Newbies

Don’t believe what They tell you. Don’t believe what you’ve heard, and here’s what you’ve probably heard: Thomas Pynchon’s novels are brilliant but difficult; the multiple plots twist and turn and rarely resolve; there are a gazillion characters; you’ll need a dictionary and an encyclopedia to understand all the scientific metaphors, historical references and obscure words. This is the rap, and there is some truth to it, but it’s not the whole truth, not nearly. As one seasoned reader of Pynchon summed it up, “difficult, schmifficult!”

To plunge down the rabbit hole of Pynchon’s fiction is to commence a journey into an alternate world, a world — somewhat like our own but, as Pynchon put it “Maybe it’s not the world, but with a minor adjustment or two it’s what the world might be.” It’s a world infused with magic and mystery, wonderfully labyrinthine, where “real” history and fiction intersect and dissolve into dream. “Shall I project a world?” wonders Oedipa Maas, the heroine in Pynchon’s second, and some say most accessible, novel, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966). Thomas Pynchon projects a world, and so does the reader. Onto Pynchon’s richly detailed and often ambiguous landscape the reader projects his/her own interpretation in order to bring the work “into pulsing stelliferous Meaning” (Lot 49, p.82). This provides, as another long-time fan expressed it, “the tremendous pleasure bestowed on the reader of being in on a joint venture of a sort.”

Like Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) and V. (1963), Mason & Dixon is a large and complex work. But one must be reminded that beneath the wide-ranging erudition and complexity there beats a rock ‘n’ roll heart, and the daunting mystery and “high seriousness” is counterbalanced by flights of zany (and often dark) humor. And, of course, there is simply the sheer beauty and breathtaking power of the writing, the subtly interwoven plots and themes, the rich detail and, as Penny Padgett (who helped maintain the Thomas Pynchon Home Page) put it, “the way you can find something amazing on just about every page, the way these amazing things have a way of connecting to each other, giving you that ‘aha!’ experience every time you look closer.”

Previous to the 1997 publication of Mason & Dixon, I put the question of how a “Pynchon newbie” might best approach this new Pynchon novel to the Pynchon List, an email list-serve group on the internet composed of bright and opinionated folks who delight in discussing and arguing the significance of events and characters in Pynchon’s canon, quoting favorite passages, discovering ever new connections (and occasionally suckered by “Kute Korrespondences”) and endlessly probing the seemingly infinite moiré of interconnected meanings. With the publication of Mason & Dixon still a month away, the most common reference made was to Gravity’s Rainbow, considered by most to be Pynchon’s most awesome work…so far.

And away we go!