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Pynchon's New Worlds

International Pynchon Week 2017

La Rochelle, June 5-9, 2017


Mr. Pynchon Goes to Iowa: The Search for Community in the Later Novels
Michael Harris

Scheduled in the Hôtel Fleuriau: Wednesday 7 June, from 15:45 to 16:15

A sense of place is undeniably important in Pynchon’s work, and given the lateness of the present moment in his career and his wide assortment of numerous global settings, one might assume that he has by now covered every conceivable geographical location in his many novels. However, this is not the case. One glaring omission among Pynchon’s panoramic settings would be the very middle of the United States, the region known as the Midwest. In almost all his works, Pynchon has avoided or ignored the Midwest. A native of New York, Pynchon adopted the view of America conveyed on the famous Saul Steinberg cover of The New Yorker, in which the Midwest appears to be a distant speck on the horizon. With his background in California, he would, of course, allocate a large portion of his cultural map of America to the representation of that state and the Pacific coast as well. But Pynchon’s aversion to the Midwest as a setting has gradually given way to a tacit recognition of that region in his later works, beginning with Mason & Dixon and continuing through Against the Day and Bleeding Edge. Since many of his works are structured as quests to new worlds, the Midwest might qualify as a belatedly new, unexplored world whose virtues remain a well-kept secret. In this essay, I will focus on Pynchon’s portrayal of the Midwest, or lack thereof, and more specifically, his inclusion of Iowa, my home state, among his recent settings. I will argue that, beyond a literal, geographical place, Iowa, and the Midwest, function as a metaphor for a now unavailable imagined community.

Pynchon scholarship has not given much attention to the idea of community, yet it represents an important part of his vision. The term community is used widely and in a variety of contexts: it is employed so frequently in the academy that some, including Mary Louise Pratt, question its usefulness. In this paper, I use Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Raymond Williams’ The Country and the City, and Jean Baudrillard’s America and Simulacra and Simulation to analyze Pynchon’s notion of community, and its relation to his use of the Midwest as a setting. Anderson argues that the rise of that large community known as a nation is linked to the mass production and dissemination of print literacy – with the newspaper as a chief example – that helped people imagine themselves as part of a greater body sharing common values and purpose. In his texts, Pynchon suggests that the end result of this process – nations, multi-national corporations, business and manufacturing conglomerates – has made the ideals of equality, openness, freedom of expression, and freedom from censorship embodied in the term community difficult, if not impossible, to attain. Pynchon refers to community in many ways in his fictional work, often interrogating that concept. He appears to have a broad and flexible working definition of community: in his later novels, as his early aversion toward the Midwest softens, he turns to an idealized, simplified past version of that region to help readers imagine the contours of what Williams calls “a knowable community.” As Williams puts it, “A valuing society, the common condition of a knowable community, belongs ideally in the past” (180). Pynchon refers to the Midwest primarily in his historical novels, where it functions more as a metaphor than as a literal place. Nevertheless, with help from this metaphor, Pynchon brings the search for community that all people engage in up to the present day and helps us imagine a shape that might best fit ourselves.