relation to pedagogy.
Although the secondary literature on Pynchon has paid little attention
to families, there have been significant exceptions. David Leverenz recog-
nizes “the betrayal, especially of children by parents” in the early work;
Strother Purdy finds a “culture of childhood” in the Zone of Gravity’s
Rainbow; N. Katherine Hayles’ analysis of kinship in Vineland recognizes
“Prairie’s search for her absent mother” as the novel’s “framing narrative”;
and Bernard Duyfhuizen examines some difficulties in interpreting child
abuse in Gravity’s Rainbow.2 More recent attention to families is paid in
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Scott McClintock’s examination of Pynchon’s “valorization of the senti-
mental and the family,” and in Simon Malpas and Andrew Taylor’s
connection of the Traverse family in Against the Day (2006) with the
“shapes of anarchism.”3 Although these observations on families show
that they enrich the action and themes of the novels, family figures none-
theless remain minor actors in the secondary literature. The increasing
salience of families in the recent novels suggests that families deserve more
scholarly attention. Pynchon’s families put to rest the long-held notion
that traditional character development is not important in his work.4
A survey of examples of families in Pynchon demonstrates their
“The Secret Integration” in Slow Learner (1984) presents circumstances
repeated in V. (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), and Gravity’s Rainbow:
a group of children functioning as an alternative family, ungoverned by
adults, but with the brainiac Grover acting in loco parentis. The parents
simply missing from that story become more strikingly present in V. as
elusive or abusive figures (V 379). Stencil searches his troubled memory and
the world for signs of his father’s mysterious death and for signs of V., who
could be his mother. Paola, a refugee from war-ruined Malta, has left her
father, Fausto. In his confessions Paola appears among a group of war-
orphaned and neglected children. Further, overt child abuse by guardians,
to be pictured elaborately in Gravity’s Rainbow, appears in V. That mys-
terious lady exercises sadistic and prurient control over the young Parisian
dancer Mélanie, who has no protector but V. A novel in ruins, V. is easier
to make sense of if one attends to the ruined parent-child relations in it.
On the shoulders of its metaphysical road to the unknown, The Crying of
Lot 49 features absence of and trouble with family. Oedipa seeks in the
Tristero an alternative family and fails to find it. Like many early Pynchon
protagonists, she lacks a familial context. She is estranged from her phi-
landering husband Mucho, and she has no family of origin. Nevertheless
her name recalls primal family relations and invites the reader to see her as
an archetypal daughter. During her wanderings, she witnesses children
who are figures of both abuse and promise. Fictional children suffer before
her eyes: The comically “kasher[ed]” Baby Igor (CL 29) is a version of the
tragically murdered Niccolò, both done in by malevolent father figures.
Other, real children she meets stand for both freedom from parental
control and the longing for family. She comes across “a circle of children
in their nightclothes, who told her they were dreaming the gathering,”
enjoying “inside their circle an imaginary fire, and need[ing] nothing but
their own unpenetrated sense of community,” free from parents who with
Family 117
their troubles often penetrate violently the lives of children in Pynchon (CL
118). Oedipa also meets a “child roaming the night who missed the death
before birth as certain outcasts do the dear lulling blankness of the com-
munity” (CL 123). Oedipa is herself a child roaming the night, lacking the
familial guidance granted characters in later novels, and longing for but
failing to find it in the “community” of the Tristero.
The representation of families in Gravity’s Rainbow is much darker.
Pynchon portrays some shocking sadistic relations between children or
infantilized adults and dominating parental figures. Most salient are the
relations between several young people and the mad, nightmarish father
and mother of the novel, Blicero and Greta Erdmann. Blicero “plays” the
Oven Game, a sadistic enactment of “Hansel and Gretel,” with an infanti-
lized Katje and Gottfried. Blicero has another sadistic relationship with
Gottfried. In total control of the young man’s life and death inside the
rocket, Blicero functions as a wicked father. Indeed Blicero’s rocket is at the
center of both the novel and of the child abuse that runs through it.
Nothing can protect children from the gravity of the rocket and its master
Blicero. Greta, his partner in crime, has killed Jewish children in her
manifestation as the Shekinah, and becomes an abusive mother in the
most disturbing example of child abuse in the novel, the sexual abuse of her
young daughter Bianca. This abuse is perhaps real, perhaps imaginary, but
in either case it is lavishly detailed.5 Bianca is victimized in various perverse
ways by her mother, Slothrop, and others. As another child unprotected by
family, she dies in sad and repulsive circumstances. Child abuse in Gravity’s
Rainbow is not limited to Greta and Blicero. The relationship of Pökler
and his daughter Ilse becomes incestuous, and Slothrop has sex with
underage girls. The novel’s action originates in the experimental abuse of
infant Slothrop by his “Pernicious Pop,” which attracts him irresistibly to
rockets, danger, and sexual perversion. Slothrop’s attractions pave the way
for much exuberant comedy and drama, and the point that they begin in
parentally condoned child abuse can be missed. On the whole, Gravity’s
Rainbow presents a world without family benevolence that endangers
In Vineland, an older Pynchon turns to richer, more benign portrayals of
families in the Wheelers and the Gateses. A notable change is that parents
become less villainous and more embodied creations. Zoyd Wheeler and
Frenesi may not be very effective parents, but they influence their child, as
she struggles to understand her family history, for the better. For the first
time an absent parent has a detailed portrayal, as Frenesi’s tale is uncovered
and interpreted by her daughter, Prairie. Vineland also introduces family
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connections over multiple generations through the portrayal of Frenesi’s
parents, the Gateses, who have cinematic and political interests like hers.
The work ends in a family reunion in which the estranged Wheelers
tentatively connect and demonstrate that family is a counterforce to the
authorities that destroyed Frenesi’s dream of political freedom. The world
may be unfree and destructive, but the family in Vineland carries instances
of freedom and creation. Vineland portrays intergenerational understand-
ing that doesn’t replace the intergenerational conflict of the earlier work
but mitigates it.
In Mason & Dixon (1997), families return to the periphery of Pynchon’s
concerns, but they continue to appear as positive counters to the negatives
drawn by the Line. Charles Clerc points out that domestic conflicts “figure
prominently,” including “Charles Mason Sr.’s disagreeableness with his
family, especially his vitriolic treatment of his son.”6 Domestic life haunts
the peripatetic Mason in the form of memories of his dead wife Rebekah.
The ribald Vroom sisters provide the surveyors with a temporary and
tempting household. Another bad father appears in forefather George
Washington. Pynchon hilariously portrays him as earthy, throwing one
of his many barbs at the pious view of ancestors that makes American and
personal history hard to understand. Perhaps the key family presence is the
novel’s framing device, in which Reverend Cherrycoke tells the tales of
Mason and Dixon to his young nephews and niece. The entire novel can be
seen as teaching children when not to take adults too seriously, and where –
as in Mason’s feelings for Rebekah – virtue lies in the world of their parents
and of earlier generations.
In Against the Day, families dominate the scene. History is narrated as
family history, as if its effects on families are what is most important about
it. In the novel’s profusion of family narratives, central are the tales of the
Traverses, a multigenerational family saga. In the Traverse tales we see the
violence of familial relations from the early novels transformed into famil-
ial resistance to violence and domination, epitomized by the tycoon
Scarsdale Vibe. Especially interesting is the story of the Traverse sons’
revenge. The brothers come together to seek revenge, loyal to their father
and each other. The revenge tale initiates, paradoxically, a complex set of
tales in which the Traverses struggle, however violently, to stay together
and true to the family’s values. Another set of stories focuses on Dahlia,
whose birth in marital conflict creates the sentimental narrative of her
childhood with the benevolent substitute father Merle, followed by
reunion with her estranged mother and her stepfamily, followed by
a sojourn in Venice where she is taken into a noble household, followed
Family 119
eventually by a marriage to Kit Traverse that forms a new family.
The household of Princess Spongiatosta is a safe house for Dahlia, much as
T.W.I.T. headquarters are for Yashmeen. Such alternative family settings
appear most strikingly as the airship Inconvenience of the Chums of
Chance. This family of eternal boys battles adult villains who would
dominate the world, and they bicker like sibling rivals. By their heroics,
they definitively reverse the hitherto dominant sign of the child as victim.
Whether biological or assembled by choice or chance, the families of
Against the Day clarify Pynchon’s developed view of the family as
a counterforce.
In Inherent Vice (2009), families continue to enjoy a prominent role.
The protagonist Doc Sportello, as is condign to the 1960s setting, treats all
he meets as family, even some of his enemies. The novel counterbalances
typical Pynchon villainy with Doc’s lighthearted “smile on your brother”
attitude that makes this California novel a comic contrast to the solemn
The Crying of Lot 49. Though not a family man himself, Doc has an aunt
and a nephew who help him in his detective work. That work leads him to
investigate a criminal family, the Wolfmanns, and rescue an innocent one,
the Harlingens. The reunion of strung-out and cult-manipulated Coy
Harlingen with his wife and daughter is central to the investigation and
the novel. The Manson “family,” a current event in the book, is countered
by Doc’s kind of family, where Mansonian ego is trumped by the large-
heartedness that Pynchon now associates with commitment and connec-
tion to families.
Bleeding Edge (2013), too, is a family-focused novel. It begins with
a family scene, Maxine taking her children to school, and throughout
portrays her crime investigation as connected with her family troubles.
Her adulterous relationship with the menacing Windust is related to her
estrangement from her husband Horst. Maxine’s family – Horst, her
children, and her parents – brings her comfort and help in her investiga-
tion. Remarkable in Bleeding Edge is the proportion of the narrative taken
up with “normal” family events, such as holidays and vacations. Her
family, though troubled, is a realistically portrayed counterforce to the
conspiratorial menace she tracks. Pynchon again pits larger forces of
villainy against family, with the latter retaining a great deal of power.
Familial love makes things as good as they get in a terrifying world.
On September 10, 2001, the Loeffler-Tarnow parents and children go
out for pizza, a favorite activity before the parental estrangement. This
quotidian eat-out, “Maxine supposes, you could call family tradition, not
specially admirable, but hell, she’ll take it” (BE 315). Just before much goes
120 mark rohland
down for the United States and for her, Maxine here expresses Pynchon’s
most recent attitude toward family. It’s what keeps us up, whatever goes
Pynchon shows the American family menaced throughout an
expanse of its history by misgovernment, war, corporate greed, crime,
and plain human vice. Both the realistic and the exaggerated families in
the novels show the way families are and have been in this country,
and that way passes through many minefields. Pynchon shows family
isolation and conflict in many guises, countering the American ideol-
ogy of the “normal” family. So integral to novels and other fictions are
families that we think we know the latter thoroughly. As Barry McCrea
states, “[n]arrative and family both . . . organize the unknowable jum-
ble of events and people who preceded us into a coherent array of
precedence, sequence, and cause.”7 Yet Pynchon shows us that families
are not just those we know from novels and screens. He works to
destroy the notion that there is “a” family that one could define. If the
Chums of Chance are a family, and are even more richly portrayed
than, say, the classy Stencils, a family is an odder, broader, and more
complicated thing than one expects. Pynchon’s family, like so much in
America, is an invention, a fiction created and creative, for better or
worse. The Wheelers or the Loeffler-Tarnows are recognizably
American, full of strife but free to evade the menacing agendas of
powers at higher levels of the social order, simply by being different
and resistant.
Beyond these considerations, a significant reason for attention to
Pynchon’s families is pedagogical. Student readers can use the familial
elements of his fiction as means of connecting to the characters and action.
Families are something we can of course all “relate to.” Adolescents
especially are responsive to the familial aspects of novels when they are
pointed out. Freshman writing commonly begins in autobiography, and
students encouraged to see their own lives in those of an Oedipa or a Prairie
can gain insight into the human and historical conditions the novels
propose and into their own conditions in a similar, if less zany, society.
Moreover, discussion among students of family relations in his work can
serve as an entry point to discussion of larger points that Pynchon is
making. Families are broken, imperfect, and hard to keep together in
Pynchon, and in the world we live in human relations are similarly decrepit
at many levels. The villainy that threatens so many family figures in
Pynchon differs from that which immediately threatens readers, surely,
but perhaps only by a factor of hyperbole. Families allow students to begin
Family 121
with the familiar and move to more sophisticated understandings of the
complexities in Pynchon, and serve as useful points of entry for teaching.
Finally, one can see families in Pynchon as one can see those in science
fiction series such as Dr. Who or Star Wars. They carry development of
character and action but get much less attention than his special effects
(Byron the Bulb and so forth) and his sensational, panoramic plots and
settings. Pynchon’s readers, like Whovians and fans of the Force, can
benefit from attending more carefully to the families affected by the
exciting episodes. His readers will find mothers, fathers, children, siblings,
grandparents, and many characters who can be taken for family. And they
will find them enlightening. His families take us to the basis of Pynchon’s
tentative solutions to the human problems he so teemingly elaborates.

1. Brian McHale, “Pynchon’s Postmodernism,” in Inger H. Dalsgaard,
Luc Herman, and Brian McHale (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to
Thomas Pynchon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 99–100.
2. David Leverenz, “On Trying to Read Gravity’s Rainbow,” in George Levine
and David Leverenz (eds.), Mindful Pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon
(Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1976), p. 235; Strother Purdy,
“Gravity’s Rainbow and the Culture of Childhood,” Pynchon Notes, 22–23
(1988), 7–23; N. Katherine Hayles, “‘Who Was Saved?’: Families, Snitches,
and Recuperation in Pynchon’s Vineland,” in Geoffrey Green, Donald J.
Greiner, and Larry McCaffery (eds.), The Vineland Papers: Critical Takes on
Pynchon’s Novel (Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1994), p. 14;
Bernard Duyfhuizen, “‘A Suspension Forever at the Hinge of Doubt’:
The Reader-Trap of Bianca in Gravity’s Rainbow,” Journal of Interdisciplinary
Thought on Contemporary Cultures, 2.1 (1991), 1–23.
3. Scott McClintock, “The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State
of California in Pynchon’s Fiction,” in Scott McClintock and John Miller
(eds.), Pynchon’s California (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014), p. 91;
Simon Malpas and Andrew Taylor, Thomas Pynchon (Manchester: Manchester
University Press, 2013), p. 94.
4. See Edward Mendelson, “Gravity’s Encyclopedia,” in Levine and Leverenz
(eds.), Mindful Pleasures, pp. 179–80.
5. Duyfhuizen, “‘Suspension,’” 1–23.
6. Charles Clerc, Mason & Dixon & Pynchon (Lanham, MD: University Press of
America, 2000), p. 97.
7. Barry McCrea, In the Company of Strangers: Family and Narrative in Dickens,
Conan Doyle, Joyce, and Proust (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011),
p. 8.
chapter 15

Sex and Gender

Ali Chetwynd and Georgios Maragos

Thomas Pynchon’s treatment of sex and gender is full of apparent

simplicities multiply undermined and rewritten, much of which rewrit-
ing seems prompted by changes in the evolving context of American
culture’s treatment of sex and gender. From V. (1963) onward we can
see Pynchon revising the 1950s misogyny that his very earliest work –
like Minstrel Island, a libretto he cowrote in 1958 – had reproduced
comparatively unambiguously. Minstrel Island sets an outcast band of
artists and bohemians (male apart from “Whore” and “Sailmaker”)
against IBM, here to regulate the mavericks out of existence in the
name of “Big Mother Machine.”1 The leader of the IBM colonists is
“Broad,” a young “career woman” who relies on a computerized transla-
tion machine to grasp the concept of love. Whore suggests that seducing
Broad will be the way to halt the invasion, since “[s]omeday I’ll have to
tell you about women. We’re all the same underneath.”2 Critics like
Robert Holton and Molly Hite read Pynchon’s early work in terms of
Philip Wylie’s A Generation of Vipers (1943), whose paranoia about
emasculation by oppressive mother figures grounds its entire account
of mid-war US culture.3 Minstrel Island, like the published short story
“Low Lands” (1960), adopts this vision belatedly and uncritically in the
manner of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962). What
most sets Minstrel Island apart from Pynchon’s subsequent novels,
however, is its essentially uncritical presentation of its male protagonist.
“Hero,” seen through Broad’s eyes, is perhaps more of a caricature than
her: “She is struck by something in her – an old note of a new feeling.
She sees his handsome face, his air of freedom. And she is [sic] feels
deep in her, for a moment, a sense of envy, of desire [. . .] Hero seems
to be full of compassion and pit [sic] for her, for he is a man with full
understanding.”4 Between the abandonment of Minstrel Island and the
completion of V., though, Pynchon’s sense of what might make a male
protagonist compelling changed.
Sex and Gender 123
V.’s Benny Profane is portly and soft enough to be perceived as feminine
or childlike; he appeals to many of the novel’s women precisely because of
these qualities, as they seek either to mother him or to have him care for
them in a way they find lacking in other men. If the novel associates
femininity with artificiality and decadence, it also emphasizes the horrors
of aggressive masculinity: The women drawn to Benny choose him over
violent husbands or violent intra-ethnic honor codes. As critics like Mary
Allen note, Pynchon’s earliest work repeatedly criticizes masculinism
through representing its violent impact on women, without presenting
female experience as separable from this instrumental use. Allen finds this
characteristic of male American writing across the whole postwar period,
but in presenting effeminate Benny as a worthwhile alternative to violent
masculinity, rather than an enfeebled victim of female control, V. moves
decisively away from the Wylie-heritage of Minstrel Island.5
This move is legible in the novel’s revision-process. In scenes cut from
V.’s final draft, a street preacher addresses – in aggressively gendered
terms – one of the novel’s main preoccupations: decadence. America in
the 1950s, he tells us, embodies “Pornocracy,” or “government by immoral
women.”6 In another cut scene, later in the manuscript but earlier in the
fiction’s chronology, he clarifies to the denizens of 1910s Paris that he and
they “are in a decadence [. . .] Ruled by harlots. A pornocracy.”7 “What
exactly happens with harlots in charge? [S]omething artificial takes the
place of something natural. It’s when women put so much junk on their
faces it isn’t a face any more but a Hallowe’en mask. It’s when a ‘man’ falls
enough in love with a Hallowe’en mask to marry it.”8 The body of V.’s
titular woman becomes increasingly mechanized until she gets disas-
sembled to death. Femininity thus coincides with the decadent fall away
from humanity per se toward mechanism and artifice. Worrying less about
women themselves than about their potential to reduce “man” to an
existence within inverted commas, the street preacher recapitulates many
of the published novel’s gender concerns. But there is a joke in his two
appearances, a continent and thirty years apart: that the consistent feature
of the two pornocracies he laments is himself. Is Pynchon mocking men
who build worldviews on misogyny? If so, why did he cut these, along with
other scenes in which the dialogue explicitly connected the novel’s main
concerns to essentialist claims about Men and Women?9
Such questions arise, no easier to resolve, throughout Pynchon’s career.
His novels consistently overwrite earlier treatments of gender, most expli-
citly when Against the Day (2006) resurrects the girl violently killed by
automatons in V. to claim that she was never really killed, her death staged
124 ali chetwynd and georgios maragos
instead as “something the eternally-adolescent male mind could tickle itself
with” (AD 1066). The novels’ growing self-consciousness and seemingly
earnest pursuit of non-adolescent gender thinking have various potential
explanations: Pynchon’s mid-career marriage and parenthood, changes in
the surrounding culture, or his in-text engagement with feminist theory
from Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) onward.10 Pynchon’s early work also rejects
and parodies his male peers. Novels like Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain
King (1959) and John Updike’s Rabbit Run (1960) end with male characters
asserting existential subjecthood against an oppressively controlling world
by setting off on a directionless running. By contrast, V. ends with Benny
running in the wake of a pretentious, directionless college girl, stating that
he “ha[s]n’t learned a god damn thing” (V 454), and accompanied by “all
illumination” in the surrounding city being “extinguished” (V 455).
In The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Oedipa’s impatient “Where?” to the seducer
who implores her “run away with me” establishes at the novel’s outset that
constructive action needs to be taken out of the hands of aimless, respon-
sibility-avoidant male narcissists (CL 19).
Pynchon’s thinking on gender is plausibly responsive, then, to the wider
culture, to academic work, to his own personal circumstances, and to the
limitations of his peers. His sexual representations, especially of transgres-
sive or taboo acts, are similarly context-conditioned. Luc Herman and
Steven Weisenburger have demonstrated how Gravity’s Rainbow addresses
changes in US obscenity law during the process of its composition.11 Simon
Cook has meanwhile argued that Pynchon’s work consistently figures
sexual relationships in the terms established by the pornography of the
era in which each novel is set.12 How constructive is this responsiveness?
For every Molly Hite finding Vineland (1990) a worthwhile elaboration of
the feminist texts to which it explicitly alludes, there is a Joanna Freer
finding Pynchon’s attempts to distance himself from the “eternally-
adolescent male mind” of earlier times belied by the persistence of rhet-
orically instrumentalized sexual violence throughout his fiction. Though
another cut section of the V. typescript anticipates Andrea Dworkin and
Catherine MacKinnon – “Screw Transitive verb, takes an object,” Benny
thinks to himself, in lieu of actually having sex with his companion, “Me
screwer, you, poor Lucille, screwee. He scratched his armpit”13 – Pynchon’s
treatment of sex and gender is otherwise less significant for robust proto-
feminist insights than for what it reveals about the internal moral and social
logic of his fictive worlds.
The most fundamental of these career-spanning Pynchonian revisions
concerns how gender conditions the rhetoric of his sex-scenes: The textual
Sex and Gender 125
forms of interiority he grants the female characters in such scenes change,
as, correlatively, do the social dynamics the scenes establish. Compare the
first sexual encounter between Bleeding Edge’s (2013) protagonist Maxine
Tarnow and the libertarian mercenary Windust – focalized entirely
through Maxine’s consciousness – to the infamous coprophagia scene in
Gravity’s Rainbow, which gives us access to the minds of both Katje
Borgesius (playing the role of dominatrix) and Brigadier Pudding (playing
submissive), each at the behest of the Pavlovian psychologist Pointsman.
Both scenes aim to complicate the basic dynamics of male power and
control, but they take very different approaches to what this means for their
focalizing women.
Katje appears more regularly throughout Gravity’s Rainbow than almost
any of its male characters, but can hardly be called a protagonist. Always
acting at the behest of some man, usually in order to manipulate another,
she is a double agent, an object of desire, a trap, an unredeemed soul. In her
encounter with Pudding she is notionally in control, but even as
a dominatrix she is a tool: fulfilling one man’s fetish in order to exploit
him for another man’s ends. The scene is initially focalized through
Pudding, as he moves through a number of rooms that each represent
one of his fantasies. Katje, in the guise of the angel of death, awaits him in
the last of these, where he must abase himself and call himself “your
servant” (GR 232). Since this all happens within the military-intelligence
hub of “the White Visitation,” this servant-play belies the fact that, within
the same organization, he still outranks her. But beyond this simple
transgressive inversion, the power is really held by the extra-military
experimenter Pointsman. The orders, punishments, and denigrations
that Katje issues to Pudding are ritualized enough in serving his desires
that the one moment “she can enjoy” – hitting him with a cane – is
remarked upon as such (GR 234). This flicker of pleasure raises the question
of whether this sexual enjoyment of violence is part of Katje’s own con-
ditioning – her equivalent of the lifelong military acculturation that led
Pudding to fetishize punishment, death, and shit – or an act of relative
autonomy within Pointsman’s game, which is ostensibly inattentive to
female pleasure. Marie Franco has shown that the scene raises similar
defiant possibilities for Pudding himself, who indulges the coprophagia’s
association with death further than Pointsman had planned, by not taking
the antibiotic medicine provided.14
These glimpses of potential agency are matched by the occasional
glimpses into Katje’s experience of the scene: The latter focus less on her
physical sensations than on her consciousness of being pulled between
126 ali chetwynd and georgios maragos
competing male imperatives, as she is throughout the novel. For this
reason, Margaret Lynd maintains that Gravity’s Rainbow’s form grants
readers more sympathy toward even the most repulsive male characters
than toward women whose femininity “emerges [. . .] as little more than
male fantasy.” The dwelling on Katje’s suffering between competing
imperatives matches Lynd’s sense of Pynchon’s “outrage at this state of
affairs.”15 But that one glimpse of potential enjoyment on her part is all the
novel has to offer Katje in terms either of agentive potential or independent
volition. Insofar as she embodies femininity in relation to the masculinism
the novel critiques, she embodies a vivid but pessimistic subordinate role.
In Bleeding Edge, meanwhile, Maxine’s first encounter with Windust
sees her mentally rejecting him but overcome by submissive instincts:
“shouldn’t she be saying, ‘You know what, fuck yourself, you’ll have
more fun,’ and walking out? No, instead, instant docility” (BE 258).
Where Katje is torn between male imperatives with little space for her
own subjectivity, Maxine’s conflict is between a submission and
a resistance that are both internal. Windust, a mercenary, has government
ties, but the masculinity he represents is more separable from matters of
institutional control and manipulation than are Pudding or Pointsman.
Where Katje’s in-scene dominance is undercut to make her a mere avatar of
passively imperative-torn femininity, Maxine does everything with
Windust of her own volition, in line with the imperatives of her bodily
pleasure: Her reflexive submissiveness is an element, not an undermining,
of her protagonist’s prerogative of internal agentive conflict. Maxine is thus
at once the weak woman submitting to male power, a gender-flip of the
stoic investigator unable to resist the femme (homme) fatale, and a woman
attempting to make sense of her place among such competing female
archetypes.16 But does the fact that her interiority is more susceptible to
such nuance than Katje’s is make Maxine either a more illuminating avatar
of feminine agency’s relation to male power, or a more convincing male-
pen fictional woman?
The more Maxine discovers about what Windust may have been
involved with in South America, the worse he comes to seem. When she
gets an opportunity to help him as his past starts to catch up with him, the
dynamics of their sex are recapitulated: “this man deserves no mercy”
(BE 389), and yet she grants it. Is this a moral choice overcoming reflexive
disgust, or simply the instinctual inability to refuse male desires? The novel
seems to vindicate Maxine’s decision: We later find out about acts of
compassion on Windust’s part, while he posthumously returns the
money she had given him to help him escape. But this does not rule out
Sex and Gender 127
the possibility that her decision stemmed from biology rather than moral
choice. The difference between Katje and Maxine – the change in
Pynchon’s ideas at the point where gendered power dynamics and sexual
representations coincide – lies finally not in Maxine escaping the possibility
of an essential female passivity, but in the degree of agentive interiority she
is granted in her self-conscious dealing with that possibility.
The basic shift in implication between these depictions of female sexual
subordination, then, is from their functioning only to criticize
a masculinized network of pathological control, toward making them the
nexus for an investigation of distinctively womanly experience. But the latter
is complicated by the aspect of Pynchon’s evolution that most overtly
departs from the contemporaneous trajectory of feminist thought: his insis-
tence on a particularly sexual gender-essentialism that recalls Minstrel Island’s
“we’re all the same underneath.” In Maxine and in Vineland’s Frenesi Gates,
with her suspicion that women like her bear “a DNA sequence requiring this
form of seduction and initiation into the dark joys of social control” (VL 83),
Pynchon’s most consistent mid- to late-career avenue for exploring feminine
subjectivity seems to be his female characters’ worry that they may be
governed by pre-subjective instincts that reduce them to passive, reflexive
non-agents in the presence of politicized male power.
Pynchon’s self-revisions, from V.’s departures from Minstrel Island right up
to Maxine’s self-consciousness in Bleeding Edge, stem from a preoccupation
with the harms of masculinism. This gives his representations of women’s
experience – though they have become more mimetic, more complex, more
optimistic – an instrumentally subordinate function, as symptom of wider
social structures. Though Pynchon’s later work does directly engage with
academic feminism and wider cultural shifts in gender roles and attitudes to
sex, it would thus be too simplistic to say that he evolves alongside, or lagging
slightly behind, those developments. Perhaps what is most interesting about
Pynchon’s shifting attitudes is which aspects of his post-Wylie gender-
worldview have remained stable beneath the changes.
First, we have the critique of the male exploitation of women: From
Benny Profane onward through Zoyd Wheeler in Vineland, Pynchon
makes men who defy macho expectations to act with care toward women
embody a model of compassion that the later fiction increasingly associates
with viable political resistance. Whereas the typescript of V. had male
characters struggling to make sense of changing norms through binary
approaches that only let them think of themselves as “opposite from
woman,” thereafter Pynchon consistently values behavior that crosses
gendered expectations: Men like Profane and Zoyd and women like
128 ali chetwynd and georgios maragos
Vineland’s DL Chastain are better able to act with care when they act with
willful androgyny.17
Secondly, as our comparison of Katje and Maxine shows, sex in
Pynchon is never separable from, and always diagnostic of, political struc-
tures. These may be material or psychological, and often such scenes are the
crux of that interface within any given novel. Sex is therefore both the locus
for corruption, exploitation, control, and totalitarian dehumanization, and
consistently identified as a potential source of defiance or resistance, since it
can rewrite those codes at their most fundamental point of influence.
Finally, as both sex and gender are so central to Pynchon’s moral and
political worldview, family consistently emerges as the nexus for valuable
action in his worlds: It is also the paradigm for everything that corruption
and control attack. Between Gravity’s Rainbow and Vineland Pynchon of
course married and had a son, but what changes in his subsequent work is
less the value of family than his widening concept of what a family can be:
Mason & Dixon’s (1997) central family relationship is with a ghost, while
Against the Day develops a number of multiple-parent family-structures.
Whatever the configurations, the surest sign of moral failure and political
abuse in Pynchon’s work is the abandonment of family and children.
If Pynchon’s treatment of sex and gender is usually understood in terms
of the transgression and power-dynamic violence of so many of his sex
scenes, he nevertheless locates much of his novels’ wider political hope
within modulations of the traditional nuclear family. Rarely plain con-
servative, Pynchon is still conventional where we might expect transgres-
sion, essentialist where we expect fluidity, consistently self-revising but
often – as in that turn toward essentialism – in the opposite direction to his
peers and culture. He is not one of contemporary fiction’s most revolu-
tionary gender thinkers, but certainly one of its most idiosyncratic.

1. Thomas Pynchon, Uncompleted Manuscript of Minstrel Island [1958]. Harry
Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin, p. 2
2. Pynchon, Uncompleted Manuscript of Minstrel Island, p. 3[b]/4.
3. Robert Holton, “‘Closed Circuit’: The White Male Predicament in Pynchon’s
Early Stories,” in Niran Abbas (ed.), Thomas Pynchon: Reading from
The Margins (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003), pp.
37–50; Molly Hite, “When Pynchon Was a Boys’ Club: V. and mid-century
Mystifications of Gender,” in Ali Chetwynd, Joanna Freer, and
Georgios Maragos (eds.), Thomas Pynchon, Sex, and Gender (Athens, GA:
University of Georgia Press, 2018).
Sex and Gender 129
4. Pynchon, Uncompleted Manuscript of Minstrel Island, p. 4.
5. Mary Allen, The Necessary Blankness: Women in Major American Fiction of the
Sixties (Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1976), pp. 37–51.
6. Thomas Pynchon, Untitled typescript of V. [1961] Harry Ransom Humanities
Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin, p. 451.
7. Pynchon, Untitled typescript of V., p. 628.
8. Pynchon, Untitled typescript of V., p. 457.
9. See Luc Herman and John Krafft, “Pynchon and Gender: A View from the
Typescript of V.,” in Chetwynd et al. (eds.), Thomas Pynchon.
10. For discussion of such engagement, see Molly Hite, “Feminist Theory and the
Politics of Vineland,” in Geoffrey Green, Donald J. Greiner, and
Larry McCaffery (eds.), The Vineland Papers (Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive
Press, 1994), pp. 135–53. See also Joanna Freer, Thomas Pynchon and American
Counterculture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 126–56.
11. Luc Herman and Steven Weisenburger, Gravity’s Rainbow, Domination, and
Freedom (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2013).
12. Simon Cook, “Manson chicks and microskirted cuties: pornification in
Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice,” Textual Practice 29.6 (2015), 1143–64.
13. Pynchon, Untitled typescript of V., p. 143.
14. Marie Franco, “Queer Sex, Queer Text: S/M in Gravity’s Rainbow,” in
Chetwynd et al. (eds.), Thomas Pynchon.
15. Margaret Lynd, “Science, Narrative, and Agency in Gravity’s Rainbow,”
Critique, 46.1 (Fall 2004), 63–80, p. 71.
16. The idea of the homme fatale was suggested to us in a private conversation
with Kostas Kaltsas.
17. Pynchon, Untitled typescript of V., p. 197.
chapter 16

Doug Haynes

One of the pleasurable hooks of Pynchon’s writing is that it is funny as well

as difficult and labyrinthine. The writer encompasses, even invents, a huge
range of comic, witty, and humorous techniques, effects, and affects,
seemingly for the purposes of just goofing around, but also for deflating
or mocking conventions of realist seriousness and sentiment. This is
especially true in the sense that such disciplinarian modes and moods
prescribe what novels are allowed to do and be. Unusually, Pynchon’s
novels incorporate songs, for example: How does it change the way we read
a text if we are trying to hear it too, vocalized as libretto, soaring and
sinking? And if laughter emerges also from certain kinds of unruly excess –
the semantic excesses of a pun, let’s say, which Freud associates with pre-
rational play – Pynchon’s willingness to concoct whole episodes of his
novels around the extraction of “high magic from low puns” (CL 97)
maximizes that experience.1 Who else would resurrect the Marquis de
Sade as lawn-care specialist the Marquis de Sod (try drawling it) on
a 1984 Northern Californian TV ad? Vineland (1990) contains precisely
such visions. After physically chastising some substandard turf, the divine
Marquis fades up a “post-disco arrangement of the Marseillaise” substitut-
ing the revolutionary exhortation “allons enfants de la Patrie” – “arise
children of the fatherland” – with a description of “a lawn savant who’ll lop
a tree-uh” (VL 46). This barely homophonic word-string demonstrates just
how profoundly Pynchon’s works are animated by a kind of will-to-
humor: a ravenous discourse that multiplies itself in its representations of
the world, rendering everything ironic, uncertain, unusual, musical.
Just think of the notoriously silly names. Should characters in serious,
prizewinning novels like Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) really be called things
like Geli Tripping? “Gaily Tripping” – approximating the German pro-
nunciation of “Geli” – is a song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s light opera
H.M.S. Pinafore (1878).2 Likewise with Oedipa Maas in The Crying of Lot
49 (1966): Is this actually the feminine version of Oedipus? Surely that’s
Humor 131
Electra. Is this character just a category error? What about Roger Mexico,
also from Gravity’s Rainbow, whose moniker is not a common British name
from the 1940s, or ever; it’s the uncanny intrusion of a non-name. The list
could go on.3 Terry Caesar famously points out that Oedipa’s full name
can be heard as “Oedipa, my ass,” a homophonic pun that devalues the
cultural capital stored up in the Greek or Freudian allusion, attacking, as
Tony Tanner suggests, the very act of naming itself.4
So something comes loose here. To displace seriousness, gravitas, or
gravity, which tugs us tragically downward toward earth and fixity (fixity of
names, identities, and meanings, for example), with levity, or lightness,
which floats whimsically upward, is a giddy, liberating move. In a 1927
essay, Freud describes humor as a “refusal to suffer,” an “elevating”
attitude, able, he says, to elude “the traumas of the external world” – to
go gaily tripping, we might say.5 Or ascend, like the Chums of Chance in
Against the Day (2006), in their airship, prior to their discovery they are not
immortal (AD 427). Thinking of the Romantic poets’ fondness for the
balloon as an image for poetry, Will May tells us that “[t]he poet-balloonist
is someone with a desire to go further and higher than they should, who
will use any means necessary to stay in the air, even if it means a crash
landing,” a figure we might find helpful for the humorist, too.6 Indeed,
sometimes Pynchon opens up another kind of humor, one invoking some-
thing like the obscene coming from another direction: a mode of humor
I will call – in a redefinition of an old category – black humor.
In burlesquing naming conventions, however, Pynchon undercuts our
expectations of psychologically realistic characters, too. With the exceptions,
perhaps, of the portraits of Mason and Dixon, the Traverses in Against
the Day, and Maxine Tarnow from Bleeding Edge (2013), the denizens of
Pynchon’s works are generally closer to those of the darkly comic 1930s
writings of Nathanael West,7 whose characters resemble self-flagellating
cartoons, or the British satirical modernist Wyndham Lewis, with his anti-
Woolfian interest in badly piloted bodies and ungainly externality.8
“In contrast to the jelly-fish that floats in the center of the subterranean
stream of the ‘dark’ Unconscious,” Lewis writes, “I much prefer, for my
part, the shield of the tortoise, or the rigid stylistic articulations of the
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, in Dialectic of Enlightenment
(1944), a document not especially friendly to fun, which they consider to be
a dumb quashing of thought, nevertheless imagine a useful affinity
between names and laughter. To laugh, they suggest, is a gesture more
forceful than whimsical, one of “breaking out of blind and obdurate
132 doug haynes
nature,” or out of any naturalized, fixed predicament, with a brittle bark of
self-consciousness. Laughter is a crude but effective beginning of criticism,
a suspension of the law, a new space. Poetically, then, the writers tell us that
“[t]his duality of laughter is akin to that of the name, and perhaps names
are no more than frozen laughter.” Pinned to a name through which
I imagine myself, I sense that the latter’s magic can overcome any fixed
identity. Through such language, and such laughter, one may elude some
of the “thralldom,” in Adorno and Horkheimer’s phrase, of a dominated
capitalist existence every bit as implacable as nature itself.10 The name
names the self that is elevated above nature, necessity, or the traumas of the
world; the name is inherently humorous.
Pynchon uses names to defrost laughter in similar fashion. Names for
him are always surplus to requirements, mucho mas, or “a lot more” than
they need to be, a mirror that, in San Narciso as elsewhere, reflects back
more than one bargains for.11 More than merely perform the function of
identifying a character, they represent a counterpart, or dédoublement, in
Paul de Man’s phrase, of character. The Pynchonian name is the social
subject discursively constructed, denaturalized, and reflecting on itself: the
ironic, humorous self.12 In this sense, Oedipa is exemplary. As Richard
Hardack ably demonstrates, that hard-to-categorize name connotes an
“already castrated” or woman-ized Oedipus. Oedipa’s name reflects the
feminist claim that “femininity is registered only as a lack or negative
within the language of phallocentric desire, and, for all its alterity, is not
necessarily perceptible.”13 A woman can appear on these patriarchal terms,
and in this patriarchal world only impossibly – as an invisible-man-who-is-
not-a-man! Through Oedipa, Lot 49 stages the powerful tension between
the speaking subject through whose thoughts and actions the novella is
narrated, and the hard-to-imagine discursive designation her name sug-
gests, which may of course be the more accurate one: the socially real one.
The narrative plays with the way these two sides interfere with one another;
how does Mrs. Maas orient herself with regard to the lopsided Oedipus she
Arguably this is funny because it shows what many see as the heart
of humor: incongruity.14 Pynchon himself notes that an interest in
surrealism led him as a writer to the technique of surprising juxtaposi-
tion so pivotal to that movement, where “one could combine inside the
same frame elements not normally found together to produce illogical
and startling effects” (SL 22), as he writes.15 The tension between the
real Oedipa and her name corresponds also to philosopher Arthur
Schopenhauer’s maxim, central to incongruity theory: “The cause of
Humor 133
laughter in every case is simply the sudden perception of the incon-
gruity between a concept and the real objects which have been thought
through it in some relation, and laughter itself is just the expression of
this incongruity.”16 The lack of fit between object and idea, which
Schopenhauer sees as always operating in humor to the detriment of
the idea, takes a different turn in Pynchon where it is the linguistic or
conceptual level that takes precedence. On the very first page of Lot 49,
we get “[y]ou’re so sick, Oedipa, she told herself, or the room, which
knew” (CL 5), playing with how “sick” is a homophone of “sic,”
a contraction of sic erat scriptum, or “thus it was written.” Oedipa is
[sic] indeed.
One more aspect of the levity of Pynchon’s naming is, as Patrick Hurley
observes, the fact that “[t]he persistent use of absurd or wildly comic names
must be viewed as an act of subversion regarding . . . the realist tradition.”17
Just as Pynchon dispenses with realistically drawn and named characters,
so he resists the literary realism that the latter project. Sarah Churchwell
suggests that Pynchon’s novels are “more or less always picaresque jour-
neys,” a genre predating realism and populated by stock types.18 In his 1984
essay “Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?” Pynchon laments the exclusion of
insufficiently serious genres from the literary canon, using the Gothic as
example: “The Gothic attitude in general, because it used images of death
and ghostly survival toward no more responsible end than special effects
and cheap thrills, was judged not Serious enough and confined to its own
part of town.”
For Pynchon, the pleasure of cheap thrills is important. In his introduc-
tion to Slow Learner (1984) he confesses, for example, a love of chase scenes:
“one piece of puerility I am unable to let go of,” he admits. “May Road
Runner cartoons never vanish from the video waves, is my attitude” (SL
21). However, these cultures of levity carry something else forward, too.
Pynchon considers the nonserious to represent a kind of collective social
imaginary, replete with a residue of firebrand religion sometimes appearing
as “the miraculous” and which sets itself in opposition to power. Running
through cultural history from the Great Awakening to the Gothic to King
Kong, this kind of levity refers us, Pynchon suggests, to a moment before
the consolidation of industrial capital: an era in which “[t]he laws of nature
[have] not been so strictly formulated.”19 Close to Adorno and
Horkheimer above, or like Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Pynchon notes
the tight (re)construction of nature and its laws by Enlightenment capit-
alism. He valorizes a counter-narrative composed of devalued or over-
looked cultural products, referring back to a moment when “nature” was
134 doug haynes
easier to shake off, or float free from, and where there are remnants of a folk
culture rather than an entirely industrial one.
The writer hence dedicates his politics of levity to the spirit of King
Ludd, who raged against the machine, as well as to resistance to the engines
of industrial (re)production and the kinds of efficient Weberian-bourgeois
subject they reproduce: This is resistance as refusal of realism, as fantasy,
and as humor.20 After all, whether as laborer or vandal, the Luddite speaks
from outside the capital relationship that determines what counts as real.
So, again, the value of humor is rooted in what it offers in terms of
resistance to, or traversal of, hegemony. It’s a high-wire act, or balloon
voyage: Like the coyote in the Road Runner cartoons Pynchon likes so
much, the humorist runs off a cliff, remaining magically airborne, legs
cycling, until the fateful moment she realizes her predicament, and falls.
In Mason & Dixon (1997), Pynchon engages in exactly this kind of
precarity when he treats us to the figure of the Learnèd English Dog:
The beast, in doggerel (sorry), expounds his areas of expertise in
a Portsmouth pub. This episode is in some ways a metonym of the novel
as a whole. Through the L.E.D., as this luminous animal is referred to, we
see the Enlightenment construction of nature stretched to its categorical
limits, as well as the intertwinement of the culture of reason with economy
and empire as Pynchon uses the Dog to allude to the transatlantic slave
trade. In fact, Pynchon’s use of the Learnèd English Dog refers to a clutch
of historically real, tavern-based learnèd dog acts appearing throughout
mid-eighteenth to early nineteenth century England, so the sense of
a popular culture invested in whimsy and cheap thrills is underscored
here.21 The Dog speaks to the book’s eponymous characters on the ques-
tion of whether dogs have souls, offering the following:
please do not come to the Learnèd English Dog if it’s religious Comfort
you’re after. I may be præternatural, but I am not supernatural. ’Tis the Age
of Reason, rrrf? There is ever an Explanation at hand, and no such thing as
a Talking Dog,— Talking Dogs belong with Dragons and Unicorns. What
there are, however, are provisions for Survival in a World less fantastic.
(MD 22)

The distinction here between preternatural and supernatural is a fine one:

In terms of the newly applied categories of reason, the L.E.D. argues that
he is an outlying, or preternatural case of Doggishness, not a supernatural,
mythical beast. But by arguing reasonably, of course, he is talking himself
out of business. This is Schopenhauer’s notion of humorous incongruity
on permanent loop. The Dog’s proximity to ordinary animality – “’Tis the
Humor 135
Age of Reason, rrrf?” – literally mixes reason with the bark of a dog,
recalling Adorno and Horkheimer’s notion that reason and its other are all-
too-susceptible to swapping over, yet each canine word here is an ironic,
humorous elevation over nature.
The Dog’s “Provisions for Survival in a World less fantastic” – one that’s
been secularized and mapped – are a high-wire act of their own. To avoid
human predation, dogs, we discover, have become more human-facing –
what Deleuze and Guattari call territorialized or Oedipalized; none more
so than the L.E.D., who actually talks: “So we know how to evoke from
you, Man, one day at a time, at least enough Mercy for one more day of
Life. Nonetheless, however accomplish’d, our Lives are never settled,— we
go on as Tail-wagging Scheherazades” (MD 22). These tense daily perfor-
mances nevertheless squeeze a humor and a human-ness from dogs, the
stakes of which are that failure entails death: It’s a tough gig,
Enlightenment, full of inhuman discipline.
Which brings me back to black humor. Mason & Dixon constantly
accents the many social hierarchies of the rapidly globalizing eight-
eenth-century world, emphasizing the ubiquity and local violence of
the Atlantic slave trade. Encountered at an English port and gateway to
empire, the Dog exhibits similar feelings to those of Franz Fanon in
Black Skins, White Masks (1952) regarding the condition of colony and
slavery: “The colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion
to his adoption of the mother country’s cultural standards. He becomes
whiter as he renounces his blackness, his jungle.”22 This, finally, is the
unspeakable referent here. If humor is an elevation above the ideologi-
cal protocols of the social order, on another level, beneath that order,
like a gravitational center, lies the “traumatic, real kernel” that social
rules exist to mask or naturalize; in this case, it’s the traumatic and
occluded reality of treating some humans as a lesser species.23 In a sense,
levity always ghosts the revelation of what is hidden or obscene; humor,
as practiced by Pynchon, entails both levity and gravitas. So that image
of the coyote poised in the empty air, legs cycling, is entirely accurate;
it’s only a matter of time until the penny drops.

1. Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905), trans. James
Strachey (London: Penguin, 1991), p. 227.
2. W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, “Gaily Tripping, Lightly Skipping”
136 doug haynes
3. It does go on. See Patrick Hurley, Pynchon Character Names: A Dictionary
(Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008).
4. Caesar cited in Georgiana M. M. Colvile, Beyond and Beneath the Mantle
(Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1988), p. 27; Tony Tanner, Thomas Pynchon (London:
Methuen, 1982), p. 60.
5. Sigmund Freud, “Humor” (1927) in The Standard Edition of the Complete
Psychological Works, Vol. XXI, trans. James Strachey and Anna Freud
(London: Vintage, 2001), p. 162.
6. Will May, “Dickinson, Plath, and the Ballooning Tradition,” in Tara Stubbs
and Doug Haynes (eds.), Navigating the Transnational in Modern American
Literature and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2017), 9–32, p. 11.
7. Harold Bloom places West’s Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) alongside the Byron the
Bulb section of Gravity’s Rainbow, Crane, and Faulkner, as an example of the
“American Sublime.” See Bloom (ed.), Thomas Pynchon (Philadelphia:
Chelsea House, 2003), p. 1.
8. See Doug Haynes, “Laughing at the Laugh: Unhappy Consciousness in
Nathanael West’s The Dream Life of Balso Snell,” Modern Language Review,
102.2 (2007), 341–62.
9. Percy Wyndham Lewis, Satire and Fiction (London: The Arthus Press, 1930),
p. 47.
10. Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans.
John Cumming (London: Verso, 1995), p. 77.
11. Mucho Maas is Oedipa’s husband in The Crying of Lot 49.
12. Paul de Man, “The Rhetoric of Temporality” in Blindness and Insight:
Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (Abingdon: Routledge,
1996), 187–228, p. 213. De Man reads Baudelaire’s “The Essence of
Laughter” to establish a doubling irony that displaces the real physical
13. Richard Hardack, “Revealing the Bidder: The Forgotten Lesbian in
Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49,” Textual Practice, 27.4 (2013), 565–95, p. 572.
14. Noël Carroll presents this view in his concise and useful Humour: A Very Short
Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
15. For discussion of surrealist juxtaposition, see André Breton, “Surrealist
Situation of the Object,” Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver
and Helen R. Lane (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press: 1974), pp.
255–78, p. 275.
16. Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea, trans. R. B. Haldane and
J. Kemp (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964), p. 76.
17. Hurley, Pynchon Character Names, p. 6.
18. Sarah Churchwell, “There Are More Quests Than Answers,” review of
Inherent Vice, Guardian, July 7, 2009, www.theguardian.com/books/2009/j
19. Thomas Pynchon, “Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?” New York Times, October 28,
1984, pp. 1, 40–41, pp. 40–41.
Humor 137
20. See Ralph Schroeder, “From Puritanism to Paranoia: Trajectories of History
in Weber and Pynchon,” Pynchon Notes, 26–27 (1990), 69–80 for
a comprehensive overview of the many connections and commentaries link-
ing Pynchon and Weber.
21. See the King’s College London project, A People’s History of Classics, which
records such dogs: www.classicsandclass.info/product/169/
22. Franz Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann
(London: Pluto, 2008), p. 9.
23. Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989), p. 45.
chapter 17

Popular Culture
Eric Sandberg

Despite both the undoubted difficulty of his work and his famous refusal to
participate in celebrity literary culture, Thomas Pynchon is in some ways
a “popular” author. He has participated in popular culture, for example
writing liner notes for a 1996 rock album, contributing to an extended joke
about himself for a 1990s sitcom, The John Larroquette Show, and most
famously appearing twice – albeit with a paper bag over his head – on
The Simpsons. Similarly, despite the fact that his labyrinthine plotting,
challenging subject matter, vertiginous shifts in tone, and daunting range
of historical, cultural, and scientific reference limit his readership,
Pynchon’s novels have won mainstream literary awards, been Book-of-
the-Month Club selections and appeared on best-seller lists. Vineland
(1990), for example, spent thirteen weeks on the New York Times list,
debuting at number five between Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum and
Stephen King’s The Dark Half, a coincidence that helps situate his work in
relation to high and low cultural forms.1 For despite their clear high-culture
associations, Pynchon’s novels integrate a wide range of text types in what
has been described as a “self-consciously ‘literary’ appropriation of popular
genres,” and insistently reference aspects of pop culture such as consumer
products, TV shows, movies, and songs.2 This engagement with the
popular both contributes to Pynchon’s poetics and plays a key role in his
critique of contemporary society.

Popular Genres
Genre fiction has long been seen as the literary manifestation of popular
culture, and thus as something “fundamentally, perhaps inherently
debased, infantile, commercialized, unworthy of the serious person’s
attention.”3 Yet not only is an “oscillation” between “High and Low
forms,” as Franco Moretti has argued, a key historical feature of the
novel, but under the influence of postmodernity it has come increasingly
Popular Culture 139
to rely on the integration or wholesale expropriation of genre elements.4
Pynchon’s work is exemplary in this respect. Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)
incorporates so many different genres that some wonder if the word
novel does justice to its “encyclopaedic polyphony,” and in Against
the Day (2006) we find what Brian McHale has described as genre poach-
ing or mediated historiography, a technique that allows Pynchon to
describe “an era’s history through the medium of its popular genres.”5
A normal reaction to reading a text like V. (1963) is to wonder what one is
reading: satire, spy novel, travelogue, sci-fi story, or something else entirely.
But with Pynchon’s two most recent novels, Inherent Vice (2009) and
Bleeding Edge (2013), we know exactly where we stand. He is no longer
including genre elements in overtly postmodern narratives, no longer
creating dense palimpsests of different fictional forms. Instead, he is work-
ing directly within one of the most popular contemporary genres, crime
fiction, in its hardboiled form.
This is not to say that Pynchon’s crime fiction is exactly what readers of
James Patterson or Stieg Larsson would recognize. Plots are dense, with
multiple, interwoven storylines; it is not always clear what is real, much less
true; and investigations do not produce tidy, socially reaffirming resolu-
tions. Nonetheless, in these novels Pynchon both revels in a form of
popular fiction he clearly loves, and exploits its connection to a tradition
of political crime fiction in which, as Andrew Pepper has recently argued,
the key question is not who committed a particular crime, but “what has
caused this problem called ‘crime’ in the first place.”6 Part of this involves
his choice of the hardboiled: The form is historically the main American
contribution to political crime writing, and in both Inherent Vice and
Bleeding Edge Pynchon emphasizes the contrast between the “old-time
hard-boiled dick era,” with which his work is aligned, and the submissive
conformity of post-1960s “cop-happy” America (IV 33, 97). Thus
Pynchon’s use of this popular genre helps develop his sustained critique
of both the “mechanisms and motivators of oppression” and “the tactics of
repressive forces.”7
Pynchon both uses and subverts generic tropes as part of this project.
Take, for example, the heroism of the hardboiled investigator. Raymond
Chandler described the private eye as “a man of honor,” and his proto-
typical detective Philip Marlowe as a “shop-soiled Galahad.”8 This applies
to Bleeding Edge’s Maxine Tarnow as well as Inherent Vice’s Doc Sportello,
who identifies himself with “a single and ancient martial tradition” of pop-
culture figures like Bugs Bunny and Popeye based on “resisting authority,
subduing hired guns, and defending your old lady’s honor” (IV 326). One
140 eric sandberg
of the hardboiled investigator’s roles, as Fredric Jameson has argued, is to
navigate an atomized society, uncovering links between its ostensibly
separate parts until “the rule of naked force and money” is revealed
“complete and undisguised,” and this is exactly what Sportello and Tarnow
do.9 The former uncovers a vertically integrated heroin cartel linking
corrupt cops, hired killers, real estate moguls, right-wing political action
groups and old-money Los Angeles, while the latter reveals a similar set of
malign connections in New York, indicated by Bleeding Edge’s master
metaphor of the Internet as a “set of invisible links” connecting “the city
in its seething foul incoherence” (BE 167). In other cases, however,
Pynchon subverts the genre to achieve similar critical traction. Thus he
rejects its misogynist hypermasculinity by locating Sportello as the object
of assertive female sexuality, and by reversing the genre’s traditional sexual
roles in Maxine Tarnow’s encounters with homme fatale Nicholas
Windust. Critics have identified a tension in Pynchon’s work between
“containment and freedom, in which the creation of precarious sites of
dissent is inevitably threatened by the systematic force of mainstream
culture,” and the popular genre of crime fiction offers Pynchon just such
a contested site.10

Popular Culture
Allusions to aspects of popular culture are as central to Pynchon’s work
as his use of popular genres. As David Foster Wallace has noted,
Pynchon was ahead of his time in the strategic deployment of pop-
culture references.11 The first page of V., for example, refers to “black
levis” and a “Sterno can,” both readily identifiable brand names, while
Gravity’s Rainbow offers “Lysol,” “Sheiks,” and “Burma Shave” in the
course of a single, brief episode (V 9; GR 64–65). Many of his novels
refer to real or fictional pop music, and even an explicitly historical
novel like Mason & Dixon (1997) contains an anachronistic reference to
Spock’s famous greeting, “Live long and prosper” (MD 485).
Television, the dominant popular medium of the twentieth century,
is present throughout his work. A scene in The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)
in which Oedipa Maas and the lawyer Metzger watch him perform as
a child-star in an old war movie while the line dividing reality from its
televisual representation blurs is typical: Oedipa feels a “sharpness
somewhere [. . .] between her breasts” as she watches soldiers “impaling
one another on bayonets” (CL 42). But pop culture plays a particularly
prominent role in Vineland, Inherent Vice, and Bleeding Edge.
Popular Culture 141
Critics have tended to read the first two of these novels alongside
The Crying of Lot 49 as a Californian trilogy of sorts, but with the publica-
tion of Bleeding Edge, set in turn-of-the millennium New York, it has
become clear that what binds these novels together is the reckless exuber-
ance with which they plunge headfirst into the shallow end of the pop-
culture pool.12 Erik Dussere has pointed out that in the 1980s America of
Vineland “signs of the consumer society are everywhere.”13 From Fruit
Loops to Count Chocula, Diet Pepsi to Nestle’s Quik, Return of the Jedi to
Friday the 13th and CHiPs to Gidget, this is a world of utter consumer
banality in which watching TV is a primary human activity: “the Tube was
a member of the household” (VL 348). Similarly, in Inherent Vice, char-
acters spend as much time watching TV as doing anything else. Bleeding
Edge, however, alludes to pop culture more insistently than any other
Pynchon novel. Its panoply of brand names, ranging from Razor scooters
to Pokémon to Zima, reflects turn-of-the-millennium consumer culture,
and all of its characters not only incessantly watch and discuss TV but also
think and talk in TV-inspired patterns. Maxine’s best friend – or “wacky
sidekick” in the TV parlance with which these characters are so comfor-
table – even teaches in the (fictional) popular culture department of the
City College of New York (BE 25).
There is nothing very unusual in all this. Pynchon clearly revels in the
superabundance of pop culture, and as Wallace argues these sort of
references not only create an ironic mood and gesture toward the ubiqui-
tous vapidity of consumer culture but are also “just plain realistic.”14 This
is, after all, the world we live in. What is shocking, however, is the extent to
which Pynchon’s prose here has itself become a pop-culture artefact.
Michael Chabon has noted that Bleeding Edge eschews the lyrical, wide-
ranging sentences that characterize many of Pynchon’s novels in favour of
a “constricted prose style.”15 This is the prose of mass culture, consisting of
brand names, slang, TV taglines, and the attenuated language of the
everyday. These are not just novels depicting popular culture; they are
novels written from within that culture, and written in its language.
Many critics deplore this change. Harold Bloom, for example, has
described Vineland as the greatest “disaster in modern American fiction,”
a “hopelessly hollow book” without a “redeeming sentence, hardly
a redeeming phrase.”16 Other critics treat Vineland as a “redheaded step-
child,” or unwanted embarrassment, their discomfort stemming from the
novel’s close ties to popular culture.17 Similarly, Michiko Kakutani’s
description of Inherent Vice and Bleeding Edge as “Pynchon Lite” simulta-
neously identifies one of the novels’ main features – their integration of
142 eric sandberg
popular culture and language – and condemns it as “sophomoric.”18 It is as
if Pynchon’s novels about popular culture are condemned as popular
I would argue, however, that this is to misunderstand – fundamentally –
what Pynchon is doing in these novels: The absence of redemptive literary
language and the textual immersion in the most superficial and ephemeral
aspects of contemporary culture is very much the point. These novels do
not offer a contrast between a high culture that may be inaccessible,
misunderstood, or threatened but nonetheless exists, and an inauthentic,
commercial popular culture. Compare McClintic Sphere in V. “swinging
his ass off” on his “hand carved ivory alto saxophone with a 4½ reed”
making music “like nothing any of them had heard before,” with Coy
Harlingen in Inherent Vice, who plays sax in the successful surf band
The Boards “as if the instrument was some giant kazoo” (V 59; IV 37).
One represents a radically authentic music, the other the failure of music to
transcend commercial mediocrity. In Bleeding Edge, when it is claimed that
“it is a truth universally acknowledged that Jews don’t proselytize” (BE 24),
it is less a literary allusion than an indication of the digestion by popular
culture of the opening lines of Pride and Prejudice.
If these novels are indeed Pynchon Lite, it is because they are linguistic
products originating from and operating within the same overarching
system that produces, markets, and consumes ‘Lite’ products. To conceal
this unpalatable truth, Pynchon implies, would be delusive if not down-
right dishonest. As March Kelleher claims in Bleeding Edge, “‘Culture, I’m
sorry, Hermann Göring was right, every time you hear the word check
your sidearm. Culture attracts the worse impulses of the moneyed, it has no
honor, it begs to be suburbanized and corrupted’” (BE 56). This process is
written into the landscape of the novel: The Lincoln Center, home of the
Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet, and the New York City
Philharmonic Orchestra, is generally seen as a successful element of Robert
Moses’ large-scale mid-century urban renewal project, but for Kelleher the
point is that it destroyed a community of “7,000 boricua families [. . .] just
because Anglos who didn’t really give a shit about high culture were afraid
of these people’s children” (BE 55).
However, if high culture fails to challenge political, social, and cultural
hegemony, fails to offer a viable alternative to an America “Disneyfied and
sterile” (BE 51), as New York is described in Bleeding Edge, where can such
a challenge come from? Traditionally, Pynchon has explored two possibi-
lities: zones of exemption and active resistance. In Gravity’s Rainbow, for
example, the postwar Zone is an anarchic site of potential freedom, while
Popular Culture 143
the Counterforce struggles against systems of corporate and governmental
manipulation and control. In Vineland and Inherent Vice, 1960s counter-
culture is a focus of (doomed) resistance. But in Bleeding Edge these
possibilities have been squeezed into the margins: There is the Internet –
but it is already compromised by its association with the military-industrial
complex, and it is well on its way to becoming a virtual extension of
a corporatized physical world; there are two young hackers on the run,
and a dubious cyberattack carried out by the Russian mafia, but these seem
more like fantasies of resistance than genuine alternatives. Instead of these
tenuous alternatives, Pynchon seems to imply that opposition to
a hegemonic system must arise from within the system itself.
What I am describing here can be considered under the heading of
excorporation, defined by John Fiske as “the process by which the sub-
ordinate make their own culture out of the resources and commodities
provided by the dominant system.” The process is essential because the
hegemonic system provides no other resources from which to construct
cultural alternatives.19 Pynchon’s pop fictions rely on precisely such trans-
formations of the artefacts of consumer culture. But the adults in these
novels tend to be irretrievably compromised, and it falls to others to
repurpose pop culture from within. In Vineland, for instance, the teenaged
Prairie Wheeler is able to turn commercial junk food into communal
meals: “giant baloneys were set to roasting whole on spits, to be turned
and attentively basted with a grape-jelly glaze by once-quarrelsome kitchen
staff” (VL 111). Despite its very different cultural register, this is comparable
to Mrs. Ramsay’s unifying dinner party in Virginia Woolf’s To the
Lighthouse. In Inherent Vice, the “childlike” (not “childish”) Doc
Sportello’s love of John Garfield movies inspires his own lonely quest for
justice, an acknowledgment of the potential of mass culture to express and
motivate resistance (IV 213). This ability of the young to challenge popular
hegemony is clearest, however, in Bleeding Edge, in which Maxine’s son
Otis and his friend Fiona turn “Melanie’s Mall,” a plastic consumer
paradise for a “half-scale Barbie with a gold credit card” (BE 68), into an
anti-capitalist site of creative mayhem. Similarly, Otis and his brother
Ziggy use the compromised Internet to create “Zigotisopolis,” a utopian
version of a pre-9/11 New York, a “not-yet-corrupted screenspace” they
inhabit “unconcerned for their safety, salvation, destiny” (BE 429).
As Fiske writes, “popular culture is necessarily the art of making do with
what is available,” and the children in Bleeding Edge are masters of exactly
this process.20 They take the world as it is given, commercialized and
compromised, and transform it into something new. This is one of the
144 eric sandberg
central processes of Pynchon’s pop fictions, which, like Otis and Ziggy and
Fiona, take the world of popular culture and its attenuated language and
transform it into works of art that both lovingly describe and fiercely
critique contemporary culture.

1. “Best Sellers: January 21, 1990,” International New York Times, January 21, 1990.
2. Andrew Hoberek, “Introduction: After Postmodernism,” Twentieth Century
Literature, 53, 3 (2007), 233–47, p. 238
3. Michael Chabon, “Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern
Short Story,” in Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands
(New York: Harper, 2009), pp. 1–14, p. 8.
4. Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History
(London: Verso, 2007), p. 29.
5. Keith M. Booker, “Gravity’s Novel: A Note on the Genre of Gravity’s
Rainbow,” Pynchon Notes, 20–21 (1987), 61–68, p. 61; Brian McHale,
“Genre as History: Genre-Poaching in Against the Day,” Genre, 42 (2009),
5–20, p. 17.
6. Andrew Pepper, Unwilling Executioner: Crime Fiction and the State (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 12.
7. Joanna Freer, Thomas Pynchon and American Counterculture (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 1–2.
8. Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder,” in The Simple Art of
Murder (New York: Vintage, 1988), pp. 1–18, p. 18; Raymond Chandler,
The High Window (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), p. 174.
9. Fredric Jameson, “On Raymond Chandler,” in Glenn W. Most and William
W. Stowe (eds.), The Poetics of Murder: Detective Fiction and Literary Theory
(San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1983), pp. 122–48, pp. 127, 130.
10. Simon Malpas and Andrew Taylor, Thomas Pynchon (Manchester:
Manchester University Press, 2013), p. 1.
11. David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U. S. Fiction,”
Review of Contemporary Fiction, 13, 2 (1993), 151–94, pp. 166–67.
12. Thomas Hill Schaub, “The Crying of Lot 49 and other California Novels,” in
Inger H. Dalsgaard, Luc Herman, and Brian McHale (eds.), The Cambridge
Companion to Thomas Pynchon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2012), pp. 30–43.
13. Erik Dussere, “Flirters, Deserters, Wimps, and Pimps: Thomas Pynchon’s
Two Americas,” Contemporary Literature, 51, 3 (2010), 565–95, p. 586.
14. Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram,” p. 167.
15. Michael Chabon, “The Crying of September 11,” New York Review of Books,
60.17, November 7, 2013: pp. 68–70, p. 70.
Popular Culture 145
16. Antonio Weiss, “Harold Bloom, The Art of Criticism No. 1,” Paris Review,
118 (1991).
17. Dussere, “Flirters, Deserters, Wimps, and Pimps,” 586.
18. Michiko Kakutani, “A Calamity Tailor-Made for Internet Conspiracy
Theories: ‘Bleeding Edge,’ a 9/11 Novel by Thomas Pynchon,” International
New York Times, September 10, 2013. Kakutani also used the phrase in her
review of Inherent Vice. See Michiko Kakutani, “Another Doorway to the
Paranoid Pynchon Dimension,” New York Times, August 3, 2009.
19. John Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge,
2010), p. 13.
20. Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture, p. 13.
chapter 18

Music and Sound

Justin St. Clair

“There is a sound track.”

Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

For more than a half-century, Thomas Pynchon’s commitment to audition -

the acts of hearing and of listening, and the attendant power of these
faculties – has been so pronounced that sound in his fiction often arrives
before the visual. Take Mason & Dixon (1997), for example. Lost in “late-
Day Invisibility” on his way to the Mary and Meg, Dixon hears the
premonitory church bells of America an ocean away, “peculiarly lucid in
the fog” (MD 244); when he and Mason finally do arrive in the New World,
their initial impressions are exclusively auditory: “Milkmaids quarrelling
and cowbells a-clank, and dogs, and Babies old and new,— Hammers upon
Nails, Wives upon Husbands, the ring of Pot-lids, the jingling of Draft-
chains, a rifle-shot from a stretch of woods, lengthily crackling tree to tree”
(MD 257). The sound of the scene reaches the reader before light enables
sight. Not only is this a neat reversal of natural phenomena, but it is also an
emphasis on re-vision, on modes of apprehension beyond the visual.
In Noise: The Political Economy of Music, Jacques Attali insists “that the
world is not for the beholding” but “for hearing” – that is, “audible” rather
than “legible.”1 Pynchon, whose most revered work opens with a screaming
and closes with a sing-along, seems inclined to agree. The aim of Attali’s
project – “a call to theoretical indiscipline, with an ear to sound matter as
the herald of society” – might well be a description of Pynchon’s oeuvre.2
When it comes to music, Pynchon is in tune with Attali, who holds that it
“is more than an object of study: it is a way of perceiving the world. A tool
of understanding.”3 The major expression of Pynchon’s aurality is, of
course, his treatment of music. Each of his novels from V. (1963) through
Bleeding Edge (2013) includes snatches of song interspersed throughout the
prose. Often parodic, occasionally poignant, these musical interludes have
come to define Pynchon’s playful eclecticism and his commitment to

Music and Sound 147
postmodern pastiche. While Pynchon’s songs may receive more attention
than do his broader sonics, however, both are expressions of the same
impulse: an exploration of the role of art in both the service of and the
resistance to hegemony. “Listening to music is listening to all noise,
realizing that its appropriation and control is a reflection of power, that
it is essentially political,” writes Attali. “With noise is born disorder and its
opposite: the world,” he continues: “With music is born power and its
opposite: subversion.”4 Or, as Pynchon puts it in Mason & Dixon: “When
the Forms of Musick change, ’tis a Promise of civil Disorder” (MD 262).

Novel Soundtracks
In 1959, as a 22-year-old Cornell graduate, Pynchon sought a Ford
Foundation fellowship, describing, in his proposal, his “desire to write
comic opera” and “to adapt contemporary American science fiction to the
operatic stage.”5 While the application was denied (and subsequently
sealed after briefly resurfacing decades later), Pynchon was a budding
librettist even before making his name as a novelist. When news of this
career-that-might-have-been emerged in the late 1980s, the revelation came
as little surprise to Pynchon’s readers, for his fiction is replete with operatic
allusions and invented musical theater. From “the musical drama
The Black Hole of Calcutta, or, The Peevish Wazir” in Mason & Dixon
(MD 562) to the “Ripperetta” in Against the Day (2006) (AD 680) to the
“never-distributed Marx Brothers version of Don Giovanni” in Bleeding
Edge (BE 418), the productions that Pynchon imagines, while often out-
landish, are clearly the jests of a musical connoisseur. Correspondingly, the
lyrics that appear in each of his novels and several of his short stories might
well be taken as the work of a moonlighting librettist, compulsively writing
to music that we can only occasionally hear. Alas, when Laurie Anderson
wrote “a lengthy, heartfelt letter” requesting permission to stage Gravity’s
Rainbow (1973) as an opera, Pynchon replied “that of course she could, as
long as it was scored entirely for solo banjo.”6 The project, needless to say,
is unlikely to see the light of day.
Despite Pynchon’s abiding interest in opera and musical theater, how-
ever, the medium most germane to an investigation of the musicality of his
fiction may well be film. This is not only a reflection of Pynchon’s own
interest in film and television, but also because the relationship between the
audio and the visual elements of motion pictures provides an apt frame-
work for considering Pynchon’s aurality. In short, a film or TV soundtrack
contains both foreground and background: audio elements positioned
148 justin st. clair
conspicuously, to capture – consciously – the attention of the audience,
and those positioned more obliquely, to frame the focal elements and to
suggest – often unconsciously – various interpretive strategies.
Representative example of foregrounding, for instance, might involve an
on-screen performance by the principal in a musical, or the sound of
a radio news broadcast around which characters, in the aftermath of
a catastrophe, huddle. In both situations, the soundtrack becomes the
focus, and the audience is expressly aware of the role sound plays in the
audiovisual presentation. Conversely, canned applause on a television
show, which directs the audience toward an entrance, exemplifies televisual
use of background sound. In this case, the focus is on whichever celebrity
appears on set rather than any element of the soundtrack. The audience, in
fact, is typically unaware that the applause begins impossibly early,
a reversal of cause and effect. The ovation is not a natural reaction to an
entrance (as might happen in an actual theater) but a subtle direction of the
audience’s attention, an invisible cue that something of importance is
about to happen.
In terms of Pynchon’s fiction, then, the libretto – if we might so deem
his multitudinous lyrics – is evidently foregrounded. Typically offset as
block quotations and sometimes even italicized, the songs disrupt the text
block, if not the narrative flow. Even though the alternation between
prose and verse visually foregrounds the song lyrics, however, the music
itself remains in the background, not audibly off-screen as would be the
case with film, but silently off-page. As novelist Rick Moody notes, “[a]
persistent rumor holds that all the songs in Pynchon have actual melo-
dies, and that the author may himself have enough of a songwriting gift to
craft his own melodies, instead of just writing words to extant tunes of the
period.”7 This may well be true, but short of Pynchon releasing a so-
called “fake book,” complete with chord changes and melodies, readers
wishing to sing along are left with two options: either follow textual clues
to an existing tune or write their own melodies. While several fan projects
have set Pynchon’s lyrics to music, a surprising number of the songs
reveal their own melodies. Some of the discoverable tunes are set only
slightly behind the foregrounded lyrics. For example, the “company
jingle” in Vineland (1990) – “A lawn savant, who’ll lop a tree-ee-uh, /
Nobody beats Mar- / Quis de Sod!” – clearly indicates the complemen-
tary music: a “postdisco arrangement of the Marseillaise” (VL 47).
Likewise in The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Yoyodyne’s corporate hymn is
introduced with the phrase: “To the tune of Cornell’s alma mater” (CL
83). While “La Marseillaise” is more recognizable, perhaps, than “Far
Music and Sound 149
above Cayuga’s Waters,” both are easily accessible to any interested
reader. Staged a bit further in the background, however, are the songs
that only hint at their music. In Gravity’s Rainbow, for example, readers
are not expressly told how to sing “Now don’t you remember Red
Malcolm up there, / That kid with the Red Devil Lye in his hair” (GR
67). Nevertheless, the text allows that it is “some traditional American
tune” that “goes for eleven beats, skips a twelfth, [and] begins the cycle
over” (GR 67). It might take a bit of pondering (or a folk-singing friend)
to realize that the tune is likely “Sweet Betsy from Pike.”
Pynchon’s song lyrics and their attendant melodies, however, are not
the only way he has soundtracked his fiction. Just prior to the publica-
tion of Inherent Vice (2009), for example, a forty-two-item playlist
“designed exclusively for Amazon.com, courtesy of Thomas Pynchon”
appeared on the e-commerce website. “Have a listen to some of the
songs you’ll hear in Inherent Vice,” the posting proclaimed.8
The advertisement was only partially false, for while most of the forty-
two items do appear in some form in the novel, the melodies to these
songs – much like the music to Pynchon’s various lyrics – both reside
and resound off-page. As the Amazon.com playlist suggests, however,
this peculiar form of novelistic background sound contextualizes the
action, serving as a sort of referential matrix that captures the novel’s
spatiotemporal zeitgeist. For example, on Doc’s “way up to Topanga,
the radio cranked out a Super Surfin’ Marathon [. . .] ‘Pipeline’ and
‘Surfin’ Bird’ by the Trashmen, and ‘Bamboo’ by Johnny and the
Hurricanes, singles by Eddie and the Showmen, the Bel Airs, the
Hollywood Saxons, and the Olympics” (IV 124–5). This technique of
reporting a soundtrack – telling the readers secondhand, as it were,
what’s audible in the characters’ world – occurs throughout Pynchon’s
novels: We overhear “a radio turned to WAVY and Pat Boone” (V 19)
in V., a “jukebox play[ing] the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane,
[and] Country Joe and the Fish” (VL 117) in Vineland, and “classical
music coming from the TV room” (BE 417) in Bleeding Edge. Elsewhere
the music issues from elevators and karaoke machines; it is on record,
cassette, and compact disc, in nightclubs and dancehalls, bedrooms,
bars, and shopping malls. Everywhere we are given “the background
music for what is to transpire” (GR 713).
In addition to using music as a contextual backdrop to the narrative
action, Pynchon also soundtracks his fiction dialogically. His characters
are immersed in a musical matrix and, as a result, they conversationally
retransmit a significant portion of the soundtrack. As is the case with
150 justin st. clair
Pynchon’s other music, these dialogic inclusions are positioned var-
iously along a spectrum – some are more to the fore, while others,
comparatively speaking, reverberate from afar. The argument between
Gustav and Säure in Gravity’s Rainbow over the relative merits of
Beethoven and Rossini, for example, is clearly an instance of the
former: The conversation places music and its consideration at the
center of the episode, even if La Gaza Ladra and the Ninth Symphony,
while directly mentioned, can echo only in the reader’s imagination
(GR 440–42). However, Pynchon also delights in slant asides, glancing
musical references that play more faintly in the background.
To accomplish this, he often embeds song lyrics inside conversations.
In Vineland, for instance, Prairie half-heartedly defends her relation-
ship with Isaiah Two Four: “Love is strange, Dad, maybe you forgot
that” (VL 16). “I know love is strange,” Zoyd replies, “known it since
1956, including all those guitar breaks” (VL 16). The exchange captures
the banality of American discourse and does so with a wink and a nod:
Not only does it emphasize the virality of platitudinous pop music
(perhaps the twentieth-century’s primary source for cross-generational
common texts), but it also offers the reader a side game of “Name That
Tune.” (The song, incidentally, is the unsurprisingly titled “Love
Is Strange,” Mickey & Sylvia’s middling hit from 1956, which peaked
at #11 on the Billboard Hot 100.)
In many cases, Pynchon announces the conversational appropriation
of pop lyrics with a “would say,” “used to say,” or “always sez”
formulation, as in “‘Me gotta go’ as the Kingsmen always used to
say” (VL 190) or “hey if that’s the way it must be, okay, as Roy
Orbison always sez” (IV 69). This recurring trope (which we also
find, it should be noted, in narrative passages as well) extends the
scope of the fictional soundtrack beyond Pynchon’s libretto and the
retransmission of music playing in the diegetic world. Perhaps most
importantly, these allusions carry cultural baggage. A reader can trian-
gulate the ventriloquized lyrics, when recognized, with other situational
and thematic aspects of the novels in which they appear. Consider the
two examples above, for instance. The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie”
evokes the infamous FBI investigation of the song’s supposed obscen-
ity, an overreach of federal law enforcement that resonates with
Vineland’s anti-fascist plotlines. Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman,”
meanwhile, cannot escape its close association with the eponymous
film, a cringeworthy update on the age-old “hooker-with-a-heart-of-
gold” theme. When Doc Sportello drops the line on Deputy DA
Music and Sound 151
Penny Kimball, then, it is at once a backhanded put-down and an
ironic acknowledgment of the situational power dynamic.

Power may be invisible, but it certainly is not silent. The soundtracks we
find in Pynchon’s novels include not only a wealth of music but also the
sound of wealth at work in the world. Pynchon, in other words, charts the
political economy of sound. Throughout his fiction, ambient background
music figures as the primary instantiation of corporate aurality, a soundbed
for capitalist exchange and exploitation. Over the course of the twentieth
century, the Muzak Corporation was the principal purveyor of such back-
ground music, soundtracking “forty-three of the world’s fifty biggest
industrial companies” in its heyday.9 Muzak’s mission was to manipulate
(unconsciously) all subjects within earshot, thereby increasing the produc-
tivity of workers and “turn[ing] browsers into buyers,” as one of the
company’s advertisements bragged.10
In Pynchon’s fiction, ambient background music is, on occasion,
explicitly rendered as Muzak: we visit “the Muzak-filled face hospital”
(V 102) in V. and a pizzeria with “Muzak [. . .] seeping in, in its sub-
liminal, unidentifiable way” (CL 141) in The Crying of Lot 49. At other
times, “what seeps out hidden speakers in the city elevators and in all the
markets” (GR 64) is all the more insidious for its anonymity. We get
“concealed speakers playing FM stereo locked to some easy-listening
frequency in the area, seething quietly, like insect song” (VL 98) in
Vineland; “[m]usick, from some invisible source” (MD 706) in Mason
& Dixon; and “sounds from all invisible parts of the city” (AD 376) in
Against the Day. As these quotations suggest, concealment and invisibility
amplify the power – and inherent danger – of background sound. That
which is unseen often goes unnoticed, and Pynchon places particular
emphasis on the commercial ramifications of inattention, for it is fre-
quently an invisible band, not an invisible hand, that greases the eco-
nomic engine. In Vineland, for example, California’s shopping-mall
culture is shot through with “New Age mindbarf [. . .] dribbling out of
the PA system” (VL 330). This is not simply an aesthetic complaint on
Pynchon’s part, but an observation regarding the anesthetic power of
ambient commercial soundtracks. During Prairie and her friends’ delin-
quent sortie at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, “the background
shopping music continued, perky and up-tempo, originally rock and
roll but here reformatted into unthreatening wimped-out effluent,
152 justin st. clair
tranquilizing onlookers” (VL 328). Ironically in this case, music that is
intended to render consumers compliant pacifies them to the point of
inaction, thereby permitting the girls’ petty larceny to succeed.
Indeed, Pynchon’s engagement with “billows of audio treacle” (VL
109) (as background music is elsewhere described in Vineland) often
includes a simultaneous appeal to subversion. First and foremost,
Pynchon suggests that simply listening might itself be a subversive act.
In The Crying of Lot 49, for example, both Oedipa and Mucho in separate
episodes deliberately listen to Muzak playing in commercial spaces.
In the real world, the Muzak Corporation took its efforts in subliminal
persuasion so seriously that the company had a policy of permanently
removing any track that received consumer comment. Attentive subjects
are harder to manipulate. Pynchon also suggests that resistance to insti-
tutional power can take the form of musical feedback – from jazz to rock
and roll to raucous folk. What Oedipa hears when she attends to the
Muzak in the market is a “Vivaldi Kazoo Concerto” (CL 10). Someone
has hijacked the medium, replacing the “strings, reeds, and muted brass”
(CL 141) with an instrument typically dismissed as a child’s toy. In fact,
kazoos, harmonicas, and tambourines appear throughout Pynchon’s
fiction: There is specific reference to one or more of these instruments
in each of his novels. The on-campus uprising in Vineland, for example,
features “the strains of subversive music day and night, accompanied by
tambourines and harmonicas” (VL 204); and at the end of Gravity’s
Rainbow, “a veritable caravan of harmonica players” provokes the
Richard Nixon analog to mutter: “At least it’s not those tambourines”
(GR 756–57). Why these particular instruments? They are emblematic of
folk music: They are accessible, they are inexpensive, and they require no
formal training. Kazoos and harmonicas, in particular, are the people’s
pipes, mouth organs of democracy that give even the untutored a voice.
Resistance, Pynchon argues, need not be elegant, highbrow, or virtuosic.
It must, however, be audible if it is to be heard.

1. Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music (Minneapolis, MN:
University of Minnesota Press, 2002), p. 3.
2. Attali, Noise, p. 5.
3. Attali, Noise, p. 4.
4. Attali, Noise, p. 6.
5. Steven Weisenburger, “Thomas Pynchon at Twenty-Two: A Recovered
Autobiographical Sketch,” American Literature, 62.4 (1990), 692–97, p. 694.
Music and Sound 153
6. Mike Bell, “Laurie Anderson Offers Intimate Tour of Cantos,” Calgary
Herald, January 17, 2012, tinyurl.com/n28gvzd/.
7. Rick Moody, “Serge and the Paranoids: On Literature and Popular Song,”
Post45, July 1, 2011. post45.research.yale.edu/2011/07/serge-and-the-para
8. “Amazon Exclusive: Thomas Pynchon’s Soundtrack to Inherent Vice,” www
9. Joseph Lanza, Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening, and
Other Moodsong, rev. and exp. ed. (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan
Press, 2007), p. 149.
10. Advertisement reprinted in Luke Baumgarten, “Elevator Going Down:
The Story of Muzak,” daily.redbullmusicacademy.com/2012/09/history-of-
chapter 19

Film and Television

John Dugdale

As a first step toward appreciating how Pynchon treats film and television,
it is helpful to shuffle the usual listing of his oeuvre according to publication
dates to reflect instead the chronological order of the periods the works
cover: Mason & Dixon (1761–86), Against the Day (1893–1920s), the episo-
dic historical narrative of V. (1898–1943), Gravity’s Rainbow (1944–45), V.’s
other narrative and Slow Learner (both 1950s), The Crying of Lot 49 (1964),
Inherent Vice (1970), Vineland (1984), and Bleeding Edge (2001–02).
In the first two novels in this sequence, the printed text is the dominant
medium, and that remains true in the highly literary historical (Stencil)
narrative of V. (1963) (a primitive version of cinema is briefly glimpsed in
Against the Day (2006), but it has yet to become a mass phenomenon).
In the three novels set in California, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Vineland
(1990), and Inherent Vice (2009), television has gained ascendancy – as
symbolized by “the greenish dead eye of the TV tube” (CL 9) in the
opening paragraph of the first of the trio – but it has been dethroned in
turn by the time of Bleeding Edge (2013), where hegemony has passed to the
Internet. As Benny Profane and his friends in V. are not moviegoers, only
Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) shows cinema as supreme; and as befits a reigning
medium it impinges on everything, from the intimate details of indivi-
duals’ everyday lives to momentous collective experiences and insanely
ambitious projects. Ilse Pökler, for instance, owes her very existence to her
father Franz regaining sexual potency after seeing Greta Erdmann in
In Gravity’s Rainbow’s first two sections, set in southern England and
southern France, cinema is relatively restricted in its impact and rarely
sinister; whereas in the novel’s darker German second half it becomes
a much more toxic presence, invading the dreams and fantasies of an entire
population. Film references are particularly abundant in part three, where
much of Tyrone Slothrop’s northward journey across the Zone is in the
company of one representative of prewar German cinema or another: the
Film and Television 155
star Greta – the celluloid object of Franz’s sadomasochistic lust, who
becomes the American soldier’s lover – and the director Gerhardt von
Göll, aka Der Springer. Also encountered in the Zone are groups with
strange filmic connections: the Argentinian émigrés shooting a version of
their national epic with von Göll at the helm; and the Schwarzkommando,
whose existence the Springer suspects he may somehow be responsible for,
as he made a fake film (largely cast with White Visitation scientists in
blackface) about an all-black German unit, only to discover that there
really was such a force.
As others have noted, in making connections between German movies
and German psyches the novel is indebted to Siegfried Kracauer’s study
From Caligari to Hitler, a cinematic chronicle that relates the “overt
history” of the Weimar years to a “secret history” of ever-shifting “psycho-
logical dispositions.”1 Put simply, Kracauer sees both films and political
developments as reflecting these subconscious “layers of collective mental-
ity,” with the result that recurring tropes in films between 1918 and 1933
prefigured Nazism – most obviously, the eponymous evil mastermind in
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920).
Yet Pynchon’s approach departs from Kracauer’s in significant respects.
The representation of the era’s output is much narrower, dominated by
Fritz Lang’s oeuvre rather than attempting a cut-down version of
Kracauer’s panoramic account. The novel’s depiction of Germanic culture,
on the other hand, is far broader: Instead of concentrating solely on
cinema, it situates films within a matrix of other works – including
Rilke’s poetry, Grimms’ tales, Norse legends, visual art, Wagner operas,
and orchestral music from Beethoven to Webern – that also seem to mirror
(and sometimes shape) a hidden “psychological history.” Whereas
Kracauer’s favored mode is Freud-like assertion, by which he confidently
analyzes every film as an expression of the unfolding power struggle
between opposing mental dispositions, Pynchon prefers tentatively to
suggest – moreover, his relevant passages are dispersed, further distancing
them from anything resembling an argument.
Alongside sketches of the careers of the fictional Gerhardt and Greta
(plus extended scenes devoted to Franz as an exemplary movie addict) are
highlights from the CVs of a genuine director, Lang, and star, Rudolf
Klein-Rogge, who played the deranged scientist Rotwang in Lang’s
Metropolis (1927), Attila in The Nibelungs (1924), and the titular crime
lord in Dr Mabuse the Gambler (1922). Through this elaborate intermesh-
ing of real and imaginary, the novel shows interwar cinema instilling ideas
about themes such as death, military conquest, authoritarian leadership,
156 john dugdale
the charisma of evil, Gemeinschaft versus Gesellschaft, racial purity, non-
Aryan races, masculinity and aggression, femininity and passivity. Several
such motifs converge, for example, in a dazzling, multilayered passage
evoking the appeal for Franz of Klein-Rogge, which ends by linking his
Lang anti-heroes as having “yearnings all aimed [. . .] toward a form of
death that could be demonstrated to hold joy and defiance,” and contrast-
ing that with the “bourgeois [. . .] death, of self-deluding, mature accep-
tance” (GR 579) embodied by a blander actor in Lang’s Destiny (Der Müde
Tod) (1921).
How 1930s and 1940s US films are to be analyzed, by contrast, is hard to
discern – this despite a denouement that depicts Americans as having
“always been at the movies” (GR 760) and intercuts between scenes set
in a cinema run by a lightly disguised Richard Nixon and the countdown
of an SS rocket launch that draws, inter alia, on Lang’s oeuvre. Only one
gloss on a specific film is vouchsafed: The brief passage on King Kong – “the
legend of the black scapeape we cast down like Lucifer from the tallest
erection in the world” (GR 275) – is the sole instance of an implied
Kracauer-like link between an iconic moment and American mass men-
tality in this European novel with few American scenes or characters
(although the latter include the protagonist). Plenty of inferences are
possible about an underlying conception of Tinseltown’s propaganda
role in the period, but – in contrast to the apercus about Weimar movies
kindly made available – very little in the text confirms them.
Thus Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon’s only novel set in and reflecting the
era of cinema’s ascendancy, denies us a critique of Hollywood, although it
gleefully spoofs its most popular genres and its musical numbers.
The piecemeal theorizing about German film is offered as a model for
interpreting the stars and films to which it alludes, with allowances for
differences, but the rest is left to the reader. There may be a parable of this
stance in the improvised movie scenario Doper’s Greed that Osbie Feel
leaves as a “screen test” for Katje Borgesius, in which the actors mentioned,
tropes used, and dialogue spoken add up to “a message in code” (GR 535),
unveiling for her an emblematic conspiracy: the White Visitation plot
against Slothrop of which she was unwittingly part. “None of the codes is
that hard to break” (GR 756), the Nixon avatar, Richard M Zhlubb, will
later insist.
Though it is set in 1984, the year when George Orwell prophesied
“telescreens” (combining broadcasting and surveillance) that would instill
Big Brother’s instructions, by the time of Vineland, Pynchon’s next novel,
cinema’s reign is over. Its subordination is evident in the way movies are
Film and Television 157
more often seen by the characters on the new, more insidious ruling
medium, television, robbing them of the hypnotic power that derives
inter alia from big screens, darkened “movie theatres,” collective viewing,
and the impossibility of switching to something else. As well as pointedly
giving the Tube a new capital T, Pynchon begins in Vineland the practice
of providing the dates of major and minor movies alike in brackets; wryly
elevating them as worthy of scholarly attention, but also condescending to
them as belonging to the past. They have become to the TV generation, the
device seems to suggest, what the high-culture masterpieces often awarded
the same marker of significance were to the film generation.
After beginning with a bogus event staged purely for TV news crews’
benefit (Zoyd Wheeler’s annual stunt of jumping out of a window in
a bizarre costume), the novel opens its second chapter with his daughter
Prairie watching an afternoon TV movie, Pia Zadora in The Clara Bow
Story. Chapter Three is then devoted to Hector Zuñiga, a DEA agent who
is now a deranged Tube addict, on the run after escaping from the specialist
treatment clinic. Coinages such as “Tubal abuse,” “Tubefreeks,” and
“Tubaldetox” appear amid a flurry of references to television in this early
phase. Allusions to individual programs such as Hawaii 5–0 or
The Flintstones are usually in passing, but imply that their set-ups and
narrative formulas are freighted with ideology (about the police, say, or the
family). Pynchon’s emphasis, however, is on the medium through which
this mélange of stories and images arrives: its addictive and corruptive
power, its ubiquitousness, the wildly miscellaneous character of the mate-
rial it feeds into homes.
Unlike drama-dominated film, television is split between fictional and
factual work, and when Pynchon invents Tube shows or moments they
tend to be factual – or at least they purport to be: What they exemplify is
a seeming real, a pseudo-truth. Vineland’s opening presents TV news as
phony (when Wheeler tries to deviate from tradition, he is compelled to
perform the stunt as in the past), repeating not reporting, shaping what it
pretends to merely observe, drawn to what is telegenic but inane. Fake, too,
are drama-documentary biopics such as the imaginary Clara Bow Story,
denied authenticity from the outset by the casting of the lead role.
Set against both studio cinema (as film) and network and local TV news
(as reportage) is the work of the radical factual film unit, 24fps, which
Prairie’s mother Frenesi belonged to in the hippie era.2 Its raison d’être is to
be their opposite: unregimented, less “compliant” and telling stories of
repression or exploitation that they shun or underplay. Yet the novel’s
detailed portrayal of 24fps in flashback scenes suggests it may be more
158 john dugdale
similar to the mainstream media than the self-styled video guerrillas realize:
They, too, use audiovisual narratives as a political tool; they, too, are
unreliable narrators with narrow perspectives – Frenesi is almost literally
blinkered behind her viewfinder (VL 116) – who equate truth with the
public and visible. By the time Frenesi has exclusive access to dark deeds
kept hidden, she has become an agent for the federal prosecutor Brock
Vond as he seeks to destroy the short-lived countercultural utopia known
as PR3. She is an eyewitness to the murder of its figurehead Weed Atman,
but has helped to bring it about; a “bringer of light” to the crime scene, but
only in the grisly sense that the glare of her “hard frightening” spotlight
illuminates the body (VL 261).
In the Californian novels set earlier, television’s pre-eminence is less
pronounced; minus its Vineland capital T in both, the tube is merely
primus inter pares in a bewildering glut of media that also includes film,
photography, advertising, radio, newspapers, and computers.3 What is
distinctive about Pynchon’s treatment of television in The Crying of Lot
49 and Inherent Vice is a fascination with the extra scope it allows for real
and virtual lives to be side by side, and the hyperreal repercussions of their
coexistence and interaction.
In the former, Oedipa Maas’ lawyer and lover Metzger has been a child-
star in the movies, but it is through television that those films can be
“repeated endlessly” (CL 33) and piped into living spaces (although the
medium is perceived as defined by ephemerality, Pynchon tends to stress
its accidental archival role); when she snaps on her hotel room’s set in their
first meeting, Metzger’s period war film Cashiered uncannily appears, and
then provides the incongruous backdrop and soundtrack as they have sex.
He reverts to being an actor when in court, Metzger points out, and a TV
pilot has been made in which a friend, “a one-time lawyer who quit [. . .] to
become an actor [. . .] plays me, an actor become a lawyer reverting
periodically to being an actor” (CL 33). In Inherent Vice, private eye Doc
Sportello’s LAPD sparring partner Bigfoot Bjornsen – who “like many
L. A. cops” (and indeed Vineland’s Hector Zuñiga, who ends up as a movie
producer) “harbored show-business yearnings” (IV 9) – also doubles up as
an actor: In the space of two days, Sportello sees one of Bjornsen’s
ridiculous costumed commercials for Channel View Estates, watches him
giving a serious TV interview there while investigating a homicide, and is
arrested in the off-screen world by the “Renaissance detective” (IV 29).
What Metzger calls this “capacity for convolution” (CL 33) is presented
as extended by television – with its relative informality of access and
production opening up opportunities for moonlighting – and a speciality
Film and Television 159
of southern California. As Ronald Reagan is referenced in both novels,
it seems highly likely that Pynchon’s reuse of the trope in Inherent Vice
and Vineland is related to the rise of this movie actor and TV host-turned-
politician who reverted to being an actor in his public appearances, who was
Governor of California when the former is set (during the presidency of
Nixon, a Californian lawyer) and who was in the White House when the
latter is set. Scattered references position Reagan and Nixon as paradox-
ical figures: at once postmodern simulations and neo-fascistic, slickly
aligned with the media-driven society of the spectacle and reactionary
When Sportello checks into a motel advertising itself as a kind of spa for
television devotees, the early-1970s “Tubefreex” who “bathe in these cath-
ode rays” (IV 253) anticipate the mid-1980s Tube addicts of Vineland, while
the proliferation of cable channels they relish looks forward to the myriad
options available to the early-noughties New Yorkers of Bleeding Edge.
In the latter novel, however, this cornucopia occasions not a coming
together but an ever more fragmented audience. The extended family at
its centre, though still more or less intact (a rarity in Pynchon’s fiction),
split up as viewers: The protagonist Maxine Tarnow watches female-
angled Lifetime, her husband Horst BioPiX and sports, her father Ernie
movie channels, her sons cartoons. None of them appears to watch net-
work shows.
By the time of Bleeding Edge, though, television has joined cinema as
a waning heritage medium. Name-checks for real and invented films, TV
series, and stars are frequent, but these are now harmless mind snacks and
chat topics, not the sinister, brain-warping tools of the oppressive elite
they were formerly insinuated as being. Television’s counterintuitive
archival function – storing and replaying both cinema and itself – is
again underlined in this novel, where characters are much more likely to
watch or discuss old movies or TV reruns than new programs. Rather
than being Orwellian telescreens (computers, instead, are on the way to
realizing that prediction), TV sets now resemble miniature museums,
which like their bricks-and-mortar counterparts are invitations to time
In a conversation between Maxine and Ernie, television in its hegemonic
heyday is compared with the Internet, the medium that supplanted it and
the novel’s chief subject. Like the Tube back then, the Internet is every-
where (it “creeps now like a smell through the smallest details of our lives”)
(BE 420), and it, too, seduces citizens into kowtowing to “control”:
formerly “all those cop shows” were ostensibly entertainment but really
160 john dugdale
“post-sixties propaganda, Orwell’s boot on the face” (BE 418); now
a technology Maxine naively hails as “empowering all these billions of
people, the promise, the freedom” (BE 420) actually entails, for old-school
lefty Ernie, empowering the police, FBI, and CIA: “Everybody connected
together, impossible anyone should get lost, ever again . . . Connect it to
[. . .] cellphones, you’ve got a total Web of surveillance, inescapable . . .
Terrific” (BE 420).
Ernie says nothing about television in 2001, irrelevant by inference
because of audience fragmentation and the availability of more efficient
methods of control. However, what has become a tranquillized and tran-
quillizing medium is shown in Bleeding Edge as possessing an unsuspected
subversive capacity – like film in Vineland, except that Frenesi Gates fails to
seize her opportunity to detonate a bombshell – if it takes the form of its
scruffier and sniffily regarded sibling, video. After the documentary-maker
Reg Despard films a room where Arab men are kept hidden in the Deseret
building, and then two groups with guns on top of it (BE 90–91), he and
Maxine realize post-9/11 that he may have stumbled on a “rehearsal”
(BE 268) connected to the terrorist attacks, and a clue to a different
narrative from the official version.
Furthermore, olde-worlde moving pictures have gained a further
flexibility of distribution in the Internet age, potentially expanding the
scope of their impact when they are revelatory: Confined to cinemas in
film’s reign, they were channeled into every US home in the age of
television, and now Despard’s footage on tape (which also becomes
a DVD) is made available on the World Wide Web once uploaded to
a “Weblog” (blog).
The fact that video in Bleeding Edge may be dismissed through its
associations with home movies, pirated films, porn, and publicity is what
allows it to pass below the radar (Despard is able to be a whistle-blower
inside Gabriel Ice’s digital empire because he is making a promo). Film
technology’s power to cause trouble, however, seems to be solely
unlocked in the hands of individual, independent filmmakers – belong-
ing to organizations, obeying corporate rules impregnated with dogma,
even being “professional” are all liable to defuse it. But there is something
of a catch-22 here: While apparently those who are solo and out-of-their-
depth alone see freely and freshly – Pynchon implicitly leans toward
accidental (and sometimes comical) video investigators such as Despard,
just as his novels favour amateur or outwardly amateurish detectives –
their innocence and exposed isolation all but ensure that they will be co-
opted or crushed.
Film and Television 161
1. David Cowart, Thomas Pynchon and the Dark Passages of History (Athens, GA:
University of Georgia Press, 2011), pp. 65–73; Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari
to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 1947), pp. 9–19.
2. 24fps – and visual media more generally – are discussed in detail in Shawn
Smith, Pynchon and History (London: Routledge, 2005), pp. 112–23.
3. See David Seed, The Fictional Labyrinths of Thomas Pynchon (Basingstoke and
London: Macmillan, 1988), pp. 140–46, which points out the relevance of
Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media (1964).
chapter 20

Real Estate and the Internet

Inger H. Dalsgaard

[S]he thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace

a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses
and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same
unexpected, astonishing clarity.
Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

A famous image from The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) – in which Oedipa Maas
compares the concealed communication of a suburban “sprawl of houses”
to that of a “printed circuit” board (CL 24) – sets the tone for Thomas
Pynchon’s writing on real estate as much as on computing. Both these
fields have grown during Pynchon’s writing career; both have come to
represent systems of control throughout his writing. In his latest novel,
Bleeding Edge (2013), real estate and urban planning along with the inte-
gration of computing into personal and relational spaces reappear, two
twenty-first-century digital natives (sons of the female protagonist Maxine
Tarnow) merging the fields at a deeper level than Oedipa’s superficial
pattern recognition had done. In Pynchon’s latest analysis of human
agency, both urban planning and IT infrastructure remain central; they
become either loci of control, contested spaces, or places of resistance,
depending on who builds, buys, uses, or reclaims the city – be it real or
At first glance, it might seem arbitrary to yoke together real estate and
the Internet in one chapter. However, there are parallels and congruencies
between the two. Thus both real estate and the Internet have taken on
industrial form, while land- and domain-ownership are comparable. Land
may serve as a source of wealth (through crop production, extractive
industries, sales, and rentals, say); so, too, the Internet (via service provi-
sion, hosting, and online marketing). Both real estate and digital domains
are strategic assets in relation to control of rivers, highways, and data
channels. In Pynchon’s writing, both also relate to other core ideas about
systems that mark his work: capitalism and class on the one hand, networks
Real Estate and the Internet 163
and communication on the other. Particularly in his latest novel,
Pynchon’s way of weaving them together – literally contextualizing them
with each other – throws a light on how his writing has evolved over time
to reflect on the central question of control.
Pynchon’s work portrays different types of pernicious ownership con-
struction. These range from landed colonial gentry via early twentieth-
century corporate monopolists to rentier capitalists who hold land at
a distance and occupants at arm’s length. They include the corrupting
influence of suburbanization and culturally insensitive urban planning,
and the more immaterial twenty-first-century trading of IT property. All
control and use as resources those who work within them; all seek to
dispossess or dispose of as waste those whose value cannot be capitalized.
The present chapter explores how in these fictions property systems, from
material real estate to digital networks, divide societies, creating white
middle-class cultures whose participation in these systems generates rev-
enue while dispossessing other ethnic and working-class cultures, enabling
more or less identifiable owners to pit classes and races against each other in
order to keep “wages down, and rents high” (BE 57).1 It relates Pynchon’s
ambivalence about the value of such human and technological networks to
the degree to which individuals or communities can act to resist determi-
nistic systems and to the ability of sanctuaries to survive when property
logics drive societies toward abusive and wasteful consumption.

Real Estate: Systems of Dispossession

Read chronologically in terms of setting rather than writing, Pynchon’s
novels show how America has been carved up and subdivided since land
surveyor’s chains were dragged across the continent in the seventeenth
century by the eponymous characters of Mason & Dixon (1997). That
process continues around the turn of the twentieth century in Against
the Day (2006), where tent-dwelling miners’ families are ousted following
violent labor disputes. Their “To Hell you ride” (AD 302) are to be over-
taken by Telluride’s future holiday homes and good “clean, industrious,
Christian” families, because a rentier capitalist like Scarsdale Vibe expects
higher returns from real estate development than mining (AD 1001).
V. (1963), Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), and Against the Day include the
physical and political landscapes of other continents to portray colonial,
neo-colonial, and supranational powers replacing “The Game” of bound-
ary drawing with “a zone forsaken by God”: one in which maneuvering is
“transitory or accidental” (SL 113) and dispossessed people yo-yo and scatter
164 inger h. dalsgaard
across a burgeoning post-geographical space. Pynchon’s late twentieth-
century settings in The Crying of Lot 49, Inherent Vice (2009), and Bleeding
Edge focus to varying degrees on the cultural, physical, and human costs of
suburbanization. The Fangoso Lagoons housing development is, for
example, an exercise in cultural appropriation, floating above “restored
galleons, imported from the Bahamas; Atlantean fragments of columns
and friezes from the Canaries; real human skeletons from Italy” (CL 31).
In Pynchon’s earlier work real estate development and land division
work at a comparatively abstract or anonymous level. From Pierce
Inverarity in The Crying of Lot 49 via the Allied forces dividing Germany
into Zones in Gravity’s Rainbow to the Calverts and Penns in Mason &
Dixon, commissioners of land division and development are distant and/or
impersonal. In later Pynchon, however, both dispossessed and disposses-
sors are increasingly identified. Scarsdale Vibe in Against the Day, Crocker
Fenway in Inherent Vice, and Gabriel Ice in Bleeding Edge become almost
caricature villains, largely above the fray, free of moral scruples, and willing
to describe their sinister plots. The human cost of these activities, particu-
larly for vulnerable immigrant and non-white communities, also features
more prominently in the recent novels. In Bleeding Edge, for example,
March Kelleher’s reference to the sacrifice of Boricuan (Puerto Rican)
families for the Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts alludes to Robert
Moses’ controversial New York City urban renewal program that contrib-
uted to the destruction of working-class and immigrant communities.
In Inherent Vice, Tariq Khalil tells a similar tale from the West Coast,
where whole neighborhoods – Japanese, African American, Mexican,
Native American – disappear to make way for developments like Mickey
Wolfmann’s Channel View Estates in South Central, thereby becoming
part of the “[l]ong, sad history of L. A. land use” (IV 27).2
At elegiac moments in Pynchon’s writing, land has a primordial promise
to be a sanctuary or haven. About to confront Fenway with the greedy logic
of mortgaging land in Inherent Vice, for example, Doc Sportello sees the
blessing of unused land in the painting of Portolá, a mid-eighteenth-
century Spanish colonizer of California. In Bleeding Edge, Maxine stumbles
upon the vestiges of a bird sanctuary, swamped by excessive waste rejected
by the city at Fresh Kills and threatened by the “real-estate imperative”
(BE 166) to continue unchecked urban growth. Like culture, she remarks,
nature “attracts the worst impulses of the moneyed, it has no honor, it begs
to be suburbanized and corrupted” (BE 56). Since before Mason and
Dixon’s expedition, indeed, the American Eden – either as unspoiled
nature itself or the idea of free space for all – has been subject to
Real Estate and the Internet 165
encroachment. Vibe and Fenway are clear about the mechanisms that
control populations (promising or depriving them of places to live) while
generating wealth in the process. In Bleeding Edge, the frontier has moved
into cyberspace and the dilemma recurs, as software developers float
between free access principles and mortgage demands, while private
moguls and shadowy organizations possess and control IT infrastructure.
However, this new frontier may offer old-fashioned protesters like March
Kelleher another way of going underground to disseminate information
about and offer resistance to such exploitation (via weblogs), and to cast
herself allegorically as “the guardian of whatever the city threw away”
(BE 113). So while junk may be negative (despoiling Fresh Kills or clogging
up DeepArcher after its opening), it can also offer avenues for liberty and
creativity to nomadic or free spirits. Maxine’s father Ernie’s admonition
about the Internet (“Call it freedom, it’s based on control. Everybody
connected together, impossible anybody should get lost, ever again”)
might be construed by others as a promise. To Maxine, the Internet is
just another landscape, and though it can appear a desert and a junkyard at
times, like Oedipa and Doc Sportello before her she can quarry it for
information that may help her track down a redeemable villain (BE
403–07, 426). With access to the right information, human rubbish can
also be salvaged – even after death.3 Like any other landscape, the netscape
can be exploited, but to idealists it is not only a site for sinister data
collection and control but also “a major social event.”4 Human beings
will always belong to networks and systems: Social networks exist alongside
and within digital technology. But even if people remain subject to systemic
powers including soulless business interests and faceless governments, they
are still a philosophical and ethical yardstick for human agency, whether at
an individual level, where characters from Meatball Mulligan in “Entropy”
to Maxine in Bleeding Edge sort things out, or at a communal level.
The closed determinism of Pynchon’s earlier years may still haunt his
recent work; critics in this volume and elsewhere differ on whether his
fiction allows for constructive/ist hope for a counterforce capable of taking
on “They” systems or identifiable moguls face-to-face. Doesn’t the Internet
just create “another zone forsaken by God” (SL 113)? The information
cacophony of social media messaging in the age of Facebook, Twitter, and
DeepArcher seems only to add noise and advance entropy. Yet in informa-
tion theory, redundancy and white noise can actually enhance commu-
nication – “greater freedom of choice, greater uncertainty, greater
information go hand in hand” – so either waste is something one digs
through to find answers of value or it paints a picture in its own right.5
166 inger h. dalsgaard
The message conveyed may be depressing, but whatever it is has been
constructed democratically; moreover, sanctuaries can exist among the
garbage that seems to overflow the world we create collectively, online
and on land: possibilities whose scope and limits are first broached in the
early short stories “Low-lands” and “Entropy” from 1960.

Internet, Communication, and Technology

Thomas Pynchon could not be expected to include references in all his
writing to computing, the Internet, or the World Wide Web, because the
time of writing or the setting of many of his novels predate their ubiquity
or even existence. Nonetheless, computer hardware figures in Pynchon’s
early writing (IBM featuring prominently as early as 1958 in Minstrel
Island) as do both the binary idea behind machine language (zeroes and
ones are first mentioned in V. in 1963) and notions of coding and decoding
that straddle discussions of language and programming. As early as 1960,
the short story “Entropy” shows his interest in communication theory.
Although Rudolph Clausius and his American popularizer Willard Gibbs
are referenced, Pynchon also acknowledges his debt to the cybernetic
theories found in Norbert Wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings
(1950), which explains why Claude Shannon’s concept of information
entropy and Warren Weaver’s subsequent communication model apply
as well as thermodynamics (or as poorly, Pynchon suggests) to a unifying
interpretation of this story (SL 12–14). In a communications system,
entropy is a measure of uncertainty, or ambiguity, redundancy, irrelevance,
and leakage between sender and receiver, according to Saul, who tries
unsuccessfully to express “love” to his girlfriend Miriam and to determine
whether “computers [are] acting like people” or “human behavior [is] like
a program fed into an IBM machine” (SL 90).6
Pynchon’s early fiction is concerned with not only the ideas of commu-
nication and control but also the material framework or channels through
which both flowed. In The Crying of Lot 49 alternative systems of commu-
nication (W.A.S.T.E.) are set up on the back of once-official networks like
the Tristero. Through the 1950s and 1960s, IBM would not just expand
their stakes in government and business data systems; they would become
integral to the development of the American space program, an extension
of the German World War II rocket program as described in Gravity’s
Rainbow (1973).7 During these years, moreover, the foundations of the
ARPAnet, the technological precursor for the Internet, were laid via
collaboration between government, industry, and university researchers –
Real Estate and the Internet 167
in time for it to make an appearance in the 1970 setting of Inherent Vice
(2009) as a helpful dowser ex machina.8 That the network was funded by
the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency prompts
Maxine’s father, Ernie, to denounce the Big Brother possibilities of the
“DARPAnet” whose “original purpose was to assure survival of
U.S. command and control” (BE 419). Elsewhere in this volume, Steven
Weisenburger suggests that Pynchon’s texts embrace a paranoid reading of
communication and Internet technology as handmaidens of capitalism
and control. Yet in 1984, when Pynchon resurfaced to break a decade of
near-silence, he appeared to entertain the creative and democratic possibi-
lities furnished by computers, at least when used within (and not against)
human networks.
The year 1984 is significant on a number of counts. It is not only the title
of George Orwell’s final novel (for a new edition of which Pynchon wrote
a preface in 2003) but also the year that William Gibson’s Neuromancer
introduced terms like ICE and cyberspace. Both novels provide valuable
intertexts for Pynchon’s writing specifically and “the Internet,
a development that promises social control” in general.9 That same year
also saw the publication of Slow Learner and of Pynchon’s essay “Is It O.K.
To Be a Luddite?” (the latter considering the potential benefits of
information-sharing technology). Whereas computers had once been cen-
tralized big data systems into which people’s lives were fed, by 1984 the IBM
personal computer had been introduced as a tool for ordinary citizens,
suggesting a “shift in the power balance” between institutions and indivi-
duals that was welcomed as empowering by counterculture activist and
information technology entrepreneur Stewart Brand.10 In 1984, Brand
launched the Whole Earth Software Catalog to do for cyberculture what his
Whole Earth Catalog had previously done for the counterculture.
That same year Pynchon himself pondered the future of literary protests
against machines in the “Computer Age,” insofar as computers were now
so “user-friendly that even the most unreconstructed of Luddites can be
charmed into laying down the old sledgehammer and stroking a few keys
instead.”11 As advances in digital and information technology seemed not
to put writers out of work so much as give them useful tools, access to
information and a media broadcast platform, “the deepest Luddite hope of
miracle has now come to reside in the computer’s ability to get the right
data to those whom the data will do the most good.”12 This sentiment
gestured toward the optimistic, collectivist thinking of those like Brand,
Buckminster Fuller, Lewis Mumford, and Marshall McLuhan who sug-
gested (in very different ways) how technology paired with information-
168 inger h. dalsgaard
sharing could potentially liberate or return power into the hands of the
community and facilitate a necessary, environmentally sensitive social
Did Pynchon actually warm to the possibilities of computer-aided
alternative communities between writing Gravity’s Rainbow and Vineland
(1990), which is itself portentously set in 1984? Could communication and
technology combined set people free to reclaim local, sustainable, and
communal lifestyles? A positive reading of Vineland sees value in the back-
to-the-lands lifestyle of the Northern California woods to which Zoyd
Wheeler has withdrawn, and in the type of “personal computing” his
daughter Prairie benefits from when DL draws on a combination of
human and alternative computing networks to help her know more
about her mother, Frenesi. This “hacking” operation is a counterpoint in
the novel to the mainframe of government agencies whose data collection
and computer files keep free-spirited troublemakers like Prairie’s father and
unreliable agents like her mother in check, so to speak, by withholding
their government subsidies – earned by performing more or less humiliat-
ing tasks. Vineland is not therefore an ecological sanctuary in which
characters escape technological and social control.14 Such systems do not
disappear in the latter half of Pynchon’s writing career, which charts
proprietary espionage and communication networks ranging from the
“great number of Jesuit Observatories, flung as a Web, all over the
World” in Mason & Dixon (MD 223) to the gas broadcasts, Tesla device,
and regular spy networks of Against the Day. Pynchon’s latest novels retain
an ambivalence or resignation in the face of technological networks. They
may be forces for good as extensions of the communal networks of people
who look out for each other, networks upon which Zoyd, Frenesi, and
many characters after them rely. In Inherent Vice, Doc Sportello imagines
the benign “temporary commune” that mobile phones and computer
networks will facilitate in the future (IV 368).15 Such trust in communal
networks is echoed in Bleeding Edge when Maxine defends the liberating
and empowering benefits of a nonproprietary World Wide Web, at the
low, low price of it “getting a little commercialized” (BE 429).
DL and Takeshi Fumimoto in Vineland join the ranks of marginal,
marginalized (and marginally subversive) hacker figures who appear in
Pynchon’s latest novels to get the right data to the right people under the
nose of various oppressive institutions, as do Fritz Drybeam and Sparky in
Inherent Vice (IV 53, 195, 258, 274, 365). Other characters pursue a more
active, anti-commercial resistance. “Hackers are hippies who got it right,”
according to Stewart Brand when Fortune magazine tried to describe his
Real Estate and the Internet 169
folk-hero appeal to “successive generations of plugged-in, disaffected
youth.”16 Among Bleeding Edge’s array of IT manipulators – owners
(Gabriel Ice), software developers (Justin and Lucas), web designers and
geek programmers (Driscoll and Eric), and government-trained hacker-
terrorists (Mischa and Grisha) – March Kelleher is just such a hippie
hacker, using her weblog against those who control the web. With the
help of a nomadic lifestyle and “a network of friends who warbike around
town with compact PCs and provide her with a growing list of free Wi-Fi
hotspots” (BE 398), she seems able partially to dismantle the master’s house
with his own tools. A fierce defender of tenants’ rights who has a deep
loathing for “the scumbag landlords and the scumbag developers” (BE 115)
ruining the city and race relations, March nonetheless hesitates to transfer
wholesale the same dogged ire to the dotcom equivalent because the techies
“are out to change the world. ‘Information has to be free’—they really
mean it” (BE 116). Yet her enthusiasm remains tempered: “At the same
time, here’s all these greedy fuckin dotcommers make real-estate devel-
opers look like Bambi and Thumper” (BE 116).
Maxine Tarnow mirrors Oedipa’s fascination at a distance with the real
estate-IT interface, but not as a hieroglyphic vision of the nation that
Pierce Inverarity has created. Instead, she observes the city-forming inter-
action between Justin and Lucas’ Deep Web software and her own sons’
creativity in constructing the “virtual hometown of Zigotisopolis,”
a “version of NYC as it was before 11 September 2001” (BE 476, 428–29).
“Benevolent” and “old-school,” their translation appears uncorrupted and
prelapsarian, not in terms of the political terrorism on 9/11 but of the
yuppifying, architectural offenses perpetrated against the city by developers
like Donald Trump and his political handmaiden, Rudy Giuliani, to which
the novel repeatedly alludes. Before building a merciful city on the free
haven of DeepArcher, Ziggy and Otis play a first-person shooter game (also
developed by sympathetic techies, Justin and Lucas) to reverse-engineer
Giuliani’s cleaned-up New York City, targeting “yups” rather than the
homeless (BE 34).17 Both sets of “kids” are disarmingly naive and trusting:
They open their source code and they walk openly into a flawed world,
teaching Maxine to relax her guarding instincts. Ernie and March may
epitomize the paranoid, political, and social indignation present in
Pynchon’s novels, but Maxine’s approach to her sons’ journey through
real and virtual cityscapes represents better the gentle touch that Pynchon
himself identifies in George Orwell who, as a father, seemed to have
“discovered something that might be worth more than anger.”18
Pynchon’s conclusion to his Foreword to Nineteen Eighty-Four resonates
170 inger h. dalsgaard
with the end of Bleeding Edge. Children (of the digital age) have an
“unhesitating faith that the world, at the end of the day, and that human
decency, like parental love, can always be taken for granted,” impelling
parents and writers to swear, at least for a moment, “to do whatever must
be done to keep it from being betrayed.”19

1. See Tiina Käkelä, “‘This Land Is My Land, This Land Also Is My Land’: Real
Estate Narratives in Pynchon’s Fiction,” Textual Practice (2019) doi: 10.1080/
2. See Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York
(New York: Vintage, 1975); Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future
in Los Angeles (London: Verso, 1990).
3. See John Johnston, Information Multiplicity: American Fiction in the Age of
Media Saturation (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998),
pp. 206–32, p. 224.
4. John Brockman, Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite (San Francisco, CA:
Hardwired, 1996), p. 24.
5. Claude E. Shannon and Warren Weaver, The Mathematical Theory of
Communication (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1949), pp. 18–19;
Louis Menand, “Entropology,” New York Review of Books, 44.10, June 12,
1997, pp. 22–25, p. 24.
6. Complexities between men, women, love, and IBM were also in the forefront
in the libretto Pynchon and Kirkpatrick Sale worked on for Minstrel Island
7. See Dale Carter, The Final Frontier: The Rise and Fall of the American Rocket
State (London, Verso, 1988).
8. See Thomas P. Hughes, Rescuing Prometheus: Four Monumental Projects that
Changed the World (New York: Vintage Books, 1998).
9. Thomas Pynchon “Foreword,” in George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
(New York: Plume, 2003), p. xvi.
10. Stewart Brand “Introduction,” Whole Earth Software Catalog (Spring 1984)
11. Thomas Pynchon, “Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?” New York Times Book Review,
October, 28, 1984, pp. 1, 40–41, p. 41.
12. Pynchon, “Luddite,” p. 41.
13. See Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the
Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (Chicago, IL:
The University of Chicago Press, 2006); R. Buckminster Fuller, Utopia
or Oblivion: The Prospects for Humanity (New York: Bantam Books,
1969); Lewis Mumford, “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics” in
Technology and Culture, 5, 1 (Winter 1964), 1–8; Marshall McLuhan,
Real Estate and the Internet 171
Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964; London: Abacus,
14. See Samuel Thomas, Pynchon and the Political (New York: Routledge, 2007),
pp. 138–47.
15. Scott McClintock argues for a “longing for connection” which, for all the
paranoia, can give affirmative value to (for example) technology-based net-
works whereas capitalizing on land, say, has no such merit. See
Scott McClintock, “The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the
State of California in Pynchon’s Fiction,” in Scott McClintock and
John Miller (eds.), Pynchon’s California (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa
Press, 2014), pp. 91–111, p. 101.
16. David Stipp, “Stewart Brand: The Electric Kool-Aid Management
Consultant,” Fortune 132.8 (October 16, 1995), 160–72, p. 162.
17. Justin St. Clair, “The Reality of Fiction in a Virtually Postmodern
Metropolis,” in Keith Wilhite (ed.), The City Since 9/11: Literature, Film,
Television (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2016), pp.
89–106, p. 100.
18. Pynchon, “Foreword,” p. xxv.
19. Pynchon, “Foreword,” pp. xxv, xxvi. See also the observations on Pynchon’s
stance in Kathryn Hume, “The Religious and Political Vision of Pynchon’s
Against the Day,” Philological Quarterly, 86.1–2 (Winter 2007), 163–87, pp.
173, 176–77.
chapter 21

Politics and Counterculture

Joanna Freer

Thomas Pynchon’s fiction, and in particular his 1973 masterpiece Gravity’s

Rainbow, is considered by many critics to define the literary postmodern.
In Postmodernist Fiction (1987), for instance, Brian McHale describes
Gravity’s Rainbow as “one of the paradigmatic texts of postmodernist
writing,” and in his later book, Constructing Postmodernism (1992), he
dedicates one of four parts of his discussion to Pynchon’s work.1 Fredric
Jameson, probably the most influential theorist of the postmodern as
a broad, cultural phenomenon, also names Pynchon – alongside William
Burroughs and Ishmael Reed – as one of the main avatars of the post-
modern in literature.2
A concise and representative definition of postmodernism is offered by
the critic Terry Eagleton, who characterizes it as “a depthless, decentred,
ungrounded, self-reflexive, playful, derivative, eclectic, pluralistic art which
blurs the boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture, as well as
between art and everyday experience.”3 Emerging in the 1960s in the
United States and Europe in the first post–World War II generation –
a generation for whom Nazism and fascism on the one hand, and Stalinism
on the other, meant that the traditional politics of either the Right or Left
were no longer viable – postmodernism is wary of overarching ideas of
“truth, reason, identity and objectivity, of the idea of universal progress or
emancipation, of single frameworks, grand narratives or ultimate grounds
of explanation” and instead “sees the world as contingent, ungrounded,
diverse, unstable, indeterminate.”4
Precisely because of this lack of confidence in narratives of ultimate truth
or universal human progress, and the playful and self-conscious kind of
writing it results in, postmodernism has tended to be seen as disconnected
from real, political issues. To the detriment of its political engagement with
ongoing oppression around the world, postmodern literature has been
viewed as wrapped up in narrower concerns with challenging the validity
of previous approaches to narrative, as writers attempt to answer through
Politics and Counterculture 173
formal innovation questions like: How can one write in the knowledge that
language cannot accurately represent reality? What alternatives are there to
the didacticism of linear, author-guided narratives? How can the recogni-
tion that identity is not stable, singular, or coherent be reflected in new
modes of characterization?
Jameson and Eagleton have been two of the most influential exponents
of the idea of postmodernism as either devoid of political critique or unable
to effectively communicate it. Specifically, Jameson criticizes the shallow
superficiality of postmodern culture, which is reflected in what he sees as its
obsession with images and parallel hollowing out of the “real” and rejection
of the historical. He argues that “there cannot but be much that is
deplorable and reprehensible in a cultural form of image addiction
which, by transforming the past into visual mirages, stereotypes, or texts,
effectively abolishes any practical sense of the future and of the collective
project, thereby abandoning the thinking of future change.”5 For Jameson,
postmodernism is the logic of late capitalism, and hence is unable to
critique the economic and political status quo. Using Pynchon’s represen-
tations of World War II Malta in his first novel V. (1963) as an example,
Jameson states that, in postmodernism, “[w]hat the past has to tell us”
appears to be “little more than a matter of idle curiosity, and indeed our
interest in it – fantastic genealogies, alternate histories! – comes to look
a little like an in-group hobby or adoptive tourism.”6 Eagleton, with
a similar emphasis on this supposed in-group mentality, describes post-
modernism as “a cult of ambiguity and indeterminacy.”7 Explaining what
he sees as postmodern “scepticism” as the result of the Left’s thorough-
going defeat as a political movement in the mid-twentieth century,
Eagleton argues that the concern with the falsity of totalizing concepts is
a distraction from such defeat that postmodernists can only afford because
they are “intellectuals who have no particularly pressing reason to locate
their own social existence within a broader political framework.”8
Both critics make these points while, and despite, recognizing the
intensely diverse, or “bizarrely heterogenous,” range of forms of art and
literature that can be marshaled under the category of the postmodern.9
It contains media as diverse as architecture and advertising, fashion and
music, photography and poetry, and constitutes a vast body of cultural
work that has been (and perhaps continues to be) produced by a huge
number of people whose ideas and purposes are inevitably widely diver-
gent. Broad-brush arguments about postmodernism being a kind of fun-
house mirror that passively reflects back the anxieties of contemporary
culture should thus be treated cautiously. Despite the fact that Jameson
174 joanna freer
and Eagleton, like McHale, consider Pynchon a representative of the
postmodern in literature, we might also hesitate in assuming that we
should automatically apply their general pronouncements on postmodern-
ism to his writing on the basis that nothing beyond the most cursory
analysis of Pynchon’s fiction is undertaken by either critic in presenting
their case.
A robust challenge to the perspectives I have been describing came in
1989, with Linda Hutcheon’s The Politics of Postmodernism. Here
Hutcheon delineated a particular genre of the literary postmodern that
she called historiographic metafiction – basically, a form of fiction that self-
consciously writes history in a way that strongly emphasizes the fact that
history is, like fiction, a representational and narrative form. She suggests
that in this genre, in which she includes Pynchon’s fiction, as in many
other manifestations of the postmodern, what might seem to be a detached
irony or a blank pastiche of earlier forms should, in many cases, actually be
considered a politically motivated parody. For Hutcheon, “[p]ostmodern
art cannot but be political, at least in the sense that its representations – its
images and stories – are anything but neutral, however ‘aestheticized’ they
may appear to be in their parodic self- reflexivity.”10 In this view, post-
modernism does not turn its back on historical or political actualities, even
though it does focus on how they are represented:
The prevailing interpretation is that postmodernism offers a value-free,
decorative, de-historicized quotation of past forms and that this is a most
apt mode for a culture like our own that is oversaturated with images.
Instead, I would want to argue that postmodernist parody is a value-
problematizing, de-naturalizing form of acknowledging the history (and
through irony, the politics) of representations.11

Hutcheon thus provides one kind of basis for viewing as political writing
that seeks to highlight its awareness of its status as representation and of the
political importance of seeing all art and history in this light. Pynchon’s
novels can certainly be read in this way. Yet in Pynchon’s fiction there are
also other ways of reading the political that do not dwell primarily on the
politics of representation.
First, Pynchon’s politics manifest through the kinds of subject matter
his novels broach. Although there are elements of his writing that are
purely playful – an impulse epitomized, perhaps, by the comic-surreal
songs he surprises the reader with at intervals (sometimes complete with
instructions about the tune to which they should be sung) – Pynchon’s
fiction consistently addresses itself to the greatest travesties of justice that
Politics and Counterculture 175
have been committed over the past few hundred years. These include the
atrocities of World War II (in V. and Gravity’s Rainbow); the brutalities of
colonization and slavery (in V., Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon
[1997]); the suppression, violent or otherwise, of worker/anarchist/coun-
tercultural uprisings (a recurrent focus dealt with most expansively in
Against the Day [2006]); and the more general depredations of capitalist
economy, whether in its liberal or neoliberal forms (a concern in all of
Pynchon’s novels).
It is a tendency of Pynchon’s writing of such injustices to treat them
mostly indirectly, often via an absurdist symbolic narrative depicting the
indifferent depravity of those who inhabit a middling rank in the hierarchy
of power that is ultimately to blame. To provide a few examples, in V., the
1904–8 genocide of the Herero people in German South-West Africa is
present in the text mainly as historical background to Foppl’s 1922 “siege
party,” a weeks-long hedonistic binge held in a fortified villa by whites
nostalgic for the time of German rule while another conflict, the
Bondelswarts rebellion (which also resulted in the deaths of numerous
native inhabitants of the region), rages on around them. In Gravity’s
Rainbow, Nazism’s violence is focalized primarily through the figure of
a single member of the German army, Major Weissman (alias Captain
Blicero), who engages in sadistic sexual abuse of a Dutch girl and a German
boy, neither of whom are Jewish (both seem, rather, to embody the Aryan
ideal). In Vineland (1990), the suppression of resistance to the intense
conservatism of the Reagan years is figured by the monomaniacal federal
prosecutor Brock Vond, who after having “won his war against the lefties,”
has moved on to “the war against drugs” (VL 130). Finally, in Mason &
Dixon, slavery in the United States is dealt with largely tangentially as the
main narrative recounts the drawing of the Mason-Dixon Line, which
came to divide the slave and free states, and emphasizes, this time rather
sentimentally, the relationship that develops between the astronomer,
Charles Mason, and surveyor, Jeremiah Dixon, who are tasked with
plotting the line.
Even when an historical event is dealt with directly, the tone in many
cases remains detached, as in the following oft-quoted passage from V. on
the aforementioned Herero genocide:
In August 1904, von Trotha issued his “Vernichtungs Befehl,” whereby the
German forces were ordered to exterminate systematically every Herero
man, woman and child they could find. He was about 80 per cent successful.
Out of the estimated 80,000 Hereros living in the territory in 1904, an
official German census taken seven years later set the Herero population at
176 joanna freer
only 15,130, this being a decrease of 64,870. Similarly the Hottentots were
reduced in the same period by about 10,000, the Berg-Damaras by 17,000.
Allowing for natural causes during those unnatural years, von Trotha, who
stayed for only one of them, is reckoned to have done away with about
60,000 people. This is only 1 per cent of six million, but still pretty good.
(V 245)
Such irony, as Hutcheon makes clear, can have its own political purposes.
In the examples given in the previous paragraph, for instance, the effect
could plausibly be read as encouraging thought about where blame for
injustice should lie, interrogating the relationship between sex and power,
highlighting the absurdity of indifference toward human suffering, and
investigating broad structures of complicity. In the above-quoted passage,
the biting irony of the final line – which compares the number killed by
von Trotha to the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust – can be
interpreted, for instance, as an attack on how the characteristic neutrality
of history-writing unethically renders mass death assimilable by converting
pain into statistics, or, as Shawn Smith has it, “as a reminder of the
inadequacy of words to convey such horrors.”12
Yet there are also flashes of what seems like straightforward political
sincerity in Pynchon’s work. These moments are most frequent, perhaps,
in his 2006 novel Against the Day, which I would suggest is Pynchon’s most
politically sincere work to date. Take, for instance, the thoughts of detec-
tive Lew Basnight on an assembly of anarchist protestors in which he
describes and contests attitudes toward the Left within his agency prevalent
in the 1890s moment of the novel:
There was a kind of general assumption around the shop that laboring men
and women were all more or less evil, surely misguided, and not quite
American, maybe not quite human. But here was this hall full of Americans,
no question, even the foreign-born, if you thought about where they had
come from and what they must’ve been hoping to find over here and so
forth, American in their prayers anyway, and maybe a few hadn’t shaved for
a while, but it was hard to see how any fit the bearded, wild-eyed, bomb-
rolling Red description too close. (AD 50)
Such thoughts have an obvious contemporary valence, especially for
a novel published just a few years after 9/11. Deciding whether or not this
novel (or any other Pynchon novel) offers a consensus on questions like the
“American-ness” of immigrants or the demonization of the Left requires an
assessment not just of isolated passages such as this, however, but of the
novel in its entirety, especially given that Pynchon tends to ventriloquize
multiple perspectives on a given event. The Haymarket bombing of 1886,
Politics and Counterculture 177
in which four civilians and seven policemen were killed at a similar protest
meeting to that described by Lew, for instance, is considered by one
character in Against the Day as having been perpetrated by a “gang of
anarchistic murderers” (AD 25), by another as “the only way working
people will ever get a fair shake under that miserable economic system”
(AD 111), and by the narrator (describing, again, the thoughts of Lew) as an
example of “a bombing, a massacre perhaps at the behest of the
U.S. government” (AD 1058). Yet I would argue that overall assessments
can be made of the political attitudes that a given Pynchon novel endorses.
Such judgments can be supported, it should be noted, by statements made
in Pynchon’s limited, but significant, body of journalism.13
One of the major focal points around which political interpretations of
Pynchon have oriented themselves is the engagement with the era of the
1960s counterculture that runs through his writing. A certain hippie
sensibility has long been ascribed to Pynchon’s fiction, as part of his overtly
and implicitly expressed sympathy for the Left, and in some of his novels
this interest in the counterculture is particularly clear: In Vineland, the
protagonist Zoyd Wheeler is a dope-smoking ex-hippie who, from the
perspective of the uber-conservative mid-1980s, is highly nostalgic for that
earlier moment when a left-wing revolution seemed possible; in Inherent
Vice (2009), the protagonist “Doc” Sportello is a dope-smoking hippie
private detective who, in 1970, is already nostalgic for the moment when
the counterculture was at its height, before it was compromised by govern-
ment infiltration or had sold out to consumer capitalism. The fact that
these moments are recognized within the texts as potentially nothing more
than figments of the protagonists’ respective imaginations does not under-
mine their significance, given that the tone of the prose is strongly sympa-
thetic to such nostalgia. For example, in Inherent Vice, the narrator’s
depiction of Doc’s “low-level bummer” about “how the Psychedelic
Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all, and all be lost,
taken back into darkness . . . ” (IV 254) suggests sympathy in its ambiguity
as to whether it is Doc or the narrator who considers the 1960s
a “parenthesis of light,” as well as via the ellipsis that underlines the
poignancy of the thought that the 1960s and its promise might fade
Beyond such overt references to the 1960s counterculture, commentaries
on various countercultural ideas and movements are embedded, as I have
argued elsewhere, throughout Pynchon’s fiction.14 Interpreting such
embedded commentaries – passages or themes that indirectly respond to
a context distinct from that of the superficial subject matter – is another
178 joanna freer
way of reading the politics of Pynchon’s work. For instance, the
Schwarzkommando of Gravity’s Rainbow’s “Zone” can be read as
a commentary on the Black Power movement, and the same novel’s
“Counterforce” as an allusion to the Yippies; Dr. Hilarius in The Crying
of Lot 49 (1966) can be read as a response to Dr. Timothy Leary and his
psychedelic movement, and the Yz-les-Bains anarchists in Against the Day
as a commentary on “free love” hippies.
Finally, I would suggest that Pynchon’s politics can be read in the form
of his writing. The way he eschews coherently linear or singular narrative is,
I argue, not just to be interpreted as the result of a deconstructive impulse to
be put down to a generalized scepticism over the trustworthiness of
narrative or literary production per se. Rather, it could equally be the
expression of a constructive impulse to create an alternative literary form,
a form that in one sense can be seen to reflect an anarchist politics.
Anarchism, a much-misunderstood political philosophy, would in many
of its variants posit that an ideally functioning society should work via the
spontaneous and temporary association of people contributing to
a particular task before disbanding, thus avoiding the entrenchment of
hierarchies and the accumulation of power by individuals therein.
Pynchon’s novels, which typically present the reader with large numbers
of characters whose narrative strands will intersect in different ways for
different readers on different readings, can thus be seen as mimicking this
flexible and anti-hierarchical anarchistic model in the manner in which
they allow for the production of meaning.
The recent, more widespread recognition of the various approaches to
reading the political in Pynchon’s writing has fueled what could be called
a “political turn” in Pynchon criticism over the past ten to fifteen years.
This newer body of criticism has built on and consolidated the more
sporadic – but nonetheless significant – engagement with the politics of
Pynchon’s work that goes back to the beginnings of the “Pyndustry” in the
1960s. Key works from both critical eras are included in the Further
Reading section for this chapter.

1. Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (London: Routledge, 1987), p. 16.
2. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
(London: Verso, 1991), p. 1.
3. Terry Eagleton, The Illusions of Postmodernism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996),
p. vii.
Politics and Counterculture 179
4. Eagleton, Illusions, p. vii. See also Chapter Thirty-Six of this volume,
5. Jameson, Postmodernism, p. 46.
6. Jameson, Postmodernism, p. 361.
7. Eagleton, Illusions, p. 5.
8. Eagleton, Illusions, p. 10. See also Charles Newman, The Postmodern Aura:
The Act of Fiction in an Age of Inflation (Evanston, IL: Northwestern
University Press, 1985).
9. Eagleton, Illusions, p. 21.
10. Linda Hutcheon, The Politics of Postmodernism, 2nd ed. (New York:
Routledge, 2002), p. 3.
11. Hutcheon, Politics, p. 90.
12. Shawn Smith, Pynchon and History: Metahistorical Rhetoric and Postmodern
Narrative Form in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon (New York: Routledge,
2005), p. 11.
13. The most overtly political example of Pynchon’s journalism is “A Journey
Into The Mind of Watts,” an article he wrote for the New York Times
Magazine and published on June 12, 1966.
14. See Joanna Freer, Thomas Pynchon and American Counterculture (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2014).
chapter 22

Drugs and Hippies

Umberto Rossi

Though they became ubiquitous only after The Crying of Lot 49 (1966),
drugs can be found in all of Thomas Pynchon’s novels. In connection with
hippies, however, the hemp-smoking George Washington in Mason &
Dixon (1997) and the many mentions of those fin de siècle drugs opium,
laudanum, and absinthe in Against the Day (2006) must remain outside the
picture, as the periods in which those two novels are set come well before
the 1967 “Summer of Love.” Even The Crying of Lot 49, though it features
Mucho Maas’ “therapeutic” use of LSD, is more attuned to mock-
Hemingwayesque alcohol-abuse (Oedipa’s motel night with Metzger, for
example) than the systematic, almost encyclopedic, use of psychotropic
substances one finds in Inherent Vice (2009). The latter, with its “compa-
nion piece” Vineland (1990), may be read as Pynchon’s hippie (rather than
“freak,” insofar as one can find freaks in virtually every page of his fictions)
diptych, a sort of subset of the so-called California Trilogy (which also
includes The Crying of Lot 49). Here the connection between the hippie
lifestyle and drugs is not just in the foreground but acutely anatomized,
especially in Inherent Vice. A survey of drugs and hippies in Pynchon’s
oeuvre should thus start with Vineland, and then proceed through his 2009
hard-boiled narrative (or noir, as both definitions may apply to it).
As early as 1969, Theodore Roszak, one of the first commentators and
promoters of the counterculture, was complaining that young people “in
their frantic search for the pharmaceutical panacea” were being distracted
“from all that is valuable in their rebellion,” and that drugs threatened “to
destroy their most promising sensibilities.”1 Roszak was also wary of LSD
prophet Timothy Leary, as he had inculcated “upon vast numbers of young
and needy minds . . . the primer-simple notion that LSD has ‘something’
to do with religion.”2 In Vineland this “religious” side of drugs surfaces in
the words of two embittered but unrepentant hippies, Zoyd Wheeler and
Wendell “Mucho” Maas, when they reminisce about their youth in the
1960s: Then they knew, thanks to LSD, that they “were never going to die”
Drugs and Hippies 181
(VL 313).3 There is undoubtedly a religious side to this idea, as well as an
anti-authoritarian one, because Wendell immediately thinks of “they,” or
the State, who “thought they had the power of life and death. But acid gave
us the X-ray vision to see through that one” (VL 314). Deconditioning,
liberation, a higher level of awareness, possibly mystical, Blakean illumina-
tion: All this is within reach of the hippies thanks to drugs, weed, and LSD
first and foremost. Or this “was the way people used to talk” (VL 314), to
quote Pynchon’s ironic comment, which allows us to suspect he does not
wholly subscribe to this point of view.
However, Zoyd and Wendell know all too well that the mystical
moment of awareness was somewhat taken away from hippies like them,
and they blame the loss on “the Tube” that keeps them distracted, even on
rock and roll, which “is becoming [. . .] just another way to claim our
attention, so that beautiful certainty we had starts to fade, and after a while
they have us convinced all over again that we really are going to die” (VL
314), to put it in Wendell’s terms. But it is not just TV and the commo-
dified rock of the 1970s; there is also a shift in drug use – or abuse.
Wendell “Mucho” Maas first appeared in Lot 49 as the husband of the
protagonist, Oedipa.4 A former used car salesman, he unenthusiastically
works as a radio DJ, but at the end of the novel his life seems to have been
changed and (from his point of view) redeemed by psychedelic enlight-
enment: “You take [LSD] because it’s good. Because you hear and see
things, even smell them, taste like you never could [. . .] You’re an antenna,
sending your pattern out across a million lives a night, and they’re your
lives too” (CL 143–44). A DJ like Wendell conceives the effects of lysergic
acid in terms of radio transmission; besides, he immediately reconnects it
to music, something he knows quite well: “The songs, it’s not just that they
say something, they are something, in the pure sound. Something new.
And my dreams are changed” (CL 144). LSD generously supplied by
Dr. Hilarius, a psychotherapist who reads like a parody of Timothy
Leary, seems to have relieved Wendell of his disheartening, nihilistic
nightmares about the NADA sign (a clear allusion, incidentally, to
Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”). Oedipa is skeptical, how-
ever. Since her conclusive comment on Wendell’s transformation is “my
husband, on LSD, gropes like a child further and further into the rooms
and endless rooms of the elaborate candy house of himself” (CL 153), one
has to suspect that she cannot see any real improvement in Wendell.5
Oedipa may have a point, inasmuch as in Vineland Pynchon describes
Wendell’s further metamorphoses: After divorcing his wife he becomes
a record producer, and his use of LSD becomes so massive that he styles
182 umberto rossi
himself “Count Drugula” (VL 309); remarkably, he auditions (though does
not sign) Charles Manson, thus briefly getting in touch with the darkest
side of the hippie lifestyle. Then he switches to cocaine, “an unforeseen
passion he would in his later unhappiness compare to a clandestine affair
with a woman,” which brings him to a comedic “nasal breakdown,” and his
subsequent conversion to “The Natch” (VL 310–11), that is, a life without
As for Zoyd, it is “the biggest block of pressed marijuana [he] had ever
seen in his life” (VL 294), planted in his house, that allows Hector Zuñiga
to arrest him and that will ultimately force Zoyd to accept the nefarious
deal with Brock Vond: He will have to disappear, so that Frenesi cannot
find him and Prairie. Once again, the agents of liberation turn into
instruments of imprisonment, enslavement, oppression.
For its part, Inherent Vice features a variety of drugs (heroin, hashish,
marijuana, LSD, barbiturates, cocaine, psilocybe, peyote, amyl nitrate, and
PCP, plus the dubious banana peels used as a psychotropic substance [IV
132, 140]) that appear with remarkable frequency (hemp derivatives are
mentioned or hinted at no less than eighty times). On the other hand, the
protagonist of the novel, Larry “Doc” Sportello, is as inveterate a hippie as
any other in US fiction, cinema, or comics: And it is his remarkable
consumption of marijuana that qualifies him as such, his occupation as
Private Investigator notwithstanding.
The novel presents readers with a symbolically charged opposition
between dope (hashish/grass) and smack (heroin), where the former drug
is the harmless, benign opposite of the latter, a destructive substance that
has almost killed Coy and Hope Harlingen, as well as their daughter
Amethyst. Moreover, heroin fuels the business of the Golden Fang, the
evil organization profiting from drug addiction and rehabilitation, and
somewhat connected to the conservative backwash of Governor Reagan
and President Nixon. Such a reading chimes in with Henry Veggian’s
interpretation of Vineland, where pot farmers with their “horizontal . . .
market organization” are opposed to “vertically integrated industrial
concerns.”6 The Golden Fang is indeed described in Inherent Vice as “[a]
vertical package. They finance it, grow it, process it, bring it in, step on it,
move it, run Stateside networks of local street dealers, take a separate
percentage off of each operation” (IV 159).
Yet a reading of the novel in terms of “good dope” versus “bad smack”
would be too simplistic. There are hippies who, like Doc and his pal Denis,
limit themselves to harmless grass/hashish, even though it may temporarily
impair their short-term memory; but the victims of smack, like Hope and
Drugs and Hippies 183
Coy Harlingen, are hippies, too. Something in the hippie mindset makes
them vulnerable to what Pynchon presents as the most formidable repres-
sive weapon used against the countercultural generation, heroin. Consider
the story of Coy Harlingen: On the basis of his heroin addiction he is
turned by the Golden Fang into a docile tool of Vigilant California, an
informant for the Red Squad and the Public Disorder Intelligence
Division, and a fake protester at a Nixon rally, used to give “revolutionary
youth a bad name” (IV 122). Drugs were taken by hippies to cleanse the
doors of perception, to set their minds free; yet Pynchon makes it clear that
those substances may lead to an even worse form of enslavement than the
loathsome ordinary life of the squares.
One may even wonder whether drugs – or their abuse – are not the
“inherent vice” that undermined the countercultural generation: Could
not drugs be what doomed hippies to defeat, preventing them from really
changing American society and then the world? Though this is not the only
possible reading of that title, it is surely a legitimate one, being (among
other things) a play on both Miami Vice, Michael Mann’s TV series
(1984–89), and the phrase “Vice Squad,” meaning a police division specia-
lized in containing or suppressing moral crimes (among which drug use
and trafficking are often included). However, Pynchon’s implicit criticism
does not stem obviously from a conservative stance, insofar as he himself
was – at least for a period – a hippie and drug-user. That, at least, is the
image presented by two portraits of the author as a young doper: Jules
Siegel’s larger-than-life “Who Is Thomas Pynchon . . . ?” and Andrew
Gordon’s more restrained (and credible) “Smoking Dope with Thomas
Pynchon.”7 In both articles the authors, who claim to have met the writer,
describe him as a grass-smoking hippie. Moreover, Pynchon is always
sympathetic to the hippies he portrays, and has an insider’s knowledge of
their lifestyle, including a familiarity with hemp derivatives. The narrator
may be ironic in his depiction of Larry “Doc” Sportello, Zoyd Wheeler,
and other hippies in Vineland and Inherent Vice, being aware of the
countercultural generation’s shortcomings, but Pynchon has made clear
throughout his writing career that he is part of it.
It is thus not so unthinkable that some of the hippies in Pynchon’s
oeuvre may be self-portraits of the writer, especially the protagonist of
Inherent Vice, Doc Sportello, cruising the psychedelic California of 1970
in a dopehead haze. Like Oedipa Maas in The Crying of Lot 49, striving to
decipher (or debunk) the Trystero, or Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity’s
Rainbow (1973), questing for the Rocket, Larry Sportello looks for
Mickey Wolfmann and the truth behind the Golden Fang, and his
184 umberto rossi
investigation structures the narrative itself, meandering as it may be. In his
inquiry dope makes for that ontological uncertainty that is one of the
fundamentals of postmodernist fiction; it might thus be read as a milder,
more benign form of the dreadfully destabilizing Substance D in another
postmodernist treatment of the Californian drug scene, Philip K. Dick’s
1977 novel A Scanner Darkly, arguably one of the sources for Vineland and,
to a lesser extent, Inherent Vice. At the same time drugs propel the fractal
plot of the latter novel, for example when Puck Beaverton puts Doc out of
action by means of a bogus joint that is “full of enough PCP to knock over
an elephant” (IV 317). As in Vineland, here we have drugs used as a weapon;
and Denis’s comment (“Acid invites you through the door [. . .] PCP opens
the door, shoves you through, slams it behind you, and locks it” [IV 318])
once more suggests an opposition between benign drugs (here LSD) and
maleficent ones (Phencyclidine or “Angel Dust”).
If we accept the idea that there are autobiographical elements scattered
throughout Pynchon’s oeuvre (his invisibility myth notwithstanding), we
might even hypothesize that Gravity’s Rainbow, though set in 1944–45, may
also hide hippies behind its dopers. Joanna Freer’s Thomas Pynchon and the
American Counterculture has proven beyond any reasonable doubt that
V. (1963), The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity’s Rainbow relentlessly com-
ment on beats, hipsters, hippies, and other late twentieth-century
American malcontents; Jeffrey Severs’ article on Gravity’s Rainbow and
the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair has persuasively shown how the city in which
Pynchon was living while writing V. resurfaces in his 1973 novel, transmo-
grified into the “Raketen-Stadt.”8 Hence, reading Emil “Säure” Bummer as
an anamorphic image of a Californian pusher or drug dealer is not such
a reckless interpretive move; since Bummer is “the Weimar Republic’s
most notorious cat burglar and doper” (GR 365) one may well suspect that
his nickname (Säure, “acid” in German) only makes sense if Bummer is
read as the avatar of a 1960s doper, or LSD user (LSD-25 having only been
commercialized by the original manufacturer, Sandoz, as a psychiatric drug
in 1947).
Tyrone Slothrop may thus, at least in part, be another self-portrait of the
artist as a hippie doper, and the mission he is sent on by Bummer – to
retrieve a 6 kg package of “pure, top-grade Nepalese hashish” (GR 370) in
Potsdam – does sound like one of those tall tales told by stoners while
smoking a reefer, or one of those harebrained schemes to find dope in times
of need, like the Ouija board message that sends Doc Sportello and Shasta
on an unsuccessful quest for dope (and ironically takes them to the place
where the Golden Fang building is to be erected). There is general critical
Drugs and Hippies 185
agreement that the modified V-2/A4 launched by Blicero somehow turns
into the ICBM missile falling on the Orpheus movie theater at the end of
Gravity’s Rainbow; hence we may see the West Coast hippies of the 1960s
superimposed on the picaresque characters Tyrone meets while traveling in
the Zone in 1945.
One should also consider the “evil” drugs as metaphors for other ills of
postmodern civilization. When Doc Sportello and Denis meet the Golden
Fang emissaries to deliver the 20 kg heroin package in exchange for Coy
Harlingen’s life, for example, they face a “wholesome blond California
family” (IV 349) – that is, a bunch of archetypal straights. Pynchon takes
pains to inform us that there are no tracks on the father’s arms (something
which might be shown “by design”): He is no junkie. But drugs are in the
picture, at least as a potential ill (an inherent vice?); in fact the daughter
“had a possible future in drug abuse” (IV 349). Probably writing in the early
2000s, Pynchon knows all too well that the end of the countercultural wave
and the apparition of new juvenile lifestyles will not be the end of drugs
and drug addiction; that, with the arrival of punks, yuppies, emos, and the
like, the hippies will lose their “monopoly” on drug use and abuse; he is
also well aware that the new junkies will be indistinguishable from the
straights – that drugs will no more be the demarcation line between the
world of the dropouts and that of integrated individuals.
But the straights who come in their “’53 Buick Estate Wagon” to collect
the huge heroin package also force us to question the idea of addiction itself
(IV 349). Is that something that only has to do with drugs? Can people be
addicted to consumerism, money, property, status, power, just as junkies
are addicted to heroin and hippies may become psychologically addicted to
dope and/or LSD? Are the multiple forms of addiction plaguing the
straights better or worse than the officially sanctioned drug addiction
hitting hippies like Coy and Hope Harlingen, or Wendell “Mucho”
Maas in his cocaine years?
Last but not least, if – as Zoyd and Wendell maintain – it was the Tube
that distracted hippies from the truths discovered thanks to psychedelic
experiences, it is noteworthy that Doc Sportello finds Denis, deceived by
the carton of “a twenty-five-inch color TV set” in which Doc has put the
heroin, “sitting, to all appearances serious and attentive, in front of the
professionally packaged heroin, now out of its box, and staring at it” (IV
339). This comedic scene equates heroin and Tubal addiction, to put it in
Pynchon’s words, questioning the legal or illegal status of drugs, much as
Zoyd does in Vineland when he says “[t]hey didn’t [. . .] start goin’ after
dope till Prohibition was repealed, suddenly here’s all these federal cops
186 umberto rossi
lookin’ at unemployment, they got to come up with somethin’ quick, so
Harry J. Anslinger invents the Marijuana Menace, single-handed” (VL
311–12). Pynchon is telling us that some forms of addiction are sanctioned,
while others are not – based on reasons that are more political than medical
or social. His explorations of the countercultural and drug-happy 1960s
and their aftermath may thus be read not just as an experiment in
anamorphic autobiographical writing (though the autobiographical com-
ponent may play an important role, especially in Inherent Vice); they also
expand the discourse on global economic systems that had begun in
Gravity’s Rainbow with the idea of the Rocket State (to a certain extent
replaced by the Golden Fang), and their impact on US society: systems that
demand and foster manifold forms of addiction.

1. Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counterculture: Reflections on the
Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition (Berkeley, CA: University of
California Press, 1995 [1969]), p. 177.
2. Roszak, Counterculture, pp. 155–56
3. Virtual immortality achieved through drugs, with a strong religious subtext, is
what one finds in a minor classic of the countercultural 1960s, Philip K. Dick’s
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), where blind faith in psychotropic
substances is already called into doubt.
4. Interestingly, Zoyd Wheeler also appears in another of Pynchon’s novels:
Inherent Vice.
5. For a different reading of this scene, cf. Johanna Freer, Thomas Pynchon and the
American Counterculture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp.
6. Henry Veggian, “Profane Illuminations: Postmodernism, Realism, and the
Holytail Marijuana Crop in Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland,” in
Scott McClintock and John Miller (eds.), Pynchon’s California (Iowa City,
IA: Iowa University Press, 2014), pp. 135–64, p. 138.
7. Jules Siegel, “Who Is Thomas Pynchon . . . And Why Did He Take Off with
My Wife?” Playboy (March 1977), pp. 122, 168–72, 174; Andrew Gordon,
“Smoking Dope with Thomas Pynchon: A Sixties Memoir,” in Geoffrey
Green, Donald J. Greiner, and Larry McCaffery (eds.), The Vineland Papers:
Critical Takes on Pynchon’s Novel (Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1994), pp.
8. Jeffrey Severs, “‘A City of the Future’: Gravity’s Rainbow and the 1962 World’s
Fair,” Twentieth-Century Literature, 62.2 (June 2016), 145–69.
chapter 23

Ecology and the Environment

Christopher K. Coffman

Thomas Pynchon’s “A Journey Into The Mind of Watts” (1966) describes

the neighborhood as “a pocket of bitter reality.” In terms of natural land-
scape, reality apparently offers little: The closest measure of wilderness is
found in derelict spaces “charred around the edges” and covered in “glass,
busted crockery, nails, tin cans, all kinds of scrap and waste.” Although
nature is a locus of value in Pynchon’s fictions, it is usually marked by the
detritus of violence and indifference. However, one must weigh against
that marred nature one even less appealing: While the littered terrain of
“bitter reality” is still reality, most of Greater LA offers only “plastic faces”
and “Disneyfied landscaping.”1 As the bifurcated world presented in the
article suggests, Pynchon’s narratives of general decline make clear the
inaccessibility of any bucolic paradise. There are, however, exceptions to
this rule, and they are among the most beautiful and inspiring passages in
his texts. These moments indicate the importance of nature to our best
aspirations, and allow glimpses of an alternative to “the bare mortal World
that is our home, and our Despair” (MD 345). Furthermore, Pynchon’s
most recent novels suggest that, as our experience of the world becomes
increasingly mediated by virtual technologies, new, digital, ecologies may
offer computer-age equivalents to Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, visionary
constructions that make beauty of waste and open avenues for voicing that
which is silenced – possibly including the life of the natural world.

Pynchon’s Nature
Pynchon’s paranoid recognition “that everything is connected, everything in
the Creation” lends itself well to ecological approaches, for ecologists also
assume an interconnected world (GR 703). Ouroboros, the Great Serpent
that surrounds the planet while eating its own tail, is one of the most
striking figures of the cyclical terms of Pynchon’s natural vision (GR 412).
Furthermore, Pynchon’s Earth is no dumb mechanism, but “a living
188 christopher k. coffman
critter,” sentient as a whole and in parts (GR 590). Consequently, Tyrone
Slothrop realizes in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) that “each tree is a creature
[. . .] aware of what’s happening around it, not just some hunk of wood”
(GR 552–53). The attitude is present as well in such passages as that in
Vineland (1990) in which natural features are declared points of access to
hidden orders of existence, a “realm behind the immediate” (VL 186).
Many of Pynchon’s landscapes offer glimpses of that other realm.
In Vineland it is manifest in the Seventh River, each part of which has its
own name and “its own spirit.” Local residents recognize that “this coast,
this watershed” is “sacred and magical” (VL 186). This aspect of nature is
perhaps most exceptional in Mason & Dixon (1997), where possibilities
range from whimsical giant vegetables to the “Tellurick Energies”
described via Ley Lines and Captain Zhang’s Earth Dragon, “from
which Land-Scape ever takes its form” (MD 218, 542). Lest one mistakes
landscapes alone as the source of nature’s promise, Pynchon also turns
attention to the ocean: In The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Oedipa Maas finds
“some principle of the sea as redemption” because “no matter what you did
to its edges the true Pacific stayed inviolate and integrated” (CL 55).
In short, Pynchon usually presents nature as a living source of beneficence
and redemption.

Nature, Waste, and Technology

While nature serves as a powerful positive force in Pynchon, his texts
devote much attention to how humans have despoiled the Earth.
In V. (1963), Roony Winsome declares: “Walden Pond, ha ha. No. No,
that’s public beach now where slobs from Boston [. . .] sit [. . .] belching,
[. . .] checking the young stuff, hating their wives, their evil-smelling kids
who urinate in the water” (V 350). As Chris Coughran argues, Winsome
not only describes contamination, but evidences the depreciation of nature
in our cultural discourse. Winsome cannot speak directly of pure nature,
only approach it on the terms of its corruption.2
Lost concurrently with our ability to speak about nature is our ability to
hear its voice and to help it express itself. The Romantic idealism of
Thoreau foregrounded nature as content, but also served as a platform
for articulating a connected world. Winsome’s recognition that any invio-
late nature is inaccessible implies that humans have not only lost terms for
speaking about nature, but lost the capacity to speak with nature, as did
Thoreau. The point is reinforced by the double-mediation of Winsome’s
Walden, which place reaches later audiences as an ideal via both Thoreau’s
Ecology and the Environment 189
text and the logic of one of V.’s governing motifs, the Baedecker guide-
book. Walden is in this sense, Keita Hatooka explains, primarily a stop
alongside the Concord turnpike. That route, constructed in the 1930s, cuts
through Walden Woods, and anticipates the transformation of American
land into landscape-as-touristic-opportunity that developed with the inter-
states of the 1950s. The latter point offers comment on the era during
which the action of V. unfolds, and predicts the world of highways and
housing developments in The Crying of Lot 49.3
While the symbolic pollution of Walden offers a localized manifestation
of some depreciation of the natural, readers of Pynchon’s work find the
most striking emblem of the point in Gravity’s Rainbow, in the form of the
00000 Rocket, which carries as part of its load the character of Gottfried
encased in Imipolex G. The development of the rocket and its disturbing
contents speak to the fact that, as described in the relation of one of Geli
Tripping’s visions, humanity’s mission seems to be “to promote death” (GR
720). At its most pernicious, this compulsion reaches into the very fabric of
the world. Robert L. McLaughlin observes that the negative counterpart to
the image of nature as the self-renewing Ouroboros is introduced via
Friedrich August Kekulé’s recognition that the structure of the benzene
molecule is also circular.4 In that context, the knowledge becomes the
possibility of creating new molecules, ones not found in nature, a process
akin to the replacement of Victoria Wren’s body parts with inanimate
material that characterizes her incarnation as the Bad Priest in V. The most
common of the new molecules are plastics, especially Pynchon’s Imipolex
G, which Dwight Eddins declares “not only unnatural, but antinatural.”5
As Tom Schaub observes, that plastic is non-biodegradable frustrates
natural cycles, leading only to “waste out of waste.”6 Plastics are thus
products of a death that does not open to new life, as do the cycles of
natural ecologies.
Tom LeClair argues with reference to Pynchon that this impulse to
disrupt nature signals “the fundamental human alienations,” which derive
from being “separated . . . and different from . . . Earth” and seeking “to . . .
overpower it.”7 As the feeling of horror that accompanies Tripping’s vision
suggests, our role is not simply that of agents of death as part of the cycle of
life, but as agents of death in a culture controlled by forces “whose only aim
is to violate the Cycle. Taking and not giving back [. . .] removing from the
rest of the World [. . .] vast quantities of energy.” As a consequence of this
unnatural effort, “most of the World [. . .] is laid waste” (GR 412).
The technomystical sensibility that lands Gottfried in the rocket is also
one with the various expressions of biopolitical control that Christopher
190 christopher k. coffman
Breu notes in V.: the sexually fetishistic plastic surgery Esther Harvitz
undergoes, Rachel Owlglass’s erotic relations with her car, and the living
mannequins SHOCK and SHROUD.8 The 00000 Rocket is, in this way,
the culmination of a governing cultural trend, a symbol of humanity’s
tendency to develop and use technologies that destroy the rest of the planet
and, eventually, itself.

Historical Contexts
As with the frustrated people and ruined land described in the article on
Watts, the anti-environmental impulse as it appears in Pynchon’s fictions
is imbricated with aggressive forces in the realms of politics and economics,
creating imbalances of social justice. None of this is to say that the loss of
access to nature should be regarded as a problem exclusive to the twentieth
century. Rather, Pynchon gives readers a history of the matter. One
evening at the Casino Hermann Goering in Gravity’s Rainbow, Slothrop
has a hint of the changed relations between humans and the rest of nature
when he glimpses “the kind of sunset you hardly see any more, a 19th-
century wilderness sunset, [. . .] when the land was still free and the eye
innocent, and the presence of the Creator much more direct.” At the same
time, he recognizes that, “of course Empire took its way westward, what
other way was there but into those virgin sunsets to penetrate and to foul?”
(GR 214). Like Winsome’s, Slothrop’s sense of what has been lost is situated
in relation to its supposed presence in the nineteenth century. The timeline
deepens in Mason & Dixon. In deploying their tools of measurement and
division, the surveyors mount an attack on all to be found
West-ward, wherever ’tis not yet mapp’d, nor written down, nor ever, by the
majority of Mankind, seen [. . .] Earthly Paradise [. . .] ever behind the
sunset, safe till the next Territory [. . .] be [. . .] measur’d and tied in, back
into the Net-Work of Points already known, that slowly triangulates its
Way into the Continent, changing all from subjunctive to declarative,
reducing Possibilities to Simplicities that serve the ends of Governments.
(MD 345)

The point resonates well with Frank Traverse who realizes it is the
same history of exile and migration, the white man moving in on the Indian,
the eastern corporations moving in on the white man, and their incursions
with drills and dynamite into the deep seams of the sacred mountains, the
sacred land. (AD 928–29)
Ecology and the Environment 191
The historical perspective finds a counterpart in Slothrop’s and
Pynchon’s family histories. At a moment in which he enjoys some reprieve
from the endemic sense of disjunction between humans and the rest of
nature, Slothrop becomes “intensely alert to trees,” and finds himself
implicated in the problem of their destruction via his family’s history of
paper manufacturing (GR 552). Similarly, Pynchon’s earliest ancestor in
America, who shares the given name William with Slothrop’s predecessor,
was, among his many other offices, the owner of a sawmill. In his capacity
as a magistrate, he also presided over or presented suit in a number of cases
to repossess lumber in the late 1630s.9 The topic returns in such forms as
the background presence of the logging industry throughout Vineland and
the clearing of trees to make the Visto in Mason & Dixon.
Another historical context for Pynchon’s ecological consciousness
derives from the environmental movement itself. While America’s relation
to nature has a complex history, the environmental movement coalesced
only after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962.
As Schaub has explained, Carson’s book unfolded a network of individuals,
corporations, and government agencies that put Americans at risk of
danger from powerful chemicals – a very real vision of the invidious
interconnections to which Pynchon often turns.10 Carson’s book not
only inspired sweeping changes in terms of national awareness of and
political responses to environmental issues, but did so just one year before
V. and just over a decade before Gravity’s Rainbow. Her book and its
cultural impact were, therefore, very present as context for environmental
issues during the first part of Pynchon’s career.

Slothrop’s communion with trees is brief, but articulates clearly the envir-
onmental stance of Pynchon’s novels. LeClair accurately asserts that
Pynchon offers a vision of “an old and newly conceived Earth” that calls
for redefinitions of the terms on which we understand, describe, and act
within the reciprocal systems of nature.11 The tools for that redefinition are
the complement of Pynchon’s portrayal of our alienation. Some resistance
is still to be found in the planet itself, chthonic manifestations of the
“Secret retributions” against those who disrupt Earthly harmony, to use
the language of the passage from Emerson quoted in Vineland (VL 369).
Among these are the Tatzelwurms that attack miners in Simplon in Against
the Day (2006), a vengeance by the spirits of the mountains visited upon
192 christopher k. coffman
Accompanying the Earth’s response to technological affronts is human
resistance to disruptions of natural relations. A tree with which Slothrop
communicates recommends such an effort: “Next time you come across
a logging operation [. . .] find one of their tractors [. . .] and take its oil
filter” (GR 553). Such ecoterrorism is of a piece with contemporary works
like Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975). It is also, however,
one with the actions of the Luddites of the early nineteenth century, who
smashed the knitting frames of the growing textile industry and lend
themselves as figures of suspicion regarding late-twentieth-century tech-
nological innovation in Pynchon’s article “Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?”
Working alongside the ecoterrorists are others united in one fashion or
another with the land, such as the shaman Magyakan from Against the Day.
Like his home terrain of the taiga, he is “everywhere,” free from the limits
of time and space (AD 776). Likewise, the same novel’s Doosra is “a living
fragment of the desert” who pursues violent expulsion of various political
and religious systems from Inner Asia (AD 756). Here and elsewhere,
Pynchon offers characters working to defend the Earth on the basis of
what Eddins labels “Orphic Naturalism,” a faith in the interconnectedness
of mind and the natural world that stands apart from the anthropocentric
culture of technology and death.12

After the Fall

In Bleeding Edge (2013), Sid Kelleher pilots his craft away from some patrol
boats, eluding them by turning toward the landfills of Staten Island.
The mountains of trash remind readers of the garbage of “Low-lands”
(1960), but for Maxine Tarnow the most remarkable point is that in the
midst of this “toxicity central,” one finds the Island of Meadows: “100 acres
of untouched marshland” that serve as sanctuary for migratory birds
(BE 166). Maxine is convinced that the reprieve the island enjoys is only
a temporary one, its inviolability an illusion. Insofar as this is the case, the
tone of the passage is elegiac, and the mechanisms of Western culture
remain, in Pynchon’s presentation, manifestations of a death drive.
One may, however, depart somewhat from the Carson-era environ-
mentalism of the early novels toward an ecocritical reading of the scene
as unsettling the polarized binary between the natural and artificial,
demonstrating how nature thrives even among the detritus of our culture,
and how that detritus forms new landscapes. Such a critical reorientation
allows one to see the natural and artificial as defined more by continuities
than oppositions, a view that is especially productive in considering the
Ecology and the Environment 193
environmental qualities of digital technologies, which can operate as
ecosystems of their own. Touched upon at points in the earlier novels,
notably Vineland, this notion emerges clearly in Inherent Vice (2009) when
Doc Sportello is introduced to ARPAnet. ARPAnet is at once a means of
accessing information about the material world and also “like acid, a whole
’nother strange world—time, space, all that shit” (IV 195). At the end of the
novel, the evaluation of the technology is inconclusive: Fritz Drybeam feels
it “has taken his soul,” while his colleague Sparky regards it as both a tool
for managing data and a rapidly developing world of its own (IV 365).
A similar recognition is suggested by Maxine’s reflections on the Island of
Meadows as an emblem of DeepArcher: It may have “developers after it,”
but it persists among the waste (BE 167).
In the ambiguous cases of ARPAnet and Deep Archer, then, the
virtual is a potential site of contention. Daniel R. White diagnoses this
potential with reference to the narrative and cultural fragmentations of
Vineland: Depending on contextual factors, noise may be an opportu-
nity for destruction or for “regenerative reorganization . . . at
a more . . . resilient level: evolution as human ecological self-
correction.”13 The hopeful note in this evaluation speaks to the resur-
gent optimism in Pynchon’s environmental consciousness: Even as our
planet faces the culture of death so forcefully on display, points of
resistance and renewal emerge, offering opportunities for connection
with each other, and with our world.

1. Thomas Pynchon, “A Journey into The Mind of Watts,” New York Times
Magazine, June 12, 1966, pp. 34–35, 78, 80–82, 84, p. 78.
2. Chris Coughran, “Green Scripts in Gravity’s Rainbow: Pynchon, Pastoral
Ideology and the Performance of Ecological Self,” Interdisciplinary Studies in
Literature and Environment, 16 (2009), 265–79, p. 268.
3. Keita Hatooka, “The Sea Around Them: Thoreau, Carson, and The Crying of
Lot 49,” Journal of the American Literature Society of Japan, 7 (2009),
17–31, p. 19.
4. Robert McLaughlin, “IG Farben’s Synthetic War Crimes and Thomas
Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow,” in M. Paul Holsinger and Mary Anne
Schofield (eds.), Visions of War: World War II in Popular Literature and
Culture (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular
Press, 1992), pp. 85–95, p. 87.
5. Dwight Eddins, The Gnostic Pynchon (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University
Press, 1990), p. 19.
194 christopher k. coffman
6. Thomas Schaub, “The Environmental Pynchon: Gravity’s Rainbow and the
Ecological Context,” Pynchon Notes, 42–43 (1998), 59–72, p. 67.
7. Tom LeClair, The Art of Excess: Mastery in Contemporary American Fiction
(Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1989), pp. 47–48.
8. Christopher Breu, Insistence of the Material: Literature in the Age of Biopolitics
(Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), pp. 69–78.
9. David M. Powers, Damnable Heresy: William Pynchon, the Indians, and the
First Book Banned (and Burned) in Boston (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock,
2015), pp. 76–77.
10. Schaub, “Environmental Pynchon,” p. 63.
11. LeClair, Art of Excess, p. 48.
12. Eddins, Gnostic Pynchon, p. 5.
13. Daniel R. White, Postmodern Ecology: Communication, Evolution, and Play
(Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998), p. 208.
chapter 24

Capitalism and Class

Jeffrey Severs

“Groundhog sweat, misery and early graves”: Such is Darby Suckling’s

description in Against the Day (2006) of what the “prodigious American
economy” promises workers (AD 1033). Suckling summarizes the destruc-
tion and dehumanization Pynchon finds in capitalist operations, whether
his subject is the ecological impact of the Slothrop Paper Company in
Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), the abuse of miners in Against the Day or the
machinations of Internet entrepreneurs in Bleeding Edge (2013). Whether
globalized and virtual or aiming to extract old-fashioned natural resources,
capitalism is an innately imperial and colonizing force for Pynchon:
Defense contractors’ and other companies’ collusion with fascistic govern-
ments were a major target in his early career, and from the 1960s to the
2010s he has also been deeply critical of the capitalist impulse to convert
wilderness and communal space into real estate, from Mason and Dixon’s
original boundary-drawing to the land-owning moguls of The Crying of Lot
49 (1966) and Inherent Vice (2009). DeepArcher in Bleeding Edge, though
made of pixels, becomes one more landscape for co-opting as well, just like
super-rich Manhattan.
Class analysis for Pynchon leads often to the meaning implicit in
Darby’s surname: The working classes, forced into exploitative labor
relations, are pigs for slaughter by the capitalist machine, an arresting
image of which Darby and the Chums of Chance see as they approach
Chicago and witness from above vast lines of cattle, capital’s etymological
cousins. In the slaughterhouse the Chums confront commodification’s
logical terminus, “unshaped freedom being rationalized” and “right
angles” leading “to the killing-floor” (AD 10). The Reverend Moss Gatlin
echoes the image later by speaking out against “those who slaughter the
innocent as easy as signing a check” (AD 171).
The Chums’ bird’s-eye view of a massive process is exemplary of
Pynchon’s canny ability to parse capitalism as a totalizing system. His
materialist viewpoint leads often to bracing displays of how the things of
196 jeffrey severs
the world are made, sold, consumed, recycled, and dumped – how tooth-
paste tubes become solder and other war materials, how light-bulb man-
ufacturers depend on planned obsolescence, how rampant consumption
gives rise to “a lofty mountain range of waste” (as Maxine discovers on her
boat ride past Fresh Kills landfill) (BE 166). As many critics have noted, the
novels offer ready illustrations of Fredric Jameson’s benchmark Marxist
claim that postmodern cultural artifacts evoke an all-enveloping global
capitalism that defeats attempts to get outside of and criticize it, much less
resist it. Samuel Thomas writes that “there is no way of discussing
a political Thomas Pynchon without confronting” capitalism in
Jameson’s terms, and Joseph Tabbi suggests that Pynchon’s encyclopedic
books, with “controlling structures analogous” in scale to those he cri-
tiques, may end up mimicking “the capitalist totality they supposedly
resist.”1 The more hopeful Thomas Hill Schaub, though, summarizes
a long-term critical consensus that Pynchon’s works do in fact “provide
an alternative vision originating outside the totalizing system of the nation
and global capital.”2
A similarly hopeful search for a counter to capitalism’s dominance (and
for an account of Pynchon’s working-class sympathies) should head toward
two essays in which he most clearly defines resistance: “Is It O.K. to
Be a Luddite?” and “Nearer, My Couch, to Thee,” the latter a history of
sloth as both deadly sin and anti-capitalist practice. Pynchon writes that
Luddism, born from masked men destroying textile machinery in early
nineteenth-century Britain, provides in the twentieth century a way of
questioning “the factory system” that led directly to the nuclear bomb and
the death camps.3 Sloth has likewise far-reaching implications: Not just
a medieval spiritual malaise, sloth became in modernity a refusal of the
gospel of industriousness, especially as it was voiced in early America by
Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard. Sloth, Pynchon writes, became a “sin [. . .]
against clock time” and efficient organization.4
Whether any Pynchon group or character perfectly embodies sloth or
Luddism, though, is highly debatable; and as is often true for Pynchon,
these oppositional stances can themselves prove suspect. The sloth essay,
for instance, turns from anti-capitalism to Pynchon’s claim that in the
twentieth century sloth has been primarily associated with “a failure of
public will” leading to “the worldwide fascist ascendancy of the 1920’s and
30’s.”5 Luc Herman and Steven Weisenburger read the essay by turning to
Herbert Marcuse (whose terms resonate with Jameson’s) and the “idea of
repressive tolerance – the concept that state powers will tolerate a certain
degree of dissident, culturally resistant behavior in exchange for the
Capitalism and Class 197
sustained repression of people and populations, which repressed subjects
impose on themselves.”6 Any class consciousness or worker revolution, for
Pynchon, has to navigate this tricky and paranoia-inducing terrain.
Very few characters, though, especially in the early work, have much
time or ability to theorize their class struggle; mainly they pinball between
jobs, surviving on the margins. Set loose from the Navy early in V. (1963),
Benny Profane seeks gainful employment, becoming an alligator hunter in
the New York sewers, and eventually a night watchman. With a name
ironically echoing Franklin’s, Benny is Pynchon’s first attempt to satirize
the bootstrapping mythology of Poor Richard and Franklin’s
Autobiography. We might say that V. has a somewhat underdeveloped
They-system, in the sense that the capital powering shadowy global sys-
tems of colonization receives less scrutiny here than it does in the later
Pynchon. Clayton (“Bloody”) Chiclitz’s conversion of his toy company
into a defense contractor (Yoyodyne, Inc., to be seen again) does get briefly
sent up; and upper-class ways – Schoenmaker’s plastic-surgery patients, the
consumerism of Long Island’s Five Towns – meet with satire, while jazz
clubs and beatnik wandering are embraced. Boris Kachka reports that
Pynchon considered titling the novel “The Republican Party is
a Machine,” perhaps having first conceived of the book as more thoroughly
critical of his own family background, which included a father who was
a Republican politician “along with most of Long Island’s mid-century
Establishment.”7 But the completed V. is more a romanticizing of mild
poverty than it is a critique of the rich.
In The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon focalizes his narrative not through
a meandering schlemihl or obsessive historian but a suburban California
housewife, Oedipa Maas, and the story reads in part as her awakening to
complex capitalist control and major American class striation. Capitalist
control is embodied by her dead ex-lover, Pierce Inverarity, the real estate
mogul and Yoyodyne shareholder who is immediately identified with the
history of robber barons when the first page mentions his “whitewashed
bust of Jay Gould” (CL 1). Pierce’s possible posthumous manipulations of
Oedipa depend on his massive holdings, but her more subtle education
about the US economy occurs as she wanders the Bay Area in search of the
Trystero. As Schaub claims, The Crying of Lot 49 is influenced by Michael
Harrington’s groundbreaking study of poverty, The Other America, pub-
lished in 1962.8 Oedipa, in interacting with the old sailor and other
W.A.S.T.E. users, learns that postwar suburbia shields Americans of
means from (in Harrington’s words) “the unskilled, the disabled, the
aged, and the minorities” who exist “right there, across the tracks, where
198 jeffrey severs
they have always been.”9 Read in this light, Oedipa’s sudden sense that the
muted posthorn is everywhere marks her attunement to the fact that much
of the urban underclass is avoided and overlooked – and as often treated as
In such scenes Pynchon was also developing the central vocabulary of
Gravity’s Rainbow. There, Pynchon traces the division between American
haves and have-nots back three centuries to his own ancestors and to
Calvinist theological principles regarding predestination and the separa-
tion of elect from preterite. No other categories are more important to the
understanding of Pynchon’s moral project, which intensifies Max Weber’s
sociological claim that Calvinism in effect gave a cover story of transcen-
dent salvation to capitalist ambition. Such spiritual and economic inter-
twining is why Pynchon often hereafter voices critiques of “closed
ideological minds passing on the Christian Capitalist Faith” (VL 232)
and “the capitalist/Christer gridwork” (AD 1075). The pigs that
I suggested are an image for the working class play a pivotal role in
Gravity’s Rainbow’s reimagining of Thomas’ heretical Puritan forebear
William Pynchon – a well-off fur trader and settler of Roxbury,
Massachusetts – as William Slothrop, who appears first as a lowly mess
cook and then as a swineherd, an appropriate job for one who tries to
rewrite the fateful script of the American poor with On Preterition.
William, meditating on his hogs, stands up for the preterite, the poor,
and Judas Iscariot.
As it tracks armaments production from World War I to the 1970s,
Gravity’s Rainbow builds on Pynchon’s post-undergraduate work at Boeing
(as Weisenburger details) and offers an anatomy of the military-industrial
complex.10 “Don’t forget the real business of the War is buying and
selling,” a telling passage says. “The true war is a celebration of markets,”
from official ones to “organic markets, carefully styled ‘black’ by the
professionals” (GR 105). Drug dealers, scientists seeking funding, IG
Farben, General Electric, Shell, Broderick Slothrop – Gravity’s Rainbow
is an encyclopedia of individuals and institutions hoping to “grab a piece of
that Pie” regardless of moral commitments (GR 107). Pynchon wants his
reader to link those arming the US for the Vietnam War in the 1960s with
fascist Germany’s coordination of corporations and state, and a séance
structure gives voice to German industrialist Walter Rathenau, “prophet
and architect of the cartelized state” (GR 164). Rathenau’s vision gives way,
as we progress through the Zone, to an idea of a state not served by military
technology but controlled and, indeed, constituted by it: “a Rocket-state”
that is as “sovereign as the International or the Church of Rome” (GR 566).
Capitalism and Class 199
A violent, deadly capitalism thus becomes the fabric of postnational,
postmodern life, according to Pynchon.
If he criticized American economic values using his own family history
in Gravity’s Rainbow, in the subsequent novels Pynchon has jettisoned
autobiography for an invented family of radical socialists, the Traverses,
who make it necessary to discuss Vineland (1990) and Against the Day
together. In Vineland Pynchon focuses on the three generations brought
forth by the marriage of Eula Becker and Jesse Traverse, seeing whether
their International Workers of the World sensibilities survive through the
1930s and 1960s and on into the 1980s, the era of their great-granddaughter,
Prairie Wheeler. The answer, in Pynchon’s story of betrayed values and
commodified counterculture, is a resounding no, though a family reunion
late in the novel does place hope in a quotation from Emerson that says
“proprietors and monopolists” will someday face the retribution of “divine
justice” (VL 369).
Against the Day, a prequel of sorts to Vineland that begins in 1893,
follows a similar pattern of instilling deep pessimism over hundreds of
pages but leaving hope that the rebellious spirit will carry on. Here the
children of committed anti-capitalist and dynamiter Webb Traverse scatter
from their Colorado home when their father is killed by the agents of mine
owner Scarsdale Vibe. Jesse Traverse (grandson of Webb) appears as a boy
in the novel’s ending, a more improvisational family reunion, and
announces the agitating agenda he will carry on into Vineland: “To Be
An American,” he writes in a school assignment, “means do what they tell
you and take what they give you and don’t go on strike or their soldiers will
shoot you down” (AD 1076). The Vibes and the Traverses present the
capitalists versus radical workers conflict more vividly than any other
part of Pynchon’s corpus. A quintessential robber baron, Scarsdale Vibe
vindicates Jesse’s conclusions by offering the most menacing summary of
capitalism and commodity fetishism in all of Pynchon, addressing an
“Industrial Defense” meeting: “Of course we use [the workers], [. . .] we
harness and sodomize them [. . .] We will buy it all up [. . .] all this country.
Money speaks, the land listens” (AD 1000–01).
Beyond such epic battles, though, Pynchon remains interested in apo-
litical Benny Profane types, and also drawing Vineland and Against the Day
together are plucky, nomadic figures who enrich the fiction’s portrayal of
working-class survival. In Vineland, Zoyd Wheeler, an ex-musician pos-
sessed of carpentry skills, struggles with single parenthood and unemploy-
ment in Northern California, where he goes to morning “shape-ups” for
temporary work, subordinated to “the ones who did the building, selling,
200 jeffrey severs
buying and speculating” (VL 321). Interpreting property in Vineland,
William D. Clarke aptly calls the small house Zoyd manages to obtain
and fix up “a ramshackle externalization of his own itinerant economic
livelihood.”11 Zoyd and his daughter Prairie bear strong resemblances to
Merle and Dally Rideout in Against the Day, and as I have argued the
Rideouts allow Pynchon to offer intimate portrayals of the Panic of 1893
and the booms and busts of the US economy. Dally’s narrative, tracking
her to Europe and back, responds to the “working girl” novel ascendant at
the time and adds a woman’s perspective to worlds of work and money
dominated (like almost all of Pynchon’s worlds) by men.12
Between Vineland and Against the Day came Pynchon’s even deeper dive
into history, Mason & Dixon (1997), in which he extended his studies of
marginal Americans to those who built the nation with unpaid labor:
slaves. Mason & Dixon portrays slavery, Kathryn Hume argues, as “a
necessary concomitant of capitalist trade”13 – or in the text’s terms, “the
unpric’d Coercion necessary to yearly Profits beyond the projectings even
of proud Satan” (MD 412). The slave trade binds together Mason and
Dixon’s astronomical work in Dutch South Africa, where Mason is nearly
pimped out to a slave woman, and their surveying in America, where they
encounter Colonel George Washington served by his slave Gershom. “I’ll
do as I damn’d please with my Property,” a slave-driver later says,
summarizing the nascent nation’s value system (MD 698). But the
surveyors’ work itself is a contracted product of a property system, and
Pynchon takes interest in the pair’s history because it combines scenes of
freedom’s development with the well-known future of the boundary they
draw: the division between South and North, between a cotton economy
built on slavery and its often complicit northern neighbors.
As Catherine Flay argues, even as Mason & Dixon “recognizes America’s
emergence alongside the ascendancy of global capitalism,” Pynchon in
1997 is also anachronistically criticizing capitalism’s most recent incarna-
tion, neoliberalism, which sacrifices community values to market
imperatives.14 An anti-neoliberal agenda is found, too, in the far more
recent American history analyzed in Pynchon’s two latest novels, Inherent
Vice and Bleeding Edge. Both center on the pursuit and exposure of
capitalist hegemony and ultra-wealthy entrepreneurs, and it is intriguing
to think that the fascistic police and military villains of the earlier novels,
like Blicero and Brock Vond, are now outnumbered by the plutocrats of
later work, figures more like Inverarity: Scarsdale Vibe, Mickey
Wolfmann, and Gabriel Ice. The disappearance of Wolfmann, another
real estate man, sets Inherent Vice in motion, but he turns out to be a failed
Capitalism and Class 201
utopianist, repentant over his earnings. In Nevada Doc Sportello finds
Wolfmann’s abandoned attempt at communal living, and Doc’s greater
bounty is the Golden Fang, a drug-dealing cabal of dentists. Examining
the Fang, a subplot involving counterfeit currency, and the rise of
neoliberal finance, Doug Haynes argues that Inherent Vice is interested
in both 1970 and the 2008 financial meltdown that preceded the novel’s
Bleeding Edge, published in 2013, is even more representative of
Pynchon’s efforts to diagnose the crimes of financial capital in the twenty-
first century, drawing together virtual trading, the deals that may have led
to 9/11, and the “neoliberal scum” of both Wall Street and the CIA’s
involvement in Latin America (BE 444). Here is yet another real estate
takedown, with Pynchon now drawing on his own residence in a fancy
New York neighborhood to satirize the denizens of the “Yupper West
Side” (BE 166). His choice of forensic accounting as his heroine’s profes-
sion makes complete retrospective sense, for Maxine’s work illuminates not
just Ice’s weapons connections but the complex ledger of money-fueled
crimes many previous works have also been keeping, attempts to (as Sister
Rochelle says in Vineland) “balance . . . karmic account[s]” (VL 163).
Pynchon, Bleeding Edge again shows, has almost always constructed his
paranoid networks according to Deep Throat’s trenchant advice in All the
President’s Men: Follow the money.

1. Samuel Thomas, Pynchon and the Political (New York: Routledge, 2007), p. 6;
Joseph Tabbi, Postmodern Sublime: Technology and American Writing from
Mailer to Cyberpunk (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), p. 92.
2. Thomas Hill Schaub, “The Crying of Lot 49 and Other California Novels,” in
Inger H. Dalsgaard, Luc Herman, and Brian McHale (eds.), The Cambridge
Companion to Thomas Pynchon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2012), pp. 30–43, p. 40.
3. Thomas Pynchon, “Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?” New York Times, October 28,
4. Thomas Pynchon, “Nearer, My Couch, To Thee,” New York Times Book
Review, June 6, 1993, pp. 3, 57.
5. Pynchon, “Couch.”
6. Luc Herman and Steven Weisenburger, Gravity’s Rainbow, Domination, and
Freedom (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2013), p. 208.
7. Boris Kachka, “On the Thomas Pynchon Trail: From the Long Island of His
Boyhood to the ‘Yupper West Side’ of His New Novel,” Vulture.com,
August 25, 2013.
202 jeffrey severs
8. Thomas H. Schaub, “Influence and Incest: Relations between The Crying of
Lot 49 and The Great Gatsby,” in Niran Abbas (ed.), Thomas Pynchon: Reading
from the Margins (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003),
pp. 139–53, pp. 151–52.
9. Michael Harrington, The Other America: Poverty in the United States (1962;
New York: Touchstone, 1997), p. 4.
10. Steven Weisenburger, “Gravity’s Rainbow,” in Dalsgaard, Herman, and
McHale, The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon, pp. 44–58, pp.
11. William D. Clarke, “‘It’s My Job, I Can’t Back Out’: The ‘House’ and
Coercive Property Relations in Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland,” in
Sascha Pöhlmann (ed.), Against the Grain: Reading Pynchon’s
Counternarratives (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2010), pp. 185–212, p. 189.
12. Jeffrey Severs, “‘The abstractions she was instructed to embody’: Women,
Capitalism, and Artistic Representation in Against the Day,” in Jeffrey Severs
and Christopher Leise (eds.), Pynchon’s Against the Day: A Corrupted Pilgrim’s
Guide (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2011), pp. 215–38.
13. Kathryn Hume, “Mason & Dixon,” in Dalsgaard, Herman, and McHale,
The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon, pp. 59–70, p. 65.
14. Catherine Flay, “After the Counterculture: American Capitalism, Power, and
Opposition in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon,” Journal of American
Studies, 51.3 (August 2017), 779–804, p. 781.
15. Doug Haynes, “Under the Beach, the Paving-Stones! The Fate of Fordism in
Pynchon’s Inherent Vice,” Critique, 55.1 (2014), 1–16, pp. 4, 8.
chapter 25

War and Power

Dale Carter

Maybe what we’ve been living through is just a privileged little

window, and now it’s going back to what it always was.
Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge

All of Thomas Pynchon’s fictions refer in some sense or in passing to

warfare or warlike conditions: the French and Indian wars in Mason &
Dixon (1997), the colonial pacification campaigns of V. (1963), and World
War II in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) and The Crying of Lot 49 (1966); the
industrial wars of Against the Day (2006) and the war on drugs in Vineland
(1990); the abductions and shoot-outs of Inherent Vice (2009); and the
blend of covert action and cyber-warfare that haunts Bleeding Edge (2013).
None, however, are truly generic “war novels” in which military conflict
provides setting and substance. Similarly, while each of them deals with
power, the latter is rarely expressed in formal political terms – through the
portrayal of elections, for example. The novels are not short of powerful
institutions, interests, or practices: political, military, economic, social, and
cultural. But power in Pynchon’s fiction should also be understood in
terms of what Michel Foucault dubbed “biopower”: “a form of power,” in
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s words, “that regulates social life from
its interior; . . . an integral, vital function that every individual embraces . . .
of his or her own accord.”1
Pynchon’s novels engage war and power in the context of imperial and
neocolonial conflict, world war and Cold War, genocide, and terrorism, as
well as of industrialization and postindustrialization, scientific and tech-
nological innovation, media proliferation and digitization, corporate com-
mercialization and commodification, behavioral modification and
psychological manipulation. Indeed, what such developments have come
to mean for the nature of (and the relationship between) war and power has
been an abiding concern in his work. One way of tracing that concern is to
engage the novels as critic Samuel Thomas does in Pynchon and the Political

204 dale carter
(2007): not in their sequence of publication but in relation to the historical
periods with which they primarily deal.2 While sacrificing detail and
nuance in relation to any one work, such an approach can illuminate
tropes and transitions that feature within and across many of them. This
is particularly so in their engagement with political, military, economic,
scientific, and technological power, and with their intersections under the
sign, or signs, of war.

Fields of Action

The State
Describing an historical trajectory across many types of conflict, Pynchon’s
fictions portray the dynamic nature of power as its contours and mechan-
isms change over time. In Mason & Dixon, the titular protagonists survey
not only a disputed eighteenth century colonial border but in the process
also chart traditional forms of authority, from religion to “ancient Magick”
(MD 487), being pushed off the map in the name of Reason and in the
interests of authorities keen to impose their settler-colonial designs and
Enlightenment precepts upon native people and the natural world. From
Pennsylvania and Cape Town via South-West Africa and the Sudan to
Nazi Germany, this white-supremacist imperial order, its exploitative labor
systems, and legitimations of violence also feature in V. and Gravity’s
Rainbow, both of which read retrospectively as elaborations of the nascent
forms of colonial domination later invoked in Mason & Dixon. Yet if
Herbert Stencil’s transcontinental pursuit of V.’s avatars follows imperial-
ism’s nineteenth-century extensions, in Gravity’s Rainbow the dismantling
of Tyrone Slothrop, sacrifice of Gottfried, and passing of Blicero enact its
mid-twentieth-century apotheosis and dissolution: power shifts that may
be read in terms of Hannah Arendt’s analysis of ideology and terror, all-
powerful parties, states, and leaders in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951).
Foreshadowed in Gravity’s Rainbow, what lies historically and geogra-
phically beyond these shifts is portrayed in The Crying of Lot 49, in whose
mid-1960s California setting an affluent society is sustained by an activist
state and its Cold War military-industrial budgets. The arms race notwith-
standing, authority here prefers civilian dress to combat fatigues, offers
help rather than exacts punishment, and promotes social progress, cultural
diversity, and individual liberty while pre-empting dissent, improving
efficiency – and camouflaging its presence. Pitched into the world of
C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite (1956) and Herbert Marcuse’s One-
War and Power 205
Dimensional Man (1964), Oedipa Maas finds responsibility divided, gui-
dance plentiful but unfathomable, and almost everything hallucinatory:
She endures Henry Miller’s air-conditioned nightmare inside Max
Weber’s bureaucratic iron cage.
In Pynchon’s fiction dealing with the post-1960s era, however, American
Dreamers suffer only rude awakenings. The mid-1980s setting of Vineland
shows the State turning (in Louis Althusser’s terms) from “ideological” to
“repressive”; and if ex-radical Frenesi Gates does not fall for federal
attorney Brock Vond in the same involuntary way that Gottfried had
surrendered to Blicero in Gravity’s Rainbow, the implication that the
counterculture helped catalyze the Reagan-era authoritarianism prefigured
in Benjamin Gross’ Friendly Fascism (1980) offers ironic commentary on
Marcuse’s “repressive tolerance” thesis.3 A yet more embattled, survivalist
neoliberal state busy putting Foucault’s biopower to work follows: What in
Vineland had taken the form of occasional raids on ex-hippies becomes in
Bleeding Edge a threat not only as pervasive and unpredictable as falling V-2
rockets in Gravity’s Rainbow, but also one of unprecedented range –
though set in a geographically circumscribed space, the novel beckons
toward a transnationalization of authority also explored in Michael
Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire (2000). Having traced imperialism
and war across continents and centuries, Pynchon’s latest work finds
security everywhere – and nowhere.

Hardt and Negri, Gross, Marcuse, and Mills all identify major economic
(not least corporate) features on their contour maps of the power structure;
capital of many kinds also appears in Pynchon’s fictions, as do its agents.
Those who seek to disable magic and disengage the spiritual from the
material world in Mason & Dixon, for example, may do so in the name of
Enlightenment, yet one kabbalist condemns them as “Brokers of Capital,
Insurers, Peddlars upon the global Scale, Enterprisers and Quacks” work-
ing “in the service of Greed” (MD 487–88). Embodied by merchant-
diplomat Benjamin Franklin, these agents of “the coming Rebellion”
against Britain are the wave of the future – “Heaven help the rest of us”
(MD 487–88). In Against the Day, their descendants include mine-owning
industrialist Scarsdale Vibe, whose associated bad Vibes threaten to suborn
the state, frame opponents, oppress the public, and kill in the pursuit of
“wealth without conscience” (AD 83). In Gravity’s Rainbow they include
the transnational corporate cartels whose agent, “industrial heir” Walter
206 dale carter
Rathenau, dreams of an order “in which business would be the [. . .]
rightful authority” (GR 165), exercising control more effectively (perhaps
less brutally). Anticipated in Gravity’s Rainbow by entrepreneur Lyle Bland
and military-industrial behaviorist Edward Pointsman, that vision comes
to life in V. and The Crying of Lot 49 as US aerospace industry giant
Yoyodyne, Inc.: corporate symbol of the will or ultimate design of property
tycoon Pierce Inverarity, whose “estate” (CL 9) it is Oedipa’s responsibility
to unravel.
That her task appears less ruthless or contested than unending and hard
to grasp is a measure, here and elsewhere, of corporate extension conscript-
ing the State to its agenda while accommodating society and culture in the
process. Pressing “his meathooks well into the American day-to-day since
1919” (GR 581), Bland’s conglomerate encompasses finance and industry,
philanthropy and education, consultancy and policing, behavioral mod-
ification and surveillance, while those subject to its close attention range
from US president Franklin Roosevelt to Gravity’s Rainbow protagonist
Tyrone Slothrop. Yet if Yoyodyne started out manufacturing children’s
toys, its corporate dominion is scarcely benign. A mid-1960s southern
Californian incubator for the free market convictions that would carry
Ronald Reagan from state governorship to Vineland-era presidency, the
company also helps fertilize the soil on which predatory enterprises like
Golden Fang in Inherent Vice will later flourish. The narrator’s observation
in Gravity’s Rainbow – that the “true war is a celebration of markets” and
“the real business of the War is buying and selling” (GR 105) – implies that
the marketplace in which such operations would ultimately gain traction is
less an antidote to war than the locus of a more pervasive conflict.

Science and Technology

In articulating a welfare-warfare state whose synthesis of corporate power
and civic authority commands popular allegiance while placing the public
in ever greater jeopardy, Pynchon’s fiction highlights science and technol-
ogy: not least because they, too, appeal even as they endanger. When some
in Gravity’s Rainbow refer to the war as less “a celebration of markets” than
“secretly [. . .] dictated [. . .] by [the] needs of technology” (GR 105, 521), for
example, or worry that once “the technical means of control have reached
a certain size, a certain degree of being connected one to another, the chances
for freedom are over for good” (GR 539), they conjure up the kind of power
explored in Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society (1964). There is
certainly no shortage of tools and tests, experts, formulae, and hardware
War and Power 207
in Pynchon’s novels: from the protagonists’ measuring rods and telescope
in Mason & Dixon via the aeronautical engineers and behavioral scientists
of Gravity’s Rainbow to the crash-test dummies in V., entropy theories of
The Crying of Lot 49, ubiquitous “Tube” in Vineland, and digital technol-
ogies of Bleeding Edge. But if aspects of V. seem literally to enact the title of
Siegfried Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command (1948), Lewis
Mumford’s The Pentagon of Power (1970) offers more complex ways to
engage Gravity’s Rainbow’s less technologically determinist speculations –
like the suspicion that the war within which it is set may be “dictated [. . .]
by a conspiracy between human beings and techniques, by something that
needed the energy-burst of war” (GR 521).
Mumford’s claim that preparation for and the waging of war help
empower science, technology, and their agents illuminates their standing
in Gravity’s Rainbow. Yet the latter’s conspiratorial specter has many
dynamics. Thus the engineers who serve the rocket gain influence only at
the warfare State’s behest: They are subject – and may become surplus – to
its requirements. By contrast, elsewhere in Pynchon’s novels any number
of grass-roots conditions underwrite popular investment in science and
technology: from practical necessity to unwitting collusion, civic virtue to
class hostility, narcotic hallucination to erotic desire, childlike fascination
to an urge to evade mortality. So that even as Ernie Tarnow in Bleeding
Edge fears “this online paradise of yours” is in the hands of the national
security State, and Eric Outfield warns that “Management wants every-
body addicted” via the Internet, the latter is scarcely theirs to monopolize
(BE 418–19, 432).
If the outcome in any event is subordination or dependence, the
entrapment is as much ideological as anything else. Indeed, one way in
which these novels explore scientific and technological power is by way of
their legitimation strategies. Whether embedded in material products or
theories, regulatory regimes or production techniques, Pynchon’s fictions
rehearse notions such as the autonomy, neutrality, usefulness, and mys-
tique of science and technology. They also interrogate some of their
coincidental or intrinsic correlates. Analyses of the intersections of power
and ethics in the lives of experts subordinated to capital, state, and their
mechanisms range from Gravity’s Rainbow, where engineers on all sides
absolve themselves of responsibility for their actions, to Mason & Dixon,
where repugnance at the racist violence produced by the very colonial
system they are helping define prompts Dixon to ask “Whom are we
working for, Mason?” (MD 347). In V., the kinds of erotic, behavioral,
and psychological interactions that characterize the human/machine
208 dale carter
interface include Felix Mixolydian’s self-satisfied couch-potato existence as
“an extension of the TV set” and Rachel Owlglass’ MG sports car passion –
a practice that triggers Benny Profane’s concerns about “a world of things
that had to be watched out for” (V 28–29, 56, 384).

Irregular Maneuvers
As “schizoid [and] double-minded in the massive presence of money as any
of the rest of us” (GR 712), the Counterforce in Gravity’s Rainbow is in no
position to counter the powers that be. Unable to resist “images of
authority, especially uniformed men” (VL 83), Frenesi Gates in Vineland
surrenders to federal authority. In spite, perhaps even because, of the
hippie-throwback rhetoric (“information has to be free”), March
Kelleher blogs in Bleeding Edge that “times of great idealism carry equal
chances for great corruptibility” and that even IT “nerds can be bought and
sold”: “you never know,” she cautions, “who works for them and who
doesn’t” (BE 116, 399). In Pynchon’s novels, in short, powerful forces seem
able to infiltrate, annex, and co-opt every domain they engage.
Yet wars imply adversaries and, even in Arendt’s totalitarian state and
Marcuse’s “society without opposition,” authority has limits.4 Throughout
Pynchon’s fiction, resistance to the status quo is also discernible if less than
explicit, abiding yet circumscribed, empowering though scarcely powerful.
Between the anarchist movement’s anti-corporate direct-action tactics of
Against the Day and the Counterforce’s phony war in Gravity’s Rainbow, it
may have disengaged from combat, adopted an underground stance, and
reconfigured its forces – but it has not surrendered. The cultural front that
runs through Inherent Vice and Vineland sustains, meanwhile, a dissident
heritage across the generations, even if old Left, new Left and counter-
culture are each unpicked or unravel in turn. What had once been com-
mon causes may have become isolated struggles, yet the public sphere is
still contested, albeit from more cultural and psychological, spiritual, and
metaphysical redoubts.
Read less as slow-motion defeats than as a locus of unconventional but
enduring resistance, these covert and irregular power struggles belong to
what Samuel Thomas dubs “fugitive politics”: “marginalized, problematic
and often downright strange” yet retaining a promise “of community, of
trust, of ethical relationships, of an innervated intimate and public life.”5
Such a politics takes diverse forms and has varied domains, concerns,
aficionados, and ends. Its collective expressions may seem purposeless or
out of touch; they risk being co-opted or demonized. But the Kunoichi
War and Power 209
Sisterhood in Vineland endures, while the Tristero and Peter Pinguid
Society, Inamorati Anonymous, and American Deaf-Mute Assembly in
The Crying of Lot 49 all communicate something that escapes the powers
that be: if not “treason” or “defiance” then a “calculated withdrawal” (CL
125) into an order that established authority can neither provide nor
understand. Fugitive politics may thrive in absence, marginality, or lack
of influence; within small-scale, low-tech, nomadic communities traver-
sing spaces for which power has no use; among the world’s poor and
preterite. It holds out in the fantastic, like March Kelleher’s “old
woman” fable in Bleeding Edge (BE 113–14) or Jesús Arrabal’s “anarchist
miracle” vision in The Crying of Lot 49 (CL 119–20), as well as in myth and
religion, dreams and the imagination, sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Even
in the belly of the beast, human solidarity and humane values survive,
hidden in plain sight.
As for justification and inspiration, such irregular struggles for a non-
codified politics may invoke those passages where individual characters relate
their inheritance, experiences, and speculations to the impact of the powers
that be and those they have suborned. Isaiah Two Four in Vineland, for
example, who in the wake of countercultural dissolution chides the parental
generation for selling out “that whole alternative America [. . .] to your real
enemies” (VL 373). Oedipa Maas in The Crying of Lot 49, who in light of
“300 years of the house’s disinheritance [. . . and] with the chances once so
good for diversity,” asks herself “[w]hat was left to inherit?” (CL 179–81). Or
Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow, who looks back to his own ancestor,
the dissenting New England minister William Slothop, and wonders if he
might have embodied the “fork in the road America never took, the singular
point she jumped the wrong way from” (GR 556).

Final Engagements
One way to describe a broad trajectory for the intersections of war and
power that feature in Thomas Pynchon’s novels is in terms of an arc. From
Mason & Dixon, across Against the Day, via sections of V. and onto Gravity’s
Rainbow, an industrializing colonial and imperial order builds, fueled by
a militarist dynamic culminating in World War II. Its nominally postwar,
postimperial, and postindustrial modulations take shape elsewhere in V.,
via The Crying of Lot 49 and Inherent Vice and through Vineland into
Bleeding Edge, with physical conflicts on the battlefield or in the workplace
being supplanted by other forms of war: struggles, in Gravity’s Rainbow’s
words, wherein the “civilians are outside, the uniforms inside” (GR 373).
210 dale carter
As the repressive tolerance of Marcuse’s one-dimensional order loses
patience between The Crying of Lot 49 and Vineland, however, so the
corporate liberalism that had once accommodated, seduced, and intoxi-
cated its domestic subjects without the use of force begins to yield to a more
authoritarian, coercive neoliberalism whose instincts are to discipline and
punish. Bleeding Edge measures the closing of this half-century’s “privileged
little window” (BE 432) in which the wars had been cold, not hot.
In the context of corporate globalization and aggressive nationalism, the
digital revolution, the dotcom bubble, and the World Trade Center’s
destruction, and with virtually every corner of existence subject to remili-
tarized security agendas, Pynchon’s latest novel also considers the prospects
of liberation. In Gravity’s Rainbow the question for wartime evacuees had
been whether the train they huddled onboard promised a “way out” or “a
progressive knotting into” (GR 3). In Bleeding Edge’s contemporary con-
juncture, the question becomes what kind of departure the Internet’s
“DeepArcher” might offer. Pynchon’s work on that earlier conflict offers
one – somewhat foreboding – answer: Whatever other methods may
promise, the powers that be had reassured themselves then that “in the
end it’s always the Army, isn’t it?” (GR 615).

1. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 2001), pp. 23–24.
2. Samuel Thomas, Pynchon and the Political (New York: Routledge, 2007),
pp. 15–16.
3. Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (London: New Left
Books, 1971), pp. 135–42; Herbert Marcuse, “Repressive Tolerance” in Robert
Paul Wolff, Barrington Moore, Jr., and Herbert Marcuse, A Critique of Pure
Tolerance (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), pp. 81–123.
4. Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (Abingdon: Routledge, 2002),
p. xxxix.
5. Thomas, Pynchon and the Political, p. 154.
chapter 26

Conspiracy and Paranoia

Samuel Chase Coale

We live in an age where conspiracy has virtually usurped the political

mainstream. “Conspiracy is our theme,” exclaims a character in Don
DeLillo’s Running Dog (1989), “Connections, links, secret associations.”1
In “In His Volleys, Trump Echoes A Provocateur,” Jim Rutenberg tells us
of the radio host Alex Jones, in Austin, Texas, who not only believes that
9/11 was an inside job but “that the Sandy Hook school shooting was
‘completely fake’ and that the phony Clinton child-sex trafficking scandal
known as Pizzagate warranted serious investigation (which one Facebook
fan took upon himself to do, armed with an AR-15).” Jones told Rutenberg
that his “audience . . . is ‘the teeth of the Trump organization on the
ground – the information-warfare, organic internal resistance’.”2
This comes as no revelation. Richard Hofstadter’s classic The Paranoid
Style in American Politics and Other Essays (1963) now seems quaint and
antiquated. He nailed the style but described it as a marginal phenom-
enon. When I quoted Peter Knight – “we’re all conspiracy theorists now.
A self-conscious and self-reflexive entertainment culture of conspiracy
has become thoroughly mainstream”3 – in my Paradigms of Paranoia:
The Culture of Conspiracy in Contemporary American Fiction,
conspiracies, of course, existed, as they always have in American society.
But it was as theory that I applied it to fiction with asides on fundament-
alism (which the publisher banished to a long footnote in the back of the
book), apocalyptic cults, and such crazed visions as Jim Marrs’ Rule
By Secrecy: The Hidden History That Connects the Trilateral Commission,
the Freemasons, and the Great Pyramids (2000) and Hal Lindsey’s very
popular The Late Great Planet Earth (1970). When giving talks in
Lebanon and Jordan in 2007, I found it difficult to get audiences to see
conspiracy in theoretical terms, mired in and mesmerized as they were by
a labyrinthine spiraling of very “real” conspiracies that involved Israel and
the United States. But those conspiracies thrived on foreign soil and were
as ludicrous as their gnostic, paranoid fears.
212 samuel chase coale
Paranoia fosters an open-ended fear of victimization and lurks as a state
of mind in many of us. What conspiracy purports to accomplish is to reveal
a more or less linear explanation of events that embodies rather than
reduces paranoia, taking comfort ironically in the notion that there is
human agency behind hidden agendas, as opposed to impersonal global
forces: Someone somewhere is pulling the strings.
Thomas Pynchon has always used a conspiracy-designed narrative to
undermine “actual” conspiracies. Think, for instance, of Oedipa Maas,
imprisoned in suburbia and as innocent of the world as she is ignorant,
lacking any moral compass with which to evaluate and judge what she
thinks she discovers when she first looks down upon San Narciso and sees
the literal image of “her first printed circuit.” Her vision swiftly escalates
into an allegorical level where she then sees “outward patterns [that reveal]
a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate.”
This is followed by “revelation” – talk about upping the ante! – “an odd,
religious instant” that, as quickly as it appears, dissolves (CL 24–25). Her
mind is ripe for conspiracy theory and actual conspiracies, and they are not
long in showing up. Pynchon goes on at the beginning of Chapter Three to
label the progress of her perceptions, ambiguously wedged between three
“logicallys,” two “as ifs,” and one “perhaps” (CL 44). The right hand
demolishes what the left hand creates.
On a bathroom wall Oedipa discovers a message – “interested in
sophisticated fun?” – “neatly indited in engineering lettering,” below
which she comes upon the image of the muted post horn, drawn “faintly
in pencil” (CL 52). Two different messages: two different incarnations –
and yet she immediately begins to connect them.
In The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), the Tristero conspiracy is never proved.
If it actually exists, it lies outside the mainstream. The book remains open-
ended and unresolved. As an aside, this lack of closure also undermines
entropy as the major metaphor for Pynchon’s fiction, since open-
endedness trumps collapse and breakdown. If there is a Tristero, it includes
only the marginalized, those outside or beneath the mainstream, an under-
ground of anarchists, the poor, and the existentially isolated gathering in
small secretive clubs and cabals. As Samuel Thomas quotes David Cowart,
Pynchon “expresses a profound empathy with what he calls the preterite,
the left out, the passed over in every form of election (spiritual, economic,
racial, cultural).”4
The image appears in the monumental Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) when
the early settlers of Mauritius wonder, “[a]re they Elect, or are they
Preterite, and doomed as dodoes?” (GR 110). Where exactly do they fit in
Conspiracy and Paranoia 213
the grand scheme of things, if there is one? Is history “at best a conspiracy”?
(GR 164). Paranoia invades all things: “It is nothing less than the onset, the
leading edge, of the discovery that everything is connected, everything in the
Creation” (GR 703). And the reader, stunned, lost, overwhelmed, battered,
and mired in a crazed array of characters, plots, various conspiracies, and
alliances, gropes for clues and connections, and is thus forced to try and
make sense of what she is reading. The novel seems to beg to be allegorized,
fit into some massive blueprint or game plan as the reader becomes her own
conspirator, performing many of the quests for coherence that the char-
acters are undergoing. Conspiracy becomes a lived experience, an
attempted gathering of correspondences, hidden webs of networks and
zones, “while the real Text persisted, somewhere else, in its darkness, our
darkness [. . .],” and while “each alternative Zone speeds away from all the
others, in fated acceleration, red-shifting, fleeing the Center” (GR 520, 519).
As suggested in The Crying of Lot 49, the world has descended into the
particular while characters hunger for some kind of universal meaning,
metanarrative and structure. Yet “all talk of cause and effect is secular
history, and secular history is a diversionary tactic” (GR 167). As always, the
landscape is ripe for and contributes to a relentless paranoia, coupled with
the ultimate fear of death.
As suggested above, conspiracy has today not only gone mainstream but
also threatens to commandeer it, a process in which the media is the
Trump-declared “enemy of the American people,” not just his personal
adversary. Every conspiracy needs its enemies, its opposition, to thrive.
Linear explanations help confirm identity. “Alternative facts” and “fake
news” blend all too easily with media-driven stories.
Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge (2013) exposes the newer conspiratorial model.
The conspiracy now lies within and is a part of the system. It thrives on the
Internet and breeds like a virus or bacteria. As always it supports Pynchon’s
chilling notion that “everything is connected,” a far cry from
E. M. Forster’s more compassionate and antediluvian “only connect.”
Within and “beneath” the World Wide Web smolders the Deep Web,
“this dark archive, all locked down tight,” “an endless junkyard” and with
DeepArcher that leads to “a black hole, no way to escape [. . .] down here,
sooner or later someplace deep, there has to be a horizon between coded
and codeless. An abyss” (BE 58, 226, 357). “Down there we cannot be
gamers, we must be travelers” as we gaze “into a void incalculably fertile
with invisible links” (BE 373, 359). This is the bleeding edge where
“DeepArcher goes a step further and forgets where it’s been, immediately,
forever [. . .] an invisible self-recoding pathway, no chance of retracing it”
214 samuel chase coale
(BE 78, 79). This is the perfect place for conspiracies to both thrive and
almost immediately vanish, one that leads to hooded figures in the desert,
characters who have disappeared or been murdered, self-erected cityscapes,
kidnapped boys in a boot camp for time traveling, aliens and alternative
histories that help higher levels of command (sound familiar?), all of which
take characters “down into the immeasurable uncreated” and lead to maps
and mazes and possibly other hidden conspiracies (BE 75).
The Deep Web becomes Pynchon’s perfect nightmarish playground.
It is always in flux, randomness flirting with outright plots; it remains
open-ended and discontinuous, as much of a quantum realm as an agenda-
breeding area.
Ernie Tarnow, Maxine Tarnow’s father, an old Leftist opposed to the
Cold War, hits Pynchon’s visionary center when he explains: “Call it
freedom, it’s based on control. Everybody connected together, impossible
anybody should get lost, ever again. Take the next step, connect it to these
cell phones, you’ve got a total Web of surveillance [. . .] handcuffs of the
future. Terrific. What they dream about at the Pentagon, worldwide
martial law” (BE 420) This vision is, of course, closely linked to “[l]ate
capitalism [as] a pyramid racket on a global scale” (BE 163). As Avram
Deschler, a possible member of Mossad, concludes, “[w]hat [he] once
imagined as simple paranoia [. . .] is in fact systemic by now, with more
enemies inside than out” (BE 425).
A conspiracy lurks within the “upper world” of the novel with the
wealthy, ubiquitous villain, Gabriel Ice, trying to get the code to
DeepArcher in order to control it. We can try to follow Pynchon’s dizzying
and digressive tale, following the money from Ice’s hashslingrz account to
the supposedly defunct hwgaahwgh.com account with money sent to the
Emirates. Amid the realistic portrayal of a year in New York that leads up
to 9/11, the ultimate actual conspiracy, we find Lester Traipse’s corpse (he
originally owned hwgaahwgh.com, which he sold to Ice), various videos of
porn and plots, Maxine’s many descents to DeepArcher, the corpse of the
FBI/CIA agent Nicholas Windust, Reg Despard’s documentary film
exploring hashslingrz, the discovery of “Darklinear Solutions,” and the
other wild and woolly tangents and tales that may include the Montauk
Project, Deseret the haunted apartment building, Conkling Speedwell the
professional nose, and a plethora of other characters who weave in and out
of Maxine’s investigations. Again, Pynchon employs the conspiratorial
design to undercut any actual conspiracy that would explain everything.
Critics have continued, as Thomas suggests, to link “the closeness of
Pynchon’s writing . . . to the very systems of control it defines itself
Conspiracy and Paranoia 215
against . . . Do Pynchon’s polyphonic, fragmented narratives work through
the systems and images of modern techno-capitalism, or do they simply
reproduce them?”5 As Joseph Tabbi asks, are Pynchon’s novels “any less
overwhelming than the capitalist totality they supposedly resist?”6 This old
argument, also used to attack Don DeLillo and others, continues to over-
look the narrative design and its distinct differences from and undermining
of “actual” conspiracies.
It has taken much too long for critics, including myself, to focus on
Pynchon’s politics, his view of the marginalized and overlooked.
As Thomas makes clear, “[r]esistance to the totality must necessarily
locate itself in the ephemera . . . in a “micrological” analysis of
oppressed and unrecorded things.”7 “[C]ategories such as metaphysics,
magic, dream, and myth . . . become serious political categories in
themselves . . . [A] series of fissures in the totalising, plastic surface of
postmodernism begin to open up . . . outside of both liberal and
totalitarian models.”8 Thomas clearly subscribes to Theodore
Adorno’s notion of dialectical thought that “opposes reification . . .
[in] that it refuses to affirm individual things in their isolation and
separateness: it designates isolation as precisely a product of the uni-
versal. Thus, it acts as a corrective both to manic fixity and to the
unresisting and empty rift of the paranoid mind.”9 It is this political
point of view which can be found in all of Pynchon’s novels and
registers their position in the ongoing discussions about the “main-
stream American” and the “Other.”
I would like to end this essay on a phenomenological note in that
Pynchon creates a slippery and shifting world with which consciousness
must grapple, each in effect constituting the other. We are products of the
system, in and of the world, at the same time that we are distanced from it.
Conspiracy becomes the fallback position to resolve that discrepancy and
unresolvable mystery. In fact, what Maurice Merleau-Ponty refers to as
“reflective analysis” – which insists on explanations and descriptions
instead of reconstructing the phenomenological experience and thus
doing it a grave injustice – really reveals “the impossibility of a complete
reduction . . . phenomenology’s task was to reveal the mystery of the world
and the mystery of reason.”10 Pynchon is up to the same task, viewing
conspiracy as an easy “out” while at the same time recognizing its seductive
powers of connection – it is after all a design for a perfect fictional plot,
particularly in popular fiction – and resolution. As Merleau-Ponty makes
clear (when he is clear), such “analysis masks the organic relation between
the subject and the world, the active transcendence of consciousness” and
216 samuel chase coale
the “word signifies that reflection never has the entire world . . . it only has
a partial view and a limited power.”11
This, too, is Pynchon’s realm in which conspiracy and paranoia both
thrive and circumscribe. They are part of the anxiety of our age, a part of
that ambiguity and indeterminacy that threaten and frighten those seeking
more rigid rules and categories when faced with “a space of possibilities,
impossibilities, and necessities constitutive of our perceptual world.”12
The declared need for enemies distorts Pynchon’s perspective, but he
understands that it feeds the very conspiracy theories and paranoia that
will not scare.

1. Don DeLillo, Running Dog (New York: Vintage, 1989), p. 58.
2. Jim Rutenberg, “In His Volleys, Trump Echoes a Provocateur,” New York
Times, February 20, 2017, p. B1.
3. Peter Knight, Conspiracy Culture: From Kennedy to the X-Files (Abingdon:
Routledge, 2000), p. 6.
4. David Cowart, “Pynchon and the Sixties,” Critique: Studies in Contemporary
Fiction, 41 (1999), 3–12, p. 4, quoted in Samuel Thomas, Pynchon and the
Political (New York: Routledge, 2007), p. 12.
5. Thomas, Pynchon, p. 6.
6. Joseph Tabbi, Postmodern Sublime: Technology and American Writing from
Mailer to Cyberpunk (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), p. 92,
quoted in Thomas, Pynchon, p. 6.
7. Thomas, Pynchon, p. 7.
8. Thomas, Pynchon, p. 9.
9. Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (London:
Verso, 1974), p. 71, quoted in Thomas, Pynchon, p. 177.
10. Donald A. Landes, “Translator’s Introduction,” Maurice Merleau-Ponty,
Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge, 2014), p. xxxviii.
11. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology, p. 154, p. 62.
12. Taylor Carman, “Foreword,” in Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology, p. xv.
chapter 27

Terror and Anarchy

James Gourley

Terror and anarchy are significant concepts through which Thomas

Pynchon’s oeuvre focalizes its cultural, political, and social commitment.
Pynchon’s eight novels develop an historically informed perspective of the
dialectical intertwining of terror and anarchy, and in doing so offer an
alternative vision to that which today dominates moribund political cul-
tures in the United States and around the world. In diagnosing the world’s
condition – increasing inequality, conservative domestic politics, violent
foreign policy led by the United States for the establishment of open
markets and democracy (in this order) – Pynchon presents the world
from an alternate perspective. His novels consider the world historically,
from the viewpoint of “the fork in the road America never took” (GR 556).
Pynchon’s novels present terror and terrorism (both individual and state-
sponsored) and anarchy and anarchist thought (from characters’ points of
view, and as an artistic strategy) as inextricably connected, and from which,
despite their often terrible consequences, questions critical to the develop-
ment of a better world can be considered. Over the course of Pynchon’s
more than five-decades-long writing career, the clash between utopian
desire and dystopian reality has been his primary concern. And in the
passing of the years, Pynchon’s novels increasingly advocate for counter-
cultural resistance as a means to secure utopian community and reject
repressive, capitalist dystopia.

In Pynchon’s early career it was his style – rather than his work’s politics –
that was most often linked to anarchism. This was despite the prominence
of anarchist characters in his first three novels: in V. (1963), Signor
Mantissa and the Gaucho are presented as embodying opposing sides of
an anarchist movement committed to political rebellion in Florence; in
The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), the Mexican insurgent Jesús Arrabal defines an
218 james gourley
“anarchist miracle” as “another world’s intrusion into this one” and is in
absolute opposition to the arch-capitalist Pierce Inverarity (CL 120); and in
Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) Felipe Squalidozzi advocates for an anarchist
resistance as part of the struggle occurring in his Argentinian homeland
as well as in the Zone in the aftermath of World War II. Pynchon’s
postmodernism has often been read as withholding his work from political
engagement; and yet it was the complexity and multiplicity of Pynchon’s
narratives that rendered anarchism a reference point in an attempt to
describe their function. V., The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity’s Rainbow
are revolutionary; part of an anarchic literary movement that loosened the
hold of the modernists and the New Critics.1
George Levine was the first to figure anarchism as central to both the
style and politics of Pynchon’s work: “Anarchy becomes the kind of
aesthetic and political program of these novels, a risk whose possibilities
Pynchon doesn’t know, though he tried them out on different coordinate
systems, metaphors, signs.”2 In this way, Levine argues, Pynchon’s inno-
vative style challenges the reader to ask:
Might not that art be best – at this moment, in this place – that constantly
pushes toward the possibility of fragmentation? Might it be that not order
but anarchy is the most difficult thing to achieve in this culture?
The pressure toward anarchy, in a world structured to resist anarchy at
any cost, might release us, ironically, into a more humane order.3

Levine’s provocations were made in 1976 – a decade after the high-water

mark of 1960s revolutionary fervor – yet they maintain belief in the
possibility of significant change throughout the world. The utopia
Levine anticipates does not come to fruition; yet Pynchon’s anarchic
style, overtly one of the major innovations in postmodernism, has had
a significant (and revolutionary) impact in the world.
While sensitive to the revolutionary style of Pynchon’s work, until the
1990s Pynchon studies were relatively less engaged with the work’s political
scope. Graham Benton’s detailed work in the 1990s and 2000s unpicks
Pynchon’s consistent focus upon anarchism as political theory and move-
ment, and pursues Levine’s intuition that Pynchon’s style bears an intrinsic
relation to anarchism. Benton argues: “Pynchon’s formal techniques –
which favor heterogeneity over uniformity, spontaneity over conformity,
and fragmentation over consolidation – align with an anarchist aesthetic
that reflects a sustained skepticism toward all typologies and classification
of genre.”4 Benton consistently maintains that Pynchon’s works do not
endorse anarchism despite the anarchic basis of Pynchon’s style, because of
Terror and Anarchy 219
anarchism’s diverse iterations, and because of the occasionally uncomfor-
table gap between anarchist theory and its practice. More recent criticism,
notably that of Samuel Thomas and Joanna Freer, has identified, particu-
larly in Pynchon’s more recent work, a sympathy for anarchism, especially
as it is related to developing alternate political practices. Thomas’ Pynchon
and the Political (2007) provides a sustained engagement with the political
impetus of Pynchon’s texts, arguing for a consistent political engagement
throughout his oeuvre, and one that combines an ethic of resistance with
a call to “rethink what the political actually is.”5 In this recasting we can see
the anarchist impulse to move beyond the political status quo as conceived
by prominent anarchist thinkers – Godwin, Proudhon, Bakunin,
Kropotkin – from the late eighteenth century onward. Freer’s Thomas
Pynchon and American Counterculture (2014) argues that the Pynchon
oeuvre is consistently engaged with the politics of the 1960s counterculture,
which combined “a necessary degree of structure with as much anti-
structure, or communitas, as possible, the aim being to organise society in
such a way as to prevent the accumulation of power in any one individual
or group.”6 For Freer, this is “social anarchism that acts as an ideal in
[Pynchon’s] work.”7
After the seventeen-year gap between Gravity’s Rainbow and the pub-
lication of Vineland (1990), it became apparent that despite anarchism’s
contested and often contradictory nature, the motivation of Pynchon’s
twentieth-century work was becoming more overtly and determinedly
utopian. Vineland presents a distinctly anarchic community, the People’s
Republic of Rock and Roll, in open but inevitably doomed conflict with
government forces and social orthodoxy; and Mason & Dixon (1997)
imagines the utopias possible in eighteenth-century America, communities
that are already precipitously marginal, and the majority of which will be
destroyed in the capitalist progress exemplified by the Mason-Dixon Line.
In the twenty-first century, Pynchon’s previous concern at the contra-
diction inherent in anarchism and utopianism has receded further; Against
the Day (2006), Inherent Vice (2009), and Bleeding Edge (2013) all have
compellingly imagined utopian worlds: The Chums of Chance’s skyship
Inconvenience, expanded to fill much of the sky, presents a better world than
the reality of general European war; Inherent Vice ends with Doc Sportello
driving in a dense fog yet kept safe by a caring community of drivers; and
Bleeding Edge imagines the Internet in 2001 as a utopian space not yet
dominated by commercial imperatives. It is telling, however, that each of
these communities is compromised: The Inconvenience is imperfect,
including “slum conditions,” its occupants’ wishes “addressed [but] not
220 james gourley
always granted” (AD 1085); Doc Sportello must depart from the commu-
nity of drivers and emerge from the fog; and Bleeding Edge’s utopian
Internet interface DeepArcher is hopelessly compromised at the moment
of the September 11 attacks. Pynchon remains aware of the tension between
anarchist thought and historical practice.
The greater emphasis on utopian societies and anarchist thought as
enabling utopian resistance is one of Pynchon’s major responses to chan-
ging political realities in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
The revolutionary rhetoric and optimism of the 1960s counterculture
clashes in Pynchon with the dystopian impulses of the two American
presidents that are primary targets for his satirical wit: Richard Nixon
and Ronald Reagan. Nixon’s appearance at the end of Gravity’s Rainbow as
the repressive cinema manager Richard M. Zhlubb is reiterated by his
appearance in Inherent Vice as advocator-in-chief for fascism: “Well, fellow
Americans, if it’s Fascism for Freedom? I . . . can . . . dig it!” (IV 120).
In Vineland, Reagan is presented as continuing the attack against the 1960s
counterculture that Nixon began: “dismantle the New Deal, reverse the
effects of World War Two, restore fascism at home and around the world,
flee into the past . . .” (VL 265). From Vineland on, Pynchon contrasts
anarchism’s utopian possibility to the world’s often-dystopian reality, with
the covert collaboration in Against the Day between capital and govern-
ment in opposition to labor revealing Pynchon’s continuing emphasis on
the intertwining of anarchism and terrorism, and his increasingly outraged
and rebellious politics.8 Pynchon’s evolving political position is seen in his
“Foreword” (2003) to the centenary edition of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-
Four, in which he highlights the author’s commitment to fusing “political
purpose and artistic purpose.”9 This is in contrast to his 1984 lament in his
“Introduction” to Slow Learner that writing in response to the decisions “of
the criminally insane who have enjoyed power since 1945” is “[s]omewhere
on [the] spectrum of impotence.” (SL 18, 19). In 2003, Pynchon points to
the gathering clouds of technologically sophisticated surveillance, which
promises – in today’s present – “social control on a scale those quaint old
twentieth-century tyrants with their goofy mustaches could only dream
In Against the Day, the societal control effected by capitalist tyrants is
intertwined with questions on the motivations of anarchist terrorism.
The two anarchist attacks that bookend the novel – the 1886 Haymarket
affair, and the 1910 LA Times bombing – present an historical counter-
narrative, implying that the powers-that-be are involved in the planning
and carrying out of these acts so as to benefit from the governmental
Terror and Anarchy 221
repression that results from the violence. The conclusion is obvious: that
political violence has been co-opted by the ruling class as a means to secure
further repression. As Scarsdale Vibe presents it, the conflict between the
plutocracy and the working classes is an ongoing American civil war, the
plutocrats fighting against “Plains Indians, strikers, Red immigrants, any
who were not likely docile material for the mills of the newly empowered
order” (AD 334). Clearly, at least in Against the Day, Pynchon makes central
the dialectical intertwining of terror and anarchy, and sides with those
resisting the plutocrat’s dominance, to the extent of perhaps even endor-
sing violent resistance.

Pynchon’s position as a writer focused upon the political use of violence
and terror has been clarified in the twenty-first century. This is primarily
a consequence of his early novels’ focus on war as the primary instance of
societal violence: especially World War I in V. and World War II (and the
Vietnam War) in Gravity’s Rainbow. It is also a function of the relative
security of the United States after Pearl Harbor, shattered by
the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Two of Pynchon’s three novels
published post-9/11 engage with this event. Against the Day is particularly
invested in the historical precursors to the 2001 attacks, whereas Bleeding
Edge considers historical precursors alongside the event’s consequences –
especially renewed imperialism and the rise of the surveillance state – while
affirming the importance of cultures of resistance.
Pynchon’s 2003 “Foreword” to Nineteen Eighty-Four gestures at the
consequences of governmental responses to 9/11, especially the infringing
of long-standing civil liberties seen in surveillance-enabling legislation such
as the USA PATRIOT Act. Against the Day, Pynchon’s first novel pub-
lished after the 9/11 attacks, clearly retains these concerns. In its early pages
it includes a vision of 1890s New York in the aftermath of catastrophe:
charred trees still quietly smoking, flanged steelwork fallen or leaning
perilously, streets near the bridges and ferry slips jammed with the entangled
carriages, wagons, and streetcars which the population had at first tried to
flee in, then abandoned, and which even now lay unclaimed, overturned,
damaged by collision and fire, hitched to animals months dead and yet
unremoved. (AD 150)

Although the cause of this destruction is a malevolent spirit brought back

from the Arctic by the Vormance expedition, the event is unmistakably
222 james gourley
linked to the terrorist attacks of less than five years before the novel’s
publication.11 This historical dislocation of the 2001 events into the fin de
siècle illustrates Pynchon’s commitment to seeing 9/11 in its historical context.
As Annie McClanahan has argued, the two dominant views of the 9/11
attacks – as seen in literature as well as in other types of public discourse –
both figure those events as exemplary: The 9/11 attacks either have no historical
equivalent and are thus “constitutively unpredictable”; or the events have too
many historical equivalents and are thus part of a normalized culture of
modern violence.12 Either approach disconnects 9/11 from history, and “fails
to offer any account of causation, foreclosing the kind of historicism that
might connect 9/11 to the histories of imperialism, foreign debt, or
U.S. hegemony not just analogically but causally.”13 In its commitment to
positioning 9/11 within a broad historical frame, Against the Day is a significant
outlier in fiction that represents the 9/11 attacks.14 The novel’s geographic and
historical range draws on detail often superseded in the twenty-first century,
and reasserts the breadth of events related to the 9/11 attacks so as to commence
the work of viewing those events within a broad context of American
imperialism and Western capitalism.
It is indicative of the importance that Pynchon attributes to
the September 11 attacks that they warrant returning to. Bleeding Edge
recapitulates 9/11, presenting the events as a transformative hinge in
American history, an “atrocity” that the novel’s main character, Maxine
Tarnow, watches live on CNN (BE 321, 316). Bleeding Edge makes explicit
Against the Day’s concerted effort at historicization. The novel’s narrator
laments the use of the term “ground zero” to describe the World Trade
Center site. “Ground Zero” is:
a Cold War term taken from the scenarios of nuclear war so popular in the
early sixties. This was nowhere near a Soviet nuclear strike on downtown
Manhattan, yet those who repeat “Ground Zero” over and over do so
without shame or concern for etymology. The purpose is to get people
cranked up in a certain way. Cranked up, scared and helpless. (BE 328)

The narrator’s interjection here rejects the routinization of language so

reminiscent of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s dystopia, and indicates the novel’s
broad concern with the mendacity so overt in the political response to the
attacks and to twenty-first century terrorism more broadly. The rise of
a surveillance state – justified by calls for tighter homeland security – is
exemplified in the destruction of the utopian possibility of the Internet in
the moment of the 9/11 attacks. The utopian interface DeepArcher is
commercialized – via a “backdoor” installed by “the feds, fed sympathizers,
Terror and Anarchy 223
other forces unknown who’ve had their eye on the site” – and is suddenly
awash with “spammers and spielers and idle fingers, all in the same
desperate scramble they like to call an economy” (BE 355, 357). And as
Internet technology becomes more addictive, its dystopian possibilities are
more overt: “Call it freedom, it’s based on control. Everybody connected
together, impossible anybody should get lost, ever again. Take the next
step, connect it to these cell phones, you’ve got a total Web of surveillance,
inescapable” (BE 420). The ubiquity of technology – marketed as utopian –
facilitates the repression that Pynchon warns of in his reading of Nineteen
Pynchon’s decision to represent the September 11 attacks in Against
the Day and the event’s centrality in Bleeding Edge has recently drawn
significant critical focus.15 This classification of Pynchon as a writer who
has a unique viewpoint on both terror and resistance to terror is crucial.
Indeed, Pynchon has focused upon political violence and terror and anar-
chist avenues of its resistance throughout his oeuvre. From the violence of
the colonial overseer, via the control the plutocrat performs over his
workforce, to the terror the elect enact over the preterite, the emblematic
struggle of Pynchon’s oeuvre is between utopia and dystopia, between
terror and its resistance in the development of various visions of anarchic

1. See Maarten Van Delden, “Modernism, the New Criticism, and Thomas
Pynchon’s V.,” Novel: A Forum on Fiction, 23.2 (1990), 117–36;
Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (London: Routledge, 2004), pp.
2. George Levine, “Risking the Moment: Anarchy and Possibility in Pynchon’s
Fiction,” in George Levine and David Leverenz (eds.), Mindful Pleasures: Essays
on Thomas Pynchon (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1976), pp. 113–36,
p. 132.
3. Levine, “Risking the Moment,” p. 117.
4. Graham Benton, “Daydreams and Dynamite: Anarchist Strategies of
Resistance and Paths for Transformation in Against the Day,” in Jeffrey
Severs and Christopher Leise (eds.), Pynchon’s Against the Day: A Corrupted
Pilgrim’s Guide (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2011), pp. 191–213,
p. 191.
5. Samuel Thomas, Pynchon and the Political (New York: Routledge, 2007),
p. 152.
6. Joanna Freer, Thomas Pynchon and American Counterculture (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 159.
224 james gourley
7. Freer, Thomas Pynchon and American Counterculture, p. 159.
8. See especially Kathryn Hume’s comments on “Pynchon’s support – at least
within the novel – for violence.” Kathryn Hume, “The Religious and Political
Vision of Pynchon’s Against the Day,” Philological Quarterly, 86.1–2 (2007),
163–87, p. 164.
9. Thomas Pynchon, “Foreword,” in George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
(New York: Plume, 2003), p. viii.
10. Pynchon, “Foreword,” p. xvi.
11. See Sven Cvek, Towering Figures: Reading the 9/11 Archive (New York:
Rodopi, 2011), pp. 211–44; James Gourley, Terrorism and Temporality in the
Works of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo (New York: Bloomsbury
Academic, 2013), pp. 106–09.
12. Annie McClanahan, “Future’s Shock: Plausibility, Preemption, and the
Fiction of 9/11,” symploke, 17.1–2 (2009), 41–62, 43 n4.
13. McClanahan, “Future’s Shock,” 43 n4.
14. For a considered reflection on novelistic responses to the September 11 attacks,
see John N. Duvall and Robert P. Marzec, “Narrating 9/11,” MFS Modern
Fiction Studies, 57. 3 (2011), 381–400, pp. 381–394.
15. See especially Michael P. Maguire, “September 11 and the Question of
Innocence in Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day and Bleeding Edge,”
Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 58. 2 (2017), 95–107, who convin-
cingly argues for Against the Day and Bleeding Edge as the vanguard of a second
wave of 9/11 fiction that begins to fulfil Annie McClanahan’s call for
a historicized representation of the event.
chapter 28

Science and Technology

Gilles Chamerois

Discourses and Metaphors

Thomas Pynchon is a master of the discourses of science and of technology,
and they are key structural elements in several of his works. V. (1963), for
instance, centers on the fight between the animate and the inanimate,
closely associated with technology. Rocket science is also essential to the
quest and structure of Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), and astronomy to the
course of the two heroes of Mason & Dixon (1997). Already in his short
story “Entropy” (1960), the eponymous scientific concept serves as an
“abstract unifying agent” (SL 11), as Pynchon deprecatingly expressed it
upon reissuing the story in Slow Learner (1984). He also mockingly high-
lighted the fact that, for the outside temperature in that story, he “chose 37
degrees Fahrenheit for an equilibrium point because 37 degrees Celsius is
the temperature of the human body. Cute, huh?” (SL 13).
In fact, the choice of temperature tells us two crucial things, which will
remain true in relation to all of Pynchon’s work. First, his ultimate frame of
reference for the use of scientific concepts and notations is the
human. Second, despite his formal schooling in science and engineering
and his obvious erudition on these subjects, Pynchon’s use of these fields is
guided at least as much by their metaphorical possibilities. The discourse of
science coexists in Pynchon’s novels with many nonscientific discourses.
Maybe the implied reader should be tolerant of these discourses, and show
aversion to none; however, that reader does not have to be well versed in all.
Pynchon “uses puns, as he uses entropy, to think about the paradigms
rather than within them” and he is more interested in the way these
discourses present different approaches to the problem of knowledge,
and in the ways they relate to one another.1
The value of these discourses can vary, and as early as 1976 Edward
Mendelson commented on “Pynchon’s procedure of inverting his central
metaphors from one book to the next.”2 Entropy, for instance, shifted from
226 gilles chamerois
a negative trope in “Entropy” to a more positive one in The Crying of Lot 49
(1966), and in Gravity’s Rainbow statistician Roger Mexico could open up
possibilities between the zero and one of binary choices, whereas in Mason
& Dixon the origins of statistics are presented with dark forebodings.
Among innumerable types of discourse interwoven in the novels,
scientific and technological are often paired with decidedly nonscientific
or sometimes anti-scientific ones such as esoteric or religious discourse, as
astrology is with astronomy in Mason & Dixon, or the quest for
Shambhala is with the turn-of-the-century revolution in science in
Against the Day (2006). In all his books, Pynchon has staged and has
tried to bridge the “Snovian disjunction” between art and science.3 This
chapter first shows that he has constantly used mediating processes in the
form of incarnations and figures. It then uses the template of Jacques
Derrida’s essay on “Faith and Knowledge” to show that, for Pynchon as
for Derrida, faith, science, and technology are inextricably enmeshed, and
that they entail threats as much as promises.

In 1984 Pynchon complained that in “Entropy” he had “force[d] characters
and events to conform” to one scientific concept (SL 11). But in all his
novels characters occasionally act in ways that correspond exactly to the
scientific theories of their time. Thus in Mason & Dixon Mason finds
himself in a ship’s hull where lamb fat has “made frictionless ev’ry surface”
(MD 736) and is soon “[s]lipping and sliding like a veritable Newtonian
body.”4 In The Crying of Lot 49 a whole ballroom of deaf-mutes dance to no
music without colliding, as if driven by object-oriented programming.5
In Against the Day characters experience the epistemological uncertainty of
the science of their time, that of the crisis of classical physics.
The Quaternionists, for example, behave like the four-dimensional vectors
they study, and can change geographical position in an instant. In doing so,
more than incarnating postmodern indeterminacy, they dramatize “the
cusp between scientific theory and fact” (GR 652), which is analogous to
that between the novel and the world.
Scientists themselves have often been the source for Pynchon’s incarna-
tion of theories. A characteristic example is Maxwell’s Demon, which was
postulated by Clerk Maxwell to put the second law of thermodynamics to
the test, and which is supposed to sort out molecules to reduce entropy.
The demon is discussed at length by the characters in The Crying of Lot 49,
and again in Gravity’s Rainbow, where the narrative voice implies that
Science and Technology 227
scientists like the chemist Liebig sometimes act as “sorting demons,” and
that perhaps “Maxwell intended his Demon not so much as a convenience
in discussing a thermodynamic idea as a parable about the actual existence
of personnel like Liebig” (GR 411). The paradoxical reversal of
a microscopic demon postulated not to sort out molecules but to account
for the workings of scientific personnel is more than postmodern playful-
ness. The page is a space where fictitious characters, historical characters,
and imaginary scientific postulates can share the same degree of (non-)
existence and exchange polarities or scales because each, as in the real
world, is an actor in the sense of Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory,
according to which microbes, scientists, and bureaucrats alike are actors of
Engineering and technology need to create incarnations of scientific
theories even more acutely than science does. In V., two automata,
SHOCK and SHROUD, are better placed than any human being to
discuss and enact the change of paradigm from Newtonian mechanics,
and force, to nuclear physics, and radiation, which they are supposed to
measure and register respectively. In the real world, these incarnations of
science are essential to its development, as “the scientific act is, through and
through, a practical intervention and a technical performativity in the very
energy of its essence.”7 In the fictional world, they help to reflect on the
implications of both science and technology. Two examples stand out:
One, in Mason & Dixon, is Vaucanson’s mechanical duck, or rather its
fictitious female counterpart, which, like the “real” duck, can incarnate the
paradoxes of the relation between machines and living creatures; the other
is the fictional Rocket 00000 in Gravity’s Rainbow, which becomes an
actual religious object.

All these incarnations are in the spirit of novel-making, which has always
dramatized contemporary concerns through characters that are not always
human. But very often Pynchon confronts the words novels are made of
with their opposite, in the form of figures. Starting with the titles of many
of his novels, Pynchon establishes geometry as the unattainable, ideal
Other of literature. Witness the cusp of V. or of Bleeding Edge (2013), the
arc of Gravity’s Rainbow, the ampersand so prominent on the cover of
Mason & Dixon or the symmetry implied in Against the Day. Studying the
Snovian disjunction in Mason & Dixon, William Millard opposes the
famous motto of the Royal Society, nullius in verba, to the fabulists’
228 gilles chamerois
motto, “omnia in verba,” which “would foster more healthy skepticism
toward Lines.”8 But words should also be viewed with skepticism, and
some lines should be trusted more than words. In Bleeding Edge, set in
2001, fraud-investigating heroine Maxine Tarnow can read the truth of
Madoff’s swindle despite the hype surrounding his name because of the
“perfect straight line, slanting up forever” that his returns upon investment
show (BE 140).
In Gravity’s Rainbow, the shape of the double integral ∫∫, necessary to
control the rocket’s trajectory, reveals not only the letters of the Nazi SS
but also the inherent death-wish of the regime that produced them.
Pynchon traces this ominous “Summe, Summe” sign to Leibniz (GR
300) as a perfect representative of scientific rationality’s attitude to life
and change. He expresses this in a rare letter: “German Christianity being
perhaps the most perfect expression of the whole Western/analytic/‘linear’/
alienated schtick. It is no accident that Leibniz was co-inventor of calculus,
trying to cope with change by stopping it dead.”9 Pynchon repeatedly
opposes the figure of the cusp to the figural stasis of double integrals and
straight lines insofar as the cusp marks sudden change and unpredictabil-
ity, a key example being the “discontinuity in the curve of life” brought
about by a lightning strike (GR 664).

In Against the Day, in passages inspired by Nikola Tesla’s autobiography,
the scientist explains that the images of his inventions come to him in
literal flashes. More generally, as Derrida expresses it, “there is no invention
without the intervention of what was once called genius, or even without
the brilliant flash of a Witz through which everything begins.”10 Each of
these flashes brings a cusp, a “discontinuity in the curve of life,” because it
allows the engineer to see things “[a]s if time had been removed from all
equations” (AD 327), as Tesla expresses it.
The relation of invention to time is explored in other novels. In Gravity’s
Rainbow, Pynchon recalls August Kekulé’s supposed discovery of the
cyclical architecture of the benzene molecule in a dream vision of the
ouroboros, “the Great Serpent holding its own tail in its mouth” (GR
412). The discovery has a date, 1865, but as a circle the ouroboros knows no
beginning, and the benzene cycle existed before being discovered.
A structuring example in Mason & Dixon is the Transit of Venus, which
the two heroes are commissioned to study before and after they draw the
Line. It was first predicted, but not observed, by Johannes Kepler in 1631,
Science and Technology 229
and Jeremiah Horrocks’ 1639 observation was only posthumously pub-
lished. The two observations of 1761 and 1769 are key events that structured
the international community of scientists, which mediates, reproduces,
and checks discoveries, as “[t]he first time of invention never creates an
existence.”11 Pynchon characteristically alludes to this central concern with
minor echoes, for example the offhanded mention of Fermat’s Last
Theorem, formulated in 1637 but only proven in 1994, three years before
Mason & Dixon was published.
But of course Fermat’s Last Theorem was true even before it was
formulated, and the Transit of Venus had taken place for millions of
years. The first moment of invention then is akin to revelation, and is
often expressed as such in Pynchon’s work. The Riemann hypothesis,
referred to time and time again in Against the Day, was made in 1859 and
still has not been proven. Yashmeen Halfcourt is obsessed by it in a way
that mixes science, faith, and desire, another character recognizing “the
innocent expression of faith” and “that saint-in-a-painting look” she also
has with her lover, and reflecting that Riemann’s “Zeta function might be
inaccessible to her now as a former lover” (AD 937).12 The desire for
scientific truth is indeed the desire for an inaccessible other. It is always
deferred, often denied, and the horizon it eventually opens must be
unexpected and unforeseeable: “an invention has to declare itself to be
the invention of that which did not appear to be possible; otherwise, it only
makes explicit a program of possibilities within the economy of the
To these inventions, the “inventions of the other,” Derrida opposes the
“invention of the same.”14 An example might be Thomas Edison,
a counterpart to the figure of Tesla in Against the Day, who claimed that
his inventions were purely and simply the application of a deductive
program that drew logical conclusions from the state of science.
Similarly, in Gravity’s Rainbow Pynchon insists on the terrible conse-
quences of Kekulé’s discovery because it led to an “economy of the
same,” through the systematic explorations and exploitations of the plastics
industry to which it gave birth.

Like industry, technology is driven by this anticipation of effects, and tends
toward comprehensiveness and control. Pynchon’s attention to the origins
of technologies is always accompanied with the certainty that all the
possibilities they entail will become fact. The bric-à-brac of the Arpanet’s
230 gilles chamerois
beginning in Inherent Vice (2009), the occasions for subversion it allowed,
are presented from a vantage point where the Internet has become the
pervasive symbol of a society of control. This filling-out of all the possibi-
lities is a true negation of the future, constituting what Michel Henry has
called “the new barbarism of our time,” precisely because “all the virtua-
lities and potentialities within it must be actualized, for them and for what
they are, for their own sake.”15 However, in equating the “invention of the
other” with science, and the “invention of the same” with technology, we
run the risk of falling into the very binary logic that Pynchon denounces
throughout his work.
First, the polarities could easily be exchanged. In one sense, the
impetus of science is toward totality and the unification of knowledge,
and that impetus is the butt of Pynchon’s constant criticism.
By contrast, technology could be seen as a bricolage that makes no
attempt at totalization, and the novels offer many positive images of
the engineer, such as Merle Rideout’s alchemical experimentations in
Against the Day, or Tesla as the last gentleman engineer. From this point
of view, the whole enterprise of Mason & Dixon is the search for the
“fork in the road” (GR 556) before the Snovian disjunction, when
D’Alembert could speak with Diderot, when engineers were still gentle-
men; and the text abounds in puns on the etymological closeness
between the two words, and with that of genius, all associated with
giving life. Similarly, for Joseph Tabbi the technology of Gravity’s
Rainbow’s rocket offers a better model for the text than the science
behind it: “The trajectory is mathematics, pure and transcendent; but
the rocket is engineering; first and foremost it is ‘raw hardware’ [. . .]
Using these distinctly non-transcendent, even dull details of space rock-
etry, readers of Gravity’s Rainbow might piece together a different, less
threatening image of technology.”16

Evil and Promise

Furthermore, if science can move away from the invention of the same, if it
can promise the “invention of the other,” it cannot do so without technol-
ogy, as the two are inextricably enmeshed, though that cannot be without
an accompanying threat. As Derrida puts it in his engagement with Kant’s
notion of “radical evil” (the root of all violations of moral law), “the
technical is the possibility of faith, indeed its very chance. A chance that
entails the greatest risk, even the menace of radical evil. Otherwise, that of
which it is the chance would not be faith but rather programme or proof,
Science and Technology 231
predictability or providence, pure knowledge and pure know-how, which
is to say annulment of the future.”17 This is a way to apprehend the
importance of radical evil in Pynchon’s work, more often than not asso-
ciated with technology but distinct from the inherent vice of technology,
which lies precisely in the annulment of the future. It is distinct or even
opposed because radical evil can always come in the form of a cusp, in
a form that does not annul the future but that is the condition of the
promise of technology as, for Pynchon as for Derrida, a promise always
entails a threat.
Radical evil lies at the core of all Pynchon’s novels, and its roots might go
back to the nuclear threat, so pervasive during his formative years, as he
reflects in his introduction to Slow Learner. In V. it takes the form(s) of the
character V., and in Mason & Dixon it is an ever-lurking presence as the
astronomers move West, associated with the rudimentary technology of
a strange telluric structure, a “Force intensifier” (MD 600). In Against
the Day, the chemical compound Phosgene is associated with mysterious
evil powers, as is the “Quaternionic Weapon, a means to unloose upon the
world energies hitherto unimagined” (AD 542). In all these novels, radical
evil is the condition for the promises of science and technology. This is
never more evident than with the most prominent technology in
Pynchon’s novels, aeronautics. In Gravity’s Rainbow the rocket stands
erect as a symbol for pure evil but, as Tom LeClair has remarked, it also
allows man “to look back at Earth as a globe” and thus possibly as a living
entity.18 In Against the Day, aeronautics brings utmost destruction from
above, but also allows the Chums of Chance, and us with them perhaps, to
“fly toward grace” (AD 1085).

1. Frank Palmeri, “‘Neither Literally nor as Metaphor’: Pynchon’s The Crying of
Lot 49 and the Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” ELH, 54.4 (Winter 1987),
979–99, p. 985.
2. Edward Mendelson, “Gravity’s Encyclopedia,” in George Levine and
David Leverenz (eds.), Mindful Pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon (Boston:
Little, Brown and Company, 1976), pp. 161–95, p. 188.
3. In “Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?” New York Times Book Review, October 28,
1984, pp. 1, 40–41, p. 41, Pynchon names the disjunction after C. P. Snow, who
gave a conference address on “The Two Cultures” in 1959.
4. Sean Ireton, “Lines and Crimes of Demarcation: Mathematizing Nature in
Heidegger, Pynchon, and Kehlmann,” Comparative Literature, 63.2 (2011),
142–60, p. 149.
232 gilles chamerois
5. Christopher J. McKenna, “‘A Kiss of Cosmic Pool Balls’: Technological
Paradigms and Narrative Expectations Collide in The Crying of Lot 49,”
Cultural Critique, 44 (2006), 29–42, p. 37.
6. See Bruno Latour’s work on Pasteur, The Pasteurization of France
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988).
7. Jacques Derrida, “Faith and Knowledge,” in his Acts of Religion, Gil Anidjar
(ed.) (New York: Routledge, 2002), pp. 40–101, p. 80.
8. William B. Millard, “Delineations of Madness and Science: Mason & Dixon,
Pynchonian Space and the Snovian Disjunction,” in Ian D. Copestake (ed.),
American Postmodernity: Essays on the Recent Fiction of Thomas Pynchon
(Oxford: Peter Lang, 2003), pp. 83–127, p. 108.
9. Thomas Pynchon, “Letter to Thomas F. Hirsch,” January 8, 1969, quoted in
David Seed, The Fictional Labyrinths of Thomas Pynchon (Iowa City, IA:
University of Iowa Press, 1988), pp. 240–43, p. 243.
10. Jacques Derrida, “Psyche: Invention of the Other,” in his Psyche: Inventions of
the Other, Volume I, Peggy Kamuf and Elizabeth Rottenberg (eds.) (Stanford,
CA: Stanford University Press, 2007), pp. 1–47, p. 418n.
11. Derrida, “Psyche,” p. 28.
12. Desire, etymologically associated with stars, is literally what drives Mason’s
astronomical impulse in Mason & Dixon.
13. Derrida, “Psyche,” p. 28.
14. Derrida, “Psyche,” p. 44.
15. Michel Henry, Barbarism (London: Continuum, 2012), p. 42.
16. Joseph Tabbi, Postmodern Sublime: Technology and American Writing from
Mailer to Cyberpunk (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), p. 80.
17. Derrida, “Faith and Knowledge,” p. 83.
18. Tom LeClair, The Art of Excess: Mastery in Contemporary American Fiction
(Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1989), p. 42.
chapter 29

Nina Engelhardt

We might begin by asking: Why does “mathematics” merit its own entry
here? Should it not be covered in the previous contribution, “Science and
Technology”? Mathematics is an integral part of the sciences, and in many
respects the role of math and science in literature can usefully be examined
together. But mathematics is not a natural science such as physics, chem-
istry, or biology, which refer to nature and explain phenomena in the
physical world by means of observation and empirical evidence. Rather,
math is a structural science: It concerns relations between abstract entities,
and we do not learn about it from observation, as it is a product of human
thought. As such, math has a history of being compared with art: “mathe-
matics, though classified as a science, is equally an art,” Brian Rotman
writes in The Routledge Companion to Literature and Science; and sharing
characteristics with both the natural sciences and the arts and humanities,
math can be seen as a link between these “two cultures.”1 Attentive to the
specificity of math and its relationship to other disciplines, Pynchon’s
novels employ it not only as the epitome of reason but also to negotiate
the possibilities and limits of art and, particularly, of literary fiction.
Against the Day (2006) is the most obviously mathematical novel, but
metaphors, concepts, and models from math appear in other works, as
well, most significantly in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) and Mason & Dixon

Mathematics and Reason

Mathematics has been associated with the Enlightenment since Isaac
Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica [Mathematical
Principles of Natural Philosophy], which initiated a systematic examina-
tion of the physical world through the means of math, was published in
1687. Newton’s method was celebrated as “spread[ing] the light of mathe-
matics on a science which up to then had remained in the darkness of
234 nina engelhardt
conjectures and hypotheses,” and Pynchon’s novels refer to this tradition
when introducing math as the acme of enlightening rationality.2 Mason &
Dixon explores its crucial role in the eighteenth-century establishment of
the truth claims of Western science when presenting how Charles Mason
and Jeremiah Dixon, the historical surveyors of the Line between
Pennsylvania and Maryland, are “directed by the Stars, / To mark the
Earth with geometrick Scars” (MD 257). Their geometric calculations in
surveying are a means of inscribing Enlightenment rationality on the as yet
undetermined “New World” of America, forcing out alternative ways of
ordering land and viewing the world. In other novels, too, math appears as
a tool of rationalization, and in Against the Day the abuse of progress in
science and technology materializes in the mathematical “Quaternionic
Weapon” (AD 542) that might condense World War I into a single massive
Perhaps counterintuitively, Pynchon’s novels also present the modern
process of rationalization as curtailing the possibilities of mathematics:
A major instrument in the Enlightenment project, math itself becomes
rationalized and stripped of elements that lie outside this worldview. Before
America becomes governed by Enlightenment math in Mason & Dixon,
“nowhere may a Geometer encounter an honest 360-Degree Circle, — rather,
incomprehensibly and perversely, in willful denial of God’s Disposition of
Time and Space, preferring 365 and a Quarter” (MD 229). But Western math
eradicates the 365.25-degree circle used by the Chinese cult of Feng Shui, and
its notation wins out over numerical systems other than the Arabic. Tracing
the disappearance of alternatives in mathematics and recovering phenomena
that do not unequivocally lend themselves to making it an instrument of
Western domination, Pynchon’s novels employ math in both their explora-
tion of paths not taken in the Enlightenment and their envisioning of different
and multiple worlds. In other words, mathematics is a means of rationalization
and at the same time a source of resistance to the rule of reason; it contributes
to fostering the diversity and plurality that characterize Pynchon’s postmo-
dernist practice.

Mathematics and Uncertainty

The 365.25-degree circle in Mason & Dixon is a rare example of fictional
math in Pynchon’s oeuvre, but most other instances similarly concern
unusual mathematical objects or areas that are uncertain or unreal and
thus lend themselves to opening up possibilities and alternative worlds.
With its use of probability theory, for example, Gravity’s Rainbow explores
Mathematics 235
the domain in-between the certainties of an event taking place (marked by
“1”) and an impossible occurrence (“0”). Math does not lead to certain
knowledge here and does not describe the physical world; it works with
not-fully-present probabilities. Besides featuring as a tool to calculate
uncertainties, math appears itself to encompass uncertain and “unreal”
elements. Introduced as part of the calculus used to direct rockets in
Gravity’s Rainbow, infinitesimals have no determinate values but are
defined as being smaller than any possible number – though never zero.
Yet although the timespan delta t (Δt) does not become zero, the “fiction”
of its doing so can be used to calculate a rocket’s moment of fuel cutoff and
consequent point of impact. Against the Day also addresses “fictional”
aspects of mathematics when employing evocatively termed “imaginary
numbers”: defined as i = √−1, which is equal to i2 = −1, imaginary numbers
contradict the rule in the system of real numbers that squares cannot be
negative. Although imaginary numbers are unproblematic in the system of
complex numbers, their “existence” remained contested into the nine-
teenth century and they seemed to point to imaginary elements within
the most rational of disciplines.
Against the Day further questions the rationality and certainty of math in
being set during the so-called “foundational crisis” of the late nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries, when mathematicians revisited fundamental
principles of the discipline and discovered unsolvable paradoxes.
The leading mathematician of the time, David Hilbert, summarized the
worrying implications: “If mathematical thinking is defective, where are
we to find truth and certitude?”3 After an extended mathematical episode
set in a “counter-temple, dedicated to the current ‘Crisis’ in European
mathematics” (AD 632), Against the Day illustrates the loss of certitude
with a metafictional breach that upsets the novel world and mirrors the
disturbed foundations in math. Uncertainty in mathematics more widely
affects the world when it challenges a major tool of rational investigation
and, moreover, leads to a questioning of interpretations of reality.
The 365.25-degree circle not only violates mathematics but also constitutes
a “willful denial of God’s Disposition of Time and Space” (MD 229).
Similarly, in Against the Day different mathematics generate different
notions of reality: Calculating with vectors means believing “that space
be simple, three-dimensional, and real,” while supporters of Quaternions,
a concept involving three imaginary numbers and one real number, define
“the [three] axes of space as imaginary and [leave] Time to be the real term”
(AD 534). Since the governing mathematical concept is interrelated with
the understanding of reality, much is at stake during the “Quaternion
236 nina engelhardt
Wars” (AD 590), a fight for precedence between Vectorists and
Quaternionists that has a basis in historical fact and that ends with vectors
becoming mathematical “truth” and Quaternionists losing their “Kampf
ums Dasein” [struggle for life] (AD 533).
Identifying uncertain or unreal elements in mathematics, Pynchon’s
novels challenge the idea that math equals objectivity and truth, and
when presenting the process of producing scientific facts, math appears
as partly determined by social factors and preconceived assumptions about
the world: for example, regarding notions of time and space. The concept
of Quaternions is one of the few well-explored mathematical examples in
the sociology of science: It is used to argue that mathematical objects are
“made” in and dependent on particular social, political, and philosophical
contexts. Addressing such issues, Pynchon’s novels engage with discussions
that flourished in the 1990s “science wars” when supporters of scientific
realism strongly opposed what they called a postmodern rejection of
scientific objectivity. Published at this very time, Mason & Dixon exhibits
the strongest sense of the socially and culturally constructed nature of
math, not least when it features different versions of basic geometrical
elements and these even produce different realities: The 365.25-degree circle
measures “additional” space that exists in an alternative reality. Moreover,
standard Enlightenment calculations do not fully govern the world:
The surveying lines fail to meet in one point so that there remains the
“Wedge,” a piece of land between borders and jurisdictions that shows that
“of Mathematickal Necessity there do remain [. . .] pockets of Safety” (MD
69). In other words, although Enlightenment math is designed to govern
the world completely, Pynchon’s novel presents it as necessarily leaving
spaces outside rationalization from which alternative viewpoints and
worlds might emerge.

Mathematics, Fiction, Reality

Insofar as mathematics is not a natural science, it does not have
a straightforward relationship to reality. In the nineteenth century,
understandings of mathematical representation changed as discoveries
such as Quaternions, with their three imaginary elements, drew atten-
tion to the fact that not all objects have a direct correspondence in
nature, and as mathematicians developed a notion of their field as
independent from physical reality. No longer understood in Galileo’s
terms as the “language of the book of nature” but as a self-referential
system, math can be seen to stand in a similar relation to reality as
Mathematics 237
literary fiction, and Pynchon’s novels explore ideas of representation
with reference to mathematical concepts that can be considered to
involve aspects of fiction. Against the Day presents a sustained compar-
ison between mathematical and literary imaginaries with the metaphor
of imaginary numbers. Characters find in these a “whole ‘imaginary’
mirror-world,” “a coexisting world of imaginaries” (AD 498, 675). This
mathematical world is related to the real and able to change it, as
Dr. V. Ganesh Rao explains: “If you were a vector, mademoiselle, you
would begin in the ‘real’ world, change your length, enter an ‘imagin-
ary’ reference system, rotate up to three different ways, and return to
‘reality’ a new person” (AD 539). Though continuing the characteristic
celebration of the imaginative proliferation of possibilities and worlds,
math in Against the Day points to a new emphasis on the real. Using
complex mathematics to vanish from a room through the wall, for
example, Yashmeen understands that it never loses connection to
reality: “[t]here is also this . . . spine of reality” (AD 604).
The relation between the imaginary and the real world is central to
Pynchon’s reexamination of the limits and responsibilities of literary
fiction in the twenty-first century, and the metaphor of imaginary
numbers illustrates particularly clearly the potential of literary fiction
to effect change and its necessary connection to the real.

Mathematics and Ethics

The rapid spread of Newton’s work in the eighteenth century initiated
physicotheology, a movement drawing on the study of nature to argue for
the power and goodness of God. Pynchon’s work introduces not physico-
theological but mathematico-ethical positions that bring eighteenth-
century thinking up to date with secular and postmodern perspectives:
It encourages the identification and use of spaces of freedom that reside in
imaginary domains and mathematical probabilities, that allow action to be
taken in the infinitesimally small moment before disaster strikes, and that
exist out of “Mathematickal Necessity.” If the eighteenth century advo-
cates belief in God, the privileged Elect and cause-and-effect relationships
described by physics, then mathematics stands for postmodernity’s greater
uncertainty but also greater freedom, and the twentieth and twenty-first
centuries raise hope for the possibility of salvaging math from its misap-
propriation in the Enlightenment and of realizing the potential inherent in
its uncertain and imaginary aspects. As “science fiction” or “math fiction”
in the sense of identifying fictional elements in this seemingly objective and
238 nina engelhardt
real discipline, Pynchon’s novels employ the epitome of reason to confront
physical reality with alternatives without losing sight of the real.

1. Brian Rotman, “Mathematics,” in Bruce Clarke and Manuela Rossini (eds.),
The Routledge Companion to Literature and Science (London and New York:
Routledge, 2011), pp. 157-68, p. 157.
2. Isaac Newton, “a répandu la lumière des Mathématiques sur une science qui
jusqu’alors avait été dans les ténèbres des conjectures & des hypothèses”;
Alexis Clairaut, “Du système du monde, dans les principes de la gravitation
universelle,” in Histoire de l’Académie royale des sciences, année M. DCCXLV
(Paris: L’Imprimerie Royale, 1745), pp. 329–64, p. 329.
3. David Hilbert, “On the Infinite,” in Paul Benacerraf and Hilary Putnam
(eds.), Philosophy of Mathematics: Selected Readings (Oxford: Blackwell, 1964),
pp. 134–51, p. 141.
chapter 30

Time and Relativity

Simon de Bourcier

Thomas Pynchon’s novels have plenty to say about time. V. (1963) and
Mason & Dixon (1997), in different ways, put history in conversation with
the author’s own time. Time travel crops up in Vineland (1990), Against
the Day (2006) and Bleeding Edge (2013). Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) pits
determinism against randomness and novelty. Different ways of thinking
about time are prominent in critical readings of Pynchon: This chapter
describes some arguments about time as both theme and principle of
narrative organization, and highlights some telling details of the novels
themselves. Against the Day is important for readers interested in Pynchon
and time because it is set in the closing decades of the nineteenth
century and the early part of the twentieth, when H. G. Wells’ The Time
Machine and influential contributions to the philosophy of time by Henri
Bergson and William James appeared, Futurists and Cubists transformed
the way art depicts time and movement, and modernism began to change
how literature represents time. In 1905 Albert Einstein overturned centu-
ries of scientific thinking about time. Isaac Newton declared that time
“flows equably without relation to anything external.”1 But the special
theory of relativity, set out in Einstein’s “On the Electrodynamics of
Moving Bodies,” entails the “relativity of simultaneity”: Two events
appearing simultaneous to one observer may, to another, occur
consecutively.2 There is no universal present, no unique chronology.
Hermann Minkowski gave an address in 1908, later published as
“Space and Time,” offering a geometrical interpretation of Einstein’s
special theory of relativity through the idea of the space-time conti-
nuum. Minkowski claims that “space by itself, and time by itself, are
doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of
the two will preserve an independent reality.”3 Consider two events at
different points in space, each defined by coordinates in four dimen-
sions, three of space and one of time. They are separated by a space-
time interval that remains constant in all frames of reference. Einstein’s
240 simon de bourcier
theory implies that while one observer will view these events as sepa-
rated by a certain distance in space and a specific period of time,
another, moving at high speed relative to the first, will see the interval
between the events distributed differently between the four axes of
space and time. Neither observer is wrong: There is no absolute frame
of reference that can adjudicate between them. In Against the Day
Minkowski gives the same lecture at the First International
Conference On Time Travel (F.I.C.O.T.T.): Details mentioned by
Roswell Bounce and Merle Rideout correspond closely to the text of
“Space and Time” (AD 458).4 I shall come back to what Roswell and
Merle (and Pynchon) do with this startling information shortly.
Another consequence of relativity is important for Pynchon studies.
Throughout the nineteenth century scientists assumed that there must be
a medium through which light waves travel. They called it the Æther
(sometimes spelled “ether”), a name borrowed from the ancient Greeks.
This luminiferous, or light-bearing, Æther was thought to be more rarefied
than visible matter and to permeate all of space. The special theory of
relativity dispensed with the “luminiferous ether.”5 Science’s abandonment
of the Æther is a major theme in Against the Day. Merle and Roswell
become friends as part of the “Ætherist community” in Cleveland, Ohio, at
the time of Michelson and Morley’s unsuccessful attempt to detect the
Earth’s passage through the Æther (AD 60). At the novel’s end the Chums
of Chance hook up with the Sodality of Ætheronauts, their female counter-
parts who fly using “Æther-aerials”: in the fiction-within-a-fiction of the
Chums’ adventures the universe is still pervaded by the Æther (AD 1031).
The Æther functions for Pynchon as a token of the fictionality of scientific
constructs and a focus of nostalgia for lost belief.

Time, Space, Space-time

The Time Traveller in The Time Machine says that time is “only a kind of
space,” but you don’t need to be a time traveler to think this way.6 Analog
clocks use positions in space to represent points in time. Around the turn of
the twentieth century, however, Bergson argued that the “spatialization of
time,” imagining time as linear dimension rather than experiential flux,
“fails to capture time’s true essence;” even observing the movement of
a clock is not really to “measure duration” but to “create [. . .] a fourth
dimension of space.”7 When Einstein and Minkowski showed that time
and space are, in a real way, convertible currencies, Bergson set out his
objections in his book Duration and Simultaneity.
Time and Relativity 241
The mathematician Kurt Gödel thought relativity provided “unequi-
vocal proof” that the passage of time is illusory, but Milič Čapek argues
that relativity is compatible with the reality of time.8 Against the Day finds
narrative opportunities in the relativistic universe that imply time is some-
thing more malleable and full of possibility than “a kind of Space,” but all
Pynchon’s novels explore the implications of imagining time as something
like space.9
V. and The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) are about organizing events into
comprehensible shapes. The problem they address, according to Molly
Hite, is that “if history has a meaningful order only when it is constituted as
a linear narrative, it will make sense only after it has ended.”10 Thomas
Schaub argues that V. is “ordered nonserially in an approximation of
space.”11 Alternating historical episodes with chapters set in postwar
America, V. dramatizes the difference between history and the lived pre-
sent. In The Crying of Lot 49 the difference between time as
a predetermined whole and the human experience of uncertainty is dra-
matized in dialogue between Oedipa Maas and Metzger about a film.
Oedipa doesn’t want to bet on how the film ends because it’s already
decided, but Metzger stresses that Oedipa doesn’t know how it turns out
(CL 33–35).
Language likening time to space features in Gravity’s Rainbow and
Vineland. On the first page of Gravity’s Rainbow Pirate Prentice dreams
of smells that belong in “days far to the past” (GR 3): It is easy to miss how
“far to the past” (rather than, say, “long in the past”) sets up at the start of
the novel the idea that time extends like space into the past and future
rather than comprising what Bergson calls “the singly passing states of the
universe.”12 Scientists and Spiritualists see in the war more “possibilities for
funding [. . .] than Prewar, that underdeveloped province, ever offered”
(GR 77): The image is of a period of time as a tract of land to be exploited.
In Vineland Zoyd Wheeler thinks of his ex-wife Frenesi as “years and miles
in the past,” and Pynchon describes the past as “the thousand bloody
arroyos in the hinterlands of time that [stretch] somberly inland from the
honky-tonk coast of Now” (VL 27, 180).
In Gravity’s Rainbow the deceased Walter Rathenau, summoned at
a séance, claims to “see the whole shape at once” (GR 165). Such an “outside
perspective” on events “implicitly translates time into space,” Hite says, but
Gravity’s Rainbow’s narrative is made up of “multiple ‘inside’ perspectives
with no ‘outside’ standard against which to measure them.”13 This descrip-
tion could also apply to Einstein and Minkowski’s space-time, which
Pynchon invokes explicitly in Against the Day.
242 simon de bourcier
Marcus Smith and Khachig Tololyan, like Hite, describe Gravity’s
Rainbow’s two kinds of time, borrowing from Sacvan Bercovitch the
terms “horological” and “chronometric”: Horological time is mundane,
secular; chronometric time is divine, meaningful.14 They argue that “the
basic terms of [Gravity’s Rainbow]’s discussion of the possibility of freedom
from history’s curse” are “past and future (the horological) vs. the chrono-
metric Now.”15 Their “chronometric Now” is like Hite’s “‘inside’ perspec-
tives”: Pynchon, in both accounts, values lived experience over grand arcs
of history or mechanistic chains of causation. The “outside perspective”
implies a universe in which what is to come is as fixed as what has already
occurred, whereas from a human perspective the future is uncertain.
William James rejected the possibility of an “outside perspective,” even
for God. For him “the notion of eternity being given at a stroke to
omniscience” was untenable because it entailed a wholly determined
“block-universe” and “denying that possibilities exist.”16 James embraced
a “pluralistic universe, in which no single point of view can ever take in the
whole scene,” rejecting the idea that “time is an illusion” because it is “only
a roundabout way of saying there is no plurality.”17 John A. McClure
suggests that Pynchon’s “pluralism,” the way his novels accommodate
multiple worlds and contradictory possibilities, is recognizably
Pynchon expresses the tension between the “block-universe” and “pos-
sibilities” as the difference between “the stone determinacy of everything,”
which the unscrupulous scientist Pointsman is committed to demonstrat-
ing (GR 86), and “chances,” a motif in Gravity’s Rainbow and Vineland
often associated with dreams: In Prentice’s dream there are diminishing
“chances for light,” but in Leni Pökler’s there are “chances for mercy” (GR
3, 610); Frenesi dreams of people seeking “the best chances of light,” while
Van Meter’s kids take for granted the “transcendent chances” available in
dreams (VL 117, 223). The word “chance” is ambiguous: It can refer to
probability (the chance of something happening) or opportunity (the
chance to do something), so this motif suggests both uncertainty and
In Mason & Dixon the equivalence of time and space is a key trope
in Pynchon’s exploration of the relationship between history and the
North American continent. Mason and Dixon’s Line is a figure for the
axis of time itself: “Going west has been all Futurity. Now, moving
against the Sun, they may take up again the past” (MD 499).
Twentieth-century physics’ break with Newtonianism also starts to
become an important theme.
Time and Relativity 243
One way Mason & Dixon addresses the difference between relativity’s
“multiple ‘inside’ perspectives” and the Newtonian time implied by
a “single outside perspective” is by alluding to a well-known experimental
confirmation of relativity, one of the novel’s many anachronistic references
to twentieth-century culture and science. The episode of the Shelton and
Ellicott clocks recalls the 1971 experiment by J. C. Hafele and Richard
E. Keating, who found that, as relativity predicts, clocks flown around the
world on jets kept time differently from stationary clocks. In Mason &
Dixon, one clock asks another, “who knows when we’ll meet again?”
The answer? “Time will tell . . .” (MD 123). How much time will have
passed when the two clocks are brought back together after their travels is
a question no one can authoritatively answer: It will fall to the clocks’ own
time-telling, and each – as in the Hafele-Keating experiment – may give
a different answer.

Time Machines
Time travel emerges as a theme with Vineland. It can be simply a metaphor
for reminiscence – Takeshi and Minoru take “a nice spin in the time
machine” (VL 147) – but when Zoyd Wheeler watches a van whisking his
daughter away, imagining it as “a time machine departing for the future,
forever too soon,” something more interesting happens (VL 55). The image
encompasses two movements: the van’s motion through space, and the
passing of time, which seems, to Zoyd, to be too quick. The idea of a time
machine depends, as Wells knew, on seeing time as “a kind of space.” It is
therefore an apt image for a vehicle moving through space that also
represents accelerated travel into the future. The phrase “forever too
soon” conjures up a paradoxical temporality in which the future arrives
faster than it should, but this rapidity is itself suspended in time, lasting
“forever.” The linguistic and narrative potential of the time travel story
seethes below the surface of this sentence. In Against the Day Pynchon will
immerse himself in those possibilities. In Vineland they remain just out of
sight, but nevertheless enable this deceptively simple simile to express
a father’s longing.
In the world of Vineland real time travel is an impossibility. Takeshi
quips that his “Time Machine’s in the shop” (VL 193). In Against the Day,
time machines play a significant part in the adventures of the Chums of
Chance: Two of the Chums go for a terrifying ride in Dr. Zoot’s time
machine; later, a visit to the F.I.C.O.T.T. results in their first encounter
with Trespassers from the future.
244 simon de bourcier
In Against the Day Pynchon dramatizes two kinds of time that fit nicely
into the binary schemes critics find in Gravity’s Rainbow (outside/inside,
horological/chronometric): time as Wells imagined it – the fourth dimen-
sion of space – and time as Einstein and Minkowski reconceptualized it
a decade later. He tells stories about them using two very different time
machines. Dr. Zoot offers Chick Counterfly and Darby Suckling a cheap
ride “then and back” in his Wellsian contraption (AD 402).
The substitution of “then and back” for “there and back” emphasizes
that this is a journey through spatial time. It proves to be a terrifying trip
into an “apocalyptic” future, perhaps into death itself (AD 409).
However, Pynchon also describes another time machine. After listening
to Minkowski’s lecture, Merle and Roswell decide to “translate” his ideas
into “hardware” (AD 459): The Integroscope allows them to “unfold the
future history” of people in photographs, and “look into their pasts” (AD
1049). It can also send people along “different tracks,” into “other possi-
bilities.” The physics of Einstein and Minkowski, in which time yields
multiple chronologies for different observers, enables, Pynchon suggests,
a more “compassionate time-machine story.” When the Integroscope
shows Lew Basnight his lost wife Troth, Lew experiences “time travel in
the name of love” – perhaps what Pynchon’s fiction aspires to be (AD
In Inherent Vice (2009) time travel is a feature of Doc Sportello’s LSD
trips, and part of his mental vocabulary, but the chronology of the novel
does not suggest time travel exists in its world (IV 106, 121, 273, 355).
In Bleeding Edge, however, Maxine Tarnow stumbles upon a military time-
travel program that readers of Against the Day must recognize as the origin
of the Trespassers who travel back in time to steal the Chums’ innocence
“and take it away with them to futurity” (AD 416). In both time travel plots
the predatory travelers are men whose own childhood innocence has been
stolen, suggesting that this is a metaphor for generational cycles of abuse.
“Those poor innocents,” says one of the Chums. “Back at the beginning of
this . . . they must have been boys, so much like us . . .” (AD 1023). Maxine
imagines the sinister Windust as “an innocent kid” recruited to become
a time traveler (BE 243).

Critics have long recognized that Pynchon is interested in uncertainty and
the disruption of linear time and causality, but he does not simply invoke
relativity to license postmodern relativism and indeterminacy. His later
Time and Relativity 245
fiction explores the difference between Wells’ spatial time and the space-
time of twentieth-century physics, mapping them on to the dichotomy of
determinism and lived duration that has always been a theme of his
writing. Spatial time is associated with time travel as a metaphor for
intergenerational violence, whereas space-time enables a version of time
travel that is (to borrow a useful distinction from Frank Kermode) “[t]ime-
redeeming” rather than “time-defeating.”19

1. Isaac Newton, Sir Isaac Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural
Philosophy and His System of the World [Principia Mathematica], 1687, trans.
Andrew Motte, Vol. I: The Motion of Bodies (Berkeley, CA: University of
California Press, 1934), p. 6.
2. Albert Einstein, Relativity: The Special and General Theory: A Popular
Exposition, trans. Robert W. Lawson (London: Methuen, 1920), p. 26.
3. H[ermann] Minkowski, “Space and Time,” in H. A. Lorentz et al.,
The Principle of Relativity, trans. W. Perrett and G. B. Jeffery (Mineola,
NY: Dover, 1952), pp. 73–91, p. 75.
4. Minkowski, “Space and Time,” p. 88.
5. Albert Einstein, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” in Lorentz
et al., Principle of Relativity, pp. 35–65, p. 38.
6. H. G. Wells, The Time Machine: An Invention, Leon Stover (ed.) (Jefferson,
NC: McFarland, 1996), p. 30.
7. Henri Bergson, Duration and Simultaneity, trans. Mark Lewis and Robin
Durie (Manchester: Clinamen, 1999), p. vi; Henri Bergson, Time and Free
Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, trans. F. L. Pogson
(Mineola, NY: Dover, 2001), pp. 108–09.
8. Kurt Gödel, “A Remark about the Relationship between Relativity Theory
and Idealistic Philosophy,” in Paul Arthur Schilpp (ed.), Albert Einstein:
Philosopher Scientist (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), pp.
555–62, p. 557; Milič Čapek, The Philosophical Impact of Contemporary
Physics (New York: Van Nostrand, 1961).
9. Wells, Time Machine, p. 5.
10. Molly Hite, Ideas of Order in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon (Columbus, OH:
Ohio State University Press, 1983), p. 101.
11. Thomas H. Schaub, Pynchon: The Voice of Ambiguity (Urbana, IL: University
of Illinois Press, 1981), p. 10.
12. Bergson, Duration and Simultaneity, p. 112.
13. Hite, Ideas of Order, pp. 133, 144.
14. Marcus Smith and Khachig Tololyan, “The New Jeremiad: Gravity’s
Rainbow,” in Harold Bloom (ed.), Thomas Pynchon (New York: Chelsea
House, 1986), pp. 139–55, p. 143.
15. Smith and Tololyan, “New Jeremiad,” p. 146.
246 simon de bourcier
16. William James, “The Dilemma of Determinism,” The Will to Believe and
Other Essays (New York: Longmans, Green, 1897), pp. 145–83, p. 181.
17. James, “Dilemma,” pp. 177, 181.
18. John A. McClure, Partial Faiths: Postsecular Fiction in the Age of Pynchon and
Morrison (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2007), p. 36.
19. Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
2000), p. 52.
chapter 31

Martin Paul Eve

What does it mean to speak of a novelist in relation to “philosophy”? Does

it mean that we seek to read novels by using works of philosophy? Or does
it mean that we seek to ascertain an author’s own philosophy from his or
her novels? By philosophy do we mean “political outlook” (a “political
philosophy”) or a deeper set of ontological propositions about the world at
large? Could all of these possible answers simultaneously be correct?
More importantly, what makes us think that philosophy is a good way to
approach novels? For novels are not, in any conventional sense, works of
philosophy. Yet there are also works of philosophy that resemble poetry or
fiction, from the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche through to the aphorisms
of Theodor W. Adorno. Like the novel, philosophy does not stand alone
and apart from interpretation. Philosophy can also “lie” and use artifice or
rhetoric in its quest for truth, as may the novel. It seems, then, that if there
is a link between the language of fiction and the reality that such works
often seek to represent, and if there is a link between the language of
philosophy and some manner of truth in reality, then fiction and philoso-
phy must share at least something, even if they possess specificities that
delineate them from one another.
The novels and short stories of Thomas Pynchon are no exception to
this general pattern, even if Pynchon does pose specific problems for
philosophical readings of his works that are not seen in other authors.
In fact, it would be fair to say that Pynchon is a writer who at once invites
philosophical approaches to his work while, at the same time, his novels
resist such readings. In this chapter, for reasons of economy, I will focus on
the specific stances that Pynchon’s novels evince with respect to a range of
formal philosophical thinking and thinkers, which has been a constant
thematic presence in his work since his earliest fiction.
Indeed, the clearest example of this bidirectional strategy of resistance
can be seen in Pynchon’s first novel, V. (1963), where Kurt Mondaugen has
been sent to the German Südwest to investigate the mysterious
248 martin paul eve
atmospheric disturbances (“sferics”) that appear to be generating coded
messages. Mondaugen is, at this point in V., being supervised by a certain
Lieutenant Weissmann, who will resurface in Pynchon’s later novel
Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) as the sinister Nazi archvillain, Dominus
Blicero. For Weissmann, the noises received on his radio system in
V. are clearly a message to be decoded: “I remove every third letter
and obtain: GODMEANTNURRK. This rearranged spells Kurt
Mondaugen. [. . .] The remainder of the message [. . .] now reads:
This statement is an invitation to read V. philosophically, for the second
of Weissmann’s decryptions refers to the first line of Wittgenstein’s early
twentieth-century work of logical positivism, the Tractatus Logico-
Philosophicus: “the world is all that is the case” / “die Welt ist alles was
der Fall ist.”1 As the reference is not particularly subtle, many existing
scholars have already detected and written about this allusion, usually
reading V. as a Wittgensteinian text (although the variety within
Wittgenstein’s own philosophical oeuvre and his own changing stances
cast doubt upon what it can mean to call a text “Wittgensteinian”).2
By contrast, though, I read the Wittgensteinian reference here as
a criticism, for it is the sadistic Nazi who advances this line. Weissmann
is an extreme right-winger who quizzes Mondaugen on “D’Annunzio,”
“Mussolini,” “Fascisti,” and the “National Socialist German Workers
Party.” He is then disappointed with Mondaugen’s knowledge: “‘[f]rom
Munich and never heard of Hitler,’ said Weissmann, as if ‘Hitler’ were the
name of an avant-garde play” (V 242). Weissmann also hopes for the
collapse of the League of Nations and a return to German colonialist
supremacy (V 243).
Through this double structure, I argue that V. is actually a novel that is
at once highly critical of Wittgenstein’s philosophy while, at the same time,
seeming to invite readings that deploy such a framework.3 Yet the targets of
skepticism toward formal philosophical thinking in Pynchon’s thought go
back much further than the twentieth century. In fact, in Vineland (1990),
Pynchon directly addresses the idea of Platonic forms and ideals, asking
whether truth can exist independently of experience. This is seen when the
mathematician Weed Atman is told that he should “[d]iscover a theorem.”
His questioner, Rex Snuvvle, claims that he “thought they sat around, like
planets, and . . . well, every now and then somebody just, you know . . .
discovered one” (VL 232). As Simon de Bourcier notes, such a stance is
interesting for a perspective on twentieth-century scientific practice in
relation to philosophies of time: Do scientific truths “exist ‘independently
Philosophy 249
of time and history’, ‘in eternity’, until scientists discover them”?4 Weed’s
reply to such a proposition is short and decisive, though: “I don’t think so”
(VL 232).
Indeed, time and time again, Pynchon’s works tend to name-drop
philosophers, apparently inviting a philosophical reading approach,
only then to disparage their formalized modes of thinking. For
instance, at another, later moment in Vineland, Pynchon refers to the
apparently “indispensable” works of Deleuze and Guattari, implying
them to be anything but indispensable (VL 97). And, in truth, the
strain of French Nietzscheanism that runs from Althusser through
Foucault and up to Deleuze and Guattari proves one of the hardest
to synthesize with Pynchon’s novels, which is probably why there are
so few studies that attempt to do so.5 Indeed, it is very difficult to
reconcile the general principles of Foucauldian power outlined in
Discipline and Punish with the mode of domination that looms over
Pynchon’s works.6 For Foucault famously stated that “we must cease
once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it
‘excludes,’ it ‘represses,’ it ‘censors,’ it ‘abstracts,’ it ‘masks,’ it ‘con-
ceals.’ In fact, power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains
of objects and rituals of truth.”7 Yet Pynchon’s cartels in Gravity’s
Rainbow, for instance, are fixated on using power as a means of
market/human domination, a way of oppressing as they “based every-
thing on bulb efficiency – the ratio of the usable power coming out, to
the power put in” while Blicero/Weissmann’s “power” is described as
“absolute” at one point in the novel (GR 654, 666).
On the other hand, if readings of Pynchon through Foucault and
Deleuze have been less successful – or at least less common – then recent
years have seen a surge of interest in the ways in which the novels resonate
with the first generation of Frankfurt School thinkers, particularly with the
works of Walter Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno, and, at a greater distance,
Ernst Bloch.8 For Samuel Thomas, for instance, Pynchon presents a range
of moments that focus on the one-time, unrepeatability of objects, such as
the Goober Pea-Shell in Mason & Dixon (1997) that appears once before
being eaten (MD 645). In certain schools of utopian thinking, derived from
Adorno and Bloch, the focus here upon the specificity and uniqueness of
objects and subjects is an ethically important move that Thomas reads as
being core to Pynchon’s politics. By contrast, both George Twigg and
I have sought to explore how Adorno’s difficult theories of musicological
aesthetics and jazz can be brought into contact with Pynchon’s works, with
the imprecise conclusion that it is complex.
250 martin paul eve
Among the reasons for the challenges of integrating Pynchon’s work
with formal philosophical thought, though, it is paradoxically in Adorno
that we find the best answer. For Adorno’s work is opposed to ideas of
synthesis and reduction, as is Pynchon’s. For Adorno, the idea of synth-
esis – that is, the concept of bringing together multiple ideas into a new
coherent whole – is always inadequate. In the act of synthesis, individuated
elements are generalized and parts of them are lost. In Adorno’s work, most
acts of philosophical thinking cause this kind of loss, for “to think is to
identify,” or in other words, we conceive of objects and subjects as equal to
our internal representation of them, while ignoring their differences.9 For
instance, the concept or thought of “a dog” can be held in the abstract by
an individual and, when a real dog is seen, it is thus classified, even though
the actual dog has many more characteristics than the idealized version.
“Objects,” Adorno writes, “do not go into their concepts without leaving
a remainder.”10
In many ways, Pynchon’s fiction has evinced a similar standpoint for
half a century. In his earlier works, such as Gravity’s Rainbow, this is
embodied in both the explicit condemnations of acts of synthesis and
integration (as terms pertaining to plastics and mathematics respectively)
and the wide-ranging structures and challenges to traditional interpretative
methods posed by all of Pynchon’s novels. On the first of these fronts,
Gravity’s Rainbow clearly asks: “what is the real nature of synthesis? [. . .]
what is the real nature of control?,” linking the two, while the sign for
mathematical integration is presented as part of the Nazi SS insignia (the
double “S”) (GR 167). On the other hand, the sheer volume of secondary
critical material on Pynchon is evidence enough for a textual resistance to
single narratives, to synthesis, noted by most early scholarship on the
Such disdain for synthesis is also clear in Pynchon’s latest novel, Bleeding
Edge (2013), which explores philosophical questions while, at the same
time, it mocks such approaches. For instance, we are told that “[t]he Otto
Kugelblitz School occupies three adjoining brownstones between
Amsterdam and Columbus” and that “the school is named for an early
psychoanalyst who was expelled from Freud’s inner circle” (BE 2). This will
strike many readers as a straightforward reference to the psychoanalytic
philosophy of Otto Rank. Yet, the description in Bleeding Edge of
Kugelblitz’s actual philosophy and his fictional biography are far closer
to that of Jacques Lacan, who is mentioned several times in the novel.11
Once more, the way that Pynchon drops hints of philosophical thought
and thinkers here encourages the reader to pursue such a line of inquiry
Philosophy 251
while, at the same time, it frustrates such an approach by yielding no
straightforward synthesis of reality with Pynchon’s characters. Kugelblitz is
neither Rank nor Lacan, in isolation.
Finally, we might consider what Pynchon’s novels say about the tech-
nical, complex language of philosophy. Once more, in Bleeding Edge, the
reader is presented with a parody of a type of academic theoretical/philo-
sophical discourse: Reg Despard speaks of the “neo-Brechtian subversion
of the diegesis” (BE 9). This is, in truth, an accurate description of what
Reg is doing when he zooms in and out on his video camera. He under-
mines (“subversion”) the believable realism (“the diegesis”) of the film he is
shooting by drawing attention to the mechanisms of its production
through an alienation technique (“neo-Brechtian”). Indeed, at least
a couple of literary critics have considered the role of Brecht in
Pynchon’s writing and they may be the target of this parody.12 For parody
this sentence certainly is. The disjuncture between what Reg is actually
doing (simply zooming in and out) and the complex and specialized
terminology that Pynchon uses to describe it is meant, at once, to provoke
philosophical interpretation (a trap into which I have fallen) while also
ridiculing the philosophical (or, at least, academic) language that would
surround such a reading.
But where does this leave us with respect to Pynchon and formalized
philosophical thought? The answer, it strikes me, is that it leaves us in
a similar position to most pronouncements on Pynchon. That is, that there
is no single philosophical ”master key” that will unlock an understanding
of Pynchon’s politics, worldviews, ethics, economics, or writings. His
fictions, like reality, are difficult to understand and are unlikely (or unwill-
ing) to be synthesized into coherent philosophical propositions that neatly
explain the novels. This is not to say, though, that philosophical or literary-
theoretical approaches to Pynchon cannot help us to better understand his
texts. It is instead to argue that if we seek a total understanding of Pynchon
(which is probably a naïve view) we should nonetheless expect that totality
to be formed from conflicting fragments and we must triangulate various
philosophies, no matter how much they may conflict with one another.
Adorno once wrote that the “truth content of an artwork requires
philosophy.”13 On the other hand, Pynchon mocked the power of
philosophical thinking when he noted that “the only consolation”
that we might draw from the “present chaos” is that our “theory
managed to explain it” (V 189). To understand the “present chaos” of
Pynchon’s novels, though, I would argue that we need philosophies
and theories, both in the plural.
252 martin paul eve
1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (London: Routledge,
2. William M. Plater, The Grim Phoenix: Reconstructing Thomas Pynchon
(Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1978); John W. Hunt, “Comic
Escape and Anti-Vision: V. and The Crying of Lot 49,” in Richard Pearce (ed.),
Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981), pp. 32–41;
Alec McHoul and David Wills, ‘“Die Welt Ist Alles Was Der Fall Ist”
(Wittgenstein, Weissmann, Pynchon) / “Le Signe Est Toujours Le Signe de
La chute” (Derrida)’ Southern Review 16:2 (July 1983), 274–91; Jimmie E. Cain,
“The Clock as Metaphor in ‘Mondaugen’s Story,’” Pynchon Notes, 17 (1985),
73–77; Alec McHoul and David Wills, Writing Pynchon: Strategies in Fictional
Analysis (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1990); Dwight Eddins, The Gnostic Pynchon
(Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990); Petra Bianchi,
“The Wittgensteinian Thread in Thomas Pynchon’s Labyrinth: Aspects of
Wittgenstein’s Thought in V.,” in P. Bianchi, A. Cassola, and P. Serracino
Inglott, Pynchon, Malta and Wittgenstein, ed. E. Mendelson (Malta: Malta
University Publishers, 1995), pp. 1–13; Sascha Pöhlmann, “Silences and Worlds:
Wittgenstein and Pynchon,” Pynchon Notes, 56–57 (Spring-Fall 2009), 158–80.
3. See Martin Paul Eve, Pynchon and Philosophy: Wittgenstein, Foucault and
Adorno (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), Chapter Two.
4. Simon de Bourcier, Pynchon and Relativity: Narrative Time in Thomas
Pynchon’s Later Novels (London: Continuum, 2012), p. 23.
5. Will McConnell, “Pynchon, Foucault, Power, and Strategies of Resistance,”
Pynchon Notes, 32–33 (1993), 152–68; Hanjo Berressem, Pynchon’s Poetics:
Interfacing Theory and Text (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1993),
pp. 55,207, 215; Frank Palmeri, “Other than Postmodern? Foucault, Pynchon,
Hybridity, Ethics,” Postmodern Culture 12:1 (2001), doi: 10.1353/
pmc.2001.0022; Stefan Mattessich, Lines of Flight: Discursive Time and
Countercultural Desire in the Work of Thomas Pynchon (Durham, NC: Duke
University Press, 2002); David Cowart, Thomas Pynchon & the Dark Passages of
History (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011), pp. 159–88.
6. See Luc Herman and Steven Weisenburger, Gravity’s Rainbow, Domination,
and Freedom (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2013).
7. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan
Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1997), p. 194.
8. Samuel Thomas, Pynchon and the Political (London: Routledge, 2007); Eve,
Pynchon and Philosophy, Chapters Six and Seven; George Twigg, “‘Sell Out
With Me Tonight’: Popular Music, Commercialization, and
Commodification in Vineland, The Crying of Lot 49, and V.,” Orbit:
A Journal of American Literature 2:2 (August 18, 2014), doi: 10.7766/orbit.
9. Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (London:
Routledge, 1973), p. 5.
Philosophy 253
10. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, p. 5.
11. For more on this, see Martin Paul Eve, Literature Against Criticism: University
English and Contemporary Fiction in Conflict (Cambridge: Open Book
Publishers, 2016), pp. 195–98.
12. Tom LeClair, The Art of Excess: Mastery in Contemporary American Fiction
(Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1989); Stefano Ercolino,
The Maximalist Novel: From Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow to
Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, trans. Albert Sbragia (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).
13. Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, ed. Gretel Adorno and Rolf
Tiedemann, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (London: Continuum, 2004),
p. 433.
chapter 32

Religion and Spirituality

Richard Moss

While often overlooked as a critical framework of its own, Thomas

Pynchon’s approach to religion in his many texts is surprisingly considered
and consistent. If given a sustained reading, religion allows us to chart not
just the theological but also political spaces of both power and the margin-
alized “Other.” The religious modes Pynchon uses include but are not
limited to forms of Calvinism, Catholicism, Paganism, Buddhism, and
Gnostic esotericism. However, instead of compartmentalizing these into
their own specific dogmas, he builds a theological patchwork that informs
political disco