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Thomas Pynchon | Biography

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Thomas Pynchon is an American novelist best known for his sprawling absurdist novels critiquing modern society. He was born Thomas Ruggles Pynchon Jr. on May 8, 1937, in Glen Cove, Long Island, New York. He graduated from high school at age 16 and went on to Cornell University, where he studied engineering. His studies were interrupted by his two-year stint in the navy, after which he returned to Cornell and obtained a degree in English in 1958.

After graduating from Cornell, Pynchon spent a year in New York, living in the bohemian, or unconventional, neighborhood of Greenwich Village and working on short stories and a novel. He then moved to Seattle, Washington, where he spent a few years working as a technical writer for the airplane manufacturer Boeing. In 1962 he quit Boeing and devoted himself to writing.

Literary Career

Pynchon's first short story, "The Small Rain," appeared in 1959 in the college literary magazine the Cornell Writer. His Greenwich Village and Boeing years saw the publication of several more short stories. In 1963, he published his first novel, the enigmatic V. One plotline of this complex novel concerns the search for a hidden meaning—perhaps a land, or a woman—behind the initial V. The Faulkner Foundation awarded V. its prize for best first novel.

V. was followed by another short story and several excerpts of a work in progress. Pynchon published that latter work in 1966 as the short novel The Crying of Lot 49. In this second novel, a woman wanders Southern California in an attempt to learn about a mysterious underground organization called Tristero. Often she and the reader cannot tell whether she has discovered something real or is entangled in a paranoid fantasy.

In 1973 Pynchon published Gravity's Rainbow, a sprawling novel set at the end of World War II (1939–45). Gravity's Rainbow expands themes and styles of the earlier two novels. Like the heroine of The Crying of Lot 49, its protagonist teeters on a knife-edge between insight and paranoia, and he sometimes seems the pawn of vast, secretive organizations with malign motives. Against this backdrop Pynchon also brings into play his absurdist humor, interrupting the narrative with songs, dreams, and drug-induced visions.

Gravity's Rainbow was hailed as a success. It was one of two novels awarded the National Book Award for fiction in 1974. (It shared the honor with Polish Jewish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer's A Crown of Feathers.) The judges of the Pulitzer Prize selected Gravity's Rainbow for the prize in fiction. However, the judges were overruled by the outraged Pulitzer Prize advisory board, who called the novel "unreadable," "overwritten," and "obscene." In a stalemate, no Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was awarded that year.

Sixteen years passed between Gravity's Rainbow and Pynchon's next novel, Vineland (1990), set in marijuana-growing country in Northern California. Vineland's critical reception was not enthusiastic. It was followed by Mason & Dixon (1997), which mimics 18th-century styles as it tells the story of the two famous English surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon. Against the Day (2006) follows anarchist and rebellious characters at the turn of the 20th century. With Inherent Vice (2009) Pynchon depicts his version of a detective novel while returning to the Southern California settings of The Crying of Lot 49. In Bleeding Edge (2013), which is set just before the terrorist attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001, Pynchon explores the computer industry.

Reclusiveness

Pynchon has determinedly avoided media appearances. Only a handful of confirmed photographs exist, and he declines to give interviews. Nonetheless, there is no evidence he is a hermit or a misanthrope (someone who despises people). He seems only to avoid publicity, not people in general. He dedicated Gravity's Rainbow to his close friend Richard Fariña, a fellow American writer he first met while they both studied at Cornell. Later he was the best man at Fariña's wedding (to the sister of American folk singer Joan Baez). Pynchon's media avoidance is often playful rather than tormented. In 1974 he sent American comedian Irwin Corey in his place to accept the National Book Award. He has "appeared" on several episodes of the animated series The Simpsons, represented by a character wearing a bag over his head. Away from publicity, Pynchon has been a family man. In the 1990s he married his literary agent, Melanie Jackson, and they had a son.

Legacy

Pynchon's best-known novels combine an encyclopedic range of historical and technical knowledge with comic antics and conspiracy plots. V., The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity's Rainbow all use paranoia as a lens through which to criticize contemporary society. Authors influenced by Pynchon's novels include Americans David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, and Richard Powers. Gravity's Rainbow, with its emphasis on cybernetics (study of communication and control theory), has been cited as an influence on cyberpunk (science fiction that addresses futuristic urban societies controlled by technology) and on science fiction novelists William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, and Bruce Sterling. Critic James Wood has been a dissenting voice, labeling Pynchon's work as "hysterical realism," a style Wood believes is too full of puns, absurdities, and lengthy prose. However, Pynchon's fiction continues to be admired.

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