Absent friends: I want to be alone

Thomas Pynchon's new novel has put the publicity-shy author in the spotlight again. But how reclusive is he? And why, asks Ed Caesar, do so many writers go into hiding?
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Thomas Pynchon, the American novelist, has carried with him a Homeric epithet for the past five decades. Watch, in the days before the release of his much anticipated seventh novel, Against the Day, and you will see that the author is not "the great Thomas Pynchon" or "the postmodern novelist Thomas Pynchon" (although both are true), but "the reclusive Thomas Pynchon".

The reclusive Pynchon belongs to a rare group of living American writers - Harper Lee, JD Salinger, Cormac McCarthy - who, due to an unwillingness to enter public life or in any way become celebrities, have fallen under the banner "literary recluse". But what does that mean? And why should we care what an author gets up to when he's not fashioning masterpieces on his Olivetti typewriter?

One stalling factor in all this is that Pynchon isn't really all that reclusive - at least, not in a mad-woman-in-the-attic, Emily Dickinson sense. He does not, from what little information there is about him, hide in dark rooms. He has a wife, his literary agent Melanie Jackson, and a son, Jackson. He writes occasional articles for The New York Times. He has lunched with Salman Rushdie. For goodness' sake, the man has appeared three times on The Simpsons (albeit in animated form and with a paper bag over his head) which is hardly the behaviour of someone desperate to disappear.

True, no one is sure where Pynchon lives. For much of the 1970s and 1980s he was believed to divide his time between Mexico and California, but he surfaced recently in New York - and that has added to his mystique. Pynchon seems to revel in the conspiracy theories that surround his life. When an article appeared in the Soho Weekly News claiming that Pynchon was, in fact, JD Salinger, author of A Catcher in the Rye, Pynchon wrote to the rag with the simple message: "Not bad. Keep trying."

While Pynchon has tolerated idle conjecture, he has drawn the line at physical intrusion. When a CNN crew filmed Pynchon in Manhattan, shortly before the publication of his 1997 novel, Mason & Dixon, he telephoned the news channel requesting that he not be identified in the footage. He also gave the following insight into his reclusive nature: "My belief is that 'recluse' is a codeword generated by journalists... meaning 'doesn't like to talk to reporters'."

So what to make of this? In a 1963 review of Pynchon's first novel, V, George Plimpton described the author as "in his early twenties; he writes in Mexico City - a recluse. It is hard to find out anything more about him. At least there is at hand a testament - this first novel V - which suggests that no matter what his circumstances, or where he's doing it, there is at work a young writer of staggering promise."

In that New York Times review, Plimpton is divided between the journalist and the critic - a gap that became a schism in the 1960s American literary universe. For just as Plimpton the journalist - the anti-recluse who danced at Truman Capote's "Black and White Ball"; who reported on the Ali-Foreman fight; who was by Bobby Kennedy's side the night he was assassinated - is voracious for detail about Pynchon's personal life, hoping to glean connections between the author's life and work, the critic thinks otherwise.

The critic is aware of a shift in high-minded literary opinion, and is willing to take the novel on its own merits. Five years after Plimpton filed his review, the era-defining French critic Roland Barthes would claim, in his influential essay "The Death of the Author", that the biographical details of a writer were inconsequential to our understanding of literature. For readers, then, the biographical details of Pynchon's life, should have held no interest. But consumers and participants in the bright era of celebrity may have felt that a great author's life - particularly one who shields himself from our glare - was there to be devoured.

In 2004, the Californian literary critic Arthur Salm posited his own opinion. "The man simply chooses not to be a public figure, an attitude that resonates on a frequency so out of phase with that of the prevailing culture that if Pynchon and Paris Hilton were ever to meet - the circumstances, I admit, are beyond imagining - the resulting matter/anti-matter explosion would vaporise everything from here to Tau Ceti IV."

Pynchon's reluctance to become a "public figure" would resonate with Cormac McCarthy. In what was then his only interview (with The New York Times, granted as a favour to his cherished departing editor Albert Erskine) McCarthy's second (now ex-) wife was quoted as saying that no amount of penury could persuade the author to sell out.

"We lived in total poverty," said Annie DeLisle, "we were bathing in the lake. Someone would call up and offer him $2,000 to come speak at a university about his books. And he would tell them that everything he had to say was there on the page. So we would eat beans for another week."

Pynchon and McCarthy's decision to let their printed words do the talking is rooted in high principle. But they are in a different club to Salinger and Lee, whose literary talents burned bright and early, and have since guttered. After the success of The Catcher in the Rye, for instance, Salinger became increasingly disillusioned with his new-found status, and moved from New York to Cornish, New Hampshire, and later to the even more isolated Marlow, New Hampshire. Although some of his later novellas and short stories were well received, he never relived the glory of Catcher.

In his advancing years, Salinger escaped publicity in any way he could, once claiming that "a writer's feelings of anonymity-obscurity are the second most valuable property on loan to him". He deplored attempts to deconstruct his life, and his personality, by those he thought did not know him, and was particularly disgusted by the prospect of Ian Hamilton's In Search of JD Salinger: A Writing Life, the publication of which he tried to bar.

Harper Lee's trajectory is similar - publishing her Pulitzer prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, in 1960 and withdrawing from public view shortly after. Rumours of new works have been in the air, but never materialised. In 2006, she surfaced to receive an honorary degree from Notre Dame University, and write in a letter to Oprah Winfrey's magazine O of her disaffection for modern life: "In an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books."

Plodding along with books is, for the majority of America's writers, not an option. Every author is required to promote themselves in a competitive market. Those who become "recluses" have one weapon in their armoury: they are great. No one cares if a second-rate author rots in rural Arizona. Fortunately for the literary canon, some of the Olympians have mounted a spirited resistance to the demands of the modern author. It could be their greatest publicity move ever.

Hidden talent: Keeping a low profile

Martin Margiela

Although garnering huge respect in the fashion industry for his deconstructionist approach, the Belgian designer Martin Margiela is nothing if not secretive. He certainly didn't model his behaviour on his mentor, the garrulous Jean Paul Gaultier. Margiela never gives interviews, never allows himself to be photographed and never promotes himself. For a 2001 spread in Vogue, Margiela's design team was photographed in a group shot - behind an empty chair.

Grigori Perelman

Mathematicians, not known for their partying ways, rarely make it on to gossip pages. But even by their standards Grigori Perelman is a recluse. In August Perelman was awarded the prestigious Fields Medal for his "contributions to geometry and his revolutionary insights into the analytical and geometric structure of the Ricci flow". But he could not be prevailed upon to attend the ceremony. He quit maths and now lives with his mum.