THOMAS PYNCHON was born on Long Island in 1937 and later attended Cornell University. Outside of a picture or two of him in his youth—including one in which he’s wearing a Navy uniform—we pretty much know nothing else about him. We don’t know if he answers to a diminutive like Tom or Tommy or Pynch. We don’t know if those few pictures floating around the internet are actually him, since Pynchon never provided them to the public. He’s often been called “reclusive,” the meaning of which misidentifies Pynchon as a hoarder shut-in who hasn’t left his apartment since 1976. He’s been accused of being someone named Wanda Tinasky, a resident of Mendocino County who wrote funny, offbeat editorial letters to Mendocino Commentary and the Anderson Valley Advertiser in the ‘80s. Pynchon’s voice, some scholar said, was all over those Tinasky letters.
Pynchonmania reached its height in the 1990s, when some jerk with a camera took a very bad photo of who we might speculate to be Pynchon, walking with his son in New York, which the London Sunday Times Magazine published was Thomas Pynchon indeed! It is the most blurry photographic representation of a person I have ever seen, and whether or not this paparazzo’s sleuthing was competent, Pynchon has never confirmed that he is the man behind the blur. (Though his representatives have been clear that he is, in fact, not Wanda Tinasky.)
If we’ve learned anything from Pynchon’s aversion to publicity, it is that this disappearing act, this desire not to be photographed, inevitably leads to the creation of myth—that is, provided the author’s work is compelling enough, which Pynchon’s is. The media will find ways to satisfy their curiosity by creating their own fiction about you. They’ll look everywhere first: your high-school yearbook, university transcripts, the Upper West Side, the Anderson Valley Advertiser. Who is Thomas Pynchon? Who is J. T. LeRoy? Who is Elena Ferrante?
In print, anyway, Pynchon has been more than generous and forthcoming with his life and coming of age in letters. Just read his very candid, self-deprecating introduction to Slow Learner: “I wasn’t the only writer then who felt the need to stretch, to step out.” I know more personal details about Pynchon from that essay than I do about most writers who do make appearances. Photographs and biographical details often don’t tell us anything. But the words, however: “What is most appealing about young folks, after all, is the changes, not the still photograph of finished character but the movie, the soul in flux.”
Pynchon achieved renown at a time when novelists and novels were arguably more culturally relevant. When a writer could be a celebrity, appear on television, act in films, hobnob at parties with movie stars, and maybe develop a Quaalude addiction. In New York, especially, there was a literary scene that revolved around the restaurant Elaine’s, where there was a hierarchy: being seated at the front of house meant you were important, while the back room was Siberia. Book deals were sometimes made.
Can we see the creator of Zoyd Wheeler, Benny Profane, Oedipa Maas, and Doc Sportello chumming it up with Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe on the Upper East Side? Pynchon’s heroes—those antiestablishment dopers and hippies who populate so much of his world, dodging the fuzz and federales—couldn’t be farther from Nathan Zuckerman’s literary wet dreams. In Pynchon’s world, all this literary fuss is square.
We live in different times, but they are not that different. I would argue that in the 1960s, if one were to achieve what Pynchon had through his work, there would be a lot more expected of you. So they didn’t have to tweet back then, but authors were asked about where they stood on Vietnam, civil rights, women’s rights, Nixon, drugs, rock and roll—just about everything. A writer had to weigh in. Those who could handle these issues in a public fashion, did. Some did poorly, because they were writers, after all. Maybe Pynchon anticipated the pressure put on the authors of his day and wanted only to be what he intended: a storyteller. He wasn’t J. D. Salinger, who retracted from the public eye, never to publish again. He never disappeared on his readers. He simply never appeared in the conventional form of an author.
The truth is, we don’t know why. But the answers we want and have always turned to authors for—from the Bomb to Nixon to Reagan to W. Bush and 9/11—have all been tackled, satirized, or laid bare in Pynchon’s fiction. What he thinks is on the page, in the most intimate, cerebral art form we have. So all we know of him is through his work. Isn’t that how he intended it? And isn’t that far out?