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Thomas Pynchon: Allusive Parables of Power, and: The Gnostic Pynchon (review)

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Abstract

A standard approach to the God's own plenty in Thomas Pynchon's writings involves the anxious quest for interpretive templates to lay upon it all: anxious because—in characters named Stencil, Oedipa, Pointsman, and Prairie—Pynchon's fictions already figure the potential futility of such quests. The past attempts of critics do show mixed results. A reading of Gravity's Rainbow under the aegis of Norman O. Brown mostly fizzled; another, under the rubric of fictional encyclopedism (by Edward Mendelson), remains a classic. Similarly, the two books reviewed here bring us a miss, and a very palpable hit. Dugdale begins with a promising thesis. He reads Pynchon's early writings, through The Crying of Lot 49, as "parables" about the "public domain" extending its increasingly powerful reach both over and into individuals. This approach might have significantly added to the critique of Pynchon's politics, but the politics tends to vanish under a Freudian template. Yet this tool is apt, Dugdale proposes, because Pynchon is a political dissident facing "censorship and repression" as he writes, and therefore codifying his political subtext through a welter of allusions to actual history and prior texts. Recovering such repressed subtexts "requires the critic to discern and decode" by close reading and to read the manifest content of the fictions as if they were oneiric fantasy. Thus, like dreams, Pynchon's overdetermined texts must be scoured for the "switch-words" (like puns, word-associations, and homologies) allowing glimpses of that latent structure seen as "smuggling" latent content into the manifest structure we read. Yet this idea of Pynchon as covert operator in a repressive state stands upon no known bio-bibliographical facts. A critic's romanticizing fantasy, the principle function of this "Pynchon" is to authorize a conventional Freudian/New Critical reading, replete with assumptions of "depth," "levels of meaning," and "central" thematic cruxes. But even Dugdale's quest for "nodes" of contact between latent and manifest structures leads into very boggy grounds, the most problematic involving supposed allusions and textual sources—especially, how to identify and interpret them. The problem is a lack of method. Dugdale's relentless hunt for the double-entendre (as in Windego/win-ego or Apocalypse/Episcopal) too often lapses into over-reading; or, his sense of what constitutes a "source" (often, the vaguest homology of plot or character) weakens any claims about Pynchon's political subtext. Still more problematic is Dugdale's apparent deaf ear to modes of parody, including a subverting self-reflexive parody, in such intertextual traces. Instead Dugdale's conception is that, having been decentered from their source by quotation or allusion, the intertextual trace needs simply the recentering gesture of a trained analyst-critic. One might well counter that such ideologies of interpretive authority are just what Pynchon satirizes, for instance in a Nazi psychoanalyst like The Crying of Lot 49's Dr. Hilarius. There are some successes in this book. Dugdale provides a strong reading of Lot 49 as a satire on post-Kennedy nostalgia, as well as on postnuclear paranoia and fears about a rebellious underclass in 1964 America. Discussions of the early stories are occasionally illuminating. Yet the chapter on V. plods through a plot summary and illogically neglects any reading of Profane's story as counterpart to Stencil's. For its part, St. Martin's Press adds to our disappointment by grossly overpricing a hardcover book printed on pulp paper. The overall contrast with Dwight Eddins's study is telling. The Gnostic Pynchon might also have been titled "The Orphic Pynchon." Varieties of gnostic thought are what Pynchon has always reacted against, and chiefly in order to locate (in Gravity's Rainbow, says Eddins, but also we may now add in Vineland) the Orphic moment, the sign in other words of naturalist sublimity, a unity of Man and Earth. But there is the paradox: this Orphic desire, for a kind of aboriginal "earthliness," seems always to stand in epistemologically prior relations to language; thus, for narrative language to progress toward such a state means that one must regress in language or even dismantle it (the chief idea in Williams's 1923 The Great American Novel, incidentally). To Eddins, this is...

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