I read too slowly these days. Some of it is the choice of books, some of it is just me, not putting enough time into it. Some of it, too, is that I read more carefully; I’m unwilling to skip anything, especially if the writer is someone I admire. But even so, I didn’t expect to spend the better part of a year reading a single book. (I did read one or two others in the middle of all that, including Roth’s Exit Ghost, but still: the better part of a year.) And I think it’s probably impossible to spend that long with any book and not feel some sense of grief when it’s finally, impossibly over.
But a lot of my reaction to the book is because of the final hundred pages, which are insanely moving, and among the best of Pynchon’s writing. I love Dixon’s confrontation with the slave-driver at the end of their time in America, and Mason’s sudden revelation that he admires his partner for his bravery. Their constant turning-back toward America and their memories of it, as age and death approach. Mason’s grief. His son’s compassion, even though Mason had abandoned all of them. And the closing pages, with Brae and the others all asleep, the tale mostly told, while Mason’s final moments pass quietly by. All very transparent and beautiful, as if the story is finally stripped of all its wild inventiveness, and left only with its heart. And you forget sometimes how big a heart the novel has (how big a heart any Pynchon novel has), because you’re distracted by everything else.
I don’t think it’s Pynchon’s best novel. It’s frustrating at times. There are so many reasons to care about the characters, and I would have liked to spend more time inside with them. Pynchon’s writing is rewarding because he doesn’t write like anyone else, I understand that; but there are times, like those final 100 pages of Mason & Dixon, when all the magic is in the story, and nothing else is needed but to let it all play out.
Vineland was published in 1990, a few years before M&D. I think it’s assumed that Pynchon was working on the latter novel for a long time (a decade or more, maybe since Gravity’s Rainbow was published in the 70s). So that means he was probably working on both novels at the same time. That intrigues me, especially because the books use such wildly different voices. But what I took away from Vineland was that it was more transparently angry, or at least disillusioned, than any of the other Pynchon books I had read. Parts of it were just pure despair, even bitterness, and not in a lyrical way. I’ve wondered what Pynchon might have been going through as he wrote Vineland, and whether he took a break from M&D in order to write it. Whatever the situation, the Pynchon at the end of Mason & Dixon seems more at peace, and seems to care a great deal about his characters. Maybe that’s not true. But if a lot of his characters in other books have seemed to exist in the service of Pynchon’s imagination, then in M&D it feels like the opposite: that it’s his imagination being used in the service of two deserving characters.
(But I don’t imagine that he would see it that way. And besides, I still love Slothrop, and I still grieve for him. Even if Pynchon did let him disintegrate.)