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Why Thomas Pynchon's Cameo Could Be the End of Him

Will the author's appearance in Inherent Vice unravel his mystery?

by David Whelan
09 October 2014, 2:00pm

One of the handful of pictures of Pynchon in existence. On the internet, at least. 

Last weekend, Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice, an adaptation of Pynchon's novel, debuted at the New York Film Festival to fiendishly good reviews. But it was the news that the author would be getting a cameo that got the world talking. To Pynchon fans, the prospect of the man himself, on screen, photographed, is either the most exciting day since the 8th of May or a concept as terrifying as being locked in a room and forced to read Hemingway for a week straight.

It all started 51 years ago, in 1963, when the New York Times critic George Plimpton published the line: "Pynchon is in his early twenties; he writes in Mexico City – a recluse." It is doubtful if Plimpton, who went on to help create The Paris Review, knew at the time that he was accidentally kicking off the largest and longest game of Where's Wally? ever conceived. Nevertheless, the label has stuck.

Thomas Pynchon is a reclusive author; Thomas Pynchon gives no shit about your interview request; Thomas Pynchon is a cranky old lady by the name of Wanda Tinasky who writes letters to local newspapers for kicks. 

Despite his reputation, it's hard to find an author whose life has been scrutinised to the extent of Pynchon's. Somewhere along the line, the quest to uncover "the man behind the books" became a weird kind of arms race, with each article getting closer and closer to the facts of his life, but, like a Zeno paradox, ultimately getting nowhere near. Watching people try to pin him down is reminiscent of Dick Dastardly and Muttley trying to Stop the Pigeon – you keep coming back to see if they do, but you know deep down they never will.

The facts of his life are simple and readily available. Thomas Ruggles Pynchon Jnr was born in Yadda Yadda to Yadda Yadda and Yadda Yadda and attended Yadda Yadda before joining the Yadda. He married Yadda Yadda, his literary Yadda. He is Yadda years old and lives in Yadda Yadda. He is a reclusive author.

There's a curious logical fallacy occurring here that – because Pynchon does not get papped falling out of a cab at 4AM – he is, therefore, an enigma. This is far from the truth. The assumption that, because Pynchon doesn't like talking to reporters, we have a right to unmask him is total bullshit. As is, for that matter, his label as an antisocial hermit or some bizarre literary Howard Hughes. While Pynchon is portrayed as some skittish cultural vulture circling the hinterlands of the real world, he in fact exists quite firmly within the beating heart of our pop one.

While we've only got four photos of Pynchon from his entire life, we have him rendered as a cartoon in the The Simpsons three times in the last decade. This is not the action of a paranoid luddite. Rather, a vibrant prankster with his finger on the world's pulse. He knows how to manipulate us. He's willing to take the piss out of himself, but refuses to do the same for Homer, who he describes in the script notes as his role model.  

Executive Producer of The Simpsons, Matt Selman, recently tweeted Pynchon's line notes for his first appearance.

In an interview with The Paris Review just this year, Pynchon name-drops Nicolas Cage and Face/Off, which is possibly the finest unexpected reference ever. But, of course Pynchon is a fan of Cage. If there's one man on the planet capable of portraying Slothrop from Gravity's Rainbow, in all his mania and slow dissolution, it's him. Bleeding Edge, Pynchon's latest novel, is filled with a kaleidoscopic set of pop culture references, from Hideo Kajima to TOR. He may not be a visible part of our lives, but he is certainly right there in the mixer.

There are dozens of impressive investigative articles and books about Pynchon, published across half a century, that read half like a John Grisham novel and half like stalker notes. But these ultimately say more about the pursuer than the pursued. As Andrew Gordon wrote in his essay Smoking Dope with Thomas Pynchon: A Sixties Memoir, "I don't know what I can tell you about Thomas Pynchon, but I can tell you something about myself."

In March of 1977, Jules Siegel published an article in Playboy that attempted to fill in some of the gaps in the life of America's most curious living author. The piece was entitled, "Who Is This Thomas Pynchon... and Why Has He Run Off with My Wife?" In it, Siegel indulged himself and his readers with some creepy and intrusive descriptions about Pynchon's lovemaking. 

Thanks to that article, we know precisely how Pynchon fucks.

It's not common to be privy to the precise dimensions of your mate's cock, and it would certainly be a bit odd to write about it. But, according to Siegel, his ex-wife Chrissie described Pynchon as – if you really must know – "a wonderful lover", both "sensitive and quick" and embarrassed by feminine "boldness" between the sheets.

Those details say more about Siegel, and myself for including them, than it does Pynchon, just as any detail plucked entirely at random does.

Pynchon loves travel and has lived in New York, Ithaca, Seattle, Mexico, Houston and Los Angeles. He blames his teeth for social exclusion and enjoys (or enjoyed, I dunno) a breathtakingly good variety of weed named Panama Red. His house was worth just over £1 million in 2013. He wrote the vast bulk of Gravity's Rainbow off his tits. He's an avid fan of pigs and signs off his letters with cute drawings of them. He once kept a piñata pig called Claude at his house in LA. He based a gruesome section of his debut novel V around a Jewish princess having rhinoplasty because his girlfriend dumped him for being a Catholic. 

Pynchon inscribing a copy of Gravity's Rainbow for his friends Phyllis and Fred Gebauer. (Image via UCLA Extension Writers' Program)

While these aren't the sort of details that would make it into a Q&A session at the London Review of Books, it isn't a moral fault of Siegel – or anyone else – to mention them; they are, after all, the sort of juicy gossip every human being trades on. However, they shade Pynchon's life and character with the author's own. You end up getting a reflection of the man, rather than the man himself, because who doesn't like animals, travel or drug experimentation?

Mind you, at least Pynchon himself has remained – unlike David Foster Wallace's literary legacy, which has been consistently polluted by his perceived personality – unsullied. 

The author's lack of centre is what gets us talking. We read his novels for clues and turn over obscure fan forums for theories, because the stories we create for ourselves always surpass those of reality. Oz was only great before Toto drew back the curtain. 

The greatest fear, then, is that his film debut is a softening of approach, that it's the beginning of a great world tour. If he doesn't cohere to what we imagine in our minds, we're going to feel disappointed. Someone might recognise him on the street as he wolfs down a foot-long sub and shoot questions about politics towards him, and he'll speak with his mouth full and ranch dressing is going to go absolutely everywhere – onto his shoes, his sports jacket – and it'll make its way onto YouTube and everyone will laugh and my heart will break. Then he'll be on reality TV, wanking off a pig.

Right now, Pynchon lives in New York, where Manhattan alone has an estimated 8,000 CCTV cameras, so it's quite likely that, unless Pynchon is invisible, the American government has a manila folder somewhere in Area 41 containing thousands of photos of him picking his nose.

The hope is that they are never released, because while it's not unimaginative to assume that Pynchon gets up to much the same kind of stuff as any other brilliant man of 77 – hanging out with his wife, listening to The Beach Boys, checking his prostate – it's far more interesting and personal to fill those gaps in yourself.

@MrDavidWhelan

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