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Thomas Pynchon

Bénédicte Chorier-Fryd
Gilles Chamerois


Bénédicte Chorier-Fryd et Gilles Chamerois

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  • 1 Claude Richard was a remarkable scholar and teacher, and as one of his students I am greatly indebt (...)
  • 2 The present volume is the twenty-fourth in the Profils Américains series launched in 1991 by Michel (...)

1Thomas Pynchon’s first works, V. (1963) and The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), received immediate attention and acclaim from American Literature specialists, but critical production only really took off after the publication of Gravity’s Rainbow (1973). Yet, as early as 1969, Pynchon had already been hailed in France as a major author in contemporary fiction (Brodin). Though less prolific in the nineteen-eighties than its transatlantic counterpart, the French critical outlook on Pynchon was marked by groundbreaking studies, initiated for the most part by a handful of visionary critics, most notably Pierre-Yves Pétillon, Marc Chénetier and Claude Richard1. In his perspective on “Œdipa Regina,” the latter, a specialist of E. A. Poe, pursued the French longstanding critical interest for innovative American prose. There is no doubt that, had he not met with an untimely death, he would have further explored the epistemological resonances that run through this author’s works, and more specifically the central questions of causality and chance, which he had passionately engaged in. In 1971, at the University of Montpellier, where he taught, he had been instrumental in launching an academic journal called Delta, a publication initially focused on Southern U.S. writers. Delta subsequently broadened its scope, and published two major contributions to Pynchon studies and also, quite notably, the first translation into French of “Entropy.”2

2Though it had long been actively pursued at the individual level, the American/European dialogue between Pynchon scholars was formally inaugurated at the Warwick conference (1994) and was subsequently continued by the International Pynchon Week conferences, which have regularly been held in a European city since 1998. The present volume furthers this dialogue in bringing together the perspectives of fifteen contributors from three continents—America, Australia and Europe.

3Ever since the early critical approaches, there has been a tension between post-modern readings and more contextualizing, referential, philosophical or ethical considerations—some of the most fruitful approaches resulting from the interplay of the two. Following a prominence of the post-modernist viewpoint, the mid-nineties marked a shift in perspectives, noted among others by Luc Herman in his introduction to an issue of Pynchon Notes (“postmodernism as a concept to hang on to,” 10) which gathers a number of papers given at the Antwerp conference (1998). As Sascha Pöhlmann more recently put it in his introductory essay to Against the Grain, Pynchon’s novels are “more than postmodern” (9).

  • 3 In France as elsewhere, non-academic circles take an active part in the critical debate: Face à Pyn (...)
  • 4 Bleeding Edge comes out just as this volume goes to press.

4This publication participates in a remarkable increase in the volume of critical production on Pynchon’s works over the past five years, in book form as well as online.3 It contributes to the current debates on Pynchon’s supposed “post-modernism”, either by revitalizing established postmodern critical perspectives and applying them to seldom read texts, or by reappraising Pynchon’s fiction within broader literary and philosophical contexts. Overall, its chapters address all of Thomas Pynchon’s works to date,4 from his earliest production in Voice of the Hamster to Inherent Vice. Half of them focus on a single text, while the other half either bring two or three into perspective, or tackle Pynchon’s œuvre in toto. Though firmly engaged in the hermeneutic game of trying to “make sense” and offering original takes on the texts, they all steer clear of totalizing views.

5History is a major theme in Pynchon’s fiction, and it has always been a focal point of critical interest, first under the angle of post-modern historiographic metafiction. Attention has more recently shifted to the political and ethical import of Pynchon’s fictions, in line with the early studies on his representations of historical instances of totalitarianism. There is a fine line between post-modern de-contextualization and historical relativism. Such relativism seems to miss the mark and obliterate Pynchon’s deep-running, though somewhat muddled and highly complex political resonance, which most of the papers in this volume explore.

6Though individual approaches vary over the course of the fifteen chapters of this book, common concerns are expressed, among which a marked interest in the reappraisal of ethical and political dimensions, as well as a focus on the questions of return and the potential emergence of the new out of the old—a growing interest among the critical community. All the contributions engage in a complex dialogue which we have chosen to organize as follows.

7Four sections highlight in turn four main threads, which to some extent also run throughout the volume: political and ethical concerns, the connections between History and story, the metafictional implications of specific themes or textual aspects and finally, the question of emblematic, post-metaphysical or post-mimetic presence.


8Charles Hollander’s foray into Pynchon’s early works picks up the writer’s two main drives (comic subversion and political critique) and traces textual returns and revitalizations as he follows the prankster/allegorist’s game of hide-and-seek back and forth throughout Pynchon’s opus. He concentrates on one characteristic stylistic feature, “indicative naming,” to outline the writer’s consistency and the determining role of the young man’s early anger.

9Nicholas Henson analyzes the political implications of the California Traverses’ family history in Vineland and Against the Day, exposing “the mythos of American idealism” and showing how it is challenged by Pynchon’s “alternative narratives.” In these stories family connections are used to bring about redeeming interpretations of history, together with “sympathy for those living in an unfair world.”

10Stephen Lento focuses on the other two Californian novels, The Crying of Lot 49 and Inherent Vice, to explore the ambivalent potentials—both revolutionary and apocalyptic—of communications technology; he argues that Inherent Vice, while taking stock of the first novel’s political relevance in its grim outlook, reactivates the virtualities that lay at the core of the revolutionary event.

11Martin Paul Eve approaches Pynchon’s novels from the vantage point of a philosophical work that reflexively questions “the very nature of philosophy,” an apt position to explore the question of self-reflexivity in post-modern fiction in relation to the issue of ethical relativism. He discusses the implications of such relativism when it comes to Nazism, one of Pynchon’s historical obsessions.


12The complex interplay of historical references and textual/narrative structures is explored in the next four chapters. Matthias Mösch’s follows Pynchonian avatars of the Faustian myth from WWII Germany in Gravity’s Rainbow, to the America of the 50’s in V., to show how postmodern re-appropriation of the myth empties it of its explanatory function. Yet the use of myth and metaphor as mere textual devices does not proclude the continued historical relevance of such “hellfired stories.”

13The next two papers explore the epistemological implications of historical fiction. LeAnn Stevens-Larré puts V. to the test of archival theory. She analyzes V. as archive, the point of intersection of the immaterial and the material of historical memory, where the subject can never “complete the narrative” or find “the mythic original”—while being “the space that authorizes the story.”

14Starting from Pynchon’s fictional appropriation of a historical incident, Cyril Servain approaches V. as a “textual laboratory” where fiction emerges from the elaboration of various strategies of what Michel Serres has conceptualized as “parasitism.” This allows him to bring both social and textual “parasites”/statics into play in his assessment of the reader’s relationship to the text.

15Luc Herman reads Against the Day as historiographic metafiction, with a focus on the Belgian episodes and their proliferation of accurate, nearly-accurate—and altogether off-the-wall—historical details. He sheds light on the ways they leave the reader with a sense of indeterminacy while bringing together figures of the historical and epistemological end of times, and points to a “transcendence of realism.”


16Paolo Simonetti analyzes Pynchon’s fictions as metatexts for the writer’s own maturing process—or absence thereof. In his “Portraits of the Artist as an Undergraduate Prankster,” he echoes Hollander’s insistence on the relevance of Pynchon’s youthful themes, while also delineating the marked evolution of images of youth in the development of his work.

17In similar metafictional vein, Claude Maisonnat offers a close reading of one of Pynchon’s early stories, “Low-Lands,” claiming that it may be less damnable than the writer himself makes it out to be. In the story, a “textual voice” is allowed “free play”—a counter-voice to the “authorial voice”—with the various scraps and debris of western fiction, sketching the premises of an “artist as scavenger.”

18Gilles Chamerois concentrates on bilingual puns in Mason & Dixon. He sees them as exemplary of Pynchon’s propensity to read his own language as a foreign language. The set phrase is allowed some play in the process of double translation the reader inevitably engages in: the mental gymnastics this imposes reflect, on a miniature scale, the combination of hermeneutic work and shameless enjoyment typical of the reading experience.

19Mason & Dixon is also the focus of Bénédicte Chorier-Fryd’s study of rhythmical oddities, which form a network of intra- as well as extra-textual correspondences participating in a general process of resistance to determinations. In playing with canonical prosodic schemes and highlighting the metafictional import of the variations thereon, Pynchon tunes the reader’s ear to the tiny revolutions at work through his text.


20Zofia Kolbuszewska chases a Baudelairian phantom in the female figure of Pynchon’s neobaroque V. Her hovering in the uncertain zone “between hell and purgatory” manifests the fleeting, emblematic presence of the forever ruined, yet constantly reinvented, Kunstkammer. The modern reappropriation of the cabinet of curiosities as entropic locus is in turn subjected to a final catastrophe in Pynchon’s two-tiered allegorical process.

21Em McAvan argues that The Crying of Lot 49 can be read as a kenotic movement, an emptying out of metaphysics including the cataphatic God—leaving the world devoid of any affirmative divine presence. Yet “God’s non-presence is felt through a mystic economy of the body,” and a “mystic feeling” in the novel collapses the transcendent and the immanent into a post-secular kenotic world.

22The “desire for an experience of presence” seems—blissfully—to have taken over the bland disillusionments of post-mimetic readings of Pynchon’s fiction. Anne Battesti’s examination of intertextual returns and repetitions from V. to Inherent Vice assesses the critical function of mimetic excess, and outlines the paradoxical power of simulation as a means to approach presence.


Works Cited

Brodin, Pierre. “Thomas Pynchon” Vingt-cinq Américains: littérature & littérateurs américains des années 1960. Paris: Debresse, 1969, 201–209.

Entropy/Entropie: édition bilingue avec notes et postface. Ed. Louis Soon-ckindt. Trans. Martine Claret, Diane Grantham & Janine Quintard-Soonckindt. Spec. issue of Delta 1984.

Face à Pynchon. Paris: le Cherche midi/Inculte, 2008.

Herman, Luc. Introduction. Approach and Avoid: Essays on Gravity’s Rainbow. Spec. issue of Pynchon Notes 42–43 (Spring-Fall, 1998).

Pöhlmann, Sascha (ed.). Against the Grain: Reading Pynchon’s Counternar-ratives. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2010.

Richard, Claude. Lettres américaines, Alinea, 1987; American Letters, University of Pennsylvania, 1998.

Ryckx, Michel. Vheissu. n. p. Web.

Thomas Pynchon. Spec. issue of Cyclocosmia 1 (2008).

Ware, Tim. PynchonWiki. Hyperarts. Web.


1 Claude Richard was a remarkable scholar and teacher, and as one of his students I am greatly indebted to him (B. Chorier-Fryd’s note).

2 The present volume is the twenty-fourth in the Profils Américains series launched in 1991 by Michel Bandry, another major French explorer of American literature, without whose unfailing support our Pynchon project would never have come to light.

3 In France as elsewhere, non-academic circles take an active part in the critical debate: Face à Pynchon, Cyclocosmia. See also longstanding enterprises such as Tim Wares Pynchon Wiki and Michel Ryckxs Vheissu.

4 Bleeding Edge comes out just as this volume goes to press.

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