BY DAVID L. ULIN
a couple of years ago, a friend of mine heard a rumor that Thomas Pynchon liked to hang out in the afternoons at the King's Road Cafe in Los Angeles. After that, he started going there each day to sip coffee, while perusing the face of every middle-aged man who walked through the door. Once in a while, I would accompany him, half-expecting that we might stumble across Pynchon and solve the mystery of what he'd been up to all these years. My friend had no idea what his prey might look like, of course -- the best-known photograph of the reclusive author is a high school graduation picture revealing a kid with an abbreviated pompadour and buck teeth, glancing sidelong toward the camera as if distrustful of his image even then. After several months of this semi-stalking, my friend decided he'd had enough. Later, he learned that all the time he was trying to find the reclusive author in Southern California, Pynchon was living in New York with his wife and literary agent, Melanie Jackson, and the couple's school-age son.
I couldn't help thinking about my friend recently when I opened my mail and found an advance galley of Pynchon's long-awaited new novel, "Mason & Dixon," a Rabelaisian recapitulation of the lives of the 18th century surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon (they of the Mason-Dixon line). The "Mason & Dixon" galley comes with a note that almost parodies Pynchon-esque paranoia: "You are among a select group of editors and reviewers who are receiving an advance copy of 'Mason & Dixon,'" it reads. "Because of the limited number available, this is the only one that will be sent to your office. Please keep an eye on it. This is the first time that advance galleys of any of Pynchon's novels have been printed since 'Gravity's Rainbow.'"
That last statement, at least, is a bit disingenuous, since aside from "Mason & Dixon" there has only been one Pynchon novel, "Vineland," published since "Gravity's Rainbow" in 1973. Actually, what's most surprising about the galley is how little interest it has stirred up among the collectors who congregate in the vicinity of Pynchon's work. Although his publisher, Henry Holt, confirms that just 1,000 copies were printed, and admits minor differences exist between the galley and the finished book, rare-book dealers in New York and California claim not to have seen it, and hesitate to guess what such an artifact might be worth. On condition of anonymity, one bookseller suggests something like $100 to $200; others greet the question with derision or outright scorn.
Even among the Pynchon faithful, interest is relatively subdued. My cultist friend notes that, on the electronic grapevine, "most people seem amazingly content to wait for the finished novel, although many intend to log off while reading it so as not to be influenced by other opinions." The various Pynchon Web sites, too, have downplayed the galley's existence; the San Narciso site, perhaps the preeminent Pynchon page, has only one entry devoted to it, presenting "the supposed first sentence of 'Mason & Dixon'" while eschewing conjecture about the rest of the book.
This is all a little strange since, according to the Pynchonites, "Mason & Dixon" is the big book on which the author has been working since his acknowledged masterpiece, "Gravity's Rainbow," first appeared, and in a certain way, its existence has been as shadowy and difficult to pin down as the author's own. First reported to exist in a 1978 Newsweek account, "Mason & Dixon" was set aside for several years in the 1980s, during which time Pynchon seemingly got lost in its labyrinthine rhythms and decided to bail out, at least temporarily, churning out the more straightforward contemporary narrative "Vineland" instead. The appearance of "Vineland" in 1990 marked Pynchon's first book of new work in 17 years, and it was accompanied by a frenzied burst of attention and adoring reviews. You'd expect the anticipation for "Mason & Dixon" to be even more pronounced because, as another friend in the Pynchon cult notes, "it's a longer book, and he's been working on it for many more years."
But with Pynchon, things are never quite what they seem. From "V" to "Vineland," Pynchon's books have been predicated on the peculiar tension between illusion and reality, between what appears to be and what is. Over the years, that's been true of his life as well, especially the decades he (apparently) spent drifting the California coast, from Manhattan Beach, where he supposedly wrote "Gravity's Rainbow," to Mendocino County, where much of "Vineland" occurs. (While in Mendocino, he may or may not have written a series of letters to the Anderson Valley Advertiser under the name Wanda Tinasky. Certainly, this story, which the author's representatives have taken the unprecedented step of denying, has been one of the most active circulated recently by the Pynchon rumor mill.) Even the decision to produce "Mason & Dixon" galleys speaks to this dichotomy, since it can either be read as a goodwill gesture or as a response to the needs of "some whore of a paid reviewer," as Wanda Tinasky once wrote.
In typical Pynchon fashion, the issue remains unresolved. Of course, within the next week or so, "Mason & Dixon" will begin to appear in bookstores across the country, rendering all such speculation moot. What will remain, however, is the sense that, in the late 1990s, the texture of literature -- its shape, its transmission -- appears to be changing, and with it, our notions of such traditional modalities as the relationship of an author to his audience, on whatever terms.
Partly, that's the result of the information explosion, and how, in our increasingly networked society, it's no longer possible to be reclusive in the same way it was a decade ago. Thus, while Pynchon still won't do interviews in support of "Mason & Dixon," Holt has contracted with an Internet firm for online publicity, and a San Francisco bookstore has gone so far as to run a trivia contest on its Web site, with first prize being a first edition (unsigned, of course) of the book.
I'm not sure what to make of this, except that, as Pynchon himself might say, the more things stay the same, the more they change. Last fall, New York magazine published an article providing detailed hints as to his Manhattan address. The piece was accompanied by a photograph, taken from behind, purporting to show the author accompanying his young son to school. Leaving aside the ethics of such an intrusion for a moment, the fact that Pynchon has become so "trackable" indicates a shift in his priorities, as does, perhaps, the galley of "Mason & Dixon." That in the midst of all this heightened visibility no one has decided to expose him may be the most telling thing of all.
David L. Ulin is at work on a book about Jack Kerouac.