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66Rocky Mountain Review PETER L. COOPER. Signs and Symptoms: Thomas Pynchon and the Contemporary World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983. 238 p. The reader of Signs and Symptoms may trace at least two parabolas as he moves through the text. Cooper's study begins in the realm of contemporary literature, assessing Pynchon's place amidst "neorealists" such as Bellow, Updike, and Roth and "counterrealists" such as Barth, Nabokov, Borges, and, in most respects, Pynchon. It soon rises to more ambitious discussions of science and epistemology, before returning to the literary issue of fictional techniques. The energy and success of the book follow a similar pattern, peaking in the middle chapters. Signs and Symptoms is a lucidly written study of Thomas Pynchon's connections to these various contemporary worlds of literature, science, and epistemology. Cautious and well supported, Cooper's analysis generally falls between the one and the zero. Fortunately, his decisions to occupy a middle ground rest more on reason than on timidity. The book's most persistent theme — and quite possibly its most controversial — is the necessity to construct metaphors, systems of understanding, works of fiction, regardless of our recognition that these "thrusts at truth" remain lies. The hope, however fragile, is that such constructs will parallel truth, which cannot be named, captured, or even reliably observed. In Gravity's Rainbow, Pynchon has Leni Pokier articulate the basic tenet of this view, as she defends her astrology and cause/effect thinking: "Not produce . . . not cause. It all goes along together. Parallel, not series. Metaphors. Signs and symptoms. Mapping onto different coordinate systems" (New York: Viking, 1973, 159, my ellipsis). The first chapter, "Pynchon's Literary Context," is the book's only notable weakness. Cooper has summarized and condensed the more extensive analysis of his dissertation to produce an overview that, though accurate, has no audience. Readers well versed in contemporary fiction will find little new here; others would surely struggle to follow an argument which spans some dozen authors and twice as many works. When Cooper analyzes how Pynchon's fiction maps onto modern science and intellectual history, he is more thorough, informative, and original. Without underestimating the problems that Pynchon writes about (alienation, solipsism, physical and cultural entropy, technology out of control), Cooper stresses the possibilities for change, surprise, and recycling. In part he synthesizes the views of such "optimistic" readers as Mark Siegel, George Levine, Joseph Slade, Annette Kolodny, and Daniel Peters, but he often extends their views, in particular by examining hints at openness and possibility in Pynchon's short stories. (The thematic organization of the book means that discussion of the short works is annoyingly scattered; fortunately we are provided a thorough index.) The central chapters enrich this view with a survey of the key scientific thinkers upon whom Pynchon draws. The facts that we cannot measure systems without disturbing them, that our most elaborate systems, whether mathematical or linguistic, are unavoidably incomplete, that electrons seem to be governed at one time by wave theory, at another by particle theory, that our everyday notions of time and space may be radically inaccurate — these potentially terrifying revelations of Heisenberg, Gödel, and Einstein become Book Reviews67 simply the conditions of Pynchon's cosmos, not necessarily harbingers of apocalypse. In fact, Cooper shows how modern physics actually justifies an expectation of surprise or counter-movements to some seemingly unstoppable force. Macro events and the micro events which comprise them are not necessarily similar in nature; boundaries are tentative, sometimes illusory. Translated into human terms, it means that "the Zone, where nothing is determined and everything is to make . . . suggests freedom, possibilities, chances, new starts" (128). Pynchon and Cooper share "anxious hopes" with Slothrop (from Gravity's Rainbow) that "maybe that anarchist [Slothrop] met in Zürich was right, maybe for a little while all the fences are down, one road as good as another, the whole space of the Zone cleared, depolarized, and somewhere inside the waste of it a single set of coordinates from which to proceed, without elect, without preterite, without even nationality to fuck it up" (556). Cooper's extensive research gives his arguments weight. Suggesting that developments in Pynchon's work roughly...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-2833
Print ISSN
1948-2825
Pages
pp. 66-67
Launched on MUSE
2016-01-06
Open Access
No
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