The defining figure of what has been called the “paranoid style” of U.S. fiction, Thomas Pynchon is also the most reclusive and mysterious U.S. novelist of the 1960s generation.
Using paranoia and conspiracy to shape both the form and content of much of his work, Pynchon’s fiction is, like conspiracy theory itself, huge and seemingly uncontrollable in scope, exceptionally complex, consistently absurd and surreal, and quite possibly (or possibly not) totally interconnected. His novels include V. (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), a collection of short stories, Slow Learner (1984), Vineland (1990), and Mason & Dixon (1997).
Pynchon’s novels defy any effort at easy summary and freely combine complex scientific concepts with dirty limericks, philosophical ruminations on historical causality and theological predestination, and investigations of clandestine mail-delivery services and sentient lightbulbs, and like to pit dopesmoking freaks against military cabals, fascist corporate syndicates, and competing mind-control cliques.
Pynchon fills his novels with hundreds of strange characters bearing stranger names like Meatball Mulligan, Genghis Cohen, Mike Fallopian, Brock Vond, and the Revd Wicks Cherrycoke. Although meticulously precise, his prose has the outward appearance of being loose and uncontainable, deluging the reader with a textual excess that brilliantly embodies the collision of seemingly self-contained conceptual universes in postmodern U.S. culture.
The reader is faced with the delightful if paranoia-inducing task of searching out meaningful connections within the narrative’s frenetically multiplying plots, wild conspiracies, and allegorical details. Pynchon’s distinctively nonlinear and fragmented stories are nonetheless built around a quest for knowledge or to uncover some “plot,” but, as he writes in V., “in this search motive is part of the quarry.”
Yet every quest and every plot seems too complex, too interconnected for the protagonists to unravel, let alone take control of. The result is a series of novels and meanings that are, as he writes in Gravity’s Rainbow, “not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knotting into.”
Unlike his novels, what is known of Pynchon’s biography can be easily summarized. Thomas Ruggles Pynchon was born on 8 May 1937 on Long Island, New York. He attended Oyster Bay High School and won a scholarship to Cornell University.
There he began as a student of engineering physics, but after leaving to join the Navy Signal Corps for two years, Pynchon returned to Cornell where he graduated with a degree in English in 1959. While at Cornell, Pynchon is known to have taken a class from Vladimir Nabokov, befriended the novelist Richard Fariña, and edited the Cornell Writer, where he published his first short story.
In a rare personal essay, Pynchon wrote about the highly contradictory literary and cultural influences of the late 1950s that, in retrospect, are flawlessly synthesized in his mature style: Kerouac and Henry Adams, surrealism and Spike Jones, the Evergreen Review and Cybernetics, jazz clubs and British spy thrillers, marijuana and Edmund Wilson.
After college, Pynchon moved to Greenwich Village where he began writing his first novel. In 1960 he moved to Seattle and worked for Boeing as a writer of technical manuals. Two years later, Pynchon moved to southern California and on to Mexico where he finished V. A picaresque novel of two deeply opposite men and “the whole sick crew,” V. is ostensibly centered around a search for conspiratorial meaning, which animates the novel’s movement.
Unlike the perfect “schlemihl,” Benny Profane, Herbert Stencil is a joyless adventurer dedicated to searching for V., a woman who may or may not exist, but who he nonetheless believes is connected to the “century’s great cabals” that periodically reappear during moments of rebellion around the world.
V. may embody the secret history of the twentieth century or she may simply be the paranoid’s conspiracy theory incarnate. V. received the William Faulkner award for the best first novel of the year, and the New York Times said of V.’s “recluse” of an author, “no matter what his circumstances, or where he’s doing it, there is at work a young writer of staggering promise.”
The Crying of Lot 49 is Pynchon’s second novel and by virtue of its brevity and linear plot, it continues to be his most widely read and least Pynchonesque work. Lot 49 tells the story of Oedipa Maas and her quest to unravel the estate of her fabulously wealthy former lover Pierce Inverarity.
In her pursuit, Oedipa encounters a broad range of southern California subcultures including LSD-experimenting doctors, right-wing nuts, a rock band called the Paranoids, and a gang of engineers at Yoyodyne Aerospace.
Across the highways and undergrounds of San Narcisco, Oedipa learns to read the signs and experience “revelations which now seemed to come crowding in exponentially, as if the more she collected the more would come to her, until everything she saw, smelled, dreamed, remembered, would somehow come to be woven into The Tristero.”
Indeed, Oedipa finds evidence for the Tristero—a sinister alternative postal delivery system—in everything from a sixteenth-century Jacobean revenge tragedy to a machine based on Maxwell’s Demon.
After reaching the point of exhaustion, Oedipa realizes that either the Trystero is real (i.e., an actual conspiracy), or Pierce has been playing a joke on her (which would fuel her paranoia), or, most unsettling of all, everything is just random and meaningless in a universe devoid of coherence.
Or, perhaps, she, like everyone around her, is just losing her mind. But in the end, Oedipa, like Stencil, realizes that she would rather believe in the connection—no matter how absurd or cruel—than in no connection at all. But, of course, the final revelation in this parodic detective novel is ultimately withheld.
Gravity’s Rainbow is Thomas Pynchon’s masterpiece, an 800-page blend of rocket science with B-movies, organic chemistry with Rilke, and German history with silly songs and innuendoes, which many critics believe to be postmodernism’s equal to Moby Dick and Ulysses.
When it is discovered that Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop’s erections can predict the impact sites of V-2 rockets falling on London, the quest is on to uncover the mystery of Rocket 00000. What follows, or more properly, what is woven into this ostensible plot is a wild series of adventures across war-torn Europe.
Gravity’s Rainbow features a strange collection of slobs, lovers, and “preterite” wanderers foolishly led by Slothrop—including a submarine full of Argentine anarchists and an army of suicidal African “Schwarzkommandos”—who eventually merge into a motley “Counterforce” to do battle with the international intelligence agencies and corporate conspiracies of the elect.
In the course of his adventures, Slothrop comes across five “Proverbs for Paranoids” that, like unreliable signposts, guide Slothrop and the reader alike through “the Zone”:
- “You may never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures,”
- “The innocence of the creatures is in inverse proportions to the immorality of the Master,”
- “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers,”
- “You hide, they seek,” and
- “Paranoids are not paranoids because they are paranoid, but because they keep putting themselves, fucking idiots, deliberately into paranoid situations.”
While in V. and Lot 49 conspiracy and paranoia are the ideas of a single character, Gravity’s Rainbow turns this into a universal logic, and not just of individual psychology or political organization, but as a metaphysical category behind technology and the physics of gravity itself.
In 1990 Pynchon returned with Vineland, a novel set in 1984 amidst the forests of northern California and structured around a young woman’s effort to understand her parents’ lives as 1960s hippies and (counter)revolutionaries.
Seven years later, Pynchon published his own eighteenth-century novel, Mason & Dixon, about two friends whose efforts at imposing a scientific order upon the world through measuring the transom of Venus or surveying the southern border of Pennsylvania find only mayhem and chaos in the Age of Reason.
As of 2002, Thomas Pynchon is believed to live in New York City and continues to refuse any offer to be photographed or interviewed. Of course, this obsessive privacy has generated a kind of cult of personality around Pynchon, suggesting that the paranoia of his novels is also a factor in his own life.
But whatever his reasons, Pynchon’s friends evidently do a good job of protecting his anonymity, for he is neither a loner nor hermit, but rejects the kind of public personality that he could easily claim as one of most important living novelists in the English language.