Thomas Pynchon in 1957, one of the few photographs of him ever to be published
|Born||May 8 1937
Glen Cove, New York
|Occupation||Short story writer and novelist|
Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Jr. (May 8, 1937 - ) is an American writer based in New York City, 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 today: V. (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Gravity's Rainbow (1973), Vineland (1990), Mason & Dixon (1997), and Against the Day (2006).
Pynchon (pronounced /ˈpɪntʃɒn/, with /ˈpɪntʃən/ a common mispronunciation) is regarded by many readers and critics as one of the finest contemporary authors. He is a MacArthur Fellow and a recipient of the National Book Award, and is regularly cited as a contender for the Nobel Prize in 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 Secret Integration" (1964) and Gravity's Rainbow (1973).
Pynchon attended Oyster Bay High School, where he was awarded "student of the year" and contributed short fictional pieces to his school newspaper (Pynchon 1952-3). 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.
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.
While at Cornell, Pynchon started his life-long friendship with Richard Fariña; 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. (He 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.) Pynchon also reportedly attended lectures given by Vladimir Nabokov, who then taught literature at Cornell. While Nabokov later said that he had no memory of Pynchon (although Nabokov's wife, Véra, who graded her husband's class papers, commented that she remembered his distinctive handwriting–comprised of a mixture of lowercase and uppercase letters), other 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, Minstral 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. 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 (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, while both his background in physics and the technical journalism he undertook at Boeing provided much raw material for Gravity's Rainbow. When it was published in 1963, Pynchon's novel V. won a William Faulkner Foundation Award for best first novel of the year.
After resigning from Boeing, Pynchon spent 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 (Frost 2003), as he was composing his most highly regarded work, Gravity's Rainbow. Pynchon during this time flirted with the lifestyle and some of the habits of the hippie counterculture (Gordon 1994); however, his retrospective assessment of the motives, values, and achievements of the student and youth milieux of the period, in his 1984 "Introduction" to the Slow Learner collection of early stories and the novel Vineland (1990) in particular, is equivocal at best.
In 1964, he turned down an application to study mathematics as a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. 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.
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" (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 unknown, but in a 1965 letter to Donadio, Pynchon had written that he was in the middle of writing a book that he called 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 entitled 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 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, and both books dwell upon the detritus of American society and culture. The Crying of Lot 49 also continues Pynchon's habit of composing parodic song lyrics and punning names, and referencing aspects of popular culture within his prose narrative. 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.
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 percent 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, the novel has spawned a wealth of commentary and critical material, including two reader's guides (Fowler 1980; Weisenburger 1988), books and scholarly articles, online concordances and discussions, and art works, and is regarded as one of the archetypal texts of American literary postmodernism. The major portion of Gravity's Rainbow takes place in London and Europe in the final months of the Second World War 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, which are, however, very much to the forefront of the reader's understanding of this time in history. 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.
Encyclopedic in scope and often playfully self-conscious in style, the novel displays impressive erudition in its treatment of an array of material drawn from the fields of psychology, chemistry, mathematics, history, religion, music, literature, and film. Perhaps appropriately for a book so suffused with engineering knowledge, 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, and was evidently making changes and additions to the manuscript right up to the date of printing.
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; however, 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, entitled 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, and was seen by fans and critics, who had been waiting almost twenty years for Pynchon's next novel, as a major disappointment. 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.
In 1988, he received a MacArthur Fellowship and, since the early 1990s at least, many observers have mentioned Pynchon as a Nobel Prize contender (Grimes 1993). 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.
Pynchon's fifth novel, Mason & Dixon, was published in 1997, though it had been a work in progress from at least January 1975 (Gussow 1998). 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. While it received some negative reviews, the great majority of commentators acknowledged it as a welcome return to form, and some have hailed it as Pynchon's greatest work.
A variety of rumors pertaining to the subject matter of Pynchon's next book circulated over 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 (Pynchon 2006a).
Against the Day was released 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. 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.
Comprised predominantly of a series of interwoven pastiches of popular fiction genres from the era in which it is set, there was a mixed reaction from critics and reviewers upon the novel's release, though many acknowledge that it is by turns brilliant and exhausting (Complete Review 2006). An Against the Day wiki was launched on the same day the novel was published to help readers keep track of the numerous characters, events and themes.
Along with its emphasis on more serious themes such as racism, imperialism, and religion, and its cognizance and appropriation of many elements of traditional high culture and literary form, Pynchon's work also demonstrates 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.
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. (Pynchon recounts how Slothrop magically recovered the latter instrument, his "harp," in a German stream in 1945, after having lost 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"; while in another episode a character remarks tangentially "Sometimes, it's hard to be a woman."
In his Slow Learner introduction, 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 among 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, containing scenes and descriptions which parody or appropriate calculus, Zeno's paradoxes, and the thought experiment known as Maxwell's demon. Simultaneously, 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 while 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.
An eclectic catalog of Pynchonian precursors has been proposed by readers and critics. Beside overt references in the novels to writers as disparate as Henry Adams, Giorgio de Chirico, Ludwig Wittgenstein, 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 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. Other contemporary American authors whose fiction is often categorized alongside Pynchon's include John Hawkes, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Donald Barthelme, John Barth, William Gaddis, Don DeLillo, and Joseph McElroy.
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 apparent 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, Alan Cabal, 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. Though the term "cyberpunk" did not become prevalent until the early 1980s, many readers retroactively include Gravity's Rainbow in the genre, along with other works—for example, 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 (Krämer 2005).
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.
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. 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).
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 (see Gussow 1998).
As well as fictional works, Pynchon has written essays, introductions, and reviews addressing subjects as diverse as missile security, the Watts Riots, Luddism and the work of Donald Barthelme. Some of his non-fiction pieces have appeared in the New York Times Book Review and The New York Review of Books, and he has contributed blurbs for books and records. His 1984 Introduction to the Slow Learner collection of early stories is significant for its autobiographical candour. He has written introductions to at least three books, including the 1992 collection of Donald Barthelme's stories, The Teachings of Don B. and, more recently, the Penguin Centenary Edition of George Orwell's novel 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, and first published in 1966.
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