Pynchon in the Age of Paranoia

by Nick Avery

Whether you lean right or left just admit it. Admit that you’ve taken a kind of pleasure from those push notifications informing you of the next scandal, tweet, or email. Admit that you watched every Sean Spicer press briefing with a bag of popcorn and a cherry soda by your side. Admit that you’ve entertained the idea that Ted Cruz might be the Zodiac Killer. Admission is the first step. The second? Read some Pynchon.

I prescribe the reclusive, enigmatic, and, to be honest, quite exasperating author Thomas Pynchon as a way to calm the nerves. Specifically, I recommend The Crying of Lot 49 (Pynchon Draught) or Inherent Vice (Pynchon Lite), works I’ve read over the past two summers that have assisted in my own personal navigation of what the nation currently finds itself in: a postmodern romp.

For the term “postmodern” as used here, I refer to the literary movement specifically, which emphasizes—among other narrative techniques—parody, pastiche (an imitation of several forms or genres), and paranoia. Considering our current moment, it would appear there’s no getting around our postmodern predicament at this point. The President is a former reality TV star, the U.S. has theoretically ceded its role as the leader of the free world, and the specter of a foreign power looms over the country. Sounds almost like the lampoon of a Michael Crichton novel (minus the time travel, of course) more than a real, present reality.

This is why I believe Pynchon is so apt for living in the supposed “post-fact” world. Not only is the author the king of paranoia (which may extend to his personal life, considering he hasn’t really been seen since the 60s), but he also utilizes the concept of entropy in many of his works. It would be impossible to fully flesh out the particular nuances and cleverness of utilizing thermodynamic principles to portray predictability within a given narrative system in 500-750 words. So, instead, we could simplify the definition as it pertains to Pynchon and our current political situation as follows: there is always randomness within a structure.

In essence, Pynchon’s fiction—like so many great postmodern writers—bucks the idea that you can truly know the system and all of its parts. This necessarily leads to an overall sense of paranoia (If you don’t know every facet of the government, for example, who’s to say the Illuminate doesn’t run the deep state? The only authority would be the government, whom you necessarily cannot trust because you can’t account for outliers who may, in fact, be part of the Illuminate. As you can see, it spirals pretty quickly.).  Hopefully you’re already seeing the parallels I’m trying to establish between Pynchon and the symbiotic paranoia that attaches itself to uncertainty, a prevalent state at this point in time.

But perhaps what is most important about Pynchon in the age of paranoia is that his works don’t drown the reader in apathy or nihilism when confronting systemic uncertainty. Instead, Pynchon presents a playful fiction, one that continues on despite the waves of unknowable variables that ripple throughout his works. Indeed, whether in Oedipa Maas’ quest to uncover the plotting of a mail distribution conspiracy in The Crying of Lot 49 or the dazed and confused work of P.I. Doc Sportello in the soft-boiled Inherent Vice, Pynchon’s writing is saturated in characters and plot complexities that are silly, absurd, and—if you can wade through the puns and references to erudite subject matter—profoundly amusing.

What, then, separates this type of fiction from the entertainment experience aforementioned in P1? Well, for one, there is a type of literary nourishment that comes from highly acclaimed writing that simply cannot be found in a 24-hour news cycle. More importantly, however, there is something (call it a release, catharsis, or whatever is most comfortable for you) about embracing narrative absurdity while facing an absurd reality that is quite freeing. I don’t mean to say that you should search for escapism. Quite the contrary, literature allows us to build empathic connection with a literary subject which, if not providing a narrative strategy for survival, allows us to at least say, “They got through it and so can I.”

So, yes, get your fix of sensationalism before nuclear war. Or you could dive into some Pynchon and get some sort of grasp on what John Barth called the Literature of Replenishment. Or you could go back to reading about how Kid Rock fooled the GOP into thinking that he was running for Senate. You are autonomous, after all.

Nick Avery is a graduate of Whitworth University, a former editor for Rock & Sling, and a “seven” on a good day. Originally from California, Nick now resides in Spokane, Washington, currently working on applications for graduate school. His personal possessions include: three Norton critical theory books, most of the Friends series on Blu-ray, and a cat named Winston.

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