Stefan Mattessich
Lines of Flight: Discursive Time and Countercultural Desire in the Work of Thomas Pynchon
Durham: Duke University Press, 2002. Pp. 291. $64.95. $21.95

Reviewed by Jerry Varsava

Thomas Pynchon is, arguably, the most interestingly complex, the most critically celebrated American writer of his generation, a canonically lofty position garnered wholly by the efforts of his fecund literary imagination, and not those of any personal publicist or publishing-house PR flak. While his novels will not make Oprah's greatest-hits list, they do provide quite extraordinary scope for critical inquiry and, especially, for ruminations on the age that they so adroitly chronicle and critique. Famously reclusive, utterly devoid of self-promotional instinct and inclination, Pynchon is the very opposite of contemporary American writers like Norman Mailer and Toni Morrison for whom media presence is an inalienable adjunct to their creative performance.

Scholars have in general taken one of two tacks in exploring Pynchon's extraordinarily rich corpus of five novels and one short-story collection. As Stefan Mattessich points out, however cursorily, there are those who have sought to find in Pynchon a residual liberal humanism of one emphasis or another, and he cites early work by Thomas Schaub, Peter Cooper, and Molly Hite as exemplary of this orientation. These critics are defined by a "need to find the value of connection (whether this is understood socially as community or semantically as meaning, analogy's 'coming together') in what he or she is reading" (265 n.12). And then there are people such as Mattessich himself, but also those whom he regards as the ablest of Pynchonian scholars, Alec McHoul, David Wills, and Hanjo Berressem, for example, who have pursued readings that heavily foreground postructuralist theory, in Mattessich's case principally the work of Deleuze and Guattari, and in the latter instances, Derrida and Lacan, respectively.

Lines of Flight is indeed heavily indebted to the abstruse speculations and "weird language" that are found in Deleuze and Guattari and especially in their Anti-Oedipus (1973, 37). Endorsing their view that schizophrenia is the "characteristic malady" of "late [i.e., postwar] capitalism," Mattessich engages in "theoretically saturated close readings" of Pynchon's five novels that reflect both "complicity in, and resistance to, late capitalist social logic" (10). For Mattessich, again following Deleuze/Guattari, Pynchon's novels — Vineland (1990) excepted-are "broken machines" that, while intent on commenting on contemporary politics and history, suffer a breakdown on the level of form, the latter characterized preeminently by metaparody, narrative incoherence, structural overdetermination, motific ambiguity, indirection, etc.

Eschewing the generally linear plotlines and unambiguous characterology of realist fiction, and devoid of thematic closure, V. (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Gravity's Rainbow (1973), and Mason & Dixon (1997) advance a countercultural critique of globalized capitalism, consumerism, colonialism, and bureaucratization, through their manipulation of form, language, and rhetorical tropes. Their political agency is played out on the level of "metalinguistic systems"; their political exemplarity lies in the contestation of normative linguistic and narrative modes. Readers, through their reading of Pynchon's novels, also realize, however provisionally, the politically motivated escapism, that is, the titular "lines of flight," that the lives of so many of Pynchon's characters trace. In fine, characters and readers alike remain within a performative equipoise, a suspended dialectic between the facticity of history and a utopian imaginary, between past/present and futurity, between election and the preterition.

For Mattessich, Pynchon's innovative politics of representation amounts to a countercultural representation of politics and therein is symptomatic of a broader tendency "to push the limits of representation to the point of an unprecedented implication in the social and economic forms of late capitalism" (42). And Lines of Flight is singularly adept at parsing Pynchon's signature style. Still, the novelist makes some pretty straightforward moral claims that defy dialectics, suspended or otherwise, and which trump the metadiscursivity that figures so prominently in his fiction. As Mattessich demonstrates tellingly, V. rebukes misogyny and colonialism. He is on less firm ground, however, when he cites Lot 49's purported "refusal to mean, its attempt to write its world in a language that undermines its own referential coherence" (57). His deconstructionist take on the novel understates the essentially liberal-humanist project that Oedipa undertakes by the end of the novel and that is, as Peter Euben has suggested in his The Tragedy of Political Theory, a manifestation of engaged citizenship.

In many ways, the centerpiece of Lines of Flight is the three lengthy chapters devoted to Gravity's Rainbow, and it is here that Mattessich examines again the issue of Pynchon's humanism, a view for which he has little sympathy. Curiously, his interpretive practice proves rather more fulsome and referential than his theory would seem to permit. While taking up various urgencies promoted in Anti-Oedipus and Deleuze's monograph on masochism, he also manages an insightful examination of the provenance of Puritan ideology in America and its implication in the novel, as well as discussions of period-specific issues. Far from demonstrating that Pynchon "applies a representationalist desire to the 'truth' of antirepresentationalism" in the novel, his reading effectively engages the novel's portrayal of racism, cultural imperialism, corporate hegemony, and bellicosity, among other things (93).

Perhaps the most important theoretical digression among the several found in the book comes up in the chapter on Vineland, the latter the source of some disappointment for many readers due to its relative narrative simplicity but also, I think, because of its repudiation of campus radicalism of the sixties. (At the same time, readerly expectations were obviously greatly heightened given that the novel was Pynchon's first in almost two decades.) The anti-theory backlash began in the 1980s at a time when, as Mattessich notes, many had come to feel that increasingly elevated levels of abstraction in scholarly discourse were separating the latter from "life and common sense" (210). (Increased scrutiny of Heidegger's political views as well as the disclosure of Paul de Man's anti-Semitic writings during World War Two did not help much either.) Mattessich uses the old ideological template of the Puritans in suggesting that the objections of the anti-theory crowd "carry with them the odor of bad faith," that the anti-theorists have set themselves up as members of the elect who "repress the nondistinction of language and being (or rather the internal nature of their difference) that conditions the possibility of political transformation today" (212). He may be right in this, but I read few critics today who are not in one way or another aware of language's ontological investments, of its socially formative power, even as they value clarity of expression within the profession. (Inexorably, all of this brings to mind the old eighties joke about what you get by crossing a deconstructionist and a Mafioso: an offer you can't understand.)

To the many not numbered among the acolytes of Deleuze and Guattari, Lines of Flight will be a challenging read. Mattessich draws not merely key constructs of the latter but their rhetorical methods as well. Terminological obscurity, rhetorical convolution, wooly qualification, digressive flights-all of these problematize the readerly appropriation of what is in fact a very conscientious and imaginative examination of a most difficult writer. Yet, in fairness, given the terms of the interpretive exercise that Mattessich has defined for himself, it is hard to imagine a more thorough, a more faithful application/emulation of Deleuze/Guattari than he offers in this study. Those interested in, certainly, Pynchon, but also continental philosophy and contemporary American culture will profit from this book, though their returns may at points be hard earned.