Pynchon, Thomas (1937—)

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Pynchon, Thomas (1937—)

Though a difficult literary author who has written only five novels in 35 years, Thomas Pynchon has remained a figure who has captured the imagination of a wider public and has avoided the academic and literary communities who revere him. His use of popular culture in his fiction, along with other such "unliterary" subjects as science, have had a highly influential effect on modern fiction. Pynchon, however, is also known to many who have never read his work as an author who has maintained an unheard of level of anonymity in a society that thrives on self-promotion.

Thomas Pynchon was born on May 8, 1937 in Glen Cove, Long Island, New York, into a prosperous family with an American heritage dating back to the early seventeenth century. He studied at Cornell University, served a two-year stint in the Navy, and worked in Seattle for Boeing Aircraft Corporation. From the late 1950s to the early 1960s he published a number of short stories and began work on his first novel, V., published in 1963. The Crying of Lot 49 was published in 1966 and when Gravity's Rainbow came out in 1973, it was selected by the judges for the Pulitzer Prize in literature. They were overruled, however, by the Pulitzer advisory board whose members called the sprawling and bawdy book, with a cast of over 400 characters, "unreadable," "turgid," "overwritten," and "ob-scene." In 1990 the much awaited Vineland came out to mixed reviews but the reception of Mason & Dixon (1997) appeared to be more positive.

Pynchon's work has received wide acclaim amongst the literary media and the academic fraternity, but also amongst readers outside these fields drawn towards his use of science and philosophy and his utilization of science fiction and other popular genres. Over his career, his very dense, extensively researched prose has taken him across many periods and many places, studying the motivation and circumstances behind the excesses of empire and the forces of institution and rationalization at the center of Western society. Pynchon uses the "languages" of popular fiction, comics, cinema, and television. V. is obviously influenced by the British tradition of spy and adventure fiction, The Crying of Lot 49 by the detective novel, Gravity's Rainbow by spy and war fiction—not to mention a plethora of cinema genres and the comic—and Vineland is laced with metaphors surrounding rerun television—from The Brady Bunch to CHiPs —and the blockbuster movies of the age like the Star Wars trilogy. Even Mason & Dixon is partly a product of the genre of historical romance. Pynchon utilizes codes, knowledge, and language to both show their worth and to show that anything with a structure can be integrated into rationalized and institutionalized control in order to manipulate and exploit. Ironically, nowhere is this more clear than in the academic reception to his work, where interpreting his wide frames of reference has become an industry in itself.

Although Pynchon may be relatively unread compared to some of the popular writers he adapts in his own writing, he has a broader presence in the popular imagination. Since successfully avoiding a Time photographer attempting to take his picture in Mexico in 1963, Pynchon has become famous for maintaining his privacy. In the years following the success of Gravity's Rainbow, Pynchon avoided television interviews, lecture tours, and literary prize ceremonies (even when he won prizes); any knowledge of his whereabouts became increasingly valuable and scarce. It was considered something of a scoop in 1974 when New York magazine was able to show a 20-year-old photo. Playboy magazine printed an article in 1977 by a friend of Pynchon's from Cornell and over the years various magazines and newspapers have run articles by individuals who have run into Pynchon: from reporters attempting to track him down to pundits peddling theories he is anyone from J. D. Salinger to the Unabomber. In the 1980s a series of letters purported to be written by Pynchon in the guise of a local bag-lady appeared in a northern Californian newspaper and were collected in 1996 under the title The Letters of Wanda Tinasky. Also in 1996, New York magazine finally tracked Pynchon down to a salubrious section of Manhattan and produced a fresh photograph of him for the first time in over 40 years. The magazine chose to print a picture that only showed Pynchon from the back, but, inevitably, the novelist's photo was finally taken by a reporter for the New York Times in June 1997. Add to this the number of professional and informative web sites that Pynchon has engendered—carrying both information on all the media says of Pynchon as well as attempting to detail and decipher his work—and the writer appears more a phenomenon than a mere novelist. Clearly, his mixture of intellectual extravagance and biographical frugality has created a fascinated audience larger than his prose alone could muster.

The ability to blend subject matters from so-called "high art" and "low culture," science and literature, and contemporary politics and history, may today almost appear a necessity in the budding "great novelist." Pynchon, however, has been doing this for the last 40 years while maintaining a political agenda that denounces empire and slavery in all its racial, economic, and political manifestations. His maintenance of his privacy is probably both a personal matter and a reflection of his distrust of authority, patently obvious in all his work. Whatever the reasons, Pynchon's wariness of creating a public persona has inadvertently created one for him: a much more intriguing one than most media-friendly writers have achieved.

—Kyle Smith

Further Reading:

Factor, T. R. The Letters of Wanda Tinasky. Portland, vers libre press, 1996.

Maltby, Paul. Dissident Postmodernists: Barthelme, Coover, Pynchon. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Weisenburger, Steven. A Gravity's Rainbow Companion. Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1988.