Interlude – Pynchon’s Trail

I wanted to briefly comment on Boris Kachka’s piece at Vulture on Pynchon and his new novel Bleeding Edge. Kachka’s work is, on the whole, nothing new. It’s not a bad piece, but pretty much any biographic piece on Pynchon falls into the same old trap: there’s no there there. Pynchon’s left such a meager trail that the story generally falls entirely to hearsay and speculation and Kachka is inevitably caught in that snare. Despite Kachka’s premise that Pynchon has fully ceased the wandering that marked the years when he wrote V. and Gravity’s Rainbow and returned home to New York to a life of luxury and comfort, there’s a real failure to show much of anything new (besides a brief review of Bleeding Edge that I purposefully avoided) in this piece.

Not that I begrudge Kachka’s position or his work in this feature. I don’t envy his task of trying to track down this information or to present any of it in a way that’s compelling to readers familiar with Pynchon’s history. I’ve just never really fallen in for the vogue of investigating Pynchon’s mysterious life. I’m a lit geek. I prefer to let the books do the work even when an author decides the novel needs the literary version of a commentary track. More personally, I tend to be sympathetic to an individual’s need for privacy. This tendency to protect my own privacy even goes so far as to give Pynchon a pass for what Kachka describes as Pynchon’s aggressive attempt to lock down letters and a Ford Foundation grant to write opera liberettos.

(Read that last sentence again. Locked down or not, that is a delightful footnote to a writer’s career.)

Kachka argues that Pynchon has become powerful and that his insistence on privacy has turned psychological rather than political. This falsely assumes the two could ever really be mutually exclusive. I’m not sure what that reference to power means in context though. Kachka presents this move as being something more fitting with the current debacle and debate over the NSA. As he puts it, “we look differently on secrets held by the powerful, and Pynchon has grown powerful.” Kachka’s right, but I’m not sure the two cases are quite equal. I’d say he should have let the grant go public. But the legal maneuvering to seal private letters that were likely written in confidence doesn’t seem so strange. Yes, his “mainstream” success allows him the resources to afford legal action. I’m not certain that we should cast stones in this case. Should we have recourse to protect private correspondence even if one party decides that it should be released? My gut instinct is to say there’s no one size fits all answer here and that maybe we should err on the side of caution.

Whether or not Pynchon is, in fact, powerful, and that he’s abusing that power, I think that his moves to protect himself (whether or not we agree that they are in fact necessary) can’t be diagnosed as somehow aberrant or, as is the case with the latter portion of Kachka’s piece, a signal that Pynchon has “sold out.” To be fair, I may be putting words into Kachka’s mouth here. I simply got this sense from the piece’s focus on Pynchon’s comfortable position of hiding in plain sight in New York. There is also a sense that Pynchon’s serious work was in the past as Kachka focuses much more on the author’s early work than on anything after Vineland. (Admittedly, this is something of a common feature of these sorts of pieces since there’s often a lot less biographical material to work with after Vineland.) In a similar vein Kachka also points to Against the Day as being an anti-capitalist book written by a man who has become increasingly comfortable with his capitalist lifestyle, an argument that misses a key thread in Against the Day (and Vineland for that matter) regarding the insidious nature of capitalism and the compromises we make in a system that is so ubiquitous in our world. Pynchon has never been afraid to show the confrontation with and cost of that sort of compromise in his work.

None of this is to say that I see Kachka’s piece as outright attacking Pynchon. Nor do I want this post to read as though I’m simply defending Pynchon. I prefer to approach both the author and his work as being much more nuanced and complicated than simple dichotomies (after all, aren’t we all?). I hope my work on Pynchon both on and off this blog embodies that. It’s also something that, in the end, I think Kachka conveys as he presents insights into Pynchon’s novels. As he notes, one of the joys of tracing Pynchon’s history is finding the interconnections of his influences as a writer. Maybe I’m an anomaly, but for me that’s the real story.

Ok. Now that I’ve documented my serious response to this piece I have to add: what the hell is up with the photographic “speculative rendering” of Pynchon today?

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