restricted access Pynchon and the Political (review)
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Reviewed by
Samuel Thomas. Pynchon and the Political. New York: Routledge, 2007. x + 203 pp.

One of the challenges of postmodernism, as a point of view, concerns the relationship of the part to the whole. Are some parts more significant than others? Do these parts resist the overall fiction, or does that fiction co-opt and absorb them? When is an image just an image, and when does it become weighted with meaning? With so much to unpack, where do you start? If from a deconstructive perspective, language remains ever elusive, always open-ended and never definitive; how are we to navigate the overflowing perilous streams of prose that Thomas Pynchon immerses us in? Can we surface and signify, or must we drown?

Samuel Thomas, in this craftily spun and engagingly written analysis of Pynchon's novels, does an admirable job of trying to identify marginalized fragments that purport to reveal and unearth the political heart of Pynchon's vision. His methodology is forthright and clear as he searches for "a fugitive politics making itself visible through what appears to be an incidental detail" (106). "Each chapter [,therefore,] (though framed by wider historical forces) is based around a small episode from the corresponding novel" (17). In such marginalized fragments, he hopes to recover the revolutionary energies contained within that threaten or, at least, try to resist mere rational instrumentality and functionality.

Thomas arranges the novels chronologically and historically, not by the years within which they were written but by the historical periods they cover, beginning with Mason & Dixon and ending with Vineland (with a mention of Against the Day that, when Thomas's book was written, had just been published). He wishes to "offer various ways of rehabilitating utopia and utopianism as legitimate modes of critical inquiry—from Adorno and Block to Jameson and Moylan" (195), and at the same time to assault and undermine the popular view of Pynchon "as a dispassionate (or indeed frivolous) chronicler of entropy and apocalypse" (73). Thus for Thomas, "Pynchon's critique of Enlightenment is suspicious of transcendence . . . yet it retains a legitimate impulse toward immanent transcendence" (37).

Thomas bases much of his argument on Theodore Adorno's theory of negative dialectics: contradictions and oppositions that refuse any possibility of synthesis and undermine any notion of totality or of "the world of the reigning universal" (qtd. in Thomas 3). "What Adorno has attempted in philosophy, I have attempted through the body of Pynchon's work," Thomas insists, groping to discover "utopian impulses . . . modulated into salvageable enclaves of damaged minds and bodies" (154). Such a focus on the local, the marginal, [End Page 374] the aside, and the fragment fuels Thomas's quest to support and carry out "the 'micrological' analysis championed by Benjamin and Adorno" (78).

Thomas selects fascinating incidents and images to buttress his argument. For instance he contrasts the strange case of the Virginia Boy in Mason & Dixon—"I can show you something no one has ever seen, nor will anyone see again" (22)—who eats the red nuts inside a pea-shell, with the Mason-Dixon line itself. He views the boy's affections as "a vehicle for spontaneity, performance and agnostic subjectivity" (30), the very idea of which the line rejects: "This is the ultimate price of the Line: nuts to stomach, event to history, subjunctive to conjunctive, excess to economy, ancient to modern, magic to reason, memory to amnesia" (27).

Evan Godolphin's plastic surgery in Gravity's Rainbow involves ivory, silver, paraffin, and celluloid, which Thomas explores in all their various associations and cultural connections and finds them emblematic of Pynchon's assaults on totalitarian systems and capitalist grids. This underscores Pynchon's vision of war as both an "intense psychic fragmentation" and as a forerunner to our contemporary immersion in "mass bureaucracy" (101).

In The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas makes a pitch for Inamorati Anonymous, the society of isolates, as representing "a vast political underclass—alienated and disenfranchised by insurmountable forms of domination and control" (124–25). It may not be an easily recognizable form of resistance to the system, but it is "a nerve center, a relay switch, a political crossroads" (127...