Mason & Dixon
|Publisher||Henry Holt and Company|
|Followed by||Against the Day|
Mason & Dixon, an epic postmodernist novel by Thomas Pynchon first published in 1997, centers on the collaboration of the historical Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon in their astronomical and surveying exploits in Cape Colony, Saint Helena, Great Britain and along the Mason-Dixon line in British North America on the eve of the American Revolutionary War.
Intermingled with Mason and Dixon's biographies, history, fantasy, legend, speculation, and outright fabrication, this novel offers not "the" story of Mason and Dixon, but "a" story of Mason and Dixon through the narrative focal point of one Rev. Wicks Cherrycoke, a clergyman of dubious orthodoxy, who attempts to entertain and divert his extended family on a cold December evening — partly for amusement, and partly to keep his coveted status as a guest in the house.
Plot summary and structure
The novel's scope takes in aspects of established Colonial American history including the call of the West, the often ignored histories of women, Native Americans, and slaves, plus excursions into geomancy, Deism, a hollow Earth, and — perhaps — alien abduction. The novel also contains philosophical discussions and parables of automata/robots, the afterlife, slavery, feng shui and others. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Nevil Maskelyne, Samuel Johnson, Thomas Jefferson, and John Harrison's marine chronometer all make appearances. Pynchon provides an intricate conspiracy theory involving Jesuits and their Chinese converts, which may or may not be occurring within the nested and ultimately inexact narrative structure.
Rather than a mistake or flaw on Pynchon's part, this narrative structure is constructed to be inexact in a (perhaps paradoxically) precise fashion; it demonstrates the fragility, rather than the secure foundations, of any historical record, and indeed, history itself. The Cherrycoke narrative shifts internally from one point of view to another, often relating events from the view of people Cherrycoke has never met. His story shifts its emphasis based on which members of his family are in the room — veering toward the adventure-heroic when the young twin boys are listening, veering away from the homoerotic at the insistence of more prudish (and richer) relatives. Also, a parallel story read by two cousins, an erotic 'captured by Indians' narrative, works its way into the main thread of Cherrycoke's story, further blurring and finally obliterating the line between objective history and subjectivity — what "really happened" is nothing more than a construction of several narrators, perhaps one of whom directly is the author.
Pynchon employs the spelling, grammar, and syntax of an actual late 18th century document, further emphasizing the novel's intended anachronism. While making the novel difficult to read without effort (at least on the first and second readings), Pynchon's use of language soon develops into a readable pattern, emphasizing that the style that went into Gravity's Rainbow had not dimmed in the twenty-four years between publications. No less Pynchon's attention to detail, be it accents, customs, dress, travel — it is so cunning that once Pynchon starts describing objects such as coaches that are bigger on the inside than the outside that the "fabulous" becomes "natural".
However, like a science-fiction film, the novel does not rely on its "special effects". In the end it is a sad, touching story of two people who were "mates", as Doctor Isaac Mason puts it. John Krewson, writing for The Onion A.V. Club, observed "Whatever meanings and complex messages may lie hidden in Pynchon's text can, for now, be left to develop subconsciously as the reader enjoys the more immediate rewards of the work of a consummate storyteller. Pynchon is one, and he never quite lets you forget that while this might be an epic story, it's an epic story told to wide-eyed children who are up past their bedtime."
- "Facts are but the Play-things of lawyers,—Tops and Hoops, forever a-spin.... Alas, the Historian may indulge no such idle Rotating. History is not Chronology, for that is left to lawyers, nor is Remembrance, for Remembrance belongs to the People. History can as little pretend to the Veracity of the one, as claim the Power of the other,—her Practitioners, to survive, must soon learn the arts of the quidnunc, spy and Taproom Wit, that there may ever continue more than one life-line back into a Past we risk, each day, losing our forbears in forever,— not a Chain of single Links, for one broken Link could lose us All, rather, a great disorderly Tangle of Lines, long and short, weak and strong, vanishing into the Mnemonick Deep, with only their Destination in common." (p.349)
- "...Who claims Truth, Truth abandons. History is hir'd, or coerc'd, only in Interests that must ever prove base. She is too innocent, to be left within the reach of anyone in Power, who need but touch her, and all her Credit is in the instant vanish'd, as if it had never been. She needs rather to be tended lovingly and honorably by fabulists and counterfeiters, Ballad-Mongers and Cranks of ev'ry Radius, Masters of Disguise to provide her the Costume, Toilette, and Bearing, and Speech nimble enough to keep her beyond the Desires, or even the Curiosity, of Government..." (p.350)
- The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) by John Barth
- One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967, English trans. 1970) by Márquez García Márquez
- Libra (1988) by Don DeLillo
- Baudolino (2000) by Umberto Eco where another confabulator relates tales of dubious historical authenticity
- The Baroque Cycle (2003-4) by Neal Stephenson
- Sailing to Philadelphia (2000) by Mark Knopfler, a song based on the story.
The Longitude, Dava Sobel For those of you who like to unravel Pynchon's 3-dimensional tapestries of the world in his counterfactual histories, here's a hint for Mason & Dixon readers: Pick up a copy of Dava Sobel's The Longitude: this story is within Pynchon's novelistic tapestry. Enjoy