Pynchon Lives Here
In select company, he’s intensely social and charismatic, and, in spite of those famously shaming Bugs Bunny teeth, he was rarely without a girlfriend for the 30 years he spent wandering and couch-surfing before getting married in 1990. Today, he’s a yuppie—self-confessed, if you read his new novel, Bleeding Edge, as a key to the present life of a man whose travels led one critic to reflect: “Salinger hides; Pynchon runs.” Now Pynchon hides in plain sight, on the Upper West Side, with a family and a history of contradictions: a child of the postwar Establishment determined to reject it; a postmodernist master who’s called himself a “classicist”; a workaholic stoner; a polymath who revels in dirty puns; a literary outsider who’s married to a literary agent; a scourge of capitalism who sent his son to private school and lives in a $1.7 million prewar classic six.
Other high-serious contemporaries, like Don DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy, have avoided most publicity out of a conviction that their work should stand apart, and they’ve largely succeeded; no one stakes them out with telephoto lenses, and everyone takes their reticence as proof of their stature. But Pynchon, by truly going the countercultural distance—running farther, fighting harder, and writing wilder—has crafted a more slippery persona. He doesn’t just challenge his fans; he pranks them, dares them to find out what he’s really about (or maybe just to stop exalting Important Writers in the first place). He’s said he wants to “keep scholars busy for several generations,” but Pynchon academics, deprived of any scrap of history, find themselves turned into stalkers.* The more he flees, the more we want—even now that, at 76, he’s just another local writer you wouldn’t recognize on the street. Though likely you have heard the rumors: He was the Unabomber; he was CIA; he wrote ornery letters to the editor at a small-town newspaper in character as a bag lady. In 1976, a writer named John Calvin Batchelor wrote a long essay arguing that Pynchon didn’t exist and J. D. Salinger had written all the novels. Two decades later, Batchelor and Pynchon published stories on the same page of the newsletter of New York’s Cathedral School, which both their children attended. Their bylines were side by side: “John is a novelist”; “Tom is a writer.”
Tom is quite a writer. He’s been credited, justly, with perfecting encyclopedic postmodernism in his third novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, as well as in other kaleidoscopic epics and a few books he’d call potboilers and others would call the minor work of a giant. Bleeding Edge, out in September, is a love-hate letter to the New York City of a dozen years ago, when Internet 1.0 gave way to the fleeting traumas of September 11. It takes place partly on Long Island—where he was raised—but largely on what his detective heroine knows as “The Yupper West Side.” And it’s a book about something he’s never really addressed before: home.