The Mason-Dixon Line is characteristically definable: it is a South to North, East to West division of the colonial territories of Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. And although the line was initially established to settle territorial disputes, it famously became the dividing line between the Southern Slave States and the Northern Free States.
Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon portrays the story of the astronomer/surveyor duo that drew the longitudinal boundaries upon the map that bears their now famous names. The Mason-Dixon line is a clear and definable edge painted sharply across the map, but Mason & Dixon is a novel and not true history. Pynchon’s postmodern take on colonial fantasies fails to reflect the cartographical clarity of the famous line mapped by the historical Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon. This is a book that bends the historical alongside the fictional along new and unperceived direction just as a straight line on a map isn’t really as straight as it seems since it actually reflects the distance along an arc of the Earth’s spherical surface.
As is typical of any Pynchon book, the novel is overflowing with well-researched alternates to our reality that could only exist within Pynchon’s verbose and lyrical prose. This book is populated with werewolves, a mechanical duck that can speak and travel faster than light, astrological phenomena, ancient native American magical folklore, an inverse hollow earth populated by underground cave dwellers, alien abductions, all alongside the likes of a suspicious and conniving Ben Franklin, a pot-smoking George Washington, and a young Thomas Jefferson that steals the words from Mason’s mouth to pen the Declaration of Independence. With all of that fun-frenzied fantasy, what can I say after having spent the past month lost in the pages of this 773 page behemoth?
Well, after finally finishing Mason & Dixon after 16 years of procrastination, I’m slightly disappointed. The book isn’t bad, it just doesn’t work that well. Knowing how good Pynchon can be I’m unfortunately shelving this one acknowledging that it wasn’t his best.
I’m aware that my perception is skewed primarily because I had so recently re-read his greatest work Gravity’s Rainbow not just six months ago and it is hard to compare the two books with GR so fresh in my mind. Some readers will champion Mason & Dixon as Pynchon’s masterpiece because it has a personal quality to it that is lacking in Pynchon’s body of work characterized by a disparate style that follows multiple characters along weaving and intersecting divergent paths.
I will acknowledge that one of Mason & Dixon‘s strongest attributes was the consistency presented in a narrative that primarily follows the two title characters in a vaguely forward progression through historical time. Additionally, the book does present an engaging and endearing development of the friendship between both Mason and Dixon. However, as is characteristic of Pynchon’s hallmark postmodern narrative style, there is less focus on a clear plot and more focus on a diverse range of narrative experiences and bizarre activities. Unfortunately in Mason & Dixon I felt teased by an imitation of a plot that wasn’t that engaging. This is the story of an astronomer and a surveyor that travel through colonial America staring at the stars and drawing a line on a map while all that surrounds them is in flux. There is an aura of the oncoming revolution and there is conflict between the natives and the settlers, but none of it really affects the two characters that we are so diligently focused upon. Dare I say that this book was too focused upon the title characters? I wanted to get lost in tangents that went on for fifty pages but that never happened. The tangents were there but they were to brief and therefore created a feeling of disengagement with no narrative purpose.
There is a lot of meat to be chewed upon in the book, I won’t deny that. Pynchon’s encyclopedic references to the 18th century cultural anachronisms were impressive and many a time I found myself relying upon the Thomas Pynchon wiki for the enlightenment required by this confused reader. Yet, I can’t help but feel that Pynchon’s postmodernism failed here because postmodernism should never have been applied to a pre-modern time period. Against the Day was a fabulous book because it had both an engaging plot alongside a fanatical frenzy of action that illuminated the excitement and disappointments of the turn towards the 20th century. Gravity’s Rainbow was game changing because it turned WWII upside down and made it both amusing and frightening screaming across the sky, but there is nothing to compare it to now. These works were successful because they were infused with both a paranoia and fascination with culture and technology’s influence upon history. Mason & Dixon fails to channel this excitement because the paranoia is a vague and unbelievable. Yes there is a strange and recurring suspicion about a Chinese-Jesuit plot on America, but this never goes anywhere. There are some neat passages about star-gazing, astronomy, and the perception of time and space, but this also fails to impress an over-arching influence on the novel’s purpose. The only lasting element that remains in Mason & Dixon is the friendship between the two men. I’m sure many would agree that a novel about a friendship did not need to be overpopulated by 773 pages of divergent, short-sighted tangents.