Reading between the lines.
May 7 1997 3:30 AM

Z.

Pynchon's tiresome mind games.

Mason & Dixon
By Thomas Pynchon
Henry Holt; 773 pages; $27.50

For honesty's sake, any early criticism of Thomas Pynchon's new novel, Mason & Dixon, ought to be labeled "provisional" or "tentative." The text of the book was released two weeks ago as of this writing. And because it will take any normal human being at least that long to read the galleys (773 pages), let alone reflect upon their contents, it's a fair bet that anyone who reviews the novel has 1) merely skimmed it, meaning his impressions are superficial; 2) actually read every page, but only by foregoing food and rest, meaning his impressions are warped by stress; or 3) not read the book at all, meaning his impressions are just as worthy as those of the thousands of other literate folk who will buy Pynchon's novel on reputation, read the jacket copy, put it down, and pronounce it either another masterpiece or a disappointing falling off, though somewhat better than Vineland, his previous book. Indeed, I have already heard the latter view bandied about at New York cocktail parties

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Here is my own preliminary view, based on 400 pages read, 200 skimmed, and 100 foregone: Maybe, just maybe, minimalist fiction wasn't such a bad thing after all.

As I said, it should take any normal human being at least two weeks to get through Mason & Dixon--but that begs the question of whether Pynchon's writings are intended for normal human beings. I don't think they are. They partake of what the Elizabethans called "euphuism"--the pursuit of linguistic complexity for its own sake. As such, they're intended for literary monastics, for the tenured priesthood of paid interpreters that sprang up in colleges after World War II with the help of massive public funding from schemes such as the GI Bill and Pell grants. This professional audience for difficult "texts" created the demand that Pynchon first filled with V. and Gravity's Rainbow, the semiotic monoliths whose mix of scientific imagery, Cold War absurdity, and Joycean allusion provided a kind of full-employment program for a generation of rising postdocs. In academia, Pynchon found his patrons. In Pynchon, academia found its paychecks.

The problem is that Pynchon is performing for a court that no longer exists. The boom in subsidized deconstruction is over. (What's Mason & Dixonabout? I'll get to that.) Think about what's happened to the novel since the fat, fecund days of Gravity's Rainbow. It's grown thin and literal and modest, so much so that the typical first novel isn't called a first novel anymore; it's called a memoir, just one step from journalism, and it's immunized from conventional criticism by its traumatized sincerity. Even the bright young men who imitate Pynchon by fortifying their fashionably fractured stories with math and science, myth and metafiction, can't really hold a candle to the master. They write Italian compared with Pynchon's Latin--perhaps because they no longer have a church behind them, merely chains of secular superstores.

Which brings me to the new novel itself. Written in 18th century English ("magical" is spelled "magickal," for example, and the predominant punctuation marks are the dash and the apostrophe), it tells the picaresque tale of two astronomers best known for surveying the Mason-Dixon line, which separates Pennsylvania from Maryland and the American cultural North from the cultural South. We meet the pair as they're setting off from England for southern Africa, where they hope to observe the transit of Venus for purposes of mapping the Earth's longitude. You'll learn a lot about shipping in this novel, and the main thing you'll learn is how important it was to find a reliable way of measuring longitude. National fortunes depended on the feat, making it the Age of Reason's equivalent to finding the Holy Grail.

As Mason and Dixon travel, they have adventures. Rollicking, bawdy adventures. They drink. Carouse. While staying in Cape Town with a family of Dutch colonists, Dixon is set upon by its three young daughters, whose mission is to arouse him to the point where he'll want to mate with their black slave, thereby producing a light-skinned offspring. When the pair land in colonial America, they hook up with Benjamin Franklin, finding not a parsimonious Puritan but a turned-on, pre-psychedelic party animal. Franklin wears tinted glasses, consorts with prostitutes, and stages late-night proto-raves at pubs, wowing the crowds with electrical experiments and machine-made music. "The moment you've all been waiting for ... the Saloon or the Orchid Tavern is pleas'd to Present, the fam'd Leyden-Jar Danse Macabre! with that Euclid of the Electrick, Philadelphia's own Poor Richard, in the part of Death."

Next, it's on to Virginia to see George Washington. He greets the travelers by lighting up a hemp pipe and getting them roundly stoned. To curb the men's munchies, Martha serves muffins and doughnuts. The comedy of anachronism is Pynchon's favorite kind, and here, as elsewhere in his work, it isn't very funny. Pynchon the verbal technician is genius, but Pynchon the humorist is lame indeed and reminds one of a brainy college sophomore who studies joke books to make himself amusing. Worse, he's very big on language humor, on purposely mismatching tone and topic and veering abruptly between high-flown rhetoric and scatological bluntness. Again, not funny. The man who once represented the future of literature--and, to some, still does--is bogged down in Ivy League revue-style japery circa 1958. A farting priest who's quick with learned puns is his idea of hilarity.

As Washington and the surveyors pass the pipe, intrigues and conspiracies involving all sorts of secret factions--Jesuits, Masons, British trading companies--are hinted at. Everyone has a vital interest, it seems, in Mason and Dixon's wilderness survey, and it becomes clear that the pair are really pawns in some obscure sociocultural power struggle that may involve as-yet-unknown advanced communication technologies. When Washington reveals that French explorers have buried mysterious metal plates up and down the frontier, die-hard Pynchon fans will lick their chops. Playful, ingenious revisions of orthodox history based on complex, covert affiliations and strange secret weapons are the master's trademark. At bottom, Pynchon writes mystery novels--symphonic, polymathic detective stories that resolve themselves not in simple sums but in hip new intellectual logarithms. And he pays his readers the ultimate compliment of writing as though he knows they're capable of getting his erudite cosmic jokes.

That's the rub, and that's why I'm not a fan: Pynchon is a writer you have to "get," and I find no activity less inspiring than Rubik's Cube-ing through a clue-strewn supertext in search of a paradoxical Eureka! The low part of the higher mind that Pynchon so pyrotechnically appeals to (the same part that responds to Escher drawings, PDQ Bach, and perspective-switching holograms) is not a part of myself I'm in touch with, nor do I particularly long to be. I admire Pynchon; I'm wowed by him at times; but the truth is I'm happy leaving him to the experts whose academic labs gave birth to him. They're the ones whose love he seems to want, the ones who seem best equipped to give it to him. May their funding never quite dry up.

Walter Kirn is the author of My Hard Bargain, a collection of stories, and She Needed Me, a novel. He lives in Montana.

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