Thursday, May 8, 2008

Thomas Pynchon Turns 71 Today

How the world caught up with Pynchon

The reclusive American author has been unmasked by some technology that even he couldn't have dreamt up, says Michael Shelden

For most of his long literary career Thomas Pynchon has been as elusive as one of the murky plot lines in his notoriously convoluted novels. Unlike that other famous recluse of American literature – J D Salinger – Pynchon avoided publicity from the very start of his career and has done his best to hide all traces of his private life since, prompting some to call him the "Greta Garbo of American letters".

But this week he has issued one of his rare public statements – defending fellow novelist Ian McEwan against the charge of plagiarism – and has reminded everyone in the literary world not only of how powerful his support can be, but of how little is known about him.

Though the 69-year-old author has a large cult following, many of his most devoted readers couldn't tell you what he looks like or where he lives. In a big country like America, he has found it relatively easy to avoid the fame that came to him in the Sixties and Seventies with the publication of his two weighty masterpieces, V and Gravity's Rainbow.

There are only a handful of grainy photographs in circulation, all from his youth as a student at Cornell University, or during his brief service as a sailor in the US navy. In these pictures he appears as a gawky kid with a gap-toothed grin who seems to have little in common with the man he has since become – the mysterious conjurer of elaborate fictions that rival even those of his Cornell professor, Vladimir Nabokov.

Some determined readers have tried to fill in the great white blank of the author's biography. They've had only a few basic facts to work from. It was generally known that he came from an old and distinguished New England family and had been born on Long Island in 1937. At university, he studied engineering and worked for a short time at Boeing, serving as a technical writer in a division that developed the first long-range anti-aircraft missile.

But after he left Boeing, rumours about his life were far more plentiful than facts. It was said that he had moved to San Francisco and was living as a hippie, or that he was hiding out in Mexico as a smuggler of guns or drugs or both. Wherever he was, he had a good library. The multitude and range of literary references is mind-boggling in Gravity's Rainbow, which is set during the period of the V-2 assault on London and deals with a subject closely connected to the author's first job – missile development.

By the mid-Nineties, Pynchon was such an enigmatic figure that some critics were speculating that he might be the so-called "Unabomber" who was sending small packages of explosives to scientists and corporate leaders as a protest against uncontrolled technological growth.

And then, shortly after the Unabomber was caught hiding out in the wilds of Montana, Pynchon's cover was blown by an enterprising television crew from CNN. What they found was not a wild-eyed rebel or wizened hermit, but a prosperous, spry gent wearing a red baseball cap, a white moustache and a hip uniform of olive-green jacket and blue jeans.

He was living in a nice apartment on the Upper West side of Manhattan with a wife and child. His wife is Melanie Jackson, with whom he fell in love while she was working as his literary agent. Their son is called Jackson Pynchon, now aged 15.

The author didn't take kindly to being filmed and used his considerable influence among media types in New York – some of whom had loyally protected his identity for decades – to suppress the CNN video. The network reported their discovery and aired part of their film, but agreed not "to isolate [Pynchon] and identify him specifically." The report did add, however, in Pynchonesque fashion, that the author "does happen to be among the people you will see in street scenes in the movie accompanying this story".

It was an extraordinary effort to aid and abet the novelist in what seems an increasingly pointless attempt to continue weaving a spell of mystery around what is a very ordinary life. Pynchon admitted to the CNN crew that the word "recluse" was hardly appropriate to the active existence he enjoys in the media capital of America.

Yet he remains today as evasive as ever, emerging only periodically from his self-imposed obscurity to bring out a new book – his latest, Against the Day, was published only last month – or to issue short statements through intermediaries, such as his recent declaration of support for Ian McEwan.

But his days of anonymity may be coming to an end. Ten years ago, when the CNN video first aired, it was next to impossible to find bootleg copies of it. Now, thanks to, anyone can watch the footage of Pynchon strolling down his street in New York.

It seems a fitting conclusion to a game of hide-and-seek played by a man whose work is obsessed with the dangers of living in a world where rampant technological progress threatens to overwhelm everything and everyone. His novels imagine all sorts of strange scientific marvels that the world must learn to live with, but even Thomas Pynchon's fertile brain couldn't have predicted that one day he would be unmasked by something bearing the wonderfully weird title of YouTube.
To watch YouTube Video Click Here.

Michael Shelden is professor of English at Indiana State University

1 comment:

farfel54 said...

He won't be eating from H & H Bagels on a daily basis anymore.