|Aug/Sep 1998 Book Reviews|
Random House, 1998 773pp
This is a dog's dinner of a book: a feast for those who gleefully devour anything by Thomas Pynchon; a glorious mess for lovers of 18th Century Fielding-style sagas; but a vast, indigestible serving of fact, fiction, fantasy magic, vaudeville, titillation and philosophy for those with delicate tastes.
Mason & Dixon shows Thomas Pynchon in playful mood. He is disguised as the "far travel'd" Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke, who tells tales to amuse his niece, Tenebrae, and his twin nephews, named Pitt and Pliny "so that each might be term'd "the Elder" or "the Younger" as might day-to-day please one, or annoy his Brother". The year is 1789, and the Rev'd. has been in Philadelphia for the funeral of an astrologer "Friend of years ago", Charles Mason, who with Jeremiah Dixon (surveyor) established the Mason-Dixon Line separating the slave-holding colony of Maryland from the free colony of Pennsylvania.
Cherrycoke, it seems, accompanied Mason and Dixon on their journeys. First, to the Dutch colony of South Africa to observe the Transit of Venus, then to America, another frontier colony where slavery and division were similarly commonplace. But the Reverend gentleman's chronicle of these journeys is designed to keep rampaging children quiet and maintain him in the favours of his sister, Mrs J.Wade LeSpark, in whose home he is a guest. Excellent skills of story-telling are essential, for "too much evidence of Juvenile Rampage at the wrong moment...and Boppo! 'twill be Out the Door with him, where waits the Winter Block and Blade". You can see that the Rev'd. Wade Cherrycoke favours High-Flown Language and Capitals, a style which takes a little getting used to after the cropped and allusive prose of most modern novels. Nor can his account of events be relied on.
Cherrycoke embroiders, elaborates, exaggerates, fabricates, digresses, throws in the odd ditty and bawdy ballad, and is much more concerned with story than with history. Sometimes he even seems remarkable prescient, claiming to have been instructed by those who control his fate, for example, to "Keep away from harmful Substances, in particular Coffee, Tobacco and Indian Hemp. If you must use the latter, do not inhale". And there is something very modern and familiar, too, about his description of a the Quebec Jesuit College's Coffee Machine where Vigil-keepers "limp down to the Ingenious Coffee Machine, whose self-igniting Roaster has, hours earlier, come on by means of a French Clockwork Device which, the beans having been roasted for the desir'd time, the controls their Transfer to a certain Engine, where they are mill'd to a course Powder, discharged into an infusing chamber, combin'd with water heated exactly, - Ecce Coffea!".
But then, it is Cherrycoke's contention that "History is hir'd. or coerc'd, only in Interests that must ever prove base....She needs rather to be tended lovingly and honorably by fabulists and counterfeiters, Ballad-Mongers and Cranks of ev'ry Radius...". This, too, is a view demonstrated here at length by Thomas Pynchon, who ties his unwieldy bundle together with lines - Ley lines, boundary lines, navigational lines, lines of transit, of social delineation, religion, history, science and mystery: "a great disorderly Tangle of Lines, long and short, weak and strong, vanishing into the Mnemonic Deep, with only their Destination in common". And this 'Destination', Pynchon seems to suggest, is loss of faith and vision, and a return to chaos.
Meanwhile Mason and Dixon are recruited as Music Hall characters (Town Gallant and Country Cousin), along with a disorderly cast of performers which includes a talking and prognosticating 'Learned English Dog', the dreaded 'Bec du Mort' (a mechanical duck fixated on a famous French Chef), Dr Ben Franklin and his Leyden-Jar Dance Macabre act at The Orchid Tavern, and guest appearances by Colonel Washington and Martha.
Like Scheherazade, The Rev'd Wicks Cherrycoke ensures his survival by extending his story from night to night to night... This book, then, is not a quick, easy read. It is one of those books which you either wade through or take in short bites, and it can be hard-going, exasperating and even boring. It is a book which leaves indelible fragments in your imagination, but it is not a book for everyone.