The Eternally Adolescent Crying of Thomas Pynchon

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Over at The New York Sun, Adam Kirsch gives a big thumbs-down to Thomas Pynchon's new novel, Against the Day:

"Against the Day"…will inevitably be read as Mr. Pynchon's contribution to the genre of post-September 11 fiction. Yet by comparison with the other major novelists who have addressed this theme, he displays a surpassingly crude moral imagination. This is a novel, after all, in which most of the heroes are proud terrorists, committed on principle to murdering plutocrats like Scarsdale Vibe. Writing about such characters in our own age of terror, one might expect Mr. Pynchon to have given some thought to the rights and wrongs of political violence.

In fact, however, his attitude towards violence is childishly sentimental, and ruthless in a way only possible to a writer whose imagination has never dwelt among actual human beings. Mr. Pynchon's heroes (the poor, the workers, Anarchists) assassinate and blow up his villains (mine owners, Pinkerton thugs, the bourgeoisie) with no more qualms than the Road Runner has about dropping an anvil on the Coyote. In the novel as in the cartoon, good and evil are unproblematic, death is unreal, and sheer activity takes the place of human motive. The silliness of "Against the Day" about the very subjects where we are most urgently in quest of wisdom proves that, whatever he once was, Thomas Pynchon is no longer the novelist we need.

Whole review here. Against the Day is a whopping 1,100 pages long, which makes it a good bargain, at least. I inveighed against Pynchon when his earlier, long-awaited doorstop Mason & Dixon came out. If we have passed out of an age where the novelist really is/was a culture hero (and I think we have), it's at least partly because of the failure of the writers of Pynchon's generation to fully engage contemporary America. In the end, I think he's remained little more than a clever adolescent, a wiseacker devoid of real insight into society or life, as callow as he appears in the best-known photo of him. I greatly enjoy The Crying of Lot 49 and parts of Gravity's Rainbow, but there's a point where the slightness of his thought overwhelms the cleverness of the prose and plots (such as they are).

Bonus question: When is Don DeLillo, a writer often linked to Pynchon and one whose novels often explored terrorism and political violence, going to write a 9/11 novel?

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  1. Much the same indictment could be brought to bear against Doctorow’s Ragtime- he was oblivious to the fact that even icons like J.P. Morgan were real people with living descendents. But then Pynchon has long dwelt on the permanence of zeal and preterition as driving forces for mayhem, and after a century , both are still with us.

  2. “a clever adolescent, a wiseacker devoid of real insight into society or life”

    that’s what they said about DFW…

  3. I also liked The Crying of Lot 49. Although I remember thinking while I read it, “Wow, Robert Anton Wilson does this better.”

  4. Preach on Gillespie. The struggle with Pynchon is that in a short work like “Lot 49”, you get, as one of my former profs suggested “the feeling that something wonderful is being presented, even if you can’t quite piece together what the point is.”

    As you wade through “Gravity’s Rainbow” in search of some particular insight, you get the sense exactly conveyed by Nick here, that he is extremely clever in his portrayal of shallow insights. Dead on, Nick.

  5. Mr. Pynchon’s heroes (the poor, the workers, Anarchists) assassinate and blow up his villains (mine owners, Pinkerton thugs, the bourgeoisie) with no more qualms than the Road Runner has about dropping an anvil on the Coyote.

    But isn’t that an accurate description of the sociological and psychological outlook of most folks who commit political violence?

  6. I also like some of Pynchon’s work (OK, Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow). Still, you only need to read one or two books by these post-pompousass novelists to get tired of the schtick. DFW? One great book, bunch of who-cares books.

  7. To me what seems more unrealistic is the notion that those who commit acts of terrorism, etc. really struggle with the issue much. But hey, maybe I am just completely wrong.

  8. He’s written a novel, not propaganda. It is his prerogative to take whatever narrative stance he want.

    I am surprised a savvy cat like Nick Gillespie would be demanding that the good and bad guys get pointed out clearly. that seems like the true adolescent stance to me.

    Having a grip on the terrorist mind is an important tool for fighting terrorism ultimately, and it is a tool that America has not really picked up yet. Here we have Editor Gillespie warning us off the whole approach. fef.

    Maybe novels are so crappy these days because the editors at the few publishing houses demand it be that way. Just a thought.

  9. I was so bored by the last DeLillo novel that I didn’t finish it, and can’t remember the title. This is unfair, but reflect on what Conrad has to say in the relatively few short pages of “Heart of Darkness”, and what so many writers manage to elucidate after felling an entire forest.

  10. Correction:

    “few publishing houses” should be –few publishing houses able to rent bookstore shelf space and Oprah-time–

    Obviously there are more than a few publishing houses, but that ain’t the point.

  11. Anyway, if you are looking for quality work, just read the Greek lyric poets. 😉

  12. “Having a grip on the terrorist mind is an important tool for fighting terrorism ultimately, and it is a tool that America has not really picked up yet. Here we have Editor Gillespie warning us off the whole approach. fef.”

    I think you are wide of the mark. The point isn’t that someone tried to engage the terrorist mind, it is that they did so by applying WTO protester level analysis while dodging the real issues. It is a tired, simplistic refrain that understanding terrorism is the same as understanding why people get mad. The part you gloss over in such analysis is, well, the whole significant issue.

  13. Jason Ligon,

    Ever read Eichmann in Jerusalem?

  14. it is that they did so by applying WTO protester level analysis while dodging the real issues.

    And I am not willing to believe that Pynchon has repeated this mistake just because the narrative stance of his book is a terrorist mindset, which is what I hear Editor Gillespie arguing here.

  15. Anyway, if you are looking for quality work just read the Greek lyric poets. 😉

    Zeno, I tried to move from my chair to my library to follow your advice, but it turns out that it’s impossible for me to move from here to there.

  16. Ever read Eichmann in Jerusalem?

    I looked this up in Wikipedia. What a fascinating sounding book! Strange coincidence in that a philosophy prof friend of mine recently made a Hannah Arrendt ref and I had to smile and nod politely, having no clue.

  17. i hope you made it at least halfway, PL.

  18. I can’t really comment about the nature of Mr. Pynchons work….I would like to say however….for the love of Christ do something about those British teeth!

  19. Pro Libertate,

    Heh. 🙂

  20. why the hell should we want anyone to write a “9/11” novel?

    Novels, i think, are better when they’re about individuals, and how they experience the full spectrum of life – not things centered on ‘significant’ historical events that are most often really just passing phenomena in people’s lives.

    Basically, I’m one that doesnt think “9/11 changed everything”, or think it’s something that can be used to tease out great literature that couldnt otherwise be told in a different context.

    Part of the experience being in lower manhattan on 9/11 (as i was) was simple shock, followed by a necessary numbness, then the pressing need for a lot of strong drink.

    I dont think many people standing under the towers watching that day really look back on the ‘broad significance’ of the event, or the diverse passions it aroused at the time; rather the prevailing feeling seemed to be just an abstracted, depressing sickness. Like driving past a very bad auto-accident and seeing children’s shoes in the road. Most people walking home over the brooklyn bridge that day seemed to be emotionally unbowed, if a bit tired and pissed off. I was surprised that many people still managed to smile about things.

    Most places i go in this country, I hear far more hemming and hawing about 9/11 and terrrrirrsts than you do in Manhattan. Most people here dont treat the thing with the kind of abstract emotional reverence that I sometimes find in flyover states. It’s not that its ‘not a big deal’; it’s just that i think maybe we deal with it differently because it was actually REAL to many people who’ve grown up here, and by being real, it’s harder to mythologize and make it into some broadly significant event in people’s lives. For many, it was horrible, but it was mostly like a natural disaster, and a day or two off work. Sort of like the blackout, which to be honest, was really more of a strange/fascinating event in NY (everyone came out and communed in the streets; plenty of impromptu block parties – where 20 years earlier there would have been riots, crime, fear)

    Anyway. I enjoy Pynchons sense of humor and his (over)clever prose. Only read his older stuff. What recent books DO you like Nick? Why pick on this guy when there’s so much shit out there? Ok, I see why. Bad photo.

  21. Well, The Naked and the Dead is a great novel, but that doesn’t make Mailer any better in what he wrote later or any less wacky. I think we’re always disappointed when a great writer stops writing great novels. Joseph Heller is another good modern example of that.

  22. with no more qualms than the Road Runner has about dropping an anvil on the Coyote

    Has Adam Kirsch never seen a Road Runner cartoon? The Road Runner doesn’t drop anvils on anyone. He is totally passive, letting the Coyote’s plans backfire on their own.

  23. Franklin Harris,

    Your pro-Road Runner leanings offend and confuse me. Wile E. Coyote is the good guy in those stories, not the feathered malfeasor.

  24. “Gravity’s Rainbow” — Good Christ, wotta pain in the ass. It was recommended to me by an acquaintance who aspired to my friendship.

    She didn’t bloody make it.

  25. Clearly neither of you understand the necessarily binary, symbiotic relationships that provide the fundamental dramatic underpinnings of all non-verbal cartoon work of the 1950s-1980s. Neither Wiley, nor Road Runner can exist independently of the other, but instead must engage in a ritualized dance where masculine and femininized forms of psysical and psychological power vie for dominance, but never achive either complete culmination (i.e. Road Runner finally eaten) or separation.

    My thesis on the influence of meso-american pre-linguistic religious themes on Warner Brothers cartoon artists can be purchased via Antioch University Press.

  26. “In the end, I think he’s remained little more than a clever adolescent, a wiseacker devoid of real insight into society or life, as callow as he appears in the best-known photo of him.”

    Thanks, Nick! I got that same feeling about the current crop of posters, after prowling through many recent HnR threads, and was having trouble putting it into words. You encapsulate my reaction perfectly, and I am in your debt.

  27. GRAD STUDENT,

    Drivel. The Manichean nature of the Road Runner-Coyot? dichotomy is the true linchpin to understanding the hermeneutics of the interspecies rivalry. Wile E. Coyot? symbolizes the oppressed intellectual subjected to the evil hegemony of the stupid masses–i.e., the Road Runner.

    And you failed utterly to address the ontological significance of the Acme Corporation.

  28. So the freakin neo-cons are ready to jump on the Master’s tail with their invidious “reason”,
    The writer of this review has’nt even finished a book that none of us have not even
    got our hands on.
    His comments resemble the Systems attempt to put down the creative
    chaos of a true attempt at a critique of Empire, by one of our most brilliant writers.
    You lost your evil war in Iraq.
    You lost the election.
    Now get a life !

    Viva the resistence!!!

  29. DeLillo’s 9/11 Novel? It’s called “White Noise.” He just had the poor timing to release it 16 years too early.

  30. Holy shit, I think this guy above is actually serious…

    (the ‘reason’ in quotes – when not done mockingly – dead giveaway… as is the spelling)

    Or, it’s one of the best mockeries of internet-politically-obsessed-idiotspeak I’ve ever read. Does it matter? I dont know.

    The capper is pretty priceless. I think if someone pointed out that, in English, ‘it’s actuall “resistance”‘, the retort would be, like…

    “So now you freakin liber-cons want to make ‘English’ a mandated national language right? then deport or imprison all the spanish speakering workers that you use to water your lawns, before you send them to your evil war in Iraq; well, fuck that man… we wont be limited by your angelo-centric, fascistic spell-trism; Veeva lah Rahsssa, bendayhoe. Im outPEACEORZ!

    agradezca a dios que la resistencia es est?pida

  31. Totally Mad student-

    You don’t need to defend your mistakes to me-your father or mother-
    have had enough time to straighten them out.

    The above article is a sham and has less knowledge of the machinations of Pynchon’s art, as you do of the present political situation,that is effecting the world and it’s multitudes.

    Get a copy of the book-read it with some intellect and heart
    and not through your “Rush” to judgement.

    Stop scapegoating and profiling your world with the sewer logic
    of the Smirking Chimp.

    Those of us who are in the RESISTANCE- persist in resisting
    the ignorance of the right from stealing the pleasure that living labor and glorious difference gets ,from us preterites,
    smashing your fascist game, once again.

  32. If one’s audience is populated with caricatures, it is perhaps best to maintain exactly that level of depth in one’s writing.

    It isn’t just an adolescent approach to a complex issue, it’s niche marketing to sevepointman.

  33. “The above article is a sham and has less knowledge of the machinations of Pynchon’s art, as you do of the present political situation,that is effecting(sp) the world and it’s multitudes”

    Awesome. I didnt think you were real at first. I hoped you were someone who was, well, intentially funny instead of unwittingly so.

    [note = “affectiing”… with an A]

    First off dude, what ‘politics’ are you talking about.

    1) This entry was simply Gillespies comment on a book review. A book review. Say one more time. Book. Review.

    Not “liberal/conservative” political proselytizing freakout. That would be your bag.

    2) this blog tends to be pretty apolitical, party wise (we hate them all equally), is LIBERTARIAN…i.e. tend to want to strip power from politicians…. and isnt ostensibly pro war. Your hyperbolic allusions to “rush” or whatever…you are spitting in the wind.

    This is why we think you are funny.

    Try and consider for a moment that someone can think Pynchon’s books are shit, and actually STILL agree with your amusing subcommander suburbo-revolutionary rhetoric.

    I’m not saying *I* do. 🙂 I said above, I dig pynchons older stuff. You i may think little of – but Pynchon i’ve always been cool with.

    peace out comrade.

  34. Julian Sanchez beat me to it. ‘White Noise’ does have a distinctly 9/11 feel to it. It’s worth a re-read. A forced re-reading of ‘Underworld’, however, would be akin to water-boarding.

    And to sevenpoin(t)man: Take your balaclava and black knee boots and circumscribed worldview, and hit the road. Your type is not welcomed here.

  35. If one’s audience is populated with caricatures, it is perhaps best to maintain exactly that level of depth in one’s writing.

    It isn’t just an adolescent approach to a complex issue, it’s niche marketing to XXXXXX(that guy)

    But, there might be reasons for painting shallow characters, telling a story in a superfiscial way that actually makes something more interesting, thoughtful, than may be apparent at face value.

    I think you guys potentially arent giving pynchon enough credit for simply being an amusing writer. He is. His books are fun. Or can be for many.

    If he seems to lack some kind of ‘Deep Thinker’ cred with you guys, is that his fault, or are you are maybe expecting everyone to try and be James Joyce and shit in every context.

    I started thinking about George Saunders when you mentioned charicatures… he writes in a juvenile fashion, w/ ridiculous storylines , one-dimensional characters. But his stories sometimes provide great commentary on real modern problems, worries, fears, weaknesses, hopes… I dont know. Im just saying there is flexibility in how you can tell stories. For me, Pynchons ‘terry-southern’ style humor & his vomitous prose style are enjoyable ends in itself; worth reading whether or not they are helping decrypt secrets of the human soul/history/popular psychology, etc.

    I’ve read most of delillos stuff; always sort of found him the opposite of your complaints about Pynchon – too aware of himself, constantly writing about “the writer” and the writers deep thoughts, the writer as political figure/victims, etc. I find him less ‘musical’ a writer, more ponderous and meaning-laden. Wanting to be just obscure *enough* to seem like art. Not always my bag. Although i quite liked Underworld, Mao II, End Zone, White Noise.

    Below’s an (large) excerpt from Lot 49. I personally dont see how you can hate on this guy too much… well ok, i CAN see how someone might. But I think his talent is pretty remarkable, his humor is unique, and his stories drag you from ridiculous to pitiful and back. He has a natural feel for how to name things;how the sound of words may communicate something in concert with ‘meaning’, or simply just add some emotional color. I think maybe I’m defending Pynchon on a technical level now. Anyway, my point was earlier that we dont necessarily read novels for the same reasons, and Pynchons successes or failings in any given area really arent necessarily the same for everyone, nor should we expect them to be.

    Through the rest of the afternoon, through her trip to the market in downtown Kinneret-Among-The-Pines to buy ricotta and listen to the Muzak (today she came through the bead-curtained entrance around bar 4 of the Fort Wayne Settecento Ensemble’s variorum recording of the Vivaldi Kazoo Concerto, Boyd Beaver, soloist); then through the sunned gathering of her marjoram and sweet basil from the herb garden, reading of book reviews in the latest Scientific American, into the layering of a lasagna, garlicking of a bread, tearing up of romaine leaves, eventually, oven on, into the mixing of the twilight’s whiskey sours against the arrival of her husband, Wendell (“Mucho”) Maas from work, she wondered, wondered, shuffling back through a fat deckful of days which seemed (wouldn’t she be first to admit it?) more or less identical, or all pointing the same way subtly like a conjurer’s deck, any odd one readily clear to a trained eye. It took her till the middle of Huntley and Brinkley to remember that last year at three or so one morning there had come this long-distance call, from where she would never know (unless now he’d left a diary) by a voice beginning in heavy Slavic tones as second secretary at the Transylvanian Consulate, looking for an escaped bat; modulated to comic-Negro, then on into hostile Pachuco dialect, full of chingas and maricones; then a Gestapo officer asking her in shrieks did she have relatives in Germany and finally his Lamont Cranston voice, the one he’d talked in all the way down to Mazatlan.

  36. C’mon, man. I think the funniest part is where The Paranoids have a key to the motel rooms and bust in on people having sex, so Metzger and Oedipa go into the closet and brace the door with a bureau. Of course, they don’t fit, so Metzger takes the bottom drawer out, and they get busy. Yes, it’s a really funny image from a mundane occurence. Most writers would have just made the closet bigger.

  37. I suppose DeLillo’s Underworld, a Cold War novel could also apply as a 9//1 book, since we’re talking the same kind of existential angst…

  38. Pro L:

    As I recall, one of the rules creator Chuck Jones had for the Coyote was that the Road Runner would never actively contribute to Wile E.’s accidents. Those would always be the result of Wile E.’s miscalculation.

    Chuck it seems was inspired by the Greeks that Zeno is so fond of and gave your hero a tragic flaw.

  39. That tragic flaw has a name: Acme Corporation. I’m pretty sure products liability law was invented to help Mr. Coyote get justice.

    I’d pay good money to see him catch and devour the Road Runner. With a DVD extra providing background commentary by Wile E. Coyote discussing the experience.

  40. Fuck anyone who says different, Pynchon’s novels are great.

    Mason and Dixon was funny as hell…loved the robotic duck.

    I look forward to reading the new one.

    Gillespie must work for “them.”

  41. Talk about projection! The editor of a magazine that often elevates simplistic Intro to Macroeconomics conclusions (a world in which aggregate wealth is maximized is self-evidently the Best World) as the Great Defining Truth, approvingly citing views expressed in a newspaper founded to present the same simplistic ideas as justification for untrammelled self-interest… that criticize a novelist for having too simplistic a worldview.

    Heh.

  42. DeLillo’s novel about terrorism was Mao II — and it’s a fairly deep meditation, although it’s lost in some heavy-duty writerly navel-gazing as well. I agree with the commentator who compared him unfavorably to Pynchon for essentially the same reasons. DeLillo’s mining some of the same turf — the systemization of the modern world — and some of his images are quite evocative to be sure, but he just doesn’t quite have Pynchon’s mordant pizazz — where you want to laugh out loud at what should be entirely mortifying.

    You know what’s funny? You guys are Libertarians, right. Don’t many of you, like, have this *cult* thing about Ayn Rand — one of the most godawful prose stylists this side of … shit, name any hack in a Borders’ remainders bin. Talk about cramming politics into literature, dear gods — every word out of her characters’ mouths is a freakin’ speech.

    Pynchon is a masterly prose stylist. But make no mistake — he’s a left-anarchist who’d piss on JP Morgan’s grave if he had the opportunity. In his moral universe, the anarchist terrorism of last century directed and plutocrats and capital is indeed morally justified, given the level of oppression practiced against workers at that time.

    So, g’head and hate on Pynchon. But don’t pretend it expresses anything more than a shallow ideological distaste. You forgive Rand for sins far more literarily heinous.

    Bob

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