NEARLY 50 years into the Thomas Pynchon era, it's our failing if we don't understand the author's manner and method, which are inseparable from the artifacts he has produced. Despite the legendary slowness of his process, and his even more legendary "reclusiveness," Pynchon has delivered seven books, including four massive novels. Yet is there another contemporary "master" whose career is more routinely subjected to reassessment with each new work?
Pynchon, of course, has brought a lot of this upon himself. Though his fiction helped to define the very idea of literary postmodernism, the best and most concise adjective to define it is still the tautological "Pynchonesque"; his books remain leading examples of the sort of novel Henry James referred to, half a century before postmodernism, as a "loose, baggy monster." Though his work both recalls and anticipates that of his contemporaries playing in the same ballpark -- William Gaddis, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, Joseph McElroy, Richard Powers and David Foster Wallace, for example -- there is no team to which he belongs. His careful (or haphazard, if you like) mix of confidently asserted scientific flimflam, stunningly serene description, madcap situational farce, peculiarly compelling but disconcertingly intermittent plotting, polymorphic sexual perversity, rat-a-tat dialogue, witheringly pessimistic analyses of power, extended parodic forms and metafictional winks has never centered on any particular idea about how a novel ought to work. Rather, it has accommodated all the things a novel can contain. One is reminded of Fibber McGee's overstuffed closet on the old radio program, which disgorged the entire contents of NBC's sound effects library when opened. A Pynchon work, then, automatically becomes the focus of those who lament excess, cleverness, self-indulgence, difficulty and other apparent literary sins, whose ideal novel is lean, well-plotted, linear and related from a single point of view.