Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Chunkster: Dodgy history


Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon is one hell of a ride. And I must admit that out of all the Pynchon books I’ve read (which is all of them sans Against the Day) I think this is the one I’ve enjoyed most from a first reading. Which is an oddity since I generally don’t enjoy the historical novel, especially one that’s set in colonial America. And although the time period is something Pynchon had not tried before (although he did technically write a Renaissance play, the furthest I back in history he has tried to replicate emphatically, for the third chapter of The Crying of Lot 49), it comes off as almost magical – an anachronistic book that doesn’t lose any of the high-strung humour that Thomas Pynchon is known for.

As suggested by the title, the novel is about Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, two British surveyors whose names are now known for the the Mason-Dixon line, most prominently used during the Civil War and after to describe a cultural divide in the United States of America, but then used to end a debate between what belonged to Pennsylvania and what belonged to Maryland, since there was a bit of overlap and vagueness on which colony got what territorially. Leave it to Pynchon to take this and make a mockery of it.
Mason & Dixon is told somewhat through the eyes of Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke, a reverend of god-knows-what, who has come to a house as a special guest to distant relatives. In order to entertain them, he – like Scheherazade – decides to tell a story, in this instance what would be a 780-page tale of Mason and Dixon, keeping young and old alike in intrigue. Though it’s quite uncertain as to how the Reverend has such privy information is kept humorously uncertain (and questioned by a couple of the listeners in his party), the Reverend regales his audience – and us – by detailing ripped bodices, how Thomas Jefferson stole ‘the pursuit of happiness’ from Jeremiah Dixon, George Washington and his wife’s ridiculously memorable banter, and how – especially in a time like the Age of Reason, in which this novel is set – the connection between science and speculation, Romanticism and darkness, the will for freedom and acts of racism basically are the foundation of America, for better or ill.
We follow Mason and Dixon from their modest beginnings in London to a wild naval battle on their way to the Cape of Good Hope to their carnal lusts (and those bodices in twain) at said Cape. Then the bulk of the book – part two, entitled simply ‘America’ – details their insane stay in Philadelphia, meeting the American soon-to-be-revolutionaries aforementioned, and discussions on whether coffee or tea is better and scientifically more interesting. Being a tea drinker myself, I still side on Mason’s love of tea; however, Dixon’s description of the precision needed for brilliant coffee-making almost makes me want to side with him.
Of course the novel is so much more than what is suggested here; it has the wonderful ramblings and sidestories that any Pynchon novel normally has. What makes this an anachronistic work is that Pynchon has written this as if it were written in 1789, with all the typographical entities that would be found in something of that time (the ‘ds that would be used for past tenses: starr’d for starred; random capitalisations for nouns, like in German; old (mis-)spellings like philosophickal; the refusal to spell out God’s or the Devil’s name, as well as a handful of curse words – though not fuck for some reason).
Mason & Dixon at the very least is a book about the art of storytelling, as the Reverend Cherrycoke’s framing reveals: for as certain parts of his audience leave the room, he adapts his narrative to suit those remaining: lots of adventure and violence for the young boys (Pitt and Pliny, so named so that they could be called the Elder and the Younger, one of the more memorable early jokes in the novel). It’s a great buddy novel, as John Leonard in The Nation suggests, like Ulysses or Huckleberry Finn; but I think the better comparison would be Don Quixote, for it is much more episodic (and quixotic) like Cervantes’s masterwork, as just as humorous (though not as cruel). Mason is made out to be a worrisome, morose, and laconic man, mourning his wife’s untimely death; Dixon meanwhile is the boisterous, heavy-drinking, and jocular one, looking forward to the experience. With a set up like that, and with the shady historical facts that Pynchon presents, the narrative could entertainingly go on forever.
Definitely one of the best reads I’ve experienced. And one I look forward to returning to in due time.


Anonymous said…

I like Pynchon, but his verbose style is somewhat daunting. I've wanted to start MASON & DIXON many times. Perhaps it is time.

And you're not a fan of D.F. Wallace, right?


bermudaonion said…

Wow, sounds interesting, but I have a feeling it's over my head.

Salvatore said…

This book seemed stylistically kind of nuts (with the antique spelling and sense of fun/adventure/sex), but it really was rather readable and terribly amusing.

And I'm not really a fan of Wallace. I've enjoyed his essays. And the stories to a degree. That all being said I'm probably going to attempt Infinite Jest sooner rather than later.