Working as an archival assistant at the Library of Congress about a dozen years ago, I had the memorable and never-to-be-repeated experience of discovering a letter by Thomas Pynchon. It was written early in his career, when his aversion to the public spotlight was known only to friends -- rather than being, as it is now, a somewhat paradoxical claim to fame.
Pynchon has never given an interview. The most widely used portrait of him is taken from a school yearbook. (He was a member of the Class of 1953 at Oyster Bay High, on Long Island.) The biographical note accompanying Against the Day -- his sixth novel, to be published next week by Penguin -- lists only the titles of his earlier books and the fact that one of them, Gravity's Rainbow, won the National Book Award in 1974.
The NEW novel itself is long (not quite 1,100 pages) and dense, sometimes brilliant and sometimes tiresome, and occasionally very silly (the cameo appearance, for example, by Elmer Fudd). It is also remarkably resistant to capsule summary. Oh, what the hell. Here goes anyway: Against the Day is a historical novel about the secret relationship among dynamite, photography, and multidimensional vector spaces that treats the emergence of the 20TH century Zeitgeist from a clash between revolutionary anarchism and the plutocratic Establishment. See?
To discuss the book adequately would demand a seminar lasting four months, which is also the ideal period required for reading the book -- instead of the four days it took one reviewer, who then promptly had a mild nervous breakdown. Something about Pynchon's work incites academic commentary. At least four scholarly books have already been devoted to his last novel, Mason & Dixon (1997). Even someone who enjoys him without feeling the itch to exegesis will probably feel driven, at some point, to do supplemental reading. Partway through “Against the Day,” for example, I found it urgent to go read an encyclopedia article on the history of theories regarding ether, the substance once thought to permeate even "empty" space.
Pynchon doesn't simply drop references to (now-discredited) scientific concepts. Rather, he builds them into the imaginative architecture of his work. While reading his novels, some part of one's attention is inevitably kept busy drawing up a list of remedial reading assignments.
With Pynchon, then, we have a unique combination. He writes maximalist fiction -- each page covered in the stuff of his supersaturated brain -- while maintaining a minimalist public profile. That is no small trick, given a culture industry constantly driven to manufacture celebrities out of practically nothing. (Pynchon himself has pushed the paradox a little further by lending his voice to "The Simpsons," in a bit available here.)
The situation has had some curious effects, even among academics interested in his work. Maybe especially among them.
In the early 1990s, the story began circulating that Pynchon had published a large number of letters in a small-town newspaper in northern California under the pseudonym of Wanda Tinasky, a homeless and perhaps mildly deranged old woman with a strange sense of humor. Learned people argued about Pynchon's possible authorship with great passion and total seriousness. Covering the debate for Lingua Franca, I spoke with one estimable literary scholar who did not so much answer my questions as deliver a formal and exactly worded declaration, as carefully prepared as an official diplomatic statement about nuclear testing in North Korea.
It was all plenty strange. The debate over authorship turned out to be a lot more interesting than the letters themselves, which were eventually published as a book. While there must be a few die-hard Tinasky-ites still around, the matter is now largely forgotten. (For an update, check out this interesting Wikipedia article.)
But one small detail from the debate, mentioned almost in passing by someone I interviewed, has stuck in mind over the years. It seems that Pynchon, while living in California in the 1980s, had a driver's license. Not such a big deal, in itself, of course. But researchers knew this because one of them had acquired a copy of it (through what sounded like rather dubious means) from the database of the Department of Motor Vehicles.
As one of the "Proverbs for Paranoids" in Gravity's Rainbow says, "You hide, they seek."
As it happens, I was not actually seeking Pynchon when I came across an actual letter by him, sometime around 1993. It seems to have gone undiscussed in the secondary literature in the meantime. Consider the following, then, a modest contribution to the collective enterprise of Pynchon scholarship and/or stalking.
The discovery occurred while I was processing a collection for the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. Archival processing is an activity often best described as sorting dead people's mail. In this case, that was quite literally true. The deceased was Stanley Edgar Hyman, a contributor to The New Yorker and a professor of English at Bennington College, who died in 1970.
He had been married to Shirley Jackson, of "The Lottery" fame. Chances are, the library accepted his papers mainly to get hers. A senior archivist concentrated on organizing Jackson's manuscripts and scrapbooks. But I was more than content to get the job of going through the boxes of her husband's literary remains.
While not particularly well-remembered now, Hyman occupied an interesting place in American cultural history. His book The Armed Vision: A Study in the Methods of Modern Literary Criticism (1948), provided one of the standard postwar surveys of critical theory. (Irving Howe once compared reading it to taking the elevator at Macy's department store: "First floor, symbols. Second floor, myths (rituals to the rear on your right). Third floor, ambiguities and paradoxes....")
Hyman had been a student of the sui generis cultural theorist Kenneth Burke. And both were, in turn, friends of Ralph Ellison, well before the novelist published Invisible Man in 1952. All of them had spent time at Bennington, drinking hard. Then they went home and wrote him fantastic letters. My job was to sort them, of course, not read them. But, well....
Then one day, in a mass of miscellaneous items, there turned up a short letter of two paragraphs, typed on a piece of graph paper. It was dated 8 December 1965, and was signed "yours truly, Thomas Pynchon." At that point, he had published a handful of short fiction and one novel, V., which Hyman had reviewed, favorably, when it appeared in 1963.
Eyes wide, I read as Pynchon turned down the "flattering and attractive" offer to come teach at Bennington. He did so, he said, "with much pain, don't ask where" -- explaining that he had resolved, two or three years earlier, to write three novels all at the same time. Pynchon hinted that it was not going well, and called the decision "a moment of temporary insanity." But he also said he was "too stubborn to let any of them go, let alone all of them," and thought that teaching would distract him, "given the personal limitations involved." He thanked Hyman for the invitation, and also praised Hyman's analysis of V. as "criticism at its best."
It was modest. It was polite. A few months later, he published The Crying of Lot 49 -- maybe one of the novels driving him to distraction, maybe not. Unfortunately there were no more letters from Pynchon in the collection -- nor did this one provide any indication where he was when he wrote it. (The return address he gave was that of his literary agent in New York.)
As a clue into the mystery of Thomas Pynchon, then, it seems like a pretty small thing. I hadn't thought about it at all in a long time, in fact -- until a stray reference in his new book brought it back to mind.
As readers will soon be able to see for themselves, Against the Day certainly feels like a man writing two or three novels at the same time. Whole dissertations will be written about how the different parts and layers create a consciousness-bending structure in four-dimensional spacetime. But it was the passing mention of a two-dimensional surface that gave me a slightly deja vu-like feeling. At one point, a character reaches for "a block of paper quadrilled into quarter-inch squares."
Graph paper, that is, exactly like the kind Pynchon used for his letter. More than a coincidence, but less than meaningful? Like Oedipa Maas at the end of Lot 49, I'm really not sure.