Thursday, November 23, 2006
Pynchon's debt to Eliot.
OK, Middlemarch just moved up in the notional queue. Responding on the Pynchon list, Tore Rye Andersen points out that Moby Dick preceded Middlemarch by twenty years.
[Thomas Pynchon] emerges from a literary tradition that reaches farther back than the 1960s counterculture, farther back than James Joyce and the early modernists. I don’t mean just that he apes Gilbert & Sullivan, 19th-century kings of comic opera. His multi-generational, many-charactered novels, with subplots that dance and weave around each other, with social connections that are seen both up-close and from heights, have their roots in the triple-decker novels of the Russians and Victorians.
. . . [T]he brainy novels about systems . . . (David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, William T. Vollmann, Jeffrey Eugenides, Neal Stephenson, Jonathan Franzen) . . . [have their] roots, ironically, in a woman’s work:That great Frenchman first carried out the conception that living bodies, fundamentally considered, are not associations of organs which can be understood by studying them first apart, and then as it were federally; but must be regarded as consisting of certain primary webs or tissues, out of which the various organs—brains, heart, lungs, and so on—are compacted, as the various accommodations of a house are built up in various proportions of wood, iron, stone, brick, zinc, and the rest, each material having its peculiar composition and proportions. No man, one sees, can understand and estimate the entire structure or its parts—what are its frailties and what its repairs, without knowing the nature of the materials.
That’s from George Eliot’s Middlemarch, perhaps the greatest of all English-language novels from one of the greatest of all fiction writers. Its understanding of the world as a system of webs—of interlocking designs that confound us when viewed too closely but equally confuse us when we look only as the webs and not the individual threads as well—is a shadow that looms large over postmodernism. Her voice—which interrupts itself and changes direction, which is carefully observant but rarely judgmental, which is exuberantly learned but also comfortable with the colloquial—resonates. The above passage, with its metaphors of anatomy and architecture for human civilization and the individual, informs Pynchon’s use of the sciences to explain humanity.
Unlike Eliot, the strands of Pynchon’s webs often hang loose, swinging tantalizingly in the breeze. Eliot either had the comfort of thinking that everything wraps up neatly in the end, or the expectation from her audience that she’d tie it all together. Pynchon allows for neither option. That’s part of what makes him so unsettling. But it’s also why I pay such careful attention. I’m never sure if I’m being introduced to a major character or simply a digression—usually, it’s a little of both—so I end up sharpening our focus, rereading passages, refusing to skim over sections that are initially daunting.
Even then, not everything coheres. Pynchon writes novels, not encyclopedias. As such, he assumes that you as reader enter into his world, and that he can create a world that feels full enough to sustain life and to explore at length. . . .
Going to the library now. Maybe I'll see if Middlemarch is on the shelf.
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