Brian Stonehill
English/Media Studies
Pomona College
Claremont, California USA


30 April 1997 (pub. date of Mason & Dixon),
for an article in the LA Times

David Ulin: Is the current interest in writers from the 60's, like Pynchon, just nostalgia -- or do they still have something to say?

Brian Stonehill: They clearly still have important things to say, perhaps more so now than ever Pynchon is a cult figure among the kids now....again, just as he was in the 60's. We gave this publication party for Mason and Dixon today and it was an extremely popular event among the current generation of college students.

Ulin: Really...about how many people?

Stonehill: About 80 people we're there.

Ulin: Okay.

Stonehill: A lot of them wondering if Pynchon was present, of course. We held it in front of Mason Hall at Pomona, and there we're rainbow colored balloons and the local bookstore set up a table and sold the book.

Ulin: That's right. Today was the first day the book was allowed to be put on the shelves.

Stonehill: They we're allowed to put it on the shelves today so that was why we did it on April 30th.

Ulin: Right. It is very interesting that he has maintained this status since he has published so infrequently over the last 25 years. You know... or even over the last 15 years.

Stonehill: Right. You know there is an ad for the book in the centerfold of last Sunday's New York Times Book Review. He is really at the centerstage. I don't want to knock the other writers but I think Pynchon is getting more press than any of the other three.

Ulin: Do you think he deserves more press?

Stonehill: Yes, yes, he writes more infrequently and he is more of an enigma to people. And, I think in some ways Pychon has his finger on the pulse of the culture in a way that the others do not.

Ulin: Can you elaborate on that?

Stonehill: As an outsider, as someone who does not participate in the hurly-burly of the marketplace, he has an almost zen perspective on culture. What has he been doing? He has been somewhat of a groupie for a rock band called Lotion. He conducted an interview that was published in Esquire back in June. He has been writing liner notes for CD's of obscure rock bands and for a Spike Jones CD and stuff like that. He is known to be there but absent. He has that kind of outsider status, looking in but with a very penetrating look. He is a photophobe. He thinks the fall of the shutter snatches your soul. And something I learned today is that the historical characters Mason and Dixon felt the same way about the brush on canvas. Neither of them allowed their portrait's to be painted.

Ulin: Oh really?

Stonehill: That is not even in the novel, it's just like an obscure fact that sort of illuminates the title and the choice that Pynchon made.

Ulin: Right, right. Also, what I think is very interesting about this book is that it is a book that he has been working on for such a long time. Or, apparen'tly he has been working on for a long time.

Stonehill: Right. I think so. I think it is more monumental in it's stature and in how much work and thought it represents. I agree. Let me also say that the 60's are back as a designer decade, as has been pointed out. And the way my students wear sandals and tie-dyed clothes and seem to be using the same recreational drugs that we're in in the 60's, indicates that there is a kind of replay of that decade going on. The fact that we are reading books by the same authors, you know. Who had the highest selling CD in 1996 was the Beatles! There is this sense of deja-vu.

Ulin: This is an interesting point and one of the things I want to get at a little bit. Do you think that as a cultural observer this could be problematic in a sense that we are looking backwards to recycled culture in a certain sense rather than looking forward to response to our own times? Or do you think this is a response to our own times? How do you make sense of this?

Stonehill: Interestingly enough I thought when I was in the youth movement it was all fresh. But as I look back there was something called granny glasses that we're big in the 60's and that was a fashion feature that had been recovered from two generations back also. So, it seems to me that there always is this element a chambered nautilus where culture constantly builds upon previous epochs. In the aftermath of the cold war, it seems to me that flower power and the anti-war sentiment of the 60's are in keeping with where people are now. People talked a lot about the environment and these kids actually recycle and put things into action. So, I have a generally optimistic sense that the better parts of the values of that time have been preserved and the fact that the country was at war and an arguably racist war at that, fortunately is no longer the case. We are not in the same historical moment as we we're then, but we have been able to recuperate some of the more, I think, humane values of that moment.

Ulin: Do you think that this, I hate to say re-emergence because these writers have been there all along.....

Stonehill: Well, they are cresting, I guess.

Ulin: Do you think their cresting is symptomatic of that or do you think it is just coincidence?

Stonehill: I would say it is a sort of harmonic. It is a different moment but it is in harmonious pitch with where the 60's we're. There are a lot of other writers who have come on stage since then who I think have equal claim to the spotlight. I am really enamored of David Foster Wallace these days and I think Infinite Jest one of the great novels of the decade. So, I wouldn't want to say that we haven't been producing great work by anyone but the ones who came on the stage in the 60's. But, clearly they are still vital and the sensibility they we're stamped with in the 60's is congruent and harmonious with a 90's outlook, so that what they have to say is still news.

Ulin: Okay.

Stonehill: Some of them are pretty old. I mean, Bellows is 83. He is in good health. I visited him last summer in Vermont and hope to see him this summer.

Ulin: Right. Have you continued to read him?

Stonehill: Absolutely. I haven't read his new one yet.

Ulin: Do you think the stuff, the later stuff holds up to the earlier stuff? The other question that comes up and this is hard to bring up...I actually talked to Mailer yesterday.

Stonehill: No kidding?

Ulin: It was pretty interesting.

Stonehill: I saw him on "Politically Incorrect."

Ulin: I asked him about that.

Stonehill: I know he is having a season.

Ulin: I said he seemed a little out of place.

Stonehill: What did he say?

Ulin: He said he felt a lot out of place.

Stonehill: (Laugh)

Ulin: He kept referring to the other people on the show as "the kids." He said they felt so passionate. He just felt like he should just sit back and listen.

Stonehill: He didn't get his oar in very much.

Ulin: It was surprising actually. He isn't very shy about that.

Stonehill: Yeah. I saw the most amazing interview with him by Melvin Bragg. Did you ever see this show on Bravo, the cable channel?

Ulin: Right.

Stonehill: It is called the South Bank Show. He was being interviewed about his book on Picasso. They had this discussion about pussies and vaginas that was the most amazing thing I had ever heard on TV.

Ulin: Was that in front of an audience?

Stonehill: No, it was on his patio at Martha's Vineyard.

Ulin: I had seen a similar interview with him, maybe it wasn't about Picasso, I thought it was after the Picasso book came out, and it was taped in front a live audience, and he ended up getting into it with some feminists in the audience.

Stonehill: No it was only Bragg and Mailer. It was just breathtaking and if you're interested, maybe I can get a copy. it's one of the two most amazing literary interviews I've seen on video this year. The other being Charlie Rose and David Foster Wallace.

Ulin: That one I saw.

Stonehill: That was pretty amazing, huh? What else did you get from Mailer? I am not interviewing you, David.

Ulin: That's quite all right. He, a lot of what we talked about....he still has this very....we actually talked a lot about this mutual passion that he and I have for the USA trilogy.

Stonehill: Dos Passos, we're talking about? Cool.

Ulin: Yes.

Stonehill: I wouldn't say passion, but I'm pretty familiar with it.

Ulin: We talked about that within the context of this idea of the great American novel. And, also, we talked about the longevity of a career and the way a writer's sense of himself and his passion changes over time. It is a lot different to be the 25 year old who wrote the Naked and the Dead and to be the 75 year old who wrote The Gospel according to the Son. And how he continues to motivate himself and how things have changed. The sap isn't the same, things have kind of softened a little bit.

Stonehill: This is going to be a helluva piece.

Ulin: We'll see. I don't know how much room well have to get all this in there. From an outsider's point, this is actually what I wanted to ask you. In seeing these guys, clearly I think they all do have something to say. I think, frankly, they are not in a position where they would need to say anything if they didn't have something to say. It is not like any of these guys needs to put out a book to pay the rent.

Stonehill: Right.

Ulin: But, the question is do you think that what they are saying or how they are saying it has changed over the years? For instance, do you think, to take someone like Bellow obviously, the books of the 50's, Herzog, .....

Stonehill: I do have to admit, but I don't want to be quoted on this, those are the best books.

Ulin: Those are the groundwork. I think with Mailer, you know, I am partial to The Executioner's Song.

Stonehill: That was the one I was going to mention. We seem to have very similar tastes.

Ulin: After The Executioner's Song, the stuff hasn't seemed as somehow essential.

Stonehill: Ancient Evenings just sort of lies there.

Ulin: Right, and Harlot's Ghost, I never seemed to work my way through it. You know, even the same thing with Roth.

Stonehill: Roth writes about the guy who wrote those good books.

Ulin: Right, exactly. So, the question then becomes, do you think they are....

Stonehill: Bellow, I think, on the other hand, doesn't. Bellow, I think has been, I am partial, but I believe this, has worked harder to zero in on the things that he was tight-lipped and evasive about at the beginning at his career. He started out writing about anti-semitism, he didn't really end up that way. He tried hard to write on what pejoratively we might call WASP topics for the bulk of his career, I think. Since To Jerusalem and Back he has been coming closer and closer on his relationship to God. I am tempted to do a biographical reading of that and say now he for the first time is married to a Jewish woman from Canada with whom he shares his ethnic and geographic roots, and since the Nobel Prize has no risks to run in facing that stuff squarely. Also, I think he is less guarded in his address of the soul.

Pynchon is writing like somebody who has received a MacArthur genius award, is happily married, a father, well-fed, and he is writing happy. This is a great LA Times angle: at the end of Gravity's Rainbow, the reader is in the Orpheus movie theatre on Santa Monica Blvd., waiting for an inter-continental ballistic missile to land on our heads. And the opening words of Mason and Dixon "Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs," suggest the Cold-War is over and it was just a game, and trajectories are in the past and playful.

Ulin: Even in Vineland..Vineland to me, when I read it, was a surprisingly optimistic book- I haven't read all the way through Mason and Dixon- in some ways.

Stonehill: In some ways, yes. In some ways I felt that the guy had been watching way too much TV.

Ulin: Yeah, there was that (laugh). But just in terms of the sense of connection and this very idea of coming home, there was this element of homecoming and the novel resolved on that. It made me feel like this was a great exile and he had resolved this.

Stonehill: The exile yes, that is a good angle. The other author that I teach as a course is Joyce. I am teaching a course in Contemporary Fiction at the moment, and we are doing - we just finished today Proulx's novel The Shipping News-a beautiful book.

Ulin: Dense.

Stonehill: Dense and long. I keep forgetting how long it is and I made them read too much, but...I was just thinking about the exile and the fact that Pynchon now lives in Manhattan makes it hard to maintain this, but he always has had this outsider-looking-in role.

Ulin: Right, right, which I actually think was accurate 15 years ago when he.....

Stonehill: Well, I think Mason and Dixon tries to look at this country from the perspective of two English guys. Even as he is knitted in geographically he manages to casts his eye, as a ventriloquist casts his voice, to someplace and sometime other.

Ulin: Well, I actually want to talk a little about Pynchon because it seems he is arguably the only one of these writers who is still at the peak of his career. I think we can all agree that probably all, maybe not with Roth, but certainly with Bellow and Mailer, the major books are behind them.

Stonehill: I agree. I am looking for a term like he is at the apogee of his trajectory.....he is in the middle of his career if the actuarial tables hold.

Ulin: So...that is one thing that would set him apart. Do you see him as having any kinship, no not kinship really, anything in common with these other writers?

Stonehill: Well you know it was interesting with Bellow, I mean there he was reading my stuff about Pynchon. It seemed he was bristling to me to a certain degree, not seeming to want to take Pynchon's work seriously enough for a young graduate student's enthusiasm. And I actually said, "Mr. Bellow, I don't think you are giving Pynchon sufficient credit here."

Bellow said, "Well, Brian, I used to edit a literary magazine called The Noble Savage and we actually published Pynchon's first short story." It didn't actually answer the question, but it shut me up. The point being I kind of had some occasion to look at the lines between them and it is hard for me to come out and be quoted as saying that Pynchon is more in step with the Zeitgeist than these other guys. But, of course I do feel that. I am looking for a way to say that that I wouldn't mind seeing in print. Perhaps because Pynchon was born in 1937, and in a way was much slower than those other writers to enter into the bourgeois contract of marriage and family, he has maintained a kind of youthful regard on the culture. He has not been the ample paterfamilias who has invested in the system, so he could write a novel that neither Mailer nor Roth nor Bellow ever would, making fun of the Reaganite anti-drug campaign as in Vineland. So he has continued to embrace and embody the hippie values of his youth, well into his 40's and 50's. I think that keeps him sexy as a writer because the culture is unfairly but always skewed young.

Ulin: My tape machine just died on me. So....

Stonehill: Well, that is a very Pynchonesque moment.

Ulin: Actually, that is funny. I interviewed Burroughs last year and went to visit him and spent the weekend with him. The first night we we're talking and he said why don't you do the interview now. I can't do the interview now because I don't have my tape recorder with me. He said you don't need your tape recorder, just use your memory. And, the next day we went to do the interview and we sat down and I had the tape recorder and in the middle of the interview the actual tape broke. It turned out that he was right.

Stonehill: He did it. He is from that damn adding machine family that could probably do that.

Ulin: He also has the whole, you know, that demonic possession angle too that he sort of talks about. You have to wonder. He talks about it tongue in cheek and partly not.

Stonehill: You really have a pretty impressive roster.

Ulin: The best part of this job is that I've gotten to meet most of the writers that I admire or many of the writers that I admire. I've gotten to spend some great time talking to them.

Stonehill: The piece you we're doing was for Salon and this is for the LA Times. That is cool. Who else do you write for?

Ulin: The Weekly, the Village Voice and Newsday in New York.

Stonehill: I have done some op eds for Newsday. I like that paper actually.

Ulin: I really like that paper as well.

Stonehill: It doesn't get the respect it deserves.

Ulin: That's the problem with being in Long Island rather than being in the city.

Stonehill: I agree.

Ulin: This leads me to this whole question of the great American novel, a mythic concept that I am not altogether comfortable with.

Stonehill: Right.

Ulin: Right, but it has been pervasive in the culture and certainly I think that Mailer actually talked about it and in a fairly serious way, but certainly all of these writers in their own way whether they would put it in quite those terms have aspired to write the great American novel.

Stonehill: Actually, the novel might be having a great American moment. Right now. These writers you know and Proulx and Wallace. I mean we are going to look back on this as The Renaissance, not another Renaissance, THE Renaissance. Because, writers who grew up in a pre-digital age feel the threat to literate culture as reading becomes a matter of not of turning pages but point and click.

Ulin: Right.

Stonehill: In varying degrees of deliberateness, they have as part of their writerly motivation the defense of writing and reading because they see it as a threatened mode of cultural discourse. These books coming out at the same time are the best weapons that we have to defend the written word being deployed with the greatest wit and eloquence that probably have ever been marshalled since Shakespeare. We will never really appreciate the moment until it's over. But, early word from these quarters is that it is the Renaissance.

Ulin: Do you think though that digital culture is a real threat to reading?

Stonehill: Do I think so personally?

Ulin: Yes.

Stonehill: No, I think my students write and read more than they did twelve to fifteen years ago. But they read hastily and impatiently, and they write e-mail style with lack of capitalization and leave the spelling mistakes and keep going. The ornament and precision of old are gone. I personally think that e-culture and digital publication are additive not displacive technologies.

Ulin: No, no, I agree.

Stonehill: But, if we want to talk about how Bellow, Mailer, and Roth and Pynchon feel about it, I think they do think of it as a threat.

Ulin: Do you think even Pynchon feels the threat?

Stonehill: I do. I do. Well, you know, I have this essay on our web page called "Pynchon's Prophecies of Cyberspace." It just came out in Pynchon Notes which is a quarterly, published in Ohio. Gravity's Rainbow was recently translated into Swedish and Pynchon's Swedish publisher commissioned that translator to translate my article into Swedish and it will be published in Sweden next year. In that article, I talk about how in Gravity's Rainbow there is this deep ambivalence about the digital realm, because it's fundamentally allied to the fascist. One of the most evil characters in the novel is named Pointsman, named after the railroad switcher who decides if the train goes to the left or to the right, and "either/or" is understood to be a false and dangerous way to look at the world.

Ulin: That is interesting. When I was talking to Burroughs, he was citing Korzabinski, whose theory was either/or is always never true. It is almost always both/and.

Stonehill: Exactly. There is a line in The Crying of Lot 49, "Oedipa knew all about excluded middles, they we're bad shit." This is funny because I am binarizing it as I speak - on the one hand, there is this deep distrust of the binary but yet on the other hand, in Gravity's Rainbow, and really throughout Pynchon, there is this sense - that I share by the way - that the planet is being wired into life. It is acquiring it's own soul and consciousness and so forth, and all you have to do is think of that, and you realize the Internet is the nervous system that is making that happen. So, there is this distrust of the digital and yet the embrace of the global telecommunications network that is giving the planet a consciousness and a soul. But here as with everything else, Pynchon is paradoxical and comes down firmly on both sides of the question.

Ulin: The other question is, it seems to me... I do agree with you that cyberculture and online stuff is a corollary and is not going to replace the text. I am not even sure that reading on line should be considered reading because it seems we are involving a whole new way of interacting with life.

Stonehill: What do you want to call it? Scrolling? Point and Clicking?

Ulin: It is more of a difference between looking at a painting and looking at a collage, when you are reading a book you are in a fixed text. When you're um on the web, you know you hit lengths you zip around.

Stonehill: Yeah, there's no end.

Ulin: There's no end and you never finish it, exactly and you zip away in the middle of something and you'll end up five minutes later...

Stonehill: Not only that, there's no authored experience.

Ulin: Right. You as the reader, you are the author.

Stonehill: Yes, you can re-define the term that way, but you're not having the chauffered experience (laugh). This is the old film versus cable-surfing thing. you're not having an experience That's been designed for you by somebody else, you're constructing your own out of all the options that are out there.

Ulin: Exactly, now but the question is that I mean it's not just about being online. One of the things that I think is clearly true is you know forty years ago, when there we're less multimedia diversions and when there was much more a cult of the book, a literary book could be a media event... you know publications like the Saturday Evening Post, etc., we're publishing literary writers, short fiction by literary writers.

Stonehill: Or people waited for the New Yorker that would have the next Salinger story.

Ulin: Exactly, and that doesn't happen anymore just by virtue of the vast amount of distractions that are out there.

Stonehill: No, but you know the buzz around Mason and Dixon is the closest thing to it I've seen in a long time.

Ulin: Well, that was one of the things that I was going to get to. Do you think that first of all... you can see that the attention span has been shortened by virtue of this stuff? Do you think that people... you're saying that Pynchon is much of a kind of cult figure among your students as he was twenty years ago among students. Do you think that people are really going to sit down and read a seven-hundred and eighty page novel?

Stonehill: Yeah, the interesting irony is that the web, although It's full of interruptions and you know short attention spans, holds people for hours, right? Time just goes amazingly fast when you're on line and so people actually have been learning to sit in front of some kind of text for hours without being interrupted by commercials all of the time.

Ulin: Right.

Stonehill: In a funny way, the web has taught people how to sit and read for long time again, which T.V. has done It's best to obliterate.

Ulin: Right.

Stonehill: So you can write a seven-hundred and thirty-three novel, like Mason and Dixon and the kids are ready for it. They we're selling copies at this party today. The local bookstore showed up with a table and had the books out there and the kids we're buying them and taking them home. You know, they wanted to get it on the first day it was available so we're not imagining that he speaks to them, he does speak to them.

Ulin: That's an interesting take, so you actually see these kinds of distractions or that particular one as encouraging a return to this kind of involved literacy.

Stonehill: Yeah, you know I think that cyberspace has really done a lot to marry the intelligence of the page to the power of the screen. Those two have been dating other people for a long time.

Ulin: (Laugh) Okay, but the other question becomes do you believe that the idea of the great American novel is obsolete? I guess you don't. Certainly someone like Wallace, writing this kind of ambitious, substantial work - the question is do you think that writers are interested in writing these kinds of books, and believe in the concept of re-defining the novel?

Stonehill: Clearly they are, yes I think so. Authors are willing to invest years of their time to take the gamble that readers are willing to invest hours of their time to get these unusually ambitious accounts from the front and what Bellow would call News of the Soul. What was your major at Penn.?

Ulin: English.

Stonehill: Okay, so you'll know when I say that my other dissertation director was Wayne Booth.

Ulin: Uh huh.

Stonehill: Author of The Rhetoric of Fiction and stuff like that.

Ulin: Uh huh.

Stonehill: And so I would crank out these chapters and they would both read them and Booth would be interested in "Brian, what's the transition between these two paragaphs here?" and want everything spelled out really clearly. Bellow didn't care anything about that, and he would thump this chest with his right fist and he said, "What do these books mean to us? Where is the nucleus of all earnestness in these books?" That was all Bellow was interested in. I think these books that take an investment of time on the part of the reader offer in the guise of the great American novel to take us to the nucleus of earnestness, and I think That's why as an ambition writers still commit themselves to it, and readers are willing to invest the money and time in sharing it.

Ulin: Is there anything else that I haven't asked you about Pynchon or Bellow or Roth or Mailer, or this kind of harmonic convergence of publications or anything...

Stonehill: Well you know, what bothers me about it is that they are all white males.

Ulin: Yeah.

Stonehill: And writers like Toni Morrison and E. Annie Proulx... who are between novels at the moment, and but are producing at the tops of their careers too, should be sharing the spotlight at the same time. But apart from that, you know let's not be too hegemonically narrow on who's worth following here and following the randomness of the publishing calendar. Apart from that, I think that it is a monent in American literary history where you know, it was like what was happening in the early twenties, you know when the great American novelists we're Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner and Gertrude Stein. We haven't had a moment like this since then but this is like that. This is like seventy years later. The torch went down through Latin America and over through Europe and now It's back here, really, in a fascinating way.

Ulin: Well, then the other question I guess which would close this ... I think you have a point about Morrison or Proulx or you know other writers as well. Do you think that by virtue of their longevity and by virtue of their kind of media prescence, that writers like these writers have staked out the media center at the expense of the other writers, not even just writers who aren't publishing at the moment, but at the expense of younger writers, writers who are coming up who are getting less attention because these guys are still around.

Stonehill: Well the old lions get lionized.

Ulin: Right.

Stonehill: Yeah, the headlines cannot hold a wide cast and they never have been able to. But David Foster Wallace got a helluva lot of play when Infinite Jest just came out and Toni Morrison doesn't languish in obscurity when she publishes novels so, I don't think there's you know anything scandalous in the press that these guys are getting. The truth is that they're national treasures, and if this was Japan, they would've gotten plaques on their doors to indicate that.

Ulin: Right.

Stonehill: The attention that their nearly simultaneous production of new works have generated is a good thing.

Ulin: Okay.

Stonehill: It's good for literature, It's a good moment for literature, people are thinking "hey something's going on in American culture and it's happening in books for a change, not in a hamburger stand or on a clothes rack."

Ulin: Thanks, bye.

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Copyright © 1997 Brian Stonehill