Authors: Thomas Pynchon

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist


Thomas Ruggles Pynchon (PIHN-chuhn), Jr., is the most controversial, the most discussed, and the most mysterious of the post-World War II writers who pioneered what is called metafiction (roughly, any fiction that calls attention to its fictive nature). Descended from eminent Massachusetts Puritans and raised in a conventional upper-middle-class Long Island family, Pynchon attended Cornell University as a student in engineering physics, left to serve a hitch in the Navy, and returned to graduate with a degree in English in 1959. He wrote his first stories while at Cornell. He worked as a writer for Boeing Aircraft from 1960 to 1962. As a result of Pynchon’s reclusiveness, little else is known of Pynchon’s life after 1962, other than that he has lived, variously, in Mexico, California, and New York, and that he and Melanie Jackson, his literary agent and mate, have a child. The only public photo of Pynchon is from his high school yearbook.{$I[AN]9810000993}{$I[A]Pynchon, Thomas}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Pynchon, Thomas}{$I[tim]1937;Pynchon, Thomas}

Pynchon’s early fictions weave their complex interactions around the twin themes of entropy and paranoia. In his decaying world, characters are always afraid that they have been singled out for some dreadful fate; in many cases, the fear is justified. Pynchon’s first novel, V., was greeted with puzzlement by many of its readers and with the fanfare accorded an important new talent by many critics. The book won the Faulkner Award as the best first novel published in 1963. Its characters, either Navy men who spend their shore leaves being drunk and disorderly or a group of raffish New Yorkers who speak of themselves as “the Whole Sick Crew,” are linked by the character of Benny Profane. Benny thinks of himself, accurately, as a “schlemiel.” He has left the Navy, but he returns to Norfolk to drink and fight with his old buddies when he cannot think of anything better to do. In New York, he is part of an equally pointless life.

V. is not, however, simply a depressing novel about sad and useless characters. Pynchon’s style and the way in which events are presented often make the grimmest scenes comic. In one sequence, Profane joins a motley group of men who are issued rifles and shotguns and sent into the sewers beneath the streets of New York to kill the alligators that, grown too big to be pets, have been flushed down the city’s toilets. The action is murky but hilarious, and its links to other actions in the novel are tenuous. The novel is held together by its characters’ search for a mysterious woman named V., who has appeared in various guises at crucial points in the history of the Western world ever since 1898. The search itself is ludicrous and tragic by turns. The only hope for the searching characters is provided by a tenor saxophone player: “Love with your mouth shut, help without breaking your ass or publicizing it: keep cool, but care.”

The same combination of the wildly comic and the mysteriously threatening marks Pynchon’s second novel, The Crying of Lot 49. Much briefer and more coherent than V., this story centers on a California woman named Oedipa Maas who is named executor of the estate of a wealthy industrialist who was at one time her lover. The paranoia that was an underlying element in V. is the major focus of The Crying of Lot 49. In her travels in California, notably to San Francisco, trying to fulfill her obligations as executor, Oedipa can never be sure of anything except that the world in which she lives is mysterious and menacing. She is not even certain that her former lover is dead or that her job as executor is not a colossal practical joke being played on her. She uncovers a secret right-wing organization which seems to be linked to a centuries-old subversive group. She comes in contact with various people who have been cast out by society, discovering that her own ties to the world are not firm. The novel ends before she finds answers to any of her questions.

While both V. and The Crying of Lot 49 attracted admirers and detractors, Gravity’s Rainbow created a literary sensation and made Pynchon the object of more critical books and articles than any of his contemporaries. Centering on Europe at the end of World War II but encompassing elements of the history of the Western world over the last three centuries, Gravity’s Rainbow goes beyond the earlier novels in its evocation of paranoia and entropy (a concept that Pynchon, following philosopher Henry Adams, adapts from physics: The loss of energy in any action within a closed system will lead ultimately to the death of the universe).

Gravity’s Rainbow describes a war-ravaged Europe where characters with any spark of decency are threatened with destruction. A mysterious and hidden “They,” acting through agents, seek to control and direct all life, removing emotion, chance, and love. “They” control gigantic business and political organizations that use technology to manipulate the war for their own ends. Resistance to “Them” is possible but temporary. In the end, technology and its products may succeed in abolishing life on Earth. Indeed it is arguable that the novel’s real protagonist is not Tyrone Slothrop, who disappears or “fragments” before the action closes, but the German V-2 rocket, which in many ways assumes a “life of its own.” The novel ends with an atomic missile about to strike the theater in which the book’s audience sits.

In Gravity’s Rainbow, as in the earlier novels, wild humor leavens Pynchon’s grim message. Characters with humorously unusual names (Bloody Chiclitz, Roger Mexico, Jessica Swanlake, Miss Muller-Hochleben) engage in fantastic antics: Two men try unsuccessfully to trap a wandering dog in a bombed-out house, the dog at one point speaking in the voice of radio comedian Fred Allen; the central figure, Tyrone Slothrop, is installed in a pig costume to act in a pageant staged in a small German town and lives for weeks in the costume. The grisly, the obscene, the tragic, and the burlesque combine in Pynchon’s imagination.

For seventeen years after Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon stayed out of sight, known only through a few published book blurbs, letters-to-the-editor, and essays, including a telling piece of self-criticism introducing Slow Learner, the volume of his early stories released in order to halt their publication in unauthorized printings.

Vineland appeared to widely mixed reviews in 1989. Detractors seem mainly to have missed the entropy and bleak landscapes defining his prior fictions, and they thought Pynchon had lost his edge as a critic of modern times. Yet the novel tells a subtle and wildly comical story about the slow death of 1960’s radicalism during the Reagan era, understood in reference to 1930’s leftism and nineteenth century progressivism. The story’s focus on a still-unassimilated hippie, Zoyd Wheeler, his daughter Prairie, and the girl’s mother, long missing after selling out to FBI agents, brings into play Pynchon’s old theme of an omniscient bureaucratic “They” controlling daily life. The new element is television as an insidiously banal yet effective mode of social regulation. Unlike his earlier fictions, Vineland concludes somewhat hopefully, on a scene of family reunion in nature.

Mason and Dixon once again aroused discussion as to whether Pynchon had lost his direction or simply moved on to slightly different pastures. His title characters are Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, the eighteenth century surveyors responsible for drawing the Mason-Dixon Line that divides the North from the South. Pynchon takes this enterprise as symbolic of the delineation, both physical and metaphorical, of the modern United States, indeed, of the modern world.

Despite his relative lack of productivity and his long silences between publications, Pynchon is assured a place among the most significant novelists of the mid-to late twentieth century. His amazing range of knowledge, his mastery of a bewildering variety of styles, and his ability to combine serious materials with surrealistic comedy mark his work as unique.

BibliographyBerressem, Hanjo. Pynchon’s Poetics: Interfacing Theory and Text. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993. The most theoretically sophisticated treatment of Pynchon.Birkerts, Sven. “Mapping the New Reality.” The Wilson Quarterly 16 (Spring, 1992): 102-110. Claims that the American novel has ceased to provide the reader with an encompassing, relevant, challenging picture of life as it is really experienced; suggests the reason is that the texture of contemporary life does not lend itself well to realism; discusses those fiction writers who have adopted strategies for galvanizing the chaos around us, such as Robert Stone, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Norman Mailer.Bloom, Harold, ed. Thomas Pynchon. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. An extremely useful collection of essays on all aspects of Pynchon’s literary works. Contains essays of an introductory nature for first-time readers of Pynchon’s prose.Chambers, Judith. Thomas Pynchon. New York: Twayne, 1992. A critical and interpretive examination of Pynchon’s work. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Cowart, David. Thomas Pynchon: The Art of Allusion. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980. This book is one of the best volumes on Pynchon’s prodigious use of allusions in his prose. Useful chapters are included on the allusive functioning of music and cinema in Pynchon’s novels and short stories.Diamond, Jamie. “The Mystery of Thomas Pynchon Leads Fans and Scholars on a Quest as Bizarre as His Plots.” People Weekly 33 (January 29, 1990): 64-66. A brief biographical sketch and discussion of Pynchon’s dropping out of sight in the 1960’s.Dickson, David. The Utterance of America: Emersonian Newness in Dos Passos’ “U.S.A.” and Pynchon’s “Vineland.” Göteborg, Sweden: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 1998. This comparison study includes a bibliography and an index.Dugdale, John. Thomas Pynchon: Allusive Parables of Power. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. Dugdale provides a critical review and interpretation of Pynchon’s work. He includes thorough bibliographical references and an index.Grant, J. Kerry. A Companion to “The Crying of Lot 49.” Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994. Glosses allusions and major themes. Bibliographical references and index.Grant, J. Kerry. A Companion to “V.” Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001. A chapter-by-chapter close reading of V., explicating Pynchon’s allusions, summarizing critical interpretations, and providing a framework for understanding the work.Green, Geoffrey, Donald J. Greiner, and Larry McCaffery, eds. The Vineland Papers: Critical Takes on Pynchon’s Novel. Normal, Ill.: Dalkey Archive Press, 1994. First-rate essays and a Vineland bibliography by thirteen scholars, including N. Katherine Hayles, David Porush, Molly Hite, and Stacey Olster.Gussow, Mel. “Pynchon’s Letters Nudge His Mask.” The New York Times, March 4, 1998, p. E1. Discusses the insights into Pynchon’s creative process and emotions in more than 120 letters that he sent to his agent, Candida Donadio.Hawthorne, Mark D. “Pynchon’s Early Labyrinths.” College Literature 25 (Spring, 1998): 78-93. Discusses Pynchon’s use of labyrinths in his early stories in the 1960’s; argues that while first using the labyrinth to describe escape from a confining middle-class marriage, Pynchon slowly turned it into a metaphor for the quest for self-awareness.Horvath, Barbara, and Irving Malin, eds. Pynchon and “Mason and Dixon.” Delaware, 2000. A book-length study of Pynchon’s fifth novel.Hume, Kathryn. Pynchon’s Mythography: An Approach to “Gravity’s Rainbow.” Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987. This excellent book examines in detail Pynchon’s use of myths and legends in Gravity’s Rainbow. The comments are also applicable to the rest of his prose works. The range of Pynchon’s mythography extends from the grail and Faust legends to non-Western myths.Levine, George, and David Leverenz, eds. Mindful Pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon. Boston: Little, Brown, 1976. A useful selection of essays on Pynchon’s prose. The essays on Pynchon’s use of scientific theories and terminology are particularly valuable in understanding the novel Gravity’s Rainbow and the short story “Entropy.”McHoul, Alec, and David Wills. Writing Pynchon: Strategies in Fictional Analysis. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990. Although the authors rely heavily on deconstructive critical methods, the book includes an interesting discussion (pages 131 to 160) of Pynchon’s introduction to his collection of short stories Slow Learner.Mattessich, Stefan. Lines of Flight: Discursive Time and Countercultural Desire in the Work of Thomas Pynchon. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003. Explores the ways in which Pynchon’s critique of late capitalist society describes the emergence of a new conceptualization of time, which Mattessich calls “subjective displacement.”Sales, Nancy Jo. “Meet Your Neighbor, Thomas Pynchon.” New York 29 (November 11, 1996): 60-64. Discusses Pynchon’s almost mythical status; comments on his popularity in the 1970’s and his subsequent reclusiveness.Schaub, Thomas. Pynchon: The Voice of Ambiguity. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981. A reliable account of how entropy and uncertainty figure in Pynchon. Includes discussion of Marshall McLuhan’s influence on The Crying of Lot 49 and the ironies attendant on Ivan Pavlov’s role in Gravity’s Rainbow. Places Pynchon in American literary tradition.Slade, Joseph. Thomas Pynchon. New York: P. Lang, 1990. The first book on Pynchon (it originally appeared in 1974) and still one of the best. A balanced and readable discussion, but especially strong on Pynchon’s uses of science. Lack of an index reduces usefulness to the browser.Weisenburger, S. C. A “Gravity’s Rainbow” Companion: Sources and Contexts for Pynchon’s Novel. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988. This volume is an extraordinarily detailed encyclopedia of the sources for the allusions used in Pynchon’s novel. Since several of the characters from Pynchon’s short stories reappear in Gravity’s Rainbow, this book is useful in order to trace the influence that Pynchon’s short stories have had on his novels.
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