Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice hit bookstores today, assuming you're reading this article the day it was posted, and while I have nothing to say about the new book--since I'm not cool enough to be on any list that would have gotten me an advance copy and am only now getting ready to head out to the closest Barnes & Noble to pick one up--I couldn't let this day in literary history pass without addressing some Pynchon topic. It is related to the last novel, Against the Day (2006), though I doubt the issue I raise will receive what anyone would call justice. What I have in mind is writing something that is little more than informative, a footnote for others to use to flex their critical imaginations.
Pynchon is famous for his encyclopedic use of allusions and references. As a consequence, researchers have put together Pynchon companions, both on the web and on thin pieces of dead trees, that provide footnotes that would be too numerous to include in editions of the actual novels. (In fact, a companion for Inherent Vice is being launched today by Pynchonwiki.com, which is connected with folks cool enough for advance copies.) When footnoting other authors' works, researchers often include biographical information, something that is almost impossible for those working with Pynchon's books. His ancestor William Pynchon has been included in the companions to Gravity's Rainbow for being recast as Tyrone Slothrop's ancestor, but connections between Pynchon's life and what appears in his books just aren't known with any certainty. Against the Day is somewhat different: a line in the novel can be connected to a biographical moment.
In a 1974 letter to David Shetzline and Mary Beal, parts of which have become public, Pynchon discusses an upcoming rally for the impeachment of Richard Nixon and dismisses its value. The comment that follows suggests that he is disappointed that such rallies had become little more than events at which to socialize: "Maybe I am wrong not to show up, after all think of all that great neurotic p*ssy that always shows up at things like -- oh, aww, gee Mary, I'm sorry! I meant ‘vagina,' of course! ‑‑ like that, and all the biggies who'll be there. . . ." Correcting himself by writing that he meant "vagina" does not change the tenor of the comment, but Pynchon may be doing something besides being a boorish man. In the context, replacing the offensive "p*ssy" with the PC "vagina" seems analogous to changing the nightclub scene with the political-rally scene, at least if going to a rally is done simply for the purpose of meeting women and seeing celebrities, the latter of which Pynchon certainly could have done in a more personal setting if he were impressed by celebrities. It is Pynchon's own celebrity status, in fact, that makes the passage seem a satiric comment on the fashionably leftist.
Whatever his intent in the letter, Pynchon must have liked his joke, for he uses it in Against the Day. The Chums of Chance, travelling under the sand on Captain Toadflax's "subdesertine frigate Saksaul," listen to Toadfax discourse on the doctrine of the Manichæans. He explains, "Everything that you appreciate with your senses, all there is in the given world to hold dear," including "the touch of a lover" and "desirable strangers," are evil for the Manichæan. "‘But it's everything that matters,' protested Chick Counterfly." Suckling then observes, "That's the choice? Light or p*ssy? What kind of choice is that?" Lindsay, the Chums of Chance member who objects to "informality of speech," protests, and Suckling corrects himself: "Sorry Lindsay. I meant ‘vagina,' of course."
Lacking the context of the letter, Suckling's dialogue is more likely to appear to be that of a boorish male. He doesn't even seem to be aware that he should know better. After all, it is the informality that is likely behind Lindsay's objections, not the sexist tenor of the comment, so Suckling is just being a formal boor. (Lindsay just says "Suckling!" but his thing is correcting bad language.) My question, one I won't answer here (hence my concern that I am not doing the issue justice), is: should the way the joke seems to be used in the letter change the way we read it in the novel, or vice versa? "Let the reader decide, let the reader beware. Good luck."