Skip to Content

Pynchon's New Worlds

International Pynchon Week 2017

La Rochelle, June 5-9, 2017


The Pop World of Thomas Pynchon
Eric Sandberg

Scheduled in the Auditorium - Médiathèque: Friday 9 June, from 14:00 to 14:30

A fascination with pop culture is obvious in many of Thomas Pynchon's novels, but it is particularly clear in Vineland, Inherent Vice, and Bleeding Edge. The critical tradition has tended to read the first two of these alongside The Crying of Lot 49 through their shared Californian setting. However, the publication of Bleeding Edge means that this geographical criterion may need to be reconsidered. Instead, what seems to bind these novels most closely together is the way they recklessly submerge themselves in the shallow end of the pop culture pool, representing what is in many ways a pop-culture world of utter banality, from Count Chocula breakfast cereal to Return of the Jedi, from Fruit Loops, Cap'n Crunch, Nestle's Quik and Diet Pepsi to Friday the 13th, Gidget, and CHiPs. This is a world in which 'the Tube was a member of the household,' and in which lives are lived with, through, and for their eventual mediatization (Vineland 348). Nicholas Wolterstorf has argued that one of the primary functions of narrative is the 'the fictional projection of worlds,' and in this portion of his oeuvre, Pynchon is projecting a pop world (243).

While Pynchom's work has always engaged with the popular, and integrated 'lowbrow' elements into its textual fabric, in works like Vineland, Inherent Vice, and Bleeding Edge the low-culture elements are almost entirely unrelieved by reference to other cultural forms; instead of offering an alternative to or contrast with high culture, pop makes up the complete world of the novels. Also significant is the way in which the prose of these novels is flattened out, attuned only to the limited registers available within a hegemonic pop culture. In Bleeding Edge, for example, as Michael Chabon noted in his review of the novel, we no longer find the passages of extraordinary lyrical beauty which illuminate much of Pynchon's work. Instead, these novels consist of the bought and sold language of mass culture, the brand names, the slang, the TV taglines, the attenuated language of the everyday. These are not just novels depicting a fallen world; they are novels partaking of that fall.

Despite the distaste that this element of Pynchon's work as aroused in some critics (think of Harold Bloom's description of Vinland as the greatest 'disaster in modern American fiction,' a 'piece of sheer ineptitude,' and a 'hopelessly hollow book' or Michiko Kakutani's notorious 'Pynchon Lite') I will argue in this paper that this pop world represents one of the most significant of Pynchon's many examples of world-building, and perhaps the most relevant of his 'New Worlds' to contemporary society. There is no position, Pynchon's most recent work indicates, outside of pop-culture from which we can critique or withstand its pressures and allures. Instead, it is only from within that resistance is possible: the apparently inauthentic, plastic, and shallow can––must, in fact––be the very point from which truth emerges.

Works Cited