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The function of humor in the works of Thomas Pynchon


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Novaković, Nikola. (2017). The function of humor in the works of Thomas Pynchon. PhD Thesis. Filozofski fakultet u Zagrebu, Department of Comparative Literature.
(Poslijediplomski doktorski studij književnosti, izvedbenih umjetnosti, filma i kulture) [mentor Brlek, Tomislav].

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Although numerous critics have recognized elements of humor in Thomas Pynchon’s works on the level of both structure and plot, this reading aims to pay more attention to this insufficiently explored aspect of the author’s stories and novels. The dissertation therefore studies the novels Mason & Dixon (1997), Against the Day (2006), Inherent Vice (2009), and Bleeding Edge (2013) with respect to the function of humor in each of them. The introduction outlines some of the more common theories of humor, simultaneously showing how each of these can serve to explain some functions of Pynchon’s humor. The introduction also attempts to show that each of the existing theories of humor is actually at its most useful when utilized to explain why the reader laughs at certain forms of humor. Since the aim of this dissertation is to focus on the specific functions of Pynchon’s humor, the interpretations of each of the novels take as their starting point the works of Northrop Frye and Mikahil Mikhailovich Bakhtin, especially the latter’s ideas about Menippean satire and the carnivalesque explored in Problems of Dostoyevsky's Poetics (1963) and Rabelais and His World (1968). After outlining the basic elements and characteristics of Menippean satire, the dissertation will consider the general nature of Pynchon’s humor and show that its range includes unusual syntaxt, wordplay, puns, acronyms, parodic names and titles, and a complex web of allusions. Special attention will be paid to the use of irony and parody, while humor overall will be read as an example of rhizome, as the concept is expounded by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in Capitalism and Schizophrenia: A Thousand Plateaus (1980). Following the introduction, the analysis of Against the Day will focus on the selfreferentiality of humor and examine how it enables us to read Pynchon's work as historiographic metafiction. Analysing specific examples, the reading will show that the text explores the idea that history itself is a form of text, or a fictional document, open to interpretation. However, this section will also show how humor subverts the reading of this novel as an historiographic metafiction, mainly through the use of parody, therefore contributing to the text that we shall refer to as metametafiction, or metafiction about metafiction. The next reading, focused on Mason & Dixon, continues the topic of history and autoreferentiality, but with a pronounced emphasis on the connection between humor and hybrids (on the level of both narrative and structure). By combining historical events with fantastic characters, creatures and narratives, the text creates a carnivalesque representation of history undoing clear-cut boundaries between the real and the imaginary, higher and lower social classes, life and death, the monstrous and biologically normal, therefore accomplishing a subversion of certain attempts to homogenize society (such as the Enlightenment). The analysis will also explore the question of whether or not the novel belongs to the tradition of texts that expose the problem of writing an ideologically neutral representation of history through the use of humor and metafictional, intertextual and other ludic devices. Using the aforementioned concept of rhizome, the reading of Mason & Dixon will conclude by examining the various forms of humor (especially comic allusions and jokes) as signals that set up a web of rhizomatic sections and therefore destabilize different attempts at creating boundaries within the story. The analysis of Inherent Vice will begin by examining the connections between humor, space and identity, particularly by focusing on sections involving dark humor and the effects significant changes (sometimes based on myths, and sometimes on the relationship of capitalism, technology and politics) in the identity of space can have on the identity of communities and individuals. Since popular culture plays an important role in this process, the reading will also attempt to include the connection between humor, identity and television as a heterotopia used to share popular culture with viewers. Humorous sections that contain representations of a society zombified by television will be studied according to the principles governing heterotopias as outlined by Michel Foucault. It will be shown that television is an ambivalent space, both a mechanism suitable for spreading ideologically colored forms of behaviour, and a space for sharing specific models of resistance to such behaviour. The reading will identify certain thematic and structural characteristics present in two previous novels from Pynchon's California trilogy (The Crying of Lot 49 (1965) and Vineland (1990)), and will therefore explore the connection between humor and representations of utopias, including the way characters critically examine the successes and failures of the sixties counterculture, which are, to an extent, part of the inherent vice of a memory clouded by nostalgia. The reading will conclude by questioning the possibility of regenerating damaged identities, while also paying close attention to the ambivalent nature of the novel's ending as a result of a dystopian vision represented in a humorous tone. Beginning from the novel's title, the next section of the dissertation focuses on irony in Bleeding Edge as a dominant humorous form that emphasizes the importance of spectres in the story. The reading of spectres will employ ideas put forth in Jacque Derrida's Specters of Marx: The state of the debt, the work of mourning and the new international and show that the American society of the early 2000s is represented as a society fixated on a nostalgic view of the past, specifically the golden years of dotcom. The nostalgia of that society is the subject of numerous ironic and parodic anecdotes focusing on the habits of a nation of viewers and spectators addicted to the TV screen and the 90s popular culture, a period the cultural remains of which it continually rehearses in an attempt to uncover patters for the new formation of its destabilized identity. Shown in an ironic light, nostalgia serves to hide the traumatic reality of America still recovering from the dotcom crash, which is why the past is simultaneously present and absent as a source of a trauma intensified by the market politics that finds only financial value in the identities of people and places. The analysis will pay close attention to the function of the Internet and the comic sections of the novel in which characters express a desire for finding or creating a space freed from control, supervision and paranoia, especially paranoia created by the strict state control following 9/11, an event that functions as another of the novel's spectres. In the time period of the plot there is a widespread feeling that different spaces of freedom (mostly represented by the Internet and the Deep Web) are beginning to disappear, while also being replaced by structures controlled by the government and capitalism, which is one of the reasons why characters are searching for new methods of resistance. Although the analysis will show that such methods lack actual political subversiveness (therefore recalling similar countercultural patterns in Pynchon's previous novels), it will explore the possibilty of reading humor as a textual element that destabilizes dystopian readings of the events of the novel, thus achieving an ambivalent image of the future of the USA. The conclusion of the dissertation will offer an overview of the insights achieved through the analyses of the four novels, suggest new directions for exploring Pynchon's humor and emphasize the importance of studying humor in literature in general.

Item Type: PhD Thesis
Uncontrolled Keywords: Thomas Pynchon, Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin, humor, Menippean satire, parody, irony, chronotope, meta-metafiction, autoreferentiality, identity, rhizome
Subjects: Comparative literature
Departments: Department of Comparative Literature
Supervisor: Brlek, Tomislav
Additional Information: Poslijediplomski doktorski studij književnosti, izvedbenih umjetnosti, filma i kulture
Date Deposited: 07 Jul 2017 12:47
Last Modified: 07 Jul 2017 12:47

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