Friday, April 26, 2013

Reading List: The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana
by Umberto Eco

This was actually the first Umberto Eco book I added to my library, but the second I'll have read, after The Island of the Day Before.  Eco is best known for The Name of the Rose, which became a film starring Sean Connery.  I fell in love with Eco as soon as I started developing some experience with him.  Mysterious Flame is the last book in the current version of the Reading List, but I figure I'll be adding more before too long.  He's a literary treasure, and I'm as sure as anything that I'll be having a good bit of fun reading this book.

Mason & Dixon

The last time I read Thomas Pynchon, it was Against the Day, and it took me from November 2009 to April 2010 to finish it.  It's a big book, and for some people that would still count as impressive.  I don't like to compare myself to fast readers, or people who spend most of their entertainment time reading.  Still, that stands in all the time I've been maintaining a Reading List (Day was the fourteenth book in a log that began in December 2008) as the longest it's taken me to complete a book.  It wasn't because it was a long book that it took so long to read, because that was in the middle of a period where I was reading a lot of long books.  Rather, it was because of Thomas Pynchon.

Have you ever read Pynchon?  I've now read two of his books, having just concluded Mason & Dixon.  I'd say that he's incredibly dense aside from being long-winded, and I mean both descriptions kindly.  I've read plenty of other books that don't read quickly, and most of the time it's because the writing is impenetrable for entirely negative reasons.  I recently gave a fairly glowing review to Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, I think partly because I survived the experience, but also because it still feels like an important work of literature to me, regardless of what else he's accomplished and that critics have long pegged it as such.  Even us literary folk love the bandwagon.  Most readers only exist to hitch themselves to the bandwagon.  It's a fact.  Same as any other medium.  Mason & Dixon is the version of Blood Meridian that is truly brilliant, and it shares and transcends many of the same things that made both difficult to read the whole way through, Mason & Dixon far less so because of the lively writing.

One of the things Pynchon definitely does not have is an internal editor.  The books I've read seem to take on a life of their own, and he's the incredibly rare writer who can get away with that.  One of his spiritual mentors, Laurence Sterne, didn't really get away with it, but we all appreciate the legacy of Tristram Shandy anyway.  I'm told James Joyce wrote like this, and perhaps this is why I've only been brave enough to read The Dubliners.  William S. Burroughs wrote a condensed version of this type in Naked Lunch, and although it was patently an experiment that he delivered, it's nowhere near as continually vital as Pynchon, and Pynchon is said to have been inspired by the Beat Generation.

No, I wouldn't compare Pynchon to the Beats.  I compare him instead to writers like Salman Rushdie, Umberto Eco, and Jerome Charyn, who fearlessly pursue their stories and their unique inspirations wherever they lead.  In comic books, this is exactly what Grant Morrison does, though I'm sure it's harder for mainstream audiences to approve because he does it with superheroes.  Yet Pynchon fills Mason & Dixon with such outlandish tangents as talking dogs, mechanical ducks, and vegetables big enough to live in.  It's as close to a true mythological America as you'll find, tracking the famous surveyors/astronomers as they establish parts of the borders of what would become four states.  In Pynchon's view Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon are a classic odd couple, yet their banter is as timeless as his fiction.  He doesn't let things like history get in the way of his storytelling, and very much like Sterne's Shandy Mason & Dixon takes the shape of a very unorthodox bedtime story, with frequent interruptions that remind the reader of this.

Like Huck and Jim before them, Mason and Dixon are inseparable, identifiable in association of each other, not just because their names are only remembered today that way, but because they need and balance each other out.  Theirs is a journey of incredible wonders and experiences, and by the end, when Dixon has died ahead of him, Mason makes a pilgrimage to his grave, one last grand adventure.  Throughout the narrative we're reminded that Mason is grieving the death of his wife, and it's not hard to see that Pynchon has fashioned Dixon to replace her.

I don't expect a lot of people to read this one.  It's a big book.  Most people only read big books if they're fantasy.  This one is an achievement that could inspire (and in fact already has) years of scholarship to begin breaking all of it down.  Against the Day is remarkable in its own right, but Mason & Dixon is more complete a narrative.  When I'm feeling brave enough again, I'll tackle Pynchon's earlier books, which seem to have more acclaim (though Harold Bloom says this one's his best).  I'll be reading his relatively brief The Crying of Lot 49 soon.  He's got another book coming out this September, Bleeding Edge.  I may have to splice it into the Reading List when it's released.

It took me less than two months this time, and part of that is because I read three other books somewhere in the middle, so this time it was with a break and it still took far less time.  Perhaps another reason why I'm feeling better about one than the other.  But it's now clear that it's hard to go wrong with Pynchon.
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