The fake hermit
An investigation into American writer Thomas Pynchon, who has never given an interview in his 54-year careerNatália Portinari
Translated by Christopher Peterson
versão em português (para assinantes)
In April 1963, when American writer Thomas Pynchon published his first novel, V., critic George Plimpton tried to describe the author in the New York Times: “Pynchon is in his early twenties; he writes in Mexico City – a recluse. It is hard to find out anything more about him.” That month the Beatles song Please Please Me, exploded on the radio waves and Martin Luther King Jr. published his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in Alabama, preaching peaceful struggle against racism. The critics compared 26-year-old Pynchon to Saul Bellow, Jack Kerouac, and other literary greats. “There is at work a young writer of staggering promise,” Plimpton predicted.
In V., Benny Profane, following a recent Navy hitch, does unglamorous odd jobs In Manhattan, like hunting alligators in the sewers. One day he crosses paths with Herbert Stencil, a traveler who refers to himself in the third person and is in search of V., a woman called Victoria or Veronica, who may not even be a woman, but a concept. The author’s acid humor and vast erudition drew glowing reviews.
Ten years later, in 1973, the novelist published his third book, Gravity’s Rainbow, with a mark as obscure as Pynchon himself. “Obscene”, “overwritten”, “turgid”, and “unreadable” are among the adjectives attributed to the novel upon its release. The more than 500 characters are living in the last year of World War II. The protagonist is Tyrone Slothrop, a cynical anti-hero who has erections in places of England where a German V-2 rocket invariably falls soon afterward. Everything happens under the watchful eye of Nazi villain Captain Weissman, who keeps the spy Katje as a sex slave. There is practically no other linear story in the novel. The narrator once becomes Byron the Bulb, who not only can talk, but is awarded a ten-page biography that discusses his political predilections. One can say that the theme of Gravity’s Rainbow is paranoia. “If there is something comforting – religious, if you want – about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long,” one passage reads.
An aura of mystery still hangs over Pynchon today. The canonical and brilliant writer – whose books have made the best-seller lists in the United States since the 1990s – has never given interviews. If you Google his name, you’ll find only six photos of him. The most recent, taken in 1957, shows the author in a sailor’s uniform (he was serving in the Navy at the time), front teeth protruding, dark hair, and thick eyebrows.
I read Gravity’s Rainbow in my early adolescence, at 13 – I’m 23 now. I borrowed the book from my father’s studio – he’s an auditor for the State of São Paulo who takes a keen interest in philosophy, linguistics, quantum physics, astronomy, law, and religion, but not so much in literature. Of course I didn’t understand everything in the book, but that was part of the appeal for me. From then on, Gravity’s Rainbow never left my bedside table, which has welcomed seven more novels by Pynchon, all published in Brazil. Bleeding Edge, his most recent novel, published in 2013, will be launched in Portuguese this June by Companhia das Letras with the title O Último Grito.
As the author captivated me, I began to discover a kind of Pynchon brotherhood. Legions of fans have grouped on the internet to unravel his novels’ riddles and subtexts. Pynchon Wiki, for example, is a collaborative encyclopedia in English founded in 2006, and that analyzes each of the writer’s books, page by page, to identify references, not always explicit, to television, music, cinema, the sciences, and dozens of other areas. There is also Pynchon-List – or simply Pynchon-L –, an e-mail list that has held daily discussions on his books for nearly thirty years. The group consists of some 500 fans worldwide. If that were not enough, every two years some of them meet at International Pynchon Week, an academic congress that convenes at a different city each time: Athens, Munich, Granada, London… The 2017 edition will be in June at La Rochelle, France.
Humorous, pornographic, erudite, pop, and sarcastic towards institutions and thought systems, Pynchon’s novels could not have been more fitting for a teenager like me, slightly subversive and highly arrogant. I would travel on my school vacations with chemistry and math workbooks, plus one of his books, always with at least two dictionaries in case my cell phone signal crashed. Like his other fans, I grew up on the crossroads between the exact and human sciences. The more indecipherable the narrative, the more it sounded to me like an amusement park. I remember one summer afternoon when my father saw me behind the pile of novels and joked, “That’s not literature. It’s the Olympics!” I considered this a sign of approval.
My obsession with the author followed me throughout law school and lasted even after I joined the work market (I became a journalist rather than an attorney). Curiously, I never liked talking too much about the writer, maybe because I wanted to keep him for myself. Anybody in Brazil could say more about Truman Capote, Fyodor Dostoevsky, or Machado de Assis, other novelists I enjoy, but not Pynchon. I only allow myself to discuss him in public if somebody else brings up the subject. That’s what happened in 2015, when I met a colleague of my husband, the reporter and editor Matthew Shirts, an American and naturalized Brazilian. During a party at my home, he noticed the author’s books on a shelf, in addition to a miniature V-2, and started calling the ensemble the “Thomas Pynchon altar”. Shirts remarked offhandedly that he had translated one of Pychon’s novels into Portuguese. He had shared the work with a friend, writer Reinaldo Moraes. Published in 1991 by Companhia das Letras, the Brazilian version kept the original title: Vineland. To my astonishment, Shirts also mentioned that at the time, the dauntless translator duo even exchanged fax correspondence with the purportedly inaccessible novelist. “But I was careless enough to leave nearly all the correspondence exposed to light. Since it was all on that super-sensitive fax paper, the light erased it,” he said anticlimactically.
The mere fact of communicating with Pynchon already seemed worthy of note to me. Just imagine what it meant to receive letters from Mr. Mystery. The American journalist Nick Romeo once wrote an essay for the online Daily Beast about his five-minute conversation with Pynchon during an opera intermission in 2011. “We talked about books (he’d been re-reading Borges’s short stories) and music (he went to a lot of the jazz concerts at Carnegie),” says one part of the story.
Several months after the party, with the story of the fax correspondence still echoing in my head, I decided to contact Shirts and Moraes again in hopes of exploring the subject in greater detail. I met them at a bar in downtown São Paulo. They were already slightly high and were quick to order a beer for me. The author of Tanto Faz, his debut novel, and Pornopopéia, his big novel, set in the São Paulo underground, Moraes, now 67, is the kind of intellectual that fires a tirade of caustic quips at his interlocutor, with a permanently ironic smile. Mathew Shirts, jovial and less sarcastic, comes across warmer.
“You have to swear on your mother — on your grandmother’s grave — that you’ll return this shit to us,” Moraes warned as soon as he’d introduced himself. Then he handed me a few sheets of paper, slightly faded but legible. They were the only two surviving letters from their correspondence with Pynchon, both dated 1991 – one written in May and the other in October. In the letters, the novelist answered several questions by the translators about Vineland, joking and apologizing for whatever he couldn’t remember. For example, he explained the identity of several personalities cited in the book, and the meaning of various United States government acronyms.
When the Brazilian translators asked what triple warmer was, he gave a rather obscure explanation and concluded, “In other words, if you find out what it means, let me know.” He proved equally mordacious when attempting to define the expression white kid skates: “Another one of my stupid puns.” The expression can mean either “the white kid’s skates” or “white kid leather skates”. Faced with an anachronism detected by the translators (a reference to a law passed a year after the plot’s action), Pynchon quipped: “Technically it’s anachronistic here, but if you don’t tell anybody, I won’t.” Finally, he signed off in the letter by thanking them for the opportunity “to face some of the consequences” of his carelessness.
Published in the United States in 1990, Vineland appeared after a 17-year hiatus in the writer’s career. With a more accessible structure than his previous three novels, it takes place in the recently-turned-straight California of the 1980s. The critics consider it one of the author’s lesser works. The protagonist, hippie Zoyd Wheeler, is constantly harassed by the police, who are bent on cracking down on drugs. Meanwhile, his daughter Prairie gets caught up in political-religious conspiracies that mobilize a ninja sect and a collective of antifascist filmmakers. “When I read that crazy story I fell in love with it,” Shirts recalled at the bar. He was the one to recommend that Companhia das Letras wager on the book. Until then no Brazilian publishing house had ever published anything by Pynchon.
Despite the simpler vocabulary, Vineland makes hundreds of references to American television, music, and film, which Shirts calls “erudite pop”. His role was to decipher this universe, since he was born in the United States and only moved to Brazil in 1984, at age 25. However, only Pynchon himself could explain some details. Melanie Jackson, Pynchon’s wife and literary agent, arranged the fax contacts.
The translators had promised to deliver the book in four months, but they ended up taking nearly a year. While dedicated to the task, Shirts kept his job with a videogames magazine. Moraes, on the other hand, was working full time in translation. “The time came when the advance payment I got from Companhia das Letras ran out. I had to sell my car to pay the bills.” Because of the delay, editor Claudio Marcondes, who was supervising the duo, threw in the towel. “He fired himself from us,” Shirts recalled. Marcondes was replaced by Marta Garcia. “She was a beautiful, interesting girl. We had a few draft beers to talk about the book, and ended up getting married,” as Moraes summed it up. The couple is together to this day.
The effort and time spent on the translation bore good fruit. “My intellectual friends thought I was really chic,” said Shirts. “Talking with Thomas Pynchon was just one step below talking with God.” But the relationship came to a frustrating end. “We thought we were going to become the dude’s brother. In the end, I sacrificed a Fiat car for him,” Moraes ironized. “When we finished the translation, we decided to invite him to visit Brazil, drink, and score some chicks.” The writer never even acknowledged their invitation. “His silence hurt us a little,” Shirts admitted in Portuguese with his thick gringo accent. “Pynchon made it clear that our relationship was strictly professional.”
After Vineland, Companhia das Letras decided to launch the Brazilian edition of The Crying of Lot 49, which the novelist had published in 1966. This time the translation fell to diplomat Jorio Dauster. He had already done the Portuguese-language translations of such classics as Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger, and Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, but unlike Moraes and Shirts, Dauster preferred not to communicate with Pynchon.
In 1997, the time came for Companhia das Letras to tackle Gravity’s Rainbow. “Nobody wanted the translation. I was the last of the Mohicans. I started to read the book and found it very difficult. I tried to opt out, but they insisted,” recalled Paulo Henriques Britto in his apartment in the Gávea neighborhood of Rio’s South Zone. Britto, who is also a poet and professor at Rio’s Catholic University (PUC) not only discussed his questions with Pynchon but also recruited an expert in German weaponry. The translation took him a year.
The next book, Mason & Dixon, required even more extensive research by Britto. Originally published in 1997, the long novel portrays the friendship between two real-life characters, the land surveyors that drew the dividing line between what are now the states of Maryland and Pennsylvania. The narrator, Reverend Cherrycoke (as in the soft drink), tells the story of entertaining his family on a blizzardy day. And he adds countless fantastic elements to the plot, from a talking dog to explorers that venture into the Earth’s hollow center. The narrative changes tone and become more or less licentious, depending on who is in the room with the reverend. Extravagant, the entire book is written in a style of English that harks to the 18th century. Britto endeavored to do the same and tried to use only words that existed in Portuguese before 1800. He consulted dictionaries that specify when the entries first came into usage. “During the translation, I decided to imitate Pynchon and sent him a letter in 18th-century English,” the professor remarked, as his maid served us a Coke (regular, not Cherry). In the correspondence, Britto asked the novelist to stop communicating by fax. “I explained that here in the Portuguese colony we already use e-mail.” Pynchon got into the game and answered in 18th-century English, but did not stop using fax.
When I asked to see the letters, Britto refused emphatically. “If I show them, Pynchon will never let me translate his books again.” The American writer has the habit of cutting off relations with publishing houses and professionals that leak information on him. “I can only say that Pynchon is extremely thoughtful, far and away the most solicitous author I have ever spoken to,” the translator proceeded. “He only avoids the spotlight because he doesn’t feel like being a celebrity. If a writer isn’t careful, he ends up like Truman Capote, who attended so many parties that he stopped writing.”
Mason & Dixon arrived in Brazil’s bookstores in 2004. Thanks partly to the good relations he developed with the novelist, Britto translated two more of his books, Against the Day, released in Brazil in 2012, and his latest, Bleeding Edge (O Último Grito).
An inveterate Pynchon fan, André Conti – who worked at Companhia das Letras for eleven years – edited some of Pynchon’s more recent novels, like Against the Day. “The man is a master of word play, taking language to the ultimate degree of madness,” he told me, enthused, in São Paulo. At the beginning of Gravity’s Rainbow, for example, the writer describes a zany breakfast with “banana omelets, banana sandwiches, banana casseroles, mashed bananas molded into the shape of a British lion rampart, blended with eggs into batter for French toast, squeezed out a pastry nozzle across quivering creamy reaches of a banana blancmange to spell out the words C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre […], tall cruets of pale banana syrup to pour oozing over banana waffles, a giant glazed crock where diced bananas have been fermenting since the summer with wild honey and muscat raisins, up out of which, this winter morning, one now dips mugsful of banana mead… banana croissants and banana kreplach, and banana oatmeal and banana jam and banana bread, and bananas flamed in ancient brandy…”
During our conversation in a cafeteria, I noticed that Conti’s left arm has a tattoo of a trumpet with a mute, the same tattoo I’ve had on my wrist since I was 16. The instrument is a symbol for a clandestine communications system that appears in The Crying of Lot 49. The novel is the author’s shortest, with 166 pages in Portuguese. Not by coincidence, it is also the most widely read by students. “As a fan and editor, I ended up diving into Pynchon’s universe, which after all is a wonderful privilege. But of course there’s a sick side to it. After all, we’re talking about a writer who’s not only funny. He’s also very tragic,” pondered Conti, a partner in the recently founded Todavia publishing house. He believes the difficult reading may actually attract the novelist’s admirers. “Reading Gravity’s Rainbow carefully is like climbing a mountain,” he compared. “It’s killing, but worth the effort.”
Indeed, obstinacy and a bit of masochism tend to characterize the author’s fans. In Pynchon-List, Chinese fan Mike Jing calls attention by launching questions about Gravity’s Rainbow on a virtually daily basis with the rest of the fan club. He has been toiling on a translation of the book for five years – unpaid work that he does for pleasure, so his mother can understand the novel. In my case, doggedness and a certain love of self-inflicted suffering led me to study Japanese. In July 2016, in order to work on the language, I visited Tokyo for twenty days. I confess that I spent most of the time tracking down Pynchon leads.
There’s a pair of friends in Japan that love the writer, like Reinaldo Moraes and Mathew Shirts in Brazil. Motoyuki Shibata and Yoshiaki Sato have known each other since university and have written several books together. Professor of American Literature at the University of Tokyo, Shibata is 62 years old and stands five-feet-one. From 2000 to 2010, he translated Mason & Dixon into a form of Japanese that was intended to sound old. “As you know, the original book emulates 18th-century English. It so happens that Japanese changed considerably in the 19th century – more precisely starting in 1860. So in my translation I was not able to use words prior to that period. Nobody would understand them. I also avoided terms derived from English, which are very recent,” the professor explained to me behind his little round eyeglasses, sitting at a café in Shibuya, Tokyo’s young neighborhood.
When I asked Shibata if he had sent letters to Pynchon, his eyes went wide: “Have you talked to other translators? How much did they tell you?” After some insistence on my part, he admitted that he had indeed sent some questions to the writer. “He was very gracious,” he told me before recommending that I talk to Yoshiaki Sato, “the real Pynchon-man in Japan.”
I accepted his suggestion and caught a bullet train in Tokyo. After an hour’s journey I arrived in Takasaki, where Sato was waiting for me. The city is known for its hot baths, which the Japanese Pynchon-man, always self-deprecating, said were good for little old retired 66-year-olds like him. Taller than his friend, Sato sports a pencil-thin moustache and rustled hair that shakes when he laughs. We sat for a chat in his office, on the third floor of his house. If my bookshelf is an altar to Thomas Pynchon, Sato’s is Jerusalem, with rare copies garnered in university libraries in the United States. “I’ve been doing the Pynchon stuff for such a long time, for 40 years. Like Pynchon, I switched majors from hard sciences — physics — to literature,” he said, recalling that when Pynchon left the Navy in 1957, he quit engineering to study literature. A diehard Beatles fan, Sato taught at the University of Tokyo on the counterculture revolution of the ’60s. He quit his job in 2007 to devote himself fulltime to the translation of Gravity’s Rainbow, which he finished in 2014. “I’ve been Pynchon’s friend for such a long time, personally, in my mind, that when a paragraph is done, I can subjectively think that it’s what Pynchon would write if he knew Japanese.” Although he has never met the writer, Sato recently met Melanie Jackson and the couple’s son, Jackson Pynchon. “They came to Japan to talk about translations. She’s a slender girl, very elegant. Jackson is a very nice man. He’s very knowledgeable about computer games and Japanese anime.”
The Japanese translator sent me an e-mail a few days later. “Have you eaten Yakitori [grilled chicken skewers] on Showa Street, near the Ueno railway station, like the abducted sex slaves in Vineland?” he asked. So we decided to visit some of the places in the city that appear in a particularly ludicrous part of the book – in which the character DL Chastain is kidnapped by the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia, and auctioned as a sex slave. We ate the chicken skewers and then took photos at the Imperial Hotel, where the man that bought Chastain took her before releasing her. During the visit we saw throngs of opera fans waiting for their idol at a theater entrance. It was a solemn, silent ritual in which the girls displayed a kind of childish joy. “We’re like them now,” commented the smiling Pynchon-man.
Thomas Pynchon’s past is well-documented, starting with his typically WASP background (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant). His earliest ancestor in America, William Pynchon, arrived there in 1630, worked as a magistrate and helped found the town of Springfield, Massachusetts. The long line of “Republican males” continued through his father, Thomas Pynchon Sr., a highway superintendent in Oyster Bay, a county between New York City and Long Island. It was precisely on Long Island that Thomas Ruggles Pynchon Jr. was born in May 1937. He has just turned 80. We know that his family was not fabulously wealthy, but neither were they poor. Taking after his mother, Katherine Frances Bennett, the future novelist adopted Catholicism, the first deviation from his paternal ancestry. He later became a sympathizer of anti-capitalist ideas and anarchism.
Pynchon studied at Oyster Bay High School, a few blocks from home, and began his writer’s career in the school newspaper. His first short stories already featured the sarcasm that would define his career. In “The Voice of the Hamster” – a parody of the medieval manuscript Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, attributed to one Pearl Poet – the young author satirized characters close to him, like a trigonometry teacher.
In 1957, when he returned from the Navy and traded the hotly disputed engineering major for English at Cornell, his literary ambitions coincided with those of several friends. One of them was Richard Fariña, recently described by The Guardian as a “lost genius who bridged the gap between beats and hippies”. Of mixed Cuban and Irish ancestry, Fariña was the seductive, good-looking, adventurous type. He died in a motorcycle accident in 1966, at 29, two days after launching his first and only novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me.
Fariña’s novel portrays the Cornell campus, where he and other students were fighting to change the rules against coeds returning to their dormitories late at night, thus preventing them from going out with the boys. Pynchon was not involved in the fight, but he remembers the moment “like a preview of the ’60s”. “We were never best friends, but we did like each other, and each other’s writing, and we hung out some, at parties,” the novelist wrote in an introduction to Fariña’s book. “We showed up once at a party, not a masquerade party, in disguise–he as Hemingway, I as Scott Fitzgerald, each of us aware that the other had been through a phase of enthusiasm for his respective author.”
In order to locate Pynchon acquaintances from his college days, I requested help from an American fan, Jonathan Glassow, who lives in the Los Angeles area. The 55-year-old insurance public servant tracked down all the addresses where the writer has lived and the names of the people Pynchon has related to in each place. Glassow has been feeding this archive since 2009. “I’d wake up at midnight to do the searches, but my wife started to get annoyed. So I decreased the pace. Now I’m concentrating on my family and reading books.”
Aware that Pynchon disapproves of snooping, I asked Glassow if he didn’t feel guilty about sniffing at the author’s heels. I myself had been wondering about the proper limits on my research. “Tom is famous whether he likes the fame or not. We live in a ‘celebrity’ culture, people like to know more about their idol or someone they admire,” justified the American fan, who has even hired a detective to track the writer.
Crises of conscience notwithstanding, I ended up contacting novelist David Shetzline, who lives in Oregon. Like Pynchon and Fariña, he used to write for the Cornell Writer, the campus literary rag. “We all thought of ourselves as pretty sharp, because we were, or we wouldn’t have been at Cornell, but Tom was the real thing. He had a genius. He did his homework more than the rest of us. I think we all secretly envied Pynchon’s particular brand of talent,” he confessed to me over the telephone. “Curiously, it was Dick Fariña we thought was going to make a reputation probably before the rest of us. In some ways, Dick Fariña did, but he did so because he was willing to perform as a singer, he was willing to write music, was willing to learn to play a guitar. At that time, I think we all acknowledged that there were two roads to go in American literature. You can take the Hemingway road, you’re biblical, you pay attention to language, you lay the work out in short, declarative sentences. Or the Faulkner route, you go to family, and the action is family ambiguity, a kind of repressed sexuality, it’s all the rest that you find within this soap opera of family, small town and gossip, like William Faulkner and later Tom.”
Pynchon reviewed Shetzline’s first book, DeFord, published in 1968: “What makes Shetzline’s voice a truly original and important one is the way he uses these interference-patterns to build his novel, combining an amazing talent for seeing and listening with a yarn-spinner’s native gift for picking you up, keeping you in the spell of the action, the chase, not letting go of you till you’ve said, ‘Yes, I see; yes, this is how it is.'” After college the two kept their friendship up for some time, exchanging letters and phone calls. “We talked about what we had been reading lately. Once in the ’60s he said he was reading Philip K. Dick, and I didn’t know who the fuck Philip K. Dick was. If he’d said ‘I’m reading Tolstoy’ or ‘I’m rereading Cortazar,’ it would have made sense to me, but here he comes up with the name of a science fiction writer.”
Shetzline’s daughter, Andrea, a nurse, used to ask Pynchon for his address. “Whenever I wanted to write him a letter, he used to say, ‘Well, I can’t give you the address, because a tree is about to fall on my house and I have to move,’” she recalled, laughing.
I also contacted Christopher Michael Curtis, who roomed with Fariña and Pynchon at Cornell. Former editor of the Cornell Writer, he has worked for more than fifty years for The Atlantic. “Pynchon minded his own business, he was quiet and really neat, very Catholic and a very smart guy. He spent all of his days in the class or in the library. Maybe it was too much of a fuss made over him, and he reacted different from the rest of us, who craved this attention. He got much more of it than the rest of us, who wanted it more but didn’t deserve it as much.”
When he finished college, Pynchon was dating a girl named Lilian Laufgraben. Her family was Jewish and preferred that their daughter marry a dentist with the same religion. Heartbroken, the writer turned to some friends for comfort, Mary Ann Tharaldsen and David Seidler, a couple living in Seattle. Tharaldsen worked for Boeing and arranged a job at the company for the young friend. At the time Pynchon was writing his debut novel, V. In the book there’s a Jewish girl, Esther, who gets a nose job. When the surgery was about to start, the character was still awake: “She felt passive, even (a little?) sexually aroused.” Later, “Esther’s eyes were wild; she sobbed quietly, obviously beginning to get second thoughts. ‘Too late now,’ Trench consoled her, grinning. ‘Lay quiet, hey.’” Pynchon takes several pages to describe the mutilation of the girl’s face, without sparing metaphors of sexual penetration. Many of his friends interpret the passage as the novelist’s revenge on Lilian Laufgraben.
As soon as V. was published in 1963, the author quit his job at Boeing and moved to Mexico City, where he believed he would spend less money. He hated Seattle. “It’s a nightmare. If there were no people in it, it would be beautiful,” he wrote in a letter to an old college friend. During a brief trip back to the United States, he started a relationship with Mary Ann Tharaldsen, which led to the end of her marriage.
I called David Seidler, the ex-husband. “Thomas Pynchon? I’d rather not talk about it, thanks,” he said sarcastically. He’s now a theater and film writer and won an Academy Award in 2011 for The King’s Speech. Like George VI, the film’s protagonist, Seidler was born in England and stuttered in his childhood.
Tharaldsen, a technical writer, now 80 and living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, told me a few details about their relationship. “Pynchon didn’t want to really communicate with anybody, except at that time I was the person that he would communicate with.” She agreed to live in Mexico when the two began their relationship. “I did not like it in Mexico…” The writer’s introspection also bothered her. “He wasn’t very present as a lover or a person. I wanted a relationship with someone who wanted to have children, and it became apparent to me that he really didn’t want to do that. He wanted to focus more on his writing.” After some time, the couple moved from Mexico to Texas, where they lived in separate houses. The novelist worked all night and slept all day. “So that isn’t very conducive to a relationship,” Tharaldsen recalled, laughing.
Pynchon’s Catholicism manifested itself mainly in his strict habits. In their five years together, Tharaldsen never saw her boyfriend smoke marijuana (there are reports that he took up weed later on). The author once got annoyed at his girlfriend when she said she wanted to have a drink during the day. “I will not tolerate midday drinking,” he shouted.
Some people guarantee that Tharaldsen served as the inspiration for Oedipa Maas, the protagonist of The Crying of Lot 49. The housewife ditches her husband, disc jockey Wendell “Mucho” Maas, and ventures to California chasing leads on an underground organization. The more she gets caught up in the search, the more she’s egged on by her own paranoia. Countless critics have claimed that Pynchon composes unidimensional and overly ludicrous characters. It’s certainly not the case with Oedipa Maas.
The novelist and Tharaldsen parted ways for good in the late ’60s, when the writer was finishing Gravity’s Rainbow at a house near the ocean in Manhattan Beach, a town near Los Angeles. Retired Army officer Jim Hall, Pynchon’s neighbor at the time, was dating a girl that the writer also knew. “When I met him for the first time, we were drinking wine at his house. Pynchon was very much into thermodynamics and there were stacks of Scientific American magazines in his apartment. My girlfriend said he didn’t want to read anything anybody else had written because he was afraid he’d write it into his work. Since I’d just gotten back from Vietnam, Pynchon asked me several questions about it.” Some of the critics claim that although Gravity’s Rainbow takes place in World War II, the book is about how Americans viewed the Vietnam War. I asked Hall if the novelist had shown paranoid traits at the time. “A little,” he replied. “But considering what we know today about the government’s covert operations at the time, he was right to act that way.”
The Army man eventually lost contact with the writer, but years later he spotted Pynchon on the street. “I was coming back from that Mexican restaurant, and he was obviously heading towards it. And there was a pay phone on the street. But he looks up and sees me and gets that expression on his face, like ‘I recognize you from somewhere.’ And I said, ‘Hi, Tom,’ and the payphone starts to ring. And he looks at me, looks at the payphone, turns around and runs in the other direction. It’s absolutely true, that’s what happened. I answered the pay phone. Why not? There was no one there.”
And in 1969, the novelist started seeing another friend’s partner, artist Chrissie Wexler, the wife of journalist Jules Siegel. The fact that Pynchon locked himself up at home for long periods of time to write may explain this pattern. It was simpler to have relationships with women he already knew. The aggrieved Siegel – who also went to Cornell – wrote an article in Playboy in 1977: “Who is Thomas Pynchon… And Why Did He Take Off With My Wife?”. “He was quiet and neat and did his homework faithfully. He went to Mass and confessed, though to what would be a mystery. He got $25 a week in spending money and managed it perfectly, did not cut class and always got grades in the high 90s. He was very tall ─ at least 6’2” ─ and thin but not skinny, with a pale face, fair eyes and a long, chiseled Anglo nose. He was ashamed of his teeth and did not smile much.” The article goes on to say that Pynchon loved piggybanks, since pigs were his favorite animal, and that he cracked dumb jokes.
According to Siegel, Chrissie Wexler comes across as a woman whose “beauty is a device used to deflect inquiry”. “It is easy to underestimate her intelligence, but it is a mistake. She is obviously too pretty to be serious, conventional wisdom would have you believe.” Siegel claims he would have liked to say he was “calm and noble” about the cheating, since he was not exactly faithful himself, but “that would be a lie”. The journalist concluded the article by revealing that “for the sake of the historical record, however, he was a wonderful lover, sensitive and quick.”
Chrissie Wexler commented, “Jules was exaggerating a lot of stuff for the magazine. He wrote like somebody who was in a gossip magazine. It was serious, it wasn’t like a cartoon. I’ve always been a serious person,” she lamented on the telephone in a high-pitched, emotion-laden voice. Siegel died in 2012. The two resumed their marriage after the affair, but it didn’t last long. Siegel and Wexler launched Lineland together, a book with questions and answers about Pynchon.
When she talks about her former lover, Wexler showers him with praise. “Thomas was very thin and very handsome, like a Romeo kind of guy. He was like an Italian lover, very, very sexy. He wasn’t interested in money. He had a very dry sense of humor, so that’s why we got along so well. He never hurt my feelings.” She believes that in the late ’60s, “He tried to be a hippie, but it wasn’t easy for him. He was a hard worker.”
Another college friend that holds a grudge against Pynchon is writer Kirkpatrick Sale. At Cornell, he and Pynchon conceived an unfinished play on a dystopic future in which ibm dominates the world. Sale later gained some notoriety for defending Luddism, a school of thought that is opposed to industrialization and new technologies. The theme permeates Pynchon’s books, and in 1984 it inspired an article by him in The New York Times: “Is It O.K. To Be A Luddite?” According to the author, the answer is yes.
In his most recent novel Bleeding Edge, Pynchon picks up the thread. “Nobody’s in control of the Internet,” says the main character to her father, who argues, “You serious? Believe that while you still can, Sunshine. You know where it all comes from, this online paradise of yours? It started back during the Cold War.” The father then assumes a sage-like air, delivering a speech on the origins of the web. “Yep, and your Internet was their invention, this magical convenience that creeps now like a smell through the smallest details of our lives, the shopping, the housework, the homework, the taxes, absorbing our energy, eating up our precious time. And there’s no innocence. Anywhere. Never was. It was conceived in sin, the worst possible.”
Sale agreed to communicate with me by e-mail, showing that he may be less of a Luddite than Pynchon with his fax. “My wife and I, about 10 years after we’d graduated, granted an interview about Pynchon to an obscure magazine, and we mentioned how he had been a good enough friend to sleep on green pads in my bachelor apartment and we put him up in our married apartment. Because of that, Pynchon never spoke to us again, wouldn’t even answer my letters.” The old college friend thought it was an unreasonable attitude. “’I’d gotten him to write an article for the New York Times Magazine when I was an editor there, and I was the first person to read Gravity’s Rainbow. I considered it a good, close friendship, although I have to say he was never very revealing of himself. So it was a hard blow when he cut us off. For which, of course, I will never forgive his stupidity.”
The period following publication of Gravity’s Rainbow in 1973 is more mysterious. Pynchon changed addresses a lot, leaving a trail mainly in California, according to Jonathan Glassow’s map. During this nomadic phase, which lasted about five years, questions arose about the writer’s true identity. Some claimed that he was no more than a pen name for J.D. Salinger. Others swore that the author was actually a secret organization or even the Unabomber terrorist.
In the early ’80s, Pynchon hooked up with Melanie Jackson, his literary agent’s employee and Theodore Roosevelt’s great-granddaughter. The couple decided to live in New York City, where they still are. Jackson broke off with her boss in 1981 and she herself took over as the novelist’s agent.
Sixteen years later, in 1997, when Mason & Dixon reached the bookstores, journalist Nancy Jo Sales of the New York magazine was parked in front of Pynchon’s apartment on the Upper West Side. “It took about 15 minutes for him to come out of the building,” she told me by e-mail. “I got out of the car and I followed him around a little bit, saw him go into a store. But I didn’t speak to him. It’s one of the few regrets of my life, the fact that I didn’t speak to him. As a reporter, I wanted to. But my editor told me not to disturb him. That was how strong this cult of Pynchon was, that we were sort of wary of even asking him a question.” The profile published in the magazine describes the daily routine of a typical New Yorker, a writer who raises his son, interacts with neighborhood issues, and walks a lot.
Not everyone shows as much respect as Nancy Jo Sales. In 1997, London Times correspondent James Bone retraced Jo Sales’ steps, but this time with a camera. The Sunday London Times Magazine thus published the first photograph of the author in four decades – a tall gentleman with a gray moustache and eyeglasses, under a hooded coat, holding his six-year-old son’s hand. No media channel has reproduced the photograph since, and the Times archives “don’t have it available”.
“When he realized I was taking a photograph of him, he put up his hood and closed his anorak around his face and strode across the street,” Bone recalled. “On the other side of Broadway, he stopped and he was talking to a woman. So I went across there and approached him when he was with this woman and his kid, and I just held up my hand as a handshake.” The writer’s response was hardly friendly: “Get your fucking hand away from me!”
Also in 1997, CNN reporter Charles Feldman tracked the writer. “Pynchon had an aura of being secretive and hermit-like, but he was out and about in Manhattan and was often seen by people who knew who he was. Was he genuinely not wanting to seek publicity, or was he using that to sort of build his reputation?” the journalist asked. “So we became intrigued as to which was the real Thomas Pynchon.” The CNN cameras showed Pynchon walking on the street with other pedestrians. The writer realized they were spying on him and called the channel. Feldman answered. Pynchon, of course, asked the network not to broadcast the scenes. In the middle of the phone conversation, Pynchon blurted, “My belief is that recluse is a code word generated by journalists … meaning, ‘doesn’t like to talk to reporters’.” Feldman made a point of saying that there was nothing threatening about the phone call. “It was a pleasant conversation.”
CNN finally decided to air the footage, but without identifying the novelist. An announcer simply said that Pynchon was among the passersby. “I thought at the time and still think it was a stupid thing to do, but the decision was out of my hands at that point,” remarked Feldman, who now works for a radio station.
Discovering the author of the CNN story became a perfect game for obsessed fans. Reader Richard Lane dissected the footage and presented his conclusions in an interview for the documentary Thomas Pynchon: A Journey into the Mind of P., by Swiss brothers Fosco and Donatello Dubini. Lane contends that in the network’s story, the writer is a man in a red cap. “Since the ’60s, this is a man who always wore drab colors. As you can see, that still continues,” the fan theorizes, referring to the pedestrian’s tan coat. “Here in the pocket we see a pen. Good news. It means that potentially he could be writing. In the pocket, there’s an indentation that could be a case for his glasses or a pack of cigarettes. We see a man who’s been hiding out from society, yet on the top of the brain that so interests us, there’s a red flag waving. And we look at the insignia on the cap and we try to work it out. It’s a large image. Is this a man saying to the world, I support this sports team? Is it a picture from fiction? Is it a cartoon character? It would be great if it was Porky Pig.”
“I just don’t think you ought to be writing about me. The sad truth is that you’re giving me much too much credit.” In an undated letter to an academic, the novelist revealed what he thinks of whoever investigates him obsessively and insists on annoying him. The letter’s recipient, who declined to identify himself for our article, used to publish essays in Pynchon Notes, a magazine that circulated from 1979 to 2009. “My own research [i.e., that Pynchon does before writing his own books] is nowhere near as deep or as conscientious as yours. It is, in fact, as shallow as I think I can get away with, because I don’t write ‘novels of ideas’. Plot and character come first, and the heavy thoughts and capitalized references and shit are in there to advance action, set scenes, fill in characters and so forth, and the less of it I have to do, the better for me, cause I’m lazy. Sorry to be the one to tell you.” The author closes with this sarcastic remark to the academic: “Of course silence is hard to interpret. If it wasn’t, they’d call it ‘English’ or something.”
In an article published in The New York Times in 1993, Pynchon returned to the capital sin that fascinates him the most. “Writers of course are considered the mavens of Sloth. It is of course precisely in such episodes of mental traveling that writers are known to do good work, sometimes even their best, solving formal problems, getting advice from Beyond, having hypnagogic adventures that with luck can be recovered later on. Idle dreaming is often of the essence of what we do. We sell our dreams.” Paradoxically, in another passage, the novelist admitted to being among those that feel “guilt and depression” because they consider themselves lazy. He also condemned the commodification of time in capitalism, which views sloth as a sin against productivity.
Pynchon’s most ruthless autobiographic report definitely surfaced in 1984 and serves as the introduction to Slow Learner, an anthology of short stories that the author wrote early in his career. “You may already know what a blow to the ego it can be to have to read over anything you wrote 20 years ago, even cancelled checks. My first reaction, rereading these stories, was oh my God, accompanied by the physical symptoms we shouldn’t dwell upon.” As he commented on each story, he blasted them with criticism. He calls the stories juvenile, tiresome, delinquent, pretentious, goofy, ill-considered, and embarrassing. He says he created escapist characters in The Small Rain and that Low-Lands contains “an unacceptable level of racist, sexist and proto-Fascist talk.” As if that were not enough, he acknowledges that he was influenced by the Beat Generation, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Norman Mailer, but that he used all of it poorly.
The novelist poked fun at himself again in 2004 when he agreed to appear on two episodes of The Simpsons. He dubbed his own avatar. In one of the episodes, Marge publishes a book about a whale hunter and asks the opinion of the writer, who’s wearing a paper bag over his head. “Here’s your quote: ‘Thomas Pynchon loved this book, almost as much as he loves cameras!’”, he says over the phone. After hanging up, he hangs a sign with his name around his neck and shouts to the cars passing on the street, “Hey, over here! Have your picture taken with a reclusive author! Today only, we’ll throw in a free autograph!” In the second appearance, the writer is supposed to call Homer “butthead”, but he deletes the joke from the script. “Sorry, guys. Homer is my role model and I won’t speak ill of him,” he explained in a letter faxed to the production.
And in Bleeding Edge, the plot takes place on the Upper West Side, precisely the Manhattan neighborhood where Pynchon lives. The novelist immediately draws on irony and calls the area the Yupper West Side, an allusion to the yuppies. The protagonist, Maxine, is married to a character that spends too much time in front of the TV set and lacks a bit of keen emotional intelligence. She walks to her children’s school to pick them up, like the writer has done for years. Whoever wants to know Pynchon’s opinions on American politics, 9-11, and his apartment house neighbors can simply read the novel. Like the author’s other books, the most recent one features situations and characters that relate to his own life.
If the novelist leaves clues about himself in his fiction, if he talks to the translators, if he has written biographical articles and introductions to friends’ novels, if he follows a mundane routine, what’s the mystery behind him? Ever since that bucktoothed 26-year-old appeared, the media and a major share of his fans have billed him as a recluse, as if the fact that Pynchon never gives interviews or allows photographs were proof of a neurosis. I use to believe that nonsense myself. But now I prefer to take the notion of reclusion out of the way. While I was digging into the writer’s career, I realized that knowing more or less about him does not change what I feel when I devour his books. Sincerely, and on this I came to agree with the author, Thomas Pynchon is not all that important for understanding Thomas Pynchon.