Literary Titan Thomas Pynchon Breaks 40-Year Silence – on The Simpsons!


By Erik Ketzan

Update: Pynchon appeared again on The Simpsons in 2004. More here and here.

When news broke in July 2003 that Thomas Pynchon would lend his voice to an upcoming episode of The Simpsons, it seemed so surprising, wacky, and surreal, in other words, so trademark Pynchon, that it simply had to be true.
To his most ardent fans, Pynchon is nothing less than a prophet, a literary genius of such prodigious talent that every sentence he writes seems almost gospel, his least utterance a potential revelation. One reader review of Gravity’s Rainbow at Amazon.com sums up the Pynchon cult by declaring: “GR is our new Bible, and Pynchon’s a zany Moses in America.” To these devoted literati, finally hearing Pynchon’s voice is comparable to Moses descending Mount Sinai. While guest stars on The Simpsons are obviously nothing new, Pynchon is unique among authors in that he has maintained absolute privacy throughout his entire career. He has never given an interview, allowed himself to be photographed, or appeared on television, a decision he has stuck by since 1963, when Time sent a photographer to meet Pynchon in Mexico City. (As the story goes, to avoid being caught on film, Pynchon jumped out his window, in good slapstick fashion, and fled to a remote Mexican village.) For decades, Pynchon has so adamantly maintained his aversion to cameras that what pictures of him exist are mostly culled from his 1953 high school yearbook, in which he appears as a buck-toothed kid with a goofy grin and a pompadour.
After the rumor broke in July, speculation about the upcoming Simpsons appearance became rampant. Just what the hell would Pynchon say? What commandments would he bring down from his years of anonymity? Accustomed to the literary games played throughout Pynchon’s postmodern works, there was speculation that the entire gag alluded to his first American ancestor, William Pynchon, who sailed with John Winthrop’s fleet and founded Springfield, Massachusetts in 1630. Some other fans on Pynchon-L, the mailing list frequented by many of Pynchon’s most persistent admirers and critics, were not pleased at the prospect of Pynchon landing in Bart and Lisa’s Springfield, accusing their hero of “selling out” to those corporate forces his books so strongly condemn. But many, like Allen Ruch, co-editor of Spermatikos Logos, relished the tickling absurdity of Pynchon on The Simpsons, posting on Pynchon-L: “Personally, I am psyched that he’s doing it – I could think of no better public forum to first hear the voice of P!”
After much anticipation, on January 25th, Pynchon broke forty years of media silence on Diatribe of a Mad Housewife, a forgettable, though not execrable, Simpsons foray. Inspired to write, Marge pens a novel titled Harpooned Heart, a Moby Dick-era romance featuring Marge as Temperance, a Nantucket housewife whose husband, Captain Mordecai (Homer), is off whaling at sea. Marge’s fantasy is full of decently clever moments (instead of “Call me Ishmael,” her novel humorously begins, “There once was a girl from Nantucket”), but Diatribe of a Mad Housewife’s subplot falls prey to the most notoriously annoying character since The Simpsons lost its edge – “Stupid Homer.” Homer becomes some kind of salesman (it is never clear), then buys an old ambulance for no apparent reason other than its loud, obnoxious siren. Once in his ambulance, he drives around town picking up sick Springfieldians, but inexplicably has no idea where Springfield’s hospital is, leaving patients like the Comic Book Guy in agony on the stretcher (perhaps a barb intended for the internet critics he has come to represent?).
After Marge finishes her novel back at home, she finds a publisher who decides that it needs some glowing reviews by famous novelists. Enter Thomas Pynchon, cartoon character. Wearing a paper bag over his head (Pynchon may have broken his silence, but we still have to guess what he looks like now by mentally ageing his high school portrait fifty years), he stands next to a flashing sign, reading, “Thomas Pynchon’s house,” pointing. . . at his house, presumably. On the phone with Marge’s publisher, he says “Here’s your quote. Thomas Pynchon loved this book. Almost as much as he loves cameras,” a reference indicating, with sly sarcasm, that Marge’s book sucks. He hangs up the phone, dons a waffle-board sign reading “Thomas Pynchon” (with a big red arrow pointing up at his head), and yells at passing motorists, “Hey, over here, have your picture taken with a reclusive author! Today only, we’ll throw in a free autograph. But, wait! There’s more!”
Aside from the bit of fun at the idea of the world’s most reclusive author out on the street hawking photo ops, what do we walk away with? For starters, now we know how Pynchon pronounces his own last name, “Pinch-AWN” rather than “PINCH-un” (which I have been saying for years). You can tell that he enjoys his lines, delivering them with amateur, though earnest, theatricality. Combined with a pronounced Long Island accent, he comes across as a kindly guy who’s “still crazy after all these years,” as Salman Rushdie put it when reviewing Vineland. It is a voice that fits the mellow, gentler tone of Mason and Dixon, his most recent novel. But what else did this historic appearance mean, if anything?
The answer is under brisk discussion by the Pynchon faithful, who dutifully set their VCRs or joined other acolytes in front of “the Tube,” as it is ominously referred to in Vineland, on the last Sunday in January. Some feel that appearing on The Simpsons, rather than Booknotes, say, or Charlie Rose, was a suitably baffling stunt, but that he should have done it sooner, before The Simpsons began its decline. Many others, accepting or ignoring the episode’s weaknesses, simply enjoyed the ride for what it was worth. Artist Zak Smith, whose “Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow” (a massive collection of over 700 works in various media) goes on exhibit at the 2004 Whitney Biennial in March, responded: “So Pynchon likes The Simpsons, so much he’s willing to poke a hole in his carefully cultivated veil of mystery just for a chance to put in a cameo in the least funny sequence in one of those mediocre ‘Marge-is-right-Homer-is-wrong’ episodes – frankly, I would’ve done the same thing.”
Steven Weisenburger, author of A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion, the essential annotations to Pynchon’s most difficult work, expressed the surprise and pleasure shared by many literati: “Dang! Now we know what the voice behind those words on the page actually sounds like!!” Tim Ware, who runs the extensive resources at ThomasPynchon.com, “loved Pynchon goofing on his reputation as a recluse. As many suspect, he’s not so much a recluse as just someone who doesn’t wish to be observed by the Public Eye. Sounded like he had fun doing it and I wouldn’t be surprised if he enjoys The Simpsons’ wacky-heady brand of humor.” Dr. Larry Daw, creator of The Illustrated Complete Summary of Gravitys Rainbow, a series of over 70 digital collages which will be on exhibit at the “Pynchonalia” conference held this April at The Smithsonian, and also co-editor of Spermatikos Logos, “was a teenie bit disappointed with the brevity of his appearance, but [felt] the contrast between the ‘open house’ he was standing in front of and his true reclusivity was outstanding.”
Pynchon’s stance has been interpreted as an act of rebellion against a certain type of literary criticism which interprets literary works through biographical study of the author. His refusal to be “observed by the Public Eye” has also become a thorough repudiation of American celebrity and the corporate forces behind it. In contemporary America, where most Americans would sell their souls to star on reality television, Pynchon stands almost alone, rejecting the attention, fame, and money which he could easily attain, metaphorically pissing on the corporate boardroom table, like his character, Roger Mexico, near the end of Gravity’s Rainbow. But each of Pynchon’s books blends gravity with levity, and the master seems to have spoken to us to deliver one simple commandment: never take The Simpsons, or Thomas Pynchon, too seriously. Q.E.D.


--Erik Ketzan
20 February 2004