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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Thomas Pynchon (b. 1937)


Thomas Pynchon is widely recognized as one of the most important writers of his generation. His works defy summarizing, but a central theme is paranoia. From the beginning of his writing career, Pynchon has refused to be photographed, interviewed, questioned and so  forth. It has been said, that Pynchon's gigantic masterpiece, Gravity's Rainbow (1973), is among the most widely celebrated unread novels of American literature.

"A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now." (from Gravity's Rainbow)

Thomas Ruggles Pynchon Jr. was born in Glen Cove, Long Island, New York, the son of Thomas Ruggles Pynchon Sr., an engineer, and Catherine Frances (Bennett) Pynchon, a nurse. The first American to bear the family name was William Pynchon (1590-1662), founder of Roxbury (now a part of Boston) in 1630 and Agawam (renamed Springfield) in 1636. His book, The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption, was burned in 1651 in Boston's marketplace and William himself escaped to England. When Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) used the name "Pyncheon" in The House of the Seven Gables (1851), members of the Pynchon family protested and Hawthorne was obliged to apologize. In the novel, the house of the title is built by Colonel Pyncheon  on a land owned by  Old Matthew Maule. During the Salem witch trials, he  is sent to the gallows. Maule curses the Colonel, who had snatched the land, saying  "God will give him blood to drink!" Hawthorne borrowed this line from an actual Salem victim.

In his childhood, Pynchon was a voracious reader. His favorite authors included John Buchan, E. Phillips Oppenheim, Helen MacInnes, Geoffey Household, and many other writers of thrillers and spy fiction. Pynchon attended Oyster Bay High School, and then entered Cornell University, where he refused to submit his photograph to the freshman register. His fellow students recall him a very private person, who always got high grades. At the end of his sophomore year, Pynchon left Cornell for the U.S. Navy. During this period he became acquainted with Malta, which served as one of the locations for V. (1963), his debut novel. In 1957 Pynchon returned to Cornvell, changed his major from engineering to English, and obtained his B.A. with distinction in 1959. It is possible that he attended lectures delivered by Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), who was teaching at the universty. While staying with friends in the Greenwich Village section of New York City, he spent a lot of time in jazz clubs.

In 1960, Pynchon moved to Seattle, Washington. He worked for the Boeing Company, and completed V. on his spare time. According to the French surrealist André Breton (1896-1966), the letter V is "a wow ‒ and energy ‒ to return to habitable and conceivable world" and "victory over the forces of regression and of death unloosed at present on the earth." (Irritable Bodies and Postmodern Subjects in Pynchon, Puig, Volponi by Giorgio Mobili, 2008, p. 63)  After resigning from Boeing in 1962, Pynchon lived in California, where he has set several of his novels, and Mexico, where he grew a mustache. The locals called him Pancho Villa.

George Plimpton hailed V. "as complicated and varied as a Hieronymus Bosch triptych" (New York Times Book Review, April 21, 1963). With this work, which received the William Faulkner Award for best first novel, Pynchon established his fame as a writer whose work make heavy demands on the wits and stamina of the reader. His second novel, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), was an exploration of American paranoia, conspirary thories, and underground culture. The main character, Mrs. Oedipa Maas, becomes obsessed with the existence of a secret organization, called the Tristero. Some readers felt betrayed by the way the story ended, while others said that it mirrored the confusion of the times, and that Pynchon played on his reader's conventional expectations of closure. "For there either was some Tristero beyond the appearance of the legacy America, or there was just America an if there was just America then it seemed the only way she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was as an alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia." The author himself was not satisfied with the work and called it a shot story, "but with gland trouble."

Gravity's Rainbow, which has been described as "the most important literary text since Ulysses," received the National Book Award for fiction, sharing it with Isaac Bashevis Singer's A Crown of Feathers. Pynchon sent the comedian and self-styled "world's greatest expert on everything," Professor Irwin Corey, to accept the $1,000 prize on his behalf. However, the work was not awarded the Pulitzer Prize, although the three judges on the prize commitee selected it as the best novel. Member of the Pulitzer board unanimously disagreed, calling the book "unreadable," "turgid," "overwritten," and "obscene." Consequently, no award was given for fiction.

The events of Gravity's Rainbow occur between December 1944 and September 1945 and tell about German V-2 rockets, reversed causality, Tyrone Slothrop's erection, and over 400 other characters. Famous for its almost impenetrable difficulty, the novel is perhaps the most unread/unfinished American modernist classics. "Gravity's Rainbow is a great book, but for the most part Pynchon kind of annoys me," the writer David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) confessed. It took him eight days to finish the book.
Pynchon's fourth novel, Vineland (1990), was set in California in 1984, and illustrated the Orwellian themes of control, manipulation, and surveillance in the lives Zoyd Wheeler, an ageing hippie, his daughter Praerie, Frenesi Gates, a filmmaker, and a government agent, Brock Vond. Pynchon is believed to have composed the work on a manual typewriter, Olivetti. (Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous by Don Foster, 2000, p. 194) The title of Mason & Dixon (1997), a historical novel, referred to the traditional boundary between America's North and South, the line between Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Pynchon have had a long intervals of silence as a writer. He has been wrongly described as "Greta Garbo of American Letters" ‒  he has not been a recluse like Garbo but refused to make himself available to the media. When the Soho Weekly News hypothetized that he was the alter ego of J.D. Salinger (1919-2010), he allegedly responded with the message: "Not bad. Keep trying." Pynchon has attended literary parties, met other writers such as Don DeLillo (another recluse), and lent his voice to two episodes of the animated television series The Simpsons. In both, he was pictured with a bag over his head. After Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa of death against Salman Rushdie in 1989, he supported Rushdie and dined with him. "He is tall, he wears lumberjack shirts and blue jeans," recalled Rushdie. "He has Albert Einstein white hair and Bugs Bunny front teeth." In 1990 Pynchon married his literary agent Melanie Jackson. The very same year he published Vineland, dedicated to his parents. For a period, his address in New York City was "the best-kept secret in publishing."

In addition to novels, Pynchon's primary genre, he has written short stories (Slow Learner, 1984), and articles and reviews. Only one of his novels, Inherent Vice from 2009, has been adapted to the big screen. Paul Thomas Anderson's version, starring Joaquin Phoenix,  Josh Brolin,  and Owen Wilson, premiered with good reviews in 2014. "The resulting movie is a delirious triumph: a stylish-squared meeting of creative minds, a swirl of hypnosis and symbiosis, with Pynchon’s prose partly assigned to a narrating character and partly diversified into funky dialogue exchanges." (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, 29 January, 2015) A devoted filmgoer, the author has made frequent references to popular movies in his books but seldom to artistic films. Many literature critics have noted that cinema and film techniques pervade through the narrative structures of Pynchon's fiction: ". . . the complexity of Gravity's Rainbow comes from Pynchon's characters, whose minds function "cinematographically" in the old Freudian sense of cinema as a dream sequencce, fading in and out as ghosts on screen. Likewise, the plot is framed cinematographically, as if derived from screen . . ." ('Cinematography as a Literary Concept in the (Post) Modern Age: Pirandello to Pynchon' by Lovorka Gruic Grmusa and Kiene Brillenburg Wurth, in Between Page and Screen: Remaking Literature Through Cinema and Cyberspace, edited by Kiene Brillenburg Wurth, 2012, p. 193)

Bleeding Edge (2013), Pynchon's eight novel, "a historical romance of New York in the early days of the Internet," as the book jacked summarized, was received with mixed feelings. Talitha Stevenson wrote in The Guardian: "No doubt a good genre book is worth more than a bad literary one any day, but when a writer with real genius squanders so much of his energy on clowning – and for an audience it's not at all clear he respects – it's worth asking what's going on."

Pynchon's tone is playful and ironic at most times. Often he gives his characters comic names (Oedipa Maas, Tyrone Slothrop, Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke, Zepho Bark, Meatball Mulligan, etc.) as if they were characters in a Marx Brothers film. His works are full of historical and cultural allusions, historical facts are mixed with fiction and curiosities, the reader is challenged by the question what is real and what is imagined, the narration is fragmented. In Gravity's Rainbow Tyrone Slothrop disintegrates into a scattered collection of personae.  Edward Mendelson proposed in 1976 the term "encyclopedic narrative" to describe works such as Moby Dick, Ulysses and Gravity's Rainbow.  According to Mendelson, these texts "all  attempt to render the full range of knowledge and beliefs of a national culture, while identifying the ideological perspectives from which that culture shapes and interprets its knowledge."  

For further reading: Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous by Don Foster (2000); Thomas Pynchon, text collected by Bénédicte Chorier-Fryd & Gilles Chamerois (2004); A Gravity's Rainbow Companion: Sources and Contexts for Pynchon's Novel by Steven Weisenburger (2nd ed., 2006); 'Pynchon, Thomas' by A.R. [Albert Rolls], in World Authors 2000-2005, edited by Jennifer Curry, David Ramm, Mari Rich & Albert Rolls (2007); Pynchon Character Names: A Dictionary  by Patrick Hurley (2008); Irritable Bodies and Postmodern Subjects in Pynchon, Puig, Volponi by Giorgio Mobili (2008); Of Herds and Hermits: America's Lone Wolves and Submissive Sheep, Or, the American Intellectual as Loner and Outcast by Terry Reed (2009); 'Thomas Pynchon' by Ian Copestake, in A Companion to Twentieth-Century United States Fiction, edited by David Seed (2010); The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon, edited by Inger H. Dalsgaard, Luc Herman, Brian McHale (2012); Pynchon's California, edited by Scott McClintock and John Miller (2014); Thomas Pynchon and American Counterculture by Joanna Freer (2016)

Selected works:

  • V., 1963
  • The Crying of Lot 49, 1966
    - Huuto 49 (suomentanut Tero Valkonen, 2003)
  • Gravity's Rainbow, 1973
    - Painovoiman sateenkaari (suomennos: Juhani Lindholm, 2014)
  • Slow Learner, 1984
  • Vineland, 1990 
  • Mason & Dixon, 1997 
  • Against the Day, 2006 
  • Inherent Vice, 2009
  • Bleeding Edge, 2013

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