Thomas Pynchon

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Thomas Pynchon pictured in his high school yearbook.

Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Jr. (born May 8, 1937) is an American novelist noted for his complex, labyrinthine, and critically acclaimed works, including V., Gravity's Rainbow, and The Crying of Lot 49. He is also noted for his reclusive nature; few photographs of him have ever been published.


Early life

Thomas Pynchon was born in Glen Cove, Long Island, New York to Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Sr. and Katherine Frances Bennett Pynchon.

Pynchon graduated from Oyster Bay High School in 1953. He attended the Engineering Physics division at Cornell University, but left at the end of his second year to join the US Navy. He returned to Cornell in 1957 to pursue a degree in English. His first short story, "A Small Rain", was published in the Cornell Writer in May, 1959. At Cornell, Pynchon was a good friend of Richard Fariña's, where both briefly led what Pynchon has called a "micro cult" around Oakley Hall's novel Warlock (1958). It is frequently stated that Pynchon was a student of Vladimir Nabokov, who then taught literature at Cornell. Nabokov himself later had no memory of Pynchon, and claimed no familiarity with his works; however, his wife Vera recalled grading Pynchon's examination papers, but only because of Pynchon's peculiar half-printing, half-cursive handwriting. (See Nabokov's Strong Opinions.) Further investigations, documented in J. Kerry Grant's A Companion to The Crying of Lot 49, have suggested that Pynchon may only have audited Nabokov's course. (See the article on The Crying of Lot 49 and in particular its discussion of Nabokov allusions for more information.) He received his BA in June, 1959. Jules Siegel claims in his Playboy article "Who is Thomas Pynchon, and why did he take off with my wife?" that Pynchon said he did attend some of Nabokov's lectures but could not make out what he was saying because of his thick Russian accent.

After graduation he began work on his first novel. During this time, from February 1960 to September 1962, he worked as an engineering aide at Boeing, writing technical documents for the Bomarc Service Information Unit and the Field Support Unit for the Minuteman missile project, both nuclear missile projects. In 1963 Pynchon published V. and won a William Faulkner Foundation Award for best first novel of the year.

Pynchon's second novel, The Crying of Lot 49, is short, witty and relatively accessible—but, even so, the plot is too elaborate and absurd to fit into a brief summary. It features an ancient, underground mail service known as the "Trystero". Like V., this novel contains a wealth of references to science and technology, and both books dwell upon the "preterite" or passed-over elements of American society. Also, The Crying of Lot 49 continues Pynchon's habit of including irreverent song lyrics in his prose narrative.

Rise to celebrity

Pynchon's most famous novel is his third, Gravity's Rainbow, published in 1973 to widespread critical acclaim. Set in Europe at the end of the Second World War, Gravity's Rainbow combined and elaborated on many of the themes of his earlier work, including paranoia, conspiracy, synchronicity, and entropy. It is an incredibly dense and allusive novel that requires considerable erudition simply to follow the plot, something that many of the characters seem to have difficulty with. Knowledge of psychology, mathematics and German literature all help. Perhaps appropriately for a book so suffused with engineering knowledge, Pynchon wrote the first draft of Gravity's Rainbow in longhand on engineer's graph paper, in Mexico City and California. Gravity's Rainbow won the 1974 National Book Award, and was voted unanimously for the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for fiction by the prize jurors; their decision was overruled by the full Pulitzer panel, however, on the grounds that the book was "turgid and overwritten" as well as "unreadable and obscene". (The jurors refused to change their decision, and as a result no fiction prize was awarded that year.)

Around this time, Pynchon became notorious for his avoidance of public view. He has carefully avoided contact with journalists for over forty years. Only a few photos of him are known to exist, nearly all from his high school and college days, and his location has usually been a closely guarded secret. In 1975, Pynchon declined the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

His fourth novel Vineland is set in California in the 1980s and 1960s and concerns 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, but with a typically Pynchonian sense of humor.

In the mid-1990's, after many years in which he was believed to be dividing his time between Mexico and northern California, Pynchon moved to New York City; also around this time, he married his agent, Melanie Jackson, and fathered a son, Jackson Pynchon. The disclosure of his location, not surprisingly, led some to try to track him down. Shortly before the publication of Mason & Dixon in 1997, he was found and filmed on the street by CNN. 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 apprently remarked, "My belief is that 'recluse' is a code word generated by journalists... meaning, 'doesn't like to talk to reporters.'" He was also quoted as saying, "Let me be unambiguous. I prefer not to be photographed." The next year, a reporter for the London Sunday Times, James Bone, managed to snap a photo of him as he was walking with his son.

Relatively little is known about Thomas Pynchon as a private person; however, in the March 1977 issue of Playboy Magazine a Cornell University friend, writer Jules Siegel published a lengthy article entitled Who is Thomas Pynchon, and why did he take off with my wife? about his relation to Pynchon. Siegel claims Pynchon had a complex about his teeth (so far as to have undergone oral surgery), was nicknamed Tom at Cornell, acted as best man at Siegel's wedding, and that he later also had an affair with Siegel's wife.

Media aversion and mystique

His aversion to media attention, often compared with that of J. D. Salinger, is a considerable part of Pynchon's contemporary mystique. For example, the satirical newspaper The Onion published an article mocking the American media coverage of Elian Gonzales; in the article, Pynchon and Salinger both come out of seclusion to tell the American public something vitally important, but are ignored by all news organizations in favor of the Elian story. [1] Book critic Arthur Salm, in a column entitled "A screaming comes across the sky (but not a photo)", writes 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.

It is remotely possible that Paris Hilton may be aware of Salm's criticism. In episode #1.22 of The O.C., Hilton makes a cameo appearance as a graduate student writing her thesis on "Magical Realism in American Literature," and asks Seth (the protagonist) if he's ever read Gravity's Rainbow, describing it as Pynchon's "masterpiece."

Adding another layer of complication to his media image, Pynchon has recently chosen to make two cameo appearances on the animated 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!" The second appearance occurs in "All's Fair in Oven War" (episode #1520), which was the sixteenth-season premiere. In this cameo, his dialogue consists entirely of puns on his novel titles, e.g., "the frying of latke 49".

In addition to the 1974 National Book Award, Pynchon received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1988. Literary critic Harold Bloom has named him as one of the four major American novelists of his time, along with Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, and Cormac McCarthy.

Recurring themes

Apparently, Pynchon has an enthusiasm for music. Song lyrics and mock "musical numbers" have appeared in his novels since V., and his autobiographical introduction to Slow Learner discusses both Beat music and the rock and roll which followed. This introduction admits that Spike Jones was a great influence who helped shape Pynchon's take on Surrealism; later, Pynchon penned the liner notes for Spiked, a collection of Jones's music. In addition, he also wrote the liner notes for Nobody's Cool, the second album of indie rock band Lotion. He stated, "...rock and roll remains one of the last honourable 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.

Human sexuality, mathematics, science and technology recur in complex combinations throughout Pynchon's works. One of his first short stories, "Under the Rose", features a cyborg set anachronistically in Victorian era Egypt (a type of writing now called steampunk). Another short story, "Entropy", introduced the concept which became a continuing motif in his later works (though Pynchon later wrote that choosing the scientific concept first and building a story around it was the wrong way to do it). "The Secret Integration" constructs an elaborate pun between the racial and mathematical senses of the word integration. His next story, which was long enough to be sold as the novel The Crying of Lot 49, develops Pynchon's thoughts on entropy to a much greater extent, bringing in the thought experiment known as Maxwell's demon. Lot 49 also studies calculus, connecting it with Zeno's paradoxes; at the same time, the novel works its way into homosexuality and psychedelic drug use. Gravity's Rainbow, whose narrative swirls around the V-2 rocket, also encompasses many varieties of sexual fetishism (including a borderline case of tentacle rape). Pynchon's most lauded novel also describes drug use, notably the mushroom Amanita muscaria, and it too delves into mathematics: at one point, Pynchon compares the geometry of garter belts with cathedral spires, calling both mathematical singularities. His most recent novel, Mason & Dixon, contains a scene where two characters speculate why heterosexual men find lesbian pornography arousing, casting their explanation in algebraic terms.


  • It has been suggested that Pynchon and one Wanda Tinasky are the same person. Several letters authored under the name "Wanda Tinasky" in the late 1980s were published in the Anderson Valley Advertiser in Anderson Valley, California. The style and content of these letters closely resemble Pynchon's, and Pynchon's Vineland, which was written at that time, also takes place in Anderson Valley. Pynchon may have been in the area, conducting research. A collection of these letters has been printed as a paperback book entitled The Letters of Wanda Tinasky; however, Pynchon himself denies having written the letters. "Literary detective" Donald Foster has argued that the Letters were written by an obscure beat writer called Tom Hawkins, who had committed suicide sometime after the Tinasky letters ceased. His evidence was quite conclusive, including finding the typewriter on which the Tinasky letters had been written.
  • It has been rumored that Pynchon's next book will be about the life and love stories of Sofia Kovalevskaya, whom he allegedly studied in Germany. The former German minister of culture Michael Naumann has claimed that he assisted Pynchon in his research about "a Russian mathematician that studied for David Hilbert in Göttingen". (It was noted, before the above discoveries Kovalevsky's nom de plume "Tanya Raevsky" bears a resemblance to "Wanda Tinasky".)
  • In an essay entitled "One Writer's Big Innings", novelist Robert Clark Young gives a humorous account of persuading his father, a Department of Motor Vehicles employee, to use the DMV computers in the 1980s to track Pynchon to his home in Aptos, California. The plan was to draw a large muted post horn on Pynchon's front door in order to teach him a lesson for "writing books that make people paranoid".
  • Pynchon's reclusive nature led to some suspicions in the 1970s that "Thomas Pynchon" was actually a pen name of J.D. Salinger, another notoriously reclusive author. No evidence was ever presented to support this rumor.


As well as fictional works, Pynchon has written essays on subjects as diverse as the Watts Riots and missile security. He has written articles for the New York Times Book Review and The New York Review of Books and blurbs for books and records.

See also

External links


The following links were last verified on 16 October 2005.

Print media references

  • Salm, Arthur. "A screaming comes across the sky (but not a photo)", San Diego Union-Tribune 8 February 2004.

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