America, highly caffeinated: Thomas Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon

Mason and Dixon

Last year, one of the last holdouts against eBooks finally relented as Thomas Pynchon let Penguin publish his novels in a digital format. It was an interesting holdout, in the sense that Pynchon seems like an unchanging figure: he’s elusive, avoids the media and, I’d imagine, prefer to never own a Kindle.

But it’s a good thing for the masses and makes his books all that much easier to discover: I know more people who take their readers to the beach than I know people who read physical books at the beach. And while I think Pynchon makes for a good beach read (or bedside, fireside or just in general), it also helps that his books look less imposing in this format. After all, the man’s best books – Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, Against the Day – are doorstoppers of books.

Still, even if it’s a large and imposing looking novel, there might not be a better place to start with Pynchon than Mason & Dixon. On one level, it’s a great, long and really detailed read about the two men whose names lent themselves to one of the more infamous parts of America. On another, it’s about how American might have been doomed from the get-go. On any level, it’s enjoyable and readable as hell, no matter the format.

Pynchon’s novel follows Jeremiah Dixon and Charles Mason as they travel across the world and the US, in locales as distant as the Cape of Good Hope and as well known as Philadelphia, charting transits of planets and laying the infamous Mason/Dixon line. Along the way, the duo get involved in everything from Jesuit conspiracies to a love affair between a French chef and a mechanical duck. They chart eclipses, just rip through the woods and drink prodigious amounts of coffee. This isn’t a straightforward novel of cartographers. It’s a wild ride, filled with memorable scenes and a look at pre-revolution America, not to mention England and South Africa.

Along the way they meet people like George Washington, Dr. Johnson, a talking dog and a guy who travels everywhere with his pet electric eel. One thing that surprised me was how many of these people (and events!) actually happened: for example, Nevil Maskelyne was a real person and was related to Robert Clive, who’s name is dropped whenever someone speaks of obscene wealth. No word on if he was this offbeat, though: here he’s a guy who means well, but is completely out to sea.

There’s so, so much here to chew on. The tragic love story of Charles and his late wife Rebekah; the stir-crazy people in South Africa, who’s underlying guilt is slowly driving them insane as they wander out into the desert; the dissertations on feng shui; hallow Earth theories and alien abductions and secret transmissions across the planet by the Jesuits. There’s the workings of Pynchon’s writing: the way it’s narrator changes up depending on the audience, the way his plot slowly works out of focus (how could one man know so much?). It’s enough that one could take all summer to read this book and still be thinking about it come Christmas (It was vice versa for me).

Rating: 9/10. Mason and Dixon’s a hilarious and occasionally moving read that’s one of the best things I’ve read in a while. I found it pretty easy to read too: it’s dense and Pynchon used a pseudo-18th century kind of syntax, but it’s worth sticking with; after 50 or so pages I barely even noticed anymore. Highly recommended, folks. With a new Pynchon on the way this fall, this is the best way to get into his works.


%d bloggers like this: