Analysis of Thomas Pynchon’s Novels

The quest would seem to be the one indispensable element in the fiction of Thomas Pynchon, for each of his novels proves to be a modern-dress version of the search for some grail to revive the wasteland. Pynchon’s characters seek knowledge that will make sense of their unanchored lives and their fragmented times; Pynchon hints that questing has a value irrespective of the authenticity of that for which one quests. The quest lends purpose to life, enabling one to function, to see life as worthwhile. At the same time, however, Pynchon invites his more privileged reader to recognize that the ordering principle thus projected is factitious. What is real is the gathering dissolution, the passing of human beings and whole civilizations. All attempts to discover or create order and system are doomed.

pynchon-unfilmable-novels-xlargeEven so, as Pynchon’s career developed, one notes what may be a tendency to define some grail of his own, an inclination to search for a way out of the cul-de-sac of a metaphysics perhaps unduly in thrall to the principle of entropy (broadly defined as the gradual deterioriation of the universe caused by irreversible thermodynamic equalization). Pynchon’s critics disagree sharply on this point. Some maintain that the intimation of counter-entropic orders in The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow is merely a hook by which to catch the unwary reader, a means of seducing him or her into system-making as delusive as that of any of Pynchon’s characters. Other critics, unwilling to believe that Pynchon’s frequently noted affinity with modern science has been frozen at a point attained some time during the 1950’s, suspect that Pynchon means to hint at transcendental alternatives implicit in the vast mysteries of contemporary astronomy and particle physics.

Regardless of whether Pynchon is on a grail quest of his own (with all the propensity for mysticism that seems indispensable to such a quester), he continues to create intricate labyrinths in which readers experience the paranoia that also figures as a prominent theme in his work. Paranoia is the conviction that mighty conspiracies exist, that all things are connected “in spheres joyful or threatening about the central pulse of [one]self.” Pynchon’s protagonists come to believe in this infinite reticulation of conspiracy because it is preferable to the possibility that “nothing is connected to anything.” Pynchon’s readers, by the same token, encounter fictive structures that formally imitate the paranoid premise: All is connected in great, seamless webs of interdependent detail.

The dialectic between order and disorder is the dialectic between art and life, and it is with reference to this neglected commonplace that one should analyse Pynchon’s artifice. In art, traditionally, humanity lays claim—sometimes piously, sometimes impiously—to the divine prerogative of creation, the establishment of order where all before was without formand void. Pynchon gives evidence, since the almost nihilistic V., of a fascination with the religious belief that there are “orders behind the visible,” orders analogous to those found beneath the surface in works of art ostensibly reflecting life in all its chaotic aspects. Gravity’s Rainbow, for example, strikes one at first as a complete mishmash, a welter of all-too-lifelike confusion, but one subsequently discovers it to be as finely crafted as James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) or Finnegans Wake (1939). Perhaps Pynchon can best be imagined like William Blake, William Butler Yeats, and D. H. Lawrence, as countering the smugness and complacency of a scientific age with a calculated antirationalism.

These remarks adumbrate the last major topoi in Pynchon’s work—science and art. Pynchon knows and makes artistic use of science. He has, if nothing else, dispatched legions of humanists in search of information about modern physics, chemistry, engineering, and cartography—disciplines to which they had previously been indifferent. As suggested above, however, science serves vision, not the other way around. Pynchon’s work does more than that of any other writer—scientific or literary— to reverse the widening “dissociation of sensibility” that poet T. S. Eliot noted as part of the intellectual landscape since the seventeenth century. In Pynchon, and in his readers to a remarkable extent, C. P. Snow’s “two cultures” become one again.

V.
In his first novel, V., Pynchon brilliantly interweaves two narratives, one in the present (mid-1950’s), the other in the period 1880 to 1943. The historical narrative, presented obliquely, concerns an extraordinary woman who appears originally as Victoria Wren and subsequently under noms de guerre in which the letter V of the alphabet figures prominently: Veronica Manganese, Vera Meroving. This is V., who turns up whenever there is bloodshed in the course of the twentieth century. In 1898, for example, she appears at the periphery of the Fashoda crisis in Egypt, and the following year she gravitates to Florence, where the spies of several nations are jockeying for position, engaging in what Pynchon calls “premilitary” activity. In 1913, she is in Paris, involved in a bloody theater riot that, like the crises in Egypt and Florence earlier, proves an earnest of World War I—a kind of fulfillment for V. in her early phase.

When World War I ends with Western civilization intact, though permanently altered, V. begins to be involved with those elements that will figure in the more satisfying carnage of the century’s real climacteric,WorldWar II. In 1922, she is in German southwest Africa, where the massacre of the local Herero people reenacts the even greater massacre of two decades earlier and anticipates the really accomplished genocide in Europe between 1933 and 1945. On and off after 1918, she is on Malta, consorting with a group sympathetic to Mussolini and his Fascists. V. dies in an air raid on Malta in 1943—just as the tide turns against the Fascist cause with which she has become increasingly identified.

V.’s affinity with Fascism complements a decadent religiosity, and she comes to personify the drift to extinction of Western culture and of life itself. She gradually loses parts of her body and becomes more and more the sum of inanimate parts: false eye, false hair, false foot, false navel. She is a brilliant metaphor for entropy and the decline of civilization, and her baleful influence is projected in the novel’s present in the decadence of the contemporary characters, most of whom are part of a group called the Whole Sick Crew. The Crew is exemplified by its newest member, the winsome schlemiel Benny Profane. Profane is incapable of love and emotional involvement; he is also perennially at war with inanimate objects. His dread of the inanimate suggests that he intuits the cultural situation as the century wanes. Though he is no thinker, he realizes that he and his fellows are Eliot’s hollow men, on the way to their whimpering end. His inability to love is presented in comic terms—though fat, he is doted on by various desirable women, including the Maltese Paola Maijstral and the beautiful Rachel Owlglass. The failure is that of his entire circle, for though there is much sex among the Whole Sick Crew, there is no commitment, no love, no hope. The one baby generated by all the sexual freedom is aborted.

The Whole Sick Crew is what Western civilization has become as a result of entropic processes that are utterly random and mindless. The meaninglessness of entropy is something difficult for the human mind to accept, however, and in Herbert Stencil, a marginal member of the Crew, Pynchon presents what becomes his standard character, a person who must discover conspiracy to deal with the fragmentation of life and culture. It is Stencil who does the mythmaking, the elevating of VictoriaWren from mere perverted adventuress to something awesome and as multifaceted as Robert Graves’s White Goddess. It is not Stencil alone, for the undeniable desire for connectedness is quintessentially human. It is also shared by the sophisticated reader, who flings himself or herself into the literary puzzle and becomes himself a Stencil, a quester for meaning in the convoluted plot of V. and in the identity of the mysterious personage who gives the novel its name. Pynchon’s genius manifests itself in his ability to keep his readers suspended between his two mutually exclusive alternatives: that the clues to V.’s identity are the key to meaning and that V. is nothing more than a paranoid fantasy, the product of a mind that cannot deal with very much reality.

The fascination with which readers have responded to V. indicates that Pynchon is himself a brilliant mythmaker. Even after one has “solved” the mystery of V. and arrived at an enlightenment that Stencil explicitly rejects as a threat to his emotional and mental stability, one still finds the myth trenchant, moving, even terrifying. The decline of theWest is a theme that one has encountered before, but never has one encountered it so cogently as in this woman who loves death and the inanimate. The real conspiracy, then, is an artistic one; the connectedness is that of the novel, the cabal between author and reader.

The Crying of Lot 49
Pynchon’s second novel, The Crying of Lot 49, seems slight between V. and Gravity’s Rainbow, and Pynchon himself seems to consider it something of a potboiler. Some readers, however, believe it to be his most perfect work of art. It is the story of Oedipa Maas, who is named “executor, or she supposed executrix” of the estate of an ex-lover, the millionaire Pierce Inverarity. In carrying out her duties, she stumbles upon evidence of a conspiracy to circumvent the United States Postal Service. She discovers Tristero, a sub rosa postal system at war for centuries with all officially sanctioned postal services, first in the old world, then in the new. Tristero subsumes an extraordinary number of revolutionary or simply alienated groups. In its new-world phase, it seems to bring together all those within the American system who are disfranchised, disaffected, or disinherited—all those defrauded of the American Dream.

Oedipa, like Herbert Stencil, finds that the harder she looks, the more connections to Tristero she discovers, until the connections start revealing themselves in such number and variety that she begins to doubt her sanity. Oedipa’s mental condition, in fact, becomes the book’s central conundrum. She first confronts the question in a flashback early in the story. She recalls visiting a Mexico City art gallery with Pierce Inverarity and seeing a disturbing painting by Remedios Varo. In the painting, a group of girls are imprisoned at the top of a circular tower and made to embroider el Manto Terrestre—the earth mantle. The tapestry they create, extruded through the tower’s windows, contains “all the other buildings and creatures, all the waves, ships and forests of the earth,” for “the tapestry was the world.” Oedipa recognizes in the painting a representation of the fact that she—like any other human being—is imprisoned mentally and perceptually in the tower of her individual consciousness. External reality, in other words, may be nothing more than what one weaves or embroiders in one’s cranial tower. Oedipa weeps at human isolation. Later, tracking down the clues to Tristero (which seems coextensive with Inverarity’s estate and enterprises), she cannot free herself from the suspicion that the proliferating connections she is discovering all have their throbbing ganglion in her own mind. She realizes that she is becoming a classic paranoid.

Though Pynchon does not resolve the question of Oedipa’s sanity, he hints that becoming sensitized to the problems of twentieth century American culture (and to the horrors of the spiritual void contingent on certain twentieth century habits of mind) involves a necessary sacrifice of sanity or at least serenity. At the end, Oedipa is faced with a harrowing choice: Either she is insane, or Tristero—with its stupendous reticulation—really exists. When Oedipa attempts to rephrase the dilemma, she finds that the paranoia is somehow inescapable:

There was either some Tristero beyond the appearance of the legacy America, or there was just America and if there was just America then it seemed the only way she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was as an alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia.

Pynchon implies that Tristero, whatever its status as literal reality, is in effect a necessary fiction, a metaphor for the idea of an alternative to a closed system.

Oedipa’s experiences are almost certainly an imaginative version of Pynchon’s own. At the time of the novel, 1964, Oedipa is twenty-eight years old—the same age as Pynchon was in that year. Like Pynchon, she has attended Cornell and then gravitated to the West Coast. Like Pynchon, too, she comes to view herself as an “alien,” unable to fit into the furrow of American success, prosperity, and complacency. Thus, one can read the novel as Pynchon’s account of why he has gone underground. He has made common cause with America’s disadvantaged; in all of his fiction, not to mention his article “A Journey into the Mind of Watts,” one notes an obvious sympathy with minorities and something like loathing for the mechanisms of corporate greed responsible for the spoilage of the American landscape, both literal and psychic. The Crying of Lot 49, then, is a fictional hybrid of the spiritual autobiography—in the same tradition as Saint Augustine’s Confessions (397-401) and William Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1850).

These speculations—the need for an alternative to a closed system, the hints of spiritual autobiography—are supported by Edward Mendelson’s brilliant essay “The Sacred, the Profane, and The Crying of Lot 49” (the single most satisfying reading of the novel, this essay has been reprinted in Mendelson’s Pynchon: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1978). Mendelson points out the novel’s high density of language with religious connotations; he argues that what Oedipa really searches for—and behind her twentieth century humankind—is a new species of revelation, a way out of the agnostic, positivistic cul-de-sac of contemporary rationalism. He also provides an explanation of the novel’s odd title. “Lot 49” is a group of stamps—Tristero forgeries—to be sold as part of the settlement of Pierce Inverarity’s estate. The novel ends as lot 49 is about to be “cried” or auctioned. Oedipa, present at the auction, expects to confront some representative of the mysterious Tristero, who will attempt to acquire the evidence of the secret organization’s existence. Mendelson suggests that the number “49” refers obliquely to the forty-nine-day period between Easter and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost; the revelation that awaits Oedipa at the crying of lot 49 is symbolically the revelation awaited by the modern world, whose existence so tragically lacks a numinous dimension. Thus, Pynchon ends his novel on a note of expectation, a yearning for some restoration of mystery, some answer to what the narrator calls “the exitlessness, the absence of surprise to life” in the modern age.

Gravity’s Rainbow
All of Pynchon’s books are filled with bizarre characters and incidents, but Gravity’s Rainbow is especially dense and demanding. The hero is Tyrone Slothrop, an American Army lieutenant attached to an Allied intelligence unit in World War II. Slothrop’s superiors become aware that the map of his sexual conquests (or his sexual fantasies; this is kept ambiguous) coincides with the distribution of German V-2 rockets falling on London. Significantly, the erection precedes the arrival of the rocket. This fact, which calls into question the usual mechanism of cause and effect (it complements the fact that the rocket, traveling faster than the speed of sound, is heard falling after it has exploded) is of central importance to the novel, for Pynchon means to pit two scientific models against each other. The older model, still seldom questioned, posits a mechanistic universe that operates according to the laws of cause and effect.

The character associated with this worldview is the sinister Dr. Pointsman, a diehard Pavlovian threatened by the new model, which posits a universe in which physical phenomena can be plotted and predicted only in terms of uncertainty and probability (Pynchon is on sound theoretical ground here; he is presenting the physics of Werner Heisenberg and Max Planck). The character who embraces the more upto- date worldview is the sympathetic Roger Mexico, a statistician. Between these two, poor Slothrop—a kind of Everyman—tries to stay alive and, if possible, free. Pointsman and his minions concoct an experiment with Slothrop; they will provide him with the best information they have on the German rocket and then observe him closely for further revelations. Slothrop, aware that he is being used, goes AWOL to embark on a private quest to discover the truth of his personal destiny—and perhaps the destiny of his age as well.

Pynchon picks his historical moment carefully, for World War II was the moment when the technological world came of age. Technology offers humanity complete control of its environment and its destiny; techology offers something very like transcendence— or it offers annihilation. Pynchon’s novel is a meditation on the choice, which is seen nowhere more clearly than in the new rocket technology. Will humanity use the rocket transcendentally, to go to the stars, or will people use it to destroy themselves? The answer has been taking shape since the German rocket scientists were sent east and west after World War II, and Pynchon concludes his great narrative with the split second before the ultimate cataclysm: The apocalyptic rocket plunges toward the “theatre” in which the film Gravity’s Rainbow has unreeled before the reader. Critical opinion is split on the degree of bleakness in this ending. Figuratively, says Pynchon, the world is separated from its end only by “the last delta-t,” the last infinitesimal unit of time and space between the rocket and its target. The delta-t, however, is a relative unit of measure. Modern human folly has indeed set in motion the process of his own destruction, but the process might still be arrested by a reordering of priorities, human and technological.

As for Slothrop, he simply fades away. Pynchon says he becomes “scattered,” and the word reveals a characteristic aspect of Pynchon’s genius. Just as Joyce forced religious and liturgical language to serve his aesthetic ends, Pynchon forces technological language to serve humanistic and spiritual ends. “Scattering,” a trope from particle physics, refers to the dispersal of a beam of radiation, but it also evokes sparagmos, the ritual dismemberment and dispersal of the divine scapegoat. Slothrop has been associated all along with Orpheus, whose dismemberment became the basis of one of the many fertility cults in the Mediterranean and Near East. In a sense, Slothrop dies for the sins of the modern world, and his scattering coincides with the founding of the Counterforce, a group of enlightened, anarchic men and women devoted to reversing the technology of violence and death. The Counterforce, which has affinities with various countercultural movements waxing at the moment of this novel’s composition, is not particularly powerful or effective, but it offers hope for a planet hurtling toward destruction.

After Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon published no new fiction for seventeen years. During this period, the counterculture retreated as the forces of reaction, complacency, and materialism took over, and perhaps it was this frightening and disheartening development that was behind Pynchon’s long silence. He may have abandoned a book or books that came to seem unattuned to the post-1960’s zeitgeist. However, when the novelistic silence was at last broken, it was with a meditation on the historical polarization of the 1960’s and the 1980’s.

Vineland
In his long-awaited fourth novel, Vineland, Pynchon returns to the California setting of The Crying of Lot 49. As in V., Pynchon sets up a dual historical focus. He imagines characters in the present—the portentous year 1984—trying to come to terms with the period, twenty years earlier, when they and the whole country underwent a searing passage. Broadly, then, Pynchon here reflects on the direction the country’s history has taken—from anarchic but healthy self-indulgence to neo- Puritan repression. These poles are visible in the People’s Republic of Rock and Roll, with its ethic of freedom, pleasure, dope, music, and self-expression, and in the Nixonian and Reaganite reaction that put an end to the polymorphous perversity of the 1960’s and ushered in the return to materialism and political conservatism.

The novel is structured—somewhat more loosely than is usual with Pynchon— around the quest of a girl named Prairie for the mother, Frenesi Gates, who abandoned her shortly after her birth. Prairie’s father, Zoyd Wheeler, still loves Frenesi, as does the man with whom she was involved before him—the sinister Brock Vond, a federal agent who had used her to infiltrate and subvert PR3 and other radical causes. Zoyd accepts his misery, but Vond will stop at nothing to get Frenesi back in his clutches—not even at kidnapping Prairie, who could be made into an instrument of renewed control. Also involved in the action are female Ninja Darryl Louise— DL—Chastain, an old friend of Frenesi, and DL’s companion, the “karmic adjuster” Takeshi Fumimota, a kind of Zen private eye.

The centrality of Prairie, Frenesi, and DL, not to mention the narrational attention to Frenesi’s mother and grandmother (Sasha Gates and Eula Traverse), make this essay Pynchon’s first in feminist fiction. (Though a woman, V., was central to his first novel, it was really a parody of the kind of matriarchal vision associated with Robert Graves and the White Goddess.) It is in terms of this feminism that he is able in Vineland to move beyond the apocalyptic obsession that characterizes all three of his previous novels, as well as the stories “Mortality and Mercy in Vienna” and “Entropy.” Vineland ends with a vision of familial harmony that is nothing less than mythic—an augury of what an America-wide family might be. Here the reader sees Prairie reunited with her mother and half brother, as Zoyd and others are also integrated. Vond alone is excluded (his surname is an apocope of the Dutch word vondeling, a foundling—as if to hint at his inability to be integrated into family wholeness). The reunion of the Traverse-Becker clans, which seem to center in their women, is Pynchon’s Kurt Vonnegut-like imagining of the millennium, the era of peace and harmony that ironically succeeds the apocalyptic disruptions everywhere expected in the novel.

Herein, too, is the meaning of Pynchon’s setting, the imaginary community of Vineland that provides the novel with its title. Vineland is the name given to the American continent by the Vikings, its first European visitors, at the end of the first millennium. Pynchon’s novel reminds American readers that their land has been known to history for one thousand years.

Mason and Dixon
A more proximate past figures in Mason and Dixon. In this most massive of his novels, Pynchon ranges over the eighteenth century, with particular attention to the careers of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, who are sent by the Royal Society to the far corners of the earth to observe the 1761 and 1769 transits of Venus. Between these two assignments Mason and Dixon accept a commission to establish the much-contested boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland. The central part of Pynchon’s mammoth novel concerns this project, which occupies his protagonists from 1763 to 1767.

The dates are important: Mason and Dixon do their work on the very eve of the American Revolution. Pynchon looks at the America they traverse for the switching points of the great railroad called history. He sees colonial America as a place where Western civilization paused one last time before following its Faustian course toward more rationalism, greater dependence on technology, and the throwing out of spiritual babies with the bathwater of magic and superstition. The religious freedom it offered notwithstanding, America has always, Pynchon suggests, been a place of struggle between the spiritual and material energies of the West. By the latter part of the eighteenth century, with the Revolution in the offing, the secularizing tendencies of the Enlightenment (notably Deism) made America the conservator, merely, of a few “poor fragments of a Magic irreparably broken.” No longer the setting of “a third Testament,” the NewWorld remained only sporadically the “object of hope that Miracles might yet occur, that God might yet return to Human affairs, that all the wistful Fictions necessary to the childhood of a species might yet come true. . . . ” Though aware that popular religion would always figure prominently in the moral economy of the emergent American nation, Pynchon suggests that some more genuine and legitimate spirituality was elbowed aside by the less-than-idealistic interests that fostered revolution (and he offers largely unflattering sketches of figures such as Founders Ben Franklin and George Washington). In the end, America became merely “one more hope in the realm of the Subjunctive, one more grasp at the last radiant whispers of the last bights of Robe-hem, billowing Æther-driven at the back of an everdeparting Deity.” Pynchon seems, in Mason and Dixon, to reconceptualize the hallowed myth of a quest for religious freedom.

Indeed, he rewrites more than one archetypal American narrative. Thus he intimates, as in The Crying of Lot 49, some betrayal of the original American Dream; thus his protagonists, who twin the American Adam, must like so many of their literary predecessors decide whether to reenact the Fall. Pynchon also revisits the captivity narrative, with emphasis not on the godless savagery of the captors but on the nefarious scheming of the Europeans they serve. When American Indians kidnap Eliza Fields of Conestoga, they do so on behalf of evil Jesuits who seek to staff a bizarre convent-brothel called Las Viudas de Cristo: the Widows of Christ. Even more bizarre, perhaps, is Fields’s escape with Captain Zhang, a Chinese Feng Shui master who objects to the severely rationalistic mensuration (and cartography) of the arch- Jesuit Padre Zarpazo.

Presently joining the crew of lumberjacks, roustabouts, and hangers-on accompanying Mason and Dixon, Zhang provides an important non-Western perspective on their project. “Boundaries,” he declares, should “follow Nature—coast-lines, ridgetops, river-banks—so honoring the Dragon or shan within, from which the Land-Scape ever takes its form. To mark a right Line upon the Earth is to inflict upon the Dragon’s very flesh a sword-slash, a long, perfect scar. . . . ” Zhang characterizes the Visto (the unnaturally straight ten-yard-wide swath the surveyors cut through the wilderness) as a conductor of Sha, the “Bad Energy” that will bring in its train “Bad History.” As Zhang subsequently observes,

Nothing will produce Bad History more directly or brutally, than drawing a Line, in particular a Right Line, the very Shape of Contempt, through the midst of a People— to create thus a Distinction betwixt ‘em—’tis the first stroke—All else will follow as if predestin’d, unto War and Devastation.

The American Civil War, half a century later, would validate Zhang’s remark as prophecy.

Sir Francis Bacon, describing the Idols of the Theater, long ago recognized how received ways of knowing within a given historical period make certain kinds of thinking difficult, if not impossible. Mason, for example, aspires to membership in the Royal Society even as he desperately tries to believe that death—especially the death of his beloved wife Rebekah—is not final. However, the scientific calling that he shares with Dixon affords little latitude for such hope. Pynchon ingeniously imagines his protagonists as imperfectly amphibious men of their age. Each struggles to reconcile a propensity for supernatural or magical thinking with professional obligations to the new, rationalist order. Whether in South Africa, on the island of St. Helena, in America, or at the North Cape, Dixon and Mason sense that they are the inconsequential pawns of forces indifferent or hostile to them. Servants of the powerful and remote Royal Society, the surveyors suffer from a paranoia somewhat different from the usual Pynchon article—or perhaps they simply show us, belatedly, the positive side of a putative psychopathology. Pynchon hints, that is, at something admirable, even redemptive, in the paranoia of his eighteenth century Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Mason and Dixon resist the coercive intellectual forces of their age.

As brilliantly realized as that age is in these pages, Pynchon delights in anachronistic violation of his historical frame. At a number of points the reader realizes that some piece of elaborately rendered eighteenth century foolery actually mirrors a twentieth century counterpart, for Pynchon frequently circumvents historical constraint to offer droll glimpses of what America and American culture will become. Hilarious, lightly veiled allusions to Popeye, Daffy Duck, the Jolly Green Giant, and Star Trek abound, not to mention numerous clever periphrases of a later vernacular. There are no cheap shots here, only the occasional “inexpensive salvo.” Characters do not get their backs up—they suffer “Thoracick Indignation.” Those hoping to keep costs down are reminded that “prandium gratis non est” (“there’s no such thing as a free lunch”). The reader smiles, too, at “teton dernier,” “aviating swine,” “coprophagously agrin,” and (of Fenderbelly Bodine exposing his buttocks to a foe) “pygephanous.”

Pynchon fills his pages with the imaginative conceits his readers have come to expect. There is, for example, a wonderful talking canine, the Learned English Dog. There is also a character who, at the full moon, turns into a were-beaver. An eighteenth century Valley Girl’s every sentence features “as,” rather than the “like” that would characterize the speech of her twentieth century sister. A chef with the punning name of Armand Allegre fends off the amorous attentions of a mechanical duck—part Daffy, part Frankenstein’s Monster—invented by Jacques de Vaucanson. Such joking has its serious side: De Vaucanson’s punch-card technology would be refined in the Jacquard loom and other automated weaving machines that played an important role in the Industrial Revolution, centerpiece of the Enlightenment. Subsequently, punch cards would play their role in the Age of Information.

In Mason and Dixon, then, Pynchon characterizes the eighteenth century as the moment in Western history when rationalism became a cultural juggernaut, crushing spiritual alternatives to Enlightenment thinking. As in V., Gravity’s Rainbow, and the 1984 essay “Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?” the author focuses on the reification of Faustian appetite in scientific and technological advance, here symbolized in the profoundly unnatural Line that, arrowing its way into the mythic American West, consecrates the new world to reason—and to its abuses.

Major works
Long fiction: 
V., 1963; The Crying of Lot 49, 1966; Gravity’s Rainbow, 1973; Vineland, 1989; Mason and Dixon, 1997; Against the Day, 2006.
Short fiction: “Mortality and Mercy in Vienna,” 1959; “The Small Rain,” 1959; “Entropy,” 1960; “Low-Lands,” 1960; “Under the Rose,” 1961; “The Secret Integration,” 1964; Slow Learner: Early Stories, 1984.
Nonfiction: Deadly Sins, 1993.

 

Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.

 

 

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Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Postmodernism

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