Mason & Dixon

Date posted: Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Tackling the “exceedingly difficult” Pynchon novel.

Reading Thomas Pynchon is more than just an acquired taste. Some people are downright averse to doing it. In fairness to the detractors, Pynchon’s prose can often have the same effect as a well-greased playground slide: you can appreciate the smoothness of its construction and the slickness of its turns, but it can also take quite a while before you’re able to move ahead. Having said this, Mason & Dixon (1997) is deserving of a patient read, if only by the already-converted.

Even by Pynchon’s own standards, the novel’s level of difficulty is exceedingly high. Let’s start with the conceit: Mason & Dixon is technically a frame narrative, told by a fictional Reverend Cherrycoke to his niece and nephews before their bedtime. Unlike typical and straightforward forms of historical fiction like The Crucible or Gone with the Wind, Mason & Dixon features the spelling, diction, and curious capitalization practices found in eighteenth century texts. These authorial flourishes are easy enough to follow, the most common examples are adding a “k” to words that we normally see ending with “c” (e.g. Alcoholick, Mathematick) and in passages like this: “One may, if one wishes, find Insult at ev’ry step,— from insolent Stares to mortal Assault, an Orgy of Insult uninterrupted…” (14).

Of course, the syntax and diction only further complicate the Pynchonian universe that the titular astronomer-surveyors are about to step into. In this way, Mason & Dixon could possibly be the most ambitious work of Pynchon’s entire career—and that’s even counting the 1085-page, sprawling musing on turn-of-the-20th-century anarchy found in Against the Day (2006). Like most of his novels, getting through Mason & Dixon from start to finish is an achievement in its own right. However, the real power of the novel starts to seep into your subconscious after you deconstruct the many bells and whistles uniquely employed by America’s favorite literary recluse. As seemingly random as much of the book appears on its first pass, the novel is often as strange and foreign as the colonial America it attempts to depict. And after finishing the work a reader will, like the visiting British protagonists Mason and Dixon, look back on mid-to-late eighteenth century America with a complicated blend of insight and mystification. This is to say that Pynchon resists the temptation to simplify history just because we’ve inherited a static portrait of the past.

To be sure, much of the thematic (and physical) heft of Mason & Dixon is earned by its treatment of American history itself. Although one might think that the novel has something to do with the U.S. Civil War, it actually deals with the establishment of the infamous boundary line separating North from South, or just Pennsylvania and Maryland in this case. The political need to have a clear line of demarcation between the colonies is both an historical fact and the impetus for the novel, but the implications of such an undertaking, according to Pynchon, are varied, conflicting, and, above all, strange. Rather than simply retelling a story of delineating a literal and physical boundary, this novel is very much a study of what sort of conflicts arise inside of the sort of cultural conflict zones that cannot be rectified simply by drawing a line in the sand or, in this case, the woods.

This is one of the more entertaining aspects of the novel for the Pynchonian acolyte—instead of believing that the paranoid, frenetic visions of Western Civilization are somehow beholden to the aftermath of World War II, Mason & Dixon presents a colonial conflict that is every bit as disorienting as our own contemporary moment, and it does so according to what constituted as “strange” or “technologically scary” in that era. More than anything else, though, it’s a great counterweight to his oeuvre, as the silly notions of American exceptionalism, which he satirizes on a routine basis, are equally farcical in an era that predates the war for Independence itself. We are and have always been a country in conflict with our Continental ancestry, and it was not simply the twentieth century that gave rise to a melting pot of races, creeds, and relative perversions. In short, Pynchon seems to say, American chaos springs eternal.

Apart from the historical plot that takes Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon into the heart of the British Colonies, there are too many threads to recount. The one that I found to be the most interesting was the divide between the Anglican and Deist Brits and the French and Spanish Jesuits. Like the shady members of the Tristero in The Crying of Lot 49, these (mostly) absent characters represent a certain type of clandestine colonizer, as if their attachment to the comparatively medieval practices of Roman Catholicism grant them access to a technological and scientific knowledge withheld from the rest of the world. Over the course of their years-long picaresque journey through the American colonies, the astronomer-surveyors are very often greeted by locals with great suspicion, and in almost every tavern they find themselves in, there is the question of who is or is not a Jesuit spy. While these paranoid behaviors appear to be reminiscent of twentieth century attitudes during the Cold War, the subtle suggestion that the novel repeatedly makes is that we’re rather self-centered if we can’t believe that earlier generations were just as fearful and frenzied as we are currently.

The reason I favor the Protestant-Jesuit divide the most is because it not only highlights the ethnic and religious conflicts that will later harangue the Independent nation-to-be, but also because it speaks to what the Mason/Dixon Line was supposed to divide: the woods belonging to the Quaker William Penn from the land belonging to Catholic Calverts, who held the post of Baron Baltimore. Although slavery is at first alluded to as a point of contention between southern practitioners and northern detractors and later dealt with explicitly when Jeremiah Dixon confronts the slave driver heinously beating his African slaves in the street, the dividing line between Pennsylvania and Maryland had not yet taken on its more contemporary significance as the dividing line between the North and the South, and so Pynchon sees this boundary as a sign of a fractured American culture divided by more than slavery alone.

While I’m still digesting the rest of the thematic ground that Pynchon covers in Mason & Dixon, there is also an intertextual thread that I can’t go without mentioning. In 1997, Pynchon published this novel, and Don DeLillo also published his magnum opus Underworld. Although it is more than likely that these two works were composed in absolute isolation from one another, I can’t help but think that Pynchon and DeLillo solidified their own Mason and Dixon relationship in the postmodern literary landscape with their respective works. This is to say that where Mason & Dixon’s thematic thrust exposes signs of fracture in our view of a stable and unified national history, Underworld consistently asserts that if you were to examine each cultural fragment left behind, you would discover how truly everything is connected. As a fan of both works, I could not possibly say which is the better portrait of the polysemic nation we currently inhabit; all I can say is that the tension between these two works mostly likely occupies opposite sides of the same coin. And, while Underwold may be more accessible in its prose (though possibly equally esoteric in its themes), Mason & Dixon is its equal and opposite force, which is not only worth reading but considering for some time to follow.

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Mike Dell’Aquila earned a B.A. from Penn State University and an M.A. Brooklyn College. His writing has appeared in a variety of print and online publications including KGB Bar Literary Magazine, Writing Our Way Home, Paterson Literary Review, Florida English Literary Journal, Italian Americana, and Kalliope: A Penn State Literary Journal. His short story “Growth” was the first-place winner in the 2010 AICW short story contest. He is currently at work on his first novel and also maintains a blog at

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