Thomas Pynchon and Brian Wilson's Miserable Evening Together
Brian Wilson and Thomas Pynchon have more in common than one may immediately think. Both are deeply experimental artists driven further and further away from the public eye—Wilson barely leaving his bedroom for huge swaths of the 1970s, Pynchon more or less successfully shunning the press in the 52 years since the publication of his first novel, V.
Wilson and Pynchon are often referred to as a "voice of their generation," a label they would each likely shirk with vehemence for their own visceral reasons. They both lived or live in California (Pynchon: 1960s to early '70s; Wilson: His entire life) and produced works about the state or set therein (Pynchon: The Crying of Lot 49 and Inherent Vice; Wilson: Pretty much everything except maybe "Salt Lake City"). It was during their overlapping California chronologies that the two spent time together. It was only for an evening, and by all accounts, it was absolutely miserable.
In his infamous 1977 Playboy article “Who Is Thomas Pynchon … And Why Did He Take Off With My Wife?,” writer Jules Siegel relates an amusing story about Pynchon's love of the Beach Boys. The article isn’t available in full online (you can read the first few pages here), but ThomasPynchon.com extracted the relevant passages, which begin with Siegel telling his friend about an assignment to write a profile on Bob Dylan:
"‘You ought to do one on The Beach Boys,’ [Pynchon] said. I pretended to ignore that. A year or so later, I was in Los Angeles again, doing a story for the Post on The Beach Boys [ultimately published by Cheetah magazine]. He had forgotten his earlier remark and was no longer interested in them. I took him to my apartment in Laurel Canyon, got him royally loaded and made him lie down on the floor with a speaker at each ear while I played Pet Sounds, their most interesting and least popular record. It was not then fashionable to take The Beach Boys seriously.
"'Ohhhhh,” he sighed softly with stunned pleasure after the record was done. ‘Now I understand why you are writing a story about them.’"
Siegel wound up introducing Pynchon to Brian Wilson in 1966, the year both The Crying of Lot 49 and Pet Sounds were released. Siegel recalls taking the novelist to Wilson's "Babylonian" Bel-Air mansion. According to that same Playboy article, "Brian then had in his study an Arabian tent made of crimson and purple Persian brocade." Pynchon, Siegel, and Wilson sat together inside the plush tent. For light, Wilson had a lamp that was made from an old parking meter and needed to be fed with pennies for it to work. It kept going off, so he brought in an oil lamp, but the famously nervous musician "kept dropping the oil lamp and stumbling over it." According to Siegel, "Neither he nor Pynchon said anything to each other."
The evening seems straight out of a Pynchon novel—Tyrone Slothrop finding himself inside a pseudo-Arabian Night somewhere in the Zone.
For his 2006 Brian Wilson biography Catch A Wave, Peter Ames talked to Siegel about this painfully awkward meeting. "Brian was kind of afraid of Pynchon, because he’d heard he was an Eastern intellectual establishment genius," Siegel told Ames. "And Pynchon wasn’t very articulate. He was gonna sit there and let you talk while he listened. So neither of them really said a word all night long. It was one of the strangest scenes I’d ever seen in my life."
Two quote-unquote voices of their generation meeting at the peak of their creative powers, sitting in an Arabian tent and not saying a damned word to each other. It's almost perfect.