May 312013

A second piece of good MLA news for the day: I’ll also be participating on a roundtable on the new Thomas Pynchon novel, Bleeding Edge, scheduled to be published this fall.  Also on the panel are our organizer Cornelius CollinsSamuel Cohen, David Cowart, Amy Elias, Jeffrey Severs, and Alison Shonkwiler. We’ll be a large and diverse group, and I’m excited to get together with both old friends and new collaborators to see what we as a group can do with what is sure to be an exciting novel and publishing event — the roundtable model of brief comments and broad conversation should give us a lot of room for rich engagement.

My own contributions to the panel are best prefigured by the paragraph on media and technology in the abstract below — inspired by the multi-leveled historical questions of the novel and the other speakers, and by Mark Sample’s imaginary DH history of Don DeLillo, I’m thinking about how the online runup to the novel might speak to whatever Pynchon has to say about the culture and economy of technology in the early 21st century — but who knows what the novel itself might actually hold…

If reports are to be believed, September 2013 will see the publication of a new novel by Thomas Pynchon, marking the third in seven years–a rate of productivity formerly unprecedented in this author’s closely watched, illustrious, and, by this point, quite long writing career. The book is sure to be advanced with a good deal of hype from his publishers, received with enthusiasm by his many fans in and outside the academy, and–if the recent pattern of reception holds–reviewed with a mixture of appreciation and skepticism by literary journalists. Pynchon’s canonical status is perhaps unique among contemporary authors in being so long established that each new publication not only presents fresh material for literary analysis, but also inevitably serves as a productive occasion for re-evaluating the writer’s career and public reputation.

Thus after the buzz wanes, January 2014 will be an opportune moment for scholars of contemporary literature to present and share early reactions, impressions, and suggestions for interpreting this new text. For indeed, aside from the intrinsic interest that surrounds any new work by an author of Pynchon’s standing, several aspects of the text as reported suggest that this novel will have special relevance to current issues not only in Pynchon studies, but in the study of contemporary American literature more generally. Our conversation will be an attempt both to situate this new work within the author’s larger career and to begin to imagine how a range of critical frameworks might variously illuminate its place within a larger literary conversation.

Bleeding Edge is evidently set in New York City in the period between the crash of the dot-com bubble in 2000 and the attacks of September 11 in 2001. As such it will be the most immediate chronological setting yet undertaken by Pynchon, whose last four novels have been at the remove of at least several decades. And while 1990’s Vineland turned the clock back only to the early Reagan years, this new work might speak directly to the present in a way that Pynchon has avoided since the ‘60s, for it can be argued–but also contested–that the events of 2001 mark the inauguration of an era that the US has not yet left behind. Thus the new novel may propel a shift in the critical interpretation, emerging over the past decade, of Pynchon as primarily a historical novelist rather than a strictly postmodern one.

The narrative’s temporal proximity to September 11 raises further questions about how, or whether, Pynchon intends to engage with that theme at virtually the moment when “the 9/11 novel” is being established as a genre in contemporary American fiction. Pynchon’s evident politics–that is, what appears to be his religiously inflected radical anarchism and his consistent targeting of the corporate-financial elite as enemy forces in a perennial world-historical conflict–suggest a potentially explosive treatment, or at least one that forces assumptions about the 9/11-novel genre to be reconsidered. Additionally, in light of recent studies that show Pynchon’s narrative method since the 1970s to depend essentially on meticulously researched genre parody, one wonders how this approach will serve the author with such sensitive material, or if he will be led thereby to make major changes to his signature style.

The advertised subject matter–the tech-sector start-up scene of Manhattan’s still thriving “Silicon Alley”–also suggests that in Bleeding Edge, Pynchon will continue his deep examination of the historicity of media and technology. These issues have been recurring concerns in his work, from the underground postal network of The Crying of Lot 49 and the cinematic framing of Gravity’s Rainbow to Vineland’s satire of televisual culture and the cameo appearance by the ARPAnet in his most recent novel, Inherent Vice. Likewise, Pynchon has been a central figure for literary scholars working to interpret technology’s role as a shaping force in the contemporary world. Given this longstanding concern, how might he approach such a charged moment in the emergent history of global digital culture? What lines of relation might he trace between the hypercapitalism of Silicon Alley and the global webs of surveillance that–by many accounts–both anticipated and allowed the attacks of September 11? With the politics of information so urgently at stake in this context, Pynchon’s representation of early twenty-first-century technological forces has the potential to significantly develop this thread in his work and may best attest to his continuing relevance to contemporary literature.

Given the far-ranging possibilities of responding to such a new and important literary text, the roundtable structure for “Pynchon at the Bleeding Edge” will emphasize discussion: prompted by a set of framing questions sent to the group by the session organizer in December, opening comments of no more than six minutes from each participant will begin the panel’s critical reflection on Bleeding Edge. The better part, then, of the session time (as kept by the session organizer) will be reserved for open-ended conversation, driven by the interests of both speakers and audience members. Bringing together a range of approaches toward a major event in contemporary fiction, this roundtable session will appeal to MLA members interested in modern and contemporary literature as well as those more broadly interested in the novel, or simply curious about one of American literature’s most eminent, enduring, and intriguing living authors.

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