The Thomas Pynchon Countdown: Mason & Dixon
Tomorrow. Against the Day is released tomorrow. (Well, not really...you 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.
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?