- Thomas Pynchon, Postmodernism, and the Rise of the New Right in California
In an October 1966 editorial titled “California: Man vs. Image,” The New York Times opined confidently about the result of the impending gubernatorial contest between incumbent Edmund G. “Pat” Brown and challenger Ronald Reagan: “On Nov. 8, Californians will, we trust, understand where reality ends and fantasy begins.” The election, it would seem, was not simply a matter of political preference but also a referendum on the capacity of the California electorate to distinguish the “real” activity of governance from the illusory, televisual spectacle of the same: voters could surely tell the difference between a career politician with a substantial record and a former Hollywood actor performing in the role of a politician. The trust of the Times editorial board proved misplaced, however, and Californians in large numbers elected Ronald Reagan the thirty-third governor of the state. More interesting than the fact of this political misdiagnosis, which would not be the last made about Reagan’s political ascent, is the assumption that underwrites it—namely, that California is the place where the distinction between reality and fantasy might at last come undone. But perhaps it is useful to take this playful bit of East Coast condescension at face value and ask if Reagan’s victory indicated that “reality” had indeed ended in California. In that case, what it meant for this deceased reality to lie in state might become the occasion for a double meditation on the peculiar character of California and on the nature of the public “fantasy” that Reagan’s victory would seem to have inaugurated. [End Page 51]
The year of Reagan’s gubernatorial election also saw the publication of one of the paradigmatic texts of postmodern literature, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Set along the same California coast that Reagan was stumping by bus, Pynchon’s novel might be described as a work of mourning by its protagonist, Oedipa Maas, for precisely those verities that no longer keep her world on the side of the real. Indeed, as Oedipa begins to execute the will of her former lover, Pierce Inverarity, the distinction between reality and fantasy becomes outmoded by the possibility that other, unreckoned worlds inform the one she inhabits. Whether they finally hold her prisoner or promise revelation is the question upon which the book turns.
This essay examines Pynchon’s 1966 novel in tandem with the political fortunes of the New Right as they evolved in postmodern California. Implied by the pairing is my sense that this specifically regional analysis of California postmodernism will produce a different critical perspective on some of the claims made in the name of the larger, and ostensibly global, periodization. Toward this end, I want to constellate several claims that I hope will prove mutually illuminating. First, the rise of the New Right in California, and the ascendance of Reagan in particular, is a vital and virtually unexamined aspect of postmodernism’s conceptualization, especially during its formative years in the sixties. Second, the genealogy of this New Right revolution lies before postmodern critics like a purloined letter in one of the period’s foundational texts, The Crying of Lot 49. Third, tracing this genealogy is critical both for understanding how the New Right poses challenges immanent to the logic of postmodernism and for understanding Pynchon’s literary and political preoccupations during the period, specifically around the central issue of paranoia. Restoring Pynchon to history and history to Pynchon reveals that paranoia is not simply a condition of interpretive dysfunction or illness but the prospective ground of new political agency in his work and in the period more broadly. [End Page 52]
The Postmodern Procedural
In a much-cited early scene in The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa Maas ponders her entrapment in a simulacral world that is not of her making. The occasion is her memory of a trip to Mexico City with Pierce Inverarity during which they happened upon an exhibition of paintings by the surrealist exile Remedios Varo. Pynchon’s ekphrastic attention to one of the paintings has provided critics with an allegory for his textual preoccupations in...