Rereading Thomas Pynchon: Postmodernism and the Political Real

Two collections of essays "offer overlapping reconsiderations of Pynchon’s oeuvre and its politics."

March 4, 2015

    IN MANY RESPECTS, literary criticism is inherently revisionist, so it should come as little surprise that the grand old eremite of American letters should himself be undergoing something of a late-career reevaluation, even before he shoves off, gently or otherwise, into his own good night. Two recent reassessments — Joanna Freer’s Thomas Pynchon and the American Counterculture (2014) and Pynchon’s California (2014), a collection of essays edited by Scott McClintock and John Miller — offer overlapping reconsiderations of Pynchon’s oeuvre and its politics.

    With varying degrees of success, both studies attempt to reposition Pynchon with respect to postmodernism, broadly writ. McClintock and Miller promise to “offer an alternative to the construction of Pynchon as a postmodern ironist, a fabulist of disenchantment with utopian hopes and longings, a radical skeptic of radicalism.” Freer appears less dissatisfied with postmodernism than she is with what she sees as its rampant mischaracterization — and misrepresented the category certainly is, from commentary on Fox News through the more conservative corridors of the American academy. But Freer is decidedly more circumspect than several of the critical voices that populate McClintock and Miller’s volume. “I do not find it useful to read Pynchon as a ‘postmodern’ author,” she writes, “partially because of this ongoing common false association of postmodernism with insularity, but also because the term ‘countercultural’ seems more to the point.”

    Indeed, Freer’s tack is perhaps the path of least resistance: instead of trying to convince its critics that postmodernism can be an effectual and politically engaged mode of philosophical discourse, she trades one categorical abstraction for another. Nevertheless, while countercultural may be less divisive an adjective than postmodern, it is itself — as Freer readily admits — somewhat fraught. As a result, she begins with a definition: “I use ‘counterculture’ in this book as a general term to designate the entire oppositional sixties,” she writes, “inclusive of the New Left, the psychedelic movement, the Black Panther Party, the Yippies, and even the women’s movement.” While such inclusivity might give pause, Freer nonetheless delivers. On balance, Thomas Pynchon and the American Counterculture is a thoroughly convincing historical contextualization of Pynchon’s literary output.

    In her opening chapter, Freer establishes the Beat Movement as something of a spiritual precursor to Pynchon’s political philosophy. Careful to plot the points of divergence (including, for example, Pynchon’s more nuanced take on African-American experience, as well as his preference for practicality over idealism), she nevertheless maps Pynchon’s political values onto the previous generation’s beatific meanderings, using Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) as a benchmark. “Pynchon’s early novels,” Freer contends, “express a Beat or ‘post-Beat’ sensibility in proposing that freedom and spiritual meaningfulness may be gained by transcending the routine, by travel, by association with communities of exiles, or even by listening to jazz (in the right circumstances).” And this is a welcome revision: the relationship between the Beat Movement and postmodern literature (or whatever you wish to call it) is too often overlooked. Freer not only attends to these connections, but also identifies several specific Beat values — transcendence, liminality, and communitas — that run throughout Pynchon’s fiction.

    In subsequent chapters, Freer focuses on particular countercultural formations — the SNCC, the SDS, and the New Left; Timothy Leary, LSD, and the psychedelic movement; the Black Panthers; and the women’s movement(s). Simultaneously, she close-reads passages from Pynchon’s work, developing a sophisticated picture of his evolving politics: a desire for revolutionary change tempered by pragmatism and skepticism; aversion to political violence, except as a last resort; advocacy for the importance of critical practice to political action; and support for anarchism as a means of resisting both capitalism and authoritarianism. In short, Freer convincingly demonstrates that Pynchon’s values usually align with those of the 1960s counterculture (one notable exception being his often problematic representations of gender and sexuality).

    While Freer appears to set aside the question of Pynchon’s postmodernism in her introduction, she does return to the topic throughout the book. For example, she insists that “the expansion of the imaginative faculties in tandem with critical skills are, for Pynchon, a specific precursor to political action” and by “having this project at its core, Pynchon’s work thus challenges prevalent notions of the self-absorption and political irrelevance of postmodern fiction.” Moreover, Pynchon’s engagement with the ideas and values of the 1960s counterculture, she concludes, “demonstrates how the formal and stylistic innovations of postmodernist literature can be grounded in deeply political considerations.”

    The essays found in McClintock and Miller’s collection, by contrast, largely dismiss attempts to recuperate postmodernism as such. Henry Veggian, for example, apparently believes that “postmodern intellectuals” (whoever they might be) can be identified by “their antipathy to the real.” Furthermore, political fiction, he argues, is “a category mostly populated by realist writing.” Despite admitting exceptions to this rule, Veggian nonetheless attempts to validate Vineland’s status as a “major political novel” by rescuing it from the postmodern camp. To assess it as such depends, he contends, “on intrinsic (and not merely formal) questions of its orientation to the literary techniques of realism.” By way of a Dickensian homology and some intellectual acrobatics too clever by half, he concludes that it is indeed a major political novel, an example of “stoner realism,” a genre I didn’t know existed, although I realize now that I am, in fact, a fan. I suspect Veggian would accuse me of willfully misreading his essay, but I’ll only cop to being a tad reductive. Christopher K. Coffman’s take in “Postmodern Sacrality and Inherent Vice” is structurally similar, but here the homology is to be found in contemporary hermeneutics. His is an effort predicated on the existence of something called “the divine Word,” which counts me out. In both cases, the arguments seem forced, the homologies simple renamings of what we already know: Pynchon’s irresolution, his complicated relation to literary genre. Freer’s careful contextualization simply serves as a far more sensible approach.

    What Pynchon’s California does well, however, is make the case for a sustained reconsideration of what Brian McHale calls Pynchon’s “accidental trilogy”: The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Vineland (1990), and Inherent Vice (2009). Pynchon’s three shortest novels not only share a setting, but are also, as Margaret Lynd notes in the volume’s lead essay, “aesthetically simpler and less multilayered and politically less significant” than the encyclopedic tomes on which his reputation rests. While some — including several of the volume’s other contributors — might take issue with the “politically less significant” part of the formulation, Lynd certainly encapsulates the standard critical response to Pynchon’s minor novels. Still, she argues, these novels are valuable, not only as accessible reiterations of the big questions that Pynchon poses elsewhere, but also for their expressions of what she calls situated hope: “a hopefulness that is grounded in always apparently simple and spontaneous gestures of kindness, generosity, and courage that individuals may — and sometimes do — summon unexpectedly at any given moment without hope of redemption or gain.” And indeed, the ever-increasing sentimentality of Pynchon’s fiction, as well as his focus on the family, if I might re-appropriate the phrase, are topics that postmodern scholarship rarely handles in an elegant fashion. It all, in other words, might warrant a closer look.

    Bill Millard, another contributor to Pynchon’s California, agrees. His essay focuses on Inherent Vice, which, he argues, “is a novel of ideas in potboiler disguise, frankly, if subterraneanly, didactic.” Its message? That there is “inherent tragedy and potential for disaster associated with certain forms of humanly built space and social organization.” The argument is compelling. In fact, from its very epigraph — “Under the paving stones, the beach! GRAFFITO, PARIS, MAY 1968” — Inherent Vice encourages its readers to look beneath the surface, as Millard does, and to read resistantly. While the Situationist graffito that Pynchon repurposes is inherently political, its humor is entirely predicated on what we might call an act of misreading. Pavers, as any stonemason can tell you, are typically laid atop a bedding of sand; pull up a cobblestone to hurl at the barricades, and, voilà, the beach — but only figuratively. You must know which desert doesn’t represent the real, you might say, but there is utility — as both these studies show — in reading against the grain.

    As Pynchon’s fifty-odd-year career approaches its inevitable close, the most conspicuous recent rereading, of course, is Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Inherent Vice (2014). The film necessarily condenses and consolidates, even if the novel is, perhaps, Pynchon’s least complicated. But the narrative distillate that Anderson brings to the screen is itself an argument for Pynchon’s relevance beyond some postmodern pigeonhole. First, as the film makes plain, Thomas Pynchon is a brilliant dialogist: Anderson has lifted much of the movie’s dialogue directly from the novel, and it sparkles. This is both an argument to read Pynchon — for the sheer pleasure of the language, if nothing else — and also a plea for more inclusive critique, as postmodern critics rarely attend to dialogic aesthetics, and those with a realist bent tend to dismiss Pynchon’s characters — and their discourse — as implausible. Second, Anderson’s adaptation lays bare the story’s sentimental center: when all is said and done, Inherent Vice is nothing less than the tale of a nuclear family’s improbable reunification. It’s the “broken home” trope in reverse, a seemingly wholehearted endorsement of the traditional family unit. If this all seems antithetical to the cynicism supposedly endemic to postmodernism, perhaps the fault is in our insistence on its strictures. As Freer contends, “Pynchon comes to view the family as a social ideal and even as a last bastion of communitas in self-interested times, as a blighted but resilient unit of resistance within which, in post-revolutionary America, altruistic, non-possessive love still has a chance to flourish.” There is little debating conservatism’s conceptual claim on the nuclear family, but a narrative effort to rebrand the institution may well be Pynchon’s last political stand.


    Justin St. Clair is Associate Professor of English at the University of South Alabama.


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