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The Thomas Pynchon Countdown: Mason & Dixon

Tomorrow. Against the Day is released tomorrow. (Well, not Brits are already starting your Monday while I finish my Sunday so I'm cheating myself of a few hours here.) And we've come to the end of our look back at every one of Thomas Pynchon's full-length published works.

And it's perhaps fitting that we end on the quietest and--in a very real way--most domestic of Pynchon's books: Mason & Dixon, his 1997 re-imagining of colonial America.

A man needs his Reputation.Mason & Dixon wastes no time in disorienting the reader. From page one we find ourselves in overlapping narratives, epic descriptions of mundane details, and--most obviously--Pynchon's own very faithful approximation of post-Colonial English. (What Eli Cash would now call "an obsolete vernacular.")

Mason & Dixon's framing device is that of the Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke, who lives in the home of his sister and her family, and extends his freeloading residency by amusing his hosts with tales of varying tallness.

Within the confines of the novel, the story Cherrycoke relates is the story of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, two English astronomers and surveyors who come to a young America to carve a great and important boundary into its soil. But Cherrycoke's story begins long before the line begins, and extends far beyond it, as he recounts the pair's first meeting, their observations of the Transit of Venus, their private lives (through flashbacks and sometimes spiritual hallucinations) and, later, their retirement and passing.

Cherrycoke does meet the pair early in their relationship and he does follow along with the surveying crew during the carving of that famous line, but he's a very minor character (and clearly a pariah), which should clue the reader in very early that Cherrycoke is, at best, an unreliable narrator and, at worst, fabricating everyting entirely. He frequently relates portions of the story from the perspective of characters he admits to never having even met, and, at one point, he crossweaves his narrative with that of a work of erotic fiction two cousins read together in the upstairs bedroom. The question of how much of Cherrycoke's story is intentional fabrication goes a long way toward absolving Pynchon himself of historical accuracy, but one does get the very real sense that, as an author, Pynchon's done his homework.

And it's not just the Mason-Dixon Line that he researched. There is a lot happening outside of the line in this book, such as the question of absolute longitude, the readjustment of the Christian calendar, the Delaware border dispute and all manner of unrelated or slightly-related events that are illustrated so perfectly that rather than confound the reader they offer him or her a greater sense of security in the world Pynchon is working to create.

Perhaps the most remarkable employment of outside trivia would be his use of Vaucanson's Duck. Go ahead, click the link; I'll wait.

Amazing, isn't it? A mechanical duck that not only walked, moved its wings and ate...but processed its own food. And--wait for it--synthesized droppings so realistic even experts had trouble telling the difference. And yes, it was real.

In Mason & Dixon Vaucanson's Duck makes a rather significant appearance, as its creator adds one final component to the duck that gives it a will of its own: the ability to love.

This magnificent duck bridges the gap between reality (because that duck was real, folks) and fancy...and it allows Pynchon the chance to bring all manner of strange occurences into his history because, as he demonstrates, none of them were any less plausible than the duck.

So we find ourselves in the presence of a singing Norfolk Terrier, a gigantic runaway cheesewheel, a gollum activated by heroic couplets, and--something which is actually upheld by Pynchon's own explanation of the science--a pocket-watch that has achieved perpetual motion. On top of that Charles Mason finds himself alone on a deserted planet, thanks to the calendar rearrangement, as everyone on Earth has jumped forward a week without him.

Okay, so we've got talking dogs and impossible machines and ghosts and monsters and time travel in a book about the Mason-Dixon Line, so this must be some pretty crazy stuff, right?

Well, no. Because Mason & Dixon is surprisingly calm considering its outlandish content. The entire story unfolds, remember, in an early-American sitting room, coming from the mouth of a drowsy cleric telling one last tale before bedtime.

And the real story, after all, isn't the strangeness, or even the history. It's the relationship between Charles and Jeremiah...the friendship they develop over the course of eight hundred pages. They go from strangers to antagonistic partners to--yes--friends closer than either is comfortable admitting. And it isn't until the very end of the novel and the passing of one that the other realizes just how close they were.

Mason & Dixon is in some ways Pynchon's least believable story but in other ways his most human. At its heart it is the story of friendship, and the evolution of that friendship in the face of difficulty, frustration, and impossibility. There's more to it, than that, of course, because this is Thomas Pynchon, but he'll never lead you too far from the core to appreciate the humanity of its two protagonists.

It's not a perfect novel. It's a tad too digressive, but only a tad. I think it could do for some editing, but I wouldn't be the one to suggest which passages should go and which should stay...

...then again, what right is it of mine, or anybody's, to go around snipping phases out of people's friendships?

4 Stars

About this entry


I really like the sound of this book. Mind you, I think I like the sound of that duck more. I'm really quite fascinated.

By Tanya Jones
November 20, 2006 @ 4:41 pm

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>I think I like the sound of that duck more. I'm really quite fascinated.

I knew nothing at all about Vaucanson's Duck before reading this book, and so I took it for one of Pynchon's many impossible characters/devices. Which I was fine with, and it worked so well within the confines (and themes) of the story that I didn't question it.

But much later, after my second or third reading, I found information about the duck online, and I couldn't believe this thing actually existed. Apparently it was really quite a remarkable machine, and no essays about it or remembrances of its operation downplay its brilliance. It seems that the duck was, in a technical way, a miracle.

I will mention that the duck plays a major role in the book (at least, a minor major role) but I won't say any more, as it happens to be one of the most delightful things in the book and it's worth it to encounter it freshly.

Mason & Dixon is not a bad place to start, really. In fact, it'd be the best starting point of his "big" books. Just prepare yourself for the obsolete vernacular. It isn't difficult to figure it out, but it's quite jarring to a first time reader. (On a second read, however, I can vouch personally that you'll roll right through it without a problem, as it really is quite lovely.)

But yes, Vaucanson's Duck is a remarkable device both in fiction and reality, and it's an excellent strategy on the author's part to bring it into his impossible tale, because it provides a very real self-conflicting pivot between fantasy and reality.

'Tis the age of reason, after all.

By Philip J Reed, VSc
November 20, 2006 @ 10:19 pm

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I've barely read any of these entries and already I see numerous Royal Tenembaums references. Wee! I think the only people I know who have seen the film and liked it watched it with me.

By Dylan Holmes
December 01, 2006 @ 7:15 am

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Well, Wes Anderson is the Thomas Pynchon of film. (Immediately after saying this, Philip Reed realized it was true.)

By Philip J Reed, VSc
December 01, 2006 @ 12:38 pm

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Wes Anderson seems to be more in tune with Pynchon as far as storytelling style goes, but I suppose you could argue that Stanley Kubrick is a bit like Pynchon in a personal sense - they both were/are fairly reclusive, and they tend not to give interviews or discuss their work that much. And there was that same sense of initial disappointment when Kubrick released Eyes Wide Shut in 1999, twelve years after Full Metal Jacket. You could say that Eyes Wide Shut is a bit like Vineland, in that it was initially seen as a minor work in comparison.

By Austin Ross
December 01, 2006 @ 9:55 pm

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>You could say that Eyes Wide Shut is a bit like Vineland, in that it was initially seen as a minor work in comparison.

Of course, you'd have to follow that up with, "It's not exactly like Vineland, because Vineland wasn't total crap."

Good call on the Kubrick, though. Personality-wise that would probably be a better figure to compare him to.

My Wes Anderson identification (or rather what convinced me it was probably true) was that a lot of the criticism thrown at Pynchon has also been thrown at Wes: unrealistic motivations, too much liberty taken with the "real world" setting so that it's actually not "real" anymore, emotionally-vacant characters nobody can identify know. All the stuff that separates Rushmore from American Pie VII: Humpzilla.

Also Anderson and Pynchon have a very similar reliance on music. Kubrick, of course, used music to exceptional effect, but I think it's clear that he's using it in a very different way. Anderson and Pynchon tend to "celebrate" things through music...Kubrick tended to either enhance the emotion or undercut it.

By Philip J Reed, VSc
December 01, 2006 @ 10:06 pm

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So hey, would anyone actually be interested in a "mid-point review?" I'm at page 600 (of 1100) and I certainly have enough to say...or would you rather I just finish it and do one proper review then, rather than a midpoint and final?

Basically it'll take me til the end of December (approximately) to finish, and I know you're all chewing your fingernails over whether or not I'll end up recommending it...

By Philip J Reed, VSc
December 04, 2006 @ 4:24 am

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Guess that's a no. Hopefully I'll finish it before my New Year's trip.

By Philip J Reed, VSc
December 05, 2006 @ 10:03 pm

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