A Mason & Dixon Christmastide (Thomas Pynchon)

They discharge the Hands and leave off for the Winter. At Christmastide, the Tavern down the Road from Harlands’ opens its doors, and soon ev’ryone has come inside. Candles beam ev’rywhere. The Surveyors, knowing this year they’ll soon again be heading off in different Directions into America, stand nodding at each other across a Punch-bowl as big as a Bathing-Tub. The Punch is a secret Receipt of the Landlord, including but not limited to peach brandy, locally distill’d Whiskey, and milk. A raft of long Icicles broken from the Eaves floats upon the pale contents of the great rustick Monteith. Everyone’s been exchanging gifts. Somewhere in the coming and going one of the Children is learning to play a metal whistle. Best gowns rustle along the board walls. Adults hold Babies aloft, exclaiming, “The little Sausage!” and pretending to eat them. There are popp’d Corn, green Tomato Mince Pies, pickl’d Oysters, Chestnut Soup, and Kidney Pudding. Mason gives Dixon a Hat, with a metallick Aqua Feather, which Dixon is wearing. Dixon gives Mason a Claret Jug of silver, crafted in Philadelphia. There are Conestoga Cigars for Mr. Harland and a Length of contraband Osnabrigs for Mrs. H. The Children get Sweets from a Philadelphia English-shop, both adults being drawn into prolong’d Negotiations with their Juniors, as to who shall have which of. Mrs. Harland comes over to embrace both Surveyors at once. “Thanks for simmering down this Year. I know it ain’t easy.”
“What a year, Lass,” sighs Dixon.
“Poh. Like eating a Bun,” declares Mason.”

The last paragraphs of Ch. 52 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon.

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A completely subjective and thoroughly unnecessary ranking of Thomas Pynchon’s novels

To date, Thomas Ruggles Pynchon (American, b. 1937), has published eight novels and one collection of short stories. These books were published between 1963 and 2013. On this day, Thomas Ruggles Pynchon’s 81st birthday, I present my ranking of his novels. My ranking is completely subjective, essentially incomplete (in that I haven’t read two of Pynchon’s novels all the way through), and thoroughly unnecessary. My ranking should be disregarded, but I do not think it should be treated with any malice. You are most welcome to make your own ranking in the comments section of this post, or perhaps elsewhere online, or on a scrap of your own paper, or in personal remarks to a friend or loved one, etc. I have not included the short story collection Slow Learner (1984) in this ranking because it is not a novel.

Here is the list, ranked from not-greatest to greatest:

8. Bleeding Edge (2013)

I have never made it past the first thirty pages of Bleeding Edge, despite two attempts. I don’t even own it. I will probably read it in ten years and see something there that I didn’t see in 2013 or 2015 but for now, I’m not sure.

7. Vineland (1990)

Vineland is the other Pynchon novel I haven’t managed to finish. I’ve tried three times, including a semi-serious shot last year where I stalled after the fourth chapter (around 90 pages in). Vineland seems to have a strange status for Pynchon cultists—its a cult novel in an oeuvre of cult novels, I guess. Perhaps Vineland has a sturdier core to it than I can sense, but even though I dig the goofy humor, I haven’t yet found something to grab onto.

6. Inherent Vice (2009)

I love Inherent Vice. It has a bit of a reputation of being “Pynchon lite,” whatever that means, but I think it’s a much denser book than a first reading might suggest—its shaggy baggy breeziness coheres into something stronger on a second or third read. Inherent Vice is both a diagnosis of the sixties and a prognosis of a future to come.

5. V. (1963)

V. makes a good starting place for anyone new to Pynchon. Even though it’s his first novel, V. already stages Pynchon’s major themes (paranoia, technology, entropy, globalism) in an elastic and discursive narrative style and a zany (and sometimes sinister) tone. These elements continued throughout the next half century in Pynchon’s writing. V. shares a few characters with Gravity’s Rainbow, and in many ways it feels like a dress rehearsal for that bigger, grander, fuller novel—but it reverberates with its own richness. The ninth chapter, the story of of Kurt Mondaugen, is a particularly dark and decadent bit of writing.

4. The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)

The Crying of Lot 49 doesn’t so much convert paranoia into hope as it shows that the two are part and parcel of the same impulse of a consciousness that has to know that it cannot know. Pynchon’s dualities here feel new—paranoia/hope is wrapped into zaniness/horror. He sends us to escape into the labyrinth. I wrote new in the previous sentence, but Pynchon’s ambiguities resonate with American literature’s dark romantic traditions—Melville, Hawthorne, O’Connor, et al.

3. Against the Day  (2006)

Against the Day glides into its sprawl, billowing out into genre trajectories that transcend the boundaries of the plot’s dates (1893-1918). Pynchon’s longest novel to date earns its 1,085-page run, pivoting between comic fantasy, high adventure, flânerie escapade, scientific treatise, and a byzantine global mystery—all weighed down by the ballast of rising modernism. Pynchon merges these styles, both “high” and “low,” into something thoroughly Pynchonian. Despite its length, Against the Day is perhaps Pynchon’s clearest indictment of sinister power, neatly figured in the oligarch Scarsdale Vibe. Just writing about it here makes me want to revisit it again and check in on The Chums of Chance and their marvelous airship The Inconvenience. 

2. Mason & Dixon (1997)

Pynchon’s zany/sinister tonal axis, comic bravado, and genre-shifting modes rarely result in what folks narrowly think of as literary realism. His characters can be elastic, cartoonish even—allegorical sometimes (and even grotesque). Mason & Dixon takes two historically real (and historically famous) characters as its subject, and, in a wonderfully hyperbolic 18th-century style, takes the duo on a fantastic journey to measure the world. How does one measure the world though? Pynchon takes on seemingly every subject under the sun in Mason & Dixon, and the novel is very much about the problems and limitations of measuring (and describing, and knowing) itself. But what comes through most strongly in all of Pynchon’s fantasia is the weight of Mason and Dixon’s friendship. It’s the most real thing in a wonderfully unreal novel.

1. Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

Gravity’s Rainbow is probably the best American postmodern novel ever produced. In any case, I haven’t read another novel that so acutely dissects postwar America. Pynchon extends Eisenhower’s warning of the “military-industrial complex” by adding another element: entertainment. The intuition here surpasses prescience. The problem with Gravity’s Rainbow is that it cannot be read—it has to be reread. Its themes, motifs, and symbols are easy to miss on a first pass through, when you’re likely bugeyed and bewildered. Rereading Gravity’s Rainbow is like reading it for the first time. You have to let the book teach you how to read it. Let it teach you.

Three potential starting points for reading Thomas Pynchon

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Today is Pynchon in Public Day, so here are three books that I think may make good entry points for those interested in, but perhaps unnecessarily daunted by, Thomas Pynchon. My intuition is that many readers’ first experiences reading Pynchon may have been like mine: I read The Crying of Lot 49 as a college assignment, found it bewildering and baffling, and despite understanding almost none of it, I then attempted Gravity’s Rainbow (the key word is attempted (failed will also do in a pinch)).

Many readers start with The Crying of Lot 49 because it’s short. While I like the novel (I wrote about it here), it’s also extraordinarily dense, a box so crammed with jokes and japes that some fail to spring out at full force. Lot 49 is a much better reading experience after you’ve read more of Pynchon.

Lots of readers new to Pynchon plunge into Gravity’s Rainbow, probably because it’s famous. I love love love Gravity’s Rainbow, but along with Mason & Dixon (which may be my favorite Pynchon novel), I do not think it is a good starting place for Pynchon. Gravity’s Rainbow is a rich, ringing vortex, a seven-hundred-and-something pager that almost necessitates that its reader immediately reread it. Gravity’s Rainbow is a very funny and very tragic book, and I think it is the work of genius that its reputation suggests—but it’s also one of the few books I can think of that get put on lists of Big Difficult Novels that is, actually, Difficult.

So here are my suggestions for starting places for Pynchon.

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Against the Day, 2006.

Okay. So maybe you’re saying, Waitisn’t that one, like, really long? Reader, you’re correct. At 1,085 pages Against the Day is Pynchon’s longest novel to date. But it’s also one of his most accessible, and, most importantly, it offers a condensation of Pynchon’s Big Ideas and Big Themes. (I wrote a list of 101 possible descriptors for Against the Day, if you’re interested in a short take; I also riffed on the book at some length in a series of posts).

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V., 1963.

V. is Thomas Pynchon’s first novel. It’s also the first Pynchon novel I read and loved and (possibly) understood. Like Against the DayV. lays out many of the themes and styles (and even a character or two) that appear elsewhere Pynchon’s oeuvre. In a loose sense, V. feels like a dress rehearsal for Gravity’s Rainbow. Oh, it’s also pretty discursive—in fact, you can read chunks of it almost as short stories. In fact, here’s a good way to break into Pynchon: Get V., and read Ch. 9–it stands on its own as a long short story, the tale of Kurt Mondaugen—and colonialism, siege paranoia, dark dread, etc.

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Inherent Vice, 2009.

I’ve heard Inherent Vice dismissed as “Pynchon lite,” which may be true—I’ve read the book twice now and if its shaggy threads connect, I can’t see it (unlike, say, Gravity’s Rainbow, which resolves like a complicated math problem). Still, Inherent Vice makes a nice gateway drug to Pynchon—it’s funny and loose, and even though it rambles through an enormous cast of characters and settings, it’s ultimately far, far more contained than sprawling novels like Mason & Dixon and Gravity’s Rainbow. Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation also makes an interesting visual counterpart to the novel—which it somehow simultaneously condenses and expands. Inherent Vice—the novel—also seems to me a kind of bookend or sequel to The Crying of Lot 49. (I wrote a bit about that here).

Last thought: Ignore my suggestions. Pick any novel that interests you by Pynchon and dive in. Don’t get too frustrated if you’re not sure what’s going on. A lot of the time, that’s the point of it all. Enjoy it.

[Ed. note–Biblioklept ran a version of this post on 8 May 2016].

Three Books (that are good starting points for reading Thomas Pynchon)

Today is Pynchon in Public Day, so today’s Three Books blog offers three books that I think may make good entry points for those interested in, but perhaps unnecessarily daunted by, Thomas Pynchon. My intuition is that many readers’ first experiences reading Pynchon may have been like mine: I read The Crying of Lot 49 as a college assignment, found it bewildering and baffling, and despite understanding almost none of it, I then attempted Gravity’s Rainbow (the key word is attempted (failed will also do in a pinch)).

Many readers start with The Crying of Lot 49 because it’s short. While I like the novel (I wrote about it here), it’s also extraordinarily dense, a box so crammed with jokes and japes that some fail to spring out at full force. Lot 49 is a much better reading experience after you’ve read more of Pynchon.

Lots of readers new to Pynchon plunge into Gravity’s Rainbow, probably because it’s famous. I love love love Gravity’s Rainbow, but along with Mason & Dixon (which may be my favorite Pynchon novel), I do not think it is a good starting place for Pynchon. Gravity’s Rainbow is a rich, ringing vortex, a seven-hundred-and-something pager that almost necessitates that its reader immediately reread it. Gravity’s Rainbow is a very funny and very tragic book, and I think it is the work of genius that its reputation suggests—but it’s also one of the few books I can think of that get put on lists of Big Difficult Novels that is, actually, Difficult.

So here are my suggestions for starting places for Pynchon.

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Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon. First edition Penguin hardback, 2006. Jacket design my Michael Ian Kaye.

Okay. So maybe you’re saying, Waitisn’t that one, like, really long? Reader, you’re correct. At 1,085 pages Against the Day is Pynchon’s longest novel to date. But it’s also one of his most accessible, and, most importantly, it offers a condensation of Pynchon’s Big Ideas and Big Themes. (I wrote a list of 101 possible descriptors for Against the Day, if you’re interested in a short take; I also riffed on the book at some length in a series of posts).

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V. by Thomas Pynchon. Vintage UK trade paperback edition (1995). Cover by Paul Burgess.

V. is Thomas Pynchon’s first novel. It’s also the first Pynchon novel I read and loved and (possibly) understood. Like Against the DayV. lays out many of the themes and styles (and even a character or two) that appear elsewhere Pynchon’s oeuvre. In a loose sense, V. feels like a dress rehearsal for Gravity’s Rainbow. Oh, it’s also pretty discursive—in fact, you can read chunks of it almost as short stories. In fact, here’s a good way to break into Pynchon: Get V., and read Ch. 9–it stands on its own as a long short story, the tale of Kurt Mondaugen—and colonialism, siege paranoia, dark dread, etc.

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Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon. First edition hardback, Penguin, 2009. Jacket design by Tal Goretsky and Darren Haggar; image credited to Darshan Zenith and Cruiser Art.

I’ve heard Inherent Vice dismissed as “Pynchon lite,” which may be true—I’ve read the book twice now and if its shaggy threads connect, I can’t see it (unlike, say, Gravity’s Rainbow, which resolves like a complicated math problem). Still, Inherent Vice makes a nice gateway drug to Pynchon—it’s funny and loose, and even though it rambles through an enormous cast of characters and settings, it’s ultimately far, far more contained than sprawling novels like Mason & Dixon and Gravity’s Rainbow. Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation also makes an interesting visual counterpart to the novel—which it somehow simultaneously condenses and expands. Inherent Vice—the novel—also seems to me a kind of bookend or sequel to The Crying of Lot 49. (I wrote a bit about that here).

Last thought: Ignore my suggestions. Pick any novel that interests you by Pynchon and dive in. Don’t get too frustrated if you’re not sure what’s going on. A lot of the time, that’s the point of it all. Enjoy it.

A Mason & Dixon Christmastide (Thomas Pynchon)

They discharge the Hands and leave off for the Winter. At Christmastide, the Tavern down the Road from Harlands’ opens its doors, and soon ev’ryone has come inside. Candles beam ev’rywhere. The Surveyors, knowing this year they’ll soon again be heading off in different Directions into America, stand nodding at each other across a Punch-bowl as big as a Bathing-Tub. The Punch is a secret Receipt of the Landlord, including but not limited to peach brandy, locally distill’d Whiskey, and milk. A raft of long Icicles broken from the Eaves floats upon the pale contents of the great rustick Monteith. Everyone’s been exchanging gifts. Somewhere in the coming and going one of the Children is learning to play a metal whistle. Best gowns rustle along the board walls. Adults hold Babies aloft, exclaiming, “The little Sausage!” and pretending to eat them. There are popp’d Corn, green Tomato Mince Pies, pickl’d Oysters, Chestnut Soup, and Kidney Pudding. Mason gives Dixon a Hat, with a metallick Aqua Feather, which Dixon is wearing. Dixon gives Mason a Claret Jug of silver, crafted in Philadelphia. There are Conestoga Cigars for Mr. Harland and a Length of contraband Osnabrigs for Mrs. H. The Children get Sweets from a Philadelphia English-shop, both adults being drawn into prolong’d Negotiations with their Juniors, as to who shall have which of. Mrs. Harland comes over to embrace both Surveyors at once. “Thanks for simmering down this Year. I know it ain’t easy.”
“What a year, Lass,” sighs Dixon.
“Poh. Like eating a Bun,” declares Mason.”

The last paragraphs of Ch. 52 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon.

Live long and prosper (Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon)

One day, the Meridian having been closely enough establish’d, and with an hour or two of free time available to them, one heads north, one south, and ’tis Dixon’s luck to discover The Rabbi of Prague, headquarters of a Kabbalistick Faith, in Correspondence with the Elect Cohens of Paris, whose private Salute they now greet Dixon with, the Fingers spread two and two, and the Thumb held away from them likewise, said to represent the Hebrew letter Shin and to signify, “Live long and prosper.” The area just beyond the next Ridge is believ’d to harbor a giant Golem, or Jewish Automaton, taller than the most ancient of the Trees. As explain’d to Dixon, ’twas created by an Indian tribe widely suppos’d to be one of the famous Lost Tribes of Israel, who had somehow given up control of the Creature, sending it headlong into the Forest, where it would learn of its own gift of Mobile Invisibility.

“And . . . do you folk wear Special Hats, anything like that?” inquires Dixon.

From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon. (More/some context).

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon

[Ed. note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon—which I loved. (See also: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s RainbowGeorge Orwell’s 1984, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, James Joyce’s Ulysses and David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress). I’ve preserved the reviewers’ own styles of punctuation and spelling].

What crap.

A talking dog?

I made a mistake.

Dialogue that is meaningless?

But what is the point of this story?

Pynchon is simply messing around

I can’t believe I read the whole thing.

I guess there’s no accounting for taste.

Rarely have I anticipated a book so hungrily.

Lost me at the talking dog, and never recovered.

I’ve also seen Pynchon praised for his erudition.

You think a talking dog or mechanical duck is funny?

Supposedly it’s a literary adventure through the 18th century

George Washington smoking pot and getting the munchies?

I consider my myself a reader who relishes literary challenges.

I am a reader who enjoys being bluntly told what the author thinks

The only book I’ve ever read that was a complete waste of time !

just an endless series of unconnected and unrelated ramblings…

Yes, it was a different world back then, and people talked funny (to our ear).

The publisher should have left the trees to grow rather than putting this in print.

I had to finish it – but resorted to scanning the text for references to my 7th great grandfather.

Pynchon is like strolling through a garbage dump full of meaningless, forgotten pop culture relics.

Wow, I give up on Mr. Pynchon who apparently has some intergalactic literary insights well above my head.

Regretfully, I’ll need to wait for the english language translation before properly assessing this novel’s merits.

Thomas Pynchon surely must have been smoking something more powerful than plain tobacco when he wrote this debacle…

I admit to approaching this book with a great deal of reverence, along with guilt for never having attempted either “V” or “Gravity’s Rainbow.”

Mr.Pynchon may be considered one of today’s great writers by the cosmopolitan literati, but this provencial reader found his work to be a 773 page morass of archaic vernacular with no particular point.

I would like to assert, however, as one who has read quite deeply in English prose of the last 400 years, that the much-praised “18th-century English” is nothing like, being full of anachronisms and lapses of decorum.

Pynchon doesn’t descibe. He makes lists of objects, as if the acculation of things or people surrounding the characters is enough to create some semblance of reality, or alternate reality, or hyperreality or whatever.

I am in the vast minority, obviously, who “didn’t get it.” Some times I wonder if reviewers, too “didn’t get it” but were afraid to say so, because this conglomeration of words is just that – a pointless, incomprehensible waste of trees.

My Tedium never Ceases, yet have I only Dredged thru half of this Tome. My eyes grow Tir’d and my Thoughts grow more hateful towards this Author. History is barely Reveal’d and the style has Vex’d me thru and thru. Hemp smoking Franklin? Confus’d and Stupid Astronomers? Half the book not spent in the country of interest? Yet I plod on, making a use of this Fantastique tale, to knaw away at the Minutes spent in the loo. Wouldst it be quite the thing, if only the Paper t’was softer, I can then make of it a Cleansing Agent for my Posterior once Finished with each page.

It was evidently written for a limited audience–people who can actually read eighteenth century style prose and who still find jokes about “not inhaling” to be amusing.

Pynchon’s style is clotted, mannered, meretricious and UNpoetic in the extreme. Indeed, I think much of the book, in word and matter, is a stale exercise in collecting academic trivia and faddish modern-day truisms about the period.

To be sure, there is some real history reported, but there is also much nonsense and fakery–the first pizza, golems–and interminable, leaden dialogues that could never have taken place.

Really Pynchon was just showing off his “imagination” with endless derails, whimsical characters that didn’t figure into the story at all, and stupid jokes bathed in obscure jargon.

If you like rambling verbiage that not only obstructs but obliterates the point, you’ll love this author, whose neurotic word dribblings are gnosticed by critics to be visionary insights.

For all the scribblings in this book’s 800 some pages, 90% of it just feels like hot air lacking any real message or content.

One could read this book from front to back, back to front, or from the middle both ways and not be able to tell the difference..

I love sentimental literature but I couldn’t for the life of me see much connection between Pynchon’s writings and the major works of the 18th century.

I challenge any fan to give even one insight about life or the universe that they gleaned from Mason and Dixon..

Just because the gags are about the hollow earth theory does not make them any more than just gags.

The reader is presented with one choppy chapter after another, often with little or no context.

The book is a mess and sorely needed a large pair of scissors to trim out the inane chatter.

Thers’s an old phrase about good writing: show, don’t tell. Phynchon don’t show nothun’.

For years Pynchon has intrigued me as being one of the “bosses” of modern literature.

There’s no sense of place, no compelling plotline. The characterization is merely O.K.

Pynchon is all over the map willy nilly throwing out anything that diverts his attention.

In what way was this an homage, parody, or imitation of 18th century literature?

If Thomas Pynchon has a plot or a story line, he surely has hidden it very well..

To this day I do not know what the book was about and what was going on.

The overall scheme of the novel is stupid and amateurish.

Too hard to read for this master’s degree English teacher.

Hundreds of unrelated and disconnected characters too..

Some as ridiculous as a talking dog, and a robot duck…

This book is a waste of time and paper.

What is all this supposed to mean?

Honestly, this book is just annoying.

The first pizza made in England?

Clearly, the fault is mine.

Wicks Cherrycoke?

Big @#$%ing deal.

Musical Duet Summary of Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon in Two Stanzas

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From Ch. 77 of Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. I love the elision expressed in those dashes — “I say, was that–” — I say, was that a talking dog? I say, was that were-beaver? I say, was that a giant cannabis plant? I say, was that a Sino-Jesuit cabal? I say, was that the Lost Tribe of Israel? I say, was that the missing 11 days, and the Asiatick Pygmies who inhabit them? I say, was that a mechanical duck, looking for love? I say, was that an electric eel? I say, was that a recipe for catsup? I say, was that the first English pizza? I say, was that The Black Dog? I say, was that an iron bathtub? I say, was that a ridotto of inflamed debauchery? I say, was that a Masonic conspiracy? I say, was that the metaphysical wind? I say, was that a dead wife’s ghost? I say, was that a friendship? I say!

Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (Third Riff: The Rabbi of Prague)

A. I’m a few chapters–three, precisely—from finishing Mason & Dixon. “Finishing” is not the right verb here, though—Pynchon’s novel is so rich, funny, strange, and energetic that I want to return to it immediately.

B. But I need to backtrack a bit, riff on one of my favorite episodes—Chapter 50.

C. (First riff and second riff for those inclined).

D. In Chapter 50,

’tis Dixon’s luck to discover The Rabbi of Prague, headquarters of a Kabbalistick Faith, in Correspondence with the Elect Cohens of Paris, whose private Salute they now greet Dixon with, the Fingers spread two and two, and the Thumb held away from them likewise, said to represent the Hebrew letter Shin and to signify, “Live long and prosper.”

Pynchon plays here on the reader’s initial understanding of the signal and phrase as a pop culture reference—

 

 

—but the goof isn’t merely postmodernist shtick—Pynchon is pointing to how the invisible manifests itself in signs and wonders, covert, cryptic, but perhaps—perhaps—decipherable.

E. (Maybe this needs clarification: The Rabbi of Prague is a tavern. I lost track of how many bars taverns pubs inns alehouses coffeehouses etc. show up in M&D). Continue reading “Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (Third Riff: The Rabbi of Prague)”

Doubt is of the essence of Christ (Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon)

The Ascent to Christ is a struggle thro’ one heresy after another, River-wise up-country into a proliferation of Sects and Sects branching from Sects, unto Deism, faithless pretending to be holy, and beyond,— ever away from the Sea, from the Harbor, from all that was serene and certain, into an Interior unmapp’d, a Realm of Doubt. The Nights. The Storms and Beasts. The Falls, the Rapids, . . . the America of the Soul.
Doubt is of the essence of Christ. Of the twelve Apostles, most true to him was ever Thomas,— indeed, in the Acta Thomæ they are said to be Twins. The final pure Christ is pure uncertainty. He is become the central subjunctive fact of a Faith, that risks ev’rything upon one bodily Resurrection. . . . Wouldn’t something less doubtable have done? a prophetic dream, a communication with a dead person? Some few tatters of evidence to wrap our poor naked spirits against the coldness of a World where Mortality and its Agents may bully their way, wherever they wish to go. . . .

— The Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke, Undeliver’d Sermons

Preface to Ch. 53 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon.

Vineland (Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon)

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From the beginning of ch. 66 of Mason & Dixon; see also.

A Mason & Dixon Christmastide (Thomas Pynchon)

They discharge the Hands and leave off for the Winter. At Christmastide, the Tavern down the Road from Harlands’ opens its doors, and soon ev’ryone has come inside. Candles beam ev’rywhere. The Surveyors, knowing this year they’ll soon again be heading off in different Directions into America, stand nodding at each other across a Punch-bowl as big as a Bathing-Tub. The Punch is a secret Receipt of the Landlord, including but not limited to peach brandy, locally distill’d Whiskey, and milk. A raft of long Icicles broken from the Eaves floats upon the pale contents of the great rustick Monteith. Everyone’s been exchanging gifts. Somewhere in the coming and going one of the Children is learning to play a metal whistle. Best gowns rustle along the board walls. Adults hold Babies aloft, exclaiming, “The little Sausage!” and pretending to eat them. There are popp’d Corn, green Tomato Mince Pies, pickl’d Oysters, Chestnut Soup, and Kidney Pudding. Mason gives Dixon a Hat, with a metallick Aqua Feather, which Dixon is wearing. Dixon gives Mason a Claret Jug of silver, crafted in Philadelphia. There are Conestoga Cigars for Mr. Harland and a Length of contraband Osnabrigs for Mrs. H. The Children get Sweets from a Philadelphia English-shop, both adults being drawn into prolong’d Negotiations with their Juniors, as to who shall have which of. Mrs. Harland comes over to embrace both Surveyors at once. “Thanks for simmering down this Year. I know it ain’t easy.”
“What a year, Lass,” sighs Dixon.
“Poh. Like eating a Bun,” declares Mason.”

The last paragraphs of Ch. 52 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon.

There are a Mason and Dixon in Hell (Thomas Pynchon)

DePugh recalls a Sermon he once heard at a church-ful of German Mysticks. “It might have been a lecture in Mathematics. Hell, beneath our feet, bounded,— Heaven, above our pates, unbounded. Hell a collapsing Sphere, Heaven an expanding one. The enclosure of Punishment, the release of Salvation. Sin leading us as naturally to Hell and Compression, as doth Grace to Heaven, and Rarefaction. Thus— ”

Murmurs of,” ‘Thus’?”

“— may each point of Heaven be mapp’d, or projected, upon each point of Hell, and vice versa. And what intercepts the Projection, about mid-way (reckon’d logarithmickally) between? why, this very Earth, and our lives here upon it. We only think we occupy a solid, Brick-and-Timber City,— in Reality, we live upon a Map. Perhaps even our Lives are but representations of Truer Lives, pursued above and below, as to Philadelphia correspond both a vast Heavenly City, and a crowded niche of Hell, each element of one faithfully mirror’d in the others.”

“There are a Mason and Dixon in Hell, you mean?” inquires Ethelmer, “attempting eternally to draw a perfect Arc of Considerably Lesser Circle?”

“Impossible,” ventures the Revd. “For is Hell, by this Scheme, not a Point, without Dimension?”

“Indeed. Yet, suppose Hell to be almost a Point,” argues the doughty DePugh, already Wrangler material, “— they would then be inscribing their Line eternal, upon the inner surface of the smallest possible Spheroid that can be imagin’d, and then some.”

“More of these . . . ,” Ethelmer pretending to struggle for a Modifier that will not offend the Company, “curious Infinitesimals, Cousin.— The Masters at my Purgatory are bewitch’d by the confounded things. Epsilons, usually. Miserable little,”— Squiggling in the air, “sort of things. Eh?”

“See them often,” sighs DePugh, “this Session more than ever.”

“What puzzles me, DeP., is that if the volume of Hell may be taken as small as you like, yet the Souls therein must be ever smaller, mustn’t they,— there being, by now, easily millions”“there?”

“Aye, assuming one of the terms of Damnation be to keep just enough of one’s size and weight to feel oppressively crowded,— taking as a model the old Black Hole of Calcutta, if you like,— the Soul’s Volume must be an Epsilon one degree smaller,— a Sub-epsilon.”

“ ‘The Epsilonicks of Damnation.’ Well, well. There’s my next Sermon,” remarks Uncle Wicks.

“I observe,” Tenebræ transform’d by the pale taper-light to some beautiful Needlewoman in an old Painting, “of both of you, that your fascination with Hell is match’d only by your disregard of Heaven. Why should the Surveyors not be found there Above,”— gesturing with her Needle, a Curve-Ensemble of Embroidery Floss, of a nearly invisible gray, trailing after, in the currents rais’d by Talking, Pacing, Fanning, Approaching, Withdrawing, and whatever else there be to indoor Life,— “drifting about, chaining the endless airy Leagues, themselves approaching a condition of pure Geometry?”

“Tho’ for symmetry’s sake,” interposes DePugh, “we ought to say, ‘almost endless.’ ”

“Why,” whispers Brae, “whoever said anything had to be symmetrickal?” The Lads, puzzl’d, exchange a quick Look.”

From Ch. 49 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon.

The passage steps outside of the story that Reverend Cherrycoke is telling—a representation of Mason and Dixon—and into the “real” time of the narrative. Map and territory, spirit and substance. This particular passage echoes a complaint in Ch. 42 that “too much out here [i.e., the “New World”] fails to “mark the Boundaries between Reality and Representation.” Pynchon’s novel, I think, strives to measure (and break) the boundaries between reality and representation.

Coffee or tea? (Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon)

Mason is trying to wake up. The nearest coffee is in the cook-tent. “Pray you,” he whispers, “try not to be so damn’d,— did I say damn’d? I meant so fucking chirpy all the time, good chap, good chap,” stumbling out of the Tent trying to get his Hair into some kind of Queue. The Coffee is brew’d with the aid of a Fahrenheit’s Thermometer, unmark’d save at one place, exactly halfway between freezing and boiling, at 122°, where upon the Wood a small Arrow is inscrib’d, pointing at a Scratch across the glass Tube. ’Tis at this Temperature that the water receives the ground Coffee, the brew being stirr’d once or twice, the Pot remov’d from the fire, its Decoction then proceeding. Tho’ clarifying may make sense in London, out here ’tis a luxury, nor are there always Egg-shells to hand. If tasted early, Dixon has found, the fine suspended matter in the coffee lends it an undeniable rustick piquance. Later in the Pot, the Liquid charring itself toward Vileness appeals more to those looking for bodily stimuli,— like Dixon, who is able to sip the most degradedly awful pot’s-end poison and yet beam like an Idiot, “Mm-m m! Best Jamoke west o’ the Alleghenies!”— a phrase Overseer Barnes utters often, tho’ neither Surveyor quite understands it, especially as the Party are yet east of the Alleghenies. Howbeit, at this point in a Pot’s life-cycle, Mason prefers to switch over to Tea, when it is Dixon’s turn to begin shaking his head.

“Can’t understand how anyone abides that stuff.”

“How so?” Mason unable not to react.

“Well, it’s disgusting, isn’t it? Half-rotted Leaves, scalded with boiling Water and then left to lie, and soak, and bloat?”

“Disgusting? this is Tea, Friend, Cha,— what all tasteful London drinks,— that,” pollicating the Coffee-Pot, is what’s disgusting.”

“Au contraire,” Dixon replies, “Coffee is an art, where precision is all,— Water-Temperature, mean particle diameter, ratio of Coffee to Water or as we say, CTW, and dozens more Variables I’d mention, were they not so clearly out of thy technical Grasp,— ”

“How is it,” Mason pretending amiable curiosity, “that of each Pot of Coffee, only the first Cup is ever worth drinking,— and that, by the time I get to it, someone else has already drunk it?”

Dixon shrugs. “You must improve your Speed . . . ? As to the other, why aye, only the first Cup’s any good, owing to Coffee’s Sacramental nature, the Sacrament being Penance, entirely absent from thy sunlit World of Tay,— whereby the remainder of the Pot, often dozens of cups deep, represents the Price for enjoying that first perfect Cup.”

“Folly,” gapes Mason. “Why, ev’ry cup of Tea is perfect . . . ?”

“For what? curing hides?”

From chapter 48 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon.

Duck Tales (Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon)

Back Inhabitants all up and down the Line soon begin taking the Frenchman’s Duck to their Bosoms, for being exactly what they wish to visit their lives at this Moment,— something possess’d of extra-natural Powers,— Invisibility, inexhaustible Strength, an upper Velocity Range that makes her the match, in Momentum, of much larger opponents,— Americans desiring generally, that ev’ry fight be fair. Soon Tales of Duck Exploits are ev’rywhere the Line may pass. The Duck routs a great army of Indians. The Duck levels a Mountain west of here. In a single afternoon the Duck, with her Beak, has plow’d ev’ry Field in the County, at the same time harrowing with her Tail. That Duck!
As to the Duck’s actual Presence, Opinions among the Party continue to vary. Axmen, for whom tales of disaster, stupidity, and blind luck figure repeatably as occasions for merriment, take to shouting at their Companions, “There she goes!” or, “Nearly fetch’d ye one!” whilst those more susceptible to the shifts of Breeze between the Worlds, notably at Twilight, claim to’ve seen the actual Duck, shimmering into Visibility, for a few moments, then out again.
“I might’ve tried to draw a bead onto it, . . . but it knew I was there. It came walking over and look’d me thump in the eye. I was down flat, we were at the same level, see. ‘Where am I?’ it wants to know. ‘Pennsylvania or Maryland, take your pick,’ says I. It had this kind of Expression onto its Face, and seem’d jumpy. I tried to calm it down. It gave that Hum, and grew vaporous, and disappear’d.”
Mason and Dixon attempt to ignore as much of this as they may, both assuming ’tis only another episode of group Folly, to which this Project seems particularly given, and that ’twill pass all too soon, to be replaced by another, and so on, till perhaps, one day, by something truly dangerous.

From Chapter 45 of Thoma Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon.

What Machine Is It? (Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon)

“What Machine is it,” young Cherrycoke later bade himself goodnight, “that bears us along so relentlessly? We go rattling thro’ another Day,— another Year,— as thro’ an empty Town without a Name, in the Midnight . . . we have but Memories of some Pause at the Pleasure-Spas of our younger Day, the Maidens, the Cards, the Claret,— we seek to extend our stay, but now a silent Functionary in dark Livery indicates it is time to re-board the Coach, and resume the Journey. Long before the Destination, moreover, shall this Machine come abruptly to a Stop . . . gather’d dense with Fear, shall we open the Door to confer with the Driver, to discover that there is no Driver, . . . no Horses, . . . only the Machine, fading as we stand, and a Prairie of desperate Immensity. . . .”

The last lines of Ch. 35 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon seem to reiterate (what I take to be) the novel’s central question.

A great disorderly Tangle of Lines vanishing into the Mnemonick Deep (Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon)

Facts are but the Play-things of lawyers,— Tops and Hoops, forever a-spin. . . . Alas, the Historian may indulge no such idle Rotating. History is not Chronology, for that is left to lawyers,— nor is it Remembrance, for Remembrance belongs to the People. History can as little pretend to the Veracity of the one, as claim the Power of the other,— her Practitioners, to survive, must soon learn the arts of the quidnunc, spy, and Taproom Wit,— that there may ever continue more than one life-line back into a Past we risk, each day, losing our forebears in forever,— not a Chain of single Links, for one broken Link could lose us All,— rather, a great disorderly Tangle of Lines, long and short, weak and strong, vanishing into the Mnemonick Deep, with only their Destination in common.

— The Revd Wicks Cherrycoke, Christ and History

From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon.