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Pynchon, and How History Didn’t Turn Out the Way
We Thought It Would


The best of times. Not just money and unemploymentwise. History, apparently just another Baby Boomer, chose rust over burnout, longevity over Juliet. So the Cold War didn’t vaporize us; it slunk away muttering something between a whimper and a sigh of relief. And to most eyes the nuclear sword of Damocles -- though technically still poised over our heads -- doesn’t look much more threatening than a plastic disposable razor. Apocalypse not now.

The worst of times. Americans, the quintessential bad weather animals, have sunk into lassitude, ill-humor, and channel-surfing. In doing so they wolf down mountains of taco chips and dream of fat-laden food that will trick their bodies into losing weight. Since they’re already fat and ashamed, sex has become primarily vicarious (soon to be virtual) and focused on important issues such as distinguishing marks on the President’s genitals. This also does double work as a political issue, since its competitors boil down to incomprehensible bipartisan gibberish on (a) illegal campaign contributions, (b) budget-balancing, and (c) the medical-industrial complex. Supposedly -- my source is a famous toe-licker -- Bill Clinton won the last election by emphasizing “little issues.” What the hell else was he supposed to do?

He also cozied up to a bunch known as Soccer Moms. Now this was a group in real trouble, especially if they turned on the stereos in their Volvos while waiting out their neophyte Maradonas. Talk about a wasteland. Forget Oldies and Classic Rock, which are best enjoyed in elevators, or Rap: remember, these are Soccer Moms. Let’s say our hypothetical SM bumps into what her kids are listening to: grunge, the Seattle sound, literally thousands of fuzz-toned hacks trying to sound like Pearl Jam, who didn’t sound that good in the first place. Western Civilization’s best bet is a major eruption of Mt. Rainier. Meanwhile, my guess is many an SM got a taste of the future and headed west in the family Volvo, leaving her Umbro-clad progeny to rot on the playing fields of Rim City.

I shouldn’t pick on music. It’s the same on the screen or on the Astroturf or wherever else popular entertainment is purveyed. Technical perfection mocking the absolutely vapid nature of what is on display. It’s hard to tell who likes formulaic degradation, violence, and destruction more: the public or the producers. Disney, who once gave us Snow White and Bambi, just picked up the movie rights for a book featuring a drug ring with a penchant for hollowing-out dead babies and filling them with cocaine. So much for mind-expanding drugs.

Now, assuming this isn’t all anecdotal, things are really fine, and Americans as noble as always: is there a way around it, through it, or out of it? From a societal perspective, this presents real problems, since, if you accept my general thesis, our good fortune is our curse. He whom the Gods wish to destroy they give unto him his heart’s delight; salvation demands really bad juju -- a new Depression, Yellow Peril, or maybe a juicy Civil War.... Purists and the trigger-happy might argue this is simply a fair exchange for some good down-home probity. But Pragmatists, Yossarianists, and other socio-political slackers -- the great majority of us -- would very probably prefer to let the good times roll. Damn the citizenry! Full prosperity ahead!

This brings me to the issue of personal integrity. Is it possible to avoid being slimed by good fortune? Not for me, certainly; I may actually lie below the norm, trimmerwise. No, this is a matter for those with at least a theoretical capacity for intellectual incorruptibility: stayers of the course, or at least those smart and funny enough to have some claim to group-think impermeability. Does such a Burberryman exist? Can we, unlike Diogenes, who after all lived in a jar, point a flashlight toward at least one honest homo americanus?

My candidate is Thomas Pynchon. I should point out that you can’t trust my objectivity (always a bad idea), since I consider him to be the best writer in the English language. But I think he has at least one other very relevant credential. In the Age of Me -- a time so rich and varied in its narcissistic possibilities that even scribblers get to do adoration walkabouts and maybe even Oprah -- he has not only shunned the cult of personality, but pretty much everybody, me included. Outside of one recent grainy photo -- he’s wearing a raincoat, incidentally -- he remains the Invisible Man. Maybe he’s shy, or it’s all a grand game of hide-and-seek; but for the sake of argument, let’s say it has something to do with personal integrity: not a hatred of the electronic media (supposedly, he never missed an episode of The Brady Bunch), but a loyalty to the written word. Sort of like this: “I’m a writer. I tell you everything you need to know on pieces of paper. Fuck the rest.” In any case he’s been lying low since 1963, so I think it’s at least reasonable to conclude that his is one stubborn fellow, the kind of guy who might actually try to match his freestyle against the tides of history.

Well, let’s get to the real Exhibit A, the writing: stories, some articles, even liner notes, but mostly, novels. They’re the crown jewels, since with Pynchon there seems to be a direct relationship between length and quality, as if the more he writes, the more neurons come into play. The shorter books, VINELAND and especially THE CRYING OF LOT 49, are certainly good by any reasonable definition of good. But it’s his long books, V, GRAVITY’S RAINBOW, and (maybe) MASON & DIXON, that reveal his power and argue most effectively: “You better read me for the next fifteen hundred years, or those who know will regard you as a dumb shit.”

So what makes him good? It sure ain’t his plots. A more shambling writer it’s hard to imagine. There is always a story line, sometimes even an intricate one; but like so many paths in the deep woods, it ends up disappearing into the underbrush. You try to follow, but it’s nowhere to be found. Not exactly a recommendation for immortality, though it didn’t stop Sterne. But still, what’s the big deal?

In part, it’s the complexity and sheer beauty of his language. Sentences and paragraphs first get battled through, then pondered, then savored, then read some more. And when you’re through with this process, you wonder how anybody could have said it better. In fact, you’re left with the same weird feeling provoked by Shakespeare: that no human being could possibly write this well. I predict that in the future there will be scholarly theses debated and convincing arguments made that Pynchon never existed, and that his books were written by (a) Tiny Tim, (b) a polymath New Jersey bricklayer, or (c) Jesse Helms (who is already known to lead a secret life). Can it be any accident that all his original manuscripts bore the postmark of Roswell, New Mexico?

Then there are his characters: so vivid that they persist in jumping off the page and acting out, sometimes in the most embarrassing fashion. For instance, Slothrop immediately attempted to flush himself down my toilet, and the Lady V stripped down to her very allografts on my fake Persian carpet. He has an obvious fascination with the interface between the animate and the inanimate, the fissure between quick and dead; and can make it work because he can gin up a plausible character out of virtually anything: an erudite canine, a horny mechanical duck, my God, he manages to breathe life into a malevolent giant cheese-wheel on the run. Characters, legions of characters, racing like rats through the maze of his imagination, manifesting every form of behavior from the most tragic to the most hilarious. Black humor? Consider the Marquis de Sod, who promises “‘E’ll wheep your your lawn into shepp,” or my favorite 40s war-toy, the Juicy Jap, a small infantryman with bayonet slots and a screw-off head for adding catsup.

But there’s more, and this gets to the heart of the matter. Thomas Pynchon has an extraordinary mastery of history: not simply knowledge and understanding, but a capacity to bend it to dramatic effect. Pynchon grew up in the shadow of the Cold War and the real potential that mushroom clouds over Manhattan might envelop his adolescence in East Norwich, Long Island. I can speak to this, since I grew up around the same time and about ten miles away in Huntington. At that point, anybody with a cursory understanding of military technology and a sense of the preceding half-century might reasonably have concluded that Western Civilization was about to go out with a bang. After all, our very own Governor, Nelson Rockefeller, sent us all plans on how to build a backyard fallout shelter.

It is my contention that the notion that we were irrevocably caught in the undertow of events that would destroy us animates the first two of Pynchon’s great works, V and GRAVITY’S RAINBOW. It is this sense of foreboding, brilliantly articulated, that gives these books their power, and transfixes the reader. He was the prophet of doom; and as with all prophets, it seemed as if God was whispering in his ear. In this context, the finite matter of plot became irrelevant: the plot was history, and we were its victims. That’s why people sought him out: not because he avoided them; but because they were sure he know what was going to happen; that he could recount the countdown to their collective obliteration. Surely he made some money and didn’t have to punch a time-clock; but it must have put him in a difficult position. Rumor has it he wasn’t the recluse he appeared to be, that he had friends, ate pizza, kept up a healthy dialog with the pleasures of the flesh. But still, he was perched on a high and dangerous flagpole, and he was up there alone: an ultimate testimony to his credentials as a bad-weather animal.

But what of Pynchon in better times, released like the rest of us from nuclear death row? This is where MASON & DIXON comes in. Plainly, it’s a fine book, replete with the qualities that made and make him a great writer. Consider this:

Facts are but the play-things of lawyers, -- Tops and Hoops, forever a-spin.... Alas, the Historian may indulge no such idle Rotating. History is not Chronology, for that is left to lawyers, -- nor is it Remembrance, for Remembrance belongs to the People. History can little pretend to the Veracity of the one, as claim the Power of the other, -- her Practitioners, to survive, must soon learn the arts of the quidnunc, spy, and Taproom Wit, -- that there may ever continue more than one life-line back into a Past we risk, each day, losing our forebears in forever, -- not a Chain of single Links, for one broken Link could lose us All, -- rather, a great disorderly Tangle of Lines, long and short, weak and strong, vanishing into the Mnemonick Deep, with only their Destination in common.


The book is full of passages of a similar caliber. Moreover, it’s an historical tour de force, giving the impression of having been written literally from within the 18th century -- its concepts, its language, its fantasies, its visual and tactile landscape: everything is there, a recreation of the past so believable as to seem not to be the past at all, just a kind of parallel play-back joined to us by his disorderly tangle of lines. The characters are as sane and crazy and real and everything else, all at once, as ever. We watch George Washington smoke dope and Ben Franklin direct our heroes to Philadelphia’s best laudanum, and never question this as a perfectly reasonable thing for a Founding Father to be doing.

There’s only one problem. The book is about the Enlightenment, and, despite all Pynchon’s efforts at investing it with an aura of dread, it remains, within the pages of MASON & DIXON, an optimistic time, filled with venturesome folks, unfolding a basically happy tale. There was indeed a darker side to the Enlightenment (witness Jefferson’s agonized dependence on his slaves), but behind it all ticked a clockwork universe. And behind MASON & DIXON one senses a happier Pynchon. He’s reputed to be married and have a child and enjoying both. Can it be that he sees light at the end of the 20th century? I suppose this is bad news for public rectitude and individual free will, if good news for my thesis. Now, don’t get the idea he’s exactly blissed-out, nor has necessarily been corrupted by today’s environment: it’s just hard to make the case that he’s totally impervious to it. History didn’t turn out the way we thought it would, and now we have to pay the price, sitting back, enjoying ourselves, and waiting for personal, not corporate, annihilation.

So, Tom, if you’re ever in town and feeling gregarious, stop by. We’ll crack some brewskis and tell ethnic jokes.


©Robert L. O’Connell, 1997.


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