Mason and Dixon by Thomas Pynchon
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
The past is a different country, but in Pynchon’s work it might as well be a different planet– or at least a different reality. It is without a doubt someplace foreign, somewhere on the boundary of narrative and myth. Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon is, superficially, a historical fiction recounting the work of the British astronomers Charles Mason (1728–1786) and Jeremiah Dixon (1733–1779), who observed the 1761 transit of Venus across the Sun from the Cape of Good Hope but are better known today for measuring the colonial boundary known today as the Mason-Dixon line.
Mason & Dixon had been recommended to me because of its treatment of the history of astronomy. And there is indeed some great historical astronomy in here. I tagged a passage for my introductory astronomy class to read to illustrate that much of what we know as astronomy in the eighteenth century had nothing to do with probing the nature of celestial objects but was instead a means of measuring position and distances on the Earth’s surface. The primary characters are historical personages, and the narration frequently alludes to Mason’s journals. I wish, however, Pynchon would have explained in either a prefix or an afterward exactly what his sources were that formed the kernel of truth behind what was in many respects a shifting landscape of surreality.
On the skeleton of a historical framework, Pynchon rears a sprawling, phantasmagoric edifice that belies any sort of easy classification. Early on in the narrative the main characters meet a talking dog. Things get stranger from there, and their travels include encounters with a sentient, robotic duck, erotic Jesuit assassins, a Jewish Golem as large as a mountain, ghosts, giant vegetables, and signs of a pre-historic advanced civilization among ancient burial mounds. Most of the action takes place in the wilds of colonial America, where Pynchon uses his stream-of-consciousness approach to paint a wilderness of our own national legends and myths. It is a realm where what we think of as “real” history blends with history-that-could-have-been, or should have been, or was once imagined.
Pynchon’s writing style doesn’t make it any easier for the casual reader. The first thing to master is the eighteenth-century spellings and capitalizations, carried throughout the work. To be fair, once you’ve gotten used to this, it is no longer quite so noticeable and indeed deepens the feeling that you’re actually experiencing life as it was lived and thought over two hundred years ago. The following passage gives a good feeling for Pynchon’s stylistic approach. All of the ellipses are true to the text:
“What Machine is it,” young Cherrycoke later bade himself goodnight, “that bears us along so relentlessly? We go rattling thro’ another Day,– another Year,– as thro’ an empty Town without a Name, in the Midnight . . . we have but Memories of some Pause at the Pleasure-Spas of our younger Days, the Maidens, the Cards, the Claret,– we seek to extend our stay, but now a silent Functionary in dark Livery indicates it is time to re-board the Coach,and resume the Journey. Long before the Destination, moreover, shall this Machine come abruptly to a Stop . . . gather’d dense with Fear, shall we open the Door to confer with the Driver,. . . no Horses, . . . only the Machine, fading as we stand, and a Prairie of desperate Immensity. . . .”
What is harder to come to grips with is Pynchon’s casual treatment of chronology. Dialogue between characters describing a past event will move without warning into a firsthand narrative of said event with no transition. Pynchon’s approach of presenting the entire narrative as a story being told as a recollection by one of Mason and Dixon’s traveling companions in post-independence Philadelphia and switching back and forth between the narrative and description of what’s happening in this Philadelphia drawing room– frequent at first but falling away by the novel’s end– is also disconcerting. All of these scene and temporal shifts come on top of the reality-surreality disjunction that runs through the entire work, contributing to a sense vertigo that makes the whole thing– the primary extent of which chronicles the wanderings of the surveyors in America– feel like an extended fever dream.
It was beautiful in many places, and the weirdness and wonder of the story itself hung nicely with the practice of astronomy during this period, often portrayed in other sources as dull and unromantic. Pynchon plays with connections between carving lines of latitude across a wilderness and early modern (and lingering) beliefs in lines of energy and occult forces across landscapes. (Dixon, we learn, spent his student years not only learning how to mark surveying lines but also using them to fly across the English countryside on a broomstick by night.) But the sheer volume of the tale and its dizzying arabesques of flashback and fantasy and story within story grew (for me) wearing. Maybe Pynchon was making us feel the grind of Mason and Dixon across the unexplored countryside, driving a carefully calibrated visto across America’s “dreamtime,” but all of their eastward and westward peregrinations started to blend together in my own mind. What was I supposed to find in Mason’s melancholy and Dixon’s tales under those strange stars?
The strongest aspect of the story was the relationship between the two astronomer-surveyors, which is played to an excellent effect in the novel’s beginning, during their time at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, loses momentum in the bulk of the novel, and only reappears after they have returned to England at the novel’s conclusion. In between, for much of the work, I was as lost as Pynchon makes it feel Mason and Dixon were themselves, with only their lenses and latitudes to guide them. It’s a journey with no real destination– into the wilderness and back, and Pynchon shows you that not even the astronomers themselves were satisfied with it, leaving the reader with ghosts and narrative echoes: an imagined image of them continuing westward and Mason at long last returning (maybe?) from England to America to die.
“Meanwhile, there all of you are, accosting Strangers in Taverns, spilling forth your Sorrows, Gratis. One day, if it be his Will, God will seize and shake you like wayward daughters, and you will thenceforward give nothing away for free.”