V. and Midcentury Mystifications of Gender
Pynchon in the Academy
In 1982, my first year as a faculty member at Cornell, I taught a course called “The Postwar American Novel.” By the middle of the semester I realized I was in trouble, not because I had chosen as many books written by women as by men (such audacity was fairly new in the Cornell English Department, which specialized in radical literary theory coupled with unquestioned adherence to a roster of books called “the canon”), but because the women in the class were furious at the books by men. My choices were quite ordinary—Kerouac, Ellison, Roth, Bellow, and Pynchon’s V. But the women were enraged by the sexism in these novels, something I had taken as a matter of course.
My initial inclination was to say, “Of course they’re sexist, these are the fifties and sixties, what did you expect?” But the overt misogyny of only a few decades earlier was a huge shock to these young women. They did not see gender discrimination, ridicule, and paranoia as historical phenomena to acknowledge and note studiously; they saw the attitudes toward women in these novels as impinging on them—and of course they were right. I had to face up to the fact that books I had loved and written about were in many respects impossible for these young women to absorb. And their resistance made the sexism of a whole society more visible to me. I grew up during the period I was teaching, after all, and despite my later participation in the feminist movement, on several different levels I was still used to the discriminatory ideologies that penetrated even the most serious literary fiction during the postwar period. Ironically for me, the novel my female students seemed to hate most was my favorite, V. (1963). I had to acknowledge that Pynchon too was a product of his era, an era that in many respects he represented satirically but without seriously questioning norms of gender identity and behavior.1
At the same time, I was beginning to contend with the enormous gender imbalance among Pynchon critics. At the science and literature and MLA panels on Pynchon, women were used to being a tiny minority. Usually there would be five or so of us in a packed conference room (Pynchon studies was a hot item from the beginning) and forty or fifty men. The panels were almost entirely made up of men. Pynchon Notes was edited by men and might have one contribution by a woman every other issue or so. Collections of critical essays contained mostly articles by men. Women who were writing and publishing about Pynchon also had the experience of being overlooked even after our work was published and had received excellent reviews. I remember having an epistolary argument with a Pynchon Notes editor in the 1980s about a list he had drawn up of the best essays on Pynchon to date. None, of course, were by women.
My anecdotes aren’t unusual or even particularly outrageous. At that stage in academic history women were always being passed over, not because our male colleagues were working consciously to keep us out of prevailing discourses but because we were underrepresented among literary faculty and they honestly could not see us. Among Pynchon critics the situation was extreme. Pynchon was widely conceded to be a “guys’ writer,” first because he used scientific metaphors, and science was widely understood to be a “guy thing”; second because his scope was world-historical rather than romantic and/or domestic, which is what most twentieth-century scholars at that point saw as the concerns of the “women’s novel”; third because there was a lot of increasingly kinky sex in Pynchon’s novels, and it was considered inappropriate for female critics to write or, worse, talk about such matters; and fourth, especially in the case of V., because for all its subtlety and irony Pynchon’s writing itself represented without any trace of self-awareness these same trivializing and effacing tendencies—a point to which I return.
The existence of the Pynchon boys’ club became especially evident at the 1991 MLA session on Vineland (1990), which I had proposed as the first overtly feminist panel on Pynchon, on the premise that Vineland was his first feminist book. The three female speakers wore black tops and pants (the pants were still a little radical for the MLA at that time) in emulation of the ninjettes of the novel. I remember sitting on the podium and watching the room fill: 80 percent male, then 90 percent male … until it became clear that despite having “feminism” in the title of the session, the room was packed with the usual Pynchon men and maybe two or three other women. Well and good, I thought: we were here to introduce women’s issues into Pynchon studies, so we’d bring the guys into the big questions of deceit and betrayal and sexual obsession and family and community in this novel whose main characters were indisputably female. But the logic of the science guys as usual prevailed. Every one of the (exclusively male) questioners ignored all our points about gender and sexuality and instead asked Kate Hayles about a passage in the novel distinguishing between analogue and digital technologies.
While that session did little to disrupt the sense of Pynchon studies as a boys’ club, Vineland does mark a change in Pynchon’s authorial attitude toward women. I have argued in “Feminist Theory and the Politics of Vineland” that it is not only a novel centering on three female characters and influenced by certain feminist writings but also a novel that imagines what it would be like to be Frenesi or DL and opens up that space of identification to readers, providing a much different kind of access to female characters than in most cases in the previous novels.2 These Vineland characters have a complex interiority and agency. In my experience, female readers especially find them interesting—and in class we sometimes air our suspicions that Pynchon himself found them more interesting than most of his previous major female characters. Interiority and agency are attributes that are muted in the depiction of such “feminine” “good” women from the first three novels as Rachel Owlglass, Paola Maijstraal, Oedipa Maas, Jessica Swanlake, and Leni Pökler. Lack of agency is most obviously manifested as a lack of explicable motivation. Despite their often central status as symbols and as functions moving the plot along, these women display cognitive processes and desires that are simple, self-evident, and wholly unlike the reasoning and desires of the male characters, however flawed the latter are (and of course these male flaws are dynamic and central to V.). Women, bless their alien little natures, are just like that. My sense is that Pynchon has always done better with women who are not wholly “good” in the novel’s own terms, which in these cases seem to be the terms of a particularly midcentury masculine fantasy. Only with Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), in characters like Katje Borgesius and Greta Erdmann, neither of them nice or good or otherwise idealized in the novel’s own terms, do I find more development of and space for reader identification.
Gender at Midcentury
I do not know whether the change in Pynchon’s representation of female characters led to more female critics contributing to Pynchon studies. I do know that Vineland was the first of Pynchon’s novels that I had no trouble teaching to young women, both undergraduates and graduates. I could say that the novels Pynchon published after 1990 had many elements of feminist awareness in them, but it would be more accurate to say that from Vineland on there is a dwindling of a prefeminist attitude from the postwar period when Pynchon was coming to maturity and, not incidentally, beginning work on V. It is important to remember that during that time, and in fact up into the 1970s, there was no feminism in general public discourse. I mean not only that very few people, most of us women, read and talked about the theorizations of gender inequality that were coming out of the various second-wave feminist movements but also that we lacked the language for the kinds of subordination, condescension, and violation that we experienced on a daily basis. For instance, widespread use of the word “sexism” to refer to discrimination against women dates to only the late 1960s. In the misogynist culture of the 1950s and 1960s any objection to gender norms was interpreted as personal and pathological. With our current acknowledgment of transsexual rights and gender fluidity it is hard to explain why being told you “wanted a penis” was a stunning putdown, but part of the widespread misogyny, which was also an extreme and dangerous homophobia (another word that did not exist), involved a paranoid policing of gender and sexual boundaries.3
In this atmosphere of suspicion and defensiveness about what men and women are, do and want, Thomas Pynchon was writing his extraordinary first novel V. The style and structure of V. are so sophisticated, authoritative, and daring that as critics we can easily assume that Pynchon emerged into the public gaze fully formed, with exactly the same sensibility that we find in Vineland or Bleeding Edge (2013), to pick the two most obvious female-centered examples.4 But in his first book the author inevitably reproduced at least some of the values of his contemporary society.
If V. itself seems fully mature, the letters and drafts of this novel now in the Harry Ransom Center reveal a young man shaped by his time and place: sometimes callow, sometimes pretentious, sometimes engaged in projects with frat-boy sensibilities (we see those in his undergraduate story “Mortality and Mercy in Vienna,” which features recently graduated partiers who speak and act in ways foreshadowing V.’s Whole Sick Crew), often referring reverently to former professors (white, male) and, most endearingly, given to elaborately constructed puns. Because Pynchon’s first novel comes out of this frame of mind and historical period—out of the writer’s youth and also the strange Cold War culture of the United States—it is a fascinating site for tracking prevailing ideologies of gender.
With its haunting quest theme and satiric evocations of New York bohemian life in the 1950s, V. was an instant success in U.S. high culture, reviewed as “a brilliant and turbulent first novel” in the New York Times Book Review and predicted to be “one of the very best works of the century” by the Atlantic Review.5 But for all its originality, the novel also reproduced some of the most extreme attitudes of a time in which gender politics were so emotionally fraught and passionately promoted that they seemed to be part of a metaphysics in which qualities attributed to men and women were eternal and innate, if often self-contradictory. Differences between men and women, in high culture fiction in particular, were regarded as both self-evident and mysterious. A similar mysteriousness permeated literary ideas about homosexuality and race.6
The central source of mystery was supposed to be women. Cold War literary culture took very seriously Freud’s famous observation that “the great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?’” (421).7 V. of course is a novel about a mysterious woman whose avatars appear at key historical moments in the late nineteenth century and twentieth century. Her association with the archaic, powerful, and enigmatic goddesses chronicled by early twentieth-century popularizers of a new discipline, anthropology, is noted as a scholarly quest in V. (“in the tradition of [James Frazer’s] The Golden Bough or [Robert Graves’s] The White Goddess” ).8 In V., this mythic woman is more a force than a rational actor, personifying and desiring a historical movement toward decadence, the inanimate, and violence rather than being its cause. She is also identified with femininity. For instance, one character presented as a possible manifestation of V., Victoria Wren, appears to see herself as “embodying a feminine principle, acting as a complement to all this bursting, explosive male energy. Inviolate and calm, she watched the spasms of wounded bodies, the fair of violent death, framed and staged, it seemed, for her alone in that tiny square” (224). This still-familiar representation of the feminine is most important, and most mysterious, because she is conceived as the necessary complement to mysterious masculinity, with its “bursting, explosive male energy.” Enigmatically passive, Victoria observes “the fair of violent death” as if it were “framed and staged […] for her alone.” A long tradition of gender theorizing mystifies women in this way, treating silence and passivity as the complement of male violence and in many respects its enabler. This V.’s presence is implicitly damaging to men, although by the logic of the plot it is impossible to specify how, exactly, she is the agent of their destruction.
I come back to the mysterious aspect of female gendering and Pynchon’s brilliant use of this trope in V. I want to look first, however, at one of the ways another celebrated midcentury writer mystified not only femininity but masculinity, and not only in his fiction but in the interest of describing the overwhelming superiority of male writers. In his 1959 collection of short writings Advertisements for Myself Norman Mailer announced, “I have a terrible confession to make. I have nothing to say about any of the talented women who write today.” He went on—“I can only say that the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquillé in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn. […] [T]his verdict may be taken fairly as the twisted tongue of a soured taste, at least by those readers who do not share with me the ground of departure—that a good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls” (472).
Mailer’s catalogue of the qualities of women’s writing is deliberately over the top, with vividly metaphoric descriptions emphasizing infantilism and triviality, sexual dysfunction or aberration, outdatedness or trendiness, psychic disability or perversity (“dykily psychotic”), cosmetic enhancement, and—tucked into a more general disparagement of preciosity—the failure to be Jewish (“Quaintsy Goysy”). Despite the exuberant hyperbole, however, Mailer is in no way parodying himself or a culture of extreme misogyny. In particular, he is not quite offering a metaphor when he concludes that “a good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls.” “Remnant” alludes to a truism of midcentury America that women’s goal in life is to castrate men. For Mailer, balls—even if badly mutilated by women—are necessary to be a “good novelist.”
Pynchon came of age, then, at a time when women were not simply mythologized as constraining, conservative forces pitted against the freedom, adventurousness and irreverence of men (in the long American tradition of Huck Finn escaping Aunt Sally and lighting out for the territories) but were often represented as actively malevolent powers. Further, both male ability and female inconsequence or hostility were conceived in terms of sexual body parts and functions. So in V. we find the counterpart to Mailer’s male novelist with his necessary testicles in the “authoress” whose own novels are associated by simile with menstrual blood: “His wife was an authoress. Her novels—three to date—ran a thousand pages each and like sanitary napkins had gathered an immense and faithful sisterhood of consumers. There’d even evolved somehow a kind of sodality or fan club that sat around, read from her books and discussed her Theory” (131). The self-evident insignificance of this writer’s novels and “Theory” (the capitalization indicates pretentiousness) is gestured at by words like the disparaging “authoress,” the ironically elevated “sodality” (religious fellowship) contrasted with the low-culture trivialization “fan club” to characterize her readers, and most of all by the phrase “like sanitary napkins” to characterize the quality of her books. Exclusively female, her readership is further degraded by its association with waste of the female reproductive system.
The “authoress,” named, in a characteristic Pynchon flourish, Mafia Winsome, is not only a mediocre practitioner of Pynchon’s own craft but embodies the entrapment that in mid-twentieth-century mythology makes even the common woman a menace. In an interchange with Benny Profane she emerges as sexually dangerous to men because she is a constraining and—even more threatening—containing force: “A woman wants to feel like a woman,” Mafia says, “is all. She wants to be taken, penetrated, ravished. But more than that she wants to enclose the man.” Profane perceives the danger in “enclose” and imagines being caught “[w]ith spiderwebs woven of yo-yo string: a net or trap” (313–14).
In this scene the passivity so central to postwar notions of the feminine is itself a snare, with the woman who demands to be “taken, penetrated, ravished” suddenly reversed in her role, transformed from object of sexual conquest into entrapper and potential castrator. Profane sees her as a spider enticing him from the center of her web.
The Good Woman
Mafia provides a tautological description of her desire—“[a] woman wants to feel like a woman”—in the process suggesting that “woman” is an identity that must be achieved.9 In her case, feeling like a woman entails using passivity to surround, hold, and perhaps maim. But the female characters defined as (generally) good women are also given to describing how it feels to be a woman and, more generally, what women are, as if it were central to their characterization to embody an essence. In such a deft and generally pitch-perfect novel it is jarring to encounter Rachel Owlglass lecturing to Profane in her characteristic mode of tolerance, maternal solicitousness, and satisfaction with her subordinate role. Toward the end of the novel she closes an argument with him:
“You have to grow up,” she finally said. “That’s all: my own unlucky boy, didn’t you ever think maybe ours is an act too? We’re older than you, we lived inside you once: the fifth rib, closest to the heart. We learned all about it then. After that it had to become our game to nourish a heart you all believe is hollow though we know different. Now you all live inside us, for nine months, and whenever you decide to come back after that.”
He was snoring, for real.
“Dear, how pompous I’m getting. Good night …” And she fell asleep to have cheerful, brightly colored, explicit dreams about sexual intercourse. (410–11)
Profane, in the name of schlemihlhood, rejects this offer of superabundant nurture, and the overall values of the novel indicate that he is stupid and childish to do so. Indeed, in terms of midcentury gendered values Rachel is exactly what a good woman should be, the fulfillment of enlightened masculine desire. Her claims about her caretaking nature are in many respects the restrained or “soft” version of enclosing, castrating female potential. Precisely in her essentially good-woman traits, she insinuates a threat that Profane spends most of the novel evading. She is endlessly accommodating, accepting his repeated rejections and playing mother to the boy wanderer who in his own good time ought to become the adult partner. She embraces the Genesis parable of woman as rib, here explained as guarding the man’s heart.10 She explicitly associates her role as lover with maternality (“Now you all live inside us, for nine months, and whenever you decide to come back after that”), a particularly potent combination for an assault on embattled manhood (as the arguments of fiction writer and essayist Philip Wylie, which I take up shortly, suggest). And when Profane falls asleep in the middle of her nurturing she makes fun of herself for offering sage advice (“Dear, how pompous I’m getting”) and falls asleep along with him, compliantly having attractive and unthreatening erotic dreams (“cheerful, brightly colored, explicit” and involving mere “sexual intercourse” rather than anything kinkier and/or more damaging).
Although in the novel’s terms the good woman carries overt value, in this passage and elsewhere schlemihlhood is represented in a way intended to make it attractive to readers. Most of the present-day sections of the book deal with the roistering of Profane, Pig Bodine, and other young men, who are contrasted to female characters who threaten to confine them or make them grow up. V. tries to have it both ways, making schlemihlhood part of the decadent trend toward irresponsibility and inhumanity—“offhand I’d say I haven’t learned a goddamn thing” (506)—while also describing the schlemihl’s adventures with enthusiasm and humor.11
Another good woman who delivers a disquisition on womanhood, or in this case girlhood, is the Maltese Paola Maijstral. In her unexplained disguise as the African American prostitute Ruby, she offers succor to the jazzman McClintic Sphere. When he asks, “Do you ever dig what I’m trying to say,” she gives a response that like Rachel’s explains her own nature and desire in terms of what the man wants: “‘On the horn I don’t,’ she answered, honest enough, ‘a girl doesn’t understand. All she does is feel. I feel what you play, like I feel what you need when you’re inside me. Maybe they’re the same thing. McClintic, I don’t know. You’re kind to me, what is it you want?’” (306). Like “a woman” in Mafia’s and Rachel’s disquisitions, in Paola’s dictum “a girl” is a somewhat exotic species, incapable of understanding jazz, and perhaps all communication, but able to feel—another kind of relation to reality, perhaps akin to the modes of interaction more often associated with nonhuman domesticated animals. A girl’s—or presumably a woman’s—capacities, like her desires, are impossible for a man to understand, although he can pronounce on them or, as in this case, write fiction about them.
Paola is a character developed in several contexts, most importantly in the wartime diary of her father, Fausto Maijstral, where she becomes so associated with the mysterious woman V. that she seems to be one of her avatars.12 In the present-day sections, however, she exists only in the context of men: Profane, the Whole Sick Crew, Sphere, Pig Bodine, Rooney Winsome, and, least appealingly, her violent husband, the very minor, mainly offstage character Pappy Hod, to whom—again without explanation—she returns in the end, offering herself as a faithful Penelope who will sit “home in Norfolk, faithful, and spin. Spin a yarn for your home-coming present” (492).
Rape and Race
Rachel and Paola are both presented as good women—Rachel even sings a blues song to that effect (46–47)—but still, the ways they satisfy male desires also make them threatening as potential constrainers and entrappers, like the negatively coded Mafia Winsome. In the gender lore of postwar America, any woman, however good, could be associated with mind-deadening conformity and conservatism, qualities threatening the freedom and creativity of men—and guaranteeing the mediocrity of female artists, as Mailer’s diatribe suggests. One writer most influential in articulating this everyday misogyny was Philip Wylie, whose 1942 best-seller Generation of Vipers put the word “Momism” into general usage and placed the word at the center of a theory drawing together various sources of antiwoman resentment, disdain, and fear. According to Wylie, Mom was an object of worship everywhere in the United States, and every American woman, even the youngest (who in her Cinderella aspect lured men to their doom) was Mom, desiring to catch, tame, and castrate men by whatever means she could, most obviously marriage: “Mom had already shaken him out of that notion of being a surveyor in the Andes which had bloomed in him when he was nine years old, so there was nothing left to do, anyway, but to take a stockroom job in the hairpin factory and try to work up to the vice-presidency. Thus the women of America raped the men, not sexually, unfortunately, but morally, since neuters come hard by morals” (188).
The closing pronouncement of this passage, accusing women of metaphorically raping men, is part of a more general mystification of rape during this period, in which women (in various versions) “brought it on themselves” or “liked it,” so that rape was always to an extent presumed to be a consensual act in which the woman for some reason (shame at her own sexual desire or more of that hankering to castrate) disavowed her own participation. One of the most disturbing scenes in the present-day sections of V. occurs when Josefina, the sister of Profane’s Puerto Rican Alligator Patrol buddies, is found after having been raped by a street gang, “having in a way asked for it” (152). “Angel opened a door at the end of the hall and for half a second Profane saw Fina through it lying on an old army cot, naked, hair in disarray, smiling. Her eyes had become hollowed as Lucille’s, that night on the pool table. Angel turned and showed all his teeth. ‘Can’t come in,’ he said, ‘wait.’ The door closed behind him and soon they heard him hitting her. Angel might have been satisfied only with her life. Profane didn’t know how deep the code ran” (160). Fina, hollow-eyed but smiling, embodies the ambiguities of the rape victim in midcentury consciousness. Even more troubling is Angel’s reaction: he assaults her rather than the perpetrators, and although we don’t know whether he kills her, since Profane leaves, the possibility of an honor killing is real, offered as a requirement of a Puerto Rican “code”: “Angel might have been satisfied only with her life.” Further, apparently not only Profane (for whom turning away is just another affirmation of his schlemihlhood) but also the text acquiesces: the scene is presented as the tragedy of Fina’s undoing, with a dénouement of murder. In this scene not only gender but also ethnicity seems to work according to inscrutably contradictory laws.
The most violent and detailed rape scenes occur in the sections of “Mondaugen’s story” about the unnamed young soldier who participates in the extermination of the Herero people in German South West Africa. This piece of writing is a tour de force, the story of a young man’s euphoric discovery of his capacity for rape, torture, and murder without any sense of moral violation. Narrated only from the young man’s point of view, this story represents both rape and murder as consensual, and here, even more disconcertingly than in the scene of Fina’s rape, there is no implied criticism, no tonal cue that might signal a larger context in which the acts and feelings described are understood to be repellant. Instead, the narration presents native Africans who experience not only rape but also murder as sexual: “Later, toward dusk, there was one Herero girl, sixteen or seventeen years old, for the platoon; and Firelily’s rider was last. After he’d had her he must have hesitated a moment between sidearm and bayonet. She actually smiled then; pointed to both, and began to shift her hips lazily in the dust. He used both” (287). Pynchon clearly is not presenting such events as authorially sanctioned, acts we can take with the kind of erotic pleasure the point-of-view character does. Within the schema of the novel they can be ticked off as instances of degeneration, decadence, descent into the inanimate, and so on. But it seems important that they also exceed these categories, gaining a kind of pathos and intensity that points ahead to the sadomasochistic games of Blicero, Gottfried, and Katje in Gravity’s Rainbow. This kind of excessiveness, always associated with the overdetermined female figure V., is what takes the novel far beyond the gender mystifications of its surrounding culture.
Before further exploring this excessiveness, I want first, however, to look briefly at V.’s most prominent mystifications of racial difference, which were part of an often well-meaning white intellectual culture at midcentury. We get a passing glimpse of the theme of racial discrimination when the white southerner Rooney Winsome reflects on how his overtly racist wife presumes that he, too, hates black people simply because he uses a deeply disparaging word to describe them. “[S]he was in nearly total ignorance about the Southern feeling toward Negroes. She used ‘nigger’ as a term of hatred, not apparently being capable herself of anything more demanding than sledgehammer emotions. Winsome was too upset to tell her it was not a matter of love, hate, like or not like so much as an inheritance you lived with. He’d let it slide, like everything else” (132). The mystification here of the traditional relation of southern white people to southern black people amounts to the idea that Rooney views the people he would call “nigger” with something more complicated than “sledgehammer emotions.” Instead of these emotions he experiences the relationship, or perhaps black people themselves, as “an inheritance you lived with.” The passage explains very little, but it echoes the kinds of bland truism that prominent southern whites often used, especially in opposition to the civil rights movement, to insist that the segregation and subordination of the “Negro” was part of a long, largely benign tradition dating back to slavery, which outsiders couldn’t be expected to understand. Although the explanation is focalized entirely by Winsome, the third-person narrator never intervenes with critical commentary or tonal shifts that might nudge readers to acknowledge how self-serving this cozily privileged version of white supremacy is.13 Even in the North this kind of casual racist statement was not always understood to be racist at all—except of course by black people.
Yet Pynchon also develops the character of the African American jazzman McClintic Sphere to a significant degree, giving him both a prominent place in the present-day sections of V. and the status of a point-of-view character who offers thematically important opinions on how values like hipness and coolness exist in tension with a fundamental mandate to care. The research of Luc Herman and John Krafft shows, however, that Sphere initially had a much larger role in the novel and that Pynchon’s editor at Lippincott persuaded him to make cuts, which had the effect of reducing the black musician to a secondary character. In this case, Pynchon seems less to have internalized the mores of midcentury literary culture than to have followed advice based on the publisher’s ultimate interest in making clear to critics and readers that V. belonged in the category of high-culture novel.
Herman and Krafft’s research reveals how Pynchon’s editor, J. Corlies Smith, prompted Pynchon to play down Sphere because the black musician “strikes something of a false note in that he somehow leads the reader to believe that the Negro problem is going to become at least a side issue” (20). Smith’s letter makes clear that from the editorial and marketing point of view in the early 1960s, a major black character who focalizes elements of the text could only exist as an emblem of the discrimination against him. According to this logic, to make him important would foreground his blackness and make it the primary point of the story. This attitude shows a peculiar kind of racism, one so wound up with contemporary aesthetic prohibitions that its illogic came off as a species of tact and good taste. It worked to keep black characters on the margins of fiction by members of the dominant culture. They could not appear prominently among white characters as friends, romantic interests, or fellow musicians, even though in the New York that is the setting for V., such relations between black and white people were fairly common.
Gender as Enigma
What is most interesting to me about the conventions for thinking about and representing women during this period is that women are so negligible—and/or so powerful—that they don’t and can’t exist as human beings. By this I mean that the misogynist discourse on them gives them no interiority, no real point of view, and thus no motivations that make sense. Readers (female as well as male)—and I suspect the male author as well—do not imagine being any of the female characters. The young Pynchon followed these conventions, which of course were in the air he breathed as well as on the pages of authors he identified as being most important to him like Jack Kerouac—and Norman Mailer.
But it is precisely this convention of woman’s unfathomability that provides the brilliant structural metaphor of V. The passage from Sidney Stencil’s diary inaugurating his son’s search for V. is “There is more behind and inside V. than any of us had suspected. Not who, but what: what is she. God grant that I may never be called upon to write the answer, either here or in any official report” (49). With this intimation that V. is so inscrutable that the figure is a what, rather than a who, V. assumes the incomprehensibility and implicit threat that American high culture imagines women as posing.
Pynchon was bequeathed this construct by his environment and his education, but he went on to enlarge the idea of mysterious, ominous womanhood into an amorphous but never abstract presence associated with violent incidents taking place in the late nineteenth century and first part of the twentieth. I say “associated with,” because in her essential passivity V. is never cause or consequence. Indeed, as Stencil’s memo suggests, in her fearful quiddity the “more” of her being overflows categories, continually threatening in the way that in V. even a good woman threatens, except in the form of radically different avatars and in amorphous, inhuman, apocalyptic ways.
1. For discussion of masculinity in Pynchon’s short stories see Holton.
2. I don’t see Prairie as fully imagined, despite her centrality. Her two-dimensionality coexists with her passivity and her niceness, and to an extent both passivity and niceness are qualities limiting the possibilities for character development in the women Pynchon creates.
3. Of course, there was feminist activism and sophisticated theorizing about gender oppression in the U.S. and in many European countries during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, revolving around the movement to give women the right to vote. Most of that history, however, had vanished into archives or had been trivialized away by the 1950s and 1960s: women who protested were silly and narcissistic or deluded about their own natures and capacities or culpably deviant, failing to accept the roles to which biology destined them either because of serious sexual dysfunction or mental illness.
4. Many readers insist that The Crying of Lot 49 belongs in this list. I don’t regard the book as feminist or even female-centric. Oedipa is not a developed character in terms of having an internal presence and a distinctive point of view—Pynchon makes gestures toward both qualities, but he is so devoted to parody and to the schematics of his most formulaic novel that she is barely credible as a human being. She is also in many ways sentimentalized, a figure of succor and even maternity, while also serving as a plot function in her role of questing hero.
5. Blurbs and quotations are from the cover of the 2009 Harper Perennial edition of V.
6. I use the phrase “high culture” in the sense it had in the 1950s and 60s, as a term referencing works of art that appealed to the educated tastes of an intellectual (and usually economic) elite. Like the boundary between male and female, the border between high and low culture was passionately and paranoiacally policed.
7. If you were a woman taking this sort of thing seriously, you spent a lot of time considering what you did want and wondering why it didn’t seem unfathomable or even terribly different from what men wanted.
8. Pynchon was an undergraduate during a period when one dominant literary-critical method in the United States was the mythic or archetypal approach.
9. A major weapon of gender policing at the time was the notion of the “real woman”—used to denigrate in “You’re not a real woman.” Such a woman failed to live up, or down, to a standard that might be sexual but that also could cover other realms of pleasing, as I discuss in the cases of Rachel Owlglass and Paola Maijstraal.
10. This refers, of course, to the second version of human creation in Genesis. Pynchon seems to have made a rare slip by describing Rachel as being “older than you” but also as having “lived inside you once.”
11. Holton is excellent on the predominance of the eternal boy, or man-on-the-run theme, in U.S. fiction after World War II (38–45).
12. She witnessed the dismantling of V. as the Bad Priest and ends up with one of the objects aligned with V., the disconcerting ivory comb (492).
13. Chapters 1 and 2 of my critical study Woolf’s Ambiguities (2017) deal with the questions raised by tonal cues in free indirect discourse.
Freud, Sigmund. Letter to Marie Bonaparte. Sigmund Freud: Life and Work. Vol. 2. Ed. Ernest Jones. London: Hogarth, 1953. 421.
Herman, Luc, and John Krafft. “Race in Early Pynchon: Rewriting Sphere in V.” Critique 52.1 (2011): 17–29.
Hite, Molly. “Feminist Theory and the Politics of Vineland.” The Vineland Papers: Critical Takes on Pynchon’s Novel. Ed. Geoffrey Green, Donald J. Greiner, and Larry McCaffery. Normal: Dalkey Archive Press, 1993. 134–52.
———. Woolf’s Ambiguities: Tonal Modernism, Narrative Strategy, Feminist Precursors. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017.
Holton, Robert. “‘Closed Circuit’: The White Male Predicament in Pynchon’s Early Stories.” Thomas Pynchon: Reading from the Margins. Ed. Niran Abbas. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003. 37–50.
Pynchon, Thomas. V. New York: Harper Perennial, 2009.
Mailer, Norman. Advertisements for Myself. New York: Signet, 1960.
Wylie, Philip. A Generation of Vipers. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1942.