These are flush times for admirers of Thomas Pynchon. Vineland, Pynchon's first novel in seventeen years, should have appeared by the time this review appears. Meanwhile, some thirty books and essay collections devoted entirely to Pynchon have been published since 1974. Two of the most recent join Thomas H. Schaub's and Molly Hite's studies as indispensable works of Pynchon criticism: Steven Weisenburger's ambitious, if not yet quite fully realized, "Gravity's Rainbow" Companion; and Alec McHoul and David Wills's ground-breaking Writing Pynchon. The Crying of Lot 49 even has a book of its own now—assuming one does not count a Kinko's pamphlet or a York Notes booklet.
Georgiana M. M. Colvile's Beyond and Beneath the Mantle: On Thomas Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49" gets only a little way beyond and beneath the commonplaces of Lot 49 criticism—quest, mystery, plotting, paranoia, self-reflexivity, entropy, the Word, encoding, decrypting, metaphor, and so on. The most noteworthy sections of Colvile's book, the discussion of Remedios Varo's paintings and the feminist reading of Lot 49, elaborate and reiterate the familiar more than they present anything original.
Although Colvile does not seem to have a distinct thesis, her references to Varo form a sort of leitmotiv. Thus the "mantle" of her title is el manto terrestre of Varo's triptych, which provides an "iconic mirror" or mise-en-abyme of Lot 49. Building on David Cowart's work, Colvile offers a detailed examination of the whole triptych (the book contains good black-and-white plates). Yet, engaging as the discussion can be, it is not very profound about either Varo or Pynchon and does not provide us with a new way of thinking about Lot 49. And some of the connections, "specular links," Colvile cites between all three panels and Lot 49 are rather contrived and tenuous, not to say glib: "In the middle panel, the flute player provides a musical background, like Mucho's radio, the Paranoids, Fallopian's electronic music and other such sound tracks referred to in Pynchon's novel."
Colvile's feminist reading of Lot 49 is not altogether new either: Cathy N. Davidson's more closely-reasoned "Oedipa as Androgyne," which Colvile ignores, made a similar case in the mid-1970s. Still, the case is well worth Colvile's making again. "It is precisely the space of lack, absence and otherness to which woman has been relegated in Western culture that incites Pynchon to create a heroine as a degré zéro protagonist and at the same time make her the main focalizer." Colvile cites the male characters' pervasive virility problems as evidence of "Pynchon's feeling of impotence as a novelist in postmodern times: the traditional male point of view has moved beyond narcissism to a symbolic self-castration drive. Pynchon looks to a female protagonist to give both literature and society new stamina, not through any conscious feminist approach, but because he has [End Page 774] reached a dead end and needs to weave a fresh world by means of a character who has no tradition behind her."
For the rest, the book (its early chapters in particular) is a grab bag of intriguing brief comments, other critics' observations, eccentric judgments, and occasional careless errors—with some obviousness and silliness thrown in also. Colvile lavishly draws connections, makes identifications, and speculates about implications; the results, however, are too often mere throwaway lines, sometimes potentially interesting but frequently strained or cute. The book has its higher moments and its lower. What follows is, appropriately, a grab bag of both. "The 'plot/Plot' functions very much like Deleuze and Guattari's machines désirantes." Given "Octopussy, Oedipa could just as well have been Oedipussy." "An aphasie has lost his 'code switching' ability and an epileptic has lost a code. Oedipa...