193 of 199 people found the following review helpful
Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon is a huge, tough book. It is not beach reading. It is, however, very clearly a masterpiece. Without a single throw away line or phrase, this is a book that requires a lot of attention and, perhaps, some preparation to read. A somewhat satirical novel, written in the peculiar style of 18th novelists such as Fielding, the book presents the reader with a number of challenges: conventions of physical presentation (overuse of capitalization, strange abbreviations and variant spellings), sentence complexity (each sentence can contain such a number of clauses and phrases that one can reach the end and have to reread to figure out what modifies what), density of line (each sentence is packed with allusions, puns, jokes as well as whatever it is ostinsibly about), and subject matter (the plot is pretty straight forward but many of the situations and digressions require the reader to have a knowledge of 18th century literature, science, politics and conventions in order to make sense of what is happening).
The story is 'told' by the Rev. Cherrycoke to his twin nephews (named Pitt and Pliney - so they could be called either 'the Elder' or 'the Younger' as one chose) and the narrative's 'point of view' shifts dramatically (and with no warning) so that at times one is 'in' the story and then abruptly back in a room in Philadelphia where the story is being told. You have to pay attention.
The book is full of sly humor and outrageous wordplay. Anachronisms abound. In one scene a character is enjoined to avoid the 'hemp' on his travels, but if he must smoke to not inhale. There are strange scenes that seem to defy any reasonable convention. For example, the L.E.D (the 'Learned English Dog'), a dog who can speak, do complex mathematics instantly and figures in a pivotal and unforgetable scene. There are whole sections of the book based on facts of history or aspects of convention that are not explained and require the reader to provide the context. A good example is the section on 'The Ear'. The ear in question was a pretext for Britain going to war on the high seas, but without the correct historical context, the entire surreal section makes no sense.
This book, therefore, requires careful attention and, if one has no knowledge of 18th century history and culture, some preparation before starting it. It is one of those books that need to be read slowly - perhaps aloud, almost like an epic poem, so that the resonance between all the allusions and themes can be appreciated. The more one puts into this book the more one will get out of it, but perhaps never get to exhaust all the meanings. I suspect there are doctoral dissertations for decades to be made from this book.
Still, despite the complexity and even allowing for sections that might mean nothing if one doesn't have the 'key' to unlocking them, the book works as a travel tale, a 'buddy' story, a revisionist, picaresque, historical novel in which famous characters (Ben Franklin, for instance) make comic or bizarre appearances. Witty, intelligent, sexy, exciting and thought provoking by turns, the book is a pleasure to sink into.
56 of 60 people found the following review helpful
on February 19, 2000
Mason and Dixon is another epic Pynchonian tale. As many other reviewers have said, it isn't that easy to read. It takes time and patience and a lot of perserverance, but it is definitely worth it. The basic philosophy of the novel is dualism. There are opposing twins of everything - Mason and Dixon themselves; the stories of Mason and Dixon within that told by Rev Cherrycoke; Cherrycoke's relations, Pliny and Pitt, either Elder or Younger; Northern and Southern states of America; the differing philosophies of the Western world and the Eastern world; the differing attitudes of Art and Science (very much of importance in the 18th century); the Romantic and Gothic; the straight man and the comedian; Johnson and Boswell (who appear at the end and who are foreshadowed by Cherrycoke in the Boswellian role); Britain and America; European philosophy versus Native American philosophy; war and peace - the list goes on. A very good article to read on this is Ken Rosenbaum's in the New York Book Review. He saw this dualism as a metaphor of the zeroes and ones that obsess Pynchon: the hot and cold atoms as sorted by the Maxwell's Demon of CL49, the hot and cold states of America divided by Mason and Dixon. And through it they create the perfect "line" that is neither one nor the other, that exists but doesn't really. Pynchon is interested in the difference between the extremes of life, such as noise and silence, light and dark, being and nothingness. Mason and Dixon has apparently been on Pynchon's mind since the 70s, and it is very much a culmination of his life's obsession.
We have to search the novel for references and echoes. Look at the cover of the book. I'm sure it cannot be a coincidence that the "&" is the main symbol. Mason and Dixon is about the things that join us and divide us, the "&" between us all. And surely there is an echo in the fact that "Mason", "Dixon" and "Pynchon" all end in "-on", and that they line up on the book's spine. Pynchon, with his curious eye for detail and coincidence, could not have ignored that.
Like in his other works, Pynchon manages to create a link between his books. They form a great bustling world. Pig Bodine (from V) has an ancestor who appears in Mason and Dixon, and Cherrycoke's descendent appears in Gravity's Rainbow. Characters link in again, forming a total corpus of Pynchonian achievement.
Another thing that Rosenbaum's article mentions is the Transit of Venus that takes up a large chunk of the novel (the line-making seems to take ages to come along). Rosenbaum sees this as the Transit of V-ness, as if Pynchon is having another joke on us. He gives it connations that are too detailed to mention here, but should be read by interested readers.
I must reiterate that this is not a simple book. It requires work. It took me over a month to read. It is as long as GR. And it is written in an 18th century style, so it is often confusing and distracting. However, it is very funny and up to the usual standard of Pynchonian research. It is highly accurate (you can do your own checking)in the ideas, events and speech (including Mason and Dixon's differing dialects); and the mysterious fact that we know only the date of Dixon's birth allows Pynchon's mind to run riot - he has him flying over Durham with his teacher, walking into bizarre cave structures where everything is upside down, and so on.
This is a challenging but highly rewarding philosophical novel, bawdy, 18th century in many ways. It is one of Pynchon's greatest works, and although people are always wary to classify a work so soon, I believe it can be located quite happily next to GR.
35 of 40 people found the following review helpful
on September 15, 2006
I decided to reread this a couple of months ago, just after watching Inherent Vice. The first time I took this book on, I struggled with it. It's not that it isn't brilliant. No one else around can dazzle you with so much wit and wonder. The first encounter with the talking dog is as magical as anything you'll ever read.
And it's not like this is the only Pynchon novel that takes some effort to get into. There are plenty of folks who have had to to take a couple cracks at V or Gravity's Rainbow before catching the wave.
But Mason and Dixon seemed like a lot of work, if for no other reason than the effort it takes dealing with the mid-18th century prose style. (Can you imagine the effort it took to produce it?) John Barth's Sotweed Factor is similar, and yet I had found it more accessible (and is highly recommended!). But not so the second time around. Somehow, I developed a comfort with it I had previously lacked and easily fell into the rhythm of his beautifully styled prose. This stuff is to be savored, not rushed.
Not that the darn thing isn't consistently challenging. There's no denying the patience and energy the reader need to put into it. As before, the beginning and ending flowed most amiably, perhaps with a faster pace with the development and resolution, and a more linear hold on the story's progression. the middle section, the actual construction of "the line", contains something of a fevered meditation on just not a vast new continent's allure and mystery to the European experience, but an expansive exercise in the Western World pagan spirituality that have only been briefly suggested by the likes of William Burroughs and Jim Morrison. Truly, this meditation is as great as you want it to be, as rewarding as the amount of reflection you can add to it.
For once Pynchon truly has plotted out and delivers a conclusion worthy of the whole work, as opposed to suddenly rushing out a trap door and leaving the reader in a state of suspension (which of course is also one of the many delights of his first three novels). This time one gets the sense that the author has a good deal of affection for his featured players. Neither idealized or dripping in sentiment, they exit the stage as familiar 3-dimensional figures that maintain something of a grip long after the book is shut.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on December 28, 2000
People are always making Pynchon out ot be difficult, as if they won a medal for finishing each of his books. Yes, you have to be willing to think to read Pynchon's stuff, and yes, it is worth the effort, if you enjoy being challenged when you read. If you want light fair, don't bother.
This book is a quest, you need to come armed with patience, a sense of humor and a good memory. The reward is that you will a have a hundred, maybe a thousand wonderful questions to ponder other than what you are going to have for dinner.
The Mason Dixon line is more than a boundary. It asks you about what happens when you throw a diverse group of people into a wilderness and what they make and are making out of it. Don't get caught up in the historical stuff, Pynchon's themes go beyond their setting. Although there is much to laugh at in the more human portrayal of some of our forefathers. They are simply a jumping off point.
If the size scares, just look at it as two or three books together. Don't be afraid, break it down and enjoy.
23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on January 23, 2007
I have mixed feelings about Thomas Pynchon and, more specifically, "Mason & Dixon." There's simply no argument that Pynchon is excessively erudite; he's a master stylist and a creative storyteller--although the "plot" of any of his novels seems almost beside the point.
In "Mason & Dixon," Pynchon follows our two heroes as they travel the seas to observe the transit of Venus and then inland through the American colonies to establish the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland. On the cusp bridging the Era of Phantoms and the Age of Reason, they meet historical figures (Benjamin Franklin, George Washington) and fanciful ones, including a robotic duck that jealously (and invisibly) pursues a French chef.
Mason and Dixon themselves are probably the most fully realized characters Pynchon has ever presented--and nowhere are their contrasting and complementary personalities more apparent than in various set pieces when they, say, argue over tea ("Well, it's disgusting, isn't it?") and coffee ("How is it 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?"). Many of the famous historical figures, too, are sweetly buffoonish or loutish, but most of the supporting characters are often hard to distinguish from each other--particularly the vast riffraff that accompany the astronomers on their journeys through American soil. (The most notable exception is the domineering and certainly deranged Nevil Maskelyne, with whom Mason is stuck on an island for one of my favorite sections in the book.)
There are also some funny Terry Gilliam-style bits scattered throughout the book, such as a recurring gag referencing Pope Gregory XIII's calendar reform of 1752 ("Stealing eleven days? Can that be done?") and a conversation between two clocks over the tricks--and the ticks--of their trade ("They share a Tremolo of amusement"). I'll concede that there is much pleasure in unexpectedly laughing out loud while wrestling with the book's arcane allusions and hidden meanings, yet I often suspected that if you were to strip away the veneer of historical references, literary allusions, and faux-eighteenth-century prose, then you would be left with the kind of daft humor available most late nights on Nickelodeon.
During the nearly three months I spent on "Mason & Dixon," I never once was able to sit down and actually read it. I labored through it and struggled with it, looked up unexplained (and sometimes inexplicable) historical and astronomical references, thumbed backwards to find bits I'd either missed or forgotten. And this isn't a book you can read unaccompanied by background materials. I spent a good couple of hours brushing up on the lineage of the various British Astronomers Royal, the history of the boundary dispute, the Paxton Boys and the Conestoga Massacre, and the creation of the cartographic curiosity known as the Wedge (don't ask). The work-to-pleasure ratio for this volume would not make good betting odds.
And now, several months later, I'm surprised by how little I remember. It's the same letdown I experience after completing the Sunday Times crossword puzzle: I won't recall many of the clues or the answers several days hence. In sum, there are 750 pages of dense, difficult material to be found here--an astounding parlor exercise gone mad. I was (and am) daunted and awed by the achievement, by the cleverness, by the consistency in tone. While I don't regret any of the time I spent with the book, when all is said and done I can't say I ever cared enough about Mason, Dixon, or any of their friends to make the book itself as memorable as the euphoria of actually finishing it.
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on January 19, 2004
'Tis with great Pleasure I recommend this thoroughly diverting volume to the subscribers to this Electronick Notice-board. The Author is Mr Tho. Pynchon, esq., responsible for such Well Known and Esteem'd works as, Gravity's Rainbow & The Crying of Lot 49 - with which, along with the book in question, this Philosophickally-minded scribe has attempt'd to compose a sort of Alternative History of the American continent; a History comprising events of a simultaneously edifying and pleasing nature, that serves as an Interrogation of the commonly-held Assumptions regarding the course of Events through which we, be we agents or mere puppets, hurtle thro' towards our fates, as 'twere, backwards. Mr P's themes are myriad - yet, mindful of the Convenience of the bustling would-be purchaser, hecktored at from all sides in this ethereal Tropickal Marketplace, the humble Reviewer will attempt to delineate some of the more prominent among 'em - viz. the growing friendship of the Odd Couple, Mason and Dixon (or, Dixon and Mason) - a prototype, as 'twere, of the sundry comedic duos that will grace the Cinematograph in Modern Times; the arbitrary formation of boundary-lines, National and provincial (the chief personages being employ'd as Surveyors); the observance of divers Astronomickal Phenomena - or, the dance of the Stars; the birth of the Republic - Liberty, the Pursuit of Happiness, Conspickuous Consumption &c.; Sea-voyages and engagements; a sojourn in Cape-Town (where, it must be admitted, the reprehensible Nature of the practices of the Dutch settlers puts a certain set to one's jaw); a remarkably articulate Prophetick canine; an Automatick Duck of Gallic origin, who amorously pursues a noted - yet now unfortunate and harried - Parisian Gastronome to the wilds of Pennsylvania; the capacity of the dearly departed - or even the violently dispatch'd - to haunt our Oneiric Hours; the inhalation of Narcotick substances - being Hemp, provided gratis by one Geo. Washington, of Virginia - and the subsequent development of a voracious appetite for any consumables Whatsoe'er; and the excess consumption of beverages, snuff, and News in riotous coffee-houses. With such variety of Life spread out before the Reader, what excuse will he make for not ordering this item immediately, on Credit?
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on March 16, 2004
Technically and intellectually speaking, Thomas Pynchon is a very skilled writer. His prose is deep, detailed, wry, and encyclopedic all in the same vein. The problem is, he also happens to be a very boring and lackluster storyteller. In 'Mason & Dixon' there is a lot of the wry humor Pynchon has founded his long and eccentric career on. The downside is, for every great page of writing, you have to encounter a hundred other pages which drag on with trite and seemingly unneccessary filler. Pynchon is alot like James Joyce in the sense that you either get him or you don't and you either enjoy his often difficult stream-of-conciousness style or you don't. There's no in-between when it comes to any of his few books. If you're looking for something to read by him because you've heard that he's one of the most famous literary eccentrics since J.D. Salinger, I recommend reading 'The Crying of Lot 49' which is much shorter, more entertaining and probably the most accessible of his works.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on December 28, 2004
Mason & Dixon is a book about conflict--between man and nature, master and slave, science and religion, quaker and presbyterian, and, of course, between Mason (running away from tragedy and worried about life) and Dixon (ever seeking new adventures and hopelessly cheerful). The conflicts Pynchon draws out bisect populations, just as borders are drawn between states. The enlightenment--the application of science broadly to all areas of life--made accurate border drawing possible, and I think what we see here is the germ of contemporary enlightenment bashing, which is, I think, the origin of the current political climate in the U.S., popularly termed "Red vs. Blue" by pundits.
Those individuals who hate the surveyors for their work still exist today, but Pynchon makes it clear that this is not just about "Red" vs. "Blue" America. The conflicts are much deeper and cannot be neatly categorized into two armed camps. We have all of the groups today that claim allegiance to Red and Blue--gun owners, religious fanatics, scientists, politicians, businessmen, and the underclass--but Pynchon's gift is that he weaves these groups into one America, not two, that have more in common with each other than not, and whose differences make a dizzyling wonderful tapestry possible. There is almost too much conflict to make a neat border drawing possible. Is that why everyone hates the line they're drawing?
As a book, M&D is probably the best piece of fiction written in the 1990s. It is ironic that Cold Mountain, which won the NBA in 1999, is a book about the same kind of journey--east to west through a conflicted land--but takes place 100 years later. Cold Mountain was a romantic novel, far more accessible to readers, one which Dixon might have enjoyed but Mason most definitely would have scorned.
Give this book your time, and read it with the aid of Google on a nearby computer and maps of South Africa, Pennsylvania and Maryland. If you give it your diligence and passion, it will return in a hundred fold.
36 of 44 people found the following review helpful
on April 17, 2002
There is no longer any point in being defensive about Pynchon. I personally don't have any doubt that, on the strengths of "Gravity's Rainbow" and to a slightly lesser extent "The Crying of Lot 49", he is the greatest living novelist working in the English language, for what that's worth. These books are no more demanding than the average Jacobean tragedy. Which, really, isn't very much.
The rewards of Pynchon have always outweighed the difficulties, anyway. "Mason & Dixon" is perhaps the foundling child of the rumour, current in the 80s, that Pynchon was writing a novel about the Civil War. He ended up giving us "Vineland", his frothiest work, which isn't to say that it's not haunted by malevolent spectres of Nixon and Reagan. "Mason & Dixon" probably demands some vague acquaintance with 18th century fiction, in order to see what Pynchon is getting at stylistically, but really, guys, they're on the shelf at bargain prices, and if you haven't read 'em by now ... Gawd help you.
I use the word "mellow" because this seems to me to be a sadder and more tolerant Pynchon at work. (It may only seem that way cause he's older, and we expect this kind of thing from a Late Style, but nevertheless...I'll get back to you on it when I've read it again.) He manages to combine a mischievous sense of the contemporary with a feel for the America-before-America that seems somehow right, even if I don't know how. A good example is the episode where the stuffy Mason and the goofy Dixon pay a call on Colonel George Washington, who happens to be smoking a pipe filled with some substance or other; the three of them promptly get the munchies, and call upon the servants for some eats. Or the bit when a blue-bespectacled Benjamin Franklin plays a glass harmonica in a chophouse, thereby presaging the phenomenon of the DJ. Or the scene where the pizza is invented. And so on.
What's surprising and new about the book is Pynchon's (apparent) uncomplicated fondness for his two heroes. Mason, pious, middle-class, respectable and socially ambitious - southern English to a T - is forever being embarrassed by the blunt, wide-eyed, Northern Dixon. It's almost as though he sees future silent comedy duos in this unlikely partnership. The book is endlessly cheeky, but it has a beating heart, and the heart is in the relationship of the eponymous surveyors. The closing pages are amongst the most haunting and straightforwardly moving that he has ever written - and yet, in them, there is still a tragic awareness of how American history is going to turn out...
Yes, it's "picaresque", which is to say that it doesn't exactly have a swift, economical plot and isn't exactly unencumbered by digressions. But these are part of the pleasures of literature, or at least they were until the recent craze for the novel that you read in order to be able to say that you've read it. "Mason & Dixon" does not yield all its splendours in one go. Few good novels do. Hang on - make that _no_ good novels. Nabokov always said that you never really read a novel, you only reread it - meaning that if you get it all in the first reading, it probably wasn't worth writing. Pynchon took classes from Nabokov, and this lesson sunk in.
The man is still the greatest, at least in my mother tongue. (Though I'll wave a small flag with John Berger's name on it, just because I can.) I just finished this book, and I look forward to a time when I've forgotten what it's like, so that I can read it again.
27 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on September 26, 1999
This book is the best "historical fiction" I have ever read, and one of the most "accurate" accounts of the American colonial effort as well. But it's neither "historical fiction" in the conventional sense, nor is it even remotely accurate in any sense.
But the nut of the matter is there. The overarching themes of the novel play off competing sets of human beliefs-- feng shui versus astronomy, the conceits of Enlightenment reason versus pre-Renaissance superstition and naturalism (animism... etc...). Together, according to Pynchon, these forces shaped Early America the Grand Enterprise.
The big bad brilliant part is that, although obviously taking considerable license with anything he wants, Pynchon has leveled a dead-on critique of the history of that early America. Just look at what he keeps returning to regarding the tense, fraught situations that Mason and Dixon repeatedly encounter sparked by race and slavery, "indians," the Paxton Boys, and the chicanery and plagarism apparently favored by the Founding Fathers.
This mix has Pynchon angrier than I've ever seen him at the pettiness and evil that people do (see the episode at the slave auction, the rising menace that accompanies the drawing of the West Line), and funnier too (Benny Franklin and his cheap parlor tricks).
(C'mon! I've always gotten the sense that Ben Franklin wrote most of his Autobiography with tongue in cheek, that he knew most of what he was saying was demonstrably no good, and it's gratifying to my ego to see Pynchon pursue a similar thread here.)
Popeye!! The munchies!! The Corner of Delaware and Maryland and New Jersey as Nowhere!! Yes!!! Truth is beauty and beauty truth, coffee is the sea that floats the federal boat, and this is the best book about male bonding that doesn't involve sports since Lonesome Dove.