Thomas Pynchon Returns to New York, Where He's Always Been

Though he's lived in New York since the early 1990s, after decades of living an oddly fugitive existence in and out of America, Thomas Pynchon now seems, at last, to have arrived.

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Though he's lived in New York City since the early 1990s, after decades of a famously fugitive existence in and out of America, Thomas Pynchon now seems, at last, to have moved in.

Bleeding Edge, his new novel, to be published in September, takes place in a pre-9/11 Gotham where an independent investigator named Maxine Tarnow navigates the city’s growing body of “bloggers, hackers, code monkeys, and entrepreneurs,” a.k.a. Silicon Alley, the name taken by tech companies clustered in lower Manhattan. The book’s setting is unusually personal: after all, Pynchon, who is 76 and grew up in Nassau County, has methodically avoided being photographed or interviewed during the course of a 50-year career in fiction that came to define postmodern literature.

It is also something of a homecoming: Bleeding Edge is Pynchon's second work since V., his first book published 50 years ago, to be situated primarily in New York. But what kind of homecoming? Edge arrives nearly seven years after Against the Day, a sprawling historical fiction in which Pynchon barely conceals his contempt for the city, described in the narration as the "Cabinet of Ultimate Illusion" and by one character as "a nexus of known depravity." In a sad scene, a waitress warns a visitor of Manhattan's glittering terrain: "It all looks a lot more wonderful than it is." Pynchon's New York is that of Fitzgerald and Salinger: suspicious, excessive, and permanently corrupt. The perfect place to watch the dot-com bubble burst.

Having breathed New York's air for more than two decades, half a century after his childhood in Glen Cove, Long Island — a 90 minute train ride away from Penn Station — Pynchon certainly knows the city well. But by placing his novel so close to home, he draws a rare sort of attention to himself, to the environment where he happens to write and live, to his fraught relationship with his surroundings. This is an odd feat for a so-called recluse, especially a literary one, to attempt.

He has, of course, hidden pretty well among a city of 8.2 million people during a time when he has accumulated admirers (and hanger-ons), racked up literary awards, inspired controversy after controversy over his secrecy, raised a family, and even appeared, in voice only, on The Simpsons. Like so many other New Yorkers, he has lived a fairly normal life — unlike Jonathan Franzen, Pynchon never appeared on the cover of Time — while maintaining a subtle but powerful influence over the country's broader culture. It seems urgent, then, to figure out where Pynchon fits into it. And who, of course, Pynchon really is.

Who is Thomas Pynchon?

For a certain member of New York’s literary set, it may not come as a surprise that Thomas Pynchon is difficult to track down. Efforts to do so seem at once pointless and invasive, yet also fascinating, given the amount of energy their subject spends escaping the roving eyes of reporters. There are just four extant photos of him as an adult; two, at most, are recognizably Pynchon. According to Bling Ring author Nancy Jo Sales, who used a publicly-available directory to find his Manhattan apartment in 1997, Pynchon’s associates and friends almost always decline to comment on his whereabouts, apparently for fear of being cut off by him.

Locating the man, for the average person, is next to impossible. The same goes for his family members, even those who aren't exactly hiding in the shadows. For example, his wife, Melanie Jackson, operates a literary agency on 72nd Street in a building known, improbably, as The Hermitage. But when we showed up a few weeks ago, the building’s doorman indicated that Jackson does not take visitors without an appointment. When we tried to schedule one, Jackson’s secretary refused to do so, citing her boss’s policy of not granting interviews, on- or off-the-record, to reporters.

Pynchon’s early origins are less than mysterious, however. Thomas Ruggles Pynchon was born in Nassau County in 1937; attended Cornell for two years before enlisting in the Navy, which took him to Italy; returned to Cornell to graduate in 1959 (see picture at right); and later drafted V. while editing technical manuals for Boeing in Seattle. Following V.’s publication in 1963, he darted across North America — fans spotted him in Manhattan Beach; Berkeley; and, according to The New York Times, an undisclosed location in Mexico — before reappearing, supposedly for good, in New York, where he married Jackson, who had been his literary agent since 1983. Together they had a son, Jackson Pynchon, who graduated from Columbia University last month.

In his wandering phase, during which he completed The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow, a number of outré theories about Pynchon’s identity festered. The most famous remains that “Thomas Pynchon” was in fact an elaborate authorial personality devised by fellow recluse J.D. Salinger; the craziest was that Pynchon, using the name “Wanda Tinasky,” had authored a series of letters to a small California newspaper in the mid-'80s. These fantasies continued even after he settled down to raise a family. Members of the rock band Lotion fooled a New Yorker writer into reporting that Pynchon had become a groupie of theirs. However, the last report contained a kernel of fact: Pynchon did in fact author, for some reason, the liner notes for the band's 1996 album Nobody's Cool.

It is not clear why he so intently avoids the public eye. His literary peers — Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Don DeLillo, among others — regularly appeared before the masses, either to teach fiction or grant interviews about this or that upcoming book. By contrast, Pynchon appears to interact only with people in his own line of work, attending (reportedly) the odd book party and furnishing blurbs for novels he happens to have read and liked. It’s equally unclear how principled his avoidance of others is. “There’s some circumstantial evidence,” one Pynchon obsessive told New York in 1996, “that Pynchon felt a growing dissatisfaction with the idea of the writer as celebrity. If Norman Mailer or Truman Capote picked up a pen, it had become news. And it struck Pynchon as unseemly.”

His life’s trappings complicate this theory, though. Through his wife, Pynchon remains firmly lodged in New York's publishing industry. His son, Jackson, attended Manhattan’s elite Collegiate School before matriculating, after a year at Vassar, to Columbia. On the rare occasion Pynchon reviews a book, he places his thoughts in The New York Times. He is, by any definition, literary nobility. And if he’s not a celebrity, it’s because he believed he was in danger of becoming one.

Photographing Pynchon

“Recluse,” Pynchon told CNN in 1997, “is a code word generated by journalists.” Indeed, the novelist is not the typical loner. Others popularly regarded recluses — the filmmaker Terrence Malick, Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder, the late novelist J.D. Salinger — have either made peace with the intruding public (witness Malick’s accidental appearance on TMZ a year ago), disappeared almost completely (Swartzwelder), or, in the case of Salinger, retreated into rural New England. Instead, Pynchon settled in New York City.

His proximity to the world’s media conglomerates and the heart of America’s literary establishment has made him an easy target for investigation, and, indeed, he has been staked out, trailed, and surreptitiously photographed on multiple occasions. Excluding his youth, when he appeared in several school yearbooks and an official military portrait, the adult Pynchon, or parts of his body, has appeared in publicly available photographs on just four occasions: in the Los Angeles Times, with only his arm and hand (giving the peace sign) visible; in New York magazine, from behind; on CNN, walking past a television crew in a red baseball cap; and in Britain’s Sunday Times, facing a photographer stationed 100 feet away. The bulk of these photographs appeared in the late 1990s, on the occasion of Pynchon’s 1997 novel Mason & Dixon, his first significant book after Gravity’s Rainbow in 1973.

It is not quite true, however, that no other photographs or films of Pynchon exist. Unlike, say, Salinger, who nested in the woods of New Hampshire beginning in 1953, Pynchon works and lives in a borough so dense with CCTV cameras that anyone who walks down any of its streets (as Pynchon frequently does) is not merely photographed but filmed, often from multiple angles, their movements instantly preserved on the hard drives of hundreds, possibly thousands, of security systems. Presumably he rides the subway; he shops, undisguised, throughout his neighborhood. New York is no cork-lined bedroom. In this sense, Pynchon is perfectly fine with being recorded; if he weren’t, he wouldn’t live here.

What he really doesn’t like is being recognized for who he is, by people he does not know. This odd dynamic culminated in a bizarre report on CNN in 1997, during which the network showed Pynchon walking down the street in a brief clip sandwiched between B-roll footage of other Manhattanites doing the same — but refused, upon Pynchon’s request and “much debate” among CNN's staff, to specify which individual was Pynchon:

Maybe this isn't so strange, though. Pynchon’s long-running allergy to attention, to even being seen and photographed, seems to have anticipated, by several decades, our country's massively expanded security apparatus, and the swell of recent reports exposing its inner workings. It seems like no coincidence, then, that he would set his new novel on the cusp of the event that gave birth to the 21st century surveillance state, in the city which, despite his own nomadic history, is the closest thing to home.

Pynchon as Performance Artist

These separate strands — his systemic seclusion; his city of dwelling; the media’s intense interest in his life — tend to inform the experience of reading Pynchon. You can’t consume any of his novels without forming a curiosity about their perplexing creator. Other novelists, most famously David Foster Wallace, have inspired the same kind of intense biographical interest.  But regard for Wallace, unlike Pynchon, arguably arose from the words on the page, not the quasi-private life of the person who arranged them. Wallace never declared a far-reaching aversion to human contact outside the publishing industry. Pynchon the human being, on the other hand, has always distracted from, if never exactly overshadowed, Pynchon the novelist — the precise outcome Pynchon supposedly tried, for decades, to avoid.

Or did he? Could the attention drawn to his private life have been shrewdly intentional? It is uncertain whether Pynchon would have achieved the same kind of immortal literary fame had he not encouraged his readers, knowingly or otherwise, to construct the extratextual mystique surrounding him. After all, he is not read by absolutely everyone, which is to say that none of his novels have penetrated the high school canon. Pretty much all college freshmen show up having read The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, Slaughterhouse-Five, probably The Color Purple, and at least one of Toni Morrison’s earlier novels. But English instructors almost never task students with Pynchon. Even the short Crying of Lot 49 is regarded as too knotty for high schoolers to appreciate. At the same time, he writes novels of great ambition and force, novels that not only capture the time but, beginning with Gravity’s Rainbow, transform the medium.

What James Joyce attempted with Ulysses — "I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality," he once said of his dominant novel — perhaps Pynchon accomplished with his life.

That life, then, feels as labyrinthine and disconcerting as Pynchon's own novels, each rumor and story another plot line to be traced, each sign of his humanity — a picture, a video, an appearance at a party — a moment of conflict, even crisis, between the author's pursuit of artistic permanence and the readers and critics seeking the man behind the name “Thomas Pynchon.” Having written a novel about pre-terror New York, in New York, Pynchon may be trying to redeem the public's often hostile scrutiny by depicting the moment when our attention irreversibly shifted from dot-com excess to overwhelming fear. By recognizing attention as equally powerful and fickle, invisible yet invasive, perhaps Pynchon, rather than wholesale rejecting it, wants to redirect it toward what matters, now and here, in New York and beyond.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.