The newest issue of Bookforum has lots of good stuff in it, although unfortunately much of it remains inaccessible online. The quality of the reviews in this issue, however, well justifies shelling out the cost of a print copy, with which you can spend several hours, if not days, enjoying one of the few national book reviews that doesn't consider books an excuse for allowing reviewers to natter on about their "ideas" and that provides ample space for reviews of current fiction alongside the well-chosen nonfiction reviews also included.
If you pick up a copy, you might want to look especially at Mark M. Anderson's thoughful examination of A New History of German Literature (a review which raises a number of important questions about current academic approaches to the study of literature), Robert Polito's brief essay on Harry Mathews, and Marjorie Perloff's review of two books by Nobel-winner Elfriede Jelinek, which provides a useful corrective to the witless musings on Jelinek by, among others, Stephen Schwarz and Ruth Franklin. There's also Christine Schutt on Aimee Bender and Maggie Paley on Nicole Krauss.
Of the content available online, I found James Gibbons's essay on William Vollmann especially judicious. I have tried reading Vollmann on several different occasions, but frankly I've been unimpressed. Gibbons's piece makes me want to give Vollmann another try. This, for example, is something I would not have deduced given the public persona created by many other reviews of Volmann's books:
For all his audacious travels, Vollmann's feats never come across as exhibitionistic. Acutely aware of human vulnerability, he seems incapable of swagger. He never attempts to hide his physical awkwardness. As a reporter confronting degradation and atrocity, his forthright, unidealized self-presentation is alien to the school of writer-adventurers to which he belongs. We know from his fiction that he can write in any register, delighting in baroque metaphors and elaborate prose fantasias, so the account of his 1992 visit to besieged Sarajevo in The Atlas is all the more powerful for its plainspoken restraint. . . .
The centerpiece of this issue is undoubtedly Gerald Howard's reconsideration of Gravity's Rainbow. It's certainly well worth reading, although I have to say I question some of Howard's assumptions. I am especially puzzled by his recollections of what first drew him to the work of American postmodernists such as Pynchon, which he presents as mostly sullen and full of gloom ("Malamud was a downer, but not our kind of downer"), a kind of social fiction full of ideas about the horror of American culture.
These ideas were our mental tools as we romped in the forest of first-growth postmodernism. What was strange and gratifying was how completely in sync this writing was with our educated baby-boomer sense of squalor and betrayal. Then, no less than today, a culture war was being fought—but the battleground was an interior one, within our minds and souls.
I find it hard to think of the postmodern fiction of the 1960s and 70s as any kind of "downer," or as engaged in any kind of social commentary (advocating either inward or outward change) except in the most indirect and contingent way. It seems to me that what postmodern fiction shares with the social climate of the 60s is a spirit of excess and playful innovation, a sense that old forms are bursting at the seams. The work of such writers as Barthelme and Barth, Coover and Elkin, Sorrentino and Hawkes (all named as among Howard's favorites at the time) is most notable for its formal and stylistic energy, almost exuberance, which transmits to the reader at least as much excitement about the untapped possibilities of fiction as it does criticism of political and social arrangements. (This is true even of Pynchon; Gravity's Rainbow surely does critique the Western technosystem, but it is also stylistically ebullient and great fun to read.)
I also think Howard is wrong to describe GR as less "a novel in the generally accepted sense" than "a text, intended for moral instruction"--or if he is correct, then he has actually identified one of its most serious flaws. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call Gravity's Rainbow a "Menippean Satire," as a number of Pynchon scholars have pointed out, but one of the great accomplishments of the novel has been its ability to incorporate other and multifarious literary (and non-literary) forms without sacrificing its own integrity as an identifiable (if omni-directed) literary form in its own right. In this way, the novel has proven itself to be almost inherently experimental in the opportunities it affords to the adventurous writer. To restrict "novel" to something more conventional and domesticated than Gravity's Rainbow is to deny the actual history of the novel as a structurally unstable form.
And as a Menippean satire (which is "chaotic in organization" and in which "it's usually difficult (if not impossible) to pin down the specific targets of ridicule"), Gravity's Rainbow resists being used as "moral instruction." Unlike the more familiar kind of "corrective" satire, Menippean satire is not a mode of moral discourse. It does not urge us to change our ways. It's closer to travesty or farce--it depicts human behavior as just hopelessly ridiculous. I would argue that GR at its best rises (or sinks) to this level. However, to the extent this novel does leave readers feeling they've been delivered a lecture, admonished to stop participating in the global system of mechanical destruction, it probably does fail to carry through its postmodern version of the Menippean satire thoroughly enough. (In my opinion, V does a better job of embodying this kind of postmodern satire, and is thus an even better book than Gravity's Rainbow.)
If GR is becoming "dated," as Howard speculates it might be, this would be the reason, at least in my view. Finally I can't agree with Howard that "Pynchon is a pure product of the cold war and the arms race and the adversary culture that opposed them." That "pure" goes too far. If Gravity's Rainbow can't be appreciated except as a specific response to the cold war--even more particularly as a meditation on the Western worldview as it mutates through World War II and, at least implicitly, comes to inform political debates in the postwar era--it will indeed become merely a strange historical document, although at least it will probably continue to seem strange. But if its strangeness--its aesthetic singularity--is able to be explained away as tangential to its "intervention" in cold war politics, as merely a curious (albeit frequently hilarious) supplement to its value as "moral instruction," I'm not myself sure how much of the blame would be borne by Pynchon himself and how much by what seems to be our culture's insistence that even complex works of art like Gravity's Rainbow be explicable in simplistic political terms.