A Brief History of Thomas Pynchon Using His Favorite Phrase

Slate's Culture Blog
Sept. 20 2013 3:24 PM

Thomas Pynchon and “WTF”: A Love Story

Thomas Pynchon guest starring on The Simpsons, 2004.
Thomas Pynchon

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

There’s a moment in Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, Bleeding Edge, as there is in every one of his previous novels, when the weirdness finally boils over. Tiny people are hidden underground, 9/11 conspiracies lurk in dark corners, and a penis talks, but it’s not until some small children appear to have grown old and gray in a single day that the narrator finally turns to the reader and asks this question:

Forrest Wickman Forrest Wickman

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. Email him at Forrest.Wickman@slate.com.

What, then, the fuck, is going on?
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This gets big laughs. After all, what the fuck is going on? In Thomas Pynchon novels, no one ever seems to know, and that includes the characters, the reader, and, maybe, the author.

It makes sense, then, that Pynchon, lover of lowbrow humor and high-wire wordplay, has made trusty old WTF his signature phrase, crafting endless variations on it over the course of his career. In Bleeding Edge, his favored joke on WTF is drawing the phrase out, especially by wedging in subordinate clauses, and sprinkling in commas, like a New Yorker copy editor:

“What, excuse me, the fuck?”
“What, in the fuck, were you thinking?”
What the blessed fuck, did she run over here thinking she could do to stop this?
What, she is just able to mentally inquire of herself, was I, the fuck, thinking?

The gag has evolved over the years. In his first novel, V. (1963), Pynchon mostly refrained from dropping the F-bomb, in keeping with the manners of the time, and opted instead to have characters constantly exclaim, “What the hell?” For instance:

“Now, what the hell,” Profane said.
“Now what the hell,” Profane said.
“What the hell’s the idea, lout.”

In Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), the WTF really got going, and Pynchon began experimenting with dialect:

“What th’ fuck…”
What th’ fuck’s going on?
What th’ fuck are papers, anyhow?
“whut th’ fuck we s’posed to do man, swim or some shit?”

And he added some new twists:

“It is difficult to perceive just what the fuck is happening here.”
“What the shit.”

In Vineland (1990)—perhaps out of a fear of repeating himself—Pynchon began to restrain himself slightly:

“What the hell,” said Weed Atman, as a throb of fear went right up his asshole.
“So what the fuck,” Che asked softly, “am I supposed to do?”

But then, in Mason & Dixon (1997), he found a 17th-century approach to his old standby:

“Who The Deuce said that?”
“What the Deuce!” is his gallant greeting.
“So what the D——l is yerr dear Friend Dr. Bradley up t’ … ”
“Cap’n, what the fuck is going on?”

In Against the Day (2006), he showed that his facility with the phrase extends across languages:

¿Qué el fuck?”

And in Inherent Vice (2009), he developed exactly the same comma-laden technique he would continue in Bleeding Edge:

“What, excuse me, the fuck,” Doc inquired, “is it?”
“What,” Doc wondered aloud, “the fuck, is going on here?”
Now, what the fuck?
Like, what in the fuck was going on here, basically.

Pynchon is 76, but I can only hope our premier poet of WTFs will live long enough to deliver a few more. What, to borrow a phrase, the fuck, more could we ask for?