The American novelist Thomas Pynchon (born 1937) is best known for V., The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity's Rainbow, Vineland, and Mason & Dixon, complex fictions noted for their encyclopedic erudition and parodistic, labyrinthine plots.
Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Jr. was born in Glen Cove, New York, on May 8, 1937, of a prominent family. Among Pynchon's ancestors were a 16th-century London high sheriff, a 17th-century Massachusetts Bay Colony patentee and treasurer who was also a founder of both Roxbury and Springfield, Massachusetts, and a 19th-century Trinity College president, after whom Pynchon was named by his father, Thomas Sr., an industrial surveyor in East Norwich, New York.
In 1953 Pynchon graduated from Oyster Bay High School, where he was class salutatorian and recipient of an English award at graduation. He matriculated at Cornell University, where he enrolled in engineering physics, transferring in his sophomore year into the College of Arts and Sciences. Pynchon's early academic interest and excellence in the sciences was evident later in his fiction, where scientific theories serve as suggestive and complex metaphors.
After his sophomore year Pynchon enlisted in the Navy for two years, returning to complete his B.A. in English at Cornell in 1959 "with distinction in all subjects." Among his teachers was Vladimir Nabokov, who was soon to become a famous novelist.
During his junior and senior years Pynchon had begun to write short stories that were later to be published in literary journals: "The Small Rain, " "Mortality and Mercy in Vienna, " "Entropy, " "Lowlands, " and "Under the Rose." Most of these can be found in a 1984 collection, Slow Learner: Early Stories. One other short Pynchon piece also deserves mention: "A Journey into the Mind of Watts, " an article he published in the June 12, 1966, issue of the New York Times Magazine.
Although Pynchon's minor work received some popular and academic attention, his reputation rests largely on five major works: V. (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Gravity's Rainbow (1973), Vineland (1990), and Mason & Dixon (1997). After graduating from Cornell, Pynchon turned down a teaching offer there to work on V., which he wrote in New York City, Seattle (where he worked for a time as an engineering aide for the Boeing Company), California, and Mexico. His efforts were rewarded when V. won the William Faulkner Foundation Award in 1963 as the best first novel.
A diffuse and discontinuous fiction, V. comprises two, essentially alternating, tales. The first, the picaresque adventures of Benny Profane, a passive drifter just discharged from the Navy who "yo-yos" from place to place principally in the eastern United States in late 1955 and 1956. The second, Herbert Stencil's imagined, sprawling, historical narrative of V., the mysterious woman whom Stencil believes to be connected in some way to the 20th century's apocalyptic meaning and whose narrative ranges from 1898 Egypt to 1922 South-West Africa. The two narratives enclose a kind of polar vision of possibilities: the random disorder of Profane's present and the compulsive order of Stencil's past. Yet Pynchon's text refused to take itself seriously; both Stencil and Profane are comic, self-mocking characters, and their respective quest and non-quest function as parodies that ridicule such totalizing extremes.
Pynchon's second book, The Crying of Lot 49, won the Richard and Hilda Rosenthal Foundation Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Unlike V., The Crying of Lot 49 is a tightly plotted narrative focussing on a single protagonist, California housewife Oedipa Maas. Oedipa is named executrix of a former lover's wealthy estate and during the course of attempting to disentangle it is herself entangled in evidence of the apparent existence of a secret, subversive postal organization named the Tristero. Oedipa's quest for the Tristero, whose origins date back to 16th-century Europe, becomes increasingly obsessive, and while the narrative implies that she may be paranoid, her search leads to encounters with a variety of equally obsessed, comic characters. At the end of the narrative Oedipa awaits definitive proof of the Tristero's existence at an auction, uncertain of the eventual outcome but having emerged from her previous insularity and ignorance.
Gravity's Rainbow may deservedly be called Pynchon's magnum opus and, along with Moby Dick, one of America's great fictions. The book is an impressive and bewildering labyrinth of characters and settings, plots and styles. Taking place primarily in England, France, and Germany near the end of World War II, Gravity's Rainbow traces the quest of American Tyrone Slothrop to learn the truth of his secret infant conditioning by scientist Laszlo Jamf of the German firm IG Farben. The central character of Gravity's Rainbow, however, is not Slothrop, nor is it even human. It is the inanimate German V-2 rocket, connected to Slothrop by virtue of his conditioning and fetishized by virtually all the book's characters. At the book's end Slothrop "scatters" as a character and a special V-2, the 00000, fails to escape gravity, killing a sacrificial German boy launched with it.
The literary importance of Gravity's Rainbow is beyond dispute. It shared the National Book Award for fiction with a collection of stories by I. B. Singer and won the Howells Medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Letters (which Pynchon declined). Gravity's Rainbow was also nominated for but "lost" the Pulitzer Prize when the advisory board rejected the original committee's unanimous decision on the grounds that the book was "turgid, " "overwritten, " "obscene, " and "unreadable." Despite the negative publicity, critics continued to associate it favorably with such books as Ulysses and have come to regard it with similar respect and admiration.
Nearly 17 years elapsed between the publication of Gravity's Rainbow and Pynchon's next novel, Vineland. On one level the title of this work alludes to America as it was discovered by Leif Ericson prior to the arrival of Columbus. It also refers to a fictitious county on the northern coast of California, the state's last uncharted wilderness. In the 1980s Vineland serves as a refuge for middle-aged veterans of the 1960s counterculture who have sought refuge from government repression. The novel focuses primarily on Prairie Wheeler's search for her long-lost mother, Frenesi Gates, a beautiful former member of a defunct radical group dedicated to exposing the corruption and hypocrisy of the Nixon administration. Although the novel contains many subplots and characters, combining elements of soap opera and political thriller, it is generally considered less ambitious in scope, thematic complexity, and historical range than Pynchon's earlier works.
Referred to as "the best 18th-century novel anyone has written in a long time, " Mason & Dixon garnered wide critical praise when it was published in 1997. In addition to displaying Pynchon's patented multiple plots and encyclopedic knowledge in a dozen disciplines, it was generally recognized that this novel was at once darker and more humane than the novelist's previous work. The central narrative re-imagines the lives of two historical figures, astronomer Charles Mason and surveyor Jeremiah Dixon, who were hired by the Royal Society in 1764 to settle the boundary dispute between Maryland and Pennsylania and who created the famous Mason-Dixon line dividing the yet-tobe-born nation into North and South, free states and slave states. Appearing in the novel along with the real characters of George Washington, Ben Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson are a large cast of human, animal, and mechanical fictional characters, including a Chinese martial arts expert, a talking dog, and an amorous mechanical duck. Pynchon's most consciously literary novel, Mason & Dixon contains echoes of Kipling, Kafka, Lawrence, Conrad, Hawthorne, Melville, and Twain.
Rumored to live in California, Mexico, and most recently, New York City, Pynchon has remained reclusive and largely unknown, but his reputation as a significant American writer is assured.
Further Reading on Thomas Pynchon
Pynchon's celebrated reclusiveness was to a large extent effective; no biography of him exists, although Mathew Winston, "The Quest for Pynchon, " in George Levine and David Leverenz, editors, Mindful Pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon (1976), does an admirable job in a critical vacuum. Two other general collections of essays are helpful: Edward Mendelson, editor, Pynchon: A Collection of Critical Essays (1978), and Richard Pearce, editor, Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon (1981). Useful introductions to Pynchon and his work include Joseph Slade, Thomas Pynchon (1974); Douglas Mackey, The Rainbow Quest of Thomas Pynchon (1980); and Tony Tanner, Thomas Pynchon (1982). More rigorous critical analyses of Pynchon's texts are contained in William Plater, The Grim Phoenix: Reconstructing Thomas Pynchon (1978); David Cowart, Thomas Pynchon: The Art of Allusion (1980); Thomas Hill Schaub, Pynchon: The Voice of Ambiguity (1981); Peter Cooper, Signs and Symptoms: Thomas Pynchon and the Contemporary World (1983); and Molly Hite, Ideas of Order in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon (1983).