Constituting selves: character and fractal historicism in the novels of Thomas Pynchon

Evans, Laurie Tina, Department of English, University of Virginia
Day, Douglas, Department of English, University of Virginia
Gies, David, Pv-Univ Va Press, University of Virginia

Most critics of Thomas Pynchon see in his complicated structures and multiplicity of details the portrayal of a world bereft of meaning. Readers are continually put in the same position as the characters to learn that story, or history, rarely coheres in the way(s) we expect and hence must be constructed to accommodate the material at hand. What happens, however, when material cannot be accommodated? This is a central question faced by Pynchon's characters which has been overlooked.

Many American writers have explored the relationships between an individual's sense of self and sense of history. Moby Dick, Absalom, Absalom!, and All the King's Men are only a few works which portray characters struggling to understand their worlds and themselves by creating narrative history. Pynchon's works extend this tradition by directly confronting "failures of history" when no story can be made from a character's data.

An examination of Pynchon's characters and the ways in which they handle the data of the (hi)stories they try to create reveals a fiction which shares concerns with its roots in American literature and which shares terms with the study of Chaos, a science which recognizes and values data which does not conform to any expected continuity. Pynchon explicitly pushes his characters towards the recognition and valuing of the irregular and the seemingly contradictory. His fiction urges us to consider the fragments which make up our history and which may have something to tell us, even if they cannot be made to make a traditional Story. When examined together, Pynchon's novels present characters who come to terms with such non-narrativized, or fractal, history in increasingly significant ways.

The characters in Pynchon's works face with varying degrees of success and comfort situations in which their notions of history, historical process, and their own historical place are severely threatened. Within this work new modes of constituting a coherent sense of identity within history emerge. The characters in Thomas Pynchon's novels collectively move American literature towards a ground from which both fractals and the characters who play them can be recognized and valued.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Pynchon, Thomas
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