Little is know about the famously private Thomas Pynchon, but can we learn anything from an early manuscript of V.? Hanjo Berressem reviews Becoming Pynchon by Luc Herman and John M. Krafft.
Let me start with the obvious. When John Krafft, the encyclopedic legend and co-founder, (together with Kach Tölölyan) of Pynchon Notes, whose boundless generosity and expertise have been its guiding spirit and principle, and Luc Herman, one of the master narratologists of Pynchon Studies, saddle up together, the reader is in for a wild and wonderful ride.
Through the lens of genetic criticism, Becoming Pynchon traces the young, 24-year-old Thomas Pynchon becoming “Thomas Pynchon”. For some Pynchonites, ‘genetic criticism considered as process philosophy’ might evoke the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, in which they stake the notion of a smooth, processual ‘becoming’ equally against the notion of a static essential ‘being’ and against a staccato of separate timeless moments of being, especially as Herman & Krafft make up, like Deleuze & Guattari in their co-authored works, a communal ‘writing machine’, a creative collective that at times also includes Sharon Krafft and Steven Tomaske, the early archivist of all things Pynchon. But more of that later. Before I get there, some preliminaries.
Most Pynchon critics, a group to which I count myself, tend to talk about Pynchon’s work in terms of politics, history, science, technology, philosophy, religion or other non-literary frameworks. In doing so, we often work top-down, reading specific literary scenes as illustrations of more general ideas and concepts. Becoming Pynchon is a healthy corrective to this tendency, and an important reminder that literature works bottom-up. Novels construct ideas and concepts by way of words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters. In their literary constructivism, when the words change, so do the ideas and concepts. Even seemingly small changes are crucial.
Another one of our tendencies is that when we talk about Thomas Pynchon as an author, we tend to consider him strictly as a function of the text. The real, living author Thomas Pynchon is a critical blind spot that is mirrored in his own wilful and relentless pursuit of privacy. Famously, all we have as critics are his novels and some early short-stories. The archive of texts and images that surround his oeuvre – what genetic criticism calls the ‘genetic dossier’, which consists as Herman & Krafft note of “all the documents that are relevant to the genesis and development of a published work, from source texts and notebooks through manuscripts and typescripts to proofs” – is extremely slim. The hard-to-get publications of single early short stories, the few photographs, endorsements, liner notes and non-fictional interventions have become cherished fetish objects in the cult called Pynchon.
Famously, the title of Umberto Eco’s preface to his novel The Name of the Rose, “Naturally, a Manuscript”, deconstructs, with postmodern tongue-in-cheekiness, the literary convention of disguising the fictionality of a story by inventing a ‘real-life’ manuscript that the author of the story has presumably found. The idea is to give fiction, history’s little sister, the cloak of seriousness and truthfulness. Becoming Pynchon also starts with a manuscript, but this time, it is a real one, “the corrected typescript to Thomas Pynchon’s first novel V., along with eight letters Pynchon wrote between 1959 and 1964 to Faith and Kirkpatrick Sale” that the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin acquired in the spring of 2001. From this typescript, the letters, as well as the correspondence between Pynchon and his editor Corlies Smith, who Herman & Krafft interviewed twice, as well as from two sets of galleys, Herman & Krafft create their avant-texte, which is as “the outcome of the analysis of the genetic dossier”. Their detailed map of what has happened to that text between the manuscript version Pynchon sent to Lippincott in 1961 and the published novel in 1963 traces the process of that text’s composition, such as the intricate movements of editing, of re-writing, cutting and adding. In this process – not quite of course, but still – the late Corlies Smith (together with Faith Sale, who took over editing after 1962 when Smith left Lippincott, as well as diverse copy-editors and proof-readers that Herman & Krafft identify as differently coloured ‘pens’ annotating the typescript), is to Pynchon’s V. what Pound was to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”. As Eliot writes in his dedication, Pound was “il miglior fabbro”. The better craftsman. At least the young Pynchon seemed to think the same thing about Smith, if one takes the numerous self-deprecating comments in his letters to Smith that Herman & Krafft quote at face value rather than as rhetorical devices.
In their conclusion, Herman & Krafft note that the typescript of Vineland is now available, while others remain the stuff of rumor, such as Faith Sale cutting down Gravity’s Rainbow’s original 2000 typescript pages to 1200. If in Eco’s later novels digital archives take the place of manuscripts, we can only imagine to what new insights Pynchon’s digital dossier, if there will be one, might lead. Recently, the Huntington Library announced that it had acquired Pynchon’s entire literary archives, which may be opening as soon as late 2024. There will be more work to be done for Herman & Krafft and hopefully, at some point, a sequel to Becoming Pynchon.
Becoming Pynchon as “Integroscope”
In his introduction to Slow Learner Pynchon notes that “what is most appealing about young folks, after all, is the changes, not the still photograph of finished character but the movie, the soul in flux.” In analogy, what is most appealing about the 24-year-old Pynchon is not A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but the movie of the young author. Not the published novel, but the ‘manuscript becoming novel’. The durée, not the temps. Or better: the duration lost and found again [la durée perdu et retrouvé]. Becoming Pynchon, which traces the development of and changes made to his text before this movement is arrested by its publication, gives us this movie of Pynchon as a young author. In particular, the movie of the development of Pynchon’s historical imagination. Although Herman & Krafft take pains to stress that they never leave the level of the literary text, the letters between author and editor also provide a personal view of the young Pynchon and his authorial soul in flux. In fact, when reading Becoming Pynchon, “V. the novel” becomes “V. the Movie”. In this, Becoming Pynchon functions like the “Integroscope” that Pynchon invents in Against the Day, a technical apparatus that allows us to free the lived durée that is frozen in the long exposure times of old photographs, and thus to recover the living movie from the still photograph.
Ultimately, of course, we would all want all texts to be forever rewritten. Herman & Krafft note that, symptomatically, Pynchon wasn’t happy with V. even after its publication. In his introduction to Slow Learner he, whether that ‘he’ shows an honest face or yet another mask, voices the same sentiment about The Crying of Lot 49. If it is inevitable that life goes on while the text stops, Becoming Pynchon succeeds beautifully in re-animating the published novel. While it does so, it provides a veritable treasure-trove of new information about Pynchon’s work.
Overviews: Theory and Text
Chapter 1. After an introduction to the critical method of genetic criticism, in particular in relation to the genre of historical fiction, provides a first overview of the textual movements, additions and cuts performed from manuscript to published novel. The book, however, is much more than a detailed map of these changes. Specifically, Herman & Krafft use the changes to trace the development and maturation of Pynchon’s historiographic imagination in reference to a number of relevant narratological contexts: Multiplicity, Realism and Character Construction. This is why the subtitle of Becoming Pynchon is Genetic Narratology.
Chapter 2, ‘Focalization and Historiography in the Egypt Chapter’, develops the first aspect of Herman & Krafft’s argument about the overall poetics of the textual changes. Herman & Krafft show how Pynchon problematizes the writing of history by shifting from a personalized focalization to a multiplicity of focalizations. Stencil’s narrative focus is diffracted into a set of impersonations he performs. Pynchon also adds about 3 pages that reference James Frazer’s The Golden Bough and Robert Graves’ The White Goddess as historiographies that have unifying tendencies, which Pynchon plays out against Henry Adam’s The Autobiography of Henry Adams and his foray into 20thcentury history as a journey into a “multiverse” and into “multiplicity”. In the face of the dynamo of the Paris World Fair, Adams felt a “growing complexity, and multiplicity, and even contradiction, in his life”. While his study of Chartres is „A Study of Unity“, the subtitle of his autobiography is A Study of Twentieth-Century Multiplicity. Pynchon, like Adams, brings these two terms on a collision course, noting “the multiplicity of unity” and “the extreme complexity of extreme simplicity” (95). Herman & Krafft argue that the narratological strategy of impersonation allows Pynchon to expand his historical imagination to include historical multiplicity. In Mason & Dixon, this will lead, to a shift from Entropy to Complexity and Chaos Theory. The chapter, which is much more complex than this general overview might imply, is not only wholly convincing, it is, like all of the others, a joy to read.
Chapter 3, ‘Dreams and the Evocation of Intersubjective Consciousness in the South-West Africa Chapter’ traces Pynchon’s introduction of the notion of the dream into historical fiction. First, the rewriting of ‘Mondaugen’s Story” situates the plot more firmly in historical reality, giving it “greater historical accuracy” and cutting some general philosophizing. The aim of Pynchon’s “complete revision” is “concision and focus”. At the same time, dreaming is installed as a counterweight to historical accuracy, or as Herman & Krafft call it “a balance between historical accuracy and creative fictionalization”. The dream, however, is not a personal, psychoanalytic event, but itself part of the poetics of Pynchon’s “historical imagination”, in which the imagination itself is historiographic. In fact, the historical imagination literally is a dream, if dreaming is not that of a discrete consciousness, but of a mind that is considered as an “intersubjective process”. The logic of cultural dreaming “transmogrifies” history into what Herman & Krafft call Pynchon’s “antirealist historiography”. The difference between “Stencil’s idiosyncratic historiographic construction”, which Pynchon calls stencilization, and Pynchon’s historiographic imagination has once more to do with the paradoxes of multiplicity. The formula for Pynchon’s historiography is neither ‘less realism, more imagination!’, as with Stencil, nor historiography’s 19th-century ideal of ‘more realism, less imagination!’. Rather, it is ‘more realism, more imagination!’: ‘more fact, more fiction!’. As light is in Against the Day’s Feldspat, the world is forever refracted into a factual and a fictional world.
Three cuts, and why.
In Chapters 4, 5 and 6, “Character Constructions”, Krafft & Herman deal with three cuts that comprise an overall 100 typescript pages. As these omitted passages are new to Pynchon scholarship, Herman & Krafft provide very helpful summaries. Chapter 4 retells the omitted story “Millennium” – the typescript’s Chapter 10 – which they read in the context of Pynchon’s characterization of Profane, especially in relation to sex and to the monkey Valerie as yet another impersonation of V. In the similarly omitted ‘sit-com passage’, which they retell in Chapter 5, “Canceling the Sitcom” they tackle Pynchon’s often criticized, because presumably sexist and misogynistic gender politics. Finally, in Chapter 6: “Rewriting McClintic Sphere”, they show, in Pynchon’s reworking of the character of McClintic Sphere, his ambiguous relation to the genre of the ‘Protest Novel’, as well as some of his earlier ‘racial primitivism’. While Krafft & Herman wonder about Pynchon’s insecurity about creating a strong position of his own towards race, they see signs, vis-à-vis his treatment of Paola/Ruby, that Pynchon maintains that race is a “state of mind, a cultural formation – both a construct and a performance”. While again wholly convincing and satisfying, the chapter might have benefited from some mention of Carl McAfee and ‘Carl Barrington’ from Pynchon’s early short-story “The Secret Integration” with its complex constructions of both race and dreams.
More Maturity, More Immaturity!
Becoming Pynchon is studded with genetic gems that glitter and sparkle, and that will delight and often surprise the reader. At the same time, it constructs a completely convincing tableau of the way Pynchon develops narratological strategies that are adequate to the growing complexity of his historic imagination, and it brings his literary maturation to life. Often it seems as if, somewhere in-between the analyses, we are reading a Künstlerroman. An artist’s novel.
In closing, let me point out a tiny, and without doubt debatable issue I have with Herman & Krafft’s wonderful tapestry. Many Persian carpets have a deliberately built-in, minute flaw as an acknowledgement that only Allah can create perfect things, while in our world, flaws are inherent vices. Becoming Pynchon is flawless in that there is no acknowledgement of such flaws in Pynchon. The story of his maturation – from flawed to flawless – is perhaps too ideal. Accordingly, Herman & Krafft are very eager to save Pynchon from long-standing controversies about some of ‘his’ more controversial views on politics, race and gender. To save him from himself, that is. In the face of what might also be considered as lingering, or even willful immaturities, they argue that an “undecidability or ambivalence” pervades his writing, which is true, and maintain that controversial statements by characters might be understood as ‘ironic’, either in terms of a reported irony or in terms of Pynchon’s own narratological ironizations. This, I would maintain, is only true if this irony is much darker and more dangerous than the one evoked by Herman & Krafft.
While it is laudable and understandable, especially in the light of Herman & Krafft’s flawless politeness, critical generosity and respect for other critical voices, such a narratological ‘solution into playful irony’ tends to smooth out the often painfully sharp and hurtful edges and contours of specific sentences, passages and characterizations. Considering that Pynchon’s texts always acknowledge ‘our’ immature complicity with the dark sides of power and sin, we should perhaps give his texts some leeway, and in fact come to value their controversial and immature tendencies. Maybe one might even imagine a poetics of “more maturity, more immaturity!” Maybe we should value the honesty of his provocations and the ‘unethical ethics’ and incommensurabilities of his texts. As Adams noted before him, his “new exploration along the shores of Multiplicity and Complexity promised to be the longest, though as yet it had barely touched two familiar registers – race and sex“. In other words, does Pynchon, especially at a time of political correctness, need apologists? Or should we take a long, hard and honest look at ourselves and our belief in maturity?
Becoming Pynchon is a wonderful book, and, although it reads a bit like a stereotype, it is truly a very timely and immensely important addition to Pynchon scholarship. It is admirable how it goes from minute textual changes to Pynchon’s overall poetics in the blink of a critical eye, it is filled with countless fascinating details held together by a totally convincing overall argument. It also shows us, implicitly and thus once more very politely, what we could gain by looking more closely at Pynchon’s texts from a narratological angle, whether genetic or otherwise, than we normally do. So much depends on narratological choices and parameters, on sentences and paragraphs. On the written lives that are arrested in print, but also on the real lives outside of the text, both of which are magically reanimated by Herman’s & Krafft. The genetic core of Becoming Pynchon lies in a love for and a deep appreciation of Pynchon’s work, and this, apart from providing a wealth of information, makes it, as I mentioned before, a joy to read. To end at the beginning, I should mention the book’s clever cover, designed by Mateusz Liwiński. Chapeau, and many thanks to all who are part of the ‘writing machine’, the creative collective that produced this book!