Simon de Bourcier, Pynchon and Relativity: Narrative Time in Thomas Pynchon’s Later Novels

Simon de Bourcier, Pynchon and Relativity: Narrative Time in Thomas Pynchon’s Later Novels. Continuum Literary Studies, (Bloomsbury: London 2013). 240pp. Hb £45.50, Pb £13.99. ISBN: 978-1441130099

Simon de Bourcier's study sets out to provide a substantial and exhaustive scientific reading of Thomas Pynchon's late-career novels, in particular Against the Day and Mason & Dixon. Within the active (if potentially rather impenetrable)  world of Pynchon criticism, de Bourcier's book has already made a mark by exploring Pynchon through varied and complex scientific models, rather than the comparatively basic 'industry standard' readings of Pynchon via thermodynamics and entropy. De Bourcier's book has provided the academic community with the most in-depth marrying of quantum mechanics and Pynchon that exists, a status which I suspect it will maintain for a while, mostly unchallenged by the plurality of Pynchonian critical perspectives. What de Bourcier’s book achieves where previous scientific readings of Pynchon have fallen short, is in the approach it represents. Rather than a critical reading of Pynchon interspersed with scientific information, de Bourcier's book (at least the first half of it) could be considered more akin to philosophy of science than literary criticism. The marriage of these two disciplines constitutes the book's biggest strength, not only in its contribution to Pynchon scholarship, but in its potential as a resource for the study of science (in) fiction. Since this review is for a more general literary audience, I will be privileging de Bourcier's method and scientific content over his analysis of Pynchon. This is in no way meant to imply a criticism of de Bourcier as a Pynchon scholar, as both his book, other essays and various conference papers show him to be an important and valuable figure in the Pynchon community (a prototype of this book can be found in a chapter contributed to Thomas Pynchon and The (de)Vices of Global (post)Modernity, ed Zofia Kolbuszewska, Lublin: Wydawnictwo KUL 2012).

De Bourcier's approach does something that scholars of postmodern literature tend to baulk at; admitting that a postmodern, challenging writer like Pynchon could be considered as a science fiction author. Indeed, as de Bourcier himself notes, SF and fantasy writer Michael Moorcock described Pynchon's Against the Day as highly intellectual SF. De Bourcier's reading of Pynchon is heavily influenced by writers like H G Wells and Ursula le Guin; it also makes extensive use of Schrödinger's essays and other scientific resources. Where this approach truly shines is in how de Bourcier uses scientific perspectives (mainly quantum mechanics) as a way of understanding the basics of fiction and literature itself. De Bourcier also demonstrates how other writers engage with scientific problems; the most compelling discussion of this kind deals with Ursula le Guin's Schrödinger's Cat, a story which is a fictional treatment of the eponymous thought experiment, in that it deals with ideas of possible multi-verses and ever-increasing hierarchies of 'quantum observers', a theme that is at the core of Pynchon's own texts (surveillance, domination, paranoia etc.) and also a legitimate element in postmodern heterotopias and heterotopic space. De Bourcier’s conception of postmodern literature is not one that is merely informed by science, but one that is thematically linked to scientific and mathematical models of the world.

Much of de Bourcier's analysis of the scientific is an exploration of the logical problems raised by science, and the epistemology of certain scientific impossibilities. Building on work from McHale, Popper and Bohnenkamp, de Bourcier explains how scientific contradictions and impossibilities foster literary possibilities. Indeed, fiction has the power to re-order logic, to create and thus explore contrary possible worlds. This is definitely true for Pynchon, who explores scientific/logical impossibilities in his novels, by featuring a time machine in Against the Day, and a perpetual motion machine (the Nefastis Machine) in The Crying of Lot 49. The existence of the latter violates thermodynamic laws, the consequences of which balloon out in Pynchon's novels to create epistemological and political possibilities. Early in the book de Bourcier cites Mark Currie’s claim that “the impossible object or world is the very possibility of fiction.” (Currie, About Time: Narrative, Fiction and the Philosophy of Time, Edinburgh University Press 2010, 85). De Bourcier's continued and exhaustive exploration of this key notion highlights the scientific influences in Pynchon and, perhaps more interestingly, provides us with a theoretical link between the scientific and the literary that could be used to study a broad range of literary and critical issues.

Another strength of de Bourcier's approach is his understanding of Pynchon's use of historical 'phases' of science, and how he deploys prevailing scientific ideas and doctrines to structure his fictional worlds. One of Pynchon's key features is how outmoded or erroneous scientific understanding is used to inform epistemological truths in his texts (indeed, this structure aids the claim that Pynchon can be seriously considered as a SF or even a fantasy writer). De Bourcier explores how this is achieved in detail, with the outstanding example of the technique being Pynchon's use of the notion of the 'Aether' in Against the Day.

De Bourcier begins with a detailed classical interpretation of Aether as a concept, using mostly M.R. Wright's historical interpretation of Aristotle's notion of 'Aither' existing as a 'fifth element' within classical cosmology, as well as other related concepts referenced in Against the Day (Akasa in Hinduism). De Bourcier continues to chart the evolution of the idea across scientific history, from Descartes to Newton through to Bradley. Through this survey, he establishes the claim that Aether is an invented necessity in early scientific discourse, not a provable element but an explanatory one. In this way, de Bourcier deftly brings his scientific understanding of Aether back to his idea of the intimate relationship between the fictional and the scientific. In his words, “Aether is an explanatory fiction rather than an observable phenomenon.” (130) This argument has serious repercussions for how we could possibly engage with SF as fiction. Fiction does not contain mere surface level elements of science, but shares the same structure. If, to use de Bourcier's paraphrasing of Vaihinger, the fictional constructs of science are “a temporary scaffold,” (132) do not literary fictions provide temporary frameworks on which to support real assertions about the world?

To conclude, de Bourcier's book does an impressive job of highlighting both how Pynchon incorporates the scientific into his fictions to inform the heterodox worlds of his fictions (the politics of heterodoxy in Pynchon is explored further in Sam Thomas' Pynchon and the Political, Routledge 2008), and of creating a mediating zone between scientific methodology and literary theory.  The book is underpinned by a strong engagement with the notion of 'fictions', showing how this term can be applicable across disciplines, and consequently how science and literature share a structure when attempting to explain a world. The book represents a landmark in Pynchon criticism, with significance both for the scientific historian and the literary theorist.

Richard Moss, University of Durham