Roman à cleft
Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon surveys the making of America
by Peter Keough
MASON & DIXON, by Thomas Pynchon. Henry Holt, 773 pages, $27.50.
It may be a rare privilege to be remembered as a geometric figure, but such an
honor scarcely seems to merit a literary epic. In 1763 the Englishmen Charles
Mason, an astronomer, and Jeremiah Dixon, a surveyor, were hired to establish
the long-disputed boundary between the slaveholding colony of Maryland and the
free colony of Pennsylvania. In the next century, as the new country expanded,
the Mason-Dixon Line, as it came to be called, was extended westward to settle
the intensifying disputes between free and slave territories that would
ultimately erupt into the Civil War.
Mason, Dixon, and their line might be a good topic for grammar-school history
students, but they don't suggest the kind of outrageous, apocalyptic material
on which Thomas Pynchon -- if not America's greatest novelist, then surely its
most enigmatic -- would expend nearly 800 pages. The labors of laying a
343-mile straight line seem mundane after the albino alligators of V,
the mystical arc of V-2 missiles in Gravity's Rainbow, or the diabolical
alternative postal system of The Crying of Lot 49.
But then again, the wunderkind of '60s fiction is nearing retirement age, and
he can be expected to be more reflective than revolutionary. In fact, in
Mason & Dixon, he's prerevolutionary, in setting, form, and style.
In its meandering, digressive, anti-narrative manner, the novel is reminiscent
of that anomalous predecessor of 20th-century experimental fiction, Laurence
Sterne's Tristram Shandy -- published, curiously enough, around the same
time as Mason and Dixon were undertaking their surveying feat. Mason &
Dixon abides by Sterne's 18th-century diction, spelling, punctuation,
Capitalization, and periodic sentences, and shares his delight in violating and
mocking the novel's then-emerging conventions of structure, character, and
It seems at first a somewhat superficial exercise in form, but as one is drawn
deeper into its concatenating stories, flights of fancy, hallucinatory
personae, outlandish variations of historical fact, lame puns, cute
anachronisms, and cheeky vaudeville routines, the novel's breadth, subtlety of
thought, and jaundiced compassion for humanity emerge like plotted landmarks in
a verbal terra incognita. It's not Pynchon's boldest work, but it may be
his richest -- an encyclopedic, picaresque extravaganza that encloses a moving
meditation on mortality and a crotchety paean to the noble futility of trying
to map out the chaos of existence.
As essential to the tale as its geographical lines are lines of narrative.
Drawing one of these is Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke, in whose voice most of the
story is told. He's not alone, though: among those competing with him are
Timothy Tox, the fictitious author of The Pennsylvaniad; the anonymous
pornographer behind the serial quarto The Ghastly Fop; and other quirky
fabulists up to and including Mason, Dixon, and Pynchon himself.
The Reverend Cherrycoke was Mason and Dixon's traveling companion, unheeded
spiritual adviser, and Boswellian chronicler. He arrives in Philadelphia to
attend the funeral of Mason in 1786 (Dixon preceded him in 1779), at a moment
when the new nation is both consolidating and fragmenting anew, when the Age of
Reason is dissipating into the Romantic Period. He is too late for the funeral,
but decides to stay on with his sister Elizabeth and her extended family. To
justify his stay, he relates his late friends' adventures to the young of the
Mason & Dixon, then, is a bedtime story, a frontier fairy tale
populated with marvels. So it's no surprise that Mason and Dixon's first
meeting involves the Learned English Dog, a talking canine that solves riddles,
recalls trivia, and prognosticates fates. For Mason, it's an opportunity to
inquire into the well-being of his departed wife, Rebekah, whose death has left
him with a bad case of "Hyperthrenia, or `Excess in Mourning.' " Mason is
inclined to melancholy; Dixon, by contrast, is sanguine. That and their other
complements -- Mason favors the grape, Dixon the grain; Mason is a Londoner,
Dixon a rustic; Mason denies Desire, Dixon revels in it -- make the pair an
ideally functional and mutually infuriating duo.
The Dog disappears, denying Mason the chance to contact his wife. Grief-bound,
he joins Dixon in a journey to the Dutch colony of South Africa to plot the
evocatively named Transit of Venus for the Royal Astrological Society. Along
with other observing teams posted all over the world, they time the passage
exactly, providing data that will help gauge the distance of the sun from the
earth. But for the brooding Mason, it's as much a mythic as a scientific event.
As he explains to the overly nubile daughters and servants of his Dutch hosts,
"Thro' our whole gazing-lives, Venus has been a tiny Dot of Light, going
through phases like the Moon, ever against the black face of Eternity. But on
the day of this Transit, all shall suddenly reverse,-- as she is caught, dark,
embodied, solid, against the face of the Sun,-- a Goddess descended from light
Such is the process of Mason & Dixon, taking the mythic, abstract,
and celestial and rendering them into the mortal, literal, and mundane -- and
vice versa. It's a kind of slapstick metaphysical poetry. The intention is good
fun, but also of the utmost gravity as Pynchon's duo unearths evil and its
causes and, at times, contributes to them. Not all the black faces Mason and
Dixon encounter belong to Eternity. Though they gaze at the heavens, they are
immured in a hellish slave society.
They find the same at their next major assignment, drawing the line in the
American colonies. Meant to fill the time until the next Transit, eight years
later, this will prove the deed for which they are remembered, and the one with
the most impact on American history -- at least in Pynchon's ornate
metaphorical system. Like a pair of 18th-century Forrest Gumps, they bump into
the great and soon-to-be-great players on the colonial stage -- Ben Franklin
doing a nightclub act with his lightning experiment while dressed as Death;
Colonel George Washington smoking hemp while being entertained by his slave
Gershom, a kind of prototypical Sammy Davis, Jr. -- and glean from them the
first stirrings of rebellion and the nascent nation's paradoxical views on
freedom, slavery, and manifest destiny.
In America they find not only slavery but the theft of a continent and the
beginnings of genocide, a process with which, they suspect, they are complicit.
"They saw white Brutality enough, at the Cape of Good Hope," Cherrycoke
They can no better understand it now, than then. Something is eluding them.
Whites in both places are become the very Savages of their own worst Dreams
. . .
One thing that eludes them, or that they elude, is the recognition that they
are paid mercenaries expanding the evil. As they chart mile after mile of the
boundary, plotting it exactly with celestial observations, hacking it from the
wilderness with their colorful crew of cartoon misfits, they are in fact
changing all from subjunctive to declarative, reducing Possibilities to
Simplicities that serve the Ends of Governments,-- winning away from the realm
of the Sacred, its Borderlands one by one, and assuming them unto the bare
mortal World that is our home, and our Despair.
Despite their participation in this infernal civilizing process, the two
heroes remain innocents. They are just two more tools in a Pynchonian universe
full of devices. These include a perpetual-motion watch, a backwoods Golem, an
automatonical duck in love with an exiled French chef, a planter named Peter
who sees Christ when he falls into a silo full of hops (only to lose him
again), and a sign embossed on the rifles of slavemongers, like the muted post
horn of Lot 49, "a Silver Star of five Points, revers'd so that two
point up and one down,-- a sure sign of evil at work, universally recogniz'd as
the Horns of the D----l."
Connecting these disparate items are the usual Pynchonian conspiracies,
ranging from treacherous Royal Society colleagues in search of the secret of
longitude (last seen in Umberto Eco's similarly byzantine, semiotic historical
epic, The Island of the Day Before) and a cabal of Jesuits and Chinese
mystics plotting to divide the world into a network of imprisoning lines.
An escapee from that latter conspiracy, half-crazed and paranoid, tries to
sum up for Mason and Dixon the malignancy of their line. " `Terrible
Feng-Shui here,' " he tells them.
"Ev'rywhere else on earth, Boundaries follow Nature . . . To mark
a right Line upon the Earth is to inflict . . . a sword-slash, a
long, perfect scar, impossible for any who live out here the year 'round to see
as other than hateful Assault. How can it pass unanswer'd?"
More disturbing, Pynchon suggests, is that it will pass unanswered. The tragedy
of lines is not just that they are fictions, a vain attempt to impose human
abstraction on the ineffably concrete, but that they come to an end. As the
Reverend Cherrycoke writes in his treatise Christ and History, "a great
disorderly Tangle of Lines, long and short, weak and strong, vanishing into the
Mnemonick Deep, with only their Destination in common." Mason &
Dixon ends on the verge of its beginning, with the moribund Mason bolstered
by his sons with tales of a promised land where they will drop their own lines
into that same Mnemonick Deep and catch something that will endure all memory.
Peter Keough is the film editor of the Boston Phoenix.