Fans Still Passionate About Publicity-Shy Thomas Pynchon
Nov. 8 - Zak Smith is a painter, a rebel and an Ivy
Leaguer, a Yale University graduate with a green
mohawk, an apartment of wall-to-wall illustrations and
a passion for comics, classic novels -- and Thomas
About 10 years ago, Smith had a feeling that he should
try Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow," an instinct
consummated from the very first page. Smith didn't
just read the book, he reread it, marked it up and
went back to it so many times that his paperback copy
is held together by duct tape.
He also began seeing the book in pictures, eventually
drawing hundreds of mostly expressionist sketches --
one for every page of Pynchon's 700-page World War II
novel -- that were exhibited at the Whitney Museum in
2004, now hang in the permanent collection at the
Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and will come out as
a book this fall.
"A lot of the ideas that were in Pynchon were hovering
around in my head -- technology and the future and the
present, true things and science fiction, and making
them into pictures was almost a way to exorcise these
ideas," says the 30-year-old Smith, a resident of
Thomas Pynchon doesn't have the readership of Mitch
Albom or Danielle Steel, but he is the rare writer who
inspires such obsession by words alone. For more than
40 years, he has built and sustained a legend through
such encyclopedic novels as "V." and "Gravity's
Rainbow," avoiding all media contact or even publicity
photos. For his new book, the 1,000-page "Against the
Day," publisher Penguin Press didn't even issue a
formal announcement, but assumed, correctly, that
simply including it in the fall catalog would take
care of the job.
"Pynchon fans tend to take his work seriously I think
because, beyond the intrinsically interesting subject
matter and intriguing stories, his books are so rich
and complex, touching on so many topics," says Pynchon
fan Doug Millison, a writer, editor and Web design
consultant based in El Cerrito, Calif.
Pynchon is now 69, but time, and the Internet, have
advanced in his favor. It's been nine years since his
previous novel, "Mason & Dixon," came out, and fans
have fully digitized their passion, building an online
community worthy of an author who as much as anyone
brought a high-tech sensibility to literary fiction.
Numerous Web sites and a "Pynchon News Service" have
been launched, and a team of experts is busy
assembling a Wikipedia-like page for "Against the
"It will, I predict, quickly become a focus of the
several hundred reader-researchers worldwide who read
Pynchon and write about his works in academic and
popular media," Millison says.
"The Internet has made it easy for Pynchon's academic
critics and lay readers to find each other and sustain
an online discussion that's continued now for over a
Smith believes that Pynchon readers share a handful of
characteristics, presumably not unlike the author's --
liberal politics, an interest in technology and a
broad and unpredictable range of interests.
Fans, who have gathered to talk Pynchon in London,
Malta and elsewhere, all have their stories of
conversion. Tim Ware, who runs the Web site
www.thomaspynchon.com from Oakland, Calif., recalls
having a hard time getting through "Gravity's
Rainbow," at least the first time around.
"I went back and looked again at the first page and
everything just sort of snapped into view, and I
thought, `This guy is a genius,' like those who walked
the Earth in the 19th century," says Ware.
"And I got rather messianic about it, and I wanted my
wife to read it. I started creating an index of all
the characters, because there were so many and it was
so hard to keep track of them."
Millison also was turned on by "Gravity's Rainbow." He
was an Army private -- a company clerk "just like
Radar O'Reilly" -- in Korea in the summer of 1973,
when he read the novel, which came out that year and
won the National Book Award.
"`Gravity's Rainbow' hit me hard, especially the parts
set in Europe during and just after World War II. I'd
never read a writer whose voice on the page came so
close to echoing the sound and feel of the Cold War
'50s and '60s, hip and angry and complex," he says.
"I've read each of the novels at least twice, studying
the text closely both times. I also collect first
editions of Pynchon's novels, and first editions of
the novels for which Pynchon has written endorsements,
cover blurbs or support quotes that have been used in
Charles Hollander, a Baltimore-based "independent
scholar" of Pynchon, first read him as an
undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University. It was
1963, the year Pynchon debuted with "V." Joseph
Heller's "Catch-22" was becoming a counterculture
classic, but Hollander believes that "Catch-22" was
more about the veterans of World War II.
"Pynchon was the guy who wrote for my generation, so
much so I heard people joke at parties that he had a
receiver by which he could read others' late-night
falling asleep thoughts," he says.
"The reason ... (Pynchon) is important to me and his
`fans' is he seems a bit ahead of the curve in seeing
what is important, and what will become the important
issues we are faced with."
He is as remote from the general public as J.D.
Salinger, but Pynchon experts say they care more about
his work than about the man himself, who reportedly
lives in New York with his wife and agent, Melanie
Jackson. Both Hollander and Ware say they know people
friendly with Pynchon who insist he is not "some guy
squirreling away in his attic," according to
"My sources tell me he is pretty social, in his style.
I think he avoids the media because he sees the media
as an arm of the establishment, a means of social
control that he won't be a party to," Hollander says.
"I've stayed away from the cult of personality. I
don't play in that zone," Ware says.
"His reluctance to speak with the press or have his
photograph taken kind of plays into the style of the
novels. There's a lot of mystery and ambiguity in
them, and a lot of mystery and ambiguity about the
author. When you know things about the author, you
begin to insert those feelings into the books. Not
having any information makes the reading experience a
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