No, New York magazine book critic Boris Kachka did not talk to media-averse novelist Thomas Pynchon. But he seems to have interviewed pretty much everyone outside the immediate family of the man who gave us the funniest orgy scene in literature (Gravity's Rainbow) and a pot brownie-eating George Washington (Mason & Dixon). The result is as thorough biography of Pynchon as we've had in years.
When The Atlantic Wire learned that Kachka — who recently published Hothouse, a generally well-received history of Farrar, Straus and Giroux — had written a longform piece on Pynchon, we asked him with a very simple question: had he interviewed the impossible-to-interview Thomas Pynchon?
Quickly came the email reply: "no way, you crazy?" In a subsequent phone conversation, Kachka explained to The Wire that he tried to contact Pynchon's agent and wife, Melanie Jackson, but got "no response at all." He managed to contact Pynchon's sister, but as soon as she learned of his intentions, she sweetly said, "I'm gonna have to hang up now."
Yet Kachka persisted, sifting through public records, going out to Pasadena to look at the collected files of Pynchon historian Stephen Tomaske, trying to piece together Pynchon's childhood in affluent but stifling Eisenhower-era Long Island. The result is an article highly worth reading — one that ought to be expanded into a book, if our opinion counts for anything.
But if you can't get through its 7,000 words until the weekend, below is a brief digest.
- "[I]t's pronounced 'Pynch-ON,'" opens Kachka's piece. Considering most everyone says PYN-chon, that's certainly useful.
- He lives on the Upper West Side — "Yupper West Side" in his forthcoming novel Bleeding Edge. Kachka dug through real estat records to discover that he and his wife — a descendant of Teddy Roosevelt — own a prewar classic six appraised at $1.7 million.
- His ancestor Pinco de Normandie "came to England at the side of William the Conqueror." The family, then "Pyncheons," is referenced by Nathaniel Hawthorne in The House of the Seven Gables. Another relative was a president of Trinity College in Hartford.
- His father was a Republican engineer in tony Oyster Bay, L.I who "remembered saluting fellow congregant Teddy Roosevelt at church." He became a town official, only to be accused of graft. Pynchon's mother may have had a drinking problem; Kachka relates a tale in which she "accidentally puncture[d] his father's eye with a clothespin."
- A long-ago Pynchon girlfriend tells Kachka that the writer's IQ is "somewhere in the 190s." That makes him rather smart.
- While at Cornell, he and friend Kirkpatrick Sale wrote an operetta called "Minstrel Island," "about a land to which artists escaped from a square America ruled by IBM."
- After graduating, he worked for Boeing in Seattle, writing technical copy. He called Seattle "a nightmare. If there were not people in it it would be beautiful."
- He once, apparently very briefly, lived in Houston. This somehow explains more than it ought to.
- He agreed to appear on The Simpsons because his son liked the show.
- David Foster Wallace once wrote to Jonathan Franzen of Pynchon, "I get the strong sense he's spent twenty years smoking pot and watching T.V."
- Today, Pynchon probably has a mustache. Kachka does not think the mustache is "prominent."
We don't want to give away too much. Read the article. Then read the novels. You will enjoy both.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.