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Mason & Dixon: A Novel Hardcover – April 15, 1997
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A sprawling, complex, and comic work from one of the country's most celebrated and idiosyncratic authors, Mason & Dixon is Thomas Pynchon's Most Magickal reinvention of the 18th-century novel. It follows the lifelong partnership and adventures of the English surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon (of Mason-Dixon Line fame) as they travel the world mapping and measuring through an uncharted pre-Revolutionary America of Native Americans, white settlers, taverns, and bawdy establishments of ill-repute. Fans of the postmodern master of paranoia will recognize Pynchon's personality in the novel's first phrase: "Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs," a brief echo of the rockets that curve across the skies in the writer's masterpiece Gravity's Rainbow.
From Library Journal
The publication of Pynchon's fifth novel is certain to be a highlight of the literary year. To try and summarize it would be an exercise in futility. Like his previous works, this one is complex?much more than a simple, rollicking tale of 18th-century surveyors as they wend their way south (to the Cape of Good Hope) and west (to America, where they drew the line for which they will ever be famous?the boundary that came to define North and South). Indeed, it is this line, this artificial border, that lies at the heart of the novel. When Mason confides to Captain Zhang that the unremitting forest disturbs him, his exotic companion replies that given that Adam and Eve, Buddha and Newton were all enlightened while sitting beneath trees, "A quick review would suggest that Trees produce Enlightenment. Trees are not the Problem. The Forest is not an Agent of Darkness. But it may be your Visto [line] is. ...Nothing will produce Bad History more directly nor brutally, than drawing a line." This belief in the danger of artificial boundaries?be they political, literary, or philosophical?is reflected in the very structure of Pynchon's novels, in his efforts not to let "rules" get in the way of what it is he is trying to say. His novel is often poetic, sometimes tedious, and occasionally arcane. The digressions may temporarily confuse, but the humor is sure to amuse (even Star Trek gets a nod). More accessible than Gravity's Rainbow, this is still not a novel to be read quickly. It is a work that grows on one, and as the reader follows from tree to tree, a forest truly does begin to emerge?with an important message for our "scientific" age. From one of the most unique, thoughtful, and challenging of contemporary authors, a work that is essential for every public and academic library.
-?David W. Henderson, Eckerd Coll. Lib., St. Petersburg, Fla.
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Like Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon reads like watching a wacky anime. What consistently came to mind while reading both GR and M&D was my own admittedly meager watching of the anime Kill La Kill and Neon Genesis: Evangelion. Most of the time I found myself enjoying what I was partaking in, but yet I wasn’t entirely sure of what I was even watching/reading. If you desire an overabundance of plot, stuffed with winded explanations as to just how and why everything is happening, then it suffices to say that you have not met your ideal novelist in Thomas Pynchon, nor will you enjoy for even a moment anime such as the two mentioned above.
Pynchon uses Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon as vessels to examine history simultaneously from both the inside and outside. Mason and Dixon are famous historical individuals, and the book is built around their actual work as astronomers and surveyors, but Pynchon wants to make their observations both part of their own time period (even doing his best to replicate authentic 18th century writing and speech) and yet incredibly relevant to today. For example, the dialogue that runs throughout the novel concerning religion is simply astonishing. It captures the wariness of Protestants to Catholics, yet also makes use of contemporary thoughts upon religion, seeing it as used for power and misguided notions of politics.
The same sorts of passages can be found concerning the meaning of history and also concerning the injustices done upon Native Americans and the injustice that is slavery. While too long to quote at length, there are episodes within the novel where Mason travels to the site where a tribe of Native Americans were slaughtered and is moved to tears by the inhumanity of it all, and also Dixon’s own run-in with a slave-driver who Dixon proceeds to fight with and take his whip.
Dixon especially is almost a spokesperson for religious dialogue and pluralism. Part of what makes the hefty book so enthralling is Mason’s own change simply from encountering Dixon and how Dixon interacts with all people. Particularly of interest is the repeated pointing out, between Mason and Dixon, that the Americans they interact with speak so much of injustice and tyranny, yet keep slaves and drive out the Native Americans from lands which are rightfully their own. Thus one theme of the book continues: History is not simply fact upon fact upon fact. We must also be aware of who wrote these “facts” and why they were in the position to be writing them.
Upon taking up the measuring of the line of Pennsylvania, the novel shifts away from Mason and Dixon and instead shuffles between characters, all narrated by the right reverend Wicks Cherrycoke (who is telling the story of Mason and Dixon to his grandchildren and family). Mason and Dixon, up to this point, have been traveling from inn to inn, their party gaining new members at each stay. There’s a french chef, a sentient mechanical duck, two military captains, a man who turns into a werebeaver, a group of Mohawk Indian Guides, a swede who claims to be a spy, two reverends (including Wicks), a rabbi who looks like Popeye and gives a mysterious hand signal he claims means “live long and prosper,” and others. The group continues to grow as each person tells their own story to the rest of the group and those characters are seamlessly weaved into the party as if they have been there all along. The lines are repeatedly blurred as to who is real and who is not, eventually making the question impossible to answer.
Mason & Dixon is a novel where each chapter is guaranteed to lead you somewhere you did not know you would be going. It culminates in the friendship of Mason and Dixon, which makes the already great book a stellar one. The prose is a new level of confusing, mixing the style of Pynchon with an attempt at 18th century spelling and grammar, and the novel sets a new meaning to the phrase, “I did not expect this,” bordering on the line of “this does not make any sense;” but underneath all of that is one of the best books a person could read, loaded with meaning, humor, and creativity.
If you haven't read Pynchon before, this is a good starting point. Once you get the rhythm of it, you can plunge into Gravity's Rainbow.
P.S. Mason and Dixon were the surveyors behind the eponymous geographic line separating southern Pennsylvania from the rest of the world.