Linear Pynchon

by David Pelovitz


In Mason & Dixon Thomas Pynchon takes up some of his favorite themes and indulges in some of his favorite excesses but also creates a novel that is very different from its predecessors. As in all his novels there are conspiracies lurking in the background, a preponderance of science both real and imagined, hedonistic attitudes towards sex and drugs, ponderings on human violence and the artifice and civilization, questioning of the very possibility of communicating (or even attaining) knowledge, and glimpses of all-too-fleeting opportunities to achieve enlightenment or transcend the human condition. These may be his same old themes, but his approaches to them have changed.

The story centers on Charles Mason and his accidental partner Jeremiah Dixon. Mason is a somewhat dour English astronomer with a respect for convention but a desire to achieve transcendance while Dixon is a Scottish surveyor who enjoys sensual pleasures and tends to question authority. The book begins with the pair voyaging to Sumatra to observe the transit of Venus, but the bulk of the story centers on their famous expedition to set the West line which divides Pennsylvania and Maryland. Along the way, they encounter a melange of characters, including a Learned English Dog, who literally speaks to the human condition; the Vrooms, a family of Dutch settlers in South Africa who are intent on sexually enticing Mason; a hall of fame collection of colonial Americans; and Samuel Johnson and Boswell. Global conspiracies are implicitly represented by the French, the Jesuits, and the Freemasons. More localized cabals also appear in the form of mystical Jewish sects, pre-revolutionary anti-Royalists, and the various native American tribes who enter a wary trust with the expedition.

This wide array of characters fills the story with philosophical conversations, absurd humor, and dramatic moments as well as the caffeine abuse and ripped bodices that are promised in the dust jacket blurb, but the story centers on thematic issues rather than simple plotting. This story revolves around lines - not just the West line, but the idea of division. The reader is constantly reminded that this is the age of reason, and accurate categorization is necessary for reasonable people. It is important to note that Pynchon never uses the common convenience of saying "Mason-Dixon Line," both to avoid the modern reference and to replace the line that separates the two men with a linking ampersand. The story is inundated with references to lines, be they between states, races, nationalities, religious sects, or even "grape people" (wine drinkers) and "grain people" (whiskey drinkers). Yet there are many allusions to chains which serve as a viable alternative to dividing lines. The most prevalent is the physical chain which measures the West Line's length, but there is also The Great Chain of Being, the food chain, and slaves' shackles offered for the readers' consideration. Even as Mason & Dixon literally carve an unnatural division into the American wilderness, they consult Captain Zhang, a Chinese Feng Shui master who offers warning about the dire consequences of seeking to mark the earth in straight lines and right angles. And thus Pynchon maintains a balance between the forces which seek to separate and delimit and those which bind the world into a cohesive whole.

The narrative itself is based on the same types of ambiguity. Pynchon's narratives seldom have an identifiable narrator or a uniform voice from start to finish, but Mason & Dixon is told as a story related by the Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke to his sister's family and friends. Offering the audience a narrator does not at all guarantee the the truth of this yarn, however. Cherrycoke is often accused of embellishing his tale by his listeners, and his reliability is further damaged by his tendency to include scenes he could not have witnessed.

The narrative frame eventually questions itself when Mason meets Samuel Johnson and Boswell. Mason tells them, "Dixon and I. We had a joint Boswell. Preacher nam'd Cherrycoke." Rather than establishing his own authority by comparison to a famous biographer, Cherrycoke impugns himself, because this conversation takes place after his last reported contact with Mason.

The story comes close to following a linear chronology, but the plot itself moves continually backward and forward. The "America" section is framed by two transits of Venus that the protagonists are called upon to observe from "old world" locales. Mason quests to make contact with his departed wife, Rebekah, and achieves tenuous connections which may be dreams, illusions, or true spiritual transcendence. These glimpses of the spiritual world leave the astronomer wavering between his celestial aspirations and his earthly existence. There is so much confusion over whether Mason & Dixon are astronomers, surveyors, or one of each that eventually the narrator mislabels them. Even the story of Mason & Dixon's westward movement along their dividing line often turns back on itself as the expedition must return east to double check their demarcations, avoid natural obstacles, prepare for extremes of weather, or avoid the threat presented by the natives in the open wilderness. As this occurs, the novel yo-yos between Mason & Dixon's story and the story of Cherrycoke's oration. Although there is a central plot and a narrative line, it is intentionally distorted to reflect the true movement the expedition followed and to reinforce the idea that movement, whether physical, intellectual, or spiritual, is seldom monolithic or unidirectional.

Conspiratorial overtones, whether on the macro or micro level, often suggest master themes which will organize everything in the novel. But Pynchon switches strategies in this novel. Rather than setting an organized conspiracy in opposition to a world operating completely randomly to show that neither viewpoint can account for everything (as Pynchon usually does), this novel focuses almost entirely on the middle ground between such oppositions. Dixon suspects the line serves a larger purpose, fearing, "We're being us'd again. It doesn't alarm thee?" But it doesn't alarm Mason, who shrugs it off as "American Politics," which somehow just doesn't seem terribly threatening. Throughout the novel conspiracies tend to appear on the sidelines, as unconfirmed reports of the French burying their lead markers, for example. Most of the villainous plotting is localized, such as the political power plays which determine the Astronomer Royal, or in the cabals that plan to incite revolution in the colonies. Less time is spent seeking proof of conspiracies than is dedicated to the idea of trying to live a worthwhile life, even when doing so may mean playing a role in someone else's machinations.

The machinations are strictly Pynchon's, however, and he uses them to take his duo on a picaresque journey through colonial American history and post-modern pop fodder. George Washington's slave does borsch-belt schtick as Washington offers hemp to his guests and Martha serves munchies. Franklin plays a Leyden jar organ in late night pub raves where electricty is the drug of choice. And even though the characters are aware that the line divides the nation's slave and free states, its effect is measured in more ordinary concerns, like those of a property owner whose house is divided by the line. He must move his home to one side of the line in order to avoid double taxation, and either preserve or sever his marriage. Pynchon employs set pieces like the divided home, his historical personages, and some creative anachronisms (the idea of hypnotic learning is invented in the novel, and there is an early reference to avoiding marijuana by not inhaling) for humor. He resorts to strained puns somewhat more sparingly than in his other books.

The nature of the men's work allows Pynchon plenty of opportunities to explain the problems of keeping accurate records of time and figuring latitude whether by the stars or the compass needle. Pynchon shows these characters struggling to achieve the accuracy they believe is possible but know is beyond human capabilities. Trust in science to reveal the nature of the universe eventually is growing, but at this time most recognize they are still learning. The stars Mason uses for guidance are sometimes blocked by clouds, and Dixon's plumb line and compass needle are sometimes rendered useless by the ore in surrounding mountains. But the book is also filled which scientific riddles such as what allows a particular watch to run without winding, how a mechanical duck achieved both perpetual motion and discovered emotions, and what, if anything, lives inside the earth's surface. Rather than being solved, these riddles are simply recontextualized. In the end the duckís workings donít matter as much as finding a way to manage its behavior.

Behavior is perhaps the key to what truly sets this work apart. Pynchon is often accused of using his characters to represent ideas rather than be people. But Mason & Dixon are extremely real. They not only voice theories, but they grow and change. Dixon goes from horrifying Mason by joking about using lead to lure fish to pocketing the bits of bread he uses to make erasures, "not wishing to cast them where Birds might eat the Lead and come to harm." Although Mason is never certain he communicates with his wife, he finds more earthly resolutions to his quest. In some ways, the two end up fulfilling each others destinies, but the changes are logical and based firmly in their personalities rather than in dogmatic necessity.

Finally, the persistent claim that Pynchon's novels are pessimistic may be countered here. The ending is both hopeful and ironic. Whether it is optimistic depends on how much promise the reader believes America holds and how much of that will be squandered in the future. Likewise, Mason & Dixon does not fulfill the promise of Gravityís Rainbow, but it reconsiders the same issues an presents them in a more earthly and perhaps more readably light.

Copyright © 1997

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