In 1974 the Pulitzer Prize for literature, the American version of the Man Booker, suffered a major upset. The judges read 100-odd submissions published in 1973, debated their virtues and unanimously decided to give the prize to Gravity ‘s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. As protocol demanded, they sent the book to the Pulitzer Advisory Board, who are supposed to rubber-stamp the judges’ decision. Not that year. The board didn’t like Gravity’s Rainbow one bit. They called it “turgid” and “overwritten” and “unreadable” and “obscene” and refused to give it the prize. Judges and board squared up to each other in a judicial face-off. In the end, no prize was awarded that year.
This split of opinions has characterised Pynchon’s career. For every swivel-eyed cyber-geek or conspiracy theorist who tells you he is a literary master and a seer (“Every weirdo in the world is on my wavelength,” he likes to say), there’s a professor or teacher who dismisses his work as prolix and meretricious bunk. The battle between the two camps is hard to resolve because Pynchon’s works are about so many things: technology, entropy, mass destruction, information theory, the mathematics of probability and the physics of flight. But they also delight in allusions to popular culture, to trash TV, pop music, even cartoons. He is pitilessly intellectual but also loves rambling digressions that suggest a grasshopper mind.
He gives his characters ridiculous names: Lardass Levine, Meatball Mulligan, Tyrone Slothrop, Zoyd Wheeler. There’s a gleeful inclusivity to his writing that some readers find irresistible; others find his omnivore style crazily self-indulgent and his books unfocussed. The fact that he apparently lives the life of a recluse and shuns publicity adds to his reputation as a) a wiggy genius or b) an irritating phoney.
His new book, however, focusses on the most serious event of recent US history: the destruction of the World Trade Center in Pynchon’s beloved New York City on 11 September 2001. His new novel Bleeding Edge has been saluted as a spectacular return to the form of Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon. It’s set in 2001, in the quiet period between the crash of the dot-com boom and the crash of 9/11. It stars Maxine Tarnow, a discredited fraud investigator who looks into the machinations of a technology company called hashslingerz and discovers it keeps tabs on businesses all over Manhattan.
There are hints of underground bunkers harbouring child assassins. There’s a satisfyingly nasty villain called Gabriel Ice, head of the tech company. There’s a murder… Then 9/11 erupts and transforms the world and the book. Suddenly the air is full of conspiracy theories. And Maxine – and the reader – is lured into suspicions that the new-fangled internet is affecting the American mind. She has “the bleak feeling, some mornings, that the country itself may not be there any more, but being silently replaced screen by screen with something else.”
We learn about DeepArcher, a virtual world co-existent with the known one and threatening to overwhelm it, an anarchic realm of arms deals, leaked government secrets (sound familiar?) and video games too horrendous to be marketable – yet.
The new book has been hailed as the closest that Pynchon has come to writing a “traditional realistic novel” – there’s a simplicity in the narrative, a genre familiarity in the plot’s spies and detectives, a crackle to the dialogue, a twinkle about the pop-culture jokes about Pokemon and Rachel-from-Friends’s haircut. Pynchon’s intention for once seems clear: to show how the world of 2001 was laying the groundwork for future disaster – dodgy money, the rise of Bernie Madoff, government surveillance, digital connectivity – and to warn, through his characters, that technology, the “memeworld”, is as much under threat from exploiters as the real “meatworld” of land and people.
Pynchon is literature’s most driven and tormented analyst of the way power can be imposed on whole cultures: this novel may impose him on a readership far beyond the geeky and the weird.
Thomas Ruggles Pynchon Jr was born in 1937 in Long Island, New York. His father Thomas was a town planner and later an industrial surveyor. Thomas Jnr attended Oyster Bay high school and showed early promise, winning an award for being “the senior attaining the highest average in the study of English.” Attending Cornell University on a scholarship, however, he decided to study engineering physics. His studies were interrupted by two years of service in the US Navy, after which he returned to Cornell to study English.
But he was fascinated by many disciplines. The writer Lewis Nicholls described him as “a constant reader – the type to read books on mathematics for fun.” He was taught for a spell by no less a figure than Vladimir Nabokov, who was on the staff of The Cornell Writer. The magazine published Pynchon’s first story “The Small Rain” in March 1959, shortly before he graduated. The two men were not, however, close, Pynchon later told a friend that Nabokov’s Russian accent was so thick, he could hardly understand a word he said. Nabokov, when asked about his famous ex-student, claimed not to remember him well, though his wife recalled his unusual handwriting, “half printing, half script”.
After graduating he published some short stories and considered a future teaching creative writing or working as a disc jockey. Counter-intuitively, he worked for two years as an “engineering aide” with the Boeing aircraft company, writing technical documents. His first novel, V, was published in 1963. It jumped about in time from 1898 to 1957 and (mostly) followed the adventures of Benny Profane, a discharged American sailor, hanging out in New York with a bohemian gang.
A year later he told his agent that he was writing four novels simultaneously, and “if they come out on paper anything like they are inside my head, then it will be the literary event of the millennium.” The Crying of Lot 49 emerged in 1966, a gallimaufry of obscure historical facts, allusions to science and technology, bits of pop culture, song lyrics and mad conspiracy theories – for instance that the bones of dead GIs were being ground down for use as charcoal cigarette filters.
It was his third novel, however, that brought him fame and sealed his reputation as a postmodernist genius. Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) was hailed as America’s Ulysses, as the greatest American post-war novel. It’s mostly set in Europe at the end of the Second World War, but before the discovery of the Holocaust – a dangerous time, as the victors try to negotiate “the rationalised power-ritual of the coming peace,” but also deals in chemistry, religion, music and the building of the V2 rocket.
After the Pulitzer fiasco, he was awarded the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a prestigious prize given only once every five years. Pynchon turned it down. “Please don’t impose on me something I don’t want,” he wrote to the academy. “It makes the academy look arbitrary and me look rude. I know I should behave with more class, but there appears to be only one way to say no, and that’s no.”
Seventeen years went by before Vineland was published, and disliked by almost everyone except Salman Rushdie. It was set in California and featured the hostility between an FBI agent and a radical filmmaker. Seven more years saw Mason & Dixon published in 1997, a copiously researched post-modernist narrative of the British astronomer and the American surveyor who drew up the famous Mason-Dixon Line at the birth of the American Republic.
It led Harold Bloom to call Pynchon one of the four major US novelists of his time, along with Philip Roth, Don DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy. Other commentators have been less generous. James Wood spoke for many when he called Pynchon’s work “hysterical realism”. But he has certainly inspired a whole generation of writers for whom anything is possible in fiction: David Foster Wallace, William Vollmann, Dave Eggars, William Gibson and the “cyberpunk” movement.
His private life remained private even after Gravity’s Rainbow, but we know he married his literary agent, Melanie Jackson (great-granddaughter of Theodore Roosevelt) and fathered a son called Jackson in 1991. There have been many theories: that Pynchon and J D Salinger are the same person; that he was the Unabomber; that he was connected to the sect who died in the Waco siege. His apotheosis to national fame in America came when he made two cameo appearances in The Simpsons, pictured with a paper bag over his head. He even provided the dialogue. And now he’s about to take American by storm with a book about conspiracy theories and the nation’s worst disaster, told in prose that hops and leaps with cartoonish glee. You see how everything’s secretly connected?
A Life In Brief
Born: Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Jr, on May 8 1937, in Glen Cove, New York
Family: One of three children born to Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Sr and Katherine Frances Bennett. In 1990 Pynchon married his literary agent Melanie Jackson and they have one son, Jackson.
Education: English degree from Cornell University
Career: Published his first short story in the Cornell Writer in 1959. While working as a technical writer at Boeing from 1960-1962, he worked on his first novel, V, which was published in 1963. He won the US National Book award for Gravity’s Rainbow in 1974
What he says: “Life’s single lesson: that there is more accident to it than a man can ever admit to in a lifetime and stay sane.”
What they say: “I wanted to be like Pynchon, to be in pursuit of hidden information.” Novelist Zadie Smith