Pynchon, Thomas

views updated May 21 2018


Nationality: American. Born: Glen Cove, New York, 8 May 1937. Education: Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1954-58, B.A. 1958. Military Service: Served in the United States Naval Reserve. Career: Former editorial writer, Boeing Aircraft, Seattle. Awards: Faulkner award, 1964; Rosenthal Memorial award, 1967; National Book award, 1974; American Academy Howells medal, 1975. Agent: Candida Donadio and Associates, 231 West 22nd Street, New York, New York 10011. Address: c/o Little Brown, 34 Beacon Street, Boston, Massachusetts 02106, U.S.A.



V. Philadelphia, Lippincott, and London, Cape, 1963.

The Crying of Lot 49. Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1966; London, Cape, 1967.

Gravity's Rainbow. New York, Viking Press, and London, Cape, 1973.

Vineland. Boston, Little Brown, and London, Secker and Warburg, 1990.

Mason & Dixon. New York, Henry Holt, 1997.

Short Stories

Mortality and Mercy in Vienna. London, Aloes, 1976.

Low-lands. London, Aloes, 1978.

The Secret Integration. London, Aloes, 1980.

The Small Rain. London, Aloes, 1980(?).

Slow Learner: Early Stories. Boston, Little Brown, 1984; London, Cape, 1985.


A Journey into the Mind of Watts. London, Mouldwarp, 1983.

Deadly Sins, illustrations by Etienne Delessert. New York, Morrow, 1994.



Thomas Pynchon: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Materials by Clifford Mead, Elmwood Park, Illinois, Dalkey Archive Press, 1989.

Critical Studies:

Thomas Pynchon by Joseph V. Slade, New York, Warner, 1974, and Thomas Pynchon, New York, Lang, 1990; Mindful Pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon edited by George Levine and David Leverenz, Boston, Little Brown, 1976; The Grim Phoenix: Reconstructing Thomas Pynchon by William M. Plater, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1978; Pynchon: A Collection of Critical Essays edited by Edward Mendelson, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice Hall, 1978; Pynchon: Creative Paranoia in Gravity's Rainbow by Mark Richard Siegel, Port Washington, New York, Kennikat Press, 1978; Thomas Pynchon: The Art of Allusion by David Cowart, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1980; The Rainbow Quest of Thomas Pynchon by Douglas A. Mackey, San Bernardino, California, Borgo Press, 1980; Pynchon's Fictions: Thomas Pynchon and the Literature of Information by John O. Stark, Athens, Ohio University Press, 1980; A Reader's Guide to Gravity's Rainbow by Douglas Fowler, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Ardis, 1980; Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon edited by Richard Pearce, Boston, Hall, 1981; Pynchon: The Voice of Ambiguity by Thomas H. Schaub, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1981; Thomas Pynchon by Tony Tanner, London, Methuen, 1982; Signs and Symptoms: Thomas Pynchon and the Contemporary World by Peter L. Cooper, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1983; Approaches to Gravity's Rainbow edited by Charles Clerc, Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1983; Ideas of Order in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon by Molly Hite, Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1983; The Style of Connectedness: Gravity's Rainbow and Thomas Pynchon by Thomas Moore, Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1987; A Gravity's Rainbow Companion by Steven C. Weisenburger, Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1988; The Fictional Labyrinths of Thomas Pynchon by David Seed, London, Macmillan, 1988; A Hand to Turn the Time: The Menippean Satires of Thomas Pynchon by Theodore D. Kharpertian, Rutherford, New Jersey, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989; Writing Pynchon: Strategies in Fictional Analysis by Alec McHoul and David Wills, London, Macmillan, 1990; The Gnostic Pynchon by Dwight Eddins, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1990; Thomas Pynchon: Allusive Parables of Power by John Dugdale, London, Macmillan, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1990; New Essays on "The Crying of Lot 49" edited by Patrick O'Donnell, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991; The Postmodernist Allegories of Thomas Pynchon by Deborah L. Madsen, New York, St. Martin's Press, and Leicester, Leicester University Press, 1991; Marginal Forces/Cultural Centers: Tolson, Pynchon, and the Politics of the Canon by Michael Bérubé, Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press, 1992; Thomas Pynchon by Judith Chambers, New York, Twayne, 1992; Pynchon's Poetics: Interfacing Theory and Text by Hanjo Berressem, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1993; The Vineland Papers: Critical Takes on Pynchon's Novel edited by Geoffrey Green, Donald Greiner, and Larry McCaffery, Normal, Illinois, Dalkey Archive Press, 1994.

* * *

The legend of Thomas Pynchonno photographs, no interviews, no public appearancescannot help but ensure, and indeed has ensured over the last forty years, a kind of spectacular visibility to both the man and the fiction. Pynchon's collection of short prose and the five important novels he has written to date have garnered him a reputation as not only North America's finest contemporary writer, but also as the undisputed world heavyweight champion of postmodern prose. Pynchon's novels are exemplary postmodern texts: critiquing grand narratives; indulging in fierce, slapstick displays of irony; reveling in the meta-textual; and obsessing about popular culture. But his works are also indisputably stamped with the hallmarks of high modernism, and in particular with an old-school literary erudition. Pynchon's cultural reputation reflects his stunningly eclectic prose: this super-hip, super-cerebral style that is nuanced as much with rock 'n' roll as it is with Rainer Maria Rilke.

But while critics have identified Pynchon as a clear inheritor of modernist literary experiments, his books, for the most part, are also recognizably realist. Pynchon's favorite form is the meta-literary picaresque, and he regularly utilizes a conventional third-person narrator. In fact, his lack of interest in exaggerated formal experimentation may lend the greatest power to Pynchon's inimitable prose style: traditional and yet also surprisingly absurdist, paranoid, hilarious, manic, celebratory, labyrinthine, and yet always melancholic. Pynchon's works are deeply nostalgicin search of lost time, not to mention countries, histories, ideologies, and modes of identity.

Pynchon and his oeuvre can perhaps be most appropriately figured in a post-World War II, and particularly post-Beat, landscape. This is an environment distinguished by both great paranoia and great hope, especially as these extremes relate to the technologization of modern American culture. Pynchon's first novel, V., published in 1963, concerns itself with this very conundrum. How do modern subjectsliterally marked by their own obsolescence (the two principal protagonists are named Profane and Stencil)negotiate the modern dangers of a nihilistic, corrupt, degrading, and mechanized environment? The leitmotif of V. is the grail quest, and we follow Stencil as he searches for the protean character "V." (at first encountered as a woman, but a woman who throughout the novel metamorphoses into numerous fictional and historical personages). As in all of Pynchon's novels, underlying V. 's wonderful comedy and searing political commentary is a focused meditation on the workings of history and religion. Stencil and Profane are not unlike characters in a Kenneth Patchen allegory: two likeable but ill-fated dudes in search of signs of higher moralityand yet forever at the whim of a cultural order simultaneously droll and belligerent.

These dire themes and Stooges-like predicaments also infect Pynchon's second novel, The Crying of Lot 49. The tale opens with Oedipa Maas, just home from a Tupperware party, receiving word that she has been named executor of a California real estate mogul's will. Though Pynchon has since dismissed this second novel as rushed, it is distinguished by some utterly brilliant passages of stream-of-consciousness writing. The extremely tight and engaging plot also involves itself with the key Pynchon themes: conspiracy, madness, history, drugs, machines, science, love, capitalism, information. Pynchon's work is clearly obsessed with and by informationthe transmission, receiving, manipulating, and concealment ofand especially the tendency of "information" to spin towards nonsense. This chaotic tendency is directly related to Pynchon's infamous preoccupation with "entropy" as a cultural and intellectual metaphor.

The paradoxical line "A screaming comes across the sky" opens Pynchon's monumental, and indeed immortality-securing, 1973 work Gravity's Rainbow. This screaming, the reader learns, is the uncanny after-sound of a German V2 rocket: travelling faster than the speed of sound, it has already detonated somewhere in England. The entire novel, with its 400-plus characters, can be read as an epic attempt to come to terms with the horror of this one scientific phenomenon. Thus the V2, like entropy, is for Pynchon that haunting aberration, that modern thing that exists outside traditional systems of rationality, beyond cause and effect. As the ominous central metaphor for the novel, Pynchon capitalizes on the V2's transgressive power and ingeniously links the bombings with the sexual exploits of one GI, Tyrone Slothrop (the locations of his "detonations" predict those of the V2). Clearly, Pynchon's absurdist tendencies are still wildly at work here, and the novel contains some unparalleled humorous writing (witness the English-candy tasting scene at Mrs. Quoad's house in which Slothrop is forced to sample, among other goodies, orange-mayonnaise flavored chocolates). Gravity's Rainbow is, however, peopled with characters far more cynical and more fundamentally anxious (they are literally waiting for super-rockets to destroy them) than the schlemiels and goofballs that inhabit V. and The Crying of Lot 49.

It is critically customary to dismiss a plot synopsis of the sprawling Gravity's Rainbow as impossible, but the plot would appear less vital than Pynchon's actual writingwhich is tour de force. For many readers, comparisons to Joyce's Ulysses are unavoidable because Gravity's Rainbow is an utterly self-assured and inventive exercise in poetic style. It boasts not only effortless writerly technique (narrative shifts from first-to second-to third-person; incantatory, dream-like passages; use of song lyrics; parodies of numerous literary genres) but also, like Joyce, a cocky certainty that a reader will be patient enough to settle into its vast and idiosyncratic language-world. And so it is probably more predictable than ironic that Gravity's Rainbow, a novel pathologically obsessed with hard-ons and their relationship to missiles and vice versa, should itself exist as one of the more explosive, can(n)on-ready texts of the postmodern period.

A crucial interval in the Pynchon literary biography belongs to the seventeen years that stretches from the publication of Gravity's Rainbow to the publication of Pynchon's follow-up novel, Vineland, in 1990. While Pynchon did publish Slow Learner: Early Stories in 1984 (a collection of his previously published short fiction), he had otherwise completely turned off, and dropped out from, the literary scene. Not surprisingly, these "silent" years guaranteed Pynchon's reputation as first-rate recluse and also, of course, vouchsafed that the publication of Vineland would be an international literary eventwhat could possibly, reviewers wondered, follow the American Ulysses? What appeared was an uproarious, somewhat canon-indifferent, pop-culture-saturated bookresembling more The Crying of Lot 49 than Gravity's Rainbow set in 1984 and concerning aging hippie Zoyd Wheeler and his Northern California adventures with the Federal government. Pynchon's prose throughout is, unlike the oblique and somber arabesques of Gravity's Rainbow, TV-fluid and pure stand-up: "Zoyd headed down to Vineland Mall and rolled around the lot there for a while, smoking up half a joint he'd found in his pocket, before parking the rig and going into More Is Less, a discount store for larger-size women." If the soundtrack for Gravity's Rainbow is "screaming," then the background music in Vineland is all rim-shots. Yet while Pynchon is good with a pun, he is also, like Joyce, remorselessly allusive and learned. In Vineland, however, a reader is asked not to be familiar with Sanskrit or Greek myth, but with the minutiae of contemporary culture: ninja lore; breakfast cereal trivia; the history of surfer culture; strip mall ambience; punk rock references etc. Vineland really predicts, or elucidates the directions of, the next generation of American po-mo writersNicholson Baker, Donald Antrim, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzenthemselves also steeped in the so-called detritus of modern western civilization.

Pynchon's latest novel is the hefty, Gravity's Rainbow -sized Mason & Dixon. Wicks Cherrycoke is the eighteenth-century narrator and he charts the life and times of the famous astronomer and surveyor duo entrusted with cutting the North-South dividing Line across the United States. The work is implicitly metaphoric, infinitely preoccupied with historical demarcations; scientific systems; and with the transgressions of, or adherence to, "categories" generally. Mason & Dixon is also pastiche writing at its finest: Pynchon employs numerous Age-of-Sensibility style capitalized words and a note-perfect Floridity. There is certainly something of the irreverent, master puppeteer on display in the novel as Pynchon manipulates his characters through fraught historical terrain.

Thomas Pynchon is, even more so than his esteemed comrades John Barth or Robert Coover, the contemporary sensei of the postwar American novel. As the brightest literary all-star thendespite the legendary invisible man statusPynchon remains formidably, brilliantly in one's face.

Jake Kennedy

Thomas Pynchon

views updated Jun 11 2018

Thomas Pynchon

The American novelist Thomas Pynchon (born 1937) is best known for V., The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity's Rainbow, Vineland, and Mason & Dixon, complex fictions noted for their encyclopedic erudition and parodistic, labyrinthine plots.

Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Jr. was born in Glen Cove, New York, on May 8, 1937, of a prominent family. Among Pynchon's ancestors were a 16th-century London high sheriff, a 17th-century Massachusetts Bay Colony patentee and treasurer who was also a founder of both Roxbury and Springfield, Massachusetts, and a 19th-century Trinity College president, after whom Pynchon was named by his father, Thomas Sr., an industrial surveyor in East Norwich, New York.

In 1953 Pynchon graduated from Oyster Bay High School, where he was class salutatorian and recipient of an English award at graduation. He matriculated at Cornell University, where he enrolled in engineering physics, transferring in his sophomore year into the College of Arts and Sciences. Pynchon's early academic interest and excellence in the sciences was evident later in his fiction, where scientific theories serve as suggestive and complex metaphors.

After his sophomore year Pynchon enlisted in the Navy for two years, returning to complete his B.A. in English at Cornell in 1959 "with distinction in all subjects." Among his teachers was Vladimir Nabokov, who was soon to become a famous novelist.

During his junior and senior years Pynchon had begun to write short stories that were later to be published in literary journals: "The Small Rain, " "Mortality and Mercy in Vienna, " "Entropy, " "Lowlands, " and "Under the Rose." Most of these can be found in a 1984 collection, Slow Learner: Early Stories. One other short Pynchon piece also deserves mention: "A Journey into the Mind of Watts, " an article he published in the June 12, 1966, issue of the New York Times Magazine.

Although Pynchon's minor work received some popular and academic attention, his reputation rests largely on five major works: V. (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Gravity's Rainbow (1973), Vineland (1990), and Mason & Dixon (1997). After graduating from Cornell, Pynchon turned down a teaching offer there to work on V., which he wrote in New York City, Seattle (where he worked for a time as an engineering aide for the Boeing Company), California, and Mexico. His efforts were rewarded when V. won the William Faulkner Foundation Award in 1963 as the best first novel.

A diffuse and discontinuous fiction, V. comprises two, essentially alternating, tales. The first, the picaresque adventures of Benny Profane, a passive drifter just discharged from the Navy who "yo-yos" from place to place principally in the eastern United States in late 1955 and 1956. The second, Herbert Stencil's imagined, sprawling, historical narrative of V., the mysterious woman whom Stencil believes to be connected in some way to the 20th century's apocalyptic meaning and whose narrative ranges from 1898 Egypt to 1922 South-West Africa. The two narratives enclose a kind of polar vision of possibilities: the random disorder of Profane's present and the compulsive order of Stencil's past. Yet Pynchon's text refused to take itself seriously; both Stencil and Profane are comic, self-mocking characters, and their respective quest and non-quest function as parodies that ridicule such totalizing extremes.

Pynchon's second book, The Crying of Lot 49, won the Richard and Hilda Rosenthal Foundation Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Unlike V., The Crying of Lot 49 is a tightly plotted narrative focussing on a single protagonist, California housewife Oedipa Maas. Oedipa is named executrix of a former lover's wealthy estate and during the course of attempting to disentangle it is herself entangled in evidence of the apparent existence of a secret, subversive postal organization named the Tristero. Oedipa's quest for the Tristero, whose origins date back to 16th-century Europe, becomes increasingly obsessive, and while the narrative implies that she may be paranoid, her search leads to encounters with a variety of equally obsessed, comic characters. At the end of the narrative Oedipa awaits definitive proof of the Tristero's existence at an auction, uncertain of the eventual outcome but having emerged from her previous insularity and ignorance.

Gravity's Rainbow may deservedly be called Pynchon's magnum opus and, along with Moby Dick, one of America's great fictions. The book is an impressive and bewildering labyrinth of characters and settings, plots and styles. Taking place primarily in England, France, and Germany near the end of World War II, Gravity's Rainbow traces the quest of American Tyrone Slothrop to learn the truth of his secret infant conditioning by scientist Laszlo Jamf of the German firm IG Farben. The central character of Gravity's Rainbow, however, is not Slothrop, nor is it even human. It is the inanimate German V-2 rocket, connected to Slothrop by virtue of his conditioning and fetishized by virtually all the book's characters. At the book's end Slothrop "scatters" as a character and a special V-2, the 00000, fails to escape gravity, killing a sacrificial German boy launched with it.

The literary importance of Gravity's Rainbow is beyond dispute. It shared the National Book Award for fiction with a collection of stories by I. B. Singer and won the Howells Medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Letters (which Pynchon declined). Gravity's Rainbow was also nominated for but "lost" the Pulitzer Prize when the advisory board rejected the original committee's unanimous decision on the grounds that the book was "turgid, " "overwritten, " "obscene, " and "unreadable." Despite the negative publicity, critics continued to associate it favorably with such books as Ulysses and have come to regard it with similar respect and admiration.

Nearly 17 years elapsed between the publication of Gravity's Rainbow and Pynchon's next novel, Vineland. On one level the title of this work alludes to America as it was discovered by Leif Ericson prior to the arrival of Columbus. It also refers to a fictitious county on the northern coast of California, the state's last uncharted wilderness. In the 1980s Vineland serves as a refuge for middle-aged veterans of the 1960s counterculture who have sought refuge from government repression. The novel focuses primarily on Prairie Wheeler's search for her long-lost mother, Frenesi Gates, a beautiful former member of a defunct radical group dedicated to exposing the corruption and hypocrisy of the Nixon administration. Although the novel contains many subplots and characters, combining elements of soap opera and political thriller, it is generally considered less ambitious in scope, thematic complexity, and historical range than Pynchon's earlier works.

Referred to as "the best 18th-century novel anyone has written in a long time, " Mason & Dixon garnered wide critical praise when it was published in 1997. In addition to displaying Pynchon's patented multiple plots and encyclopedic knowledge in a dozen disciplines, it was generally recognized that this novel was at once darker and more humane than the novelist's previous work. The central narrative re-imagines the lives of two historical figures, astronomer Charles Mason and surveyor Jeremiah Dixon, who were hired by the Royal Society in 1764 to settle the boundary dispute between Maryland and Pennsylania and who created the famous Mason-Dixon line dividing the yet-tobe-born nation into North and South, free states and slave states. Appearing in the novel along with the real characters of George Washington, Ben Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson are a large cast of human, animal, and mechanical fictional characters, including a Chinese martial arts expert, a talking dog, and an amorous mechanical duck. Pynchon's most consciously literary novel, Mason & Dixon contains echoes of Kipling, Kafka, Lawrence, Conrad, Hawthorne, Melville, and Twain.

Rumored to live in California, Mexico, and most recently, New York City, Pynchon has remained reclusive and largely unknown, but his reputation as a significant American writer is assured.

Further Reading

Pynchon's celebrated reclusiveness was to a large extent effective; no biography of him exists, although Mathew Winston, "The Quest for Pynchon, " in George Levine and David Leverenz, editors, Mindful Pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon (1976), does an admirable job in a critical vacuum. Two other general collections of essays are helpful: Edward Mendelson, editor, Pynchon: A Collection of Critical Essays (1978), and Richard Pearce, editor, Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon (1981). Useful introductions to Pynchon and his work include Joseph Slade, Thomas Pynchon (1974); Douglas Mackey, The Rainbow Quest of Thomas Pynchon (1980); and Tony Tanner, Thomas Pynchon (1982). More rigorous critical analyses of Pynchon's texts are contained in William Plater, The Grim Phoenix: Reconstructing Thomas Pynchon (1978); David Cowart, Thomas Pynchon: The Art of Allusion (1980); Thomas Hill Schaub, Pynchon: The Voice of Ambiguity (1981); Peter Cooper, Signs and Symptoms: Thomas Pynchon and the Contemporary World (1983); and Molly Hite, Ideas of Order in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon (1983). □

Pynchon, Thomas

views updated May 21 2018

Pynchon, Thomas (1937– ) US novelist whose works are noted for their offbeat humour and inventiveness. His books include V (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Vineland (1990), Deadly Sins (1993), and Mason and Dixon (1997). His best-known work, Gravity's Rainbow (1973), won the National Book Award.

Pynchon, Thomas

views updated Jun 11 2018


PYNCHON, Thomas. American, b. 1937. Genres: Novels, Novellas/Short stories. Career: Boeing Aircraft Corp., Seattle, WA, former editorial writer. Publications: V., 1963; The Crying of Lot 49, 1966; Gravity's Rainbow, 1973; Slow Learner: Early Stories, 1984; Vineland, 1990; Mason & Dixon, 1997. Address: c/o Author Mail, Little, Brown & Co, 1271 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020, U.S.A.

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