Thomas Pynchon Essay - Critical Essays

Thomas Pynchon American Literature Analysis

Pynchon is among the best known of the writers who came to prominence in the 1960’s and 1970’s with a new kind of fiction. At first this movement was called “black humor” because the novels and stories written by such authors as Pynchon, John Barth, Joseph Heller, Bruce Jay Friedman, and Gilbert Sorrentino, among others, tended to present events that were grim and terrifying but to deal with them in a wildly humorous manner. This style was also called “fabulation,” a term coined by the critic Robert Scholes to reflect the idea that these writers rejected realism and deliberately called attention to the fabulous nature of their stories and novels. More recently, most critics have taken to using the term “metafiction” to describe the works of these writers. The term is intended to suggest that these writers have gone beyond conventional fiction and are creating works that make no pretense of representing reality.

Pynchon occupies a special place among this group of writers. All of them attempt to create distinctive styles, as style is an essential element in a fiction that does not try to represent human reality, but Pynchon commands a wider and wilder variety of styles than any of his contemporaries. He moves readily from wisecracking informality to obscenity to elegiac prose to fast-paced narrative. He employs humor ranging from high-comedy word play to pie-throwing and outrageous puns. From the beginning, he gives his characters names which are significant or simply silly (Jessica Swanlake, Benny Profane, Herbert Stencil, Mucho Maas, Stanley Kotecks, Dr. Hilarius the psychiatrist).

More important, Pynchon’s novels, especially Gravity’s Rainbow, generally acknowledged to be his masterpiece, deserve to be called “encyclopedic,” a critical term used to describe huge novels which contain vast amounts of information about the writer’s culture. In Pynchon’s work, this means that the reader is presented with obscure lore about films, technical data from physics and mathematics, folklore from a number of cultures, new readings of historical events, informed references to popular and classical music, and various other types of knowledge. No other contemporary writer commands such a wide range of information.

Pynchon’s stories and novels, at least until the publication of Vineland, have been dominated by two themes. The first is the concept of entropy (the second law of thermodynamics), which states that particles in any closed system tend to become increasingly agitated and their movements increasingly random as the system decays until they reach a stage (“heat death”) in which no energy is exchanged, no further motion is possible, and the system dies. Pynchon owes to Henry Adams, the nineteenth century American novelist, historian, and autobiographer, the idea of applying this principle from physics to human organizations, especially to political entities. One of Pynchon’s first stories is titled “Entropy” and tries to spell out how the idea can be used in fiction.

The other dominant concept in Pynchon’s fiction is paranoia, the psychological condition which has been popularly called a persecution complex: the idea that the individual is the target of the unmotivated hatred of almost everyone and everything. As the fourth of Pynchon’s “Proverbs for Paranoids” states in Gravity’s Rainbow, “You hide. They seek.” For Pynchon’s characters, the idea that they live in a world in which everything is connected and everything is hostile to them is basic; a few of these characters, however, find themselves even more terrified by antiparanoia—the idea that nothing is connected, that everything is totally random.

The paranoid concern is certainly present in Pynchon’s first novel, V., where hints of an all-encompassing plot disturb the lives of most of the characters, but it becomes more dominant in The Crying of Lot 49, whose central figure keeps stumbling across indications of an ancient conspiracy whose manifestations include mass murders which are sometimes fictitious, sometimes apparently real. Pynchon’s preoccupation with paranoia reaches a climax in Gravity’s Rainbow, which includes the five Proverbs for Paranoids, a song titled “Paranoia,” and discussions of the phenomenon by the narrator and by the characters. The problem is less noticeable in Vineland, Pynchon’s fourth novel, but it clearly affects a number of the characters.

The concerns with entropy and paranoia are developed, in all his novels, through plots that detail quests. The important characters in all these books are in search of something. Although in Gravity’s Rainbow Pynchon relates his characters’ questing to the ancient search for the Holy Grail, these fictional quests are often for vaguely defined goals, and in Pynchon’s hands they almost always fail or end ambiguously.

Benny Profane, the nearest thing to a protagonist in V., is looking for something he cannot define, something that would give a meaning to life, but many of the other characters are involved in a search for the mysterious woman known by several names, all beginning with the letter “V.” This woman, or one of her manifestations, appears at places and times where violence is imminent. The violence may or may not occur, but the mysterious woman—becoming less and less human—may be the cause of it, or she may be attracted to it. The truth of this is never made clear, but the characters are no less determined in their quest for V.

Oedipa Maas, the central figure in The Crying of Lot 49, is on a more clearly defined quest. She finds that she has been made the executor of the will of a former lover, a tycoon whose estate she must try to discover and define. Oedipa falls into a nightmarish California world, stretching from Silicon Valley to San Francisco, where she encounters hints of a secret organization called Tristero and what seems to be a subversive postal system called WASTE. She pursues her quest through encounters with human wreckage and scientific puzzles, never knowing with any certainty whether the tycoon is really dead or whether she is deliberately being led through a maze which has no solution.

The object of the quest involving almost every character in Gravity’s Rainbow is an advanced German rocket, fired in the final days of World War II. In more or less elaborate ways, each of the characters searches for evidence of the rocket. For the British, American, and Russian officials, the search is for technology that will be useful in trying to gain a military advantage in the postwar world. For the survivors of an African tribe which has been living in Germany, locating the rocket would provide a means to regain their tribal unity and character. For Tyrone Slothrop, the American lieutenant who is the central character in the novel’s early sections, the search is a compulsion forced on him by the manipulation of his subconscious mind. For other characters, the search for the rocket is an end in itself, something that gives form and meaning to otherwise pointless lives.

In Vineland, the quest is diffuse. Zoyd Wheeler is hiding out, looking for security, while his daughter Prairie searches for her mother, Frenesi Gates, who left husband and daughter years before, fatally attracted to Brock Vond, a menacing federal prosecutor. Prairie, whose search is the nearest thing in this novel to a genuine quest, is also trying to find the truth about her mother and the reasons for her departure. Frenesi seems to have disappeared; Vond is also looking for Frenesi and, incidentally, for Prairie. Other characters have their own searches; as in other Pynchon works, many of these have no real goal but serve to provide a shape for otherwise formless lives.


First published: 1960 (collected in Slow Learner: Early Stories, 1984)

Type of work: Short story

Dwellers in two separate apartments provide a lesson in the workings of entropy.

“Entropy” was the second professional story published by Pynchon, and this comic but grim tale established one of the dominant themes of his entire body of work. The setting is an apartment building in Washington, D.C., on a rainy day early in 1957. In a third-floor apartment, Meatball Mulligan and a strange group of friends and interlopers are in the fortieth hour of a break-the-lease party. Some of Mulligan’s friends are listening to rock music played on a huge speaker bolted to a metal wastebasket; when the music ends they carry on a hip discussion of the jazz music of the time, centering on Gerry Mulligan’s piano-less quartet. The Duke di Angelis quartet, as they call themselves, carry on an experiment, playing music without any instruments and without any sounds, a kind of telepathic nonmusic. Women guests are passed out in various places in the apartment, including the bathroom sink.

As the party continues, more people arrive. One man comes because he and his wife have had a fight about communication theory and she has left him. A group of coeds from Georgetown University arrives to join the party. So does a group of five sailors, who have been told that Mulligan’s apartment is a brothel. They refuse to leave, latch onto the unattached women, and continue the party. At one point a fight almost breaks out between the sailors and the musical group, but Mulligan decides to intervene and calm people down. At the end of the story, the party is continuing.

On the floor above, a man named Callisto and his girlfriend, Aubade, live in a closed environment. Over seven years, Callisto has created a sealed space, complete with vegetation and birds, cut off from the world outside. The temperature inside and outside is holding steady at 37 degrees. Callisto is holding a sick bird, trying to make it well with the warmth of his body, but in the end the bird dies. They have reached the moment of stasis predicted by the theory of entropy: There is no longer any heat exchange. Aubade breaks the window, and they wait together for all life to end.

The story intends to illustrate Pynchon’s understanding of the theory of entropy as it might be applied to human beings and their activities. He acknowledges that the idea came from Henry Adams, who first applied the physical law to society, but Pynchon sets up the contrasting apartments as a means to demonstrate the differences between open and closed systems. Callisto’s system is totally closed, and in a relatively short time loses all motion based on the exchange of heat; when everything is the same temperature, nothing moves. The bird’s death prefigures the death of the entire system.

Mulligan’s apartment, on the other hand, is for the time being an open system. People come and go. The Duke di Angelis quartet can play its silent music, and the sailors can get drunk and flirt with the women. Choice is still possible, so Mulligan can choose to defuse the fight rather than allow the party to degenerate into total chaos. The laws of thermodynamics apply here as well as in Callisto’s apartment, however; the party verges on chaos because, as a system heats up, motion within it becomes increasingly random and violent. The system in this apartment will continue to function as long as fresh energy can enter from outside, but once external stimuli cease to arrive, this system, too, will reach a point of stasis.

“The Secret Integration”

First published: 1964 (collected in Slow Learner: Early Stories, 1984)

Type of work: Short story

Three boys and an imaginary playmate try to subvert the world of their prejudiced parents.

“The Secret Integration” is the longest and most interesting of Pynchon’s early stories. Set in Mingeboro, a small town in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts, it concerns a group of teenage boys who have hatched a plot to disrupt the adult community and eventually to assume control of the town themselves. At the time of the story they are preparing their second annual trial run, pretending to attack the school and considering what other steps they might take.

The four boys most deeply involved are Grover Snodd, a kind of genius, an inventor whose inventions rarely work but who has convinced his parents and the school board to let him leave the local school to study at the nearby college; Tim Santora, a typical teenager; Étienne Cherdlu, a compulsive joker (his name is a pun on the old printers’ fill-in line, etaoin shrdlu); and Carl Barrington, son of a black family that has just moved into a new housing development. The mothers of Grover and Tim make anonymous obscene phone calls to the Barringtons’ home, trying to force them to leave town.

The story depends on misdirection. The four boys seem to be cast in the mold of Booth Tarkington’s Penrod and Sam or Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer—mischievous but good-hearted, involved in boys’ games that cannot harm anyone. (Tarkington was a twentieth century novelist who wrote about boys’ games in a small Indiana town; Twain was a nineteenth century American novelist, some of whose works dealt with boys’ adventures.) It seems to be merely a joke that one of their other friends, Hogan Slothrop, son of the town doctor, has been an alcoholic at age eight and a member of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) since age nine. The boys even have a secret hideout where they do most of their planning, a basement room in an abandoned mansion. The mansion seems to be haunted, and it has to be approached in a leaky boat—classic conditions from adventure tales for boys.

Their plot has been going on for three years and seems to be running out of steam as they leave their hideout, but then the story seems to lurch into a long digression on events that had occurred previously. It concerns Hogan Slothrop, who a year earlier was supposed to infiltrate a PTA meeting and set off a smoke bomb but was called by the local A.A. to go to the local hotel and sit with a fellow alcoholic who is under stress. Tim accompanies Hogan, and Grover and Étienne soon appear at the hotel as well. They try to help the black musician, Carl McAfee, who has somehow wandered into Mingeboro, broke and miserable. They are let in on McAfee’s life and his misery. They try unsuccessfully to help a man who is beyond any help they can provide. Eventually they witness his removal by the local police.

After this episode, the boys’ lives return to normal; they even have a successful adventure, using small children and a kind of stage set to terrify the crew and passengers of a railroad train one night. Then, the following summer, the Barringtons move into the new development, and the boys find Carl and make him their friend. As the climax of the story makes clear, however, Carl is a fantasy, made up by the three other boys to compensate for their parents’ prejudice and hatred. When the boys visit the new development and find definite evidence that their parents have been involved in dumping garbage on the Barringtons’ lawn, they try to clean up the mess, only to be sent away by Mrs. Barrington. Carl then departs; they send him away, because they cannot bear to give up their need for their parents and the comforts of their homes. They are becoming adults.


First published: 1963

Type of work: Novel

Characters either wander aimlessly in postwar America or search for a woman who may provide a clue to the violent nature of the modern world.

Pynchon’s first extended work of fiction focuses on two disparate plots. At the center of the first of these is Benny Profane, a self-styled schlemiel, a veteran of the Navy who spends his time going up and down the East Coast (in the novel his movement is called “yo-yoing”) between New York City and the naval base at Norfolk, Virginia. Profane’s life has no real purpose, and he has no deep attachments to anyone; his parents are never mentioned, and his girlfriends come and go. He takes only jobs that are by their nature temporary. At one point he is a night watchman in a crazy kind of computer laboratory; at another he is part of a crew that roams New York’s sewers at night, shooting the alligators that have been flushed down when they grew too big to be pets. His friends are a group who call themselves the Whole Sick Crew; like him, they have no sustaining purpose in life.

The other continuing thread running through V. has to do with a mysterious woman who began appearing around the time of a crisis in East Africa before World War I, known in history as the Fashoda affair, which seemed likely to bring about an armed conflict between Great Britain and France. The woman has many names (Veronica, Victoria, Vera), all beginning with the letter V. She appears in other places, as well, first in German Southwest Africa at a time of native rebellion, living among a besieged group of Europeans in a fortified farmhouse. She is present when a group of South Americans in Italy is planning a revolution in their homeland, and still later she is the lover of a...

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