Is Pynchon the last private author?

I’ve been thinking of JD Salinger a lot lately. It’s hard not to, with a new biography on him just seeing release, news of newly discovered writings and even a documentary. But I’m not really thinking so much about the details of his life as the circumstances around it, namely how private and reclusive he was.

For years, his exile was nearly mythic. Salinger lived in a small town, didn’t really talk to fans or answer letters. If he wrote, he didn’t publish anything. And his exile was complete enough that the New York Post hired people to track him down and take his photo. He was one of the ones who got away, who wrote a book that’s more or less timeless (which one is up for debate, however) and retreated away from the spotlight.

Turn ons: birding, empty rooms, Don DeLillo. Turn offs: Oprah

In a time where Truman Capote rode a nonfiction novel to fame and talk show appearances for years, Salinger did everything he could to control his legacy. His absence is impressively complete. And it’s the sort of thing that doesn’t happen with authors anymore, either. Even Jonathan Franzen, who’s exciting life revolves around birdwatching and writing in an empty room, had his face plastered across a newsmagazine a while ago. This was the same guy who was so upset when Oprah made The Corrections a book of the month, because I guess the masses wouldn’t get the appeal of White Noise Without The Jokes, as it’s called in my house.

Of course, Salinger wasn’t the only author to vanish. Jean Reys vanished for decades before publishing Wide Sargosso Sea; in some quarters, it was assumed she was dead when that book came out. Lee Harper remains something of a recluse, although she’s reappeared in the spotlight with a well-publicized lawsuit.

Most famous of all is Thomas Pynchon, who’s managed the impressive feat of hiding in plain sight. It’s alleged he lives in New York somewhere and he’s appeared on The Simpsons. But aside from some blurry photographs, there’s not much news on the guy. As I remember it, his student records are lost and his Navy files were destroyed in a warehouse fire. And Pynchon himself has never been too forthcoming.

All that means a recent thing at Vulture was a must-read for Pynchon fans. A longish profile of the author, pieced together from clippings, a couple interviews and the public record, it tries to show how the author’s lived his life. It’s an interesting read, especially the stuff about his friendship with Richard Farina, and it occasionally feels like you’re peeking into the life of someone who values his privacy: here’s Pynchon writing in a cabin in the wilderness! Here’s him taping trashbags over the windows!

Even so, it’s still a startlingly incomplete portrait of his life. One example: there was a huge gap between the publication of Gravity’s Rainbow and Vineland; what was he doing for that period?Pyn

The answer’s probably something uninteresting, about working on novels, cashing royalty checks and putting together an anthology of his short fiction. But it’s compelling to ask because he’s been so guarded about his private life. And it’s hard to argue with that: if he doesn’t want the spotlight, more power to him. I wish more people (*cough*BrettEastonEllis*cough*) would be like that.

And that’s part of the reason why I’m curious about that Salinger biography, but not overly so. Not because his later years were probably weren’t super interesting, but because he wanted his life to remain his. Hell, he even took a potential biographer to court. He’s dead now, which means he can’t put a stop to would-be Boswells, but it’s hard for me not think about how he would’ve reacted towards these projects: probably with disdain, maybe with a legal move. It puts a damper on things.

Thankfully, the book’s getting tepid reviews. And it won’t be hard to skip the movie. I just wonder: how long until Pynchon gets his?




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