Thomas Pynchon and the Myth of the Reclusive Author

Pynchon's cameo in the upcoming movie version of <i>Inherent Vice</i> will represent the first time the author has appeared in public in decades, but it's not as if the man is some kind of ghost.

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Oct 9 2014, 4:30pm

One of the few known photos of Thomas Pynchon

Last weekend, Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice, an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's novel, debuted at the New York Film Festival to fiendishly good reviews. But it was the news that the author would be making 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 May 8 (a.k.a. Pynchon in Public Day) 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 George Plimpton in the New York Times published the line: "Pynchon is in his early twenties; he writes in Mexico City—a recluse." It is doubtful if Plimpton, who helped create the Paris Review, knew at the time that he was accidentally kicking off the largest and longest game of Where's Waldo? 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, the facts of his life are simple and readily available. Thomas Ruggles Pynchon Jr. 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.

It's generally assumed that because Pynchon does not get photographed by paparazzi falling out of a cab at 4 AM he is therefore an enigma. This is far from the truth. He's not hiding in the woods or refusing to publish new work à la J. D. Salinger; he just doesn't like talking to reporters. While there are only four known photos of Pynchon (and there's no proof that they are even photos of him), he's been rendered as a cartoon in The Simpsons three times in the last decades, which is hardly the action of a paranoid luddite. Rather, he's a vibrant prankster with his finger on the world's pulse. He knows how to manipulate us. He's willing to make fun of himself, but refuses to do the same for Homer, whom he describes in one episode's script notes as his role model.

Simpsons executive producer Matt Selman recently tweeted Pynchon's line notes for his first appearance.

As an April Fool's joke this year, The Paris Review published a fake interview with Pynchon in which he name-dropped Nicolas Cage and Face/Off. Even if a gag, the reference somehow made sense, and it wouldn't be far off to suggest Pynchon would say something similar himself. If there's one man on the planet capable of portraying Slothrop from Gravity's Rainbow in all his mania and slow dissolution it'd be 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 appearing on literary panels and making speeches, but he certainly hasn't shut himself off from the world.

There are dozens of impressive investigative articles and books about Pynchon, published across half a century, that read partly like a John Grisham novel and partly 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 titled, "Who Is This Thomas Pynchon... and Why Did He Take 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 friend'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" who was "sensitive and quick" but embarrassed by feminine "boldness" between the sheets.

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

Some more odd facts: Pynchon loves travel and has lived in New York City, Ithaca, Seattle, Mexico, Houston, and Los Angeles. He blames his teeth for social exclusion and enjoys (or enjoyed, I don't know) a breathtakingly good strain of weed named Panama Red. His house was worth just over $1.6 million in 2013. He wrote the vast bulk of Gravity's Rainbow wasted in some capacity. He's an avid fan of pigs, and signs off his letters with cute drawings of them. He once kept a piñata pig named Claude at his house in LA. He based a gruesome section of his debut novel V around a Jewish princess having a rhinoplasty because the author was once dumped 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 emerge in a respectable Q&A session, 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. But they do risk giving you a false impression of the author. He's no more the sum of his publicly known quirks than you or I.

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 center is what gets us talking. We read his novels for clues and look through 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, after all.

What I worry about is that his film debut represents the start of something, a great world tour or at least a public unveiling. If he doesn't cohere to what we imagine in our minds—and how could he?—we're going to feel disappointed. Someone might recognize him on the street as he wolfs down a foot-long sub and shoot questions about politics toward 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 jerking off a pig.

Currently, Pynchon lives in New York. Manhattan alone has an estimated 8,000 CCTV cameras, so it's quite likely that the American government has a manila folder somewhere in Area 41 containing thousands of photos of him picking his nose. My hope is that they are never released. While it's not unimaginative to assume that Pynchon gets up to the same kind of stuff as other brilliant men of 77—hanging out with his wife, listening to the Beach Boys, checking his prostate—it's far more interesting to fill those gaps in yourself.

Follow David Whelan on Twitter.

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