History is by no means a new topic in Pynchon studies. For years critics have been producing articles on Pynchon’s engagement with the past and its narration. Yet the first book-length study on the subject, Shawn Smith’s Pynchon and History: Metahistorical Rhetoric and Postmodern Narrative Form in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon, was released quite recently, in 2005. Broaching similar themes but endowed with the ability (post Against the Day and Inherent Vice) to give a better sense of overview on Pynchon’s career-long fascination with the workings of history, this is in fact Cowart’s second monograph on Pynchon. The first, Thomas Pynchon: The Art of Allusion, appeared in 1980 and also made a case for Pynchon’s humanist values but as expressed through his use of artistic rather than historical allusion. In Chapter 3 of the present volume, “Streben nach dem Unendlichen: Germany and German Culture in Pynchon’s Early Work,” the original interest in Pynchon’s references to cultural artefacts makes itself felt again, as Cowart suggests that Germany has provided the philosophical, religious, technological and artistic impetus behind key historical developments in the twentieth-century West. Reading Pynchon’s early narratives as replicating the Faustian paradigm as well as the Tannhaüser legend, as reflecting upon the influence of German Protestantism, the commentaries embodied by Fritz Lang films, Freudian psychology and the rise of Nazism, Cowart argues that Pynchon sets Germany up as ambivalent emblem of a general Western malaise, of a paradoxical desire for both transcendence and secular power that, he suggests, has shaped events over the past hundred years or so.
Chapter 3 introduces the reader to lesser-known intertexts and themes in Pynchon’s fiction, but Chapter 1 “Prospero’s Apprenticeship: Slow Learner” hinges on that old favourite – entropy. Offering general descriptions of the early short stories collected in Pynchon’s Slow Learner (1984), much of this chapter reads as a kind of introduction to the author, which is in keeping with Cowart’s intention to make his study readable for the non-academic academic audience as well as Pynchon scholars. In discussing entropy in Pynchon’s early stories, Cowart is again interested in allusion, although the historical twist given to Chapter 3 is largely missing here. His point here is that the author is primarily an artist, who yet has an interest in the sciences, and that the artistic references in his work should be considered at least equally as important as the scientific ones.
Chapter 2, “History and Myth: Pynchon’s V.,” fits more neatly, as its title suggests, with the historical theme of this work. Its reading of Pynchon’s first novel draws a parallel between Stencil’s quest for the elusive V. and humanity’s contemporary search for meaning, recognising the author’s attempt to undermine the apparent objectivity of history-writing as well as of myth, revealing both as substantially fictionalised and narrative-led. V. has often been associated with violence and the vast bloodshed of the early twentieth century, but Cowart points out her tangential position with relation to the major wars occurring in this time, and interprets her role in the novel as demonstrating “humanity’s enormous need to rationalize the past” and its resultant “dubious acts of emplotment” (51). According to Cowart, Pynchon parodies this attempt to invest reality with meaning, believing essentially that there is no motive in events, and that only secular apocalypse awaits us.