Last week saw the descent of some sixty Pynchon scholars upon the small northern city of Durham in the UK. The occasion was the International Pynchon Week conference, this year a co-sponsored event between the University of Durham and the University of Lincoln. The event was organised primarily by Samuel Thomas, of Durham, while I had assisted with various aspects of promotion, web design and suchlike.
It is worth prefacing this report by stating that the IPW events have held a special place in my heart for the past five years. In 2008, when I had just emerged from an undergraduate degree in which my dissertation had focused on Gravity's Rainbow, I trundled off to Munich for my first academic conference. I wasn't presenting, merely watching, but I was thoroughly immersed in the post-panel discussions and was treated extremely kindly by even the most seasoned attendees. There were other aspects of the event, though, that I have only come to appreciate in subsequent years, having attended a great number of academic conferences. Firstly, there are no breakout panels at IPW events. Everybody presents in plenary form to everybody else for the same length of time. Ph.D. and MA students present for 20 minutes alongside the most revered scholars in the discipline. The event is extremely democratic and non-hierarchical on this front. Secondly, the events have always been free to attend when I have been, which makes a difference from the hundreds of pounds that are often asked by organisers (sometimes for reasons beyond their control). Thirdly and finally, there is a true culture of interest and comradeship. This is not a job scrum event. People attend because they are interested in innovative thinking and startling new finds on Thomas Pynchon, not because they want to flatter the right people in the field. There are also frequently senior scholars present who would be entirely capable of ripping the papers of the more junior members to pieces if they so choose, but they never have in my experiences. Criticisms are offered in constructive fashions; this is a community that builds itself upwards together, rather than some climbing on top of others.
This year was no exception to any of the above. A nicer bunch of academics you couldn't hope to meet.
The material on show was also of an extremely high calibre. Almost all of the key thematic areas of Pynchon's work was on show. We began with a paper on specific locations ("V-Locations") that set the scene, with some particularly interesting work on the ways in which Pynchon's environments go beyond mimesis in their accuracy and instead replicate the current thematic intersections (for instance sadomasochism in V.) From there we had panels on religion, myth and spirituality, several on sources and intertexts, some work on resistance, power and terror, epistemology, ontology and postmodernism; the list goes on (and the programme is online).
As there were too many papers to cover in any detail (and as many of these should be forthcoming in Orbit), I'll just pick a few instances for further comment.
It was a great personal pleasure for me to be able to have a conversation with Kathryn Hume, whose work I have greatly admired for many years, but I also particularly enjoyed chairing the Epistemologies, Ontologies and Postmodernism panel, with excellent papers from my associates Simon de Bourcier and Ali Chetwynd. This panel, which re-appraised the commonplace assertion, initiated by Brian McHale, that Pynchon's early work falls under an epistemological dominant that then moves to an ontological dominant, gave fresh food for thought out of a stale debate, which is what good papers should do. I also enjoyed the resistance, power and terror panel, which moved from Robert McLaughlin and Michael McGuire's brilliant specific papers on terrorism in Against the Day to Yorgos Maragos' more abstracted work on Foucauldian power paradigms in Pynchon more generally.
While I don't have time, or the inclination, to write about every paper -- and I struggled to think of any true duds -- Zac Rowlinson gave a fantastic paper on noses and smells in Pynchon; Zofia Kolbuszewska spoke excellently on golems(!); Foteini Dimirouli gave a brilliant paper re-reading the irony of the Slow Learner introduction; while Doug Haynes gave a compelling argument for the role of mutual debt and obligation as an ethical framework in Pynchon's texts (I disagree with some of Doug's readings here, but they were at a work in progress stage and I like the way in which this re-orientates Pynchon's stance on the nuclear family away from any kind of conservative stance).
The final honourable mention that I will put in goes to Gilles Chamerois and Terry Reilly for their final paper on revisions to the proofs of Against the Day. For those that don't know, this is a 1080 page novel. Gilles and Chamerois have systematically compared, line-by-line, page-by-page a proof edition (ARC) of the text to the final published version. This monumental effort has revealed that Pynchon was making changes to the proofs of the novel, of an often substantial nature, right up until the last minute. This included details of various alterations to the plots (not all the changes made things clearer). For instance, originally, the Chums of Chance themselves were due to merely deliver the Sfinciuno Itinerary, not to follow it. Chamerois and Reilly are currently seeking permission to publish their findings, which come from a non-published volume.
Overall, once more, a fantastic week. Until next time!