Pynchon's Absence, a Comparison of the NSA Leaks and the Pentagon Papers, Online Reputation Management, "Vinestagram," and the Alphabet on Acid
For some literary and cultural critics, there's something maddening about the absence of Thomas Pynchon as a literary and cultural figure, and as such, given the influence his work has had on literature and culture, these critics seem to need to fill the void he has quite purposefully left, to attempt to know the distance between the author's public works and their mysterious private origins. While I understand wanting to trace an echo back to its source, much of me recoils from these investigations of Pynchon—attempting to manifest some semblance of presence in Pynchon's absence involves either explicit attempts to violate the author's privacy, which he obviously holds quite dear, or by filling the void with one's own thoughts, theories, reading, analyses, etc. of Pynchon and his works. In other words, many of those who claim to be so desperate to know and understand Pynchon appear quite content creating an idea of Pynchon; his absence allows them the freedom to create their own illusion of presence, with their own ideas of the author and his novels acting as the glue to hold together what little evidence of his existence Pynchon has been forced to leave behind, adding yet more of their own interpretations to this flimsy skeleton in an attempt to flesh it out. As The Atlantic Wire's J.K. Trotter remarks, "Like so many other New Yorkers, [Pynchon] has lived a fairly normal life—unlike Jonathan Franzen, Pynchon never appeared on the cover of Time—while maintaining a subtle but powerful influence over the country's broader culture. It seems urgent, then, to figure out where Pynchon fits into it. And who, of course, Pynchon really is."
Why urgent? And what does it mater who Pynchon really is? Would critics be able to better "fit" Pynchon into "the country's broader culture" or know who he "really is" if he were a more public figure? And if so, why? And, quite seriously, by this point Pynchon-as-reclusive-author is the figure who's caused all the fuss, and as such is the only figure worth trying to fit into "the country's broader culture"—he's provided us with the texts through which he wants to be known, and trying to know or understand Pynchon now seems somewhat unnecessary. As some wise person once said, "We are what we do," and Pynchon writes and keeps to himself.
There is, however, also some part of me that agrees with Trotter's statement that while "invasive," there's something "fascinating" about the many attempts to track down Pynchon—fascinating for me because of the investigators' inability to not pour much of their own selves and ideas into the mysterious absence. And it's this part of me that enjoyed Trotter's piece on Pynchon, written in anticipation of his upcoming Bleeding Edge , due out in September. The article about Pynchon and New York City is awash with what Trotter imagines Pynchon to be (perhaps even to mean). In a particularly striking moment, Trotter claims that Pynchon's reclusive nature (his alone, eh?) "anticipated, by several decades, our country's massively expanded security apparatus, and the swell of recent reports exposing its inner workings." A strange statement to make, and arguably one that would never have found a home in this piece were it not for the current interest in the NSA, Prism, and Edward Snowden. It also demonstrates how the absence of Pynchon allows others to manufacture presence and attach his name to it.
In Trotter's (and others') defense, there is an undeniable weight to the statement, "It is uncertain whether Pynchon would have achieved the same kind of immortal literary fame had he not encouraged his readers, knowingly or otherwise, to construct the extratextual mystique surrounding him." I won't deny that I clicked on the story because Pynchon was its focus (though, to be honest, I expected more about Bleeding Edge and less daytime Mystery Channel), and now here I am responding and directing your attention to the piece. I don't have many stones to cast, obviously, and I have no issue pointing this out. I respect Pynchon's decision to shy away from the spotlight, yet I find myself interested not particularly in his absence, but by those, like Trotter, who seem perplexed by his secretive and reclusive nature, hungering for whatever little information they can scare up, for a few more dots to connect lines to. Trotter's piece definitely contains a number of the dots people have uncovered over the years.
And speaking of connecting dots (or, rather, disconnecting them), The Atlantic Wire did a fine job of this in their article on the intriguing differences between Snowden's NSA Leaks and Daniel Ellsberg's Pentagon Papers. My mother and I have been having a number of conversations about Snowden recently, and Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers, and a few of Garance Franke-Ruta's points have come up in some guise or another during these talks, but the piece does a solid, comprehensive job charting the various issues that surround, affect, and in fact color and influence our impressions, good or bad, of Snowden and his actions, many of which I hadn't fully considered before. However you feel about Snowden or Prism or the NSA, Franke-Ruta's article is well worth a read. Instead of trying to label Snowden a hero or a traitor, the piece attempts to track why people come to these opinions.
On the theme of how others see and feel about us, New York Magazine ran a fantastic article on "black-ops reputation management" yesterday, and while a bit lengthy, I highly recommend finding time to read Graeme Wood's piece. You won't regret it. Not since Tom Wolfe's "Eunuchs of the Universe" have I enjoyed such an intriguing and disturbing piece of a journalism—it exists somewhere between American Psycho's fascination (and repulsion) with surface and appearance, and the deft absurdist satire that George Saunders and David Foster Wallace explore(d) so well. There are some problematic aspects, as there often are, but it's easy to overlook a few small stumbles with a piece like this.
In less serious news, the rumor mills are still going full tilt regarding Facebook's mystery-laden product launch on Thursday. I will, however, be disappointed if it is nothing more than a ripoff of Vine. Hopefully Facebook will deliver something a bit more innovative. We'll see if I even remember there's a new feature launching come Thursday.
And to finish off this edition of "In the News," Creative Review put up this fun, bizarre video about the alphabet, appropriately entitled, "LSD ABC."