The A-Z

Thomas Pynchon

Your one-stop guide to the world of the American genius who is Thomas Pynchon, author of Inherent Vice

 


A is for Against the Day

Set in the period between the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 and the years after the First World War, this is Pynchon's seventh novel, and at 1,220 pages should only take you an afternoon. This is a story about unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity and warring extremes – as Professore Svegli from the University of Pisa explains during his brief appearance in the novel: 'those whose enduring object is power in this world are only too happy to use without remorse the others, whose aim is of course to transcend all questions of power. Each regards the other as a pack of deluded fools.'

B is for Benny Profane

One of the leads in Pynchon's debut novel, V, as well as the inspiration behind 80s' Liverpool post-punk outfit Benny Profane, who's debut single 'Where is Pig?' changed the lives of dozens of people. Described as a 'human yo-yo', Benny, along with sidekick Pig Bodine, makes fleeting appearances throughout the novel, including one as an alligator hunter in the sewers underneath Manhattan.

C is for Conspiracy

'If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers' (Gravity's Rainbow). Conspiracy lurks everywhere in Pynchon – the ever-elusive fulfilment of the paranoia that haunts the pages of his novels. There's always someone, somewhere, just out of view, who appears to be pulling the strings.

D is for Doc Sportello

Private detective in Inherent Vice, serial user of the word 'groovy' and narcotics enthusiast. Shasta, the Doc's ex, turns up out of the blue one day claiming that her new lover, Mickey Wolfmann, is in danger. Evidently a job for LSD Investigations (Location, Surveillance, Detection); Doc agrees to look into it. But he has to keep his wits about him, for as Bigfoot Bjornsen advises him: 'What goes around may come around, but it never ends up exactly the same place… Like a record on a turntable, all it takes is one groove's difference and the universe can be on into a whole 'nother song'.

E is for Entropy

The combination of art and science is a distinguishing feature of Pynchon's work, and the idea of entropy is one of the most dominant themes of his writing. It pertains to the field of Thermodynamics, which elucidates the process of energy gradually dissipating throughout the universe in a random and disordered fashion, ending ultimately in stagnation and decay. Pynchon sees a synthesis between this tendency of physics and the progress, or regress, of human culture, a phenomenon which manifests itself in the lively chaos of his fictional worlds.

F is for Foot Fetish

Meet Eric Outfield, computer hacker for hire and podophile. Maxine Tarnow, the heroine of Bleeding Edge, needs information, and she's willing to do just about anything to get it: 'Her feet seem to have been resting in his lap for a while, and she can't help noticing he has this, well, hardon. Out of his trousers and between her feet, actually, and sort of moving back and forth... Not that this happens to her a lot, which may account for why she begins tentatively now to explore, whatever the foot equivalent of handle is, maybe 'footle' the aroused organ, her toes always having been prehensile enough to pick up socks, keys, and loose change, her soles, could it be the cannabis? unaccountably sensitized, particularly the insides of her heels, which reflexologists have told her connect directly with the uterus... she slides the polished toes of one foot under his balls and with the pads of the others begins caressing his penis, after a while switching feet, just to see what will happen, all out of experimental curiosity of course...
"Eric, what's this, did you just... come, on my feet?'

G is for Gravity's Rainbow

Arguably Pynchon's masterpiece – a colossus of post-modern fiction. It's opening line has become one of the great handles for quiz masters and crossword creators across the globe: 'A screaming comes across the sky.' A letter Pynchon wrote to his agent while working on Gravity's Rainbow (and three other novels) shows that he was quietly confident of the merit of his writing: 'If they come out on paper anything like they are inside my head then it will be the literary event of the millennium.'

H is for Hamster

Pynchon wrote a column for his high school newspaper called Voice of the Hamster. Regular characters included J. Fattington Woodgrouse and Rafeal Faggisducci.

I is for Irwin Corey

Pynchon won the National Book Award for Gravity's Rainbow in 1974. Not one for the limelight, he sent 'Professor' Irwin Corey, an American comic, to accept it on his behalf. His speech began with this suitably opaque line: 'However... I accept this financial stipulation, stipend on behalf of Richard Python, for the great contribution and to quote from some of the missiles which he has contributed: Today we must all be aware that protocol takes precedence over procedure.' This is also the only National Book Awards ceremony to have ever been graced by the presence of a streaker.

J is for J.D. Sallinger

Who is Thomas Pynchon? Where is Thomas Pynchon? Why is Thomas Pynchon? There have always been questions about the reclusive genius' identity, with some speculating that he and J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye, are in fact the same person, operating under a number of different noms de plume. When this was put to Pynchon, he reportedly replied: 'not bad, keep trying.'

K is for Klaxons

The British new rave band released a song called 'Gravity's Rainbow' in 2006, named after Pynchon's novel, which peaked at number 35 in the UK chart. Pynchon is reported to have been 'absolutely chuffed' and immediately set to work on a long novel called Klaxons.

L is for Lardass Levine

Lardass is the central character in one of Pynchon's early stories, The Small Rain, which appears in Slow Learner. An intelligent but magnificently lazy soldier, he ploughs his energies into drinking and shirking his duties. When a hurricane destroys a town in Louisiana, Lardass' battalion is deployed to clear up the dead, and soon a change quite unexpectedly comes over him.

M is for Meatball Mulligan

Like Lardass, another early creation, who appears in a short story called Entropy, also in Slow Learner, where Pynchon evidently cut his character-naming teeth. We are introduced to him in the first line of the story: 'Downstairs, Meatball Mulligan's lease-breaking party was moving into its 40th hour.'

N is for Nabokov

Pynchon was taught briefly by the great Vladimir Nabokov, who was on the staff of The Cornell Writer, where Pynchon published his first story. Nabokov, when asked about his famous ex-student, claimed not to remember him well, though his wife recalled his unusual handwriting, 'half printing, half script.'

O is for Oedipa Maas

The Sophoclean heroine in Pynchon's second novel The Crying of Lot 49, who finds herself in the midst of a centuries-old dispute between two distribution companies. I know what you're thinking – not another one of those distribution-company-dispute novels – but this one is a cut above. Oedipa is unexpectedly named as the executrix of her dead ex's estate, sparking a bizarre and paranoid adventure into an underground world of secret postal networks, dark mythology and conspiracy theories.

P is for Post Horn

The muted post horn, doodled by Pynchon himself, is symbol of the Trystero, the aforementioned secret postal network in The Crying of Lot 49, defeated in the 18th century by a rival company and forced to operate underground, its mailboxes disguised as rubbish bins. It has become the ensign of Pynchonites across the world, and it is rumoured that almost one in every two people have it tattooed somewhere on their body.

Q is for Queen Victoria

Old Vic makes a surprise appearance in Against the Day, and is described dotingly as the 'much-beloved though humourless dumpling of legend.'

R is for Ruggles

Thomas Pynchon's middle name.

S is for Simpsons

Pynchon has made two cameo appearances in The Simpsons, in the first of which he is depicted with a bag over his head and agrees to help Marge Simpson with the cover copy of her novel: 'Here's your quote: Thomas Pynchon loved this book, almost as much as he loves cameras!' Pynchon edited the script he was given so that his character wouldn't have to insult Homer Simpson, removing the line 'No wonder Homer is such a fat ass,' and explaining to the script writers: 'Sorry, guys. Homer is my role model and I won't speak ill of him.'

T is for Tyrone Slothrop

One of the principal characters in Gravity's Rainbow, who's every sexual conquest provokes the detonation of a v2 rocket somewhere in the vicinity. His name is an anagram of 'Sloth or Entropy.'

U is for United States Navy

Pynchon served in the US Navy between 1955 and 1957 before returning to study at Cornell University. Many of his characters and settings draw on this experience, particularly in V, which pursues the discharged sailor Benny Profane.

V is for V

Pynchon's debut novel.

W is for Who is Thomas Pynchon and why did he take off with my wife?

An article written by Jules Siegel that appeared in Playboy magazine in 1977. Siegel had attended Cornell University at the same time as Pynchon and lived next door to him. He'd even been the basis for Cleanth Siegel, a character in one of Pynchon's early stories. In the article, Jules breaks the silence surrounding Pynchon and describes the young man he knew: 'He was very tall – at least 6'2" – and thin but not skinny, with a pale face, fair eyes and a long, chiselled Anglo nose.'

X is for X never marks the spot

A critically astute phrase coined by Sean Connery in Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade, and relevant here. There's nothing obvious about a Pynchon novel, nothing is ever quite as it seems, and the clues usually lead you deeper into the mystery and further away from a solution.

Y is for Yellow Pages

There are roughly the same number of characters in Gravity's Rainbow as there are in the Yellow Pages.

Z is for Zadie Smith

Zadie knows: 'I wanted to be like Pynchon, to be in pursuit of hidden information.'

Find out more about the author

Related articles