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  • The Hothouse or the Street:Imperialism and Narrative in Pynchon's V.
  • Ronald W. Cooley (bio)

The connection between the conventions of narrative fiction and the history of European imperialism has become something of a commonplace, if still controversial topic in recent years. As Reinhardt Kuesgen observes, there is "a fundamental problem of the concept, the function and the adequacy of the novel as a major Western genre in Africa and other non-European countries" (27). Much of this discussion surrounds the degree to which both "popular" and "canonical" novels (among English novels, Kipling's Kim and Defoe's Robinson Crusoe are favorite examples) construct and consolidate an imperialist ideology (see also Said, "Jane Austen and Empire"; Achebe, "Viewpoint" and "An Image of Africa"). Behind this issue is an important question: what would an anti-imperialist novel be like? And more specifically, could a novel about empire, written from what Edward Said calls "the Metropolis" (the West), ever be an anti-imperialist novel? Such a novel would, it seems to me, have to meet at least two criteria. First it would have to develop a sustained and relatively coherent critique of the historical fact of empire.1 Second, and this seems rather more difficult in light of the first objective, it would have to subvert two sets of novelistic conventions: the discursive conventions that make any attempt by an authorial [End Page 307] / (however disguised) to tell the story of another, a reductive, and potentially a totalitarian enterprise; and the narrative impulse towards closure—towards a re-establishment of order that is always in some sense political.2 The tendency of narrative fiction to re-establish equilibrium mirrors the experience of Franz Fanon's colonial revolutionary, who discovers "that while he is breaking down colonial oppression he is building up automatically yet another system of exploitation" (145). A revolutionary narrative, like a revolution in the larger sense, would have to resist any such equilibrium.

On the surface, all of Thomas Pynchon's novels seem to be written with these objectives in mind. In Prairie and Zoyd Wheeler's search for 'family values' in Reagan's America (Vineland), in the polyvocal chaos of "the Zone" into which occupied Germany dissolves in 1945 (Gravity's Rainbow), and in Oedipa Maas's paranoid investigation of the Tristero (The Crying of Lot 49), Pynchon explores the workings of the ubiquitous yet elusive power shaping human lives.3 His narrative strategies are as diffuse, discontinuous and contradictory as the machinations of that power. But it is in his first novel, V., that Pynchon identifies this power explicitly with imperialism.4 Through a synthesis of quasi-Freudian cultural psychoanalysis (derived from Norman O. Brown and Denis De Rougement among others) and Hannah Arendt's vision of imperialism as a stage in the evolution of modern totalitarianism, V. offers a portrait of an expanding empire of the inanimate, of imperialism as western culture's sado-masochistic quest to reduce everything, first Other and finally Self, to inert matter. Through a range of parodic strategies V. indicts culture (in the narrower sense of "art") for complicity in this process, and through narrative fragmentation and self-referentiality the novel seeks to avoid, even while admitting, its own complicity.

The success of Pynchon's enterprise is limited, in ways that are perhaps implicit in the tension between the two objectives I have described. The subversive strategies required of a revolutionary narrative tend to undermine the critique of empire that constitutes the first objective. Pynchon's systematic ambiguity, his refusal to provide a locus of authority in the novel, risks making the "empire of the inanimate" theory seem as much a symptom of cultural and intellectual decay as the fact of empire itself.5 Furthermore, the novel's nostalgic tone (next to "inanimate," "decadence" must surely be the most frequent catchword), Pynchon's fascination with military camaraderie, and his characteristic governing metaphor of entropy, all hint at a kind of residual conservatism, a longing for lost order.6 This perception is reinforced by one significant, and rather troubling, [End Page 308] gesture towards narrative closure, the projected reconciliation of Paola Maijstral and Pappy Hod, the brutalized Maltese woman and her abusive...


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