Mason & Dixon: A Postmodern Canterbury Tales


Upon finishing Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon I immediately threw the book across the room (disastrously damaging the wall), fell down upon my knees, ripped my hair out and began to weep. That is not exactly true, and what actually happened was myself setting the book down, then proceeding to lean back in my chair with the thought: “That was excellent. I wish it hadn’t ended so soon.”

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 simpler explanation,” Emerson with a distinct uvular component in his Sigh, “may be that none of you people has ever known a moment of Transcendence in his life, nor would re-cognize one did it walk up and bite yese in the Arse,- and in the long sorry Silence, grows the suspicion that Jesuits are but the latest instance of a true Christian passion evaporated away, leaving no more than the usual hollow desires for Authority and mindless O-bedience. Poh, Cousin,- Poh, Sir.”

– Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon

The same sorts of passages can be found concerning the meaning of history:

“Who claims Truth, Truth abandons. History is hir’d, or coerc’d, only in Interests that must ever prove base. She is too innocent, to be left within the reach of anyone in Power,- who need but touch her, and all her Credit is in the instant vanish’d, as if it had never been.”

– Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon

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.

Recommended to: Those who have entirely too much time on their hands, those who thought the main problem with The Canterbury Tales was Chaucer’s lack of ambition to weave the characters in the stories of each storyteller into the reality he was creating, and those who desire a book in which most of which can be read in any order.

Avoid as if it were a camera and you are Thomas Pynchon: Those who faint at the sight of a book longer than 250 pages, and those who think Howard Zinn ruined the world with A People’s History. 

*Note: I struggle with coming up with people who should avoid certain books simply because it usually turns out the people who avoid these books are the ones who most need to read them.


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