Thomas Ruggles Pynchon was born in Glen Cove, NY, in 1937. He is reputedly tall with pale skin. Depending on who you talk to, he has green or blue eyes, and is dark haired or balding. His marital status is currently unknown. Records show that he attended Cornell University between 1953-55 to study engineering, and following a self-imposed stint in the Navy, returned in 1957 to study literature. After graduating, he worked for the military wing of Boeing Aerospace until 1962. Whilst at Cornell, he may have witnessed or been directly involved in a series of CIA-sponsored LSD experiments on unwitting students. During his tenure at Boeing, there is a chance he encountered many of the hundreds of Nazi scientists who entered the US after WWII. He might have been a communist. There is even the remotest possibility that he conversed with Lee Harvey Oswald on a Greyhound bus as it drove across the Tex-Mex border, the year before JFK was assassinated. In the early 1960s, he left the US for Mexico City. During that time he evaded all attempts by the media to photograph him, on one occasion travelling eight hours into the Mexican countryside to evade a Time photographer who had been assigned to track him down. He is a writer whose name is mentioned in the same breath as James Joyce. He is also – to say the very least – something of a recluse.
Fosco and Donatello Dubini’s film Thomas Pynchon: A Journey into the Mind of P. goes some way to resolving the myth surrounding the author. Divided into four sections (‘Paranoia’, ‘Disappearance’, ‘Alien Territories’ and ‘Psychomania’) before revealing a fleeting image of their pursuant in the closing ‘Final Act’, the Dubinis present an engrossing and frequently funny portrait that blends fact and fiction, drawing on interviews and archival footage to build upon the scant details available of Pynchon’s life. It brings together a collection of old and ex-friends, an investigative reporter, a comic who once impersonated the author at the National Book Awards, and a group of ‘webmasters’ whose collective raison d’être seems to be uncovering a pathway through the labyrinthine structure of the author’s work. As one of these investigators explains, Pynchon possesses the dichotic nature of an enigma; elusive and, like the Enigma code, cryptographic in conveying his vision of the world.
Opening with an extract from ‘V’, the Dubinis plot a course through Pynchon’s literary and personal life, drawing parallels between his early experiences and the themes that recur throughout his novels. If Pynchon was part of the CIA drug testing at Cornell, did he write ‘The Crying of Lot 49’ as penance for his involvement in covert government action? Was ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ an attempt to appease any lingering guilt for his part in the military’s Minuteman programme? Moreover, is everything linked? Like America’s other great political fabulist, Don Delillo, Pynchon sees connections in anything and everything. Nothing is ever mere coincidence.
There are moments when the Dubinis seem to want to take the film to another, more surreal level, beyond mere biography. In one sequence, Pynchon’s prose leads into old footage of a psychiatrist discussing various forms of delusional paranoia, while images of Kennedy, Castro, Khrushchev and the Ku Klux Klan flood the split screen. The effect is hallucinatory, almost capturing the anarchic spirit of the author’s prose. And yet it is their subject, their commitment to detailing as best they can the chapters of Pynchon’s life, that prevents the film becoming a genuinely original work.
For those interested in ‘Pynchonesque’ cinema, Craig Baldwin’s conspiracy films, Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America and Spectres of the Spectrum probably come closest. Using archival footage and a voiceover not too dissimilar to the stolid tones of a 1950s news anchorman, Baldwin transports audiences into a parallel world of conspiracies and state machinations, similar to Pynchon’s stories in the way they distort everyday reality in order to show how unreal it actually is.
Along with William Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon is one of the great mythographers of the twentieth century. Their vision of the world transforms the recognisable into the bizarre and frequently perverse. But whereas Burroughs’ perversity was primarily sexual, Pynchon’s is often deviance for deviance’s sake. Part informative and part plain weird, with an eccentric score by The Residents, Thomas Pynchon: A Journey into the Mind of P. is an impressive film that goes some way to understanding the genius at work. Ultimately, however, the only way to understand the world, and the mind, of Thomas Pynchon is to read his books – but for that, you may just need an enigma machine.