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Thomas Pynchon Biography

Nationality: American. Born: Glen Cove, New York, 1937. Education: Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1954-58, B.A. 1958. Military Service: Served in the United States Naval Reserve. Career: Former editorial writer, Boeing Aircraft, Seattle. Awards: Faulkner award, 1964; Rosenthal Memorial award, 1967; National Book award, 1974; American Academy Howells medal, 1975. Agent: Candida Donadio and Associates, 231 West 22nd Street, New York, New York 10011.



V. Philadelphia, Lippincott, and London, Cape, 1963.

The Crying of Lot 49. Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1966; London, Cape, 1967.

Gravity's Rainbow. New York, Viking Press, and London, Cape, 1973.

Vineland. Boston, Little Brown, and London, Secker and Warburg, 1990.

Mason & Dixon. New York, Henry Holt, 1997.

Short Stories

Mortality and Mercy in Vienna. London, Aloes, 1976.

Low-lands. London, Aloes, 1978.

The Secret Integration. London, Aloes, 1980.

The Small Rain. London, Aloes, 1980(?).

Slow Learner: Early Stories. Boston, Little Brown, 1984; London, Cape, 1985.


A Journey into the Mind of Watts. London, Mouldwarp, 1983.

Deadly Sins, illustrations by Etienne Delessert. New York, Morrow, 1994.



Thomas Pynchon: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Materials by Clifford Mead, Elmwood Park, Illinois, Dalkey Archive Press, 1989.

Critical Studies:

Thomas Pynchon by Joseph V. Slade, New York, Warner, 1974, and Thomas Pynchon, New York, Lang, 1990; Mindful Pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon edited by George Levine and David Leverenz, Boston, Little Brown, 1976; The Grim Phoenix: Reconstructing Thomas Pynchon by William M. Plater, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1978; Pynchon: A Collection of Critical Essays edited by Edward Mendelson, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice Hall, 1978; Pynchon: Creative Paranoia in Gravity's Rainbow by Mark Richard Siegel, Port Washington, New York, Kennikat Press, 1978; Thomas Pynchon: The Art of Allusion by David Cowart, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1980; The Rainbow Quest of Thomas Pynchon by Douglas A. Mackey, San Bernardino, California, Borgo Press, 1980; Pynchon's Fictions: Thomas Pynchon and the Literature of Information by John O. Stark, Athens, Ohio University Press, 1980; A Reader's Guide to Gravity's Rainbow by Douglas Fowler, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Ardis, 1980; Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon edited by Richard Pearce, Boston, Hall, 1981; Pynchon: The Voice of Ambiguity by Thomas H. Schaub, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1981; Thomas Pynchon by Tony Tanner, London, Methuen, 1982; Signs and Symptoms: Thomas Pynchon and the Contemporary World by Peter L. Cooper, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1983; Approaches to Gravity's Rainbow edited by Charles Clerc, Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1983; Ideas of Order in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon by Molly Hite, Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1983; The Style of Connectedness: Gravity's Rainbow and Thomas Pynchon by Thomas Moore, Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1987; A Gravity's Rainbow Companion by Steven C. Weisenburger, Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1988; The Fictional Labyrinths of Thomas Pynchon by David Seed, London, Macmillan, 1988; A Hand to Turn the Time: The Menippean Satires of Thomas Pynchon by Theodore D. Kharpertian, Rutherford, New Jersey, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989; Writing Pynchon: Strategies in Fictional Analysis by Alec McHoul and David Wills, London, Macmillan, 1990; The Gnostic Pynchon by Dwight Eddins, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1990; Thomas Pynchon: Allusive Parables of Power by John Dugdale, London, Macmillan, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1990; New Essays on "The Crying of Lot 49" edited by Patrick O'Donnell, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991; The Postmodernist Allegories of Thomas Pynchon by Deborah L. Madsen, New York, St. Martin's Press, and Leicester, Leicester University Press, 1991; Marginal Forces/Cultural Centers: Tolson, Pynchon, and the Politics of the Canon by Michael Bérubé, Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press, 1992; Thomas Pynchon by Judith Chambers, New York, Twayne, 1992; Pynchon's Poetics: Interfacing Theory and Text by Hanjo Berressem, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1993; The Vineland Papers: Critical Takes on Pynchon's Novel edited by Geoffrey Green, Donald Greiner, and Larry McCaffery, Normal, Illinois, Dalkey Archive Press, 1994.

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The legend of Thomas Pynchon—no photographs, no interviews, no public appearances—cannot help but ensure, and indeed has ensured over the last forty years, a kind of spectacular visibility to both the man and the fiction. Pynchon's collection of short prose and the five important novels he has written to date have garnered him a reputation as not only North America's finest contemporary writer, but also as the undisputed world heavyweight champion of postmodern prose. Pynchon's novels are exemplary postmodern texts: critiquing grand narratives; indulging in fierce, slapstick displays of irony; reveling in the meta-textual; and obsessing about popular culture. But his works are also indisputably stamped with the hallmarks of high modernism, and in particular with an old-school literary erudition. Pynchon's cultural reputation reflects his stunningly eclectic prose: this super-hip, super-cerebral style that is nuanced as much with rock 'n' roll as it is with Rainer Maria Rilke.

But while critics have identified Pynchon as a clear inheritor of modernist literary experiments, his books, for the most part, are also recognizably realist. Pynchon's favorite form is the meta-literary picaresque, and he regularly utilizes a conventional third-person narrator. In fact, his lack of interest in exaggerated formal experimentation may lend the greatest power to Pynchon's inimitable prose style: traditional and yet also surprisingly absurdist, paranoid, hilarious, manic, celebratory, labyrinthine, and yet always melancholic. Pynchon's works are deeply nostalgic—in search of lost time, not to mention countries, histories, ideologies, and modes of identity.

Pynchon and his oeuvre can perhaps be most appropriately figured in a post-World War II, and particularly post-Beat, landscape. This is an environment distinguished by both great paranoia and great hope, especially as these extremes relate to the technologization of modern American culture. Pynchon's first novel, V., published in 1963, concerns itself with this very conundrum. How do modern subjects—literally marked by their own obsolescence (the two principal protagonists are named Profane and Stencil)—negotiate the modern dangers of a nihilistic, corrupt, degrading, and mechanized environment? The leitmotif of V. is the grail quest, and we follow Stencil as he searches for the protean character "V." (at first encountered as a woman, but a woman who throughout the novel metamorphoses into numerous fictional and historical personages). As in all of Pynchon's novels, underlying V. 's wonderful comedy and searing political commentary is a focused meditation on the workings of history and religion. Stencil and Profane are not unlike characters in a Kenneth Patchen allegory: two likeable but ill-fated dudes in search of signs of higher morality—and yet forever at the whim of a cultural order simultaneously droll and belligerent.

These dire themes and Stooges-like predicaments also infect Pynchon's second novel, The Crying of Lot 49. The tale opens with Oedipa Maas, just home from a Tupperware party, receiving word that she has been named executor of a California real estate mogul's will. Though Pynchon has since dismissed this second novel as rushed, it is distinguished by some utterly brilliant passages of stream-of-consciousness writing. The extremely tight and engaging plot also involves itself with the key Pynchon themes: conspiracy, madness, history, drugs, machines, science, love, capitalism, information. Pynchon's work is clearly obsessed with and by information—the transmission, receiving, manipulating, and concealment of—and especially the tendency of "information" to spin towards nonsense. This chaotic tendency is directly related to Pynchon's infamous preoccupation with "entropy" as a cultural and intellectual metaphor.

The paradoxical line "A screaming comes across the sky" opens Pynchon's monumental, and indeed immortality-securing, 1973 work Gravity's Rainbow. This screaming, the reader learns, is the uncanny after-sound of a German V2 rocket: travelling faster than the speed of sound, it has already detonated somewhere in England. The entire novel, with its 400-plus characters, can be read as an epic attempt to come to terms with the horror of this one scientific phenomenon. Thus the V2, like entropy, is for Pynchon that haunting aberration, that modern thing that exists outside traditional systems of rationality, beyond cause and effect. As the ominous central metaphor for the novel, Pynchon capitalizes on the V2's transgressive power and ingeniously links the bombings with the sexual exploits of one GI, Tyrone Slothrop (the locations of his "detonations" predict those of the V2). Clearly, Pynchon's absurdist tendencies are still wildly at work here, and the novel contains some unparalleled humorous writing (witness the English-candy tasting scene at Mrs. Quoad's house in which Slothrop is forced to sample, among other goodies, orange-mayonnaise flavored chocolates). Gravity's Rainbow is, however, peopled with characters far more cynical and more fundamentally anxious (they are literally waiting for super-rockets to destroy them) than the schlemiels and goofballs that inhabit V. and The Crying of Lot 49.

It is critically customary to dismiss a plot synopsis of the sprawling Gravity's Rainbow as impossible, but the plot would appear less vital than Pynchon's actual writing—which is tour de force. For many readers, comparisons to Joyce's Ulysses are unavoidable because Gravity's Rainbow is an utterly self-assured and inventive exercise in poetic style. It boasts not only effortless writerly technique (narrative shifts from first-to second-to third-person; incantatory, dream-like passages; use of song lyrics; parodies of numerous literary genres) but also, like Joyce, a cocky certainty that a reader will be patient enough to settle into its vast and idiosyncratic language-world. And so it is probably more predictable than ironic that Gravity's Rainbow, a novel pathologically obsessed with hard-ons and their relationship to missiles and vice versa, should itself exist as one of the more explosive, can(n)on-ready texts of the postmodern period.

A crucial interval in the Pynchon literary biography belongs to the seventeen years that stretches from the publication of Gravity's Rainbow to the publication of Pynchon's follow-up novel, Vineland, in 1990. While Pynchon did publish Slow Learner: Early Stories in 1984 (a collection of his previously published short fiction), he had otherwise completely turned off, and dropped out from, the literary scene. Not surprisingly, these "silent" years guaranteed Pynchon's reputation as first-rate recluse and also, of course, vouchsafed that the publication of Vineland would be an international literary event—what could possibly, reviewers wondered, follow the American Ulysses? What appeared was an uproarious, somewhat canon-indifferent, pop-culture-saturated book—resembling more The Crying of Lot 49 than Gravity's Rainbow—set in 1984 and concerning aging hippie Zoyd Wheeler and his Northern California adventures with the Federal government. Pynchon's prose throughout is, unlike the oblique and somber arabesques of Gravity's Rainbow, TV-fluid and pure stand-up: "Zoyd headed down to Vineland Mall and rolled around the lot there for a while, smoking up half a joint he'd found in his pocket, before parking the rig and going into More Is Less, a discount store for larger-size women." If the soundtrack for Gravity's Rainbow is "screaming," then the background music in Vineland is all rim-shots. Yet while Pynchon is good with a pun, he is also, like Joyce, remorselessly allusive and learned. In Vineland, however, a reader is asked not to be familiar with Sanskrit or Greek myth, but with the minutiae of contemporary culture: ninja lore; breakfast cereal trivia; the history of surfer culture; strip mall ambience; punk rock references etc. Vineland really predicts, or elucidates the directions of, the next generation of American po-mo writers—Nicholson Baker, Donald Antrim, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen—themselves also steeped in the so-called detritus of modern western civilization.

Pynchon's latest novel is the hefty, Gravity's Rainbow-sized Mason & Dixon. Wicks Cherrycoke is the eighteenth-century narrator and he charts the life and times of the famous astronomer and surveyor duo entrusted with cutting the North-South dividing Line across the United States. The work is implicitly metaphoric, infinitely preoccupied with historical demarcations; scientific systems; and with the transgressions of, or adherence to, "categories" generally. Mason & Dixon is also pastiche writing at its finest: Pynchon employs numerous Age-of-Sensibility style capitalized words and a note-perfect Floridity. There is certainly something of the irreverent, master puppeteer on display in the novel as Pynchon manipulates his characters through fraught historical terrain.

Thomas Pynchon is, even more so than his esteemed comrades John Barth or Robert Coover, the contemporary sensei of the postwar American novel. As the brightest literary all-star then—despite the legendary invisible man status—Pynchon remains formidably, brilliantly in one's face.

Jake Kennedy

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