Thursday, 4 June 2015

Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon

People recommend books to me a lot. It's hard to know when or how to fit them all in! And then there's the worry I won't like a book that is very dear to a dear friend's heart. For a long time, I just avoided reading books that had been recommended to me, unless someone pushed a physical copy into my hot little hands. (This is still the fastest way to get a book to the top of my list.) So I started a new list from which to pick, of books friends recommended. If you want to get in on this, you can recommend a book on this post.

This book was recommended to me by Amie.

After I was lamenting, a month or so into reading this book, how long it was taking me to read it, Amie, who had recommended it to me in the first place, replied saying she hadn't managed to finish it. This made me cock an eyebrow. On the other hand, I am a damnably stubborn woman, and books that are difficult to read but not actively unpleasant stimulate my competitive impulses.

So I changed how I was reading it. Instead of trying to read it in 100-page chunks, as soon as I got up in the morning, while the oatmeal was simmering and the water for coffee and tea was boiling, I'd try to read two chapters. And that's it. That's all I would read in a day. So it took me months, wore out the entire number of renewals I had on the book at the library, and still got taken back a day late, but I finished!

I feel like I've conquered something.

So, on the other end of this bizarre meditation on trying to structure space and time in systematized manners, without regard for natural landscape or desire, what do I think? I think I'm still puzzled. It's hard to call this book enjoyable, exactly, but I don't resent having read it. (I do, however, feel an immense amount of freedom, like I've put down a heavy pack, that I don't have to start the day trying to read another 20 pages.)

There is so much strangeness in this book, and so much language that is obfuscatory and meta, that I frequently felt entirely lost, and that's not particularly usual for me.

On this other hand, this book has invisible mechanical ducks in love with French chefs, werebeavers, a descent into the Hollow Earth, Chinese Feng Shui experts fallen in with debauched Jesuits straight from an anti-Catholicism novel, and a whole host of other oddities. Every time one of these sections came up, with their exceedingly strange and yet somehow appropriate stories, I was enthralled.

I think the problem is maybe the stuff in between. Problem is perhaps too strong a word, but between these incidents of oddness, we get Mason & Dixon, travelling, surveying, astronomizing, quarrelling, and drinking. They maybe have feelings for each other, but it's buried under prose so deep it's hard to breathe in.

There are also layers of meta that I'm sure I'm just not getting. There's an incident at the start of the book including a sailor named Patrick O'Brien, who knows everything about boats, that felt like it was clearly a reference to the author of the same name, which warned me to be on the lookout for similarly meta references, but if there were any, they went right over my head.

It's the kind of book I'd like to come back to in, oh, say 10 years, and see what it says to me now. There's an underlying theme about how we divide, catalogue, and structure reality that I'm still grappling with. I'll let it sit for a while, and see where it goes. Also, other people should read this now, so I can discuss it with them.

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