Scott McLemee
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Lingua Franca, TK 1995

IN 1963, TIME MAGAZINE decided to exhibit before the public a specimen of the Brilliant Young American Novelist. So the editors sent a photographer to get a portrait of Thomas Pynchon, the author of a well-received (if perplexing) first novel called V. The book was a strange mixture of black humor and quest romance, in which the metaphysical hysteria of Kafka's tales cohabited, somehow, with Jack Kerouac's picaresque hipsterism. The author was twenty-six, and already somewhat more than promising. For Time's purposes, he was perfect, except for one problem. Thomas Pynchon did not want his picture taken.

Perhaps he just felt shy. There was, for one thing, the question of his teeth: Pynchon thought they made him look like Bugs Bunny. In any case, when the photographer tracked him down in Mexico City, Pynchon simply fled, hopping on a bus and disappearing into the mountains. Before long, his Mexican neighbors had nicknamed him Pancho Villa -- not for his skill in evading the norteamericanos, but simply because Pynchon looked the part. He began cultivating a vast, wild moustache, as if to conceal his identity (and his teeth) behind a mask.

By the time his fourth novel, Vineland (1990), appeared, journalists knew better than to expect an interview with Pynchon, much less to ask for a picture. Writers often crave solitude but Pynchon has made an art of it. His writings are infrequent, his public profile nonexistent. The last published photograph of him dates from 1955. Even his whereabouts at any given time are a closely guarded secret. And this desire for invisibility goes well beyond shyness. Pynchon wants attention to go to his books, not his private life.

It's worked. Over the decade following the Mexican escape, he published two more novels, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Gravity's Rainbow (1973). With them, Pynchon quit the league of merely gifted writers. He became the Great American Novelist. Dense with plots both narrative and conspiratorial, woven together with endlessly complex systems of metaphor and historical allusion -- Pynchon's fictions constructed a great labyrinth.

Today, quite a few literary critics wander that maze happily, in no particular hurry to leave. The interpretation of Thomas Pynchon has become, in brief, an academic industry. That fact may amuse him, and then again it may not. (He isn't saying.)

 

BUT JUST HOW STABLE can an academic community be when it focuses its attention on a literary figure who composes epics of paranoia and obsession and insists on otherwise removing himself from the public sphere? By guarding the boundary between his life and his art, Thomas Pynchon has been asking for trouble. And now he has it. During the summer of 1995, an old rumor started circulating with new energy. And already it has divided the Pynchon community, bit by bit, into camps. Call it "the Wanda Tinasky question."

A group of literary sleuths in the San Francisco area believes that, during the 1980s, Thomas Pynchon wrote a series of letters to Northern California newspapers under a variety of pseudonyms, with "Wanda Tinasky" being the most frequent. When the claim was first aired in 1990, few Pynchon scholars paid much attention; it all seemed too outlandish. But with a collection of Tinasky's letters scheduled for fall publication, the topic of Pynchon's possible authorship has finally become a serious question for discussion. Could literature's most ostentatiously silent author have cryptically revealed a whole new oeuvre to his thirsty readers? Some Pynchon critics think so. Others who, at first, believed the Tinasky material was the novelist's work have now changed their minds. And that shift of opinion has already generated a bout of speculation in some quarters: Just what were these eminent Pynchonians afraid of?

The debate, if not yet heated, is certainly growing warm

 

WANDA TINASKY MADE HER FIRST appearance in April 1983, when letters to the editor signed with her name began appearing in a Mendocino County weekly, the Commentary. The writer showed a well developed sense of humor -- mostly, however, at the expense of local poets. And this bad attitude eventually got her banned from the paper.

Fortunately for Wanda, the timing of her banishment was excellent. Not long after she began sniping at the region's litterateurs, a man named Bruce Anderson purchased another Mendocino newspaper, from which bully pulpit he set about antagonizing just about everyone.

That paper -- the Anderson Valley Advertiser -- may be the most lively local newspaper in the United States today. Bearing the slogan "Peace to the Cottages! War on the Palaces!" the paper is published out of Anderson's own house, which AVA writers refer to as "the compound." The weekly reflects not only Anderson's politics (left-wing populist) but his personality -- both of which are, to understate a bit, confrontational. His editorial policy is simplicity itself: "I have the right, as a newspaper publisher, to say what I want about everybody, anytime."

And so he has. The AVA has described the Mendocino County grand jury as a "gutless posse of senile Rotarians." Editorials have denounced the Chicken McNugget as "proof that Americans will eat anything provided it is dipped in grease and coated with sugar." Nor was Anderson particularly indulgent of what he called Mendocino's "battalions of very bad poets and artists" and "New Age navel-gazers."

Proscribed from the Commentary, by April 1984 Wanda had found a home in the pages of the AVA -- which, under its new proprietor, was losing advertising revenues fast. "My paper was just cranking up," Anderson recalls, "and Wanda was just the kind of crank we all appreciated."

Dozens of letters arrived at the AVA over the next four years; and in them, Wanda Tinasky revealed a little about her life. She was a White Russian émigré, Jewish, in her eighties. A bag lady, she sometimes used the AVA for underwear and lived under a bridge. She had read Reader's Digest for six decades, but also showed a close familiarity with the theological writings of Nicholas of Cusa. Evidently, she knew a lot about local political and literary personalities, because she made fun of their pretensions with malicious delight. And Wanda was no friend to the culture industry, either at the high end ("If you're sap enough to buy a book some whore of a paid reviewer recommends, you get what you deserve") or low ("I admire Phil Donahue for calling himself a ëworkaholic.' Phil's idea of work is sitting under a hair dryer").

Wanda and the AVA seemed made for each other. She expressed sympathy for the paper's "old-fashioned horse-whippable editor" and his contrarian politics. And over the years, she provided updates on her lobbying efforts to win the paper a Pulitzer Prize. Besides the letters, Tinasky offered bits of poetry and quotations to run as "filler" in blank spots, including an inspired little poem, "On First Looking into Ezra Pound's Pisan Cantos":

He brought out Joyce and Eliot
There must be something in this s - - -.

These contributions came in irregularly, in bursts. And then, in August 1988, Wanda fell silent.

 

THE STORY MIGHT WELL have ended right there if not for one thing -- the publication of Vineland in the spring of 1990. Seventeen years had passed since Gravity's Rainbow, and the appearance of Pynchon's fourth novel was a big literary event. But it was also local news. For the events in Vineland take place in Northern California, in a place very much like Mendocino. Though Bruce Anderson hadn't read any Pynchon before, he found the time to read the book. And he was startled by what he found.

Set in 1984 -- with allusions to Orwell's novel scattered throughout -- Vineland reflects an unmistakable nostalgia for the radical politics of the Sixties. It also carries an ulcer's worth of bitterness for the Reagan ethos. "The state law enforcement apparatus... was calling itself 'America,'" Pynchon writes, "although somebody must have known better." Though the narrative is melodramatic and highly convoluted, the tone is overwhelmingly that of melancholy satire -- mulling over the wreckage of the counterculture, with its proliferation of "New Age mindbarf" and the degeneration of old hippies into a tribe of TV-watching zombies called the Thanatoids.

Reading Pynchon's loopy novel, Anderson felt the shock of recognition. The region of Vineland can be found on no map of California. Yet it seemed to resemble the area covered by the AVA. Still more uncanny was an echo the publisher thought he heard in the novel: Pynchon's prose seemed to share the accents of Wanda Tinasky. Anderson had always suspected the letter writer to be male -- "not, I hope, out of genetic phallocentricity, but because it seemed obvious to me from the testosterone-tinged tone of the humor in the letters that they were the work of a man." Now, Vineland appeared to settle the question. In late March 1990, Anderson published an editorial announcing that Pynchon was "almost certainly the pseudonymous comic letter writer Wanda Tinasky."

Tinasky's response was swift. After an absence from the paper of more than a year, she sprang into action again throughout March and April 1990. In one letter, she suggested that Anderson himself had fabricated the "bilious Mendocino bag lady." Then -- seemingly switching tactics -- Wanda began to suggest that perhaps she had met Thomas Pynchon. She called him "Tollie," and said he was "an angel when you get to know him. Not that I know him -- I mean, I do know him."

In May, 1990, Wanda disappeared once again. But the paper did receive a few more letters written in the same style, signed "Lilly Pearls." One of them suggested: "Don't you think a retrospective of the Tinasky letters is in order, considering how this literary speculation has enriched and eroticized an otherwise barren and arid landscape?"

That spring, articles about the AVA-Pynchon question appeared in the San Francisco Examiner and Publishers Weekly. But when word reached Pynchon scholars, there was little interest. "At the time," recalls John Krafft, one of the editors of the journal Pynchon Notes, "it all sounded a little half-baked. It just didn't seem plausible enough to pursue, and I'll pursue almost anything."

Still, the rumor had been raised, and refused to die. Among the Pynchonians, it was something like an urban legend -- say, the one about alligators living in the sewer system, which works its way through V. Nobody quite believed it, and yet it was certainly possible.

Late last year, several associates of Anderson's formed the Wanda Tinasky Research Group, to prepare an annotated edition of the letters and assess their possible connection to Pynchon. The Tinasky partisans, headed by a former antiwar organizer and sometime private investigator named Fred Gardner, made rapid progress. This May, the group distributed a sampler of the correspondence, with an introduction by Anderson, at the American Booksellers Association convention. "The Literary Mystery of the Decade!" its cover proclaimed; and an October 15 publication date was announced for The Letters of Wanda Tinasky to the AVA, an opus of some 220 pages.

By June, Thomas Pynchon himself had reportedly seen the "preview edition," which had circulated at the booksellers' meeting. Apparently, the invisible man was not pleased. In a letter to Fred Gardner, Pynchon's agent stated that the letters were "definitely not [Pynchon's] work. Please be advised that you cannot use his name in association with your project, or circulate, publish, or distribute it in connection with his name. There is no mystery -- he did not write a word of it."

But in a way, it was already too late. A copy of the sampler had reached John Krafft, the editor at Pynchon Notes to whom, five years before, the Tinasky rumors had seemed improbable at best. A very amiable man, whose name shows up regularly in the acknowledgments page of Pynchon monographs, Krafft thought other scholars might want to read the disputed letters. He made some photocopies; and so the mystery became industrial.

 

You hide, they seek." -- Proverbs for Paranoids, Gravity's Rainbow

THE TINASKY LETTERS CERTAINLY fell on fertile ground: Pynchon scholarship is a crowded and burgeoning business. Since 1973, there have been at least forty dissertations exclusively devoted to Thomas Pynchon's novels. More than 120 others discuss his work in comparison with other authors. And while Pynchon scholars often disavow any interest in the author's personal life, they just as passionately collect Pynchon rumors and memorabilia whenever they can. A long-forgotten theological work by William Pynchon, a seventeenth-century Puritan ancestor, has been reprinted. So have the novelist's writings for his high school newspaper, which display an unnervingly precocious interest in themes of paranoia and conspiracy. Bootleg copies of Pynchon's college transcript from Cornell University are available to the cognoscenti, as is his California Department of Motor Vehicles record from the 1980s. There's a fine line, sometimes, between scholarship and stalking.

Not surprisingly, the voyeuristic impulse that Pynchon induces is the occasion for some embarrassment within the field (even among professors who admit that, yes, they've seen the DMV file). But to be fair, the vast majority of academic writing on Pynchon focuses strictly on his fiction, very much as he would prefer. The novels offer themselves up, quite readily, to critical readings of all kinds: formalist and historicist, psychoanalytic and poststructural, feminist and Marxist, and all permutations of the same.

Faced with Wanda Tinasky, then, the profession of academic literary criticism, Pynchon sector, was well prepared. All it took was John Krafft's courtesy in forwarding copies of the disputed texts. And so the close readings began.

Before long, the Pynchonians parted ways. And that's the way matters still stand. Edward Mendelson -- a professor of comparative literature at Columbia and a leading Pynchon critic -- says simply, "The prose rhythms aren't his." The camp of those who believe Pynchon to be the ventriloquist behind Tinasky claim that, on the contrary, the styles of Wanda and Vineland are close. And, detective-like, they have gathered clues from the Tinasky letters which suggest that Pynchon -- and Pynchon alone -- could be the author.

The evidence is, admittedly, circumstantial. For instance:

1) In a letter from 1985, Wanda mentions that she "used to work at Boeing thirty-five years ago." As every Pynchomane knows, the novelist was a technical writer at Boeing between 1960 and 1962.
2) In her first letter to the AVA, Wanda suggests changing the paper's name to The Boonville Bugle. In Pynchon's novella The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa Maas discovers evidence of a secret postal system (aha!) whose symbol is a muted bugle-horn.
3) Wanda sometimes uses the expression "to be 86'ed," meaning to be thrown out of a place. Pynchon also is fond of this idiom, which recurs throughout his work.
4) In the 1985 Boeing letter, Wanda describes watching jets refuel in mid-flight: "A very striking sight, with two planes stuck together like lovebugs." In Vineland (published five years later), the dope-smoking schlemiel Zoyd Wheeler is briefly employed by Kahuna Airlines -- which, it's strongly suggested, is involved in some shadowy business. "The list of passengers who arrived was not always identical to the list of those who'd departed," Pynchon writes. "Something was happening in between, up there." In the middle of one flight, Zoyd sees another craft hovering near the Kahuna plane, and passengers are exchanged between them.
5) The Pulitzer obsession. In one letter, Wanda writes to the struggling AVA: "I think a Pulitzer prize would help you; the boobs still think that's hot stuff, and you don't have to do much to get one." Actually, Pynchon knows that getting a Pulitzer isn't quite so easy. In 1974, the Pulitzer's literature jury unanimously recommended Gravity's Rainbow for the award. But the Pulitzer advisory board vetoed the selection and chose not to give any literature prize that year.
6) The Tinasky letters were typed on an Underwood typewriter -- the kind Pynchon is known to have used at least until the early 1980s. In Bruce Anderson's judgment, the signatures and handwritten corrections on the Tinasky letters resemble the "script of Thomas Pynchon as we see it on the cover of a bibliography by Clifford Mead."
7) Pynchon has a knack for writing humorous songs -- his novels are filled with them. According to a 1990 paper by Steven Weisenburger, published in the journal American Literature, upon graduating from college in 1959, Pynchon applied for a Ford Foundation grant to write an opera libretto. Wanda too displays an interest in musical comedy, and mentions writing "my own Orwellian phantasmagoria, Blair!"

As the notion of show-tunes about the author of 1984 might suggest, the author of the Wanda Tinasky letters possesses a sense of humor at once off-kilter and on-target. And it is this comic sensibility, more than anything else, that makes some readers eager to attribute the letters to Pynchon.

 

AT FIRST, IT EVEN persuaded Ed Mendelson. In July, after receiving a copy of the Tinasky collection distributed at the American Booksellers Association meeting, he contacted the Tinasky Research Group to find out more about the project. On first reading the letters, Mendelson was very enthusiastic. "The Wanda voice is just transparently [Pynchon's]," he told Fred Gardner, who is editing and annotating the letters for publication. When Gardner asked him to guess what the odds might be that the letters were by anyone other than the novelist, Mendelson said, "One hundred to one. A thousand to one."

He now thinks his excitement at the prospect of an undiscovered batch of Pynchon material overcame his judgment. "When I first read [the letters]," Mendelson says, "it was at eleven o'clock at night, and I immediately believed Pynchon was the author. I wanted very much for the rumors to be true." He asked Gardner to let him see more of the letters. "He sent me about 80 percent of the material they were going to publish. And when I read it in bulk -- in the light of day, so to speak -- it just didn't convince me."

When I asked him what he makes of the Tinasky letters, leaving the question of authorship aside, he thought for a moment and said, "Well, they're very entertaining."

Mendelson's opinion counts. His essays on Pynchon are among the most influential works in the secondary literature. And so his reversal of opinion was a significant blow to those in the Tinasky camp. Not long after that, sources say, another Pynchon critic of equal stature also went from enthusiasm to skepticism at high speed. These changes of opinion occurred a few weeks after Pynchon, through his agent, was denying authorship of the Tinasky letters.

A hint of conspiracy? Such is the insinuation, at least, from some Tinasky partisans. But Bruce Anderson has a much simpler explanation for these shifts in opinion. It is also, as one might well expect, rather blunt: "They're wimps. Look, they've got a reputation to protect. The people willing to take risks are at obscure schools, state colleges, not the Ivy League schools."

Whatever one thinks of the explanatory logic of this model, it has a certain predictive power. My own unscientific sampling of Tinasky advocates found them clustered well outside the more prestigious institutions.

Brian Stonehill, for instance -- author of The Self-Conscious Novel: Artifice in Fiction from Joyce to Pynchon (Pennsylvania, 1988) -- teaches at Pomona College in Claremont, California, where he established a Pynchon homepage on the Internet (http://pynchon.pomona.edu/). Stonehill tells me, "I am personally convinced that Thomas Pynchon is the author of most of the Wanda Tinasky letters I have seen." But there won't be a Tinasky box on the Pynchon homepage anytime soon. "We will not identify Pynchon as Tinasky unless and until Pynchon reveals himself as such."

Charles Hollander, an independent scholar in Baltimore, sounds even more persuaded that Tinasky and Pynchon are one and the same. Hollander's special interest is the novelist's biography and politics. In a long Pynchon Notes article, he has elaborated a highly ramified analysis of how the decline of the Pynchon family fortune after the 1929 stock-market crash fostered in Pynchon a sympathy for the underdog. Writing to John Krafft by e-mail in early July, Hollander presented at length the evidence, as he saw it, for Pynchon's authorship. His brief has been widely distributed.

Steve Howland, an AVA contributor who teaches English at Golden Gate University, has believed in Pynchon's authorship since 1990. He thinks the letters reveal a side of the writer's sensibility that critics usually ignore. "Pynchon is a vertiginous prose stylist," Howland says in a phone interview. "It's easy for scholars to follow any number of tangents, and to miss the particularity and urgency of ... his political message. And the letters very much underscore where he's at politically."

Much the same point is made by Fred Gardner, the man in charge of the Wanda Tinasky Research Group. "Suppose," he says, "somebody hands you a publication and tells you, 'This is by an important writer.' You read it and say, 'This stuff is great!' But if you'd been told, 'These are writings by a bag lady, published in The Boonville Bugle,' you probably wouldn't read them. And it'd be the same material. Wanda Tinasky is out to teach people a lesson in democracy and respect. And that's true, whoever the author is."

In selecting Gardner to prepare the Tinasky correspondence for publication, Bruce Anderson seems to have translated his doubts about academia into editorial policy. Gardner isn't a Pynchon scholar; and he displays little, if any, interest in the novelist's work. His stated position on the question of the letters' authorship is that people should judge for themselves, based on the evidence.

Most Pynchon scholars, it seems, are waiting to do just that. The majority of them -- thinking, perhaps, of Ed Mendelson's turnaround -- are withholding their opinion until the annotated Letters of Wanda Tinasky appear in October. John Krafft -- who circulated photocopies of the letters throughout the Pynchon community at the beginning of the summer -- thinks that computerized stylistic analysis might help answer the question. But for now, he concedes the points of skeptics and advocates alike. "I'm pretty comfortable on the fence," he says, "and in no hurry to decide."

 

JOHN KRAFFT'S CIRCUMSPECTION scarcely means that a pluralistic and empirically-minded calm now reigns within the labyrinth. Hard factional lines are forming, according to Steven Tomaske, a Pynchon scholar who works in Reference Services at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library in Los Angeles. "Judging from the shrill tone of some of the e-mail that I've received lately," he told me, late this summer, "I can say that there is a heavy emotional component to the debate, a faith among some people that Tinasky is Pynchon. There also appears to be a sullen, dismissive attitude among some in the opposing camp."

Indeed, with an October 15 due-date for The Letters of Wanda Tinasky to the AVA, the pressure on experts to formulate definitive judgments is about to increase. Nor is that the only pressure in evidence. An implicit threat of litigation hangs over the whole project: Pynchon's agent has been very explicit that the Tinasky material must not be released under Pynchon's name. As a result, the volume's publisher, AVA Books, is being very cautious about how it presents the letters. (Its name notwithstanding, the entire catalog of AVA Books consists of one title: Wanda's oeuvre.) A critical essay intended for the volume -- Steven Howland's analysis of Pynchonian themes and resonances in the Tinasky writings -- has been dropped from the book.

Ironically enough, Pynchon could stop publication of the book quite easily if he wanted to -- so I was informed by Ray Roberts, the novelist's friend and former editor. How? All Pynchon need do is declare that he did, in fact, write the letters. Then he could deny Anderson and Gardner permission to reprint them. It is, by any standard, a peculiar strategy -- particularly coming from Roberts, who emphatically denies that Pynchon wrote the letters. And it's just the sort of paradoxical twist that keeps the Pynchonians so enthralled.

For regardless of who wrote the letters, the Tinasky story has emerged as an odd supplement to Pynchon's fiction. Throughout Pynchon's novels, characters comb the world for hidden clues, the signs of an order "behind the visible." In The Crying of Lot 49, for example, Oedipa Maas trembles on the verge of some vast epiphany -- she discovers, or imagines, that a secret postal system, the Tristero, has been operating across the centuries. The proof is almost within her reach: "Other revelations ... now seemed to come crowding in exponentially, as if the more she collected the more would come to her, until everything she saw, smelled, dreamed, remembered, would somehow come to be woven into The Tristero."

Is the search for Wanda Tinasky just another of Pynchon's elusive quests, an infernal machine to confound his readers and blow up the academic industry surrounding his work? Or is it just a case of literary wish fulfillment, dreamed up by overzealous fans and fantasists?

Wanda Tinasky could well be a Pynchon character. Or maybe not. (She isn't saying.) But one thing is certain, at least -- the scholars on her trail have wandered into a distinctly Pynchonian universe, where all inquiries tangle up, or lead nowhere. Or as Gravity's Rainbow instructs us, in another of the recluse's Proverbs for Paranoids: "If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about the answers."

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