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"No way to return" : agentic assemblies, switchback resistance, and spatializing Thomas Pynchon's narrative politics in Vineland Stewart, Anne Catherine

Abstract

This thesis focuses on one of the least acclaimed novels in Thomas Pynchon’s canon, Vineland. It was reviewed with disappointment by critics like Brad Leithauser, who writes that Vineland falters “chiefly through its failure in any significant degree to extend or improve upon what the author has done before.” I argue against such a reading, and position Vineland as a critical turning point for Pynchon’s work in which his articulation of the relationship between humans and nonhumans is dramatically refigured. I do this by reconsidering the history of American countercultural politics presented in Vineland in two distinct ways. First, attending to Pynchon’s critical interest in landscapes and urban spaces, I argue that the novel’s histories should be read as conceptual objects, materially coded into the landscape in such a way that they speak through these landscapes. Second, continuing to focus on ways in which space and materiality function in this novel, I draw out the nonhuman actors at work in the narrative in order to demonstrate a shift in Pynchon’s conceptualization of the relationship between what he often refers to as the animate and inanimate worlds. While his earlier novels posit an inanimate world that is threatening to humans, Vineland’s human-nonhuman dynamic is far more entangled in terms of its investment in how these actors function in assembly with each other. I pay particular attention to what Jane Bennett calls “agentic assemblages,” groupings of human and nonhuman materialities—a storm or a power grid, a city or a bioregion—that function together to author the spaces that they occupy in this novel. At stake here is a refiguring of historical agency as the product of a web of competing human and nonhuman discursive strategies. I argue that the novel’s narrative politics is one in which nonhumans have an authorial role, and that its form repeats this politics by deploying a spatial and discursive navigational strategy for human actors living in a world which is fundamentally nonanthropocentric. Through this narrative politics, Vineland emerges as a major contribution to late-20th century critical thought on spatiality, political ecology, materialist philosophy, and narrative theory.

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