Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  

Pynchon, Thomas

Entry updated 18 March 2024. Tagged: Author.

Icon made by Freepik from


(1937-    ) US author who began to publish work of genre interest with "Mortality and Mercy in Vienna" in Epoch Magazine for Spring 1959; all of his works are Fabulations in that most of them resemble sf under some interpretations (see also Fantastika), and Against the Day (2006) is undoubtedly sf. Though the Paranoia-wracked worlds his protagonists inhabit may defeat any secure reading of the malign figurations of reality, the narrative patterning of most of his work is Equipoisal. In his first novel, V (1963; rev 1963), various dovetailing quests for a character named V embody the physical shape of the title, while inducing vortices of psychosis in the cast; the woman who may be V is dead before the tale begins, her dismembered body proving to have been constructed out of mechanical parts and bricolage, her resemblance to the eponymous Cyborg in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Man that Was Used Up" (August 1839 Burton's Gentleman's Magazine) not being, perhaps, coincidental. Automata crop up throughout the book, whose paradigm protagonist figure is named Stencil.

Much more concisely, The Crying of Lot 49 (portion December 1965 Esquire as "The World [This One], the Flesh [Mrs. Oedipa Maas], and the Testament of Pierce Inverarity"; 1966) presents a complex conspiracy theory of history, possibly (though nothing is clear: Entropy as always fogs the mirror) operated through a secret postal system called Tristero run for centuries on the behalf of Secret Masters, the last of whom may have been the late Inverarity: a secret to be unveiled in an auction of his effects; and Maas's hegira from the safety of northern California to the conspiratorial nightmarishness of the south neatly models the Californian drama of geography: the north nestled within mountains, the south balanced over crashing tectonic plates.

A reading in terms of Fantastika would suggest that a literal understanding of the tale is intended, though the epistemological abysses of its unfolding are so extreme and compressed that any "success" Maas might have making it all seem real could be laid down to apophenia, a mental state whose victims compulsively perceive meaningful patterns in everything (it is distinguished from Paranoia by the fact that these perceived patterns are not seen as inimically directed at those who perceive them). In any case, the tale seems to have influenced Robert Shea's and Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus! trilogy (1975), where Perceptions do cash out. It is certainly the case that if the planetary Communications network called Tristero does exist, then the closing sentences of The Crying of Lot 49 are a paradigm example of the Slingshot Ending:

An assistant closed the heavy door on the lobby windows and the sun. [...] Passerine spread his arms in a gesture that seemed to belong to the priesthood of some remote culture; perhaps to a descending angel. The auctioneer cleared his throat. Oedipa settled back, to await the crying of lot 49.

Though it is not caught in mazes of epistemology like its predecessor, the enormous and complex Gravity's Rainbow (1973) offers no repose for an easy reading, but the gonzo accumulation of Paranoia-inducing images of World War Two, in which the tale is set, does embed into the narrative an sf understanding of the capacity of its main protagonist to predict (and perhaps to attract) V-2 attacks according to his orgasms (see Prediction); his powers are unfolded in oneiric counterpoint to a vision of the West descending into Technology-tormented chaos, into a future with no map – no text – for humans (see Amnesia) to read, and who therefore suffer Vastation (see Eschatology; Horror in SF). The walking dead in the Aftermath tale Vineland (1990) are however – it is almost certain – not literally posthumous, though the grief for the America that by 1984 is disappearing combines desiderium for a land of lost content and proleptic glimpses of times to come.

Mason & Dixon (1997), told from within a Club Story frame by the heterodox Reverend Cherrycoke to his huge family, fantasticates the historical experiences of Charles Mason (1728-1786) and Jeremiah Dixon (1733-1779), who laid down the Mason-Dixon Line dividing Pennsylvania from more southern states in terms both geographical and figurative. Dixon claims to have visited a Hollow Earth civilization via the North Pole. A sophisticated version of the historical "Digesting Duck" (for Jacques de Vaucanson's creation see Automata) not only has the capacity to speak but falls in love with the expedition cook; late in the tale, the duck, exhibiting what must be called Superpowers,m helps clear the Line in rough territory. The occasionally talkative Learned English Dog in the tale subtends Surplus in Michael Swanwick's Darger and Surplus sequence. Throughout, claims that the world can be enlightened through mensuration are sabotaged, though hints are laid down that – redolent of earlier Pynchon novels – the Jesuits have established a secret Communications network in their attempts to maintain Secret Master control over the evolving world.

But all these novels pale, as far as sf content ("real" or imagined) is concerned, in comparison with Against the Day (2006), an enormous paean to the death of story (as exposed by the doomed enactors of various dying genres who carry the tale) and to the death of the planet (see again Fantastika) as the Anthropocene era increases the burden. Like the ending of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men (2005), it is an aubade against awakening into the terrible new world. Old genres – old havens of sf interest honoured and destroyed in its thousand pages – include Airship Boys tales (see Pax Aeronautica; Balloons), the Alternate World story, thrillers built on world-threatening Disasters, the Edisonade (Nikola Tesla's appearances in the novel serve to counterpoint the triumphalism of that mode), the Fantastic Voyage, the Future War tale, tales of the Hollow Earth, the Lost World novel, the Scientific Romance, Steampunk (see also Automata), the Temporal Adventuress tale (Pynchon's awareness of Michael Moorcock is evident throughout), and any novel (no specific genre seems to exist) in which World War One can be seen as the End of the World. Of the historical figures who appear, sometimes fleetingly, the most remarkable may be the Mathematician Sofya Kovalevskaya (1850-1891) whose theoretical contributions an obsessively male-only scientific establishment was unable to stifle. But there is in the end no Conceptual Breakthrough, for Against the Day is set in a world which cannot ultimately be helped, though the Airship Boys, whose "ship by now has grown as large as a small city", hope at the close of things to plunge off Against the Day's last page into "a glory of what is coming to part the sky" (see Slingshot Ending; Transcendence).

A similar sense of the manifest joys but ultimate helplessness of story shape both Inherent Vice (2009), filmed as Inherent Vice (2014) by Paul Thomas Anderson as a paean to California; and Bleeding Edge (2013), where New York – with its massively tunneled counter-city deep Underground dominated by a tentacular secret corporation with dangerously advanced bleeding-edge Computers – is as helpless as any mundane beleaguered metropolis against the future. The tale is set in 2001; the tsunami of conspiracy theories unleased by 9/11 are already poisoning the world, though the protagonist of the tale, an ex-fraud investigator, surfs the oncoming new world with considerable élan. As in all Pynchon's novels, she performs her role, as though on a world stage, breaking at intervals (as do her predecessors) into jarring doggerel, sometimes hilariously.

But the joke, if Pynchon can be understood as a comic writer, is on us. His general concerns with Entropy, Paranoia and Communication (usually seen as conspiratorial) have had a fruitful effect on some sf writers; but perhaps deeper and more compelling than that is the universal hard rain he foretells. There will be no Debbie Reynolds. [JC]

see also: Cyberpunk; Fantasy; History of SF; Zone.

Thomas Ruggles Pynchon Jr

born Glen Cove, New York: 8 May 1937


  • V. (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: J B Lippincott, 1963) [hb/Ismar David]
    • V. (London: Jonathan Cape, 1963) [rev of above: though not major, revisions were made by Pynchon: hb/]
  • The Crying of Lot 49 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: J B Lippincott, 1966) [portion first appeared December 1965 Esquire as "The World [This One], the Flesh [Mrs. Oedipa Maas], and the Testament of Pierce Inverarity": hb/Milton Charles and others]
  • Gravity's Rainbow (New York: The Viking Press, 1973) [hb/Mar Getter]
  • Vineland (Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown, 1990) [hb/David Kinsey]
  • Mason & Dixon (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997) [hb/Raquel Jaramillo]
  • Against the Day (New York: The Penguin Press, 2006) [hb/Michael Ian Kaye]
  • Inherent Vice (New York: The Penguin Press, 2009) [hb/Darshan Zenith]
  • Bleeding Edge (New York: The Penguin Press, 2013) [hb/Evan Gaffney]

collections and stories (individual stories are listed by date of magazine publication)

  • The Small Rain (London: Aloes Books, 1982) [story: chap: first appeared March 1959 Cornell Writer: pb/Robert Carter]
  • Mortality and Mercy in Vienna (London: Aloes Books, 1976) [story: chap: first appeared Spring 1959 Epoch Magazine: pb/Jim Pennington]
  • Low-Lands (London: Aloes Books, 1978) [story: chap: first appeared 1960 Epoch Magazine: pb/Louise Nevett]
  • Entropy (see comments: 1980) [story: chap: first appeared Spring 1960 Kenyon Review: several piracies of this story exist: it may have been published as early as 1967 by "Trystero", in "Troy Town": but its first appearance may be as late as 1980: pb/]
  • The Secret Integration (London: Aloes Books, 1980) [story: chap: first appeared 19 December 1964 Saturday Evening Post: illus/pb/Jake Tilson]


about the author

The literature on Pynchon is very extensive. A few representative studies are listed here.


previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies