When Even the Best is Bad: Thomas Pynchon's Alternatives to the Wasteland
McLester-Greenfield, Owana K.
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Four of Thomas Pynchon's virtually ignored short stories are cruclal to a full appreciation and understanding of his larger works; contained in them, in seminal form, is every theme around which "V.," "The Crying of Lot 49" and "Gravity's Rainbos" revolve. In the most important of his nine short works, Pynchon introduces the gamut of alternatives for human action in the face of a contemporary Wasteland, the nightmare world of chaos, absurdity and corruption which is reality this twentieth century. The human responses presented in "Mortality and Mercy in Vienna," "Low-lands," "Entropy" and "The Secret Ingegration" are developed and expanded upon in "V." and "Lot 49," and throughout the six works, Pynchon advocates active resistance to the negative forces which drive the universe; passivity insures a death-in-life existence and is certainly and irrevocably damning. In "Mortality and Mercy in Vienna" emerges the most extreme of the delineated responses. A savior in the person of Cleanth Siegel effects, through an act of annihilation, a cleansing redemption for a decadent flock and an absolute deliverance from the void. In "V.," the annihilation motif explodes in dimension, with Lady V., Hugh Godolphin and the Whole Sick Crew illustrating a communal, historical death-drift via an obsession with inanimacy; in "Lot 49," several characters prefer suicide to that more subtle extinction. Dennis Flange of "Low-lands" decides on withdrawal from a failed self born of his tendency to passivity. Retreating into a fantasy submarine world with a fictional image of a former self, he substitutes one death realm for another. In the subsequent novels, Flange is reincarnated in Benny Profane, Fausto Maijstral and the desperate citizens who comprise the Tristero. Manifesting what will prove to be a lasting preoccupation with the second law of thermodynamics and the field of information theory, "Entropy" introduces Pynchon's fascination with the application of scientific principles to literature. Additionally, in the actions of Callisto and, Meatball Mulligan surfaces a polarity of alternatives to twentieth century reality: passive withdrawal into the hothouse of the past and active involvement in the riotous Street of the present. While Callisto determines upon an absurd lifestyle, as will Sildney Stencil and several characters in the second novel, Mulligan stands as the most heroic of Pynchon's many anti-heroes; his futile struggle is revealed as the best, and most dlfficult, of possible alternatives to the Wasteland. The first of the author's paranoid questers is presented in "The Secret Integration," the story of a children's conspiracy formed to undermine a malicious adult plot which thrives in Mingeborough, Massachusetts. The actively rebellious Operation Spartacus embarks upon a quest which, if destined to ultimate failure, allows nonetheless for a measure of achievement and the state of "greenness." The paranoia which enables the Spartacan ringleader, Grover Snodd, to refashion sinister events of his daily life into an adult cabal, allows Herbert Stencil and Oedipa Maas to reinvent terrifyingly random void worlds through the mental projections of a malevolent "V."-plot and a ubiquitous Tristero conspiracy. Mingeborough's small-scale rebellion mushrooms in the novels into the obsessive paranoid quests which, if imbued with dangers and defects, guarantee the survival of Stencil and Oedipa. Throughout the short stories, "V." and "The Crying of Lot 49," Pynchon endorses active, albeit vain, combat against the negative forces of degradation, dehumanization and death. A brief concluding glance at "Gravity's Rainbow" discloses the consequence of a universal tendency to non-resistance and voluntary acquiescence to systems of control and destruction. Pynchon's third novel, in many respects a summation of his earlier works, depicts, through such figures as Katje Borgesius, Franz Pokler and Edward Pointsman, an accretion of refusals to act. The death of the world is the price, ultimately, to be paid for passivity.
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