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Occupy Pynchon

Politics after Gravity's Rainbow


Sean Carswell


Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017

Hardcover. vi+203 p. ISBN 978-0820350882. $59.95


Reviewed by Anne Battesti

Université Paris-Nanterre





Sean Carswell offers a systematic parallel between the political dissent voiced and staged in Thomas Pynchon's novels after Gravity's Rainbow (1973), and ‘Occupy Wall Street’, which started in September 2011 in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

The introductory chapter synthezises the major procedures and demands of ‘Occupy’ (participatory democracy through the rule of consensus, the refusal of financial capitalism and the pursuit of economic equality within autonomously administered commons). The chosen corpus is then justified: Vineland, published in 1991 but set in 1984, was contemporary with the neoliberal turn taken in the United States with the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, and saw Pynchon move away from the paranoiac model of the previous novels (V., The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity's Rainbow), to present ‘a more fully articulated global system of power’, as well as more encouraging pockets of resistance than ever before. Carswell then introduces the main theoretical references which inspired or fuelled ‘Occupy’, and which he draws upon throughout the book together with the political testimonies of the protest in Zuccotti Park: Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire (2000), Multitude (2004) and Commonwealth (2009), and Karl Polanyi's classic on modern capitalism, The Great Transformation (1944). Five chapters are then devoted respectively to the five novels published after Gravity's Rainbow. The sixth chapter analyses the metaphorical uses of the 'ukule as it travelled from one Pynchon novel to the next ; and the conclusion paves the way for the political ‘occupation’ of other contemporary novels, notably those of Haruki Murakami, and Ali Smith.

Chapter two discusses the turning point of Vineland. Carswell sketches the historical turn of the 1980's towards a new, ruthless rise of ‘Empire’ and drastic restrictions of democratic rights in the United States, after the defeat of the sixties rebellion. He registers the failure of violent forms of revolution, which has given way in recent years to a different type of insurrection, essentially movements of political disobedience such as ‘Occupy Wall Street’, the ‘Arab Spring’ (2010-2012) and the occupation of major city squares in Southern Europe. In the 1980's, ‘Empire’ started becoming ‘governance without government’ (Hardt and Negri), no longer resting on mere authoritarianism but also on the complicity of the governed, including political opponents, whose first step towards active dissent is precisely their awareness of this very assent. In Vineland, television viewing is a major site of such ambivalent complicity, both alienating the viewers and intruding into the world to pluralize it (Brian Mc Hale is quoted here). But Carswell seeks to ascertain positive pockets of resistance: in ‘the Sisterhood of the Kuonichi Attentives’, despite its ambiguities (and Pynchon's satirical thrust, ignored here); and in the final reunion of the Becker-Traverse family, an extended, leaderless community bringing together early twentieth-century ‘Wobblies, fifties communists, sixties student activists and eighties punk-rockers’ [42].

Chapter three follows the two heroes of Mason & Dixon (1997) through the slave colonies of Dutch South Africa, then Pennsylvania and Maryland, pointing out the relation between the nascent ‘Empire’s’ chartered companies (notably the East India Company), and slavery. It offers an unusual emphasis on the characters' immersion in a ‘commodity culture’ (especially coffee and tobacco, staple ingredients of the many pub conversations and controversies staged in the novel). A more predictable development is dedicated to the debunking of Jefferson, Franklin, and Washington, the Founding Fathers Pynchon animates in his own whimsical way, and denounced by Carswell as ‘wealthy landowners seeking to expand their wealth at the expense of women, slaves, Native Americans, and contract employees like Mason and Dixon’ [57]: the Enlightenment's philosophical beliefs are seen as the mere ideological mask of vested interests. Carswell then turns to Pynchon's by now well-explored ‘subjunctive America’ which seeps through everywhere in the text: a site of counternarratives where tall tales, ghosts, and magic occurrences proliferate along the very Line which submits the land to Reason and encloses property, but which is nonetheless hacked across the forests by a motley crew of characters, ghosts, and escapees from embedded stories, who eschew power, and somehow manage to step outside the system they serve. Some remarks on Cherrycoke's ‘postmodernist’ narration serve to absolve postmodernism of its alleged complicity with ‘Empire’ (Hardt and Negri, Hutcheon, but Jameson also comes to mind), since even if ‘Empire’ has learned to tell postmodern stories, Pynchon obviously ‘creates worlds that the marketplace (...) cannot deliver’ [75], thus encouraging us to imagine a different world.

Chapter four relates Pynchon's ‘bilocation’ in Against the Day (2006) to the novel's reading programme, requiring a parallel perception of both the Gilded Age of ‘robber barons’ and our own time. Carswell also discusses political violence, ultimately dismissed by Pynchon as futile, then pits against the submissive ‘freedom’ of neoliberal society the nomadic drifting of the main characters, adepts of spiritual journeys, immaterial labour, intellectual inquiry, and community. A long disquisition on Karl Polanyi's denaturalization of the market (through anthropological testimonies of ancient economies of sharing and reciprocity, set up against Adam Smith's idea of a natural, universal barter and trading economy) reasserts the idea, often found in Pynchon, of a (murderous) religious belief in the market. A lengthy presentation of the utter villain of Against the Day, the plutocrat Scarsdale Vibe (who owes much not only to John D. Rockefeller but also to anarchist caricatures of the time, although this is neglected by the author) leads to the counter-move of ‘jacquerie’ (‘a self-organized rebellion based on indignation’, Hardt and Negri) in this novel. Carswell thus lists different forms and degrees of resistance in the Traverse family, from half-hearted, compromised escapes, to deliberate communities of dissent.

In chapter five, the author discusses Pynchon's political deviations from the ‘Noir’ texts and parodies he rewrites in Inherent Vice (2009) while taking up Chandler's awareness of the detective novel's potential for cultural critique. Hardt and Negri are then called upon again, as well as David Graeber's Debt: The first 5,000 Years (2014) and his advocacy of former societies of sharing, and Carswell points out the relevance of college graduates' debt to the ‘Occupy’ movement. Inherent Vice's detective, Doc Sportello, moves towards a similar economy of the commons, increasingly drifting away from the model of private property, and Carswell lists the instances of Doc's refusing payment. This is his resistance to the world of ‘The Golden Fang’ (oddly amputated of the article by Carswell to become ‘Golden Fang’, somehow personified like ‘Empire’), the corrupt, shadily ramified adversary in this novel. The famous final scene, a mere glimmer of momentary hopefulness, is seen in an unusually optimistic light, affording ‘hope for redemption’, according to the author, who sometimes takes up Pynchon's own moral Christian vocabulary.

In chapter six, the Deep Web where Maxine Tarnow gets ‘constructively lost’ in Bleeding Edge (2013) is Pynchon's latest version of a precarious alternate world. Carswell believes that Bleeding Edge is where ‘the most complete representation of Empire’ can be found, and returns to the tight knot of complicity and resistance already discussed in the previous chapters. Quoting Savoj Žižek's speech at Zuccotti Park about the confiscation of the very capacity to imagine another world (‘you cannot imagine the end of capitalism’), he again praises Pynchon for saving and nourishing such an imagination, here thanks to ever threatened cyberspace commons, and to the digital invention of another, more merciful Manhattan by two young boys.

Chapter seven examines the persistent if incidental appearance of 'ukuleles in all of Pynchon's novels: the 'ukulele is ‘not a unified metaphor, but points to a method of resistance which reclaims the artefacts of global consumerism and repurposes them.’ A welcome summary of the instrument's historical origins and migrations is offered, supporting the idea that despite its status as a tacky tourist commodity within the network of ‘Empire’, it was indeed appropriated by an indigenous culture. A chronological inventory of its occurrence in Pynchon's novels shows that the 'ukulele does not merely serve comic relief, but signals an implicit empowerment of the multitude. Though easily co-opted by ‘Empire’, like any aspect of reclaimed culture and in the same way as the postmodernist notions of difference, fluidity and hybridity have been co-opted, Pynchon's 'ukulele is a symbol of small-scale but enduring resistance.

In the concluding chapter, the author claims that his ‘heuristic […] affords scholars a means of beginning with Hardt and Negri, moving through economic and literary theory, and applying criticism of global consumer capitalism’ to a broader corpus of contemporary fiction: Murakami and Ali Smith's novels are briefly discussed, and the works of Paul Murray, David Mitchell, Kiran Desai are suggested as further fields of an exploration drawing upon the theoretical resources used in this book (besides Hardt and Negri, and Polanyi: Wendy Brown, David Graeber, David Harvey, Immanuel Wallerstein, Slavoj Žižek).

The chief merit of this book is to firmly assert and document Pynchon's unflagging political commitment, his furious, inventive quarrel with an increasingly unfettered plutocracy which has come to jeopardize democracy, and the very idea of a political community. Carswell presents an inventory of the main modes of domination and exploitation which are staged in Pynchon's novels from Vineland onwards. The shift he sees in Vineland towards a clearer representation of the political enemy is indeed palpable. Not so much, I would suggest, because of a heightened faith in resistance (counter-movements and nomadic desertions abound in Gravity's Rainbow, which already relinquished the haunting, radical ambivalence of counter-systems such as The Crying of Lot 49's Tristero/Trystero); but because the figure of the Master is no longer that of a faceless, mesmerizing Seducer, no longer an object of awed fascination or even enchantment: merely human power indeed, vast and daunting but not as paralyzing as before. Besides, and beyond Pynchon's works, the crucial shift of political protest from revolutionary projects to forms of temporary autonomous zones is clearly shown in this book: resistance is limited in time and space but ever mobile and resurgent, in a sense as nomadic as capital itself.

Several objections come to mind, however. First, because Pynchon's texts are always ancillary here, merely illustrative, instead of prompting a vigorous enough debate and friction with the wholly different type of discourse which is that of political theory and militancy. Carswell's analysis is always based on characters, chosen scenes and situations, but the forms of the novels are not part of it (except for some comments on the narration of Mason & Dixon). The highly singular reading experience is thus blotted out, which turns the discussed novels into a somewhat lifeless, eventless catalogue of political indignations, encouragements and hopes. The author never so much as acknowledges, for instance, Pynchon's irony (although the novelist does stick to his guns, staunchly defending irony in his most recent novel, Bleeding Edge) and his self-irony, his modes of ‘counterfeiting’ (Against the Day), the stylistic energies or simulations of his works, and whatever lifts a text out of mere ‘message’ into more or less contagious performance. What is left then, in Carswell's analysis, is the by now familiar thematic contents of Pynchon's fiction.

Second, the systematic yoking together of Pynchon on the one hand, and Hardt and Negri on the other hand, tends to create a rather monotonous field of confirmation rather than discovery (we know so well what we are looking for that we cannot fail to find it everywhere), and leads to countless unnecessary repetitions. In this respect, the division into chapters devoted to one novel after another (as is too often required by American academic publishers) does not serve the project of the book, whereas a more synthetic approach, like that of chapter seven, might have avoided the trotting out of similar, redundant comments and conclusions from one chapter to the next. In any case, the demonstration that Hardt and Negri's ‘multitude’ or ‘Occupy’s’ 99% against 1% strictly coincide with Pynchon's more or less temporary anarchist communes (‘commune’ is indeed the word used at the end of Inherent Vice), is not fully convincing: the recurrent term ‘community’, no matter how attractive, goes unquestioned throughout the book as an irenic gathering of almost all mankind, producing consensus regardless of class differences and conflicting interests, and I am still not sure this is something Pynchon's texts endorse (and for the same reason still not sure this has been a more effective way than others of organizing resistance to capitalism). In addition, it would have been useful to remember that even after Pynchon's initial fascination with the hidden Master-Seducer, the now shrunken but partly victorious figure of the evil seducer persists in the novels studied here (Frenesi, Dally, Maxine, all give in at some point). A proper debate between the literary and the political corpus could then have been established, since Pynchon's awareness of the powerful seductiveness of ‘Empire’ (and lately the literally addictive appeal of technocapitalism) is conspicuously absent from ‘Occupy’s’ description of the problem, and may be disabling. Beyond the idea of complicity, Pynchon has always been concerned with the ambivalence of desire itself (between freedom and submission), or with the way the ‘Empire’ can make itself desirable: this, of course, darkens the picture a little, or at least deepens its shadows.

Third, the author could have been more convincing with a wider array of historical references when discussing the economy of the commons (Karl Polanyi's admirable but not quite recent contribution cannot be the sole authority on ancient societies), or slavery (which existed long before capitalism, including of course in ancient Greece, oddly mentioned here among the nostalgic examples of peaceful economies of reciprocity). Besides, more substantial references to anarchist thought (only Emma Goldman is mentioned here, briefly) might have been helpful to do full justice to Pynchon's own political signature. Finally, there may be in this book an excess of virtuous intentions (rarely good companions for complexity). Carswell wisely quotes Tony Tanner's warning that Mason & Dixon would be poorly served if read as ‘a sort of politically correct disguised tract’, and then seems to forget. As if Pynchon's novels were not transgressive in more ways than one.



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