text menu at bottom of page

Making the Rounds of History
Elizabeth Jane Wall Hinds
Thomas Pynchon
Mason & Dixon
Henry Holt , 1997
paper $17.00, hardcover $27.50


When Vineland appeared in 1990, critics and reviewers immediately recorded their dissatisfaction with the novel they assumed was the follow-up to the wondrous Gravity's Rainbow, the "project" Thomas Pynchon had been secretly (what else?) working on all those seventeen years in between. Vineland was just another novel - trademark Pynchon ideas, for sure, with its movie-dimensional characters, episodic plot that nevertheless hints at paranoiac connectedness, flaring out here and there with a rock-n-roll sensibility in the form of the death-cult Thanatoids - but surely this was not the book Pynchon spent all those years in producing.

I would venture to say that Mason & Dixon IS that book. It has the scope of Gravity's Rainbow and more; a story about drawing a conceptual line in space, Mason & Dixon uses that line as literal and figurative spine for a corpus spreading over the globe and across two centuries. Mason & Dixon may well have more characters than even Gravity's Rainbow: for sheer plot, it rivals the X-Files for complexity, paranoia, and characters who flicker in and out of being. It's a huge book (773 pp.), and legitimately so, representing what has come to be recognized as a long and packed century. The culmination of the early modern era, the eighteenth century as rendered here indeed packs in historical events in fine Pynchonesque form. As usual, Pynchon has us convinced that he's mastered more of the details of recorded history than most ordinary mortals could amass in just one lifetime. Of documented history alone, we encounter among other things Symmes's hole, Jenkins's ear, the Transit of Venus, Jesuits in Quebec, of course the Mason/Dixon line, and everywhere, everywhere, slavery: slaves in Cape Town, slaves in Bencoolen, slaves in North America, slaves of every color and caste.

This is all the stuff of history Pynchon delivers best, the inarguable records passed down in cold fact and brought to life again with character and narrative. But Mason & Dixon is more than a "historical novel": beyond just the record of what did happen, it animates what might have happened in a century most noted in the West for its rationalism and "cool" scientific interests, revivifies the fertility of imagination that could and did produce, in historical fact, both widespread reform of weights and measures and common sideshow-type exhibits featuring "talking" dogs, wax automata, and Vaucanson's mechnical duck. While Mason & Dixon is indeed about history, it is just as importantly about historiography: meshing together eighteenth- and twentieth-century sensibilities - often in purposely jarring disjunctions, with its ubiquitous anachronisms - the novel insists that the past 200 years be seen as one long "scene," that the difference between the centuries amounts to very little, and that the rationalizing impulse of the weighing and measuring scientific eighteenth century deserves, as we still deserve here in the twentieth century, a solid round of criticism for the destructiveness of the line-drawing, boundary-producing urge, the need to re-design the natural world in light of intellectual categories, the habit of design that produced the destructive "Visto" or Mason-Dixon line between states and peoples.

Beyond the "factual" history, what Mason & Dixon more elegantly delivers is a history re-imagined, an alternative to recorded history, in the form of what one might call the "paranormal": reading Mason & Dixon is like a visit to Charles Wilson Peale's museum, itself an eighteenth-century creation, with its oddities and "freaks of nature" just close enough to verifiable facticity to look believable; we question a Peale display only out of its uniformly odd context, just as we question Pynchon's quasi-supernatural characters and happenings only in retrospect and under the harsh light of the least imaginative scientific method. If Peale could offer as "natural science" an exhibit of a then-exotic, slightly unbelievable mongoose from Sumatra alongside its American Buffalo, Pynchon can easily conjure an eighteenth-century obsession with the slightly outré, the "science" that vivifies the mechanical, the "natural" that borders on and intersects with the supernatural.

This "alternative" history records, for instance, the mid-century invention, Jacques de Vaucanson's duck, which (who?) in Pynchon's re-telling becomes inspirited with life. More than merely animated, Vaucanson's duck evolves to a degree that her speed produces invisibility. She - yes, she's a "she" - needs to achieve invisibility so as to stalk and in her way court Chef Armand, with whom she is smitten. A perverse love indeed, for Armand is famous for his variations on roast canards. And so it goes in Pynchon's universe, where the factual comes to be - who can say at just what point, exactly? - outrageous. Vaucanson's duck and her superanimate life is not the only case of a physics verging on metaphysics in Mason & Dixon. We are to understand from Pynchon's telling that William Emerson - mathematician and author of a series of books on "Fluxions" - was Jeremiah Dixon's teacher; more, that Emerson routinely taught his pupils to fly. Emerson's historicity teases at a solid grounding for this story; since Emerson did exist, maybe he did teach his pupils something like flight - or at least its dynamics. But it would have been highly unlikely for Emerson to be Dixon's teacher, for he was too ornery to keep a teaching post. While Emerson did have a few students early in his career, he lost them because of his temper, a temper that was to flare up repeatedly in print battles and evidenced in his life-long refusal to join the Royal Society because he would have had to pay dues.

Stranger and stranger becomes the linkage between the actual eighteenth century and Pynchon's exaggeration of it. Timothy Tox, Pynchon's "national" poet, author of the frequently "quoted" The Line, certainly bears close enough resemblance to Joel Barlow, poet of the doggerel The Columbiad, to make one question whether exact quotation or sheer invention is Pynchon's method here. The supernatural exists side by side with the natural in the sense that Jésus Arrabal, a character from The Crying of Lot 49, describes "magic" as "another world's intrusion into this one" (88). And indeed, the "magical" in Mason & Dixon, the presence of conversing ghosts and werewolves, a Jenkins's ear that listens, a Benjamin Franklin that never sleeps, all of these oddities do not amount to an entirely made-up eighteenth century and seldom participate in the outright supernatural - and as a result should not be branded as "magical realism" - for it was part of the recorded Anglo-American scientific scene to look into the farthest reaches of scientific possibility, to welcome the bizarre as evidence of the rational. One recurring character, the Learned English Dog, best verbalizes the happy coexistence of these "rational" and "irrational" universes: questioned by Mason, who wonders that a dog (who prefers to be called "Fang" rather than his proper "LED") can talk at all, responds with a shrug: "'Tis the Age of Reason, rff?" (22).

If history is Pynchon's subject, his objects are Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, eponymous characters caught up in what appears to be an overdetermined machine of history, so ineffectual are their desires and plans. Mason & Dixon has all the marks of a buddy-story: two guys, thrown together against their will (do I sense a Lethal Weapon-style police detective plot here?) travel across the globe together; we learn at the same time they do about their pasts, their place in the world, and their plans - we learn that Dixon, a mere surveyor, hasn't a clue why he's been hired to work with astronomer Mason, and vice versa, but that for Dixon, the adventure is worth the trip; Mason, a personality so "Melancholick" his recently deceased wife regularly called him Mopery, has much more at stake in the trip. But for all their palpable characterization, even Mason and Dixon themselves sense that the machine of time, of the RS, of powers beyond their ability to know, much less control - that the web of influence itself is the main "character" of their paranoid plot: in short, that they are themselves secondary. Meeting Captain Zhang, Chinese runaway from the Jesuit recruiting machine in Quebec, Dixon is informed that he carries no responsibility for Zhang's possible demise on meeting the Spanish Jesuit Zarpazo, aka the Wolf of Jesus, who will soon appear to do battle to the death with Zhang; "We happen to be the principal Personae here, not you two! Nor has your Line any Primacy in this, being rather a Stage-Setting...." Dixon barely flinches: "Well it's no worse than Copernicus, is it...? The Center of it all, moving someplace else like thah'...? Better not mention this to Mason" (545).

Mason & Dixon on the one hand domesticates its historical subjects - the Royal Society, their scientific interests, and their handymen Mason and Dixon - by giving them life and desires and quirks; yet on the other hand, Mason & Dixon pictures not a domesticated but an alien and alienating set of events not so much enacted by its characters as forced on them by channels of power all but invisible. Mason and Dixon, remarkably ordinary guys, persist through this novel with an innocence of power unimaginable except in a world as sprawling and a power structure as decentralized or at least as untraceable as any modern bureaucracy. The large world Mason and Dixon work in, beginning long before their assignment to America, in South Africa, and ending - in one of its endings - on a Mall on the ocean, holds encounters with a great number of powerful figures in history: a hemp-smoking Colonel George Washington, Samuel Johnson, Thomas Jefferson (identifiable only as a red-haired kid in, naturally, a bar), and most strangely, a Ben Franklin characterized as a pub-crawling insomniac who cooks up scientific projects like his namesake stove by day and runs bizarre electrical experiments with bar customers by night. Dixon, the night-inhabiting thrill seeker, is of course the one to volunteer to be connected to Dr. Franklin's electrical machinery, and very nearly gets himself killed, so powerful is the voltage; his next thought, however, is returning for further experiment. Mason's black moods prevent such thrill-seeking, but Mason enjoys depressive states that bring him to a low enough ecstasy to hallucinate his dead wife and to converse with her, as well as to converse with Fang and Jenkins's ear.

While Mason & Dixon goes everywhere with the daily life of these ordinary folks, it also teases at the less-than-ordinary networks of power Mason and Dixon abide in. Employed by the Royal Society, neither has a clear picture of his place or their combined role in the organization. Questions proliferate, the answers to which cultivate suspicion rather than explanation: why did the RS hire a mere surveyor to assist Mason in the first place for the Transit of Venus work in South Africa, and then later for the work of cutting their eight-yard-wide Visto between Pennsylvania and Maryland? Why does the first ship they're on - the Seahorse - get ordered toward Bencoolin in spite of impending sure battle with the French ship l'Grand? This early episode is enough to make the two, for all their differences of character, paranoid enough to author a letter to the RS, believing in their hearts that "They knew the French had Bencoolen, - what else did they know? That's what I'd like to know" (41); the "They" of Gravity's Rainbow has reappeared, then, even more dispersed, more global and more untraceably in control.

Mason, born to the middle class a baker's son, has ambition enough to have more than an employer's interest in the RS. A member of Pynchon's "Mobility," Mason cannot fulfill his barely repressed wish to move in the inner circles of the Royal Society; indeed, while Mason knows - is told by Dixon if he didn't know himself - that "there's a Class problem here" (438), in an age of fluid identity and an international scene filled with striving capitalists, Mason still responds with deep pain on hearing of the mad Nevil Maskelyne's appointment as Royal Astronomer. The explanation for the appointment - Maskelyne was "Clive of fucking India's, fucking, Brother-in-law" (437) - is fraught with the bitterness and paranoia Mason carried into his appointment and will, of course, carry out of it. Son of the lower orders, conscious of his father's hard "rr's," moving within the company of inherited social status, Mason agonizes over his social position, interpreting every gesture, social or otherwise, while the good-natured Dixon, firmly placed in the "lower orders," never ceases seeing himself as a Geordie on vacation - his work as a round-the-world sojourn in search of "ketjap" and other fine, foreign delicacies, but little more.

It is just these delicacies, in fact, that keep barely out of sight the agendas of powers beyond even the RS. Pulling the strings of Mason and Dixon's plot might well be the British East India Company as easily as the RS; we likewise meet Illuminati on the one hand and American proto-Revolutionaries on the other, not to mention the ubiquitous "Sino-Jesuit" connection appearing in the intermingled plots of Mason & Dixon and its interpolated novel The Ghastly Fop. The absence of surety is maddening and thrilling, too: In South Africa Dixon asks, "Whom are we working for, Mason?" "I rather thought, one day," Mason answers, "you would be the one to tell me" (347). Looking for patterns of experience to explain their role, Mason and Dixon are not only self-identified as "secondary" characters in their own drama, but are also sure that "Men of Science. . . may be but the simple Tools of others, with no more idea of what they are about, than a Hammer knows of a House" (669).

As history, Mason & Dixon resists, in fact rejects any conception of the past as grand récit, as a linear chain of cause-and-effect to be reconstructed and narrated. The networks of power in this novel are too dispersed, too shadowy for such explanation. History here is not just the "rational" and the "irrational" sciences of the eighteenth-century Anglo-American world, but is a web of influence, and like parallel lines, plots meet and cross only at an ever-receding horizon of vision; in this history, "everything is connected" (GR 703): the exact nature of the connection, however, is more suspected than seen. Such postmodern, rhizomic, interlocking webs of causality, as historical method, are best served by Mason & Dixon's device of anachronism, more present here than even in his earlier novels. Disrupting ordinary causal presumptions, anachronism hauls the present into the past, suggesting if not a reverse causality at least a non-linear, continuous "present" lasting over 200 years. We see anachronism from the very beginning when Cherrycoke (his name itself anachronistic) is advised to avoid hemp during his coming journey, and if he cannot avoid it, "do not inhale"; in the appearance of a Popeye-like character, squinting and puffing "I am that which I am" (486); in the satellite view of the earth by Dixon and fellow flying pupils of Emerson; in the quick allusion to the "what-what"-ing King George of the 1994 film The Madness of King George; or the ubiquitous 1990's style coffee gourmandizing everywhere Dixon travels. The historiography that incorporates such anachronism asks the question, "if Mrs. Eggslap can complain that 'Sometimes. . . 'tis hard, to be a Woman' (621), then has Country and Western music been invented in the eighteenth century?" Added to these cultural and pop cultural references to the twentieth century are constant allusions to nineteenth- and twentieth-century novelists. Melville and Conrad and Kafka are lovingly incorporated, while our contemporary sea-novelist Patrick O'Brien turns up, surely ironically, as a character on board the l'Grand: "'Hey t'en, Pat. Scribblin' again, are ye? More Sea Stories?'" Not only does O'Brien know all there is to know and more "'pon the Topick of Euphroes, and Rigging even more obscure, - he's also acknowledg'd as the best Yarn-Spinner in all the Fleets" (54).

With these deep anachronisms, it isn't difficult to imagine that Pynchon is rewriting historiography as well as history. The decentered nature of this history and causality more resembles the anachronistically portrayed World Wide Web of the Jesuits than any eighteenth-century-style narrative history. When Emerson suspects a "number of Jesuit Observatories, flung as a Web, all over the World it seems" (223), his paranoia merely matches Pynchon's own, for in a novel in which a practitioner of the ancient art of Feng Shui - ancient but also again popular in the 1990s - can criticize Mason and Dixon's Visto for its evil placement ("Terrible Feng Shui here. Worst I ever saw. You two crazy?" [542]), the anachronistic intrusion of one world into another (another incarnation of Arrabal's "magic"?) induces the suspicion that the twentieth-century already existed in the eighteenth, that the postmodern world of Starbuck's, Feng Shui, and the remnants of a slave culture in the US is very little removed from its roots in the eighteenth century.

As anachronism unites the histories and mythologies of eighteenth and twentieth centuries, it does not come as a surprise, then, that the Rev'd Wicks Cherrycoke, a character anachronistically popping up out of Pynchon's own past in Gravity's Rainbow (as does Fender-Belly Bodine of M&D, who of course recalls Pig Bodine of V.) narrates with as little authority as a narrator might have. No one believes Cherrycoke's complete reliability: even his own extended family (with a shadowy plot of their own), listeners to the long tale of Mason and Dixon, occasionally call Cherrycoke on charges of untruthfulness: "No proof. . . . No entries for Days, allow'd, - but yet no proof" (695). True, the Rev'd admits, never quite spelling out that he was present only at the beginning and ending of Mason and Dixon's adventure, that most of their story has been his reconstruction.

Cherrycoke entertains his family with the tale of Mason and Dixon during a winter's night in 1786, after both are dead, and after the whole adventure has had time to sift through the memory of an old man. But Cherrycoke is no mere teller of tales; he is in fact a historian, and like Pynchon, his historiography announces the manner of history he is telling. His interpolations from his own (fictional, like himself) historical writings - The Unpublished Sermons, the Spiritual Day-Book, and Christ and History, for instance - all tend toward a definition of history that incorporates anachronism as part of its non-causal integration of past and present. At least as "secondary" to his own narrative as Mason and Dixon, Cherrycoke construes his/humankind's position among the lines of influence and causality as contingent at best, manipulated at worst; with such odds, tellers of tales should spin the tale properly, which is to say, non-linearly:

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. (349)
These interpolations act as a kind of theoretical backbone, a historiography for a novel that presumes to represent the most notoriously "scientific" of Western centuries as madly unlinear, utterly noncausal with only the finest of seams between natural and supernatural worlds. Inasmuch as eighteenth-century science worked to rectify the natural to get it in line with the intellectual, to hack out a "line" between Pennsylvania and Maryland, for instance, Pynchon roundly pans the entire scientific enterprise; yet his less one-dimensional, more realistic portrayal of an eighteenth-century interest in crossing boundaries between the known and the unknown turns out a respectable, pleasurable, even if sometimes campy, eighteenth-century scene. The history that did happen and the history that might have happened, then, merge in the "Tangle of Lines" of Pynchon's historiography in an attempt to get the century "right." This method positively wallows in the fun of such crossings, though Mason and Dixon might worry about "crossed lines" of causality; after the scare of the Seahorse battle, Mason ponders, "Was there a mistake in the Plan of the Day? Did we get a piece of someone else's History, a fragment spall'd off of some Great Moment, - perhaps the late Engagement at Quiberon Bay, - such as now and then may fly into the ev'ryday paths of lives less dramatick? And there we are, with our Wigs askew" (44).

With which Dixon concurs: "Happen. . . we were never meant at all to go to Bencoolen, - someone needed a couple of Martyrs, and we inconveniently surviv'd...?" (44). Worry as its characters will, Mason & Dixon repeatedly returns to the necessity of such crossed fates, such anachronistic and honestly tangled history. Or as The Rev'd Cherrycoke comments to his questioning kinsman Ives: "part of the common Duty of Remembering, - surely our Sentiments, - how we dream'd of, and were mistaken in, each other, - count for at least as much as our poor cold Chronologies" (696).
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

>--thREADs    reVIEWs--<