Metahistoricizing Pynchon: A Case for Dr. Smith(?)

By Kopp, Manfred | Pynchon Notes, Spring-Fall 2008 | Go to article overview
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Metahistoricizing Pynchon: A Case for Dr. Smith(?)


Kopp, Manfred, Pynchon Notes


Pynchon and History: Metahistorical Rhetoric and Postmodern Narrative Form in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon, by Shawn Smith. New York: Routledge, 2005. 248 pp. $75.

Shawn Smith's purpose in Pynchon and History is to show "that Pynchon's approach to fiction, his postmodern narrative techniques and his complex use of language, reveals a direct relationship between the form and content of his narratives and his perspective on the historical facts and contexts they contain" (1). All in all, Smith is fairly successful. This judgment may seem surprising, because, given the various problems with the study, one could also come to quite a different conclusion. The first of these problems is, albeit not exclusively, structural. In his introduction, "Pynchon and History: An Overview" (1-17), Smith talks a bit about Pynchon and a bit about history, but he does not give an adequate overview of what other Pynchon scholars have written about the subject. Instead of providing such a detailed survey, which could have served to contextualize and justify his subsequent endeavors, he discusses Lukacs, Marx, Jameson, V. and Gravity's Rainbow, appends some sketchy notes (183-84) and hastens to draw all sorts of conclusions better presented in the relevant chapters or at the monograph's end but certainly not at its beginning. (1)

"An Overview" also introduces Smith's use of the theoretical reflections of Hayden White. This brings us to the second problem with Pynchon and History. Smith explains that "White's work provides this study with its methodology, which I use to demonstrate the connection between Pynchon's formal strategies and his interpretations of historical reality" (12). Although White does unite historiography and literary criticism in the broader context of narrative and cultural understanding, and although White's inquiry into the ideology of narrative forms and his use of tropology do extend to virtually all forms of narrative, Smith should have acknowledged the fact that White's main subject is the representation of historical events as narrative historiography, not the contemporary historical novel. Had Smith looked for a more appropriate methodological approach to analyze such works of literature, he could have made more than passing mention of Linda Hutcheon's concept of historiographic metafiction. Encompassing both the intriguing intricacies and the specific subtleties of postmodern historical fiction, this concept would have helped Smith present a more convincing interpretation of Pynchon's view of history.

Two strengths of Smith's book are his engagement in a frequently fruitful dialogue with international scholarship and the remarkable scope of his intertextual references. The only fault to be found here is his neglect of some significant secondary sources. One of them is the special Pynchon issue, 24.3, of the Oklahoma City University Law Review (1999). There Smith would have found relevant essays such as Robert J. Hansen's "Law, History, and the Subversion of Postwar America in Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49" (589-608), David R. Sherman's "Case Study in Legal Deconstruction: History, Community and Authority in The Crying of Lot 49" (641-63), Terry Reilly's "Gravity's Rainbow, the Anabaptist Rebellions in Germany, 1525-35, and The Unfortunate Traveller" (705-26) and Norman Fischer's "Civic Republican Political/Legal Ethics and Echoes of the Classical Historical Novel in Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon" (557-88). (2) Especially the first two of these essays are so well informed that they might even have moved Smith to include a chapter on the dystopian Crying of Lot 49 in his monograph. Another publication from which Smith's study would surely have profited is Zofia Kolbuszewska's Poetics of Chronotope in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon (2000). From this lucid and well-researched book Smith could have gleaned valuable insights into Pynchon's literary imagination and his fictional representation of space, time and the constant presence of apocalypse in history.

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