The Invisible Man: Thomas Pynchon May Be One of America's Most Reclusive Writers, but His Influence on Popular Culture Is Pervasive. John Dugdale on a New Film about the Enigmatic Author. (the Back Half: Arts, Etc)
Dugdale, John, New Statesman (1996)
Back in the 1970s, an academic fan intent on getting an interview tracked Don DeLillo to Greece. The reclusive novelist handed him a card that read: "I don't want to talk about it." By which he meant, naturally, his fiction.
DeLillo has since come in from the cold, and is now regularly interviewed by journalists; he even agreed to submit to a lengthy promotional tour for his novel Underworld (1997). His friend Thomas Pynchon, by contrast, has remained aloof:
no interviews, no bookshop signings or festival readings, no publicity photos. As the Pynchon-influenced cyberpunk writer William Gibson put it, he "makes JD Salinger look like Boy George".
When artists won't agree to commodification and behave like celebrities, arts television can't handle them; it requires their physical presence so we can peer at their furniture and assess their clothes, listen to them talking like chat show guests about their parents, childhood and encounters with other celebs. The media need writers to agree to their work being simplified.
This has so far deterred US and British film-makers from tackling Pynchon, but the Swiss brothers Fosco and Donatello Dubini -- probably encouraged by the snatched images of the author that appeared six years ago when he published Mason and Dixon, which guaranteed them a physical presence of sorts -- took on the challenge for German TV in 2001. After trundling around the festival circuit, the film will be shown at the Institute of Contemporary Arts this month. The ICA has made something of a speciality of charismatic sages, playing host to Jean Baudrillard chatting to a bemused Anthony Giddens and, recently, screening a movie about Jacques Derrida.
The film Pynchon: a journey into the mind of [P] is principally a patchy biographical quest and full of risibly blatant errors and misspellings -- a CV of the (married) author contains the words, "Martial status: unknown". It has an interview with a girlfriend from the novelist's Californian years in the 1960s and ends with video-paparazzo footage of Pynchon, and a journalist recounting how he took a photo of the baseball-capped sexagenarian on a Manhattan street.
The film concentrates on Gravity's Rainbow (1973), Pynchon's sprawling novel about the Second World War. It attempts to explain why that novel is preoccupied with sinister mind-control experiments and with the links it makes between the Nazi and Nasa rocket programmes. Pynchon's celebrated paranoia is explained partly as a result of the guilt he feels at having worked for the missile-maker Boeing.
Although moody visuals and the Residents' zany soundtrack suggest avant-garde aspirations, the film is disappointingly conventional. Like a routine edition of The South Bank Show, it combines a fixation on the artist's life with gleeful attempts to switch its attention from fiction to its historical basis.
Pynchon has written five novels, ranging in setting from 18th-century England, America and India in Mason and Dixon to the 1980s West Coast in Vineland. They display a dazzling range of tones and styles. Yet the Dubini brothers, on the whole, confine themselves to Gravity's Rainbow--perhaps not coincidentally, the one novel set in Germany--and by sifting out the fun leave the impression of a relentlessly grim author whose work is dominated by preapocalyptic dread. …