Over the Line: Pynchon's Mason Dixon
April 26, 2000
Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon Henry Holt, 774 pages, $27.50, ISBN 0.8050.3758.6Letters of Wanda Tinasky web site: http://members.aol.com/tinasky/Publisher's site for Mason Dixon: www.hyperarts.com/mason-dixon/masondixon.htmlMason & Dixon is the first book in seven years from the notoriously reclusive Pynchon. The publisher has created a multipage World Wide Web site devoted to the book (http://www.fsb-associates.com)In Mason & Dixon, Thomas Pynchon has come home. With wriggle of arse and wink of shoulder, Pynchon has brought to life the spirit and tone of his literary love, the 18th century. The people in this book-which tells the story of the British surveyors who established the Mason-Dixon Line-talk as though the author were perched nearby, copying down their dialogue, albeit adding his own comic skew. The facts are accurate and the characters believable-so believable that one begins to believe the fictional characters are real as well. Why not a Talking Dog? Why not a Mechanickal Duck? Why not a conversation between clocks? Why not Asiatick Pygmies that colonized the Eleven Days disappeared with the Calendar Reform of 1752, when the calendar was made to read September 2 and the next day September 14?Mr. Mason and Mr. Dixon, with banter and barb, provide the throughline on which stories historical and hysterical have been gleefully hung. In their first adventure together, off to Sumatra to mark the Transit of Venus in early 1761, the Astronomer (Mason) and the Surveyor (Dixon) set sail on the Seahorse, a hopeful frigate, and are very soon cannoned by the French and forced to a lesser viewing s ite, the Cape of Good Hope. A shipmate is the Rev. Wicks Cherrycoke. The story begins in 1786, with the Rev. reminiscing that wild shipboard near-death of twentysome years earlier for his nephews, the Twins, Pitt and Pliny (the Elder or the Younger, they oscillate), and a few others. Uncle tells them of a "Crime" he had committed: "'twas one of the least tolerable of Offenses in that era*the Crime they styl'd 'Anonymity.' That is, I left messages posted publicly, b ut did not sign them."When Mason and Dixon arrive in Cape Town and begin their ordeals, there is bodice-ripping in the most emphatic way, although done by the ladies themselves. They wish to stimulate Mr. Mason into sexual urges which they intend for him to relieve with their black maid, a plot to provide a whiter infant, more marketable. He does not succumb.Mr. Dixon's interests are foods. He experiments. He eats from street vendors. And, to Mason's annoyance, splatters it all with an Indo-China import, ketjap. When they are again paired, sent to America to determine the latitude separating Pennsylvania and Maryland, they achieve remarkable feats as if they are all in a day's work. And they meet Ghosts and Golden Indians, invisibilities of Golem and Giants, and a Black Dog whose many names must not be spoken. There is Felipe, the Torpedo, the performing electric eel, and Zepho the Werebeaver. Countryfolk , innkeepers, Swedish Axmen, an African Jewish stand-up comic, French spies who might be anywhere, and the reviled Jesuits, sinister in their determination for control. There is the innocent country housewife, taken away by Indians to a Jesuit monastery in Quebec. She runs away with Zhang, the Chinese Feng-Shui Master, who insists the Line is a "conduit for Evil." There are the sidebars, self-contained gems like The Ghastly Fop and the story of Hsi and Ho, the Frick and Frack of Chinese astronomers. There is Madness everywhere, accusations of Insanity, the irony in the Age of Reason, unlike today when madness is costumed as culture.Mason had boyhood fears of They and That in the night until he looked up and embraced the stars. Dixon, fearful as a lad of open spaces, was given "an incentive, to enclose that which had hither to been without Form.*" Their careers are their destiny, and Pynchon's destiny is to put it all together.For there is much more than story here. There are lovely turns of phrase: "*a Flinch as free of deliberation as a sneeze" and "At the peaks of Barns, the Tops of girdl'd gray Trees, Gleaners of Voles soaring above the harvested Acres, with none of your ghostly hoo, hoo neither, but low embitter'd Croaking, utter'd in Syllables often at the Verge of Human Speech."There are also dreadful puns. As their South African host families bustle about, Mason remarks, "Dutch Ado about nothing." As the Dog Star is thought to make Melancholia, the Proprietor cackles, "Sirius Business."But none of that tells you that this book sings. Pynchon's lyricism and choices of words make Mason & Dixon a joy to read aloud. He has a way of creating delicacies of sound that invite chewing on and rolling around in the mouth. This is a linear story, but each increment of the line has layers of its own, a symphony of text created by a master conductor.And there are the songs! With meters of Robert W. Service or Ogden Nash or comic doggerel or words expecting accompaniment by a lute, the rhythm of these songs could charm a reader's wit or soothe a fussy infant. Even rock and roll finds its way into the 18th century, in the following exchange:"'Tis ever the sign of Revolutionary times, that Street-Airs become Hymns, and Roist'ring-Songs Anthems-just as Plato fear'd-hast heard the Negroe Musick, the flatted Fifths, the vocal portamenti-'tis there sings your Revolution. These late ten American Years were but Slaughter of this sort and that. Now begins the true Inversion of the World.""Don't know, Coz. Much of your Faith seems invested in this novel Musick-" "Where better?" asks young Ethelmer confidently. "Is it not the very Rhythm of the Engines, the Clamor of the Mills, the Rock of the Oceans, the Roll of the Drums in the Night, why if one wish'd to give it a Name."Thomas Pynchon has not "done it again." He has done it differently and with remarkable style, grace and wit.