The hot ticket this summer

Thousands are sure to flock to Lublin, in Poland, and not just for its associations with Jewish mysticism. This summer the International Pynchon conference is being held between 9-12 June. I’ll be giving a talk that may have some resemblance to the following abstract.

“Can you tell me, please, where is reality?”- Imagined Utopias in Inherent Vice

Pynchon’s novels contain multiple alternate time lines and realities, often in contradiction of one another. In this paper I argue that what interests Pynchon about such versions of history is not their ‘truth’ or otherwise (which is itself unverifiable) but how they are employed by people to meet different ends (ideological, social, personal), such as how to explain (and perhaps excuse) a present they view as lamentable, especially when they perceive themselves as being unable to effect meaningful change. One of the major themes of Inherent Vice is of a Fall from an imagined Utopia of the past- the sunken continent of Lemuria. Whilst this is a comment on nostalgia, and the need to believe that the past was better, it can also be seen as a way of avoiding responsibility for the ills of the present. By repeatedly invoking the idea of a ‘karmic adjustment’, Pynchon creates a pervasive sense of collective guilt, which whilst seeming to implicate ‘us’ (as a species, as a society) nonetheless spares us as individuals: the ‘sins’ for which we are paying were committed by others long before us. In some ways, this is the antithesis of the conspiracy theories beloved of Pynchon’s characters: there is no ‘they’ who can be blamed; there is only ‘us’. Whilst a long shadow hangs over the novel— cast by our knowledge, in hindsight, of the American political landscape from the 1970s to the present —Pynchon, as in his previous novels (most notably Gravity’s Rainbow) suggests that one ‘price’ for the ‘Fall’ has been our growing submission to technology. In the novel television, automobiles, and a proto-internet are all presented as being of equal (or greater) narcotic power to the illicit drugs consumed within the novel. These are shown to cause distortions of temporal and spatial perception that echo those which characterise the ‘crisis of historicity’ described by Harvey (1995), and more recently, Currie (2007) and Huehls (2009).

However, the novel is more than a straightforward paen for the ‘swinging sixties’. Just as the ‘sins’ of Lemuria are supposed by some of the novel’s characters to be the ‘cause’ of their problems, so Pynchon invites us, perhaps with a wink, to draw a link between the characters actions in his imagined version (or even, myth) of late 1960s California and our political present. One possible reading of the novel is that the many forms of escape, denial and avoidance exemplified by the characters (most of them drug-induced) have, by virtue of the political apathy they foster, contributed to the triumph of free-market values. But this seems a somewhat reactionary position for Pynchon to take. Given the distrust evidenced throughout much of his work for ideologies on both the right and the left, and also his habitual focus on the non-heroes of history (who are usually more observers than agents within the plot of the novels), Pynchon’s characters’ drug-induced retreats from ‘reality’— into fantasies of time-travel, alien abduction, or past-lives —can thus be considered the only form of resistance available, the nearest there is to ‘escape’ from the many traps of the present.

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