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Pynchon's New Worlds

International Pynchon Week 2017

La Rochelle, June 5-9, 2017


She enjoys it, so?: Femininity and Motherhood in Late Pynchon
Kostas Kaltsas

Scheduled in the Auditorium - Médiathèque: Friday 9 June, from 11:45 to 12:15

I have recently argued that Bleeding Edge can be read as an update of The Crying of Lot 49, especially in the relationship between Maxine Tarnow and Oedipa Maas 1: Maxine, as I read her, embodies a more successful version of the 'androgyn' hero that Cathy Davidson has suggested Oedipa represents 2, and the essential difference between the novels can be located in a shift from the stereotypical view of the feminine as restriction to one of the feminine as powerful political tool.

Does this mean however that Pynchon's portrayal of Maxine sufficiently addresses previous criticisms of his work or suggests that he has unambiguously moved beyond his early sexism? Inger H. Dalsgaard argues that it does not – at least not unproblematically so.3This is what I propose to explore in this paper, focusing on two avenues of enquiry – motherhood and sexual agency – and considering whether depictions of both in BE represent an advancement over similar depictions in the novel that inaugurates Pynchon's late phase (and his increased preoccupation with the ideal of the 'traditional family unit' 4): Vineland.

I have previously suggested that Pynchon's deployment of 'motherhood' and 'family' as a model for community in BE allows for the possibility of resistance to an increasingly all-powerful authority. 5 It does so, however, as Dalsgaard correctly points out, at the expense of making 'specific feminist points about power or politics'. 6 In this context, I want to focus on Frenesi and Maxine, consider how the two novels' narratives invite us to evaluate their personal choices as mothers and examine Dalsgaard's suggestion that in late Pynchon women increasingly 'operate within existing family structures instead of being outside such structures deciding 'freely' whether to opt in', with motherhood being sanctified and 'acceptable alternatives' being absent. 7> Additionally, I want to examine the relationship between March and Tallis Kelleher and the way in which it repeats the relationship between Sasha Gates and Frenesi, presenting us once more with a mother whose left-wing politics end up distancing her from a daughter who has surrendered herself to a man representing all her mother is fighting against.

In terms of sexual agency, I will examine how Maxine's sexual surrender to Windust mirrors that of Frenesi to Vond. Is this a straightforward repetition of the same scenario? Frenesi does not reject only Zoyd in favour of Vond; she rejects her revolutionary politics as well. On the contrary, Maxine's attraction to Windust does not lead her to sacrifice her politics, while she eventually returns to BE's Zoyd equivalent – her ex-husband, Horst. Yet Maxine's 'surrender' to Windust is ambiguously presented, and if we're being invited to read it as an affirmation of her uninhibited freedom of choice, how unproblematic can this be in a text that is of a piece with late period Pynchon in that the question of choice is not applied to issues regarding conception and applied censoriously to motherhood itself?


  1. 'Of 'Maidens' and Towers': Oedipa Maas, Maxine Tarnow, and the possibility of resistance.' Forthcoming, 2017.
  2. 'Oedipa as Androgyne in Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. Contemporary Literature, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Winter, 1977), pp. 38-50.
  3. 'Choice or Life?: Deliberations on Motherhood in Late Period Pynchon.' Forthcoming, 2017.
  4. St. Clair, Justin. 'Rereading Thomas Pynchon: Postmodernism and the Political Real.'The Los Angeles Review of Books. 4 March 2015. Web. Last accessed 16 June 2016.
  5. 'Of 'Maidens' and Towers', ibid.
  6. Dalsgaard, ibid.
  7. Ibid.