November 22, 2006



"Maybe I’m still peeved about the negative reviews."

You've seen the good ones too though, right? Time, Publisher's Weekly, Guardian, etc.

Pynchon is always divisive. What can you do?


Actually, I kind of love the awful reviews. It's reminiscent of Pynchon's early critical reception, recounted in Levine and Leverenz's essential "Mindful Pleasures," prior to GR. There's always been a strain of middlebrow criticism that's detested the P-man, and with James Wood and the backlash against "hysterical realism" and po-mo in general, it'd be difficult to imagine such a Christopher Lehmann-Hauptlike mainstream critic as Kakutani writing anything different. Do you really think Thomas Pynchon *expects* praise from The Paper of Record? A book where anarchist violence and a precursor to 9/11 goes morally unproblematized?

Sure, it all changed when GR came out and the critical establishment was seduced and dazzled, praising the book without understanding much of it. It was a different era then, the height of the counterculture, and innovation for its own sake -- especially high art mixing with low -- was considered exciting. Hey, progressive rock was popular. Gaddis' virtually unreadable JR won the NBA a year after GR shared the award with IB Singer. But it took several years at least before critics began making sense of GR. I think Kakutani was a victim of sheer overload, annoyed that the Pynchonian plethora made a hash of the usual critical paradigms. How dare an author provoke a professional reviewer of that stature into an excessive demand for readerly attention ...

I predict, though, that we're going to see something entirely different this Sunday in the TBR. They're going to pull a T. Correghesan Boyle like they did on M&D and get an established Pynchophile to set it right for the record ...





Metacritic started its page on the reviews

Every single review so far has gotten an exclamation point or a red minus sign, the two extremes obviously (there are four general ratings given, none of the two middle ground ones are present so far)


Well, I wasn't wrong about Liesel Schillinger's review in the TBR -- it certainly made up for Kakutani's impossibly dismissive snark. But while it's a perceptive piece (I'm 429 pages in -- through II: Iceland Spar), it's also kind of scattered. Nothing like the brio of T. Coraghessan Boyle's spirited and quite moving review of Mason & Dixon.

The Complete Review does give Schillinger's an A-grade, though ...

Currently, I'm most impressed with Pynchon's cowboy-fiction voice in the stories of the Traverse clan. While the Chums are pure Slothrop and PISCES London, it's astounding to me that he can make such an un-Pynchonianly laconic narrative voice sound so believable. I'm starting to care about those characters -- especially Kit, Frank and Stray -- despite Pynchon's I would argue highly disciplined refusal to sentimentalize even such generally schematized characterizations. Hell, even Foley and Scarsdale have a spiritually ill kind of Achilles vulnerability that I find weirdly compelling ...

While there appear to be echoes of all of his books here ... I'm finding myself more drawn to the parts that remind me of Vineland and less to the ones that clearly echo Gravity's Rainbow (and Mason & Dixon). I like the focus on family relationships and the hell his men are starting to pay for catting around so much (to be expected, I suppose, when the author marries and raise a son). The Chums are a delightful conceit (Noseworth's unfailing anal-retentitivity never fails to amuse), but I've always found Pynchon's sci-tech obsession the more compelling the more it approaches verisimilitude. I adore Tesla's contribution; hollow earth, time-weapons and Dune-ing it underneath deserts may have to wait for a second or third reading for me to lose the apprehension I also felt initially at all that psychical balderdash in Gravity's Rainbow.

The Quaternions / Vector analysis stuff I'm going to research; though I'll never get the equations themselves (being hopelessly on one side of the Snovian Disjunction), there seems to be some very important philosophical implications in the two worldviews they represent.



Not to monopolize this thread, but a quick note that the International Herald Tribune's print of Schillinger's review is horribly abridged -- please read the Sunday NYT version. The excised material is marvelous. Here she is on Gottfried's flight in the 00000:

> Slothrop's manhood is pruriently beckoned by a substance
> called Imipolex G, another MacGuffin that turns out to be
> an erotic cloth serving as a catsuit for a young German
> catamite who, at book's end, is wrapped into a warhead
> and transformed into a lethal flying human dildo.

One of the best thumbnails of that horrific final scene in GR I've ever seen.



Monopolize away! Thanks for your valuable contributions to the discussion, Bob. I, too, was taken aback by the way Against the Thread becomes unputdownable for about 40 pages until the Traverse matter is "resolved."

I don't see the Slothrop/Chums connection except in the sense that Slothrop is a supernumerary on all sorts of military expeditions the likes of which the Chums embody in Against the Day.



I didn't mean to make a thematic connection between Slothrop and the Boys (the better connection there seems to be with Kit Traverse and all those goofy mathematicians in Gottingen). I was more referring to the arch narrative voice -- although here Pynchon is stretching his narrative ventriloquism probably as far as its gone in a single book.

Of course Mason & Dixon began that in a big way, but I'd peg the root of this concern to his marvelously lucid 1984 essay, "Is it OK to be a Luddite?", which provided a thumbnail on the history of the otherworldly in fiction. Pynchon's argument is first to define Ludditism as not necessarily anti-technology but rather anti-concentrations of power, and then to connect this reflex to the disenchantment that occurs through every age of supposed mental enlightenment and material progress. From the Gothic novels of Walpole and Shelly, the turn-of-the-century whiz-bang dime novels (of which the Chums sections, of course, strenuously emulate) and "scientific romances" of Verne and Wells, through the Golden Age of pulp sci fi and beyond -- what these books attempt to do is to grapple with a loss that occurs through the relentless Weberian process of thoroughgoing rationalization (the "routinization of charisma" noted in early studies of Gravity's Rainbow).

The loss is both material and quoditian (all those weavers left unemployed by the mechanical looms that the historical Luddites smashed) and, in an important sense, spiritual -- our loss of place in a Cosmos ordered by encroaching, often anti-human determinisms.

Pynchon in the essay seems very much a champion of these fictions, while being quite aware of their outsider status in the literary canon, dealing as they do with the fanciful and not The World As It Exists And Is Lived. This is where you get all that drawing-room humbug in Mason & Dixon about "Gothickal Scribblers," and, of course, the Chums' prototype: "The Ghastly Fop" serial. I'm not quite sure of this yet, but it may be a mistake to take the Chums' adventures as too literally part of the action.

Anyway, I have other thoughts but (ummm) Real Life intrudes ...



Isn't it telling that so many of Pynchon's crtics are making the influence of boy's adventure books, Victorian fantasies and dime novels the centerpiece of an argument for Pynchon's drift into silliness; but in in late 19th century that's what newly literate middle and working class Americans were reading! They want to dismiss it as twaddle but when HG Wells met with FDR all the President wanted to talk about was The Time Machine and even if the future, foreseeable or not, is ugly, the present is still worth fighting for.



Oh I absolutely agree. These fictions represent, very importantly for Pynchon, the growth and expanding education opportunities of the reading public, and the meta-narrative of his whole career appears to be the unresolvable tension between Pynchon the small-d democrat universalist vs Pynchon the Ivy League Uber-geek with his head chock full of hard-won esoteric knowledge -- with all the guilt of privilege that entails. Really fascinating to imagine Pynchon in a grad seminar with Leo Strauss -- whose head would explode first, eh? :)

I've always been uneasy labelling GR a postmodern novel; I see it more in the fractured High Modernist tradition of Ulysses. But I think clearly by the time of Mason & Dixon, Pynchon warmly embraced postmodernism. M&D can be read on one level (in a great online paper over at Spermatos Logos) as a treatise for historiography vs history -- multiple de-centered narrative voices asymptotically approaching an experiential truth, which ultimately is the only truth that matters.

M&D also begins Pynchon's Borges-like fascination with popular texts which expand out to fill the world. The long captive's tale (a staple of Colonial literature) that sprung out of Ethelmer and Tenebrae tenuously flirting by reading The Ghastly Fop together, is one of the knottier sections of M&D, hard to precisely demarcate because it all gets filtered through Wicks Cherrycoke's distinctive voice, anyway.
In AtT, Pynchon fully develops this technique, and uses it an explicitly structuring device. A better Pynchonologist than yours truly may come along and state this more definitively, but I'd argue that the multiple narrative voices in AtD represent a nested hierarchy of variable counterfactuality, and say something extremely important about Pynchon's relation to cultural narratives.

I'll develop this more explicitly in a later message. Feedback encouraged, of course.


David Salvage

I think the problem is we don't have real criticism anymore. Most book reviews are down to a plot synopsis and whether the reviewer likes it or not... there's not much outside the NY Review of Books that really digs in, at least in the USA. The NY Times Book Review is a joke (and gave Pynchon not only a bad, but a meaningless review that failed to find the proper context for his place in the twentieth and now twenty-first century). Still I can't help but wonder as he sits out there in the mystery of his anonymity what he thinks of all this and what engine still drives that complex brain to create more dazzlying multilayered novels?

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