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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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I saw yesterday that Twitter user WhelanWrites was asking for a basic rundown of some introductory Pynchon criticism. Rather than reply, I thought I'd put a few items up here so that they are better preserved for posterity.

The request was that "Something biographical would be great... And something relating to gravity's rainbow specifically!", so I'll do my best on that front.

Biographical

Anybody who knows anything about Pynchon will already be aware that biographical details are incredibly scarce. He disappeared from the public sphere in all respects but his writing in the sixties.

That said, several critics have tried to put pieces of his biography back together.

Weisenburger, Steven. “Thomas Pynchon at Twenty-Two: A Recovered Autobiographical Sketch.” American Literature 62, no. 4 (1990): 692-697.

This is an interesting piece that examines Pynchon's incredibly amusing application for a Ford Foundation grant. He claims here an alternation between Romanticism and Classicism while also pondering whether to write a space opera.

The other major figure in the biographical arena is Charles Hollander. Most of his articles are available free online if you do this search. I'm not so keen on his stuff, but it's certainly worth a look as so few people have actually any biographical details.

Finally, Seed, David. The Fictional Labyrinths of Thomas Pynchon. 1st ed. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1988, has a reproduction of a letter that Pynchon wrote to Thomas F. Hirsch on the subject of the Herero in Gravity's Rainbow, so it's nice as an artifact.

Gravity's Rainbow Criticism

Wow. Where to begin? Pynchon has had more written about him that almost any other living (and perhaps dead) American author.

The piece that I think really cuts to the chase is Baker, Jeffrey S. “Amerikkka Über Alles: German Nationalism, American Imperialism, and the 1960s Antiwar Movement in Gravity’s Rainbow.” Critique 40, no. 4 (Summer 1999): 323-341 which examines the parallels Pynchon makes between Nazi Germany and the contemporary American situation.

Fairly seminal, also, is Slade, Joseph W. “Thomas Pynchon, Postindustrial Humanist.” Technology and Culture 23, no. 1 (January 1982): 53-72 which does what is says on the tin.

One of the problems with recommending P-Crit is that is has changed. The "early" stuff was obsessed with indeterminacy and postmodern, for want of better words, nihilism and paranoia. By all means check out the old-style criticism, but -- and I think it's fair to say that the authors themselves will also acknowledge this -- things have moved on. For instance: Cooper, Peter. Signs and Symptoms: Thomas Pynchon and the Contemporary World. Berkley: University of California Press, 1983.

If you fancy sampling what's going on nowadays, I'd recommend my friend Sam Thomas' book: Thomas, Samuel. Pynchon and the Political. London: Routledge, 2007, which can be hard going for a newcomer, but is a great piece of work.

Finally, keep a look out towards the end of this year for my forthcoming book chapter on Pynchon and Wittgenstein if that connection interests you; Rocketman from GR features heavily!

Hope that helps.

Featured image by Tessa Farrell under a CC-BY license.