California Countercultures: Pynchon’s Paranoid California with Michael Cohen

In 1964, Thomas Pynchon applied for graduate study in the math department at UC Berkeley. Fortunately for world literature, Berkeley rejected Pynchon, who went on to write several of the greatest works of postwar American literature, including The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), Vineland (1990), and Inherent Vice (2009). Though he was rejected by Cal, the Long Island–born Pynchon stayed on the Pacific coast, wandering between Berkeley, the beach towns south of LA, scattered writing retreats in Mexico, a job doing technical writing in a Boeing missile plant in Seattle, and the northern pot farms of the Emerald Triangle, all the while obsessively avoiding any semblance of the enormous literary celebrity that his writing earned him. In that time, his extraordinary prose style and labyrinthine literary form came to embody, like no other novelist’s, the history, spirit, and radical challenge of the California counterculture. This lecture presents a reading of Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 as an act of mapping the emergent and overlapping paranoid subcultures of a conservative state about to explode into open cultural revolt.

Michael Cohen, associate teaching professor in the African American studies department at UC Berkeley, is interested in the cultural and political history of the United States from the Civil War to the present. His research interests focus on the history of racial formations, class conflicts, and popular radical social movements between the 1870s and 1930s.

About California Countercultures
Thinking Through the Arts and Design at Berkeley: California Countercultures is a UC Berkeley course cotaught by Natasha Boas, independent curator and critic of contemporary art and theory, and Michael Cohen, associate teaching professor in the African American studies department. The Wednesday public lecture series is organized by Natasha Boas. California Countercultures is sponsored by UC Berkeley’s Big Ideas program and the Arts + Design Initiative, with additional support from Cal Performances and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.