Far out again with Pynchon

THEY come from all walks of life, but for me, the quintessential Thomas Pynchon freak is a guy in Belfast who, having taken his…

THEY come from all walks of life, but for me, the quintessential Thomas Pynchon freak is a guy in Belfast who, having taken his drugs and written brilliant if impenetrable essays at Queen's in the late 1970s, withdrew from the world more than a decade ago to work on an doctoral thesis on the cult US writer. You'd certainly need a long holiday to even read Pynchon's early novels: the apocalyptic convergences of V (1963); the slimmer, but titantiumdense paranoia of The Crying of Lot 49 (1966); climaxing in the payload of the phantasmagoric Gravity's Rainbow (1973): a masterful howl of Cold War anxiety, extrapolated through Information theory and hardon daydreams of the servomechanisms of V2 rocket missiles.

Since then, Pynchon himself seems to have fallen into a reclusive void. For years, all that was known about him was that he was born Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, May 8th, 1937; did Navy service (1955-7); studied physics, engineering and finally literature at Cornell, where he was tutored by Nabokov (who didn't remember him - Pynchon reputedly couldn't understand Nabokov's accented English); and worked at the Boeing Corporation in Seattle in the 1960s. After that, the trail goes cold with Pynchon managing an amazing eschewal of publicity along the lines of Harper Lee - or as William Gibson put it, "making J. D. Salinger look like Boy George".

Apart from a fresh introduction to five early short stories (Slow Learner, 1984), his silence was broken only in 1990 by Vineland, a rangy, humoristic tale of an old chainsmoking hippie on benefit. Now it emerges that Pynchon is living in Manhattan with his wife (a literary agent). Writing album sleeve notes for the NYC indie band Lotion, it seems only a matter of time before his cover is blown, yet so far, the only update to the photo from Oyster Bay High School Yearbook has been the recent paparazzo shot, taken from behind, of a tall, greying man in a battered hat, hand in hand with his child, like some elusive urban Yeti.

But finally, Mason & Dixon has arrived, the megatome Pynchon was rumoured to be working on since 1975, a close reading of which involves digging out maps, histories, math/astronomical texts, bargain bin reprints of The Dictionary Of The Under world anything to arm yourself against its references and interconnections, its sworls of historical characters and subplot routines.


Pynchon has a convenient narrative line in the given facts about the melancholic astronomer Charles Mason and his assistant Jeremiah Dixon, who drew their famous line between Pennsylvania and Maryland, culturally and politically dividing America North and South, and prefiguring the Civil War. Yet, written in unbridled 18th century pastiche, the novel is a mass of speed ramp prose, splintering into subclauses and punctuated by jokey sea shanties, gurning away to some jazzy rhythm of Pynchon's own mirthful dementia.

Again, it's a kaleidoscopic elaboration on a central cluster of metaphors drawn from science - from M&Ds' observations of Solar Parallax via the Transit of Venus at the Cape of Good Hope in 1761 (its Ingress and Egress across the sun lurching up a vintage Pynchonian zone, the Black Drop) to the more anticlimactic wonder of their Latitudinal Line in 1767: an act of sorting and dividing, reminiscent of Maxwell's Demon which haunts Gravity's Rainbow.

The backdrop is the Age of Reason, with M&D as aimless, questing quasianarchic Men of Science; their very Enlightenmentera profession the product of a civilisation based on slavery - an aspect of the book less convincing than its overall, underlying critique of obsession.

Lacking the raw, visionary delirium of Gravity's Rainbow, it is told as a long and winding bedtime tale to young twins by the Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke (no relation, apparently, to the Cherrycoke in Gmvity's Rainbow) over a long Yuletide night in 786. It is the perfect nursery for Pynchonesque fantastic surreal, metempsychotic oracles - the Learned English Dog, the apparition of Mason's dead wife, mechanical ducks and talking clocks; or the absurdly interwoven narrative of a pulp romance. There's also the 1960s counter cultural tang of conspiracy theory (a la Robert Anton Wilson) and substance abuse (Burroughs) in M&D's dopepipe encounter with George Washington.

Yet bizarrely, after the gonzo marginalia of Vineland, Pynchon now squats centre stage in the bid for the Gargantuan American novel. And Mason & Dixon is a definite return to the encyclopaedic form, coloured by an unexpected, oblique yearning for the origins of White America, as in John Barth's similarly weighty The Sotweed Factor (1960), set some 50 years earlier.

In Mason & Dixon, some of Pychon's mischief has matured into irksome humour. The onomastic excess is ever chucklesome, but there is a pervasive thread of louche yet euphemistic spit palmed male sexbanter. The science in Mason & Dixon is definitely not as paranoiacally digested as in Gravity's Rainbow - I'm persuaded the latter is naturally up there alongside Joyce's Ulysses - but it is an amazing work nonetheless: an endless febrile mesh of ambiguous hyperlinks across vast floes of impeccably researched information - grist to the Satanic mills of epiphytic academia, never mind the low level neurotics who make up Pynchon's natural, weirdo constituency (check out the Web Page at www.pomona.edu/pynchon).

It's exhilarating to see Pynchon back in action, but I can't deny a pang of sympathy for our friend in Belfast who, gridlocked by the arrival of this monolithic new 773 pager, must have seen his doctorate blown out of the water once again.