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Pynchon's New Worlds

International Pynchon Week 2017

La Rochelle, June 5-9, 2017


Minstrel-Island Mysogyny and the Edits to V.
Ali Chetwynd

Scheduled in the Auditorium - Médiathèque: Thursday 8 June, from 15:45 to 16:15

Pynchon’s archives reveal that the majority of the material cut from V. before its publication concerned gender roles. From a street speaker railing against the “Modern American Bitch Woman”, to a sitcom about the ways masculinity has come to be defined merely as “the opposite of women,” to conversations and interior monologues on women’s complicity in rape, the logic of ephebophilia, and the phallic dynamics of history, V.’s most explicit exegeses of the “decadent” relations between women and men were the passages that made way, substantially changing the novel’s rhetoric. Much existing Pynchon-and-gender criticism pinpoints one novel or another as a turning point in the sympathy and sophistication of his treatment of female characters and subjectivities; I show that his novelistic career begins with a shift that conditions its whole trajectory: from modelling threatening modernity on unconventional women to making violence against “natural” women epitomise modernity’s assault on the human.

The former approach is best legible elsewhere in the archive: the 1958 drafts toward a musical called Minstrel Island. As an IBM taskforce led by “Broad”—“the epitome of the modern business woman, only worse”—attempts to eliminate a band of outsiders, the plan for resistance comes from the band’s representative female artisan, “Whore”: “Hero,” our protagonist, must forcefully seduce Broad to awaken beneath her “very unbecoming glasses” “an honest to goodness woman” of the kind that could never support IBM. Whore knows this will work since “We’re all the same underneath,” an insight endorsed by Broad’s stage directions, which leave her, every time Hero denounces her, “quiver[ing], fascinated, her aplomb beginning to crack.” The passages excised from V. include those that most explicitly vocalize this Minstrel Island idea of aggressive virility as an antidote to corrupted femininity and feminized homogeneity. Without these speeches, arguments, and imagined cultural artefacts to frame them, the representations of violence against women that survive in the published version tip the balance of blame away from the women themselves and towards men identified with the decadent culture.

Minstrel Island, then, casts new light on the relationship between the published version of V. and the earlier draft at the archive at Texas. After making this case, I’ll end this presentation with a brief consideration of how the shift from Minstrel Island to published V. illuminates the evolutionary dynamics of Pynchon’s career-long engagement with questions of gender and violence.