Awesome Men Throughout History: Thomas Pynchon
Last week’s Awesome Man column – Jello Biafra, in case you’re just tuning in – was about a man who routinely tries as hard as he can to be obvious. This week’s Awesome Man is the exact opposite: reclusive to the point where almost no one knows where he lives and his fans debate whether or not he’s even still alive until he releases another book. I’m talking, of course, about Thomas Pynchon.
Pynchon is a writer whose name is often met with dread, because he’s known for writing very complex, incomprehensibly dense novels that are also long as hell in some cases. He’s one of those writers who critics either love because his books make them look smart, or hate because his books make them feel stupid, which is a distinction Pynchon doesn’t share with too many other people.
Pynchon’s legacy as a writer is Gravity’s Rainbow, which was published in 1973 and is considered one of the best novels of the 20th century. It’s damn near encyclopedic in scope and the plot is impossible to summarize, so we’ll just say that it’s set in Europe near the end of WWII and explores themes like paranoia, anti-authoritarianism, colonialism, and entropy (which is a key element in several of Pynchon’s books). Heady stuff, to be sure. It was supposed to win a Pulitzer in 1974, but was vetoed because the Pulitzer board considered it “obscene,” among other things. That’s honestly more of a recommendation than an insult.
Pynchon’s latest novel, Inherent Vice, is a much more accessible detective story set in that period of the 1960s where California’s counterculture was beginning to self-destruct. I think Paul Thomas Anderson is trying to make a movie out of it. Good luck with that.
The cool thing about Pynchon is how mysterious he’s become. These days, writers basically have to turn their lives into reality television via Facebook and Twitter to sustain any kind of audience, but Pynchon hasn’t even been seen in something like twenty years. No pictures or anything. One hopes that he isn’t some insane pee-drinking recluse, that he in fact enjoys his life and is just really private and unwilling to endlessly pester his readers through social media. Whatever the cause, it is fascinating to see someone upend the conventional wisdom about how writers are supposed to build their careers. Some of his friends aren’t even sure what country he lives in. He’s like literary Bigfoot.
We do know what his voice sounds like, at least. Here’s a clip of him reading from Inherent Vice as a promotional video for the book.
About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.