Father-Schlemihls, Sentimental Families, and Pynchon’s Affinities with The Simpsons
Sorry, guys. Homer is my role model and I can’t speak ill of him.
—THOMAS PYNCHON, annotating his edits to a Simpsons script
As every Pynchon obsessive knows, while photographs and video of the man remain scarce, Pynchon’s voice has been, relatively speaking, all over the mass media in the early twenty-first century. He provided the voice-over to the “book trailer” for Inherent Vice in 2008, and we knew the gravelly voice was his mainly because of his two 2004 cameos on The Simpsons, TV’S longest-running scripted series, now nearly six hundred episodes into its run. The writer lent his voice to the episodes “Diatribe of a Mad Housewife” (wearing a bag over his head, he reviewed Marge’s novel and offered passersby a chance to get their picture taken “with a reclusive author”) and “All’s Fair in Oven War” (again with the bag on his head, he judged Marge’s cooking as “V-licious!”). My epigraph—from Twitter images shared by the writer of the latter episode, Matt Selman—arises in the margins of a script as Pynchon’s justification of inserting some super-corny jokes (regarding, for example, “The Frying of Latke 49”) while crossing out lines about Homer being “such a fat-ass” (@MattSelman). In this inside peek, Pynchon expresses an attachment not just to the show’s general vision but to the bumbling Homer in particular, his “role model.”
In this chapter, I argue that this line is much more than an off-the-cuff quip. Pynchon’s work, especially in Vineland and after, converges with The Simpsons (which began its run in late 1989, just weeks before Vineland’s publication) on several key points, particularly regarding masculinity, family, and sentimentalism. I suggest too that in Bleeding Edge—his first novel set in a time when The Simpsons is on the air—he not only makes explicit allusions to the show but slyly refers to central characters in naming the large, boorish father Horst (a nod to Homer) and the long-suffering, morally minded mother Maxine (a tribute to Marge), parents to two outspoken children, Ziggy and Otis, who at times echo Bart and Lisa. There is a passing reference to “Marge Simpson hair” (322), and Pynchon even invents a Simpsons episode titled “D.O.H.,” after Homer’s catchphrase (316). But it is Horst Loeffler in particular, a sometimes troublingly violent father, who has Homer as his direct “role model.” Like Homer, Horst is distinguished by his TV watching and appetite: in his first scene in the 2001 plot, raiding the fridge and displaying “a dowser’s gift specific to Ben & Jerry’s ice cream,” he “brings out a semicrystallized quart of Chunky Monkey” and, with “an oversize spoon in each hand, […] digs in,” the “extra spoon” being for “mooshing it up” (92). Diners, steaks, and takeout menus are other areas of his expertise. Horst, a financial expert whose name literally means “man from the forest,” is a smarter, somewhat more refined Homer, the donut, sandwich, and beer aficionado who stands in the kitchen with a tub of ice cream and says, “Marge, where’s that … metal dealy … you use to dig food?” (“Bart’s Friend Falls in Love”).
Why does Pynchon pay tribute? Aside from largely sharing Pynchon’s sense of humor, the cartoon has an ethos that matches up well with his post-Vineland output, particularly in balancing aggressive satire with family-centered sentimentalism. As Joanna Freer argues, “from Vineland onwards the basic tenor of [Pynchon’s] writing is sentimental,” and this later Pynchon “comes to view the family as a social ideal and even as a last bastion of communitas in self-interested times” (144). The Simpsons and the post-Vineland Pynchon follow similar paths in portraying family roles, I argue: their stumbling, outlandish schlemihls are faced (whether twenty minutes into a madcap episode or twenty-five years into a career) with growing up (some) and taking on parental and social responsibility. Here, after first defining the postmodern stylistic traits Pynchon’s fiction and the cartoon share, I trace the maturation and chastening of Pynchon’s schlemihl figure through Vineland’s Zoyd Wheeler before turning to the resemblance of Homer to both Zoyd and Horst, pointing out along the way the resistance of both Pynchon’s families and The Simpsons to the simplifying, right-wing discourse of “family values” in the early 1990s. I also analyze female characters (such as Maxine and March Kelleher) in Simpsons terms while suggesting why Simpsonian masculinity, especially in its contradictory qualities, does certain ideological work for Pynchon’s cartoon/human hybrids. Ultimately I contend that Pynchon’s longterm identification with Homer and his clan helps illuminate a mode of familial and patriarchal recuperation at work in the author’s novels—a mixing of satire of traditional family roles with the safe reinscription of those same roles. On the evidence of Vineland, Mason & Dixon, Against the Day, and Bleeding Edge, it seems undeniable that, as Kathryn Hume argues, family is to Pynchon, in an otherwise grim world, “a forgiving and supportive and flexible network,” “a support system that avoids control” (Hume 9, 10). But viewing The Simpsons and Pynchon together helps make family and the home not signs of the novelist’s capitulation to a certain suspect solace but complex sites all their own, zones featuring a mixture of irony, cynicism, sentimentality, and patriarchal assertion and with a particular relevance to the post-9/11 political situation and cultural response that Bleeding Edge probes.
To begin, Pynchon’s works and The Simpsons clearly have much in common stylistically. Utterly digressive and farcical plotting, relentless parody, shallow (yet still sharp) characterization, zany reference making, the removal of all barriers between high and low cultures, merciless satires of mainstream stances, a self-consciousness about mediation and simulation, a core set of leftist humanist values, and low puns with high magic—in all these respects, Pynchon’s novels and the TV show offer the example par excellence of post-modern techniques for their respective media. Regularly playing irony to the hilt, both writer and show relentlessly filter their portrayals through generic conventions. Interpreting the subversive effects of its rampant intertextuality, Jonathan Gray argues that The Simpsons constantly exploits “genre literacy” (30–33) in its audience, and Brian McHale characterizes Pynchon’s work as an act, particularly intense in Against the Day, of “genre poaching” (“Genre as History”). From allusions to Rear Window when Bart is bedbound with a broken leg in “Bart of Darkness” to the glory that is a musical version of The Planet of the Apes in “A Fish Called Selma” (to cite merely two of countless examples), rare is the Simpsons plot that does not in some way mimic and mock the moves of a classic film, TV show, or entire lowbrow genre. Pynchon’s genre parodies (such as the “cute meet” of Jessica and Roger in Gravity’s Rainbow  or the turn-of-the-century boys’ adventure books spoofed in Against the Day) are more often evocative of entire genres rather than specific works, and Pynchon’s genre allusions require much more historical digging (or recourse to a reader’s guide). But they are, as McHale comprehensively demonstrates, the currency of Pynchon’s fiction and his way of accessing historical reality from Gravity’s Rainbow forward.
Pop cultural references do not exhaust the common ground. As Simon Singh demonstrates in The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, among the show’s writers have been many with graduate-level backgrounds in higher math and science (Ken Keeler has a PhD in applied mathematics and worked at Bell Laboratories, and David X. Cohen has an MS in computer science, for example), and there are dozens of episodes littered with rather esoteric puns, mathematical paradoxes, and jokes about things like the digits of pi (“mmm, pie,” as Homer would say) (Singh). As is well known, Pynchon—former engineering physics major, technical writer for Boeing, and one-time aspiring mathematics grad student—is heavily invested in math and science and their metaphorical potential. Groening’s follow-up to The Simpsons, Futurama, debuted in 1999 and, with its time-travel plot and oddball ensemble of robots, aliens, and crackpot scientists, resembles Against the Day in a few ways—a sign not of any direct influence but of a mutual high regard for Star Trek, time travel, and other science fiction references.
Pynchon’s body of work and The Simpsons share some basic political aims as well. As Chris Turner notes in Planet Simpson, “Several of the show’s creators are on record—repeatedly—as saying that the main goal of The Simpsons, beyond making its fans laugh, is to inculcate them with a strong distrust of authority” (10)—primary Pynchonian goals as well. And perhaps there are Pynchon/Simpsons affinities too, in their respective receptions as they have aged, after early, magnificently jolting peaks of social critique: there is a popular perception that Pynchon’s work has been in decline since Gravity’s Rainbow, a view often supported by the claim that a turn toward the refuge of family indicates Pynchon has gone “soft” or lost his edgy anger. It is also an established narrative among (certain) fans that, since what Turner calls its “Golden Age” of “early 1992 to mid-1997,” The Simpsons has lost much of its political mojo too, as well as its cultural centrality (4).
In terms of gender, there is a clear point of intersection on the Venn diagram of male characters in Pynchon and The Simpsons: schlemihls. This cosmic fool of fortune, derived from Jewish literature, is Pynchon’s explicit term for Benny Profane in V. (“a schlemihl and human yo-yo” ), the implied one for Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow, and an oft-cited reference point in critical work. The schlemihl is a kind of cousin to the preterite, the cousin who leavens the misery of human suffering with pratfalls. David Buchbinder, reviewing twentieth- and twenty-first-century masculinities, names Homer as a prime example of a schlemihl, alongside film characters portrayed by Charlie Chaplin, Ben Stiller, and Jon Heder (better known as Napoleon Dynamite) (161). Homer’s incompetence with objects is occasion for many a set piece, and his lax approach to safety at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant is an endless source of (often apocalyptic) humor. His trademark phrase, “D’oh!,” is a verbal accompaniment to accident, to an animate creature running “afoul of the inanimate” (V. 308). From Lardass Levine (of “The Small Rain”) forward, Pynchon’s schlemihls are usually pudgy too, a nod to the waistline-expanding pull of personal entropy and the power of craven appetites. Buchbinder calls the schlemihl in contemporary culture “an inadequately or incompetently masculine male,” “a man who seems constitutionally incapable of being masculine according to the current norms of the culture” (161). Here, Homer is a more classic schlemihl, for there is generally little or no menace in the schlemihl’s masculinity: passivity, incompetence, and a lack of control are his trademarks. Pynchon’s schlemihls, by contrast, do have a terrifying tendency to turn toward aggression and fascism—Slothrop’s sex scenes with Greta and Bianca in the Zone are one example—but this mainly points to the greater depths of psychological insight Pynchon can achieve in his compendia of comic lightness, dark excess, and meditations on moral agency, features I probe in greater detail in my reading of Horst.
It is with Vineland that the connections between cartoon and novelistic schlemihls first begin to take on a more richly conflicted texture. Let me project a world: Pynchon, ready to rejoin the literary world when Vineland, his first new novel in seventeen years, is published in January 1990, tunes in right at the beginning of The Simpsons’ run, on December 17, 1989, the night the first full-length episode was aired (over the course of the preceding two years, Groening had provided short segments for The Tracey Ullman Show). What does Pynchon see? Regardless of when exactly he became a fan of the show (which was an early hit for Fox, a new network), it is difficult to imagine Pynchon not noticing some uncanny convergences with his latest novel. Vineland marked Pynchon’s turn toward television as a major vehicle for the parodic impulse that he had explored through spy fiction in V. and through cinema in Gravity’s Rainbow, and The Simpsons depends heavily on references to (mostly live) TV shows, down to the parody of the sitcom family that is inherent to the show’s structure. As McHale writes in summary, Vineland’s characters are “preoccupied with conforming their lives to TV models” and speak often in TV’S “idioms” (Constructing 118–19).
Pynchon’s turn in Vineland toward more generally stable domestic scenes and parenting issues—those staples of sitcom life—also marks an affinity with The Simpsons. Zoyd Wheeler is in several senses a Pynchonian schlemihl: in the opening chapter he has a run-in with an inanimate window (if in scripted fashion), and Pynchon links him with the contingencies of the wheel of fortune through both his surname and a reference to the game show (12–13). Yet Zoyd is no Profane or Slothrop: while the latter two man-children ricochet around their respective novels as sexual adventurers engaging in relationships devoid of intimacy, Zoyd faces many advanced emotional problems and responsibilities. Through Zoyd Pynchon begins asking the question, What happens when the schlemihl grows up and becomes a parent? Gone are the distant, betraying figures of Sidney Stencil and Broderick Slothrop, who influence their sons’ minds from afar but have no real presence. Ascendant is a newly intimate take on intergenerational linkages. Gone too is the sordid psychosexual dynamic of Franz Pökler in relation to Ilse. Zoyd is beset not just by paranoia and battles with a police state but the exigencies of single parenthood. In many senses he is both mother and father to Prairie; his appearance in drag in the opening reads as a gag, fulfillment of his attempt to appear “insane-looking enough for the mental-health folks,” but also as a comment on the positive feminizing Pynchon’s schlemihl has undergone (4).1 Zoyd’s is a world of teenage-daughter sarcasm, fatherly tenderness, and “always […] his love for Prairie, burning like a night-light, always nearby, cool and low, but all night long” (42).
An insight of Frenesi into adulthood applies even more readily to Zoyd, who cares for Prairie when her mother takes off: Frenesi has moved “further into adulthood perilous and real, into the secret that life is soldiering, that soldiering includes death, that those soldiered for, not yet and often never in on the secret, are always, at every age, children” (216). Unraveling the question of Prairie’s parenthood, a Darth Vader–like Vond asserts to Prairie near the end that he, “[n]ot Wheeler,” is “[y]our real Dad” (376), but whatever the truth of this assertion, readers recognize that Vond’s paternity claims wither in the context of Zoyd’s ardent adult soldiering for Prairie. Vond’s Vader-like claims are functionally part of his imperialist program of infantilizing governance and surveillance, his exploitation of the “deep … need” of former flower children “only to stay children forever, safe inside some extended national Family” (376, 269).
Reducing the complex U.S. populace to a “national Family” of impressionable children was a moralizing effort of right-wing politicians throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, both captured and anticipated by Vineland and reaching a high (or low?) point in Vice President Dan Quayle’s infamous May 19, 1992, remarks about the scandalizing of “family values” wrought by the depiction of single motherhood on TV’S Murphy Brown. Quayle’s speech and Murphy Brown go down in history for that phrase, “family values,” but throughout the 1992 campaign President George H. W. Bush had taken many other shots in this ideological war by invoking The Simpsons. At the Republican National Convention in August 1992 he called on a line from his stump speech once again, stating his resolve “to strengthen the American family, to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons” (1371). The line attests to the barbed prominence of the cartoon in the early 1990s media environment but also embodies a thorough misreading of it in terms of underlying sentimentality. Matthew A. Henry responds to the “family values” critique of The Simpsons by calling its definition of the concept “much more authentic” than that of the right-wing critics: on the show, “‘family values’ most often means mutual respect and deep compassion for the other members of the family unit,” a resolve on the part of Marge and Homer “to remain together and work through their differences” (44). Brattiness, bad parenting, and mockery of familial, marital, and communal happiness may suffuse a Simpsons episode, but by its end the family does often emit a bit of a Waltons glow. Slightly more distanced and critical, Paul A. Cantor, writing in 1999, summarizes the show’s overall pattern: “For all its slapstick nature and its mocking of certain aspects of family life, The Simpsons […] ends up celebrating the nuclear family as an institution” (735–36). Freer suggests that family is a vehicle for communitas in Pynchon’s work, and Cantor sees the family politics of The Simpsons extending outward to a civic vision of Springfield, the American everytown: “The show celebrates genuine community […]. By recreating this older sense of community, the show manages to generate a kind of warmth out of its postmodern coolness” (745).
Pynchon readers will see a parallel with his own late-career retreat into the warmth of family reunions and limited communities after early work redolent with “postmodern coolness” (a phrase that echoes the distanced affect in the line often invoked as a credo of the early Pynchon, “Keep cool but care” [V. 394]). With The Simpsons, the combination of attempts to épater les bourgeois and reinforce “family values” is based not in a midcareer shift so much as a drive to push the envelope and then fall back on the mores of traditional resolution within each frenetically paced episode. Homer’s boorishness and other masculinist transgressions, for instance, almost always come with an expected safety valve. In “‘We’re All Pigs’: Representations of Masculinity in The Simpsons,” Karma Waltonen argues that Homer begins many episodes “embod[ying] all that is bad about patriarchy and masculinity” (or, for Pynchonians, all that is Seaman Pig Bodine) but comes closer, by the end of the episodes, to being “the early-twenty-first-century liberal, sensitive man” (par. 1).
Consider the tensions in the first episode in which Pynchon appeared, “Diatribe of a Mad Housewife.” In the first few minutes Homer, having crashed his car, buys an ambulance and goes into business as its driver without consulting Marge. When she wants time off from child care to work on the novel Pynchon will later endorse, Homer responds, “Slow down, Picasso! You were gonna start a novel without informing me?” The novel, The Harpooned Heart, scandalizes Springfield with its portrayal of Marge’s longings for Ned Flanders beneath the guise of her protagonist’s preference for “Cyrus Manley” over the “brute” (i.e., Homer) she has married. Upon publication, Homer is revealed to the town as a “cuckolded boob” who, when he kills Manley in the book, triumphantly announces he is now “free to be selfish, drunk, emotionally distant, [and] sexually ungenerous.” But in a typically unlikely resolution, rather than attack Flanders in real life, Homer learns from him to be a more sensitive husband, getting, he says, the “wake-up call I needed.” Homer and Marge end the episode with their marital bond restored. However, in accordance with laws of sitcom seriality (heightened by the cartoon framework), this restoration does not last the week; as Waltonen notes, by the start of every new episode Homer returns “to his beginnings,” lessons “unlearned” (par. 1).
By contrast, Pynchon, as a novelist, offers resolutions that leave families and marriages in a reintegrated state. To address the full implications of that movement toward familial recuperation and its relation to the politics of American responses to 9/11, let me now turn my attention fully to Bleeding Edge. Pynchon’s central families have often been marked by nomadism, disintegration, and other destabilizing forces, some impossible to overcome in realistic terms: Frenesi and Prairie are thoroughly alienated from one another for many years in Vineland; Mason longs for his dead wife throughout Mason & Dixon; and the Traverses of Against the Day, true to their name, tramp independently around the globe after the death of their father. Only in Bleeding Edge does a family sit long enough to have its (largely comedic) portrait done—and for the situations of situation comedy to develop.
While the novel’s direct allusions to The Simpsons may seem on the surface just attempts to flesh out its attention to turn-of-the-millennium child culture, which includes allusions to video games and Beanie Babies, the book to some degree understands itself through its affinity with The Simpsons. Ziggy and Otis, Maxine’s sons (wise beyond their years and sassy, but perhaps not to Bart’s and Lisa’s levels), play a graphically violent video game with their friend Fiona involving the massacre of “yup[s]” that evokes the gratuitous violence of The Simpsons’ cartoon within a cartoon, The Itchy and Scratchy Show (34). On another occasion, “Otis, Ziggy, and Fiona settle in in front of Homer Simpson, playing an accountant of all things, in a film noir, or possibly jaune, called ‘D.O.H’”—a play on the 1950 classic of the genre, D.O.A., which focuses on an accountant and notary (316). No such Simpsons episode exists, and here we see Pynchon, as in my epigraph, rewriting the show to make it even more to his liking and bend it to his purposes. Maxine will play the role of accountant in the text’s own version of D.O.A and of film noir, but a film “jaune”—a reference to the yellow bodies ubiquitous in The Simpsons—also captures some of Pynchon’s tendency toward mixing the wacky, brightly colored, and cartoon-ish with the dark grittiness and mostly humorless preoccupation with corruption and sick societies in the film genre. While cartoon and comics references are nothing new in the Pynchonverse, in Bleeding Edge, where the primary alternate world depends on computer animation and pixelated avatars for finding the right angles at which to depart from received reality, connections to cartoons take on a new importance.
In the Horst/Homer overlaps and divergences, though, lie the novel’s most intense and intriguing grappling with the cartoon’s influence. Horst’s appetites and aggressions are more than just setups for gags and Pynchon’s usual food humor; Horst is offensive, insensitive, and even violent. “Fuckin Horst” says to Maxine, “you’re Jewish right?” when telling his then-girlfriend about Jewish fraudsters, adding with a hint of anti-Semitism, “Thought you might have a rapport” (24). Horst is not a Major Marvy or Doctor Hilarius, perhaps, but his sharing a name with Nazi martyr Horst Wessel, in combination with these traits, suggests some Nazi tendencies among average American males, a longtime Pynchon assertion. Later, more shockingly, Maxine writes off an incident in which Horst “started choking” her in the midst of an argument, relaxing his grip only when he is distracted by televised football and beer retrieval (215). Maxine’s tolerance of such abuse is an awkward narrative ploy to set up her attraction to Windust and make it plausible by confirming her weakness for fascists, as Pynchon did with Frenesi and Vond in Vineland. There, TV’S cop shows—specifically CHiPs, to which Frenesi enjoys masturbating (83)—are, Pynchon implies, the gateway through which a real-life adoration of fascists enters: with CHiPs playing, screen and screen door merge for Frenesi, and “there outside on the landing, through the screen, broken up into little dots like pixels of a video image, […] was this large, handsome U.S. Marshall” in uniform (84).
When Bleeding Edge revisits this troubling topos, TV’S Homer is, strangely, a key mediating and mollifying figure in the chain of violent masculinities and woman-blaming moments. About thirty pages before Horst’s strangling is recounted, Maxine parses a similar event in terms of Simpsons characters: her “fascination” with Latrell Sprewell, a pro basketball player for the Knicks who famously choked his coach, is based, she thinks, “on the principle that Homer strangling Bart we expect, but when Bart strangles Homer …” (181). Pynchon seems to have a particular affection for this feature of Homer’s parenting, which is more often criminal by way of its negligence than its direct abusiveness. Against the Day, the 2006 novel that followed his Simpsons appearances, makes one of its many anachronistic references when Lindsay Noseworth blurts a Homer-like “Why you insufferable little—” during one of his apparently “constant attempts to strangle” the insouciant young (and Bart-like?) Darby Suckling (409). With the Chums of Chance, who are impervious to aging and mortality, the violence is more properly cartoonish than it is disturbing. Made a part of Maxine’s reckoning with her marriage, though, Homer’s choking becomes a moment when Pynchon’s parodic impulse to attenuate the human clashes with not just feminist reading practices but the expectations of nuanced psychological realism that much else in Maxine’s portrayal creates.
Focused on Homer as complex “role model,” I have largely left Marge out of the discussion, but Bleeding Edge is the Pynchon novel that devotes the greatest number of pages to the vicissitudes of mothering. There are really two mothers to consider, both with Ma(r)—names that seem intentionally evocative of Marge, the definition of a long-suffering wife and mother. While Frenesi in Vineland is largely a failure as a parent to Prairie, Maxine is dynamic on all fronts, functioning as the novel’s moral center in her quest to expose Ice, Windust, and the 9/11 plot and in her protection of her family. Marge Simpson, too, often ends up enforcing moral duties and reintegrating the family unit when they take it off the rails or ignore her insight. The longtime activist March Kelleher, divorced mother of Tallis and mother-in-law to Gabriel Ice, is even more of a righteous moral crusader, introduced as one ready to spray Easy-Off oven cleaner in the face of corrupt landlords (55) and the most viscerally left wing of the characters. March relates a parable about an old street woman and the waste of the world that illuminates much in the book’s ethical stance, and she is hugely invested in protecting her grandson Kennedy. March is a kind of DL to Maxine’s Frenesi, an older DL with deep ties to family. Pynchon also grants to March what sound like many of his own opinions about New York and U.S. life, as when she calls out the “fucking fascists who call the shots” for keeping “everything ugly and brain-dead” (56–57).
There is no strong match here, admittedly: March is too aggressive to be a Marge, Maxine has too much depth, and the political conflicts of Bleeding Edge are far more realistic and intractable than those of Springfield. But the most important element of this constellation of Simpsons associations is the recuperative role played by a reductive and compensatory family sentimentalism in Bleeding Edge, made visible if we take a step back and take in the broad outlines of strategically deployed irony and sentimentality in a traumatized culture. In the last third of the book, in the wake of 9/11, the reserves of sentiment the novel has built up begin to function for their creator, giving him a local family underplot to support the larger story of New York’s and the U.S.’s recovery. Such plotting has become de rigeur in a large swath of 9/11 literature: Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, for instance, features Keith Neudecker instinctively returning to his estranged wife after surviving the attack on the towers. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close centers on a nine-year-old boy mourning his father’s death in the towers and simultaneously exonerating him from suspected infidelity. Elizabeth Anker, surveying the compromised men of DeLillo’s, Foer’s, and many other novels of 9/11, argues that the genre in U.S. literature has proven reactionary, reflecting a “longing to return to a bygone era of American omnipotence wherein white, heteronormative, patrician masculinity was still sacrosanct” (468). Anker argues that these narratives explore “the fractured American self-image” after 9/11 “through the insecurities of white, upper-middle-class manhood” (468).
Bleeding Edge, while told from the perspective of a woman, invests in some of these same regressive patterns, forming its subliminal response to 9/11 by seeking to resecure a nuclear family with the children’s biological father at its head, the bygone structure on which the novel lavishes attention. For instance, in a relatively gratuitous subplot designed to heighten the emotional stakes of the combination of Maxine’s role as detective and parent, young Ziggy is targeted after 9/11, only to be saved by his krav maga teacher. The novel is obviously bookended by parallel scenes of parenting and, in the end, parental helplessness, as Maxine’s sons head to school on their own, down the elevator (a technology meant to symbolically restore the fallen towers and the many victims who could not descend). “The only question it’s come down to is, where will Ziggy and Otis be protected from harm?” Maxine ruminates, offering a think-of-the-children ideology that seems out of sync with Pynchon’s usual complexities on the subject of identifying and saving the innocent (412).
The reader of Bleeding Edge knows 9/11 is on its way for the first three hundred plus pages, and in this light, some of Pynchon’s moves register as an attempt to offer a kind of affective defense of the nation before the attacks come. A month before 9/11 is due to arrive, as Horst and his sons go on a trip to visit his parents, the reader is thus primed with a nostalgic portrait of the interior of the country and of solid family structures (more of Anker’s “bygone era”). Here, as Horst the trader moves from exchange to exchange on “a tour down memory lane” in Chicago, Pynchon soaks the prose in a strangely sentimental vision of his financial career magically transforming the abstractions of the commodity trading floor into involvement in the material world, strains of “America the Beautiful” and its amber waves of grain seemingly swelling in the background as Horst goes from “Eurodollar activity” to American products:
For a while he shifted to Treasuries, but soon, as if answering some call from deep in the tidy iterations of Midwest DNA, he had found his way into the agricultural pits, and next thing he knew, he was out in deep American countryside, inhaling the aroma from handfuls of wheat, scrutinizing soybeans for purple seed stain, walking through fields of spring barley squeezing kernels and inspecting glumes and peduncles, talking to farmers and weather oracles and insurances adjusters—or, as he put it to himself, rediscovering his roots. (289)
Here the man of the forest expresses a wistfulness for the land and seems to block out the transnational complications that will envelop the United States (and its economy) in a few weeks, when the symbolic center of American financialization and capital is attacked. This farmland elegy takes on an especially political cast if we connect it to an earlier scene of Horst the trader with his sons in his office at a portentously swaying World Trade Center. Love of native landscape combines with love of multigenerational family “roots” here, with light again serving as a key symbol of familial ardor: “The Loeffler grandfolks, all through their visit, were over the moon, the specifically Iowa moon, which from the front porch was bigger than any moon the boys had ever seen,” and a better spectacle than “what they might’ve been missing on the tube” (290). Such passages serve some of the same purposes as passages describing the Traverse family reunion in Vineland, where fulsome quotations from Emerson, communal meals, and family reintegration are the implied antidote to what Pynchon calls the “prefascist twilight” in which the United States lingers (371). Thirty pages after the Loeffler males’ trip, the attacks draw them and other families back together: at school, with Horst along, “Maxine notices other sets of parents, some who haven’t spoken for years, showing up together to escort their children” (321).
Such sentimental writing in Bleeding Edge needs to be seen as a counterbalance to the book’s explicit defense of an opposing mode within U.S. culture: irony, that technique that thoroughly links Pynchon’s work in general to The Simpsons. Addressing a cultural debate of late 2001, Bleeding Edge makes a strong rhetorical case for the survival of irony post-9/11, voiced through Heidi the cultural studies scholar. An article she is writing proposes that
irony, assumed to be a key element of gay humor and popular through the nineties, has now become another collateral casualty of 11 September because it somehow did not keep the tragedy from happening. “As if somehow irony,” [Heidi] recaps for Maxine, “as practiced by a giggling mincing fifth column, actually brought on the events of 11 September, by keeping the country insufficiently serious—weakening its grip on ‘reality.’ So all kinds of make-believe—forget the delusional state the country’s in already—must suffer as well. Everything has to be literal now.” (335)
Heidi identifies this anti-irony trend with reality TV that supposedly “free[s] [viewers] from … fictions” and “made-up lives,” and Maxine chimes in that her kids’ English teacher “has announced that there shall be no more fictional reading assignments” (335). The mention of English class makes it especially clear that this is a defense of the fiercely “nonliteral,” deeply ironic Bleeding Edge, DeepArcher, and similar narratives, but it is also a defense of ironic, far-from-literal cartoons, like The Simpsons, which (along with its heirs, such as South Park) was routinely invoked as an emblem of the culture of irony that supposedly came to an end on 9/11.
Roger Rosenblatt was the first to say irony was dead, in Time on September 24, 2001, and indeed, Heidi’s speech seems to be drawn directly from Rosenblatt’s much-discussed (and much-maligned) op-ed. Pynchon may even have grounded Heidi’s argument in gay studies to reply to the homophobic undertow of Rosenblatt’s essay. Heidi’s “giggling mincing fifth column” recasts Rosenblatt’s ponderous mentions of “chattering classes” who, “with a giggle and a smirk,” claim that “nothing is real—apart from prancing around in an air of vain stupidity” (79). In response Rosenblatt intones, “The planes that plowed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were real. The flames, smoke, sirens—real. The chalky landscape, the silence of the streets—all real” (79).
Heidi’s scornful remaking of the Rosenblatt thesis as a call for exclusively “literal” art is one of many moments when Pynchon’s novel benefits from the greater calm of retrospect on events it narrates in present tense. As the initial post-9/11 weeks of shell shock recede further into history, Rosenblatt’s essay looks more foolish: irony did not fall with the Twin Towers, nor should it have. As David Cowart writes regarding Rosenblatt and Bleeding Edge’s trenchant response, after 9/11 the subversive power of “irony becomes all the more indispensable, the last thing thoughtful people ought to relinquish” (par. 47). At the same time, the operative binarism that Bleeding Edge lampoons here—irony versus the real—obscures the role played by another element, sentimentality, in highbrow and lowbrow culture that might seem wholly invested in ironic unreality. By underscoring the ironic/realistic binarism Rosenblatt posed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Pynchon’s response effectively misconstrues the more complex balancing act that Bleeding Edge, shows like The Simpsons, and many other cultural artifacts have pulled off, both before and after 9/11: a blend of the ironic and the sentiments that irony so often mocks and undermines. Sentimentality is not defended or analyzed in Bleeding Edge or The Simpsons; it is, rather, occasionally enacted, used as a necessary ballast—and thus granted all the more power to draw readers and viewers toward its conclusions. Irony did not die with 9/11, but neither did sentimentalism, nor irony leavened with sentimentalism. Both modes, Pynchon and his favorite cartoon characters show, are necessary to a sophisticated and affectively effective response to geopolitical trials.
In conclusion, Pynchon has for a while now been traveling along a line that intersects with The Simpsons’ own at a number of points, and in his latest novel he finally gets a chance to both allude to the Springfieldites and self-consciously draw on some of the cartoon’s characterizations of men, women, and family. With hindsight and the archive, the Pynchon/Simpsons intertwining might be seen as the culmination of a decades-long arc in the writer’s ambition to connect TV and his novels as vehicles of familial parody, though now with a more progressive vision of masculinity and a greater degree of sentimentality in tow. As Luc Herman and John Krafft show elsewhere in this volume, based on their study of the V. typescript, Pynchon cut from his first novel a satire of a family sitcom typical of 1950s TV that, if published, would have complicated the book’s gender politics. Herman and Krafft argue that the sitcom’s male characters (which include an “ambitious but ultimately clueless white-collar father”) “neither quite figure out what it means to be a man nor manage to do whatever it would be to act like a man” (180). In the twenty-first century, after several more decades of sitcom families, it is still hard to figure out what it means to be (or even act like) a man—and even more so, what a man ought to be. Pynchon seems to have modified his view of the father and male role model over the years such that he now looks quite a bit like Homer Simpson—given to excess and folly, taking existence as a joke on himself, ultimately doing no real harm, and in the end, there as an overweight bulwark for his family to lean on.
1. James Berger reads Zoyd’s gender ambiguity this way: “Zoyd is a father with the qualities of a mother, a father without the phallus […]. He is not quite a void—some figure for feminine absence entirely outside the symbolic order; he is […] a Zoyd: passive but capable” (par. 21). In a reading of V. Mark Hawthorne sees much earlier evidence of Pynchon “feminiz[ing]” a schlemihl, Benny, whose behavior, he argues, is constructed “to contrast the socially and psychoanalytically defined male gender identity of the 1950s” (75–76).
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