Reflecting the Critical Gaze

   Pynchon's encodings of cultural context are what the "Pynchon Industry" most often misses in its analysis of Pynchon's texts. The "theme" of communicative "entropy" receives a good deal of attention, but precisely how and why communication breaks down for Pynchon's characters is less successfuly scrutinized. Perhaps Randolph Driblette's lamentation in The Crying of Lot 49 that "everybody" is "so interested in texts" is a telling indicator of why this happens (Pynchon, 78). Pynchon is as much aware of the interpretive and discursive habits of the culture of literary criticism as he is of any. He knows that literary critics are accustomed to tracing only a single allusive vector, that between institutionally accepted "literary" materials. So he introduces distracting allusions to television and technology, to nonexistent texts like Driblette's Courier's Tragedy, and in the course of doing so he embeds a misdirection within a parody of the act of literary interpretation. Oedipa Mass goes on a wild goose chase to reconcile a series of editions of the play (a staple activity of literary critics). When she appeals to Driblette for a solution to her puzzle, he says:

"You don't understand," getting mad. "You guys, you're like Puritans are about the Bible. So hung up with words, words. You know where that play exists, not in that file cabinet, not in any paperback you're looking for, but-" a hand emerged from the veil of shower-steam to indicate his suspended head-"in here. That's what I'm for. To give the spirit flesh. The words, who cares? They're rote noises to hold line bashes with, to get past the bone barriers around an actor's memory, right? But the reality is in this head. Mine. I'm the projector at the planetarium, all the closed little universe visible in the circle of that stage is coming out of my mouth, eyes, sometimes other orifices also...You could fall in love with me, you can talk to my shrink, you can hide a tape recorder in my bedroom, see what I talk about from wherever I am when I sleep. You want to do that? You can put together clues, develop a thesis, or several, about why characters reacted to the Trystero possibility the way they did, why the assassins came on, why the black costumes. You could waste your life that way and never touch the truth. Wharfinger supplied words and a yarn. I gave them life. That's it" (Pynchon, 80).

    With this deceptive softball of a passage, Pynchon leaves the literary critic with two obvious choices. Either Driblette speaks with the authority of the author, and Pynchon is asserting the epistemological privelege of the individual over a community (a community of scholars or a linguistic community), or his words are simply rhetorical drivel. It is such an irresistible choice that the passage above is one of the most quoted in any full-length book devoted to the author. Alec McHoul and David Wills, avowed advocates of a Derridean discursive agenda, provide a classic response:

According to Driblette's rationale, blatant in its own contradictions, there is a truth, a living truth to which the text of The Courier's Tragedy reduces, and it is able to disappear, washed down the drain into the Pacific, while at the same time remain. On the other hand, what does remain, the traces, the text in all its variants and performances, is given only the status of residue, 'without value or potential'. But Oedipa will not be so easily fooled... (McHoul and Wills, 70).

    McHoul and Wills are quick to seize upon the familiar beefs of post-structuralist interpretation, bristling at Driblette's talk of "truth" and at his quick dismissal of "traces". And Oedipa, of course, will not be so easily fooled. McHoul and Wills will eventually pick the second obvious choice. In their view, Driblette does not speak for Pynchon, or even for himself. Rather, this passage is a feint designed to lull idle readers into a comfortable conspiracy with other "logocentric" types. According to McHoul and Wills, The Crying of Lot 49 will thankfully prove Driblette's talk to be nonsense when it "provides explicit textual material for its own deconstruction" (M&H, 70). Unfortunately for this critique, Pynchon's contradictions are not strategically limited to speeches given by Driblette. In fact, it is one of his primary modus operandi. If one counts self-contradiction against Driblette, then one must, in fact, ignore most or all of what any of Pynchon's characters say. And if such contradictions are simply "explicit material" for "deconstruction", then to what end? To keep Derridean's working? Probably not.

   An alternative proposition is that for Pynchon, contradiction is an important part of truth construction. That t-word is problematic for many critics, but plenty of people continue to find it useful, and there is nothing to suggest that Pynchon is afraid of it either. What Pynchon seems interested to explore, however, is the way "it" gets sanctioned and why. What's more, if one follows Driblette's words very closely, it becomes evident that he never asserts that the "truth" is of any import. He simply says that following him around will not let anyone "touch" it. (This notion of "palpability" is important for Pynchon.) In fact, his speech seems to imply that he is as exasperated by quests for the truth as he is by an obsession with "texts". Driblette is more invested in metaphors of spirit and flesh, or in the "reality" in his head, or the "Trystero possibility" (my italics).

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