The Lost Word: Decadence In The Fiction Of Thomas Pynchon

According to Lionel Trilling, “modern literature … is directed toward moral and spiritual renovation; its subject is damnation and salvation.… It asks us if we are content with ourselves, if we are saved or damned …” (Beyond Culture). The law of the excluded middle, as it applies to the alternatives of damnation or salvation, has not been revoked. Nor are we permitted to be content with ourselves as we read the fiction of Thomas Pynchon. For the vision of Pynchon is one of apocalypse, of decadence, of a streamlined Doomsday Machine tooling, to the accompaniment of a kazoo chorus, down “the street of the twentieth century, at whose far end or turning—we hope—is some sense of home or safety. But no guarantees” (V.).

At age thirty-nine, Thomas Pynchon is perhaps one of the most accomplished American writers of our time. He has published short stories in various magazines, but his reputation rests primarily on his three novels: V. (Lippincott, 1963; winner of the Faulkner First Novel Award), The Crying of Lot 49 (Lippincott, 1966), and Gravity’s Rainbow (Viking, 1973; winner of the National Book Award). Immediately obvious to readers is the remarkable breadth and depth of Pynchon’s fiction. He synthesizes philosophy, sociology, science (he was an engineering major at Cornell), popular culture, the humanities, and theology. And his novels are brilliant collages of literary modes and styles, defying classification. One reviewer commented that it is easier to nail down a blob of mercury than to describe a novel by Pynchon.

The three novels have been aptly characterized as an extended meditation on the twentieth century: When, how, and why have we gone wrong? And where, if anywhere, ...

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