Pynchon, Thomas (Ruggles, Jr.) 1937-
PYNCHON, Thomas (Ruggles, Jr.) 1937-
ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Plume, Penguin USA, 375 Hudson St. New York, NY 10014.
CAREER: Writer. Boeing Aircraft, Seattle, WA, writer for in-house organ. Military service: U.S. Navy, two years, c. 1950s.
AWARDS, HONORS: William Faulkner novel award, 1963, for V.; Rosenthal Foundation Award, National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1967, for The Crying of Lot 49; National Book Award, 1974, for Gravity's Rainbow (refused); Howells Medal, National Institute and American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1975, for body of work.
V. (novel; portions of Chapter 3 first published as the short story "Under the Rose," in Noble Savage, number 3; other portions first published in New World Writing), Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1963.
The Crying of Lot 49 (novel; selection first published as "The World [This One], the Flesh [Mrs. Oedipa Maas], and the Testament of Pierce Inverarity," in Esquire, December, 1965; other portions published in Cavalier), Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1966.
Gravity's Rainbow (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 1973, reprinted, Plume (New York, NY), 2003.
(Author of introduction) Richard Farina, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, Penguin Books (New York, NY), 1983.
Slow Learner (short story collection; contains "The Secret Integration," "The Small Rain," "Lowlands," "Entropy," and "Under the Rose"), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1984.
Vineland (novel), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1990.
(Author of introduction) Donald Barthelme, The Teachings of Don B.: Satires, Parodies, Fables, Illustrated Stories, and Plays, Random House (New York, NY), 1992.
(With others) Deadly Sins (essays; originally published in New York Times Book Review), illustrated by Etienne Delessert, Morrow (New York, NY), 1993.
Mason and Dixon, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 1997.
Also author of short stories published by Aloes Books, including Mortality and Mercy in Vienna, 1976, and Low-Lands, 1978. Contributor of short stories and essays to periodicals, including New York Times Magazine, New York Times Book Review, Cornell Writer, Holiday, Cornell Alumni News, Saturday Evening Post, and Kenyon Review.
SIDELIGHTS: According to Time contributor Joel Stein, American author Thomas Pynchon "created epic modernism" by unfettering "the detail-saturated realism of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf… from the confining world of marriage problems and parental blame and everything else that has made novels so small" to tranform the form into "a lens" for epic tales. Despite such a lofty accomplishment, Pynchon, somewhat ironically, is perhaps better known for not being known. The most significant biographical fact about the author of Gravity's Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49 is his anonymity: Pynchon has remained so wary of publicity that the only known facts about him consist of slim facts relating to his birth and education. For a time it was commonplace to compare Pynchon with J. D. Salinger, another famous American novelist noted for evading public scrutiny, but that comparison proved inadequate: Salinger, at least, could be located. Evidence and conjecture suggests that, while a daring and iconoclastic writer, Pynchon is in his personal life intensely private and intensely shy.
Pynchon's work strikes many readers as intensely difficult. This difficulty needs emphasizing inasmuch as it is not an extrinsic characteristic—one that a more careful author could have avoided, or one that the reader can circumvent with a good plot summary. Indeed, much of the difficulty arises precisely because Pynchon's plots resist summarization, just as his narrators resist reduction to a single identifiable voice and his range of reference seems virtually endless. The radical disruptions in his works that led the Pulitzer Prize editorial board to refuse to grant him the fiction award for Gravity's Rainbow also inspired Edward Mendelson to write in the Yale Review that "Pynchon is, quite simply, the best living novelist in English," and rank Gravity's Rainbow with James Joyce's Ulysses and Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain as one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. It is clear that difficulty may provoke reflection as well as reaction. Pynchon still has vocal detractors, but as Khachig Tololyan wrote in the New Orleans Review, "It is no longer possible to be seriously interested in contemporary American literature and yet to claim jauntily that one 'just can't get through' Thomas Pynchon's books."
The structural difficulty central to Pynchon's texts early became a theme, so that to a degree all Pynchon's novels are about difficulties in reading—and about "reading" as a metaphor for all the ways in which people try to make sense of the world in which they find themselves. In Pynchon's work, the act of reading parallels the act of deciphering a world problematically constructed of codes. Treating The Crying of Lot 49, Frank Kermode observed in an essay collected in Seymour Chatman's Approaches to Poetics, "What Oedipa is doing is very like reading a book," and the statement applies as well to Herbert Stencil in V. and to any number of questing heroes in Gravity's Rainbow. The notion of "reading" experience as a way of discerning meanings occurs as early as the 1960 short story "Entropy," in which, as Joseph Tabbi observed in a Pynchon Notes article, the undergraduate Pynchon was already working to "create an imaginative order in art that would engage randomness and indeterminacy in modern life and in the changing physical world." In V., published in 1963, apparent randomness and indeterminacy are qualities of the fictional universe that confronts the reader as well as the characters, and the central action of the quest is disconcertingly similar to the reader's own act of interpretation.
In a wider sense, "reading" is the process by which people make a story out of experience and call it history. As Tony Tanner remarked in his article "V. and V-2," collected in Mendelson's Pynchon: A Collection of Critical Essays, V. is very much aligned with the short story "Entropy" in its concern for the possible running-down of history, for a gradual decline, which the narrator terms decadence. But while Pynchon's work "is certainly about a world succumbing to entropy, it is also about the subtler human phenomena, the need to see patterns which may easily turn into the tendency to suspect plots." Tanner's synopsis plays on a double meaning inherent in the word "plot." In one sense a plot is a story line, the bare outline of "what happens" in a work of fiction. In another sense, however, a plot is a conspiracy, an underlying story of secret manipulation that reveals "what really happened." Insofar as history is "plotted" it may entail both of these meanings: if it tells a story it may do so precisely because someone has created that story, arranged things to produce certain results. A conspirator and an author clearly have something in common if the pun is taken seriously. Perhaps history itself has authors. Perhaps crucial events take place because somebody planned things that way.
V. is "about" plotting in this disturbing sense inasmuch as it raises questions about history within its own structure. The chapters taking place in the narrative present, in the years 1956 and 1957, are punctuated by chapters set at various times in the previous three-quarters of a century. The jumps between "past" and "present" are violent and to some extent unexplained. In some cases the reader can be reasonably sure that one of the protagonists, Herbert Stencil, is narrating the "historical" story, but in other cases it is radically unclear where the story is coming from or why it occurs at this point in the "present" action. The problem of connections thus becomes a major concern of the reader, who in making sense of Pynchon's novel is suddenly immersed in the same enterprise as Stencil himself.
Stencil's activity, a form of quest, involves looking through segments of recent history for manifestations of a woman known to him only as V. In the process Stencil serves as a persona of the reader, for as Melvyn New noted in the Georgia Review, "While Herbert Stencil searches for clues to the meaning of the woman, V., accumulating his notecards, his sources, his linkages, we, as readers, parallel his activity, making our own accumulations, driven by the same urge to fit the pieces together, to arrive at the meaning of the novel V." The central dilemma of this quest depends on the double meaning of "plot." If the connections that Stencil discerns between the events of history are real, they seem to be evidence of a conspiracy bringing the twentieth century to a state of apocalyptic decadence, a situation analogous to the entropic run-down posited by thermodynamic theory as the terminus of the physical universe. If these connections are not real, but only projected out of a need to find order in the events of history, historical events become meaningless: uncaused and unmotivated, and causing and motivating nothing in the present.
The Crying of Lot 49 has only one protagonist, another quester with the quest-hero's resonant name of Oedipa, and only one line of action, which remains resolutely chronological. Readers are thus largely spared the task of making connections within the story and left to observe the spectacle of the hero making her own connections which is to say either discerning them in or projecting them onto a satirically envisioned landscape of Southern California at mid-century. The parodic quality of V. is if anything intensified in The Crying of Lot 49, where Oedipa Maas (the surname means "more" in Spanish and is close to "measure" in German) is joined by Manny DiPresso, Stanley Koteks, Genghis Cohen, and a rock group called the Paranoids. Manfred Puetz suggested in his study The Story of Identity: American Fiction of the Sixties that Pynchon's characters tend to be stereotypical and "curiously one-dimensional" precisely because of the interpretive dilemmas in which they find themselves: "they remain caught in their situations" and "act out the same obsessions in compulsive repetitiveness." Certainly the metaphors of entrapment that confine Oedipa also define her. She is most memorably a princess in a tower weaving a tapestry that comes to constitute the world.
Like V., The Crying of Lot 49 is concerned with the "plot" of history, embodied in the force that might be behind a spectral underground association called the Tristero. The novel is also more explicit than V. in its assertion of decoding activities as characteristic of scientific thinking and to this end uses the concept of entropy as an aspect of both physics and information theory. As Ann Mangel noted in an essay in Mindful Pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon, "By building his fiction on the concept of entropy, or disorder, and by flaunting the irrelevance, redundancy, disorganization, and waste involved in language, Pynchon radically separates himself from earlier twentieth-century writers, like [William Butler] Yeats, [T. S.] Eliot, and Joyce." But this antimodernism becomes productive, a critique of the modernist rage for order and in the process an exemplary postmodernism, inasmuch as it sees in the order of closed artistic systems an analogue of the conditions for entropic rundown. Mangel continued, "The complex, symbolic structures [that the modernists] created to encircle chaotic experience often resulted in the kinds of static, closed systems Pynchon is so wary of."
The publication of Gravity's Rainbow in 1973 secured Pynchon's reputation. The controversy over the Pulitzer was widely publicized and criticized, with many readers regarding the editorial board's decision as comparable to acts of the repressive power structure that the novel painstakingly documents. In addition, Gravity's Rainbow won the National Book Award (Pynchon refused it, sending "Professor" Irwin Corey, a self-proclaimed master of double-talk, to the awards ceremony as his surrogate) and the William Dean Howells Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters for the best novel of the decade. Both the acclaim and the hostility that this book engendered testify to its innovations. As Tololyan observed in the New Orleans Review, it surpasses many traditional definitions "of what can be considered literary," upsetting "narrow generic and modal categories" of criticism and refusing "to fulfill a set of expectations nurtured by reading the great novels of the nineteenth century, or the slighter fictions of our time."
One index of the scope of Gravity's Rainbow is the fact that it was reviewed in Scientific American and discussed at length in Technology and Culture. In the latter journal Joseph Slade hailed Pynchon as "the first American novelist to accept the duty of which [Aldous] Huxley speaks," the duty "to seek powerful means of expressing the nature of technology and the crises it has generated." In Readings from the New Book of Nature: Physics and Metaphysics in the Modern Novel, Robert Nadeau identified these crises with the collapse of "the Newtonian world view, which features along with the Western mind itself either-or categorical thinking, simple causality, immutable law, determinism, and discrete immutable substances;" but Alan Friedman, writing in Charles Clerc's collection Approaches to "Gravity's Rainbow," found more recent scientific world views equally unsatisfactory: "Unfortunately, the visions from science do not provide more hopeful guides away from the horrors Gravity's Rainbow reveals in life and death. Doctrinaire acceptance of any of these visions proves as sterile as the nonscience-related images that obsess characters." Richard Poirier, in the Saturday Review of the Arts, suggested that, on the contrary, scientific data permeate the book not to provide solutions to conceptual difficulties but to compound these difficulties by offering yet another tradition to which the language can allude. The central symbol of the novel, the V-2 rocket, is thus even more overdetermined than central symbols tend to be; it is "Moby Dick and the Pequod all in one, both the Virgin and the Dynamo of Pynchon's magnificent book."
Poirier went on to comment, "More than any living writer, including Norman Mailer, [Pynchon] has caught the inward movements of our time in outward manifestations of art and technology so that in being historical he must also be marvelously exorbitant," and the "exorbitant" quality of Gravity's Rainbow may constitute its greatest threat to traditional ideas of the "literary." In Technology and Culture, Slade pointed to Pynchon's "faith in the unity of Creation"; but a number of other critics see in Gravity's Rainbow a work constituted in opposition to existing notions of unity, and especially in opposition to the unity of the artistic work celebrated by the earlier masters of literary modernism. For example, Brian McHale, writing in Poetics Today, called Gravity's Rainbow a "post-modern text" that subverts the emphasis on coherence of the "modernist reading" it seems to elicit. Charles Russell concurred that the novel pushes at conventional boundaries and noted in Approaches to "Gravity's Rainbow," "Indeed, Gravity's Rainbow is but one manifestation of a widespread literary fascination with the nature and limits of aesthetic and social language during the past two decades." And John Muste, writing in Boundary 2, found in the circular image of the mandala (a preoccupation of the southwest African Herero characters prominent in the novel) an emblem of the reader's situation. "Confronted with a text which contains a veritable cornucopia of clues," Muste observed that "we search diligently and sometimes desperately for ways of arranging these clues in a meaningful pattern. Gravity's Rainbow invites, even demands, such efforts, and steadfastly rebuffs them. It gives nothing away. At the center of the mandala rests that infuriating empty circle, that refusal to impose meaning or to confirm either our fondest wishes or our direst fears."
The publication of Gravity's Rainbow marked the beginning of a seventeen-year silence on Pynchon's part, interrupted only by the 1984 release of Slow Learner, a collection of five previously published short stories. In 1990, however, Pynchon reentered the literary mainstream with Vineland, a novel taking its title from the fictional northern California county in which it takes place. Focusing on a group of 1960s beatniks after they lived through the disillusionment of the following decade into the television-dominated culture of the 1980s, Vineland features a pot-growing handyman, landscaper, and former rock singer named Zoyd Wheeler, his teenaged daughter Prairie, and Frenesi Gates, his ex-wife. The book's complex plot begins with Zoyd's being forced into hiding when a prosecutor from Washington, DC—and Frenesi's jealous former lover—tries to kidnap Prairie in an attempt to resume his relationship with Frenesi, who has disappeared. Unlike Pynchon's previous novels, Vineland contains numerous references to popular culture and alludes to many fewer scholarly, literary, or historical ideas. Critics can still trace, however, Pynchon's trademark themes of entropy and paranoia, and many have commented on the wit, humor, and extraordinary facility with language that Pynchon demonstrates in the novel.
While finding much about Vineland to praise, reviewers generally agree that Pynchon's much-anticipated novel does not surpass either Gravity's Rainbow or The Crying of Lot 49 as his best work. Vineland "won't inspire the same sort of fanatic loyalty and enthusiasm that Gravity's Rainbow did," asserted David Strietfeld in Fame, adding: "The new novel has got a much more mainstream flavor…. Call it Pynchon Lite." Expressing severe criticism was Listener contributor John Dugdale, who maintained that Vineland's grounding in contemporary American life detracts from the importance of Pynchon's themes: Vineland "is an unsatisfactory, stripped-down novel lacking the internal tension which sustained its predecessors: the interplay between abstract concepts and human stories, past art and modern lives, the scholarly and the streetwise. By misguidedly choosing to quit the literature of ideas, Pynchon robs his writing of both its vitality and its distinctiveness." But Paul Gray, writing in Time, was more appreciative of Vineland and its portrait of betrayal, conformity, materialism, and shallowness: "It is, admittedly, disquieting to find a major author drawing cultural sustenance from The Brady Bunch and I Love Lucy instead of The Odyssey and the Bible," Gray admitted. "But to condemn Pynchon for this strategy is to confuse the author with his characters. He is a gifted man with anti-elitist sympathies. Like some fairly big names in innovative fiction, including Flaubert, Joyce and Faulkner, Pynchon writes about people who would not be able to read the books in which they appear. As a contemporary bonus, Pynchon's folks would not even be interested in trying. That is part of the sadness and the hilarity of this exhilarating novel."
In Mason & Dixon, Pynchon weaves together fact with a kind of logical fantasy derived in various measures from fact, probability, and imagination to create what amounts to an allegory of national progress in the formative years of the United States. Narrated in authentic-sounding period prose by the Rev. Wicks Cherrycoke, the novel follows the journey of the surveyors who divided the country into North and South, from their first meeting until the drawing of the famous line which bears their name. Like the rest of Pynchon's work, Mason & Dixon is long, dense, and difficult. Even a sympathetic reviewer like Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times admitted that the novel "could have used some judicious editing" to prevent its being "daunting to many readers." Most critics, Kakutani included, are fascinated by Pynchon's complex narrative tapestry. T. Coraghessan Boyle, in the New York Times Book Review, stated: "The method is sublime. It allows for the surveyors' story to become an investigation into the order of the universe, clockwork deity and all, and yet at the same time to reflect the inadequacy of reason alone to explain the mystery that surrounds us. The haunted world, the suprareal, the ghostly and the impossible have the same valence as the facts of history as we receive them. If the traditional historical novel attempts to replicate a way of life, speech and costume, [this] post-modernist version seeks only to be just that, a version." In the Nation, John Leonard noted that "from the depths of a jaunty disenchantment, [Pynchon] calls into brilliant question the very ways we measure, map and misconstrue history, landscape, time, space, stars and self."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Arlett, Robert, Epic Voices: Inner and Global Impulse in the Contemporary American and British Novel, Susquehanna University Press, 1996.
Chambers, Judith, Thomas Pynchon, Twayne (New York, NY), 1992.
Chatman, Seymour, editor, Approaches to Poetics, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1973.
Clerc, Charles, editor, Approaches to "Gravity's Rainbow," Ohio State University Press, 1983.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 2, 1974, Volume 3, 1975, Volume 6, 1976, Volume 9, 1978, Volume 11, 1979, Volume 18, 1981, Volume 33, 1985, Volume 62, 1991, Volume 72, 1992.
Cooper, Peter L., Signs and Symptoms: Thomas Pynchon and the Contemporary World, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1983.
Cowart, David, Thomas Pynchon: The Art of Allusion, Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale, IL), 1980.
Dugdale, John, Thomas Pynchon: Allusive Parables of Power, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1990.
Grant, J. Kerry, A Companion to "The Crying of Lot 49," University of Georgia Press, 1994.
Green, Geoffrey, The Vineland Papers: Critical Takes on Pynchon's Novel, Dalkey Archive Press, 1994.
Hite, Molly, Ideas of Order in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon, Ohio State University Press, 1983.
Hurm, Gerd, Fragmented Urban Images: The American City in Modern Fiction from Stephen Crane to Thomas Pynchon, P. Lang (New York, NY), 1991.
Madsen, Deborah L., The Postmodernist Allegories of Thomas Pynchon, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1991.
Mendelson, Edward, editor, Pynchon: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1978.
Nadeau, Robert, Readings from the New Book on Nature: Physics and Metaphysics in the Modern Novel, University of Massachusetts Press (Amherst, MA), 1981.
Newman, Robert D., Understanding Thomas Pynchon, University of South Carolina Press, 1986.
Plater, William M., The Grim Phoenix: Reconstructing Thomas Pynchon, University of Indiana Press, 1978.
Puetz, Manfred, The Story of Identity: American Fiction of the Sixties, Metzlersche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1979.
Sakrajda, Mira, Postmodern Discourses of Love: Pynchon, Barth, Coover, Gass, and Barthelme, Peter Lang (New York, NY), 1997.
Schaub, Thomas H., Pynchon: The Voice of Ambiguity, University of Illinois Press, 1981.
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Extrapolation, spring, 2002, Randy Shroeder, "Inheriting Chaos," p. 89.
Fame, winter, 1990, David Strietfeld, review of Vineland.
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