HOT INK AUGUST 12, 1997 FEATURES

h = o = t   +   i = n = k

Pynchon's Live Objects:
Characters as ActiveX

i t seems obvious that Thomas Pynchon has been writing web page code.

What do I base this presumption on? There are a couple of clues, in-text, and out. Pynchon's new book Mason & Dixon, was happily juxtaposed right next to one of the new classics of on-line design, Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software, in the "Internet Bookshop" Bestseller list.

This seredipitious conjunction isn't conclusive, of course. Yet Mason & Dixon itself is full of moments that are embedded like so much ActiveX, hanging in the deep well of Pynchon's implications. There are the two clocks in conversation, the dog that talks, a mechanical duck, a feng shui wizard in the American West, a giant Golem, a severed ear, the lost tribe of Israel living in Delaware, Johnson & Boswell, 1800s-pizza, and the father of our country smoking weed.

However, the crucial thing about all of these interesting items are that they do not act like scenes in a novel. George Washington (and his dancing Sammie Davis Jr. servant, Gershom), isn't a particularly influential or meaningful character. In fact, all of the above named "objects" (and many more) function as merely that -- objects. They do not interact substantially with Mason or his younger sidekick, Dixon. The well that they hang in, it seems, is entirely vacuum. They're lost in space.

Which is yet another indication of the Web-based creation of Pynchon's novel. Web pages aren't meaningful -- ninety-nine percent of the pages out there are random objects that are placed in a vacuous space. Who knows where they go from there? Those ubiquitiously gratitious web counters show how empty of human contact most sites are.

Yet of the million web pages out there, most of them seem to take some vain pride in being Meaningful. Likewise, Mason & Dixon emphasizes Things that are merely things. In typical 18th century style, the Reverend Cherrycoke capitalizes as he goes:

    Below them the lamps were coming on in the Taverns.... the wind was shaking the Plantations of bare trees, the River ceasing to reflect, as it began to absorb, the last light of the Day. ..... The Autumn was well advanc'd, the trees gone to PenStrokes and Shadows in crippl'd Plexity, bath'd in the declining light.
But what does this all mean? As usual with Pynchon, we're not quite sure where to go after mere apprehension of the startling moments he throws out. For more meaningful interaction, the older Mason looks beyond the brave new world he's found himself in. Like the Comet Cultists of our age, Mason looks to the sky, where he sees his dead wife's face in the blast of Halley's Comet across the sky. Dixon looks into more earthly pleasures: he is a surveyor, both of the landscape, and of female flesh, in the person of the fabulous Vroom Sisters.

Ultimately, there is no clear direction for Pynchon's characters. They wander in a landscape made of beautiful 18th century language, and fearful implications. The drawing of Mason & Dixon's famous line across the landscape of the American East is one way they attempt to make meaning.

Another way to find some larger truth is Pynchon's listing of various meanings and possibilities. Readers have continuously tried to make sense of Pynchon. Yet the war-blasted London of Gravity's Rainbow is one example of his cities of incredible confusion, full of a million voices all suspecting each other. ("Free French, Lublin, Communists, Varsovian shadow-ministers, ELAS Greeks, kings, republics, pretenders, summer anarchisms" etc., etc., ad nauseum")

The endless Pynchonian lists are catalogues that demonstrate nothing except more confusion. In a prophecy of everything the online world has become, every book in the Pynchon oeuvre is a vast confusion of voices and post-modern accusations. In The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa saw this clearly when she heard "some unthinkable order of music, many rhythms, all keys playing at once... "

Yet there is a larger impetus behind Pynchon's archaic speechifying -- and the drunken lurchings of the Internet. The years 1766 and 1996 are not so different. Both are subject to what Pynchon once called "an emerging techno-political order that might or might not know what it was doing." America is the possibility of horror, and the promise of salvation.

What is being formed, and divided in every speck of writerly bandwidth, is America itself, "a very Rubbish-Tip for subjunctive Hopes, for all that may yet be true, - Earthly Paradise, Fountain of Youth.... Christ's Kingdom, ever behind the sunset.... tied in, back into the Net-Work of Points already known." Mason & Dixon's Web-like vision of an America endlessly divided may be our future. By moving back into the past to write this book, Pynchon seems to make his novel an obvious parable for moving in time. In real life, we move in the opposite direction. This is one future; but is it a future we want to live in?

--   Ned Hayes

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