Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon
Thomas Pynchon has the reputation, not undeserved, for complexity and difficulty. His novels are stuffed with characters, the prose is complicated and verbose, and his stories deal with philosophy, mathematics and things from the wilder end of the mystic spectrum. Yet each of his novels has a hook, something that supports the weirder aspects. Mason & Dixon, like many of Pynchon’s books, is structured around a basic quest narrative, as the two titular surveyors attempt to chart the line separating Maryland and Pennsylvania.
The novel takes place between Mason and Dixon’s first meeting in 1761 and Mason’s death in 1786, the prose reflecting this historical setting in much the same way as John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor. Though Pynchon complicates this by having the events of the novel recounted in retrospect by the Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke, putative companion of the two surveyors, and ridiculous fabulist. Cherrycoke’s narrative contains a speaking dog, a sentient wind-up duck, a levitating bath and more unlikely events. He describes himself as ‘an untrustworthy Remembrancer’, though his true aim is not to recall the story but to create it for the interest of his audience. With this device, Pynchon clearly puts forward the idea that history is mutable and is adapted depending on the historian and the audience. He’s also commenting on the role of the historical novelist, and how history necessarily needs to be converted into fiction.
This being Pynchon, there is another layer to the narrative that complicates Cherrycoke’s tale. His story is being told to an audience of his family members in 1786, yet it includes anachronisms that link it to the twentieth century. At one point, Dixon enters a tavern in which he encounters a ‘nautical-looking Indiv. with gigantick Fore-Arms, and one Eye ever a-squint from the Smoke of his Pipe’, shortly after meeting some men of ‘a Kabbalistick Faith’ who salute him with ‘the Fingers spread two and two, and the Thumb held away from them likewise, said to represent the Hebrew letter Shin and to signify, “Live long and prosper”’ (something that also occurs, almost word for word, in Pynchon's later Against the Day). Throughout the novel, the narrative connects with the twentieth century, decreasing the distance between the history and the present, inviting the reader to draw present day parallels with the plot. The story about the formation of the United States also manages to illuminate the state of America in the late twentieth century.
But the narrative does not only point to twentieth century culture, it also connects to Pynchon’s own work. In Mason & Dixon, characters with familiar names show up, suggesting they are ancestors of characters in Pynchon’s other novels. There is a seaman called Bodine, recalling both Gravity’s Rainbow and V, and there is a Ronald Cherrycoke in Gravity’s Rainbow. This has the effect of creating a larger connected narrative world, each novel adding to the interpretation of the next.
Another criticism levelled at Pynchon is that his novels are too intellectual to be emotionally moving. Mason & Dixon’s ending, in which Mason laments Dixon’s passing, is a beautifully written elegy to friendship and largely strips the more fantastic or self-reflexive writing. While it may lack the counter-cultural reputation of the excellent Gravity’s Rainbow or The Crying of Lot 49, Mason & Dixon stands as Pynchon’s most accomplished novel, and the best example of how original and unique his writing can be.
Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon (London: Jonathan Cape, 1997)