Thomas Pynchon: Novels & Concept

Instructor: James Fleming
Thomas Pynchon is widely regarded by scholars and literary critics as one of the most important American novelists of the second half of the 20th century. Pynchon is famous not only for his complex novels but also his reclusive lifestyle.


Many critics and scholars of postmodern American literature consider Thomas Pynchon to be among the most remarkable and influential novelists of the second half of the 20th century. Since the publication of his first novel 'V.' in 1963, Thomas Pynchon has produced several best-selling and critically-acclaimed novels which have amused, frustrated and intrigued readers throughout the world.

Today, Pynchon is widely regarded as not only one of the most talented and influential American novelists, but also as one of the most innovative, clever, humorous, politically radical and intelligent. However, what most readers, critics and scholars tend to find most intriguing about Pynchon and his works is the author's deeply reclusive lifestyle and refusal to comment upon the meanings of his novels and stories. Pynchon has not been photographed or filmed, nor has he given a single interview, since 1963. In fact, Pynchon's only media appearance (except for a couple of editorial letters to newspapers) since 1963 was when he voiced himself on an episode of the animated sitcom 'The Simpsons'. In his appearance, which only lasted a few seconds, Pynchon made fun of his own reclusive nature and refusal to give interviews or be photographed.

Pynchon's reclusive nature, as well as his novels' engagement with history, science, and popular culture, has made him one of the most studied and respected novelists of not only his generation, but also of the past two centuries of American writing.

Young Pynchon

The Novels


V. was Pynchon's first novel. It was published in 1963 to tremendous acclaim from critics and readers and was nominated for the National Book Award in 1964. V. is a long and complicated novel that moves between different historical periods. The novel's primary story focuses on the adventures of former Navy sailor Benny Profane and his return to New York City and meetings with a group of underground artists known as the Whole Sick Crew. The novel's other plot, which intersects with Profane's own adventures, focuses on Herbert Stencil's quest throughout different points in American history to find the mysterious 'V,' the identity of whom - aside from the fact that she is a woman - is never firmly established.

The Crying of Lot 49

1966's The Crying of Lot 49 is regarded by many readers and critics as Pynchon's most approachable and straightforward novel. This is Pynchon's shortest novel, and it focuses on a woman named Oedipa Maas, who possibly discovers a many-centuries-old conspiracy involving two rival, underground mail distribution companies, Thurn und Taxis and Trystero, after her ex-boyfriend dies and leaves her as the co-executor of his estate. The novel constantly calls into question whether Maas has stumbled upon an actual worldwide conspiracy, a hoax undertaken by her ex-boyfriend, or if she's simply paranoid or insane, without ever fully resolving the question. The novel's refusal to offer a firm solution to the questions it raises, as well as its humor and engagement with popular culture, has rendered it a landmark work of postmodern American fiction.

Gravity's Rainbow

1973's Gravity's Rainbow is both the novel which many critics consider to be Pynchon's best but also the most challenging to read and understand. The novel's story is complex and Pynchon introduces hundreds of characters throughout it. The basic plot of the novel focuses on the design, production and implementation of the V-2 rockets by the German military during World War II and the attempts by several characters to discover the mystery behind the 'black device' that is going to be installed in one of the rockets. Throughout the novel, Pynchon displays a remarkable knowledge of popular culture, metaphysics, physics, history, weaponry, mathematics, and philosophy. Many critics and readers were stunned not only by the novel's complexity, but also by Pynchon's intelligence, sense of humor, and ability to move between being proper and profane within a single paragraph. The novel was recognized immediately by critics as a masterpiece of American literature, and it received the 1974 National Book Award. Today, the novel is considered by many scholars to be one of the greatest American novels ever written.


Slow Learner

Slow Learner was published in 1984 and features a long essay by Pynchon and several short stories, which were published in magazines prior to the release of 'V.' in 1963. Pynchon's essay is the only piece of lengthy autobiographical writing he has published. While he offers little insight into his personal life in this piece, Pynchon does offer an extensive critique of his previous work and insight into some of his own literary influences. Of the several stories featured in the collection, 'Entropy,' which is often taught in college literature survey courses, is considered by many critics and readers to be the strongest story in the collection and among Pynchon's strongest pieces of writing.


1990's Vineland is considered by most critics and scholars of Pynchon's work to be his weakest novel, though still quite engaging and entertaining. The novel takes place in 1984 and explores the radical political shifts that occurred in American between the 1960s and 1980s. The novel features a wide range of characters and numerous flashback sequences to the 1960s. The novel is also packed full of references to drugs, music of the 1960s, and popular films and television shows, particularly Star Trek.

Mason & Dixon

Many critics and scholars consider Pynchon's 1997 novel Mason & Dixon to be among his finest and most accomplished novels and almost as complicated and engaging as Gravity's Rainbow. The novel focuses on the exploits and adventures of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Smith, actual astronomers and surveyors who worked throughout Europe and North America in the late 18th century. The story is told from the perspective of Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke, who is entertaining his family on a cold winter's night with his stories of having accompanied Mason and Dixon throughout their journeys some years before. The stories Cherrycoke tells, of which the reader is led to constantly question the truth, mix the actual historical figures of Mason and Dixon with obvious lies, rumors and outright fantasies concerning their travels and activities.

Against the Day

At 1,085 pages, 2006's Against the Day is Pynchon's longest novel. The story, which involves several different plots and over a hundred different characters, takes place between the time of the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 and the conclusion of World War I. The main focus of the novel is on the radical transformations in science and culture that occurred in America during the late 19th and early 20th century. Throughout the novel, Pynchon is particularly interested in exploring, sometimes with a great deal of humor and irony, how today's world has been shaped by past events and how the decades between the Chicago World's Fair and the end of World War I gave birth to the world we live in now.

Inherent Vice

2009's Inherent Vice is Pynchon's most straightforward and direct novel, as well as his most humorous. The novel focuses on Doc Sportello, private investigator in Southern California in the late 1960s, and his attempts, somewhat haplessly, to help his ex-girlfriend keep her new boyfriend, a wealthy real estate mogul, from being placed in a mental institution. Pynchon's focus, though, is on exploring the ways in which the ideals of the American counter-culture of the 1960s gave way to the acceptance of social repression by political and financial forces in the decades that followed.

Critical Analysis

Thomas Pynchon's novels have been the subject of hundreds of critical articles and dozens of scholarly books. Studies of Pynchon's fiction tend to focus as much on offering interpretations of the meanings of the novels as they do on trying to trace and explain the countless historical, cultural and scientific references that Pynchon makes throughout all of his works.

There are a number of particular themes that Pynchon explores throughout all of his novels. Pynchon regularly shows a dislike for authority figures, as well as paranoia about the powers of governments and private corporations, a deep distrust in technology, a belief in the futility of war and in the importance of love and friendship, as well as an interest in drugs and counter-cultural lifestyles. Pynchon often seems to advocate political and social ideals which are decidedly leftist and liberal, as well as idealistic and even romantic. However, his works also demonstrates a strong distrust in all forms of government, even leftist governments, and advocates for freedom for all people from repressive forces.

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