Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Pynchon, literacy, and Dickens

For the print version of my review of Thomas Pynchon's Bleeding Edge I added a sidebar on Pynchon and literacy. Here it is:

None of the major characters in Inherent Vice and Bleeding Edge, and few of the minor ones, read books. References to television, music, consumer brands, and (in Edge) web-sites abound, and those references are sharply observed and often extremely funny. There's a brilliant riff in Inherent Vice on how Charlie the Tuna, in the old StarKist commercials, is complicit in his own exploitation; and an ongoing joke in Bleeding Edge involves Maxine's husband's addiction to a biopic channel, with such memorable films as “The Fatty Arbuckle Story” featuring Leonardo di Caprio, and a dramatization of Mikhail Baryshnikov's life starring Anthony Hopkins. (“Would you look at this. Ol' Hannibal dancin up a storm here.”) But books, whether fictional or nonfictional, highbrow or lowbrow, are almost impossible to find, because they have played no role in shaping the hearts and minds of these characters.

Even Heidi, Maxine's academic friend who uses words like “mimesis” and “alexithymic,” is never seen reading and makes no references to books. (It's probably significant also that she studies popular culture: she visits ComicCon—more formally, Comic-Con International, held annually in San Diego since 1970—and observes trends in Halloween costumes.) I can think of only one book mentioned in Bleeding Edge, and not by name: a computer programmer is said to have on his desk a copy of “the camel book"—that is, Larry Wall's Programming Perl (probably the 2nd or 3rd edition). In 2001, when the book's events take place, Perl was still the most widely used scripting language, especially by those who coded the internet, though Python and a brand-new language called Ruby were on the rise. It says something about Pynchon's attention to detail that he gets this right. It says something about his book's themes that the only book referred to is a programming manual.

Pynchon writes long, complex, demanding, learned books about people who don't read long, complex, demanding, learned books, and while this could be said of many other writers as well, in Pynchon it has, I think, a particular significance. Most of Pynchon's characters in these recent books—and, I think it is fair to say, in all of his books in one way or another—are caught up in immensely complex semiotic fields. All around them events are happening that seem not just to be but to mean, but the characters lack the key to unlock those mysteries, and as they try to make their way are constantly buffeted by the sounds and images from movies, tv shows, tv commercials, popular songs, brands of clothing, architectural styles, particular makes of automobile … all combining to weave an almost impossibly intricate web of signification. Rare indeed is the Pynchonian character who is not entangled to some degree in this web.

By doing what he does in book after book, Pynchon clearly indicates not just that he finds this entanglement problematic in multiple ways—psychologically, socially, politically—but also that the primary means by which the entanglement may be described and diagnosed is that of books—large books comprised of dense and complicated sentences. In Pynchon's fiction we see an immensely bookish mind representing an unbooked world, and its great unspoken message is: Let the non-reader beware.

I have sometimes wondered whether, centuries from now, when the large hand of History has smoothed over differences that seem vitally important to us, readers might see Pynchon and Dickens as pretty much the same kind of writer: makers of big rambling eventful tragicomic books featuring outlandish characters with comical names. The Pynchonian and the Dickensian projects have a great deal in common, and as timegoes on I think it will become more and more clear that there is something truly old-fashioned about Pynchon's career.


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