Science Fiction Studies

#55 = Volume 18, Part 3 = November 1991

Roy Arthur Swanson

Postmodernist Criticism of Pynchon

Alec McHoul and David Wills. Writing Pynchon: Strategies in Fictional Analysis. Urbana: Illinois UP, 1990. ix+239. $29.95 cloth, $12.95 paper.

The positive values of "postmodernism," the oddly assorted aggregate of approaches to critical theory and theoretical criticism that has captured the academy during the decline of the 20th century, include the excitement and freedom it generates in its achievement of independence from traditional limitations of criticism to (1) categories, such as genre, period, nation, mode of narration, pattern of rhetoric, and the like, and (2) literature itself. It perpetuates a new conspectus of word play, a profound inquiry into etymology, an unlimited perspective upon communicative expression, a self-generative vocabulary, and a philosophical abstraction that approaches a religious Logos quite as energetically as Renaissance concretion sought an alternative to religion. For every positive, however, there are, as Pindar cautions, two negatives: each of postmodernism's positives generates its own excess and invites its own misapplication. The immediate negatives of the school are its trendy windiness and the term "postmodernism" itself. The trend has become de rigueur in the study of literature, and conformity to its vocabulary has produced terminological pretentiousness--high jargon, that is--and a patina of political correctness. The term is a buzz-word, with "modernism" indefinitely referent to any critical vogue later than New Criticism and "post" blazoning a keeping ahead of the pack. Writing Pynchon exhibits the worst and the best of postmodernism.

Unlike most adherents to the term, McHoul and Wills offer at least a tentative definition of "postmodernism": it is something "with...overtones of intertextuality and the encroachment of the non-literary" (38). Their cue for the phrase is Brian McHale's article, "Modernist Reading, Postmodern Text: The Case of Gravity's Rainbow" in Poetics Today 1 (1979): 1-2. The non-literary that encroaches on the fiction of Thomas Pynchon appears in Writing Pynchon as the various modes of communication examined by Jacques Derrida (e.g., post cards, grammatology) and as the visual devices of movies. McHoul and Wills see Pynchon's fiction, and, as well, his autobiographical introduction to Slow Learner, as "postmodern" texts which they give a "postmodern" reading in the form of cumulative textualization. Tracking the intertextuality of Pynchon's writing--that is to say, Pynchon's being written --they adopt a method which they call "bookmatching": they "mean to invoke an image whereby a series of writings is considered as a single piece, in the first instance, and then sliced through to reveal not so much the symmetry of their grain but new spaces between them" (11-12). The spaces are then matched with "material typonym[s]," Derrida's "Envois," their own "prosthesis," and, extrapolating from Derrida, their own "telegrammatology"--also transference, difference, the absent signified, radical feminism, and "the apocalyptic perspective."

"Prosthesis," it is explained, "separates a space between a and b, an indefinite series of delta-t discontinuities." The a and b relationship would be a duality, like rocket/penis, which becomes a unit in a new duality created by a relational suffix: "rocket/penis//Jamf" (61). Prosthesis then, erasing the single virgule, separates a (rocket) and b (penis) and leaves a space for, among other possibilities, "re-including excluded middles" (62). The new duality's left side, "a( )b," identifies a "moral, logical or rhetorical dilemma" and its right side ("Jamf") identifies "the material" (62). The information is presented with relative clarity. What is relatively unclear is the use of the word "separates": to separate "a space between a and b" is to divide or cut an existing space into at least two parts; but from their illustration of prosthesis one must conclude that the writers are talking about opening up or introducing a space, not separating one.

This disregard for proper usage, when great store is set by the semantic and metasemantic consequence of usage, is less an exception in postmodernist criticism than a feature of it. In their context of prosthesis the authors choose to identify a material equivalence between signifiers, as opposed to a rhetorical difference between them, by the phrase "material typonomy [sic]." They honor the etymology of typ- (Greek tupos, Latin typus), share the term "typonym" with Natural History, and then assume, either wrongly or postmodernistically, or both, that -[o]nomy is the equivalent of -onymy. Actually, the suffix -nomy is from Greek nomos(law, order), and the suffix -onymy is from Aeolic Greek onyma (name; Ionic Greek onoma). Ionic onoma, which appears in words like onomatopoeia and onomastic, does not serve English as a suffix; Aeolic onyma, however, does, as in acronym, synonym, metonymy, and typonymy. McHoul and Wills regularly use "typonomy" when they mean, presumably, typonymy; typonomy has nothing etyomologically to do with naming. They apparently had learned the difference by the time they compiled their index, wherein the entry is "typonymy," and wrote their introduction, wherein they speak of "`material typonymy' which we outline in Chapter 1" (6), in which chapter, though, it appears consistently as "material typonomy" (53, 54 [twice], 55, 57).

This could be excused as a typo, like "trancendental" (198), had it appeared just once and were it not for Chapter 4, on "Telegrammatology," in which achingly scrupulous attention is paid to retextualization resulting from typographical errors and ostensible typographical errors: "we can now begin," they begin, "to revalorise the typing or printing error as the very mark of the independence of writing--rightly--from speech" (115). The meticulous orthography of Chapter 4 attests the writers' resistance to the independence of writing. Such independence is surely manifest, however, in the factual and authorial, as well as typographical, errors that appear in the preceding three chapters. Even in Chapter 4 there is some authorial error; for example, the writers assert their ability to revalorise something they have not previously valorised. The value of Chapter 4 may lie in its predisposing a reader to re-read, re-evaluate, and subsequently revalorise or devalorise the preceding three chapters.

The first chapter of Writing Pynchon provides three readings of Gravity's Rainbow: the initial reading is a lucid plot summary, called a "sketch map," centered on integral characters; the second is a thematic summary; the third analyzes Pynchon's cinematics as a new order or conception of textuality. The readings are uniformly informative and will, despite the authors' disclaiming the satisfactoriness of such readings, enhance any serious reader's appreciation of the novel. As the chapter moves toward its valid, Derridaesque, and "post-rhetorical" fourth reading, it gathers insecurity "as to how to situate itself with respect to the typographical format so far employed" (49). It decides to continue with "an indentation somewhere between" flush left and three ems to the right. From pages 49.5 to 63.3 two ems of linear page-space are thereby sacrificed--in vain, because the curtailment begins with page 50 not to be noticeable. Quite noticeable on page 50, however, is the post-grammatical clause, "neither mind nor message are fixed," and the ambiguous sequence, "sensing the absence of order, anarchy, disharmony, threats to traditional canons of literary organization and a challenge to routine, clear and beautiful renditions of 'reality.'" If the first "of" is meant, as it presumably is, to have only one object, and not five, the grammatical ambiguity can be resolved by changing "absence of order" to "disorderliness."

The second chapter, effectively relating The Crying of Lot 49 to Derrida's "Envois," ineffectively and ostentatiously concludes with a 53-line rhetorical question.

Chapter 3 applies the post-rhetorical "material typonomy," by which Gravity's Rainbow is measured, in the fourth reading of Chapter 1, to The Crying of Lot 49. It is in this third chapter that prosthesis is formulated as a device for re-including middles. Unfortunately, the rhetorical//material duality that is prerequisite to the prosthesis has not been sufficiently defogged in Chapter 1. It is clear enough that the rhetorical a/b duality (e.g., the rocket/penis metaphor) becomes the first unit of a rhetorical//material duality. The material factor (e.g., Jamf) is then "an object or person (at least something of material substance, no matter how mysterious)" (61), as substance "supplants rhetoric." This works well for rocket/penis//Jamf and for reality/fantasy//cinemaif cinema denotes film, projector, screen, etc.; but how can the same hold for "parable/parabola//rocket trajectory"? A rocket is substantial; but the adjective "rocket" is rhetorical, and a trajectory, however mysterious it may be, owns no part of the material substance that defines it. Defogged or not, the concept of rhetorical//material duality is valuable to readers of Pynchon and of science fiction in general. As a concept of relation, it posits the valid observation that rhetorical dualities become, not Aristotelian triads, but initial units in "post-rhetorical" dyads: rhetoric is thereby to time what material is to space.

Postmodernist criticism is at its best in following the lead of quantum mechanics toward the paradoxes of space-time relationism. Physical energy, as McHoul and Wills recognize, "comes neither from a single indivisible sub-atomic particle, nor from the plurality of such particles but instead from the relations between them" (96-97). "The mistake," they add, in reference to The Crying of Lot 49, "is to go looking in the properties of objects (e.g., the will, the Tristero, etc.) instead of canceling the object domain and focusing instead on the domain of relations" (97). The effective focus is on, for example, the relation of writing to speech, not on writing as an extension or variety of speech. From this perspective McHoul and Wills have much to offer readers whose understanding of Pynchon is otherwise limited to Aristotelian holism (beginning-middle-end).

Horatian holism, with its golden mean and midst-of-action, constitutes similar limitation in an approach to Pynchon's work. Curiously, McHoul and Wills ignore the limitation and misuse Horace's midst-of-action phraseology as being descriptive of Oedipa Maas's being between the either and the or that exclude a middle. If they knew Horace better they would know that they know better than Horace. Their discernment of Oedipa's plight is admirable: "She is caught between Origin (being) and Destination (purpose)"; but this is Heidegger's Geworfenheit(thrownness), not Horace's in media res (into the midst of [narrated] action). Horace is speaking of the structure of epic narrative, poetry that propels (rapit) the listener into the middle of the narrative before giving the listener the beginning and the end. McHoul and Wills introduce the discernment of Oedipa's plight with the statement that "she is in media res" (90). Given the scrupulous adherence to etymology and classical grammatical concepts in Derridaesque deconstructionism, to which McHoul and Wills themselves try scrupulously to adhere, they should not confuse the Latin accusative of end-of-motion with the Latin ablative of place-where. Horace's phrase, in Epistle 2.3.148, means not "in the middle of events" or "in between," but "into the midst of events"; and it qualifies a transitive, not an intransitive verb.

Theodore D. Kharpertian, who makes better use of Horace in an investigation of Pynchon's Menippeanism as postmodern satire, also makes a better appraisal of Oedipa's situation in the matter of excluded middles as one of entanglement (87) instead of paradoxical and pseudo-Horatian placement.

In their third chapter McHoul and Wills exhibit one of the worst tendencies of postmodernism, namely, would-be deconstructionist play expressing itself post-precisionistically with a philosophical disrespect for grammatical language, for axiomatic denotation, and for verbal perspicacity. In this chapter the writers fail to maintain their first-person-plural address to the reader by retaining here and there (95, 98) an original first-person singular. The worst, however, is followed by the best, namely Chapters 4 and 5. The fourth chapter, on "telegrammatology," is, in its impeccably proof-read divagation on error "construed positively," postmodernism at its most rewarding.

Chapter 5 is a profound reading of Pynchon's introduction to Slow Learner, asking "what is it (preface, story, autobiography)? who writes, or is written (author, narrator, character)? and by what function of writing does it work, what theory of meaning?" (133). Where John Dugdale is satisfied to quote from or refer to the introduction, or extrapolate from it Pynchon's tentative attitude toward Modernism (108-109), McHoul and Wills excavate from it the avatars of Writing. Their theoretical focus is difference and transference, recognizable as problems of translation and applicable as autobiographical distortion and deception. Pynchon is observed to maintain his privacy by concealing himself in what he says about himself and, also, "as with uncertainty in particle physics" (155), to change the pertinence of the self observed by the very act of observation. The authors look upon their reading as a methodological writing of Pynchon. The methodology is exemplary and can exegetically and diegetically write many modern literary artists. In Der Auftrag, for example, Friedrich Dürrenmatt may be seen to see himself as being written by his readers, who are the observers of himself in his observation of the Other, the Other being potentially inclusive of his readers themselves, and he himself being, along with the Other, part of the agglomerate of human beings who both resent being observed and would, if they were not under observation, see themselves as devoid of meaning (23).

Following its very valuable and very best segment (Chapters 4 and 5) is the book's reversion to ineffectiveness in its last three chapters. In Chapters 6 and 7, on Pynchon's V., the authors aggrandize themselves in a display of self-satisfied and smug self-consciousness. The chapters include photographs of a typewritten letter from McHoul to Wills, a "post-structuralist" cartoon by McHoul, two pages of scattershot notes in analysis of V., and a postcard sent by Wills from France to Alec and Ruth McHoul in Townsville, Australia. The photographed postcard carries a photograph of Marcel Proust in his death bed, along with Wills's comment, "Here's Proust recovering from too many madeleines" (172). There is much here that reflects the postmodernist penchant for the politically correct puncturing of literary canons, even though the text as a whole contributes to the canonization of the great white male Pynchon. Chapter 7 seeks, patronizingly and with awkward condescension, to hold Pynchon-criticism up to feminism by comparing the directions of two feminist tracts, first to each other and then to the novel V. The concluding ("apocalyptic") chapter, on "Fall out"--" answer is still falling after the end" (221)--makes compensatory use of the generic feminine--e.g., "...we don't seek to abuse the reader until she falls asleep" (219). Incidentally, this statement about abuse has to do with boring a reader with a long list; post-grammatically, however, it intones a male suggestion to abuse a female reader after she has fallen asleep.

John M. Krafft, editor of Pynchon Notes, is quoted on the cover blurb: "Reading Pynchon can never be quite the same after Writing Pynchon." That is safe to say. Certainly no text is for any individual reader quite what it was at her or his first reading after he or she has read secondary material on it or has merely re-read it. Nor are postmodernists alone in insisting that no text is the same text for any two readers. Yet Writing Pynchon is an expositional text produced by two readers whose first-person-plural address, from which there is only a temporary retreat, asserts an agreement upon the sameness of the Pynchon corpus to both of them.


Dugdale, John. Thomas Pynchon: Allusive Parables of Power. London: Macmillan, 1990.

Dürrenmatt, Friedrich. Der Auftrag oder Vom Beobachten des Beobachters der Beobachter. Zürich; Diogenes, 1986.

Kharpertian, Theodore D. "Thomas Pynchon and Postmodern American Satire." A Hand to Turn the Time: The Menippean Satires of Thomas Pynchon. Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP; London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1990.

Q. Horatius Flaccus. Epist. II.3 ad Pisones ("Ars Poetica"), lines 148-49.

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