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Thomas Pynchon is widely regarded as one of contemporary America’s eminent literary stylists. Using elements of science fiction, fantasy, satire, myth, and advanced mathematics, his novels illustrate the chaos and randomness of modern life. They are characterized by black humor, a large cast of unusual and allegorical characters, and an encyclopedic use of Western history and popular culture. Critics have praised Pynchon’s work for its wide-ranging subject matter, innovative synthesis of narrative perspectives, and profound philosophical insights into the nature of truth and historical reality.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Intelligent and Irreverent
Pynchon was born in Glen Cove, New York, on May 8,1937, to a prominent family. Pynchon’s ancestors include a sixteenth-century London high sheriff; a seventeenth-century Massachusetts Bay Colony patentee and treasurer, who was also a founder of both Roxbury and Springfield, Massachusetts; and a nineteenth-century Trinity College president. In 1953, Pynchon graduated from oyster Bay High School, where he was class salutatorian and the recipient of an award for English at graduation. The pieces Pynchon submitted for his high school newspaper during his senior year revealed, even then, his irreverence for authority and his playfulness in naming characters.
In 1953, Pynchon entered Cornell University as a scholarship student in the engineering physics program. Although Pynchon remained in this program only one year, his early academic interest and excellence in the sciences were evident later in his fiction, in which scientific theories serve as suggestive and complex metaphors. As a sophomore, Pynchon transferred to Cornell’s college of arts and sciences before interrupting his college education for a two-year stint in the U.S. Navy. In a rare biographical statement, Pynchon said that his navy experience provided him with one of his favorite characters: Pig Bodine, the archetypal A WoL sailor in the short story “Low-Lands.”
In 1957, Pynchon returned to Cornell to complete his degree in English, graduating in June 1959. During those two years, he became friends with Richard Farina, to whom he would later dedicate Gravity’s Rainbow (1973). Throughout his junior and senior years, Pynchon wrote short stories that were later published in various literary journals; most of these pieces can be found in the collection, Slow Learner: Early Stories (1984). Pynchon has characterized the stories he wrote at Cornell as apprentice fiction; nevertheless, these early pieces provide insight into themes and character types that would become central to his novels.
Establishing a Reputation
After graduating from Cornell, Pynchon turned down a teaching offer there to pursue his writing. In 1960, passed over for a Ford Foundation Fellowship to work with an opera company, Pynchon worked for a time as a technical writer and engineering aide for the Boeing Company in Seattle, Washington. During his years there, he worked on his first novel, V.(1963). It was awarded the William Faulkner Foundation Award in 1963 for the best first novel of the year.
Widely regarded as Pynchon’s most accessible work, due to its concise development, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) won the Rosenthal Foundation Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. With 1973’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon secured his reputation as a writer of major importance. In addition to winning the National Book Award, Gravity’s Rainbow won the Howells Medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and was chosen the American Academy of Arts and Letters best novel of the decade. The novel was also a unanimous choice by the Pulitzer Prize committee for fiction; however, the nomination was revoked when the advisory board ruled that Gravity’s Rainbow was obscene, overwritten, incomprehensible, and pretentious.
A Writing Recluse
As Pynchon increasingly immersed himself in his writing, the known history of his life became progressively more hazy, until the most significant biographical fact about him is his obscurity. Pynchon is so reclusive and wary of publicity, that even what he looks like is unclear because most published photographs of him have been taken from his high school yearbook.
He surfaced briefly in 1983 with his introduction to the new edition of Richard Farina’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me and in 1984, with the introduction to Slow Learner. Afterwards, Pynchon again disappeared from public view. He did not emerge even when, in 1988, he was awarded a five-year fellowship by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation—he did, however, accept the $310,000 grant.
Nearly seventeen years passed between the publication of Gravity’s Rainbow and Pynchon’s next novel, Vineland (1990), a work satirizing the conservative political climate of the Reagan administration in the 1980s. In 1992, he provided the introduction to a posthumously published collection of Donald Barthelme’s work, paying homage to an admired contemporary and an old friend. In 1997, Pynchon published Mason & Dixon, a novel concerned with the national identity of the United States. As biographical information on Pynchon is limited, the literary world was excited when 120 letters the author wrote to a former agent became public in 1998. The New York Times published excerpts from the letters, which gave new insight into Pynchon as a young author. Since then, the reclusive Pynchon has been rumored to live in California, Mexico, and New York City. His latest work is Against the Day (2006), a novel spanning the period between the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and the years just after World War I. Characteristically, Pynchon uses obscure languages and a long list of characters living in an era of uncertainty in this work.
Works in Literary Context
In the introduction to Slow Learner, his collection of early short stories, Pynchon lists the writers—Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Saul Bellow, Herb Gold, and Philip Roth—who helped him develop a perception of voice by showing him how different kinds of English could exist in fiction. He also confirms thematic influences that various critics have noted as consistently important in his work: Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532), Norbert Wiener’s expositions of information theory, The Education of Henry Adams (1907) by Henry Adams, and the guidebooks of German printer, Karl Baedeker. Even more expansive in its inspiration is Mason & Dixon, Pynchon’s most consciously literary novel, which contains echoes of Rudyard Kipling, Franz Kafka, D. H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain.
Of all Pynchon’s short stories, “Entropy” (1960) has received the most critical attention because its theme, reflected in its title, appears so central to understanding Pynchon’s fiction as a whole. The scientific concept of entropy, the tendency for any system to move from a state of order to one of disorder, can be interpreted as characterizing, not only physical forms, but also information and communication. For Pynchon, the theme of entropy, as used in his early story, prepares the reader for the metaphor of entropy representing the breakdown in everyday life that will recur throughout his body of work.
Indeed, “Entropy” provided the testing ground for the contrast between Meatball Mulligan—who attempts to make order out of chaos—and Callisto—who is obsessed by the potential for entropy to reduce his life to its final equilibrium—that would reappear in V. by way of the characters Benny Profane and Herbert Stencil. Stencil, in particular, confronts the unavoidable forces of entropy, unfortunately discovering that the past is virtually erased as entropy takes over. Even more explicit than V. at demonstrating the unraveling of the universe through an equalization of energy, is The Crying of Lot 49, with its use of the concept of entropy as a metaphor for the forces that contribute to social decline.
Works in Critical Context
Since V. was published in 1963, Pynchon’s works have been the subject of meticulous scholarly interpretation, and critics have commended their ambitious subject matter, dark humor, and innovative narrative constructs. Other reviewers, however, have derided his undeveloped characters, fragmented and convoluted plots, and abundance of inane word play and meaningless allusions. Recent criticism has explored Mason & Dixon as a poetic act and a meditation on American national identity. Other recent studies have examined the influence of other authors and works on Pynchon’s novels, such as the impact of Bruno Schulz’s 1930s short story ”The Comet” on Gravity’s Rainbow. While many critics perceive Pynchon’s interest in binary oppositions as a strategy for exposing the hypocrisy of extremes, others view his divisions and ambiguous endings as simplistic and evasive. A highly imaginative and original postmodern novelist, Pynchon continues to be viewed as one ofAmerica’s most challenging, and thought-provoking authors.
While Pynchon’s detractors have variously faulted this controversial novel as obscene, nihilistic, or incomprehensible, many designate Gravity’s Rainbow a masterpiece, contending that Pynchon has fashioned a work of profound implications by connecting a wide variety of human activities and ideas with the mass destruction of World War II. Scholar Joseph Slade hails Pynchon as ”the first American novelist to accept the duty of which [Aldous] Huxley speaks,” the duty ”to seek powerful means of expressing the nature of technology and the crises it has generated.” On the contrary, reviewer Richard Poirier suggests that scientific data permeate the book, not to provide solutions to conceptual difficulties, but to compound these difficulties by offering yet another tradition to which the language can allude. As a result, the central symbol of the novel, the V-2 rocket, carries more weight than traditional symbols; it is, says Poirier, ”Moby Dick and the Pequod all in one, both the Virgin and the Dynamo of Pynchon’s magnificent book.”
Poirier continues, ”More than any living writer, including Norman Mailer, [Pynchon] has caught the inward movements of our time in outward manifestations of art and technology so that in being historical he must also be marvelously exorbitant,” and this ”exorbitant” quality of Gravity’s Rainbow may well constitute its greatest threat to traditional ideas of what is literary.
Indeed, as reviewer Khachig Tololyan observes, Gravity’s Rainbow surpasses many traditional definitions ”of what can be considered literary,” upsetting ”narrow generic and modal categories” of criticism and refusing ”to fulfill a set of expectations nurtured by reading the great novels of the nineteenth century, or the slighter fictions of our time.” Reflecting its thematic concerns, the structure of Gravity’s Rainbow allows characters, situations, and events to proliferate beyond control or limit. Scholar Louis Mackey observes that the tone of narration undermines ”every ingredient of form—myth, symbol, archetype, history, allegory, romantic quest, even the ritual sanctities of science.” Furthermore, the refusal to be pinned down into comprehensible meanings is part of the novel’s achievement. Mackey concludes, ”Whatever it says garrulously and disconcertingly fails to make the point. And that of course is the point.”
- Berressem, Hanjo. Pynchon’s Poetics: Interfacing Theory and Text. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
- Dugdale, John. Thomas Pynchon: Allusive Parables of Power. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990.
- Hume, Kathryn. Pynchon’s Mythography: An Approach to Gravity’s Rainbow. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987.
- Pearce, Richard, ed. Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981.
- Slade, Joseph W. Thomas Pynchon. New York: Warner, 1974.
- Mackey, Louis. ”Paranoia, Pynchon, and Pretention.” Sub-Stance 30 (Winter 1981): 16-30.
- Poirier, Richard. ”Rocket Power.” Saturday Review of the Arts 13 (March 1973): 59-64.
- Tololyan, Khachig. ”Prodigious Pynchon and His Progeny.” Studies in the Novel 11 (Summer 1979): 224-234.
- Weisenburger, Steven. ”Thomas Pynchon at Twenty-two: A Recovered Autobiographical Sketch.” American Literature 62 (December 1990): 692-697.
- ”San Narciso Community College.” Entropy. Retrieved December 12, 2008, from http://pynchon. pomona.edu/entropy/index.html. Last updated in 1997.
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