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Theodore D. Kharpertian. A Hand to Turn the Time: The Menippean Satires of Thomas Pynchon. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson UP; London: Associated UP, 1990. 176 pp. $29.50.
Alec McHoul and David Wills. Writing Pynchon: Strategies in Fictional Analysis. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1990. 239 pp. $29.95 cloth; pb. $12.95.

Two books, on the same novelist, yet so very opposite: Kharpertian's study, driven by a rigid formalism, explicates Pynchon according to a traditional concept of satire; McHoul and Wills's book, driven by deconstructionist thought and a radical sense of what comparative studies can be in its wake, moves through an utterly destabilized field of genres to see what might come from various textual "interventions [End Page 580] "—Derrida's with Pynchon's, and vice-versa. They dub this a method of "bookmatching." Its goal is to make criticism a flashpoint (or "matchbook") between theory and narrative practice—a tall order.

Kharpertian reads Pynchon under the rubric of Menippean satire, itself profoundly refocused during the seventies and eighties by theories of dialogism and carnival from earlier work by Bakhtin and Kristeva. However, Kharpertian's idea of satire has rather less to do with these developments than might have been expected, or hoped. The Bakhtinian approach theorizes narrative satire as writing that constantly subverts hierarchies of value and erases conventional discursive categories; it is profoundly distrustful of any normative authority or transcendent signifiers, and thus is close kin with literary postmodernism. Kharpertian never really engages these potentials of recent theory. His opening sentence proclaims: "This study demonstrates through the construction, elaboration, and systematic application of a formal-functional generic model that Thomas Pynchon's three major fictions . . . are Menippean satires." Five lines on he further specifies "two formal conventions, attack and variety, and two functional conventions, fertility and delight," to be considered. And from that juncture his rigorously deductive analysis never swerves from the job. Each convention is minutely analyzed with reference (seemingly) to every statement about Menippean satire from the Greeks on; then it is given that "systematic application" to the fiction at hand, from Pynchon's early stories through Gravity's Rainbow. At the end there is little to say, except that Pynchon is a Menippean satirist, Q.E.D.

This sounds tiresome, and it is indeed. Kharpertian unquestioningly accepts the ensemble of generic conventions for satire handed down from Neoclassical thinkers like Casaubon and Pope, and given more s(t)olidity in our own century by formalist critics like Frye, Kernan, and Paulson. In this view the business of satire is to correct folly and vice according to authorized norms. Satire is thus an objectively targetted and aggressive but also a normative and therefore a generative discourse. In Kharpertian's reading of Pynchon, this translates into an evolving fictional attack on forms of "the sterile," which (he claims) are regenerated by the "fertilizing" power of satire. This claim leads, incidentally, into some of the most bland sententiae in the annals of Pynchon criticism (for example, that "Women, however, are not inanimate"). It also avoids the critique of how, from another viewpoint, Pynchon's satire becomes radically disruptive or degenerative in suspecting the complicity of all discourses in legitimizing forms of hegemony. This would have been more in keeping with the Bakhtinian idea of satire that Kharpertian sidesteps. His book merely summarizes Anglo-American theories of satire as well as standard readings of Pynchon. It also represents a glaring tendency in Pynchon criticism to say essentially the same things about essentially the same passages, for example about the categories of opposites given metaphorical and characterological shape in the fictions. So students of Pynchon will find nothing really new here. A stronger editorial hand would have pushed the author further.

In fact, Alec McHoul and David Wills open their book with a feisty critique of just the kind of book that Kharpertian has written: the "unified, stepwise, single-argument book" on Pynchon's fictions, the sort of study that hunts down sets of binary motifs in the name of a totalizing generic program—call it fictional encyclopedism or Menippean satire. In McHoul and Wills's study the novels are [End Page 581] no...


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