Mason and Dixon
Next to J. D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon is the most famous recluse among important twentieth century American authors, having craftily covered his tracks for some thirty-five years as of the publication of Mason and Dixon. He majored in engineering physics at Cornell University before switching to English, worked as a technical writer for Boeing from 1960 to 1962, then went underground, surfacing only occasionally with novels that are as idiosyncratic and convoluted as they are brilliant. Few readers will disagree that he can write like the proverbial bat out of—no known address.
The publication of V. in 1963 introduced Pynchon’s public to an immense, intricate, often savagely humorous vision of a century gone haywire, propelled by chaos and governed by fruitless worldwide quests related in densely symbolic language. The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) also takes the form of a search, with a protagonist named Oedipa Maas uncovering an international postal conspiracy. The governing theme of this and Pynchon’s subsequent novel, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), is entropy, a concept borrowed from thermodynamics, which refers to the tendency of all systems, even the universe itself, to run down and move toward disorder through an irretrievable loss of available energy. Gravity’s Rainbow, which won a National Book Award, has earned a fervent cult following among readers. It features Tyrone Slothrop, an American soldier in London during World War II, who can predict imminent German bombing trajectories and whose fragmentary consciousness roams around the world as Pynchon floods the book with arcane information about physics, statistics, sociology, history, and much more. Vineland (1990) is a dark fairy tale about the United States under what Pynchon considers an evil spell: sinister Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) plots, the death of 1960’s idealism, and the pitiless, reactionary politics of the Nixon and Reagan eras.
Mason and Dixon is a monster of a novel, often an allegorical picaresque, sprawling over three continents and half a century. Its central narrative is factual, featuring two Englishmen, the astronomer Charles Mason (1728-1786) and the surveyor Jeremiah Dixon (1733-1779). From 1763 to 1767, they were engaged by the Royal Society to settle an eighty-year-old dispute by mapping the borders between the proprietorships of Pennsylvania and Maryland. Ten years before the American Revolution, Mason and Dixon divided much of America in two, their line formalizing what was to become a war-causing separation between slave and free states, a mark where some of America’s deepest characteristics and contradictions were to focus. The book is Pynchon’s reimagining not only of Mason’s and Dixon’s lives but also of the tensions between science’s orderly processes and rationalism and nature’s wildness, marvels, and frequent violence.
Compared with the enigmatic complexities of Pynchon’s earlier work, this novel is refreshingly linear, with the protagonists fully and concretely drawn. Mason and Dixon are a great buddy duo, acting as halves to each other. Mason is a mopey deist obsessed with the ghost of his beloved dead wife and stewing over his professional disappointments; he is essentially cautious and prudent in temperament. Dixon is a cheerful Quaker, an instinctive radical and populist, an erotic adventurer and genial drinker who finds himself appalled by the cruel slaughter of American Indians and enslavement of Africans. He is a humane bumpkin to Mason’s melancholy sophisticate. As an astronomer, Mason looks up; as a surveyor, Dixon looks down; most of their reality is complementary.
The travels and travails of Mason and Dixon are told by the slightly sententious Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke as after-dinner stories to entertain his family. He claims to have been a member of two of Mason and Dixon’s expeditions yet recounts many events at which he could not have been present, perhaps relating to the psychic Ronald Cherrycoke in Gravity’s Rainbow. “What we were doing out in that country,” he tells his nephews and nieces, “was brave, scientifick beyond my understanding, and ultimately meaningless, . . . eight years later to be nullified by the War for Independence.”
The work’s style is a playful pastiche of eighteenth century prose studded with archaic diction and capitalizations, metaphorical, bumptiously Fieldingesque but also slyly Shandyan, occasionally laced with late twentieth century idioms that mix the verifiable with the invented. Pynchon’s broad wink at history is affectionate and playful; the paranoid tone of his previous works is here absent, replaced by fantastic comedy as he mixes eighteenth century form with a...
(The entire section is 1954 words.)