Read “Entropy,” a short story by Thomas Pynchon

“Entropy”

by

Thomas Pynchon

Boris has just given me a summary of his views. He is weather prophet. The weather will continue bad, he says. There will be more calamities, more death, more despair. Not the slightest indication of a change anywhere…. We must get into step, a lockstep toward the prison of death. There is no escape. The weather will not change. – Tropic of Cancer

Downstairs, Meatball Mulligan’s lease-breaking party was moving into its 40th hour. On the kitchen floor, amid a litter of empty champagne fifths, were Sandor Rojas and three friends, playing spit in the ocean and staying awake on Heidseck and benzedrine pills. In the living room Duke, Vincent, Krinkles and Paco sat crouched over a 15-inch speaker which had been bolted into the top of a wastepaper basket, listening to 27 watts’ worth of The Heroes’ Gate at Kiev. They all wore hornrimmed sunglasses and rapt expressions, and smoked funny-looking cigarettes which contained not, as you might expect, tobacco, but an adulterated form of cannabis sativa. This group was the Duke di Angelis quartet. They recorded for a local label called Tambú and had to their credit one 10″ LP entitled Songs of Outer Space. From time to time one of them would flick the ashes from his cigarette into the speaker cone to watch them dance around. Meatball himself was sleeping over by the window, holding an empty magnum to his chest as if it were a teddy bear. Several government girls, who worked for people like the State Department and NSA, had passed out on couches, chairs and in one case the bathroom sink.

This was in early February of’57 and back then there were a lot of American expatriates around Washington, D.C., who would talk, every time they met you, about how someday they were going to go over to Europe for real but right now it seemed they were working for the government. Everyone saw a fine irony in this. They would stage, for instance, polyglot parties where the newcomer was sort of ignored if he couldn’t carry on simultaneous conversations in three or four languages. They would haunt Armenian delicatessens for weeks at a stretch and invite you over for bulghour and lamb in tiny kitchens whose walls were covered with bullfight posters. They would have affairs with sultry girls from Andalucía or the Midi who studied economics at Georgetown. Their Dôme was a collegiate Rathskeller out Wisconsin Avenue called the Old Heidelberg and they had to settle for cherry blossoms instead of lime trees when spring came, but in its lethargic way their life provided, as they said, kicks.

At the moment, Meatball’s party seemed to be gathering its second wind. Outside there was rain. Rain splatted against the tar paper on the roof and was fractured into a fine spray off the noses, eyebrows and lips of wooden gargoyles under the eaves, and ran like drool down the windowpanes. The day before, it had snowed and the day before that there had been winds of gale force and before that the sun had made the city glitter bright as April, though the calendar read early February. It is a curious season in Washington, this false spring. Somewhere in it are Lincoln’s Birthday and the Chinese New Year, and a forlornness in the streets because cherry blossoms are weeks away still and, as Sarah Vaughan has put it, spring will be a little late this year. Generally crowds like the one which would gather in the Old Heidelberg on weekday afternoons to drink Würtzburger and to sing Lili Marlene (not to mention The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi) are inevitably and incorrigibly Romantic. And as every good Romantic knows, the soul (spiritus, ruach, pneuma) is nothing, substantially, but air; it is only natural that warpings in the atmosphere should be recapitulated in those who breathe it. So that over and above the public components—holidays, tourist attractions—there are private meanderings, linked to the climate as if this spell were a stretto passage in the year’s fugue: haphazard weather, aimless loves, unpredicted commitments: months one can easily spend in fugue*, because oddly enough, later on winds, rains, passions of February and March are never remembered in that city, it is as if they had never been.

Read the rest of “Entropy” online here—alongside a Spanish translation and explanatory notes—or read it in the collection of early Pynchon shorties Slow Learner.

A (probably incomplete) list of films mentioned in Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice

Below: A (probably incomplete) list of films mentioned in Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice.

I’ve listed them in the order in which they show up, and also in the editorial style in which they appear—initially, Pynchon separates the release year with a comma or doesn’t give a year at all, before settling on parenthetical citations—with the one quirk of A Summer Place—its year is indicated in brackets. Obviously this inconsistency is actually some kind of super-meaningful clue, a key that will unlock any unresolved mysteries of Inherent Vice—right?

Black Narcissus, 1947

Caligari

Metropolis

Dr. No, 1962

Now, Voyager (1942)

Fort Apache (1948)

He Ran All the Way (1951)

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)

Roman Holiday (1953)

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Vertigo (1958)

The Big Bounce (1969)

Champion (1949)

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

A Summer Place [1959]

The Sea Wolf (1941)

Little Miss Broadway (1938)

Paranoia Alert (Inherent Vice)

paranoia alert

The true paranoid for whom all is organized in spheres joyful or threatening (Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49)

“Please,” the sailor said. “Go on now. You don’t want to stay here.” She looked in her purse, found a ten and a single, gave him the ten. “I’ll spend it on booze,” he said.
“Remember your friends,” said the arthritic, watching the ten.
“Bitch,” said the sailor. “Why didn’t you wait till he was gone?”
Oedipa watched him make adjustments so he’d fit easier against the mattress. That stuffed memory. Register A . . .
“Give me a cigarette, Ramírez,” the sailor said. “I know you got one.”
Would it be today? “Ramírez,” she cried. The arthritic looked around on his rusty neck. “He’s going to die,” she said.
“Who isn’t?” said Ramírez.
She remembered John Nefastis, talking about his Machine, and massive destructions of information. So when this mattress flared up around the sailor, in his Viking’s funeral: the stored, coded years of uselessness, early death, self-harrowing, the sure decay of hope, the set of all men who had slept on it, whatever their lives had been, would truly cease to be, forever, when the mattress burned. She stared at it in wonder. It was as if she had just discovered the irreversible process. It astonished her to think that so much could be lost, even the quantity of hallucination belonging just to the sailor that the world would bear no further trace of. She knew, because she had held him, that he suffered DT’s. Behind the initials was a metaphor, a delirium tremens, a trembling unfurrowing of the mind’s plowshare. The saint whose water can light lamps, the clairvoyant whose lapse in recall is the breath of God, the true paranoid for whom all is organized in spheres joyful or threatening about the central pulse of himself, the dreamer whose puns probe ancient fetid shafts and tunnels of truth all act in the same special relevance to the word, or whatever it is the word is there, buffering, to protect us from. The act of metaphor then was a thrust at truth and a lie, depending where you were: inside, safe, or outside, lost. Oedipa did not know where she was. Trembling, unfurrowed, she slipped sidewise, screeching back across grooves of years, to hear again the earnest, high voice of her second or third collegiate love Ray Glozing bitching among “uhs” and the syncopated tonguing of a cavity, about his freshman calculus; “dt,” God help this old tattooed man, meant also a time differential, a vanishingly small instant in which change had to be confronted at last for what it was, where it could no longer disguise itself as something innocuous like an average rate; where velocity dwelled in the projectile though the projectile be frozen in midflight, where death dwelled in the cell though the cell be looked in on at its most quick. She knew that the sailor had seen worlds no other man had seen if only because there was that high magic to low puns, because DT’s must give access to dt’s of spectra beyond the known sun, music made purely of Antarctic loneliness and fright. But nothing she knew of would preserve them, or him.

From Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49.

To give the spirit flesh. The words, who cares? (Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49)

“You don’t understand,” getting mad. “You guys, you’re like Puritans are about the Bible. So hung up with words, words. You know where that play exists, not in that file cabinet, not in any paperback you’re looking for, but—” a hand emerged from the veil of shower-steam to indicate his suspended head—“in here. That’s what I’m for. To give the spirit flesh. The words, who cares? They’re rote noises to hold line bashes with, to get past the bone barriers around an actor’s memory, right? But the reality is in this head. Mine. I’m the projector at the planetarium, all the closed little universe visible in the circle of that stage is coming out of my mouth, eyes, sometimes other orifices also.”

A favorite little riff from Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49.

I review my review of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice an hour before seeing PTA’s film adaptation

I’m leaving to (finally) see Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Inherent Vice in a few minutes.

I’m going with my uncle. (I also saw No Country for Old Men with him in the theater. This point seems hardly worth these parentheses).

Below, in block quotes, is my review of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice (which I published here—the review obviously—in 2009). My 2015 comments are interposed.

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Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel, Inherent Vice

Oh god I used to bold face key terms jesus christ sorry.

is a detective-fiction genre exercise/parody set in a cartoonish, madcap circa-1970 L.A. redolent with marijuana smoke, patchouli, and paranoia.

“genre exercise”…”madcap”…ugh!

Navigating this druggy haze is private detective Doc Sportello, who, at the behest of his ex-girlfriend, searches for a missing billionaire in a plot tangled up with surfers, junkies, rock bands, New Age cults, the FBI, and a mysterious syndicate known as the Golden Fang–and that’s not even half of it.

Not a bad little summary, bro.

At a mere 369 pages, Inherent Vice is considerably shorter than Pynchon’s last novel Against the Day, not to mention his masterpieces Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon, and while it might not weigh in with those novels, it does bear plenty of the same Pynchonian trademarks: a strong picaresque bent, a mix of high and low culture, plenty of pop culture references, random sex, scat jokes, characters with silly names (too many to keep track of, of course), original songs, paranoia, paranoia, paranoia, and a central irreverence that borders on disregard for the reader.

Uh…

And like Pynchon’s other works, Inherent Vice is a parody, a take on detective noir, but also a lovely little rip on the sort of novels that populate beaches and airport bookstores all over the world. It’s also a send-up of L.A. stories and drug novels, and really a hate/love letter to the “psychedelic 60s” (to use Sportello’s term), with much in common with Pynchon’s own Vineland (although comparisons to Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, The Big Lebowski and even Chinatown wouldn’t be out of place either).

When I heard the PTA was adapting Inherent Vice, I thought: Wait, the Coens already did that before Pynchon wrote the book.

While most of Inherent Vice reverberates with zany goofiness and cheap thrills,

Clichés, bro.

Pynchon also uses the novel as a kind of cultural critique, proposing that modern America begins at the end of the sixties (the specter of the Manson family, the ultimate outsiders, haunts the book). The irony, of course–and undoubtedly it is purposeful irony–is that Pynchon has made similar arguments before: Gravity’s Rainbow locates the end of WWII as the beginning of modern America; the misadventures of the eponymous heroes of Mason & Dixon foreground an emerging American mythology; V. situates American place against the rise of a globally interdependent world.

Uh…

If Inherent Vice works in an idiom of nostalgia, it also works to undermine and puncture that nostalgia. Feeling a little melancholy, Doc remarks on the paradox underlying the sixties that “you lived in a climate of unquestioning hippie belief, pretending to trust everybody while always expecting be sold out.” In one of the novel’s most salient passages–one that has nothing to do with the plot, of course–Doc watches a music store where “in every window . . . appeared a hippie freak or a small party of hippie freaks, each listening on headphones to a different rock ‘n’ roll album and moving around at a different rhythm.” Doc’s reaction to this scene is remarkably prescient:

. . . Doc was used to outdoor concerts where thousands of people congregated to listen to music for free, and where it all got sort of blended together into a single public self, because everybody was having the same experience. But here, each person was listening in solitude, confinement and mutual silence, and some of them later at the register would actually be spending money to hear rock ‘n’ roll. It seemed to Doc like some strange kind of dues or payback. More and more lately he’d been brooding about this great collective dream that everybody was being encouraged to stay tripping around in. Only now and then would you get an unplanned glimpse at the other side.

Oh cool you finally quoted from the book. Not a bad little riff.

If Doc’s tone is elegiac, the novel’s discourse works to undercut it, highlighting not so much the “great collective dream” of “a single public self,” but rather pointing out that not only was such a dream inherently false, an inherent vice, but also that this illusion came at a great price–one that people are perhaps paying even today. Doc’s take on the emerging postmodern culture is ironized elsewhere in one of the book’s more interesting subplots involving the earliest version of the internet. When Doc’s tech-savvy former mentor hips him to some info from ARPANET – “I swear it’s like acid,” he claims – Doc responds dubiously that “they outlawed acid as soon as they found out it was a channel to somethin they didn’t want us to see? Why should information be any different?” Doc’s paranoia (and if you smoked a hundred joints a day, you’d be paranoid too) might be a survival trait, but it also sometimes leads to this kind of shortsightedness.

Will PTA’s film convey the ironies I found here? Or were the ironies even there?

Intrinsic ironies aside, Inherent Vice can be read straightforward as a (not-so-straightforward) detective novel, living up to the promise of its cheesy cover. Honoring the genre, Pynchon writes more economically than ever, and injects plenty of action to keep up the pace in his narrative. It’s a page-turner, whatever that means, and while it’s not exactly Pynchon-lite, it’s hardly a heavy-hitter, nor does it aspire to be.

I’m not sure if I believe any of that, bro. Did I believe it even when I wrote it? It’s a shaggy dog story, and shaggy dogs unravel, or tangle, rather—they don’t weave into a big clear picture. And maybe it is a heavy hitter. (Heavy one-hitter).

At the same time, Pynchon fans are going to find plenty to dissect in this parody, and should not be disappointed with IV‘s more limited scope (don’t worry, there’s no restraint here folks–and who are we kidding, Pynchon is more or less critic-proof at this point in his career, isn’t he?). Inherent Vice is good dirty fun, a book that can be appreciated on any of several different levels, depending on “where you’re at,” as the hippies in the book like to say. Recommended.

Oh geez.

Okay, I should write more but my uncle says it’s time to roll.

Reading/Have Read/Should Write About

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The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

After a few false starts over the last decade, I finally submerged myself in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon in those bourbon-soaked weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year. I read the book as a sort of sequel to the book Pynchon wrote after it, Against the Daysimply because I read Against the Day in 2013, before M&D. Both books are excellent, and seem to me more achieved in their vision than Inherent Vice or V or Vineland. The obvious comparison point for the pair though is Pynchon’s other big book (and, by reputation, his Big Book) Gravity’s Rainbow which I haven’t read since my freshman year of college—which is almost the same as not having read it at all. I intend to read it later this year (or maybe earlier?), but I also haven’t read The Crying of Lot 49 since my undergrad days either (which is to say, like, coming up on twenty years jesus). I’m about half way through and not zapped by it really—there are some funny jokes, but it’s just not as rich as Mason & Dixon or Against the Day (which is not meant to be a complaint, just an observation. And while I’m observing stuff parenthetically: What most bothers my attention most as I read are the reminders of David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System, which I have reread more recently than TCoL49).

Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles (collected in My Sister’s Hand in Mine)

What to say about Jane Bowles’s only novel? It goes: Propelled on its own sinister energy it goes, its vignettes flowing (or jerking or shifting or pitching wildly or dipping or soaring or sneaking) into each other with wonderfully dark comic force. I’ve sketched a full review I hope to be able to write, but for now let me excerpt a paragraph from Negar Azimi’s essay “The Madness of Queen Jane” from last summer in The New Yorker:

When it was first published, in 1943, “Two Serious Ladies” received lukewarm, even baffled, reviews. Edith Walton, writing in the Times Book Review, called the book senseless and silly: “To attempt to unravel the plot of ‘Two Serious Ladies’ would be to risk, I am sure, one’s own sanity.” Another reviewer said, simply, “The book is about nothing.” Jane’s family, in the meantime, found it unseemly in its stark depiction of lesbianism. Its characters, who have goals and motivations that are hard to grasp, were difficult to relate to. Yet another critic wrote, “The only shocking thing about this novel is that it ever managed to find its way to print.” Jane was only twenty-four.

Wharton’s line should intrigue, not repel readers. And: “The book is about nothing” — well, okay, that’s completely untrue—the book is about women searching for something, but something they can’t name, can’t conceive in language but can perhaps imagine. These women are on the brink of all those things one can be brinked upon: abysses, madness, abysses of madness, etc. But: “The book is about nothing” — well, okay, Two Serious Ladies resists unfolding in the way in which we expect narratives to be about something—Bowles withholds exposition, clarification, and motivation—well, okay, not withholds, but rather hides, or obscures, or enshadows.

I don’t have the verbs for this book.

But I loved reading it, feeling estranged from it while simultaneously invited into its darkness, bewildered by its transpositions, as Jane Bowles moves her verbal camera from one character to another—Wait, what? Okay, I guess we’re going over here now?!—its picaresque energy a strange dark joy. More to come.

William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion, a collection of essays edited by Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes

I’ve been dipping into this kind of at random, but it’s very rewarding, and I think it would make a surprisingly good introduction to Vollmann. To be clear, academic criticism is never a substitute for, y’know, reading the author’s actual texts, the range here covers voluminous Vollmann. And look, I’ll be honest, I’ll probably never read Argall, so I very much appreciated Buell Wisner situating it for me in his essay. One of the treats of this book is how an academic essay like Wisner’s—a well-researched close reading with 64 reference notes—is followed by a reflective and informal piece by Carla Bolte on designing Vollmann’s books (“Bill’s books are not for everyone. We all know that,” she offers at one point). Good stuff, more to come.

Dockwood by Jon McNaught

I owe this marvelous book a proper review. Dockwood is a kind of visual prose-poem, tranquil, meditative, autumnal. The book is its own total aesthetic; McNaught uses color and form to evoke feeling here, with minimal, unobtrusive dialogue that functions more as ambiance than exposition. Lovely.

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Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon

[Ed. note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon—which I loved. (See also: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s RainbowGeorge Orwell’s 1984, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, James Joyce’s Ulysses and David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress). I’ve preserved the reviewers’ own styles of punctuation and spelling].

What crap.

A talking dog?

I made a mistake.

Dialogue that is meaningless?

But what is the point of this story?

Pynchon is simply messing around

I can’t believe I read the whole thing.

I guess there’s no accounting for taste.

Rarely have I anticipated a book so hungrily.

Lost me at the talking dog, and never recovered.

I’ve also seen Pynchon praised for his erudition.

You think a talking dog or mechanical duck is funny?

Supposedly it’s a literary adventure through the 18th century

George Washington smoking pot and getting the munchies?

I consider my myself a reader who relishes literary challenges.

I am a reader who enjoys being bluntly told what the author thinks

The only book I’ve ever read that was a complete waste of time !

just an endless series of unconnected and unrelated ramblings…

Yes, it was a different world back then, and people talked funny (to our ear).

The publisher should have left the trees to grow rather than putting this in print.

I had to finish it – but resorted to scanning the text for references to my 7th great grandfather.

Pynchon is like strolling through a garbage dump full of meaningless, forgotten pop culture relics.

Wow, I give up on Mr. Pynchon who apparently has some intergalactic literary insights well above my head.

Regretfully, I’ll need to wait for the english language translation before properly assessing this novel’s merits.

Thomas Pynchon surely must have been smoking something more powerful than plain tobacco when he wrote this debacle…

I admit to approaching this book with a great deal of reverence, along with guilt for never having attempted either “V” or “Gravity’s Rainbow.”

Mr.Pynchon may be considered one of today’s great writers by the cosmopolitan literati, but this provencial reader found his work to be a 773 page morass of archaic vernacular with no particular point.

I would like to assert, however, as one who has read quite deeply in English prose of the last 400 years, that the much-praised “18th-century English” is nothing like, being full of anachronisms and lapses of decorum.

Pynchon doesn’t descibe. He makes lists of objects, as if the acculation of things or people surrounding the characters is enough to create some semblance of reality, or alternate reality, or hyperreality or whatever.

I am in the vast minority, obviously, who “didn’t get it.” Some times I wonder if reviewers, too “didn’t get it” but were afraid to say so, because this conglomeration of words is just that – a pointless, incomprehensible waste of trees.

My Tedium never Ceases, yet have I only Dredged thru half of this Tome. My eyes grow Tir’d and my Thoughts grow more hateful towards this Author. History is barely Reveal’d and the style has Vex’d me thru and thru. Hemp smoking Franklin? Confus’d and Stupid Astronomers? Half the book not spent in the country of interest? Yet I plod on, making a use of this Fantastique tale, to knaw away at the Minutes spent in the loo. Wouldst it be quite the thing, if only the Paper t’was softer, I can then make of it a Cleansing Agent for my Posterior once Finished with each page.

It was evidently written for a limited audience–people who can actually read eighteenth century style prose and who still find jokes about “not inhaling” to be amusing.

Pynchon’s style is clotted, mannered, meretricious and UNpoetic in the extreme. Indeed, I think much of the book, in word and matter, is a stale exercise in collecting academic trivia and faddish modern-day truisms about the period.

To be sure, there is some real history reported, but there is also much nonsense and fakery–the first pizza, golems–and interminable, leaden dialogues that could never have taken place.

Really Pynchon was just showing off his “imagination” with endless derails, whimsical characters that didn’t figure into the story at all, and stupid jokes bathed in obscure jargon.

If you like rambling verbiage that not only obstructs but obliterates the point, you’ll love this author, whose neurotic word dribblings are gnosticed by critics to be visionary insights.

For all the scribblings in this book’s 800 some pages, 90% of it just feels like hot air lacking any real message or content.

One could read this book from front to back, back to front, or from the middle both ways and not be able to tell the difference..

I love sentimental literature but I couldn’t for the life of me see much connection between Pynchon’s writings and the major works of the 18th century.

I challenge any fan to give even one insight about life or the universe that they gleaned from Mason and Dixon..

Just because the gags are about the hollow earth theory does not make them any more than just gags.

The reader is presented with one choppy chapter after another, often with little or no context.

The book is a mess and sorely needed a large pair of scissors to trim out the inane chatter.

Thers’s an old phrase about good writing: show, don’t tell. Phynchon don’t show nothun’.

For years Pynchon has intrigued me as being one of the “bosses” of modern literature.

There’s no sense of place, no compelling plotline. The characterization is merely O.K.

Pynchon is all over the map willy nilly throwing out anything that diverts his attention.

In what way was this an homage, parody, or imitation of 18th century literature?

If Thomas Pynchon has a plot or a story line, he surely has hidden it very well..

To this day I do not know what the book was about and what was going on.

The overall scheme of the novel is stupid and amateurish.

Too hard to read for this master’s degree English teacher.

Hundreds of unrelated and disconnected characters too..

Some as ridiculous as a talking dog, and a robot duck…

This book is a waste of time and paper.

What is all this supposed to mean?

Honestly, this book is just annoying.

The first pizza made in England?

Clearly, the fault is mine.

Wicks Cherrycoke?

Big @#$%ing deal.

Musical Duet Summary of Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon in Two Stanzas

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From Ch. 77 of Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. I love the elision expressed in those dashes — “I say, was that–” — I say, was that a talking dog? I say, was that were-beaver? I say, was that a giant cannabis plant? I say, was that a Sino-Jesuit cabal? I say, was that the Lost Tribe of Israel? I say, was that the missing 11 days, and the Asiatick Pygmies who inhabit them? I say, was that a mechanical duck, looking for love? I say, was that an electric eel? I say, was that a recipe for catsup? I say, was that the first English pizza? I say, was that The Black Dog? I say, was that an iron bathtub? I say, was that a ridotto of inflamed debauchery? I say, was that a Masonic conspiracy? I say, was that the metaphysical wind? I say, was that a dead wife’s ghost? I say, was that a friendship? I say!

Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (Third Riff: The Rabbi of Prague)

A. I’m a few chapters–three, precisely—from finishing Mason & Dixon. “Finishing” is not the right verb here, though—Pynchon’s novel is so rich, funny, strange, and energetic that I want to return to it immediately.

B. But I need to backtrack a bit, riff on one of my favorite episodes—Chapter 50.

C. (First riff and second riff for those inclined).

D. In Chapter 50,

’tis Dixon’s luck to discover The Rabbi of Prague, headquarters of a Kabbalistick Faith, in Correspondence with the Elect Cohens of Paris, whose private Salute they now greet Dixon with, the Fingers spread two and two, and the Thumb held away from them likewise, said to represent the Hebrew letter Shin and to signify, “Live long and prosper.”

Pynchon plays here on the reader’s initial understanding of the signal and phrase as a pop culture reference—

 

 

—but the goof isn’t merely postmodernist shtick—Pynchon is pointing to how the invisible manifests itself in signs and wonders, covert, cryptic, but perhaps—perhaps—decipherable.

E. (Maybe this needs clarification: The Rabbi of Prague is a tavern. I lost track of how many bars taverns pubs inns alehouses coffeehouses etc. show up in M&D). Read More

Doubt is of the essence of Christ (Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon)

The Ascent to Christ is a struggle thro’ one heresy after another, River-wise up-country into a proliferation of Sects and Sects branching from Sects, unto Deism, faithless pretending to be holy, and beyond,— ever away from the Sea, from the Harbor, from all that was serene and certain, into an Interior unmapp’d, a Realm of Doubt. The Nights. The Storms and Beasts. The Falls, the Rapids, . . . the America of the Soul.
Doubt is of the essence of Christ. Of the twelve Apostles, most true to him was ever Thomas,— indeed, in the Acta Thomæ they are said to be Twins. The final pure Christ is pure uncertainty. He is become the central subjunctive fact of a Faith, that risks ev’rything upon one bodily Resurrection. . . . Wouldn’t something less doubtable have done? a prophetic dream, a communication with a dead person? Some few tatters of evidence to wrap our poor naked spirits against the coldness of a World where Mortality and its Agents may bully their way, wherever they wish to go. . . .

— The Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke, Undeliver’d Sermons

Preface to Ch. 53 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon.

Vineland (Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon)

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From the beginning of ch. 66 of Mason & Dixon; see also.

A Mason & Dixon Christmastide (Thomas Pynchon)

They discharge the Hands and leave off for the Winter. At Christmastide, the Tavern down the Road from Harlands’ opens its doors, and soon ev’ryone has come inside. Candles beam ev’rywhere. The Surveyors, knowing this year they’ll soon again be heading off in different Directions into America, stand nodding at each other across a Punch-bowl as big as a Bathing-Tub. The Punch is a secret Receipt of the Landlord, including but not limited to peach brandy, locally distill’d Whiskey, and milk. A raft of long Icicles broken from the Eaves floats upon the pale contents of the great rustick Monteith. Everyone’s been exchanging gifts. Somewhere in the coming and going one of the Children is learning to play a metal whistle. Best gowns rustle along the board walls. Adults hold Babies aloft, exclaiming, “The little Sausage!” and pretending to eat them. There are popp’d Corn, green Tomato Mince Pies, pickl’d Oysters, Chestnut Soup, and Kidney Pudding. Mason gives Dixon a Hat, with a metallick Aqua Feather, which Dixon is wearing. Dixon gives Mason a Claret Jug of silver, crafted in Philadelphia. There are Conestoga Cigars for Mr. Harland and a Length of contraband Osnabrigs for Mrs. H. The Children get Sweets from a Philadelphia English-shop, both adults being drawn into prolong’d Negotiations with their Juniors, as to who shall have which of. Mrs. Harland comes over to embrace both Surveyors at once. “Thanks for simmering down this Year. I know it ain’t easy.”
“What a year, Lass,” sighs Dixon.
“Poh. Like eating a Bun,” declares Mason.”

The last paragraphs of Ch. 52 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon.

There are a Mason and Dixon in Hell (Thomas Pynchon)

DePugh recalls a Sermon he once heard at a church-ful of German Mysticks. “It might have been a lecture in Mathematics. Hell, beneath our feet, bounded,— Heaven, above our pates, unbounded. Hell a collapsing Sphere, Heaven an expanding one. The enclosure of Punishment, the release of Salvation. Sin leading us as naturally to Hell and Compression, as doth Grace to Heaven, and Rarefaction. Thus— ”

Murmurs of,” ‘Thus’?”

“— may each point of Heaven be mapp’d, or projected, upon each point of Hell, and vice versa. And what intercepts the Projection, about mid-way (reckon’d logarithmickally) between? why, this very Earth, and our lives here upon it. We only think we occupy a solid, Brick-and-Timber City,— in Reality, we live upon a Map. Perhaps even our Lives are but representations of Truer Lives, pursued above and below, as to Philadelphia correspond both a vast Heavenly City, and a crowded niche of Hell, each element of one faithfully mirror’d in the others.”

“There are a Mason and Dixon in Hell, you mean?” inquires Ethelmer, “attempting eternally to draw a perfect Arc of Considerably Lesser Circle?”

“Impossible,” ventures the Revd. “For is Hell, by this Scheme, not a Point, without Dimension?”

“Indeed. Yet, suppose Hell to be almost a Point,” argues the doughty DePugh, already Wrangler material, “— they would then be inscribing their Line eternal, upon the inner surface of the smallest possible Spheroid that can be imagin’d, and then some.”

“More of these . . . ,” Ethelmer pretending to struggle for a Modifier that will not offend the Company, “curious Infinitesimals, Cousin.— The Masters at my Purgatory are bewitch’d by the confounded things. Epsilons, usually. Miserable little,”— Squiggling in the air, “sort of things. Eh?”

“See them often,” sighs DePugh, “this Session more than ever.”

“What puzzles me, DeP., is that if the volume of Hell may be taken as small as you like, yet the Souls therein must be ever smaller, mustn’t they,— there being, by now, easily millions”“there?”

“Aye, assuming one of the terms of Damnation be to keep just enough of one’s size and weight to feel oppressively crowded,— taking as a model the old Black Hole of Calcutta, if you like,— the Soul’s Volume must be an Epsilon one degree smaller,— a Sub-epsilon.”

“ ‘The Epsilonicks of Damnation.’ Well, well. There’s my next Sermon,” remarks Uncle Wicks.

“I observe,” Tenebræ transform’d by the pale taper-light to some beautiful Needlewoman in an old Painting, “of both of you, that your fascination with Hell is match’d only by your disregard of Heaven. Why should the Surveyors not be found there Above,”— gesturing with her Needle, a Curve-Ensemble of Embroidery Floss, of a nearly invisible gray, trailing after, in the currents rais’d by Talking, Pacing, Fanning, Approaching, Withdrawing, and whatever else there be to indoor Life,— “drifting about, chaining the endless airy Leagues, themselves approaching a condition of pure Geometry?”

“Tho’ for symmetry’s sake,” interposes DePugh, “we ought to say, ‘almost endless.’ ”

“Why,” whispers Brae, “whoever said anything had to be symmetrickal?” The Lads, puzzl’d, exchange a quick Look.”

From Ch. 49 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon.

The passage steps outside of the story that Reverend Cherrycoke is telling—a representation of Mason and Dixon—and into the “real” time of the narrative. Map and territory, spirit and substance. This particular passage echoes a complaint in Ch. 42 that “too much out here [i.e., the “New World”] fails to “mark the Boundaries between Reality and Representation.” Pynchon’s novel, I think, strives to measure (and break) the boundaries between reality and representation.

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.

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.