Hitting Below the Mason-Dixon Line

America's Favorite Curmudgeon Takes On Thomas Pynchon

illustration by Jason Stout

The recently issued Mason & Dixon, like all Thomas Pynchon novels, is a load of crap. He has nothing to say and often says it clumsily. His sense of humor is lame and sophomoric. He writes to exhibit what he thinks is his erudition and cleverness, but is a boring clod. Yet Pynchon's among the most highly praised writers of our time by academics and other literary pundits. How can this be? Why do people rave about this guy's sodden, turgid books?

Well, for one thing, he writes long novels. Critics often equate lengthy with profound. Like the first Pulitzer Prize in music granted to a jazz-related person went to Wynton Marsalis for a three-hour long piece that a friend of mine saw people walk out on. The recording hasn't even been released yet. In any case, Marsalis is an imitative, reactionary composer and improviser. To give him the first jazz-related Pulitzer is a slap in the face to great composers, living and dead, including Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Tadd Dameron, Benny Golson, Wayne Shorter, and Herbie Hancock. It's comparable to choosing the trivial, sentimental, manipulative, pseudo-profound Forrest Gump as best film of the year. The people who vote for these awards are middlebrows with delusions of grandeur. Think I'm kidding? James Joyce didn't get a Nobel Prize, but Pearl Buck did.

Anyway, the longer Pynchon's novels are, the better critics like them. The 887-page Gravity's Rainbow has gotten the most praise, followed by V. at 463 pages, Vineland at 385 pages, and the slim The Crying of Lot 49 at 138 pages. Quite possibly, Mason & Dixon (Henry Holt, $27.50 hard) at a hefty 773 pages, will supplant V. in second place.

Another reason academics are so crazy for Pynchon is that his work contains so much obscure information, like about World War II weapons technology. (Pynchon had a background in science, worked for Boeing prior to making it as a novelist and contributed a piece to the December 1960 issue of Aerospace Safety.) He makes a lot of references to pop culture, which endears him to readers who believe that even though he's got an immense store of knowledge, he's no stuffed shirt. Like, doesn't he write about rock & roll? He throws so much shit into his novels that people don't know what he's trying to do. But they love to speculate. Academics are crazy about interpreting his work. To accommodate all the factual data he wants to stick into his novels he devises labyrinthine plots involving conspiracies. This fires up university teachers; they get a huge kick out of referring to the "paranoia" in his writing. Pynchon hands them plenty to write about, a chance to publish so they don't have to perish.

The reclusive Thomas Pynchon

Many commentators mistakenly refer to Pynchon as an avant garde-ist. Among others who have anticipated his work are Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Terry Southern, and Joseph Heller. Burroughs, Kerouac, and Southern employed plays, poems, and song lyrics in their work before Pynchon, and other novelists did it far before all of them. The technique of blending poems, playlets, and other forms with straight-ahead prose fiction was employed by Russian experimenters in the early part of the century and labeled "ornamentalism." Joyce also blended forms. Pynchon's combining fact and fantasy isn't anything new, and he didn't invent absurdism, which he sometimes uses. He's synthesized some relatively modern styles and techniques that readers of conventional fiction don't often run across, so they give him credit for being more far-out and original than he really is. Pynchon uses long, complex sentences, but they aren't innovative grammatically or syntactically. He didn't invent the encyclopedic novel either. Ulysses, for example, was published over 40 years before V.

The way Pynchon jams information into his books doesn't have much purpose, other than to attempt to dazzle readers. Joyce, on the other hand, uses his immense knowledge far more subtly in the process of creating symbols. Merely citing a bunch of product names like Stacey Adams shoes and Count Chocula, as Pynchon does, isn't a great feat, nor is his giving cutesy names to people and places like Benny Profane and the Bohdi Dharma Pizza Parlor. Anyone can just sit around for 10 years and read, like Pynchon; his reclusiveness has aided in building his reputation, and then write a novel filled with the factual information picked up.

In Mason & Dixon Pynchon employs his old gimmicks and uses one that's new to him, though not to 20th-century novelists: He uses deliberately archaic prose, as Charles Portis did more skillfully and humorously in True Grit. The book's a fictionalized biography of British surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, who drew their famous line between Pennsylvania and Maryland in the 18th century. According to a blurb, it's supposed to be "...a grand tour of the Enlightenment's dark hemisphere, from their first journey together to the Cape of Good Hope to pre-Revolutionary America and back to England, into the shadowy yet redemptive turns of their later lives." Along the way they meet Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, a Chinese Feng Shui master, a talking dog, and a robot duck. Feh! If Pynchon deserves any prize it's for being the world's most overrated trivia buff. He's the literary equivalent of the Piltdown Man.

But I ain't kidding myself about convincing readers that Pynchon has no clothes, old or new. More than likely his fans will believe jealousy inspired me to write this article. After all, didn't Mason & Dixon get a great review in Time? Doesn't your English teacher think he's fabulous? Yeah, yeah.

But just remember, literary fashions change. One day people will realize that Pynchon has feet of clay. And then they'll think, "Ol' Harv saw through him years ago. He knew what was happening all along!"

"Yes he did!" - Harvey Pekar

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