Where's Thomas Pynchon?
CNN tracks down literary world's deliberate enigmaJune 5, 1997
Web posted at: 10:35 p.m. EDT (0235 GMT)
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Thomas Pynchon is an enigma shrouded in a mystery veiled in anonymity.
Among America's most significant writers, Pynchon's five novels have been critical and sales successes. His latest, "Mason & Dixon" -- thick with words and complexity -- sits on the best-seller lists of The New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Its mere publication was considered a literary event.
Yet, you won't see Pynchon hawking his wares on Oprah's book club. You won't find him signing his name for fans down at the corner bookstore.
He so shuns publicity that he doesn't allow his likeness to be used on book jackets. All known photographs of the man date to the early 1950s. Until Nancy Jo Sales of New York Magazine tracked him down last year, no reporter had interviewed him in four decades.
When a CNN camera crew caught up with Pynchon in Manhattan recently, he phoned back to strongly request that he not be pointed out to viewers in any videotape (a request which, after much debate, CNN opted to honor).
"Let me be unambiguous," he said. "I prefer not to be photographed."
The Greta Garbo of American letters
Pynchon's oh-so-low profile has earned him the sobriquet as the Greta Garbo of American letters.
VXtreme streaming video as seen in Charles Feldman's report on CNN
Some of his fans wonder if he really exists or might really be several people writing under a pseudonym. He's a popular topic in cyberspace and, until the arrest of Theodore Kaczynski, was even supposed by some to be the elusive Unabomber.
But there are some indications that the 60-something Pynchon may be cultivating anonymity for his own playful purposes -- and to set himself apart. Clearly, the more obscure he makes himself, the bigger the buzz becomes.
"I think the mystery helps a lot," says Pynchon devotee Ed Conklin. "Because nobody knows who he is, so people talk about who he might be."
Pynchon himself rejects any characterizations of him as a recluse, telling CNN that "my belief is that recluse is a code word generated by journalists ... meaning, 'doesn't like to talk to reporters.'"
He has proven himself willing to step out of the shadows from time to time -- but on his own terms.
When actor John Larroquette started making references to Pynchon on his TV sitcom, the writer -- through his agent, of course -- contacted the show to offer the suggestions and corrections.
"In a very oblique way, Thomas Pynchon helped rewrite that script," Larroquette says.
And in the early 1980s, the Anderson Valley Advertiser, a small newspaper in Northern California, began getting letters from a writer called Wanda Tinasky, taking some hard swipes at powerful literary figures -- Alice Walker and critic John Leonard among them.
Now it is widely believed by literary scholars that Pynchon was Wanda Tinasky. And those letters have been collected in book form.
But after seeing this story on CNN, Pynchon called to say for the first time on record, "I did not write those letters. This has been a hoax that I've had nothing to do with. I'm sorry it's gone on as long as it has."
Mystery turns out to be convention
Pynchon's enigmatic reputation has created an aura of mystery about him. But the truth turns out to be not quite so exotic, according to Sales. He leads a somewhat conventional life in New York City.
"He shops at neighborhood stores. He lunches with other writers. He spends weekends in the countryside with his family," she says.
Indeed, he is so conventional that you might not know him if you saw him. While CNN agreed not to isolate him and identify him specifically, he does happen to be among the people you will see in street scenes in the movie accompanying this story.
Correspondent Charles Feldman contributed to this report.
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