Thomas Pynchon and the Dark Passages of History

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Thomas Pynchon and the Dark Passages of History. David Cowart. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011.

As the novelist and critic Steve Erickson notes, "[f]or American literature in the last half of the twentieth century, Pynchon is the line in the sand that Faulkner was in the first half (206). Erickson's remark, quoted near the end of David Cowart's Thomas Pynchon and the Dark Passages of History, indicates Cowart's attention to Pynchon's place in American literary history. But more important for Cowart's book is Pynchon's concern with history itself, especially the way his study demonstrates the qualities of what Linda Hutcheon has termed "historiographie metafiction." Cowart's reading of Pynchon proceeds from the argument that Pynchon's study "resists the oft-heard assertion (it originates with Fredric Jameson) that postmodern depthlessness precludes engagement with history" (23), such that "more than comic genius, polymath, forger of the postmodern, or deconstructive mythographer, Thomas Pynchon merits recognition as America's greatest historical novelist" (24). Indeed, the mantle of author of "historical fiction" is one that Pynchon, in one of his rare public pronouncements, has claimed for himself (160). Cowart's reading of Pynchon's engagement with history, especially American history, enjoys an appropriately solid foundation, developed through consideration of each of Pynchon's novels, from V. (1963) through Inherent Vice (2009), as well as his short stories and other writings.

Cowart himself enjoys a long history as a reader, teacher, and critic of Pynchon, and this volume demonstrates the assurance of one who has mastered the work of a writer whom many readers find daunting. At the same time, Thomas Pynchon and the Dark Passages of History generously presents Pynchon in terms particularly welcoming to new readers, perhaps especially those approaching Pynchon from disciplines outside of literary studies. While Pynchon's writing tends toward the labyrinthine, esoteric, and bewilderingly encyclopedic, Cowart's treatment of it is lucid, engaging, and reassuringly clarifying as he guides readers through an understanding of the ways "Pynchon suggests that the most valuable history recognizes its own fictive underpinnings to achieve imaginative insight into the human condition" (154). This volume is, to be sure, not the work of a historian, but it does present a compelling case for reading Pynchon as a type of imaginative historian, one whose writings contribute to a sustained project of historical fiction, such that "One fiction complements its fellows, and all coalesce as a post-Faulknerian exercise: a Yoknapatawpha of American and Western civilization" (167). …