As an Internet user, you're probably seeing an increasing number of GIF explainers lately, and also probably wondering what the deal is. They're pretty confusing, after all! The sites that run them just assume that you know what an animated image of the Insane Clown Posse has to do with scientists creating a new element.

GIF explainers aren't really all that complicated. Here's everything you need to know about GIF explainers, in the form of a GIF explainer about Thomas Pynchon.

Today, Thomas Pynchon turned 77 years old, and the world is celebrating. You've probably seen hashtags like #pynchoninpublic on social media, and maybe you're wondering what the deal is. Here's everything you need to know about Thomas Pynchon.

Who is Thomas Pynchon?

This is the part of a GIF explainer where you presuppose that your readers, who managed to make their way to your site, are incapable of using Wikipedia, and lay out incredibly basic information about your subject.


Thomas Pynchon is widely considered perhaps the greatest living American novelist. He's famous for writing long, complicated books like V., Gravity's Rainbow, and Mason & Dixon, for not giving interviews, and for really not liking to have his picture taken.

The joke here is that there's a dissonance between the subject, Thomas Pynchon, and this GIF of Justin Bieber going after photographers. Thomas Pynchon doesn't really have anything to do with Justin Bieber at all! But the ironic contrast serves to allay any concerns the reader may have about how the subject is incredibly complicated and not really the sort of thing about which one can learn everything there is worth knowing in two minutes.


OK, so what are his books about?

This is the important part of a GIF explainer. Because it's nearly impossible to actually explain anything worth explaining in this format, it's perhaps best understood as performative, on the part of the writer, and aspirational, on the part of the reader. Writing a Thomas Pynchon GIF explainer suggests that I'm the sort of person who knows a reasonable amount about Thomas Pynchon, and reading one suggests that you're the sort of person who would like to. So, while maintaining the kind of lightly ironic tone mentioned above as regards the GIF of Justin Bieber fighting with photographers, it's important to for there to be something hinting at the actual substance of the subject being explained.

People argue about this a lot! It would be fair to say, though, that Pynchon is obsessed with the relationship between reason and authoritarianism, and specifically with how the intellectual lineage of fascism—both its roots in the Enlightenment, and the way it informs present-day social and political structures—is intimately related to the project of objective scientific inquiry.


See what I did here? I gave a serious explanation that makes clear I'm a serious person who knows serious things, but by immediately undercutting it with a goofy GIF of G.O.B. from Arrested Development saying, "Come on!" I demonstrated an awareness that the subject might be off-putting, and so implicitly promised that nothing too heavy will be going on here.

Does that sound complicated? It is—sort of. Pynchon writes about things like World War II-era rocket engineering, colonial atrocities in Africa, and 18th-century astronomy, and expects you to know a certain amount about things like free jazz, fin de siècle political ideologies, and Jacobean drama. But aside from Gravity's Rainbow, none of his books are super difficult to follow in terms of plot or characterization, and even that one has really funny stuff like a human dildo being strapped into a rocket, a guy diving down into a sewer through a toilet, talking lightbulbs, and a whole plot about how a guy's erections are used by British intelligence to predict where German rockets will fall during the Blitz, and lots of song-and-dance numbers.


Woah, really?

Yeah, that's the cool thing about Pynchon. There's always lots of random fun stuff happening in his books. Like, Mason & Dixon is about Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, who surveyed the Mason-Dixon line, and it's written in an 18th-century dialect and it's partly about the nature of empiricism and things like that. But it also has a talking dog and the heroes smoking weed with George Washington.


This whole sequence is another good example of how a GIF explainer works. I alluded to and acknowledged the idea that Thomas Pynchon is actually a pretty difficult writer, but with a nice bit of sleight of hand, I moved it to the side to focus on a not inaccurate but fairly misleading point that flatters the reader's sensibilities by suggesting that she could, if she wanted, understand the subject in fairly short order. I also worked in that "Woah, really?" which is clever because it suggests that downright stupid people are reading this and makes the reader feel good about at least knowing more than they do.

Plus, while some of his books are really long and complicated, some of them are shorter and a lot more accessible. Two of them—Vineland and Inherent Vice—are even basically about The Dude from The Big Lebowski.

Wait, I thought Thomas Pynchon was this super serious novelist, he wrote two books about The Dude?

Basically. They're both really funny. (Paul Thomas Anderson is even making a movie out of Inherent Vice, which, swag.)


OK, so where do I start?

Most people start with The Crying of Lot 49. It's about conspiracies and weird stuff like Jacobean revenge plays, so it's very hardcore Pynchon, but it's also got sex and rock 'n' roll, and it's also only about 150 pages. If you like that, try another one! If you want to read one of his big novels, try V., which is about a decades-long quest for a possibly non-existent woman that brings together cool 1950s New York beatniks and James Bond-type English spies. It was his first novel, so it's sort of basic compared to some of the later ones, but it's also got a motto worth living by—"Keep cool, but care." After you read that, you'll be ready for the really hard stuff like Gravity's Rainbow and Mason & Dixon, and your brain will feel fabulous.


You might note that after all this, the reader basically has a couple of talking points to use if Thomas Pynchon comes up—something about fascism and there is also a short book you can read that basically gives you the gist?—and of course that's the point. I am performing and you are aspiring. There is no explanation needed. There are short celebrity animations and there is the outside world and so long as we are aware they both exist we will all be able to continue going on.

One last thing, wasn't Thomas Pynchon on The Simpsons this one time?

Yes! It was awesome.


GIFS by Tim Burke