Watch: The Greta Garbo of American Letters


Video & Multimedia

Today is Thomas Pynchon’s birthday. His fans have also declared it Pynchon in Public Day, a social-media tribute with a modest concept: take to the streets with your camera and post photos of “horns, W.A.S.T.E. insignia, [and] the novels of Thomas Pynchon read unashamedly on trains, while still sub-rosa. It is simple, it is inevitable, it has begun.”

And so it has: Twitter teems with shadowy portraits of those Awaiting Silent Trystero’s Empire. If you’re not about to draw a muted post-horn in a public restroom, you can celebrate Pynchon in Public Day by revisiting this CNN report from 1997, when, upon the release of Mason & Dixon, the cable-news pooh-bahs determined to track him down—his privacy was simply too inscrutable to ignore. Being CNN, they found him, but he prevailed upon them to refrain from identifying him on camera; he appeared as one among the crowds of New York.

The report is an engaging look at Pynchon’s media hijinks over the years. Its newsy, wide-eyed tone dates it to those strange days before the Internet’s hegemony, when it was easier to play games with one’s identity. “Many of his fans don’t even know what he looks like!” the anchor, Joie Chen, says, her brow knit in befuddlement: Just what sort of a crank is this guy? (Look out, too, for John Larroquette mispronouncing oblique.)

The text edition of the piece claims that “Pynchon’s oh-so-low profile has earned him the sobriquet as the Greta Garbo of American letters”—not a phrase I’d heard before, but one I’ll begin to deploy posthaste.

“While Pynchon’s books can be found side by side with other works of popular fiction, you won’t find Pynchon the author anywhere,” the reporter explains, as if we might have expected to spy him lurking behind the shelves at Barnes & Noble. And perhaps he’s there—I haven’t checked. Wherever he is, I hope he’s celebrating his special day with cherry-quinine petit fours, eucalyptus-flavored fondant, and pepsin-flavored nougat.