Thomas Pynchon

Thomas Pynchon (1937- Present) is a Post-Modern novelist from Long Island, New York. His complex and detailed novels are celebrated for their relevancy to contemporary issues and their philosophical and sociological commentaries. He is most well-known for his novels The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Gravity's Rainbow (1973). The latter novel won Pynchon the US National Book Award in 1974. 

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Table of contents

    Thomas Pynchon, novel, StudySmarterThomas Pynchon is a Post-Modern Novelist, Pixabay

    A Biography of Thomas Pynchon

    On the 8th of May 1937, Thomas Pynchon was born in Long Island, New York. Pynchon was born into an important American family as his ancestor founded the city of Springfield, Massachusetts, and afterward, the Pynchons became wealthy landowners. Pynchon began writing while still in high school. He wrote fictional stories for his school newspaper on a wide range of topics. When Pynchon was only 16 years old, he enrolled at Cornell University, where he studied engineering physics. However, by 1955, Pynchon enlisted in the U.S. Navy and enrolled in a boot camp in Bainbridge, Maryland. Pynchon was an active Navy member aboard the USS Hank during the Second Arab-Israeli War, also known as the Suez Crisis.

    Thomas Pynchon, Navy ship, StudySmarterThomas Pynchon served in the US Navy, Pixabay

    When Pynchon returned to Cornell University in 1957, he switched to an English degree. In 1959, Pynchon's first publication appeared in the Cornell Writer titled "The Small Rain" (1959). This was followed by the short story "Mortality and Mercy in Vienna" (1959), published in the literary journal, Epoch. At Cornell, Pynchon became friends with many writers, including Richard Farina, and was even taught by Vladimir Nabokov. Before graduating in 1959, Pynchon wrote the science-fiction musical Minstrel Island (1959) with Kirkpatrick Sale.

    Pynchon got a job as a technical writer for Boeing and moved to Seattle. There he began work on his first novel, which drew influence in part from Pynchon's work at Boeing. He published the novel titled V. in 1963. V. won Pynchon a William Faulkner Foundation Award for the Best First Novel of the Year. It was also nominated for the National Book Award. After the success of his first novel, Pynchon left Boeing and moved around a bit before settling in Manhattan Beach, California.

    After graduation, Pynchon also wrote non-fiction pieces about current events around him, such as a piece on the Los Angeles Watts Riots of 1965 titled "A Journey into the Mind of Watts" (1966), published in The New York Times. Pynchon also published his next novel in 1966, titled The Crying of Lot 49, which won the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award. The Crying of Lot 49 showed the development of Pynchon's complex writing style that included scientific, technological, and historical references.

    Thomas Pynchon, science and technology, StudySmarterPynchon's novels focus on science and technology, Pixabay

    In 1973, Pynchon published his most famous novel, Gravity's Rainbow (1973). The novel touches on anti-authoritarianism and eco-activism and touches on many contemporary issues such as racism, colonialism, and paranoia. It won the 1974 National Book Award and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In 1984, Pynchon published a collection of his early short stories titled Slow Learner (1984). He also wrote many book reviews in The New York Times, including his 1988 review of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera (1985).

    In 1990, Pynchon published Vineland, his fourth novel which was not as successful as his previous works. His next novel was Mason & Dixon (1997), which some critics considered one of his best pieces. In 2006, Pynchon published Against the Day, which was 1,085 pages long and was full of historical figures such as Nikola Tesla and popular culture figures such as Groucho Marx. Pynchon's last two novels included Inherent Vice (2009) and Bleeding Edge (2013). Pynchon currently lives in New York City and is very private.

    Novels by Thomas Pynchon

    Thomas Pynchon is considered one of the most complex and important post-modern writers of the 20th century. Throughout his career, he wrote eight novels:

    • V. (1963)
    • The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)
    • Gravity's Rainbow (1973)
    • Vineland (1990)
    • Mason & Dixon (1997)
    • Against the Day (2006)
    • Inherent Vice (2009)
    • Bleeding Edge (2013)

    Let's take a closer look at two of his most famous novels, The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity's Rainbow.

    The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)

    The Crying of Lot 49 is centered around the character, Oedipa Maas, who unearths the conspiracy theory that two mail distribution companies had a centuries-long feud. The novel is set in a fictional California suburb. The story begins when Maas's ex-lover, Pierce Inverarity, dies, and she begins to follow in his footsteps, uncovering the truth behind Tristero, renegade mail carriers. The novel contains themes such as redemption, madness, and technology. The novel is considered a satire.

    A satire is a subgenre of comedy that uses elements of humor such as irony to criticize or expose the follies of humans or ridicule people in politically or culturally significant positions.

    The novel is known for its complex and detailed writing style and its use of deadpan humor. Critics have raised the novel to the level of a parody of Post-Modernism.

    Gravity's Rainbow (1973)

    Gravity's Rainbow is set in Europe at the end of WWII. It surrounds an American soldier named Tyrone Slothrop, who has an unusual ability to predict when German rockets will fall. Due to this ability, Slothrop is researched at the White Visitation and befriends Tantivy and Teddy Bloat. The novel follows the characters as they try to uncover the development of a rocket designed by the Nazis.

    Thomas Pynchon, rocket, StudySmarterGravity's Rainbow focuses on the search for a secret war rocket, Pixabay

    Gravity's Rainbow is a complex commentary on the dangers of advancements in technology and science on human life. Gravity's Rainbow is a satirical Post-Modernist novel that includes elements of science fiction, historical fiction, and paranoia. It won the 1974 US National Book Award for Fiction and is included on Time's list of "All Time 100 Greatest Novels" written between 1923 and 2005.

    Writing Style of Thomas Pynchon

    Thomas Pynchon's writing style can be considered complex, full of detail, and humorous. Thomas Pynchon belongs to the genre of literature known as Post-Modernism.

    Post-Modernism (mid to late 20th century) is a genre and literary movement that rejects the concept of absolute meanings, embraces metafiction, and emphasizes literary elements such as fragmentation and play. It also revolves around the idea that science and technology, as well as logic and reason, are instruments used by established groups of power. Therefore, there is no such thing as truth.

    Key characteristics of Thomas Pynchon's writing style include clear action and dialogue; long, detailed, and complex sentences; smooth, humorous prose; and extremely complex, mazelike plots.

    The toothaches got worse, she dreamed of disembodied voices from whose malignance there was no appeal, the soft dusk of mirrors out of which something was about to walk, and empty rooms that waited for her. Your gynecologist has no test for what she was pregnant with," (The Crying of Lot 49, Chapter 5).

    In this excerpt from The Crying of Lot 49, the reader can get a glimpse into the writing style of Thomas Pynchon. Notice the long, detailed sentence that has many descriptive words such as "malignance," "soft dusk of mirrors," and "empty rooms." The scene's action is also clear without being direct: the main character Oedipa hallucinates that something is growing inside her. There is also humor and connection to the audience in the last sentence.

    Themes In The Writings Of Thomas Pynchon

    The works of Thomas Pynchon contain a significant number of themes related to philosophy, sociology, and even theology. Pynchon focuses on the advancement of science and technology, psychology and madness, isolation, history, sexuality, and mathematical equations and operations. His novels also touch on cultural themes and often Pynchon references comic books, television series, stories from magazines, pop songs, and conspiracy theories. In novels such as Gravity's Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49 themes such as suspicion and paranoia is the main focus. Another important theme present in the majority of Pynchon's novels is the concept of entropy which measures destruction through the measure of thermal energy.

    Quotes by Thomas Pynchon

    Let's take a closer look at some quotes pulled from the works of Thomas Pynchon that will provide you with a better understanding of his work.

    All the while only in the process of learning life's single lesson: that there is more accident to it than a man can ever admit to in a lifetime and stay sane," (V., Chapter 11).

    In this quote from Pynchon's novel, V., the concept of randomness is discussed. Pynchon's philosophical belief is that the majority of events that come to define a human life do not occur by a fated storyline, but are rather a series of random accidents. This quote touches upon a theme that appears in many of Pynchon's novels and is a central theme to the novel V.

    A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare to it now. It is too late. The Evacuation still proceeds, but it's all theater. There are no lights in the cars. No light anywhere. Above him lift girders old as an iron queen, and glass somewhere far above that would let the light of day through. But it's night," (Gravity's Rainbow, Chapter 1).

    This quote is the opening line of Gravity's Rainbow. The "screaming across the sky" refers to a rocket falling on a city. This quote is a prime example of Pynchon's writing style. Notice the abundant use of descriptive detail that describes the scene. The reader can visualize this abandoned city that is dark. Humor can be found in the sentence "The Evacuation still proceeds, but it's all theater," which reveals the situation is like a farce.

    In the dream I'd be going about a normal day's business and suddenly, with no warning, there'd be the sign. We were a member of the National Automobile Dealers' Association. N.A.D.A. Just this creaking metal sign that said nada, nada against the blue sky. I used to wake up hollering," (The Crying of Lot 49, Chapter 5).

    In this quote from The Crying of Lot 49, the character Mucho describes his dream, blurring the lines between reality and the dream world. The excerpt is an example of Post-Modernist beliefs. The sign which reads "nada," meaning nothing in Spanish, refers that trying to find an absolute meaning in life is useless as there is no such thing as absolute truth, according to Post-Modernists. Therefore, the reader is called to question whether the terror Mucho feels from such a dream has meaning or is simply a silly dream.

    Thomas Pynchon - Key takeaways

    • Thomas Pynchon is Post-Modernist, American novelist known for his complex and mazelike novels.
    • His most famous novels include V., The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity's Rainbow.
    • Thomas Pynchon's writing style is detailed, humorous, and complex, full of clear action, dialogue, and smooth prose.
    • Thomas Pynchon belongs to the genre of Post-Modernism and often writes satires and science fiction novels.
    • Themes found in Pynchon's novels include the advancement of science and technology, psychology and madness, isolation, history, sexuality, and mathematical equations and operations.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Thomas Pynchon

    Where does Thomas Pynchon live? 

    Thomas Pynchon currently lives in New York City. 

    What is Thomas Pynchon known for? 

    He is most well-know for his novels The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Gravity's Rainbow (1973).  

    What is Thomas Pynchon's writing style? 

    Thomas Pynchon's writing style is detailed, humorous, and complex full of clear action and dialogue as well as smooth prose. 

    What is Thomas Pynchon working on? 

    Thomas Pynchon is not known to be currently working on any novel. 

    Who is Thomas Pynchon? 

    Thomas Pynchon is Post-Modernist, American novelist known for his complex and mazelike novels. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What does John Nefastis claim his machine can do?

    True or false: Tristero is a real organization

    Where is Oedipa at the end of the novel?


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