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Pynchon's New Worlds

International Pynchon Week 2017

La Rochelle, June 5-9, 2017


'She can’t resist, she needs to be out in the street’ (BE 101)': The Transient City and the Ethos of Walking in Bleeding Edge
Bastien Meresse

Scheduled in the Hôtel Fleuriau: Tuesday 6 June, from 14:00 to 14:30

Streetwalking is not an activity that often graces the pages of Pynchon’s work. In the midst of a literary cannon that is peppered with road narratives, streetwalking primarily heralds a hermeneutic moment of truth and revelation, in which the walker’s senses become keenly aware of the urban topographies laid out before his eyes – such as Oedipa Maas’s drifting under the Californian freeway towards the end of The Crying of Lot 49. Prowling the streets seems to open to a temporality that enables the walker to embrace the “excluded middles” that were invisible through the windshield, simmering under the surface of the city. With the return of a female detective character in Bleeding Edge, Pynchon harks back to a form that he had not much used since 1965, but he also crosses the porous line that separates walking and flânerie. Indeed, Maxine Tarnow stands out as a stroller who is initially presented as an aimless, obsolete figure in the grip of a city shifting into the 21st century, but who also ephemerally returns as an electronic stroller – a “cyberflaneur” (BE 354) lost in the streets of DeepArcher, a woman of the crowd “able to settle among the throngs, invisible and at ease,” (476) or a seasoned observer of the encroaching powers of modernity at the turn of the century.

With regard to these shifts, my paper will seek to examine how Pynchon articulates the fleeting nature of the contemporary cityscape with Walter Benjamin’s arcane and in-between figure of the 19th-century flâneur, whose walking of turtles on leash translates not only his fondness for indolence, but also a protest against the division of labour, or the capitalist dreamworld of phantasmagorias that spawns from the commodity culture on display. Overall, I aim to highlight Pynchon’s interest in the lost art of flânerie as a renewed means of resistance to the “wave of the future,” the same way the ramblings of the flâneur marked his own resistance to the modern. This paper will start with a close reading of the incipit, which foreshadows Pynchon’s late ethos of walking. Concerned with the discarded objects of everyday life she gathers during her flâneurial excursions, Maxine’s relationship to the transient space of the city turns into a palimpsest of layered time and displacement, connecting her to Benjamin’s ordering and mournful figure of the rag-picker. As Pynchon waxes nostalgic for old urban forms and probes new modes of exploration, my paper will also argue that his incisive stance incidentally posits the looming demise and disembodiment of both flâneur and cyberflâneur, leading to their absorption by the malign structures enmeshed into the capitalist and corporate abstractions of the contemporary city – a failed node of resistance from which, in an unexpected twist, a dissatisfied Pynchon will eventually veer away by turning back to the redeemed, paradigmatic form of the road in the last pages of his novel.