Charles Mason (1728-1786) and Jeremiah Dixon (1733-1779) were the British surveyors best remembered for running the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland that we know today as the Mason-Dixon Line. Here is their story as re-imagined by Thomas Pynchon, featuring Native Americans and frontier folk, ripped bodices, naval warfare, conspiracies erotic and political, and major caffeine abuse. We follow the mismatched pairone rollicking, the other depressive; one Gothic, the other pre-Romanticfrom their first journey together to the Cape of Good Hope, to pre-Revolutionary America and back, through the strange yet redemptive turns of fortune in their later lives, on a grand tour of the Enlightenment's dark hemisphere, as they observe and participate in the many opportunities for insanity presented them by the Age of Reason.
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About the Author
Thomas Pynchon is the author of V., The Crying of Lot 49, Gravity's Rainbow, Slow Learner (a collection of stories), and Vineland. He received the National Book Award for Gravity's Rainbow in 1974. He lives in New York.
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:May 8, 1937
Place of Birth:Glen Cove, Long Island, New York
Education:B. A., Cornell University, 1958
Read an Excerpt
Latitudes and Departures
Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs, starr'd the Sides of Outbuildings, as of Cousins, carried Hats away into the brisk Wind off Delaware,--the Sleds are brought in and their Runners carefully dried and greased, shoes deposited in the back Hall, a stocking'd-foot Descent made upon the great Kitchen, in a purposeful Dither since Morning, punctuated by the ringing Lids of various Boilers and Stewing-Pots, fragrant with Pie-Spices, peel'd Fruits, Suet, heated Sugar,--the Children, having all upon the Fly, among rhythmic slaps of Batter and Spoon, coax'd and stolen what they might, proceed, as upon each afternoon all this snowy Advent, to a comfortable Room at the rear of the House, years since given over to their carefree Assaults. Here have come to rest a long scarr'd sawbuck table, with two mismatch'd side-benches, from the Lancaster County branch of the family,--some Second-Street Chippendale, including an interpretation of the fam'd Chinese Sofa, with a high canopy of yards of purple Stuff that might be drawn all 'round to make a snug, dim tent,--a few odd Chairs sent from England before the War,--mostly Pine and Cherry about, nor much Mahogany, excepting a sinister and wonderful Card Table which exhibits the cheaper Wave-like Grain known in the Trade as Wand'ring Heart, causing an illusion of Depth into which for years children have gaz'd as into the illustrated Pages of Books...along with so many hinges, sliding Mortises, hidden catches, and secret compartments that neither the Twins nor their Sister can say they have been to the end of it. Upon the Wall, banish'd to this Den of Parlor Apes for its Remembrance of a Time better forgotten, reflecting most of the Room,--the Carpet and Drapes a little fray'd, Whiskers the Cat stalking beneath the furniture, looking out with eyes finely reflexive to anything suggesting Food,--hangs a Mirror in an inscrib'd Frame, commemorating the "Mischianza," that memorable farewell Ball stag'd in '77 by the British who'd been Occupying the City, just before their Withdrawal from Philadelphia.
This Christmastide of 1786, with the War settl'd and the Nation bickering itself into Fragments, wounds bodily and ghostly, great and small, go aching on, not ev'ry one commemorated,--nor, too often, even recounted. Snow lies upon all Philadelphia, from River to River, whose further shores have so vanish'd behind curtains of ice-fog that the City today might be an Isle upon an Ocean. Ponds and Creeks are frozen over, and the Trees a-glare to the last slightest Twig,--Nerve-Lines of concentrated Light. Hammers and Saws have fallen still, bricks lie in snowcover'd Heaps, City-Sparrows, in speckl'd Outbursts, hop in and out of what Shelter there may be,--the nightward Sky, Clouds blown to Chalksmears, stretches above the Northern Liberties, Spring Garden and Germantown, its early moon pale as the Snow-Drifts,--smoke ascends from Chimney-Pots, Sledging-Parties adjourn indoors, Taverns bustle,--freshly infus'd Coffee flows ev'ryplace, borne about thro' Rooms front and back, whilst Madeira, which has ever fuel'd Association in these Parts, is deploy'd nowadays like an ancient Elixir upon the seething Pot of Politics,--for the Times are as impossible to calculate, this Advent, as the Distance to a Star.
It has become an afternoon habit for the Twins and their Sister, and what Friends old and young may find their way here, to gather for another Tale from their far-travel'd Uncle, the [Rev.sup.d] Wicks Cherrycoke, who arriv'd here back in October for the funeral of a Friend of years ago,--too late for the Burial, as it prov'd,--and has linger'd as a Guest in the Home of his sister Elizabeth, the Wife, for many years, of Mr. J. Wade LeSpark. a respected Merchant active in Town Affairs, whilst in his home vet Sultan enough to convey to the [Rev.sup.d], tho' without ever so stipulating, that, for as long as he can keep the children amus'd, he may remain,--too much evidence of Juvenile Rampage at the wrong moment, however' and Boppo! 'twill be Out the Door with him, where waits the Winter's Block and Blade.
Thus, they have heard the Escape from Hottentot-Land, the Accursed Ruby of Mogok, the Ship-wrecks in Indies East and West,--an Herodotic Web of Adventures and Curiosities selected, the [Rev.sup.d] implies, for their moral usefulness, whilst avoiding others not as suitable in the Hearing of Youth. The Youth, as usual, not being consulted in this.
Tenebrae has seated herself and taken up her Needlework, a piece whose size and difficulty are already subjects of Discussion in the House, the Embroidress herself keeping silence,--upon this Topick, at least. Announc'd by Nasal Telegraph, in come the Twins, bearing the old Pewter Coffee-Machine venting its Puffs of Vapor, and a large Basket dedicated to Saccharomanic Appetites, piled to the Brim with fresh-fried Dough-Nuts roll'd in Sugar, glaz'd Chestnuts, Buns, Fritters, Crullers, Tarts. "What is this? Why, Lads, you read my mind."
"The Coffee's for you, Nunk,--" "--last Time, you were talking in your sleep," the Pair explain, placing the Sweets nearer themselves, all in this Room being left to seize and pour as they may. As none could agree which had been born first, the Twins were nam'd Pitt and Pliny, so that each might be term'd "the Elder" or "the Younger," as might day-today please one, or annoy his Brother.
"Why haven't we heard a Tale about America?" Pitt licking Gobbets of Philadelphia Pudding from his best Jabot.
"With Indians in it, and Frenchmen," adds Pliny, whose least gesture sends Cookie-crumbs ev'rywhere.
"French Women, come to that," mutters Pitt.
"It's not easy being pious for both of us, you know," Pliny advises.
"It's twenty years," recalls the [Rev.sup.d], "since we all topped the Allegheny Ridge together, and stood looking out at the Ohio Country,--so fair, a Revelation, meadow'd to the Horizon--Mason and Dixon, and all the McCleans, Darby and Cope, no, Darby wouldn't've been there in 'sixty-six,--howbeit, old Mr. Barnes and young Tom Hynes, the rascal...don't know where they all went,--some fought in the war, some chose peace come what might, some profited, some lost everything. Some are gone to Kentucky, and some,--as now poor Mason,--to Dust.
"'Twas not too many years before the War,--what we were doing out in that Country together was brave, scientifick beyond my understanding, and ultimately meaningless,--we were putting a line straight through the heart of the Wilderness, eight yards wide and due west, in order to separate two Proprietorships, granted when the World was yet feudal and but eight years later to be nullified by the War for Independence."
And now Mason's gone, and the [Rev.sup.d] Cherrycoke, who came to town only to pay his Respects, has linger'd, thro' the first descent of cold, the first drawings-in to the Hearth-Side, the first Harvest-Season meals appearing upon the next-best Dishes. He had intended to be gone weeks ago, but finds he cannot detach. Each day among his Devoirs is a visit, however brief, to Mason's grave. The Verger has taken to nodding at him. In the middle of the night recently he awoke convinc'd that 'twas he who had been haunting Mason,--that like a shade with a grievance, he expected Mason, but newly arriv'd at Death, to help him with something.
"After years wasted," the [Rev.sup.d] commences, "at perfecting a parsonical Disguise,--grown old in the service of an Impersonation that never took more than a Handful of actor's tricks,--past remembering those Yearnings for Danger, past all that ought to have been, but never had a Hope of becoming, have I beach'd upon these Republican Shores,--stoven, dismasted, imbecile with age,--an untrustworthy Remembrancer for whom the few events yet rattling within a broken memory must provide the only comfort now remaining to him,--"
"Uncle," Tenebrae pretends to gasp, "--and but this Morning, you look'd so much younger,--why I'd no idea."
"Kindly Brae. That is from my Secret Relation, of course. Don't know that I'd phrase it quite like that in the present Company."
"Then...?" Tenebrae replying to her Uncle's Twinkling with the usual play of Eye-lashes.
"It begins with a Hanging."
"Excellent!" cry the Twins.
The [Rev.sup.d], producing a scarr'd old Note-book, cover'd in cheap Leather, begins to read. "Had I been the first churchman of modern times to be swung from Tyburn Tree,--had I been then taken for dead, whilst in fact but spending an Intermission among the eventless corridors of Syncope, due to the final Bowl of Ale,--had a riotous throng of medical students taken what they deem'd to be my Cadaver back beneath the somber groins of their College,--had I then been 'resurrected' into an entirely new Knowledge of the terms of being, in which Our Savior,--strange to say in that era of Wesley and Whitefield,--though present, would not have figur'd as pre-eminently as with most Sectarians,--howbeit,--I should closely resemble the nomadic Parson you behold today... "
"Mother says you're the Family outcast," Pitt remarks.
"They pay you money to keep away," says Pliny.
"Your Grandsire Cherrycoke, Lads, has ever kept his promise to remit to me, by way of certain Charter'd Companies, a sum precise to the farthing and punctual as the Moon,--to any address in the World, save one in Britain. Britain is his World, and he will persist, even now, in standing sham'd before it for certain Crimes of my distant Youth."
"Crimes!" exclaim the Boys together.
"Why, so did wicked men declare 'em...before God, another Tale...."
"What'd they nail you on?" Uncle Ives wishes to know, "strictly professional interest, of course." Green Brief-bag over one shoulder, but lately return'd from a Coffee-House Meeting, he is bound later this evening for a slightly more formal version of the same thing,--feeling, here with the children, much as might a Coaching Passenger let off at Nightfall among an unknown Populace, to wait for a connecting Coach, alone, pedestrian, desiring to pass the time to some Revenue, if not Profit.
"Along with some lesser Counts," the [Rev.sup.d] is replying, "'twas one of the least tolerable of Offenses in that era, the worst of Dick Turpin seeming but the Carelessness of Youth beside it,--the Crime they styl'd `Anonymity.' That is, I left messages posted publicly, but did not sign them. I knew some night-running lads in the district who let me use their Printing-Press,--somehow, what I got into printing up, were Accounts of certain Crimes I had observ'd, committed by the Stronger against the Weaker,--enclosures, evictions, Assize verdicts, Activities of the Military,--giving the Names of as many of the Perpetrators as I was sure of, yet keeping back what I foolishly imagin'd my own. till the Night I was tipp'd and brought in to London, in Chains, and clapp'd in the Tower.
"Oh, do not tease them so," Tenebrae prays him.
"Ludgate, then? whichever, 'twas Gaol. It took me till I was lying among the Rats and Vermin, upon the freezing edge of a Future invisible, to understand that my name had never been my own,--rather belonging, all this time, to the Authorities, who forbade me to change it, or withhold it, as 'twere a Ring upon the Collar of a Beast, ever waiting for the Lead to be fasten'd on.... One of those moments Hindoos and Chinamen are ever said to be having, entire loss of Self, perfect union with All, sort of thing. Strange Lights, Fires, Voices indecipherable,--indeed, Children, this is the part of the Tale where your old Uncle gets to go insane,--or so, then, each in his Interest, did it please ev'ryone to style me. Sea voyages in those days being the standard Treatment for Insanity, my Exile should commence for the best of Medical reasons."
Tho' my Inclination had been to go out aboard an East Indiaman (the [Rev.sup.d] continues), as that route East travers'd notoriously a lively and youthful World of shipboard Dalliance, Gale-force Assemblies, and Duels ashore, with the French Fleet a constant,--for some, Romantic,--danger, "Like Pirates, yet more polite," as the Ladies often assur'd me,--alas, those who controll'd my Fate, getting wind of my preference at the last moment, swiftly arrang'd to have me transferr'd into a small British Frigate sailing alone, upon a long voyage, in a time of War,--the Seahorse, twenty-four guns, Captain Smith. I hasten'd in to Leadenhall Street to inquire.
"Can this be Objection we hear?" I was greeted. "Are you saying that a sixth-rate is beneath you? Would you prefer to remain ashore, and take up quarters in Bedlam? It has made a man of many in your Situation. Some have come to enjoy fairly meaningful lives there. Or if it's some need for the Exotic, we might arrange for a stay in one of the French Hospitals...."
"Would one of my Condition even know how to object, my Lord? I owe you everything."
"Madness has not impair'd your memory. Good. Keep away from harmful Substances, in particular Coffee. Tobacco and Indian Hemp. If you must use the latter, do not inhale. Keep your memory working, young man! Have a safe Voyage."
So, with this no doubt well-meant advice finding its way into the mid-watch sounds of waves past my sleeping-place, I set sail upon an Engine of Destruction, in the hope that Eastward yet might dwell something of Peace and Godhead, which British Civilization, in venturing Westward, had left behind,--and thus was consternation the least of my feelings when, instead of supernatural Guidance from Lamas old as time, here came Jean Crapaud a-looming,--thirty-four guns' worth of Disaster, and only one Lesson.
Reading Group Guide
1. "Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs, starr'd the Sides of Outbuildings, as of Cousins, carried Hats away into the brisk Wind off Delaware, " It is clear from the first sentence that Pynchon has abandoned modern syntax for eighteenth-century prose, an ambitious undertaking. How does this serve the themes and action of the novel? Why do you think the author has chosen to write this way?
Does it impede or enhance your reading of the novel? Which elements of the prose and language can be identified as archaic, and which elements can be termed modern?
2. The events of the novel are narrated by the Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke, who tells the story of
Mason and Dixon after dinner for the entertainment of his family. How does he gain access to the details of the events? How does he fill in the gaps of events he doesn't actually witness? Do his perspective and morality color the narrative? Is he reliable? Does the fact that he is trying to entertain a youthful audience account for the appearance of talking dogs, conversing clocks, and mechanical ducks?
3. There are actually two narratives taking place simultaneously in Mason & Dixon: the story of
Mason and Dixon and the framing narrative, set in the LeSparks' living room many years later, as the
Reverend Cherrycoke tells his tale. How does the framing narrative serve the novel? How do the discussions, comments, and arguments by the framing characters affect the relation of the narrative?
What undercurrents of tension can you identify in the framing narrative? How do they affect the
4. Pynchon's works tend to spill over the edge of their pages into the real world, pulling in science,
history, philosophy, and the arcane nature of popular culture. In Mason & Dixon, he has two worlds to flood into: the world of the eighteenth-century, and the modern world. Does he limit himself to the eighteenth-century? Is there a macrocosm or two macrocosms imbedded in the microcosm of
Mason & Dixon?
5. Mason is an astronomer, Dixon a surveyor. But the opposing natures of their characters go much deeper than that. "Mason is Gothickally depressive, as Dixon is Westeringly manic" (p. 680). "Mason and Dixon would like to stay, one to fuss and the other to flirt" (p.27). Account for all the ways their natures are divergent. How does this serve the narrative throughout the novel?
6. Pynchon is nothing if not playful with language. Any reading of his work is more enjoyable if you keep your eyes open for allusions, illusions, tricky metaphors, symbols, puns, pop-cultural references,
and more. Share and discuss your discoveries with fellow readers, and try to determine whether they serve the narrative or simply display the author's sense of literary playfulness.
7. "Mason, pray You, 'tis the Age of Reason . . . we're Men of Science," states Dixon (p. 27). How,
then, do they account for ghostly visitations, giant beets, and talking dogs?
8. The Reverend Cherrycoke says, "As to journey west . . . in the same sense of the Sun, is to live,
raise Children, grow older, and die, carried along by the stream of the Day, whilst to turn Eastward,
is somehow to resist time and age, to work against the Wind, seek ever the dawn, even, as who can say, defy Death" (p. 263). How does this observation resonate throughout the novel during Mason and
9. The Mason-Dixon Line is seemingly insignificant, merely "Five degrees. Twenty minutes of a day's
Turn," as Dixon notes (p. 629). But, as later events testify, it becomes symbolic of much more than that, the division of a country. Do the characters have any sense of the significance of what they are creating? Mason asks, "Shall wise Doctors one day write History's assessment of the Good resulting from this Line, vis-à-vis the not-so-good? I wonder which list would be longer" (p. 666). Why does
Captain Zhang declare that the line's feng shui is the "worst I ever saw" (p. 542)? What moral implications do Mason and Dixon face as they create the line? What other lines and boundaries are there in the novel?
10. "Whom are we working for, Mason?" inquires Dixon (p. 347). Later, he says, ". . . Something invisible's going on, tha must feel it, smell it ?" (p. 478). Conspiracies abound in Pynchon's oeuvre,
and Mason & Dixon is no exception. Identify the conspiracies, real and imagined, in the novel. Are they rooted in paranoid speculation or in real events? Do they find any echoes in modern conspiracy theories?
11. On pages 349–352, Cherrycoke and Uncle Ives argue about the nature of history. To understand history, Ives says, "You look at the evidence. The testimony. The whole Truth" (p.352). Cherrycoke,
in contrast, sees history as "a great disorderly Tangle of Lines, long and short, weak and strong,
vanishing into the Mnemonick Deep." Which definition do you think Pynchon credits? Which do you?
Who, according to Cherrycoke, is best able to convey history?
12. In chapter 53 (p. 511), the novel embarks on an entirely new narrative, that of Eliza, a novitiate in the Widows of Christ, and Captain Zhang, the feng shui expert who rescues her. The source of the new narrative turns out to be a bawdy book that Tenebrae and Ethelmer secretly read in 'Brae's bedroom.
However, the new narrative soon melds into the one being told by Cherrycoke. How does Pynchon account for this? How is it resolved? What does this tell us about the nature of storytelling and writing?
13. A Quaker reminds Mason and Dixon that the sugar they enjoy is "bought . . . with the lives of
African slaves, untallied black lives broken upon the greedy engines of the Barbadoes" (p. 329). Dixon later declares, ". . . we lived with Slavery in our faces, more of it at St. Helena, and now here we are again, in another Colony, this time having drawn them a Line between their Slave-Keepers, and their Wage-Payers, as if doom'd to re-encounter thro' the World this public Secret, this shameful Core .
. ." (p. 692). How do the surveyors respond to slavery throughout the book? Do their awareness and their response change?
14. Pynchon offers up an alternative ending, sending the surveyors farther and farther west, ". . . away from the law, into the savage Vacancy ever before them . . ." (p.709). What purpose does this false
ending serve? What do Mason and Dixon discover as they voyage on?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The limit of 'Mason & Dixon' as a work of art may be equal to the ignorance and stubborness of its audience - America glutted with thought-free TV, film, commericals, music... everything down to & including the plastic flowers. This ain't Grisham, ain't King -- King only dreams of being this good (as do much lesser talents & wanna-be's [such as myself]). If you read for a linear plot, characters pre-written for their film adaptations, and a total lapse of ways to use your noodle, please don't bother. Put the book down & reach for the remote. This is not your brain on 'Friends'. 'Mason & Dixon' is for lovers of the English language, of conundrums, of labyrinths & mazes, of sipping instead of gulping, of friendship, of life's sadness and fun, of a world that doesn't quite make sense no matter how hard one tries. This is the one Pynchon will be remembered for. 'Gravity's Rainbow' won't last the century (it's too hard to read now!). All of the others are minor works. This is a genuine story written by a man who must wait for the culture to catch up with him. No, it's not perfect. The first third drags -- needed an editor. But the last two-thirds are marvelous, and the final section of all, 'Last Transit', almost without peer. Sometimes we are lucky enough to read a book that makes the act of reading worthwhile. That makes us glad to have spent the hours inside a tome rather than in front of a Tube. This book is one of those. Thanks, Mr. P.
The genius resident in this mighty and 'prolifick' work is off the charts, lacking borders, bounds and limits. 'Mason & Dixon' is a picaresque Iliad by a supremely gifted and inventive storyteller. The 'electrick' writing on each of the 773 pages is luminous beyond belief. The characters are deeply human 'comick' and 'mystick' figures who consistently extend the wit of their banter well beyond the first or second brilliant repartee of each stretch of dialogue. The 'vistos' of wild American colonial landscape in both city and countryside, on land and 'oceanick', in royal and humble society in Pynchon's Great Chain of Being are breathtaking. The dialogue is intelligent and witty and often hilarious. Meet Franklin, Washington, Penn, Calvert, Boswell and Dr. Johnson -- all in the mileux of their day -- in adventures high and low. 'Mason & Dixon' is an American Human Comedy written in the style of Fielding in 'Tom Jones' or Sterne in 'Tristram Shandy' or Barth in 'The Sotweed Factor.' An intricate and elegantly woven story line awaits those who must have one. High science and political intrigue of the day abound for those who love reading 18th century American history. Most of all, the writing quality is so evenly elegant throughout this opus maximus that its supreme and sustained intelligence is the signature of a writer of Nobel Prize stature. Pynchon's body of work, including 'V.' 'M&D' and 'Gravity's Rainbow,' are sufficient evidence of the breadth of his literary gifts. Only a handful of writers in this era are capable of writing metafiction at this lofty level -- Gaddis, Gass, Theroux, Barth, Donleavy and Bellow. Is Pynchon as brilliant as Nobel Laureate, Bellow? Pynchon is, at least, equally worthy. Few novels have so much going for them on so many levels. 'Carpe carpum.' Do yourself a favor and seize this brilliant, carping novel: someday its cover shall bear the seal of the Nobel Prize for it is a 'magnetick' American Iliad -- a shimmering and timeless Flower of Light.
Bad one to do on tape. Brillant, if a bit unreadable. Blame the book or me?
So I wasn't necessarily expecting this to become my favorite Pynchon (so far anyway--I haven't read Gravity's Rainbow yet), but it seems it has. I'm all for its quirky cherished history (the Mesmerites!), delicious food ongoing, and frank and playful attitude towards sex and bodily functions. I guess when this came out reviewers remarked how this was Pynchon's warmest novel, and indeed, the interaction between Mason and Dixon is pretty touching. I liked witnessing their friendship build, that slow gentle development of camaraderie, trust, and importance that occurs at a nearly imperceptible pace over the most mundane and silly details and conversation. That felt true, and moving as a genuine phenomenon--the kind of thing where you look back, scratch your head, and wonder "At what point did this person become dear to me?"...and of course there is no single point. Liked the ending too, found it touching. The lightest hand.
My favorite and in my opinion, the best of Pynchon's works so far. To the extent a Pynchon book is about anything, it is about everything, but the chosen vehicle for this voyage is a faux eighteenth century picaresque novel describing the adventures of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon. The prose can be difficult at first, but once you adapt to the strange capitalization and phrasing, and adjust yourself as always to the Pynchonean sudden shifts in perspective and narrative focus, what emerges is a rumination on (along with the usual Secrets Man Was Not Meant to Know), fathers and sons, husbands and wives, freedom and slavery, friendship and old age. As such, it far more tender than much of Pynchon's other work, and for its humanity it stays with you long after you set it down.
On the face of it, this is an impenetrable, seven-hundred page chronically insane madhouse of a book. Not only is it written in eighteenth-century prose and replete with archaisms, it is also not "true" - or it's all true, depending. The narrator, the Reverend Cherrycoke, is telling the story to entertain his extended family, but he wasn't there for all of it, and people and places he never knew keep coming into it, and it isn't as if parts of it - crazed mechanical ducks, Jesuit conspiracies, flying children and talking dogs - aren't shaggy dog stories anyway. And despite this, it's wonderful. Beneath the baroque anecdotage, it's a story of Mason and Dixon, the surveyors (a story, not the story) chasing transits of Venus and surveying their famous Line, and being "mates". The pay-off of the book, or what you get after you have patiently stuck with it for all seven hundred pages, is the wistful tale of two people who were friends despite every indication otherwise, and you believe it: because of all the things in the book, it probably makes the most sense.
Dense, witty and well researched. In places like a postmodern ¿Island of the Day Before¿, but less sentimental, and with a weaker plot. In fact the plot is pretty much the only thing that lets this book down, it lacks an overall direction, leaving it without suspense and expectation, a serious flaw in a book nearly 800 pages long. It is well written enough, which compensates to a degree, and amusing throughout, but not really a page turner in the way it could have been had it carried on at the pace it starts out at. Partly historical, partly imaginative, this book fails to combine to two well. The made up bits are meant to be funny, but because they don't add to the historical parts, being only diversions from them, the story loses out. I enjoyed reading this book, and will look out for other Pynchon novels, but I felt a lot more could have been done with this. historical, partly imaginative, this book fails to combine to two well. The made up bits are meant to be funny, but because they don't add to the historical parts, being only diversions from them, the story loses out. I enjoyed reading this book, and will look out for other Pynchon novels, but I felt a lot more could have been done with this.
¿Snow-Balls have¿ their Arcs,¿ Thomas Pynchon¿s fifth novel begins. Trying to calculate the arc of the narrative of Mason & Dixon is as difficult as the calculus involved in calculating the arc of a thrown snowball. It¿s a huge book, not just in number of pages, but in ideas, both comic and profound, and in erudition.The story involves the lives, travels and adventures of two globe-trotting Brits, an astronomer and a surveyor, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, as they travel south to the Cape of Good Hope and then west, into North America. Mason and Dixon survive, of course, into the present as the name of the line that separates North from South (the southern boundary of Pennsylvania). But Pynchon, as ever, is never only writing biography or history; indeed, he writes that ¿Who claims Truth, Truth abandons. History is hir¿d, or coerc¿d, only in Interests that must ever prove base.¿This story is related to an unruly bunch of kids on a series of winter¿s nights in 1786 (¿the War settl¿d and the Nation bickering itself into Fragments¿) by one Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke. As long as the Reverend can keep the children entertained and out of the hair of adults, he¿s welcome to the room and board of the house.As such, the story Cherrycoke tells is only marginally about measurement, precision and mapping. As with Gravity¿s Rainbow, the density of vocabulary and scientific data, once a reader manages to scale the intimidating walls they present, function as metaphors of human emotion and motivation. To redeploy the words of one young character, this language-rich novel acts as ¿A Vector of Desire.¿Pynchon, despite his (well-earned) reputation for difficulty and his refusal to help us poor readers out with the occasional interview (indeed, the most recent photograph of him is some 45 years old), is a joker and a prankster. Mason & Dixon is like the carriage in which the eponymous heroes ride in one scene: ¿Our Coach is a late invention of the Jesuits, being, to speak bluntly, a Conveyance, wherein the inside is quite noticeably larger than the outside, though the fact cannot be appreciated until one is inside.¿ The novel looks quite large enough from the outside; inside are universes entire, parallel, tangent and quite divergent.Originally published in Curled Up with a Good Book
written in a kinda high-fallootin & obtuse manner but the events/action skew downright goofy... has my favorite cameo ever: popeye the sailor.
When I finally finish a book like "Mason & Dixon," all I can do is sit back, wipe the sweat from my brow and say, "Well, I¿m glad that¿s over!" I¿ve heard it said that Thomas Pynchon is not for everyone. After reading this novel from the author of "Gravity¿s Rainbow" and "V.," I can safely say, he¿s not my cup of coffee.And coffee is what you¿ll need to get through all 773 pages of "Mason & Dixon." A Ph.D. in early American history wouldn¿t hurt, either.Don¿t get me wrong. There¿s much to admire in this complex, satirical novel. Pynchon has reached (perhaps overreached) for a novel on the order of James Joyce¿s "Ulysses" or the more recent "Infinite Jest" by David Foster Wallace. I have a great deal of respect for ambitious novelists who paint with such a large and intellectual brush. However, it¿s tough to sit through pages and pages of archaic jokes and historical diversions. I felt like the guy at the cocktail party who has this big sloppy grin on his face even though he¿s not getting any of the jokes.There¿s jokes a-plenty in "Mason & Dixon." A talking dog that waxes philosophic on Buddhism, a mechanical duck looking for love in all the wrong places, George Washington getting stoned, Pre-Renaissance superstition versus the Age of Enlightenment¿that sort of thing. My hair was definitely parted a couple of times as Pynchon threw fastballs at me.For those whose follicles are already parted, here¿s a brief lowdown on the highbrow: Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon were the British surveyors who in the mid-1700s were given the assignment to map out the boundary line between Pennsylvania and Maryland. It was a line that eventually came to represent the division between slaveholding and free states. If you paid attention in history class, you¿ll remember it as, naturally, the Mason-Dixon line. The novel follows the pair through their turbulent careers as they chart territory in the South Seas, wrestle with the Royal Astronomical Society, navigate the dangerous forests of the eastern United States, consume massive amounts of espresso and, ultimately, fall into a bitter dispute that ruptures their relationship."Mason & Dixon" is occasionally very effective, especially when detailing the affection and later disaffection between the two men. But the language is so complex (it¿s written like a faux 18th-century novel) and the structure so convoluted that I found my attention wandering after only a few pages at each sitting.There may be brilliance here in these pages, but I couldn¿t cut through all the literary fog to find it.(Note: to get maximum benefits out of this book, read [as I did] Dava Sobel¿s wonderful "Longitude" first. You¿ll still be lost at sea, but at least you¿ll have a couple of landmarks to guide you.)
A difficult read, but highly rewarding.The first difficulty lies with the language. The story is set in the mid-18th century, and Pynchon has chosen to write in period style. I can't speak to how accurate his imitation is, but it's a far cry from modern standards. My review of Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker should convince you that idiosyncratic language doesn't usually scare me off, but (somewhat to my own surprise) I never really got used to the idiosyncratic capitalisation. To the very end I read the capitalised words (in my inner voice) as more heavily emphasised than the author probably intended, giving the sentences a decidedly odd rhythm.Here's a passage from early in the frame story (the Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke is telling, in chaotic and fractured style, the story of the title characters Mason & Dixon), to show you what I mean:Tenebrae has seated herself and taken up her Needlework, a piece whose size and difficulty are already subjects of Discussion in the House, the Embroidress herself keeping silence,-- upon this Topick, at least. Announc'd by Nasal Telegraph, in come the Twins, bearing the old Pewter Coffee-Machine venting its Puffs of Vapor, and a large Basket dedicated to Saccharomanic Appetites, piled to the Brim with fresh-fried Dough-Nuts roll'd in Sugar, glaz'd Chestnuts, Buns, Fritters, Crullers, Tarts. "What is this? Why, Lads, you read my mind.""The Coffee's for you, Nunk,--" "--last Time, you were talking in your sleep," the Pair explain, placing the Sweets nearer themselves, all in this Room being left to seize and pour as they may. As none could agree which had been born first, the Twins were nam'd Pitt and Pliny, so that each might be term'd "the Elder" or "the Younger," as might day-to-day please one, or annoy his Brother.The passage isn't chosen at random; it's the moment that I decided I loved the authorial voice, even with its erratic capitals and disconcerting spellings. The same light humourous touch runs through the entire novel, and remains a delight whenever it comes to the fore.The story itself is about the friendship of Charley Mason and Jere Dixon, the astronomer and surveyer who laid down the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland. On one level Pynchon is playing it straight: he sticks to the known historical details of the period and the pair, and indeed the book is meticulously researched not just for accuracy of detail but for the various flavours of the times, the concerns of society and so on.In another sense, though, the novel is a surrealist and comedic extravaganza, featuring a talking dog, Vaucanson's famous mechanical defecating duck (escaped from Paris and in amatory pursuit of an ex-chef), an invisible American Golem, a sinister Jesuit and his insane Chinese feng shui-adept nemesis, were-beavers... One sign of Pynchon's mastery is how he weaves together the surreal/comic and the serious, putting the dichotomy to work in parallel with the changing sympathies of the two central characters.At root, as I said, the novel is about their friendship. It begins and ends with Mason's death, taking in their first posting together, their epic collaboration in the young America, and their partial estrangement and eventual reunion. At the beginning the story is fairly simply told, and by the end it's a bit of a tear-jerker, but (like that recent invention the "Sandwich") the meat is in the middle. Cherrycoke's narrative becomes fragmented, the same episodes are retold with variations or explicitly denied, at one point a separate story (an erotic fantasy of Indian capture being read by two of the Reverend's audience) somehow folds itself into the story he is telling... When Mason & Dixon turn back East there is an explicitly counterfactual passage detailing the increasingly mystical consequences if they had continued West...This layered, interwoven narrative conceals rather than reveals the 'plot', in the sense of the precise story of the actions
Even though Pynchon writes in a purposefully 18th century fashion, this work is easier to read than his best known work, Gravity's Rainbow. In terms of plot, it is much more straight forward, and the writing rarely makes me wonder "what just happened?"This book is very funny. I guffawed at many moments. Yet, there is a certain kind of sadness in the character's realizations that make this book more serious than anything else by him. The mix of the two makes for a fulfilling read. This is the first time I have felt that the author was invested in his protagonists. This the best novel by Thomas Pynchon I have had the honor to read.
The only book by Pynchon I've read so far, and I'm too scared to read another in case it doesn't live up to this one!It's a fantastical trip into the lives of Mason and Dixon, as told by one Revd Cherrycoke; with the occasional excursion away from the story and into the lives of those listening to it.It is certainly not a book to read if you are after a piece of serious historical fiction based arounf the lives of the surveryors of the Mason-Dixon line. However, as a piece of intelligent, at times funny, escapism to curl up by the fire with and lose yourself in, it really fits the bill.
Having more meaning in each morsel of prose than one finds in the most touted passage of Shakespeare, this book is a treasure trove of humor, a temporal as well as geographical travelogue, a verbal painting of exquisite characterizations, interspersed with accurate scientific reckoning and an occasional reference to the adventures of Baron von Munchhaeusen, who would have delighted in every page of this madcap, yet wise literary gem.
I was brought to this book from a song by Mark Knopfler - and the song is great. Taking phrases/names from our everyday usage and digging into how they became part of the language is something that appeals to me. But the 'period' writing is really too, too much. I'm glad that Pynchon can perform this arcane art. But the work involved is more suited for an undergraduate English class. I've been through all kinds of literature that I appreciated but didn't like during college, and was rewarded with (often) passing grades. I don't need all i's dotted and t's crossed - Melville brings a lot of pleasure to me as a reader. Comparisons to Ulysses are more than a little extreme. Try it if you want, but there are thousands of better ways to spend LOTS of your time.
M&D is wonderful. Not perfect, but dazzling nonetheless. His characterization of the two men is brilliant and they play off each other nicely. I'm not a big Pynchon fan, personally I find his fiction overwrought and a little masturbatory, but M&D is an exception. His humorous style in in full effect here, and once you work into the prose style, it takes you. I found myself laughing out loud. I respect his writerly abilities, over all, though not his manner of hooking the reader. But M&D is a book I cannot not recommend. It's niot an easy read, but for the first time, I can say that the effort he asks the reader to put in is fully deserved.
Yes, the sentences are dazzling, and many individual moments shine. But after several hundred pages, the book's obvious gifts may seem less impressive, and one can easily bog down. Maybe best to read it in bits and pieces to appreciate the craftsmanship instead of trying to put one's head down and truly plow through the narrative.