Mason & Dixon
Thomas Pynchon, 1997

Thought I'd see whether I got anything out of Pynchon when he took on subject matter that dovetailed with my interests: I read a lot of American history, and here we have a novel about the surveyors of the Mason/Dixon Line. Answer: no. Read fifty pages, gave up. Too much effort.

Jane Smiley, 1995

When I have an experience that goes as poorly as my attempt to read Mason & Dixon I start to worry that I can't enjoy anything, so since The Greenlanders was the last book I'd really enjoyed, I decided to try something else by Jane Smiley. And as I noted in the Greenlanders article, "I first heard of Jane Smiley in 1995, when I saw her novel Moo everywhere." So I figured I'd go for that one.

It turns out to be a melancholically wry account of about three dozen interwoven lives, focusing on the 1989-1990 school year at a big, increasingly corporate state university in the Midwest, but ranging up to encompass intrigue in the Costa Rican government and down to reflect upon the inner life of a hog. It touches on a wide variety of themes, from those specific to its time and place (the fall of communism in Europe, wingnut governors on the plains taking advantage of the G.H.W. Bush-era recession to target progressive budget items) to broader themes such as the ability of material possessions to provide fulfillment and the role ego plays in motivating artistic and scholarly endeavor. And the very exercise of playing all these characters off each other makes a larger point about the way people settle into patterns of thought, and how people living in the same town or even the same dorm room can have such profoundly different senses of what's important that when they look around they're not even seeing the same world. It's really good!

I had wondered how much my liking of The Greenlanders was a function of the subject matter and how much had to do with authorial style. Well, here's something quite different — a contemporary comedy rather than a historical epic — and yet much of what I admired in the earlier book shows up here too: the steady stream of little insights, the way we're shown people both through their own eyes looking out and through others' eyes looking at them. And while this time we don't get the hypnotic rhythm of The Greenlanders, in its place we get phrasings that are alternately witty and lovely without calling attention to themselves. They're interesting in that it's kind of pointless to quote them out of context: I marked a couple to put in this article, but one works because it takes a guy we spent a whole chapter learning about and reduces him to a single trenchant line, and another works because it's just a perfect way to close its chapter. So, in the time-honored tradition of third grade book reports, I'll just say that if you want to know more, read the book. As for me, I guess I'll be adding the rest of Jane Smiley's bibliography to my to-read list, because she's pretty firmly established herself as one of my favorites.

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