Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Queer Postmodern Practices: Sex and Narrative in Gravity's Rainbow

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Queer Postmodern Practices: Sex and Narrative in Gravity's Rainbow

Article excerpt

In "Gravity's Rainbow," Domination, and Freedom, Luc Herman and Steven Weisenburger write that "the narration both presents and thinks about domination, most obviously in terms of sadomasochism" (2013, 88). However, as in most Pynchon criticism, their analysis shifts the focus away from sexuality and instead foregrounds countercultural politics, narrative innovation, and individual liberties. When instances of nonnormative sex do enter their analysis, Herman and Weisenburger uniformly read them as perverse manifestations of hegemonic power. Given Pynchon's notorious interweaving of violence and "politically incorrect" sex in Gravity's Rainbow, the publishing of which coincided with second-wave feminism and the rise of feminist antiviolence campaigns, it is no surprise that scholars have tended to marginalize Pynchon's controversial representations of sexuality. Even if some critics acknowledge that "Pynchon's later work continues to espouse basically pro-feminist values," such claims are often accompanied by a qualifying statement, rearticulating that Pynchon's work "also contains stereotyped representations of women and the female body.... Particularly problematic from a feminist perspective are narratorial insinuations that female characters take a masochistic pleasure in sexual degradation" (Freer 2014, 151). While literary criticism has tended to become more sex-positive since the rise of queer theory and third-wave feminisms in the 1990s, high postmodernist novels of the 1970s remain particularly fraught among contemporary feminist scholars, who often critique postmodern novelists' unapologetic investment in virile masculinity and exclusionary discourses. (1) A queerer and more sex-positive reading of Gravity's Rainbow, however, can disrupt such critical understandings, refiguring the role of sex in this postmodernist classic and, thus, the significance of sexually explicit material in high postmodernism more generally.

Previous analyses of sex in postmodern literature have frequently limited themselves to the thematic level of the text, emphasizing the relation between depictions of sexual practices and corresponding social movements often associated with countercultural politics. The few analyses of sex as a structural element in postmodernist fiction tend to critique the narratives' tendency to reify patriarchal structures through their flat characterizations of women, rendered as interchangeable plot devices or, worse, pornographic asides meant to titillate male readers. Significantly, these critical tendencies leave another line of analysis wholly unexamined: the structural interplay between representations of sexual practice and postmodernist poetics. Given Pynchon's centrality to the postmodern canon and the multitude of narrative devices at play in his encyclopedic work, the notorious sexual "deviance" in Gravity's Rainbow makes an interesting test case for analyzing sexuality's structural role within postmodernist novels. In using Gravity's Rainbow as a basis for interpreting explicit sexual practice as something more than a thematic element common to postmodernist novels, I posit that Pynchon's postmodernist narrative practices are in fact themselves reliant on his depictions of "deviant" sexual practices.

An in-depth analysis of female sexual agency in Gravity's Rainbow suggests that the profusion of explicit sexual scenes in postmodernist novels cannot entirely be construed as a prurient fantasy, as a playful reveling in freedom from censorship, or as merely an expression of postmodern heteroglossia that destabilizes the binary between high and low culture. This reevaluation of sexuality's function in postmodernist novels, through the test case of nonnormative, especially female sexual practices in Gravity's Rainbow raises central questions about previous critical assumptions: Why have we been so eager to read female characters' unapologetic promiscuity as an objectifying male fantasy? Why have we been so reluctant to acknowledge female sexual agency? …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.