By Ali Dehdarirad
I hope I can steal a minute of your time to draw your attention to the publication of my book on our favorite writer: “From Faraway California”: Thomas Pynchon’s Aesthetics of Space in the California Trilogy. The book brings together my passion for Pynchon’s work and my interest in urban and regional studies, dating back to graduate school. Ever since I came across The Crying of Lot 49, I’ve been fascinated by Pynchon’s intriguing fiction, and it is my hope that this book makes a useful contribution to Pynchon studies and the Pynchon community. It is available as an eBook (open access format) on the website of Sapienza University Press. The following is some background on how I came to write my new book. —Ali Dehdarirad
In “the City Region” with Pynchon
Let me start by sharing some bits of my “Pynchon experience.” I gave The Crying of Lot 49 as a gift to my wife eight years ago, but she hasn’t finished it yet. I think somewhere around chapter three she said something like “that’s enough.” As odd as it might sound, I myself never got to the end of the Italian translation either. On second thoughts, I’ve never read any Pynchon book in Italian because I believe no translation could ever do justice to the complexity and depth of his fiction. My first encounter with Lot 49 is abundant proof of this. I remember reading the first pages of the novel as an undergrad and wondering, What the hell is going on? But it was all exciting. Lot 49 gave me that rush of adrenaline you feel when reading a novel that offers all you need to sit down for long hours and not wanting to leave the book unless the Grim Reaper knocks on your door. Thus began my labor of love with Pynchon, as I stood with Oedipa “in the living room, stared at by the greenish dead eye of the TV tube, spoke the name of God, tried to feel as drunk as possible” (CL, 1). By the time I got to the end of the book, I didn’t want it to finish, as if I had to “keep it bouncing” (CL, 112). Though the novel ended there (or perhaps it never did), it opened up a fresh horizon, enticing me to read Pynchon’s œuvre.
Around the same time, I had come to learn about the so-called Spatial Turn and later I developed an interest in urban and regional studies. But apart from such academic sophistications, I’ve always been fascinated by the phenomena of city and city life, from my childish daydreaming of living along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates, naively imagining what life might have been like within ancient civilizations, to practically living all my life in metropolises. I remember once in junior high I didn’t go to a math class because I wanted to work on a project for my geography class and the day after I was reprimanded by the school principal: “What is geography? Math is your future.” He might, or might not, have been right, but my curiosity grew only deeper about how cities started and developed in time, so much so that now I keep maps of such early urban settlements as Çatalhöyük on the walls of my room. My wife, who has lived a good part of her life in a green town of northern Lazio before moving to Rome, calls me “the city boy.” I admit that living in a metropolis usually involves urban, environmental, social, and other kinds of problems, but still I am attracted to “the ensnarling city” (VL, 108).
As I worked on my book, I kept reading new materials about urban theory and, within the limits of my access, I attended seminars and workshops on urban planning at Sapienza University. Although not every lesson was as useful as I thought, the result of this new experience was double-fold: I was reassured to realize that I knew a fair bit about urbanization processes, though only theatrically and mostly in connection with the humanities, and, precisely because the critical framework of my mind is deeply rooted in the humanities, my way of viewing and interpreting urban issues was fundamentally, and sometimes amusingly, different than that of urban researchers. With this new discovery, I was more convinced that I could use this urban spatial framework in relation to Pynchon’s work. Reading his fiction on the one hand and theories of urbanism on the other, at some point it happened to me to think that California was the missing dimension from the triangle of my passions. With that idea in mind, I decided to read the California trilogy —: The Crying of Lot 49, Vineland, and Inherent Vice — through the lens of what I later called “geo-urbanism” because, over a decade, I came to think that these three books deserved to be studied more deeply from a specifically urban spatial standpoint.
Put simply, the main argument of my book is to show how in the California trilogy Pynchon depicts certain urban geographical phenomena that indicate, and often anticipate, the transformation of the contemporary metropolis toward “planetary urbanization” and the formation of what has been called “the city region” (Soja, 197). Moving from Lot 49 to Vineland and then Inherent Vice, “From Faraway California” engages with the consequences of three significant periods of urban restructuring, contemporaneous with three controversial moments in U.S. history, in relation to Pynchon’s California novels. From the Watts riots of 1965 to the 1992 Los Angeles Justice Riots and the 2008 economic recession, Pynchon’s fiction helps better understand, or at the very least represent, certain aspects of urban spatial issues in the contemporary city. At the same time, it shows the dire socio-economic and cultural effects of urban restructuring on the daily lives of its citizens such as the urbanization of injustice, problems of gentrification, and capitalist economic exploitation.
As we learn in Inherent Vice, Mickey Wolfmann’s real estate development Channel View Estates is being built where previously an African American neighborhood was situated, which had itself seized a Japanese American area after WWII. Such episodes hint at urban redevelopment projects in the postwar era that allowed for the seizure of places in the novel such as the neighborhood where a former black convict Tariq Khalil used to live. As he tells the protagonist Doc Sportello, Channel Estates is “More white man’s revenge. Freeway up by the airport wasn’t enough” (IV, 19). Tariq’s observation refers to urban redevelopment policies that destroyed ethnic and minority neighborhoods to construct new highways connecting the inner city to the suburbs. Issues of “relentless suburbanizing” (BE, 157) and “symptoms of gentrification” (124) in the twenty-first century city are later resurrected in Bleeding Edge, among other things, through the … Continue reading
More generally, and more cautiously, the critical geo-urban examination of Pynchon’s work is further aimed at throwing light on what might happen concerning the future of urbanism, not least in the aftermath of “regional urbanization” (Soja, 9). In fact, the arguments proposed in my book bespeak that investigating Pynchon’s urban spatial imaginary may potentially reveal interesting insights for urbanists in understanding urban geographical phenomena in the contemporary metropolis, or at least viewing them from an original point of view. On that score, I have further considered the rendition of California space in connection with Brenner and Schmid’s concept of “planetary urbanization” (Brenner and Schmid, 160). The scholars posit that nowadays “the category of the ‘city’ has […] become obsolete” (162) but also emphasizes that “even spaces that lie well beyond the traditional city cores and … Continue reading
Indeed, one need only think of Lot 49’s narrator who relates that San Narciso “was less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts— […], all overlaid with access roads to its own freeway” (13). Curiously, San Narciso has no clear boundaries: “No one knew yet how to draw them” (111). Nor does it have a defined center: before Oedipa and Metzger play Strip Botticelli, the narrator tells us about “a commercial for a Turkish bath in downtown San Narciso, wherever downtown was” (23; emphasis added).
From “Extended Urbanization” to Pynchon’s Environment: Beyond Postmodernism
If Pynchon’s books provide seminal insights from the viewpoint of urbanism and its socio-political ramifications for the average U.S. citizen, they also shed light on other aspects of his spatial imagination. In the wake of peak oil and the importance of sustainable energy sources, From Faraway California moreover reflects on the questions of the Anthropocene and the sustainability discourse in Pynchon’s California trilogy. But how did this addition take shape?
The initial idea of writing the book did not directly take into consideration an environmental analysis of the trilogy, even though there were already enough stimuli around me and in Pynchon’s work. I remember having conversations about the mythological creatures the woge in Vineland with my wife, who offered me her Shinto vision of such existences in the novel. Of course, we frequently see various kinds of climate disasters on TV. We also read and sometimes teach novels about climate change and global warming. However, what emotionally triggered this planetary concern in me, and the desire to write about it, was a summer when occasionally I went on a Thoreauvian walking experience of the woods around Rome (It was mostly enlivening except once when I was harassed by an oppressive swarm of wild mosquitoes).
Out of curiosity and having heard about the sustainability discourse, I decided to read more about the environmental side of urbanism, which turned out to be illuminating. Apart from my personal experience of coming across episodes of ecological importance in Pynchon’s novels, I knew about several prominent scholars who had written about natural issues in his fiction. As it became increasingly clear to me that urban planning has consequential effects on the environment and society at large, I went on to broaden my knowledge of that topic concerning Pynchon’s work. Indeed, the first results of my research on the relation between the urban and environmental issues in the California trilogy came out in the form of my presentation at the 2022 International Pynchon Week (IPW).
In line with the ecological concerns in the trilogy, therefore, in my book I employ the concept of “extended urbanization” (Brenner, 201), which deals not only with urban questions related to cities and city regions but also broader operational landscapes that have to do with environmental organization such as water and waste disposal management. Making a foray into the environmental dimension of Pynchon’s fiction, for example, in Inherent Vice, the reader learns about the character Spike who is obsessed with “the El Segundo oil refinery and tanks just up the coast” (IV, 87). We are told that the crude oil spilled from tankers on Gordita Beach was so sticky that “Anybody who walked on the beach got it on the bottoms of their feet” (87). In a mocking tone, the narrator says that there were two solutions to this problem: some “liked to let it just accumulate till it was thick as huarache soles, thereby saving him the price of a pair of sandals. Others, more fastidious, incorporated regular foot-cleaning into their day, like shaving or brushing their teeth” (87), which Spike sardonically calls “some … little … fucking detail.”
An important corollary of this urgent environmental discourse with regard to Pynchon’s fiction is the idea of leaving behind such characteristics as irony and playfulness, usually associated with postmodernism, toward more concrete, or one might say sincere, solutions. Although it is impossible to shun the notion that Pynchon’s work has been fundamental to understand literary postmodernism, it is likewise important to recognize the impossibility of pigeonholing his fiction within the unstable borders of that critical category. As Sascha Pöhlmann has suggested, Pynchon “may have moved well beyond the postmodern in his own writing” (17). Indeed, I believe that the delineation of anthropogenic planetary harm in his work, especially in the new millennium, which evinces the urgency of practical measures in dealing with ecological hazards, heralds the idea that Pynchon’s twenty-first century fiction has moved beyond the established framework of postmodernist theory as it no longer fits the theoretical glove of postmodernism.
“Back to California”: Mythical Spaces and Alternative Realities
How to write a book about Pynchon’s spatial imaginary and not consider the issue of alternative realities and mythical spaces? California holds a special place in Pynchon’s fiction because, among other things, its delineation in the trilogy is conducive to understanding recent urban spatial processes. Furthermore, every Pynchon book addresses some fictional, historical, socio-political, or geographical aspect of that setting. Significantly, not only does Pynchon’s representation of California interact with salient matters in the novels’ plots, be it capitalism and its mechanisms of economic hegemony, political systems of control and surveillance, or otherwise, but most importantly it reflects (on) the American imagination and mythology. Indeed, it is no overstatement to say that all Pynchon books are California, or West Coast, novels as they delineate a kaleidoscopic image of (and from) “faraway California” (BE, 238).
In Vineland, the reader learns about the woge, who were inhabitants of Northern California. However, with the arrival of the first humans in their habitat,
some went away physically, forever, eastward, over the mountains, or nestled all together in giant redwood boats, singing unison chants of dispossession and exile, fading as they were taken further out to sea, […] lost. Other woge who found it impossible to leave withdrew instead into the features of the landscape, remaining conscious, remembering better times, capable of sorrow […]. (163)
The narrator describes their experience as a “journey through the realm behind the immediate” (163). In effect, for these mythological, dispossessed creatures Vineland County holds a liminal position between life and afterlife — a space in which the boundaries of “the two worlds” (191) are drawn “closer, nearly together,” where there is the “suspicion of another order of things.” As they remain conscious, however, the woge are nostalgic of their original homeland, taken over by the humans. Interestingly, their desire for a better life, intimated by the Vineland landscape, is mirrored in the sixties youth counterculture and the hope of an alternative America.
In a postmodern recursive manner, I would like to go back to the beginning of this article by saying a word about the title of my book. Obviously, the title and the subtitle are meant to give an idea of what the book is mainly about: Pynchon, California, urbanism. I have chosen “From Faraway California,” a quotation from Bleeding Edge, for a number of reasons. To mention but a few, it is firstly intended to represent Pynchon’s depiction of California in the trilogy. At the same time, California as a far place, and the end of the westward expansion of European civilization, is supposed to show the idea of geographical distance and the importance of urban geographical issues to Pynchon’s mind, not least in a world in which there is talk of the end of distance and geography in the wake of the Internet, AI, and such consequential technologies.
Furthermore, when we think about the idea of myth, California immediately runs through our minds as it is associated with such notions as the American dream, the Biblical “promised land” of salvation, and so forth. Nonetheless, there is also the proverbial other side of the coin insofar as California represents the power of myth both to inspire and to disappoint. Among others, see McClintock and Miller, 39. In this regard, one might think of the representation of environmental concerns in Pynchon’s work as a theme that has been increasingly important to everyday life in California in the wake of worsening climate calamities. While I elaborate on these and other issues in the book, perhaps the most important reason, as I argue, is that Pynchon “somehow identifies himself and his works with the spirit of California” (23), be it “Californiana crap” (CL, 59), “only quotidian California” (VL, 83), or “a Southern California beach that never was” (IV, 10).
Now that all is said and done (I immediately recognize the irony of what I just said), I hope these notes might convince some curious soul to read the book, maybe even my wife although she says that she already knows everything, and something more, about it. Sometimes, I feel like she might have finished Lot 49, or some other Pynchon novel, without telling me about it merely to avoid endless discussions with me. After all, in a world in which “everything is connected” (Gravity’s Rainbow, 722), and “nothing is connected to anything,” you never know the truth. Well, sounds like a Pynchonian mystery.
- Brenner, Neil. Critique of Urbanization: Selected Essays. Basel: Birkhäuser Verlag GmbH, 2017.
- Brenner, Neil, and Christian Schmid. “Chapter 11 ‘Planetary Urbanization.’” Implosions/Explosions: Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanization. Ed. Neil Brenner. Berlin: Jovis, 2014, 160-163.
- Dehdarirad, Ali. “From Faraway California”: Thomas Pynchon’s Aesthetics of Space in the California Trilogy. Rome: Sapienza University Press, 2023.
- McClintock, Scott, and John Miller. “Chapter Five ‘West Coast.’” Thomas Pynchon in Context. Ed. Inger H. Dalsgaard. UK, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019, 39-46
- Pöhlmann, Sascha. “Pynchon and Post-postmodernism.” The New Pynchon Studies. Ed. Joanna Freer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019, 17-32.
- Soja, Edward W. My Los Angeles: From Urban Restructuring to Regional Urbanization. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.
|Issues of “relentless suburbanizing” (BE, 157) and “symptoms of gentrification” (124) in the twenty-first century city are later resurrected in Bleeding Edge, among other things, through the depiction of the Lincoln Center, “for which an entire neighborhood was destroyed and 7,000 boricua families uprooted” (51).
|The scholars posit that nowadays “the category of the ‘city’ has […] become obsolete” (162) but also emphasizes that “even spaces that lie well beyond the traditional city cores and suburban peripheries […] have become integral parts of the worldwide urban fabric.”
|As Sascha Pöhlmann has suggested, Pynchon “may have moved well beyond the postmodern in his own writing” (17).
|Among others, see McClintock and Miller, 39.