The Counterweight

Thomas Pynchon’s Rebel Lit Rethought

In an essay about Woody Allen, the ever-vicious Joe Queenan described the content of his films as literally sophomoric — their philosophical and dramatic themes were those of a man who dropped out of college his sophomore year, taking with him the halting pseudo-sophistication of someone not quite as smart as he thinks he is. Woody, in fact, did drop out of college his sophomore year, as did I; this might go a long way towards explaining why I’m so defensive about the frequent critical attacks on the novelist I read more than any other when I was 20 years old.

As hard as it is to believe, Thomas Pynchon — who it seems obvious to me is one of the very few great writers the United States, a country inimicable to literary greatness, has ever produced — is still derided by a large number of literary critics. Deepening my own post-adolescent mix of uncertainty and resentment, most of his detractors are academics. After 40 years and five novels of exceptional greatness; after being one of the only writers in all the world, let alone the US, to have the fortitude and skill to have picked up the gauntlet thrown down by James Joyce; after the publication of at least one novel that should have settled, once and for all, the question of whether or not he deserves a place in the pitifully understocked firmament of Great American Writers — after all that, there are still doubters in every precinct.

Let’s leave alone the legions of people who, knees jerking and hackles rising, reject Pynchon out of hand — and not only Pynchon, but any number of other writers who try and make something new out of the poorly aging clay of storytelling -- because he’s a postmodernist. This ’debate’ has gone on far too long for such a one-sided debate in which Fear, in its shabby old disguise of Tradition, is the main participant. The accusation of academic masturbation is less than persuasive coming from critics who are themselves academic mandarins of a very ancient tradition, and one gains no glory from dressing up in finery that has long ago fallen to rags. Even in reaction to Pynchon’s latest and most underrated book, Against the Day, there are critics — like the New York Sun’s Adam Kirsch — who turn discussions of the work into referendums on postmodernism. Kirsch wrote a hatchet-job on the Against the Day that turned into an attack on Pynchon’s whole approach to storytelling; he as much as accuses the author of failing to understand the very purpose of the novel, as if the form has but one function, deviation from which is folly on the level of trying to use a bicycle as a submarine. He likewise attacks the tendency of postmodernists to focus on language at the expense of character and humanity, a bizarre charge that ignores the fact that the only way we can express character and humanity in fiction is through language; the logocentric nature of postmodernist fiction may be anathema to traditionalists, but to fail to even acknowledge its theoretical basis is to engage in blind criticism at its worst.

Other critics, such as Bloomberg’s Craig Seligman, emphasized the novel’s difficulty, patting themselves on the back for getting through it and warning off their less bright readers, reinforcing the age-old slander that intelligent art must be inaccessible. (Even Steven Moore, in an otherwise excellent review of Against the Day in the Washington Post, wonders if “mainstream readers” stand a chance against Pynchon’s sprawling eclecticism.) “I remember more about the effort than the scenery I passed along the way, “ says Seligman, ending his review with the badly aging trick of making it about himself, expecting an attaboy from the rest of us since the work was so daunting. I can’t help flashing back to Jonathan Franzen’s poison pen letter to William Gaddis: in the tone of a lover betrayed, Franzen took to the pages of the New Yorker a few years back to attack Gaddis (who was busy being dead and couldn’t defend himself) for writing fiction too deliberately difficult, too dense and inaccessible, too targeted at the pretentious sophomore Franzen had once been to be truly great. To me, it read like a fumbling suitor’s bitter rationalization after being dumped; Franzen was blaming Gaddis for his own failure of imagination, and if he could no longer appreciate Gaddis, then anyone who claimed to be able to do so must be nothing more than a shallow, pompous poseur.

But, in reading Against the Day and the critical reaction to it, in examining the time, the place, and the reasons Thomas Pynchon came to mean so much to me as a writer, I started to wonder: was Jonathan Franzen right? Are Pynchon’s detractors onto something? Did I fall in love with someone whose output happened to fit my tastes at the time — who peddled a sort of idealized anarchism, whose characters were drifting romantics isolated from one another by the dehumanization of technology, the alienation of distance and ideology? Was his brilliant wordplay really shallow and, well, sophomoric?

One often hears that charge, that his books appeal mostly to callow youths that have not yet learned the fine art of discarding the new and exciting in favor of the staid, the old, the dead. That’s certainly who I was when he entered my life. But for as many ways as I have changed since then, Pynchon’s work has never lost the power to affect me in ways that other products of youthful rebellion never did. When I read The Crying of Lot 49, the finest novel of alienation America has ever produced, I read it now not with the eyes of someone himself squirming with fashionable youthful alienation, but with the eyes of an adult who is emotionally seized by Oedipa Maas’ helpless sense of loss as the men around her slowly disappear, figuratively and literally. Sophomoric readers do not imply a sophomoric work. One rarely hears Aristotle called sophomoric despite his frequent appearance in Intro to Philosophy classes. Further, it’s worth noting that when Pynchon first appeared on the scene, it was not the ever-derided immature collegians (who are perpetually hated by their professors, for reasons it’s best not to speculate upon) who hailed him as a major talent: it was authentic and legitimate book reviewers and other novelists (who, to this day, remain his staunchest defenders as he becomes older and less untouchable by the community of critics), not beholden to academic dogma and university politics and unafraid to state their opinions.

A collary to the “Pynchon is juvenile and immature” criticism — a favorite of those who enjoy patronizingly attacking the man without having to engage in the difficult business of having to seriously analyze his work, true, but one which it’s a bit more difficult to dismiss, given the sprawling, complex nature of his books — is the charge that he’s the Eddie Van Halen of literature: a shredder, technically flashy but with no soul, no passion, no heart, no substance. It ties into the sophomoric sensibility, as well, for there are few among us who weren’t over-impressed by technical proficiency when we were young. Shouldn’t I have grown up? My musical palate has become more sensitive to jazz than it has to thrash; should I still be feeding myself a steady diet of the novelistic equivalent of Joe Satriani?

But it’s nonsense, a charge better leveled at the self-impressed creative-writing-class sophomore I was when I found him than at Thomas Pynchon himself. His books, while firecracker-sharp stylistically, bear the weight that is the hallmark of classic literature. He’s unafraid to dwell on Big Themes, like the search for God, alienation from society, obedience and dissent, appearance vs. reality (a favorite of postmodernists, of course, and a thorn in the side of those who picked it as a Big Theme before they realized exactly how Big it was), and the meaning of happiness. His accusers are basely reductive in an attempt to obscure the philosophical heft of Pynchon’s books; Adam Kirsch refers to Against the Day as “a whole album of parodies” and attacks Pynchon as a compulsive listmaker lacking in moral seriousness, as if he were little more than the bibliophile’s ’Weird’ Al Yankovic. James Lasdun in the Guardian likewise regurgitates this decades-old attack on Pynchon as a drifting, unfocused pastiche artist, as if the 1,085 pages of Against the Day are nothing but rejected Top Ten Lists and half-formed doodles, as if the little picaresques and asides didn’t break up hundreds and hundreds of pages of insight, speculation and interior landscapes of depth and mass.

Pynchon has a fantastic ear for dialogue and tone. He can set a scene and deliver a mood like no one since Proust. And if great literature stems from great character, then surely Pynchon is one of the elite: few creations of modern literature are the equal of Benny Profane, Oedipa Maas, and Tyrone Slothrop. These strengths are cited to bolster the reputations of all the Greats; why doesn’t Pynchon qualify? Is it because, in books of such ambition and sprawl, the vast worlds he paints occasionally produce a caricature, a gag, or a character of less than three dimensions? Is it because he follows Joyce in attempting to place the world and everything in it between the covers, but doesn’t have Joyce’s advantage of being dead and European? I’ve discussed elsewhere in this magazine the hostility some critics have against humor in serious literature, and certainly Pynchon’s razor-sharp humor (Against the Day isn’t his best book, but it’s certainly his funniest) is a cause of dismay to many; Lasdon, Kirsch, and the Times’ Michiko Kakutani all call the book “silly”, and more than a few critics snap at Pynchon for his tendency to interrupt transcendent moments with embarrassing, incongruous or funny ones, as if that never happens in real life.

There are genuine arguments to be made against Thomas Pynchon: his obsession with the “counterweight,” the existence of an alternative to the seemingly immovable mass of modernity, corporatism, conformity, and progress for its own sake, certainly has the hallmarks of a sophomoric mind. But attacks on it seem like little more than the instinct to pile on the weird kid. Do those who dream up an alternative, however nonsensical, to a sometimes-unlivable world not deserve a literature of their own? His obsession with the technological is often cited as a fault, as if it’s a fatal error to not pretend that the most important world-changing development of the last 500 years is off limits for writers. Oddest of all, there is at times the hint of a moral scold in assessments of Pynchon’s work, and this is unsettlingly clear in some reviews of Against the Day: how, in a post-9/11 world, could a man make heroes of the Chumps of Choice, of the freewheeling, bomb-throwing anarchists who are the stars of his latest and possible last show? Pynchon is a longtime Manhattanite and lived through 9/11 just like everyone else, and to take him to task for a lack of moral seriousness in the face of our forever-changed world is the worst sort of short-sightedness. It is a betrayal of the very concept of irony, the very notion that through art we can empathize with viewpoints not our own, that he should be denigrated for reacting differently to a traumatic event than the master narrative of 2007 America demands, and a triumphant vindication that however post-adolescent it might be, the counterweight is still badly wanted.

I am not 20 years old anymore, and Thomas Pynchon is not a young maverick. He is not the writer he was when I found him, and I am not the reader I was when he found me. But Thomas Pynchon is a great writer, one of the greatest the United States has ever produced, and should be remembered as such by posterity. He is restlessly inventive, even at 70 years old; he is fiendishly clever, and he is never less than interesting; and, most importantly, he has taken up the challenge of Joyce to realize that the novel has changed, both the way it’s read and the way it’s written, and to act accordingly. He has brought the world into his books, and no amount of namecalling by his detractors, no denigration of the writer and his readers as half-smart schoolboys, will drag it out.