Reading Pynchon's History

From Secret Behind the Door, Universal Pictures, 1948

by Joanna Freer

Thomas Pynchon and the Dark Passages of History,
by David Cowart,
Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 250pp.

“Thomas Pynchon merits recognition as America’s greatest historical novelist”, (24) is the rather grand claim upon which David Cowart bases his new study of this author’s attempts to disentangle the ravelled strands of received history, to make some sense out of the past. But it may not be an exaggeration. In each of his novels – though one thinks particularly of Mason & Dixon (1997) and Against the Day (2006) – Pynchon certainly rivals any living author as a writer of historiographical metafiction, a postmodern form of history writing which calls into question assumptions about historical validity and the connection between history and the fictional/creative. In his narration of often long-forgotten stories of capitalist-imperialist oppression, of humanist alternatives quietly thriving only to be stamped down by those adhering to the logic of profit, Pynchon troubles the official historical record. In doing so he also makes his political sympathies quite clear: a point Cowart seeks to underscore in the present study.

History is by no means a new topic in Pynchon studies. For years critics have been producing articles on Pynchon’s engagement with the past and its narration. Yet the first book-length study on the subject, Shawn Smith’s Pynchon and History: Metahistorical Rhetoric and Postmodern Narrative Form in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon, was released quite recently, in 2005. Broaching similar themes but endowed with the ability (post Against the Day and Inherent Vice) to give a better sense of overview on Pynchon’s career-long fascination with the workings of history, this is in fact Cowart’s second monograph on Pynchon. The first, Thomas Pynchon: The Art of Allusion, appeared in 1980 and also made a case for Pynchon’s humanist values but as expressed through his use of artistic rather than historical allusion. In Chapter 3 of the present volume, “Streben nach dem Unendlichen: Germany and German Culture in Pynchon’s Early Work,” the original interest in Pynchon’s references to cultural artefacts makes itself felt again, as Cowart suggests that Germany has provided the philosophical, religious, technological and artistic impetus behind key historical developments in the twentieth-century West. Reading Pynchon’s early narratives as replicating the Faustian paradigm as well as the Tannhaüser legend, as reflecting upon the influence of German Protestantism, the commentaries embodied by Fritz Lang films, Freudian psychology and the rise of Nazism, Cowart argues that Pynchon sets Germany up as ambivalent emblem of a general Western malaise, of a paradoxical desire for both transcendence and secular power that, he suggests, has shaped events over the past hundred years or so.

Chapter 3 introduces the reader to lesser-known intertexts and themes in Pynchon’s fiction, but Chapter 1 “Prospero’s Apprenticeship: Slow Learner” hinges on that old favourite – entropy. Offering general descriptions of the early short stories collected in Pynchon’s Slow Learner (1984), much of this chapter reads as a kind of introduction to the author, which is in keeping with Cowart’s intention to make his study readable for the non-academic academic audience as well as Pynchon scholars. In discussing entropy in Pynchon’s early stories, Cowart is again interested in allusion, although the historical twist given to Chapter 3 is largely missing here. His point here is that the author is primarily an artist, who yet has an interest in the sciences, and that the artistic references in his work should be considered at least equally as important as the scientific ones.

Chapter 2, “History and Myth: Pynchon’s V.,” fits more neatly, as its title suggests, with the historical theme of this work. Its reading of Pynchon’s first novel draws a parallel between Stencil’s quest for the elusive V. and humanity’s contemporary search for meaning, recognising the author’s attempt to undermine the apparent objectivity of history-writing as well as of myth, revealing both as substantially fictionalised and narrative-led. V. has often been associated with violence and the vast bloodshed of the early twentieth century, but Cowart points out her tangential position with relation to the major wars occurring in this time, and interprets her role in the novel as demonstrating “humanity’s enormous need to rationalize the past” and its resultant “dubious acts of emplotment” (51). According to Cowart, Pynchon parodies this attempt to invest reality with meaning, believing essentially that there is no motive in events, and that only secular apocalypse awaits us.

Jumping slightly awkwardly from the kind of broad analysis described above to a narrower focus on a particular historical era, Cowart’s next chapter is entitled “Pynchon and the Sixties: The California Novels.” Making a case for the overlooked political relevance and moralising attitude of much postmodern literature, Cowart suggests that Pynchon is among the most politically forthright of his literary peers, drawing his ethical impetus from the “sunlike moral intensity of the 1960s” (85). Picking out allusions to the countercultural-political scene, Cowart argues that Pynchon’s California novels express the author’s interest in the sixties while also seeking to reveal the “millenarian canker in the flower children” (120), its self-betrayal and the triumphant conservatism that followed. But Cowart’s overall aim is to underscore what he considers an unusual approach to persuasion on Pynchon’s part, his “argument by indirection and understatement” (89), his deliberate skirting-around of major historical episodes and figures. This point is insightful, yet in trying to make it Cowart makes rather lengthy digressions from the supposed sixties focus of this, the longest chapter in the study, which accumulates so many sections lacking in logical interconnection as to become really quite confusing.

Chapter 5, “The Luddite Vision: Mason & Dixon” moves both forward and backward in time, examining Pynchon’s perspective on the Enlightenment in one of his more recent novels. Cowart finds this perspective to be (as many other critics have) anti-rationalist, critical of the overgrowth of secular, scientific reason in the late eighteenth century. Mason & Dixon, he suggests, is an attempt to educate “the Age of Reason … to its own limitations” (142). It does this via intrusions of the spiritual and the magical, subversions of physical laws and imaginative-epistemal boundaries. Perhaps Cowart overlooks the environmentalist implications of this aspect of Pynchon’s novel, yet his argument here serves to reinforce his earlier point about the author’s wilful blurring of the rationalist distinction between history and fiction. Making a case for Pynchon’s burgeoning spiritual/religious seriousness, he also points to a more positive form of paranoia appearing in the later work, a paranoia which “becomes the gauge of [Mason and Dixon’s] sensitive resistance to rationalist excess” (155).

The following chapter describes Pynchon’s postmodern project as, in the term coined by Linda Hutcheon, historiographic metafiction, and labels the author as a “fictive genealogist” – a writer who reveals controlling and competing forces working to shape events. In “Pynchon, Genealogy, History: Against the Day,” Cowart charts Pynchon’s investment in “preterite” history, in revealing the machinations of power and the human lives chewed up and spat out in the pursuit of (capitalist) progress. Again, this narration of the passed over is described by Cowart as “oblique” (the Great War is not foregrounded in the novel) and he suggests that the prevalence of doubling and bilocation in Against the Day takes on a deeper significance in relation to Pynchon use of analogy and implication in making anti-authoritarian commentaries, historical calamities further mirroring present day situations. Drawing up a thread from the previous chapter, Cowart goes on to reassert the alignment between Pynchon’s spiritual point of view and that of Gnosticism with its ideology of light and dark – reinforcing a point made most famously by Dwight Eddins in his 1990 study The Gnostic Pynchon. It is also suggested that the author invests in the idea of karmic balancing, but Cowart emphasises his apocalypticism too.

Finally, Chapter 7 “The Historiographer Historicized: Pynchon and Literary History,” sees Cowart defending the premise of this book that Pynchon deserves respect as a writer of historical fiction, comparing the author favourably with other great canonical novelists and outlining the impact his careers is having on emerging authors. He lists those eclectic works of literature that have impacted upon Pynchon’s writing practice, as well as the pop culture he also likes to reference, and concludes that via his encyclopaedic novels “Pynchon performs the very idea of literature” (197) – incorporating and reinventing myriad genres and forms both modern and antiquated.

The points Cowart makes throughout this book about the treatment history receives in Pynchon’s historiographic metafiction are justified and valid, as are his suggestions about the political and ethical standpoint from which the author writes. But whether this book offers anything truly new to Pynchon criticism is debatable. Since Cowart does not engage extant criticism it is hard to see where his arguments differ from the numerous accounts of Pynchon’s historiography already available to the reader. Moreover, pretty much all of the analysis Cowart offers to us has previously seen print, the chapters here described having all been published in some form previously in journals or edited collections. Since a significant portion of this material first saw print in the 70s, 80s and 90s, the study is also lacking a certain freshness, despite its incorporation of perspectives on Against the Day and Inherent Vice. Cowart seems to be going over some rather hackneyed themes – notably paranoia, entropy, the quest motif, even the role of Henry Adams and his Education – although he does offer a new twist on many of these. (He pursues such thematic analysis irrespective of the fact that, as he himself notes, Pynchon has discounted the centrality of entropy and paranoia to his writing (166).)

Another criticism would be the meandering, digressive and sometimes repetitive nature of the study, although Cowart apologises in advance for the third of these qualities in the preface. Cowart’s digressions, among which I would count a number of the parallels drawn between Pynchon and other novelists – the lengthy comparison to Joyce being particularly arbitrary, do have a certain charm as well as an interest value. However, this book will probably appeal more to the layman Pynchonite than to academic specialists. As noted, Cowart in fact explicitly welcomes the more casual reader, to this end including in the volume summaries of Pynchon’s novels to date, as extensive a biography of the reclusive author that anyone has yet marshaled, and a bibliography of major works of Pynchon criticism.

About the Author:

Joanna Freer is a DPhil candidate at the University of Sussex. Her thesis is based on uncovering Pynchon’s complex relationship with the sixties counterculture.