Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Crying of Lot 49 hits closer to home

My first job after college was at a Borders Bookstore, a seasonal temp at six dollars flat toward the end of the first Bush recession. It was 1991 to be exact. When given a chance to facilitate a book discussion at the store—indeed, a chance to use my college education—I chose Pynchon’s short novel, The Crying of Lot 49. Most of us who attempt to “teach” Pynchon feel we must apologize if this is the book of our choice; yet, it is very rare that we would choose another. If we consider all the trends working against the extended reading of novels as part of a college education, it would be almost unimaginable to hand college students V or Gravity’s Rainbow and tell them with a straight face that the book will be covered in three or four weeks. (I did read Gravity's Rainbow as part of a 7-week seminar focused solely on that book.) It took me a couple “seasons” of teaching from a standard syllabus before I risked assigning Pynchon’s short novel to today’s college students, but overall I’m pleased I’ve tried.

Back to teaching, on Tuesday in class, I read the novel in a new context. I was no longer the instructor teaching the students about the Yoyodyne executive who, “found himself, at age 39, automated out of a job” (91). In fact, it occurred to me, from behind the podium, I am 39, and I am not entirely certain I have a job past May! Although I am acclimated to "unsteady" employment—commissioned sales and teaching on short-term contracts—the most recently estimated 675,000 jobs lost (added to several million from last year) seem so rather disturbing and new. Are we in a downturn? A demise? A decline and fall? I would have been unable to answer those questions in class, and most likely, would have retreated to some moderate tone concerning an ebb and flow or elasticity of the economy. When in doubt, choose a truth that leaves room for hope.

In class, it was quite the “eureka!” moment. At least for me, but my sense is the students were listening and many were understanding in several senses of the word. There we were—a group of students, a teacher, and an imaginary “downsized” friend—recognizing that the fiction of the text was in fact the facts of the day. Even if this particular teacher, the figure behind the podium, is fortunate enough to maintain his position, it became clear to students that unemployment could come even to the chosen few “rigidly instructed in an eschatology that pointed nowhere but to a presidency and death” (91). Alas, for some students in 2009, it could be that employment has never seemed like a given; they were not raised with the concept of social contract or a guaranteed job.

So this then became a truth of our moment, and I believe as a group, a knowledge we could share. At the very least, something was taught that seemed consistent with the representation of reality they’ve been watching on that “filthy machine,” the TV (73). Tune in this Friday at 8:30 a.m. to learn to what extent our economic lull is extended.

1 comment:

Tuba Adam Sherr said...

I know what you mean, Alex. I never read the book of which you speak, but I can only imagine what would happen if fiction became reality.....