Thursday, May 29, 1997

A cover story on Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon

A cover story on Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon

Originally published in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine,
May 29th, 1997

Pynchon’s Progress
The Author of Gravity’s Rainbow Resurveys the
Mason-Dixon Line and Rediscovers America

By Thomas Pynchon
Henry Holt, $27.50

Even though he’s never been on Oprah or Conan, Thomas Pynchon in arguably the most culturally significant American writer of our time. Almost as famous for his reclusiveness as for his literary output, Pynchon has never given a public appearance, never been interviewed, and hasn’t had his picture taken since he was a teenager. Yet his influence ranges across nearly all American media, even—especially—in areas that have never heard of him.

Pynchon emerged in 1963 when his first novel, V., revolutionized America’s literary landscape. Taking the Modernism of James Joyce and William Faulkner on its last steps into Postmodernism, Pynchon became a kind of icon for the 1960s, and his outrageous style simply changed everything. In addition to being one of the most staggeringly erudite humans beings on the planet, he was one of the first American writers to take the subversive cultures cropping up around him seriously, writing about conspiracies, alternative histories, and creepy cabalistic systems. He also wrote about jazz, rock ’n’ roll, drugs, and sex, but what distinguished him from the pedestrian decadence of the Beats (and today’s Gen-Xers) is that he contrasted these depictions with advanced theories of entropy and information. He didn’t glorify the emerging popular culture; he chronicled it as a kind of increasing degeneration—a wild party that ultimately robs us of our identity and replaces it with consumerism and conformity.

The ironic and troubling thing about Pynchon—and America—is that the party is so damn appealing. We love to buy into the latest rock band, pretending that we’re rebelling as we keep our eyes glued to the tube. And it’s tempting to approach Pynchon’s dissonant style as a kind of retreat from meaning, a sarcastic feast of words and images that protects us from moving forward (the working title for his masterpiece, Gravity’s Rainbow, is said to have been Mindless Pleasures). Unfortunately, it’s this misreading of Pynchon that has probably had the largest cultural impact. Pynchon gave us an alternative to meaninglessness in his fiction, if only in glimpses, and now television has appropriated his ironic, subversive style and used it to sell to us. If only we buy a Subaru or Nike shoes, TV tells us, we’ll be able to stave off the empty, decadent mob of faceless consumers and take our nonconformist stand.

So where does this leave Pynchon? After changing the world with the novels V., The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity’s Rainbow, he didn’t produce anything new until seventeen years later, in the waning years of the Reagan era, when he released the 1990 novel Vineland. Rumors abounded during his sabbatical: He was burnt out; he was recovering from a bad acid trip; he had resumed writing under his pseudonyms J.D. Salinger and William Gaddis. But the most prevalent rumor was that he was working on a novel about the Mason-Dixon line.

The first peep of the Mason-Dixon theory came out eighteen years ago, and so when Pynchon released Vineland, critics unanimously cried, “What the hell is this?” In Pynchon’s’ absence, such writers as William T. Vollmann, David Foster Wallace, Richard Powers, and Carol DeChellis Hill had extended his legacy to new lengths, and Vineland didn’t fare well in comparison to the work they were producing. It was simply more of the same critiques of modern culture—critiques that even television commercials had picked up on—and even though most of it was right on the money, almost everybody wrote Pynchon off as old and unhip.

So when word started resurfacing again about the Mason-Dixon novel, some critics saw it as a retreat from Pynchon’s stance as the oracle of modern culture. Was he protecting himself from accusations of irrelevance by hiding behind a historical novel? Or was this going to be an epic re-imagining of American history the way Gravity’s Rainbow was? Now the wait—and the debate—is over, because Pynchon has finally returned to release the awesome Mason & Dixon.

Probably twenty to twenty-five years in the writing, Mason & Dixon is unequivocally worth the wait—and the weight (it’s almost 800 pages long). It spans just twenty-five seminal years of American history (1761–1786), but it’s one of the most powerfully modern visions of this country’s state of mind since—well, since Gravity’s Rainbow. And Pynchon definitely has not lost his contemporary edge: In surveying the story of Mason and Dixon, he incorporates sly references to everything from the Three Stooges to Popeye to Bill Clinton to Tammy Wynette.

The story begins at its end—the Christmastide of 1786, when the exiled Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke sits down to tell his Philadelphia family the story of Charles Mason (1723–1786) and Jeremiah Dixon (1733–1779). Briefly starting with third-person descriptions of the Reverend and his family, the novel then swings into Cherrycoke’s weird, quasi-first-person account. He describes Mason and Dixon’s first encounters with each other in England, their meeting with the Reverend himself, and their mutual voyage to the Cape of Good Hope, where the pair is sent to observe the Transit of Venus. The book soon shifts to an impossible third-person narrative, however, with Cherrycoke recounting events he could never have seen. His family calls him on it, and he laughs it off and quickly changes the subject, so the reader is left with a constantly shifting—and possibly unreliable—series of frames around the story.

So who is the narrator—Pynchon or Cherrycoke? And what is our frame of reference—1761, 1786, or 1997? Despite all these shifts, Mason & Dixon is by far Pynchon’s most accessible and linear novel to date. It follows just two characters in a straight line as they survey their way across America. The simplified structure might disappoint some Pynchon fans, but he makes up for it with a richness and complexity of characterization that he could never have achieved in his earlier years. And of course he gives readers a shitload of intertextual games to play, referring at turns to such anachronistic authors as Franz Kafka, Joseph Conrad, Julio Cort├ízar, and himself. Notice that the Reverend Cherrycoke is probably an ancestor of Gravity’s Grainbow’s Ronald Cherrycoke, and there’s also “Fender-Belly” Bodine, who’s presumably the progenitor of Pynchon’s recurring character Pig Bodine.

After their trip to the Cape of Good Hope, Mason and Dixon are separated briefly and then sent together on a mission to America to survey the disputed border between Pennsylvania and Maryland. Once in America, they descend into the darkest, most Conradian reaches of the ostensible Age of Reason. But first they have fun partying with George Washington, who really likes his hemp. The novel’s most outrageous scene takes place when the future president gets Mason and Dixon high and engages them in a spirited discussion with his slave Gershom. The scene reaches a comic zenith when the faithful Martha Washington comes running in with a tray of pastries for the party: “Smell’d that Smoak, figured you’d be needing something to nibble on.”

As the two men then set out to carve up the new world, they slowly realize they are simply the tools of huge systems way beyond their comprehension. The narrative also introduces more and more inexplicable phenomena—which Europe’s rationalism is trying to eradicate—and the two astronomer/surveyors are forced to work as unwitting missionaries against the nonrational. Along the line, they meet a group of Presbyterian settlers who are “in Correspondence with the Elect Cohens of Paris” and who apparently live near an enormous Golem. The Golem was created, so say the Presbyterians, by a tribe of Native Americans believed to be one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. The pair also comes up against a talking dog, an amorous mechanical duck (both curiously the product of European Enlightenment—the sleep of reason does produce monsters), and a field of cathedral-sized vegetables.

Moving steadily west, with numerous side trips and detours, Mason and Dixon begin to question their mission, and strange memories surface to counter what science tells them is reality: Dixon admits to knowing magical secrets passed down from texts “rescued from the Library at Alexandria, circa 390 AD., before Christians could quite destroy it all.” And Mason, in one of the novel’s most visionary sections, remembers the mysterious eleven days between September 2nd and September 14th, 1752, which Parliament had struck from the calendar to correct astronomers’ mistakes. While everyone else went straight from the 2nd to the 14th, Mason lived the eleven days, roaming the streets in search of other lost souls.

As we do today, the people in the 18th century spent most of their free time entertaining themselves with crappy art, and this is where Pynchon makes some of his most pointed comments about America. Mason and Dixon get drawn into reading a trashy serial called The Ghastly Fop, a serial that’s still running when Cherrycoke tells his tale. At one point, Cherrycoke’s listeners take time off and read to each other a section of The Ghastly Fop that deals with a woman abducted by Jesuits and her escape from them with the help of a Chinese feng shui master. As Cherrycoke resumes his narrative, Pynchon makes his boldest move—bringing these two characters into the story of Mason and Dixon. It’s an amazing comment on how history gets told, with Cherrycoke working not only as Mason and Dixon’s Boswell, but as their Kinbote too.

With the two new characters playing crucial roles in Mason & Dixon’s progression,  the book shifts from being Pynchon’s most traditional, old-fashioned novel to his most unabashedly Postmodern. And it’s a complete success. Combining the best of all the resources available to the modern novelist, Mason & Dixon is both totally wacky and absolutely moving, proving not only that Pynchon has progressed to new levels of maturity, but that he’s still as radical as ever.

—David Wiley

Thursday, May 8, 1997

The Kiss, by Kathryn Harrison

A review of The Kiss, by Kathryn Harrison

Originally published in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine,
May 8th, 1997

Father Figure

By Kathryn Harrison
Random House, $20

Books about incest can be a troublesome lot. Seen by some critics as gratuitous attempts at selling to the talk-show constituency, books that expose the sins of the father are often attacked as sensationalist. Novelist and short story writer Charles Baxter complained that Jane Smiley’s use of incest in A Thousand Acres cheapened the novel, but he was probably just mad at her for criticizing Shadow Play, his novel from the same year. And with Smiley’s novel beating out Baxter’s for the Pulitzer Prize (and a wider audience), his accusations—along with those of the more conservative critical echelon—seem a bit suspect.

The truth is that incest is far more common—and complicated—than many critics like to believe. It’s not just some device writers use to sell books; it’s a hard fact, and like any other disturbing aspect of modern life, it needs to be openly dealt with in the literary world. But it’s still tricky. And trickier still is when the book is non-fiction. Smiley uses incest to explicate the relationships between her novel’s characters, but when it’s real, and is the focus of the book, how are writers—and reader—to approach it?

Novelist Kathryn Harrison tackles this enormous task with her new memoir The Kiss. Roughly dividing the book into two parts, Harrison writes her life story leading up to and then following the decisive moment of her young life, when her father first kisses her. The division recalls how Vladimir Nabokov contrasted Lolita’s psychotically beautiful before-half with its psychotically ugly after-half. But this time we get the girl’s—or rather the woman’s—point of view: Harrison is twenty years old when her father initiates their affair.

Harrison keeps the narrative tight, with enough family background to give the book texture but not so much that it loses its focus. She grows up with her maternal grandparents after her parents’ brief marriage and divorce. Her mother lives with them sometimes, but she’s a fleeting, maddening figure. Her father, a minister, relocates after the divorce, remarries, and raises another family in another part of the country. Harrison is vague with names and places, never mentioning her father’s—and hence her own—last name. She writes on the book’s copyright page that Harrison is her married name (she’s married to novelist Colin Harrison) and that she “has not used her maiden name in a number of years.”

Despite its anonymity, The Kiss is razor sharp in its depiction of her family’s dysfunctionality. Harrison only meets her father twice in childhood—at age five and age ten—and with her mother floating in and out, Harrison never gets the affection of a real parent. Even worse, she gets teased by her mother’s proximity without ever getting to connect with her.

So when the twenty-year-old Harrison, a brainy, insecure college student, finally gets to spend time with her father, she finds in him a father figure she never had. The two are nearly mirror images of each other, and they bond instantly. But her father cannot separate their newfound filial love from the carnal passion he feels for the beautiful woman his daughter has become. Using all the power he has—a creepy combination of the intellectual, the theological, and the fatherly—he breaks down all her defenses, beginning an affair that virtually shatters Harrison’s young personality.

But The Kiss is far from a sob story. It describes a terrifying event, but ultimately the books is about redemption. It’s about a woman rebuilding herself, reclaiming herself from the past she won’t allow herself to forget. Not so much a book charting a recovery as it is a reclamation of memory, The Kiss asserts itself as one of the most powerful memoirs in years.

—David Wiley