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Pynchon's New Worlds

International Pynchon Week 2017

La Rochelle, June 5-9, 2017


'This is America, you live in it, you let it happen. Let it unfurl'
Prerita Sen

Scheduled in the Auditorium - Médiathèque: Friday 9 June, from 10:45 to 11:15

"This is America, you live in it, you let it happen. Let it unfurl."

-Oedipa Maas

Thomas Pynchon, probably the most avant-garde post-modernist American writer, has the strange ability of unnerving his readers with bizarre, paranoid, information heavy novels. I would like to present a paper on his postcolonial awareness and his radically individual style of writing the nation.

Pynchon's major works, especially The Crying of Lot 49, Vineland, Inherent Vice, Bleeding Edge etc, tend to anthologize the existence of marginalized internally colonized communities in America such as the Trystero network, Innamorati Anonymous, Thanatoids and so many others which introduce readers to larger themes of disinheritance, dispossession and neo-colonial oppression that dominate his texts. This gives us a fresh perspective on American history, the settler colonial registers of violence and inequality and bold counterhegemonic responses from various fractions of society- things which are hardly mentioned in traditional histories.

Since Pynchon's novels generally have a lot of characters and almost all of them exercise a certain degree of autonomy, instead of existing solely in service to the protagonist, it adds a strange polyphonic quality to his works. It seems as if his works are polyphonic archives of subaltern voices and minority histories which are constantly under the threat of erasure, both physical and epistemic. I use the word subaltern because postcolonial theorists often consider it to be a 'shifting metaphor' for the oppressed and the marginalized. But I think Gayatri Spivak's definition will help us better understand why I chose that term. She believes the responsibility of subaltern studies scholars is 'making it possible to create the conditions of possibility for metonymyzing oneself, for making oneself a synecdoche, a part of a whole, so that one can at least claim the idea of the State belonging to one (the State being the 'whole'). Because whatever the State be, the idea of belonging to the State should always be there.' With the liberalization of American economy and the gradual withdrawal of civil liberties, the individual citizen has practically no claim over or sense of belonging to the state. And there's a kind of subalternity to that. Almost all of Pynchon's works deal with this radical separation between the individual and the State, the helpless isolation of the postmodern subject, her/his 'Antarctic loneliness'.

According to Spivak, the subaltern is characterized by a complete lack of voice, abject voicelessness. In this context, it would be interesting to analyse a text like The Crying of Lot 49 which revolves around various kinds of silences and silencing that tend to deprive marginalized people/communities of their narrative. So a parallel postal system, a secret network of communication called Trystero is accessed by fringe groups in order to bypass the American state and its symbol is a muted postal horn- which opens up so many semiotic possibilities for the reader- does it suggest a communication through silence? Or communication among the silenced? Or is it the subversive act of silencing the State?

It seems Pynchon is trying to depict a conflicted subaltern identity of America through his often graphic and journalistic, often magic realistic descriptions of Mexican anarchists, countercultural students, marijuana addicts, surf rock bands, communist activists, death cults, eternal insomniacs (Thanatoids) inhabiting the American metropolitan space, constantly monitored, always under the panoptic gaze of the Federal state. Pynchon is trying to shatter the grand imperial-colonial narrative of American history and instead offering us thousands of authentic micro-narratives (almost always from the perspective of people belonging to racial, ethnic, political, gender or class minorities) that give us a glimpse of the bare skeleton of America and its hollow decadence. This is a typical postcolonial trope, an apt example would be a few lines from Sir V.S. Naipaul's 'India: A Million Mutinies Now', 'The liberation of spirit that has come to India could not come as release alone. In India, with its layer below layer of distress and cruelty, it had to come as disturbance. It had to come as rage and revolt. India was now a country of a million little mutinies.' The clear understanding that history is made up of thousands of particularities which cannot be minimized into a single blanket rhetoric- these 'million little mutinies' that go on simultaneously but separately within the territorial space of a country are somehow always recognized within the narrative space of Pynchon's provocative novels. He offers an alternate cartography of America where the meaning of land and nation is not inscribed by people in power but by the hopelessly dispossessed.

As an Indian student reading Vineland, Pynchon's powerful description of the brutal federal crackdown on Frenesi and her other dissenting friends and fellow students in the 60s uncomfortably reminded me of the Naxalite students' movement in the late 60s and 70s in India when an entire generation of bright young students were imprisoned, killed and wiped out by the state machinery. In Vineland, Pynchon too, in his own way, compares the federal attack on pot-growing areas in USA with the American military attack on third world countries (especially Vietnam). He is painfully aware of the colonizing efforts of the American government on its own people as well as the third world population and the interconnected sites of resistance within and beyond America and the extreme marginalization of dissenters on both ends. With America straddling the twilight between being a settler colony where the invaders never left and an emergent neo-colonial global Empire, Pynchon portrays it as an almost sentient space, a whirlpool of socio-cultural friction, nuclear paranoia and residual trauma.

In my paper, I would like to explore the postcolonial politics of Pynchon's works, especially his contested biographies of America -Mason & Dixon, Against the Day, The Crying of Lot 49, Inherent Vice, Vineland and Bleeding Edge.