The New Yorker‘s litblog, the Book Bench, has posted a lengthy 1978 interview of John Updike by two professors of English at the University of Sarajevo. Updike covers Moby-Dick, his writing routine, authors he enjoys who live outside the United States, and Isaac Bashevis Singer, who had just won the Nobel Prize in literature. But he also expounds on the wave of postmodern authors who were coming into full flower at the time, like John Barth and Donald Barthelme. Updike is sympathetic toward the work of those two authors, but he’s not so kind to Thomas Pynchon:
I really find it not easy to read him; I don’t like the funny names and I don’t like the leaden feeling of the cosmos that he sets for us. I believe that life is frightening and tragic, but I think that it is other things, too. Temperamentally, I just have not been able to read enough Pynchon to pronounce intelligently upon him. Clearly, the man is the darling of literary criticism in America now, especially of collegiate criticism. I am just no expert but all I can say is I have not much enjoyed the Pynchon I have tried to read…. I am not among those who has found much comfort in Pynchon. As to so-called black humor, which is maybe a passé phrase, it did seem to me at its best to be true enough and to correspond with a quality of, at least, American life in the sixties.
By 1978, Gravity’s Rainbow was only five years old—that book, combined with the wave of postmodernists, might have made feel like his own fictional enterprise was on the wane. But even if Updike wasn’t being defensive, he is voicing a fairly common complaint about Pynchon. For all his dark humor, wisdom, and gamesmanship, the line goes, he’s a product of the 60s who doesn’t have much to say about contemporary life—the postmodernist as nostalgist. “For me, I kind of think that there was a moment where he kind of held the reins of the zeitgeist in his hands, and then he kind of lost it,” Robert Goolrick told me a few months back in a conversation about his attempt to track down Pynchon. “I found his later work very disappointing and diffuse…. [B]ut there was a moment when he was completely in sync with the tenor of the times, and was completely a genius.”
No more, perhaps? Is it that his reputation now runs on the dying fumes of the enthusiasm of once-hip boomer critics and readers? Much as I find Pynchon’s persona fascinating, I haven’t gotten the impression that there’s enough in his work to merit the dedication required to get through it, though I’m an admirer of The Crying of Lot 49. I suspect that Inherent Vice goes down more smoothly, but, being set in the 60s, would only help support the complaint. He’s under no obligation to write a novel set in the present day, of course, but what is it about his work that makes him meaningful and relevant today?