Thomas Pynchon.

Author:Smith, Patrick

With the death of J. D. Salinger in 2010, Thomas Pynchon (1937-) became the literary world's de facto hermit. One of only a handful of extant photographs of Pynchon shows a young man--barely older than a boy--posing for a high school picture in the early 1950s. Another shot shows the budding author, who joined the Navy halfway through a degree in English at Cornell, wearing his uniform and turning the same inscrutable grin to the camera. After living an apparently normal life for a number of years after, Pynchon, born on Long Island, disappeared from the radar. Although Pynchon has poked his head up occasionally, notably as a voice on The Simpsons, he remains as elusive as ever.

Although his obsessive quest for privacy is all that many readers know of Pynchon, his inventive, powerful fiction has been undeniably influential over the last half century. His novels generally reside alongside the works of Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and Don DeLillo for their incisive social commentary, sweeping panoramas, and fascination with world-building that manifests itself, especially in the later novels, in heavy tomes exploring conspiracy, chaos, and entropy. "The Great Big Question in Thomas Pynchon's novels," wrote the New York Times, "... has been: Is the world dominated by conspiracies or chaos? Are there patterns, secret agendas, mysterious codes--in short, a hidden design--to the burble and turmoil of human existence, or is it all a product of chance? Are the paranoiacs onto something, or do the nihilists have the key to it all?" Pynchon's exploration of these questions defines the "postmodern," and the author himself has been installed as one of the movement's high priests.

After storming the literary ramparts in V. (1963), Pynchon followed with The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), for him a slender volume, before embarking on one of the great literary odysseys of the century. When Gravity's Rainbow (1973) arrived, every reviewer worth his or her ink took a shot at forecasting just how influential that book would be in coming decades. Since then, in assessing a short fiction collection and four subsequent novels, critics have used the author's past work as a measuring stick for what followed.

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The critical reception of Pynchon's work has always been powerful and immediate--which is not to say wholly positive--and he remains a force in American letters. His dense subject matter, varied styles, and heavy themes (history, science, and mathematics, to name a few), juxtaposed against his characters' picaresque, labyrinthine adventures, make for heavy--if rewarding--reading. "Pynchon is a major figure of postwar American literature despite (or because of) his formidable difficulty, polymathic range of reference, personal elusiveness and reputation for outrage and obscenity," Inger Dalsgaard writes.

Or, as Pynchon himself put it with characteristic brio, "Every weirdo in the world is on my wavelength."

THE BREAKTHROUGH NOVELS

Pynchon's reputation was made on his early work--densely textured, highly allusive books encyclopedic in scope and richly rewarding multiple readings. The first decade of the author's career peaked with the publication of Gravity's Rainbow in 1973.

V. (1963)

* NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST

"Life's single lesson: that there is more accident to it than a man can ever admit to in a lifetime and stay sane," Pynchon writes in his debut, and that sentiment carries the day in his characters Benny Profane and Herbert Stencil. Profane is an ex-Navy sailor and a road laborer at loose ends in New York City. Along with a group of friends called "the Whole Sick Crew," the self-styled schlemiel revels in his victimhood, allowing life to wash over him while becoming attached to "Shock," a crash-test dummy at a research facility where he works as a...

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