Civil Liberties

Great Expectations

A profane commentary on the hoopla surrounding the summer's biggest book, Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon.


"Lord have mercy on us, we want a

'great' writer," wrote the

literary critic Leslie Fiedler

back in 1951. "It is at once the

comedy and tragedy of

20th-century American letters

that we simply cannot keep a

full stock of contemporary

'great novelists.' … From

moment to moment we have the

feeling that certain claims …

are secure, but even as we name

them they shudder and fall."

Fiedler's irony was directed at

F. Scott Fitzgerald, but his

words ring true with a couple of

more-current authors who like to

rush stuff into print every

couple of decades: Thomas

Pynchon and J. D. Salinger.

"Into our depopulated pantheon,"

said Fiedler, "we impress

Fitzgerald." And Pynchon. And

Salinger. And almost—but not

quite, thank god—anyone who

can string a couple of

self-important sentences


This spring, of course, Pynchon

released Mason & Dixon, the

700-page novel-cum-sleep-aid (at

US$27.95, it is cheaper, denser,

and more effective than a

Sobakawa pillow). As one

reviewer gushed—and they all

gushed, like so many Kuwaiti oil

wells during the Gulf War –

Mason &Dixon is a

"rollicking and hugely powerful

book that reconfirms Pynchon's

mesmerizing genius."

Here it is, hard-truth time,

barely halfway through the

summer of this spectacular

"major publishing event": Jokes

comparing it to other

best-selling, never-read tomes

(A Brief History of Time and

Foucault's Pendulum seem the

common referents) have passed

the point of cliché and

become simple truth. Here's

hoping that Pynchon epigone

David Foster Wallace adds an

essay about reading Mason &

Dixon to the paperback edition

of A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll

Never Do Again. (Which we have

read. Honest.)

Indeed, far from confirming

Pynchon's "mesmerizing genius"

as a writer, the hype

surrounding the publication of

this "long-awaited instant

classic" about America's most

famous surveyors suggests

Pynchon's marketing genius

(indeed, the strategically

invisible author and purported

Lotion fan helped plan the

packaging and promotion of Mason

& Dixon, right down to

picking the perfect ampersand on

the cover). A quick look over

his oeuvre—V (1963), The Crying of

Lot 49 (1966), Gravity's Rainbow

(1973), Vineland (1990),

and this year's Mason &

Dixon—merely confirms the

obvious: Pynchon's work has the

shelf-life of non-pasteurized

milk, and retains the

entertainment value of a

played-out dance craze. Only The

Crying of Lot 49 actually gets

read much anymore, and then

mostly as a period piece, the

literary equivalent of a Nehru


Lord have mercy on us, we want a

great writer. But we'll settle

for Thomas Pynchon and fake

18th-century patois.

Few authors have gone so far on

so little gas. One who has gone

much farther is, of course, is

J. D. Salinger. While The

Catcher in the Rye (1951)

remains a perennial favorite

with pretentious yet

self-loathing adolescents (is

there any other kind?) and his

dysfunctional family circus

short stories still evoke

bitterly funny truths about how

we come to love and hate, the

reclusive writer has redefined

literary coasting with his

generous offering this year: J.

D. took time off from

prosecuting people who dare to

quote from his work and will

reissue a short story, "Hapworth

16, 1924," that originally

appeared in The New Yorker in


Pretty slim pickings on the face

of it, but enough to generate

gallons of ink, including the

cover story of the June

Esquire, in which Ron Rosenbaum

went on "an obsessive pilgrimage

to Salinger's New Hampshire

sanctuary." "The decision [to

reprint the story] seemed to

portend something more than the

mere reprint of a magazine

story," wrote Rosenbaum, whose

willingness to read hidden

meanings into the irascible

novelist's words made him sound

disturbingly like Salinger's

most famous explicator, Mark

David Chapman.

Lord have mercy on us, we want a

great writer. But we'll settle

for a 32-year-old short story

that takes the form of a

summer-camp letter from a

7-year-old kid.

Grant both Pynchon and Salinger

this much: Their scams have been

far more successful than the one

William Gass pulled in 1995.

Back in the late '60s, Gass made

a name for himself as an

experimental fiction writer

(Omensetter's Luck, In the Heart

of the Heart of the Country),

but ultimately became better

known as an essayist and

college-circuit creative-writing

poohbah (which is to say he gave

up pretending anyone really read

or cared about his writing).

Two years ago, Gass finally

delivered the "much-anticipated"

– i.e., unreadable and unread –

novel The Tunnel, with which he

had been threatening the reading

public for almost 30 years

(interviews throughout the '70s,

sadly, hilariously describe the

book's release as "imminent").

There it was, Gass's numerous

pals flacked the 653-page book

in the press, suggesting that

The Tunnel—which revolves

around an academic who is

working on a very long, very

overdue summa project and who

bears more than a passing

resemblance to Gass himself –

was actually worth the wait (as

if anything short of a heart and

lung transplant—or Paul

McCartney's "much-anticipated"

Flaming Piece of Crap album –

could be worth that wait). Or,

if not quite worth the wait, at

least worth buying and

pretending to have read, as is

currently the case with Mason

& Dixon. But, alas, in a

rare moment of aesthetic

justice, few people—desperate

though they may be for a great

writer—bought the hype. The

Tunnel caved, critically and


Lord have mercy on us, we do want

a great writer. But not that


Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason. This story originally appeared in Suck, and can be viewed in that format here.