5 May 2003
Bombs from nowhere
Thomas Pynchon’s career as one of the 20th century’s most elusive celebrities began in 1963. The 26-year-old’s first novel, V, received a rave review in the New York Times, and Time magazine dispatched a photographer to Mexico City, where the author lived. According to legend, Pynchon jumped out of his apartment window to evade the snapper, and took a bus to the mountains. From then on, he systematically evaded the public eye, refusing to talk to journalists or be photographed; he did not even turn up at the ceremony where Gravity’s Rainbow was honoured with the National Book Award in 1974.
And so the literary genius became a near-mythical figure, a counter-cultural shadow who could never be tracked down. The stories of people who knew him, and people who wish they had, are collected in a new documentary film entitled Thomas Pynchon: A Journey into the Mind of [P.], directed by Fosco and Donatello Dubini. The interviewees cannot even agree on what he looked like: some remember his eyes as green, others swear that they were blue.
One writer, Jules Siegel, tells how his wife ran off with Pynchon in the 1960s, and alleges, bizarrely, that Pynchon was involved with the US government’s LSD experiments on unwitting subjects. Others tell anecdotes of Pynchon haunting bookshops in disguise, or turning up incognito at Pynchon-lookalike parties. The man himself, of course, is nowhere to be seen.
One of the weirdest rumours about Pynchon that circulated in the early 1990s, and which the new film does not discuss, was that he was the Unabomber. On the face of it, there are certain philosophical parallels between Pynchon and the real Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, who terrorised victims over two decades by sending explosive packages from his log-cabin hideout in rural Montana. Kaczynski was caught after his brother read the 30,000-word “Manifesto” Kaczynski submitted to US newspapers, and which was printed in full by the Washington Post in 1995. The Manifesto, a tract of romantic primitivism, calls for a “revolutionary” dismantling of modernity and a new life that is “closer to nature”. Throughout, it expresses a paranoid-conspiratorial view of what Kaczynski refers to as “the industrial-technological system”. This parallels Pynchon’s interest in espionage, governmental control and powerful secret societies, such as the alternative postal system in The Crying of Lot 49.
Kaczynski worries about the destructive power of science; Pynchon’s own ambivalence on the subject is expressed in the symbolism of the Nazi V-2 rocket that saturates Gravity’s Rainbow. Indeed, in 1984 Pynchon wrote an article for the New York Times Book Review entitled “Is it OK to be a Luddite?”. Rather than a simple call to smash the machines, however, this is a historical analysis of various forms of Luddism and an overview of the challenges posed to modern society by technology.
The FBI’s iconic pencil sketch of the Unabomber, in hooded sweatshirt and sunglasses, also seemed similar to reports of Pynchon’s preferred incognito apparel. But of course the crude anti-ironism of sending explosives through the post was hardly Pynchon’s style: his novels were his bombs, packaged charges of transformative argument delivered from a carefully guarded nowhere.
In the modern industrialised world, the US seems to have had more celebrated recluses than anywhere else, from 19th-century woodsman Henry David Thoreau to William Randolph Hearst in his final years, and bacteriophobic plutocrat Howard Hughes throughout the 1960s. Partly this may be because it is such a huge country that it is just easier to cut oneself off. But there is also a grand American literary tradition of romantic frontiersmanship, most influentially expressed in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” (1841) and Thoreau’s book Walden: Life in the Woods (1854). The Unabomber was influenced in part by this tradition, and lived as solitary an existence as he could manage.
The most notorious literary recluse of all, JD Salinger, is at least as famous for staying holed up for decades in Cornish, New Hampshire, as for his published output. But Salinger’s notion of solitude is more Greta Garbo than Thoreau. In 1974, he filed a lawsuit against the editor of a book of his short stories whose publication he had not authorised, and, in case no one noticed, he phoned the New York Times to tip it off. Salinger cultivates a hermit’s mystique, and wants to make sure everyone knows about it. This mode of celebrity is, of course, a useful smokescreen for his failure to publish any new writing in nearly 40 years.
Pynchon does not fit into this mould. He has continued to write, and rather than fleeing society, he has almost always lived in large conurbations: Mexico City, Los Angeles and, for the past 30 years, New York. These days he lives in Manhattan’s Upper West Side and often takes his son to school. He is apparently cordial to those who approach him in the street, and he often writes generous blurbs for other authors’ books. But he does not want to be photographed.
Naturally, this only makes people more eager to take his picture. In 1997, a CNN crew spent days staking out Pynchon in New York, eventually capturing him on film. After the novelist’s heated objections, they finally broadcast three minutes of footage of street scenes without identifying the one-second clip that featured Pynchon himself. Some fans believe they have identified the man nevertheless, and the Dubinis’ film ends with a digitally enhanced loop of the man in army-surplus jacket and red baseball cap that one contributor believes to be Pynchon. The “fan” who has enhanced the clip affects sadness that Pynchon has finally been “caught”, even as he gazes at the TV monitor with something like possessive lust.
Whatever the reason for Pynchon’s refusal to be photographed or filmed (whether it is because he is embarrassed about his buck teeth, which, according to one old acquaintance, he thought made him look like Bugs Bunny, or whether he simply does not wish to be recognised and therefore hassled everywhere he goes), this alone does not make him a Salingerian recluse. In his telephone conversation with CNN, Pynchon said: “My belief is that ‘recluse’ is a codeword generated by journalists … meaning, ‘doesn’t like to talk to reporters’.”
And this is the real basis for the perception of Pynchon as reclusive. In an age of personality-led coverage, where novelists are marketed on their looks rather than their prose, Pynchon’s stance is a two-fingered V to the entire industry. By refusing to trade his personality (or even a substitute persona engineered for public consumption) in return for the dubious rewards of a magazine cover, he tells everyone who works in the celebrity economy that they are redundant. This enrages those journalists, all too many in number, who believe that a novel is something difficult and rebarbative, and that the real story is always the person who wrote the novel, what they ordered for lunch and what kind of wallpaper they have in their house. Pynchon thus commits the same offence that has made the Reverend in his most recent novel, Mason & Dixon, an outcast: “‘Twas one of the least tolerable of Offenses in that era, the worst of Dick Turpin seeming but the carelessness of Youth beside it, – the Crime they styl’d ‘Anonymity’.”
And so, in puny revenge, the media paints its victim as a recluse, an eccentric, a kind of sub-person to be pitied for his failure to appreciate the worth of Hello! culture, and disseminates rumours about his penchant for transvestite disguise as proof of this disability. Nor are Pynchon’s legion of obsessive fans, who trade the writer’s letters for $15,000 and swap anecdotes of possible meetings in cyberspace, immune from similar charges.
The film by the Dubini brothers, too, is inevitably symptomatic of this culture of resentment, this anti-literary stalker mentality. Rather than a “journey into the mind” of Thomas Pynchon, it is a journey into the minds of those who can never be satisfied with some of the greatest American fiction of the 20th century, who need a face to hang it on. They may, thanks to CNN, have won that trivial battle. But Pynchon’s lasting victory, in his novels, is to have insisted on the primacy of voice in an economy of evanescent image.