Historical records matching Thomas Pynchon
About Thomas Pynchon
Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Jr. (born May 8, 1937) is an American novelist based in New York City and noted for his dense and complex works of fiction. Hailing from Long Island, Pynchon spent two years in the United States Navy and earned an English degree from Cornell University. After publishing several short stories in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he began composing the novels for which he is best known: V. (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Gravity's Rainbow (1973), and Mason & Dixon (1997).
Pynchon is a MacArthur Fellow and a recipient of the National Book Award, and is regularly cited as a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Both his fiction and non-fiction writings encompass a vast array of subject matter, styles and themes, including (but not limited to) the fields of history, science, and mathematics. Pynchon is also known for his avoidance of personal publicity: very few photographs of him have ever been published, and rumors about his location and identity have been circulated since the 1960s.
Thomas Pynchon was born in 1937 in Glen Cove, Long Island, New York, one of three children of Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Sr. (1907–1995) and Katherine Frances Bennett (1909–1996). His earliest American ancestor, William Pynchon, emigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony with the Winthrop Fleet in 1630, and thereafter a long line of Pynchon descendants found wealth and repute on American soil. Pynchon's family background and aspects of his ancestry have provided source material for his fictions, particularly in the Slothrop family histories related in the short story "The Secret Integration" (1964) and Gravity's Rainbow (1973).
Childhood and education
Pynchon attended Oyster Bay High School in Oyster Bay, where he was awarded 'student of the year' and contributed short fictional pieces to his school newspaper. These juvenilia incorporated some of the literary motifs and recurring subject matter he would use throughout his career: oddball names, sophomoric humor, illicit drug use, and paranoia (Pynchon 1952–3).
After graduating from high school in 1953 at the age of 16, Pynchon studied engineering physics at Cornell University, but left at the end of his second year to serve in the U.S. Navy. In 1957, he returned to Cornell to pursue a degree in English. His first published story, "The Small Rain", appeared in the Cornell Writer in May 1959, and narrates an actual experience of a friend who had served in the Army; subsequently, however, episodes and characters throughout Pynchon's fiction draw freely upon his own experiences in the Navy (Pynchon 1984: 10–11).
While at Cornell, Pynchon started his friendships with Richard Fariña and David Shetzline; Pynchon would go on to dedicate Gravity's Rainbow to Fariña, as well as serve as his best man and as his pallbearer. Together the two briefly led what Pynchon has called a 'micro-cult' around Oakley Hall's 1958 novel Warlock. Pynchon later reminisced about his college days in the introduction he wrote in 1983 for Fariña's novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, first published in 1966. He reportedly attended lectures given by Vladimir Nabokov, who then taught literature at Cornell. Although Nabokov later said that he had no memory of Pynchon, Nabokov's wife, Véra, who graded her husband's class papers, commented that she remembered his distinctive handwriting as a mixture of printed and cursive letters (Sweeney 2008). Other of Pynchon's teachers at Cornell, such as the novelist James McConkey, recall him as being a gifted and exceptional student. In 1958, Pynchon and Cornell classmate Kirkpatrick Sale wrote part or all of a science-fiction musical, Minstrel Island, which portrayed a dystopian future in which IBM rules the world (Gibbs 1994). Pynchon received his BA in June 1959.
After leaving Cornell, Pynchon began to work on his first novel: V. From February 1960 to September 1962, he was employed as a technical writer at Boeing in Seattle, where he compiled safety articles for the Bomarc Service News (see Wisnicki 2000–1), a support newsletter for the BOMARC surface-to-air missile deployed by the U.S. Air Force. Pynchon's experiences at Boeing inspired his depictions of the 'Yoyodyne' corporation in V. and The Crying of Lot 49, and both his background in physics and the technical journalism he undertook at Boeing provided much raw material for Gravity's Rainbow. When published in 1963, V. won a William Faulkner Foundation Award for the best first novel of the year.
After resigning from Boeing, Pynchon spent some time in New York and Mexico before moving to California, where he was reportedly based for much of the 1960s and early 1970s, most notably in an apartment in Manhattan Beach (see Frost 2003), as he was composing the highly-regarded Gravity's Rainbow. Pynchon during this time flirted with the lifestyle and some of the habits of the Beat and hippie countercultures (see, for example, Gordon 1994).
A negative aspect, in addition to several good ones, that Pynchon retrospectively found in the hippie cultural and literary movement, both in the form of the Beats of the 1950s and the resurgence form of the 1960s, was that it "placed too much emphasis on youth, including the eternal variety." (Introduction, Slow Learner, 1984, pp. 8–9) Some reviewer[who?] argued that Pynchon's 1990 novel Vineland, in which former 1960s rebels, like character Frenesi Gates, betray their past and turn into hypocritical informants helping the FBI spy on suspected radicals,(Patell 2001 p. 129; Bawer 1990; Vineland 1990 p. 74 quote: "snitch community") can be taken as Pynchon's own retrospective assessments of the motives, values, and achievements of the student and youth milieux of the era, including the view that the behavior of the characters in the novel was the prevailing one within various branches of the youth movement of the 1960s, and that such behaviors had a prominent role in a failure of the social revolution in that period.
In 1964, an application to study mathematics as a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, was turned down (Royster 2005). In 1966, Pynchon wrote a first-hand report on the aftermath and legacy of the Watts riots in Los Angeles. Entitled "A Journey Into the Mind of Watts," the article was published in the New York Times Magazine (Pynchon 1966).
From the mid-1960s Pynchon has also regularly provided blurbs and introductions for a wide range of novels and non-fiction works. One of the first of these pieces was a brief review of Hall's Warlock which appeared, along with comments by seven other writers on "neglected books", as part of a feature entitled "A Gift of Books" in the December 1965 issue of Holiday.
The Crying of Lot 49
Pynchon created the "muted post horn" as a symbol for the secret "Trystero" society in The Crying of Lot 49.In an April 1964 letter to his agent, Candida Donadio, Pynchon wrote that he was facing a creative crisis, with four novels in progress, announcing: "If they come out on paper anything like they are inside my head then it will be the literary event of the millennium." (Gussow 1998)
In December 1965, Pynchon politely turned down an invitation from Stanley Edgar Hyman to teach literature at Bennington College, writing that he had resolved, two or three years earlier, to write three novels at once. Pynchon described the decision as "a moment of temporary insanity", but noted that he was "too stubborn to let any of them go, let alone all of them." (see McLemee 2006)
Pynchon's second novel, The Crying of Lot 49, was published a few months later in 1966. Whether it was one of the three or four novels Pynchon had in progress is not known, but in a 1965 letter to Donadio, Pynchon had written that he was in the middle of writing a "potboiler". When the book grew to 155 pages, he called it, "a short story, but with gland trouble", and hoped that Donadio could "unload it on some poor sucker." (Gussow 1998)
The Crying of Lot 49 won the Richard and Hilda Rosenthal Foundation Award shortly after publication. Although more concise and linear in its structure than Pynchon's other novels, its labyrinthine plot features an ancient, underground mail service known as 'The Tristero' or 'Trystero', a parody of a Jacobean revenge drama called The Courier's Tragedy, and a corporate conspiracy involving the bones of World War II American GIs being used as charcoal cigarette filters. It proposes a series of seemingly incredible interconnections between these events and other similarly bizarre revelations that confront the novel's protagonist, Oedipa Maas. Like V., the novel contains a wealth of references to science and technology and to obscure historical events, with both books dwelling on the detritus of American society and culture. The Crying of Lot 49 also continues Pynchon's strategy of composing parodic song lyrics and punning names, and referencing aspects of popular culture within his prose narratives. In particular, it incorporates a very direct allusion to the protagonist of Nabokov's Lolita within the lyric of a love lament sung by a member of 'The Paranoids', a teenage band who deliberately sing their songs with British accents (p. 17).
In 1968, Pynchon was one of 447 signatories to the "Writers and Editors War Tax Protest". Full-page advertisements in The New York Post and The New York Review of Books listed the names of those who had pledged not to pay "the proposed 10% income tax surcharge or any war-designated tax increase", and stated their belief "that American involvement in Vietnam is morally wrong". (New York Review of Books 1968:9)
Pynchon's most celebrated novel is his third, Gravity's Rainbow, published in 1973. An intricate and allusive fiction that combines and elaborates on many of the themes of his earlier work, including preterition, paranoia, racism, colonialism, conspiracy, synchronicity, and entropy (Plater 1978; Chambers 1982), the novel has spawned a wealth of commentary and critical material, including reader's guides (Fowler 1980; Weisenburger 1988), books and scholarly articles, online concordances and discussions, and art works. Its artistic value is often compared to that of James Joyce's Ulysses (Ruch 2000). Some scholars have hailed it as the greatest American post-WW2 novel (Almansi 1994: 226), and it has similarly been described as "literally an anthology of postmodernist themes and devices" (McHale 1987: 16).
The major portion of Gravity's Rainbow takes place in London and Europe in the final months of World War II and the weeks immediately following VE Day, and is narrated for the most part from within the historical moment in which it is set. In this way, Pynchon's text enacts a type of dramatic irony whereby neither the characters nor the various narrative voices are aware of specific historical circumstances, such as the Holocaust and, except as hints, premonitions and mythography, the complicity between Western corporate interests and the Nazi war machine, which figure prominently in readers' apprehensions of the novel's historical context. For example, at war's end the narrator observes: "There are rumors of a War Crimes Tribunal under way in Nürnberg. No one Slothrop has listened to is clear who's trying whom for what ... " (p. 681) Such an approach generates dynamic tension and moments of acute self-consciousness, as both reader and author seem drawn ever deeper into the "plot", in various senses of that term:
Between the ominous launch and final descent into "terminal orgasm," Pynchon presents us with a Disney-meets-Bosch panorama of European politics, American entropy, industrial history, and libidinal panic which leaves a chaotic whirl of fractal patterns in the reader's mind.
—Pettman 2002, 264
"If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers."
The novel invokes anti-authority sentiments, often through violations of narrative conventions and integrity. For example, as the aforementioned protagonist, Tyrone Slothrop, considers the fact that his own family "made its money killing trees", he apostrophizes his apology and plea for advice to the coppice within which he has momentarily taken refuge. In an overt incitement to eco-activism, Pynchon's narrative agency then has it that "a medium-sized pine nearby nods its top and suggests, 'Next time you come across a logging operation out here, find one of their tractors that isn't being guarded, and take its oil filter with you. That's what you can do.'" (p. 553)
Encyclopedic in scope and often self-conscious in style, the novel displays erudition in its treatment of an array of material drawn from the fields of psychology, chemistry, mathematics, history, religion, music, literature and film. Pynchon wrote the first draft of Gravity's Rainbow in "neat, tiny script on engineer's quadrille paper". (Weisenburger 1988) Pynchon worked on the novel throughout the 1960s and early 1970s while he was living in California and Mexico City.
Gravity's Rainbow was a joint winner of the 1974 National Book Award for Fiction, along with Isaac Bashevis Singer's A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories. In the same year, the fiction jury unanimously recommended Gravity's Rainbow for the Pulitzer Prize though the Pulitzer board vetoed the jury's recommendation, describing the novel as "unreadable", "turgid", "overwritten", and in parts "obscene", and no prize was awarded. (Kihss 1974) In 1975, Pynchon declined the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
A collection of Pynchon's early short stories, Slow Learner, was published in 1984, with a lengthy autobiographical introduction. In October of the same year, an article entitled "Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?" was published in the New York Times Book Review. In April 1988, Pynchon contributed an extensive review of Gabriel García Márquez's novel Love in the Time of Cholera to the New York Times, under the title "The Heart's Eternal Vow". Another article, entitled "Nearer, My Couch, to Thee", was published in June 1993 in the New York Times Book Review, as one in a series of articles in which various writers reflected on each of the Seven Deadly Sins. Pynchon's subject was "Sloth".
Pynchon's fourth novel, Vineland, was published in 1990, but disappointed a majority of fans and critics. It did, however, receive some positive reviews, notably from the novelist Salman Rushdie. The novel is set in California in the 1980s and 1960s, and describes the relationship between an FBI COINTELPRO agent and a female radical filmmaker. Its strong socio-political undercurrents detail the constant battle between authoritarianism and communalism, and the nexus between resistance and complicity, but with a typically Pynchonian sense of humor. (Rushdie 1990; Berressem 1992: 236-7)
In 1988, he received a MacArthur Fellowship and, since the early 1990s at least, many observers have mentioned Pynchon as a Nobel Prize contender (see, for example, Grimes 1993; Ervin 2000). Renowned American literary critic Harold Bloom named him as one of the four major American novelists of his time, along with Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, and Cormac McCarthy.
Mason & Dixon
Pynchon's fifth novel, Mason & Dixon, was published in 1997, though it had been a work in progress since at least January 1975. (Gussow 1998; Ulin 1997)
The meticulously researched novel is a sprawling postmodernist saga recounting the lives and careers of the English astronomer, Charles Mason, and his partner, the surveyor Jeremiah Dixon, the surveyors of the Mason-Dixon line, during the birth of the American Republic. The majority of commentators acknowledged it as a welcome return to form. The noted American critic Harold Bloom has hailed the novel as Pynchon's "masterpiece to date". (Bloom 2003)
Against the Day
A variety of rumors pertaining to the subject matter of Against the Day circulated for a number of years. Most specific of these were comments made by the former German minister of culture, Michael Naumann, who stated that he assisted Pynchon in his research about "a Russian mathematician [who] studied for David Hilbert in Göttingen", and that the new novel would trace the life and loves of Sofia Kovalevskaya.
In July 2006, a new untitled novel by Pynchon was announced along with a synopsis written by Pynchon himself, which appeared on Amazon.com, it stated that the novel's action takes place between the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and the time immediately following World War I. "With a worldwide disaster looming just a few years ahead", Pynchon wrote in his book description, "it is a time of unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places. No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred." He promised cameos by Nikola Tesla, Bela Lugosi and Groucho Marx, as well as "stupid songs" and "strange sexual practices". Subsequently, the title of the new book was reported to be Against the Day and a Penguin spokesperson confirmed that the synopsis was Pynchon's. (Patterson 2006ab; Italie 2006)
Against the Day was released on November 21, 2006 and is 1,085 pages long in the first edition hardcover. The book was given almost no promotion by Penguin and professional book reviewers were given little time in advance to review the book, presumably in accord with Pynchon's wishes.[original research?] An edited version of Pynchon's synopsis was used as the jacket flap copy and Kovalevskaya does appear, although as only one of over a hundred characters.
Composed predominantly of a series of interwoven pastiches of popular fiction genres from the era in which it is set, the novel inspired several reactions from critics and reviewers. One reviewer in Time magazine remarked that, "It is brilliant, but it is exhaustingly brilliant."(Complete Review 2006) The novel's extensive condemnation of capitalism, and its loyalty to the 1960s ideals, was received with great regret by mainstream critics in the US. (Pincio 2009, Complete Review 2006) Some[who?] made the point that this was ostensibly the culmination of Pynchon's career and a summation of his personal philosophy, while others[who?] noted that it was a "loose baggy monster" which had been pieced together from several long-time Pynchonian works-in-progress and offcuts from other of his novels.
Information regarding a new Pynchon novel scheduled for publication in August 2009 was leaked in October 2008 (Kellogg 2008) and subsequently confirmed by a spokesperson for Penguin Press.
A synopsis and brief extract from the novel, along with the novel's title, Inherent Vice, and dust jacket image, were printed in Penguin Press' Summer 2009 catalogue (Penguin 2009a: 28–9, 44). The book was advertised by the publisher as "part- noir, part- psychedelic romp, all Thomas Pynchon — private eye Doc Sportello comes, occasionally, out of a marijuana haze to watch the end of an era as free love slips away and paranoia creeps in with the L.A. fog." (Penguin 2009a)
A promotional video for the novel was released by Penguin Books on August 4, 2009, with the character voiceover narrated by the author himself. (Penguin 2009b) This may be found on Youtube.
Poet L. E. Sissman, wrote from The New Yorker: "He is almost a mathematician of prose, who calculates the least and the greatest stress each word and line, each pun and ambiguity, can bear, and applies his knowledge accordingly and virtually without lapses, though he takes many scary, bracing linguistic risks. Thus his remarkably supple diction can first treat of a painful and delicate love scene and then roar, without pause, into the sounds and echoes of a drudged and drunken orgy."(Sissman 1973)
Along with its emphasis on loftier themes such as racism, imperialism and religion, and its awareness and appropriation of many elements of traditional high culture and literary form, Pynchon's work has also been shown to demonstrate a strong affinity with the practitioners and artifacts of low culture, including comic books and cartoons, pulp fiction, popular films, television programs, cookery, urban myths, conspiracy theories, and folk art. This blurring of the conventional boundary between "High" and "low" culture, sometimes interpreted as a "deconstruction", is seen as one of the defining characteristics of postmodernism (Mead 1989; Krafft 2008).
In particular, Pynchon has revealed himself in his fiction and non-fiction as an aficionado of popular music. Song lyrics and mock musical numbers appear in each of his novels, and, in his autobiographical introduction to the Slow Learner collection of early stories, he reveals a fondness for both jazz and rock and roll. The character McClintic Sphere in V. is a fictional composite of jazz musicians such as Ornette Coleman, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. In The Crying of Lot 49, the lead singer of "The Paranoids" sports "a Beatle haircut" and sings with an English accent. In the closing pages of Gravity's Rainbow, there is an apocryphal report that Tyrone Slothrop, the novel's protagonist, played kazoo and harmonica as a guest musician on a record released by The Fool in the 1960s (having magically recovered the latter instrument, his "harp", in a German stream in 1945, after losing it down the toilet in 1939 at the Roseland Ballroom in Roxbury, Boston, to the strains of the jazz standard 'Cherokee', upon which tune Charlie Parker was simultaneously inventing bebop in New York, as Pynchon describes). In Vineland, both Zoyd Wheeler and Isaiah Two Four are also musicians: Zoyd played keyboards in a '60s surf band called "The Corvairs", while Isaiah played in a punk band called "Billy Barf and the Vomitones". In Mason & Dixon, one of the characters plays on the "Clavier" the varsity drinking song which will later become "The Star-Spangled Banner"; whilst in another episode a character remarks tangentially "Sometimes, it's hard to be a woman".
In his introduction to Slow Learner, Pynchon acknowledges a debt to the anarchic bandleader Spike Jones, and in 1994, he penned a 3000-word set of liner notes for the album Spiked!, a collection of Jones's recordings released on the short-lived BMG Catalyst label. Pynchon also wrote the liner notes for Nobody's Cool, the second album of indie rock band Lotion, in which he states that "rock and roll remains one of the last honorable callings, and a working band is a miracle of everyday life. Which is basically what these guys do." He is also known to be a fan of Roky Erickson.
Investigations and digressions into the realms of human sexuality, psychology, sociology, mathematics, science, and technology recur throughout Pynchon's works. One of his earliest short stories, "Low-lands" (1960), features a meditation on Heisenberg's uncertainty principle as a metaphor for telling stories about one's own experiences. His next published work, "Entropy" (1960), introduced the concept which was to become synonymous with Pynchon's name (though Pynchon later admitted the "shallowness of [his] understanding" of the subject, and noted that choosing an abstract concept first and trying to construct a narrative around it was "a lousy way to go about writing a story"). Another early story, "Under the Rose" (1961), includes amongst its cast of characters a cyborg set anachronistically in Victorian-era Egypt (a type of writing now called steampunk). This story, significantly reworked by Pynchon, appears as Chapter 3 of V. "The Secret Integration" (1964), Pynchon's last published short story, is a sensitively-handled coming-of-age tale in which a group of young boys face the consequences of the American policy of racial integration. At one point in the story, the boys attempt to understand the new policy by way of the mathematical operation, the only sense of the word with which they are familiar.
The Crying of Lot 49 also alludes to entropy and communication theory, and contains scenes and descriptions which parody or appropriate calculus, Zeno's paradoxes, and the thought experiment known as Maxwell's demon. At the same time, the novel also investigates homosexuality, celibacy and both medically-sanctioned and illicit psychedelic drug use. Gravity's Rainbow describes many varieties of sexual fetishism (including sado-masochism, coprophilia and a borderline case of tentacle rape), and features numerous episodes of drug use, most notably marijuana but also cocaine, naturally occurring hallucinogens, and the mushroom Amanita muscaria. Gravity's Rainbow also derives much from Pynchon's background in mathematics: at one point, the geometry of garter belts is compared with that of cathedral spires, both described as mathematical singularities. Mason & Dixon explores the scientific, theological, and socio-cultural foundations of the Age of Reason whilst also depicting the relationships between actual historical figures and fictional characters in intricate detail and, like Gravity's Rainbow, is an archetypal example of the genre of historiographic metafiction.
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An eclectic catalogue of Pynchonian precursors has been proposed by readers and critics. Beside overt references in the novels to writers as disparate as Henry Adams, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Giorgio de Chirico, Emily Dickinson, William March, Rainer Maria Rilke, Jorge Luis Borges, Ishmael Reed, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Patrick O'Brian, and Umberto Eco and to an eclectic mix of iconic religious and philosophical sources, credible comparisons with works by Rabelais, Cervantes, Laurence Sterne, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Mann, William S. Burroughs, Ralph Ellison, Patrick White, and Toni Morrison have been made.
Some commentators have detected similarities with those writers in the Modernist tradition who wrote extremely long novels dealing with large metaphysical or political issues. Examples of such works might include Ulysses by James Joyce, A Passage to India by E.M. Forster, The Castle by Franz Kafka, The Apes of God by Wyndham Lewis, The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil, and U.S.A. by John Dos Passos. In his 'Introduction' to Slow Learner, Pynchon explicitly acknowledges his debt to Beat Generation writers, and expresses his admiration for Jack Kerouac's On the Road in particular; he also reveals his familiarity with literary works by T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, Saul Bellow, Herbert Gold, Philip Roth and Norman Mailer, and non-fiction works by Helen Waddell, Norbert Wiener and Isaac Asimov.[page needed]
Comparisons with other authors
Contemporary American authors whose fiction is often categorized alongside Pynchon's include John Hawkes, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Anton Wilson, Joseph Heller, Donald Barthelme, Steve Erickson, John Barth, William Gaddis, Don DeLillo, and Joseph McElroy (Mead 1989; Krafft 2008).
The wildly eccentric characters, frenzied action, frequent digressions, and imposing lengths of Pynchon's novels have led critic James Wood to classify Pynchon's work as hysterical realism. Other writers whose work has been labeled as hysterical realism include Salman Rushdie, Steve Erickson, Neal Stephenson, and Zadie Smith.
Younger contemporary writers who have been touted as heirs to Pynchon include David Foster Wallace, William Vollmann, Richard Powers, Steve Erickson, David Mitchell, Neal Stephenson, Dave Eggers, and Tommaso Pincio whose pseudonym is an Italian rendering of Pynchon's name.
Pynchon's work has been cited as an influence and inspiration by many writers and artists, including T. Coraghessan Boyle, David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, Ian Rankin, William Gibson, Elfriede Jelinek, Rick Moody, Alan Moore, Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Richard Powers, Salman Rushdie, Neal Stephenson, Bruce Sterling, Jan Wildt, Laurie Anderson, Zak Smith, David Cronenberg, and Adam Rapp.
Thanks to his influence on Gibson and Stephenson in particular, Pynchon became one of the progenitors of cyberpunk fiction; a 1987 essay in Spin magazine by Timothy Leary explicitly named Gravity's Rainbow as the "Old Testament" of cyberpunk, with Gibson's Neuromancer and its sequels as the "New Testament". Though the term "cyberpunk" did not become prevalent until the early 1980s, since Leary's article many readers have retroactively included Gravity's Rainbow in the genre, along with other works — e.g., Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren and many works of Philip K. Dick — which seem, after the fact, to anticipate cyberpunk styles and themes. The encyclopedic nature of Pynchon's novels also led to some attempts to link his work with the short-lived hypertext fiction movement of the 1990s (Page 2002; Krämer 2005).
Media scrutiny on private life
Relatively little is known about Thomas Pynchon's private life; he has carefully avoided contact with journalists for more than forty years. Only a few photos of him are known to exist, nearly all from his high school and college days, and his whereabouts have often remained undisclosed.
A review of V. in the New York Times Book Review described Pynchon as "a recluse" living in Mexico, thereby introducing the media label which has pursued Pynchon throughout his career (Plimpton 1963: 5). Nonetheless, Pynchon's absence from the public spotlight is one of the notable features of his life, and it has generated many rumors and apocryphal anecdotes.
1970s and 1980s
After the publication and success of Gravity's Rainbow, interest mounted in finding out more about the identity of the author. At the 1974 National Book Award ceremony, the president of Viking Press, Tom Guinzberg, arranged for double-talking comedian "Professor" Irwin Corey to accept the prize on Pynchon's behalf (Royster 2005). Many of the assembled guests had no idea who Corey was, and, having never seen the author, they assumed that it was Pynchon himself on the stage delivering Corey's trademark torrent of rambling, pseudo-scholarly verbiage (Corey 1974). Towards the end of Corey's address a streaker ran through the hall, adding further to the confusion.
An article published in the Soho Weekly News claimed that Pynchon was in fact J. D. Salinger (Batchelor 1976). Pynchon's written response to this theory (reported in Tanner 1982) was simple: "Not bad. Keep trying."
Thereafter, the first piece to provide substantial information about Pynchon's personal life was a biographical account written by a former Cornell University friend, Jules Siegel, and published in Playboy magazine. In his article, Siegel reveals that Pynchon had a complex about his teeth and underwent extensive and painful reconstructive surgery, was nicknamed "Tom" at Cornell and attended Mass diligently, acted as best man at Siegel's wedding, and that he later also had an affair with Siegel's wife. Siegel recalls Pynchon saying he did attend some of Vladimir Nabokov's lectures at Cornell but that he could hardly make out what Nabokov was saying because of his thick Russian accent. Siegel also records Pynchon's comment that "[e]very weirdo in the world is on my wavelength", an observation borne out by the crankiness and zealotry which has attached itself to his name and work in subsequent years. (Siegel 1977)
In the late 1980s, author Robert Clark Young prevailed upon his father, an employee of the California Department of Motor Vehicles, to look up Pynchon's driving record, using Pynchon's full name and known birth date. The results showed that Pynchon was living at the time in Aptos, California, and was driving a 1974 Datsun (Young 1992). The cancelled license subsequently found its way into the hands of at least two academics publishing scholarly work on Pynchon.
Pynchon's avoidance of celebrity and public appearances caused journalists to continue to speculate about his identity and activities, and reinforced his reputation within the media as "reclusive". More astute readers and critics recognized that there were and are perhaps aesthetic (and ideological) motivations behind his choice to remain aloof from public life. For example, the protagonist in Janette Turner Hospital's short story, "For Mr. Voss or Occupant" (publ. 1991), explains to her daughter that she is writing
a study of authors who become reclusive. Patrick White, Emily Dickinson, J. D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon. The way they create solitary characters and personae and then disappear into their fictions.
—Hospital 1995, 361–2
More recently, book critic Arthur Salm has written that
the man simply chooses not to be a public figure, an attitude that resonates on a frequency so out of phase with that of the prevailing culture that if Pynchon and Paris Hilton were ever to meet — the circumstances, I admit, are beyond imagining — the resulting matter/antimatter explosion would vaporize everything from here to Tau Ceti IV.
Belying this reputation somewhat, Pynchon has published a number of articles and reviews in the mainstream American media, including words of support for Salman Rushdie and his then-wife, Marianne Wiggins, after the fatwa was pronounced against Rushdie by the Iranian leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (Pynchon 1989). In the following year, Rushdie's enthusiastic review of Pynchon's Vineland prompted Pynchon to send him another message hinting that if Rushdie were ever in New York, the two should arrange a meeting. Eventually, the two did meet, and Rushdie found himself surprised by how much Pynchon resembled the mental image Rushdie had formed beforehand (Hitchens 1997).
In the early 1990s, Pynchon married his literary agent, Melanie Jackson — a great-granddaughter of Theodore Roosevelt — and fathered a son, Jackson, in 1991. The disclosure of Pynchon's location in New York, after many years in which he was believed to be dividing his time between Mexico and northern California, led some journalists and photographers to try to track him down. Shortly before the publication of Mason & Dixon in 1997, a CNN camera crew filmed him in Manhattan. Angered by this invasion of his privacy, he rang CNN asking that he not be identified in the footage of the street scenes near his home. When asked about his reclusive nature, he remarked, "My belief is that 'recluse' is a code word generated by journalists ... meaning, 'doesn't like to talk to reporters'." CNN also quoted him as saying, "Let me be unambiguous. I prefer not to be photographed." (CNN 1997) The next year, a reporter for the Sunday Times managed to snap a photo of him as he was walking with his son (Bone 1998).
After several references to Pynchon's work and reputation were made on NBC's The John Larroquette Show, Pynchon (through his agent) reportedly contacted the show's producers to offer suggestions and corrections. When a local Pynchon sighting became a major plot point in a 1994 episode of the show, Pynchon was sent the script for his approval; as well as providing the title of a fictitious work to be used in one episode ("Pandemonium of the Sun"), the novelist apparently vetoed a final scene that called for an extra playing him to be filmed from behind, walking away from shot (CNN 1997; Glenn 2003). Also during the 1990s, Pynchon apparently befriended members of the band Lotion and attended a number of their shows, culminating in the liner notes he contributed for the band's 1995 album Nobody's Cool. The novelist then conducted an interview with the band ("Lunch With Lotion") for Esquire in June 1996 in the lead-up to the publication of Mason & Dixon. More recently, Pynchon provided faxed answers to questions submitted by author David Hajdu and permitted excerpts from his personal correspondence to be quoted in Hajdu's 2001 book, Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña (Warner 2001).
Pynchon's insistence on maintaining his personal privacy and on having his work speak for itself has resulted in a number of outlandish rumors and hoaxes over the years. Indeed, claims that Pynchon was the Unabomber or a sympathizer with the Waco Branch Davidians after the 1993 siege were upstaged in the mid-1990s by the invention of an elaborate rumor insinuating that Pynchon and one "Wanda Tinasky" were the same person. A spate of letters authored under that name had appeared in the late 1980s in the Anderson Valley Advertiser in Anderson Valley, California. The style and content of those letters were said to resemble Pynchon's, and Pynchon's Vineland, published in 1990, also takes place in northern California, so it was suggested[who?] that Pynchon may have been in the area at that time, conducting research. A collection of the Tinasky letters was eventually published as a paperback book in 1996; however, Pynchon himself denied having written the letters, and no direct attribution of the letters to Pynchon was ever made. "Literary detective" Donald Foster subsequently showed that the Letters were in fact written by an obscure Beat writer called Tom Hawkins, who had murdered his wife and then committed suicide in 1988. Foster's evidence was conclusive, including finding the typewriter on which the "Tinasky" letters had been written (Foster 2000).
In 1998, over 120 letters that Pynchon had written to his longtime agent, Candida Donadio, were donated by the family of private collector, Carter Burden, to the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City. The letters ranged from 1963 to 1982, thus covering some of the author's most creative and prolific years. Although the Morgan Library originally intended to allow scholars to view the letters, at Pynchon’s request the Burden family and Morgan Library agreed to seal these letters until after Pynchon's death. (Gussow 1998)
After the September 11 terrorist attacks, a supposed "interview" with Pynchon appeared in an issue of Playboy Japan. Published under the heading "Most News is Propaganda. Bin Laden May Not Exist", it purported to be a talk with Pynchon on the events of 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden. Its authenticity has been questioned by experts and it has never been republished in the American media.
His Simpsons appearances are some of the few occasions that Pynchon's voice has been broadcast in the media.Responding to the image which has been manufactured in the media over the years, during 2004, Pynchon made two cameo animated appearances on the television series The Simpsons. The first occurs in the episode "Diatribe of a Mad Housewife", in which Marge Simpson becomes a novelist. He plays himself, with a paper bag over his head, and provides a blurb for the back cover of Marge's book, speaking in a broad Long Island accent: "Here's your quote: Thomas Pynchon loved this book, almost as much as he loves cameras!" He then starts yelling at passing cars: "Hey, over here, have your picture taken with a reclusive author! Today only, we'll throw in a free autograph! But, wait! There's more!" In his second appearance, in "All's Fair in Oven War", Pynchon's dialogue consists entirely of puns on his novel titles ("These wings are 'V'-licious! I'll put this recipe in 'The Gravity's Rainbow Cookbook', right next to 'The Frying of Latke 49'."). The cartoon representation of Pynchon reappears in a third, non-speaking cameo, as a guest at the fictional WordLoaf convention depicted in the 18th season (2006) episode, "Moe'N'a Lisa". The episode first aired on November 19, 2006, the Sunday before Pynchon's sixth novel, Against the Day, was released.
In July 2006, Amazon.com created a page showing an upcoming 992-page, untitled, Thomas Pynchon novel. A description of the soon-to-be published novel appeared on Amazon purporting to be written by Pynchon himself. The description was taken down, prompting speculation over its authenticity, but the blurb was soon back up along with the title of Pynchon's new novel, Against the Day.
Shortly before Against the Day was published, Pynchon's prose appeared in the program for "The Daily Show: Ten Fu@#ing Years (The Concert)", a retrospective on Jon Stewart's comedy-news broadcast The Daily Show.
On December 6, 2006, Pynchon joined a campaign by many other major authors to clear Ian McEwan of plagiarism charges by sending a typed letter to his British publisher, which was published in the Daily Telegraph newspaper (Pynchon 2006).
Pynchon's 2009 YouTube promotional teaser for the novel Inherent Vice is the second time a recording of his voice has been released to mainstream outlets (the first being his appearances on The Simpsons) (Meerkat Media 2009).
Pynchon's fiction books are:
V. (March, 1963), nominated for a National Book Award, 1963 William Faulkner Foundation award for best debut novel of the year
The Crying of Lot 49 (April 27, 1966).
Gravity's Rainbow (February 28, 1973), 1974 National Book Award for fiction; judges' unanimous selection for Pulitzer Prize, overruled by advisory board; awarded William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1975, which was declined
Slow Learner (April, 1984), collection of early short stories
Vineland (February, 1990)
Mason & Dixon (April 30, 1997)
Against the Day (November 21, 2006)
Inherent Vice (August 4, 2009)
As well as fictional works, Pynchon has written essays and reviews addressing subjects as diverse as missile security, the Watts Riots, Luddism, and the work of Donald Barthelme. His non-fiction pieces have appeared in the New York Times Book Review and The New York Review of Books. His introduction to Slow Learner is significant for its autobiographical candor.
He has contributed introductions to at least three other books, including the 1992 Donald Barthelme collection, The Teachings of Don B., and, more recently, the Penguin Books Centennial Edition of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was published in 2003, and the Penguin Classics edition of Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me written by Pynchon's close friend, Richard Fariña, first published in 1966.