Sunday, March 25, 2012
491. Mason & Dixon – Thomas Pynchon
History: This book was published in 1997. Mason and Dixon were engaged by Lord Baltimore and Mr. Penn to settle the boundary between Maryland and Pennsylvania. Their survey, begun in 1763 wanted only thirty-six miles of completion when stopped by Indian opposition in November 1767. Mason and Dixon's line was long famous as separating the slave from the free States.
Plot: The novel's scope takes in aspects of established Colonial American history including the call of the West, the often ignored histories of women, Native Americans, and slaves, plus excursions into geomancy, Deism, a hollow Earth, and — perhaps — alien abduction. The novel also contains philosophical discussions and parables of automata/robots, the afterlife, slavery, feng shui and others. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Nevil Maskelyne, Samuel Johnson, Thomas Jefferson, and John Harrison's marine chronometer all make appearances. Pynchon provides an intricate conspiracy theory involving Jesuits and their Chinese converts, which may or may not be occurring within the nested and ultimately inexact narrative structure.
Rather than a mistake or flaw on Pynchon's part, this narrative structure is constructed to be inexact in a (perhaps paradoxically) precise fashion; it demonstrates the fragility, rather than the secure foundations, of any historical record, and indeed, history itself. The Cherrycoke narrative shifts internally from one point of view to another, often relating events from the view of people Cherrycoke has never met. His story shifts its emphasis based on which members of his family are in the room — veering toward the adventure-heroic when the young twin boys are listening, veering away from the homoerotic at the insistence of more prudish (and richer) relatives. Also, a parallel story read by two cousins, an erotic 'captured by Indians' narrative, works its way into the main thread of Cherrycoke's story, further blurring and finally obliterating the line between objective history and subjectivity — what "really happened" is nothing more than a construction of several narrators, perhaps one of whom directly is the author.
Pynchon employs the spelling, grammar, and syntax of an actual late 18th century document, further emphasizing the novel's intended anachronism.
Review: The protagonists are the Englishmen Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, astronomers and surveyors, helping first to measure the distance to the Sun and then to translate lines on a map of the American colonies into lines on the ground. The resulting Mason-Dixon line subsequently divided the "free" North from the slave states of the South. That is another story, though. This one is set in a world where the mechanical is still outshone by the fantastical. Astronomers admit to each other that they used to do zodiac charts, like masseurs confiding that they performed additional services; the clocks used to measure the transits of Venus gossip among themselves about the rudeness of native clocks in foreign parts.
Science is pulling itself away from poetry, though. When the Moon next appears, notes Mason in a field report, "she will have resum'd her Deity"; he leaves this in because he knows his superior Maskelyne will edit it out.
Opening Line: “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 their snowy Advent, to a comfortable Room at the rear of the House, years since given over to their carefree Assaults.”
Closing Line: “We’ll fish there. And you too.”
Quotes: " ... Who claims Truth, Truth abandons. History is hir'd, or coerc'd, only in Interests that must ever prove base. She is too innocent, to be left within the reach of anyone in Power,—who need but touch her, and all her Credit is in the instant vanish'd, as if it had never been. She needs rather to be tended lovingly and honorably by fabulists and counterfeiters, Ballad-Mongers and Cranks of ev'ry Radius, Masters of Disguise to provide her the Costume, Toilette, and Bearing, and Speech nimble enough to keep her beyond the Desires, or even the Curiosity, of Government.... "
Rating: Too difficult to understand.