Mason & Dixon

Mason & Dixon

August 1997

Mason, who has trained as an astronomer, is the melancholy one: dour, meditative and given to bad dreams, he is haunted by the death of his wife, Rebekah, and shy about talking to his sons. Dixon is the outgoing one: fond of women and drink and song,...

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Mason, who has trained as an astronomer, is the melancholy one: dour, meditative and given to bad dreams, he is haunted by the death of his wife, Rebekah, and shy about talking to his sons. Dixon is the outgoing one: fond of women and drink and song, he has a "general Desire for anything, and on lucky Days everything."

Mason & Dixon is a postmodernist novel by U.S. author Thomas Pynchon published in 1997. It presents a fictionalized account of the collaboration between Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon in their astronomical and surveying exploits in Cape Colony, Saint Helena, Great Britain and along the Mason-Dixon line in British North America on the eve of the Revolutionary War in the United States.

Thomas Ruggles Pynchon Jr. (commonly /-t??n/; born May 8, 1937) is an American novelist. A MacArthur Fellow, he is noted for his dense and complex novels. His fiction and non-fiction writings encompass a vast array of subject matter, genres and themes, including history, music, science, and mathematics. For Gravity's Rainbow, Pynchon won the 1973 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction.

Hailing from Long Island, Pynchon served two years in the United States Navy and earned an English degree from Cornell University. After publishing several short stories in the late 1950s and early1960s, he began composing the novels for which he is best known: V. (1963), The Crying of Lot49 (1966), and Gravity's Rainbow (1973). His 2009 novel Inherent Vice was adapted into a feature film of the same name by director Paul Thomas Anderson in 2014. Pynchon is notoriously reclusive; few photographs of him have been published, and rumors about his location and identity have circulated since the 1960s. Pynchon's most recent novel, Bleeding Edge, was published on September 17, 2013.

List of works

 

Novels

 

  1. (1963)

    The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)

    Gravity's Rainbow (1973)

    Vineland (1990)

    Mason & Dixon (1997)

    Against the Day (2006)

    Inherent Vice (2009)

    Bleeding Edge (2013)

 

Short story collections

 

    Slow Learner (1984)

The novel is a frame narrative told from the focal point of one Rev. Wicks Cherrycoke – a clergyman of dubious orthodoxy – who, on a cold December evening in 1786, attempts to entertain and divert his extended family (partly for amusement, and partly to keep his coveted status as a guest in the house). Claiming to have accompanied Mason and Dixon throughout their journeys, Cherrycoke tells a tale intermingling Mason and Dixon's biographies with history, fantasy, legend, speculation, and outright fabrication.

 

Review:

nytimes.com

By MICHIKO KAKUTANI

 

The Great Big Question in Thomas Pynchon's novels, from "V." (1963) through "Gravity's Rainbow" (1973) and "Vineland" (1990), has been: Is the world dominated by conspiracies or chaos? Are there patterns, secret agendas, mysterious codes -- in short, a hidden design -- to the burble and turmoil of human existence, or is it all a product of chance? Are the paranoiacs onto something, or do the nihilists have the key to it all?

 

In "Mason & Dixon," his long-awaited new novel -- and the most emotional and affecting work in his oeuvre to date -- Pynchon offers a variation on this favorite theme. This time, the overarching tension is between Enlightenment rationalism and absurdist despair; between the orderly processes of science and the inexplicable marvels of nature, between our modern faith in progress and the violent, primeval realities of history.

 

The frame on which these ideas are threaded is the real-life story of Charles Mason (1728-1786) and Jeremiah Dixon (1733-1779), the British surveyors who mapped out the boundary line between Pennsylvania and Maryland in pre-Revolutionary America, the line that would come to be known as the Mason-Dixon line, dividing the North from the South. Needless to say, Pynchon does not adhere strictly to the historical facts, but uses those facts as a jumping-off point for a rollicking picaresque tale, filled with songs, jokes, aphorisms and bad puns, a story populated by talking clocks, petulant automatons, oracles, ghosts, golems and a giant cheese, as well as a populous cast of humans with odd, Pynchonesque names.

 

Alternately dazzling and vexing, tiresome and amazing, the novel tries to do many things at the same time. Like "Gravity's Rainbow," it's an encyclopedic work, at once plotted and plotless, and calculated in its sheer vastness and prolixity to immerse the reader in the confusions of the world. Like John Barth's "Sot-Weed Factor," it's a postmodern fiction that takes the form of an 18th-century novel, using Shandyesque digressions and tales within tales both to amplify the central story and to comment upon the art of storytelling itself. And like more conventional historical novels, it mixes fact and fiction, biographical detail and bawdy speculation to conjure up a vanished time and place.

 

Certainly it takes a lot of nerve (and ego) to write a nearly 800-page novel featuring two surveyors -- yes, surveyors -- as its heroes, but in Pynchon's capable hands, Mason and Dixon become a great buddy act, reminiscent, by turns, of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Bouvard and Pecuchet, Tom and Huck, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. Mason, who has trained as an astronomer, is the melancholy one: dour, meditative and given to bad dreams, he is haunted by the death of his wife, Rebekah, and shy about talking to his sons. Dixon is the outgoing one: fond of women and drink and song, he has a "general Desire for anything, and on lucky Days everything."

 

Mason and Dixon's first assignment together is a commission from the Royal Society of Astronomers to measure celestial phenomena from the vantage point of the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, an assignment used by Pynchon to give the reader a discursive chronicle of their adventures south of the equator. Though this nearly 200-page section boasts some wonderful set pieces -- including some uproarious encounters with a Learned Dog and a family of nymphomaniacs -- it is also long and labored and numbing, filled with unnecessary exposition and contrived omens of the pair's experiences in America. It could have easily been cut in half.

 

It is when Mason and Dixon actually set foot in the New World that the novel's central narrative picks up steam. Playful, erudite and funny, Pynchon depicts colonial America with the same sort of darkly comic energy that animated his portrait of pre-apocalyptic America in "The Crying of Lot 49" (1966), showing us the noisy, roistering crowds that fill the streets of Philadelphia and New York and the awesome vistas of wilderness that greet Mason and Dixon as they wend their way slowly westward. The America he has created in these pages is a sprawling frontier, but it's also an oddly intimate world in which everyone seems to know everyone else.

 

In the course of their "Ragtime"-esque peregrinations, Mason and Dixon meet George Washington (who, for some reason, is fond of talking in Yiddish); Thomas Jefferson (who supposedly lifts from Dixon the phrase "the pursuit of Happiness") and Benjamin Franklin (who comes across as a madcap skirt-chaser).

 

The other people the pair meet are decidedly more bizarre. They are, at once, tests of Mason and Dixon's faith in Reason and emblems of America's magnetic appeal to fugitives and dreamers, the lost and disenfranchised.

 

There's Armand Allegre, a chef who has fled the Continent to escape an amorous automated duck; a man by the name of Zepho Beck, who metamorphoses into a beaver by the light of the full moon, and Zhang, a Chinese feng shui expert who warns that Mason and Dixon's Line will lead to centuries of bad karma.

 

For Mason and Dixon, the completion of the Line is a quest similar to those embraced so obsessively by such earlier Pynchon characters as Oedipa Maas and Herbert Stencil. In mapping the uncharted continent, in measuring this "Realm of Doubt," they are, in effect, creating order out of disorder, narrative (or a narrative line, as it were) out of chaos.

 

In this novel, however, the Line also becomes a metaphor for the bloody settling of the frontier and all its attendant violence: the massacre of Indians, the buying and selling of slaves, the domestication of a wilderness of possibilities and its transformation into a numbing landscape of "Inns and Shops, Stables, Games of Skill, Theatrickals, Pleasure-Gardens ... a Promenade, -- nay, Mall" -- in short the sort of nightmarish modern America, menacing and malignant in its ordinariness and moral sloth, that appears in Pynchon's other novels.

 

Perhaps because "Mason & Dixon" is loosely based on real historical figures, Pynchon's penchant for willful allegorizing is less noticeable in this volume, and his central characters possess an emotional amplitude missing in his earlier books. In the course of the novel Dixon, and Mason especially, become fully fleshed-out people, their feelings, hopes and yearnings made as palpably real as their outrageously comic high jinks.

 

Certainly "Mason & Dixon" could have used some judicious editing; as it stands, its enormous bulk and intermittent longueurs will prove daunting to many readers. Still, its flaws are exuberant flaws of excess, and the reader who perseveres will be amply rewarded. In fact, as the novel rumbles along, it gathers a cumulative momentum, its density and garrulity impressing upon the reader a sense of the arduousness of Mason and Dixon's journey and the long, aching curve of their lives.

 

As rendered by Pynchon, "Mason & Dixon" is not simply the story of these two men's intertwined lives and their personal search for knowledge. It's also a hugely ambitious epic about America and the Age of Reason and the origins of modernity that showcases all of Pynchon's prodigious gifts as a writer: his magician's ability to fuse history and fable, science and science fiction; his Swiftean grasp of satire and his vaudevillian's sense of farce. It is a book that testifies to his remarkable powers of invention and his sheer power as a storyteller, a storyteller who this time demonstrates that he can write a novel that is as moving as it is cerebral, as poignant as it is daring.

 

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