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Dismantling the face in Thomas Pynchon’s fiction

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posted on 2023-06-09, 00:37 authored by Zachary James Rowlinson
Thomas Pynchon has often been hailed, by those at wont to make such statements, as the most significant American author of the past half-century. What is indisputable about this simultaneously beguiling and frustrating, prodigiously sophisticated and irrevocably juvenile, not to say admired and reviled writer, is that his fiction has inspired critical readings that are now as appositely voluminous as his novels themselves. Yet no prior critical effort does full justice to the importance of the face in the work of this notoriously “faceless” author, who even had a brown paper bag over his head when depicted in cartoon form on The Simpsons. In light of this oversight, this thesis seeks to address what might be called—to borrow from his 1990 novel, Vineland—the ‘not-yet-come-to-terms-with face’ in Pynchon’s corpus. Though always driven by the workings of Pynchon’s writing, various theorists—such as Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Erving Goffman, and Emmanuel Levinas—are called-upon throughout this study in order to aid the conceptualisation of this ‘not-yet-come-to-terms with face’. Particular inspiration is taken from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s call to ‘dismantle the face’ in A Thousand Plateaus. Albeit not in strict adherence to this summons, the first three chapters of this project butcher the face into its dominant component features: eyes, nose, and mouth. These features—as well as the central issues of the final two chapters, the mask and the face respectively—are then traced across Pynchon’s entire oeuvre, including his most recent novel, Bleeding Edge, published when this project was already underway. What emerges is a picture of the integral role the face plays in Pynchon’s manifold concerns: surveillance, surgery, dentistry, identity, cinema, drugs, the senses, and so on. This thesis ultimately contends that although frequently defaced and effaced in Pynchon’s writing, the face is nevertheless a prime locus at which ethical and political possibility surface.


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