The Leaden Feeling of the Cosmos

The New Yorker‘s litblog, the Book Bench, has posted a lengthy 1978 interview of John Updike by two professors of English at the University of Sarajevo. Updike covers Moby-Dick, his writing routine, authors he enjoys who live outside the United States, and Isaac Bashevis Singer, who had just won the Nobel Prize in literature. But he also expounds on the wave of postmodern authors who were coming into full flower at the time, like John Barth and Donald Barthelme. Updike is sympathetic toward the work of those two authors, but he’s not so kind to Thomas Pynchon:

I really find it not easy to read him; I don’t like the funny names and I don’t like the leaden feeling of the cosmos that he sets for us. I believe that life is frightening and tragic, but I think that it is other things, too. Temperamentally, I just have not been able to read enough Pynchon to pronounce intelligently upon him. Clearly, the man is the darling of literary criticism in America now, especially of collegiate criticism. I am just no expert but all I can say is I have not much enjoyed the Pynchon I have tried to read…. I am not among those who has found much comfort in Pynchon. As to so-called black humor, which is maybe a passé phrase, it did seem to me at its best to be true enough and to correspond with a quality of, at least, American life in the sixties.

By 1978, Gravity’s Rainbow was only five years old—that book, combined with the wave of postmodernists, might have made feel like his own fictional enterprise was on the wane. But even if Updike wasn’t being defensive, he is voicing a fairly common complaint about Pynchon. For all his dark humor, wisdom, and gamesmanship, the line goes, he’s a product of the 60s who doesn’t have much to say about contemporary life—the postmodernist as nostalgist. “For me, I kind of think that there was a moment where he kind of held the reins of the zeitgeist in his hands, and then he kind of lost it,” Robert Goolrick told me a few months back in a conversation about his attempt to track down Pynchon. “I found his later work very disappointing and diffuse…. [B]ut there was a moment when he was completely in sync with the tenor of the times, and was completely a genius.”

No more, perhaps? Is it that his reputation now runs on the dying fumes of the enthusiasm of once-hip boomer critics and readers? Much as I find Pynchon’s persona fascinating, I haven’t gotten the impression that there’s enough in his work to merit the dedication required to get through it, though I’m an admirer of The Crying of Lot 49. I suspect that Inherent Vice goes down more smoothly, but, being set in the 60s, would only help support the complaint. He’s under no obligation to write a novel set in the present day, of course, but what is it about his work that makes him meaningful and relevant today?

3 responses to “The Leaden Feeling of the Cosmos

  1. When you say “relevant,” do you really mean “relevant”? Then read The Crying of Lot 49 while thinking about Timothy McVeigh and black helicopters and ZOG and forged Hawaiian birth certificates. Something might jump out at you.

    • I don’t question whether “Lot 49″ can speak today about paranoia and politics. I guess I’m trying to figure out how much of the excitement that comes with the release of a new Pynchon novel has to do with what he has to say, versus who he is or might be; reviews and articles, perhaps unavoidably, stress how cloistered he is, but that comes at the expense of placing him in any kind of literary context. His contemporaries, like Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates, might generate the same reflexive enthusiasm, but even people who are sick of them focus on the work, not the writer. (“Here comes another novel about sex and death”; “Here’s more misery in upstate New York”)

  2. Vineland was a contemporary novel, and it did speak very much about contemporary America – from the 60s to the 80s.

    Updike is sympathetic toward the work of those two authors, but he’s not so kind to Thomas Pynchon:

    Leaving aside Barthelme, a very effective author of surreal short stories, I’m always surprised when people mention Pynchon, often unfavourably, in the same breath with the likes of Barth and Coover.
    Because he is much less interested with experimentation for experimentation’s sake, and much more in using it as a vehicle for his concepts.
    Which may be the reason why he cannot

    (“Here comes another novel about sex and death”; “Here’s more misery in upstate New York”)

    be summarized easily.

    I can say that in Italy and Germany – where people like Coover and Barth are considered period piece authors – I’ve seen collaborative sites/blogs dedicated to the line-by-line commentary of Gravity’s Rainbow or Against the Day.
    Does it answer your question?

    Works like GR or AtD are not born out of the ambition to say something about contemporary life. Their scope is much broader. Whether they fully succeed is open to debate, but reducing it all to “dark humor, wisdom, gamemanship, and nostalgia” is remarkably unfair.

    I haven’t gotten the impression that there’s enough in his work to merit the dedication required to get through it
    What does it mean?
    Does it mean
    “I’ve tried GR but I’ve failed to go very far” (heard just yesterday) or
    “I’ve managed to force myself to finish GR, utter bore that it was” ?
    Both would be perfectly acceptable: life is too short to pass the time struggling to come to terms with something you don’t connect with. Then again, you cannot pass judgement on something you choose to not engage fully.

    Again on Updike’s points:

    I believe that life is frightening and tragic, but I think that it is other things, too.

    These things are present in Pynchon’s work too. The real problem is:

    I don’t like the leaden feeling of the cosmos that he sets for us.

    Who does? And, anyway since when we dismiss an author’s vision in these terms? I don’t like Kafka because in my life all the people are nice?

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