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
(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
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
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).
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
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
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"--"...an 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
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,
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"),
Back to Home