Mason & Dixon reviewed by David B. Livingstone

Book Reviews
Mason & Dixon reviewed by David B. Livingstone
Aug 10, 2009, 16:29

MASON & DIXON: A NOVEL by Thomas Pynchon; Henry Holt, 1997

Brevity, the aphorism has it, is the soul of wit. So where does that leave Thomas Pynchon, whose current offering Mason & Dixon: A Novel weighs in at close to eight hundred pages—and of often-impenetrable stylized “Old English” text, no less?

The real Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, America's original sub-dividers, took upon themselves the promethean task of imposing the first trace of order upon the wilderness that was the new world, drawing their famous line demarcating north and south. With his fanciful re-imagining of Messrs. Mason & Dixon, Pynchon has created a veritable universe, similarly bewildering and untamed, for readers to divide and conquer if they can. Mason & Dixon is a sprawling muddle of historical fact, surreal fancy, fable, fantasy, and occasional silliness, underpinned by the quiet insistence—supported, at times, more by faith than evidence—that somehow it all can make sense; that somehow, given enough courage, dogged determination, or blind luck, order can be either alchemically divined from chaos or forced upon it. Like American civilization, both past and present.

Pynchon's always been the poster boy for literate obsessive-compulsives; to have successfully navigated his Gravity's Rainbow, with its (literally!) hundreds of characters and multiple opaque, labyrinthine approximations of plot, has long been considered a badge of honor in college English departments, as tons of well-thumbed paperback copies littering coffeehouses and the “used” shelves of college bookstores attest to. To read Pynchon is considered in some quarters akin to membership in an elite, semi-secret society of codebreakers or decipherers of hieroglyphics, a courageous and maybe half-mad cult obsessed with “getting it.” Their patron Saint Thomas has never made it easy; the enigmatic, likely pseudonymous author remains as much a mystery as his books, having refused all interviews, rebutted all requests for biographical information, and successfully eluded the most dogged attempts at unearthing his true identity ever since his '50s debut. Evidently in agreement with Humphrey Bogart that all he owes his audience is a good performance, the ephemeral Tom will periodically emerge from the shadows in the form of another cryptic tome to dazzle with verbal sleight of hand, infuriate with quick-change artistry, and befuddle with another disappearing act, leaving the faithful to scramble for morsels of meaning or genius until his next earthly manifestation.

One critic, in The Village Voice, has already likened reviewing Mason & Dixon to “reviewing the Atlantic Ocean.” With its willful opacity and encyclopedic breadth of themes and subjects, distilling the novel to a succinct summary while doing it justice is a pretty daunting prospect. Mason & Dixon stands as a paradigm of The Novel As Jigsaw Puzzle; here, you're expected to somehow connect the dots between such elements as a talking dog (“the learn'd English dog,” to be precise), a smiling electric eel used as a compass, the evils of Indian massacres and the slave trade, the first British pizza, the world's largest cheese (the “octuple Gloucester,” a “cheese malevolent”), an invisible, lovelorn mechanical duck which chases a French chef around the world (“la bec de la mort” —the beak of death), the intricacies of astronomy and geometry, the dualistic characters of Mason & Dixon, and the omnipresent backdrop of collected American, European, religious, and human history into a distinct impression, a coherent whole. No mean feat.

Distinct themes, however, do ultimately emerge. Mason & Dixon is about lines—not only the literal lines of surveyors and mapmakers, but about boundaries in the larger sense: Lines between good and evil, known and unknown, fantasy and fact, science and superstition, past, present, and future; it is about the drawing of these lines, the crossing of these lines, the blurring and erasure of these lines, and the consequences of doing so. Mason & Dixon's task, to define the physical parameters of America, stands as a metaphor for the definition and creation of the country itself, as performed by the supposedly enlightened and rational explorers, colonists, founding fathers, kings, generals, venture capitalists, and adventurers who did so. The end result—the divided and sub-divided nation of ethnic hatreds and strip malls, of class envy and suburban sprawl, of glittering triumphs and monumental failures—is the measure of their efforts, and the subtly-invoked backdrop of Mason & Dixon.

In large measure, Mason & Dixon is ultimately a lament for the failure of individuals and nations relative to their dreams and their potential, as well as for vanished frontiers—those of the physical world (the conquest of nature and the wilderness) as well as the spiritual (the waning power of religion and its corollary elements, faith and imagination, at the hands of science and commerce):

Does Britannia, when she sleeps, dream? And is America her dream?—in which all that cannot pass in the metropolitan Wakefulness is allow'd Expression away in the restless Slumber of these Provinces, and on West-ward, wherever 'tis not yet mapp'd, nor written down, nor ever, by the majority of Mankind, seen—serving as a very Rubbish-Tip for subjunctive Hopes, for all that may yet be true—Earthly Paradise, Fountain of Youth, Realms of Prester John, Christ's Kingdom, ever behind the sunset, safe until the next Territory to the West be seen and recorded, measur'd and tied in, back into the Net-Work of points already known, that slowly triangulates its Way into the Continent, changing all from subjunctive to declarative, reducing Possibilities to Simplicities that serve the ends of Governments,—winning away from the realm of the Sacred, its Borderlands one by one, and assuming them unto the bare mortal World that is our home, and our Despair.

And with only a slightly greater synaptic leap, Mason & Dixon can be read as a rueful acknowledgment of the fragmentation of the American dream—the disappearance of a collective sense of direction and purpose, as well as possibly morality—a relief portrait of a country and people adrift:

Mason to Dixon: “Acts have consequences, Dixon, they must. These Louts believe all's right now,—that they are free to get on with Lives that are to them no doubt important,—with no Glimmer at all of the Debt they have taken on. That is what I smell'd—Lethe-water. One of the things the newly born forget, is how terrible its Taste, and Smell. In Time, these People are able to forget ev'rything. Be willing to wait but a little, and ye may gull them again and again, however ye wish,—even unto their own Dissolution. In America, as I apprehend, Time is the true river that runs 'round Hell.”

Lethe, the river of ignorance in Greek mythology, is evidently the creek we're stuck on without a paddle, drifting ever away from “the realm of the sacred.” Not altogether a very cheery prospect.

Mason & Dixon, despite frequent humor, makes for pretty lousy light reading; if the continual digressions, daunting thematic content, odd symbolism, or structural oddities don't get to you, the period narrative style certainly will. Maintaining the necessary mental inventory of preceding events is a difficulty even early on, and later, a virtual impossibility. Concentration, and lots of it, is necessary for a successful foray into Pynchon's New World, where brevity is the only thing in short supply. But for those who dare to attempt the challenge, armed with the requisite patience and attention span, Mason & Dixon offers abundant wit, as well as considerable wisdom.

-David B. Livingstone

AMAZON

This review originally appeared in Your Flesh #37

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