Paradoxical Pynchon with a pinch of salt


Paradoxical Pynchon with a pinch of salt

Our literary expert, JOAN HAMBIDGE, looks at the work of a challenging writer.


PARANOIA'S the garlic in life's kitchen, right: you can never have too much. — Thomas Pynchon


The American writer Thomas Pynchon is a paradox. Although he preserves his privacy, we know a tremendous amount about him. Student at Cornell University, strange teeth, author of so-called mixed writing. “Famous and invisible at the same time," as Tony Tanner put it in his study Thomas Pynchon (Methuen: 1982).

Challenging writer. One who keeps his readers constantly on their toes with references to famous texts. And a reference to old toothpaste tubes in Gravity's Rainbow (1973: 20).

About this, Michael Thompson wrote extensively in his study Rubbish Theory.

Some would claim there are two kinds of readers: those who have the patience to follow Pynchon's funny twists and references and those who think the allusions are getting too much.

There has been extensive writing about entropy and paranoia in his work (including by French theorists such as Pierre-Yves Pétillon) and about the so-called “calculus of transformation" (by Lance Ozier).

Therefore, he's like our Etienne Leroux. The reader may grasp the story but the many references open up other routes. The same applies to Kerneels Breytenbach's Piekniek by Hangklip about which I wrote in 2012. A literary-theoretical detective story.

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What does the title V mean?

A metamorphosis of different Vs: Victoria Wren, maybe Queen Victoria, Vera Meroving, the Bad Priestess, Veronica Manganese …

(And on top of that, you have a character named Stencil in a novel.)

Besides names and characters changing, we have the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids, a campanile (or bell tower) with allusions to the Bible. And “urban legends" like the crocodiles that were thrown as young animals into the sewer pipes of New York and later become monsters (Q: 121). A kind of myth that one finds in many dystopian films.

As Tanner (via Lacan) points out: we are given names before we can speak and thus we are, according to Lacan, delivered to language. The tyranny of designation.

Oedipa Maas in The Crying of Lot 49 may mean Oedipa, my ass. In other words, a debunking of Freudian references. And after all, the story of Oedipus is the first major detective story. And Oedipa likewise has to find solutions. She's a Rapunzel who can't let herself go because when she tried it, her hair fell out.

What is the Tristero? It is the symbol that represents it, the so-called soundless horn …

Her husband is called “Mucho" Maas.

The psychiatrist is one Dr Hilarius who is experimenting with LSD.

Gravity’s Rainbow. The title of the 1973 novel, already an oxymoron: a rainbow placed opposite gravity. The rocket, Tanner believes, has many symbolic charges: a phallus, a coffin. Pattern, plots and paranoia (Tanner, 79).

And paper, plastic, preterition, probability theory, Tanner continued in his study dedicated to Frank Kermode.

A novel with references to the Bible. Especially Noah's rainbow, perhaps? Also, an encyclopaedic novel if there ever was one: entropy, World War 2, music, colonialism, the threat of a bombing, music, chemistry, mathematics — and references to Eliot.

Placed against the backdrop of the war, with one Tyrone Slothrop (maybe Tyrant Lazybones?). This novel has already been compared to Ulysses. However, some critics have been negative about the demands it makes on the reader. It won the National Book Award (1974) with Isaac Bashevis Singer's A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories, but Pynchon did not receive the prestigious Pulitzer.

The panel was negative about his writing style.

It does make Time's list of 100 best books, with The Crying of Lot 49.


Pynchon's frenzied imagination has no equal. He was a student of Nabokov at Cornell, although the writer could not remember him. Mrs Nabokov did. She reportedly helped her spouse with marking essays.

Harold Bloom believes he, Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth and Don DeLillo are the stars in the American prose firmament.

Henry James wrote about George Eliot in 1866 that a writer creates his readership. If the reader is sick, he does not do the work. If he is healthy and interested, then he does half the work, as quoted in Tanner (12).

Pynchon's novels are clever with false bottoms and actual allusions. And social commentary. Caustic. Certainly not hysterical realism.

We'll look at his later work in a subsequent column, including Inherent Vice and why, according to this reader, it's no longer so strong.

And Kerneels Breytenbach is not only an important writer but a highly readable reviewer who always takes one to important books and fashions.



V. London: Cape. 1963.

The Crying of Lot 49. London: Cape. 1967.

Gravity’s Rainbow. London: Cape. 1973.

Joan Hambidge: Stilet. “’n Literêr-teoretiese speurtog: ’n analise van Kerneels Breytenbach se Piekniek by Hangklip." ISSN 1013-4573 Volume XXIV:2 / September 2012

♦ VWB ♦

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