Late Night Library

Famous First Words: V.

The human animal is typically described as a social creature, and this is accurate, more or less. From an evolutionary standpoint, there’s an ample cache of evidence available for those who have resolved to make such an assertion: the overall propensity of the species to travel in packs and maintain mutually beneficial collectives, the quantifiable biological advantages to be gained by an active exchange of ideas, the untold volumes of research data compiled in an attempt to sort out the many demonstrated side effects of isolation. Given the information at hand, it seems reasonable to arrive at the conclusion that human nature continues to compel the species toward the establishment of productive social connections. Thomas Pynchon does not endorse this particular line of reasoning.

To anyone outside of his circle of acquaintanceship, Pynchon tends to represent a rather drastic departure from those well-intentioned statutes of socialization. Over the years, he has become an extremely useful illustration of the enigmatic misanthrope, an artist in self-imposed exile from a community that he neither understands nor has any desire to engage. At this point, the common evaluation of Pynchon’s larger motives endure for many just as strongly as any of the author’s work, regardless of whether or not it’s actually true. To be fair, though, interested parties have been left to fill in the blanks for a long time now.

The basic details of Pynchon’s backstory are well chronicled and easy enough to relate, because the backstory is pretty much all there is. It has been confirmed that Thomas Ruggles Pynchon Jr. was born in 1937 and hails from Glen Cove, New York. According to numerous sources, he skipped a couple of grades and graduated from high school in Oyster Bay at the age of 16, then went on to Cornell to major in Engineering Physics. Records show that he left after his sophomore year to join the Navy, and when he returned to Cornell two years later, he switched his major over to English. Further documentation verifies his participation as a member of the editorial staff at The Cornell Writer while there, and it was during this time that his first short story, “The Small Rain,” was published, with others to follow. He is listed in the university archives as having graduated in 1959, after which he declined several fellowships and a teaching job at Cornell, settling instead in Greenwich Village, New York, where he started writing a novel. The Boeing aerospace company can corroborate that he then moved to Seattle in 1960 to take a job as a technical writer, resigning in 1962 just before his novel was published by J. P. Lippincott & Company in 1963. The novel is definitely titled V.

And that’s where the profile effectively ends, a development that wouldn’t be especially notable if V. was a flop, or if Pynchon had retreated from civilization altogether and stopped writing. But it wasn’t, and he didn’t. Though Pynchon’s dissatisfaction with his work at Boeing provided all the motivation he needed to complete his novel, he wasn’t in need of a day job anymore after the winding, surrealistic adventures of Benny Profane and the Whole Sick Crew took home the William Faulkner Award for a first novel in 1964. The next year, Pynchon published a story in Esquire called “The World (This One), the Flesh (Mrs. Oedipa Maas), and the Testament of Pierce Inverarity,” which would be developed into a novella and released as The Crying of Lot 49 in 1966. His followup, Gravity’s Rainbow, netted a share of the National Book Award in 1974 and was unanimously selected for the Pulitzer Prize before the decision was famously vetoed by the advisory board on the grounds that the novel was “turgid” and “obscene.” Not that any of it mattered in a practical sense—Pynchon had retired from self-promotion after his second book. Essentially, he ceased to be a public figure the moment that he became famous.

Pynchon’s portrait only became foggier and more speculative as the years passed. There are only a handful of photographs of the man, not all of which have been conclusively authenticated. He’s been turning down interviews for the better part of fifty years. Nearly all of the insight into the character of Thomas Pynchon consists of a series of (often unsubstantiated) anecdotes and fragmentary efforts at investigative reporting, fueled even more by the author’s sporadic peripheral appearances in popular culture (he’s had a speaking part on The Simpsons twice) and a few highly publicized, exhaustively analyzed pranks. We’re talking, after all, about a guy who elected to write under pseudonyms at his high school paper. Unsurprisingly, the most consistent modifier applied to his name is “recluse.”

Except that he’s not, of course. Pynchon isn’t in hiding; it’s widely known that he lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. And he certainly isn’t alone. He’s been married for more than twenty years, has a son, and was, by all accounts, rarely single before that. However reasonable an assessment of his supposed seclusion may appear at first glance, it ultimately can’t serve as anything more than a reactive generalization, because in order for the description to be successful, any measure of context must necessarily be ignored. Eventually the parameters of what constitutes social or anti-social behavior end up getting simplified to the point that they just aren’t useful anymore. Clearly, Pynchon isn’t averse to human interaction—he just doesn’t really want to interact with you. Which isn’t the same thing.

Posted on: April 1, 2015 · Blog, Famous First Words, Homepage ·Tags: , , , .

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