Brain Drain Against the Grain: A Report on the International Pynchon Week 2008

Brain Drain Against the Grain: A Report on the International Pynchon Week 2008

Bruno Arich-Gerz

Bruno Arich-Gerz reports from Munich on International Pynchon Week, 2008. Finding a retreat to traditional reading strategies, Arich-Gerz wonders whether we have lost more than we gained in the turn against theory.

International Pynchon Week
June 11-14, 2008

Attendants at the 2008 International Pynchon Week at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich re-read “Pynchon’s Counternarratives” and read, for the first time, Against The Day.

The title of the conference (organized by Sascha Pöhlmann) suggested that Pynchon’s writing characteristically goes against the grain: it called to mind the novelist’s sometimes excessive style of connectedness; his postmodern project of re-narrating past events, from Mason and Dixon’s astronomical and surveying efforts in the 18th century, through the “Zone” in postwar Germany, and beyond to the remains of hippie culture in the Reagan era; and, finally, his preference for unconventional sujets and settings, such as spy stories in which unidentified grey eminences fail to execute an alleged antagonist in a mayonnaise factory. All these elements undermine and therefore challenge the expectations of anyone with conventional literary training. Pynchon’s counternarratives, working against the grain of the usual unfolding of one or more themes, had already invited challenging and “unconventional” reading strategies. Thus the remarkably theory-saturated approaches of the 1990s and early 2000s have, as McHoul and Wills explained, often explicitly abandoned the idea of exegetically tracing (and explaining) the “ ‘actual,’ ‘underlying’ rationale for Pynchon’s writing” (Writing Pynchon 1). The preference, in this earlier mode of Pynchon criticism, was for drifting along with the author’s own signs, symptoms, and signifiers, allowing Pynchon’s literature to be “bookmatched” with Derridean (and other theorists’) assumptions in such a way that the demarcation between the subject and method of analysis is deliberately blurred. Seminal pre-texts for approaches of this kind were Leo Bersani’s twenty-year-old article on the prevalence of paranoia as an operative system at work both within the fictional world(s) inside the novel and at the level of reading it, or Brian McHale’s observation that in Pynchon’s prose, ontological aspects tip over into epistemological ones (and vice versa). Berressem had subsequently picked up the deconstructivist ball and kicked it further, adding a certain Lacanian spin, in 1993. More recently Dana Medoro seems to be the critic who, while arguing with an astounding rigor, has most refreshingly been inspired by the textual trajectories offered in, for instance, The Crying of Lot 49. At the same time, most of these readings were - or at least appeared to me as if they were - acts of defiance that, like the novelist himself, did not care too much about paying reverence to the author. Instead they provided what partly looks like a relaunch of New Criticism, with its focus on elucidating the story and discourses of the texts, without contributing to the author’s (anyway unnecessary) canonization through a mixture of pathos and curiosity. If Pynchon’s is a prose that goes against the grain, and if these critical examples likewise overtly or covertly oppose the prevailing standards of literary studies, the Munich conference saw astoundingly many scholars backlashing and falling back into speculation about possible sources (or intertextual connections) and biographical criticism.

This may sound like the outbreak of a new era, or a (re-)turn in Pynchon criticism. Yet one needs to differentiate, and admit that the tactic of seeking shelter under the roof of established and well-known models, if not always entirely fruitful traditions, may be perfectly in order whenever a new “counternarrative” has more or less just appeared. Against the Day’s publication in 2006 perhaps shocks, and in any case forces, critics to come to grips with its extreme bandwith and complexity before anything else. So not quite unexpectedly, there were some slightly far-fetched comparative approaches, forcing the reader to ask, is it profitable to create a connection between Against the Day and Kipling’s ouevre on the slim basis of a brief mention of and some allusions to Kim in Pynchon’s novel? Others palpably tried to charter the new terrain by filtering it through the somewhat idiosyncratic prism of their own record of research and expertise - but does a scholarly familiarity with T.S. Eliot and a cursory reference to the working principles of psychotrauma (already well-established in Pynchonland) really help to elucidate the new novel? By the same token, medievalists and natives from the Balkans (one of the major settings in the last part of the new book) had a relatively hard time demonstrating that their field of expertise convincingly carves new vistas and draws new lines into the as yet largely unchartered territory of Against the Day.

Another group of contributors, however, successfully revised motifs from older novels. Graham Benton’s presentation on “Anarchist Possibility” is a case in point here: positively surprised by the renaissance of the anarchist theme in Against the Day, Benton tentatively suggested that apart from the recurrence of the theme in previous novels, one may now even speak of (and further (re-)investigate) Pynchon’s “aesthetics of anarchism.” Frank Palmeri’s “Plutocratic Dystopia, Anarchist Utopias” proposed in an equally lucid way that, within the dystopian world of oppressive capitalism, Pynchon evokes anarchist strivings in his more favorably-depicted characters (and, one may consider, with Benton’s idea in mind, the book’s aesthetic setup too) that come across as “most desirable and utopian.” Similarly, investigations of the representation and narrative function of visual media technology, which ever since Gravity’s Rainbow have been a major topos in Pynchon’s work, gave valuable insights that wait for further (and more extensive) elaboration: Rod Taveira on “Shadow factories,” Clément Lévy querying whether or not “Pynchon ‘Loves Cameras’ ” and, not to forget old Pynchon-hand Zofia Kolbuszewska on “Heliography and Paramorphosis.”

Various presentations displayed a keen awareness of new themes and topics, and tried a first analysis of, for instance, the literary and scientific 4D tradition invoked by Pynchon (Simon de Bourcier), or focused in a theoretically stimulating and, given the short period of time between the publication of the novel and the conference, surprisingly well-researched way on the geographico-imaginary landscape of the Balkans. Durham’s Samuel Thomas allowed among other things for a re-consideration of the “Zone” in Gravity’s Rainbow. Indeed, Pynchon’s Balkan episodes and his peculiar way of invoking their constantly shifting boundaries, geo-political instabilities and, at times, moments of openness within the first two decades of the 20th century are reminiscent of the Germany of 1944 and ´45.

Truly impressive, finally, were those papers that provided a first, if still necessarily provisional, overall reading of Against the Day against the backlist of Pynchon’s previous narratives. Thus Toon Staes analyzed the moments of possibility and openness expressed in both Gravity’s Rainbow and the new novel through the prism of Marcuse’s neo-Marxist theory and his foregrounding of an individual’s capacity to negate as an affirmative force. Ali Chetwynd drew, like Hanjo Berressem, on imagery from mathematics - curves, helices, and spirals - to cast inspiring new light on the design of the entire narrative, outdoing other presentations whose titles promised substantial contributions to mathematics (which is, presumably, the major reference point in terms of scientific disciplines for Against the Day).

These first approaches to Pynchon’s now expanded oeuvre are ambitious, therefore, some of them seem over-ambitious, but remarkably many of them also show that old inhabitants of Pynchonland immediately feel at home in the newly acquired swathes of land. Arranging oneself here sometimes implies that one brings along old habits and favored insights without perhaps noticing that the new areas may re-shape the contours of the country as a whole. Several critics - Charles Hollander, Mark Quinn, Lovorka Gruic-Grmusa - attempted to make themselves comfortable in Against the Day through references to Dante, but while Quinn made a rather convincing discovery between Gravity’s Rainbow and the Divina Commedia, not all of the comparisons floated quite convinced me.

The quality of Pynchon’s prose - the deliberate combination of high and low cultural elements and style registers - is exceptional and also has consequences for how his work has been approached by critics. That stylistic density, like the author’s ostentatious reluctance to appear in public and his determination to keep his personal life a secret, stimulates an intensified study of his authorized texts (and just these texts). This legitimizes the existence of his critical readers: at one point in Gravity’s Rainbow, he somewhat metonymically even speaks of the supersonic rocket as a text “to be picked to pieces, annotated, explicated, and masturbated” (520). Closer and closer readings, even those which proceed in positivistic fashion, have a certain raison d’être, even though one cannot fail to notice the fun Pynchon pokes at his more emulous readership, and will eventually remember the rather fruitless “possible source for” and other such contributions to the bulk of Pynchon studies. The conference saw a partial revival of that tradition, too. The contribution, at the Munich conference, by Luc Herman and John Krafft went even further, though, by presenting the findings from a close reading of the typescripts - and some of the mail correspondence that preceded the publication - of V. To be sure, the presentation and the ensuing discussion was lively and insightful insofar as it allowed a glimpse or two on the development of the character(ization) of one of the African American figures in that book. Yet it was also bizarre to observe how some respondents in the q&a section of this talk came to speak of Pynchon and his wife as if they were Shakespeare and (one of his) women, expressing a kind of quaint desire for more knowledge and more information of this kind: a highlight of author-philological interest which, as a sub-discipline in literary studies but so far definitely a no-go area in Pynchonland, was presumably the most striking case of brain drain away from (and against the grain of) Pynchon studies as practiced for almost half a century now.

It remains to be hoped that the Munich organizers - centered around Sascha Pöhlmann, who did a marvellous job - will make a good selection for the eventual publication of the papers: either as another special issue of Pynchon Notes or - in case they need or wish to have them out soon - at another publisher. A serious and valid collection of essays seems imperative, too, in order to stuff the mouth of those snotty journalist-correspondents from (German) newspapers whose conference reports appeared in the week after the Munich IPW event. “Freaks researching a mystery”- Die Welt reported - ha ha!

Works Cited

Berressem, Hanjo. Pynchon’s Poetics: Interfacing Theory and Text. Urbana: Illinois UP, 1993.

Bersani, Leo. “Pynchon, Paranoia, and Literature.” Representations 25 (1989): 99-118.

McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. London: Routledge, 1987.

Medoro, Dana. The Bleeding of America: Menstruation as Symbolic Economy in Pynchon, Faulkner, and Morrison. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002.

Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity’s Rainbow. 1973. New York: Penguin, 1995.