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Thomas Pynchon


Texts collected by Bénédicte Chorier-Fryd & Gilles Chamerois


Collection « Horizons anglophones » – Série Profils américains

Montpellier : Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2014

Broché. 344 p. ISBN 978-2367810225. 29€


Reviewed by Anne-Laure Tissut

Université de Rouen


This 344-page-collection gathers contributions from three continents ‒ America, Australia and Europe ‒ and covers all of Pynchon’s works up to Bleeding Edge, which came out at about the same time as this volume. It includes a comprehensive Pynchon bibliography, also referring to other major Pynchon bibliographic compilations. The collection is divided into four sections, focusing respectively on political and ethical concerns, on the relations between History and story, on the metafictional dimension of Pynchon’s works and finally on the questioning of presence through fiction. Half of the papers analyse one work alone while the other half brings two or three of Pynchon’s works together, all contributions showing a thorough knowledge of the writer’s works as well as of the context in which they were written. Various, complementary approaches are combined, from close-reading to notional reflections shedding new light on the work, which is for instance read through the lens of kenosis, the carnivalesque or rhythm. All, in one way or another, enhance Pynchon’s unique use of language in a dazzling work that constantly recycles languages, thus destabilizing frontiers ‒ semantic, epistemological and political ones.

Charles Hollander contributes a typology of “names with a resonance” in Pynchon’s work as part of the author’s enterprise of exposing hidden episodes in history. Hollander shows how an alert reader is thus called for as “the narrative melds with the counternarrative […] sometimes each enlightening and at other times camouflaging the other.”

Nicholas Henson brings together Vineland and Against the Day as illustrations of Pynchon’s strategy of creating “redeeming and moralizing interpretations of history” through the representation of family connections and stories. Pynchon stages the “ability to imagine resistance to social and economic class inequalities through an exploration of historical precedents and the creation of alternative narratives,” thus countering dangerously static narratives and demonstrating the malleability of History.

Stephen C. Lento starts from critics’ identification of Pynchon’s early work as a forecast of computer technologies to demonstrate how both Pynchon’s work and such technologies have been influenced by the same political and ideological forces ‒ the countercultural currents that developed in the 1960s in California. Through a comparative analysis of The Crying of Lot 49 and Inherent Vice, Lento shows that while technology has readily been submitted by capitalism, Pynchon in Inherent Vice tries to “rekindle the sense of the undecidable” in fiction, by “retroactively inject[ing] the 1960s with a forgotten sense of possibility.”

Martin Paul Eve contributes “a tripartite analysis of the relationship between the philosophical works of Ludwig Wittgenstein and the novels of Thomas Pynchon […] broadly structured around three schools of Wittgenstein scholarship” and particularly focusing on Pynchon’s take on ethical relativism. Through an analysis of Wittgenstein’s Private Language Argument, Pynchon’s relativism is shown to “becom[e] an active ethical act.” The “quantity of disempowered voices in Pynchon’s fiction” may be construed as “a mitigation against an unbounded relativism,” as Pynchon’s polyphonic fiction “salvages some meaning from otherwise hollow words.”

Matthias Mösch focuses on “Faustian themes and sensibilities” in V. and Gravity’s Rainbow to show how “Pynchon integrates the reader in a systemic assault against totalizing epistemological gestures, employing myths in order to widen perspectives and establishing alternative visions, while remaining suspicious of their naturalising and depoliticising properties.” Thus does Pynchon “prob[e] critically into the symbolic processes underlying mythology, paranoia, and totalitarianism alike.”

LeAnn Stevens-Larré offers an interpretation of V. as an archive, or “the point of narrative reconstruction” within which “multiple stories are possible,” and which teases the reader’s “urge to find original truth.” Thank to the notion of archive the novel may be read as “an inanimate artifact amidst the rubble of the twentieth century, one piece of many which can be added to the whole story and itself a microcosm of that story.”

Cyril Servain analyses V. in the light of Michel Serres’s work, and more particularly his reflexion on parasitism, to show how in Pynchon’s novel “linguistic playfulness serves thematic concerns about paranoia and accident, literary control and general absurdity.” Pynchon stands out among the “masters of excess” studied by Tom LeClair since “rather than exercising his parasitic ‘mastery’ over the reader in order to ‘control’ him, [he] uses ‘parasitism’ to both subvert and celebrate the powers of mimetic narration.” Servain studies the proliferation of noise in V. to suggest that Pynchon’s novel “represents an alternative to binary thinking” which opens access to “other, more local, less totalizing, senses of the word ‘responsibility’.”

Luc Herman focuses on Pynchon’s use of facts and take on verisimilitude in Against the Day through the representation of Belgium, to suggest that, in agreement to Linda Hutcheon, “the often playful and radical treatment of fact […] contributes to a relevance conventional historiography cannot reach because it is limited to one perspective.”

Paolo Simonetti chooses to analyse “an often overlooked aspect of Pynchon’s poetics, namely, the complex relationship between writing and fatherhood, private life and public identity.” Through the analysis of diverse images of youth in Pynchon’s work, Simonetti shows “how the figure of the artist inexorably progresses from an inveterate prankster constantly rebelling to adults’ authority to an aging father telling his sons bedtime stories about an America that (never?) was.” With special emphasis on V., Mason & Dixon and Against the Day, Pynchon’s “two souls” are analyzed throughout his work, up to “the peculiar mixing of detailed pedantry and farcical situations typical of his later fiction.” Even when Pynchon’s work takes a sentimental turn to suggest family and domestic feelings as a safe harbor to be reached, irony is maintained, true to the prankster figure.

Claude Maisonnat offers a reading of Pynchon’s early short story “Low-Lands” as a metafictional representation of the writer’s finding his voice ‒ a combination of authorial voice with textual voice, made of textual effects that somewhat escape the author’s control.

Gilles Chamerois very closely analyzes bilingual jokes and their comic effect to show how they radically question the revelatory powers of language as part of Pynchon’s “playful hermeneutics.” As most of the comic lies in the reader’s struggling with the bilingual joke so as to make sense out of it, the emphasis shifts from unveiling meaning onto sharing the beauty and riddles of languages.

Bénédicte Chorier-Fryd focuses on the complex rhythmic play in Mason & Dixon as one form of the resistance to determination characterizing Pynchon’s oeuvre as a whole. Pynchon’s writing overcomes binary oppositions to “challeng[e] the very distinction between norms and deviations therefrom,” thus opening out spaces for freedom, while offering an “off-the-record story about America […] as the source of new, hybrid rhythms.”

Zofia Kolbuszewska discusses the dialectical representations of the mysterious female figure in V to show how Pynchon’s first novel “anticipates the debate on the return of the baroque in contemporary culture” while criticizing Western modernity. Through a baroque “poetics of visual excess”, V. turns into an “allegory of allegory of modernity.”

Em McAvan calls upon the notion of kenosis to “trace an alternative to the secular reading of Pynchon.” More specifically he reads The Crying of Lot 49 in relation to the post-metaphysical theologies of Jean-Luc Marion and Michel de Certeau, and accordingly interprets “Pynchon’s paranoid narrative as a form of mysticism.” Pynchon’s attempt to “reenchant the world” that has been emptied out of God and in which the object of any revelation is that there is no secret to reveal goes through a ceaseless exploration of the mysteries of language, in quest for a constantly deferred meaning. Through such opening to alterity and uncertainty may the postmodern world be reenchanted, playing the elusive written word against the lost spoken one.

While focusing on one of Pynchon’s later work, Inherent Vice, Anne Battesti offers an overall analysis of Pynchon’s whole oeuvre in relation to the reader’s desire for presence. While ostensibly describing the reader’s experience through metanarrative and parodic devices, Pynchon’s works maintain a tension between meaning and presence through a subtle play of impersonations or “othering.” Presence appears to be both “a source of anguish and wonder,” as conveyed through the liberating laughter often triggered by Pynchon’s fool figures, whose long line is masterfully analysed in Battesti’s paper.

Throughout the volume recurring terms and themes such as Pynchon’s strategies of inversion or impersonation, as well as his cultivation of uncertainty and playing on paranoia progressively build up a Pynchon cosmogony of sorts, endowing the collection with great homogeneity. Yet the papers may still be read separately, and in whatever order, according to the reader’s interests. As key issues of contemporary American literature are broached through minute studies of the great master’s work, this collection of essays is both an indispensable contribution to one’s Pynchon library and a most useful companion and tool to readers of contemporary fiction.


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