Narrowing the Possibilities of a Pornographic Redemption in Thomas Pynchon’s Novels
In his 2014 film adaptation of Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson cast Michelle A. Sinclair—otherwise known in the porn industry as “Belladonna”—as Clancy Charlock, in a nod to Sinclair’s own extensive pornographic career (giving her lines like “two at a time,” showing a glimpse of her buttocks) and his own fascination with the history of the California porn industry, which he had previously explored in Boogie Nights (1997). In particular, he is interested in the heyday of the 1970s, what Ben Sachs of the Chicago Reader calls “the expansive adult-entertainment industry that would take root in LA not long after the events” the novel depicts (par. 2). By returning to this theme, Anderson is also, more important for us, demonstrating an understanding of the key thematic and structuring motif in Pynchon’s novel itself, as well as his wider work. Both the film and the novel demonstrate a sexuality that has been uniformly co-opted by regressive, heteronormative fantasies, often used for nefarious purposes by, as Sauncho Smilax in Inherent Vice states, “evildoers known all too well” (238). It is this focus on the socio-historical aspects of porn, as well as its narrative form, which Pynchon uses, that is the subject of this essay.
I focus on two key ideas surrounding Thomas Pynchon and pornography. The first is how he employs the soft-core pornography of the 1970s in the content of his novel and the second is how this use of mainstream pornography indicates the extent to which he has lost faith in the idea that pornography is powerful, liberating, and often redemptive.
Before I begin, it is worth explaining what I mean by the theologically loaded term “redemptive.” In simple terms, Pynchon, I maintain, represents a heterodox pornography in his early work (Gravity’s Rainbow, the most overtly pornographic of his earlier work, serves as my example) as liberating, as capable of establishing territory for a politics of resistance. Luc Herman and Steven Weisenburger argue in Gravity’s Rainbow, Domination and Freedom that Pynchon’s vulgarities don’t “just pierce” but “destroy […] the membrane against vulgarity and obscenity: [they] profane […] the omniscient narrator’s imperial position” (174). We can see this intersection with politics when Thanatz theorizes that “if S and M could be established universally, at the family level, the State would wither away” (737, emphasis added) and in his attempts to erase the “reflexive shame” (737) associated with it. In her excellent essay “Queer Postmodern Practices: Sex and Narrative in Gravity’s Rainbow,” Marie Franco suggests that Thanatz’s remark forms the framework for Pynchon’s pornographies, arguing that it “can thus be read as the most illustrative manifestation of queer practice in the novel, an erotic and narrative practice that replicates the text’s own discursive structure through embodied sexual pleasure” (143). Here we see Pynchon characterize his pornographies using familiar tropes of family, community, and acceptance of “deviant” or queer practices. Sex in a nonnormative form works as an active counter to the smothering appropriation and control of “Them.” A proper Manichean duality is set up in the novel, with the forces of sex (eros) in direct opposition to the forces of death (thanatos). Pynchon’s pornographies transcend the need for sanctioning by oppressive or controlling forces; they revel in the raw political power of kink. The resistant power of oppressed or preterite characters, acts of mutual care or community, and the fragility of human connections (Roger and Jessica in Gravity’s Rainbow, for instance) are often illustrated in Pynchon’s writing with sex.
The pornographic content in Gravity’s Rainbow not only reflects Pynchon’s political ideals but also his theology. Pynchon’s politics in Gravity’s Rainbow are heavily inflected by religious ideas, from the control system that is depicted as Calvinist doctrine in motion to the Zone-Hereros who construct an alternative, unorthodox religion of escape for themselves by embracing their own marginalization. John McClure in Partial Faiths refers to this political use of theology as “supernatural multiculturalism” (19), a coming together of Pynchon’s interest in the religious notion of salvation/redemption, the excitement of reforming religion and politics to create something radically new, and his eagerness to promote a politics of diversity. Indeed, “postsecularism,” McClure maintains, “is politics through and through” (20). Pynchon’s pornographies, I argue, are an extension of this notion. He is interested in the radical possibilities of pornography, the boundaries it can break and the political power that the erotic can wield. While Pynchon is often critically described as giving voice to a kind of “liberation theology” in his work, I determine that he is also interested in creating what I call “liberation pornography,” which informs my reading of Gravity’s Rainbow here and brings to light the underplayed importance of explicit sex therein. As Franco argues, Pynchon’s pornographies “might suggest a far more capacious approach to literary categorization in which the importance of sex and sexuality refigures literary history through a pleasure in perversities, linking high and low culture, male and female authors” (142).
Yet while I see Gravity’s Rainbow as a novel that represents liberation pornography as an expression of positive political ideas, Inherent Vice does the opposite. In his essay “Manson Chicks and Microskirted Cuties,” Simon Cook points to a narrowing of the otherwise expansive pornographic possibilities in Inherent Vice: “Pynchon is a long-time exhibitor of sexual excess and nonnormative sexualities taken to bizarre extremes, to all manners of ends, but in his seventh novel the intimate interactions of his characters are constrained within a kind of flatness and conventionality, a shadow of the experimentation of his earlier fictions” (1147, emphasis added). This “conventionality” is key to understanding how Pynchon presents his pornographies in Inherent Vice and important for assessing how he now relates porn to notions of spiritual and political redemption. Cook is interested in dissecting the pornographic content of Inherent Vice, while I aim to show how the general pornographic tone of the novel is distinct from that of his earlier work and to consider the implications this change in tone has for our understanding of Pynchon’s approach to writing pornographically.
My question, then, is why has Pynchon narrowed the scope of the redemptive possibilities of his pornographies? There are two potential answers to this question, answers that could go hand in hand. First, Pynchon sees the 1970s themselves as a period of narrowing, a time of industrialized porn that led to a homogenization of sexual appetites that makes no space for heterodox and liberating approaches to sex and sexual identity. Second, an older Pynchon seems to be rethinking his approach to his pornographic writing, finding problems with his earlier work and seeing in retrospect the exploitation of the industry. In the wake of the hippy era and the sexual revolution, a time that informs much of Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon appears to have become jaded and to have lost hope in the idea of sex as redemptive.
Before we delve into a comparative study of the pornographies of the two novels, it is worth looking at the kind of pornography that informs Inherent Vice, that of the early days of the California porn industry in the late 1950s and 1960s. The first commercially successful porn films were known as the “nudie cuties,” the archetypical film in the genre being Russ Meyer’s The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959), which was the first American sex film to be booked by art theaters (Briggs 23). The film itself contains no sex at all. Instead, Mr. Teas uses the X-ray vision he has acquired to spy on a variety of women naked. Lewis and Friedman’s The Adventures of Lucky Pierre (1961) likewise features voyeurism, sans the X-ray vision.1 Pynchon incorporates this initial focus on voyeurism into the pornographies of Inherent Vice. Doc Sportello’s adventures in the novel can be read as a series of discrete voyeuristic fantasies. He is the archetypical male within a nudie cutie—hidden, socially awkward, but very horny. He is aroused at the notion of Clancy Charlock’s threesome, he is privy to the 1960s sex comedy pastiche of the antics of Rudy Blatnoyd and his secretary, and he is denied interaction with Jade and Bambi at the Chick Planet Massage Parlor but is content to observe (“Doc thought he should keep watching for a while” ). Pynchon frequently depicts Doc’s hard-ons, erections that are never brought to completion. Like Mr. Teas and Lucky Pierre, Doc becomes the hidden observer and, alongside the reader, the viewer of the porn himself. Pynchon’s liberation pornography requires sex between a community of two or more, but Doc is positioned as the isolated outsider, the voyeur, the lonesome masturbator. The pornographies of Inherent Vice produce an internalization of sex rather than promote the external relations we see in Gravity’s Rainbow. No power is exercised and there is no redemption, as the eroticism only occurs inside the imaginative fantasies of an isolated individual. There is no space for the community or resistance that Thanatz theorizes. The power of the porn is what withers, not the state.
What’s more, voyeurism denies power rather than grants it. The frisson of voyeurism derives from seeing that which you were not meant to see. Consent is not a part of the voyeur’s fantasy; in fact those being observed must be unaware that they are being observed: agency is robbed from them and bodies are objectified against their will. The dynamic of the singular onanist is referenced in Gravity’s Rainbow as an apparatus of control, a counter to the more social and communal pornographies that Pynchon explores: “[A]ll these novels, these films and songs they lull us with, they’re approaches, more comfortable and less so, to the Absolute Comfort […], the self-induced orgasm” (155). Russ Meyer himself was less interested in sex and more in the act of illicitly observing vulnerability. His later films such as Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965), Mondo Topless (1966)—which represents the sexual revolution of the 1960s not as a liberating movement but as a vehicle for the voyeur—and the infamous Supervixens (1975) all invite the male viewer to enjoy not the sex but the bodies on show. Joe Bob Briggs writes that Meyer “was never concerned with a story arc, and his patented fast cutting was frequently so disorientating as to sap all the eroticism out of his sex scenes […]. [H]e was unconcerned with anything below the waist, with male beauty, or with the sex act itself” (22).
Doc’s voyeurism doesn’t just emulate the frothy silliness of Meyer’s porn and sex comedies. There is a darker side too, represented by the seamy underworlds that Doc descends into, including that of Californian porn. Clancy’s sexually provocative relationships are depicted as erotic, but they are also embedded in the narrative of the rise of neo-Nazis in America. The comedy of Blatnoyd fooling around with his secretary is darkened by his pedophilic relationship with Japonica Fenway. In every porn scene Doc finds himself haplessly flung into, there is a dark and deeply historical tale of Californian exploitation, oppression, and violence.
Porn in Inherent Vice does not provide avenues of redemption for the preterite or escape from controlling powers but simply serves to cater for Doc’s fantasies. One might object, however, that porn in Pynchon’s earlier novels never provides an avenue of redemption for women. In Thomas Pynchon and American Counterculture, Joanna Freer, for example, points out that “in all of Pynchon’s novels, [women] are more often than not […] objects of desire whose sex appeal is conveyed by (soft) pornographic imagery catering to the male gaze” (151). I am inclined to agree with Freer here, but there is a difference between the pornographic portrayal of women in the earlier work and in Inherent Vice: in Gravity’s Rainbow, porn is intended to provide redemptive avenues that mirror Pynchon’s theology and politics, while Inherent Vice is a self-critique of the idea that porn is capable of that. Pynchon’s pornographies in Gravity’s Rainbow reflect a time when porn was becoming recognized as an art form. Deep Throat came out in 1972; it was the first porn film to achieve critical success and acclaim and went on to become a cinematic milestone. Indeed, Franco believes that Pynchon’s postmodernism is deeply invested in a progressive vision of pornography of the day: Gravity’s Rainbow’s queerness “can destabilize the presumed heteromasculinity of high postmodernism, since we might reconsider postmodernism in relation to the historically and thematically overlapping proliferation of queer pornographies after the 1969 Stonewall Uprising” (142–43). In 2009, Pynchon finds himself in a world where this is no longer the case—porn is homogenized and packaged and has become a huge and exploitative industry in itself. It has been co-opted by the very powers that Pynchon hoped it would act against.
A Genealogy of Objects
As I have argued, and as Cook has before me, Inherent Vice’s mosaic of pornographic scenes are playful, imitating a 1970s soft-core model, even as they allude to dark, corrupt, and exploitative worlds. As the novel progresses, the seamy side comes to prevail. This is exemplified in the “return of Shasta” passage, a scene where Doc actually gets to have sex.2 This transformation of Doc from voyeur to participant comes with a strong and troubling shift in tone.
Shasta’s return toward the end of the novel forms a belated climax to discreet pornographic moments that inform Doc’s previous adventures—the moment of release of a culmination of hard-ons. However, his sex with Shasta is not merely a discrete event but is also the culmination of his sexual fantasies, and the eroticism of the scene thus derives from the morass of pornographic desires that have infected Doc throughout the novel. The scene is written to be more disturbing than erotic.
Having been corrupted by the darkening California he has immersed himself into, Doc then becomes the cipher for pornographic heteronormative expectations, and in turn Shasta becomes the ideal of the pornified 1970s California girl—not liberated by the sexual revolution but instead transformed by it into erotic persona, a dead-eyed girl lifted straight from Mondo Topless. We become privy to the aggressive, exploitative, and violent fantasy laid bare without the frothy artifice that informs the rest of Doc’s sexual interactions when Shasta describes how her former boyfriend Mickey used to treat her:
“[H]e’d bring me to lunch in Beverly Hills, one big hand all the way around my bare arm, steering me blind down out of those bright streets into some space where it was dark and cool and you couldn’t smell any food, only alcohol—they’d all be drinking, tables full of them in a room that could’ve been any size, and they all knew Mickey there, they wanted, some of them, to be Mickey…. He might as well have been bringing me in on a leash. He kept me in these little micromini-dresses, never allowed me to wear anything underneath, just offering me to whoever wanted to stare. Or grab. Or sometimes he’d fix me up with his friends. And I’d have to do whatever they wanted….” (305)
While deliberately disturbing and full of the menace of an imbalanced power dynamic between male and female, this passage is still constructed pornographically. This isn’t the testimony of an abused individual; Shasta knows that Doc finds this erotic, and by extension Pynchon writes this scene using pornographic language. The depiction of abuse (and to be clear—Shasta at this point in the narrative is a victim of prolonged sexual abuse) is eroticized. Shasta relates her experiences while beginning to “unhurriedly stroke her nipples” (304); she is “draped across his lap, her hands beneath her playing with her pussy, her ass irresistibly presented” (305). Pynchon seems to be implying that Shasta herself finds her story autoerotic. Pynchon’s masterstroke here is to weave in subtle references to pornographic fantasies he has primed us with before. “And I’d have to do whatever they wanted” suggests women’s lack of agency in such fantasies, and “offering me to who ever wanted to stare” refers to voyeurism. By making Shasta’s abuse a pornographic fantasy for Doc, Pynchon is confronting us with the reality of the pornographic artifices he has presented us with in other novels. By showing this juxtaposition between Shasta’s dialogue and her actions, Pynchon shows that sexual exploitation and pornographic language occupy the same disquieting space. Cook notes that it “becomes almost impossible to read the Doc-Shasta play as anything other than explicitly consensual” (1158), but it is precisely this incorporation of consent into the fantasy that is troubling.
While this is an isolated scene in Inherent Vice and very different in tone from other scenes, Shasta nevertheless represents the zenith of a genealogy of sexualized women across Pynchon’s work, and the confrontation of the exploitation and violence that saturates the scene represents the kind of narrowing I have been addressing. Contra Cook’s suggestion that Pynchon is a proponent of kink and queerness in his pornographies, this sexual pioneering is still presented—as Freer thinks—from a male perspective, pornified in a fashion that caters for the heterosexual male viewer. Pynchon’s representations of sex, while multitudinous, heterodox, and diverse, still either feature or cater to the male. In Gravity’s Rainbow, the “liberation pornography” that Pynchon embarks on comes at the expense of the novel’s many “pleasant-looking female characters” (Freer 12). The character who serves as the prototype of Shasta’s problematic “hypersexuality” is Katje Borgesius.
Katje, like Shasta, is treated as a pornographic object in the text. Her sexuality is exploited by various male characters (including Blicero), and, like Shasta, she is depicted taking a certain masochistic enjoyment in her subjugation. Indeed, she takes autoerotic pleasure in her image as a passive sexual object when she looks at herself posing erotically: “At the images she sees in the mirror [she] also feels a cameraman’s pleasure” (94). Although, of course, the inclusion of the word “cameraman” grounds the scene in cinematic porn, the pleasure she finds here is not that of external agency; rather, her pleasure derives from a regressive internalized acceptance of her own status as a sexualized object. Vivid and erotic scenes are described in the novel the way stills from a porn film are: “[Katje is] only passive, bound and gagged and false-eyelashed, serving tonight as a human pillow for the Italian’s whitening perfumed curls” (94). She is an object for the gratification of powerful controlling males and in turn a proxy for the reader’s own gratification. Katje’s scenes are pornographic within the context of the story and also pornographic on the page.
A difference between Shasta and Katje, however, emerges from Katje’s sex scene with Slothrop. The focus of this scene is again on her body as a sexual object, and it is written in a pornographic style: “[A]s they fuck she quakes, body strobing miles beneath him in cream and night-blue” (196). But while Katje’s body is sexual in her orgasm, the mention of the traditional colors of the Holy Mary (“cream and blue”) suggest that there are religious allusions encoded within this scene and that it may therefore be oriented toward religious modes of redemption and salvation. Shasta’s scene offers no such redemption and can be seen as pointing to a disconnect between sexual fantasy and sexual violence. Doc is depicted as a man whose fantasies damn him to the darkening world he is inhabiting, while Slothrop instead is privy to possibilities of paranoia and potential escape. However, Slothrop’s possible redemption still comes at the expense of the objectification of the female body. “She has sunk to the deep bed, pulling him along” (196), suggests a woman playing the role of the sexual agent that caters to the erotic fantasies of men, as further evidenced by Slothrop’s hurried and expectant undressing, his childish “oboy oboy” (196), and Katje’s own sense of resignation as she “[k]now[s] what is expected of her” (196).
In Gravity’s Rainbow there is a dichotomy between mutual sex acts and contrived, pornographic ones. The sex scene between Slothrop and Katje is particularly contrived, consciously constructed as a pornographic one. Katje assumes more of an “actor” role than a sex partner role, as Slothrop’s paranoia transforms the sex into a manipulative setup at his expense. As his paranoia peaks, Katje appears to transmute into something demonic and threatening: “[A] terrible beastlike change com[es] over muzzle and lower jaw, black pupils growing to cover the entire eye space till whites are gone and there’s only the red animal reflection when the light comes to strike” (196). This transformation mirrors Katje’s own past relationship with the equally bestial Blicero, so much so that Slothrop imagines her as an extension of him, a sexual construct created entirely by him.3 The same applies to Shasta. Shasta becomes the vehicle for Wolfmann’s own sexual power fantasy, a fantasy that Doc then assumes. Doc’s inability to not engage in sex with Shasta could almost be seen as a Pavlovian response to the pornography he has become accustomed to, similar to Slothrop’s conditioning.
Slothrop, alert to the possibility that this is all a constructed and staged event, a predetermined scene in a film, wonders if Katje is merely playing the part of a willing sexual partner, given that she is “full of careful technique.” “[I]s it for her,” he asks himself, “or wired into the Slothropian Run-together they briefed her on[?]” (196). As we move toward the end of the passage, cinematic artifice begins to forcibly invade the scene:
He grabs his own pillow and swings it at her. She ducks, rolls, hits the deck feinting with her pillow, backing toward the sideboard where the booze is. He doesn’t see what she has in mind till she throws her pillow and picks up the Seltzer bottle.
The what, The Seltzer Bottle? What shit is this, now? What other interesting props have They thought to plant, and what other American reflexes are They after? Where’s those banana cream pies, eh? (197, emphasis in the original)
The seltzer bottle adds to Slothrop’s suspicion that the event is staged, and the narrator joins him in his paranoia. Objects become props, Slothrop’s sexual partner an actor, and the scene’s tone becomes increasingly focused on the pornography of Katje’s body, complete with the implied “money shot” of brandy splashing “around her neck, between her black-tipped breasts, down her flanks” (197). The added comic trope of the seltzer bottle (the “American Reflex”) clearly references cinema and turns this scene into a Meyeresque blend of sex and comedy. The “cream pie” also has pornographic connotations, being associated with slang for the act of ejaculating into the vagina.
In Gravity’s Rainbow, the pornographic content that Pynchon delineates as oppressive is depicted with particularly filmic language. Scenes are consciously constructed as they would be in a pornographic film, similar to Inherent Vice, but the intention behind them is different. While both represent certain pornographies as damaging and oppressive, Gravity’s Rainbow also shows the same pornographies as sexually exciting, explicit, and adventurous. Pynchon depicts the sex in Gravity’s Rainbow as pornography in order to elicit a sexual reaction from the reader (particularly the heterosexual male reader). Inherent Vice’s porn is deliberately flat and conventional and rarely resolves itself satisfactorily. Pynchon’s intentional displacement of the raw eroticism of his writing allows for a critique of his prior exuberance regarding exploitative pornographies. Shasta’s harrowing seduction of Doc appears pornographic but assumes a more horrific aspect in its emphasis on her exploitation, showing in a stark light the inadequacies and violence of this particular male fantasy, while a younger Pynchon revels in nymphomaniac desire as his female characters are controlled, degraded, and raped. In one scene, a fight between Katje and Slothrop ends in rape, qualified only by the narrator’s letting us know that Katje seems to enjoy it: “Katje turns her head and sinks her teeth in his forearm, up near the elbow where the Pentothal needles used to go in. ‘Ow, shit—’ he lets go the arm he’s been twisting, pulls down underwear, takes her by one hip and penetrates her from behind, reaching under to pinch nipples, paw at her clitoris, rake his nails along inside her thighs, Mister Technique here, not that it matters, they’re both ready to come—Katje first, screaming into the pillow, Slothrop a second or two later” (222). The image here of the mutual orgasm, a moment of connectivity, could also be considered exploitative, a simulation of female agency that does not present autonomy but instead feeds into a violent category of sexual fantasy. In typical heteronormative fashion, it is Slothrop’s orgasm that is the active one here, with Katje’s own only there seemingly to justify the rape fantasy. A. W. Eaton in “A Sensible Antiporn Feminism” calls out this kind of pornographic motif for depicting “women deriving sexual pleasure from a range of inegalitarian relations and situations, from being the passive objects of conquest to scenarios of humiliation, degradation, and sexual abuse” and for presenting “these representations of subordination in a manner aimed to sexually arouse” (680).
Indeed, sex in Gravity’s Rainbow is mostly dedicated to the achievement of the male orgasm. The phallocentric theme of the rocket itself penetrating the earth is even alluded to in the scene described, the violent sexual imagery of Katje’s orgasm manifested in her “screaming” reflecting the rocket’s own “screaming” as it “comes across the sky” (1), the inevitable and cataclysmic power of the male orgasm referenced in Katje’s own realization of the world as “over its peak and down, plunging, burning, towards a terminal orgasm” (223). Katje’s agency never amounts to more than realizing certain truths about the domination of male power in the world that Pynchon creates, and her only option is to accept it. As Yves-Marie Léonet observes in “A Tale Reversed: Thomas Pynchon’s Rewriting of Grimm’s ‘Hansel and Gretel,’” “[Katje] plays her part perfectly, but one is never allowed to affirm that she is doing more than carrying out orders” (45). While Léonet claims this is indicative of the novel’s “ontological uncertainty” (45), it also reflects Pynchon’s own attitudes to pornography. He allows his pornographic writing to cater to the male perspective (be it in the liberating or the oppressive mode), and he thus allows the female players within it only to acquiesce to it. The trajectory from Katje to Shasta is clear: these women are young, pretty, and often silent and resigned to their position as sexual objects. This is precisely what Andrea Dworkin refers to as “sexual colonialization,” in which “scenarios of dominance and submission are internalized” (Wilson 25). The clear difference between Katje and Shasta is that in Shasta’s case Pynchon wants us to be horrified, not titillated, by this notion. The idea of the pornified woman is now the subject rather than the object of his narrative.
Pynchon performs this subtle shift by allowing Shasta to narrate her own pornography instead of presenting it through the third-person narration:
“If my girlfriend had run away to be the bought-and-sold whore of some scumbag developer? I’d just be so angry I don’t know what I’d do. Well, no, I’m even lying about that, I know what I’d do. If I had the faithless little bitch over my lap like this—” Which was about as far as she got. Doc managed to get in no more than a half dozen sincere smacks before her busy hands had them both coming all over the place. “You fucker!” she cried—not, Doc guessed, at him—“You bastard ….” (305)
Shasta is therefore given agency, which she underscores by conjuring up erotic imagery that feels more like a series of accusations leveled at Doc’s onanism than an attempt to cater to it. Of course it is not that Doc is the “fucker” in question because of Wolfmann, but simply because he is not a fucker, he is a fantasizer. She teases Doc with his own dark sexual fantasies: “I hope they’re not planning to sell me to some horrible Chinese Communist gang of perverts who’ll do all kinds of horrible Chinese stuff to me …” (307). A younger Pynchon may have provided us with a comic version of this scene once upon a time, featuring deliberately stereotyped Chinese gang members, Shasta struggling coyly in chains like Fay Wray in King Kong’s grip, but in stead there is no artifice, no possibility of softening the reality of what happened to her under Wolfmann, and we are left with a bare accusation of this fantasy, Shasta implying that Doc can be turned on by sex slavery, exploitation, and rape (the bread and butter of the 1970s soft- and hard-core scene). Indeed, it seems to work, and much like Slothrop, whose relationship with the rocket is predestined, Doc inevitably succumbs to an act of violent sex (albeit much more explicitly in Anderson’s adaptation).
So to conclude, we see Pynchon’s growing awareness of the exploitation he is engaging in when he writes women into his pornographic scenes. In Katje’s sex scenes, we are invited to ogle the otherworldly beauty of her body, enjoy the erotic possibilities of her acquiescence to control. Slothrop is depicted as the fool, a hapless agent caught up in a pornographic scene and brought to ontological instability by it. Shasta on the other hand allows no such innocence for Doc—we are not invited to find her arousing despite the pornographic overlay the scene has. Instead, like Doc, we are invited to take on the perspective of the controlling power structure, given a stark choice to revel in her trauma or find discomfort in her accusations of what we/Doc find erotic.
While Pynchon is therefore not offering any liberation via Gravity’s Rainbow’s sex scenes to the female characters—and this in itself is deeply problematic as Freer states—these pornographies offer up spiritual possibilities to male participants. Katje’s sex scene with Slothrop grants him escape via anonymity when his identification is stolen midcoitus and enables him to free himself to a degree from his paranoia. The gross but incredibly pornographic section with Pudding and Katje follows a gnostic ritual that provides him some catharsis despite being part of Pointsman’s plan to bully and control him. Greta Erdmann becomes the kabbalist image of the Shekhinah, the feminized aspect of God, as she is presented as literal pornographic object fathering children across the Zone via her porn films. Tchitcherine’s sex with Geli Tripping allows him to escape a predestined meeting with Enzian, Geli expressing her sexual agency in the form of a prayer: “May this, my own darkness, shelter him” (734). Female sexuality and the pornographic representations of it are given transcendent power, and this is universally expressed in the novel as male transcendence via, or at the cost of, female sexual agency. In fact, representations of female sexuality usually give way to the exposition of wider religious themes—often apocalyptical—at the expense of an authentic portrayal, and as Catharine Stimpson has argued, this “provokes a mixture of contempt for contemporary sexuality and reverence for an atavistic mode” (77). In Inherent Vice the pornography is never permitted these connotations. Male characters are not “protected” or given routes out of their oppression but spiral further into controlling fetishism, damaging pornographic fantasy, and exploitative actions.
Pynchon’s approach to porn in his later works does then both suggest a narrowing of the redemptive possibility of the medium and also a more pessimistic take on the movements and ideas that birthed his positive take on it in the first place. I have described how Pynchon saw porn as potentially liberating, an idea that came to him during a period of the avant-garde acceptance of porn as an art form, and how this mentality grew out of sexual liberation. However, in Inherent Vice, Pynchon points to the shadowy side of the sexual revolution with one very telling line: “Anybody with any claim to hipness ‘loved’ everybody, not to mention other useful applications, like hustling people into sex activities they might not, given the choice, much care to engage in” (5). I believe that this single line goes a long way to expressing this narrowing of the redemptive possibilities of sex and porn in his later work and in fact goes so far as to remove it from the narrative of liberation that Pynchon engages with entirely. However, an easy mistake to make here would be to conclude that an older Pynchon is becoming more conservative about sex, about the sexual revolution and the positive forces that it spawned. This is not the case; this narrowing is not a condemnation of the free love movement but more of a lament over the realities of what it became. Pynchon’s liberating spaces, at least in his earlier novels (the Zone being the prime example of this), are always transitory and usually collapse in on themselves. Pynchon seldom critiques these spaces or the ideologies that inform them, but he does often lament their inevitable co-option into control systems. This is true of free love and pornography. In Inherent Vice he is wrestling with the tawdry end result of pornography and also voicing a disquiet about his own depictions of it in his past novels.4
Cook claims that the material in Inherent Vice on Charles Manson stands as a sort of avatar for the end of the hippie dream, “a tokenistic piece of horror-show: paranoids writing on the wall about the end of the hippie era and implosion into violence,” and sees Manson as a “totem of extremity and control” (1145). Cook is correct that Manson’s ghostly presence in the novel represents some sort of epochal shift in Pynchon’s view of hippies, but I would argue that he is less totemic and more symptomatic of the deep problems I have laid out in this chapter. The Mansonoid fantasies of Doc, the pornified notion of the “submissive hippie chick,” are part of Pynchon’s own much more critical view of pornography as a literary device. Porn no longer presents us with the political resonance of Thanatz’s s/m treatise or the spiritual resonance afforded by Slothrop or Pudding’s catharsis through a “divine female,” but instead reflects a darker, more embedded, social malady, what Sauncho calls “an obsessive death wish” (119) and what Denis refers to as “darker type activities” (136).
Pynchon’s porn is still written, I would say, to arouse. He uses pornographic language that reflects the sensibilities of the mainstream porn industry. He does not shy away from the erotic in his old age but instead demands that we share in his unease, his disquiet, and his reformation of his sense of the history of pornography. Inherent Vice is an immolation of his previous pornographic ideas, an erasure of his previous desire to synthesize religion, politics, and sex. The novel offers very little in the way of answers as to how porn can be a positive within his literary worlds, offering instead a critical and self-aware look backward into the corpus.
1. The Adventures of Lucky Pierre crops up more often that you would imagine in postmodern American fiction. Robert Coover’s 2002 novel The Adventures of Lucky Pierre references the film, and even more tellingly, Pig Bodine (Pynchon’s resident smutty boor) broadcasts “LUCKY PIERRE RUNS AMOK” (V. 219) from the USS Scaffold.
2. Discounting his sex with Penny—we are not privy to this, and this is not depicted pornographically. In fact, it is Penny who points out the pornographic fantasies of Doc that are realized later.
3. While I am tracing a lineage between Katje and Shasta, it does seem apparent that Pynchon is aligning Blicero and Wolfmann here. The use of the wolf as an image of an aggressive, animalistic trait of male power fantasy is employed in both texts. Shasta describes Wolfmann as “fast, brutal, not what you’d call a considerate lover, an animal, actually” (305), and Blicero is described at times as a werewolf: “Blicero had grown on, into another animal … a werewolf … but with no humanity left in its eyes” (485). This connecting idea of “wolf-hood” is an interesting one, and this congruence of Blicero and Wolfmann does suggest a perennial notion of masculinity running across Pynchon’s work, as well as aligning the women that fall under male power.
4. We can see this disquiet forming in Vineland. The Kunoichi Sisterhood are presented as a stone-cold military outfit, a sustainable and ethical community. However, Pynchon plays around with its pornographic potential. Customers arrive “with ogling in mind, expecting some chorus line of Asian dewdrops” (107). Instead they are given the opposite—a pannational and deeply serious group. The Kunoichi transcend the smut of being pornified, which they use to gain political capital. As Samuel Thomas in Pynchon and the Political writes, “[T]he Kunoichi want to sell ‘fantasy’ experiences to dubious men with military haircuts and large credit limits” (145). The exploiters become the exploited.
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