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Mason & Dixon: A Novel by Thomas Pynchon

Mason & Dixon: A Novel (1997)

by Thomas Pynchon

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3,495271,519 (4)107
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16. Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon
published: 1997
format: 773 page hardcover
acquired: December 2015 from Half-Price Books
read: Mar 1 - Apr 13 (that's 44 days, but who is counting?)
rating: ????? (five question marks)

Don't read this book. That's one conclusion - I mean, if you're like me. I just put a lot of time into this, and there were consequences. For one, I don't know what I got out of it, or what you should. I've read a couple intelligent reviews, and they didn't change my feeling about that. It's massive and it wanders, and it plods, and it never, ever provides a clear picture of anything - whether about the story line, or what Pynchon is really trying to say or mean. He says a lot and undermines what he says a lot. He brings in a endless supply of real historical trivia with real mind-altering stuff in there, and then fills it with wildest of fiction and fantasy, even pulling in on those early science fiction-y novels where characters go to new lands, planets, under the earth or wherever (children of Thomas Moore's Utopia). "The reclusive Pynchon writes as if everything is connected to everything else, and detours so obsessively en route that even the revelation that there is actually no revelation seems extraordinarily significant."* So, I think I confidently say that any pronouncement on this book should be taken to be foolishy overconfident, obviously including this one.

My main take away is that this is Pynchon's play on the Age of Reason when the sciences were flawed with imagination and the occult was merely part of the process. When skills of measurement were refined to quite an extent and yet unknowns could fumble forward ideas, and when making things known had some troublesome imperative with unpredictable outcomes. How else do two rural born children become skilled master-craftsmen, who build nearly perfectly, over four years, a line in the almost wilderness, guided by the stars, that will quite soon become meaningless, and then later on define the American chasm that clashed in that Civil War. And yet, neither Charles Mason or Jeremiah Dixon would manage to become part of the Royal Society, or really amount to all that much. More humble creatures lost in the human machine. Or something.

Pynchon brings out a Mason and Dixon that are tied to facts well enough, are well defined full personalities, and hardly likely to be anything like anyone who ever existed. They bicker as their relationship fumbles forward, their skills taken for granted. They each have their struggles. Mason, the Astronomer, has more internalized struggles as he works through his melancholy and loss of his wife. Dixon, a surveyor, the more practical one, tied better into the real world. Albeit, a world defined by learned talking dogs, invisible angry automaton ducks, and, well, slavery, among other insane and wild encounters.

This is the sequel in process and theme to V. and Gravity's Rainbow. Like them, this is a ball of confusion with wacky happenings and many a drug-trip type scenes. But, it's really toned down in comparison. It's less wacky, less druggy, with less sex. The sex which was both disgusting and all over the place in the earlier two books here is reduced to implication and flirtation. When a group of gnomes or some such creatures want to explore Dixon, and asks him to undress as much as he is comfortable doing so, he takes off his shoes, but leaves his hat on.

I've noticed over the last several years how I struggle to link into the mindset of a book, to get the tone well enough that I can come along for the ride. It's like something I need to figure out, to learn, hopefully before I get too far into the book. I never got it here, never really tied in. The book always seemed to fall through my fingers somehow, remaining a other, and leaving me to plod along uncomfortably and unconfident. Of course it's all in humor and fun, and I could see that and kind of smile at myself. And that does make the book both easier and something other. Ultimately, it's not really intended to be taken in any kind of full seriousness. But, it seemed I fell in, and then couldn't find a comfortable place to sit anywhere. So, I just stumbled on through. The book has ended quietly, but I'm still stumbling along.

*Not sure what original source is, but it's quoted here: https://www.lrb.co.uk/v19/n14/jenny-turner/when-the-sandwich-was-still-a-new-invention
1 vote dchaikin | Apr 15, 2017 |
Although ostensibly a work of historical fiction about Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, the astronomer-surveyor tandem that surveyed the Mason-Dixon line in the 1760s, it's quickly apparent that this novel is much more. Pynchon inhabits eighteenth-century language and form, from the digressive sentences to the stories within stories within stories, and captures the clash of reason and the supernatural characterizing both the so-called Enlightenment and early America. An absolutely stunning book in every respect. At turns uproariously funny and deeply moving. The final chapters almost unbearably poignant. ( )
  jalbacutler | Jan 10, 2017 |
This is a mad book, and wonderful to read. It’s dense and took me months to get through but it’s so much fun that I read the last hundred pages with some sadness, knowing that it was approaching the end.

What I liked about it was the sheer imaginative creation of so much colour and incident, such weird characters and a setting that brings out not only the founding myths of the USA, but also contemporary issues like racism, paranoid fantasy, imperfect science vs. popular culture. The stories of the increasingly powerful mechanical duck, or the fortune-telling English dog, mysterious palaces in the forest, or the subterranean world are so numerous that by the end I just wanted to go back and check them out again. Some are so striking that they stay with me, such as the confusion and loss felt when the calendar was reformed to eliminate 11 days. But this is a book that academics can (and do) study to understand the meaning of the details, while casual readers can read just for the pleasure of the stories. You can get hung up on the details and the archaic language, but it’s more fun just to enjoy it as a fireside story with plenty of incident.

It is genuinely comic to read, including satirical portraits of English, American and South African class cultures. And yet it comes together in a touching way as Mason and Dixon work out their antagonisms and develop a kind of closeness and friendship. One of the themes that comes through all the mad detail is how the working friendship helps two very different men find connections with their societies and their families in tumultuous times.

For me, the key theme and the central story in the book is the founding of America, so-called. The form of the book itself, written in a faux-18th century style, is a first person narrative of someone who claims to have been at some of the central events leading up to the American Revolution. Yet his story is obviously made up to entertain his listeners so that he can stay on living comfortably with his relatives. He makes up absurd and impossible, but highly entertaining, incidents involving Franklin, Washington and other Americans, as well as their British colonizers. I love the idea that the political discussions of the time all take place in coffee houses so thick with smoke that people cannot see each other and are intoxicated with caffeine, nicotine and alcohol – they don’t know who they are talking to or what they are talking about. They best political strategies don’t come from the intellectuals, but from pirates planning insurrection in the warehouses along the New York harbour. The talk of liberation comes in a society in which casual racism, slavery and aboriginal massacres are endemic. This points to the myths that underlie the foundations of any nation, and the unreliable but convenient stories that they are based on. It’s good that it is Pynchon, a respected American intellectual, who shows this, because it would be unwelcome from many other voices. It is curious that the theme, which to me seems so significant, has not shown up in any of the reviews I’ve read of the book. I think it’s also interesting that Pynchon ends the story on a meditative tone with Dixon’s family populating the new country and giving up the old country with its ghosts. Yes, it seems to conclude, there’s a lot of ridiculous storytelling going on, but let’s acknowledge that and get on with making a good life.

In the end, I enjoyed this book so much that I look forward to reading more Pynchon, whom I have not read for decades. But first I’ve decided to read a real 18th Century picaresque, Tom Jones. It’s been sitting on my bookshelf in a lovely leather binding of 800 pages, so it too will take some time to read, but there I look forward to another extended visit to the 18th Century. ( )
3 vote rab1953 | Dec 9, 2015 |
[Re-read.] Just brilliant. ( )
  ronhenry | Nov 17, 2015 |
You have to try very hard to bump into a poorly written Pynchon book. Mason and Dixon is what you'd expect from Pynchon, a literate adventure book complete with imaginative diversions. The style will be off-putting to anyone who doesn't have the patience to read anything outside normative writing. I'm going to read this one again, and again, because the book says I have to or I will explode. ( )
2 vote veranasi | Jan 17, 2014 |
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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 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 December, to a comfortable Room at the rear of the House, years since given over to their carefree Assaults.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0312423209, Paperback)

A sprawling, complex, and comic work from one of the country's most celebrated and idiosyncratic authors, Mason & Dixon is Thomas Pynchon's Most Magickal reinvention of the 18th-century novel. It follows the lifelong partnership and adventures of the English surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon (of Mason-Dixon Line fame) as they travel the world mapping and measuring through an uncharted pre-Revolutionary America of Native Americans, white settlers, taverns, and bawdy establishments of ill-repute. Fans of the postmodern master of paranoia will recognize Pynchon's personality in the novel's first phrase: "Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs," a brief echo of the rockets that curve across the skies in the writer's masterpiece Gravity's Rainbow.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:05:19 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

The lives of two 18th century British astronomers who surveyed the boundary which settled a dispute between Maryland and Pennsylvania, and was later extended to become the boundary between free and slave states, the Mason-Dixon line. The novel describes their work in Africa and America, and traces their relationship.… (more)

» see all 3 descriptions

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