The question of whether the novel is dead is one that often occupies those in the business of writing or commenting on novels, much as the question of self-driving cars doubtless occupies truckers. One’s attitude towards the question largely depends on one’s attitude towards genre fiction and Sally Rooney.
Still, whatever its truth, it is inarguable that, as Joseph Bottum wrote in his 2019 book The Decline of the Novel, “art forms are not immortal or incapable of collapse when their social foundations shift.” To that end, authors have been attempting to innovate. The “alt-lit” community have been using social media for years, both as a source of thematic material and as a means of publication, and even grizzled vets are learning new tricks. Salman Rushdie has been publishing his latest novel, The Seventh Wave, in a serialized form on Substack.
And Thomas Pynchon?
Well, here lies a mystery. A user of the r/ThomasPynchon board on Reddit has noticed something unusual. Paul Thomas Anderson, who adapted Pynchon’s book Inherent Vice, has a new film, Licorice Pizza. A character in Licorice Pizza is an old guy in the movie business named Sam Harpoon.
Harpoon appears to have “his” own Twitter account where he posts fictional movie anecdotes, in what feels like a tribute to the rambling Facebook posts of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull screenwriter Paul Schrader. Sample brilliance: “this boggles my mind (not my imagination – nothing boggles that).” Despite having fewer than 2,000 followers, Harpoon is followed by Hollywood big hitters like Looper and Knives Out director Rian Johnson. Some of Harpoon’s anecdotes appear to drop sly references to Pynchon’s work. For example, he writes:
2022 marks 50 years since I began the journey of crafting “Rainbow,” my studio debut and the film which has defined my career for better or worse (arguably both). Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, while not his first book, was published in 1973 and has defined his career (for better or worse). Another Reddit wag pointed out that a “Harpoon” is a missile. The plot of Gravity’s Rainbow concerned missiles and Pynchon worked as a technical writer of Boeing.
Could Pynchon be tweeting as a minor character from a Paul Thomas Anderson film? There are similarities between their thoughts and style. “Harpoon” writes:
Gurdjieff once wrote, “Essence is the truth in man.” This was the guiding philosophy at the heart of “Juju and the Caper Crew” which I made for Fox in 1974. However due to a financing snafu with Westinghouse it was only shown at the NATO training base in Szczecin. Great film! SH.
Various Pynchonian elements are there: tricksy humor, esoteric philosophy and strange military machinations. Could it be? Could it be?
Well, none of this is direct evidence for the furtive novelist’s involvement. As fun as all this speculation is, the cold hands of probability have to rest themselves upon our shoulders. Pynchon is 84. He famously avoids the limelight. He has never had a verifiable social media presence. Is it realistic to imagine that he is spending his golden years posting away online to a small audience of amused movie bigwigs and curious Redditors?
Then again, it is certainly someone, and someone well-connected, trying to sound Pynchonesque. It would not surprise me if it was Paul Thomas Anderson himself, who shares Harpoon’s enthusiasm for lost subcultures and, obviously, filmmaking. But perhaps it is nothing more than a stunt — an attempt to gain publicity from bozos like your humble commentator through manufacturing speculation that directs people towards the film.
If it is a stunt, it is a clever one. No other author’s name invites such conspiratorialism. He produces Pynchon novels but he also inspires a universe of Pynchonalia. He has been alleged (almost certainly falsely) to have published a novel under a different name. When he published his novel Bleeding Edge, there were suggestions (again, almost certainly false) that he was posting on the strange and lurid messageboard 4Chan. When Paul Thomas Anderson directed Inherent Vice, there were claims, which led to feverish theorizing, that the famously camera-shy novelist had made an appearance. USA Today even asked various authors to submit their own “Thomas Pynchon conspiracy theories,” with Teddy Wayne, author of Loner suggesting, “Thomas Pynchon is really J.D. SALINGER.”
Pynchon’s enigmatic public image has created a Pychonesque drama in itself — a seething mass of speculation aimed towards…what? Trying to see an old man’s face? Trying to find out whether he wrote some humorous tweets? Well, damn it, I want to know as well. If knowledge is hard to acquire, then curiosity inflates its value out of all proportion. The internet has made that even truer because we know so much about so many different people and events. The unknown becomes especially tantalizing.
Sam Harpoon, whoever he is, is writing a chapter in a sort of abstract novel — a collection of texts that illustrate the stranger reaches of human inquisitiveness. Will it have an ending?