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Thomas Pynchon.

Judith Chambers's Pynchon has two noteworthy characteristics. In a book that surveys the author's entire corpus, she nonetheless achieves depth of analysis by pitching her discussion at what she takes to be the fundamental problematic of Pynchon's fiction. In addition, she has produced the first (to my knowledge) book to take account of Vineland. Most of its reviewers panned it, presumably because it did not satisfy the expectations generated by Gravity's Rainbow and escalated by the seventeen-year interval between novels. It is easy to be disappointed with the book. It does not have the dense texture and rich language of Gravity's Rainbow, none of its awesome glimpses of the sublime and the demonic. By comparison it's flat and sparsely written, packed with Pynchonian tricks but poor in Pynchonian profundity. Chambers endeavors to salvage the novel by arguing that the very banality of the text is mimetic. The world we now inhabit is as vacuous as the narrative it sponsors and calls for strong responses. Conceptually perspasive, her argument has not quite enabled me to enjoy the book. Maybe that's my problem. I do like the Wizard of Oz homecoming she sees adumbrated in the novel's resolution.

Be that as it may, Pynchon's purpose is not to recommend either existential or fictional nihilism. His point (and here I come to the nub of Chambers's critique) is to suggest, by the relentless depiction of the desolations of post-modernity, ways in which human beings may still contrive to lead satisfactory lives. The object of Chambers's readings of Pynchon is the ethical options released by his fiction. Clearly a Pynchonian ethic will not be normative in the old-fashioned way. Normative ethics has by now been discredited as just another routine in the nefarious machinery of oppression. What emerges ethically from Pynchon's texts is the suggestion that there still remain - even in a world dehumanized by technology and the malign deployment thereof by international alliances of wealth and power - modes of authentic human behavior: e.g., simple decency not coerced by the promise of reward, charitable gestures that do not demand an accounting from their recipients, and works of love that do not expect requital. Such are the elements of a Pynchonian ethic. At least such particulars (and this is an ethic exhausted in its particulars) are moments of hope and warmth in the wasteland of the postmodern world.

Students of Pynchon will want to quarrel with some of Chambers's readings and dicker over some of her details. In a longer review I might pick my own nits: e.g., I would have welcomed more attention to Pynchon's comedy - to my mind, an integral part of his ethics. To live in Pynchon's world you gotta have a sense of humor. But difference of opinion is the name of the game. The important thing is that Judith Chambers has written not just another "introduction to Pynchon" but a close and well-focused study of one of our major writers. Her generous assessment of Vineland and her consistent regard for the ethical implications of Pynchon's work merit the attention of all serious students of contemporary fiction.
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Author:Mackey, Louis
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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