By Scott McClintock, John Miller
University of Iowa Press Copyright © 2014 University of Iowa Press
All rights reserved.
Situated Fictions. Reading the California Novels against Thomas Pynchon's Narrative World MARGARET LYND
Few could disagree that Thomas Pynchon's three California novels, The Crying of Lot 49, Vineland, and Inherent Vice, are aesthetically simpler and less multilayered and politically less significant than the "big four," V., Gravity's Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, and Against the Day, which individually and as a whole have captured the admiration of the American literary world over nearly half a century. (I exclude here discussion of Bleeding Edge, published shortly after this essay was written.) Reception of each of the three California novels has of course been dramatically different; the novels themselves are differently structured, and each has been read within the changing social, political, and cultural contexts of a 50-year trajectory. But the reception of the novels has surely also varied because, at least after V., each has been critiqued through the lens(es) of Pynchon's other works. The Crying of Lot 49, published just three years after V., was greeted with enthusiasm by reviewers and critics; hundreds of essays and several essay collections have been published in the 45 years since the book appeared. Vineland's reception was far more equivocal. As the first substantial piece of writing to follow Gravity's Rainbow after a hiatus of some 17 years, the novel had been, to say the least, long awaited. Negative comparisons with Pynchon's past works were perhaps inevitable, but Vineland's readability and its attention to contemporary American politics have also been called both refreshing and important, its less bleak assessment of humanity's prospects heartening, although there is disagreement on that score, as well. Inherent Vice, though published only in 2009, does seem a much slighter work than the other two California novels and so far has fewer defenders.
Few could disagree either that if Pynchon had written only the three California novels, he would be considered a talented but minor figure in the world of American letters. But Pynchon did write these novels, and one cannot help but wonder why he would enlist so dramatic and deliberate a change of style and complexity at various points in an otherwise extraordinary series of literary performances. The California novels were not written at the beginning or end of a long, ongoing career but as his second, fourth, and seventh books, their publication interspersed rather evenly among the longer works. What recurrent themes or narrative techniques from the larger novels might these less ambitious texts focalize, clarify, expand upon, or refine? Do they help us navigate the sometimes convoluted narrative trajectories of the other novels or bring into better focus the extraordinary and complicated visions those narratives conjure? And if so, how?
I want to suggest that the California novels, alone or taken together, do deepen our understanding of the longer novels in a number of ways, each in its own measure and each with quite different emphases and effects. We can, in Pynchon's view, only begin to understand our world and our past through a multiplicity of contradictory, and sometimes whimsical, voices. The sentiment echoes Donna Haraway's discussion of "situated knowledges," in which she attempts to delineate an "objective reality" that is not weakened by dependence upon a framework of relativity but is brought into being by the notion of necessarily "partial knowledge." Well aware of the trappings of power that accompany unmarked (i.e., white and male) versions of "Truth," Haraway insists that partial knowledges constitute a reality that is verifiable, though never complete, because it is always situated within the perspectives of gender, class, ethnicity and other identity markers, as well as time and place. So too does Pynchon insist upon a multiplicity of partial and contradictory voices to convey to us a past that can and must be recovered and a present that can and must be "objectively" analyzed and critiqued. The tropes of paranoia and conspiracy that run through all of Pynchon's novels serve to limn the multiplicity of connections that Haraway describes: "The alternative to relativism is partial, locatable, critical knowledges sustaining the possibility of webs of connections called solidarity in politics and shared conversations in epistemology" (584). Of course, all three California novels deal with familiar Pynchonian patterns of paranoia and conspiracy, domination and submission, betrayal of self and others, and the intransigence of power relations between elect and preterite, the corruption that always, from both Pynchon's and Haraway's perspectives, arrives hand in hand with power of any kind, be it interpersonal, corporate, or governmental. It is, indeed, the many partial knowledges of the preterite that are the only viable opposition to the singular, stormtrooper march of Truth that the elect insist upon. The very idea of a capitalized "Truth" is precisely what all of Pynchon's work undermines in multiple ways: truncated plotlines, disappearing and shape-shifting characters, the blurring of fantasy and reality—the familiar Pynchonian mixture of postmodern fiction's themes and techniques. Instead, we may recover a credible "situated" story of both past and present if we adhere to the narrator's advice in Mason & Dixon: "Who claims Truth, Truth abandons. History is hir'd, or coerc'd, only in Interests that must ever prove base.... She needs rather to be tended lovingly and honorably by fabulists and counterfeiters, Ballad-Mongers and Cranks of ev'ry Radius" (350).
The California novels exhibit a simplified, and by that very token more accessible, vision of these concerns through the eyes of a few central characters, who are themselves representative of preterite sensibilities. One of the few critics to address the California novels together is Thomas Schaub, who argues that these novels, although decidedly lesser works than Pynchon's others, constitute a "three-decade long era of U.S. social history [and] emerge from Pynchon's lived experience" (41). For Schaub, The Crying of Lot 49, written in an earlier, more hopeful moment (the 1960s) in American history and perhaps in Pynchon's own life trajectory, suggests, if not precisely hope or guarded optimism, at least the possibility of change, whereas Vineland and Infinite Jest (Wallace) both project resignation and sadness. The latter two are, Schaub suggests, a reflection of Ronald Reagan's profoundly dispiriting "morning in America," perhaps best captured by the image of Doc Sportello alone in his car beside the Santa Monica freeway, not a glimmer of sunshine breaking through the morning fog. I would agree that The Crying of Lot 49, as the most open-ended of the three, does offer the possibility, if not the likelihood, of change. But in Vineland, I would suggest, the kindness of Zoyd Wheeler, the earnestness of Prairie, even the jolly reunion of the Traverse family, while all a bit strained, offer as well a kind of redemptive quality that is difficult to find in Infinite Jest. Poor Doc Sportello seems an uneven match, indeed, for the Mickey Wolfmanns and Brock Vond—let alone the Weissmann/Bliceros—of the world.
Unlike the longer novels, as Schaub notes, the California novels all have clearly identifiable protagonists and relatively simple, linear plots. I would argue, however, that all three serve as a kind of footnote to the more robust and multifaceted expressions of Pynchon's insistence on a preterite vision of "truth(s)"; the California novels comprise an instance of "situated (partial) knowledge" to complement and elucidate that of the larger novels. The literary elements of each of the three California texts are, of course, quite different. The Crying of Lot 49 foregrounds the self-reflexive attempt of a single character, Oedipa Maas, to redefine the conditions and constraints of her complacent life; the action of the novel takes place almost entirely within the constructed California environment, where we see a great many freeways and strip malls and sleazy motels but not many beaches or mountains or redwoods. Vineland also focuses on identifiable characters: Zoyd Wheeler is probably the protagonist, but his daughter Prairie is a close second. Vineland foregrounds themes of government and police corruption, conspiracy, family betrayal, and the central role of the media in modern life; the setting of its narrative frame in Ronald Reagan's 1980s America is significant, particularly in its review of the 1960s youth movement in California and the characters' final retreat to the redwood forests and stunning beauty of Northern California. Inherent Vice also focuses, as does Crying of Lot 49, on a single character, ex-hippie private eye Larry "Doc" Sportello—part Colombo, part Clouseau, part Philip Marlowe, part Roadrunner cartoon (and part Pynchon?)—and his run-ins with popular culture, power relations, betrayal, and an outlandish interchangeability of criminals and law enforcement officials. The Southern California beach town setting also plays a significant role as the text unwinds, both in its beachcomber's ambience and its extratextual connections to Pynchon himself.
Apart from their much greater readability and their focus on a smaller cast of characters and narrower range of issues, perhaps the most obvious difference between the California novels and the others is precisely California itself—California as a little America, a real and imaginary place that does not foreground the "big picture," as the other novels do. "California" is a contained avatar of the freewheeling geographies, real and imagined, of the other texts, from the fantastic flights of the Chums of Chance to the sad and heart-wrenching trials of Mason and Dixon in South Africa. In these three novels, we are given only occasional glimpses of the magnitude of Pynchon's sense of world history. We do not see, for example, the terrible consequences of colonialism (the predecessors/prototypes of Blicero/Weissmann refining the techniques of genocide in Africa for later use in Germany) or the perverse underpinnings of environmental disaster (Europeans happily killing off the last dodo because they want to and because the dodos are powerless). The range of conspiracy and paranoia in the California novels parodies the depraved power games of the other works: compare the collapse of the student movement in 1960s California to Scarsdale Vibe's destruction of the miners' labor movement along with the Traverse family; compare Brock Vond's power over Frenesi Gates to the White Visitation's control and manipulation of Tyrone Slothrop from cradle to dispersal in the Zone; compare Pierce Inverarity's vulgar real estate developments to Mason and Dixon providing the linear boundaries that will allow Indian lands to be stolen legally; compare Mickey Wolfmann's corruption to I. G. Farben's stranglehold on the world, with the German corporation coming as close to simply being a villainous character ("corporations are people") as a corporate entity ever could. Brock Vond, Dr. Hilarius, and Bigfoot Bjornsen are bad guys, but they are cartoonish bad guys, too incompetent (although Hilarius was a Nazi) to imagine and engineer the unfathomable cruelty of the Dora concentration camp or the torture and decimation of the Hereros. The villains of the California novels do not perpetrate their villainy on a scale large enough to compel the willful blindness of Franz Pökler for his complicity in the crimes of Dora; they are quite incapable of the evil ingenuity required to fabricate the lethal sadomasochism of the Blicero-Gottfried-Katje triumvirate. We see only glancing references to the enormity of historical crimes that appear full-blown in the other novels: slavery and genocide in Africa and in the New World, the sordid underside of Enlightenment and the Age of Reason as white men engineer the American revolution for pleasure and profit in Mason & Dixon. Even the heartbreak of love and betrayal as Jessica Swanlake abandons Roger Mexico for the attractions of suburbia is somehow more acute, more disappointing, than all of Frenesi Gates's betrayals of Zoyd and Prairie.
The California novels touch more or less briefly upon all of these large, globally located themes, of course, but they do so in ways that are direct, contemporary, and limited to a particular time and place—California/America from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan. As such, the novels are not only more accessible in themselves, but focusing as they do upon just a few memorable and sympathetic or repulsive characters, limited settings, and linear plots (at least relatively linear, with fewer tangents) facilitates a richer understanding of the themes and characters of the larger novels. The California novels give us story lines that are relatively easy to follow and characters who, with the occasional exception of Doc Sportello, do not often resort to disguises (as Slothrop, wandering the Zone, becomes a hard-boiled reporter, a Rocketman, a filmmaker, a Pig), become caricatures of evil (as do Edward Pointsman, the cruel, demonic behavioral scientist, or Major Marvy, the idiotic counterpart to Blicero, the tortured sadist), travel to the magical center of the Earth (as do the Chums of Chance, the good-natured Hardy Boy–ish adventurers), become intriguing "ghosts" (like the elusive, mysterious, probably nonexistent V.), or appear as fictionalized historical characters (like Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon and Benjamin Franklin, whose characterizations, however amusing, are at least somewhat constrained by historical fact).
By contrast, the California novels encourage readers to focus upon the characters themselves, their trials and confusions, pains and pleasures while continuing to reflect themes that are foregrounded in the other novels: in each case, we follow, with relative ease, a familiar (although not necessarily chronological) narrative trajectory, from conflict to climax to resolution. Again, Haraway's notion of situated knowledge is useful here. The four big novels touch upon virtually every social, political, and economic eventuality that has occurred in the modern world, from the scientific revolution to the end of the 20th century; as such, they constitute an extraordinarily rich context of intellectual engagement and social and cultural critique within which we may consider the characters we are given in the California novels. In the larger universe of Pynchon's fiction, the California novels present to us much more directly than do the larger novels the forlorn yet hopeful possibilities for family, for love, for meaning, and for redemption in a world hopelessly riven by greed, lust, jealousy—all of the deadly sins that riddle humanity. Such humanized and sympathetic characters appear in all of Pynchon's novels, of course—Enzian gives up his quest for martyrdom, Dixon confronts the slave trader, Kit Traverse rejects the manipulations of Scarsdale Vibe. Precisely because the California novels are Pynchon's work, we don't read them as separate texts; indeed, as readers, we (in our own constructions of partial knowledge) situate them within the context of the longer novels. Rather than follow the temptation to read them simply as provocative but minor works of American letters, or simply as minor works within Pynchon's oeuvre, we can better comprehend them as a kind of illustration of how the various themes and conflicts of the big novels come to roost in (almost) believable but always sympathetic characters. The California novels would be read and understood very differently without the critical, political, and historical contexts that Pynchon's other writing provides. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Pynchon's California by Scott McClintock, John Miller. Copyright © 2014 University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.