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Author Thomas Pynchon shuns the spotlight, which makes him something of an oddity in today’s world of ultra-accessibility. Instead, he lets his work -- including his latest book, Inherent Vice -- speak for itself.


GREATNESS THAT RESISTS CELEBRITY BREEDS MYTHOLOGY, which is why nearly a half century into Thomas Pynchon’s literary career, readers are still passionately musing over what they don’t know about the author. What they do know about is his unparalleled narrative genius, which is revealed in lionized titles like Gravity’s Rainbow, The Crying of Lot 49, and V. This month, Pynchon releases his eighth book (and seventh novel), Inherent Vice (Penguin, $28).

The 72-year-old author has never given an interview, has rarely been photographed, and was last “seen” in public in an animated incarnation, pep-talking Lisa Simpson on Fox’s perennial hit The Simpsons. Still, he is widely considered one of America’s greatest literary practitioners. Salon has called him “the twentieth century’s Wizard of Oz.” Critic and novelist Steve Erickson has described him as “the lunatic god of American literature.”

Because of his impenetrably enigmatic life and his penchant for composing conspiracy and code-laden narratives, identifying the “real” Pynchon has long been a game of intellectual marksmanship among fans and academics alike, who piece together textual clues, biographical tidbits, and urban legends to craft a portrait of the man. Into this deafening buzz and awesome reverence, Pynchon submits Inherent Vice, which is being compared -- possibly because it combines hippies and a Raymond Chandler–esque crime story -- to the Coen brothers’ seminal cult-hit film The Big Lebowski. The book’s publisher, Penguin, which is refusing journalists advance copies of the book, is billing the tome as “part noir, part psychedelic romp, all Thomas Pynchon.” That could mean virtually anything, as the author regularly juggles dirty humor, advanced theories of physics, and arcane symbology.

The book tells the story of a burned-out private eye, Doc Sportello, who is solving a hard-core mystery in 1960s Los Angeles. The colorful supporting cast includes, according to Penguin, “surfers, hustlers, dopers and rockers, a murderous loan shark, a tenor sax player working undercover, an ex-con with a … fondness for Ethel Merman, and a mysterious entity known as the Golden Fang, which may only be a tax dodge set up by some dentists.”

“Pynchon knows the culture before the culture knows itself, and in some cases, he knows the culture in a way the culture will never know itself,” says columnist and author Jim Knipfel, whose work has been blurbed by the reclusive Pynchon. “In a world of constant acceleration, Mr. Pynchon somehow manages to remain five steps ahead at all times. Inherent Vice, even though it’s set 40 years ago and deals in the well-worn private-eye genre, is probably light years ahead of everything else being written today.”

As for who is the real Pynchon, author Rick Moody -- a Pynchon acolyte, along with other contemporary novelists like Richard Powers, William T. Vollmann, and Jeffrey Eugenides -- encourages readers to “just forget the author altogether and get lost in the books themselves. There’s no shortage of endless mysteries and brilliant provocations on Pynchon’s pages, no matter the identity, location, or preferred breakfast cereal of the man who wrote them,” he says. “Celebrity is for idiots. Pynchon is forever.”