Surveyors of the Enlightenment

Thomas Pynchon's powerfully symbolic language gets us beneath the rhetoric of our pretensions
by Rick Moody

Illustration by Stephen Alcorn
THE novelist Robert Coover, speaking of influences in American fiction, once remarked that apprentices of his generation found themselves (in the 1950s) grappling with two very different models of what the novel might be. One, Coover said, was Saul Bellow's realistic if picaresque Adventures of Augie March; the other was William Gaddis's encyclopedic Recognitions. Writers my age (mid-thirties), however, don't have the luxury of a choice. Our problem is how to confront the influence of a single novelist: Thomas Pynchon.

Despite the reputation of Pynchon's magnum opus, Gravity's Rainbow (1973), many of my contemporaries came to him through his earlier work. His first novel, V. (1963), is mostly concerned with the search by one Herbert Stencil for a woman — or place, or concept — referred to in his father's journals simply by this initial. The action of the novel — which also takes up Stencil's father, a network of European spies, and a Whole Sick Crew of American Navy wastrels — goes as far afield as turn-of-the-century Egypt, southwest Africa during the First World War, and Malta after the Second World War, dealing along the way with contemporary Americana up and down the Eastern Seaboard.V. is ripe with the kind of dense, symbolic imagery we associate with poets — with T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens (Gravity's Rainbow likewise caroms off Rilke and Dickinson) — and with the loose, improvisatory language of beat writing. It is by turns hilarious, slow, and utterly mesmerizing.

Portions of V. cannibalize the author's student work, particularly the two stories "Low-lands" and "Under the Rose." (Pynchon's later novel Vineland, published in 1990, opens dramatically — with a character leaping through a storefront window — in an image lifted from V. : "Here [was] one potential berserk studying the best technique for jumping through a plate glass window.") Repetitions haunt the entire oeuvre, so much so that Pynchon's work seems to exhibit a sort of "conceptual continuity," as the composer Frank Zappa named it, wherein each work builds on thematic and formal innovations — and even the raw material — of prior efforts.

Another example: The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Pynchon's masterpiece in miniature, like V. takes as its form a search. In Lot 49 the quester is a woman with the unlikely name of Oedipa Maas, who, engaged as executrix for the estate of Pierce Inverarity, a Hearstlike tycoon, inadvertently begins to uncover an international postal conspiracy dating back to Europe in the Middle Ages. Like V., Oedipa's story is rich with symbolism and leitmotif, in an armature often having to do with an idea practically trademarked by Pynchon: entropy, or the tendency of closed energy systems to move toward disorder. Again this is a borrowing from an early story by the author ("Entropy"); and it is reprised, in Gravity's Rainbow.

Whereas Pynchon's early novels are accessible, or at least crystalline enough to permit readers to follow them to their ambiguous conclusions, Gravity's Rainbow confounds readerly expectations utterly. The surrealism — the eruptions of odd, unforeseeable events and voices; the doublings, triplings, halvings, and quarterings of characters; the chance procedures — that occasionally colors prior novels emerges in GR as the dominant strategy. Pynchon's controlled third-person-limited point of view in Lot 49 becomes the fractal omniscience of GR. Primarily the narrative of Tyrone Slothrop, a GI in London during the Second World War who has the ability to predict imminent German bombing trajectories by erection, GR deals tangentially with hundreds of other important characters, with Russians, Germans, Africans, and Central Asians, and with settings such as Colonial America, Turn-of-the-century Africa, and the United States of the early seventies before it dispatches Slothrop entirely, casting his fragmentary consciousness around the remainder of the book. (He fails to appear recognizably in the last fifty pages.)

What accounts for the perpetual hold Gravity's Rainbow has on the consciousness of American writers and critics? What accounts for the myth that has sprung up around it — a myth that seems to have ensnared even the facts of the author's life, or, at least, our idea of those facts? What makes GR so crucial to the voyage of younger American writers? I'd contend that it's Pynchon's style, not his subject. Whereas the prose in V., Lot 49, and the early stories is occasionally inventive and arrestingly lyrical ("For it was now like walking among matrices of a great digital computer, the zeroes and ones twinned above, hanging like balanced mobiles right and left, ahead, thick, maybe endless. Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth"), in GR it is more than dazzling — it's uncanny. It discards the usual limits on English and American prose. In fact, the writing — notwithstanding the physics and hard science in a novel often fascinated with the intricacies of ordnance technologies — seems to me the point of GR, its motivating force, especially as this language elucidates Pynchon's febrile imagination. Take, for example, the stunning opening page, with its nightmarish evocation of the London Blitz.

They have begun to move. They pass in line, out of the main station, out of downtown, and begin pushing into older and more desolate parts of the city. Is this the way out? Faces turn to the windows, but no one dares ask, not out loud. Rain comes down. No, this is not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knotting into — they go in under archways, secret entrances of rotted concrete that only looked like loops of an underpass ... and it is poorer the deeper they go ... ruinous secret cities of poor, places whose names he has never heard.

American research libraries swell with monographs interpreting Gravity's Rainbow, and many of these monographs are taken up with the arcana of the novel — the physics, the statistics, the theory, the citations (of Max Weber, of Gioacchino Rossini, of Pavlov). But if GR were merely literature of ideas (in the limited sense that Nabokov so often decried), we would think no more of this work than we do of Philip K. Dick's engaging science fictions. Pynchon's accomplishment is that he has found the perfect marriage of form and language for his rendering of Western consciousness.

The Reagan-Bush years saw Pynchon's output dwindle. Other than the introduction to his volume of apprentice stories, Slow Learner (1984), Pynchon published nothing new during the eighties. However, his next novel, Vineland, an anti-canonical comic romp, is set during that time of substance abuse and leveraged buyouts. Largely dismissed by tenured Pynchonians when it was first published, Vineland now seems to have been underrated. Its narrative — of the California student movements in the sixties,and of Frenesi Gates, a student filmmaker turned FBI informant and delinquent hippie mom — is both funny ("The secret to Spinach Casserole was the UBI, or Universal Binding Ingredient, cream of mushroom soup") and sympathetic in ways that are rare in the Pynchon canon. Its language, rather than its science and philosophy, is uppermost in the mind of the reader (though there are of course passages of Pynchonian erudition, as in the material on union organizing during the thirties), and this language is controlled — without the occasional awkwardnesses of the early work — and engaging.

WHICH brings us to Mason & Dixon. If you accept the rumor-mongering on the World Wide Web and elsewhere, the author has been at work on this particular monster for more than a decade. This is easy to believe. At nearly 800 pages, Mason & Dixon is obviously meant to quash the idea that Gravity's Rainbow was some sort of fantastic lucky break. It is self-consciously intent on dealing with American literature on the most ambitious scale imaginable. And it succeeds magnificently.

The first electrifying difference about M&D is the astonishing voice of its narration. Pynchon has elected to write his new novel in an eighteenth-century English idiom. To say this is risky is to understate, and yet the voice here is not only elegiac and credible but also powerfully moving and unexpected, especially given the very contemporary language of the Pynchon novels that have preceded it.

Eighteenth-century prose is the style because this is a historical novel about the famous surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon — mappers of the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland that also made up part of the dividing line between slave states and free states before the Civil War, and globetrotters on a variety of scientific adventures in the later 1700s. More than simply a period voice telling a tall tale of these two anti-heroes, however, the narration is largely the first-person voice of a singular character, the Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke, who tells most of the story of M&D after dinner, for the entertainment of his family. Thus we have an oral narrative, like Conrad's Heart of Darkness — the first such in Pynchon's output, and a form that recalls an earlier time in the development of the novel. (As far as conceptual continuity is concerned, the Reverend Cherrycoke seems to be related to a minor character from GR, a psychic called Ronald Cherrycoke — and this perhaps accounts for the Reverend's ability to relate events at which he was not present.)

The action of Mason & Dixon is refreshingly linear, compared with the complexity of Pynchon's earlier work. Since it's shaped by the needs of Cherrycoke's folktale (he was a member of two Mason and Dixon expeditions and bases his yarn on inside knowledge), it provides many of the elements of a good story: romance, Indian attack, and so forth. The tale opens with Mason and Dixon meeting in about 1760 to embark, at the behest of the British Royal Society, on a journey to the Southern Hemisphere to observe the Transit of Venus — the passage of that planet across the sun. Just as they set sail from England, however, they are attacked by a French frigate and several of the crew members are killed. This episode, which comes only thirty pages into the book, sets the tone for the story to follow — Action! Incident! Naval battle! I want to be clear on this point: Mason & Dixon is a page-turner.

After beseeching the Royal Society to allow them to abandon their sea passage (the society responds by threatening them with legal action), the pair proceed to Cape Town, South Africa, to observe the Transit, in a portion of the book's opening section ("Latitudes and Departures") that is luminously rendered, replete with the slave culture of the Dutch colonies in South Africa and liaisons between the astronomers — Dixon, whose sunny romantic nature is in stark contrast to the gothic-melancholic Mason, is elsewhere more often the culprit, but here Mason gets into the act — and various women of the Cape. After the Transit, Mason sails for St. Helena, in the south Atlantic, to take further observations with a Royal Society chronometer. "Latitudes and Departures" winds down with Mason and Dixon back in England, in disquisition mainly upon family history and British calendar reform.

In accepting a commission to survey the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland, Mason, the expedition's leader, retreats from the hard science of the Transit of Venus (a retreat made more poignant by his failure to be elected to the Royal Society), and the book returns to the virtuosic patch of analytic and geophysical writing that colors the first 250 pages (though an abundance of detail and arcana remains for hard-core Pynchon decoders), such that the section called "America" begins to indulge in the metaphysical, moral, and political struggles of the New World. For example, Mason and Dixon land first in Philadelphia, and Benjamin Franklin is among their initial acquaintances: "The Geometers have encounter'd the eminent Philadelphian quite by chance, in the pungent and dim back reaches of an Apothecary in Locust-Street" (wherein Dixon is about to buy a wagonload of laudanum for their journey). Franklin is of course given to quips: "'Strangers, heed my wise advice, — Never pay the Retail Price.'" Not long after, George Washington is their host in Virginia: "If the Colonel serves not as a Focus of Sobriety, neither is he quite the incompetent Fool depicted in the London press."

PYNCHON'S preoccupation with conspiracy is well documented. It haunts all the books, from Lot 49, with its postal conspiracy, to Vineland, with its FBI infiltration of the student movement, and it gets ample play in Mason & Dixon as well. Initially, during the Transit of Venus expedition, the conspiracy resides in the East India Company, in whose pocket (by relation) Mason finds Nevil Maskelyne, the future Astronomer Royal, who perhaps thwarts Mason's election to the Royal Society. On the shores of America the surveyors find a sinister new force at work: the Jesuits. Yep, the Society of Jesus, which invented its own "Telegraph," tried to wipe out the Chinese practice of fêng shui, founded a libertine community of nuns in Quebec called the Widows of Christ, and bankrolled a group of "Jesuits on horseback, in black riding-Habits with divided Skirts," who patrol the streets of Canada reinforcing doctrine, decorated in their fiendish insignia: an upside-down five-pointed star.

Against this backdrop of conspiracies political and religious, Mason and Dixon retreat into the wilderness, into a kind of folkloric and parabolic warp, among a coterie of axmen and Indian guides and Presbyterian assistants. They move first south and then west, surveying the boundary line and its tangents, and as they go, the Enlightenment replaces the Gothic and Renaissance wisdom of Western culture, with Mason and Dixon moving in and through and around the Enlightenment's articulations. As Cherrycoke puts it,

As God has receded, as Deism has crept in to make the best of this progressive Absence, more and more do we witness extreme varieties of human character emergent ... Illuminati, Freemasons, Elect Cohens, many of whom, to my great curiosity, have found their way into Pennsylvania.

This is the America that Mason and Dixon voyage into, and it is where they encounter, among others, the Redzingerites, whose "view of Baptism does not, need I say, stop at Total Immersion"; and, during winter layovers in New York, the Sons of Liberty, bent on overthrowing the British oppressors; and the Sadean inhabitants of Lepton Castle; and Professor Voam and his pet electric eel; and Armand Allègre, France's greatest living chef, who has come to the Colonies to try to escape the amorous attentions of a "mechanickal Duck" created by the immortal French scientist Jacques de Vaucanson; and Zepho Beck, who metamorphoses during the full moon into a giant beaver; and Captain Zhang, a fêng shui master and refugee from the Jesuit conspiracy; and perpetrators of Indian massacre (in Lancaster, Pennsylvania) and rebellion and backwoods barbarism. Along the way there is of course the work to do, in which chain lengths are extended, sometimes through the middle of properties, on one occasion right through a house (with the inhabitants arguing over which state to reside in), and trees are felled, and a broad swath of civilized clearing is extended into the pristine continent.

If the action sounds picaresque, that's because it is. The 450 middle pages of Mason & Dixon most resemble the great picaresque novels of Fielding or the metaphysical comedy of Voltaire's Candide. What makes M&D modern (besides uncanny similarities between the Enlightenment and the millennium, besides sly references to contemporary culture — to dope smoking, to popular music: "'Is it not the very Rhythm of the Engines, ... the Rock of the Oceans, the Roll of the drums in the Night'") is the tremendous intellection spun into its episodic action: Charles Mason's ambition (which is matched only by Dixon's refusal to be ambitious at all, except in womanizing, drinking, and fishing) is to understand the invisible forces behind the physical laws that make up his work during the Enlightenment. Like Vineland, in which scarcely a character escapes without being described as a ghost, and like GR, with its cast of revenants, Mason & Dixon dwells frequently on what is hidden. At times this absence seems to refer to the astrophysics of the twentieth century ("'Time is the Space that may not be seen'") — out of reach for Mason and Dixon, and yet implied in their endeavors; at times it refers to the divine ("Surely, at the end of the day, we serve no master but Him that regulates the movements of the Heav'ns, which taken together form a cryptick Message," Mason says), and therefore to the degraded aspect of deism during the Enlightenment. At times what's hidden in M&D is the hibernating bear of Colonial politics ("Does Britannia, when she sleeps, dream? Is America her dream? — in which all that cannot pass in the metropolitan Wakefulness is allow'd Expression away in the restless Slumber of these Provinces, and on West-ward, wherever 'tis not yet mapp'd, nor written down, nor ever, by the majority of Mankind, seen"). Whatever the identity of this hidden force, it leaves its mark on the book, and on us, in an M&D refrain: "As above, so below."

Mason and Dixon complete their line in 1767, and spend much of the following year surveying a degree of latitude also contracted to them by the Royal Society. The novel provides two separate and completely opposed endings to this section of the book. In the first ending the surveyors are unable to cross the Native American Warrior Path, west of the Alleghenies (the path is patrolled by the violent Delaware and Shawnee tribes), and so turn back toward civilization. In the second (false) ending they continue for a while west, into the dusk, into the herds of buffalo, into the prairie, away from the civilization of the Enlightenment. This ending is an example of the kind of dream logic that overtakes the book in the wilderness (in this regard Cherrycoke frequently likens his tale to the works of the great Baron Munchausen); in truth the surveyors return to England after completing their assignment. Mason undertakes a second and final observation of the Transit of Venus in 1769 (the closing section of the book is called "Last Transit"), this time from northern Ireland, while Dixon makes observations from an island near the North Cape.

Toward the end the surveyors' remorse about the Mason-Dixon Line emerges: it was not a fitting monument to their careers, it was piecework for a corrupt organization (the Royal Society), it denuded a wilderness that should not have been denuded, it created a division between communities which would only come to cause harm. "Mason groans. '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 will be longer.'"

Then time runs out. Dixon's gout disables him. Mason's melancholy takes on a desperate and irremediable hue. The last thirty pages of Mason & Dixon concern the indefinite state of this twinned pair, of this fractious marriage, in twilight years. These pages are evocative and terribly sad. Mortality has often been Pynchon's theme. As M&D concludes with Mason's deluded insistence (after Dixon's death) upon taking his second wife and family back to America, it becomes clear that the novel's attention to the mechanisms and technologies of time and space finds its most poignant articulation in the simple inevitability of death and decay. Pynchon seems to have learned even more about these subjects as he has gotten older. It's hard not to read of Mason's passing, and of his son's rhapsodic but sadly ironic depiction of an American continent in which "the Fish jump into your Arms," without being both moved and remorseful about the dwindling promise of our American enterprise — which dwindling, in Mason & Dixon, begins at the outset of the forcible colonization of our continent, at the very moment we survey this land.

This is just the kind of truth that we often encounter in Pynchon: not simply what it means, finally, to be American — kith and kin of slaveholders and abolitionists, racists and liberals, the powerful and the powerless, the dispossessed and the rapacious, the oppressed and the oppressors — but that the boundary lines that have been surveyed to separate our American dichotomies, the boundaries of rhetoric and philosophy, are arbitrary, tentative, unwritten in human nature. Pynchon's chthonic, powerfully symbolic language in M&D gets us beneath the rhetoric of our pretensions to the raw, unconsoling paradoxes of consciousness — with all fancies and hallucinations and regrets intact. And that's why artists as diverse as William Gibson, Don DeLillo, Laurie Anderson, Steve Erickson, David Foster Wallace, James Cameron, Jonathan Franzen, and Salman Rushdie seem to have schooled themselves in the Pynchon academy of myth and language. With Mason & Dixon we're again in the generous hands of one of American literature's true masters.

Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1997; "Surveyors of the Enlightenment"; Volume 280, No. 1; pages 106 - 110.

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