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  • Imperium, Misogyny, and Postmodern Parody in Thomas Pynchon’s V.
  • Stefan Mattessich

No one who reads Thomas Pynchon can deny the force and inventiveness of his prose. His prolix imagination verges on the uncanny, and his mastery of various discourses awes all who experience it. But if Pynchon is an exuberant writer, he is so only by virtue of a counterforce acting upon that forcefulness, interrupting its flows in particular ways—cutting into a dramatic sequence with an absurd song, modulating from a clipped comic diction and tone to epic sentences a page long, mingling tragedy with pornography, melodrama with slapstick. The diffraction of modes and genres through the disjointed narratives of V. reflects a highly organized, crystalline structure that is nonetheless anarchic, patterned and intricate yet loose-jointed and expansive. A subversion of expenditure takes place within the mutations of narrative form, undermining the illusions of continuity and depth, frustrating the possibilities of coherence and closure. A peculiar emptying out of content attends this subversion in V., marking in the language a lightness and strange insubstantiality that is often difficult to gauge.

This quality in Pynchon’s prose corresponds to what Baudrillard calls a logic of simulation, in which, through successive orders of abstraction, the “real” withdraws into a permanent elsewhere, and systems of meaning (signs, images, discourses) no longer bear any relation to a stable referent, but instead float in the medium of their own “divine irreference,” a hyper-real which “envelops the whole edifice of representation.” 1 This breakdown of meaning is variously described by Baudrillard as a process of “satellitization,” as a proliferation of signs incapable of dissimulating their own hollowness, as an implosion or a “non-distinction of active and passive” opposites, as a neutralization or “annihilation of stakes” in the political and social spheres. 2 In the postmodern world Baudrillard describes,

All events are to be read in reverse, where one perceives . . . that all . . . things arrive too late, with an overdue history, a lagging spiral, that they have exhausted their meaning long in advance and only survive as an artificial effervescence of signs, that all these events follow on illogically from one [End Page 503] another, with a total equanimity toward the greatest inconsistencies . . . —thus the whole newsreel of the “present” gives the sinister impression of kitsch, retro and porno all at the same time.3

Although Baudrillard is here speaking about the effect of the news media on contemporary culture, it could be said that V. exemplifies this exhaustion, this artificial effervescence of signs exactly. Pynchon’s novel enacts a search for meaning or substance behind the initial V., which stands for a whole range of possible signifiers, partial objects, fetishes, puzzles, secret codes, and for the novel itself: V. as the signifier of the desire for “real” or authentic writing. But in what McHoul and Wills call V.’s “eternal condemnation to the signifier,” the necessary failure of this voicing becomes itself an obsession of the text. 4 In this sense V. can be seen as a simulacrum in the particular “phase” Baudrillard singles out as modern—that is, in which “strategies of the real” or “a panic-stricken production of the real and the referential” become a predominant feature. 5

All of this may seem an overly-elaborate introduction to a discussion of parody and the parodic in Pynchon’s first novel, but it is necessary to broach the issue of how to read, or how to hear, that peculiar displaced tonality so original to it. Parody. Para-ode. Beside, beyond or past another text; an echoing, and also a damping out of sound, an effect of distance, an entropic repetition, a doubling which in its attenuation becomes increasingly aware of an emptiness it cannot revoke, a speech that in speaking itself reveals in its midst a growing silence. It is here that the uncanny character of Pynchon’s prose finds its dramatic voice, but not before transgressing as many rules of dramatic order and serious discourse as it can. Whether it’s in the more obvious scandal of transposing the rituals of psychoanalysis into Eigenvalue’s psychodontia, or in the brutal rape and suicide of an African slave described from...

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pp. 503-521
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