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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Thomas Pynchon
(b. 1937)


Very few American writers, while still alive, have been accorded the somewhat dubious honor of having their last name turned into an adjective. Even fewer have seen this resultant adjective become a buzzword in highbrow popular culture, a process that associates their name with everything from film and literature to advertising campaigns, pop music, and underground publications. Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Jr., came into the collective consciousness of late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century American culture largely through the use (and abuse) of the labels “Pynchonian” and “Pynchonesque,” which sprang up after the publication of his mammoth novel Gravity’s Rainbow. These two adjectives connote extreme intellectualism, an encyclopedic frame of reference, paranoia, spiraling conspiracy theories, reclusiveness, dark humor, or a combination of all these. Perhaps unfairly, these have also been the dominant themes in criticism of Pynchon’s work.

Few biographical details are known. Pynchon was born on Long Island in Oyster Bay, New York, on May 8, 1937. His family is descended from the Puritan Pyncheons who provided Nathaniel Hawthorne with material for The House of Seven Gables. After a brief stint in the U.S. Navy, he attended Cornell University, where he majored in engineering before switching to English; he took classes from Vladimir Nabokov and befriended Richard Fariña, whose 1966 novel Been Down So Long It Looks like Up to Me anticipated many themes that Pynchon would later treat. Having passed up an opportunity to go to graduate school, he worked as a technical writer for Boeing Aircraft in Seattle from 1960 to 1962. His subsequent public biography consists almost entirely of his publication history.

Pynchon’s first novel V., published in 1963, won the Faulkner First Novel Award. In 1966 The Crying of Lot 49, a shorter but no less complex novel, garnered the Rosenthal Memorial Award. Gravity’s Rainbow, published in 1973, nearly won the Pulitizer Prize until several jurors rejected it on the grounds of “obscenity and obscurity.” In 1975 Pynchon was awarded the Howells Medal of the American Academy but turned it down without giving a reason. His literary output for the remainder of the 1970s and 80s was limited to Slow Learner, a collection of five short stories (“Entropy” among them) originally published between 1959 and 1964, and a small number of essays and reviews.

It is generally believed that Pynchon lived in Aptos, a small town in northern California, for much of the 1980s, during which he produced his novel Vineland (1990) and possibly wrote a series of letters to a small local newspaper using the pseudonym Wanda Tinasky. He has apparently lived in New York City since that time. He is married to his literary agent Melanie Jackson; they have one son. His most recent novel is Mason & Dixon, published in 1997.

Whatever the facts of his life may be, Pynchon’s small but important body of work (five novels and a collection of short stories over the course of more than forty years) has had a profound effect on the development of American literature. Many readers have been tempted to categorize Pynchon’s individual works as products of a certain place and time, especially The Crying of Lot 49 and Vineland, which are often criticized for being generational pieces “about” California in the 1960s and 80s, respectively. Examination of his entire body of work, though, leads to an understanding of both the depth of Pynchon’s encyclopedic erudition and his wide-ranging cultural satire.

“Entropy” initially appeared in the Kenyon Review in the spring of 1960. Pynchon himself evinced considerable disdain for the story in the introduction to Slow Learner: “The story is a fine example of a procedural error beginning writers are always cautioned against. It is simply wrong to begin with a theme, symbol or other abstract unifying agent, and then to try to force characters and events to conform to it.” Despite this harsh self-criticism, the story represents his first extensive treatment of the concept of entropy in its thermodynamic, informational, and cosmic forms. This theme recurs notably in the “Whole Sick Crew” episodes of V. and throughout The Crying of Lot 49, most tellingly in the “Maxwell’s Demon” portions.

“Entropy” does not have the intricately organized and at times maddeningly allusive structure of Gravity’s Rainbow, but it is possible to see Pynchon’s authorial voice taking shape in this story. The blending of near-farcical comic elements with a dark, even brooding satirical impulse leaves the reader with an ambiguous message, another hallmark of his later works. Critics disagree about whether Pynchon is more sympathetic to Meatball Mulligan, who attempts to make order out of chaos despite the unavoidable force of entropy, or to Callisto, who walls himself off from the outside world and seems to have resigned himself to its “heat-death.” One’s interpretation largely determines whether the dual endings of the story represent an affirmation of life like that of the Beats (whose works and language Pynchon cites as an early influence) or an acquiescence to the inevitability of death, a theme that existentialist philosophers/novelists such as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre had popularized during Pynchon’s adolescence.

Derek C. Maus
University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill


Texts
In the Heath Anthology
Entropy (1960)

Other Works
V. (1963)
The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)
Gravity's Rainbow (1973)
Slow Learner (1984)
Vineland (1990)
Mason & Dixon (1997)



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Links

About Pynchon-L
(http://www.waste.org/pynchon-l/)
Information about subscribing to the Pynchon listserv.

HyperArts: Thomas Pynchon Pages
(http://www.hyperarts.com/pynchon/)
Offers a multitude of resources including active electronic meeting spaces, an introduction to Pynchon, links, book jacket scans, and more.

Spermatikos LOGOS
(http://www.themodernword.com/pynchon/)
Many resources including a biography, bibliography, information about specific works, papers, criticism, and other materials.

The Crying Over Lot 49 of Thomas Pynchon's Letters
(http://www.salon.com/media/1998/03/10media.html)
A Salon.com article by Dwight Gardner about Pynchon's disappearance and letters.

Secondary Sources

John Dugdale, Thomas Pynchon: Allusive Parables of Power, 1990

Dwight Eddins, The Gnostic Pynchon, 1990

Molly Hite, Ideas of Order in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon, 1983

Theodore Kharpertian, A Hand to Turn the Time: The Menippean Satires of Thomas Pynchon, 1990

Brian McHale, Constructing Postmodernism (pp. 61-144), 1992

William M. Plater, The Grim Phoenix: Reconstructing Thomas Pynchon, 1978

Thomas Hill Schaub, The Voice of Ambiguity, 1981

David Seed, The Fictional Labyrinths of Thomas Pynchon, 1988

Tony Tanner, City of Words: American Fiction, 1950-1970 (pp. 153-180), 1971

Steven Weisenburger, Fables of Subversion: Satire and the American Novel, 1930-1980 (pp. 122-130, 237-256), 1995





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