No one has seen a public photograph of Thomas Pynchon, perhaps the greatest practitioner of postmodern literature, since the late ’50s, when he was a sailor in the Navy. Obsessed fans have clung to every rumor about his whereabouts, claimed that he was really J.D. Salinger in disguise, and even entertained the suspicion that he was behind a series of eccentric but strangely compelling letters to the editor of the Anderson Valley Advertiser. For forty years, the author of some of the country’s most complex and delightful prose has remained a cipher. But ten years ago, Oakland Web designer Tim Ware thinks, Thomas Pynchon wrote him a note. “I got this e-mail from somebody, kind of anonymously, from a library somewhere,” he says. “And all it said was, ‘How come you don’t have an entry for smegma?'”
Ware sits in the Jack London Square loft offices of his company HyperArts, where a poster of the Monterey Pop Festival hangs near an oversize flat-screen monitor. At age 58, with sandy hair thinning above reedy spectacles, he’s a cheery, unassuming musician and Web professional. He’s also perhaps the world’s foremost authority on Pynchonalia, having created an exhaustive index of every character and historic event in Pynchon’s 1973 classic Gravity’s Rainbow. Professors around the world advise their students to consult Ware’s Web site, ThomasPynchon.com, and he’s been invited to academic conferences in Great Britain and Belgium. Now that Pynchon’s latest novel, Against the Day, has arrived to the delight of fans everywhere — fifty people packed Moe’s Books in Berkeley on November 20, waiting for the stroke of midnight to buy copies — Ware has taken on an even more ambitious task. He is coordinating the global Wikipedia project to annotate, categorize, and investigate every single detail in the novel.
Ware fits the profile of the Pynchon obsessive to a T. He dropped out of college in 1968, moved to the Bay Area, and bummed around the counterculture, dropping acid and thinking weird thoughts. He worked as a legal secretary, trying to get his acoustic music quintet off the ground. But that was his life before 1993, when someone introduced him to chaos theory. Ware devoured everything he could find on the subject, until he came across a reference to Pynchon in a book about literary strategies and chaos theory. He picked up a copy of Gravity’s Rainbow, and struggled through the dream sequence in the novel’s first pages. One night in bed, when he finally finished reading the novel, Ware glanced back at the dream sequence; there, he realized, everything that had happened in the subsequent pages was a key to unlocking the dream’s esoteric secrets. He was never the same again.
“It was just amazing,” he says. “It was like one of those random-dot stereograms, those things you stare at in a certain way, and then boom! They kinda spring out into a 3-D world. … It was kind of almost LSD in the form of a novel. It had that same kind of incredible, almost inexpressible complexity to it.”
Ware nagged his wife to read the book, but soon realized that she would be too overwhelmed by the complexity to sustain any interest. So he compiled an index of characters to help her. As Usenet groups began popping up, Ware submitted his index to a literature group, where people began offering corrections and trivia. When hyperlink technology spread, he learned everything about it to make his index more accessible. After a few years, thanks to his Pynchon obsession, he was suddenly a fully qualified Web designer. “I just created this Web site and kept developing it,” he says. “Then I found myself in about 1998, at a point where I had a marketable skill.”
Ware’s obsession led to more than a career. Before Pynchon’s 1997 novel Mason and Dixon hit the stands, the author’s wife, literary agent, and conduit to the outside world gave Ware advance galleys. “She said, ‘Oh, we’re definitely going to send you an advance reading copy,'” he recalls. “‘We really like what you’re doing.’ I wanted to say, ‘Who’s we?'”
Eight months before the release of Against the Day, Ware decided that running a Web site wasn’t enough. There were thousands of crazed Pynchon fans out there, chasing down every esoteric detail. Why not tap into that community? Ware created a wiki dedicated to the book, managed to get an advance galley, and began building a kernel of annotations before it was published. Once the book hit the stands, he says, people from around the world began submitting information about everything from 19th-century bank presidents to Nikola Tesla and the 1908 Tunguska event in Siberia. One reader has begun annotating the book page by page; so far, he’s made it to page 694 of 1120.
The scope of Pynchon’s encyclopedic vision almost requires such work. In Against the Day, for example, one villainous Russian character pilots a dirigible called The Great Game, confronts a band of idealistic Englishmen, and bombs cities with four-block masonry segments. Within a week, someone realized that the character’s name was a homonym of Alexey Pazhitnov, the inventor of the video game Tetris, and The Great Game was coined by Rudyard Kipling to describe the conflict between England and Russia over the future of the decaying Ottoman Empire. “That’s one of the fun things about a Pynchon novel, decoding some of these sly or very subtle references,” Ware says. “It’s kind of a triple entendre, and for all I know, there’s more to come.”
But is Pynchon really worth the effort? Against the Day has gotten decidedly mixed reviews, with its detractors claiming that this time his whimsy and trivia have become a parody of themselves. His absurdist, slapstick characters make with the yuks amid grand themes of paranoia, alienation, and conspiracy. In this off-kilter fusion of high and low culture, a certain sense of incomprehensibility sets in, and one suspects that behind the Marx Brothers pageantry, there’s nothing but an ornate sense of style. But according to Michael Silverblatt, a literary critic and the host of the National Public Radio show Bookworm, Pynchon’s every detail is designed to replicate the gestalt zeitgeist of a single period in history, in which culture, technology, and history careen into a vast, interconnected sensibility. Power, progress, and information march through the centuries toward a thermonuclear precipice, and the ordinary human being is rendered helpless before its all-consuming maw. The only defense, Pynchon tells us, is vaudeville.
“If you read Pynchon straight through, all of his work, you find that you’re receiving a history of man’s interpretations of the technology and history around them,” Silverblatt says. “Not just the facts, but the way the facts were interpreted in their time. And these interpretations keep changing over time, so that what you’re looking at is a history of progress, and interpretation of progress, that gets darker and darker as we move through American history toward the present. … As we move through what he considers to be the hell we’re living in, Pynchon wants to find the alternative tale, or a way of coping with the fact that we’re moving through hell. And his sense of comedy is his alternative story.”
Maybe it’s genius, maybe it’s bunk. For people like Tim Ware, it’s just a hell of a ride.