Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (First Riff)

A. Mason & Dixon: I bought my copy at Shaman Bookstore in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in the fall of 2002. I had just read and absorbed V., but could not get into Mason & Dixon. Chalk up this initial failure to the novel’s daunting scope, the formal characteristics of its faux-18th c. style, too much Thai whiskey, etc. I made attempts again over the years, sporadic ones, small dents, etc., including a half-hearted attempt after reading the book’s sort-of sequel, Against the Day last year. But of course I needed space from/for a big-assed Pynchon novel, so, a year later, I finally commit to Mason & Dixon. I’ve read the first 15 chapters.

B. “against the Day”: The phrase leaps out in the third paragraph of Chapter 13 (p. 125), imploring me to read Mason & Dixon as a prequel of sorts to Against the Day. The themes, motifs, and formal devices of both novels are utterly Pynchonian, of course (he tautologically types): Paranoia, global powers contesting for domination, science, adventure, means and methods of conveyance, dick jokes, ditties, inebriating substances, all manner of rascalism, man’s inhumanity to etc. And condiments!

C. “ketjap”: Against the Day gave us a history of the cult of mayonnaiseMason & Dixon is the ketchup book. (Not really but maybe really).

D. “The Learned English Dog”: We meet this marvelous beast, this talking dog, early in the novel, and he of course reminds me immediately of Pugnax, the loyal and brave companion to the Chums of Chance in Against the Day.

E. “invisible”: Just as in Against the Day, Pynchon sounds the note “invisible” repeatedly to highlight some of the Big Themes of the novel. Mason & Dixon is about The Age of Reason, or about the limitations of The Age of Reason, or about the limitations of even the very conceptualization of an Age of Reason—an age when “Men of Science” like our titular Daring Duo sought to make the invisible—the passage of the stars and time itself—visible, measurable, defined, bordered, colonized, etc.

F. “…please do not come to the Learned English Dog if it’s religious Comfort you’re after. I may be preternatural, but I am not supernatural. ‘Tis the Age of Reason, rrrf? There is ever an Explanation at hand, and no such thing as a Talking Dog,—Talking Dogs belong with Dragons and Unicorns.” Said the Talking Dog.

G. “inconvenience”: The first time I notice the word—another of Pynchon’s signatures—is in Ch. 3 (p. 28). It stands out: A sailor by the name of Fender-Belly Bodine claims that he once sailed on the H.M.S. Inconvenience. The Chums of Chance of course sail the heavens on their airship The Inconvenience. 

H. But again: “inconvenience” (and iterations of the same) thread through Mason & Dixon: Why? What to make of the word? Perhaps—just a perhaps—The Age of Reason is really a rhetorical substitution for The Age of Convenience, the Age of Better Living (For Some Folks) Through Science. Convenience: The application of some kind of method or utility—relies on measurement, on demarcation, on prediction, etc. Convenience, then, perhaps then, as the practical aim of the age of science.

I. And Inconvenience, then, perhaps then, as a disruptive metaphysical force (?).

J. I’ve neglected entirely to remark on the 18th c. style. Maybe another time.

K. Also the songs.

L. But I will, before closing, remark quickly on how much I enjoy how Pynchon riffs on jocular forms—jokes you mean, right?—to compose elements of the narrative. Early on, Dixon tries to tell a joke about “this Jesuit, this Corsican, and this Chinaman” before he’s stopped by a mortified Mason; they return to the joke about a hundred pages later (still no punchline). Globalization is already there.

M. (Also: An extended episode in the Dutch Cape of South Africa riffs repeatedly on the farmer’s daughters joke. No insight at all here—just love how Pynchon uses the joke to move his narrative along).

M. Okay, then: Just a few opening notes, just a little riff, a sketch, some initial ideas. More to come. Loving the book so far.

4 thoughts on “Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (First Riff)”

  1. I had to fight my way through Mason & Dixon – I started it on the day it was published. I think it took me eight months or so (of course, it took me twenty five years to read Gravity’s Rainbow). The funny thing was – I found the ending to be very emotional and still remember the feelings I had when I finished. I think the effort that it takes makes the reward greater.

    Good luck, thanks for sharing.

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