The thing about a Thomas Pynchon novel is that it typically starts off with a beautiful and prosaic introduction that draws you in like nectar to a bee and this sweet sound inevitably leads to the presentation of honey enticing the capture of the marauding ants since the words are always a web spun by a wicked spider patiently gobbling up the disparately lost and confused verminous foot soldiers scrambling aimlessly amidst the meandering meaning of Pynchon’s prose.
Well, it isn’t exactly like that, but Pynchonland is always a unique adventure. I find that there is always an adjustment period when starting a Pynchon novel. At first it draws you in, then you’re scratching your head wondering where it is you’ve been drawn, and then you realize that where you are or even who you are doesn’t really matter because Pynchonland is as equally bizarre as reality and all the more pleasurable.
For the longest time Mason & Dixon was the holy grail, the last unread Pynchon novel. It came out in 1997, the year I took my senior thesis covering everything that Pynchon had written prior and although I gobbled up both Against the Day and Inherent Vice shortly after they were published and I found myself enjoying a recent re-read of Gravity’s Rainbow, I have been hesitant towards approaching Mason & Dixon primarily because it is written as a period piece with dialogue and language imitating the late 18th century literature and common vernacular (which hasn’t ever been my cup of tea). Well, as soon as Pynchon goes ahead and releases another book that I’m eager to gobble up, 2013’s Bleeding Edge, a good friend reminded me that I had agreed to read Mason & Dixon along with her as part of her clean-the-book-shelf-of-unread-books reading challenge (inspired by my own challenge). So, here I am, reading Mason & Dixon.
So, what do I think about where I am? This is probably the most approachable of Pynchon’s longer works. The odd thing about it (unlike most of Pynchon’s work) is that this novel moves in chronological succession (for the most part) as long as you ignore the premise that it is actually written as a sort of bedtime story from an uncle to his nephews in the year of 1786 recounting the adventures of Mason & Dixon in the 1760’s. And also unlike most Pynchon novels that include cameos with historical figures, the title characters in Mason & Dixon are not only real historical figures, but they are actually the primary characters. In most of Pynchon’s works the main characters (if there is really such a thing) are antihero derelicts not quite sure or even aware of the multiplicity of activity surrounding them. Mason & Dixon eschews this Pynchon formula by focusing on not one, but two, smart and intelligent protagonists. This is the age of reason after all, and although our heroes are distracted by the mind-altering affects of caffeine and alcohol, they are hardly the hazy-distracted, narcotic-infused characters that populate so many of Pynchon’s other works. However, the reader must always be hesitantly aware that the written work is partially a joke and partially a twist on the power of retelling history since the Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon that populate the book aren’t really the actual historical Mason and Dixon but the recreated Mason & Dixon retold by the uncle in 1786 to his nephews on a cold winter evening to pass the time.
Another notable difference in this book is the use of dialogue. I would say that this is the most dialogue-driven of Pychon’s works. There are of course long prosaic tangents that are tantamount to a Pynchon book, but these tangents are always framed by the conversational dialogue. And what dialogue! This book illuminates the coffee house excitement of the age with characters discussing astronomy, religion, philosophy, geometry, and on and on. As is any of Pynchon’s works, the art is a well researched representation of the age and Mason & Dixon captures the age of reason with charm and intrigue. Of course there are bizarre moments such as the early introduction of a talking dog and the visitation of ghost of Mason’s dead wife, but what would this book be without those trademark peculiarities? – Just another historical fiction piece.
This is only my response to the first section, since this book is nearly 800 pages I needed to take a breath and collect my thoughts before attempting to write about the entire book weeks down the road. In documenting my last thoughts on this first section of the book I must acknowledge that the first section wasn’t exactly what I expected for a book titled Mason & Dixon. Obviously anyone who has any knowledge of American history has some awareness of the famed Mason-Dixon line, so I found myself a little out of place reading the section titled Latitudes & Departures to follow our protagonists across the globe to Sumatra, Cape Town, and St. Helena chasing Venus across the sky. It wasn’t what I expected, but it served to set the tone for the period and build upon the character’s relationship. Admittedly, I’m a few chapters into the second section titled America as I write this and I find this second section to be thoroughly engaging and far more enjoyable than the first section. I’m definitely caught in the web of words.