Thomas Pynchon during his Navy days
Creative Commons AttributionThomas Pynchon during his Navy days - Credit: Flickr, Jon Lebkowsky

The reality is in this head. Mine. I’m the projector at the planetarium, all the closed little universe visible in the circle of that stage is coming out of my mouth, eyes, and sometimes other orifices also.

 

So says Driblette in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, referring to himself and his role as a director of a Jacobean revenge play, the origins and authorship of which are unclear. However, he could easily be speaking for Pynchon himself. The author has been delighting and baffling readers in equal measure since the early 1960s, all whilst maintaining a strict air of secrecy. Only a handful of photographs of the man himself have been published, none taken later the 1950s. As a result, hard facts are scarce, with bizarre theories and rumours circulating amongst his devoted fanbase.

Born in 1937 and hailing from Long Island, New York, Pynchon studied engineering physics at Cornell University but left to serve briefly in the US Navy. He returned to study English and began publishing stories; he graduated in 1959. Pynchon worked as a technical writer for Boeing until 1962, an experience that would have a profound impact on his early work. Meanwhile, he began writing his first novel: V. described the exploits of a range of misfits in 1956 New York, particularly a discharged sailor named Benny Profane, along with the struggle of a peculiar adventurer named Herbert Stencil to find “V”, a mysterious being that seems to transfer from person to person. When V. was published in 1963, earning Pynchon the William Faulkner Foundation Award for best debut novel, he resigned his job and devoted himself to writing.

In 1966, Pynchon’s second novel, The Crying of Lot 49, was released. It is his shortest and most accessible novel. It tells the story of Oedipa Maas and her attempts to untangle the complexities of a deceased ex-boyfriend’s estate, in particular the nature of a mysterious, and possibly non-existent, underground postal service known as the Trystero. The novel won great acclaim, and came to define Pynchon’s unique style, with its frequent digressions, subplots and songs, alongside its blending of pop cultural allusions with high cultural references to Jacobean drama and theoretical scientific phenomena.

In 1973, Pynchon rose to the forefront of American literary masters with the publication of Gravity’s Rainbow. An overwhelmingly vast and dense work set in Europe at the end of the Second World War, the novel tells of various characters' attempts to find a new type of rocket with the serial number 00000. It has been hailed as one of the defining works of postmodernism; many critics consider it the greatest American novel of the second half of the twentieth century. It continues The Crying of Lot 49’s method of mixing complex scientific, historical and cultural material with silly songs and bizarre comic set-pieces. Gravity’s Rainbow initially divided critics, winning the National Book Award and almost being awarded the Pulitzer Prize before the baffled prize board overruled the initial jury. Meanwhile, Pynchon turned down the William Dean Howells Medal, and dispatched comedian Professor Irwin Corey to accept the National Book Award in a bizarre ceremony that included a streaker appearing onstage.

Following this, Pynchon disappeared from the literary scene for a long time. A collection of his stories, Slow Learner, was published in 1984, along with an introduction in which Pynchon provided a rare insight into his work. In 1988, he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. It was not until 1990, seventeen years after Gravity’s Rainbow, that Pynchon released a new novel, Vineland. In it, he reflected on the failure of the 1960s counterculture and the strengthening of conservative attitudes in the 1980s. Many fans were disappointed by the novel, but it received notable positive reviews, such as one from Salman Rushdie, and has enjoyed a growing critical respect since its publication.

In 1997, reaction to Pynchon’s next work was more positive; Mason & Dixon told the fantastical, Pynchonised story of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon’s mapping out of the Mason-Dixon line during the early days of the American Republic. The novel, which Pynchon had worked on since 1975, was the result of very extensive research, and it has been hailed by many critics as the author’s true masterpiece.

Pynchon’s next novel is arguably his most daunting. Against the Day, published in 2006, is over a thousand pages long and features no central protagonist or story. Hundreds of characters and stories intermingle between the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the end of the First World War. Pynchon toyed with a wide variety of obscure writing styles, to the delight and annoyance of critics.

Pynchon’s next novel, Inherent Vice, was a more straightforward affair, a comparatively simple detective story set in Los Angeles at the end of 1960s, with Pynchon again contemplating the failure of countercultural reformist ideals. In promoting the novel, Pynchon recorded a YouTube video in which he read a passage from it, a rare opportunity to hear the author’s voice.

 

 

In the absence of concrete information or any interviews, a number of bizarre theories have arisen surrounding Pynchon: he was J.D. Salinger, the Unabomber, or “Wanda Tinasky”, the author of a series of letters written in the 1980s to the Anderson Valley Advertiser. The Tinasky letters were even published as a book. These theories were all eventually disproved, with the Tinasky letters being traced to a disturbed writer named Tom Hawkins who died in 1988. Pynchon, in characteristically playful form, parodied his reclusive reputation by appearing as himself in two episodes of The Simpsons. He is depicted wearing a paper bag over his head and sarcastically comments that he likes someone’s book ‘almost as much as he like cameras!’

 

 

Thomas Pynchon is currently believed to be living in New York. He is known to have a family, but has purposefully kept them out of public life.