Literature for the Age of Unease: Reading Pynchon Today

“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers,” runs one of the Proverbs for Paranoids in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. That weird little morsel of advice offered thirty years ago remains relevant today, as American society careens with grim surety towards the Pynchonian vision of freedom as an illusion and democracy as a script already written by those clever enough to recognize the fault lines of exploitation. Since Word War II, no novelist has been more relentless in parsing out “the engineered character of history” (in the words of the historian Erik Davis) and also, of the troubled present, that such a manufactured history must inevitably portend.

Although Pynchon has not published a novel in nearly a decade, I can imagine him surveying the current state of the union with a measure of bittersweet delight, as America increasingly shares in his tincture of paranoia and distrust, from families in Ohio wrapping their homes in plastic sheeting to protect from a chemical attack to the ominous anti-terrorism advertisements that grace the subways of New York. Since 9/11, the public has been inculcated with a sense of dread that can only, we are routinely reminded, be fought back by constant vigilance and strict adherence to some patriotic sense of decency. Fear is no longer the only thing we have to fear; rather, if used for the right ends, fear will make us good citizens and our country secure.

Paranoia – fear’s unruly brother – has also made a return, harkening back to the Cold War and its twin worries of socialism and nuclear annihilation. But that paranoia was directed outward to a foreign specter that was all too glad to appear hugely sinister in American eyes. Today it is undeniably introspective, turned to our own country, fueled in no small part by the knowledge that (just to name one infraction) President Bush has no apparent qualms about allowing the NSA to spy on Americans on their own soil and that the FBI justifies monitoring left-leaning groups like PETA under the pretense of hair-thin connections to terrorism.

But at its heart, ours is a paranoia founded on the suspicion that the American government is not living up to even a cursory understanding of what it means to foster an open society based on all those glorious concepts we learned about in high school civics classes. The real importance of Pynchon’s works today – especially the early Crying of Lot 49 and the persistently-neglected Vineland and Mason & Dixon – lies not so much in their undistilled paranoia but in the constant suggestion that trust on any large scale is not possible in America anymore. The paranoia of his characters is not clinical, something to be cured and alleviated; rather, it is a strategy of survival in the same basic sense that the Greeks needed a strategy to defeat the Trojans in The Iliad and Odysseus needed a strategy to escape the cyclops in The Odyssey. However, the subjects of Homer’s epics are heroes, whereas every one of Pynchon’s protagonists is about as close to a loser as a literary character can get without being named Leopold Bloom. But this is precisely what I think makes reading Pynchon so urgent: his America, minus a few incredibly unsettling details, is our America, and his characters are just people who are extremely capable in wading through the bullshit that surrounds them, even if the truth they finally unravel reeks even worse than the initial mess.

* * *

At the very heart of Pynchon’s work is the idea that if individuals are defined by the forces that surround them (“Everybody gotta serve somebody,” Bob Dylan once sang; Pynchon lets you take your pick: government, business, religion, the media, hippies…the list goes on), they will be deprived of something essential when they realize that their trust has been misplaced. In The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon’s second novel and by far his most accessible, Oedipa Mass is charged with the task of untangling the strands of conspiracy that weave about her in a California painted by Pynchon in bleached and lonely colors. In sifting through the estate of a millionaire who has tapped her as his executor, she is led to the discovery of Tristero, a covert postal system in competition with the United States Postal Service that is vaguely connected to the Pony Express and Wells Fargo and has been involved in all sorts of nefarious activity during the length of its existence.

Delving into these mysteries leads Oedipa to become “trapped at the center of some intricate crystal,” and the refracting surface withholds even the smallest quantum of certainty from her grasp. By the end of the novel, it is impossible for her to know which of her fears are real and which are illusory; the America she inhabits is a shifting terrain of conspiracies that interlock like the serpentine freeways of her native state. “This is America,” Oedipa tells herself at one point, “you live in it, you let it happen. Let it unfurl.” Paranoia, which burgeons as the layers of secrecy are peeled back, becomes Oedipa’s navigator, but the toll of passage is a negation of personality, until Oedipa becomes little more than the sum of her fears:

“For there either was some Tristero beyond the appearance of the legacy America, or there was just America and if there was just America then it seemed the only way she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was as an alien, unforrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia.”

The product of a restless imagination, ambitious in its search for a truth that does not exist, The Crying of Lot 49 is above all an inquiry into what it means to be a responsible citizen in a place like contemporary America, where the difference between stated purpose and actual intent, between word and act, is often oceanic. Is it one’s responsibility to challenge a system that is hostile to the most basic idea of American democracy, no matter how mangled and perverted that idea has ever been? If that is the case, Pynchon shows how easily a yearning for discovery turns into an uncontrolled suspicion that brings one no closer to the elusive goal of truth.

* * *

Sharing its setting with Lot 49, Vineland takes place in Regan-era California, and a sense of alienation pervades the novel with the persistence of a fog settling over the Berkeley hills. By far Pynchon’s least-read work, Vineland is also his most pointed critique of a society that allows individuals to suffer because the national concern is elsewhere, a society founded on something grand and impersonal, its ultimate beneficiaries rarely being common folk. Primarily, Vineland is the story of Frenesi Gates, a radical who had been involved in a revolutionary film collective during the widespread campus riots of the 1960’s but, amazingly, ended up falling in love with Brock Vond, the federal agent who had been assigned to track her.

Pynchon uses Frenesi’s conflicted character to explore “what America has been doing to itself, and to its children, all these years,” to borrow from Salman Rushdie’s appraisal in the New York Times Book Review. Frenesi has her old leftist leanings, but there she is, shacked up with Brock in a motel room, and there is no excuse that could possibly reconcile the two strands of her being in any meaningful way. Nor should she expect reconciliation – she was a rebel, the rebellion failed miserably, and there is no place for someone like Frenesi in America anymore.

The harder she tries to make sense of her outcast state, the more muddled everything becomes. As she struggles to reach the epicenter of intrigue into which she has been pulled by Brock – a bizarre world, even for California, involving ninjas, the walking dead and an awful cover band named Billy Barf and the Vomitones – she comes to the realization that “Central Power [is] merciless as a tornado or a bomb yet somehow, as she had begun to discover in dreams of that period, personally aware, possessing life and will.” The closer she comes to that locus of power, the more her personality is effaced, subsumed by that power’s lust for knowledge and the final goal of knowledge, which is complete control:

If patterns of ones and zeroes were “like” patterns of human lives and deaths, if everything about an individual could be represented in a computer record by a long string of lives and deaths? It would have to be up one level at least – an angel, a minor god, something in a UFO.

* * *

A country can only be as decent as its citizens, but what if the very creation of that country was an act of deception? If the birth of America was cloaked in shadows, the eventual ascendancy of someone like George W. Bush two centuries down the road should not be a surprise – we have been spawning someone like him all along. Mason & Dixon, a difficult novel about the two surveyors who drew the line that would come to divide North and South, is probably Pynchon’s most complete vision of America’s inability to be true either to itself or its people.

As Mason and Dixon amble towards Ohio, charged with a task that takes them into the heart of the American wilderness, they encounter a colorful cast of characters that includes a robotic duck enamored with a French chef and a George Washington with a taste for pot brownies. More importantly, somewhere along the way they realize that their toil is no mere cartography – they are acting as the arms of a shadowy government that has grandiose designs far beyond the confines of latitude and longitude:

reducing Possibilities to Simplicities that serve the ends of Governments, — winning away from the realm of the Sacred, its Borderlands one by one, and assuming them unto the bare mortal World that is our home, and our Despair.

By the end both men are disenchanted with their work, having recognized that the fruit of their labors has sinister implications for the country that will be created out of the fledgling British colonies. They are shaping history, but they are unsure into what, and their view of the process becoming increasingly cynical: “History is hir’d, or coerc’d, only in Interests that must ever prove base. She is too innocent, to be left within the reach of anyone in Power…She needs…to be tended lovingly and honorably by fabulists and counterfeiters.”

Jeremiah Dixon is very possibly the fullest character Pynchon has ever conceived, and the sad arc of his journey is a subtle but powerful indictment of the American experience in its earliest stages. While Mason is almost comically saturnine, obsessed with the legacy of his dead wife and burdened with the uncertainties of his professional career, Dixon bounds with joy for the open road and the adventure that must certainly lie there, approaching their mission in the New World with the unscrubbed curiosity of a child.

That optimism, however, is progressively deflated for, unlike the gloomy, self-centered Mason, he is too alert not to notice that something in amiss in America from the very start. “Ev’rywhere they’ve sent us…what’s the Element common to all?” he asks Mason, and then promptly answers the question himself:

“Slaves. Ev’ry day at the Cape, we lived with Slavery in our faces,—- more of it at St. Helena,—- and now here we are again, in another Colony, this time having drawn them a Line between their Slave-Keepers, and their Wage-Payers, as if doom’d to re-encounter thro’ the World this public Secret, this shameful Core….”

Though this uncomfortable epiphany comes late in novel, Mason & Dixon seems to mount towards this sort of disillusionment. Dixon has of course stumbled on an open secret that it would take America another two centuries to admit: that so much of its founding history – burnished after the fact in self-righteous patriotic hues that are convenient for sweeping crucial details under the rug – is founded on the brutal exploitation of human beings utterly deprived of their most basic rights. And though Dixon may be the more sensitive of the two to naked suffering (while Mason is mostly attuned to his own), they both eventually come to realize that they are drawing “a conduit for Evil” that will come to further America’s peculiar institution.

Surely this is shaky ground to found a country on: if truth is suppressed from the start, it must ever remain hidden. The uncomfortable obverse of that idea is that, if the suppression of original truth is normative, looking for that truth later on becomes a transgression that flies in the face of accepted notions. Hence, I think, the rabid opposition to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, when so many were unwilling to admit the original sin of slavery that haunted the nation as it took its first steps.

* * *

Of course, plenty of other excellent novelists have written about how fear and mistrust have seeped into the American imagination while the public and private sectors are allowed to frolic like lusty teenagers. However, no author has been quite as adept as Pynchon in showing the effects of American practices on American people and what happens when the basic social contract between individuals and governments gets an editing job from some very filthy hands.

Thinking wishfully, I can imagine a day when the current trend of fear-mongering and duplicity that presides over Washington will be reversed in favor of a sober, honest accounting of where our deepest national concerns must lie. Maybe that makes a naïve Jeremiah Dixon out of me, since hope so often runs up against the brick wall of coldly cynical reality. For now, anyway, we live in an age of orange alerts and dirty bombs, and “If you see something, say something” is the slogan we dubiously carry into battle. Pynchon, then, is the author to read, for, as a character tells us in Mason & Dixon, “Only now and then were selected persons allow’d glimpses of the New World,” and no other living novelist is as unique or relevant to these strange times of ours.

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