Pynchon and history : metahistorical rhetoric and postmodern narrative form in the novels of Thomas Pynchon / Shawn Smith
Includes bibliographical references (p. 349-367)
This study considers the point at which historical facts, metahistorical consciousness, and postmodern narrative strategies converge in Thomas Pynchon's “big novels”: V., Gravity's Rainbow, Vineland, and Mason & Dixon. These novels have proven to be almost axiomatic in their linguistic and formal difficulties. They are also steeped in history. My premise is that Pynchon's idiosyncratic experiments with narrative form and figurative language reveal a philosophy of history, a coherent system of seeing and explaining the past. Hayden White, in Metahistory, proposed that the form and content of historiographic narratives are a kind of rhetoric, whose goal, is to persuade the reader that the author's interpretation of the historical record is fundamentally correct. I read Pynchon through White to explore the rhetorical dimensions of Pynchon's postmodern style. This rhetoric is most evident in the tension between what White calls “prefiguration,” the translation of an author's metahistorical perspective into figural language, and the structuralist models of narrative form White argues the author's poetics support. Pynchon uses the historical record as the catalyst for his anti-structuralist rhetoric, which plays off of his relatively stable prefigural patterns to represent the instability of the historical fields that concern him.Pynchon's unstable formal and representative modes can be allied with White's concept of the modernist event, those terrible and sublime moments in contemporary history, such as the Holocaust and Hiroshima, where conventional intellectual wisdom about historical causation and human nature break down completely. Pynchon's destabilized texts link the ways we experience and narrate history to the fractious cataclysms found in the post-Enlightenment historical record. The “violence” Pynchon does to the stable body of his texts—the split perspectives of V., the fragmented narratives of Gravity's Rainbow, the splicing together of romantic and tragic generic conventions in Mason & Dixon, the fractured realities of Vineland's postmodern America—liberates the “otherness” of the modernist event from modes of representation which would suppress its strangeness and horror. Pynchon's texts force us to see history in a different way and challenge us to avoid repeating such catastrophes in the future.
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