• Alec McHoul
  • David Wills


Absolutely as a heuristic only, as a way of marking this chapter’s attempt to shift positions in the field of Pynchon criticism, we could begin with the fiction of there being a ‘standard reading’. By invoking a ‘standard reading’, we are pointing to what we see as a tendency of Pynchon criticism as a whole, namely a type of metaphysical reductionism. This is to be found in the criticism on all three novels, but particularly on Lot 49 where critics have considered the metaphysical dilemmas to be very explicitly narrated. That is, in Gravity’s Rainbow they are supposedly more elliptically treated and in V. the crasser ‘solutions’ such as ‘Keep cool but care’ are more likely to be quoted. To put it crudely (and so risking a charge of reductionism against the present text) this critical reductionism entails asking whether the fictions — and ‘Pynchon himself’, inevitably — are positive or negative in terms of their ultimate prognostications for ‘humanity’ considered in terms of some kind of undifferentiated global mass, even though the dilemma which this mass faces can mean splits and fissures. The ‘elect vs. preterite’ division is a particular favourite in this case.2 The point of the ‘standard reading’, as we read it, is to reassert some solution, global truth, or human condition in the face of global problems dualistically conceived. The ‘standard reading’ is most clearly represented by those works, such as Hite’s,3 which try to deal explicitly with such matters as ‘order vs. chaos’; or Moore’s book which borrows Kolodny and Peters’ replacement of ‘either/or’ readings by ‘both/and’ readings.4 And we mention these texts in particular because while ‘standard’ on this account, they do attempt to work with the dualisms as reasonably problematic matters, and not as simply clear-cut ‘choices’.


Standard Reading Narrative Discourse Present Chapter Time Literary Supplement Lowly Origin 
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    R. Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (London: Cape, 1979), p. 145.Google Scholar
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    See, for example, the following papers: J. M. Krafft, ‘“And how far-fallen?”: puritan themes in Gravity’s Rainbow’, Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, 18, 3 (1977), pp. 55–73; S. Sanders, ‘Pynchon’s paranoid history’, in G. Levine and D. Leverenz (eds), Mindful Pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon (Boston: Little Brown, 1976), pp. 139–59; and M. Smith and K. Tölöyan, ‘The new jeremiad: Gravity’s Rainbow’, in R. Pearce (ed.), Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981), pp. 169–86.Google Scholar
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    M. Hite, Ideas of Order in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1983).Google Scholar
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    T. Moore, The Style of Connectedness: ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ and Thomas Pynchon (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987). A. Kolodny and D.J. Peters, ‘Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49: the novel as subversive experience’, Modern Fiction Studies, 19, Spring (1973) pp. 79–87.Google Scholar
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    A. J. Friedman and M. Pütz, ‘Science as metaphor: Thomas Pynchon and Gravity’s Rainbow, in Pearce, pp. 69–81. For a further discussion, see L.W. Ozier, ‘Antipointsman/antimexico: some mathematical imagery in Gravity’s Rainbow’, Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, 16, 2 (1974), pp. 73–90.Google Scholar
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    Six important articles focusing directly on moral questions in Lot 49 — and which would be at the centre of the debate on moral dualisms which the present chapter wishes to deconstruct — are: M. Hite, ‘Purity as parody in The Crying of Lot 49’ in her Ideas of Order, pp. 67–93; Kolodny and Peters, ‘Subversive experience’; E. Mendelson, ‘The sacred, the profane, and The Crying of Lot 49’, in E. Mendelson (ed.), Pynchon: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1978), pp. 112–46; J. W. Slade, ‘Thomas Pynchon; postindustrial humanist’, Technology and Culture, 23 (1982), pp. 53–72; C. R. Stimpson, ‘Pre-apocalyptic atavism: Thomas Pynchon’s early fiction’ in Levine and Leverenz, pp. 31–47; and M. Putz, ‘Thomas Pynchon: history, self, and the narrative discourse’ in M. Pütz, The Story of Identity: American Fiction of the Sixties (Stuttgart: Metzlersche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1979), pp. 130–57.Google Scholar
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    Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (New York/London: Bantam Books/Jonathan Cape, 1967). All subsequent bracketed page references are to this edition. Other editions of Pynchon texts referred to are: Gravity’s Rainbow (New York/London: Viking/Cape, 1973); and V. (New York/London: Bantam/Cape, 1964).Google Scholar
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    The ‘redemptive sailor solution’ to moral dilemmas is expanded by Plater to cover the other two novels. As well as Oedipa’s sailor with the dts, he points to the sailor Mehemet’s message to Stencil in V.: ‘the only change is toward death … Early and late we are in decay’ (p. 433); and to Pig Bodine’s gift to the almost non-existent Slothrop: Dillinger’s blood-soaked shirt and the words ‘… what we need isn’t right reasons, but just that grace. The physical grace to keep it working’ (p. 741). See W. M. Plater, The Grim Phoenix: Reconstructing Thomas Pynchon (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978), pp. 3, 48, 52, 230–1. The positive valuation of the Demon can be found in a number of articles including that by Friedman and Pütz. They see the Demon as a conceptual point where ‘the two patterns [of order and entropy] merge’ (p. 69). A similar point is made in A. Mangel, ‘Maxwell’s demon, entropy, information: The Crying of Lot 49’, in Levine and Leverenz, pp. 87–100.Google Scholar
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    Examples would be the ‘encyclopaedic’ readings of Rainbow which argue that Pynchon uses copious amounts of factual knowledge for a variety of literary and metaphysical purposes — splitting the seriousness into an arc of literary play. This reading of the rainbow, we owe to Ann Campbell (personal communication). The ‘encyclopaedic’ tradition is currently occupied by: the introduction to C. Clerc (ed.), Approaches to ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1983); E. Mendelson, ‘Gravity’s encyclopedia’, in Levine and Leverenz, pp. 161–95; D. Cowart, Thomas Pynchon: The Art of Allusion (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980); J. O. Stark, Pynchon’s Fictions: Thomas Pynchon and the Literature of Information (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1980); S. Weisenburger, ‘The end of history?: Thomas Pynchon and the uses of the past’, in Pearce, pp. 140–56; Smith and Tölöyan, ‘The new jeremiad’. These readings relate to the moral in that they hold the encyclopaedic narrative to be that which ‘displays the limits and possibilities of action within [our] culture’ (E. Mendelson, ‘Rainbow corner’, Times Literary Supplement, 13 June 1975, p. 666.) BOOK BID’s difference lies in the fact that, unlike some of the above-mentioned pieces, it invoked not so much an infinitely expanding bandwidth for the ‘possibilities of action’ as an infinite series of interfacings, connections, or flip-flops. This is largely because BOOK BID was constrained within the more rigidly prescribed parameters of the binary. Our chapter ‘Gravity’s Rainbow and the post-rhetorical’ addresses more clearly this idea of ‘looseness’ between binary oppositions.Google Scholar
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    This argument is close to that of Wittgenstein in Zettel (Oxford: Blackwell, 1967), §693. It also owes much to the position taken by M. Deitch in his unpublished paper ‘Wittgenstein and Derrida: no contest’.Google Scholar
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    See J. Derrida, Signéponge/Signsponge, trans. R. Rand (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984). The connections between the ‘(s)ponge’ signature, teaching (pedagogy) and erasure are made by Gregory Ulmer in Applied Grammatology (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), pp. 19–20.Google Scholar
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    Various writers on Pynchon and science who focus on uses of scientific metaphors assume that the fictions adopt an untheorised and undercritical stance toward science. See: J. O. Stark, ‘The arts and sciences of Thomas Pynchon’, Hollins Critic, 12, 4 (1975), pp. 1–13; Friedman and Pütz, ‘Science as metaphor’; A.J. Friedman, ‘Science and technology’, in Clerc, pp. 69–102; and D. Simberloff, ‘Entropy, information and life: biophysics in the novels of Thomas Pynchon’, Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 21 (1978), pp. 617–25. However, the continual failures and atrocities of science are to be found there also: a thoroughgoing distaste for the positivistic excesses of science on someone or something’s part.Google Scholar
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    Much current Pynchon scholarship has begun to take to task the supposed ‘nihilism’ and ‘existential uneasiness’ of some earlier readings of Pynchon’s work — such as Henkle’s accusation of ‘moral decay’ — and carried over into readings of Gravity’s Rainbow. See: R. B. Henkle, ‘Pynchon’s tapestries on the western wall’, Modern Fiction Studies, 17, 2 (1971), pp. 207–20. The first quoted term is Clerc’s from Approaches, the second Lasch’s in C. Lasch, The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times (London: Picador, 1985), p. 163. The introduction to Clerc’s book tries to rally a case for Rainbow as a novel which ‘often masks itself as antinovelistic, antiliterary, and, by an even greater deceptiveness, antihumanistic’ (p. 10). For good or ill, this recent wave of reading Pynchon for a positive morality and metaphysics, which Moore calls ‘redemptiveness’, only returns criticism to the antithesis of nihilism — a sort of jovial, liberal (or yuppie) discourse on ‘community’. The present chapter tries to imagine a space outside both forms of this problematic.Google Scholar
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    ‘Game’ is used here as a way of glossing Derrida’s concept of ‘play’ along with Wittgenstein’s concept of ‘language game’. See J. Derrida, ‘Structure, sign and play in the discourse of the human sciences’, in his Writing and Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), pp. 278–93; and L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Oxford: Blackwell, 1968). An important recent rethinking of the concept for literary scholarship is to be found in A. Freadman, ‘Untitled (on genre)’, Cultural Studies, 2, 1 (1988), pp. 67–99.Google Scholar
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    The argument is made by among others M. Foucault in ‘What is an author?’ in his Language, Counter-memory, Practice (Oxford: Blackwell, 1977), pp. 113–38. For Foucault, literature emerges at the moment when language becomes aware of itself as signification. Quilligan’s idea of allegory attempts, with mixed success, to play with this notion of doubling. (See M. Quilligan, ‘[“Thomas Pynchon and the language of allegory”]’, in Pearce, pp. 187–212.) Although Foucault locates the moment of the doubling of language in literature as being in the nineteenth century, this does not preclude retrospective reading. For details, see A. McHoul, ‘Sociology and literature: the voice of fact and the writing of fiction’, to appear in The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology.Google Scholar
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    Cf. the comparisons between The Paranoids and The Beatles and between Lot 49 and Help (1965) in particular. For studies of paranoia and its inverse in Pynchon, see particularly M. Siegel, Pynchon: Creative Paranoia in ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ (Port Washington: Kennikat Press, 1978); T. Tanner, Thomas Pynchon (London: Methuen, 1982); Friedman and Pütz, ‘Science as metaphor’; Krafft, ‘And how far fallen’; L. Mackey, ‘Paranoia, Pynchon, and pretention’, Sub-Stance, 30 (1981), pp. 16–30; and S. Sanders, ‘Pynchon’s paranoid history’, in Levine and Leverenz, pp. 139–59. The modern-day quest is, of course, typically of a much diminished degree of difficulty by comparison with its mediaeval counterpart; opening up a space for Joycean fun and games. So much so that Plater refers to the Pynchonian quest not even as a ‘journey’ but as a ‘tour’, noting along the way, the explicit and implicit Baedeker references. See Plater, The Grim Phoenix, pp. 64–134. It’s rather a pity after all Plater’s sleuthing that Pynchon says he ‘transferred’ the lot straight from Baedeker, in the ‘Introduction’ to Slow Learner.Google Scholar
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    R. Chambers, Story and Situation: Narrative Seduction and the Power of Fiction (Minneapolis: Manchester University Press & Minnesota University Press, 1984).Google Scholar
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    The history of theories of language and meaning is no more clearly and critically available than in M. Foucault’s The Order of Things (London: Tavistock, 1970).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Alec McHoul and David Wills 1990

Authors and Affiliations

  • Alec McHoul
    • 1
  • David Wills
    • 2
  1. 1.Communication StudiesMurdoch UniversityAustralia
  2. 2.French and ItalianLouisiana State UniversityUSA

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