Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Many of the themes, ideas, and even character names of Pynchon’s four earlier novels appear in Mason and Dixon. V. (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), and Vineland (1990) all involve characters who suspect that their lives are being directed by vast and mysterious forces. Mason and Dixon continues Pynchon’s exploration of paranoia, with Mason and Dixon suspecting the Royal Society of manipulating their lives, the officers of the Royal Society suspecting French Jesuits, and various members of the Society suspecting the influence of Robert Clive and his East India Company.

Another element that Mason and Dixon shares with Pynchon’s other novels is a plot and setting that involves the construction of the modern world. In V., it was the intellectual ferment of Vienna at the turn of the century and the colonialism of that era; in Pynchon’s next two novels, the rise of an economy based on information is sketched. In Mason and Dixon, a quintessentially American novel, the forces that made the United States are depicted, resulting in an abundance of anachronisms, including Pynchon’s characteristic references to popular culture: Popeye, Star Trek, and borscht belt comedians all appear in the novel.

Pynchon has a Faulkner-like history of carrying over family names from previous novels, as if the characters are ancestor and descendent. The narrator of Mason and Dixon, the Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke, is presumably an ancestor of the Cherrycoke in Gravity’s Rainbow, and a foretopman named “Fender-Belly” Bodine in Mason and Dixon is likely a forefather of Seaman “Pig” Bodine in V. Even when there are no connections in plot or setting, little hints such as these names suggest the coherence of Pynchon’s fictional world. Pynchon’s yoking of his quintessential elements of paranoia and anachronism to a seminal event in the making of America makes Mason and Dixon a profoundly important novel.