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Thomas Pynchon (1937- ) : A Bibliography of Secondary Materials

'Against the Master': Pynchon's Wellsian Art

Keith O'Neill

Against the Grain: Reading Pynchon's Counternarratives, Ludwig Maximilian Universit├Ąt, Munich 10-14 June 2008

Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day situates itself on several thresholds: between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, between gaslight and electric light, between fantasy and rationalized 'reality.' This paper proposes that another key crossroads in the book is a literary one, between populist and 'high' literary forms. Specifically, I look at the novel’s references, both implicit and explicit, to two writers occupying very different spaces at the fin de siècle: H. G. Wells and Henry James. James is commonly read as a progenitor of the twentieth-century avant-garde, whose 'mastery' at presenting the depths of human consciousness is understood to be the beginnings of modernist literary fiction. Wells, by contrast, is regarded as a populist writer whose importance is qualified as being that of an early practitioner of science fiction. The works of James, in other words, became the embodiment of high culture—dense, sophisticated, technically innovative—while those of Wells became synonymous with familiar aspects of low culture—shallow, childish, and plot-driven. Wells and James clearly saw a difference between their works in their own time; after a decade of friendly correspondence, they had a famous falling out over their respective positions on the novel: James declared his distaste for Wells’s 'diversity' and politics, while Wells satirized James’s 'unity' and lack of politics. Indeed, this call for politics on Wells’s part has shadowed him in the last hundred years: his brand of socialism has marked him as too topical, too didactic for the purview of lasting art.

At its outset, Pynchon’s latest novel announces itself as being part of the same disreputable literary territory as Wells’s work: Against the Day incorporates elements of the ghettoized genres of western, pulp, serial and science fictions, and, in that the book sympathizes with the anarchic Traverses, Pynchon’s politics are clearly Wellsian as well. Indeed, the novel’s reference to James in the opening scene, in which the literate canine Pugnax reads The Princess Casamassima (1886), suggests that James’s highbrow literature is, well, for the dogs. James’s novel is strongly critical of exactly the kind of politics Pynchon offers as a viable option—at least at the turn of the twentieth century. This paper proposes to see Against the Day as a response to the James-Wells split, and as an announcement that perhaps the art of the novel revered in the last hundred years was only one way the genre can go: Pynchon’s return to a populist or 'low' genre is in fact a radical political gesture. After a century of the primacy of individual perception and consciousness, Pynchon’s novel rejects James’s mastery and the High Modernism that technique helped inaugurate. Along the way, we shall also visit the sometimes-hostile reception of Against the Day in the press, where contemporary reviewers have policed elitist aesthetic values by applying the same 'faults' to Pynchon that have dimmed Wells’s literary status to this point.