With V. (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Gravity's Rainbow (1973) to his credit so far, Thomas Pynchon, American of no known address, is possibly the most accomplished writer of prose in English since James Joyce. This is not to say that he is also the best novelist, whatever that would mean, but that sentence by sentence he can do more than any novelist of this century with the resources of the English-American language and with the various media by which it is made available to us, everything from coterie slangs to technological jargons, from film to economic history, from comic books to the poetry of T.S. Eliot, from the Baedeker to the Bible. The works of other novelists may prove, as the phrase would have it, more humanly satisfying than his, but Pynchon chooses to use his immense talents as a writer and encyclopedist to show why he cannot offer satisfactions of that kind. His jaunty complaints in the Introduction that the stories in Slow Learner fail to provide full, lifelike characters are for this reason alone so curious and irrelevant as to suggest either that he is kidding - and I am afraid he isn't - or that he is tired. I do not mean that in his fiction he is anti-humanist, but that what he finds of the human, when embodied or inscribed in language, is shown to be mostly grotesque, as names like Pig Bodine or Pierce Inverarity or Tantivy Mucker-Maffick or Scorpia Mossmoon will suggest, and that what he cherishes about human beings is scarcely discernible, except in those extraordinarily poignant catalogues of waste in which his writing abounds. In that respect he resembles Mucho Maas in The Crying of Lot 49, who stopped being a used-car salesman because 'he had believed in the cars. Maybe to excess.'
LRB 24 January 1985 | PDF Download