Pynchon in the Real World
Scheduled in the Hôtel Fleuriau: Wednesday 7 June, from 09:00 to 09:30
The concept of parallel worlds, distinct from one another but communicating by whatever narrow and mysterious channels, is a productive one in Pynchon’s oeuvre, from the mythical Vheissu and various undergrounds of V. to the mysterious network of the Trystero working underneath, in place of, and alongside the U.S. Postal Service in The Crying of Lot 49. Often the reality of these worlds is profoundly questionable--the Pynchonesque world is mostly like ours but off-kilter, eccentric, zany, and highly saturated. This paper focuses not on Pynchon’s fictional worlds, but on his application of this narrative structure to nonfiction in “A Journey into the Mind of Watts,” published in The New York Times Magazine in June 1966. The article describes the state of the historically black Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles after the infamous riots of the previous year. Watts in Pynchon’s description is a separate world, a “pocket of bitter reality...in the heart of [the] white fantasy” of Los Angeles proper. Unlike the bastions of white culture, which are “a little unreal, a little less than substantial,” the black residents of Watts can’t avoid “basic realities like disease, like failure, violence, and death.” What is more, passage between these worlds is difficult and fraught; normal geography does not adhere in the liminal space between the white and black worlds: “Watts is a country which lies, psychologically, uncounted miles further than most whites seem at present willing to travel.”
This paper seeks to examine the consequences of metaphorically describing—or even living out in practice—a situation in which differences of experience and political/racial identity constitute distinct and separate worlds. By posing distance (both literal and psycho-geographical) as the problem, Pynchon’s narrative implies that travel is its solution. It also participates in a greater post-war culture of thought by framing a problem as a lack of information and its solution as the collection and circulation of new data. In this way, it looks similar to Sianne Ngai’s treatment of midcentury conceptual artists like Ed Ruscha in her work on the aesthetic category of the interesting. But Pynchon differs with those artists by maintaining the discreteness of two worlds. For Ngai, to be interested in something necessarily locates oneself and the object of one’s interest within the same world, or reveals the reality of one to be coextensive with the reality of the other. But for Pynchon, to finally, “take interest” in Watts means to traverse an immense psychological and imaginative distance and, ultimately, to leave a world of illusion for one of reality. Furthermore, Pynchon seems skeptical of all the usual ways to mediate such distance, in particular the tool of ‘60s mass media par excellence, the television, accusing it of producing the “unreality” of the white world. Is Pynchon ultimately merely cynical about whether white Americans will ever understand the meaning of the Watts Riots? Or has the two-world narrative frame—a frame not at all limited to Pynchon—created additional political and philosophical problems for the race divide?