Book Review: Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Mason & Dixon,’ An 18th Century Musing On All Things
So, one day, into Delaware’s great Basin/With strange Machinery sail Mr. Mason/And Mr. Dixon, by the Falmouth Packet/Connect, as with some invis’ble Bracket/Sharing a Fate, directed by the Stars/To mark the Earth with geometrick Scars. — TIMOTHY TOX
Mason & Dixon is the penultimate book in my long slog to read the complete works of Thomas Pynchon (only his Vineland awaits) and is of more than usual interest because your Faithful Reviewer plies his trade within a stone’s throw of the marker to the right, one of several placed by the eponomymous pair of 18th century surveyors in determining the demarcation line between Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware and West Virginia, and although they could not have known it, what would become the symbolic cultural boundary between the North and South nearly a century later during the bloody War Between the States.
Like Pynchon’s 2007 magnum opus, Against the Day (reviewed here), Mason & Dixon is complex, wonderfully subversive and laugh-out-loud funny. But also like that book, it is more accessible than his earlier works, notably Gravity’s Rainbow, a masterpiece but with prose so dense that you can stand a fork in them.
I knew I was in for a treat from the moment I read the Pynchonic run-on opening sentence of Mason & Dixon:
“Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs, starr’d the Sides of Outbuildings, as of Cousins, carried Hats away into the brisk Wind off Delaware,-the Sleds are brought in and their Runners carefully dried and greased, shoes deposited in the back Hall, a stocking’d-foot Descent made upon the great Kitchen, in a purposeful Dither since Morning, punctuated by the ringing Lids of various Boilers and Stewing-Pots, fragrant with Pie-Spices, peel’d Fruits, Suet, heated Sugar,-the Children, having all upon the Fly, among rhythmic slaps of Batter and Spoon, coax’d and stolen what they might, proceed, as upon each afternoon all this snowy Advent, to a comfortable Room at the rear of the House, years since given over to their carefree Assaults.”
Pynchon casts Charles Mason, who actually was an astronomer by trade, and surveyor Jeremiah Dixon as straight man and goof ball in a rollicking epic that deftly combines fiction and fact through a cast of characters that include the poet Timothy Tox, a Pynchon invention, and the very real Nevil Maskelyne, the Astronomer Royal and owner of one of the most evocative names in English history. The story of this dynamic duo’s adventures is told by the Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke 20 years after the fact in his sister’s Philadelphia parlor in an 18th century dialect which I fell into rather easily. (And now find Meself talkin’ to the Cats in said Dialeckt.)
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