Gravity's Rainbow | Critical Essay by David Cowart

This literature criticism consists of approximately 17 pages of analysis & critique of Gravity's Rainbow.
This section contains 4,065 words
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Critical Essay by David Cowart

SOURCE: "Attenuated Postmodernism: Pynchon's Vineland," in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XXXII, No. 2, Winter, 1990, pp. 67-76.

In the following essay, Cowart examines Pynchon's mytho-historical perspective in Vineland, drawing comparison between the literary aesthetics of Pynchon and James Joyce.

Thomas Pynchon, creator of the most significant body of fiction in contemporary America, may have spent some of the last 17 years discovering the limits of the postmodernist aesthetic. Vineland, his long-awaited fourth novel, appears 17 years after the publication in 1973 of the monumental Gravity's Rainbow, widely recognized now as the most important American novel published since World War II. One naturally asks whether this author's art has developed or stagnated over those 17 years. The bad news: Pynchon has made no effort to surpass Gravity's Rainbow. The good news: he has not stood still as a maker of fiction. In Vineland, which may represent a turning point for Pynchon, the author keeps his hand in, modifying some of his old tricks and trying out new ones. In a consideration of this novel's traditional and contemporary features, one encounters an evolutionary text, an experiment in literary hybridization. Conceding that the postures of literary exhaustion may themselves be exhausted, the author combines modernist concerns and postmodernist techniques with some of the features of two kinds of realism: social and magic. The following essay, while scrutinizing the vestiges of a style of aesthetic that Pynchon seems to be outgrowing, will glance at the Abish-like question, how postmodern is it?, in the course of gauging the traditional elements and fresh invention that compose this hybrid. The argument here, introduced in a brief comparison of Pynchon's career with that of Joyce, will focus on technique and the treatment given history and culture (including myth). The author, of Vineland views these topics through a postmodern lens: they appear foreshortened, flattened, all surface. Yet the novel's title and its mythic extension of contemporary history hint at a broader view. Though Pynchon tends to deconstruct the myths he invokes, they complicate the rendering of an otherwise comprehensively ahistorical contemporaneity. Through a combination of this eccentric mythography with a moral earnestness expressed as a penchant for political didacticism, Pynchon produces, in Vineland, a fiction devoted less to indeterminate postmodernist "play" than to totalizing modernist "purpose."

On the face of it, Pynchon's is the definitive postmodern career. In book after book, he has seemed to be Bloom's "strong poet," creatively misreading his modernist forebears. Indeed, a comparison of his work with that of Joyce, a literary father to generate considerable anxiety, reveals some interesting parallels. With the exception of the late sport Slow Learner, Pynchon's 1984 collection of early stories, the fiction-publishing careers of these two writers match up, volume for volume. Joyce's first book-length fiction appeared in 1914, his fourth and last 25 years later, in 1939. Pynchon's first novel and his fourth span a nearly identical period: the 26 years from 1963 to 1989. In the space of exactly a quarter of a century, each of these writers has given his age its gold standard in fiction, the one defining modernism in the novel, the other postmodernism. Yet the two careers move toward an instructive divergence.

The early volumes of Joyce appeared within two years of each other; those of Pynchon, within three. Joyce's first book, Dubliners (1914), is a meticulously structured set of linked fictions that anatomize a culture. Pynchon's V. (1963), a highly episodic and fragmented novel that at least one early reviewer (Meixner) took to be a congeries of cobbled together pieces of collegiate creative writing courses, is also meticulously structured, also a cultural anatomy. Dubliners moves toward a final vision of snowy paralysis. V. toward the triumph of the inanimate. V. was followed in 1966 by The Crying of Lot 49, in which the failure of American promise gradually manifests itself to a protagonist, Oedipa Maas, whose age (28 in 1964, the novel's present), education (Cornell), and places of travel and residence (Mexico and California) seem to make her a female Thomas Pynchon. A kind of oblique spiritual autobiography or conversion narrative, Lot 49 is Pynchon's portrait of the artist in youth and, as such, corresponds to Joyce's autobiographical novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916).

The seven-year period between Lot 49 (1966) and Gravity's Rainbow (1973) corresponds to the six-year period between Portrait (1916) and Ulvsses (1922). Gravity's Rainbow and Ulysses are quests, "encyclopedic" fictions that, epic in scope, catalogue whole cultures with broad attention to the literary and historical past. Each is, in its own way, a strange amalgam of family romance and Telemachiad: Stephen Dedalus discovers a father in Leopold Bloom, Tyrone Slothrop in the evil scientist Dr. Lazslo Jamf. Stephen, of course, is Joyce's autobiographical character, and perhaps one recognizes a further element of autobiography in the Pynchon novel too, inasmuch as it concerns a person who, like the author, simply fades from sight after embarking on a quest that makes him the "Zone's newest celebrity" and brings him face to face with the possibility that Western culture "might be in love, in sexual love," with its own death.

As the years went by after Gravity's Rainbow, one wondered whether its successor would, unimaginably, sustain the Joycean parallel. What complex, Viconian meditation, its hour come round at last, slouched toward Little. Brown to be born? In what idiom would it be written—would it be dense with Herero and Maltese portmanteau words? Pynchon's fourth novel was announced for early in 1990, but it was actually in the bookstores in late December of 1989. In terms of the paradigm, both dates are significant. The earlier is the 50th anniversary of the publication, in 1939, of Finnegans Wake, which appeared 17 years after Joyce's previous novel, Ulysses. The year 1990, of course, marks the same 17-year period since the publication of Pynchon's last novel, Gravity's Rainbow.

But the parallel falters: Vineland is not the postmodern Finnegans Wake. At most one can say that Vineland County, California, is as mythic a landscape as "Howth Castle and Environs" and the River Liffey. One can note, too, that Leif Ericson, who gave America its first name and Pynchon his title, is among the innumerable strands in the weave of the Wake: "lief eurekason and his undishcovery of americle." But these are frail and exiguous crossties for continuing the parallel rails laid thus far. The breakdown in the parallels suggests that the fate reserved for Pynchon's aesthetic differs radically from that reserved for Joyce's. Modernism, it seems, was fated to end with a bang, postmodernism with a whimper.

Though Finnegans Wake announced a new aesthetic in its structure—that of a giant Mobius strip—and in its parodic features (it burlesques the medieval dream vision), it is, first and last, the supreme modernist text. Like its modernist predecessors, it exploits myth, probes consciousness and its mysterious subsurface, and outrages aesthetic sensibility in a prose and structure of consummate "difficulty" (to use Eliot's unpretentious word). The parody, like that of Ulysses, is reconstructive rather than deconstructive. If like other modernist works it holds a mirror up to cultural fragmentation (it was published on the eve of the century's climacteric, World War II), it composes the fragments artistically, for the program of modernism, however iconoclastic, was always some kind of cultural reclamation.

But postmodernism has no such pretensions. It was always a holding action, a "literature of exhaustion," self-canceling in its most basic premises. Parody and replication in postmodern literature exist to underscore the death of the author and to allow an extra season or two to exhausted forms. In Jean-Francois Lyotard's formulation, postmodern literature "puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself." A literature largely about itself and its own strategies of re-presentation, it perennially enacts the universal Semitic law: there is no "transcendental signified" behind the arbitrary signifiers—presence is infinitely deferred. The postmodern aesthetic, like signification itself, is a house of cards, and it seems naturally to exhaust itself at a faster rate than other literary movements. Thus the literary apotheosis toward which modernism moves (in a number of texts) is not available to postmodernism, and thus Vineland corresponds not to Finnegans Wake but to the new literary start Joyce did not live to undertake.

Vineland does not seem to be "self-reflexive" in the approved contemporary manner—a manner that, in all three of his previous novels, Pynchon has shown he can execute brilliantly. But it features at least a few of the quarterings of a postmodern pedigree. It relies heavily on parody, for example, and it favors historical surface to historical depth. It also resists the hierarchization of culture. This refusal to differentiate high culture from low, like the attention to surfaces, is a prominent feature of postmodernist aesthetics. The denial of authority, in all its senses, means the deconstructing of high culture's pretensions to that authority. Thus Pynchon can imagine Pce Wee Herman starring in The Robert Musil Story. Thus, too, in the multiple parody in Vineland—of Ninja fictions, television soap operas, espionage novels, and detective thrillers—Pynchon tends to minimize the "critical distance" that, according to parody theorist Linda Hutcheon, commonly accompanies the specific type of "repetition" that is parodic.

Where he does not parody popular culture, he catalogues it. What is remarkable is that, in contrast to his previous practice, he catalogues little else. He systematically denies himself the usual resources of allusion in its full range. In fact, he limits himself to one compound literary allusion and a couple of musical allusions. Only the literary reference—to an Emerson quotation in William James—is presented seriously. Both musical allusions, on the other hand, are comically undercut. When Prairie starts to learn about her mother from Darryl Louise Chastain, she appropriately hears music from Tosca, for the tale she will hear concerns the suffering of her Tosca-like mother and the Scarpia-like Brock Vond. But the music is played by a pseudo-Italian band at a Mafia wedding. Similarly, in the novel's elegiac conclusion, an entire Thanatoid village awakens to the strains of Bach's "Wachet Auf," evidently with the chorale's powerfully suggestive opening line intended to come to mind: "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme." The music materializes as a "piping, chiming music, synchronized, coming out of wristwatches, timers, and personal computers, engraved long ago, as if for this moment, on sound chips dumped once in an obscure skirmish of the silicon market wars … as part of a settlement with the ever-questionable trading company of Tokkata & Fuji."

Normally this author peppers his fictions with references that establish historical depth as well as cultural breadth, and readers have marveled at his ability to evoke, in V., turn-of-the-century Alexandria, Florence, or South-West Africa, not to mention, in Gravity's Rainbow, the places and feel of much of Europe in 1944 and 1945. These evocations of place and time have generally involved a considerable body of cultural allusion, both high and low. Even in Lot 49, where the California setting is not particularly congenial to evocations of high art, one finds painting, literature, music, and film to be important features of the fictional landscape. But through a kind of askesis (to "misread" a term of Harold Bloom's), Pynchon here dispenses with the high-culture allusion almost entirely.

Meanwhile the density of reference to the ephemera of popular culture is almost numbing. Pynchon refers often to movies, as in Gravity's Rainbow, but here he neglects historic films and art cinema in favor of Gidget, Dumbo, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Godzilla, King of the Monsters, Friday the 13th, Return of the Jedi, and Ghostbusters. Psycho and 2001: A Space Odyssey are the most substantial films mentioned. The author helpfully supplies dates for these films, parodying scholarly practice, and he invents a number of droll film biographies, including The Frank Gorshin Story, with Pat Sajak, and Young Kissinger, with Woody Allen. Even more insistently jejune are the allusions to the titles, characters, stars, and music of such television programs as Star Trek, The Brady Bunch, Gilligan's Island, Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune, I Love Lucy, Green Acres, Smurfs, CHiPs, Superman, and Bionic Woman. This depressing litany—the intellectual horizon of the American mass mind—subsumes less obvious manifestations of popular taste as well: mall culture, "roasts," video and computer games, new wave hairstyles, breakfast cereals, even "'sensitivity' greeting cards." Pynchon's intent here is not entirely satiric, for no doubt he is genuinely fond of much popular culture. In the introduction to Slow Learner, he declares that "rock 'n' roll will never die," and the sentiment is shared by the founders of the People's Republic of Rock and Roll, who name their new state "after the one constant they knew they could count on never to die." Perhaps, too, Pynchon wishes to eschew cultural elitism and demonstrate solidity with the masses. But the virtual absence of historical depth in this body of allusion makes a devastating statement about the shortness of the American cultural memory. This, ultimately, is the point of his constant allusion to the signs and texts of popular culture. Pynchon denies himself much of the cultural and historical dimension of the previous novels and commits himself to imagining the relentlessly a historical consciousness of contemporary American society. The implicit judgment of this shallowness, finally, reveals a moral dimension—always in fact an element in Pynchon's work—that distances this author from the moral neutrality or nihilism sometimes alleged to be the postmodern norm.

Unlike the world he describes, Pynchon himself has an acute sense of history that also leavens his brand of postmodernism. His historical consciousness reveals itself in the guise of that universal history called myth. If the myths invoked in Vineland coexist uneasily at the edge of a mutually deconstructive exclusivity, they nevertheless provide the story's action with a temporal depth: they render it "historical" in spite of itself. Thus Terrence Rafferty does not err when he observes that "American history plays itself out" in the bed of Brock Vond and Frenesi Gates. The play of myth, then, circumvents the nominally a historical vision in Vineland.

One can sometimes differentiate modernists from postmodernists in their treatment of myth—where modernists exploit myth as universal, instinctual truth, their successors either deconstruct myth as an unreliable "metanarrative" (the breakdown of metanarratives, says Lyotard, is the ground for "the postmodern condition") or examine it as a language that, like all language, speaks its speakers rather than the other way around. Pynchon, as Kathryn Hume demonstrates in Pynchon's Mythography, has never divorced himself entirely from the modernist position on myth; and in Vineland he has it both ways—privileging at least one myth, deconstructing at least two others. The Faust myth, for example, seems to function in a fairly conventional manner: the federal prosecutor is Mephistopheles; filmmaking Frenesi is Faust. Yet the myth and the mythical identities prove unstable. The Faust here is also an Eve in the American Eden who betrays her Adam, the hapless Weed Atman. The Mephisto figure. Brock Vond, is also the serpent who tempts them to a fall and a primal murder. These two myths, however, are not at odds, for Faust's passion merely updates that of Adam and Eve. The stories contain the same elements: a diabolical tempter and human souls reaching for forbidden knowledge. But Pynchon complicates matters by introducing, through Sister Rochelle, a mise en abyme: a subversive, feminist version of the Eden myth with Frenesi and DL as the primal Eve and Lilith in an Eden in which "the first man … was the serpent." This revision of the story seems a minor detail in the novel, and perhaps one at first disregards or discounts it in the desire for a totalizing version of a cherished American literary myth. But its seeming insignificance reveals the deconstructive point: it is one of the aporias around which at least one weave of meaning begins to unravel.

Feminism, by its very nature, is deconstructive—it locates the aporias in the "phallogocentric" discourse of patriarchy. In Vineland, the familiar myth undergoes a twofold feminist deconstruction: the patriarchal version of the myth is undercut once by Sister Rochelle's version—and again by the mythic action as Pynchon shapes it. For the mythic individual who makes the moral choice (traditionally an Adam in American fictions: Hawkeye, Huckleberry Finn, Isaac McCaslin) is the American Eve, Frenesi Gates. Vineland, then, is a surprisingly "writerly" text: it invites its reader to grapple with closure-resistant, open, multivalent myths that self-de(con)struct under the instruments of analysis.

Yet Vineland retains a myth that its author celebrates rather than deconstructs. Pynchon's setting is a representation of the American land; and he refuses to surrender the myth of American promise, which he seems to construe in terms of some continuing, provisional validity of a leftist political alternative to contemporaneous conservatism. The novel's title announces the mythic ground. It evokes more than the California setting and reputation for viniculture. The author situates the imaginary town that gives the novel its name up near the California border with Oregon, and he expects the reader to make the nominal connection with a town on the other side of the continent. The latitude of the real Vineland—Vineland, New Jersey—pretty much coincides with that of the imagined California "Vineland the Good," haven for immigrants like Zoyd Williams and others like him. This implied spanning of the continent at the latitude of its greatest breadth jibes with the novel's symbolic detail to suggest that Pynchon's setting is really the whole vast tract that the Vikings discovered and named Vineland at the end of the first millennium. Thus the title of Pynchon's new novel, published at the end of the second millennium, reminds his American readers that their land has been known to history now for exactly a thousand years.

The novel contains other miniaturized symbols of America. A central example is the People's Republic of Rock and Roll, symbolically the counterculture America of the sixties, delirious with freedom, under surveillance, doomed, the Richard Nixon monolith at oceanside casting its shadow, an obvious symbol of repression to come. Perhaps, too, Zoyd Williams's house, of which he has been forcibly dispossessed by unconscionable federal power, is another such symbol. At the end, he is flirting with the idea of putting it to the torch—which America's dispossessed may yet do to the house they are unable fully to enter. As in Lot 49, Pynchon contemplates the paradoxes of dispossession and preterition in the land of promise. "How had it ever happened here," wonder Oedipa Maas in that earlier novel, "with the chances once so good for diversity?"

Vineland, then, is a meditation on the American social reality, a return to the ground Pynchon seems to think he did not cover adequately in Lot 49 (he remarks in the introduction to Slow Learner that he thinks his second novel merely a long story, not technically accomplished). Though Vineland is not Lot 49 redivivus, one notes points of contact—most obviously the California setting—between the two. In the earlier novel the heroine, Oedipa Maas, meets a member of the Paranoids, an aspiring rock group, and offers to give her DJ husband, Mucho, a tape to plug. Now the reader learns that Mucho "after a divorce remarkable even in that more innocent time for its geniality," has become a successful recording industry executive (like V.'s Rooney Winsome)—and that he has shepherded Miles, Dean, Serge, and Leonard to success.

But where is Oedipa in the new novel? Oedipa realizes at the end of Lot 49 that the only way she can go on being relevant to her country is "as an alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia." The heroine of the new novel, Frenesi Gates, is a version of that new, desperate Oedipa—estranged from a man with a Dutch surname and living a furtive, underground existence. Oedipa seems a less flawed person than Frenesi, but both characters are symbols of the American conscience—radicalized in the sixties, coopted in the eighties. The two novels also explore the significance of drug use. In Lot 49, Oedipa does not perceive Mucho's involvement with LSD as positive, but it does link him to the marginalized Americans she will come to embrace. In the later novel, the reader learns that Mucho proceeded to addict himself to cocaine before giving up drugs altogether. Mucho's addiction and the horrors, however comic, of the 'Room of the Bottled Specimens' are among the book's few concessions that there might be a down side to drug use. But Mucho becomes an entrepreneur as he goes straight—and his entrepreneurism makes him suspect in Pynchon's economy. Here one glimpses the equation that partially accounts for Pynchon's somewhat disturbing refusal to depict drugs in a negative light: taking drugs (as opposed, perhaps, to dealing them) remains a powerful metaphor for the idea of an alternative to the rapacious capitalism and consumerism that afflict American society.

One sees a more meaningful contrast between these books in their handling of history. Oddly, it is the book with ostensibly the more shallow historical draft—Vineland, with its one-generation memory—that reveals its author as truly concerned about the way the present evolves out of the past. In Lot 49, several hundred years of history are the means to make Oedipa's quest interesting and complicated, but this past is only superficially imagined as accounting for her American present (Oedipa's historical research serves the epistemological theme—the infinite reticulation of "paranoid" interconnectedness—rather than the sociological one that links her story to Frenesi's). In Vineland, by contrast, Pynchon again examines the American present, but with specific reference to a recent—and radically different—past. This equipoise between sixties and eighties keeps Vineland from being the simple-minded exercise in nostalgia some have taken it for. Far from the sour grapes of some bitter ex-hippie, it is a treatise on the direction history has taken, without our having given it much thought. Moreover, his own implicit political orientation notwithstanding, Pynchon exposes the millenarian canker in the flower children as rigorously as he diagnoses the reactionary carcinoma of the next generation. Lot 49, set in 1964, is a story of consciousness being raised—an allegory of sixties America repudiating conformity, racism, and militarism. It looks backward to the Eisenhower fifties and forward to the Summer of Love. Vineland, set a generation later in the portentous year of 1984, looks backward to that summer—and forward to some Republican version of the thousand-year Reich. It reveals how the nation has allowed an earlier passion for justice to go dead, to be coopted by a conservative backlash and an attendant dissipation of liberal energy.

In a single generation—from the mid-sixties to the mid-eighties, America veered from a liberal to a conservative bias, from the New Frontier and the Great Society to "Reaganomics," from hordes of student demonstrators to whole undergraduate populations majoring in business, from Yippies to Yuppies. In Vineland Pynchon examines these societal extremes and the historical currents they ride or embody. Interestingly contemporaneous with David Lodge's Nice Work, a refitting of the nineteenth-century "condition-of-England" novel, Vineland would seem in its hybridization also to undertake such an old-fashioned assessment. It is a condition-of-America novel. That condition, as a result of the Reagan revolution and, before that, the "Nixonian Repression" or "Nixonian Reaction," is imagined as darkening, a "prefascist twilight," if not the actual night. "Nixon had machinery for mass detention all in place and set to go," says a Pynchon character. "Regan's got it for when he invades Nicaragua." The "Reagan program" is to "dismantle the New Deal, reverse the effects of World War II, restore fascism at home and around the world."

Pynchon makes his political sympathies plain enough. But the polemics have little do to with the novel's art, which one sees in the indirection and economy that deliver this and other Pynchon works from the realm of propaganda and didacticism. This author's art—an art far superior, it seems to me, to that of such novelists on the left as Dos Passes or Steinbeck or Vonnegut—commands the aesthetic interest of readers who may find the politics somewhat overwrought. Pynchon contrives, by diving into the wreck of mythic metanarrative, to imbue with extraordinary historical resonance a story that ostensibly depicts the vitiation of the historical sense. He remains the only contemporary writer whose grasp of history's mythic dimensions merits comparison with that of Joyce—and he may yet present us with a fiction on the scale of that writer's last book. One doubts that he spent the seventeen years after Gravity's Rainbow on Vineland alone. Who knows what post-postmodern extravaganza may follow in its wake?

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