Thomas Pynchon at 80 – eight reasons to celebrate his birthday

He is a master of comedy, a father of cyberpunk, alert to the politics of his time … the author turns 80 today

• He writes richer comedy than most card-carrying comic novelists, filling his eight novels with hilarious spoofs, outlandish characters, screwball dialogue and zany scenarios. The best of his set-pieces – such as the seduction scene and the pastiche Jacobean revenge play early on in the novella The Crying of Lot 49, the best book to start with – are many-layered, marrying humour to figurative or allusive complexity.

• He is a consistently political novelist, something not usually thought compatible either with comedy or literary complexity. Others 30s-born novelists only occasionally (Philip Roth, John Updike) or tangentially (Don DeLillo) focus on politics. His career kicks off with 1963’s V., about empires, real and mental; 1966’s The Crying of Lot 49, positing a vast conspiracy connecting America’s marginalised; and his 1973 masterpiece Gravity’s Rainbow, set in 1944-45 and centring on V-2 rockets and the supposed war of civilisations underlying the conflict. All connect politics to characters’ experience via his signature trope of paranoia, borrowed from pulp fiction and ramped up. But don’t expect to see presidents and premiers (although Richard Nixon pops up at the end of Gravity’s Rainbow): viewed from the novels’ implicit left-anarchist counterculture perspective, they are mere spokesmen for neo-fascism or the military-industrial complex.

• What also sets him apart from his contemporaries is a willingness to put female characters at the centre of his novels, and not just as love objects or obstacles to the hero’s freedom. His debut was named after a woman – the mysterious, many-named V. (originally Victoria), who journeys through the early 20th century. In his follow-up, Lot 49, the protagonist is Oedipa Maas, a California housewife turned amateur sleuth. Which isn’t to say there are no questions to be asked about aspects of his representation of women, such as the recurring motif of the female traitor and the irresistible sexual allure of obnoxious villains for some of the heroines.

Self-mocking and publicity-shy … Pynchon makes his cameo in The Simpsons
Self-mocking and publicity-shy … Pynchon makes his cameo in The Simpsons Photograph: PR

• As much a European novelist as an American one, he is often writing about us. Gravity’s Rainbow is set in Germany, England and France, and large parts of his other three doorstoppers, V., Mason & Dixon and Against the Day, also unfold in Europe. Mason and Dixon, the real-life 18th-century surveyors/astronomers, are British, as are both V. and Stencil, the expat in 1950s New York who is obsessed with her.

• Pynchon is the admirable antithesis of today’s “selfie novelists”, avoiding any hint of auto-fiction until after turning 70 (Bleeding Edge is thought to offer glimpses of his family life in New York) and going further than other vehemently private authors similarly resistant to publicity – no photos (unlike JD Salinger), no interviews (unlike Elena Ferrante). Peers who were once also enigmatic - DeLillo, Bob Dylan - have latterly relented a little. His biggest concession to brand-boosting has been a self-mocking appearance in The Simpsons with a paper bag over his head.

The young Thomas Pynchon in 1955.
Pynchon in 1955. Photograph: Bettmann Archive Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

• Po-mo-allergic readers should not be put off. As much of it is actually about modernism (most obviously a chapter reworking the premiere of The Rite of Spring), as well as it featuring metafiction and parody, V. has a strong claim to be the first fully fledged postmodernist novel in English. But while Pynchon is usually bracketed with DeLillo and David Foster Wallace in a po-mo troika, that only applies to his early work: he returned in 1984 after a 17-year break with a new aesthetic, less intellectual and Melvillean or Joycean, closer to genre fiction – both Inherent Vice (2009) and Bleeding Edge are quasi detective stories – in its emphasis on storytelling. Dickens, the model for Jonathan Franzen when he rejected the modernist-postmodernist legacy, is also clearly the model for Pynchon in Bleeding Edge.

  • Salman Rushdie, new-wave literary hist fic is adventurously international, often multi-stranded, and paradoxically combines imaginative care to get the detail right with blatantly anachronistic elements or some other signal (often comic) that all narratives are subjective, all characters partly authorial projections. Seminal in depictions of the future as well as the past, Pynchon is hailed as the father of cyberpunk, influencing William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and others.

• Oh, and he also does better openings than anyone else currently writing (even Against the Day, a huge dud, begins brilliantly), makes up funnier names (shortly after Mrs Oedipa Maas is introduced, for instance, we hear of “the law firm of Warpe, Wistfull, Kubitschek and McMingus”) and bafflingly but endearingly interrupts all his novels with self-written lyrics – show tunes, pop songs, opera arias – but without any music to sing them to.

John Dugdale

The GuardianTramp

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