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The elusive Thomas Pynchon turns 80

May 7, 2017

In 1963, a 26 year-old student from Cornell and an ex-Navy man, Thomas Pynchon, published a book called “V.” The book displayed a remarkable knowledge of pop culture, history, science, with a quest at the center of the novel, a man named Herbert Stencil searching for the true identity of a mysterious woman known only as V. V takes many shapes during the novel, but she is never found. The very notion of a character named V could be what Alfred Hitchcock called the “Macguffin” in his films. A Macguffin is an object or person that propels the plot forward but is often dropped by the climax.

One noticeable missing detail was the author’s photo. Pynchon has remained anonymous ever since, with no current photographs and no interviews, though he did lend his voice to a “Simpsons” episode in which the elusive author appears with a bag over his head. Pynchon also voiced a commercial for his detective novel, “Inherent Vice” (2009). In trying to avoid publicity, Thomas Pynchon has become even more famous over the years.

Part of Pynchon’s reputation is what followed “V.” There was a short novel, “The Crying of Lot 49″ (1966), with a signature Pynchon theme of paranoia and secret societies. The heroine, Oedipa Maas, searches for an underground postal system using its own counterfeit stamps, but the search only reveals that Oedipa has either stumbled onto a secret world of assassins or she is delusional.

Pynchon’s greatness as an American writer was assured with his complex and brilliant novel, “Gravity’s Rainbow” (1973) about World War II and the V2 rocket. The opening sentence, “A screaming comes across the sky,” has entered the list of famous opening lines for a novel. The hero is a paranoid named Tyrone Slothrop who feels he is being stalked by the V2 rocket.

The book’s publication became a major literary event. It was supposed to get the Pulitzer Prize. But members of the Princeton board, including Gore Vidal, refused Pynchon the award claiming “Gravity’s Rainbow” was “unreadable and obscene.”

Vidal had to know after reading the opening paragraph of Gravity’s Rainbow that he was not in Pynchon’s league, but despite Vidal’s criticism, “Gravity’s Rainbow” did receive the National Book Award.

Pynchon’s reputation continued to grow with his ambitious novel, “Mason and Dixon” (1997), about the demarcation of America into the north and south by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon 10 years before the Declaration of Independence.

Pynchon wrote the book using 18th century English. Historical and fictional characters appear, including a talking English dog. Mason and Dixon are two of Pynchon’s most human characters. At one point, Dixon, a Quaker, laments that America was the one place they thought they “shouldn’t find slavery.”

On May 8th, Pynchon turns 80. Whether or not he has a great novel left is uncertain. But if James Joyce’s “Ulysses” is a landmark novel of the early 20th century, Pynchon’s massive “Gravity’s Rainbow” is an America major epic of the late 20th century.

Happy birthday, TP.

Michael Corrigan graduated from San Francisco State with an MA in English and creative writing. He is a retired instructor of English and speech communications from Idaho State University. He has written several articles for various outlets, including Atticus Literary magazine online.