Thomas Pynchon And The Complexities of Conflict

With Thomas Pynchon's latest work set to tackle one of the most controversial events in history, how can authors incorporate tragedy without verging on melodrama?
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Thomas Pynchon, the elusive maestro of postmodernism, is releasing a new book titled ‘The Bleeding Edge’ on September 17th. The book will be set in New York in 2001 and will occupy the time "in the lull between the collapse of the dotcom boom and the terrible events of September 11" (according to Penguin). Whilst Pynchon’s last book, 2009’s ‘Inherent Vice’ was met with mixed reviews, Pynchon fans are sure to be excited about a new piece of work from a writewhose reclusiveness was matched only by Salinger.

Lecturer in English at the University of Lincoln, and Pynchon scholar, Martin Paul Eve is quoted in The Guardian as saying, ‘a new Pynchon novel simply can’t be ignored.’ There’s no danger of that, especially when Pynchon’s new novel deals with the build up to 9/11. Whilst it is unclear how much of a role the terrorist attacks of 2001 will play in the novel (or if the actual attacks will be featured at all), even a passing reference to 9/11 is sure to court controversy and spawn numerous commentaries. As Eve states, ‘[It's] of note that the press release explicitly mentions 9/11; this was something treated metaphorically in Pynchon's 2006 behemoth ‘Against the Day’. This is, perhaps, a good indication of what we might expect from ‘The Bleeding Edge’.

This title alone suggests conflict and wounds, both physical and metaphorical. Where as ‘the cutting edge’ might suggest innovation and progress, ‘The Bleeding Edge’ suggests an exploration of the intricacies of the human condition in times of conflict. Such ambitious scope is commonplace amongst Pynchon’s work, as anyone who has attempted to read ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ can attest. It will be interesting, however to see how Pynchon deals with the build up to 9/11, and perhaps even the event itself.

Tackling a tragedy or conflict of this sort is clearly not an easy route for an author to take, and there will undoubtedly be those who believe a topic such as 9/11 is sacred, despite the plethora of films and books that have tackled these events. Most recently, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirtyseemed to bring the events full circle, sensationalising the death of the man responsible, just as he had sensationally altered the lives of many across the world, over a decade earlier.

Writing about 9/11 is nothing new, but as ‘R.B’ suggested in 2011 in this brilliant article from The Economist, [What] makes it hard to write a successful novel about 9/11 is simply that it's too soon. Ten years on that may sound limp, but I think it's true.’ R.B. goes on to discuss such post 9/11 novels as Jay McInerney’s ‘The Good Life’, Joseph O’Neill’s ‘Netherland’ and Don Delillo’s ‘Falling Man’. Clearly, these are novels which take an intelligent and appropriately (read: not overly) sensitive approach to 9/11 and have warranted intelligent criticisms and analysis in return.


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9/11 is not the first conflict to be adapted as a canvas for the arts. As far back as people have been writing and fighting, they have combined the two into accounts (fictionalised or otherwise) of their exploits. The precursor to Pynchon’s experiments in Postmodernism was, of course, Modernism, a movement borne from conflict in civilian life, mass industry and the battle fields of Europe. Whilst WW1 was only one of many influences on Modernism, its effect can be strongly felt in the literature of the movement.

When the First World War ended in 1918, a generation of angry young men returned home, their lives irrevocably changed. In HBO’s fantastic series Boardwalk Empire, Jimmy Darmody is such a young man. Disillusioned with domestic life, Darmody attempts to take over Atlantic City’s trade in prohibition-flouting illegal liquor. When the criminal underworld catches up with him and he is faced with death, Jimmy is nonplussed, telling Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson, ‘I died in the trenches, years back.’ Thankfully, some of this generation of disillusioned young men (of ‘The Lost Generation’ as Hemingway has it) turned their attention to the written word and literary giants such as Hemingway, Faulkner and John Dos Passos emerged.

Later conflicts gave rise to other notable works of literature. Joseph Heller’s seminal ‘Catch 22’ emerged in 1961, sixteen years after the end of WW2. Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughter House Five’ deals with the surreal absurdities of the bombing of Dresden. Tim O’Brien emerged from the jungles of Vietnam and went on to become a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  As Alizeh Kohari notes, ‘Tragedy has often led to an outpouring of art’.

Conflict, in its most basic form, is essential for any work of literature. There can be no story arc, and no eventual resolution, without conflict; whether this be domestic, psychological, or in the guise of a historical terrorist attack. For Hemingway, the compulsion to write about the events he had experienced was overwhelming, ‘There are events which are so great that if a writer has participated in them his obligation is to write truly rather than assume the presumption of altering them with invention.’

Pynchon notably wrote about his naval experience in ‘V’. Despite this experience he did not partake in any wars, civil or otherwise; yet, he still retains the right to write about whichever subject matters he chooses. Ultimately, any event is experienced subjectively, as is the fallout from such an event, or, in the case of ‘The Bleeding Edge’, the precursor. Our own memories of an event form part of our understandings and memories of certain faithful days; just think about the last time someone asked you ‘Where were you when...?’

Artists will create art that deals with any subject, and that is the freedom of their craft. When writing fiction, the author has the right to write about anything they like. Whether their writing will be good without having experienced certain events first hand, is another matter. Many authors abuse this right and sensationalise their subject matter, but many more writers craft incisive, delicately-handled pieces of work that help further augment our understandings of the events themselves. Whether Pynchon delves deeply into the events of September 11th 2001 remains to be seen, but at the end of the day, it is a subject which is open to exploration and multiple interpretations. Judging by Pynchon’s body of previous work, none of us will have a clue what is going on anyway.