Coffee or tea? (Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon)

Mason is trying to wake up. The nearest coffee is in the cook-tent. “Pray you,” he whispers, “try not to be so damn’d,— did I say damn’d? I meant so fucking chirpy all the time, good chap, good chap,” stumbling out of the Tent trying to get his Hair into some kind of Queue. The Coffee is brew’d with the aid of a Fahrenheit’s Thermometer, unmark’d save at one place, exactly halfway between freezing and boiling, at 122°, where upon the Wood a small Arrow is inscrib’d, pointing at a Scratch across the glass Tube. ’Tis at this Temperature that the water receives the ground Coffee, the brew being stirr’d once or twice, the Pot remov’d from the fire, its Decoction then proceeding. Tho’ clarifying may make sense in London, out here ’tis a luxury, nor are there always Egg-shells to hand. If tasted early, Dixon has found, the fine suspended matter in the coffee lends it an undeniable rustick piquance. Later in the Pot, the Liquid charring itself toward Vileness appeals more to those looking for bodily stimuli,— like Dixon, who is able to sip the most degradedly awful pot’s-end poison and yet beam like an Idiot, “Mm-m m! Best Jamoke west o’ the Alleghenies!”— a phrase Overseer Barnes utters often, tho’ neither Surveyor quite understands it, especially as the Party are yet east of the Alleghenies. Howbeit, at this point in a Pot’s life-cycle, Mason prefers to switch over to Tea, when it is Dixon’s turn to begin shaking his head.

“Can’t understand how anyone abides that stuff.”

“How so?” Mason unable not to react.

“Well, it’s disgusting, isn’t it? Half-rotted Leaves, scalded with boiling Water and then left to lie, and soak, and bloat?”

“Disgusting? this is Tea, Friend, Cha,— what all tasteful London drinks,— that,” pollicating the Coffee-Pot, is what’s disgusting.”

“Au contraire,” Dixon replies, “Coffee is an art, where precision is all,— Water-Temperature, mean particle diameter, ratio of Coffee to Water or as we say, CTW, and dozens more Variables I’d mention, were they not so clearly out of thy technical Grasp,— ”

“How is it,” Mason pretending amiable curiosity, “that of each Pot of Coffee, only the first Cup is ever worth drinking,— and that, by the time I get to it, someone else has already drunk it?”

Dixon shrugs. “You must improve your Speed . . . ? As to the other, why aye, only the first Cup’s any good, owing to Coffee’s Sacramental nature, the Sacrament being Penance, entirely absent from thy sunlit World of Tay,— whereby the remainder of the Pot, often dozens of cups deep, represents the Price for enjoying that first perfect Cup.”

“Folly,” gapes Mason. “Why, ev’ry cup of Tea is perfect . . . ?”

“For what? curing hides?”

From chapter 48 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon.

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Duck Tales (Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon)

Back Inhabitants all up and down the Line soon begin taking the Frenchman’s Duck to their Bosoms, for being exactly what they wish to visit their lives at this Moment,— something possess’d of extra-natural Powers,— Invisibility, inexhaustible Strength, an upper Velocity Range that makes her the match, in Momentum, of much larger opponents,— Americans desiring generally, that ev’ry fight be fair. Soon Tales of Duck Exploits are ev’rywhere the Line may pass. The Duck routs a great army of Indians. The Duck levels a Mountain west of here. In a single afternoon the Duck, with her Beak, has plow’d ev’ry Field in the County, at the same time harrowing with her Tail. That Duck!
As to the Duck’s actual Presence, Opinions among the Party continue to vary. Axmen, for whom tales of disaster, stupidity, and blind luck figure repeatably as occasions for merriment, take to shouting at their Companions, “There she goes!” or, “Nearly fetch’d ye one!” whilst those more susceptible to the shifts of Breeze between the Worlds, notably at Twilight, claim to’ve seen the actual Duck, shimmering into Visibility, for a few moments, then out again.
“I might’ve tried to draw a bead onto it, . . . but it knew I was there. It came walking over and look’d me thump in the eye. I was down flat, we were at the same level, see. ‘Where am I?’ it wants to know. ‘Pennsylvania or Maryland, take your pick,’ says I. It had this kind of Expression onto its Face, and seem’d jumpy. I tried to calm it down. It gave that Hum, and grew vaporous, and disappear’d.”
Mason and Dixon attempt to ignore as much of this as they may, both assuming ’tis only another episode of group Folly, to which this Project seems particularly given, and that ’twill pass all too soon, to be replaced by another, and so on, till perhaps, one day, by something truly dangerous.

From Chapter 45 of Thoma Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon.

What Machine Is It? (Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon)

“What Machine is it,” young Cherrycoke later bade himself goodnight, “that bears us along so relentlessly? We go rattling thro’ another Day,— another Year,— as thro’ an empty Town without a Name, in the Midnight . . . we have but Memories of some Pause at the Pleasure-Spas of our younger Day, the Maidens, the Cards, the Claret,— we seek to extend our stay, but now a silent Functionary in dark Livery indicates it is time to re-board the Coach, and resume the Journey. Long before the Destination, moreover, shall this Machine come abruptly to a Stop . . . gather’d dense with Fear, shall we open the Door to confer with the Driver, to discover that there is no Driver, . . . no Horses, . . . only the Machine, fading as we stand, and a Prairie of desperate Immensity. . . .”

The last lines of Ch. 35 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon seem to reiterate (what I take to be) the novel’s central question.

Another clip from PTA’s film Inherent Vice

A great disorderly Tangle of Lines vanishing into the Mnemonick Deep (Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon)

Facts are but the Play-things of lawyers,— Tops and Hoops, forever a-spin. . . . Alas, the Historian may indulge no such idle Rotating. History is not Chronology, for that is left to lawyers,— nor is it Remembrance, for Remembrance belongs to the People. History can as little pretend to the Veracity of the one, as claim the Power of the other,— her Practitioners, to survive, must soon learn the arts of the quidnunc, spy, and Taproom Wit,— that there may ever continue more than one life-line back into a Past we risk, each day, losing our forebears in forever,— not a Chain of single Links, for one broken Link could lose us All,— rather, a great disorderly Tangle of Lines, long and short, weak and strong, vanishing into the Mnemonick Deep, with only their Destination in common.

— The Revd Wicks Cherrycoke, Christ and History

From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon.

Inherent Vice (Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon)


From page 272, chapter 27 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon. The phrase “against the day” appeared in chapter 13, on page 125. Perhaps I should be on the lookout for the phrase “bleeding edge.”

A clip from Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Inherent Vice

Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (Second Riff: The Pygmies’ Discovery of Great Britain)

A. Okay. So I finished the first section of Mason & Dixon a few days ago. I’m now at the part where our titular heroes are smoking weed and eating snacks with George Washington. I can’t possibly handle all the material I’ve read so far—even in a riff (here’s the first riff for anyone inclined)—so instead I’ll annotate a few passages from Ch. 19, one of my favorite episodes so far.

B. Setting and context: 1762. “The George,” a pub in Gloucestershire (Mason’s home county). The patrons at the tavern are heatedly discussing the eleven days that went “missing” when the British moved from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar.

One (satirical) source for this controversy comes from William Hogarth’s 1755 painting An Election Entertainment; in the detail below, you can read (barely) the slogan  “Give us our Eleven Days” on the black banner under the man’s foot.


A bit more context, via History Today:

In 1750 England and her empire, including the American colonies, still adhered to the old Julian calendar, which was now eleven days ahead of the Gregorian calendar, introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII and in use in most of Europe.

Attempts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to adopt the new calendar had broken on the rock of the Church of England, which denounced it as popish. The prime mover in changing the situation was George Parker, second Earl of Macclesfield, a keen astronomer and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was assisted in his calculations by his friend James Bradley…

I emphasized Bradley—Mason’s mentor—and Macclesfield as they are minor characters in this episode.

Basically, the pub patrons demand that Mason explain what happened to the missing eleven days.

C. Okay—so this whole episode, this discussion of time and space clearly helps underline the big themes of Mason & Dixon: How to measure the intangible, the invisible—how to pin down the metaphysical to the physical—how to know and how to not know. (Hence all the paranoia). Read More

Thomas Pynchon’s recipe for what is arguably the first British Pizza (Mason & Dixon)

“Lud wishes to know,” Whike relays at last, “Mr. Emerson’s Cousin’s Views, upon the Structure of the World.”
“A Spheroid, the last I heard of it, Sir.”
“Ahr Ahr ahr, ’ahr ahhrr!”
“ ’And I say, ’tis Flat,’” the Jesuit smoothly translates. “Why of course, Sir, flat as you like, flat as a Funnel-Cake, flat as a Pizza, for all that,— ”
“Apologies, Sir,—” Whike all Unctuosity, “the foreign Word again, was . . . ?”
“The apology is mine,— Pizza being a Delicacy of Cheese, Bread, and Fish ubiquitous in the region ’round Mount Vesuvius. . . . In my Distraction, I have reach’d for the Word as the over-wrought Child for its Doll.”
“You are from Italy, then, sir?” inquires Ma.
“In my Youth I pass’d some profitable months there, Madam.”
“Do you recall by chance how it is they cook this ‘Pizza’? My Lads and Lasses grow weary of the same Daily Gruel and Haggis, so a Mother is ever upon the Lurk for any new Receipt.”
“Why, of course. If there be a risen Loaf about . . . ?”
Mrs. Brain reaches ’neath the Bar and comes up with a Brown Batch-Loaf, rising since Morning, which she presents to “Cousin Ambrose,” who begins to punch it out flat upon the Counter-Top. Lud, fascinated, offers to assault the Dough himself, quickly slapping it into a very thin Disk of remarkable Circularity.
“Excellent, Sir,” Maire beams, “I don’t suppose anyone has a Tomato?”
“A what?”
“Saw one at Darlington Fair, once,” nods Mr.”“Brain.
“No good, in that case,— eaten by now.”
“The one I saw, they might not have wanted to eat . . . ?”
Dixon, rummaging in his Surveyor’s Kit, has come up with the Bottle of Ketjap, that he now takes with him ev’rywhere. “This do?”
“That was a Torpedo, Husband.”
“That Elecktrickal Fish? Oh . . . then this thing he’s making isn’t elecktrical?”
“Tho’ there ought to be Fish, such as those styl’d by the Neopolitans, Cicinielli. . . .”
“Will Anchovy do?” Mrs. Brain indicates a Cask of West Channel ’Chovies from Devon, pickl’d in Brine.
“Capital. And Cheese?”
“That would be what’s left of the Stilton, from the Ploughman’s Lunch.”
“Very promising indeed,” Maire wringing his Hands to conceal their trembling. “Well then, let us just . . .”
By the Time what is arguably the first British Pizza is ready to come out of the Baking-Oven beside the Hearth, the Road outside has gone quiet and the Moorland dark, several Rounds have come and pass’d, and Lud is beginning to show signs of Apprehension. “At least ’tis cloudy tonight, no Moonlight’ll be getting thro’,” his Mother whispers to Mr. Emerson.”

From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon.

Transcend it spiritually, or eroticize it carnally (Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon)

“If one did not wish to suffer Horror directly,” comments the Revd in his Day-Book, “one might either transcend it spiritually, or eroticize it carnally,— the sex Entrepreneurs reasoning that the combination of Equatorial heat, sweat, and the flesh of strangers in enforc’d intimacy might be Pleasurable,— that therefore might some dramatiz’d approach to death under such circumstances be pleasurable as well, with all squirming together in a serpent’s Nest of Limbs and Apertures and penises, immobiliz’d in a bondage of similarly bound bodies, lubricated with a gleaming mixture of their own shar’d sweat, piss, and feces, nothing to breathe but one another’s exhausted breaths, moving toward some single slow warm Explosion. . . .”

An abject passage from Ch. 14 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon. The entire chapter seems with unseemliness, as Cornelius Vroom forces Dixon to witness the debauchery of the Cape Dutch.

Serpent, Worm, or Dragon (Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon)

One cloudless afternoon they stand in the scent of an orange-grove,— as tourists elsewhere might stand and gape at some mighty cataract or chasm,— nose-gaping, rather, at a manifold of odor neither Englishman has ever encountered before. They have been searching for it all the long declining Day,— it is the last Orange-Grove upon the Island,— a souvenir of a Paradise decrepit. Shadows of Clouds dapple the green hillsides, Houses with red Tile roofs preside over small Valleys, the Pasturelying soft as Sheep,— all, with the volcanic Meadow where the two stand, circl’d by the hellish Cusps of Peaks unnatural,— frozen in mid-thrust, jagged at every scale.
“Saint Brendan set out in the fifth century to discover an Island he believ’d was the Paradise of the Scriptures,— and found it. Some believ’d it Madeira, Columbus was told by some at Madeira that they had seen it in the West, Philosophers of our own Day say they have prov’d it but a Mirage. So will the Reign of Reason cheerily dispose of any allegations of Paradise.”
“Yet suppose this was the Island. He came back, did he not? He died the very old Bishop of the Monastery he founded at Clonfert, as far from the Western Sea as he might, this side of Shannon. Perhaps that was Paradise. Else, why leave?”
“A Riddle! Wondrous! Just the Ticket! Why, ere ’tis solv’d, we may be back in England and done with this!”
“The Serpent, being the obvious Answer.”
“What Serpent?”
“The one dwelling within the Volcanoe, Mason, surely you are not ignorant upon the Topick?”
“Regretfully, Sir,— ”
“Serpent, Worm, or Dragon, ’tis all the same to It, for It speaketh no Tongue but its own. It Rules this Island, whose ancient Curse and secret Name, is Disobedience. In thoughtless Greed, within a few pitiably brief Generations, have these People devastated a Garden in which, once, anything might grow. Their Muck-heaps ev’rywhere, Disease, Madness. One day, not far distant, with the last leaf of the last Old-Father-Never-Die bush destroy’d, whilst the unremitting Wind carries off the last soil from the last barren Meadow, with nought but other Humans the only Life remaining then to the Island,— how will they take their own last step,— how disobey themselves into Oblivion? Simply die one by one, alone and suspicious, as is the style of the place, till all are done? Or will they rather choose to murder one another, for the joy to be had in that?”
“How soon is this, that we’re talking about?”
“Pray we may be gone by then. We have our own ways of Disobedience,— unless I presume,— express’d in the Motto of Jakob Bernouilli the second,— Invito Patre Sidera Verso,— ‘Against my father’s wishes I study the stars.”’

From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon. The conversation is between Mason and the English Royal Astronomer Nevil Maskelyne; the volcano under discussion is St. Helena.

Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (First Riff)

A. Mason & Dixon: I bought my copy at Shaman Bookstore in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in the fall of 2002. I had just read and absorbed V., but could not get into Mason & Dixon. Chalk up this initial failure to the novel’s daunting scope, the formal characteristics of its faux-18th c. style, too much Thai whiskey, etc. I made attempts again over the years, sporadic ones, small dents, etc., including a half-hearted attempt after reading the book’s sort-of sequel, Against the Day last year. But of course I needed space from/for a big-assed Pynchon novel, so, a year later, I finally commit to Mason & Dixon. I’ve read the first 15 chapters.

B. “against the Day”: The phrase leaps out in the third paragraph of Chapter 13 (p. 125), imploring me to read Mason & Dixon as a prequel of sorts to Against the Day. The themes, motifs, and formal devices of both novels are utterly Pynchonian, of course (he tautologically types): Paranoia, global powers contesting for domination, science, adventure, means and methods of conveyance, dick jokes, ditties, inebriating substances, all manner of rascalism, man’s inhumanity to etc. And condiments!

C. “ketjap”: Against the Day gave us a history of the cult of mayonnaiseMason & Dixon is the ketchup book. (Not really but maybe really).

D. “The Learned English Dog”: We meet this marvelous beast, this talking dog, early in the novel, and he of course reminds me immediately of Pugnax, the loyal and brave companion to the Chums of Chance in Against the Day.

E. “invisible”: Just as in Against the Day, Pynchon sounds the note “invisible” repeatedly to highlight some of the Big Themes of the novel. Mason & Dixon is about The Age of Reason, or about the limitations of The Age of Reason, or about the limitations of even the very conceptualization of an Age of Reason—an age when “Men of Science” like our titular Daring Duo sought to make the invisible—the passage of the stars and time itself—visible, measurable, defined, bordered, colonized, etc.

F. “…please do not come to the Learned English Dog if it’s religious Comfort you’re after. I may be preternatural, but I am not supernatural. ‘Tis the Age of Reason, rrrf? There is ever an Explanation at hand, and no such thing as a Talking Dog,—Talking Dogs belong with Dragons and Unicorns.” Said the Talking Dog.

G. “inconvenience”: The first time I notice the word—another of Pynchon’s signatures—is in Ch. 3 (p. 28). It stands out: A sailor by the name of Fender-Belly Bodine claims that he once sailed on the H.M.S. Inconvenience. The Chums of Chance of course sail the heavens on their airship The Inconvenience. 

H. But again: “inconvenience” (and iterations of the same) thread through Mason & Dixon: Why? What to make of the word? Perhaps—just a perhaps—The Age of Reason is really a rhetorical substitution for The Age of Convenience, the Age of Better Living (For Some Folks) Through Science. Convenience: The application of some kind of method or utility—relies on measurement, on demarcation, on prediction, etc. Convenience, then, perhaps then, as the practical aim of the age of science.

I. And Inconvenience, then, perhaps then, as a disruptive metaphysical force (?).

J. I’ve neglected entirely to remark on the 18th c. style. Maybe another time.

K. Also the songs.

L. But I will, before closing, remark quickly on how much I enjoy how Pynchon riffs on jocular forms—jokes you mean, right?—to compose elements of the narrative. Early on, Dixon tries to tell a joke about “this Jesuit, this Corsican, and this Chinaman” before he’s stopped by a mortified Mason; they return to the joke about a hundred pages later (still no punchline). Globalization is already there.

M. (Also: An extended episode in the Dutch Cape of South Africa riffs repeatedly on the farmer’s daughters joke. No insight at all here—just love how Pynchon uses the joke to move his narrative along).

M. Okay, then: Just a few opening notes, just a little riff, a sketch, some initial ideas. More to come. Loving the book so far.

Tales of Sorcery, invisible Beings, daily efforts to secure Shelter against Demonic Infestation (Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon)

Mason makes quick Head-Turns, to Left and Right, and lowers his Voice. “Whilst you’ve been out rollicking with your Malays and Pygmies, what have you heard of the various sorts of Magick, that they are said to possess?”
Dixon has in fact heard, from an assortment of Companions native to the Dutch Indies. Tales of Sorcery, invisible Beings, daily efforts to secure Shelter against Demonic Infestation.
“They are not as happy, nor as childlike, as they seem,” he tells Mason. “It may content us, as unhappy grown Englishmen, to think that somewhere in the World, Innocence may yet abide,— yet ’tis not among these people. All is struggle,— and all but occasionally in vain.”
Mason cocks his head, trying to suppress a certain Quiver that also gives him away when at Cards,— a bodily Desire to risk all upon a single Trick. “Would you happen to enjoy Entree to this world of Sorcery? I
am anxious as to Protection.”
“A Spell…?” Dixon suggests.
“Emphatickally not a Love-Potion, you understand, no, no, quite the contrary indeed.”
Dixon, to spare himself what might else prove to be Evenings-ful of Complaint, says, “I’ve met people who are said to possess a special Power,— the Balinese Word is Sakti. It has not, however, always been successful against Dutchmen. Would this be a Hate potion, then, that tha require?”
“Well, certainly not Hate. Inconvenient as Love, in its own way,— no, more of an Indifference-Draught, ‘s more what I had in mind. ‘Twould have to be without odor or Taste, and require but a few Drops,—”
“I could have a look about, tho’ ’tis more common here to accept what they happen to offer…?”

From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon.

Grape People and Grain People (Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon)

Mason, having expected some shambling wild Country Fool, remains amiably puzzl’d before the tidied Dixon here presented,— who, for his own part, having despite talk of Oddity expected but another overdress’d London climber, is amus’d at Mason’s nearly invisible Turn-out, all in Snuffs and Buffs and Grays.

Mason is nodding glumly. “I must seem an Ass.”

“If this is as bad as it gets, why I can abide thah’. As long as the Spirits don’t run out.”

“Nor the Wine.”

“Wine.” Dixon is now the one squinting. Mason wonders what he’s done this time. ” ‘Grape or Grain, but ne’er the Twain,’ as me Great- Uncle George observ’d to me more than once,— ‘Vine with Corn, beware the Morn.’ Of the two sorts of drinking Folk this implies, than’ is, Grape People and Grain People, You will now inform rne of Your membership in the Brotherhood of the, eeh, Grape…? and that You seldom, if ever, touch Ale or Spirits, am I correct?”

“Happily so, I should imagine, as, given a finite Supply, there’d be more for each of us, it’s like Jack Sprat, isn’t it.”

“Oh, I’ll drink Wine if I must…?— and now we’re enter’d upon the Topick,— “

“— and as we are in Portsmouth, after all,— there cannot lie too distant some Room where each of us may consult what former Vegetation pleases him?”

Dixon looks outside at the ebbing wintry sunlight. “Nor too early, I guess…?”

“We’re sailing to the Indies,— Heaven knows what’s available on Board, or out there. It may be our last chance for civiliz’d Drink.”

“Sooner we start, the better, in thah’ case…?”

As the day darkens, and the first Flames appear, sometimes reflected as well in Panes of Glass, the sounds of the Stables and the Alleys grow louder, and chimney-smoke perambulates into the Christmastide air. The Room puts on its Evening-Cloak of shifting amber Light, and sinuous Folds of Shadow. Mason and Dixon become aware of a jostling Murmur of Expectancy.

All at once, out of the Murk, a dozen mirror’d Lanthorns have leapt alight together, as into their Glare now strolls a somewhat dishevel’d Norfolk Terrier, with a raffish Gleam in its eye,— whilst from somewhere less illuminate comes a sprightly Overture upon Horn, Clarinet, and Cello, in time to which the Dog steps back and forth in his bright Ambit.

Ask me anything you please,
The Learned English Dog am I,
well-Up on ev’rything from Fleas Unto the King’s Mon-og-am-eye,
Persian Princes, Polish Blintzes, Chinamen’s Geo-mancy,—
Jump-ing Beans or Flying Machines, Just as it suits your Fan-cy.
I quote enough of the Classickal Stuff To set your Ears a-throb,
Work logarith-mick Versed Sines Withal, within me Nob,
– Only nothing Ministerial, please, Or I’m apt to lose m’ Job,
As, the Learned English Dog, to-ni-ight!

There are the usual Requests. Does the Dog know “Where the Bee Sucks”? What is the Integral of One over (Book) d (Book)? Is he married? Dixon notes how his co-Adjutor-to-be seems fallen into a sort of Magnetickal Stupor, as Mesmerites might term it. More than once, Mason looks ready to leap to his feet and blurt something better kept till later in the Evening. At last the Dog recognizes him, tho’ now he is too key’d up to speak with any Coherence. After allowing him to rattle for a full minute, the Dog sighs deeply. “See me later, out in back.”

“It shouldn’t take but a moment,” Mason tells Dixon. “I’ll be all right by myself, if there’s something you’d rather be doing….”

From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon.

A Short Riff on the Inherent Vice Film Trailer


A. It’s likely that if you care about these things you’ve already seen the first full (non-teaser) trailer for Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice.

B. Here is that trailer:


C. What do you think?

D. I think it looks pretty great.

E. Well, I mean, the trailer still has the, I don’t know, rhythms and contours and tropes of, like, quirky indie comedy film trailers—verbal slapstick, slapstick slapstick (I love the bit at 00:27 when the cop knocks Sportello down, but the callback at 1:52 seems like it could squash a punchline), an affected scream, up-tempo soundtrack (although “Don’t Know Much About History” isn’t one of the many, many songs mentioned in the book). But hey, target audience, etc. etc. etc.

F. And I’m sure the target audience here loves to get a taste of Owen Wilson looking vulnerable and sensitive and just very Owen Wilsonish. (I, a target, enjoyed the taste).

G. And apparently Michael K. Williams is in this movie making his Michael K. Williams face.

H. And also: Joanna Newsom is supposedly in the film—both as a character and narrator. She narrates the trailer, but if she’s in it, like, physically, I think I missed that.

I. And we get this:


J. And a New Age cult pizza party, staged in a loose approximation of The Last Supper.

K. And Eric Roberts.

L. And Josh Brolin shouting for pancakes in sloppy Japanese.

M. And guns! Yes, guns in the trailer, audience!

N. And some ass shots to boot, including our man Sportello, prostrate, cowering.

O. I like that the trailer—and I’m guessing the film itself (?)—uses the same neon-noir font that the book did; I thought the cover of Inherent Vice was horrendous, but ultimately made sense.

P. But what I find most fascinating here is how neatly Newsom’s narration sums up the novel’s plot in the first 20 seconds of the trailer, highlighting just how irrelevant the plot is in Pynchon’s novel. Inherent Vice: The Novel eschews plotting in favor of verbal style, mood, and imagery—which makes Paul Thomas Anderson an ideal filmmaker to handle the first (and maybe we should hope only) Pynchon adaptation.

Q. I’m usually pretty wary of film adaptations of big-ell Literature, but Inherent Vice is kind of on the bubble there. It’s a shaggy dog tale, just like the Coen brothers’ classic The Big Lebowski, or Tarantino’s best film Jackie Brown. (When I reviewed the book a few years ago, I brought up Elmore Leonard and Lebowski, along with Chinatown).

R. My big concern is that PTA, like his hero Robert Altman, can get a bit too shaggy. When he’s got a clear trajectory to follow (Boogie NightsPunch Drunk Love), PTA offers up a deep comic complex humanism. But then there’s that fine mess Magnolia. 

S. I loved the last film that Joaquin Phoenix and PTA did together though, 2012’s The Master.

T. And what do we think of Joaquin Phoenix as Doc Sportello? Does he look a little bit, I don’t know, too old? I don’t know. He kind of looks a little bit like a stoned Hugh-Jackman-as-Wolverine here.

U. (That’s not necessarily, like, bad).

V. The trailer makes me want to see the film more than I had wanted to see it before, which was its job, so, like, good trailer, I guess.

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow

[Ed. note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow. Yes, I’ve done this a few times before (see also: George Orwell’s 1984, Melville’s Moby-Dick, Joyce’s Ulysses and Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress) and to be clear, I think some of the one-star reviews of Gravity’s Rainbow make some interesting points–although most of the reviewers seem to be upset over the book’s reputation/status, and attack that (and by extension, postmodernism) instead of attempting to analyze what Pynchon was actually, y’know, trying to do. I’ve preserved the reviewers’ unique styles of punctuation and spelling].

Who put it into Pynchon’s head that he could write?

After reading over one hundred fifty pages, all I could believe was the story set during WWII, but I wasn’t sure.

This is not literature. 

After I finished reading this book twenty years ago, I left it in my apartment building’s laundry room for whomever might be interested in it. The book sat there for months and nobody was interested in it enough to take it home. Finally, it was ruined when a water pipe burst and, I presume, it is now landfill in Staten Island.


There is not an ounce of humanity in this book.  I finally threw it against a wall in disgust.

Pynchon writes liberal, paranoid diatribes against any and all institutions, especially conservative ones 

I felt empty and used.

I’ve been told the nominating committee (made up mostly of book reviewers) nominated this for the Pulitzer Prize as best fiction. The awards committee (mostly book editors) rejected it as an unreadable piece of crap. I agree with the editors.

This book’s failings are in part a function of it’s time — the early 70’s – when culture was naively experimental, half-baked, vulgar, and exhibitionist.

When one contrasts Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five with this book, it’s like comparing an Olympic sprinter with an obese man running for the bus with a hot dog in one hand and a soda in the other.

I honestly preferred J.G. Ballard’s Crash to this book.

It seems to me it’s very easy to be “a literary master” in this way. It’s much more difficult to write something very clear and simple that people can easily understand (and yet still be profound and say something new).

Woody Allen used to be funny. Monty Python was occasionally funny. 

Any author who uses “further” for “farther” (as Pynchon does, among many other errors) should never make anyone’s “best novelist” list.

To this reader, Pynchon sounds like the unabomber with a better thesaurus. 

One of those books that professors are constantly forcing students to read because the novelist can’t attract a following on his own merits and ability to entertain. 

I only finished it beacuse I was on jury duty. 

I thought this novel was a complete waste of my time and it amazes me to hear so many praise what I think was paranoid and resembles silly cult literature. My father had a book back in the fifties sponsored by an extreme right wing group that was equally paranoid and absurd.

Pynchon couldn’t write anything funny if his life depended upon it.

Pynchon is like a high school football bully who says “Okay, I’m gonna trow da ball as hard as I can–you see if you can catch it”. No thanks Spike.

I mean, even the first page of this book offends my sensibilities.

An entire novel centered on the unrealistic, flimsy idea that a man getting erections will attract missiles? Some missiles may be heat seaking but the temperature of blood found in the groin during erections is no longer near the degree it takes to attract heat seaking weaponry. Get your facts right, Pynchon. A scientist you ain’t.

Reminds me of John Coltrane’s Ascension album, which for the entire album sounds like the band is warming up but never gets to play, but the elitist snobs just adore it.

A good argument for a good old fashioned book burning. 

The majority of this book consists of sentence after sentence and paragraph after paragraph that don’t have any apparent correlation to each other.

wow, all the hard work that this man put in just to bore me! the effort alone is worth a star. gallant attempt mr pynchon.

This is one of those “university novels” (as opposed to “popular” novels that people actually read and love) that “you have to work hard at to appreciate”. 

It’s like viewing a `painting’ of a blank canvas titled Untitled. 

I lived in Germany a few years ago and found this book in a train station. Someone had just walked off and left it. After about ten pages, realizing that Pynchon was an intellectual rip-off artist, I secured it a trash can where no one could find it. I like to think I protect the public from pollution.

Maybe it’s entertaining if you take huge quantities of lsd, otherwise it’s a nightmare. 

It is terrible.

I cannot summarize the story, because I couldnt find one.

obviously written by some self-loving, over-indulged, hippie.

I tend to lump this book in with the rest of the general malaise surrounding the innate nihilism of Postmodernism. 

This book makes me a little sad, because I think that Pynchon, had he not gone over to the dark side, could have been a brilliant prose stylist, if not anything else.

feels like being flayed alive by words alone. I wanted to stab myself in the head just to relieve the pain.

This is like Ulysses. 

Add a star if you enjoy constant reference to penises and vulva and all kinds of deviant sex acts.

I should sue the author for migraine.

To sum it up: it is too much work to read this book.

Happy Birthday Mr. Pynchon

Happy Birthday to Thomas Pynchon, who turns lucky 77 today.

Portrait of Thomas Pynchon, James Jean

“The Whole Sick Crew,” George Plimpton on Pynchon’s V.

Captain Geoffrey “Pirate” Prentice’s bodacious banana breakfast for a bunch of hung over army officers (Gravity’s Rainbow)

Routine: plug in American blending machine won from some Yank last summer, some poker game, table stakes, B.O.Q. somewhere in the north, never remember now….Chop several bananas into pieces. Make coffee in urn. Get can of milk from cooler. Puree ‘nanas in milk. Lovely. I would coat all the booze-corroded stomachs of England. . . . Bit of marge, still smells all right, melt in the skillet. Peel more bananas, slice lengthwise. Marge sizzling, in go long slices. Light oven whoomp blow us all up someday oh, ha, ha, yes. Peeled whole bananas to go on broiler grill soon as it heats. Find marshmallows. . . .

Silly CNN report on Pynchon:

Louis Menand reviews Mason & Dixon

Wingnuts (The Crying of Lot 49):

“You one of those right wing nut outfits?” inquired the diplomatic Metzger.
Fallopian twinkled. “They accuse us of being paranoids.”
“They?” inquired Metzger, twinkling also.
“Us?” asked Oedipa.

List of Possible Descriptors for Against the Day

Pynchon on Barthelme

My review of Inherent Vice

The Crocodile, a traditional anarchist cocktail:

“I’ll be in the bar,” said Reef. Yzles-Bains was in fact one of the few places on the continent of Europe where a sober Anarchist could find a decent Crocodile—equal amounts of rum, absinthe, and the grape spirits known as trois-six—a traditional Anarchist favorite, which Loïc the bartender, a veteran of the Paris Commune, claimed to have been present at the invention of.


Harold Bloom’s disappointment with Vineland:

Our most distinguished living writer of narrative fiction—I don’t think you would quite call him a novelist—is Thomas Pynchon, and yet that recent book Vineland was a total disaster. In fact, I cannot think of a comparable disaster in modern American fiction. To have written the great story of Byron the lightbulb in Gravity’s Rainbow, to have written The Crying of Lot 49 and then to give us this piece of sheer ineptitude, this hopelessly hollow book that I read through in amazement and disbelief, and which has not got in it a redeeming sentence, hardly a redeeming phrase, is immensely disheartening.

Proverbs for Paranoids (from Gravity’s Rainbow):

1. You may never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures.
2. The innocence of the creatures is in inverse proportion to the immorality of the Master.
3. If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.
4. You hide, they seek.
5. Paranoids are not paranoid because they’re paranoid, but because they keep putting themselves, fucking idiots, deliberately into paranoid situations.

Pynchon Dolls


Pynchon Cover Gallery

Is It O.K. To Be A Luddite?”

 Don DeLillo on Pynchon:

“Somebody quoted Norman Mailer as saying that he wasn’t a better writer because his contemporaries weren’t better…I don’t know whether he really said that or not, but the point I want to make is that no one in Pynchon’s generation can make that statement. If we’re not as good as we should be it’s not because there isn’t a standard. And I think Pynchon, more than any other writer, has set the standard. He’s raised the stakes.”

I read Against the Day last summer and riffed the hell out of it

Pynchon on sloth

Anarchists’ golf (Against the Day):

THE NEXT DAY Reef, Cyprian, and Ratty were out on the Anarchists’ golf course, during a round of Anarchists’ Golf, a craze currently sweeping the civilized world, in which there was no fixed sequence—in fact, no fixed number—of holes, with distances flexible as well, some holes being only putter-distance apart, others uncounted hundreds of yards and requiring a map and compass to locate. Many players had been known to come there at night and dig new ones. Parties were likely to ask, “Do you mind if we don’t play through?” then just go and whack balls at any time and in any direction they liked. Folks were constantly being beaned by approach shots barreling in from unexpected quarters. “This is kind of fun,” Reef said, as an ancient brambled guttie went whizzing by, centimeters from his ear.

Watch This Terrible Book Trailer for Thomas Pynchon’s New Novel Bleeding Edge (Or Don’t)

I don’t know, I’m guessing this is intentionally awful. I mean, book trailers are supposed to be awful, right?

List of Possible Descriptors for Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Against the Day

  1. Study of light and non-light
  2. Byzantine mosaic
  3. Codex of visible and invisible
  4. Musical comedy
  5. Daffy
  6. Anarchist golf
  7. Photograph—the posing of, the taking of, the development of, the product of, the negative of, the future of, the past of, the continuous present of, the potential of…
  8. Revenge story
  9. Spy game
  10. Study of physical and metaphysical
  11. Likely too long for most readers
  12. Advent of modernity
  13. Kaleidoscopic
  14. Alternate history of labor unions
  15. Math discussion
  16. Alternate reality exercises
  17. Invisible portraits, invisible landscapes
  18. Epic romance
  19. Flight log
  20. Hat fetishes
  21. Overstuffed
  22. Hallucinogenic
  23. Endless digression
  24. Maps and legends
  25. Underappreciated
  26. Flaneur’s game
  27. International intrigue
  28. Love story
  29. Lust story
  30. Series of ever-changing vectors
  31. Polyglossic carnival
  32. Sprawling
  33. Doppelgangers and the women who love them
  34. Vaudeville routine
  35. Infinite jest
  36. Over the sky, under the desert, into the center of the earth
  37. Boys’ adventure story
  38. Girls’ adventure story
  39. Post-Victorian sci-fi
  40. Acronyms!
  41. Zingers
  42. Mayonnaise history
  43. Magic trick
  44. Exiles
  45. Time travel calisthenics
  46. Art history
  47. Stamp collection
  48. Lumpy
  49. Like a surreal version of the game of Risk
  50. Genre mash-up
  51. Dream factory
  52. Gilded Age fallout
  53. Unwieldy
  54. Sentimental
  55. Ironic
  56. Holy Grail quest
  57. Whatever word is the most intense and accurate opposite of sparse
  58. Robber barons and the men who hate them
  59. Ever bilocating plot lines unfolding and retangling in the direction of increasing entropy
  60. Pulp fiction
  61. Invisible ink
  62. Flip side of a tapestry, its ragged threads exposed
  63. Salad of utopian visions
  64. Confusing
  65. Vision through Iceland spar
  66. Critique of capitalism
  67. Disappearing act
  68. Polyphonic spree
  69. Moving pictures
  70. Deconstruction of family values
  71. Drunken cavalcade of dick jokes
  72. Rage against the machine
  73. Time travelogue
  74. All-you-can-think
  75. Anti-war tract
  76. Explosions!
  77. Seance
  78. Shaggy ______________
  79. Critique of oligarchy
  80. Jazz improvisation
  81. Polyamory-positive
  82. Coffee-positive
  83. Meta-something-or-other
  84. Cricket with no scorekeeper
  85. 1,085 pages in hardback
  86. Often fuzzy, bilocated, discursive—full of flashforwards and flashbacks and side flashes
  87. Sexy sex sex
  88. Funhouse maze with smoke and mirrors
  89. High adventure
  90. Dictionary of mysticism
  91. Scathing analysis of Manifest Destiny
  92. Simultaneously heavy and light, profound and sophomoric
  93. “What It Means to Be an American”
  94. Goofy
  95. Drug manual
  96. Positive visions of the possibilities for human coexistence
  97. Index of wonderfully bad puns
  98. Perpetual motion machine
  99. Spiralling and unspiralling riffage
  100. A zillion dime novels turned on their ears and spines and just spinning
  101. Flight toward grace