Thomas Pynchon – Mason & Dixon


I’m not sure if Pynchon set out deliberately to be the anti-Hemingway. You could ask him, I suppose..

The United States has a written constitution, with a lot of Amendments. There are a lot of people who base their claims to impose their views on the mass by reference to this document, and across the political divides they all think they have unique insight into the minds of the Founding Fathers. Pynchon’s idea is that they were closer to the hippies than to the Tea Party. The Enlightenment values on which the Declaration of Independence were based weren’t the only game in town at the time. As you might know, Mason and Dixon crossed the North American continent and their route is the de facto border between the North and the South. They were supposedly attempting to map a transit of Venus. What you might not know is that they were born in England; Pynchon’s usual detailed research includes getting the Geordie accent right and knowing that there is an annual event in Gloucestershire where people run away from a giant cheese rolling down a hill on pancake day. You may have heard about Vaucanson, the French engineer who built a clockwork duck that could digest grain. This novel has the escaped automaton flying over our heroes like a smart bomb and chasing a French chef across the world. As with his most celebrated novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, the major historical events are almost off-stage annoyances and the scientific and conceptual framework is manifested in every detail. The apparently random incidents are all placed to make the point. Plot, such as it is, is there to make the sequence of events a pattern.

The book purports to be an account narrated by their friend Revd. Wicks Cherrycoke (there was a character with the same improbable surname in earlier Pynchon novels). He has an axe to grind about Feng Shui and another about Jesuits, and for him they seem to be interchangeable. There are good jokes, deliberately rotten jokes and outright absurdities. The latter are almost all from obscure documents from the time. The dialogue has f-bombs but they have to write ‘G-d’. One teenage girl uses ‘as’ a lot, the way our kids use ‘like’. (This is, I’m assured, not a parody – [link missing]) A discussion of Plato and the Harmony of the Spheres leads to Benjamin Franklin inventing rock and roll and the possibility of surf music. In many ways, the apparent anachronisms are closer to what is documented than the soundbite version. In many more ways, who gets to write the ‘official’ version is the bigger question.

It’s a big book. You can be forgiven for getting lost in it the way our protagonists so often did. The best thing to do, if you have time, is to enjoy the journey first time and then, a few years later, revisit it with a clearer idea of what’s where in the book and then establish what exactly Pynchon is saying about America now. As is often the case, his interest is in information, as a commodity, a structuring and shaping of objects and energy or something that can be garbled and corrupted. (Neal Stephenson’s ‘Renaissance’ trilogy covers similar themes but we only currently have books 2 and 3.) Pynchon’s early admirers, from the 60s, are exactly the people who invented and colonised the internet when it started and were writing newsletters and crib-sheets that were prototype wikis and blogs in the 70s and 80s. Thus you can find no end of helpful advice and spoiler-free assistance. This is a good start.

By Tat Wood