Due Diligence

Due Diligence

Against the Grain: Reading Pynchon's Counternarratives
Sascha Pöhlmann, ed.
Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2010.

Too much about too little, and too little about too much. Reviewing the new critical collection Against the Grain: Reading Pynchon’s Counternarratives, this critic finds evidence of overproduction in the “Pyndustry.”

Ryan Brooks:

For an earlier consideration of the state of Pynchon studies, also appearing in ebr, see Joseph Tabbi’s “The Pyndustry in Warwick.”


The essays collected in Against the Grain were first presented in 2008 during the International Pynchon Week conference that took place in Munich, Germany. Mainly devoted to Pynchon’s seventh book, Against the Day, the collection reminds readers of the questions that any scholarship devoted to this most intertextual, allusive, encyclopedic, and thoroughly investigated writer must necessarily address: how to make an original contribution to a “Pyndustry” (to use the editor’s term [12]) that has been thriving for over thirty-five years; how to do justice, in 15-25 pages, to a novel of over 1,000 pages; how to distinguish between the casual reference that unlocks the text for the inquisitive many and the reference so arcane as to be of interest only to the cognoscenti.

Of the essays in this collection that succeed in negotiating these pitfalls, I would cite those of Inger H. Dalsgaard, William D. Clarke, Francisco Collado-Rodríguez, and Hanjo Berressem for special commendation. Using Pynchon’s 1993 New York Times Book Review piece, “Nearer, My Couch, to Thee,” as a way to approach the portrayal of time in Against the Day, Dalsgaard chronicles how, in a capitalist nation that replaced spiritual with material priorities, sloth became a sin not against God, as defined by Aquinas, but against the concept of clock time on which an 18th-century model of productivity indebted to Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin was based. To combat that capitalist model, Pynchon, according to Dalsgaard, offers the restlessness of the mind that formed part of the medieval notion of acedia, delineated in Against the Day’s portrayal of time travel, dream time, and hauntings, and available to those couch potatoes who can, at least temporarily, alter and revise the flow of linear time by way of remote controls and VCR technology. Clarke’s essay on property relations in Vineland offers an equally compelling reading of capitalist dealings in Pynchon’s fourth novel. Opening the essay with the important recognition of what James Berger terms the “throwaway” gestures in Pynchon’s work (186), Clarke acknowledges the temptation to read Pynchon’s works “alongside of others, both theoretical and historical” (186). But the discussion of Vineland that follows, which reads the novel in conjunction with the work of political historian Ellen Meiksins Wood, does not merely filter Pynchon’s text through the lens of a particular theorist or establish causal relations that cannot (a critic’s best hopes notwithstanding) be proven. Rather, the essay uses the triangular model of landlord, tenant, and wage laborer that forms Wood’s conception of capitalist development to illuminate how even those who would appear to be the most ardent refugees from corporate America in the book - hippies, punk rockers, and ninjettes alike - are implicated in the very market economy (and, in the case of the Mafia, a globalized economy) they proclaim to have escaped, making the Golden Gate Bridge over which they travel in their northern treks a means not of separation but of connection.

Such a reconsideration of the preterite in Pynchon’s work also informs Collado-Rodríguez’s essay on Against the Day, which explores the manifestations of energy portrayed in the novel, in particular those manipulations of light (the one constant in the universe, according to Einstein) by scientists like Nicola Tesla that resulted in destructive weaponry, in order to show Pynchon’s refusal to categorize light and dark as competing ethical binaries. Defining terrorism as another such form of destructive energy, one that increases entropy, the essay goes on to juxtapose the book’s portrayal of Vibes (the plutocratic representatives of those corporations that, in the time during which the book is set, had acquired legal status through personification and descendants of all those elect “They” in Pynchon’s work who enact power through the violent domination of others) and Traverses (the workers considered as expendable as machine parts and descendants of all those preterite W.A.S.T.E.). By exposing the novel’s depiction of terror and counter-terror, however, and with the legacy of 9/11 in mind, Collado-Rodríguez sees Pynchon rejecting the ethics of employing violence in defense of human rights and reducing the Traverses, who only can respond to violence with more violence, in stature, harking back as they do to “the pioneering and jingoist American past” (342).

Finally, this discussion of terrorism in Against the Day is complemented by the essay that immediately follows it, and which concludes the volume, in which Hanjo Berressem approaches the battle between state operators and anarchists through the unlikely lens of mathematics, specifically eigenvalues, a term that was introduced into the field of linear algebra in 1904 by David Hilbert and later was appropriated by physicists, such as Tesla, for modeling systems in terms of wave functions and resonances. Because Berressem goes on to extend the concept to the practice of habit formation that characterizes those living, animated systems known as eigenorganizations, what might have seemed an ingenious mathematical motif acquires extended resonance of its own. Crystallized into routines, the practice of habit formation can result not only in the kind of bureaucratization of charisma portrayed in Pynchon’s novels from V. onward, but the naturalization of “the habit of colonization, the habitual desire for fascisms, masochisms, and oedipalizations in general [that] seem so deeply engrained into the system’s psychic and physical operations that they seem almost impossible to break” (360-61).

The differences of these four essays notwithstanding, the virtues that their authors display overlap quite a bit. Each critic approaches Pynchon’s work with an eye towards expansiveness: Dalsgaard moves freely from Melville’s Bartleby to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, from the quantum physics of Bohr and Schrödinger to the cinema of George Méliès; Clarke from Joseph Campbell to Karl Marx, from 1980s Ponzification to Las Vegas gambling. In the cases of Collado-Rodríguez and Berressem, who continually situate Against the Day with respect to Pynchon’s earlier fiction, such expansiveness includes the Pynchon oeuvre itself. In the case of Collado-Rodríguez, who reaches back to the work of Molly Hite, Frank McConnell, and Edward Mendelson, this breadth further extends to some of the earliest scholarship published on Pynchon. And yet for all their referential range, the focus of each of these essays remains squarely on the Pynchon novel under consideration, leaving readers considerably more informed about the text at the end of the essay than they were at the beginning.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for all the contributions to the collection. The essays that filter Pynchon’s work through the lens of whatever theorists best suit the authors’ individual predilections yield mixed results. If Jessica Lawson’s putting the textual strategies of Gravity’s Rainbow “in conversation with [Roland] Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text” (231) produces an interesting way of looking at specific scenes, Manlio Della Marca’s reading of The Crying of Lot 49 both “ ‘against the light’ of [Karl] Marx and [Zygmunt] Bauman’s ‘melting visions’ ” of modernity (252) and by “[a]pplying th[e] model” of memory proposed by Harald Weinrich (254) results in a view of memory that is less than earthshaking. By contrast, the essays that openly acknowledge that their intellectual connections are more coincidental than influential expose the weaknesses of their own arguments. For instance, when Rodney Taveria admits, in the context of a discussion of the fictional Andrea Tancredi’s similarities to the Futurist painter Luigi Russolo, that “[u]nfortunately, you cannot match the biography of Russolo to Tancredi beyond [a certain] point” (149), such honesty comes at a cost.

The most problematic contributions, to me at least, are those that fall into two categories. On the one hand are those essays that reduce the Pynchon novel discussed to an allusion that might at most constitute a note and/or, in pursuing such an allusion, treat the novel as ancillary to the intellectual history suggested by the reference. Keith O’Neill’s treatment of Against the Day as “a response to the [Henry] James-[H. G.] Wells split” between avant-garde and populist literature (49) devotes most of its discussion to James and Wells, returning to Pynchon’s novel only in its last four pages. Simon de Bourcier’s discussion of the book’s portrayal of the Fourth Dimension “alongside texts by H. G. Wells, Israel Zangwill, Charles Howard Hinton, P. D. Ouspensky, Henri Bergson, and Herman Minkowski” (64) is only briefly punctuated by references to the way the work of these men - summarized in ways that are useful to a reader - is echoed by a passage in Pynchon (see 72, 74, 75). On the other hand are those essays whose arguments are thin to begin with or whose arguments have been made earlier by other scholars. The parallels between Kim and Against the Day that Celia Wallhead traces depend on juxtapositions of block quotations from each novel and rely almost entirely on information provided by the Oxford University Press introduction of Alan Sandison for anything that relates to the Rudyard Kipling text. The treatment of communication and information that Georgios Maragos offers, which discusses Pynchon with respect to Claude Shannon, Marshall McLuhan, and Norbert Wiener, is an analysis that was first put forward in an important 1971 essay written by Anne Mangel, published in TriQuarterly (20: 194-208) and republished in George Levine and David Leverenz’s 1987 Mindful Pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon collection (Boston: Little, Brown [87-100]).

At issue here is due diligence - not only the due diligence of the authors, some of whom have not done the homework they should have, but the due diligence of the editor as well. The degree to which editors shape their collections varies from one to the other, of course, and different editors have different ideas about the degree of control they should exercise. That being said, the fact remains that an editor is not a compiler, and, therefore, is required to exert judgment and, if necessary, to express things that contributors - actual or prospective - may not want to hear. Even after finishing this relatively long volume, which consists of eighteen essays plus introduction and runs to 379 pages, I still am unclear as to its criteria for inclusion. Was it simply the fact that each author presented an essay at the 2008 International Pynchon conference? Was it to promote, as Michael J. Meyer notes in his General Editor’s Preface, that “interchange between established voices and those whose ideas had never reached the academic community because their names were unknown” to which Rodopi’s Dialogue series is committed? However democratic or laudable these impulses are, a greater degree of selectivity would have made for a stronger work. Nor is it clear to me for what kind of audience the collection was conceived. Was it aimed at a general readership? Or was it aimed at Pynchon specialists? In order for an essay collection to have any sense of cohesiveness, much less scholarly consistency, it is important that these kinds of questions be broached at the outset - especially given the way that even the best collections can be prone to intellectual unevenness in their contributions. In the case of this collection, I’m afraid that the failure to address those questions has resulted in a volume that is more uneven than it needed to be, a volume in which less would probably have been more.