Michael Chabon on Pynchon's Bleeding Edge

Thomas Pynchon's new novel reviewed in the NYRB
Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge
From Michael Chabon (New York Review of Books):
Irony, verbal and situational, has been the most often remarked of the tactics deployed by Pynchon in his fifty-year struggle against what fellow Nassau County visionary Jack Kirby called “the Anti-Life Equation”: death understood as the dehumanization imposed by vast and totalizing systems of control. And in spite of the depravities, brutalities, and horrors to be found in the pages of V. (1963), Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), or Against the Day (2006), Pynchon’s struggle has overarchingly been a joyful one, rooted in a profound and abiding goofiness.

His magic bag has proved to be charged as inexhaustibly as Felix the Cat’s with puns, parodies, bits of shtick and slapstick. Unflinching when faced with stench and corruption, confronting massacres and atrocities in pre–World War I German Southwest Africa, in rocket-blitzed London, in goon-haunted Colorado during the Labor Wars, Pynchon has with hope and abandon sounded his mighty kazoo and flown his freak flag high. He has left the labs, bunkers, prisons, and slave factories of Anti-Life littered with banana peels. He has heaped up mounds of ironic incongruities behind him—corny lyrics, drug jokes, sight gags, characters surnamed Porpentine, Squalidozzi, and Vibe—as he worked his way along, undermining the twentieth century like Bugs Bunny tunneling toward Pismo Beach. Pynchon, irony: big deal.

But not so fast. Dramatic irony, Hammond organ and all, is something new, and unexpected, in Pynchon. Until Bleeding Edge his work has not relied for effect on readers’ foreknowledge of the outcome of some significant or well-known event. In Against the Day the 1902 collapse of St. Mark’s campanile in Venice and the so-called Tunguska event of 1908 are wired to the lives and fates of Pynchon’s characters, but these incidents lie along the frontage road of history’s expressway. Like other factual bits of history in the novels—Wernher von Braun’s SS-symbol-shaped rocket works buried under a Harz mountain, an obscure Civil War naval battle off the coast of California between a Confederate warship and an Imperial Russian flotilla—they tend in their extravagance or absurdity to form a seamless part of the Pynchon ambience. The reader is cheerfully encouraged to confound them with the author’s pure inventions, and generally has no idea how things are going to turn out. [Read More]

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