JUNE 1, 2021
“WELL, I GUESS I’ve learned one thing in this class,” a student said to me on her way out the door. “I hate postmodernism.” I suppose that’s what I get for bookending a course with The Crying of Lot 49 (1965) and Inherent Vice (2009). Even accessible Pynchon, in this age of outrage and misinformation, has trouble landing. Student demands have shifted.
The latest installment in Fiction Advocate’s Afterwords series is The Counterforce: Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, an engagingly digressive screed by J. M. Tyree on all that ails our fictional present. The series, which appears to have taken Bloomsbury’s musical juggernaut 33 1/3 as its spiritual inspiration, disrupts traditional lit crit by packaging creative meditations on notable books into wee paperbacks. It’s a gimmick, to be sure, but a welcome one: institutional criticism could use some modulation.
Tyree takes full advantage of the creative leeway the format affords. While Inherent Vice is both point of departure and recurring port of call, the slim volume spends nearly as much time on Pynchon’s other novels, not to mention its many meandering asides. The short chapters are organized thematically according to things Pynchon ostensibly writes against — realism, werewolves, gravity, Nixonface — and the result is a series of loosely connected hot takes. If there’s a thesis to the project, one candidate might be the fifth chapter’s lede: “Premise: Pynchon can help us diagnose much of what’s wrong with our culture in general, and literary culture in particular.”
So, what’s the disease? We might, in a word, call it orthodoxy. Whatever the ideological bent, and however noble its intention, dogmatic conformity is stifling, replacing critical engagement with rote prescription, careful distinction with scripted reaction. Orthodoxy stultifies the body politic and ossifies cultural production.
Tyree fires a good portion of his righteous ire in the direction of the literary establishment. The incestuous world of AWP is the institutional guarantor of psychological realism’s stranglehold on the genre of literary fiction. All that “doctrinaire realist finger-wagging,” Tyree declares, is “creative writing workshop tyranny designed to enforce conglomerate commercial publishing values.” But it isn’t only “the premises of psychological realism taught in creative writing workshops” from which we need salvation. There’s also an increasing cultural demand that, to borrow a rebarbative cliché, writers stay in their lanes, that their fictional work reflect — explicitly and exclusively — elements of their own identities. In this era of social media, we’ve come to inherit “a literary world that tends to extract personal information from artists as a fungible commodity and that all too often insists that a successful novel contain some connection to the writer’s biography,” Tyree observes. “What might be called the Fresh Air school of American letters relies on the fundamental premise that one’s profile must be tailored in advance for the media’s interview questions.” This cultural insistence on matching art with identity, on witness-bearing fiction and the primacy of personal truths, often comes at the expense of perspective. The child at the bottom of the well, alas, is poorly positioned to reflect on her own extraction.
As a consequence of progressive hypervigilance against the faintest whiff of appropriation, Tyree asserts, “[t]he novel has become a branch of nonfiction, either biography or autobiography.” Call it the new orthodoxy of the digital middlebrow, “the rise of safely empowering stories with likeable protagonists who move through short sentence after short sentence towards uplifting conclusions in which virtue is rewarded.” The laudable goal of increasing the diversity of literary voices has somehow morphed into a series of purity tests designed to ensure that any artistic representation ticks the same boxes as its ostensible author. “On this,” Tyree writes, “conservative religious evangelicals secretly agree with their puritanical secularist enemies on a censorious attitude and checklist approach to art as either ‘acceptable’ or ‘offensive’ to whatever program one happens to prefer for cleansing all vileness from the world.” The result?
[A]rt is increasingly viewed by both the right and the left as a sub-branch of medicine, therapy, hygiene, or good manners. Art is no longer that which tells us the truth but rather that which makes us feel better — a deflated ideology that is spawning a sort of unofficial school of palatability.
And this, I fear, is what’s afflicting many of my students. They don’t find postmodern fiction palatable. They’re offended by its lowbrow humor, its willingness to subvert even sanctioned causes, its tortuous sentences, its cringeworthy sex scenes, its refusal of closure, and the demands it places on its readers. “Difficulty is elitist,” one told me recently. And then there’s the problem of Pynchon’s biography: despite decades of secrecy, he hasn’t managed to hide his Ivy League education or his blue-blood pedigree. What business does he have, they ask, advocating for the marginalized or downtrodden? Shouldn’t we be reading something by someone less privileged? Isn’t he just taking up space that ought to be reallocated? Somewhere along the way these students acquired a fabulous set of tools but few ideas on how to use them. Instead, they follow scripts, never the wiser that their pursuit of intersectional justice has congealed into something dubiously illiberal.
Tyree’s answer to our present dilemma is weirdness, “cultivated eccentricity as an antidote to a world gone mad.” He proposes a Pynchonian counterforce, a ragged band of outsiders and misfits to resist all the orthodoxies of the day. Despite the polarization of the moment, both the left and the right feverishly engage in what Tyree terms timewashing: “[O]ur era’s signature creation of fake pasts that purport to cleanse history of its deep stains and recurring nightmares with the scented spray of propaganda.” Our “incapacity to live with the past in all its troubling complexity” poses a grave danger, he argues, and better fiction could be our salvation. He’s right, of course, but he also knows the unlikelihood of his solution: “Is it naïve to assert that we badly need dreamers like Pynchon to help us imagine a different future by reading through a different lens on our past?” Tyree answers his own question just three sentences later: “Yeah, that’s probably naïve.”
Nevertheless, Tyree insists that novels like Inherent Vice can help. While an honest assessment of the past might make us realize “the low likelihood of the present and the future turning out any differently […] we still must care for one another as the tragedy unfolds.” At the very least, it’s fiction as empathy engine, modeling possibilities of a dream foreclosed. Stoner detective Doc Sportello, Tyree notes, spends most of the novel working for free, and while his lack of a remunerative business model certainly contributes to his bungling persona, the larger takeaway is ethical: compassionate, kindhearted consideration for the marginalized and downtrodden, a moral rejoinder to venture capitalism and land development. Inherent Vice recognizes the unlikelihood of American alternatives — the Manson killings lurk, ever-present, at the edge of the frame — but it dreams them anyway.