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Thomas Pynchon and the Dark Passages of History by David Cowart (review)

From: Studies in the Novel
Volume 45, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 709-711 | 10.1353/sdn.2014.0003

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The year 2013 is a propitious time to be reviewing the career of Thomas Pynchon, whom David Cowart, the Louise Fry Scudder Professor of Humanities at the University of South Carolina, calls “America’s greatest historical novelist” (24). It’s the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Pynchon’s first novel V. in 1963, a work that fell like a meteorite onto the steppes of American literature, and the fortieth anniversary of the publication of what remains his greatest achievement, Gravity’s Rainbow. What’s more, it’s 120 years since the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, whose White City burns to the ground near the start of Against the Day (2006); and it’s been 250 years since Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon began the survey of their eponymous Line in 1763. These anniversaries were justly celebrated at the International Pynchon Week conference in Durham, England in August.

Thomas Pynchon and the Dark Passages of History is Cowart’s second book devoted to that author. Thomas Pynchon: The Art of Allusion (1980) was his first book, and among the earliest of book-length treatments of Pynchon, so Cowart has brought more than thirty years of close attention to Pynchon’s oeuvre to the present volume. He remarks at the start, in “Calibrating Clio,” the muse of History, that Pynchon “stands out as a near-mythic figure of literary virtù” (1) for his equal appeal to popular and academic readers, a fact to which the online denizens of the “Pynchon Wiki” will attest. Perhaps for that reason, Dark Passages provides an inviting and relatively jargon-free introduction to all of Pynchon’s works, from the early short stories such as “Entropy” collected in Slow Learner (1984) to the recent “California novel,” Inherent Vice (2009), for the nonspecialist reader. Cowart reprises and revises some essays, including a 1978 piece on the Third Reich in Gravity’s Rainbow and his recent contribution on literary history in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon (2012). While the editing process occasionally allows for some overlapping commentary (if you’ve been paying attention closely), Dark Passages sustains more elaborated readings for Pynchon scholars that many introductory retrospective studies do not.

As Cowart’s title suggests, he gathers his thoughts on Pynchon through the problematic of history—the subterranean, recondite, and subversive versions that are threaded through the eight volumes included in this study—not the orthodox and often uncontested story that They would have us believe. So we are told near the close of Against the Day that the narrative has borne witness to “the other side of the tapestry—a ragged, practical version of the grander spectacle out there” (1026). It’s the knotting into and the loose threads that we only find when we look behind the arras that reveal the true machinations of power, not the representations in golden brocade of coronations, military campaigns, and royal hunting parties. Because Pynchon is a self-proclaimed Luddite, we should recall that the followers of King Ludd were textile craftsmen who opposed the introduction of the industrial looms that concentrated wealth in the hands of the factory owners and oppressed the working class.

These dark passages of history are best approached by circumvention. Cowart’s treatment of the novels calls forth the heterodox historiography that we find, for example, in V., with the procession of its sigil character through the Fashoda crisis in Egypt in 1898, Paris in 1913, southwest Africa in 1922, and Malta during World War II. Cowart appropriately invokes Hayden White’s conceptualization of postmodern historiography in Metahistory (1973), such that all historical events are subjected to narrative interpretation. “Historians shape their material: the writing of history, like the writing of fiction, involves selection, subjectivity, ‘emplotment’” (45). As a postmodern writer, Pynchon not only appreciates the inherent subjectivity of historiography but he also casts a skeptical eye on an historiographer’s selection of facts, which is made to comply with the narrative of power.

Discussing the unreliability of Mason & Dixon’s (1997) narrator, the Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke, and his representations of colonial America, Cowart contends that “one must recognize as fictional the boundaries between fiction itself and the reality or history naively taken...

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