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Salinger, Pynchon & Co.: When writers are recluses

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They wait like pilgrims, queuing silently, bearing volumes for inscription and awaiting a chance to touch the hem of his garment.

They're not Franciscans approaching Assisi but earnest readers rushing bookstores and cultural temples for word -- wisdom, solace, salvation? -- from on high. Or turning on the TV, opening a newspaper, for insight from their favorite authors.

But what if the creator won't come down from the mountain, won't comment on the reasons for his creation? What if he won't publish his new work (like J.D. Salinger), won't allow himself to be photographed (like Thomas Pynchon), won't make public appearances (like Cormac McCarthy) or won't write at all despite early success (like Harper Lee)?

That's the case with the reclusive writers, a small but mythically resonant category made up mostly of successful, staggeringly prestigious figures whose refusal to play the publicity game, or to appear to swim in the same water as their readers, can signify everything -- or nothing at all.

"When a writer doesn't show his face," Don DeLillo wrote portentously in his 1991 novel, "Mao II," "he becomes a local symptom of God's famous reluctance to appear."

God's -- or at least Pynchon's -- heir apparent may be Denis Johnson, an esteemed if not widely known poet and novelist who lives in northern Idaho and whose new novel, "Tree of Smoke," is one of the season's most eagerly awaited. For "Tree of Smoke," set largely in 1960s Southeast Asia and a work on which Johnson has been toiling for more than 20 years, he will offer no press or public appearances.

Previous books, such as his 1992 "Jesus' Son," which exists at the place where drug-induced hallucination becomes genuine religious vision, generated such heat that he'll always have a dedicated readership.

Johnson is in the softer end of the reclusive-writer type -- he home schools his kids and lives far from a big city and doesn't promote his novels. But he did a few readings and interviews, in which he projected a mellow intelligence, when his plays debuted a few years back. Since then, virtually nothing.

Eccentric writers, of course, are not the only ones to detach: Other famous shut-ins include the late Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett, film director Terrence Malick, actress Greta Garbo, cult pianist Glenn Gould, anonymous rock band the Residents and, of course, the Unabomber. But because an author really only produces words -- unlike, say, an actor, whose image is always before us -- and since we often look to the novelist as akin to a guru, the disappearance often seems more violent, abrupt.

It can come off as arrogance, sensitivity, or a noble dissent -- a high-minded refusal to engage with America's culture of celebrity, erosion of privacy and self-promotion. It may be just the wishful fantasy that their books might arrive unmediated, might "speak for themselves."

Arthur Salm, the book editor at the San Diego Union-Tribune, calls it common sense.

"Reclusive writers are living perfectly reasonable lives," he said. "The fact that they're reclusive isn't the phenomenon: The phenomenon is our reaction to the fact that they're living normal lives. It has the opposite effect than what I think these writers want: People are intrigued by it. 'My God -- look!' Your idea is to disappear and you end up with the spotlight on you."

MYRIAD MOTIVES

Smug, sensitive, too cool for school -- what is it? Why do authors withdraw from the world?

Everyone has his or her own reason, though by definition we mostly have to guess. For Lee it's thought to be a fear that she won't top her one and only novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird." (She's part of a group of writers, such as Ralph Ellison and Henry Roth, who fade from view after killer first novels.)

Salinger clearly had something resembling an identity crisis and perhaps a nervous breakdown soon after the publication of "The Catcher in the Rye." (It's a book, ironically, whose hero, Holden Caulfield, muses on his favorite authors and wishes "you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.")

For Pynchon, who has enough of a sense of humor to appear, in animated form, on "The Simpsons," it may be sensitivity and cultural rebellion. As NEA Literature Director David Kipen sees it, Pynchon might be drawn to a subterranean lifestyle for literary as well as personal reasons. "He was a guy who came of age in the midst of the Beat generation," Kipen noted. Dropping out can have a more earthbound explanation as well. Writers often choose to make their living alone in a room, for instance, because they aren't that comfortable around other people. They're by nature reflective creatures. And the publicity mill can be bruising.

"I've had authors who tell me that the book tour is the best four weeks of their lives," said Lori Glazer, chief publicist at Houghton Mifflin. "Others tell me they'd rather have surgery."

To understand recluses, it helps to look at writers who didn't go underground, says New Republic critic Lee Siegel. He points at the pugnacious, at times ubiquitous Norman Mailer -- who called an early essay collection "Advertisements for Myself" -- as the anti-Pynchon.

"He was so vexed by his early fame," said Siegel, "that it basically ruined his life as a fiction writer. He didn't have the author's incognito, he couldn't go through the world observing and unobserved. I think that's why Pynchon became reclusive: He wanted to watch people. If your face is plastered over all the magazines, you can't sit in a restaurant and watch."

Still, it makes these characters seem a bit out of time.

"Everybody wants to be famous now," said Siegel, whose "Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob" comes out in January. "That's what YouTube is about.

"Fame, for anyone who's experienced it, is a calamity; you can see it in the faces of actors. People seem to not want a private life now -- they're dancing naked online -- but with the recluse you see the most pristine and old-fashioned notion of how sacred a private life really is. And a writer, especially, needs to keep his interiority detached. While someone like Paris Hilton doesn't have interiority, so she can put herself up for sale."

OF LIFE AND WORK

Much 20th century literary theory, whether so-called New Criticism or post-structuralism -- embodied in the essay by French critic Roland Barthes called "The Death of the Author" -- argues that a writer's biography has nothing to do with the worth, or meaning, of the work. But because there are so few real facts to go on, withdrawal both confirms and distorts the way we see each writer.

With Pynchon, by all reports a gentle soul and whose novels often involve quests and metaphysical mysteries, it makes him seem even more deep than his many-layered novels do. With Philip Roth, whose upcoming "Exit Ghost" muses on the topic of a writer's privacy, it was hard not to see his distance as an extension of his often cranky literary voice. For McCarthy, his reclusiveness fits a myth of Western self-reliance, as if he were a taciturn apparition from the dust-strewn Wild West his best-known novels summon.

The reclusion may even have an effect on critical assessments: Can it be a coincidence that of the four American novelists whom influential critic Harold Bloom calls the greatest of our age, two (Pynchon and McCarthy) are flat-out recluses and the other two (DeLillo and Philip Roth) are former recluses recently warmed up to merely "press shy"? (DeLillo used to carry cards saying, "I don't want to talk about it.") And Alice Munro, perhaps the best-regarded living short-story writer, lives in near-seclusion in small-town Ontario, Canada.

But did the mystique come before the vanishing act, or vice versa?

The low profile of Salinger and Pynchon may have helped develop, or sustain, a particularly rabid fan base, said Kipen, who wrote his Yale senior essay on "The Literature of Reclusiveness."

"These are all cult writers: People whose paperbacks were passed from the '50s or '60s to this very day, from hand to hand like talismans," he said. "Pynchon writes about conspiracy and paranoia, which leads to a cult readership. There's something almost conspiratorial about getting into them and learning to love them: These guys are grown-up versions of what we called imaginary playmates."

SALINGER'S ESCAPE

Literary reclusion, like celebrity, seems to be a category in which Americans excel, especially recently.

Emily Dickinson, who published only a handful of poems, all anonymously, and lived in isolation, may be our first great literary recluse. Herman Melville laid low, while keeping a job as a customs inspector, after the resounding failure of "Moby-Dick." When he died, the New York Times misspelled his name in its tiny obituary.

But the grandfather of all recluses is Salinger. In 1953, two years after the publication of "Catcher," he moved to Cornish, N.H., and early on had a number of social connections, later severed.

Literary observers -- and memoir writers -- alternately shake their heads and try to empathize with his withdrawal.

"Here you are, plugging away, writing great short stories for the New Yorker," said Kipen, "and suddenly all these teenagers are coming out of the woodwork -- and they think you're Buddha!"

He withdrew further during a period in which he became a follower, in quick succession, of Hindu celibacy, L. Ron Hubbard, Edgar Cayce and Wilhelm Reich. On the dust jacket of 1961's "Franny and Zooey," he wrote that "a writer's feelings of anonymity-obscurity are the second most valuable property on loan to him during his working years," and he later, in a very rare interview, discussed the joys of not publishing.

EYES TO THE SOUL

"I mean, what's the importance of a photograph if you know the writer's work?" a photographer asks in "Mao II." "I don't know. But people still want the image, don't they? The writer's face is the surface of the work. It's a clue to the mystery inside."

That's the case in the Gus Van Sant film "Finding Forrester," in which a brilliant but troubled inner-city kid seeks an isolated writer, played by Sean Connery, in a film that viewed literature as therapy. If "Finding Forrester" is the cartoon version of the reclusive writer, the saga of J.T. Leroy shows the reclusive-writer myth reframed as kitsch.

Leroy, purportedly a former teenage junkie and truck-stop prostitute, appeared infrequently, usually in a wig and sunglasses but was revealed to be a construct of Bay Area writer Laura Albert. Leroy, in other words, was so reclusive he turned out not to exist.

Besides last month's appearance by Lee at an Alabama awards ceremony -- where she provoked a standing ovation by quipping, "Well, it's better to be silent than to be a fool" -- the most recent mountaintop descent was McCarthy's appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." Some observers commented on how normal the shirt-sleeved McCarthy, who was polite and not especially mysterious, appeared.

"That indicates how highly we value celebrity, and how important it is to the culture," Salm said. "That someone who turns their back on it must have something wrong with them. Some people are just shy."

But there's something else: "Someone would call up and offer him $2,000 to come speak at a university about his books," McCarthy's second wife, Anne de Lisle, once revealed of the days where the couple lived in a barn in Tennessee and bathed in a nearby lake. "And he would tell them that everything he had to say was there on the page. So we would eat beans for another week."

PRECEDENCE SET

Though he's a modern figure, the reclusive novelist has his roots in the days before TV.: "The poète maudit was the precursor to the recluse," Siegel said. "He can't deal with any kind of success, so he goes out, like Rimbaud, and destroys everything. It keeps alive this idea of a 'holy curse' on the writer, who has to keep away from humankind. It's kind of romantic."

Does Johnson feel the holy curse? How did his early years drugging and drinking, his discovery of God ("It was kind of -- blue," was all he'd tell the SF Weekly), lead him to what he's writing about now? Does his simultaneously incantatory and finished writing style come from one of these experiences, both, or neither?

We may never know.

"There's that great line in Godard's 'Breathless,' " said Siegel, "where they're interviewing this poet, he's wearing dark glasses, and they ask him what he wants most of all. And he says, 'To become immortal -- and then die.'

"That's what reclusiveness is: It's becoming immortal while you're still alive."

And this may speak to why they do it, and why it fascinates us. Reading may be the most intimate of artistic practices: The work lives in the imagination in a direct, vital way. The author's voice, his face and back story and style of shirt can only break the spell, get in the way.

So the reclusive writer, whom we can't read about or talk to, is as far away as the dead writer. Like Shakespeare and Melville and Dickinson, they're already classics.

"It almost helps," said Kipen, "that there's no interviews with Pynchon in print saying, 'I like to sit around in my underwear and watch soap operas.' Because we don't want to know that."

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