Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Mapping the "Unmappable": Inhabiting the Fantastic Interface of 'Gravity's Rainbow.'

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Mapping the "Unmappable": Inhabiting the Fantastic Interface of 'Gravity's Rainbow.'

Article excerpt

The map as a mode of representation and as a metaphorical image of the representational impulse is an insistent presence both in studies of the postmodern and in postmodernist fiction. The map, its iconic status apparently assured, seems to proffer cognitive control over a geographical correlate. Yet, through its invocation of representational transparency, the map both obscures and unavoidably flaunts the conventions with which it charts or, more specifically, names in "letters" that which resists exact referential mapping. The map, that is, can be construed as a usually unwitting case of the representational self-reflexivity endemic to the postmodern condition. The analogical patterning implicit in the mapmaking process both fosters and relies on traditional notions of representation as the mimetic charting of an ontologically homogeneous domain. But the map's iconic modelling of its geographical referent is overlaid with the imprint of the letter, of the linguistic sign. The postmodernist "map," foregrounding this fragile iconic status, enacts a self-conscious blending of icon and sign. The foregrounding of the sign is, in effect, the conversion of the sign into its own icon: the linguistic sign as an icon of a sign, not of an extra-textual reality. In the process, the referential power of this "iconic" sign is textually ravaged by the postmodernist proliferation of "phantasms of difference without hierarchy."(1) Hence the representational conundrum implicit in many postmodernist texts: the representational sign seems hopelessly cut off from a grounding reality yet, at the same time, it seems to exude an iconic muteness harboring some virtually unnameable and strangely threatening connection to the real. In Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, for example, the involuted conspiratorial representations apparently woven by Pierce Inverarity to entrap a hapless Oedipa may hide an unmentionable enigma or they may be all representational surface enveloping a hollow interior. Signs may lead to only more signs or give way to the iconic thrust of the real itself, as in Oedipa's vision of a megalomaniacally-deluded Inverarity ironically and "iconically" crushed in his bed by the physical reality of his Jay Gould bust.(2)

Critical studies or "mappings" of the postmodern, taking their cue from postmodernist fiction itself, play on the conventions of "mapping," the conventions of representation, to point up the very conventionality of the mapping process and, ultimately, the implied "unmappability" of that which it would chart in a totalizing manner. But, needless to say, such debunking gestures are themselves a form of critical "mapping" that attempt, in their more unguarded theoretical moments, to elide their own necessary involvement with the representational metaphor they deride. The more pondered studies of the postmodern, however, like Pynchon's fiction itself, confront the representational paradox inherent in the metaphor of the "map" by recognizing its informing presence within their own critical and fictional scenarios.(3) They attempt to tackle the question of how one goes about "mapping" a postmodern real that no longer responds to the controlling binary models of conventional representation. How, that is, to employ a literary term given new life by postmodernist fiction, does one represent a "fantastic real"?

The fantastic, especially in its post-Todorovian or poststructuralist variants, is an attempt to represent the unrepresentable or to "map the unmappable." But, in its infiltration of the representational maps of postmodernist fiction as a guest from the literary past, it not only reinvigorates but also tempers contemporary projects of representational disruption. Such is its self-conscious employment within Pynchon's multiply- or overly-mapped fictions. The narrative saturation in which Pynchon indulges is itself a defining characteristic of our overcoded, postmodern reality. It is precisely this multiplication of divergent topographies that undermines the referential correlations of the representational "map. …

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