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The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon.

Inger H. Dalsgaard, Luc Herman, and Brian McHale, eds. 2012. The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. $90.00 hc. $27.99 sc. xii + 193 pp.


University of Michigan

Thomas Pynchon joins Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, Don Delillo, and John Updike on the list of US novelists to merit a Cambridge Companion during their lifetime, a significant milestone in the academic mainstreaming of an author who, despite his reasonable sales and attendant research "Pyndustry," retains a cultish aura. The volume is an informative, intuitively structured introduction to Pynchon's work. Sharing a publication date with John N. Duvall's The Cambridge Companion to American Fiction After 1945, it constitutes an extended claim that Pynchon's career can stand for the precedence of postmodernism in that historical period. A wider readership, however, might find as much interest in what the limits of Pynchon studies, and the associated claim for the enduring relevance of mid-1980s theory, tell us about postmodernism's relation to contemporary canonicity.

The editors' brief introduction establishes the book's necessity: there are currently "relatively few books aimed specifically at those who study and teach Pyn-chon," and even fewer "that the non-academic reader could pick up and read with pleasure and profit" (2). Starting from a point intelligible to Pynchon novices, the collection gets progressively more complex and theoretical. After a biographical note synthesises what reliable information we have on this reticent author's life, it is divided into three sections. Chapters under the heading of "Canon" introduce Pynchon's various works, outlining the infamously complex plots, examining representative passages, and pointing to sustained thematic concerns. There follow three chapters addressing his distinctive forms of narrative-making under the heading of "Poetics," introducing some literary history, terminology, and criticism. Four "Issues" essays, which combine literary theory with cultural and historical citation, detail Pynchon's career-spanning engagements with "Politics," "History," "Alterity," and "Science and Technology." Finally, a short coda on readerly approaches surveys the critical and theoretical roles his work has been made to play within the academy.

This structure readably scaffolds some very complex ideas: anyone starting from page one would be well prepared to assess the "Issues" chapters' wide-ranging claims. Indeed, so lucid is the exposition throughout that the book makes almost as good an introduction to canonically postmodern approaches to the fiction of the 196os, 197os, and 198os as it does to Pynchon in particular. Furthermore, in spite of the vastness of its subject's novels, the companion comes in at under two hundred pages, around fifty below the average for the series. The cover-to-cover reading its structure invites and even requires is thus not a daunting prospect. Early chapters aim explicitly to help readers past the alienating aspects of Pynchon's styles and structures, and the overall effect is to disarm his exaggerated reputation for inaccessibility.

Providing a point of access is not the limit of the editors' ambition, however, and their other stated aim, to compile "advanced specialist insights, reflecting the state of the art in the field" (2-3), is more problematic. If the varying contributors can be said to offer a unifying argument, it is best summarised by Brian McHale's contention that our understanding of postmodernism is as dependent on Pynchon's work as our understanding of that oeuvre is on the social and theoretical contexts of postmodernity. The 'state of the art' in Pynchon studies is thus hard to untie from models of postmodernism that emerged during the process of his initial critical canonization.

John N. Duvall, introducing his Cambridge Companion to American Fiction after 1945, suggests that the "postmodern metafictions" of the Pynchon generation now represent little more than "the dead hand of history" to scholars of, and authors within, the contemporary (2012, 4). The Pynchon companion operates, unsurprisingly, on very different axioms, best summed up by David Cowart's contendon, in his chapter on "Pynchon in Literary History," that--far from being "superannuated"--Pynchon's methods and preoccupations have grown into the "default" logic of mainstream entertainment in the US today (Dalsgaard, Herman, and McHale 2012, 94, 95). Even this defense locates the still-publishing Pynchon's significance in the academic past, however, and the essays here rely almost exclusively for theoretical context on works on postmodernism (most frequently those of Linda Hutcheon and Frederic Jameson) published over twenty years ago. Only Jeff Baker's excellent contribution on "Politics" works outward from criticism and theory published within the last decade. One could not ask for a better collection of 'advanced specialists' as contributors: over half have published monographs on Pynchon's work. But eventually the emphasis on Pynchon's centrality to 1980s postmodern theory traps his work in a straitjacket of precisely that theoretical moment, downplaying the distinctiveness of some subsequent critical work and, more crucially, the half of his fiction that he has published since.

New angles on Pynchon emerge here from one particular source: not theoretical or methodological advances, but the availability of new pieces of early Pynchon. Such recent uncoverings allow Luc Herman to recast 'early Pynchon' in terms of the V manuscript at the University of Texas's Harry Ransom Center, and Steven Weisenburger to base an argument about Gravity's Rainbow and complicity on Pynchon's own youthful work as a military technical writer. Thomas Schaub's unusually bleak focus on the centrality of betrayal to Inherent Vice--the comical genre-pastiche which has spurred most critics to light-hearted read-ings--casts intriguing light on Pynchon's earlier California fiction, but otherwise the newer novels' potential role in generating a 'state of the art' is underplayed. Those critical works (Kathryn Hume or Frank Palmeri on the dwindling significance of paranoia, Joseph Tabbi on Pynchon's theories of cognition, Daniel Punday on the changing role of haunting) that have made a case for the recent novels' distinctions are barely acknowledged. The looser organization of some other Cambridge Companions can allow readers to compare the chapters' various approaches and identify some of the fault lines that organize conversations in their discipline. The unique structure of this Companion leaves nary a fault line to be found.

On these grounds, its short span might be reconsidered. There's nothing here that anyone would want to cut, but one wonders what else might have been included. The volume's intense coherence contributes to its readability, and conveys what the editors call the "sense of solidarity and, yes, community among Pynchon's readers ... participating in a collective enterprise of reading ..."(8). That community, as framed here, shares a majority of theoretical and contextual axioms, and its academic members' interest in each other's work is rarely geared towards refutation (the editors draw comparisons between their "Pyndustry" and the world of James Joyce studies, but the dynamics could not be more different). Work on Pynchon and his generation of oppositional, restless, and formally experimental authors emerges as one of the less dissent-intensive fields in current literary study. A chapter that scrutinized the consensus, identified those disputes that do exist, and attempted to work out their consequences for "those who study and teach" postmodern fiction would have been particularly welcome.

This volume, then, is a plausible last word on the canonically postmodern version of Pynchon. Its strengths as well as its limits confirm that any critic seeking to reconceive postmodernism's role in our contemporary critical landscape must viably reconceive Pynchon. Anyone interested in classic postmodern theory and how it still defines the way innovative US fiction is read should read this book. What's missing, however, is a sense of how Pynchon's relevance might endure once the identification between the contemporary and the canonically postmodern finally becomes untenable.


Duvall, John N. 2012. The Cambridge Companion to American Fiction After 1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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Author:Chetwynd, Ali
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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