Sex, Drugs and Rocket Science

While Pynchon possesses a singular prose style and an enormous talent, he also publishes far too rarely.

Feature by Keir Hind | 12 Dec 2006
Every Weirdo in the World is on my wavelength, Thomas Pynchon once allegedly said. The words 'alleged' and 'reputed' feature heavily in anything about Pynchon, because he's the writer with the lowest public profile of them all. We don't know what he looks like - the last verifiable photographs of him are from the fifties. If he does have a public image, it's that of a recluse, yet he's also recently made two cameo appearances on The Simpsons (with a paper bag over his head). The writing – five works with a remarkably unique (and consistent) style written over a 40 year period – is compellingly bizarre, and may colour (or be coloured by) our image of the man himself. Why the feature on Pynchon now? His long awaited sixth book, Against the Day, has just been released.

Pynchon's writing style is dense, allusive, and extraordinarily distinctive. His bizarre plots involve things like V2 rockets, spying during the height of the British Empire, alligator hunting in the New York sewers, smoking dope (or is it?) with George Washington, and enormous conspiracies. His fictional characters have more daft names than The Skinny's writing staff. For example: Mike Fallopian, Rev. Cherrycoke, Dennis Flange, Tyrone Slothrop and Genghis Cohen. And you have to pay attention to all of this because it might all be significant to the grand 'scheme'. But maybe it isn't. The new book is reputedly more of the same. This is a good thing.

Pynchon's most famous, best, and probably most exemplary book is Gravity's Rainbow. Musician Laurie Anderson once got word to Pynchon that she'd like to make it into an opera, and he replied that she could, so long as it was entirely for the banjo. It never happened, but seems suitable enough. Featuring literally hundreds of characters, Gravity's Rainbow takes place over many different story strands, all of which may or may not indicate one or more conspiracies involving governments/cartels/mad scientists/secret societies. In 1974 it was - reportedly - recommended unanimously by the jury for the Pulitzer Prize to win the award itself, but the board who controlled the money - allegedly - refused to pay out, saying the book was "unreadable, turgid, overwritten, and obscene." Certainly Pynchon does divide opinion. Nobody got the Pulitzer that year, but Gravity's Rainbow did win the other biggie, the National Book Award. Pynchon typically didn't show at the ceremony - as far as we know anyway. And now Gravity's Rainbow is regarded as a classic.

Critics are now wondering whether Against the Day will follow suit. What little we know about this new book comes from a press release that Pynchon himself wrote, allegedly. Starting just before the turn of the century and moving through until World War One and slightly beyond, Pynchon says "With a worldwide disaster looming just a few years ahead, it is a time of unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places. No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred". It might be noted that this time period includes the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, whose great-granddaughter is one Melanie Jackson, who is, allegedly, the wife of Thomas Pynchon. The press release also states that "the author is up to his usual business" (good) and that means "stupid songs" (great) and "strange sexual practices" (nice) and "obscure languages" (fair enough) and that "contrary-to-the-fact occurrences occur", which is all excellent news.

The really good news is that this book is out at all, because while Pynchon possesses a singular prose style and an enormous talent, he also publishes far too rarely. The new book is around 1000 pages of dense prose, but on past form it has to be said that it will be worth the considerable effort it will take to read it.

(See this article on for alleged footage of post-50s Pynchon.)
Against the Day' is out now.

""Possible Footage of Pynchon , from Youtube"":

""Corroborating evidence that the footage is Pynchon"":