Monday, February 2, 2015

Joanna Freer's "Thomas Pynchon and American Counterculture": Book Review

When the Sixties began, Thomas Pynchon had just graduated from Cornell. At twenty-two, ideally placed to comment upon and participate in the changes ahead, Pynchon, in Joanna Freer's analysis of most of his fiction, emerges as an engaged if critical participant in the counterculture, rather than a disengaged, apolitical post-modernist. Freer's study places Pynchon within an anti-capitalist, anti-structural framework, which requires readers to contend with whatever opinions or motivations his characters express, for the lack of closure in his sly, challenging, allusive novels demands ambivalence rather than rigidity.

Freer argues that this openness to suggestion distinguishes Pynchon. "His refusal to endorse any single viewpoint without qualifications" invites readers into open-ended plots, an anarchic approach and rigorous attention to details which may, or may not, explain many recondite allusions. This complexity reveals central themes of anti-authoritarianism, "escape and escapism, altruistic love, community, political violence, consciousness expansion, and the role of the rational intellect." These dynamics, over five chapters focusing on specific novels as well as short stories and Pynchon's 1966 New York Times essay about the Watts Riots, incorporate left-wing values as they shift from the Beats, New Left protest, psychological and anarchist influences, Black Panther separatist "revolutionary suicide," Marxist dialectics and second-wave feminism.  Freer charts how Pynchon evolves in his work, embracing family, growing more humorous and even sentimental as the decades move on and his worldview becomes more mature. 

Applying anthropologist Victor Turner's concepts of liminality and communitas to transcend ordinary structures and to create new models for transformational living, Freer investigates Pynchon's first novel V. (1963) and his second, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966). Turner emphasized the crossing of liminal borders or thresholds into transitional or unsettled states of change, and advocated communitas as created by those within these new zones of transformation. Political fulfillment, however, may not occur. Pynchon moves past the Beat aesthetic early on in his writings, as he searches for the "elusive ultimacy" in less stereotyped instances. He rejects an apolitical aesthetic and progresses towards New Left ideals. 

This quest embraces the rejection of conventional politics and social norms. It proposes what Freer terms "anti-structure" but it tangles the seeker in the futility of revolt in Gravity's Rainbow (1973). Typically for Pynchon, stories fail to find resolution. Doubt permeates idealists and radicals as revolution recedes.

In passage within Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon reverses a gay rights graffito, which occurs within the book during an uprising in Weimar Germany, so that it reads: "An army of lovers can be beaten." Freer considers, as a corrective to Marx's dogmatic disregard for colonial suffering, Rosa Luxemburg's "positive energy" as well as 1960s New Left contexts advocating collective organization on behalf of social change and individual fulfillment. Pynchon dramatizes in this novel a communist faction which idolizes “Red Rosa.” Freed claims that Pynchon gives these revolutionaries more favorable treatment than what he calls the “sly old racist,” Marx himself .

Freer asserts that in Pynchon’s work that these ideas expand as the psychedelic movement encourages liberation through LSD. This potential, debated as Mucho Maas and his wife Oedipa articulate the drug's pros and cons in The Crying of Lot 49, morphs into that novel's portrayal of Dr. Hilarius, who Freer interprets as a representation of Timothy Leary. That doctor's campaign to escape capitalist oppression, and mainstream logic, posited consciousness-raising by psychedelic means. In turn, the sprawling, thousand-page epic Against the Day (2006) dramatizes a multilevel, unstable array of realities, as the historical and the imaginary, the spiritual and the geographical reflect and refract. Freer shows how Pynchon's writing practice mirrors a quantum model of uncertain possibilities of perception and verification. It urges readers toward self-awareness, anarchist approaches, elliptical plots and narratives which refuse easy explanation or firm resolution.

A theme of Pynchon’s that Freer explicates is how the drawbacks of violent resistance to capitalism as imposed by corporations and governments warn radicals against revolt. In Gravity's Rainbow, Southeast African natives move to Germany to form a subversive cadre of rocket technicians, the Schwarzkommando. Freer interprets this faction as the epitome of the dangers of Black Panther Huey Newton's doctrine of "revolutionary suicide" as martyrs to a possibly futile and certainly self-destructive cause.  To Freer, Pynchon is showing the danger in idolizing weapons and the temptation of reveling in violent solutions to injustice. Freer uses passages from this dense novel to assert how Pynchon treats violence as a last resort, and how revolutionaries fall prey to media attention as they wander from their initial idealism. This "counterculture cautionary tale" treats racial or ideological separatism as invitations to defeat rather than victory against the powers that be. 

Another theme of Pynchon’s that Freer explicates is how systematic oppression sparks feminism in the 1960s. The Crying of Lot 49 compares women's liberation with that of the New Left, as the arguably narrower emancipation of females contrasts or competes with the wider social aims of unified struggle. This tension enters Against the Day as Pynchon's persistent fetishization of nubile and compliant women continues to arouse distaste among many literary critics of his fiction, which they say refuses to adjust to the changes in attitudes to women over the past half-century. Vineland (1990), a Northern Californian paean to the lost values of the 1960s, tends to treat its women with less sophistication than its men (even if both lean towards caricature). Furthermore, Freer juxtaposes Pynchon's treatment of women in The Crying of Lot 49 with Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique Freer suggests that Pynchon may even remain more hesitant to promote radical change by women breaking away from conformity. He may favor stronger rather than weaker domestic bonds. Between the 1966 and the 1996 novels, Freer charts change, albeit gradual, as Pynchon concludes Against the Day by affirming family and home.  

This study remains accessible, even if geared toward the academic audience which includes Freer and the many critics she cites. At her best, she corrects reductive dismissals of Pynchon's limitations by elucidating his political sophistication, and she strives for fairness when gleaning the positive as well as the negative in his dramatization of feminist and separatist attempts to counter the capitalist and militarist hegemony. 

More attention to the admittedly less weighty treatment of the counterculture's fate in Inherent Vice (2009), set in pivotal 1970, would have enriched Freer's contents considerably. Because the 18th century is less relevant, the late-eighteenth-century setting of Mason & Dixon (1996) earns less attention. Unfortunately, Bleeding Edge (2013), about 9/11, the Net, and its nest of conspiracies, may have appeared too late for Freer's book, which was printed only twelve months after its publication. Overall, Freer stays focused, and given the difficulty of these source texts, she keeps her reader in mind, explaining contexts and narrative twists. 

Ultimately, Freer finds Pynchon moving from early satire into fictions riffing on Turner's communitas model. Alternative structures -  more grassroots and non-coercive -  supplant the norm. These thwart any power held too firmly by any one group. Freer notes how many facets of Pynchon's vision attest to personal improvement and social creativity as keys to effective political action. On smaller and larger levels, the clash of "inspirational and enraging, enigmatic and demanding" messages in Pynchon's fiction confronts readers. Refusing complacency, his counterculture novels encourage in the communities interpreting his fiction at PynchonWiki to join together to interpret his complex representations and alterations of reality, whatever that term means. (1/15/15 Spectrum Culture.)

No comments: