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Pynchon's New Worlds

International Pynchon Week 2017

La Rochelle, June 5-9, 2017


Thomas Pynchon in the Bowels of the Earth: Tunnelers, Enchanters and Little People
Kyle Smith

Scheduled in the Hôtel Fleuriau: Tuesday 6 June, from 16:15 to 16:45

One of Charles Mason's final jobs for the Reverend Neville Maskelyne was his choice of the Perthshire mountain Schiehallion (the Gaelic name Sìdh Chailleann, translates as Fairy Hill of the Caledonians) as the sight for the Royal Astronomer's experiments into measuring the mean density of the earth.  His results (published in 1775 as A Proposal for Measuring the Attraction of Some Hill in This Kingdom by Astronomical Observations), he declared, were 'totally contrary to the hypothesis of some naturalists who suppose the earth to be only a great hollow shell of matter.' Such Hollow Earth theorists counted Johannes Kepler, Edmond Halley and, within Pynchon's novel, Jeremiah Dixon, amongst their numbers. The 'Chums' (M&D 771) of the Royal Society who once more accept Maskelyne into their ranks  at the end of Mason & Dixon give way to the Chums of Chance in Against the Day, but they too exist in a narrative that moves through a hollow earth while dealing with 'displeasure' (AD 117) at its impossibility.

Pynchon's novels have always looked at worlds beneath the surface: Benny Profane chasing alligators in the sewers of Manhattan; Father Fairing and his rat congregation; Slothrop diving down the toilet or deep below the Harz Mountains racing round the Mittelwerke. However, the shift between Mason & Dixon and Against the Day places the Hollow Earth in starker contrast to the solid, 'real' world. I would argue this comes out of a 'genre-poaching' that Brian McHale does not outline in his 'History as Genre: Pynchon's Genre-Poaching,' (Genre 42, no. 3–4 (Fall–Winter 2009): 5–20). The genre I would wish to outline is really a subgenre of the adventure form and it might be termed 'Hollow Earth Stories': this includes Edgar Allan Poe's 1838 novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket; Jules Verne's 1864 novel A Journey to the Center of the Earth, and The Underground City (1877); The Coming Race (1871) by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, as well as Edgar Rice Burroughs, At the Earth's Core (1914). These narratives offer an assortment of Others, both superior and inferior, moving through a variety of alternative landscapes. And so Pynchon finds another strategy to represent the enchanted and disenchanted little people who populate his novels while most clearly outlining, in Against the Day, the strange twilight we exist in between the proven and that which has not been proven.