Thomas Pynchon Pynchon, Thomas (Vol. 123) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Thomas Pynchon 1937–

(Born Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Jr.) American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Pynchon's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 3, 6, 9, 11, 18, 33, 62, and 72.

Thomas Pynchon is considered among the most brilliant and controversial American novelists of the twentieth century. Drawing upon disparate elements of science fiction, fantasy, satire, myth, and advanced mathematics, Pynchon's complex novels feature enormous casts of unusual characters whose interrelated misadventures and burlesques signify the chaos and indeterminacy of modern civilization. The famously reclusive author of V. (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Vineland (1990), and Mason and Dixon (1997), Pynchon is best known for his acclaimed third novel, Gravity's Rainbow (1973), which established his reputation as one of the most formidable American writers of the postwar period. Often studied as a postmodern exemplar, Pynchon's far-flung novels are distinguished by allegorical characters, emblematic black humor, and encyclopedic appropriation of Western history and popular culture to illustrate the perilous tension between modern technology, political causes, and individual autonomy.

Biographical Information

Born Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Jr., in Long Island, New York, Pynchon descends from a distinguished line of early Americans with ancestral origins in eleventh century England. William Pynchon, the first American to bear the family surname, emigrated from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, where he wrote a controversial theological tract deemed heretical and publicly burned. Pynchon's great-grand-uncle and namesake, Reverend Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, was a noted nineteenth-century novelist and president of Trinity College. An exceptional student who authored a column in his high school newspaper, Pynchon received a scholarship to attend Cornell University beginning in 1954, where he studied engineering physics and English. While at Cornell, Pynchon took a class with Vladimir Nabokov, befriended folksinger-novelist Richard Fariña, and worked on the undergraduate literary magazine Cornell Writer, to which he contributed poetry and short stories, including "The Small Rain," which appeared in 1959. During this time he also wrote and later published the following short stories: "Mortality and Mercy in Vienna" in Epoch, 1959; "Lowlands" in New World Writing, 1960; "Entropy" in Kenyon Review, 1960; and "Under the Rose" in Noble Savage, 1961, which later became material for his first novel, V. Pynchon graduated from Cornell with honors in 1958 following a two year interruption during which he served in the United States Navy. After spending a year in Greenwich Village, where he set to work on V., Pynchon took a position as a technical writer with Boeing Aircraft in Seattle. Upon leaving Boeing in 1962, Pynchon traveled to Mexico and California to finish V., published the next year. His debut novel won enthusiastic reviews and the William Faulkner Award in 1963. An extremely private, enigmatic literary figure, little is known of Pynchon's personal life from this point forward. His second novel, The Crying of Lot 49, also won acclaim and a Rosenthal Foundation Award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1967. Portions of the novel appeared earlier in Cavalier magazine and as the story "The World (This One), The Flesh (Mrs. Oedipa Maas), and the Testament of Pierce Inverarity" in Esquire in 1965. While working on The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon also published "The Secret Integration" in Saturday Evening Post, 1964, and "Journey Into the Mind of Watts" in the New York Times, 1966. His next novel, Gravity's Rainbow, won a National Book Award and the Howells Medal of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, which Pynchon refused to accept. Gravity's Rainbow was also unanimously selected by the judges of the Pulitzer Prize committee as the best novel of 1973, though their decision was overruled by the Pulitzer advisory board who rejected the novel for its alleged obscenity and unintelligibility. Pynchon's long awaited fourth novel, Vineland, appeared after a seventeen year interim, during which he published Slow Learner (1984), a collection of his previous short stories, and the essay "Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?" in the New York Times Book Review in 1984. Pynchon produced a fifth novel, Mason and Dixon, in 1997.

Major Works

Pynchon's challenging fiction is characterized by intricate nonlinear plots rife with conspiratorial paranoia, abrupt spatio-temporal dislocations, epistemic conundrums, incessant punning, frequent allusions to history, science, technology, and mass culture, and flat characters with overtly symbolic names whose inability to find meaning bespeaks a quest theme in all of his work. Pynchon's first novel, V., embodies many of his trademark thematic concerns and narrative devices, particularly his preoccupation with historical design, the opposing forces of chance and determinism, and the ambiguity of truth. A long, sprawling work nominally set in the 1950s, the story revolves around the picaresque adventures of Benny Profane, an itinerant odd jobsman, and the historiographic sleuthing of his alter ego Herbert Stencil, the son of a British spy. While Profane hunts alligators in the sewers of New York City and fraternizes with "The Whole Sick Crew," an assemblage of libertine bohemians who represent the decadence and moral decay of modern society, Stencil engages in an obsessive hunt for the identity of V., a mysterious female persona whom he believes is involved in the 1919 murder of his father. V.'s chimeral appearances throughout Europe and Africa lead Stencil to the scene of various geopolitical crises between 1898 and 1956, but ultimately he fails to fix her identity with any certainty. The Crying of Lot 49 similarly involves a detective story motif and an elusive entity that harries the protagonist's search for truth. Set in California during the 1960s, the novel centers upon Oedipa Maas, a suburban housewife who uncovers a renegade postal system called Tristero while investigating the bequest of real estate mogul Pierce Inverarity, a former lover who has named her executor of his will. In her efforts to penetrate the mysterious workings of Tristero—represented by a post horn insignia and the acronym W.A.S.T.E. ("We Await Silent Tristero's Empire")—Oedipa eventually becomes engaged in an existential search for meaning, alluding to her Greek namesake, Oedipus, who solved the riddle of the Sphinx. While offering a parody of mainstream America and counterculture activity during the 1960s, Pynchon invokes the Second Law of Thermodynamics as a metaphor for the inevitable movement toward stasis and conformity in contemporary society. Gravity's Rainbow represents Pynchon's most ambitious effort to reorder and contextualize the major social, political, and philosophical developments of the twentieth century. A massive accumulation of historical, cultural, and scientific information, particularly related to rocketry and physics, the complicated meta-narrative involves hundreds of characters, divergent plotlines, flashback sequences, and hallucinations that present multiple levels of reality. Set in England, France, and occupied Germany in 1945, much of the novel relates the covert operations of German rocket scientists and Allied counterintelligence near the end of the Second World War. The principal character is Tyrone Slothrop, an American lieutenant unwittingly programmed by a behavioral scientist to predict Nazi V-2 rocket strikes with his erections. The dominant metaphor of the novel is the rocket, an undisguised phallic icon that signifies both the culmination of man's technological achievement and morbid obsession with self-annihilation. While presenting a grim portrait of a modern techno-industrial death culture, as in previous novels Pynchon also explores vying aspects of personal freedom and organizational coercion; manipulating entities are referred to as "Them" by exponents of resistance in the novel. Returning to the subject of the United States in Vineland, whose title alludes to Lief Ericson's 1000 AD discovery of America, Pynchon satirizes the failure of 1960s idealism and the conservative political climate of the Reagan administration. Set in California in 1984, the central plot involves Zoyd Wheeler, an aging hippie, and his teenage daughter Prairie, who leaves the fictitious redwood community of Vineland to pursue her long lost mother, Frenesi Gates. A former radical filmmaker and activist during the 1960s, Frenesi is seduced by Brock Vond, a sadistic federal prosecutor for whom she betrays her revolutionary cohorts and enters into government service as an undercover agent, though she later disappears in the Witness Protection Agency. Here Pynchon portrays a media-saturated consumer culture addicted to television and an unreal state of technological and bureaucratic complicity enforced by the omnipresence of commercial and government subversion. Mason and Dixon also focuses on the history and national identity of the United States. Set in colonial America during the 1760s and narrated by the Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke in a pastiche of eighteenth century language and punctuation, the novel relates the serio-comic adventures of astronomer Charles Mason and surveyor Jeremiah Dixon, famed navigators of the eponymous geographic demarcation separating Pennsylvania and Maryland. As the future boundary between free and slave states during the Civil War, the Mason-Dixon line represents a metaphorical division between liberty and tyranny, suggesting both the aspirations and failures of the American people. The presence of a wide array of fantastic characters and historical personages, such as a talking dog and a pot-smoking George Washington, further underscores the nebulous intersection between fact and fiction, particularly in a society where imaginary boundaries determine the destiny of real people.

Critical Reception

Pynchon is considered one of the most gifted and challenging American novelists of recent decades. The subject of rigorous scholarly interpretation, Pynchon's heteroclite fiction is acclaimed for its vast range, idiosyncratic comic voice, experimental synthesis of narrative voices, and profound philosophical insights into the nature of truth and historical reality. Associated with contemporaries Kurt Vonnegut, John Barth, Norman Mailer, and William S. Burroughs, Pynchon's satirical novels of ideas derive from the literary models of Francois Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel, Candide's Voltaire, and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. While V., The Crying of Lot 49 and Vineland are highly regarded examples of Pynchon's prodigious talent, Gravity's Rainbow remains his seminal work, a landmark of postmodern literature compared to James Joyce's Ulysses for its extraordinary scope and originality. Most critics praise Pynchon's work for its erudition, dark humor, and provocative narrative constructs, though others find fault in its fragmented plots, flippant word play, and proliferation of empty allusions and undeveloped characters. Many critics also comment on Pynchon's affinity for binary oppositions, viewed by some as an effective strategy for exposing multivalent realities and the hypocrisy of extremes. However, his detractors dismiss such Manichean divisions and equivocal outcomes as simplistic and evasive. The comprehensive vision and exuberance of Pynchon's metafiction is often viewed as both a strength and liability. As many critics note, the result is a simultaneously bewildering and bemusing accretion of witticism, linguistic hieroglyph, and multidisciplinary referent that functions on the verge of incoherence and obscurity. A highly imaginative fabulist and innovative postmodern stylist, Pynchon is recognized as among the most inventive and important American authors of contemporary fiction.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

V. (novel) 1963
The Crying of Lot 49 (novel) 1966
Gravity's Rainbow (novel) 1973
Slow Learner: Early Stories (short stories) 1984
Vineland (novel) 1990
Mason and Dixon (novel) 1997

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Lance Olsen (essay date Spring 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Deconstructing the Enemy of Color: The Fantastic in Gravity's Rainbow," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring, 1986, pp. 74-86.

[In the following essay, Olsen examines elements of postmodern fantasy in Gravity's Rainbow.]

So hard explain!
Just-like, a dream's got, lost in yer brain!

—Thomas Pynchon (Gravity's Rainbow)


Gravity's Rainbow—what one reviewer frustrated by its length, structure, and seeming lack of control tagged "a...

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Kathryn Hume (essay date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gravity's Rainbow: Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Mythology," in Intersections: Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by George E. Slusser and Eric S. Rabkin, Southern Illinois University Press, 1987, pp. 190-200.

[In the following essay, Hume explores the intersection of science fiction, fantasy, and mythology in Gravity's Rainbow.]

Gravity's Rainbow has been hailed by John Brunner as an "incontestably science-fictional retrospective parallel world," (that is, an alternate wartime London); also, by Geoffrey Cocks as the Miltonic epic of science fiction that "has taken science/speculative fiction beyond the genre's limits into metaphysics,...

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David Cowart (essay date Winter 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Attenuated Postmodernism: Pynchon's Vineland," in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XXXII, No. 2, Winter, 1990, pp. 67-76.

[In the following essay, Cowart examines Pynchon's mytho-historical perspective in Vineland, drawing comparison between the literary aesthetics of Pynchon and James Joyce.

Thomas Pynchon, creator of the most significant body of fiction in contemporary America, may have spent some of the last 17 years discovering the limits of the postmodernist aesthetic. Vineland, his long-awaited fourth novel, appears 17 years after the publication in 1973 of the monumental Gravity's Rainbow, widely recognized now...

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Richard Powers (review date Summer 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "State and Vine," in Yale Review, Vol. 79, No. 4, Summer, 1990, pp. 690-8.

[In the following review, Powers offers a positive evaluation of Vineland.]

A Corporate State, as the quickest study among slow learners long ago pointed out, knows how to turn even innocence to its many uses. Childhood, vulnerability, every fairy tale that ever soothed us to sleep will, along with the rest of individual experience, be exploited, interrogated, made to turn a profit, put to efficacious and pacifying work by the controlling powers. Such a nightmarish historical motion pervades Gravity's Rainbow, one of the most astonishing and urgent American novels ever written....

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Joseph Tabbi (review date Spring 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Pynchon's Groundward Art," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 30, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 375-82.

[In the following review, Tabbi criticizes Pynchon's artistic complacency in Vineland.]

As long as the novel remains a popular medium, it is probably inevitable that readers should regard the artist before the work of art, and tend to celebrate the performing, rather than the creative, personality. An abdication as extreme as Thomas Pynchon's only proves the rule. He has given no interviews and made no public appearances, personal friends keep quiet, and there are only a scattering of photographs from the 1953 Oyster Bay High School yearbook that editors, in an...

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Alan Wilde (essay date Summer 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Love and Death in and Around Vineland, U.S.A.," in Boundary 2, Vol. 18, No. 2, Summer, 1991, pp. 166-80.

[In the following essay, Wilde examines the major themes, narrative presentation, and parody in Vineland. Citing the problem of indeterminacy and equivocation in the novel, Wilde contends that "Vineland seems from time to time to become what it beholds; a busy, pop version of America more attentive to momentary surfaces than to depth."]

Presided over by "the hacker we call God," populated by characters who are "beneath [His] notice," who are in fact only so many "digits in God's computer," Vineland returns Pynchon's readers to...

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Kathryn Hume (essay date Summer 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Repetition and the Construction of Character in Gravity's Rainbow," in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XXXIII, No. 4, Summer, 1992, pp. 243-54.

[In the following essay, Hume considers mythographic, modernist, and postmodern aspects of Pynchon's characters in Gravity's Rainbow. According to Hume, the novel's major characters are subjected to a common set of situations and relationships that reveal Pynchon's underlying humanism.]

Thinness of character in Gravity's Rainbow disquiets even the book's partisans. Pynchon confounds us with an opulent Ulyssean world but denies us the filigrain complexity of Joyce's psychological...

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William Gleason (essay date Winter 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Postmodern Labyrinths of Lot 49," in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, Winter, 1993, pp. 83-99.

[In the following essay, Gleason examines the postmodern attributes and "labyrinthine" structure of The Crying of Lot 49, particularly as found in the novel's indeterminate language, puns, "symbolic landscape, narrative design, and sexual dynamics."]

[M]an now lives in a circle without a center, or in a maze without a way out.

—Edward Said, "Abecedarium Culturae: Structuralism, Absence, Writing"

Said's twinned metaphors concisely, if...

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James Wood (review date 4 August 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Mason and Dixon, in The New Republic, August 4, 1997, pp. 32-8.

[In the following review, Wood offers unfavorable assessment of Mason and Dixon, finding fault in Pynchon's equivocal allegories and indeterminate multiple meanings.]

It is a problem for allegory that, while going about its allegorical business, it draws attention to itself. It is like someone who undresses in front of his window so that he can be seen by his neighbors. Allegory wants us to know that it is being allegorical. It is always saying: watch me. I mean something. I mean something. In this, it is very different from most great fiction. (It resembles bad fiction.)...

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Frank McConnell (review date 15 August 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Mason and Dixon, in Commonweal, August 15, 1997, pp. 20-2.

[In the following review, McConnell offers high praise for Mason and Dixon, which he describes as "one of the most stunning novels I've ever read."]

I've never been any good at keeping secrets. So: Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon is not only the most stunning novel I've read in the last twenty years, but one of the most stunning novels I've read, comma, period. At this point I think we can safely argue that the radiant center of American fiction is inhabited by only three characters, Melville, Faulkner, and Pynchon, and I'm not too sure about Melville, and I left out...

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Edward Gray (review date October 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Mason and Dixon, in William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 4, October, 1997, pp. 877-9.

[In the following review, Gray offers favorable assessment of Mason and Dixon. According to Gray, Pynchon "transforms what might have been a merely amusing historical novel into a moving and profound meditation on the search for truth."]

Historians should not read Thomas Pynchon's 733-page novel, Mason and Dixon, for information about the book's main characters, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, the two English astronomers who spent five years (1763–1768) establishing the boundary between Maryland and Pennsylvania. For that, they will...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Ames, Christopher. "Power and the Obscene Word: Discourses of Extremity in Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow." Contemporary Literature XXXI, No. 2 (Summer 1990): 191-207.

Discusses the function of obscenity in Gravity's Rainbow as a counteractive force against scientific jargon, the language of authority and oppression in the novel.

Caesar, Terry. "'Take Me Anyplace You Want': Pynchon's Literary Career as a Maternal Construct in Vineland." Novel: A Forum on Fiction 25, No. 2 (Winter 1992): 181-99.

Explores suggestive issues of origin and maternity in...

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