Thomas Pynchon Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Thomas Pynchon is critical of authority, whether it is parental or political. In his fiction, how successful are attempts to subvert authority?

Of the many characters in Pynchon’s fiction, which character or characters seem most like Pynchon in outlook and behavior?

What is the nature of the loss in Gravity’s Rainbow?

Discuss the nature of paranoia in Vineland and how it affects the plot.

Mason and Dixon contains, like most of Pynchon’s fiction, a quest. Identify the quest or quests and to what extent they are successful.

Most literary digressions are at least tangentially related to the main plot. Discuss the relevance of the digressions in Mason and Dixon.

What environmental concerns surface in Mason and Dixon?

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In addition to his short stories, Thomas Pynchon has published one piece of reportage, “A Journey into the Mind of Watts,” in The New York Times Magazine, June 12, 1966. He is best known, however, as a novelist. His novels include The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973). After the publication of Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon published nothing for seventeen years, with the exception of a few articles in The New York Times Book Review. In 1989, he published the novel Vineland, which received mixed reviews from the popular press and almost immediately was the subject of a large number of scholarly articles and papers. This dynamic was repeated in 1997 with the publication of the long-awaited opus, Mason and Dixon.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Thomas Pynchon is one of the greatest prose stylists of the twentieth century, a master of the novel, short story, and expository essay. His works have received literary acclaim and their fair share of controversy, as well as generating a remarkable amount of literary scholarship. There is even a scholarly journal entitled Pynchon Notes that is dedicated exclusively to the author. Pynchon has received almost every major American literary award, including the National Book Award for Gravity’s Rainbow (shared with Isaac Bashevis Singer), the Pulitzer Prize (which was later withdrawn), the William Faulkner Foundation Award for his first novel, V. (1963), the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award for Fiction from the National Institute of Arts and Letters for The Crying of Lot 49, and the Howells Medal, which Pynchon refused to accept.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Before his novels began to come out, Thomas Pynchon (PIHN-chuhn) published a handful of short stories: “The Small Rain” (1959), “Mortality and Mercy in Vienna” (1959), “Low-Lands” (1960), “Entropy” (1960), and “Under the Rose” (1961—an early version of what became chapter 3 of V.). With the exception of “Mortality and Mercy in Vienna,” these stories appear in the 1984 collection Slow Learner, which also includes “The Secret Integration,” originally published in 1964. Two magazine publications, “The World (This One), the Flesh (Mrs. Oedipa Maas), and the Testament of Pierce Inverarity” (1965) and “The Shrink Flips” (1966), are excerpts from The Crying of Lot 49.

Pynchon has also published some pieces in The New York Times Book Review, including a 1984 meditation on distrust of technology (“Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?”), a 1988 review of Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, and a 1993 sketch, “Nearer, My Couch, to Thee,” on the sin of sloth (included in the collection Deadly Sins, by Pynchon and other hands). He has penned introductions or forewords to several works by other authors, including a reissue of Richard Fariña’s 1966 novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me (1983); a posthumous collection of writings by Donald Barthelme, The Teachings of Don B.: Satires, Parodies, Fables, Illustrated Stories, and Plays of Donald Barthelme (1992); a reissue of Jim Dodge’s 1990 novel Stone Junction (1998); and a 2003 edition of George Orwell’s 1949 novel 1984. Pynchon has also written liner notes for the albums Spiked! The Music of Spike Jones (1994) and Nobody’s Cool, by the rock group Lotion (1995).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Among those contemporary novelists who enjoy both popular and academic followings, Thomas Pynchon stands out as a virtual cult figure. His novels and stories stand up to the most rigorous critical analysis; they prove, like all great works of art, to be the product of a gifted sensibility and careful craftsmanship. At the same time, Dr. Samuel Johnson’s “common reader” cheerfully wades through much abstruse matter because this author never fails to entertain—with bizarre plots, incandescent language, anarchic humor, and memorable characters.

Pynchon has an enormous, diverse, and fanatically loyal following. Many books, critical essays, and scholarly journal articles have been written on his work. Some of the fascination he holds for readers is derived from his reclusive habits. He has refused to be interviewed, photographed, or otherwise made into a darling of the mass media. Thirty years after the publication of his first novel, it finally became known that Pynchon makes his home in New York City.

Pynchon has been honored with a number of literary awards. He received the William Faulkner Foundation Award for V., the 1967 Rosenthal Foundation Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters for The Crying of Lot 49, and the National Book Award for Gravity’s Rainbow in 1974. Though the judging committee unanimously voted to award the Pulitzer Prize in fiction to Pynchon for Gravity’s Rainbow, the committee was overruled by an advisory board that found the novel immoral and “turgid.” The Howells Medal, awarded once every five years, was offered to Pynchon in 1975, but he declined it.

Pynchon occupies a place in the front rank of twentieth and twenty-first century American fiction writers, and more than one distinguished critic has declared him America’s finest novelist.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Berressem, Hanjo. Pynchon’s Poetics: Interfacing Theory and Text. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993. The most theoretically sophisticated treatment of Pynchon.

Birkerts, Sven. “Mapping the New Reality.” The Wilson Quarterly 16 (Spring, 1992): 102-110. Claims that the American novel has ceased to provide the reader with an encompassing, relevant, challenging picture of life as it is really experienced; suggests the reason is that the texture of contemporary life does not lend itself well to realism; discusses those fiction writers who have adopted strategies for galvanizing the chaos around us, such as Robert Stone, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Norman Mailer.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Thomas Pynchon. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. An extremely useful collection of essays on all aspects of Pynchon’s literary works. Contains essays of an introductory nature for first-time readers of Pynchon’s prose.

Chambers, Judith. Thomas Pynchon. New York: Twayne, 1992. A critical and interpretive examination of Pynchon’s work. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Cowart, David. Thomas Pynchon: The Art of Allusion. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980. This book is one of the best volumes on Pynchon’s prodigious use of allusions in his prose. Useful chapters are included on the allusive functioning of music and cinema in Pynchon’s novels and short stories.

Diamond, Jamie. “The Mystery of Thomas Pynchon Leads Fans and Scholars on a Quest as Bizarre as His Plots.” People Weekly 33 (January 29, 1990): 64-66. A brief biographical sketch and discussion of Pynchon’s dropping out of sight in the 1960’s.

Dickson, David. The Utterance of America: Emersonian Newness in Dos Passos’ “U.S.A.” and Pynchon’s “Vineland.” Göteborg, Sweden: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 1998. This comparison study includes a bibliography and an index.

Dugdale, John. Thomas Pynchon: Allusive Parables of Power. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990....

(The entire section is 925 words.)