- Thomas Pynchon, Literary Giant
Thomas Pynchon remains central to any serious consideration of the maximalist novel. I first discovered the truth of an adage about Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) while conducting research for my PhD dissertation on encyclopedic literature: when it comes to reading Pynchon’s 760-page magnum opus, there are those who endure, and those who give up. And the difference matters. Over a fifty-year career, the author has made stamina a central part of processing his challenging and difficult art. Through intricacies of composition, grand vision, and sheer length, Pynchon’s novels exhilarate as we approach their centers, yet—given their narrative overabundance—fry our cognitive circuits every step of the way. Metaphysical journey, historical reimagining, and hazing ritual all at once, Pynchon’s fictions are marathons replete with Borgesian labyrinths. His style compels a long-term relationship between reader and author that disrupts the against-the-grain reading practices privileged in academia today, which empower critics to demystify the art of fiction as political artifice. Yet, if fans of Pynchon have willfully submitted to his spell over the years—embracing its efforts to respond to the zeitgeist of “exhaustion” as defined by John Barthes—it is because the payoff is a glimpse into the absolute that lingers behind the network of information technologies that define our age. Pynchon is not only a master of maximalist form, but he is also a humanist who believes in the power of literature to aid in a universal search for meaning. His latest, Bleeding Edge (2013), follows this path in the historical here and now of the World Wide Web.
Pynchon’s relationship to a tradition of big novels was first defined by Edward Mendelson in the 1976 article “Encyclopedic Narrative: From Dante to Pynchon.” Extended references to politics, science, technology, language, history and art (as well as the tropes of monstrosity and gigantism that reflect on the form itself) are among the many particulars contained by encyclopedic works. Mendelson characterizes Pynchon as an encyclopedic author who, along with Dante and other luminaries, “attempt[s] to render the full range of knowledge and beliefs of a national culture, while identifying the ideological perspectives from which that culture shapes and interprets its knowledge.” He rightly concludes, however, that Gravity’s Rainbow exceeds the nation, for “[t]he distinguishing character of Pynchon’s new internationalism is its introduction of an order based on information, of data, instead of the old order built on money and commercial goods.”
Starting with this article, and the follow-up piece “Gravity’s Encyclopedia,” Gravity’s Rainbow becomes a touchstone for virtually every major analysis of encyclopedic fiction, a “textual industry comparable to the industry founded upon the Bible” that is, according to Mendelson, typical of an encyclopedic author of major importance to an entire nation. Beyond that, Pynchon holds global credentials; he has been a source of inspiration for world authors—including the late Roberto Bolaño—who has tried his or her hand at writing the big postmodern novel. Gravity’s Rainbow occupies the center of the new maximalist galaxy; others planets only retain close orbit.
Ever since first struggling with Pynchon in college, I have felt that one of the most fascinating—and still unexamined—features of his craft involves a deliberate form of overwriting that marries content and form in ways that are so direct as to be counterintuitive. From the detailing of Wendell “Mucho” Maas’s auto junkyard in The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) to a passage in Gravity’s Rainbow that itemizes the objects upon Tyrone Slothrop’s desk, Pynchon’s run-on sentences suggest spillage beyond the page. Pynchon assembles garbage heaps through a garbage heap of signifiers. The effect here is one of pushing the dimensions of literature toward the visual and the tactile. By using the rubbish of contemporary life as concrete material, Pynchon’s fiction approximates junk sculpture. Even beyond the conceits of concrete poetry taking visual shape on the page, Pynchon builds a fictional cosmology through an implied mixed-media process of accumulation, assortment and recycling of waste capable of turning words into “objects” that serve as buffers for the reader...