THOMAS PYNCHON INTERVIEW
An interview with DAVID COWART
Author of THOMAS PYNCHON AND THE DARK PASSAGES OF HISTORY
2011, University of Georgia Press
David Cowart has been a published author for over thirty years. That’s quite an accomplishment for most people who’ve chosen writing as a profession. But David writes about very specific things, like contemporary American fiction, and one subject in particular, has taken him down this long, sometimes cavernous path. When you read one of David’s books you realize that he is passionate about his work, and that he is very passionate about one contemporary American fiction writer: Thomas Pynchon.
Pynchon’s literary work covers some 50 years, so you’d think there would be enough material there to write several books. But during this period, Pynchon’s only chosen to write occasionally, and often years pass between books. Which is fine with David, allowing him to spend time with his family, teach, and take some vacations. David currently teaches at the University of South Carolina, where he is a Louise Fry Scudder Professor and a Board of Trustees Professor. That’s his day job. The rest of the time he’s writing about what he loves most — fiction, and primarily contemporary American writers like Don DeLillo, and of course, Thomas Pynchon.
We sat down recently for an interview—he is his office, and I in mine—and spoke (over the phone) about a variety of subjects. When we ran out of time, we decided to continue the interview at another time. This is Part I of my interview with David Cowart.
DAVID COWART INTERVIEW – PART I
The Writing Disorder: Talk about your new book, Thomas Pynchon and the Dark Passages of History.
David Cowart: In an earlier book (History and the Contemporary Novel), I had become interested in historiography. For a long time the historical novel was patronized as a type of pseudo-genteel genre. Henry James, for example, said it was doomed to a fatal cheapness. But Pynchon, defending Ian McEwan, actually referred to himself as an historical novelist.
If you think about claims made for representations of the past, whether by professional historians or by historical novelists, it generates some very interesting perceptions. My notion is that an historical novelist of genius, when well-informed, is perhaps better able to negotiate an encounter with the past than an actual historian, who is cursed with the obligation to remain factual. Neither novelist nor historian has all the facts, for some have disappeared from the record. For a long time, historians allowed themselves unconsciously to write versions of history that were too shapely—while novelists, naturally more self-conscious, more aware of what we now call meta-historical perspectives, offered more reliably self-conscious narratives about the past. In this, I’m merely echoing points made by that great theorist of historiography, Hayden White, author of a 1973 book called Metahistory, in which he showed how the same little span of nineteenth-century history, as told by four different historians, warped by turns through romance, satire, tragedy, or comedy. (He got these categories from Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism.) Anyway, it was quite an eye-opener. You can take White’s precepts and discover that a narrative of American history that concludes with the Great Depression takes the shape of tragedy. Same thing if narrated from the perspective of native Americans. The comedic version—depending, again, on perspective—emerges if you end on a triumphalist note: the taming of the frontier, say, or the conclusion of World War II.
To bring to consciousness history’s fictive dimension is, I think, a great advance for historiography, and something that perhaps the really great historical novelists, from Sir Walter Scott forward, knew all along.
When I was shaping the new Pynchon book, I was looking for some kind of conceptual anchor, and I discovered that it would be easy and natural to think about the emphasis in his work on history.
TWD: Would it be similar to documentary filmmakers today, where you sort of get their take on history or a particular event?
David: I certainly think of Errol Morris (I’m less familiar with Ken Burns) as a filmmaker animated by what I would characterize as a postmodernist recognition of just how labile the past is, history is, discourse is, representations of any kind, and so the most sophisticated filmmakers, documentarians, and novelists are all contriving to show their awareness of the perspectival problematic.
TWD: Can you talk about the influence of German culture on Pynchon’s work?
David: I have wondered about that for a long time. I remember, years and years ago, this must be the early ’70s, Richard Poirier, the only teacher I ever read a Pynchon book with, at Rutgers, in passing remarked that Pynchon seemed to be hostile to things German. In a way, any such hostility would be part of an apostolic succession, given the author’s possible connection with Nabokov (who taught at Cornell while the future author was a student there). His wife being Jewish, Nabokov had personal experience with the dark side of German culture.
What I find reading Pynchon is that he knows a hell of a lot about German culture. He seems to have immersed himself in the history of German colonialism in south-west Africa (present-day Namibia). In V. and Gravity’s Rainbow, he depicts a little-known corner of the colonial enterprise that is harrowing, utterly horrific. In the latter novel, he depicts his protagonist on a journey through what he calls The Zone, the collapsed entity that was the Third Reich.
Pynchon displays considerable knowledge of the German language and literature, too. I first discovered the poet Rilke by reading Pynchon—and it was a total revelation. I think Pynchon does appreciate German culture, but he is constantly looking at it from a global perspective. He likes to think about long-range trajectories of culture and globalization. And he can see how important German thought has been to western experience, western culture. But he remains acutely aware that certain German passions, German conceits, are dangerous in a variety of ways, especially the Faustian appetite for more power, more knowledge, at whatever spiritual cost. It is something I think that runs through all of Pynchon’s work. Very interesting topic, I think.
TWD: When did you first become interested in Thomas Pynchon? What was your first experience or exposure?
David: This is a story I love to tell. It has to do with being in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia in 1969 and 1970. You were sent out to the back of beyond—cut off from other Americans, but they also sent with you a book locker, a shelf of books, and you found yourself reading through them. One of the books that caught my eye, with its distinctive paperback cover, was Pynchon’s V. I remember that I read very deeply because I was kind of making up for all the skipping around I had done as an undergraduate, filling the many holes in my education. I didn’t understand V., but I was quite exhilarated by it. I had the wonderful sense that this is changing my life—and it did. I had no electricity and after dark had to read by Coleman lantern. Periodically, you’d run out of kerosene, and you had the choice of walking out among the hyenas to get more, or going to bed early. For that book, I braved the hyenas.
It was an intellectual turning point: I did my dissertation a few years later on Pynchon.
I’m one of the few people who’s been in both the Peace Corps and the Army. I was one of the last people drafted in this country. While I was in the Army, I was impatient to get on with graduate school. In my last days in the service, I was accepted into the graduate program at Rutgers, and it was just at this point that Gravity’s Rainbow came out and, shortly thereafter, a brilliant response, in Saturday Review, written by Richard Poirier, who, as it happened, was the graduate director at Rutgers. I was kind of uninformed about where I was going. I thought, how serendipitous. And of course his was one of the courses I took in my first semester back in school. He was a superb teacher who taught by frustrating you. One of the books we studied in his class was The Crying of Lot 49, which I had read once previously. The course was an introduction to graduate literary studies, so we read a variety of texts. We’d read Anthony and Cleopatra one day and Pynchon the next. Poirier would play a version of Twenty Questions with us, he’d say look at this sentence, or look at this phrase, or look at this word, and then we would spend sometimes as much as three hours trying desperately to say something he thought worth hearing. And he would say, “Um hmm, what else?” I found it very frustrating because I wanted him to lecture, to share his vast knowledge. We would try in every way to get him to impart what he knew, but he would not do so. It was frustrating at the time, but it was very informative, it did teach me what a fine method Socratic pedagogy might be.
TWD: When did your interest in Pynchon turn scholarly?
David: My first published paper was on a Shakespeare sonnet, but that was for a graduate student journal. My first real professional publication came from writing about The Crying of Lot 49 (in fact, it began as a paper for Poirier). I discovered that the painter Pynchon refers to in that novel, Remedios Varo, really existed. And at that time, virtually nobody in the States had heard of her. This is in part a testimonial to his sensitivity, that he could recognize and turn to his own allusive ends work that would wait another decade or two to be properly known and celebrated.
His description of Varo’s painting Bordando el Manto Terrestre (“embroidering the earth mantle”) is important to what Oedipa Maas experiences in the story. Oedipa’s remembered encounter with the painting is what scholars call a mise en abyme, a miniature version of the whole story. Varo depicts girls in the top room of a circular tower embroidering a great tapestry that is extruded through slit windows to cover—or, rather, to fill up and become—the world.
Oedipa seems to understand that Varo is reversing the paradigm of perception. We think the world is out there flowing in through our senses. We think that’s what sensory perception is. What the artist suggests is that we, in our own cranial tower, weave the world, and extrude it, push it out there and take it for reality. But it is a personal reality. And this is the thing that troubles Oedipa Maas, she’s trying to decide if what she sees (the Tristero, this enormous conspiracy), is really out there, or if she’s just “weaving” it in her mind. As I researched Remedios Varo, I discovered that a number of her paintings, though not described in the book, seemed actually to complement Pynchon’s own iconography, his imagination, his conceits.
That was my first published paper. When it came time to write a dissertation, I remember hesitating between E.M. Forster and Pynchon. Since everybody told me to do Forster, I decided to do Pynchon. And I had not studied American literature very much, I was really more specialized in British literature. But I did take a keen interest in current fiction. Of course once you write a dissertation, that’s what you are. I was actually hired to teach modern/contemporary American literature. That was my good fortune.
So: that paper, that early graduate school effort, got developed and worked up, and actually got published. Then the dissertation, which became my first book, Thomas Pynchon, The Art of Allusion, 1980. And though I read and taught and wrote about the work of others, I always was watchful and anticipating new work by Pynchon. As it happened, he did not publish another novel for seventeen years after Gravity’s Rainbow. I really appreciated that, because I could kind of catch up on things. And then came Vineland, which everybody was excited about, since he had been silent for so long. Some kind of block, we think, but don’t know, because we know so little about this author. Since then, he’s loosened up, he’s produced more books.
TWD: He’s doing a lot more work now than he used to.
David: Yes, and I have kept my hand in. Whenever he published a new novel, I would try promptly to write something about it. As a result, my most recent book is the product of reading, teaching, and writing about Pynchon’s work over thirty years—almost forty, in fact.
Now I’m working on a short, introductory book for students new to The Crying of Lot 49.
TWD: So how do you get students today to get interested in someone like Pynchon?
David: English majors and graduate students usually do know about Pynchon. But he’s still not a household name. It’s a little bit frustrating when people ask about your interests, and you say you love to read, and they say, “what do you read?” or “Whom do you teach?” And I mention Pynchon, and there’s a blank look, they don‘t recognize who he is.
Literary fiction exists now more and more in the margins, and that can be troubling or it can be enabling. DeLillo says that the serious novelist in our time operates at the cultural periphery, but he also affirms that that’s actually a pretty good vantage. So with students, I always try to — they know from the outset that I am very passionate about this. I think he’s a marvelous writer. And they’re sufficiently impressionable, they’re sort of new to it, they’re looking for something to sink their teeth into, something to be excited about. And they take their cues from the nearest passionate reader, who often happens also to be their teacher. If you’re not being coercive or beating them over the head with it, you enjoy considerable influence. They see that this has generated a lot of excitement on the part of the teacher or whomever, and that generates curiosity and interest.
He’s a strange writer. You can always do a quick account of the bizarre things that Pynchon includes in his work. Everybody’s heard about the alligators in the sewer, but I never heard about them until I read V. Or the basic idea of Gravity’s Rainbow: a person whose sexual arousal coincides with the pattern of V2 rocket hits in London during WWII. That’s bizarre on the face of it. But it turns out, also, to be an extraordinary paradigm for reversing common sense notions of cause and effect. What he wants to do there, and I think elsewhere, because he is scientifically well-informed, is to contrive ways to dramatize, bring home to the reader, the displacement of a Newtonian scientific model by a Heisenbergian or Einsteinian or quantum model. The first sentence of Gravity’s Rainbow is “A screaming comes across the sky…” And if you read for a while, or think about it a little bit, you realize that, because the Rocket breaks the sound barrier, an explosion has in fact preceded that screaming. That’s sort of a modest scientific point, one that’s not particularly surprising, but it introduces a profound meditation on the ways in which the supposed laws of cause and effect get scrambled as science pushes its frontiers. I feel strongly that Gravity’s Rainbow is the greatest American novel published since 1945.
TWD: A lot of the material in Pynchon’s novels is based on his own experiences, and based on history and truth.
David: Yes, the tricky thing there, of course, is to determine, in the absence of much in the way of biographical information or detail or personal revelation, the extent of the personal experience it might figure. I was convinced, for example, when I picked up Vineland after that seventeen-year wait, that Pynchon must have become a father in the interim. (I had myself experienced parenthood in those years.) I was intrigued to notice him, just in passing, making remarks about a character who was proud to show his mother-in-law that he know how to change a diaper or which way the wiping was supposed to take place with baby boys or baby girls. Well, I was apparently a year off. The book came out in 1990, and Pynchon’s son Jackson was born in 1991. But in some of my conversations with other ardents, there has been speculation that there may have been some other child out of wedlock. That could be part of his experience in this book.
Presumably—may it be far hence—he will pass away, and the various people who know him will come forward and we’ll get more of the full story. One of the conditions of intimacy with Pynchon is, like you don’t talk about Fight Club, well you don’t talk about Pynchon.
TWD: There’ve been numerous books written about Pynchon’s work, why do you think there’s never been a biography?
David: Well, there’s just too little material. And it’s too easy to wander into speculation. I’ve had to be very cautious myself. But I’ve had the good fortune to count John Krafft among my scholarly friends. We’ve been communicating since we were both graduate students—thirty-odd years. John probably knows more about Pynchon than anyone outside his circle, and he probably has a better archive than anybody else. Although there hasn’t been a biography, I know there will be one someday, possibly written by Krafft, or Krafft and another person. But it’s going to need more information. All we’ve got now is an outline, we know where he went to school, when he graduated. We know he served in the Navy, and where he trained, he probably served in the Mediterranean. We know he got married to his longtime companion and agent, Melanie Jackson, in 1990. That fills five pages, maybe ten.
TWD: Well, people are always writing biographies that are speculative on famous people. I’m just wondering why no one has attempted something.
David: The more I think about it, the more interesting that question becomes. There’s an inhibition that can set in, if you are the least bit nervous about bringing yourself to the attention of the author you’re interested in. One thinks of Nabokov. During Nabokov’s life, if you introduced certain ideas into your critical writing about him, I couldn’t give you a specific example, but there was this idea that maybe he’d come after you, and satirize you in print, and make you look foolish. There is, of course, the possibility that you would be jacked-up in print for writing aggressively about Pynchon’s private life.
I know there are a number of examples of his lawyers coming down hard on anyone trying to publish his likeness, or invade his privacy. CNN a couple of years ago tried to publish his image. They got him walking down the street, and the lawyers came down. Finally, CNN compromised by not identifying Pynchon in the footage. But he’s fairly easy to spot, walking down the street. There’s a paparazzo who photographed Pynchon at this time, as well. There are a few things like this, but I do think that people are a tad nervous about further invasions of Pynchon’s privacy.
TWD: So whom does Pynchon write for?
David: I think he writes for people who are passionate. People who care passionately about incandescent language, who want, if possible, to see culture and history and the progression of our civilization rendered as story. Always what we want from art is what Frost calls the momentary stay against confusion. And even the most innovative or experimental artist I think needs to give us something of that. So we live in times which in fact Pynchon helped to define, the era of paranoia. It was only months before the Kennedy assassination in 1963 that Pynchon’s first novel came out and revealed its author as the poet of paranoia. And this is important, a great achievement on the part of the artist is to be that aware—to have the ability to place her or his finger on the pulse of the culture—to define the cultural moment. So I think he writes for people who want better to understand where things are now in these parlous decades after the moment of triumph in World War II (which I recently heard an impercipient but print-oriented person call World War Eleven). Pynchon seems to have tracked the energy, as Henry Adams says, out of one century, the twentieth, and well into the twenty-first. And so, even among sensitive readers, he’s not for every taste. But go to Pynchon if you really want a handle on things, of the kind that is not to be had in the pages of New York Review of Books or the nightly news, or places like that. There’s a certain kind of earnest discourse which tries to grapple with these questions but constantly disappoints. And writers like Pynchon or Don DeLillo or any number of truly gifted and insightful and talented and disciplined writers do contrive to deliver that thing we want art to give us. We want art to please us, to delight us. One laughs out loud reading Pynchon. And we want it to tell us something that makes things a little more understandable. The big question in Pynchon studies seems to be Pynchon’s spirituality. Is Pynchon a religious person? Is he drifting towards a religious stance? Sort of the same thing happened in Nabokov studies. Nabokov has kind of been taken over now by critics who make him a heteroclite apologist for religion. And I think that’s happened a little bit with Pynchon. I think they’re wrong. I think he’s a little too tough-minded for that sort of thing. He plays with supernatural conceits but without, as Wordsworth says, recommending them to faith.
DAVID COWART INTERVIEW — PART II
The Writing Disorder: Thomas Pynchon attended Cornell University, correct? And he allegedly took a class with Nabokov?
David Cowart: He went to Cornell, but the story about his taking a class with Nabokov has been called into question. The old anecdote about Nabokov’s wife, Vera, remembering Pynchon’s distinctive handwriting hasn’t been substantiated. The course was Masters of European Fiction, which the students called Dirty Lit, because the syllabus included Ulysses and Madame Bovary—perceived as pretty racy stuff at the time. My impression is that certain individuals have seen Pynchon’s transcripts, yet no corroboration of such a direct encounter with Nabokov has been forthcoming.
Charles Hollander confirms, though, that Pynchon did cross paths with M.H. Abrams, editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature. In an eighteenth-century course taught by Abrams, Pynchon wrote a paper comparing Rasselas by Samuel Johnson to Candide by Voltaire. The two sentences at the end of this paper stayed in the teacher’s mind, and he would quote them to later students: “Like Candide, Rasselas ends on an imperative note: again, to submit; but above that, to endure. It leaves us with less hope than Voltaire, but with more determination.”
There are other Pynchon stories in various quarters. I have long thought that Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, by his Cornell classmate Richard Fariña, offers a droll picture of Pynchon as the character Heffalump. Jules Siegel, another Cornell classmate, wrote a tell-all in which he accuses Pynchon of running off with his wife. A less sensational romantic attachment was with Anne Cotton, a woman he dated when he interrupted his college education to do a two-year hitch in the navy. She later became registrar at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I had a nice correspondence with her, but it ended shortly after she mentioned having some letters from Pynchon that she would send me. She probably got in touch with him, and he told her not to deal with these publishing scoundrels.
TWD: Do you see Pynchon more as a writer for men than women?
David: There’s some preference on the part of male readers, and there’s probably a slight preponderance of male students who opt to write about Pynchon’s fiction. But I see a large amount of scholarly work on Pynchon being produced by women critics — Stacey Olster, Molly Hite, Deborah Madsen, Inger Dalsgaard, Kathryn Hume, Tiina Käkelä-Puumala, N. Katherine Hayles, Elaine Safer. I think that Pynchon is sufficiently sensitive and sufficiently resistant to a logocentric or phallocentric or patriarchal narrative (to indulge the jargon for a moment) to commend himself to a complete spectrum of readers. Pynchon really is a man for all tastes.
And that includes foreign tastes. Even abroad, Pynchon enjoys something like cult status, and scholars publish on his work in Australia, New Zealand, Malta, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Japan, Russia, Korea, China, Italy, France, Spain, and England.
TWD: Have you ever encountered Pynchon fanatics who were women?
David: Well, maybe not real Pynchon maenads meriting comparison with the King Kong Kultists in Gravity’s Rainbow (lawn-party-on-the-birthday, name-their-children Benny and Zoyd, Friends-of-Thomas fanatics), but I’ve encountered some pretty enthusiastic women readers of Pynchon. They’re the ones with whom I swap book recommendations that are well received on both sides.
I have a list of books I like to recommend when people ask. Things like Goodbye to All That or I, Claudius by Robert Graves. The Gold Bug Variations by Richard Powers. There’s Tolkien, Kesey, Michael Ondaatje, Rosemary Sutcliff, Chang-rae Lee. I like Octavia Butler, too, the only true science fiction author that comes to mind as recipient of a MacArthur grant. I respond most passionately to books that are truly well written, regardless of their standing as serious literature. That’s one of the things one learns when reading Pynchon. There really has been a coalescence of popular and highbrow forms. When Inherent Vice came out, I was struck by the blogger who wondered: “How is this different from Elmore Leonard?” And recently, reading the wonderful thrillers of Don Winslow, I’ve had the uncanny notion that this was Pynchon, writing under a pseudonym. Same wit, same mordant locutions, same California setting, same distrust of what Adam Levin, in his mammoth messianic fantasia The Instructions, calls the Arrangement (Kesey and Burroughs had their own names for the monolithic forces of respectability and conformity).
Pynchon has, of course, appropriated and interwoven and hybridized various fiction forms. That creative eclecticism, after all, is one of the characteristics of the postmodern aesthetic, that chipping away at the distinctions between high culture and popular culture.
That said, I am myself old-fashioned enough not to want to discard all such distinctions—this postmodern premise can be overdone. I like to invite the doctrinaire to consider the desert-island challenge: if they could take only one book into lifelong exile and it had to be either Finnegans Wake or, say, a novel by Neal Stephenson or Stephen King, which book, I ask, if it’s all they’ve got for the rest of their days, would be worth reading and re-reading? A variant of the question is aimed at those who deny the intrinsic difference between a work of the imagination and a work of criticism or theory: would your desert-island book be something by Jacques Derrida, admirably complex and challenging, or would you rather have Gravity’s Rainbow, admirably complex and challenging in a significantly different way? Me, I’d rather have—hands down, always, every single time—a work of the imagination that subordinates the big questions to sheer readerly exhilaration. As Nabokov said: “good books should not make you think—they should make you shiver.” The narrator of that Adam Levin novel I mentioned a moment ago iterates this sentiment: “books with lessons are bad books.” Not that one dispenses altogether with the traditional Horatian counter-weighting of delight with instruction.
TWD: You’ve written about Chuck Palahniuk’s work as well.
David: I wrote a piece about his 2001 novel Choke (it will appear presently in a Continuum volume on Palahniuk). I’m not really a big fan, but he’s certainly a clever writer, and he has articulated some of a generation’s strong feelings of yearning, outrage, betrayal. You remember Tyler Durden’s remarks in Fight Club:
“We are the middle children of history, raised by television to believe that
someday we’ll be millionaires and movie stars and rock stars, but we won’t.
And we’re just learning this fact . . . So don’t fuck with us.”
Tackling Choke, I discovered a good deal of substance–it stands up well to analysis. I just don’t feel, from page to page, that I’m in the presence of a great, humane writer. Nor, as Lev Grossman has observed, is there as much latitude these days for a writer to become the voice of her or his generation (I speak as a member of the generation that came of age in the sixties).
Early on, it’s Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Then it becomes Burroughs or Ginsberg, then Kesey or Vonnegut or Heller, then Pynchon or DeLillo. But it’s less and less easy now to emerge as the recognized voice of one’s generation. As a society, we’ve become so multifarious, so different, so heterogeneous. What we have now are the various voices of gender identity and political identity, immigrant voices, geriatric voices, voices of environmental consciousness. The voices resist coming together in concert—and that’s probably not a bad thing. Nor does any of this preclude discovery of the voice that speaks to you and the others who share your outlook and taste. That’s one of the pleasures I find in reading Pynchon, and it’s what keeps me sampling his successors.
I do think that for a long time now we have recognized a cadre or phalanx or generation of writers whose excellence tends to dim the luster of younger practitioners. Nevertheless, my next big project is to think seriously about a post-DeLillo, post-Pynchon generation. The great authors born in the 1930s (Barth, Barthelme, Gardner, Phillip Roth, Toni Morrison, DeLillo, Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy) have consolidated the postmodern aesthetic crafted by their slightly older cousins: Gaddis, Heller, Ginsberg, Vonnegut, Flannery O’Connor, Grace Paley (all born in the 20s). You have these really titanic, powerful figures who continue to be productive, continue to pop your eyes open in various ways. Cormac McCarthy has gone through several incarnations already.
So I want to know what’s on the horizon. What’s being brought to the novel, to storytelling, by writers born in the 40s or 50s or 60s—or, like Jonathan Safron Foer, Allison Krause, Dave Eggers, and Nathan Englander, the 70s? Are these younger writers consolidating the aesthetic crafted by the generation born in the ‘20s and ‘30s? Are they contesting it, reversing it, turning it upside down? David Foster Wallace was frequently quoted to the effect that he meant to return to a place of sincerity, to rethink some of the relentless irony of both the modernists and the postmodernists. But in fact, if you look at what he wrote, it seems to me that he is on that same postmodern spectrum. What I’m suggesting is that postmodernism is an aesthetic that has staying power. It’s not universal (there’s still a whole lot of perfectly respectable realist fiction being written), but if we’re looking for something that represents a sustainable tradition, then postmodernism may just be getting started.
But it gets tricky, trying to imagine the future of American fiction. I do think, for what it’s worth, that Richard Powers is one of the strongest writers of this younger generation. David Foster Wallace is very good, but—
TWD: I sometimes got the feeling that David Foster Wallace was overwhelmed by his own talent and abilities.
David: Yes, that’s nicely put: his brain must have been like one long Terry Gilliam movie. But how awful the admixture of crippling depression. The Wallace story is terribly sad—the sadder for our hearing so belatedly about the psychological burdens he bore. Not waving but drowning . . . .
Wallace corresponded with Don DeLillo—I’ve just been reading a dissertation devoted to DeLillo as literary mentor (it’s by Dawson Jones). But even as he sat at DeLillo’s epistolary knee, Wallace sought, with only limited success, to free himself from the looming shadow of writers like DeLillo and Pynchon and Barth. He evidently knew Barth’s work and learned a good deal from it—even as he self-consciously parodied any actual apostolic relationship (I’m thinking about his ludic treatment of the character Ambrose (obviously Barth) in “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way.”
TWD: Returning to Chuck Palahniuk. I’ve worked with three women (one an editor, one an assistant editor, and one an editorial assistant) who were somewhat fanatical about his work. They had read everything he had written (or nearly everything), gone to numerous book signings, and also paid to see him read his latest work. I’m just wondering what your take is on this writer’s having such a devoted following among women?
David: I’m happy to hear that a youngish writer (well, no longer so very young—he’s fifty now) is generating such passion on the part of readers. It’s one more rebuff to those who keep pronouncing the novel dead. It’s not. It may be moribund (no genre is immune to time and taste), but its funeral plot need not be purchased any time soon. It’s good to hear that there are writers out there who can generate that kind of passion.
TWD: So who influenced Thomas Pynchon as a writer?
David: Easier to say what he has read. From the evidence of his own allusiveness, I think he is very widely read, as only a polymath can be. He knows his Jacobean drama, his Emerson, his Henry Adams, his Rilke, his Eliot, his Orwell. He delights in popular writers such as John Buchan and Alfred Bester. If he’s faking his knowledge of German, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, Serbo-Croatian, and Afrikaans, he’s doing a hell of a job of it. Whether in translation or otherwise, he has read a good deal of German and Spanish literature.
As for influence, per se, he has revealed a little about certain writers he took to early on—or came to respect. Some were formative. He came of age in the 1950s, a time when there was a lot of talk about conformity and a lot of anxiety about external influences and forces. This was white bread America; this was the conservative, unimaginative, Eisenhower era. And suddenly, like a bombshell, burst Norman Mailer, burst Allen Ginsberg, burst The Evergreen Review, burst Playboy magazine—all experienced by sensitive souls like Pynchon as liberating influences. They spoke to some visceral hunger on the part of the intelligentsia, and Pynchon was among the most famished.
TWD: You’ve written about John Gardner and his fiction. For me, John Gardner is better known for his books about (writing) fiction.
David: On Moral Fiction, for example, or On Becoming a Novelist or The Art of Fiction. Yes, and I salute you for being aware of them. Because he has entered the penumbra that awaits even good writers who have exhausted their fifteen minutes of fame, few people pay much attention to him now. Yet we might do well, still, to resurrect his dissenting voice, which is what comes through powerfully in On Moral Fiction. He made a mistake in that book, in that he named some names and seemed to be patronizing or disparaging some of the really important writers of his time. But he made a legitimate point, which was that we become what art says, what it shows us, what it says that we are. His homely example was that, growing up himself, he and his friends went to a lot movies and saw various charismatic actors smoking, so they all did that, and they all got cancer. He did so literally. Thus he strove in his work (and he is quite emphatic about this), to depict behaviors worth imitating among characters who are (or come to be) models of virtue. He wanted to present characters determined to rise above existential circumstance—and he glorified artists (I think of Vlemk the Box Painter or, more obviously, the Shaper in Grendel) whose idealizing depictions call real-life counterparts into existence. Gardner’s idea is that an affirmational art will find its mirror in a larger cultural resurgence. He says for a long time now (certainly throughout the twentieth century), we’ve been getting nothing but the existential bad news from our artists. The Waste Land, so relentlessly bleak, is the foundational document of the age. If what you’re getting from art are endless variations on this theme, it’s not conducive to spiritual optimism, to purposiveness — to the idea that life can be made better. Cumulatively, such art fosters the growth of a healthy culture, a robust civilization. Gardner liked to contrast the art produced in the Renaissance or in Periclean Athens with the art produced in modern times, especially in the twentieth century. It’s a telling point, and it brings us back to the question, what do we want art to do? Do we want it only to tell us, as rigorously as possible, the truth? We do expect art to be honest about the truth, however dark and bleak and painful, but Gardner resisted that conception of art because it slays no dragons—or, rather, it promotes the slaying of no dragons. We all know that no one can defeat a dragon, but heroes, who learn their trade from heroic fictions, nevertheless do so. Gardner was by training a medievalist. He read and taught and wrote about Beowulf, whose protagonist is a model of heroic virtue — a figure who embodies values that shaped the English-speaking world for centuries. Gardner was looking for ways to recover the kind of vision that animates the Beowulf poet. He wrote this absolutely brilliant book, Grendel, which is Beowulf from the monster’s profoundly wrongheaded point of view. His relentless debunking of events in ancient Scandinavia notwithstanding, Grendel is king of the unreliable narrators. He’s recognizable, if you listen, as a parodic version of the modern or contemporary writer who, understanding the absence of any supernatural comfort or prospect, dwells on the bleakness and the harshness of human existence. Grendel says, “I know, I know the truth, I know reality, I was there. I saw the ridiculously inglorious beginnings of the human struggle.” Yet in the end he is bested by a hero who exists, paradoxically, only in a poem. Heroic narrative spawns its own instantiation.
It’s Beowulf who, defeating Grendel, is a hero, but he is a hero at a remove. The one who really triumphs over Grendel, the one that Gardner ultimately shows as having wielded the positive and benign power of art—is the Beowulf poet, the Shaper. Gardner and the Shaper say it’s the responsibility of the artist to cultivate what Keats called negative capability. Great artists may know there is no hope in the world yet still believe that if they keep telling hopeful stories, well, hope comes about.
I still teach Grendel almost every year, it’s the one Gardner book that is perfect: it’s short, accessible, entertaining, funny as hell.
In that he appropriates and retells an older story, Gardner is an exemplary postmodern. What Borges talks about in “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” is paradigmatic of the enterprise in this late phase of our culture in which artists are obliged to appropriate material from prior artists, then recapitulate, rename, retell it. We used to have this shibboleth about originality on the part of the artist. In fact, in no era is that quite an accurate account of what goes on in artistic creation. But more and more in our time, art is symbiotic, and artists are quite frank about their reconfigurations of prior art. Hence Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, which is King Lear on and Iowa farm in the 1970s. Or Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, which reframes Jane Eyre, or that strange rewind of Robinson Crusoe, Coetzee’s Foe, or Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. As Gardner appropriates and turns Beowulf inside out, Stoppard appropriates Hamlet and turns it on its head, makes it the vehicle of a meditation on our benighted era. It turns out there’s a lot of this kind of thing going on, and it seems to be highly characteristic of postmodern imagining and storytelling—or, to borrow Joyce’s pun, stolen-telling.
TWD: And Gardner had an influence on Raymond Carver’s work.
David: Yes, Gardner was his teacher and mentor—Charles Johnson is another who benefited from Gardner’s generosity. But I don’t think Carver ever managed fully to embrace the moral fiction or affirmational frame or outlook that Gardner advocated. Which is as it should be. We don’t want people to enlist under the banner of John Gardner or any other writer. From time to time they cross paths with or learn things from certain writers and go on to imagine freshly and, as Julian Barnes once said, knit their own stuff. The paradox is that no one actually invents ex nihilo.
TWD: Have you ever written any fiction?
David: I wrote a novel. Back when I was in the Army, I was a radio and television broadcaster. We were all flipping coins to see who would work during a holiday, and I said I will work all holidays and all weekends if I can work only three days a week. When this was accepted, I had some spare time, especially since I was stationed in Panama, and nobody was shooting at me. So I wrote a novel based on my Peace Corps experience in Ethiopia: I imagined myself in the midst of an uprising or revolution. It was a good exercise. This was before I attempted a dissertation or a scholarly book, and it taught me how you might sustain a lengthy piece of writing. Nothing ever came of that novel. For a while I sent it to around to publishers. On one occasion, it came back thicker than it left. And I thought, wait a second, what is this? It had been packed with another rejected manuscript—a bodice ripper by a man writing under a woman’s name. So I repacked it and sent it on. I eventually had my typescript bound for posterity. Qualis artifex pereo!
I sometimes think that I will never retire, but if I ever do, I might make another attempt at fiction. I sort of decided that I could do one thing reasonably well, but probably not two things. Like the hedgehog and the fox, you know? The hedgehog does one thing well and the fox does many things. I was always a hedgehog and contented myself with scholarly writing about the creative work of others. Since I only write about books I like, I don’t feel like a parasite, draining precious bodily fluids from the literary host. Our relations are symbiotic or mutualistic, like the crocodile and the Egyptian plover. I batten on them, and they derive some modest benefit from my ministrations.
TWD: Are there other writers in your family?
My mother wrote some things. After her death last year, I found some rejection slips from Redbook and other glossy magazines. Both of her sisters, my aunts, tried their hands (a romance novel, a short memoir). I also have an uncle who has published extensively on ecclesiastical history. My sister is a freelance medical and educational writer. My daughter, who is a prodigious reader, will one day erupt, volcano-like, in prose. My wife has published scholarly articles on academic libraries and librarianship. My father wrote a memoir about his experience in World War II, called Green Bars. He claimed he had a falling out with his commanding officer and never got promoted, so his second-lieutenant brass bars gradually turned green. It’s immensely interesting and entertaining in an unself-conscious way. Also harrowing (he flew forty-four missions in a B-26). He doesn’t obsess about his prose, but he has an instinct for clarity, rhythm, balance, directness, and economy that I wish I could inculcate in my students.
So yes, there are or have been other writers in my family. The grandparents didn’t write, but they recited. I sometimes wonder about the extent to which my own literary sensibilities were shaped by dinner-table recitations of “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” and “The Deserted Village” and “The stag at eve had drunk his fill / Where danced the moon on Monan’s rill.”
TWD: Pynchon is now in his seventies.
David: Yes—he was born in 1937, so he is now 75 years old. He and his great contemporary, DeLillo, were born less than a year apart.
TWD: What are your expectations of him in the coming years?
David: One wonders whether he might not, like Shakespeare, pass into a gentler, resigned, less angry phase. Probably not. I do think he will be productive for another decade at least. Saul Bellow was writing worthwhile books right up to the end (not to mention producing children—he had a daughter when he was in his eighties). My perception of Pynchon is that he has passion still—something of the savage indignation that lacerated the heart of Jonathan Swift. There’s so much now to be indignant about, angry about, and royally pissed-off about, especially if you have the instincts of a satirist or a person who has a fairly passionate idea of how things ought to be.
One of Pynchon’s convictions is that American Promise got sidetracked. He recurs to the idea of a malign switchman or “pointsman,” some mythic figure who at a certain point shunted American culture onto tracks more plutocratic, less tolerant. There’s a fine passage in The Crying of Lot 49 in which the heroine, Oedipa Maas, wonders what became of the possibilities, once so great, for diversity. How, she asks, had it ever happened here—so much disenfranchisement, such unconscionable concentration of wealth in such a small number of hands? Pynchon is passionate about this. And I think he will continue to be exercised by the spectacle of American public lives and American politics — American appetites — these are things he will continue to scrutinize, represent, subvert, and satirize.
He writes about the sixties in his three California novels, which are sometimes patronized as palate cleansers between the heavier fare of his large-scale fictions. He alternates the big, ambitious, thousand-page, door-stopper novels with more modest books set in (or oriented to) the 1960s, which he views as the American hinge decade. When in Vineland he returned to the ground already covered in Lot 49, people thought, leave this behind, the sixties are over and done. Now we understand better, having read a third California novel, Inherent Vice, that this is a sustained effort, a roman fleuve, an analysis of the decade in which the country awoke to some imperatives having to do with racial justice and our calling in the world. We awoke to those very important considerations, we briefly embraced them, then—well, it’s like that poem by Salvatore Quasimodo, “Ed è subito sera.” Suddenly, it’s over. Overnight all the anarchic young folks became business majors. I was there for it, I remember. I managed to dodge that specific fate. There was a time when our students gravitated to the humanities. Now university administrators are closing down whole departments of philosophy, classics, foreign languages.
TWD: What about nonfiction. Do you think Pynchon will ever write a book of nonfiction?
David: Well, his occasional nonfiction pieces are much scrutinized and will no doubt eventually be collected. They are quite helpful in thinking about and reading Pynchon’s stories and novels. His essay “Is it O.K. to be a Luddite?” is an ideal companion-text to Mason and Dixon. So while he has not undertaken a long work of nonfiction, when he does weigh in with a book review, a sketch, or an essay such as the one he wrote on the aftermath of the Watts riots, one is intrigued to hear him speaking in what one takes to be his own voice (one can of course hear that voice in a more literal way in those two Simpsons episodes in which he voices a character based on himself). From time to time, he will write a book review or liner notes for a CD or a comic sketch (the one on sloth is especially charming) or an introduction to someone else’s book (a Barthelme collection, Jim Dodge’s Stone Junction, reissues of Orwell’s 1984 and Fariña’s Been Down So Long). He does such nonfictional writing with some frequency.
TWD: And his introduction to his short story collection.
David: Oh yes, Slow Learner, very significant. In that essay (especially important to answering your earlier question about Pynchon’s influences), you can almost see him with a deck of cards, sort of like W.C. Fields, being cagey and laying down personal information cards for the ardent to pounce on.
TWD: What is your own approach to writing? For instance, when you started your new book, how did you begin the process?
David: I used to do a first draft longhand, with a fountain pen my grandmother gave me in 1965. More and more, though, I compose at the keyboard.
The new book (my second on Pynchon) is a bit of an anomaly. I have characterized it as a kind of diary, because it includes material that goes back maybe thirty years. After Gravity’s Rainbow came out, I always tried to write something about new work by Pynchon as soon as it appeared. So I gathered up all of those essays, thinking they might naturally turn themselves into a book. They didn’t. Turns out, you have to provide quite a bit of cartilage, and you have to update, and you have to revise, revise, revise. Fortunately, a central idea was there all along, in Pynchon’s emphasis on history.
More commonly, I begin a book with an interesting problem or question. For instance, the book I wrote on immigrant writers was conceived just after 9/11. Might we not discern in the perennial dream of the immigrant something to restore spirits bruised by so much hatred? Thus I came to write against the academic grain. Immigrants are supposed to be victims of our racism, our meat-grinder economic institutions, but I found novel after novel with a refreshingly sanguine take on the New World and its promise.
I usually try to write a speculative, introductory kind of essay, which I know will have to be revisited once it’s been buttressed by a series of chapters. But that speculative essay is a useful document for trying to get a grant or sabbatical or other support.
Next I look for texts I think exemplary—and particularly compelling to me personally. In the immigrant writers project, I was delighted to find plenty of highly polished, completely literary works of fiction by a wide range of the recently naturalized—Bharati Mukherjee, Lan Cao, Ursula Hegi, Edwidge Danticat, and the amazing Chang-rae Lee, whose first two novels, Native Speaker and A Gesture Life are simply stunning. The latter is a lesson in how to render experience remote from your own. Since The Confessions of Nat Turner (attacked for its putative appropriation of an African American life), authors have been wary about representing the sexual or racial other. Lucky Shakespeare wasn’t subject to any such proscription. In A Gesture Life, Korean American Lee imagines the story of a Japanese immigrant with a dark secret: during the great Pacific war, he was a medical officer responsible for keeping hapless Korean sex slaves healthy enough to serve the imperial army. It’s the decent but self-deceiving Japanese American who narrates, and Lee contrives for his representations of Korean and other women—three in particular—to be tragically impercipient.
It’s always an investment of about six to eight weeks to write about a book at chapter length. At first, it’s just staring at the blinking cursor, but then it begins to quicken. I’ve learned that if I will simply write something, simply put some words on the page, no matter what they are, I eventually stumble across matter that will nudge me, something I can expand or modify. When I get really stuck, I just go through and start tidying up egregiously bad sentences—even though what’s in them will eventually make its way to the dustbin. You do this long enough, and two or three neurons return from wherever they’ve been malingering. In my case, the process leads to discoveries. When you immerse yourself in the process, ideas eventually present themselves. I do enjoy the phase in which, as things come together, the work becomes pure obsession, and draft after draft from the printer suspires.
TWD: Do you write every day?
David: Not quite, but I’m a great believer in the nulla dies sine linea precept. It’s good counsel, but often other responsibilities intervene. For a while I was a single parent, and, believe me, that’ll put a crimp in your work day. And the teaching, of course, takes lots of time (and it should). Mostly, one writes in the summer, but I’ve learned not to wrap up a difficult chapter before school recommences in the fall. Better to have something well under way by August, then you can keep working on it through the fall semester. Same process over the winter holidays: get something going, finish it up over the spring.
TWD: Anything else in the pipeline?
David: I just finished a short monograph, a reader’s guide to The Crying of Lot 49. It’s a kind of vade mecum for general readers and students who are writing about this book.
TWD: Pynchon includes in his books lyrics for imaginary songs. Some of the funniest are in Lot 49.
David: That’s one of his most charming innovations—his characters will simply stop what they’re doing and perform a little song. It’s always surprising and engaging—and often utterly hilarious. The best ones are in the first three novels—there’s a slight falling off when we get to Vineland. But the lyrics in V., The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity’s Rainbow are wonderfully mnemogenic (I thank thee, Volodya, for teaching me that word). You find that you have memorized them without trying:
There was a young fellow named Hector,
Who was fond of a launcher-erector.
But the squishes and pops
Of acute pressure drops
Wrecked Hector’s hydraulic connector.
I’ll spare you “The Penis He Thought Was His Own.” There have been a couple of—alas, rather untuneful—attempts to set Pynchon’s wacky songs to music. He himself actually worked on a musical, “Minstrel Island,” while he was in college. Perhaps it was in the back of his mind when he imagined, in Vineland, the ninja Ordeal of the Thousand Painful Show Tunes.
TWD: What is the version you know of Pynchon’s winning the Pulitzer Prize — or actually, not winning it?
David: A panel of judges had chosen Gravity’s Rainbow, but a supervisory body vetoed the award, claiming the novel was immoral and “turgid.” If you look up Pulitzer fiction awards by year, you’ll see a blank for 1974. Gravity did, however, win the National Book Award that year. He later received other awards that he declined (though he accepted the five-year MacArthur Foundation grant). The Pulitzer Prize fiasco remains one of the great embarrassments for American letters. The culture of book awards has gotten, it seems to me, more and more questionable. We want them to be meaningful, and we watch for the announcements. But some of the choices are absolutely off-the-wall or ridiculous. Toni Morrison may be the last American author to win the Nobel (and, honestly, it ought first to have gone to Pynchon, DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, or maybe Margaret Atwood). The Mann Booker Prize, on the other hand, is still one to watch. The award nearly always goes to a truly distinguished book.
TWD: You’ve talked or written about more contemporary writers like Richard Powers, Octavia Butler, and Stewart O’Nan.
David: It’s part of an ongoing quest to find some real staying power, some genius, somebody who over the course of a career can do something comparable to what Henry James or John Updike, or, now, DeLillo, Pynchon, or Cormac McCarthy has done. And as the culture shifts away from the novel as a prized and honored form, it may be inevitable that we’ll see fewer truly great novelists. Or, worse, great new works of fiction will meet with complete indifference. On the other hand, maybe we just have to enter a small hiatus before we see the emergence, again, of someone who will truly move us as some of these writers have. As I said, Richard Powers does seem to do that.
TWD: Which books by Richard Powers do you recommend?
David: The book that sent me into orbit is The Gold Bug Variations. It’s not quite as demanding as Gravity’s Rainbow, but it’s challenging, at well over 600 pages. His mind is so extraordinary and his command of the medium leaves you in a state of wonder—the way John Barth used to do (before he became too precious). Incandescent prose is something one values, and there is a remarkable command of history, emergent technologies, and science in its many manifestations. The Gold Bug Variations is a beautiful, powerful book, but not a particularly easy one. The book that one ought to start with is the highly readable and moving Galatea 2.2, which resembles Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in interesting and unusual ways. The Echo-Maker is also engaging. The other book that I particularly admire is Operation Wandering Soul, but I wouldn’t urge anyone to start with that one.
I will certainly treat his work in my next critical effort, this book on the Tribe of Pyn—the younger writers influenced by or reacting against Pynchon and company.
TWD: Thank you very much for your time. I really enjoyed speaking with you and learning more about you and your work.
David: It’s been a pleasure.
David’s Favorite Authors
E. M. Forster
And Some Favorite Books
Operation Wandering Soul
David Cowart took his bachelor’s degree at the University of Alabama. After teaching in Ethiopia in the Peace Corps, he took an M.A. at Indiana University, then served two years in the U.S. Army (in Panama). He took his doctorate at Rutgers University in 1977. Professor Cowart has since taught at the University of South Carolina, where he has been named a Louise Fry Scudder Professor and a Board of Trustees Professor. For three years, in the mid-nineties, he served as Director of Graduate Studies in English. He has been honored with a number of teaching awards, as well as important grants and fellowships, including an NEH Summer Stipend and a year-long NEH Fellowship. He has held Fulbright chairs at the University of Helsinki and at Syddansk Universitet in Odense, Denmark. In addition to lecturing in Latvia, Germany, and the Czech Republic, he has presented keynote addresses at international conferences in England, Poland, Japan, and Germany. In 2005, he toured Japan as a Fulbright Distinguished Lecturer. He is a consulting editor for the journal Critique.
In his major scholarly work, Professor Cowart has focused on American fiction in the period after 1945. In addition to the books listed on his Amazon.com author page, he is the author of approximately one hundred articles, notes, and reviews. His book on Don DeLillo won the SAMLA Studies Award in 2003. He is now working on a seventh book, in which he examines the idea of literary generations in the postmodern period.