Mason & Dixon
by Thomas Pynchon
Henry Holt, 773 pp., $27.50
Thomas Pynchon is the unlikely offspring of Jack Kerouac and the Cornell English department. He was born in Glen Cove, Long Island, in 1937. He attended Oyster Bay High School, and entered Cornell in 1953, majoring in engineering physics before switching to English. In 1955, he left college to serve for two years in the Navy. He was stationed, for part of that time, in Norfolk, Virginia, where he one day wandered into a bookstore and picked up a copy of the Evergreen Review. It was his first exposure to the Beat sensibility—”an eye-opener,” as he later described it. He returned to Cornell in 1957, took a literature course with Vladimir Nabokov (who, when asked about it years later, did not remember him), and graduated in 1959.
At this point the trail becomes famously difficult to follow. After college Pynchon seems to have spent some time in New York City and then moved to Seattle, where, from 1960 to 1962, he worked for Boeing as a writer of technical material. He had published a relatively conventional short story, “The Small Rain,” in a Cornell literary magazine in 1959. Another story, “Low-lands,” exhibiting the Beat influence, appeared in New World Writing in 1960. The same year, the Kenyon Review published “Entropy.” It was quickly anthologized, it introduced the term “entropy” into everyday conversation, and it established the popular image of Pynchon as a writer of postmodernist high-tech, a literary encoder of scientific arcana.
Two dauntingly idiosyncratic novels, V. (1963) and The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), followed, but by then Pynchon had disappeared entirely from public view. When his third novel, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), won a National Book Award (it failed to get a Pulitzer after the trustees overturned a unanimous jury recommendation), the prize was accepted by the comedian “Professor” Irwin Corey, a specialist in pseudo-academic doubletalk who was apparently mistaken by some people in the audience for Pynchon himself. Since then, Pynchon has simply declined offers of awards for his work. His name occasionally turns up in unexpected contexts—last year, Esquire published his interview with the members of a rock band called Lotion—but his whereabouts have been mysterious, and the most recent photograph available is the one in the 1953 Oyster Bay High School yearbook.
Authorial privacy cultivated to this degree tends to compound, rather than deflect, the problem of celebrity by turning ordinary fans into cultists—people who read the novels as encryptions of the author’s “message” and personal life. In Pynchon’s case, the natural tendency is to identify him with his typical protagonist, a social dropout who sets off with some vague notion of making sense of the flux and ends swallowed up by it, one more electron knocking about the universal molecule. Benny Profane and Herbert Stencil in the double-plotted V., Oedipa Maas in The Crying of Lot 49, and Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow are incarnations of this figure, and they are all fairly identifiably the …