Often referred to as one of the great American novelists, in popular culture Thomas Pynchon has become almost as famous for shunning the limelight with his reclusive lifestyle. That Pynchon almost never appears in ... Read more »
Often referred to as one of the great American novelists, in popular culture Thomas Pynchon has become almost as famous for shunning the limelight with his reclusive lifestyle. That Pynchon almost never appears in public and never gives interviews means that sorting fact from fiction and rumor can be perplexing.
Born Thomas Ruggles Pynchon Jr in Glen Clove, NY, in 1937. Pynchon showed an early aptitude for writing, contributing short stories to the Oyster Bay High School newspaper. Graduating in 1953 as salutatorian of his class and winner of the Julia L. Thurston award for "the senior attaining the highest average in the study of English." Pynchon then took a sidestep into Engineering Physics at Cornell University (a subject that would later feature in many of his literary works). However he left before completing his degree to join the US Navy, only to return to Cornell in 1957, this time to study English.
1959, the year he graduated with distinction from Cornell, saw the publication of his first short story ("The Small Rain") in The Cornell Writer. Combining both his areas of expertise, he became a technical writer at Boeing in Seattle, while he continued to publish a number of short stories and worked on his first novel, V., which was published in 1963. The novel instantly marked Pynchon as a talent to watch with his dense, highly detailed style and won him the William Faulkner Foundation Award for the best first novel of the year as well as a being a finalist in the National Book Awards.
Pynchon's second novel, The Crying of Lot 49 was published in 1966. This was Pynchon's shortest novel, running at 155 pages, and while featuring a fairly complex plot revolving around various conspiracy theories, it is perhaps his most accessible work. It was awarded the Richard & Hilda Rosenthal Foundation Award. The next few years were fairly quiet, with Pynchon reportedly working on several novels simultaneously. He also publically voiced his opposition to the Vietnam War, adding his name to the Writers and Editors War Tax Protest in 1968.
Gravity's Rainbow came out in 1973. Set near the end of World War II, it was a hugely ambitious novel that covered a multitude of themes and topics over its 760 pages. It won the 1974 National Book Award (which it shared with Isaac Bashevis Singer's A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories). By this time Pynchon was already shunning the glare of publicity and refused to do interviews. Viking Press sent comedian Professor Irwin Corey in his stead to pick up the award; as hardly anyone knew what Pynchon looked like, most assumed Corey was the author. A streaker also ran through the hall during the awards ceremony adding to the confusion. The following year, Pynchon was awarded the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters which he declined.
No public photos of Pynchon exist after his college days, adding to his mystique. He did write for newspapers and magazines, contributing book reviews, essays, letters and other articles. However the lack of hard facts meant rumours started to proliferate, one of the most infamous being John Calvin Batchelor's article in The SoHo Weekly News in 1976 that asserted Pynchon was in fact celebrated and similarly camera-shy novelist JD Salinger. Pynchon famously wrote Batchelor following the publication "Some of it is true, but none of the interesting parts. Keep trying."
A collection of his short stories, Slow Learner, was released in 1984 but there was a 17 year gap between novels before the publication of the post-hippie narrative Vineland in 1990. For many it hadn't been worth the wait, receiving mainly mixed and negative reviews. The period piece Mason & Dixon came out in 1997 (though apparently Pynchon had been working on it as early as 1975) to far more favorable reviews.
Pynchon's writing had a great impact on popular culture, his style influencing many authors, filmmakers and musicians. He was the subject of several biographies and textbooks. In film, 2002 saw the release of German docudrama "Prüfstand VII", directed by Robert Bramkamp and inspired by and featuring dramatized excerpts from Gravity's Rainbow. The following year a feature length documentary, "Thomas Pynchon: A Journey Into the Mind of P." (2003) looked at his life and work but perhaps unsurprisingly didn't feature any contributions from he author himself.
However Pynchon was happy to poke fun at his own reputation. For many the most famous depiction of Pynchon is as an animated character with a bag over his head when he cameoed in two episodes of "The Simpsons" (Fox 1989- ) in 2004. He also allowed the producers of "The John Larroquette Show" (NBC 1993-96) to film a script about that dealt in part with the author, with the request that he be described as wearing a t-shirt bearing the image of psychedelic cult hero Roky Erickson.
The weighty tome Against the Day was published in 2006, swiftly followed (by Pynchon's laborious standards), by Inherent Vice (2009). The latter was a relatively straightforward detective novel set in Hermosa Beach, California in the early 1970s, and was preceded by a promotional trailer featuring a laconic voiceover supplied by the author himself. Director Paul Thomas Anderson began filming an adaptation of the novel, the first authorized screen version of one of Pynchon's works, in 2013. That same year, Pynchon published his eighth novel Bleeding Edge (2013), set in New York City immediately prior to the events of 9/11.