ʃtaires! We haue found ʃtaires!
-Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves
Avathoir: We’re back! After the brief interlude of brevity that was Vineland we’ve gone back into the realms of the dense monstrosities, with this being the third longest Pynchon and the longest one coming up (my hopes for this to span one calendar year are dashed, alas. That would have been a cool way to end this series).
Enough of that though, let’s talk Mason & Dixon, coming out relatively quick after how long it took to produce Vineland (though there were rumors of this book’s existence during that whole time), this is considered in the public eye the Book that was Worth the Wait and the Real Masterpiece Follow Up to GR. Bloom (Fuck that guy) loves it, and though Pynchon hasn’t been nominated for a major award since the 70s it was about this time he started getting the American Nobel Contender to Beat status (though I think he approves of both Morrison and Dylan getting it over him). In other words, it’s Very, Very Important Literature.
This one took me a bit longer to start because after the almost utterly sui generis style of prose in Gravity’s Rainbow, which resembles musical scales to me more than it does a conventional novel, I was afraid that I would have much the same experience. To my surprise and delight, it’s not like that at all, being bound to more conventional prose (as conventional as having all your Nouns in Capital Letters can Be, as well as the fact the whole thing is written essentially as a parody of 18th century literature when for most people stuff didn’t start getting really cool novelwise until Dickens or so), and far fewer characters. That being said, having the book sit with me it’s even more unusual than a typical Pynchon novel already is, and I have a lot to say about that, including that for me this is probably the most personal thing I’ve read by him.
But before that wallflower, I’d love to hear from you about where you think this fits into Pynchon’s career and your own enjoyment of it. Gauging your comments over these conversations and our email exchanges, it feels very much like you don’t talk about this one, preferring Vineland, Gravity’s Rainbow, and Against the Day. Is there a reason for that, or am I imagining things?
wallflower: I think if we were doing this Conversation in 1999 I’d be talking about it a lot–it’s not so much that I don’t prefer this one, it’s that in some ways it’s gotten eclipsed in my mind by Against the Day and especially Inherent Vice. Going back to an idea we had in the Gravity’s Rainbow conversation, Mason and Dixon now feels to me like a transitional novel, in that for all its scope and daring, it sets up how he’ll go even further in his next novel, and then strike off in a new direction in the novel after that.
None of that should take away from what Pynchon accomplishes here. I personally like Vineland more, but Mason and Dixon is what I hand off to people with the line “you want to know why Pynchon is a Great Writer? Read this.” Two things really make that case for me here, both in terms of showing how high a level Pynchon plays on and how all his work hangs together as a whole. The first is the style, which is strange, visually disorienting (unless you’re a native German reader it’s just plain weird seeing that many capital letters on a page), and after a few pages, utterly Pynchonian. He’s not writing in a different voice here, he’s found the most natural expression for that voice, like a musician who does her best work in a different tuning. The wacked-out neologisms, the spiraling sentences, the breaks in speech and narrative, all of these things are perfectly suited to this kind of ornate and ornamented 18th century style. (A good comparison in cinema, and about the same period, would be Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.) I mean, just look at this shit:
Does Britannia, when she sleeps, dream? Is America her dream? –in which all that cannot pass in the metropolitan Wakefulness is allow’d Expression away in the restless Slumber of those Provinces, and on West-ward, wherever ‘tis not yet mapp’d, nor written down, nor ever, by the majority of Mankind, seen,– serving as a very Rubbish-Tip for subjunctive Hopes, for all that may yet be true,– Earthly Paradise, Fountain of Youth, Realms of Prester John, Christ’s Kingdom, ever behind the sunset, safe till the next Territory to the West be seen and recorded, measur’d and tied in, back into the Net-Work of Points already known, that slowly triangulates its Way into the Continent, changing all from subjunctive to declarative, reducing Possibilities to Simplicities that serve the ends of Governments,– winning away from the realm of the Sacred, its Borderlands one by one, and assuming them unto the bare mortal World that is our home, and our Despair.
He’s never written anything like this, where the voice is so sure, where the cadences are so measured. It’s musical in the Classical sense (another way it’s of its period), as sure and as exacting as Haydn: listen to the expanding “not – nor – nor” sequence in the middle, or the gentle, heartbreaking ending of the seven last words. Read this sentence out loud, over and over; you don’t have to sing it because it already sings.
This passage also defines the second reason for the greatness of Mason and Dixon. Here is where his lifelong project snaps into focus, where he truly takes on the inheritance from Melville: he means to give America to the world. He has told specific stories about specific American moments before: the post-Beat New York of V., the pre-psychedelic Bay Area of Lot 49, the 1980s California of Vineland. Here, though, he writes the origin story of all those places; here, he goes to the source, the drawing of the imaginary line between the “Slave-keepers and their Wage-payers,” the true moment of America’s founding, the original sin (or inherent vice) that we’re still living with a quarter of a millennium later. In my favorite artists, I don’t look for just quality, but unity, and this is the book that brought everything he’d written before together, and hangs over everything he’s written after.
Given that this is your first time through (most of) Pynchon, how do you see it as relating to the Pynchoeuvre? Why is this “the most personal thing” you’ve read by him?
Avathoir: For me this is probably his most personal book not just because of Pynchon’s own connection to Colonial history (he’s the descendant of William Pynchon, author of the first book to be banned in the New World) but because, for lack of a better term, this is the first one he’s written with an explicit framing device. The WWI sections of V. to me are their own story, and while there are plot devices that kick off things in his other books, this is the first one of his stories that explicitly is being framed by someone else in the form of the Rev. Wilkes Cherrycoke (what a name! How did he not get sued?) a preacher staying for far too long at his relative’s house and is telling the whole story to his various family members as compensation.
I want to talk about Cherrycoke here because he’s the first example of an unreliable narrator we’ve had in the Pynchonverse: he’s talking about things that nobody told him, that he cannot possibly know, and going off on digressions of all kinds. There’s even a stretch in the book that’s just him wandering around doing some other stuff that has nothing to do with either Mason OR Dixon. At first this annoyed me: why are we doing this? I don’t care about this guy, he’s not in the title, and he’s getting away from the stuff I actually like!
Then it hit me: he’s telling a story. This might seem a bit obvious, but Cherrycoke to me seems like the single character Pynchon probably feels like he has the most in common with since outgrowing Pig Bodine: a storyteller, one prone to flights of fancy and perhaps irresponsibility, but deeply concerned with what he considers Important.
Consider also the fact that Cherrycoke is (for the most part) imparting this story to children, none of whom would be considered an adult even at this historical period for a variety of reasons, and then consider the power a story has. Harriet Beecher Stowe is the person Lincoln credited for getting the Civil War and Emancipation as necessary ideas in the public mind, for instance. In that light, the opening tale in South Africa is not a throat clearing, but Cherrycoke stealthily delivering an abolitionist message to the next generation.
At the same time, he’s not doing this to sugarcoat things: the mechanical duck and Learned English Dog are not things meant to entertain children but instead living metaphors, creatures who are representative of a greater idea. In that light, this book is not Pynchon attempting to write a historical novel but in my eyes something closer to The Pilgrim’s Progress: a moral allegory, designed to impart the message of what a just world means and looks like. That’s my take on why it’s personal, anyway. Do you challenge this notion?
wallflower: “like our best nineteenth-century novels, it is a poetic, imaginative statement that means less to illuminate the American tradition than to judge it.” (Greil Marcus, not writing about Mason and Dixon) This view of Cherrycoke (be fair, if Pynchon got to Dan Brown levels of fame there would lawsuits over damn near everything he wrote) makes a lot of sense to me: he’s not so much an unreliable narrator as a narrator-with-a-purpose. This book has almost the same structure as Heart of Darkness: a frame of a single setting within which a single narrator spins out the story of a journey, with occasional interjections from the listeners; the key difference is that, as you said, Cherrycoke tells far more than he could know. You still get the sense of someone speaking to an audience and shaping the story, often doing it as he tells it, to make a point. He’s also entertaining a bunch of children; one of the most heartening things about Vineland-and-after Pynchon is how he treats them. (Gonna just rollerblade out on a big ol’ limb here and say that having a family had a lot to do with this. Not so much, though, that he couldn’t bring in an ancestor of Pig Bodine.)
Slavery, broadly conceived, is the theme that goes through all of Mason and Dixon. From the sexual and genetic politics of slaves in South Africa (where we get some of the most uncomfortable sexual scenes Pynchon has written, which would put it among the most uncomfortable world-wide), to the slave orchestras in America, to some pure goddamn ownage (Quaker-style) as Dixon takes a slave-driver’s whip and uses it on him, slavery is present, not as background but as a continual, multileveled horror. Cherrycoke/Pynchon presents it as part of everyday life but not as morally neutral, the way a historian would: this is an evil and it’s recognized as such. Dixon gets the great payoff line, really the moral thesis of the novel entire: “No matter where in it we go, shall we find all the World Tyrants and Slaves? America was the one place we should not have found them.”
Again, holy shit. You couldn’t ask for a more compact or powerful statement of American exceptionalism and all that implies–and everything Pynchon has written here makes that trickier than it sounds at first. I started this section by noting that he “broadly conceives” slavery; note that here he refers to “Tyrants and Slaves,” not just slaves. He’s really talking about not merely slavery but subjugation: through imperialism, through slavery, through work, and through geography, taking control of an imagined space and turning it into a Net-Work of Points. All through Mason and Dixon, there are stories of how men get others to work for them, and slavery is just one aspect of that. A conversation about the Stamp Act takes a turn as Mason sez
“I have encounter’d Slavery at both the Cape of Good Hope, and in America, and ‘tis shallow Sophistry, to compare it with the condition of a British Weaver.”
“You’ve had the pleasure of Dragoons in your neighborhood? They prefer rifle-butts to whips,– the two hurt differently,– what otherwise is the difference in the two forms of Regulation? Masters presume themselves better than any who, at their bidding, must contend with the real forces and distances of the World,– no matter how good the pay.”
This passage aligns Pynchon with the greatest speech in American history, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, where Lincoln refused to draw the line that Mason and Dixon drew, recognizing it as false. Lincoln only refers to American slavery there and supposes that the punishment shall be delivered on America as a whole. (Also, in his letters, Lincoln has a view of working-for-a-living that’s close to Pynchon’s and in fact to many 18th and 19th century writers, and for that matter John Locke and Karl Marx: no one forced to sell their labor can be free.) So much of post-Civil War liberal morality is based on designating slavery as the Greatest Evil, and Pynchon goes back to the moment of dividing North from South and challenges that idea, refusing to let any who presume themselves better off the hook. Think of the line from Vineland: “They’re bad, bad’s they come, but that doesn’t make us good, not 100%, Weed.”
That’s the moral framework of the story–the sermon, really–that Cherrycoke preaches. Like you said, though, he digresses all over the place, and it wouldn’t be a Pynchon novel without that. Since this is a story about journeys and visitations, what were some of the other aspects of this novel that you liked or at least made an impression on you?
Avathoir: The L.E.D. didn’t make much of an impression on me, but I adored the Mechanical Duck, which feels like in many ways Pynchon parodying Gravity’s Rainbow, but also a tribute to Brian Aldiss, who once wrote a story about a missile which wished to be something nice instead, like a sundial. Whereas once before the conflict between man and machine seemed impossible, a simple opera visit was able to resolve an enormous amount of tension here.
I also liked Pynchon’s use of historical characters in here, which feels like a significant upgrade in his skill: one of the parts of Pynchon’s previous historical works that annoyed me was his insistence on making people who actually existed (such as FDR) into Archetypes: it actually allowed him less flexibility in the worse way, because he was so beholden to Symbols he didn’t have to confront the actual thing. Here, having Washington as a stoner actually works out great because we really get to see the contradictions present in every person, while still emphasizing their Pynchonian elements. It all works very well.
However, I think his biggest success in the story is Tenebrae Cherrycoke, who despite her name is a lovely and bright presence in the story: of the (I counted four) youths who Wilkes talks to, she’s the one who seems to absorb everything while the story is being told, and who seems to actually be given an independent voice in her life. One of the delights of this series has been seeing a guy who was not successful writing women get better and better at it, and Tenebrae is one of the best examples of that growth.
That being said, I want to talk a bit about before we wrap up: the style of this book. We’ve talked a bit about the modern concerns of this book, but this is the first time Pynchon’s written a novel that is explicitly not in a style of his own. It’s a book where to get the maximum effect he HAD to adopt that style (I can’t imagine how difficult it was) but does it work for you, having him write like this? Or does it come off as overly cute sometimes?
wallflower: again, I don’t think of it as a different style so much as the fullest realization of his own style. It makes everything else–Gravity’s Rainbow in particular–feel like that’s where Pynchon’s writing in a voice not his own, and more on this right now.
Pynchon’s use of historical characters sez a lot about what he’s trying to do here. (Not just characters, I’d add, but elements: the Mechanical Duck hit me as a tribute to the French/Enlightenment obsession with automata and clockwork, and there’s also the giant magnetic bathtub, the eleven-day adjustment when calendars were switched, and the whole discussion of Sha (“or Bad Energy”) in the drawing of lines across the continent; all of these have some kind of historical sourcing.) The last time Pynchon went back in the past to find a turning point of history, you hit on the idea that he was writing “about what is not.” Going back to that long passage I quoted at the beginning, Mason and Dixon is a work about what might. He’s writing not just about the historical America but all the possible Americas that are embedded in that moment, and allowing them to all superimpose on each other. There’s something almost quantum-mechanical about this idea: this is the point of history where the futures are all happening at once, and Pynchon wants to explore all of them. Toking with Washington, talking electricity with Ben Franklin; these aren’t tokens of “hey look, the past!” but explorations of paths not taken. The conclusion of the long middle section (called, so simply and hopefully, “America”) is one of the most beautiful extended passages in all of Pynchon, a song of hope to balance the despair of Pökler’s story in Gravity’s Rainbow: an imagining of Mason ‘n’ Dixon continuing to draw their line into the interior of America, “a ceaseless Spectacle of Transition.” Here, Pynchon aligns himself most clearly with the prophetic tradition that Cormac McCarthy allied with in Blood Meridian; Pynchon works in the mode of the New Testament gospellers where McCarthy goes full Jeremiah.
Seen this way, the style becomes not an affectation but a necessity. Pynchon views this moment from the moment, and that means giving up the luxury of contemporary style. Like Hunter Thompson typing out The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby to teach himself writing, Pynchon uses 18th-century typography to place his own mind in the right time–or maybe times.
I like Brae a lot, too; with her mixture of reasonableness and curiosity, she seemed like a version of Elizabeth Cobbs’ Eliza Schulyer Hamilton. That kid’s got a future, methinks. That points to one more thing I love here: how Pynchon treats his characters, especially Mason ‘n’ Dixon themselves. Again, I love Vineland the most because I love its characters the most, and those two guys are nearly as lovable and well-drawn, a portrayal of male friendship that’s up there with Zoyd ‘n’ Hector and (maybe the archetypal Pynchon duo) Inherent Vice’s Doc ‘n’ Bigfoot. Here, the two titular characters respect each other, work with each other, get on each other’s nerves, and occasionally one leaves the other stranded under a few tons of metal. (As one does.) They’re never anything but believable and often quite touching, anchoring this work far more than all the journeys of Against the Day. By way of appreciation of their friendship, Pynchon’s style, and just ‘cuz it’s another passage to live one’s life by, enjoy this early-morning conversation between them:
“Disgusting? this is Tea, Friend, Cha,– what all tasteful London drinks,– that,” pollicating the Coffee-Pot, “is what’s disgusting.”
“Au contraire,” Dixon replies, “Coffee is an art, where precision is all,– Water-Temperature, mean particle diameter, ratio of Coffee to Water or as we say, CTW, and dozens more Variables I’d mention, were they not so clearly out of thy technical Grasp,– “
OK, a reference backwards to public television and forwards to Breaking Bad. How fucking awesome is that?
“How is it,” Mason pretending amiable curiosity, “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?”
Dixon shrugs. “You must improve your Speed. . .? As to the other, why aye, only the first Cup’s any good, owing to Coffee’s Sacramental nature, the Sacrament being Penance, entirely absent from thy sunlit world of Tay,– whereby the remainder of the Pot, often dozens of cups deep, represents the Price for enjoying that first perfect Cup.”
Also, back in the 90s, I was convinced that crew member Stig was William Vollmann. Rereading it now, I have no idea why.
Avathoir: As someone who has A William Vollmann Story, I’m going to say that after telling you that particular yarn I think that might have shaken you out of that suspicion. But that actually leads me to get on what I think separates this work from Pynchon’s Greatest Acolyte, where the student cannot hope to eclipse the master: Pynchon is interested in everything, but he’s also interested in everyone. The quoted section is not just a great example of a discussion if Ideas but it reveals the personalities of Mason and Dixon just as well. You could put that exact exchange in the mouths of Seth Rogen and James Franco and it would work perfectly.
Way back in the beginning of this series I talked about Pynchon’s Secret Sauce, and how at first it seemed like what made him a master was his ability to operate on seemingly almost every level of reality when he was writing, a sort of Schrodinger’s Novel where every possible tone was conveyed at once. Now, he’s improved his recipe: this is the novel where he begins to let his sentimental side out for me, the novel where the human part of his human comedy finally clicks into focus. This is the Real Ownage right here, and I can’t wait to see how he continues this approach.
Tune in next time for when we cover the behemoth of Pynchon’s longest novel, Against the Day! For the curious, here’s our upcoming queue of conversations. We hope to see you soon!
- Blind Reads Installment 1, Part 2: Wilson: a Consideration of the Sources, by David Mamet (part of the first installment: I Haven’t Told You Everything).
- The Spiral, 8: Against the Day
- Blind Reads Installment 2: Fire and Ice (beginning with Under the Glacier by Halldor Laxness)