The Fuss About Thomas Pynchon

Cast aside synthetic substitutes, junk food for the soul, and take a bite of the pungent, organic mushroom offered up by the man from Oyster Bay, Thomas Pynchon.

The announcement in June of a new book by Thomas Pynchon, the Leviathan of contemporary literature, caused a splash in the literary world whose ripples continue to spread. Actually, the announcement is very much not the word for how we first learned of Against the Day. Fittingly for the enigmatic author, the details weren’t officially announced until they’d already begun to trickle out via backchannels, in fits and starts, without coordinated fanfare. You could liken it to opening a bottle of champagne and having the cork come twisting off in your hand with a subdued pffftt rather than the traditional pop and the cork’s ricochet around the room.

Whether by design, accident or simply because of today’s Internet-attenuated media, the first signs of the book were rumors percolating out of Penguin Press, followed by the appearance on of “Untitled by Thomas Pynchon”, due in December and boasting an encouragingly hearty 992 pages. As if that weren’t exciting enough, the Amazon listing also contained a description of the novel, purportedly by Pynchon himself, written in a lighthearted and self-deprecating style:

The sizable cast of characters includes anarchists, balloonists, gamblers, corporate tycoons, drug enthusiasts, innocents and decadents, mathematicians, mad scientists, shamans, psychics, and stage magicians, spies, detectives, adventuresses, and hired guns… Meanwhile, the author is up to his usual business. Characters stop what they’re doing to sing what are for the most part stupid songs. Strange sexual practices take place. Obscure languages are spoken, not always idiomatically. Contrary-to-the-fact occurrences occur.

That the blurb soon disappeared from the Amazon page, with Pynchon’s publishers seeming to deny all knowledge of it, did nothing to dim the fires of anticipation set alight among Pynchon’s ardent fan base. The story of the disappearing blurb provoked intense speculation, some claiming it was an obvious hoax, others that it was clearly a marketing stunt. In the end, Penguin Press merely denied knowledge of how the blurb had come to appear prematurely on Amazon but did not repudiate the blurb itself, which we were assured was genuine.

Since then the blurb has been reinstated, the release date has been brought forward to November 21, and the page count has been revised twice — upwards — to 1,120 pages, a record even for Pynchon. And we still haven’t mentioned the short excerpt from the book, which appeared on the William Gaddis mailing list, made its way onto the Pynchon list, and provoked just as much controversy as the blurb before being confirmed as authentic.

So why does all this matter? With a new novel due, only his sixth in more than 40 years, it seems as good a time as any to have a look at what makes Pynchon such a powerful cult figure. There are other great writers among his post-war American peers, but only Pynchon is Pynchon. His spirit seems magical, fusing so many ideas and elements together in wholly new ways, like some sort of benign rocket shaped like the Chrysler Building, blown corkscrewing at lightning speed out of the golden bowl of Charlie Parker’s alto sax, screaming across our skies, trailing spores of radiant genius, each as unique and beautiful as a snowflake.

Unfortunately, Pynchon profiles in the mainstream media often rehash the same clichés, half-truths, and misconceptions centered around the long-established myth of his being a recluse: never been photographed, no one knows where he lives, and he never opens his mouth in public because he’s obsessed with his bad teeth. Pynchon himself has theorized that recluse is “a code word generated by journalists… meaning, ‘doesn’t like to talk to reporters'”.

Nevertheless, the alleged reclusion seems to hold journalists spellbound, as if that were the author’s most intriguing aspect: “My God, if he doesn’t want to talk to us, well, what does he want?” The famous story about Pynchon jumping out a window and hopping a bus for a ride 200 miles away to avoid an early journalistic pursuer down in Mexico City may or may not be apocryphal, but there’s no denying that Pynchon’s insistence on letting his books speak for themselves has served only to highlight just how special they are.

You could spend a lifetime getting lost in Pynchon’s works, but what’s also interesting about him is the strength of his cult following. This goes way beyond an admiration for a man who’s given the world such dense works of literary fiction as Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon. Pynchon’s following doesn’t just border on unreason; in many cases it crosses over, goes native and takes up permanent residence in outright fanaticism.

Though cult icon can be a mercurial term, certain authors are unmistakably bound for quintessential cult status. Traditionally, subject matter has played a huge role; any author whose material (and/or behavior) is oddball, outré, or taboo enough to work the self-appointed guardians of a nation’s morals into a lather will acquire cachet. Think Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin for sex, Anthony Burgess for violence, Joseph Heller for anti-authoritarianism, Herman Hesse for spirituality, Irvine Welsh for drugs, Norman Mailer for politics, and William Burroughs for sex, drugs, a dash of politics, and a side order of violence. But if an author needs certain facets to garner a cult following, Pynchon attracts like an electromagnet. He not only ticks all the boxes, he runs out of boxes and has to draw new ones in until he eventually falls off the bottom of the page altogether.

The right combination of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll might have earned a writer cult status in the olden days; today something extra is required. The real outsider writers are the analogues of Robin Hood or Bonnie and Clyde, figures we hold to our hearts despite (and often because of) their unpopularity with the authorities. As Pynchon himself has said, “We always end up loving these folks, we cheer for Rob Roy, Jesse James, John Dillinger, at a level of passion usually reserved for sports affiliation.” Which writers are outlaws? Put it this way: If a totalitarian regime was coming to power, whose books would be the first to be squeezed out of circulation as the boot came down?

Like fellow literary outlaw William S. Burroughs, Pynchon has a predilection for drugs, scatology, and unconventional sexual goings-on. But Pynchon is a much more politically engaged writer, whose sociopolitical outlook can be classed as broadly left-leaning and antiauthoritarian. Pynchon’s sympathies are firmly with the underdog, the oppressed, the underrepresented. His fiction is laced with dualities — the privileged versus the passed over; the animate versus the inanimate; order versus chaos — many of which are manifest in his first novel, V.

From that book’s opening scenes of sailors drinking and fighting in the bars and streets of Norfolk, Virginia, we follow archetypal schlemiel Benny Profane to New York, where his fate becomes intertwined with that of Herbert Stencil, a man struggling to impose order on the past by searching for the novel’s mysterious eponym, who may or may not be manifest in any number of characters, places or entities beginning with the letter V. Also present is Pynchon’s overarching preoccupation with the forces driving history, often invoked in striking metaphors:

Perhaps history this century, thought Eigenvalue, is rippled with gathers in its fabric such that if we are situated, as Stencil seemed to be, at the bottom of a fold, it’s impossible to determine warp, woof or pattern anywhere else. By virtue, however, of existing in one gather it is assumed there are others, compartmented off into sinuous cycles each of which had come to assume greater importance than the weave itself and destroy any continuity. Thus it is that we are charmed by the funny-looking automobiles of the 1930s, the curious fashions of the 1920s, the particular moral habits of our grandparents. We produce and attend musical comedies about them and are conned into a false memory, a phony nostalgia about what they were. We are accordingly lost to any sense of a continuous tradition. Perhaps if we lived on a crest, things would be different. We could at least see.

Pynchon also establishes an association between sex and death, with the story of German army Lieutenant Weissmann, “a professional Aryan even in name”, stationed in southwest Africa and participating in orgies while his host reminisces enthusiastically about the genocide of the Herero people. Weissmann later returns to Germany to work with rockets, another Pynchon concern, as evinced by one of the most famous openings in literature: “A Screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.”

So begins Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon’s majestic, forbidding masterpiece, a work that defies all attempts at summary or coherent exegesis. Multilayered and multifaceted, it has crouched on the cultural landscape since 1973, brooding implacably, and nothing to compare it to has yet emerged. The book reads like a long lamentation for a world gone awry, leavened by the darkest humor and laden with hallucinatory and phantasmagoric imagery, like Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast re-imagined by Robert Crumb. Pulling out one narrative strand from Gravity’s Rainbow is like trying to fill a wine glass from a fire hose, but if we follow what’s going on at the start of the book it’ll provide a useful illustration of how Pynchon weaves themes, motifs, and plotlines together, piling layer upon layer, connection upon connection, building up themes and characters by a subtle process of accretion.

In London, during the dying days of WWII, we follow American GI Tyrone Slothrop, who has a troubling tendency to suddenly and unaccountably find himself with a raging erection, which he usually makes useful, thanks to a series of obliging local girls. For reasons possibly not known to himself, Slothrop maps these amorous encounters in his cubicle, each conquest a star on his map of London.

Slothrop’s map is regularly photographed, and the photos passed to Roger Mexico, a statistician working at the White Visitation, a former mental hospital which now houses Psi Section, a unit dedicated to psychological warfare. Mexico works either with or for (he’s never really sure) Pavlovian psychologist Ned Pointsman, who uses stray dogs and Grigori, a giant octopus, for his experiments.

Another episode follows Captain Geoffrey ‘Pirate’ Prentice and his friend Osbie Feel, who’re involved with Katje Borgieus, a glamorous Dutch double agent who’s been sending messages out to England from German-occupied Holland, from where the V2 rockets pounding London are launched. While Osbie amuses himself by expertly oven-drying and preparing Amanita Muscaria mushrooms, Katje is being filmed:

“In silence, hidden from her, the camera follows as she moves deliberately nowhere longlegged about the rooms, an adolescent wideness and hunching to the shoulders.”

When Katje glimpses Osbie’s oven, the narrative follows her gaze inside and into a flashback involving another oven, one around which she, fellow captive Gottfried, and their captor, an SS Captain commanding a rocket battalion, played a bizarre S&M role-playing game based on the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. We learn what happens when rockets malfunction after launching: “Often the rockets, crazed, turn at random, whinnying terribly in the sky, turn about and fall according each to its madness so unreachable and, it is feared, incurable.”