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Pynchon the elusive

The identity of Thomas Pynchon is as elusive as the sticky, complex webs of meaning woven

into his prose. As America's most "famous" hidden author, Pynchon produces works which

simultaneously deal with issues of disappearance and meaning, of identity and nothingness in a

fashion that befuddles some and delights others. He speaks to the world from his invisible pulpit,

hiding behind a curtain of anonymity that safely disguises his personality from the prying eyes of

critics and fans alike. Without a public author presence, readers are forced to derive the identity

of the author instead from the author's actual works. When searching for the identity of Pynchon,

and indeed the notion of identity itself, the novels of Thomas Pynchon offer an interesting starting


Questions of identity and meaning are shrouded beneath a veil of conspiracy in The Crying of

Lot 49, Pynchon's second novel and his shortest. Throughout the novel there are snatches of

hidden agendas and mysterious plans; it is a world run by Pierce Inverarity, a character who is

dead when the novel opens yet remains an active presence throughout the work. This seems to

fit Pynchon's situation rather nicely as the ghostly moderator of a tired world, leading his main

character Oedipa Maas on a quest for meaning while blindly groping for clues about a

conspiratorial mail system known only as the Trystero. Oedipa's quest echos the quest of

everyone; she wishes for an identity that makes some sense within the framework of her world.

Thomas Pynchon, by erasing himself from the public sphere, is questing for identity in his own

right through his writings, letting Mrs. Maas do the searching for him.

Little is known about Pynchon's life, and no one who knows him seems to be willing to add to

the miniscule pile of information currently available about him. His most recent published

photograph dates back to 1953. Beginning at the beginning, he was born on May 8, 1937 in

Glen Cove, New York. He attended Cornell University and received a degree in English in

1959. He worked at Boeing Company in Seattle as a technical writer until his first novel V.

appeared in 1963 (Gray 70). From that point onward, Pynchon vanished from the public eye.

Information about any part of Pynchon's life after V. is only based on rumor or hearsay. There is

a hodgepodge of rumors concerning Pynchon's life and why he went into hiding, diligently

collected and collated by legions of his fans. Some of the proposed reasons why he is hiding

include: "he is brain-damaged as a result of an LSD overdose, he suffers from writer's block, the

CIA is after him, and he is ashamed of his Bugs Bunny teeth" (Diamond 65). By isolating himself,

Pynchon has created an aura of mystery that surrounds his persona and is reduplicated within his

writings. Many of the stories about Pynchon himself are amusing, and have the flavor of

suburban folklore:

[Some] stories have Pynchon sealed inside a barrel and rolled into a wedding to

avoid photographers, constructing a cocoon of engineering paper around his work

space to ensure privacy when he worked at Boeing and responding to Norman

Mailer's invitation for a drink with a note saying, "No thanks. I only drink Ovaltine."

(Diamond 65)

These tales seems to be the response of a public "obsessively trying to invent a man who

obsessively refuses to reveal himself" (Diamond 66). Why would an author go to such pains to

remain anonymous? The American public appears to be unable to handle the concept of a

person who does not desire to be famous. By not showing up to play the game, Thomas

Pynchon has made himself infinitely more mysterious than his actual self could ever be.

When the identity of the author is absent, the gap between the author and the written word flares

to life. Why does the need exist for constant speculation over Pynchon's personality and his

real-life identity? When someone looks at a book, they naturally assume that it came from

somewhere. This leads to the question of its origin. Currently, the easy answer to this question

lies in the idea of the author, the originator, the creator, the name on the cover. This "individual"

is the source of the work and the person who deserves "credit" for producing the written

product. Normally, the author is associated with a face and some biographical information

gleaned from newspaper and magazine accounts. These elements humanize the author; there is

no magic aura surrounding him or her. Readers come to recognize the familiar face of an author

on television or in the newspapers, and a bond is created. Readers know the author because

they know his or her creations, and the physical presence of the author reinforces this link.

Pynchon takes this notion and shatters it by making himself absent. There is no current

photograph of him, no recent biographical information about him, and there is no guarantee that

there ever will be anymore information available about him before he dies. Pynchon simply

supplies the readers with text, and expects them to understand it on their own. Readers are not

allowed to connect with Pynchon except through his writings. This leads to rampant speculation

about Pynchon's personality and life as derived from common topics throughout his work.

If Pynchon made himself public, would his literary works be affected in any way? Part of the

fascination of Thomas Pynchon is the fact that he is hidden away from the public. There is a

mystique surrounding him that can not be duplicated if he were public and open about his life.

Judith Chambers recounts one distinguished Pynchon scholar's tale of his quest for Pynchon:

After several years of rigorous tracking, he found himself some fifty yards away

from Pynchon's residence, only to wonder why he would presume to intrude on a

man whom he both revered and respected. He walked away. (6)

By revealing the secret of Thomas Pynchon to himself, the scholar would destroy all of his

preconceived notions about his literary idol. The real Thomas Pynchon can not live up to the one

created by his novels. Corlies Smith, Pynchon's former editor, states that "[Pynchon] leads a

perfectly ordinary life. The fact of the matter is [his vanishing] has created much greater publicity

than if he'd gone on Donahue" (Diamond 66). Without the mystery surrounding his self-

imposed exile, Thomas Pynchon would probably not be as publicly recognized as he is now. By

remaining conspicuously absent from the public sphere, Pynchon is almost inviting his readers to

try and construct who he is from what he writes. This is a puzzle that as of yet remains unsolved.

Michel Foucault, in his essay What Is an Author?, has the following to say about what he calls

"the death of the author":

Our culture has metamorphosed this idea of narrative, or writing, as something

designed to ward off death. . . This relationship between writing and death is

manifested in the effacement of the writing subject's individual characteristics. Using

all the contrivances that he sets up between himself and what he writes, the writing

subject cancels out the signs of his particular individuality. (Foucault 143)

When presented with the idea of "the death of the author," Pynchon is an excellent case study, as

there is no actual author present to which readers can derive human fallibilities. The "effacement"

of Pynchon's "individual characteristics" is made whole and complete through his absence from

the public sphere. Pynchon is essentially already dead, and can only communicate with the world

through his writings.

This communication, however, can never be entirely trusted, as scrambled perceptions and

meaningless messages abound in much of Pynchon's work. Pynchon is notorious for joking and

punning his way through serious and often important subjects; his absence from the public sphere

is possibly no exception. He is the living embodiment of a "dead author." Pynchon is a voice

without a body, and this lends a somewhat inhuman aspect to his creations. Who is Thomas

Pynchon? It is necessary to understand the source of literature to comprehend the literature

itself? The postmodern response is to state the negative, but is our reading of Thomas Pynchon's

work affected just as much by his absence than if he were public and open to the world? Tony

Tanner asserts, "Pynchon's 'disappearance' does have a relevance to his work" (14). This

relevance is through problems about identity and meaning discovered and explored by

Pynchon's characters. The study of Pynchon's work is affected by his lack of public presence.

By maintaining his absence from public life, Pynchon is "in enviable possession of a mystique far

bigger than any single, flawed, vulnerable human" (Gray 70). The presence of a void is felt

through its absence.

Questions of identity and meaning abound in Pynchon's second novel, The Crying of Lot 49.

The identity of Pynchon can be searched for by examining the characters within the novel, most

importantly the heroine Oedipa Maas, the ghostly Pierce Inverarity, and the theater director

Randolph Driblette. Inverarity and Driblette could be said to mimic Pynchon in disparate ways,

but Oedipa Maas is important as well when confronting the concept of identity.

Pierce Inverarity is already dead when the novel opens. His death is what initially fuels the plot of

the novel, since Oedipa Maas is named as the executrix of Inverarity's will. His name might have

an allegorical meaning deriving from the Latin root inveritas, which translates to not truthful or

without truth. Indeed, Inverarity is not the voice of truth in the novel, but instead the voice of

confusion and misconception. The last instance where Oedipa comes in contact with Inverarity is

via a phone conversation a year before his death. In that conversation, Inverarity constantly

switches voices, oscillating from "heavy Slavic" to "comic-Negro" to "a Gestapo officer" to

"Lamont Cranston" (Pynchon 11). The final voice Oedipa hears before the conversation ends is

that of Lamont Cranston a. k. a. The Shadow from the early days of radio broadcasting.

Inverarity remains as a "shadow" throughout the rest of the novel, haunting Oedipa's movements

and supplying a twisted explanation for her entire situation with the secret Trystero mailing

system. Oedipa discovers that Inverarity owns the majority of important sites in San Narciso, all

of which deal with the Trystero system in some way. At one point, Oedipa remarks, "What the

hell didn't he own?" (39). The presence of Inverarity offers an easy solution to the web of

conspiracy that surrounds Oedipa later in the novel; Pierce Inverarity created the Trystero as an

elaborate plot to fool Oedipa Maas. This explanation doesn't digest well with the sea of clues

that Oedipa is collecting and with her ow


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