Boyd Tonkin: The high literary priest for an age of paranoia

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The Independent Online

If Thomas Pynchon did not exist (and some among his legions of loopy fans doubt that he does) then surely late 20th-century America would have been obliged to invent him. The age of paranoia demanded its high literary priest, and Thomas Ruggles Pynchon Jr from Glen Cove, Long Island has played that part for more than 40 years.

As far as we know, the novelist never planned to pursue a life as full of enigma, speculation and paradox as the labyrinthine plots of his fiction. Yet he seems to have grown into his role as leading player in an endlessly recursive game of hide-and-seek, bluff and feint that - as much as his writing - now stands as a paradigm for the suspicions and secrecies of modern life.

Did he really voice his own part in a Simpsons episode this year? Probably. And did Pynchon himself write the Amazon blurb for Against the Day - the 900-page blockbuster apparently scheduled for publication later this year? Well, the promise of a typically multi-disciplinary epic set in "a time of unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places" sounds authentically Pynchonian. So does the ironic disclaimer that "No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred."

Younger readers will ask whether this most enduring cult figure in highbrow US letters still deserves all this fuss. In a word, yes.

Pynchon's vastly eloquent and erudite landmarks of the Sixties and Seventies, V. and Gravity's Rainbow, found immensely exciting ways of matching in fiction the technological and ideological horrors of 20th-century conflict - from African genocide to atomic weaponry.

So I'm afraid that, to understand how a spookily gifted novelist can absorb the often terrifying complexities of the contemporary world, you will have to read Against the Day. Expect it (and him) to turn up in a Simpsons script again.

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