Friday, March 02, 2007

Ever the contrarian

  • James Wood takes on Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day.
Whether or not you agree with Wood's dismissal of what he's infamously termed "hysterical realism", he certainly argues his points well.
This is doubtless a rough division, but it has some application to the contemporary postmodern novel. Commentators like to go on about Thomas Pynchon's daunting modernity -- the indexical learning, the fierce assays and essays in thermodynamics and polymers and mathematics, the brilliant parodies and pastiches of different novel genres -- but fewer point out that in some ways he is a very old-fashioned novelist, one whom Fielding (and Cervantes, for that matter) would instantly recognize. Mason & Dixon, written in a flawless pastiche of eighteenth-century prose, was not eccentric, but the logical fruit of Pynchon's aesthetic interests: a busy eighteenth-century novel -- itself already, in some ways, a "postmodern" artifact, because a self-conscious one -- selfconsciously rewritten by a twentieth-century postmodernist.

There is nothing more eighteenth century than Pynchon's love of picaresque plot-accumulation, his mockery of pedantry which is at the same time a love of pedantry, his habit of making his flat characters dance for a moment on stage and then whisking them away, his vaudevillian fondness for silly names, japes, mishaps, disguises, farcical errors, and so on. His characters sit down and lengthily, larkily "dispute" ideas with each other as if sitting in roadside taverns and sharing pipes and pots of ale. As Fielding is an ironist, insisting on his own moralism while apparently undermining its grounds, so Pynchon likes to promote meaning and then sack it for getting above itself.

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