Thursday, 19 February 2015

So will the Reign of Reason cheerfully dispose of any allegations of Paradise: looking for meaning in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon

I haven’t stopped thinking about genre since I read Inherent Vice; the detective novel should naturally claim it; but that doesn’t resolve that genre’s conflict with another genre: the picaresque novel. In Mason & Dixon I noticed the picaresque even more clearly. Just to make it clear, by picaresque I mean 16th century Spanish novels like Lazarillo de Tormes and The Swindler, characterized by flat, unchanging characters, a realistic setting tending towards the sordid and sensational, a loose, broken up narrative that moved from one episode to another without logic, at the whim of the writer’s feverish imagination, and without resolution, in fact the author on saying his farewells sometimes invited others to continue the adventures of the protagonist. Miguel de Cervantes, when he wrote Don Quixote, didn’t do anything more complex than mash the chivalry romance with picaresque tropes. And it worked so well the picaresque seeped into the 18th English novel through it, for instance Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, and Cervantes’ translator Tobias Smollett. I guess we could also add Voltaire’s Candide to the list of notables, a hyper-version that condenses into less than 100 pages the breakneck intensity of the genre, full of globetrotting, earthquakes, wars, hangings and rapes. Too weird to live, too rare to die, the picaresque got shunned during the novel’s most humorless century – the 19th century one – before returning revitalized. Save for currently forgotten James Cabell Branch, I don’t know many writers who used the genre last century’s first half; but in 1960 John Barth published The Sot-Weed Factor and since then the picaresque has become a mainstay of contemporary literature, driving some reviewers hysterical about its overreliance. Mason & Dixon, Thomas Pynchon’s faux-18th century novel, doesn’t leave out any of its famous features. But I think the picaresque works really well for my tentative theory about Pynchon’s oeuvre. It seems to me Pynchon cares a lot about memory and forgetting, how people remember, preserve and relate facts, how they build history. When I wrote about Inherent Vice I used as an example of the process of inherent vice the fading of Polaroid pictures and how they suggested the ‘60s own inability to keep memories of themselves. In Mason & Dixon the word memory shows up a lot too and the novel comes into shape as a rather shapeless tale where fact, history, hearsay and fantasy mingle. For all its outer differences, I think both novels start from the same premise: the impossibility of relating a historical period. For that reason I’ve come to see Inherent Vice as a battle between two genres. The picaresque moves in a straight line without accumulating details since only momentum matters – the next adventure, danger, escape, disguise – characters show up and disappear in a heartbeat, the ending obeys more to a necessity to eventually end than narrative logic. The picaresque induces forgetfulness, although details abound they don’t reoccur, don’t accumulate meaningfully, and unless we keep extensive marginalia after a while we no longer remember the name of a character who showed up 50 pages ago and what made the protagonist suddenly relocate to North Africa from Italy 3 chapters ago, and frankly we won’t even care to go back and check why. Not so with the detective novel: it moves, not so much in circle but in a downward spiral, slowly narrowing down a fixed point: the detective’s action keep returning him to the crime, eyewitnesses dispensed chapters before become important later on because they may have told lies or omitted information, details pile up and get reinterpreted again and again; the detective novel obsesses over the past, it fights forgetting. Much of the fun of Inherent Vice comes precisely from turning the detective into a drug-addled hippie whose fried brain cannot retain anything for long and constantly drifts into vagaries.

Mason & Dixon shows this conflict between remembrance and oblivion by simply letting the picaresque run its course: characters show up for one chapter and fade forever; an interrupted joke gets mentioned 100 pages later; the protagonists bump into a character not seen for 300 pages; you read a word or expression and you have the impression you saw it earlier, and perhaps it even matters, but you don’t remember where because you probably didn’t keep marginalia since it didn’t strike you as vital at the time. And did I mention the novel has 773 pages? Furthermore, the narrator doesn’t have the most reliable of recollections, but describes himself as “an untrustworthy Remembrancer for whom the few events yet rattling within a broken memory must provide the only Comfort now remaining to him.” In 1886 Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke arrives in Philadelphia for Charles Mason’s funeral and lodges with his family; a clergy of unusual ideas, perhaps not a religious man at all but merely an identity he adopted decades earlier after the authorities arrested him for publishing political pamphlets, he earns his status as guest by entertaining two nephews, Pitt and Pliny, who ask him a “Tale about America.” So the raconteur regales them with a tale about Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon and the famous survey line they made dividing the borders between Maryland and Pennsylvania, and North and South two. The story that follows contains several narrators, tales-within-tales, the Reverend’s personal writings, stupid songs, stanzas of a fictional epic poem called The Pennsylvaniad, parallel narratives that fuse with the main one, lots of episodes Cherrycoke can’t have witnessed and only knows from hearsay, and at one point, when Cherrycoke mentions some not yet discovered letters that Mason may have sent to an astronomer called Neville Maskelyne, his listeners urge him “Make something up then, - Munchausen would.”

Trying to fit the whole narrative into a short summary can only lead to failure and embarrassment since I would leave too much out. Bu amongst many things it contains an homage to the titular characters, a caustic vision of the birth of America, a criticism of the Enlightenment and an elegy for the magical world it supplanted.

I don’t have much to say about the protagonists. I have the impression they constitute two semi-ciphers, individuals about whom history has recorded very little, and Pynchon gives them broad outlines, along the lines of the more famous pair of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza: astronomer Mason remains meditative and melancholy throughout the novel, mourning a wife called Rebekah; surveyor Dixon, younger than him, a former Quaker, enjoys women, alcohol and jokes, and behaves himself rashly and passionately. They remain fixed to these few traits and Pynchon doesn’t dwell on their inner lives; like in the picaresque, action replaces introspection; this makes them a bit wooden and the events pass through them rather than impact them. Remarkably Pynchon succeeded in moving me 60 pages from the end when I had given up caring about them, and the duo’s final, despondent years full of nostalgia and a feeling of missed, unlived life affected me when I least expected it.

But Pynchon pursues other interests than psychological realism. The birth of the USA coincidences with the furor of the Enlightenment and he takes both on to show their inherent vices. The book’s many men of science indeed display optimism, new venues of knowledge have opened up for them. In 1668 Isaac Newton had invented the first telescope and suddenly the universe became closer, more measurable. “All of these and more, making it super-remarkable, that thro’ the magick of Celestial Trigonometry, - to which you could certainly be applying yourselves, - and such measurements may yet be taken, - as if the Telescope, in mysterious Wise, were transporting us safely thro’ all the dangers of the awesome Gulf of Sky, out to the Object we wish to examine.” But if I’ve read this complex novel correctly, it suggests that the pragmatic application of Reason, i.e. technology, can only lead to more tools of oppression. “For the first time real,” a character says, “Money is finding its way even into Astronomy, - Public Funds paying for entire Expeditions.” This includes the Royal Academy’s prize for whoever solves the problem of ascertaining longitude in the sea, a knowledge necessary for transoceanic voyages, which facilitates conquest, empire-making and the circulation of goods. Maskelyne, a minor character, also shows the growing relationship between science and capital. Becoming Astronomer Royal, he includes among his tasks “publishing his Almanack and doing his bit for global Trade.” This almanac permitted to calculate the longitude in the sea using the moon. Then we have a tale one Captain Zhang tells Mason and Dixon about two court astronomers in ancient China who used their knowledge to foresee eclipses to “answer to the Market, day upon day unending, for ‘tis the inscrutable Power we serve, an invisible-Handed god without Mercy.” In the novel science and technology don’t have neutral statuses, they don’t come into existence pure for men to corrupt them; men expand them exactly to serve very specific selfish goals, in the most ordinary ways; in a more ridiculous scene when a grieving Mason goes to a hanging to chap up women; while having a drink with one she mentions a new trap-door that failed to open, leading her to rail about “These frightful Machines! Shall our Deaths now, as well as our Lives, be rul’d by the Philosophers, and their Army of Mechanicks?” When Mason reveals himself as a man of science, she immediately loses interest in him. Technology even changes literature. Somewhere the text says that “Enormous Flights of Ducks and Geese and Pigeons darken the sky. The terrible mass’d beat of their Wings is the Roar of some great Engine above…” This simile couldn’t have existed before the engine’s invention, but now that it exists it can turn into a figure of speech, it can act as ostranenie and make the reader see an ordinary landscape in a whole new way. The characters’ reaction to technology may seem exaggerated, like everything else in the novel, but it shows how it has begun to seep into the fabric of society, sometimes tearing it apart. It brings changes in social hierarchy. “Reason, or any Vocation to it, - the Pursuit of the Sciences, - these are the hope of the Young, the new Music their Families cannot follow, occasionally not even listen to.” Hydraulic looms lead to new wealthy individuals who begin to replace the landed aristocracy, the Nabobs, without however leading to a better, freer, fairer world. I don’t know if Pynchon fears or hates technology; I think people usually do, and he just chooses periods of transition when it comes to the fore and brings massive changes which activate man’s natural conservativeness. “Is this not the Age of Metamorphosis, with any turn of Fortune a possibility?” Perhaps, but that also means many new frightening uncertainties become possible. In this sense, the absurd conspiracies that pervade the author’s novels, rather than played for laughs, strike me as people’s realistic reactions to changing worlds that displace the assumptions they grew up with; the belief in vast occult powers set in motion to ruin our personal lives constitutes a coping device to restore some order to a world that has stopped making sense, although it only ever made sense thanks to ignoring many of its irrationalities.

Pynchon, however, doesn’t let us forget the irrational; he collects them, thrives on them, expands them. Mason’s mourning leads him to imagine that Rebekah’s spirit continues present, and his adherence to reason constantly struggles with his need to believe in something spiritual. The world of spirits, anyway, remains separated from the physical world by only a tenuous line, and superstition and ritual continues to shape men’s lives. “Kepler said,” explains Maskelyne, “that Astrology is Astronomy’s wanton little sister, who goes out and sells herself that Astronomy may keep her Virtue.” And superstition still permeates behavior. Dixon still speaks the language of augurs and luck –  “we’re Men of Science. To huz must all days run alike, the same number of identical Seconds, each proceeding in but tone Direction, irreclaimable…? If we would have Omens, why let us recall that the Astronomer’s Symbol for Friday is also the planet Venus herself, - a good Omen, surely…?” – whereas the boat they sail in continues to abide by ancient traditions. “You’ll note how very Scientifick we are here, Gentlemen. Yet ancient Beliefs will persist.” Even passing through the Equator assumes magical contours and a seaman describes it as the “Ritual of Crossing Over,” no stranger than people in our era still talking about “the four corners of the Earth.” Irrationalities, superseded knowledge remain incrusted in language, we can’t escape them. Situations frequently arise from characters failing to distinguish abstract, linguistic concepts from physical realities: for instance, the 11 days “lost” when England adopted the Gregorian Calendar; or how the Jesuits changed China’s degrees in a circle from 365.25 to the European 360, leading Captain Zhang to speculate, “And what may that slender Blade of Planetary Surface they took away, not be concealing? Twenty-one minute of Clock-Time, and eleven Million Square Miles, - anything may be hiding in there, more than your Herodotus, aye nor immortal Munchausen, might ever have dreamt. The Fountain of Youth, the Seven Cities of Gold, the Other Eden, the Canyons of black Obsidian, the eight Immortals, the Victory over Death, the Defeat of the Wrathful Deities? Histories ever Secret.” Sure, we sophisticated 21st century denizens may smirk at this confusion over abstract signs like degrees and actual physical space, but as recently as 1931 Alfred Korzybski had to remember our rational era that “the map is not the territory.” And then Robert Anton Wilson had to repeat it in his 1983 Prometheus Rising because it hadn’t sunk into people’s heads. And just to make sure he said it again in his 1990 Quantum Psychology. Nothing indicates things have improved much since the Jesuits. And I haven’t even mentioned all the fantastic stuff! Maskelyne shows Mason a magical Ear that transmits what he says into it to Dixon, many miles away. In London, before sailing to Sumatra, the duo meets the Learned English Dog. “I may be preternatural,” it tells them, “but I am not supernatural. ‘Tis the Age of Reason, rrrf? There is ever an explanation at hand, and no such thing as a Talking Dog – Talking Dogs belong with Dragons and Unicorns. What there are, however, are Provisions for Survival in a World less fantastick.” And of course, the chattering clocks, the Golem, and the mechanical duck that falls in love with a chef. At every turn Pynchon dilutes the rational claims of the 18th century with follies and nonsense, “… for the times are as impossible to calculate, this Advent, as the Distance to a Star.” Actually trigonometry, a science mentioned lots of times in the novel, permits precisely to calculate the distances of stars, but by this the novel just means that we’ve entered a world where even science fails.

And yet the apparent randomness of all these supernatural events and creatures serves, I think, to heighten the arrogance of a science that pats itself on the back for great progresses while around it cruelty, enslavement, murder and injustice thrive, not just unchecked, but expanded by science. Let’s take the talking clocks, for instance; at first the scene just sounds like good fun, a surreal moment. But clocks, automata and machines in the 18th century became science’s banners. “This machine imagery,” explains Mary Midgley in The Myths We Live By, “became entrenched at the dawn of modern science because in the seventeenth century scientists were fascinated, as well they might be, by the ingenious clockwork automata of the day.  They naturally hoped to extend this clockwork model, which – for a time – worked well for the solar system, to cover the whole knowledge, and, as the Industrial Revolution went on, that hope seemed more and more natural.” This metaphor worked even for humans. “Descartes established the assumption that, since physical particles moved on the model of machines, the things made out of them, including human bodies, must do that too.” And in the case of clocks they came to illustrate the structure of the actual Universe. “In the case of clockwork, Descartes, Newton, and the eighteenth-century mechanists managed to shape a powerful vision that displayed the whole material world as one vast clock, claiming that the right way to understand any part of it was simply to find its ‘mechanism,’ that is, the part of the machine that drove it.” In the novel, however, it soon turns into an instrument of oppression. “Soon, during an interrogation, someone will wish to note the precise time that each question is ask’d, or action taken, by a clock with two hands, - not because anyone will review it, - perhaps to intimidate the subject with the most advanc’d mechanical Device of its time, certainly because Minute-Scal’d Accuracy is possible by now, and there is room for Minutes to be enter’d in the Records.”

Talk about the invisible reoccurs throughout the novel. A theme too rich to exhaust, I think one of its many iterations involves the conflict between science’s opening of new knowledge and the blindness that continues to impair human relations. A scientist may wax poetics about the telescope: “All of these and more, making it super-remarkable, that thro’ the magick of Celestial Trigonometry, - to which you could certainly be applying yourselves, - and such measurements may yet be taken, - as if the Telescope, in mysterious Wise, were transporting us safely thro’ all the dangers of the awesome Gulf of Sky, out to the Object we wish to examine.” But although so much of the Universe now stands revealed, men continue strangers to each other. Living in an age of despotic monarchs, arrested for his political ideas, Cherrycoke serves his sentence aboard a ship, where he meets the protagonists en route to modern-day Sumatra to observe the Transit of Venus. “I set sail upon an Engine of Destruction, in the hope that Eastward yet might dwell something of Peace and Godhead, which British Civilization, in venturing Westward, had left behind.” Throughout the novel imagery of confinement abounds: slavery, borderlines, a captive woman’s narrative, and the ship itself. “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.” When Mason and Dixon arrive in Cape Town the Dutch’s enslavement of natives horrifies them; Mason in particular becomes part of a foiled scheme to impregnate a slave because babies with fairer skin fetched higher prices in the market. Speaking of Cape Town, the surveyors sense in it “a Collective Ghost of more than household scale, - the Wrongs committed Daily against the Slaves, petty and grave ones alike, going unrecorded, charm’d invisible to history, invisible yet possessing Mass, and Velocity, able not only to rattle Chains but to break them as well.” Funny how the shroud the horror of slavery in superstitious language of ghosts and the traditional rattling of chains that become the slaves’, giving it the appearance of a primitive practice when it fact it exists all around them, as natural as the stars, practiced without contradiction of an age that imagines itself wiser, more sophisticated, rational and humane. And if their peers can’t see the deceitfulness of the Noble Savage myth, Mason and Dixon do: “It may content us, as unhappy grown Englishmen, to think that somewhere in the World, Innocence may yet abide, - yet ‘tis not among these people. All is struggle, - and all but occasionally in vain.” In the American colonies they find cruelty and slavery again, not to mention Indian massacres. Rather than showing it as an exceptional nation, the book makes the nascent country look like a continuation of Europe, absorbing its old faults and inventing a few new ones. No sooner does Dixon arrive to London, “one of the great Cities of Christendom,” than he watches a hanging, a grim spectacle that attracts amused mobs.

In America the great European struggles for freedom get reenacted, making the New World a mere continuation of the Old World. “The Dispute did not end with Cromwell, nor Restoration, - nor William Orange, nor Hanovers, - if English Soil has seen its last arm’d encounters, then the fighting-ground is now remov’d to America, - yet another use for the damn’d Place.” The cause of political strife remains always the same: “Small numbers of people go on telling much larger numbers what to do with their precious Lives, - among these Multitudes, all but a few go on allowing them to do so. The British in India encourage the teeming population they rule to teem as much as they like, whilst taking their land for themselves, and the restricting the parts of if the People will be permitted to teem upon.” But by the time Cherrycoke narrates his tale, the USA has already failed its earlier hopes and promises: “the word Liberty, so unreflectively sacred to us today, was taken in those Times to encompass even the darkest of Men’s rights, - to injure whomever we might wish.” After all in the years while Mason and Dixon travel across their line, they witness corruption, bloodshed, wars between rival religious sects, the rise of the litigation frenzy. “You don’t know what I see back in this Country,” an arms dealer called LeSpark says to Dixon. “Bribes, Impersonations, Land Fraud, Scalp-stealing, Ginseng Diversions. Each Day brings Spectacle ever more disheartening. You there are but Boys out upon a Frolick.” Cherrycoke alludes to the infamous small-pox-infected blankets given to natives; Mason notes that Europeans committed the “first mortal acts of Savagery in America;” and Dixon prophetically asks, “Is this what America’s going to be like?” More often than not the characters speak in anachronistic ways, voicing ideas resonate with our times; for instance when an arrogant Republican calls Dixon a serf for taking wages and promises that America will teach the rest of the world without bosses, one can’t help reading in it the USA’s insistence in meddling with other nations’ affairs. And yet we didn’t have to wait for Pynchon for this revisionist vision of America; it’s as old as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The May-Pole of Merry Mount.” If "Jollity and gloom were contending for an empire," Pynchon makes it clear who triumphed.

Conquest and empire-making exists but in the margins of the novel, but everywhere control, limits and frontiers make themselves visible. In England the surveyors ignore a business boom to come to America. “Enclosures all over the County, and North Yorkshire, - eeh! Fences, Hedges, Ditches ordinary and Ha-Ha Style, all to be laid out… I could have stay’d home and had m’self a fine Living…?” The America they meet when they arrive so far has avoided these confinements, which prompts one of the novel’s most philosophical passages. “There is a love of complexity, here in America, Shelby declares, - pure Space waits the Surveyor, - no previous Lines, no fences, no streets to constrain polygony however extravagant, - especially in Maryland, where, encourag’d by the Re-Survey Laws, warranted properties may possess hundreds of sides, - their angles pushing outward and inward, - all Sides zigging and zagging, going ahead and doubling back, making Loops inside Loops, - in America, ‘twas ever, Poh! to Simple Quadrilaterals.” A Republican, anxious for America’s independence from England, even foretells the obsoleteness of the duo’s work, “for in the world that is to come, all boundaries shall be eras’d.” Alas this free, unbounded world does not last for Mason and Dixon set about opening lines through it. The novel doesn’t have a nice opinion of land surveys and its practitioners. At one point a character suggests their work as an “Agent of Darkness,” and somewhere else someone advances the hypothesis that “Men of Sciences may be but the simple Tools of others, with no more ideas of what they are about, than a Hammer knows of a House.” The Visto, or corridor they open to lay out their line, attracts civilization “as the Visto soon is lin’d with Inns and Shops, Stables, Games of Skill, Theatrickals, Pleasure-Gardens… a Promenade, - nay, Mall, - eighty Miles long.” And again anachronistically a character predicts the consequences of tracing a line that will separate peoples and mentalities. “To rule forever it is necessary only to create, among the people one would rule, what we call… Bad History. Nothing will produce Bad History more directly nor brutally, than drawing a Line, in particular a Right Line, the very Shape of Contempt, through the midst of a People, - to create thus a Distinction betwixt ‘em, - ‘tis the first stroke. – All else will follow as if predestin’d, unto War and Devastation.” To sum up, their work becomes another tool of oppression, like the almanacs that derive their knowledge from the stars and assist the building of empires. God, in fact, gets described as the first surveyor when he split the waters and the sky. “All else after that, in all History, is but Sub-Division.” This may sound less crazy (or not) when we conceived William Blake agreeing with this opinion. Brought up in the Dissenting tradition, Blake detested all forms of government and religious institutions and defended the supremacy of unchained imagination; although he does not rile against surveyors, he did detest compasses and their forms:

“They told me that I had five senses to inclose me up,
And they inclo’d my infinite brain into a narrow circle…
Till all from life I was obliterated and erased…”
(Visions of the Daughters of Albion, 1793)

And he portrayed Newton as a compass-wielding giant:

Which strikes a few similarities with the embodiment of Reason and Law (negative words for Blake), the divine Urizen:

An enthusiastic defender of all liberties and an enemy of all sorts of tyrannies, political and conventional, he championed the French Revolution, before it descended into Terror, and put America’s War of Independence into poem, proclaiming that “Empire is no more, and now the Lion & Wolf shall cease.” Blake of course knew better and his visions did not extend to the tone of sadness and pessimism that he infused his engravings and verses with. His ability to see angels and speak to biblical prophets made him wiser, not more naïve.

Blake believed the path to Paradise lay through the Imagination, salvation existed in us and not in outside factors. Pynchon, in turn, suggests that cruelty, tyranny and enslavement stem from human nature and perhaps nothing can change it. For all his criticism of America as a dream gone wrong, he sets it as part of a mankind that never knew how to behave differently, hard-wired like that. When the nephews ask Reverend Cherrycoke for a tale about America, they specify with crime and violence, and grow excited when he tells them that it begins with a hanging. Nature follows its bloody instincts. “One reason Humans remain young so long, compar’d to other Creatures, is that the young are useful in many ways, among them in providing daily, by way of the evil Creatures and Slaughter they love, a Denial of the Mortality clamorous enough to allow their Elders release, if only for moments at a time, from Its Claims upon the Attention.” Even the Learnèd English Dog acts by instinct. “The Learnèd D., drawn by the smell of Blood in the Cock-Pit, tries to act nonchalant, but what can they expect of him? How is he expected to supposed to ignore this pure Edge of blood-love?” Mason  may think that Europeans brought savagery to America and an indignant Dixon may punch a man whipping a slave, but the wise Captain Zhang thinks that “Slavery is very old upon these shores, - there is no Innocence upon the Practice anywhere, neither among the Indian nor the Spanish nor in the behavior of the rest of the Christendom, if it comes to that.”

The only place left remains Utopia, the Blakean Paradise that exists only in the Imagination. But even that relief science has taken away. In Cape Town Mason observes that slaves give importance to their dreams while the Europeans ignore theirs. Science, by bringing the stars closer and killing their poetry, by exploring the world, finding new territories and expanding civilization, make it difficult for men to continue to believe in a secret geography of hope and bliss. “Does Britannia, when she sleeps, dream? Is America her dream? – in which all that cannot pass in the metropolitan Wakefulness is allow’d Expression away in the restless Slumber of these Provinces, and on West-ward, wherever ‘tis not yet mapp’d, nor written down, nor ever, by the majority of Mankind, seen, - serving as a very Rubbish-Tip for subjunctive Hopes, for all that may not yet be true, - Earthly Paradise, Fountain of Youth, Realms of Prester John, Christ’s Kingdom, ever behind the sunset, safe till the next Territory to the West be seen and recorded, measur’d and tied in, back into the Net-Work of points already known, that slowly triangulates its Way into the Continent, changing all from subjunctive to declarative, reducing Possibilities to Simplicities that serve the ends of Governments, - winning away from the realm of the Sacred, its Borderland one by one, and assuming them unto the bare mortal World that is our home, and our Despair.” It doesn’t take a lot for man to corrupt wonder. As soon as sailors get wind of the talking dog they conspire to kidnap him and take him to an island in the Eastern seas where the dog could dazzle the savages into worship. “Long life to Kings!” cry the sailors.

The novel presents a curious paradox: the Ancient World of magic and miracles lived in an unchanging present, without any notion of social progress, but dreamt of the Future, that is, the Afterlife, some other dimension richer and more real than this place of suffering; then comes the Age of Reason, living only for progress and science, obsessed with destroying to rebuild more efficiently, believing itself capable of turning the present into Paradise. But apart from really great PR, the Enlightenment fell short of expectations and created as many new problems as it helped to solve old ones: atomic bombs, bacteriological warfare, the surveillance state. “So will the Reign of Reason cheerfully dispose of any allegations of Paradise.” Do I exaggerate, perhaps? Probably, but slavery and war, massacres and greed, oppression and misuse of technology persisted long after the 18th century optimism faded into its own untenable utopia. Now we’re left with a world that can neither have the old ignorance of the unknown to dream of better worlds, nor can it continue to believe in science to deliver all panaceas. The Age of Reason, I guess the novel says, may have improved the world materially but spiritually, and perhaps imaginatively, left it impoverished. “Why mayn’t there be Oracles, for us, in our time? Gate-ways to Futurity? That can’t all have died with the ancient Peoples.”

Or it may just be an inconsequential, immature novel about talking clocks, stupid song lyrics, lots of booze and salacious jokes with poorly-written characters that spells the death of good literature, like James Wood worries.

Some people like to talk about an implicit contract between writer and reader; apparently each party has a series of rights and duties regarding the other, whatever. I’ve read two novels by Thomas Pynchon so far and I haven’t seen anything resembling a contract yet. I’m not sure he likes them.  I don’t think he writes to expectations, but the way he damn pleases. If anything, he asks the reader some indulgence, without promise of recompenses in return. I continue to have minor problems with his writing, but I suppose I can indulge him a third novel.


  1. Ah, this is great. I wish I could say more. I haven't read this book, or even looked at it, since it was published. Pynchon's long-rumored Civil War novel, which of course turned out to have nothing to do with the Civil War.

    I do remember I loved that dog. And the giant cheese. And the - there is a were-beaver, right?

    I remember some cries of betrayal at the time from diehard Pynchonists - there were characters who had human qualities, who you could even care about! How horrible! TP had gone soft!

    1. Tom, I vaguely remember a ware-something; if I had retained more that would defeat my thesis on the picaresque as an anti-memory genre, now wouldn't it?

      I wish I never become a diehard Pynchonist; I may turn a blind eye when I see flat characters, but I guess I'm still too much of a Woodian to actively want flat characters!

  2. It's interesting to see how your reading of William Blake's poetry (as well as his biography, I guess) have informed your reading of Mason & Dixon. By the way, did you not find it challenging language-wise? I remember spending some quality time with a dictionary (didn't have access to the Internet at the time) while reading it back in the 1990s.

    1. I guess it is serendipity that I am reading a Blake biography at the moment; my second actually; G.E. Bentley and Alexander Glichrist were too very good biographers, each with different merits. But maybe not just serendipity since Blake has been on my mind for some time now, he's a recurring motif in my novel and even shows up to a character as a hallucination...

      The language was hard; Barth's faux-old English wasn't this hard. But I like dense, rich language so I persevered. It certainly wasn't the crappy journalistic prose masquerading as literature that I see so often these days.

  3. My favourite literature blog writing about my favourite living author - absolute bliss (although not sure if its my favourite novel by him)! Miguel, I would never buy a novel from a blogger, but I would buy anything you ever write, you are masterful. Good luck with the novel, I look forward to reading it one day

    1. Dear Andrew Field, I don't know through what black arts of trickery and sophistry I've gulled you into considering this your favourite literature blog, but to your compliments I can only reply with a hearty, Thank you!