Thomas Pynchon: Mason & Dixon
One of the many great things about Thomas Pynchon’s work is that it is not obviously “about” anything. Critics, either the professional or bumbling amateurs like you and me, cannot sum up his novels in a few words and say, yes, that is what it is about. Of course, that will not stop us trying and, if we want to try, we can say that Mason & Dixon, like its predecessors, is about what all great novels are about, man’s futile attempt to order the world, to find its meaning, to tame it and control it and place it in a nice, easily understandable pattern.
Mason & Dixon is nominally a narration by the Reverend Cherrycoke (that name, like others, was the name of a character in Gravity’s Rainbow) of how Mason and Dixon came to map their famous line, starting with their observation of the Transit of Venus and ending with the death of Dixon. In between, however, is a novel which is going to cause more discussion than any other novel since the author’s Gravity’s Rainbow. It’s picaresque, it’s action-packed, it’s ribald, it goes all over the place and leaves the reader wondering where s/he is in all of this. Of course, as it is Pynchon, he is going to have fun, with his food theme (from the first British pizza and the early American Chinese restaurants to the French cook who is followed by a mechanical duck) to his continued jokes about sex-and-drugs-and-rock-‘n’-roll. The whole is written in a pseudo-18th Century English.
But there is method to this madness. Mason and Dixon are always learning, discovering, trying to make sense of their world and so are many of the other characters both the real ones, like Ben Franklin and James Boswell, as well as Pynchon’s creations. But, if you are trying to nail down themes in Pynchon, you may as well start by trying to nail jelly to a tree. From mortality (a favourite theme of Pynchon’s, with ghosts always appearing in his novels) to conspiracies, from religion to the dubious benefits of civilisation, Pynchon leaves little untouched. Read the book. You may not enjoy it but you will certainly learn from it.
First published 1997 by Henry Holt