In popular culture, Pynchon is best known (quite often by those who haven't read his work) as a zany, mischievous creator of large and very difficult to read books. His use of language and portrayal of character and narrative allow him to be slotted neatly into the draw for "writers; second half of the twentieth century; deconstruction of the traditional form of the novel."

As the last point above illustrates, it seems the attention his writing gets focuses far more on form rather than content. For someone whose mastery of language is so fine and broad, it appears to me that it is worth asking "what's he using these words to say and why is he choosing to articulate it in the way he does".

At the risk of sounding censorious, I'd like this question to be based on the premise that there is indeed substance to his works. If your view is "he's just another of those postmodern jokers" (I satirize somewhat), perhaps this may not be the optimal discussion for you (but of course no disrespect intended to anyone across the full spectrum of opinions).

  • Why does his "mastery of language" make it "worth asking" what he's trying to say? Is his skill with words somehow a reason to believe his thoughts on any subject (except, possibly, writing) are worth more than Joe Blow's?
    – user14111
    May 21, 2021 at 10:50
  • I think he is a profound thinker about ever-relevant historical, social and political and technological matters and his "mastery of the language" makes him all the better at making his ideas available in novelistic form. I don't have much more space left to continue with specifics. However read his introduction to the Penguin edition of Orwell's "1984" for an illustration of his writing funnelling interesting ideas in a non-fiction context.
    – Adam Gold
    Sep 13, 2021 at 6:31

2 Answers 2


Short Answer: I believe one of the main unifying themes in Pynchon's work is history, and more specifically the question of how history is relevant to the present; how, and in what way, do we and can we make use of historical fact and narrative? In my reading, Pynchon’s “novels of ideas,” as @AdamGold nicely describes them, use the preconceptions underlying great, overarching ideas like technology and paranoia to interrogate precisely the normal ways we interpret history on global, cultural, social, and personal levels, and the ways we perceive these levels as interacting. (I think Pynchon chooses to really upset the traditional novel form as part of this strategy of interrogation, but that is off topic here). What is to be learned from these interrogations, however, is much harder to say, and I think this is where the really productive conversations on Pynchon's work and its relevance can/do occur.

A full elaboration, for those interested (~1000 words):

Following @AdamGold, there is a certain bedrock for ideas in history. In his engagement with history and with the grand ideas of humanity, I think Pynchon uses the conceptions behind great, overarching ideas like technology and paranoia to interrogate precisely the normal ways we interpret history on global, cultural, social, and personal levels, and the ways we perceive these levels as interacting. To begin with examples, consider what David Cowart says regarding German thought and Gravity's Rainbow in his book Thomas Pynchon and the Dark Passages of History:

For Pynchon, the West defines itself by a negative capability of ultimately German provenance: a secular dream of total knowledge and power coexists uneasily with a vision of transcendence [i.e. Philosophical Idealism]. ... These paradoxes of Western culture, the thematic substance of much of Pynchon's work, often find their focus in specific meditations on Germany, German culture, and German intellectual and social history. (58-59)

Certainly, it is hard to say that Gravity's Rainbow ends by nicely resolving this tension or refuting this Faustian impetus in the West as something left behind with the Nazis. Updating this, Bleeding Edge confronts a similar tension between transcendence and capitalism in the internet / terrorist era (to entirely gloss a 450 page novel). Technology and paranoia are two other major modern ideologically-driven ideas and sources of propelling tensions that Pynchon really digs into in his works. As an example from Gravity’s Rainbow, Imoplex G (and with it the Schwartzgarat, Blicero, the Herero, Jamf’s life in Si-N biology, and other intertwined storylines) really dives into the tension created by a conflation of technological progress with social progress; this same tension is explored too in Pynchon’s essay “Is It O.K. to be a Luddite?”. Importantly, where many people like to focus on the sort of mad-cap characters and storylines, I think it is important to pay attention to what happens with these grand ideas and the tensions they build come the end of Pynchon's novels.

At this point, though, I think a certain level of subjective interpretation becomes inevitable. Pynchon opens up these capacious critiques within the truly incredible breadth of human experience available to him, but what does he do with them? I think the answer depends on how one reads his work.

Looking at Against the Day, for example, there are a plethora of narratives that all converge with the beginning of the first world war. One could read this convergence as orchestrated to raise a particular sort of questioning: In what ways do the American characters and their narratives, history, etc., bear on the European situation? What types of technological progress precipitate what outcomes? And as everyone is sent headlong into various catastrophes, personal or world-historical, is there any way to stop these events? Was there a pivotal moment or moments where a certain decisive action could have possibly averted the destruction to come? Gravity's Rainbow is no different. During the span of the novel (only ~2 years) there is a constant return to past episodes, again both personal and world-historical, in an attempt to understand the current destruction and chaos. If you read closely, the characters do in fact have their questions answered, and hard-won knowledge abounds - and yet, what does it amount to? Certainly it does not have the effects the novel's protagonists desired.

Pynchon, I believe, elaborately constructs his engagements with history intentionally in order to raise and criticize the idea of a “what if” questioning of history along with the type of understanding of history / ideas it implies. To wit, think how many times someone has said “If we had a time machine, we could go back in time and kill Hitler and prevent WW2!” I think Pynchon precisely rejects such an understanding as one completely failing to grasp the complexities of the human race and the extent to which grand ideas, not so much individual actors, create a certain inevitability. Perhaps Pynchon’s message, if there is an explicit one, might be to teach us that we keep playing into these grand ideas and their underlying ideologies. But then, after refuting that, what is there? How to make sense of history, what to do with it?

Pynchon uses this incommensurate juxtaposition of individual lives and world history to interrogate the grand ideologies he sees as both driving the people of a particular time and place and part of a larger symptom of the human condition. Consequently, his characters can be read as embodying engagements with ideas, ways of living ideas, which get swept up in the whirlwind of human complexities; yet through this they also embody, at least in my reading, some very deep human feelings and emotional experiences (that their ability to present to the reader feelings about ideas and life doesn’t necessarily require a fully functioning person as we normally think about characters I see as one of Pynchon’s great insights). Who could possibly shoulder the weight of ideas? I think the end of Gravity’s Rainbow nicely addresses this incommensurability of individuals with history and ideas: some characters give up, some go on searching, and (perhaps) nothing really changed. As everything sort of dissolves come the end of the novels, I moreover will admit that I see where some people are able to read him as saying nothing, just a bizarre postmodern send-up of humanity, just for the kicks, or just for the smug laugh - I disagree, but I’ll grant such a reading it’s place. Largely, I feel that Pynchon, intentionally or not, mirrors his protagonists, always striving to understand the grand structure of history, society, and the "powers that be" and their grand plans, getting ever more frustrated and angry, ever more paranoid, and ever more lost - how many thousands of pages (and counting?) must he/they cross to find where humanity is going?

I realize that is both a very long and vague answer including my own personal take on a lot, but hopefully it’s enough for anyone who has read this far to begin to form their own reading of Pynchon’s convoluted grandiosity. Thanks @AdamGold for the discussion that helped develop this answer

  • Fantastic response @spassgodzilla, exactly what I was hoping for to get a discussion of substance going. I'll revert with a full reply shortly, probably over the weekend. Not surprisingly, a satisfactory reading of his work requires a conceptually rich hermeneutic and your invocation of several 'big' themes is, imho, the right approach to follow.
    – Adam Gold
    Jan 11, 2020 at 10:07
  • I don't know how this happened but the answers got out of sequence. This should immediately following the question I began the thread with. I don't believe I have privileges to fix this.
    – Adam Gold
    Jan 15, 2020 at 16:30
  • @Gallifreyan I tried to merge my two answers and split it into a more useful short, to-the-point part and a longer part for anyone interested. If it's still too long or contains to much discussion, let me know and I'll trim it more. Thanks to both you and Rand al'Thor for the help getting oriented here. Jan 15, 2020 at 23:09
  • I'll be doing the same although may take me a few days long as I have some unrelated stuff I need to get cleared.
    – Adam Gold
    Jan 18, 2020 at 19:25

@spassgodzilla, I'm going to start with a generalisation that's so broad as to be almost meaningless but it's helpful for what I want to say so here we go. There are 'novels of ideas' and then there are 'novels of not ideas'. Of course all fiction needs infusing with some ideas but my contrast is more between the authors. Thomas Mann (quintessential), Herman Broch, Herman Hesse ('The Glass Beed Game' is a perfect example) and Dostoyevsky are a tiny, wholly arbitrary selection of writers who have authored what I'm calling 'novels of ideas'. They use their artform to embrace the grandest facets of existence. While I'm not looking to situate Pynchon within a particular literary tradition, it is important to say that he is also interested in addressing the really big ideas. Thus it is easy for me to wholeheartedly agree with your very first sentence.

I don't think there will be space to comment on your response point by point but with respect to your second paragraph: yes/no. Yes, he inserts grand historical perspectives on the one hand and, as one device to examine them, uses characters placed within short spans of history. I think one of the reasons he uses the latter so effectively is based on his exceptional powers of evocation: while I didn't grow up in London during WWII, I am a Londonder and the place he creates in Gravity's Rainbow ("GR") tallies with so much of the non-verbal experience of London that has been passed on. My 'no' concerns the following: he's certainly creating non-fictional historical arcs which usually emcompass real catastrophe but I don't read this as a vehicle for the 'what/if' type of examination you refer to. The history is there firstly because 'big ideas' are rarely examined in isolation from the historical bedrock upon which they rest - this is crucial. My second reason begins after the next paragraph.

The "bedrock upon which the history rests, which encapsulates 'big ideas'" (!!) is obviously going to be populated with themes that interest Pynchon some of which span across quite a lot of his work. Technology and paranoia are probably the two concepts most associated with him which is sort of right although easily misportrayed or misunderstood. I won't say more about this now other than they are clearly intertwined and symbiotic, not existing separately. You also allude to some additional concepts which I, too, see as relevant.

Back to the 'no' in my 'yes/no'. His reconstruction of historical narratives - which are usually faithful (unlike the adherence of certain of his characters to the laws of physics) - and which not just in GR, often happen during periods of conflict and catastrophe, are a thin veil for a type of moralising. Not the most obvious leap, I appreciate but I first started thinking about it after I read this article he wrote for The New York Times about Watts, LA a year after the riots: A Journey Into The Mind of Watts. Unsurprisingly it's full of perceptive commentary but it also does not hold back on a very clear message along the lines of: there are no scenarios in which vile levels of racsim do not exist. It's a fool's game to base interpretation on authorial intent or guesses as to the author's pyschology at the time of writing but still, I'm going to say the essay is the work of an angry man.

What about in the context of GR? Surely he did not choose to write a novel about WWII which has but the vestiges of a semi-coherent plot, solely to display his writing talent and to show he possessed a polymath's encyclopedic erudition? He wrote GR approximately thirty years after humanity had reached its lowest ebb. Dwell on this lowest ebb, think about it deeply and the angry man might just re-emerge in particularly incandescent form.

Have you heard of a piece of writing by Dostoyevsky called "The Grand Inquisitor"? If you have read the "Brothers Karamzov" you will have as it's a chapter in the novel but it is also recognised as a standalone piece of literature. Christ returns to earth in the 16th century in Seville, is imprisoned and then the Grand Inquistor talks to / excoriates him for earning humanity its freedom as most people cannot shoulder the burden. I say this completely subjectively but for me, no other author can make his characters shriek at the reader as Dostoyevsky does, whether out of anger, despair, frustration etc. The Grand Inquisitor shrieks at Christ for failing humanity. In GR, humanity shrieks at humanity for failing itself, sometimes to the point where the tools to express the magnitude of digust and despair don't exist (I think that is what partly explains the splintering of Slothrop in the final section). If we try, we'll have a custard pie fight with a plane from a hot air baloon, suck on bitumen-flavoured boiled sweets, eat shit and die of E Coli infections.

TO BE VERY CLEAR, this comparison between Dostoevsky and Pynchon is merely for the convenience of exposition, I'm not suggesting a deeper connection (actually it is not something I have ever thought about). For whatever reason, Pynchon decided upon a portrayal of WWII (quasi-non-linear in character!) with which he constructed a literary edifice which could perpetuate the appropriate 'shriek'. No excuses, extant or implied, are offered up. GR is screaming "THIS happened. HOW can this have happened?" And all the while the frantic search for "00000" continues.

I realise, that's a wafer thin description of what I have labelled 'moralising' in the service of rendering history's judgment. Additionally, there is lots of wonderful Pynchon banter which contributes. Imoplex G is one excerpt which I actually think is really important (and he certainly devotes a lot of pages to it). Imho, it's a vision of the world arming itself for war.

[Random question: I've never really understood how Rilke fits into GR. Anyone have any ideas?]

In case I've performed the function of a sleeping pill, I should probably stop here although I do have a lot more to say. Before I forget, I haven't read Cowart's book, I'll be interested to check it out. To list some other areas that interest me: in "V.", the detailed description of the proto-holocaust perpetrated by the Germans against the Herero people in SW Africa is an integral cross novel thread and self-evidently important. "V." also presents to us for the first time Blicero and Gottfried. It is not hard to extrapolate what is described in "V." to GR. I wouldn't attempt a reductive explanation of the Blicero-Gottfried relationship here but I would say it may possibly be making some arresting comments about love that a person could find disturbing. I think "V." also has some lovely things to say about love when Benny finds it at the end (it really annoys me when people describe Pynchon as 'non-feeling'). And lastly I'm in no doubt: on the final page the rocket hits.

  • This reads more like a response to spassgodzilla's answer than a separate answer :-/ Usually on SE answers are expected to actually answer the question. I'm not sure if either this or the second answer from spassgodzilla can stay in this form, even though it's a great literary discussion. For back-and-forth discussion and responses, chat is a better venue, so I've set up a chatroom for you and spassgodzilla. I've also asked a moderator to check these two answers and see if they can be taken to chat.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jan 14, 2020 at 8:35
  • Thanks Rand al'Thor. I spent ages thinking about it. Obviously the length of what I wrote was too long for a comment. And while you're correct, it certainly looks like I'm replying directly to @spassgodzilla, I did say up front that I was not going to make a point by point reponse. His first answer was a great spring board for me to bring some other ideas into circulation intended to perpetuate the thread. Thanks for the chat room. Can I ask, how should I address the kind of hybrid I describe: responding but also, even more importantly, bringing in new material for the good of the main Q&A.
    – Adam Gold
    Jan 14, 2020 at 10:52
  • One other thing Rand al'Thor: may I respecfully request that you keep the existing main material where it is rather than move it to a chatroom. I'm no master but I believe it opens up some valuable discursive material which will hopefully keep the ideas flowing with this particularly important writer.
    – Adam Gold
    Jan 14, 2020 at 10:55
  • I'm not a moderator here, so I can't delete your answer anyway. I've asked the site moderators to have a look and decide. There's some great discussion here, valuable material as you say, but this site is pretty strict on the "answers in answers" policy. The chatroom transcript will also be publicly visible, though, so even if they do move this stuff, it won't be lost completely.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jan 14, 2020 at 11:56
  • Understood you're not a moderator although you clearly understand the site(s) well. One of SE's great strength is the range of subjects and that there is a consistent policy of moderation. However, unsurprisingly there are inevitably going to be differences in how certain subjects should be moderated. Server Fault is more suited to Q/A than literature which is naturally discursive. I know you get this and I'm happy to go through my thoughts with one of the mods. Thanks anyway for kickstarting this discussion which from my pov, definitely needs to be had.
    – Adam Gold
    Jan 14, 2020 at 15:47

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