Analysis: Was 'Cow Country' actually written by Thomas Pynchon?
Last week, literary critic Art Winslow wondered in Harper’s if famously reclusive author Thomas Pynchon had pulled a fast one over everybody, by secreting writing a recent novel under a pseudonym. The book in question, Cow Country, is credited to Adrian Jones Pearson, described on the book’s back cover as “an independent author of idiosyncratic fiction. His work has been published under multiple pseudonyms, including this one.”
While Pynchon has not been known to write under pseudonyms before, he has cultivated an air of mystery by staying out of the public eye, even as he wrote landmark novels like Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon. There are few known Pynchon photographs or interviews; to this day, guest-starring as himself on an episode of The Simpsons with a paper bag over his head counts as his most public appearance. For a writer whose work is both delightfully absurd and deeply paranoid, randomly deciding to publish under a pseudonym would not be out of character.
Cow Country bears enough of a stylistic resemblance to Pynchon’s work to make it plausible. There are characters with silly names, digressions about California and tantric sex, and an overarching feeling of isolation. The possibility has, predictably, raised a furor of speculation. Many sources close to both Pynchon and Pearson have denied the connection, but if that isn’t enough to satisfy you, the answers are in the text itself. Comparing Cow Country’s language and substance with Pynchon’s not only provides refutation of his possible authorship; it also reveals the subtle elements that really make Pynchon great. Namely, it shows is the importance of literary style and legitimate paranoia to Pynchon’s work.
The writing in Cow Country is full of passive voice. Here, for example, is the second sentence of the book:
For contrast, here is the first sentence from Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49:
Winslow has said that he felt Pynchon’s hand in Cow Country from the first five pages. These sentences do share similarities in length and tone, but there are also important differences. Pearson’s passive voice drags itself along and starts with an assumption so unrealistic – that the protagonist sold everything for an obscure job at a small town he’d never heard of before – that it’s hard to follow everything after. Pynchon’s sentence, by contrast, is stylistically easy to follow. There’s a logic, too; all we have to do to read on is understand that Oedipa’s life (eccentric as it was) was suddenly injected with an unexpected dose of responsibility, a situation we can all relate to. From there, The Crying of Lot 49 gets much more complicated, with grand conspiracies and strange locales. But it’s possible to follow these mad twists and turns because they are rooted in believable characters like Oedipa. Pearson’s book also gets stranger as it goes on, but the constant passive voice is a slog, and the the early assumptions are so absurd – we’re also supposed to believe the college dean personally picks up new employees in a dirty pick-up truck while waving to his five ex-wives – that the whole endeavor remains detached from reality.
Paranoia vs. whining
Pynchon’s novels often feature paranoid protagonists awash in strange situations. Inherent Vice, for instance, finds Doc Sportello up against the pirate gang/dentist conglomerate/nuclear family Golden Fang organization. Cow Country, too, features a confused protagonist at odds with their surroundings – “as if one were in a box with no side labeled ‘UP’ for orientation,” was Winslow’s description. But where Pynchon’s paranoia is rooted in individuals clashing with the all-encompassing irrational organizations of capitalism and the military-industrial complex, Pearson’s dislocation is simply that of a city boy moving to the country. The depiction of the rural Cow Eye Junction is so anachronistic and reductive – it doesn’t appear that their author has ever been to a small town before. At the very least, he wasn’t interested in depicting one believably. Pynchon is a hyperbolic jokester but he remains empathetic towards even the silliest of his idiots and stoners. Pearson’s treatment of his subject, by contrast, is little more than condescending.
Perhaps this was all much ado about nothing; The New Republic has fingered writer A.J. Perry as a more likely man-behind-the-curtain for “Pearson.” But the comparison is instructive, if nothing else, about what makes Pynchon one of the foremost American novelists of his era. There’s more to it than silly names, run-on sentences, and confused protagonists. It takes logic and skill to elevate absurd situations above mere frivolity.