Thomas Pynchon ranks among the most critically acclaimed American authors of the past fifty years; certainly so when viewed in terms of academic scholarship. He has two academic journals devoted solely to his work and influence (Pynchon Notes and Orbit: Writing Around Pynchon), over twenty monographs exploring his writing and, since 1978, there have been 23 doctorates awarded in the United Kingdom alone on, or in major part concerning, his fiction. This trend shows no sign of stopping; with apologies to the well-known formulation of James Joyce, almost a century ago, it seems as though Thomas Pynchon will continue to keep the professors busy.
The reasons for this critical proliferation are not hard to fathom. Pynchon is a man of mystery, refusing to be photographed or interviewed, who has published some of the finest works of post-war literature, particularly V., Gravity’s Rainbow, The Crying of Lot 49 and Mason & Dixon. His novels have most frequently been type-cast as exemplary of the postmodern – saturated as they are with paranoia, indeterminacy and failed quest-narratives – but this seriously underplays the scale of Pynchon’s writing. Consider that Pynchon is also a writer of enormous historical scope. V. spans the defining moments of crisis in the twentieth century, Gravity’s Rainbow re-casts the sixties in terms of World War II and the history of Calvinism (including a flashback to a Mauritian Dodo hunt) while Mason & Dixon explores the interrelation of its eponymous protagonists with the Age of Reason and slavery in America. If this weren’t enough, his novels are interdisciplinary, incorporating metaphors from science and technology, cartography, popular culture, cartoons, aural puns, mathematical in-jokes, outrageous character names (and sexual practices) and sublime prose poetry.
More important than any of these preceding aspects, though, is the fact that Pynchon is a politically engaged, ethical writer. Gravity’s Rainbow is not just a dense, postmodern sprawl, but instead makes one of its central observations on the fact that the evil of mankind, parallel to nature, “does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation”, a spatio-temporal transposition to a new setting, persisting Beyond the Zero of any Pavlovian deconditioning, and always collecting around centres of power, embodied by the novel’s final, America-bound, transatlantic V-2/ICBM. Through this impossible moment, Pynchon highlights that behind twentieth-century America’s technological and economic supremacy lies the dark negotiations of Operation Paperclip and a re-embodiment of the right-wing politics supposedly vanquished in the Second World War. How many of us notice, inscribed upon our antibiotics, the second label, permanently hidden beneath the surface-level, reading “sulfonamide” and “I.G. Farben”? How many of us see, when we watch satellite television, the German technician crying: “Vergeltungswaffe”? [Read More]