References without Referents (Or, How My Class Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Thomas Pynchon)

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Sarah Chihaya, Comparative Literature

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2012

The Problem with Pynchon: Nobody was as nervous as I when my class began reading Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. I had assigned the text to my R1B students knowing full well that it would be a challenging text to take on. As a reader, I was both frustrated and delighted by the short novel’s countless intertextual references, and as a teacher, I wasn’t sure how such an opaque, demanding text would be received by my students, most of whom were non-literature majors. How could I possibly communicate the intertextual quality central to the novel’s style to my students, when most of them didn’t have the exhaustive literary and historical background that Pynchon’s proliferating cultural references — which swing wildly from erudite literary digs, to Sixties-specific pop cultural allusions, to puerile humor — seem to demand? Leading up to our first day of discussion in class, a number of students admitted to me that they were frustrated by the text’s opacity and its alienating surfeit of allusions and apparent in-jokes, and that they had trouble resisting the urge to skim or skip sections of this too-dense text.

Creating “Paranoid” Readers: I knew from the beginning that trying to explain all of Pynchon’s references would be an impossible task, and would make for a dry, pedantic reading to boot. I decided to focus on the idea that readers develop different reading techniques for different texts as a way to get inside this intimidating novel; specifically, I used the protagonist’s paranoid readings of the cryptic world around her as a model for students’ readings of the novel. For our first day of in-class discussion, I asked students to go back and annotate their first reading assignment heavily, and highlight all the things they understood to be allusions, as well as every confusing thing they suspected might be a reference to something, but weren’t sure about. They came in the next day with heavily marked-up texts and a sense of somewhat irate, but productive curiosity. The requirement of marking references, paired with the explicit instruction to cultivate a suspicious mode of critical reading, necessitated a higher attention to detail and textual engagement. That day in class, we focused on intensive mini-readings of some of these highlighted points, beginning with the multiple interpretations of linguistic elements as seemingly simple as the names of Pynchon’s paranoid heroine, Oedipa Maas, and the deceased tycoon Pierce Inverarity. On the board, we collectively brainstormed all of the possible allusions, puns, and other potential points of significance that these over-determined names could be said to encompass. This collaborative demonstration of the text’s obsessive relation to signs and their multiple meanings enacted the process we see Oedipa undertake in the plot, and helped students become Pynchonesque, paranoid readers themselves.

The Result: Our series of intensive mini-exegeses and all-you-can-annotate “paranoid readings” led to a greater critical interest not only in what students discovered (or thought they might have discovered) in the text, but also in the reading process that they embarked upon. These exercises led to an interesting discussion not only of the text’s initial opacity, but of the effect of the latter on the students as readers. By our fourth and final class on the novel, it led to a student-led discussion that demonstrated a far greater level of nuance than we’d had only two weeks earlier when we began the book. A student asked “What would happen if we were all like Oedipa? What if we all ‘read’ real life the way Pynchon forces us to read his novel?”, sparking a continuing discussion of reading practice in and out of Lot 49. Throughout the rest of the class, I was impressed by the ways in which my students proceeded to interrogate their own reading practice in the texts we encountered. This critical awareness of the act of reading brought a greater focus to the ways in which the individual formal qualities of each text provoke different modes of reading, and in addition, helped students bring a critical and analytic comparative aspect to our discussions. Not only did this investigation of their own reading practices shed a more accessible and enjoyable light on what was originally an opaque and resistant text (and on a room full of initially resistant readers), it also asked students to consider the varying ways in which they approach different texts, and why.