Back Down the Toilet of History with Pynchon

June 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon.

Reading next: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell.

Pynchon has a thing for toilets, you may have noticed.  I mean, besides the seriously scatological stuff going on in most of his books, toilets themselves are important plot devices or metaphors in his work: think of the scene in Gravity’s Rainbow when Slothrop travels down the toilet in the Roseland Ballroom.

There’s not as much scatology and not as many toilets in Inherent Vice as in Gravity’s Rainbow (but really, that’s the all-time champion in both categories, isn’t it?)  But at one point, a remark sends “Doc off down the Toilet of Memory…”  And that made me think about Pynchon’s toilets, and his historical novels, and what he’s been up to all these years with memory and history.

Because calling them “historical novels” doesn’t even really sound right, does it, even though most of his books are set in a meticulously detailed past?  They’re more novels about history, and about the reverberations into the past and future of any given present.  It’s simply easier to feel those reverberations in a book set in the past: you can view them from both ends, whereas any book set in the present or future will have to contain some guesses, some estimates of what, exactly, it is that’s important to highlight about the present.  (If you’re gifted or just especially well attuned, your book attempting to capture the gestalt ends up captured in it, becoming one of those reverberations people think about when they think about an era: think Great Gatsby, On the Road — hell, even Less than Zero.)

Pynchon’s books set in the past are always mostly about the present, and he tends to weave a bright thread of allusions to the present day (the future of the plot) into his very detailed recreations of the past.  But that’s too clean a metaphor for Pynchon: it’s about toilets, after all.  What he tends to say, in these novels set in the past, is that we, the people of the present day, are the excretions of the past.  We are always the left over, the waste of another time’s failed hopes.  As it frequently is with Pynchon, it’s about being unsaved; unelected; preterite.  We go down the Toilet of Memory because we’re in the bowl to begin with.

In Inherent Vice, that’s clearest in the book’s subplot on the use of ARPAnet, the proto-Internet of university and governmental computers.  Not a plot device that would’ve been found in most detective novels of the late ’60s or early ’70s, but essential for the point Pynchon wants to make about the roots of our current state of hypervigilant cyber-surveillance.  He’s the best at embedding this sort of fictional anachronism into his books.

But a Pynchonian past is never simply a past, but also the future of many former pasts.  So the book’s present day of greedy real estate developers and shadowy drug syndicates and burned-out hippies and ruthless right-wing bikers-for-hire and a nascent national surveillance network is also linked to the Communist scares of the 1950s.  There’s always an earlier attempt at revolution, for Pynchon; and there’s always an earlier repression, too.  (Doc’s obsession with the actor John Garfield, blacklisted for his liberal politics, is a dominant note in this motif.)

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