Thomas Ruggles Pynchon (PIHN-chuhn), Jr., is the most controversial, the most discussed, and the most mysterious of the post-World War II writers who pioneered what is called metafiction (roughly, any fiction that calls attention to its fictive nature). Descended from eminent Massachusetts Puritans and raised in a conventional upper-middle-class Long Island family, Pynchon attended Cornell University as a student in engineering physics, left to serve a hitch in the Navy, and returned to graduate with a degree in English in 1959. He wrote his first stories while at Cornell. He worked as a writer for Boeing Aircraft from 1960 to 1962. As a result of Pynchon’s reclusiveness, little else is known of Pynchon’s life after 1962, other than that he has lived, variously, in Mexico, California, and New York, and that he and Melanie Jackson, his literary agent and mate, have a child. The only public photo of Pynchon is from his high school yearbook.
Pynchon’s early fictions weave their complex interactions around the twin themes of entropy and paranoia. In his decaying world, characters are always afraid that they have been singled out for some dreadful fate; in many cases, the fear is justified. Pynchon’s first novel, V., was greeted with puzzlement by many of its readers and with the fanfare accorded an important new talent by many critics. The book won the Faulkner Award as the best first novel published in 1963. Its characters, either Navy men who spend their shore leaves being drunk and disorderly or a group of raffish New Yorkers who speak of themselves as “the Whole Sick Crew,” are linked by the character of Benny Profane. Benny thinks of himself, accurately, as a “schlemiel.” He has left the Navy, but he returns to Norfolk to drink and fight with his old buddies when he cannot think of anything better to do. In New York, he is part of an equally pointless life.
V. is not, however, simply a depressing novel about sad and useless characters. Pynchon’s style and the way in which events are presented often make the grimmest scenes comic. In one sequence, Profane joins a motley group of men who are issued rifles and shotguns and sent into the sewers beneath the streets of New York to kill the alligators that, grown too big to be pets, have been flushed down the city’s toilets. The action is murky but hilarious, and its links to other actions in the novel are tenuous. The novel is held together by its characters’ search for a mysterious woman named V., who has appeared in various guises at crucial points in the history of the Western world ever since 1898. The search itself is ludicrous and tragic by turns. The only hope for the searching characters is provided by a tenor saxophone player: “Love with your mouth shut, help without breaking your ass or publicizing it: keep cool, but care.”
The same combination of the wildly comic and the mysteriously threatening marks Pynchon’s second novel, The Crying of Lot 49. Much briefer and more coherent than V., this story centers on a California woman named Oedipa Maas who is named executor of the estate of a wealthy industrialist who was at one time her lover. The paranoia that was an underlying element in V. is...