Mason & Dixon


So I’m about halfway through Mason & Dixon, and I have this odd relationship with the book.  It’s taken me a long time to get this far, which is not totally unexpected with Pynchon.  But I find myself loving the book and being not really all that engaged at the same time.  That’s how I was early on with Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow, but at this point in the book, I expected to be more emotionally involved.

Still, the book is fun.  I think I just love Pynchon’s mind so much that he could write anything and I’d be happy spending time with it.  Vineland was a quicker read, but still tough to manage all the characters and sub-plots, and the surprising bleakness.   I ended up really liking the women/girls in the book — Prairie and D.L.. — a lot more than anyone else.  Both Maddie and D.A. in “Daphne Alluvia” were probably versions of Pynchon’s characters in Vineland.

Critics usually make a distinction between Pynchon’s major and minor novels. Inherent Vice, Vineland and even Lot 49 are considered “minor” in this view.  Everything else falls in the major category.  And I understand the distinction, just on a visceral level — it just feels different reading something like Gravity’s Rainbow than Lot 49 or Vineland — but I wonder if Pynchon himself sees such a distinction.  I doubt it.

Mason & Dixon usually falls in the “major” category.  It’s a long book, but you can see right away that its ambitions are greater than Vineland — which is a very good book in its own right, but less disciplined.  Vineland is an angry Pynchon, to me.  Mason & Dixon is crazy Pynchon, imaginatively engaged, taking his time, building something unlike anything else in literature.

And that’s the crazy thing.  I completely trust that he’s taking the story somewhere that will make me happy to have found it.  So far it’s fun, tough, full of oddball characters and wonderful side-stories — like the throwaway bit about the werewolf who periodically has to “transform” into an ordinary man, creeping out the other characters.  But what is it about the story that makes it seem “big” in a way that Vineland didn’t?  Is it just the size of the story, or its reputation as a more “legitimate” novel?   I don’t know what it is.  I know that I like both characters a lot, and I like the bond between them.  But I don’t see the urgency in the story as much as I saw it in all of his other books, at least not yet.

About the author

Tom Howard

Tom Howard is the author of Fierce Pretty Things (Indiana University Press, 2019).

He received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Fierce Pretty Things won the 2018 Blue Light Books Fiction Prize, and his individual stories have won the Ninth Letter Literary Award in Fiction, the Indiana Review Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award for Fiction, the Carve Magazine Prose & Poetry Contest, the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction, the Innovative Short Fiction Prize, the Willow Springs Ficiton Prize, the Rash Award in Fiction, and the Robert J. DeMott Award for Short Prose.

He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.

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By Tom Howard


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