Academic journal article Hollins Critic

The Arts and Sciences of Thomas Pynchon

Academic journal article Hollins Critic

The Arts and Sciences of Thomas Pynchon

Article excerpt

Influential critics have ardently commended Thomas Pynchon's most recent novel, Gravity's Rainbow, but relatively few readers have persevered tenaciously enough to complete it. Even fewer have understood it fully and thus received its infinite riches. Understanding his two earlier novels also requires strenuous effort. As a prologue to analysis of his work an unorthodox comparison may clarify and dramatize Pynchon's accomplishments. V., his first novel, resembles a Hogarth print. Some of the characters frolic drunkenly, but others reveal in their furtive expressions an awareness of doom's imminence. Both artists have a sardonic wit and pay meticulous attention to detail. The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon's second novel, resembles one of Escher's works. Look for a while at the ducks flying in one direction and they suddenly seem to be flying in the opposite direction. One ultimately cannot know for sure what is happening. Gravity's Rainbow, like many of Bosch's paintings, teems with life, its characters tortured by hideous but unidentifiable enemies in front of a lurid backdrop. The enormous amount of detail makes it as difficult for one to comprehend the work as it would be for a person in such a scene to comprehend his situation.

The frolickers in V. are The Whole Sick Crew and their ilk: denizens of contemporary Gin Lanes. Their Bacchanalias alternate with the attempts of the--probably deluded--Stencils to solve the frightful mysteries of V. Pynchon never clearly reveals whether or not V. exists, much less its nature. As The Crying of Lot 49 opens, Oedipa Maas, a housewife alienated by Southern California, learns that Pierce Inverarity, a wealthy acquaintance, has recently died and made her his estate's co-executor. Her inquiry into his estate reveals an intricate web of his enterprises and several hints that the Tristero (an alternative postal system) and the outcasts it serves may exist. And they may not. If they do, Inverarity may have created them. Then again, her paranoia may encourage her to believe those who claim that the Tristero exists. There may or may not be an alternative. The ducks, in short, may be flying either way. This book ends without definitively solving the puzzle that drives forward its plot. Approximately three hundred characters fill the canvas of Gravity's Rainbow, some participating in two chases. Tyrone Slothrop, the main character, searches during the last phase of World War II and the immediate post-war period for a part from the Germans' ultimate rocket, and others try to understand this weapon. The characters in the other chase pursue, spy on and experiment on Slothrop to determine why his erections predict German rockets' detonations. This action indeed has a lurid backdrop. By the time this novel begins, the war has filled Europe with wreckage, both material and human. As if this were not enough wreckage, Pynchon ranges back in time to depict more, and at this novel's conclusion, by portraying the pseudonymous Richard M. Zhlubb, he glances forward to Nixon's America. Gravity's Rainbow ends as a rocket descends on a movie theater to initiate the Apocalypse. The revelations in that section and elsewhere in the book are, however, enigmatic, their obscurity compounded rather than alleviated by a library-full of information.

Thus, a reader of Pynchon faces proliferating complexities. All the details in his books seem related to all the others, so a reader has difficulty deciding where to grab hold. A reader would do well to begin by analyzing Pynchon's use of science. By beginning thus a reader can discern order in these books, and with persistence and a bit of research he can understand them. More specifically, a reader has the key that most quickly unlocks Pynchon's treasure house if he recognizes that with increasing subtlety this writer has found literary uses for a few modern scientific concepts. He has explored the inter-relations among these concepts and confronted them with non-scientific concepts. …

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