Pynchon, Thomas Ruggles, Jr.

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PYNCHON, Thomas Ruggles, Jr.

(b. 8 May 1937 in Glen Cove, Long Island, New York), award-winning author whose novels exploring the influence of science, technology, racism, and authority on twentieth-century society are among the most important postmodern works written in English.

Very little is known about Pynchon's life. Since the early 1960s he has led a secretive existence, known only to a few friends and his publishers, all of whom refuse to reveal anything about the author. Pynchon's insistence on anonymity may stem simply from shyness; on the other hand, he may want his literature to stand alone, with no opportunity for readers or critics to compare his works and his personal life.

Pynchon, the son of Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Sr., an industrial surveyor, and Katherine Frances Bennett, was the eldest of three children. The prominent family included historically important ancestors in both England and colonial America. Pynchon graduated from Oyster Bay High School, on Long Island, New York, as salutatorian of his class in 1953; he also received honors in English. His photograph in the high school yearbook was for decades the only known likeness. He entered Cornell University in the fall of 1953 and declared a major in engineering physics. Although he transferred to the College of Arts and Sciences during his sophomore year, Pynchon reputedly retained a strong interest in physics. His determination to maintain personal privacy began during his freshman year, when he refused to be photographed for the school's registry. In 1955 Pynchon enlisted in the U.S. Navy. While ashore at his home base in Norfolk, Virginia, Pynchon dated Anne Cotton. The two may have married, although no evidence for the marriage exists.

In 1957 Pynchon left the navy and returned to Cornell, where he took courses in literature, including at least one from the acclaimed author Vladimir Nabokov, and worked for a school literary magazine. He graduated with honors in 1959 with a bachelor's degree in English. He lived in Greenwich Village in New York City for one year, but moved to Seattle in 1960. In Seattle, Pynchon worked for the Boeing Corporation as a technical writer until September 1962. Since leaving Boeing, Pynchon has been accessible only to the people closest to him, although he is known to have lived for a time in both California and Mexico. Pynchon's short stories and occasional articles won him some critical attention, but his reputation rests on five novels: V. (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Gravity's Rainbow (1973), Vineland (1990), and Mason and Dixon (1997). V. hit the literary market like a bomb and became one of the most celebrated novels of its time. It fascinated general audiences and puzzled critics with its dazzling humor, intricate narrative structure, and bizarre characters.

The novel takes its title from a woman, the "V." of the title, who never actually appears but is the obsession of the other characters, especially the narrator, Herbert Stencil, and his father, Sidney. V., a treacherous spy involved in various mysterious conspiracies, is dead when the novel opens. As she moved about the world, she became more of a machine than a human being, as her body parts were replaced with artificial ones, including a glass eye with a clock in it. At once absurd, funny, and frightening, V. represents the continuing dehumanization of people by their technological culture. A parallel plot describes picaresque moments in the life of Benny Profane, whose lack of focus stands in ludicrous contrast to Stencil's compulsion.

Stencil's quest for V. requires the retelling of several brutal historical events, such as the German genocide of the inhabitants of southwest Africa. Although the timeline for events is confused, it is plain that human cruelty increases during the twentieth century and that, like V. herself, people are increasingly becoming parts of machines. V.'s ambitious scope offers a satirical yet profoundly serious account of the decline of Western civilization. Pynchon links the decline to entropy, one of Isaac Newton's laws of thermodynamics. As society becomes ever more mechanical and people become like objects, so does the physical law of entropy subject them to relentless decay. V. received the William Faulkner Foundation Award for best novel of 1963.

While working on his second novel, Pynchon wrote a short story, "The Secret Integration" (1964), and an essay, "A Journey into the Mind of Watts" (1966). Both works reflect on racism and civil rights. In the short story children invent a fantasy world in which there are no separate races. In the essay Pynchon studies the effects and motivations for the violence that attended the 1965 riots in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, suggesting that the violence was a form of communication.

The Crying of Lot 49, a straightforward narrative, is Pynchon's most generally accessible work. A protagonist with the richly suggestive name of Oedipa Maas stumbles upon the existence of a secret, subversive group, the Tristero, when she is named the executor of an estate. For hundreds of years the Tristero have used their own mail service in an effort to subvert civilization. They drop their mail in special trash cans labeled "Waste" (We Await Silent Tristero's Empire), and they kill people who interfere with them. When an acting company stages an Elizabethan revenge play, The Courier's Lament, the director drowns under mysterious circumstances. The plot implies that he was murdered, apparently because the play provides details of Tristero operations during the Elizabethan era. Oedipa Maas glimpses evidence of the Tristero's operations everywhere, especially in San Francisco, where the group's activities pervade all aspects of the city's life.

As in V., entropy signals the decline of society in The Crying of Lot 49. Oedipa Maas's limited ability to distinguish reality from illusion symbolizes the decay. Since the Tristero adeptly avoid detection by most people, Oedipa Maas doubts that what she sees is true. Yet Pierce Inverarity, the stamp collector for whose estate Maas is responsible, used to call Oedipa Mass on the telephone and speak to her in different voices each time. His behavior suggests that there is reality behind her strange experiences. The Tristero, if they exist, seem very interested in Inverarity's stamps, and the novel ends with Oedipa Maas attending the auction of the stamps, hoping finally to uncover the Tristero as they try to obtain the collection. The Crying of Lot 49 won the Richard and Hilda Rosenthal Foundation Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

Through the 1970s Pynchon seems to have moved back and forth between California and New York, followed by a long stay in California in the 1980s. Gravity's Rainbow is considered Pynchon's most accomplished work and has been compared to Ulysses and Moby Dick. Despite its length and complexity, the book became popular and won the National Book Award, which Pynchon declined. The Pulitzer Prize nominating committee unanimously recommended that Gravity's Rainbow receive the award for fiction in 1973, but the editorial board condemned the novel as obscene and refused to give Pynchon the award.

In the 1990s Pynchon continued to move about the United States while writing novels. The Times (London) claimed in 1997 to have sighted Pynchon in New York and photographed him, although it is not certain that they found their man. His reputation grew from year to year, with his novels becoming staples of college literature courses. Many literary critics believe that, by the end of the 1960s, Pynchon had already established himself as a major writer and that his publications thereafter made him one of the world's most accomplished novelists. They note how his blending of science and satire deepens his themes. Moreover, they acclaim his insight into how reliance on technology can complicate life without changing fundamental human experience, as in the discovery that the journey is more important than the goal in V. Pynchon's wordplay and satire lend a dimension of pleasure to his novels and make reading them a Shakespearean experience—the rare achievement of combining merriment with serious thought.

In his introduction to the collection of his short stories Slow Learner (1984), Pynchon reveals some of his thinking behind his early fiction. For information about Pynchon's early career, see Mathew Winston, "The Quest for Pynchon," Twentieth Century Literature 21 (Oct. 1975): 278–287. Jim Baird's essays "The Crying of Lot 49" (vol. 2) and "V." (vol. 8), in Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction (1996), offer good explanations of characterization and theme in each novel.

Kirk H. Beetz