Hiding in Plain Sight

Albert Rolls, Thomas Pynchon: Demon in the Text

Edward Everett Root, 170pp, £19.99, ISBN 9781912224555

reviewed by Daniel Green

It has always seemed to me that of the two most notorious literary recluses of the late 20th century, JD Salinger and Thomas Pynchon, it was Salinger whose whereabouts provoked the most interest. Perhaps this is because Salinger was more visible in the early part of his career, and his withdrawal thus seemed more puzzling, or perhaps it was just that Catcher in the Rye had been such an overwhelming success (fleeing from which may have been one motivating factor in his behaviour) that fans wanted more of the author’s comments about it. (Eventually Gravity’s Rainbow may have achieved such status with Pynchon readers as well, but it took a while for Pynchon to gain cult-like status.) Certainly, Pynchon’s work seemed more esoteric than Salinger’s, but at the same time his elusiveness was, if anything, more complete. Yet ultimately few strenuous efforts to expose his whereabouts comparable to the stalking of Salinger were ever really reported, even in his later years when he was essentially hiding in plain sight in New York City.

In a way that is not true of Salinger and his work, Pynchon’s fiction has seemed sufficiently enigmatic that readers have been preoccupied enough with interpretation that inquiry into the author’s biography could be taken as less urgent. Further, both the subjects and situations of Pynchon’s novels (perhaps less with the early stories) appear far enough removed (historically, geographically, personally) from what we do know of Pynchon’s biographical circumstances that even those who might be intrigued about Pynchon’s withdrawal from a public role as author and his reasons for persisting in his seclusion perhaps wonder whether acquiring more information about his life would be particularly helpful in coming to terms with the work. Still, a book such as Joanna Freer’s Thomas Pynchon and American Counterculture seems to demonstrate pretty firmly the influence of the 1960s on Pynchon’s preoccupations as a writer, so presumably more familiarity with his attitudes and activities during this time at least would shed some light on the source of those preoccupations.

Albert Rolls’s Thomas Pynchon: The Demon in the Text reinforces Freer’s focus on Pynchon’s endorsement of countercultural values, but doesn’t merely read the fiction as an engagement with them. Instead, it attempts to identify Pynchon’s own sublimated appearances in the fiction as a ‘demon in the text’, through whom the dynamic energies at work in the fiction are prevented from dissipating into a kind of interpretive entropy, kept circulating as literary possibilities when their source in the short-lived promise of deliverance represented in the actual American counterculture has gone into eclipse. For this reason, Pynchon’s public persona must remain cloaked in secrecy, or the continued efficacy of the textual persona is threatened. Nevertheless, Pynchon’s autobiographical presence is still detectable in the fiction’s particulars. Rolls shows that in ‘Entropy’, Pynchon’s situation in his immediate post-collegiate years is reflected in the pairing of Meatball Mulligan and Callisto, the former of whom is depicted in the story as pursuing the most appropriate strategy in confronting the entropic disorder in his apartment, choosing to ‘engage’ with it rather than retreat into isolation as Callisto does. Pynchon, as well, chose a form of such involvement, according to Rolls, in attempting a career as novelist – the equivalent of confronting the ‘disorder’ with which Meatball contends – rather than staying at Cornell and perhaps becoming an academic. Paradoxically, such academic isolation no doubt would have precluded the ‘enclave of privacy’, as Rolls puts it, that Pynchon the novelist has maintained.

From Rolls’s perspective on the way the ‘life’ inflects the work in Pynchon’s case, it would seem that Pynchon’s fiction is a near-reversal of TS Eliot’s dictum that a literary work is an ‘escape from personality’. To the extent we can determine the ‘personality’ of Thomas Pynchon, it can only be found in the work, as the writer has deliberately escaped from the kind of public presence that might allow us to deduce a personality at least comparable to that which we might attribute to other writers of his stature. Of course, that personality must remain a construct, imputed by the critic – or the critic-biographer – who with Pynchon has to settle for ‘available information’ – even derived from ‘rumor’– and proceed by asking, ‘What shape can be traced over the cluster of information that one finds’.Thus the biographical critic posits an authorial shaping presence embedded in the fiction, but that presence has already been shaped by the fiction fashioned by the critic.

Does this necessarily invalidate the insights – primarily the insights into the implications of the work, but also the life – that this biographical fiction helps supply? Not really, to judge by the readings Rolls provides in his short book (100 pages, but 35 pages of notes), not just of the early fiction but also the later works Inherent Vice and Bleeding Edge. (Against the Day and Mason & Dixon receive much less attention presumably because their historical settings less obviously display immediate autobiographical connections, especially those expressive of Pynchon’s ties to the counterculture or of the nomadic life in which Pynchon persisted in the years after the success of Gravity’s Rainbow). The attention given to Inherent Vice, as well as Vineland, is, of course, on the one hand entirely expected, since they are the novels most directly reflective of the counterculture era itself, but on the other is simply welcome acknowledgement of these books as centrally important Pynchon novels, since both of them have been accused (the latter by no less than David Foster Wallace) of being relatively lightweight entries in the Pynchon oeuvre. In these novels ostensibly nostalgic for the lost promise of the counterculture, we actually find, as Rolls has it, recognition ‘that a pure adherence to the Dionysian principle is as problematic as a rigorous acceptance of the Apollonian principle. Rigorous adherence to either principle alone leaves one unliberated, caught in a mode of being from which escape is necessary’.

Rolls takes Pynchon’s mediating ‘demon’ figure in Vineland to be the investigator Takeshi, in Inherent Vice, protagonist Doc Sportello himself. Each of these characters act as the ‘liberators’ of those around them, facilitating the escape into a more unobstructed consciousness of the socially and politically imposed narratives in which they find themselves enclosed. While focusing on the roles these characters play in the larger narrative of entrapment and confusion Pynchon has devised in all of his novels provides a perfectly sound critical pivot around which to render a plausibly synoptic view of Pynchon’s work, however, it still seems germane to ask whether finally it is necessary to identify these characters specifically as stand-ins for ‘Tom Pynchon’, the actually existing individual with all of his ‘real’ experiences. For Takeshi and Doc to serve the function they do in Rolls’s reading of the novels does not, it seems to me, require they autobiographically correspond to any particular motivating circumstance or any specific ‘phase’ in Pynchon’s life. We need not know anything at all about Thomas Pynchon (even less than we do know) to appreciate the ‘demon’ figure (more precisely an identifiable character type) as a device used in the novels to illustrate a process of discovery that propels all of their plots – although some characters are better able to act on what is discovered than others.

Certainly, a case could be made that this orientation to his characters and their dilemmas is what Pynchon in fact wants from readers, else why otherwise take such pains to hide his biographical circumstances in the first place. Of course, it may be just as likely that Pynchon recognised that in the vacuum of information readers (and critics) would confront, they were likely to fill it with what speculation and purposeful interpretation (including misinterpretation) can summon. One could argue as well that among the possible allegorical readings of Pynchon’s epic quest narratives is that they mirror the reader’s own attempt to encompass Pynchon’s novels with an interpretive resolution to their own persistent mysteries, both the aesthetic and thematic indeterminacy inside the text and the historical/biographical uncertainties outside. The enigmatic aura surrounding both Thomas Pynchon’s work and his life may be mutually reinforcing, so that the very attempt to use the latter to illuminate the former seems a precarious endeavour, works of imagination understood through inference and supposition substituting for verifiable fact.

Rolls is entirely correct that the best a biographer of Pynchon can do is draw such inferences from ‘available information’ - even if this effort in effect amounts to a ‘metaphorical quest’ – and The Demon in the Text actually serves as a useful guide to the trustworthy sources of that information we do have about Pynchon’s life. From the letters to college friend Kirkpatrick Sale and to his publisher (of V) Corlies Smith and agent Candida Donadio, to the Pynchon collection in the Harry Ransom Center, to the non-fiction pieces written by Pynchon himself, to the 2013 essay by Boris Kachka that may be the most sustained piece of reliable biographical writing on Pynchon, the book sifts through this material so that the applications of the life to the work (and to some extent vice versa) that Rolls makes never really threaten to themselves escape into pure conjecture. Since the book addresses an academic audience (at least in the sense it assumes already existing familiarity both with Pynchon’s novels and the generally accepted biographical details of his life), it does not really offer the casual or novice Pynchon reader with an organised account of the known facts of Pynchon. But finally The Demon in the Text does reinforce a view that Pynchon’s work reflects not just his erudition or attention to historical detail but his extended response to the cultural and political realities of his time.

But it hardly seems possible that he might have done otherwise. Surely a writer cannot live outside his time and place, certainly not a writer like Pynchon, whose work resonates so distinctly with the felt urgencies of the literary era it occupies. Thomas Pynchon seems the epitome of the writer for whom biographical readings – however tenuous they might have to be in the first place - are destined to offer ever-diminishing returns. Eventually we may learn more about Thomas Pynchon’s life, but about the work this is likely to tell us only what we already know.
Daniel Green is a literary critic whose essays and reviews have appeared in a variety of online and print publications. His book on contemporary literary critics and criticism will appear in December, published by Cow Eye Press.