Pynchon: An Introduction

1. Life

What is known about the life of Thomas Pynchon can be quickly summed up: He was born in 1937 on Long Island, was raised and educated there, and then at age 16 graduated from high school and went off to Cornell University to study engineering physics. At the end of his sophomore year he joined the Navy; two years later he returned to Cornell, but this time to study English. He may or may not have sat in on Vladimir Nabokov’s lectures on the novel. He started writing stories, and with his friend Kirkpatrick Sale composed a never-to-be-performed science-fiction musical called Minstrel Island — the titular island being a place that people escape to who don’t want to live in a dystopian America run by IBM (quite the piece of foreshadowing, that). After graduating in 1959 he worked for as a technical writer for Boeing and wrote his first novel, V. He has been a full-time writer since the publication of that novel in 1963. He lived for a time in Mexico before settling for several years in Manhattan Beach, California. Eventually he married the literary agent Melanie Jackson and moved to New York City, where they raised a son, and where he still lives.

Little more is known than this because Pynchon is what people call a “reclusive” writer, though I suspect it would be more accurate simply to say that he doesn’t give interviews and prefers not to have his photograph taken. (Pynchon made fun of his reputation when he appeared — or a cartoon of him appeared — on The Simpsons wearing a bag over his head but standing next to a big lighted sign saying THOMAS PYNCHON’S HOUSE: COME ON IN. He shouts to cars passing obliviously by, “Hey, over here! Have your picture taken with a reclusive author! Today only, we’ll throw in a free autograph! But wait, there’s more!”) But however we choose to describe his behavior, it has the effect of pushing our attention towards his books, which is where the real interest is anyway.

There is, however, one element of Pynchon’s biography, or rather his ancestry, that we should take note of. One William Pynchon (or Pinchin) came to America in 1630 as one of the founders of what is now Roxbury, Massachusetts; but finding that place inadequate to his economic hopes, he moved westward into the Connecticut River valley and founded a new town, Springfield, naming it after his home town in Essex. William Pynchon was a very successful businessman, but, like many of the early New England colonists, had theological interests as well, and in 1650 wrote a treatise on soteriology called The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption. In this rather brief work he claimed to prove

1. That Christ did not suffer for us those unutterable torments of God’s wrath, that commonly are called Hell-torments, to redeem our soules from them. 2. That Christ did not bear our sins by Gods imputation, and therefore he did not bear the curse of the Law for them. 3. That Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of Law (not by suffering the said curse for us, but) by a satisfactory price of attonement; viz. by paying or performing unto his Father that invaluable precious thing of his Mediatoriall obedience, whereof his Mediatoriall Sacrifice of attonement was the master-piece….

This constitutes a fairly complete rejection of the standard Calvinist account of Christ’s atoning work on the Cross. Indeed, if Christ saves us not by suffering “Hell-torments” on our behalf, and not by having our sins imputed to him, but simply by his perfect obedience, then there appears to be nothing necessary about his death. He was indeed “obedient even unto death” (Philippians 2:8), but crucifixion, on William Pynchon’s account, was simply the occasion of that obedience, an opportunity to prove it indeed perfect — and no more.

It is therefore unsurprising that the Reformed grandees of Boston were unhappy. The General Court of that young city debated the demerits of Pynchon’s book, and then ordered that all copies be confiscated and burned. Pynchon himself recanted at least some of the book’s claims — “It hath pleased God to let me see that I have not spoken in my book so fully of the prize and merit of Christ’s sufferings as I should have done” — but this seems to have been but strategic. He soon returned to England, and from there denounced his denouncers, reaffirmed the positions taken in The Meritorious Price, and wrote further theological treatises until his death in 1662.

That Thomas Pynchon was very familiar with the career of his ancestor is demonstrated in his portrayal of the one character in his fiction whose history most resembles his own, Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow, whose ancestor William Slothrop closely resembles William Pynchon, with some slight differences in his theological interests. William Slothrop was obsessed with the question of the non-elect, the reprobate, the “preterite” (the term Thomas Pynchon always uses): “He wrote a long tract about it presently, called On Preterition. It had to be published in England, and is among the first books to’ve been not only banned but also ceremonially burned in Boston. Nobody wanted to hear about all the Preterite, the many God passes over when he chooses a few for salvation. William argued holiness for these ‘second Sheep,’ without whom there’d be no elect. You can bet the Elect in Boston were pissed off about that.”

And when Tyrone Slothrop thinks of his ancestor’s work, he wonders “Could he [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? Might there have been fewer crimes in the name of Jesus, and more mercy in the name of Judas Iscariot? It seems to Tyrone Slothrop that there might be a route back….” (555)

But here we have drifted into discussing Thomas Pynchon’s books — and since they are what we are truly interested in here, let us do the job properly. 

 

2. The Novels

After a handful of apprentice-work short stories, Thomas Pynchon turned his attention to the writing of novels, and aside from a handful of essays, book introductions, and liner notes for rock-and-roll records, his attention has stayed there ever since. His novels come in three sizes: small, medium, and large — though he has described the one small one, The Crying of Lot 49, as a story that was merely “marketed as a ‘novel’” (see his introduction to his collection of stories, Slow Learner). None of Pynchon’s books is easy to describe, but we may begin with a brief and highly schematic overview of each.

V. (1963): A young man named Benny Profane yo-yos up and down the East Coast in various degrees of infatuation with young women, as an older man named Herbert Stencil tries to unravel the mystery of a strange woman who knew his father in various Mediterranean cities. They come to know one another through being drawn into the orbit of a group of semi-employed semi-artists and semi-intellectuals known as the Whole Sick Crew. Size: large.

The Crying of Lot 49 (1966): A housewife named Oedipa Maas returns from a Tupperware party to discover that the has been named the executor of the will of her former lover. This draws her into a series of increasingly strange puzzles, all of which point her towards the (possible) existence of a private postal service that (possibly) serves as the courier of a (supposedly) mystical revelation. Size: small.

Gravity’s Rainbow (1973): Generally though not universally considered Pynchon’s masterpiece, this vast and intricate design traces the movements of multiple figures of multiple nationalities across Europe during and immediately after World War II. The parabola of the supersonic V2 rocket, the sound waves generated by which arrive only after the rocket itself, provides the primary reference of the title and is perhaps the chief structural principle of the disorienting and disturbing story. It also concerns itself with the great mystery of predestination. Size: large.

Vineland (1990): A tale of the unraveling of the Sixties — set primarily in the Orwellian year of 1984, though with many reconstructive flashbacks to the previous two decades — this story focuses on the people whose lives are altered by their interactions with a revolutionary documentary filmmaker named Frenesi Gates, and describes (without fully explaining) Frenesi’s succumbing to the seductive power of Men in Authority. Size: medium.

Mason & Dixon (1997): The only Pynchon novel set wholly before the twentieth century tells, in remarkably though not uniformly faithful eighteenth-century prose, the story of the mapping of a great Line that changed the course of history — in very large ways — and also describes the complicated friendship of the men who mapped it. In my judgment, for what that’s worth, this is the most profound of Pynchon’s works. Size: large.

Against the Day (2006): The largest and most sprawling of Pynchon’s books, and the one that has generated the most critical controversy, this story traces dozens of characters through a series of events (realistic and surreal) and debates (mathematical, scientific, moral, political) primarily in the years between the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and the Great War. All of this may have something to do with the Tunguska Event. The novel is also a meditation on multiple forms of anarchism. Size: enormous.

Inherent Vice (2009): In one sense a spoof or pastiche of L.A. noir — crime in the sunshine — and in another sense a meditation on the longing for lost ideals of community and love, this story, set in the 1970s, focuses on the misadventures of Doc Sportello, a private eye reminiscent of some of the washed-up-on-the-beaches-of-history characters in Vineland. Size: medium.

Bleeding Edge (2013): The East Coast counterpart of Inherent Vice, this story focuses on a woman in New York City named Maxine Tarnoff who, though not exactly a private investigator, is drawn into a set of mysteries similar to those Doc Sportello pursues, and similar in other ways to those Oedipa Maas pursues. Hovering in the background of the whole story is the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, an event that occurs roughly midway through the timeline of the book. Size: medium.

Though Pynchon hints (in the introduction to Slow Learner) that he dislikes The Crying of Lot 49, it remains the place to begin if you just want to get a taste of Pynchonian method and style. However, it must be said that “getting a taste” is fundamentally un-Pynchonian. Full immersion is more his thing. 

 

3. Reading Pynchon

Pynchon’s sentences are almost always perfectly clear; rarely is even a paragraph difficult to understand. It is at higher levels of organization that he proves difficult. It is possible to grasp one paragraph, and then another paragraph, and then yet another paragraph, without having any clear sense how those three paragraphs relate to one another or what place they have in the book as a whole. Why is he telling me this? is a question that must often occur to the reader of Pynchon.

Perhaps the first point that the reader of Pynchon needs to grasp is that his fiction typically employs multiple stylistic registers that are layered on one another. (We will return to the idea of layers and lamination later in this account.) The base layer of Pynchonian language is what we might call the casual wise-ass style that featured prominently in post-World-War-II American fiction. J. D. Salinger is perhaps the best-known exponent of it, as in The Catcher in the Rye (1951):

When you’re dead, they really fix you up. I hope to hell when I do die somebody has sense enough to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you’re dead? Nobody.

But it’s also prominent in other celebrated works of the era, for instance Joseph Heller’s Catch–22 (1961):

What a lousy earth! He wondered how many people were destitute that same night even in his own prosperous country, how many homes were shanties, how many husbands were drunk and wives socked, and how many children were bullied, abused, or abandoned…. How many best families were worst families and how many good people were bad people? When you added them all up and then subtracted, you might be left with only the children, and perhaps with Albert Einstein and an old violinist or sculptor somewhere. 

And in Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March (1953):

I am an American, Chicago born – Chicago, that somber city – and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.

These styles are by no means identical, but they’re all governed by a sardonic kind of knowingness. If Bugs Bunny wrote literary fiction he would sound like one of these writers. Early and late, Pynchon employs this tone. So from V.: “A schlemihl is a schlemihl. What can you ‘make’ out of one? What can one make out of himself? You reach a point, and Profane knew he had reached it, where you know how much you can and cannot do. But every now and again he got attacks of acute optimism.” 

And fifty years later, in Bleeding Edge:

It soon becomes clear that everybody’s pretending for tonight that they’re still in the pre-crash fantasy years, dancing in the shadow of last year’s dreaded Y2K, no safely history, but according to this consensual delusion not quite upon them yet, with all here remaining freeze-framed back at the Cinderella moment of midnight of the millennium when in the next nanosecond the world’s computers will fail to increment the year correctly and bring down the Apocalypse. What passes for nostalgia in a time of widespread Attention Deficit Disorder. 

It’s the foundation on which the great wobbling teetering edifices of his fiction are built. And yet there are hints, and more than hints, that Pynchon knows the costs of this style even as he finds uses for it. In 1994 he wrote liner notes for a CD of music by Spike Jones, a famous musical joker of the middle of the last century, and made this comment about Spike’s comically twisted version of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite: “All through this Nutcracker, in fact, runs a strange uneasy mixture of jaded musicians’ sarcasm and honest straight-world sentimentality. Nowadays, when everybody knows everything and nobody takes any text seriously, it’s hard to remember how it felt once to share a public world not as contaminated by the terminally wised-up irony that has come to pervade our own lives.” So though “terminally wised-up irony” is the default mode of Pynchonian narration, the reader should be prepared for its premises to come under question from time to time.

Just above that layer, or perhaps scattered like tinsel within it, are the songs — all of Pynchon’s books include silly songs — and dumb jokes. In Mason & Dixon a “Milk-Maid of Brooklyn” is basically a Goth girl,

dress’d from Boots to Bonnett all in different Articles of black, a curious choice of colors for a milkmaid, it seems to Mason, tho’, as he has been instructed ever to remind himself, this is New-York, where other Customs prevail. “Oh, aye, at home they’re on me about it without Mercy,” she tells him, “I’m, as, ‘But I like Black,’ — yet my Uncle, he’s, as, ‘Strangers will take you for I don’t know what,’ hey, — I don’t know what, either. Do you?” 

In Against the Day we meet the “noted Uyghur troublemaker” Al Mar-Fuad, and if that name doesn’t ring a bell, note that he wears a deerstalker cap, carries a shotgun, and says things like “I am going out after some gwouse” and “Gweetings, gentlemen!” If you still don’t get it, say the name quickly. Pynchon takes endless delight in this kind of silliness, and the reader of Pynchon needs an equally endless tolerance of it.

One layer higher we find the confident and sometimes dizzyingly complex deployment of scientific and technical language, as in this passage from Gravity’s Rainbow:

Shivering is one of Eddie Pensiero’s favorite pastimes. Not the kind of shiver normal people get, the goose-on-the-grave passover and gone, but shivering that doesn’t stop. Very hard to get used to at first. Eddie is a connoisseur of shivers…. Least interesting of these shivers are the ones with a perfectly steady frequency, no variation to them at all. The next-to-least interesting are the frequency-modulated kind, now faster now slower depending on information put in at the other end, wherever that might be. Then you have the irregular waveforms that change both in frequency and in amplitude. They have to be Fourier-analyzed into their harmonics, which is a little tougher. There is often coding involved, certain subfrequencies, certain power-levels — you have to be pretty good to get the hang of these. 

Or this delightful conversation from Against the Day, which has more such passages than any other Pynchon book:

Kit took it and scrutinized each face closely.

“All these faces are equilateral.”

“Yes. This is a true icosahedron.”

“The regular solid, not a 12 + 8 like you’d find in pyrites, but — This is impossible. There’s no such — ”

“Not impossible! To date, unidentified! And the sphere described through the twelve summits — ”

“Wait. Don’t tell me. No ordinary sphere, right?” The object shimmered at him, as if winking.

“Something like … a Riemann sphere.”

She beamed. “The realm of x + iy — we are in it! whether we want to be or not.”

“An imaginary icosahedron. Swell.” 

(By the way, that’s a very important passage for those who want to understand Against the Day.) And then there are the moments of rhetorical height, which don’t come often but which are the more powerful for their rarity. From V.:

Rachel was looking into the mirror at an angle of 45 degrees, and so had a view of the face turned toward the room and the face on the other side, reflected in the mirror; here were time and reverse-time, co-existing, cancelling one another exactly out. Were there many such reference points, scattered through the world, perhaps only at nodes like this room which housed a transient population of the imperfect, the dissatisfied; did real time plus virtual or mirror-time equal zero and thus serve some half-understood moral purpose? Or was it only the mirror world that counted; only a promise of a kind that the inward bow of a nose-bridge or a promontory of extra cartilage at the chin meant a reversal of ill fortune such that the world of the altered would thenceforth run on mirror-time; work and love by mirror-light and be only, till death stopped the heart’s ticking (metronome’s music) quietly as light ceases to vibrate, an imp’s dance under the century’s own chandeliers…. 

And finally this — a passage almost too beautiful to share, one that a reader should simply come upon, but that indicates just what stylistic range Pynchon is capable of — from Mason & Dixon:

They know by now where they are, not only in Miles, Chains, and Feet, but respecting as well the Dragon of the Land, according to which anyplace beyond the Summit of the Alleghenies, wherever the water flows West, into the Continental Unknown, lives too far from the countryside where, quietly, unthreaten’d, among the tall gray stalks of the girdl’d trees, beneath Roofs tarr’d against the rain, the Wives Knead and Flour, and the Dough’s Rising is a Miniature of the great taken Breath of the Day,… and where voices in the Wind are assum’d into the singing of the congregations, the Waggon’s rumbling upon the roads of pack’d and beaten earth, the lowing, the barking, the solitary rifle-shot, close to suppertime, from over in the next Valley. Here the Surveyors,– as many of the Party, – have come away, as if backward in Time, beyond the Range of the furthest spent Ball, the last friendly Pennsylvania Rifle. The Implication of the ghostly Speech is clear to them both. — They will soon be proceeding, if indeed they are not already, with all Guarantees of Safety suspended,— as if Whatever spar’d them years ago, at Sea, were now presenting its Bill. 

It is easy to see, I trust, that a writer who can flit from Al Mar-Fuad to the Riemann hypothesis to serene visions of transcendence in a single book, sometimes within the transit of a few paragraphs, is a writer who doesn’t hesitate to make demands on his readers. These passages can be immensely difficult to navigate, not just because they can come in such disorientingly quick succession, but because it can often be impossible in the moment — and sometimes equally impossible after long reflection — simply to figure out what’s going on when Pynchon does this kind of thing. So let me issue a few words of guidance for the potentially sea-sick voyager through the rough waters of the Pynchonian Ocean. 

 

4. Guidance

One of the few books of the twentieth century to rival Pynchon’s novels in ambition and complexity is Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a book about Yugoslavia that is at once history, travelogue, philosophical and theological meditation, and unacknowledged fiction. To a reviewer who had praised the book for its “artlessness,” West wrote:

Artlessness! You say ‘There is no more system or completeness in it than in the colour-scheme of wild flowers in a field.’ How I worked to get that effect. I wanted people, not the great and good, but just people — to learn what the South Slav situation is and its importance to them. They couldn’t learn anything about that situation without following a long, complicated story, making many more demands on their powers of concentration than they were accustomed to concede. To get them to go the way I wanted them I deliberately gave the story the loose attractiveness of various pleasant things in life — such as wild flowers in a field. Again and again I broke sequences and relaxed tension to get the lethargic attention of the ordinary reader along the road.

A similar breaking of sequences and relaxation of tension is fundamental to Pynchon’s narrative method as well. If you think the jokiness is annoying, imagine what the books would be like without the jokes. The shifts in tone and style I have already referred to have many purposes, but one of them is to make the novels readable.

But the changes are also meant to unsettle the reader, because for Pynchon the experience of life within technopoly is always unsettling. And Pynchon-as-narrator typically dwells within his characters’ psychological states, rather than giving us a strongly planted anchor outside of them. For instance, in the opening chapters of Against the Day Pynchon hints at certain oddities in the space/time continuum of the book. Consider: “The Chums of Chance could have been granted no more appropriate form of ‘ground-leave’ than the Chicago Fair, as the great national celebration possessed the exact degree of fictitiousness to permit the boys access and agency. The harsh nonfictional world waited outside the White City’s limits, held off for this brief summer, making the entire commemorative season beside Lake Michigan at once dream-like and real.” As though the Chums come from some other world, some (to us) fictional world, and can only have “access and agency in a place as fanciful and make-believe as the White City of the World’s Columbian Exhibition.

Just a couple of pages later we are introduced to the detective Lew Basnight:

Lew looked around. Was it still Chicago? As he began again to walk, the first thing he noticed was how few of the streets here followed the familiar grid pattern of the rest of town — everything was on the skew, narrow lanes radiating starwise from small plazas, tramlines with hairpin turns that carried passengers abruptly back the way they’d been coming, increasing chances for traffic collisions, and not a name he could recognize on any of the street-signs, even those of better-traveled thoroughfares … foreign languages, it seemed. Not for the first time, he experienced a kind of waking swoon, which not so much propelled as allowed him entry into an urban setting, like the world he had left but differing in particulars which were not slow to reveal themselves. 

“Like the world he had left” but somehow not that world. It is a theme which recurs throughout the novel, which seems particularly interested in what Celtic spirituality calls “thin places” — places where the boundaries between this world and another realm are easily breached; but thew thinness in Against the Day may arise not from an active God or agent of transcendence but from the discoveries of modern physics, theories of relativity to the multiverse hypothesis. And as he had done in Mason & Dixon Pynchon seems to be suggesting that the work of science does not reveal the world we live in but actually brings it into being — with somewhat different worlds being brought into being in the universes next door, into which and out of which his characters sometimes slip.

The language I’m using here — “suggest,” “seem,” “hint” — indicate that this is a riddling sort of book, and indeed Pynchon is a riddling sort of writer. I think of a passage from Auden: “When have we not preferred some going round / To going straight to where we are?” Pynchon seems always to prefer “going round” because “where we are” is also where we might not be. Perhaps more apt still would be the great conclusion of Wallace Stevens’s “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” which speaks of a poetry that dwells “in the intricate evasions of as, / In things seen and unseen, created from nothingness, / The heavens, the hells, the worlds, the longed-for lands.” The intricate evasions of as — evasions which are also revelatory, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

Riddles: When Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx, the creature flings itself off a cliff to its death; conversely, his inability to solve the riddle of his own birth leads to his mother’s suicide and his own self-blinding and exile. Similarly, when in The Libation Bearers Orestes comes to kill his mother Clytemnestra and a servant cries out “The dead are killing the living!” — because Orestes was believed to be dead — Clytemnestra replies, “Ah, a riddle. I do well at riddles.” But she hasn’t done well: she never penetrated the riddling words of Cassandra, or she would not have acted as she did. And now her understanding of her own peril arrives too late to save her life. 

The word there translated as “riddle” is ainigma. A form of that word appears also in the New Testament — only once, but in an especially famous verse, 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see in a mirror dimly” — en ainigmati, in obscurity, enigmatically, as though riddled to — “but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” The key point here, I think, is that this is not a condition we can remedy through our own efforts — not even the most ingenious. In order to “see face to face,” to “know fully,” we must wait along with the whole Creation which (paraphrasing the second half of Romans 8 here) awaits its deliverance from enslavement to decay. When we are all delivered, redeemed, when the expectation of the children of God is realized, when the “great mystery” — Ephesians 5:21, not just a mysterion but a mega mysterion! — of the marriage of Christ and his church is consummated in glory, all of that will happen as an unveiling, a revelation: apokalypsin

Paul returns to this theme in the very last verses of the letter to the Romans, where he looks forward again to the apokalypsin mystēriou — the unveiling of the mystery. And when will this happen? In 1 Timothy 6 we learn that God the Father will bring the “manifestation” or “revealing” of Jesus Christ kairois idiois, in his own good time, at the opportune moment. And that cannot be forced or hurried or even known by anyone else.

This is not a sermon — any appearances to the contrary — but rather the plotting of a semantic field, one part of which is occupied by riddles, enigmas, which human beings can at least in principle solve, and the other part of which is occupied by mysteries that are not even in principle soluble, by obscurity that we cannot dissipate: rather we must wait for God to unveil those mysteries in his own time. This is the sense in which I claim that riddles and mysteries oppose one another.

Pynchon is a riddling writer, but he is also concerned with those insoluble obscurities that cannot be fought but must simply be waited out. Thus in the last paragraph of Inherent Vice Doc Sportello is simply waiting out a thick California coastal fog — and hoping that when it clears there will be something else there, something other and better than the world he knows. At the end of The Crying of Lot 49 Oedipa Maas — Oedipa! — simply takes a deep breath and awaits what the “crying of Lot 49” will reveal. And in Against the Day, in one of the most beautiful passages in all of Pynchon’s fiction, we hear a (relatively minor) character say:

“It is always a hidden place, the way into it is not obvious, the geography is as much spiritual as physical. If you should happen upon it, your strongest certainty is not that you have discovered it but returned to it. In a single great episode of light, you remember everything.” … He did not pause then so much as wait, as one might before a telegraph sounder, for some affirmation from the far invisible. 

Waiting — waiting “for some affirmation from the far invisible” — not striving. No ingenuity here; just patient hope, at best. But it is rare for a Pynchon character to have even this much awareness of what to wait for. They stand in puzzlement, or take a step, or even take multiple steps, but they can never orient themselves to a fixed landscape, or, if they’re in motion, be sure which direction they’re headed, much less whether they are moving towards greater or lesser coherence. Nor can we, because Pynchon does not give us a secure perch from which to evaluate what his characters’ experience.

So the first thing we need to understand about Pynchon’s characters is that they tend to be suspended in uncertainties that may be soluble riddles, or may instead be insoluble mysteries. But we should also note that they typically attempt to navigate this condition by developing certain habits of thought and language that are to hand, that are as it were suspended along with them. The characters, then, tend not to be “well-rounded characters” in the conventional sense of that term that we inherit from E. M. Forster, but rather people who, sometimes out of desperation, become mouthpieces for ideas, graspers after fragments of ideology.

One of the ways that Pynchon scholars have tried to account for this is by saying that Pynchon’s books are not novels so much as Menippean satires, and while I think the books are best described as novels, there is no question that Pynchon draws heavily on Menippean models of characterization. This definition from Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism is helpful:

The Menippean satire deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes. Pedants, bigots, cranks, parvenus, virtuosi, enthusiasts, rapacious and incompetent professional men of all kinds, are handled in terms of their occupational approach to life as distinct from their social behavior. The Menippean satire thus resembles the confession in its ability to handle abstract ideas and theories, and differs from the novel in its characterization, which is stylized rather than naturalistic, and presents people as mouthpieces of the ideas they represent…. The novelist sees evil and folly as social diseases, but the Menippean satirist sees them as diseases of the intellect. 

The notion of “diseases of the intellect” is especially important for understanding Pynchon’s characters. See also Mikhail Bakhtin, in the revised version of Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics:

In the menippea there appears for the first time what might be called moral-psychological experimentation: a representation of the unusual, abnormal moral and psychic states of man — insanity of all sorts (the theme of the maniac), split personality, unrestrained daydreaming, unusual dreams, passions bordering on madness, suicides, and so forth. These phenomena do not function narrowly in the menippea as mere themes, but have a formal generic significance. Dreams, daydreams, insanity destroy the epic and tragic wholeness of a person and his fate: the possibilities of another person and another life are revealed in him, he loses his finalized quality and ceases to mean only one thing; he ceases to coincide with himself….

It would be difficult to come up with a better description of Benny Profane, Oedipa Mass, Tyrone Slothrop….

One might conclude — many readers and scholars have so concluded — that Pynchon doesn’t have any more understanding of these matters than his characters do, that their chaos is reflective of his own chaos, that he is the poet laureate of being lost in technocratic modern America. But I would counsel that we not come to such a conclusion too quickly. In “Plato’s Pharmacy,” that amazingly shrewd and provocative reading of the Phaedrus, Jacques Derrida comments that there is a long history of treating the dialogue as an incoherent one. But, he notes, the explanations for this deficiency are curiously varied: some say that Plato wrote the Phaedrus when he was young and didn’t yet know what he was doing, while others say it was a product of tired and confused old age. But, says Derrida, “The hypothesis of a rigorous, sure, and subtle form is naturally more fertile. It discovers new chords, new concordances; it surprises them in minutely fashioned counterpoint, within a more secret organization of themes, of names, of words.” I will make the same assumption about Pynchon’s fiction — which is to say, I will expect to find in these novels what Tom LeClair calls “mastery,” and a mastery adequate to our position in space and time:

masterworks take full advantage of the possibilities of their technology (the book) and medium (language) to represent large cultural and often global wholes. The impetus for this kind of representation and for my insistence on it lies outside literature — in our time’s manifold and compelling recognitions that Earth is an ecological whole, that its survival is endangered by its large-scale human control systems, and that postmodern American life is composed of multiple new relations among the local and the global, the personal and planetary, the private and the multinational. I will argue that only the novel that knows and registers these relations masters — has intellectual power over — the contemporary world and qualifies for the category of mastery. 

So, to sum up: I would counsel the reader of Pynchon to remain conscious of (a) his changes in stylistic register and (b) his tendency to confine his own level of understanding to that of the character he is portraying at the moment, and to remember (c) his interest in portraying the “diseases of the intellect” that afflict the residents of late modernity; and I would encourage the reader further to work from the assumption that these novels evidence a mastery of the conditions they seek to represent.

 

5. A Note on Books

None of the major characters in Pynchon’s fiction, and few of the minor ones, read books. References to television, music, consumer brands, and (in Bleeding Edge) web-sites abound, and those references are sharply observed and often extremely funny. There’s a brilliant riff in Inherent Vice on how Charlie the Tuna, in the old StarKist commercials, is complicit in his own exploitation; and an ongoing joke from Vineland on involves that peculiar cinematic genre the biopic, with such memorable films as The Fatty Arbuckle Story featuring Leonardo di Caprio, Woody Allen as Young Kissinger, and a dramatization of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s life starring Anthony Hopkins. (“Would you look at this. Ol’ Hannibal dancin up a storm here.”) But books, whether fictional or nonfictional, highbrow or lowbrow, are almost impossible to find, because they have played no role in shaping the hearts and minds of these characters.

Even Heidi, the academic in Bleeding Edge who uses words like “mimesis” and “alexithymic,” is never seen reading and makes no references to books. (It’s probably significant also that she studies popular culture: she visits ComicCon — more formally, Comic-Con International, held annually in San Diego since 1970 — and observes trends in Halloween costumes.) Also in Bleeding Edge, a computer programmer is said to have on his desk a copy of “the camel book” — that is, Larry Wall’s Programming Perl (probably the 2nd or 3rd edition). In 2001, when the book’s events take place, Perl was still the most widely used scripting language, especially by those who coded the internet, though Python and a brand-new language called Ruby were on the rise. It says something about Pynchon’s attention to detail that he gets this right. It says something about his book’s themes that the only book referred to is a programming manual, a set of instructions for doing something with a newer, and more pervasive and invasive, technology.

Pynchon writes long, complex, demanding, learned books about people who don’t read long, complex, demanding, learned books, and while this could be said of many other writers as well, in Pynchon it has, I think, a particular significance. Almost all of Pynchon’s characters are caught up in immensely complex semiotic fields. All around them events are happening that seem not just to be but to mean, but the characters lack the key to unlock those mysteries, and as they try to make their way are constantly buffeted by the sounds and images from movies, TV shows, TV commercials, popular songs, brands of clothing, architectural styles, particular makes of automobile … all combining to weave an almost impossibly intricate web of signification. Rare indeed is the Pynchonian character who is not entangled to some degree in this web.

By doing what he does in book after book, Pynchon clearly indicates not just that he finds this entanglement problematic in multiple ways — psychologically, socially, politically — but also that the primary means by which the entanglement may be described and diagnosed is that of books — large books comprised of dense and complicated sentences. In Pynchon’s fiction we see an immensely bookish mind representing an unbooked world, and its great unspoken message is: Let the non-reader beware.