Book Review: Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon

by Anthony Perconti

As one of the premier practitioners of postmodern literature, author Thomas Pynchon is a meticulous researcher when it comes to crafting door-stoppers. Mason & Dixon is one such example, brimming with information on a wide range of Enlightenment era subjects. This novel follows the fortunes, through the decades, of Mason and Dixon as they ran the boundary line demarcating North and South through the United States, a line which became forever synonymous with their names. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Not only is Mason & Dixon an exceedingly accurate piece of historical fiction, it also functions as a seven hundred plus page Matryoshka Doll. A book that contains stories within stories, within stories; a near perpetual story machine, that is overflowing with marvels and wonders.

The book is narrated by the Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke, during the Christmastide of 1786. He recounts the myriad adventures of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon by the hearthside, to entertain his sister’s family. Cherrycoke was part of the expedition that created that famous line of division.

The Reverend begins the tale at 1761, during which Mason and Dixon were to observe the Transit of Venus from the vantage point of Sumatra. They barely escape with their lives after a naval attack by French warship, and are remanded to collect the data from the Cape of Good Hope.

Pynchon portrays these two individuals as profoundly different, yet they build a mutual affection towards each other that leads to a lifelong friendship. In a fascinating statement about their personalities, Pynchon contends Mason, the stuffy and dour widower, is a connoisseur of the grape (in its alcoholic form, of course), while Dixon, the jovial, live and let live, happy go lucky of the two is a connoisseur of the grain (fermented and distilled versions). In 1763, the duo is commissioned by the Royal Society to go to America to settle the longstanding territorial dispute between Pennsylvania and Maryland. It is at this point in the novel that Pynchon is at his most entertaining.

Pynchon paints his version of America as a land of paradoxes. Where the continent (like its people), has a dualistic nature. The author even goes so far as to imply that the Age of Reason held within it extreme contradictions.

The prominent ampersand (&) on this book’s front cover is telling and absolutely appropriate. The author presents ideas, relationships and places as merely a single side of a coin; there is always an opposing force or an antithesis. Like the previous analogy of the grape & grain, there are other contrasting forces including (but not limited to) liberty & slavery, empiricism & magic, self discipline & indulgence, Old World & New, myth & reality and capitalism & collectivism. Not to mention Pynchon’s writing style in of itself. He seamlessly mixes say, highbrow digressions on Astronomy in one sentence, while a few lines later, characters, with absurd names, are singing stupid songs or cracking mother jokes (or in the dictum of the book, ‘Joakes’). Mason & Dixon is a book of contradictions. It is also one of the finest examinations of friendship and duty (to self, family, loved-ones and work) that I have ever read.

To illustrate some of the marvels to be found within these pages, I will leave you with a snippet from Dixon’s journey to the telluric interior (or as it is known by its denizens, Terra Concava) of the planet.

“With this Instrument one could view any part of the Hollow Earth, even places directly across the Inner Void, thousands of miles distant. Tho’ Light through the Polar Openings north and south varied as the Earth travelled in its orbit, ‘twas never more than low and diffuse, hence the large eyes of the inner-surface dwellers, their pale skins, their diet of roots and fungi and what greener Esculents they might go to harvest out in the more arable country ‘round the Openings, though the journeys back inside were fraught with peril and inconvenience from arm’d Bands of Vegetable Pirates. Leaves in here were nearly black in color, fruit rare. The Wines,” Dixon shaking his head, “are as austere as anyone can imagine.”

Glorious, am I right? And if that kind of imaginative writing is in your wheelhouse, fear not. There is a lot more where that came from.

If Pynchon’s style appeals to you, I would recommend moving on to his Against the Day, Inherent Vice or Bleeding Edge. These novels were written later in his career and like Mason & Dixon, contain generous helpings of warmth and humanity. I would also heartily recommend The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Jan Potocki. Like Mason & Dixon, Manuscript also contains a metric ton of interlocking, interwoven stories and (near) infinite digressions. The vast majority of tales within Potocki’s novel are Gothic in nature; like a cross pollination between the One Thousand and One Nights and the American pulp magazine, Weird Tales. I wish you many hours of happy reading!

Anthony Perconti lives and works in the hinterlands of New Jersey with his wife and kids. He enjoys well-crafted and engaging stories across a variety of genres and mediums. His articles have appeared in several online venues and can be found on Twitter at @AnthonyPerconti.