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  • Darkness Visible:Pynchon at Seventy
  • William E. Engel (bio)
Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day. Penguin, 2006. 1,120 pages. $35.

It is amusingly ironic that, like a character in one of his own postmodern novels, Thomas Pynchon's shunning of publicity is well publicized. When tracked down by a cnn crew in 1997, he said a few words so they would not [End Page 660] run any images of him: "My belief is that recluse is a code word generated by journalists meaning, 'doesn't like to talk to reporters.'" The last verifiable photograph of him was taken in 1957. With Pynchon now seventy (his birth-date is a matter of public record), it is time to consider his place in American letters. His most recent novel, Against the Day, coming ten years after his last, Mason & Dixon, provides a suitable occasion to reflect on his career.

Pynchon may well be the direct literary descendant of Herman Melville. His novels are populated by versions of Bartleby, suffused with a darkness of domestic decline recalling Pierre, and filled with hoaxes and suspicion that make The Confidence-Man seem cheery. Against the Day is more like Moby-Dick than his previous novels. It is not that Pynchon followed Moby-Dick as Joyce followed the Odyssey, but that the episodic form, encyclopedic detail, tales-within-tales, sermons, brooding reveries, and drive toward entropy suggest more than a passing affinity.

Entropy is at the heart of Pynchon's writing. This scientific principle concerning the disintegration of physical energy is transposed by Pynchon onto ethics. Without having the engineering background that makes acquaintance with entropy palpable in a real-world sense (Pynchon wrote for Boeing in the early 1960s), writers as different as Paul Auster and Don DeLillo have been influenced by this idea. The complex interplay of physics and literary design is evident in one of Pynchon's first stories, "Entropy," published in the Kenyon Review (1960). In hindsight it can be seen as a manifesto and a blueprint for the handful of novels upon which his reputation now rests.

His first novel, V (1963), for which he earned the Faulkner Foundation Award, is a quest narrative more like Melville's Mardi than critics have recognized. It charts the search for a woman believed to have unearthly powers. His second book, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), follows a similar pattern of a conspiracy on the verge of being revealed; but, unlike V, it has a female protagonist on the trail of a far-flung and transtemporal secret society. Pynchon honed his craft in this novel with one of his most memorable characters, Oedipa Maas, who, like her Theban namesake, seeks to answer a riddle that will be her undoing. A part of The Crying of Lot 49 appeared a year before its publication in Esquire (December 1965). That Pynchon, or his editor or agent, printed such a teaser in a magazine pitched to a sophisticated audience suggests what class of reader was envisioned for his work.

True notoriety came to Pynchon with Gravity's Rainbow (1973), for which he received the National Book Award. He later declined the William Dean Howells Medal, the only honoree to do so since its inception in 1925. In Gravity's Rainbow the Ishmael-figure is an American soldier crisscrossing "the Zone" after World War ii, searching for a rocket capable of breaking the earth's gravitational barrier. Pynchon's telltale evocation of paranoia, grotesquerie, and scientific esoterica reaches its apogee in this novel.

Seventeen years later Vineland (1990) hit closer to home, set in 1984 (recalling Orwell's chilling dystopia) amidst cuts in public programs during [End Page 661] the Reagan administration. In what has become typical of Pynchon's literary double-reverses, running parallel to his bifurcated view of American culture, Vineland narratively mirrors the extent to which government creates its own fictional system that insinuates itself into the nation's popular consciousness—and vice versa.

Pynchon casts his satirical eye farther into the past in his more recent work. Mason & Dixon (1997) follows Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, best known for fixing the border between Pennsylvania (founded by Quakers) and Maryland (a refuge for Roman...


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