Building on Modernism (In Response to “Modernist Reading, Post-Modern Text”)


The overarching theme of Brian McHale’s argument in “Modernist Reading, Post-Modern Text: The Case of Gravity’s Rainbow” is that Gravity’s Rainbow doesn’t quite fit into the typical mold of other Post-Modern works, and that it is closer to Modernist works than most of its contemporaries as well as more complex. He argues this for two primary reasons:

1)      because Pynchon builds on the unreliability of Modernist narrators within his narrators through manipulating the ontological perceptions (their perceptions of what actually exist) of characters, rather than just their epistemological perceptions (their perceptions of their own knowledge); and

2)      because Pynchon employs “more than one mediating consciousness” (various narrative points of view), as in Mrs. Dalloway, for anyone who’s read it.

The first of McHale’s arguments stems from the fact that Pynchon, McHale claims, makes his characters unreliable by ensuring that they are all hallucination-prone, albeit in varying sorts of ways: Slothrop is paranoid, Tchitcherine is a druggie, Pointsman is megalomaniacal, Pokler often dreams, and Pirate is constantly in other characters’ heads. The core of McHale’s argument seems to be that Pynchon jars reality through dream sequences and hallucinations, and he provides us with scenes that do so: the opening scene (Pirate’s dream), Pokler’s dream of incest with his daughter, and a joint fantasy of Roger Mexico and Seaman Bodine about being “spitted.”

Pirate’s talent threads uncertainty through this entire narrative, as McHale points out, and this justifies some of the strange goings on as plausible activity occurring in his world — though McHale warns against leaning too hard on this crutch.

The second of McHale’s arguments alludes to the frequent shifts in narration, which was a practice of the Modernists that Pynchon improved upon in Gravity’s Rainbow. The Modernists were able to shift between multiple points of view through a series of characters’ perceptions of one event, as Woolf did in her famous skywriting scene and her various characters’ perceptions of a car backfiring in Mrs. Dalloway. Pynchon built on this practice by extending the time periods it could include from only one moment in the present or a linear sequence of events to shifting from the past to present directly through characters’ minds, as was the case with Eventyr and Sachsa.

He begins to wrap up his essay with a final claim: “The Post-Modern, I would like to suggest, is less an indiscriminate shotgun-blast than a kind of sharpshooting directed at specific target” (McHale, pg. 108). This is probably his most important statement, the one which directly addresses the Pulitzer committee and highbrows who discount Pynchon’s work as slapstick vulgarity, and it is well supported by the arguments that he has already made. Pynchon, based on McHale’s claims, does not seem to be a rogue artist of the Duchamp variety calling toilets art to make a point, he has extended the artistic practices of the Modernists into his age. This, though it is revealed late, seems to be what is ultimately at stake in McHale’s arguments.



To cut to the heart of the matter, I agree with McHale’s ultimate claim that Gravity’s Rainbow is art (“a kind of sharpshooting”) and not slapstick (“an indiscriminate shotgun blast”), and I think those are the terms McHale was actually working in, given the proximity of this essay’s publication to the Pulitzer committee’s snubbing of the book and his explicit mention of the committee. I can’t know firsthand, but I’m sure there was a tendency in some communities to write this book off because of the Pulitzer’s rejection of it, and that seems to be what McHale was resisting, and justifiably so. I agree with him because he’s provided solid evidence of Pynchon’s extension of Modernist traditions, such as Woolf’s shifts in point of view, which he’s revolutionized.

I would also venture to say that he built on them in at least one more way that McHale did not mention. As we saw with Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the Modernists were known for creating antiheroes who tended to set out to achieve goals but ultimately fell short of them. If this doesn’t describe Slothrop during his time in the Zone, I don’t know what does. Of course, Pynchon has thrust this tradition into the Post-Modern age as well by placing Slothrop in a setting he couldn’t hope to ever understand and setting up his paranoia.

In addition to this, Pynchon has revolutionized another Modernist tradition in Gravity’s Rainbow. By the end of most Modernist stories, you’ll notice that the antihero has not really gotten anywhere by the end of their journey, and that their experience failed to change their lives in the way they expected it to. I haven’t finished Gravity’s Rainbow yet, but given the fact that we know it’s a “circular” novel, I think it’s safe to assume that Slothrop won’t get quite where he’s hoping to go either. The revolution here, though, is that where Modernist novels come to a halt, this one, again as a “circular” novel, sounds likely to reconnect with its own beginning to close that circle.


Works Cited

McHale, Brian. “Modernist Reading, Post-Modern Text: The Case of Gravity’s Rainbow.” Poetics Today 1.1/2 (1979): 85-110. Print.

Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity’s Rainbow. New York: Viking, 1973. Print.

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5 Responses to Building on Modernism (In Response to “Modernist Reading, Post-Modern Text”)

  1. moniquebriones2014 says:

    The crux of this post reminded me of that line on the very first page of GR–“not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knotting into.” This is a cool reframing of the argument we’ve been bringing up since before even delving into the novel of what defines a modern versus a postmodern work!

    I can definitely see the connections between Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness style and Pynchon’s character- and history- jumping (sorry, I’ve only read a handful of her short stories and am not familiar with the skywriting scene). Analyzing GR even through just this lens does make it look like Pynchon’s standing on the shoulders of giants instead of being a Duchamp-esque “rogue artist.”

    The stab at the Pulitzer committee’s elitism due to their failure to recognize the novel as a genius translation of modernist techniques into the postmodern age is well-deserved and extremely interesting to me. Withholding the prize from GR, while the committee’s guidelines of “excellence” are pretty loose, really does cause a sort of writing off of it by other readers. I remember this point being made in 2012 in the second part of Michael Cunningham’s “LETTER FROM THE PULITZER FICTION JURY: WHAT REALLY HAPPENED THIS YEAR” in the New Yorker:

    “A literary prize is, at best, one way of drawing readers to a book that deserves more serious attention than it might have gotten without a prize. A faulty track record doesn’t invalidate the attempt to say, annually, to anyone who might be listening, “You really should read this one.”

    Which is why the committee’s decision to withhold the prize entirely is so unfortunate. An American writer has been ill served and underestimated. Readers have been deprived of what might have been a great literary discovery or might have offered them the bittersweet but genuine satisfaction of saying, ‘Really? That book? What were those people thinking of?’ ”

    It’s a great read that I think is relevant to McHale’s criticism, even with the thirty-year difference.

  2. Michael, interesting post. I know you are interested in modernism right now, and clearly in the shift to postmodernism, so I would highly recommend McHale’s first book, Postmodernist Fiction, as it extends and complicates the thinking he’s doing here.

    Also Monique, I’m glad you drew attention to 2012, the only other year since 1974 in which no Pulitzer Prize was awarded for fiction. I actually wrote a very brief piece on that decision a few years ago, and it is here if you are interested:

    • moniquebriones2014 says:

      Cool post, and I think you make a great point about the poetic justice of not awarding any of the 2012 finalists.

      I guess where our opinions diverge is in the “weird conservatism” you have for awarding complete works? Maybe it’s unfair to bring art into this debate, but art galleries hang unfinished works all the time–even the Mona Lisa is unfinished. It’s the same with sculpture and architecture.

      The closest modern case we’ve gotten to DFW’s in terms of the Pulitzer, I think, is John Kennedy Toole’s posthumous award for A Confederacy of Dunces in 1981 (twelve years after Toole’s suicide). But I guess we can safely assume that Toole was more or less happy with the manuscript despite its numerous rejections by various publishers.

      I’d be quite open to you defending your viewpoint here since I’m sure there are things I haven’t thought through completely in the 2012 Pulitzer debate, I’m just having trouble swallowing it myself.

      • Part of this “weird conservatism” (obviously something I myself am uncomfortable w/) comes from both my appreciation of Wallace–a writer I have done substantial work on–and my reading of The Pale King (2011). Wallace’s posthumous novel is dramatically unfinished, having been pieced together by his editor from scraps and notes. It is a difficult book to talk about b/c of that–i.e., it seems impossible to say whether it is “good” or not, successful or unsuccessful. I agree that unfinished work and work published posthumously is deserving of attention, and clearly I am thinking the same in my discussion of The Pale King, but it seems hard to give such a text an award. Toole’s novel, something I taught a number of years ago, is a brilliant text. But if it was a bunch of fragments that didn’t cohere, esp. considering A Confederacy of Dunces was his first and only novel, I doubt anyone would be considering it for an award. I guess what I mean by this “weird conservatism” is that awards, award culture, etc., may rightly be reserved for finished work, fully realized, fully executed. This doesn’t diminish the importance, significance, brilliance of a great number of unfinished things, but that perhaps it is “okay” to reserve awards for finished pieces. Thus my post. All that said, I am still not sure of this, and am open to further thoughts.

      • moniquebriones2014 says:

        Thanks for the clarification! Your argument makes more sense to me now.

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