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Thursday, August 08, 2019

Mason & Dixon (1997) by Thomas Pynchon


Book Review
Mason & Dixon (1997)
 by Thomas Pynchon


   I own a first edition hardback of Mason & Dixon-  one of Pynchon's representative titles in the first edition of 1001 Books, but dropped in the second edition in favor of Faceless Killers (1991) by Henning Mankell.   I can hardly remember anything from my initial reading back in 1997-1998- "too old timey!" I remember thinking, since Pynchon insists on using his own version of the non-standard orthography and capitalization that was common in the 18th century, the time of the book.

   Twenty years later, I've added the entire 18th century canon to my mental library, re-read all of Pynchon's earlier books and set up a situation where I was able to read Mason & Dixon in small portions, always at my ease.  You would think that I would have enjoyed it much more the second time through, but no.  Mason & Dixon was almost as impenetrable as I found it the first time.  I guess you could say I got more of the jokes and puns, but if there was any deeper meaning to be gleaned, I did not glean it. 

  Pynchon's re-telling of the adventures of English surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon does cover their famous American line, but it also has adventures in Africa, in England and on the open seas.    Other subjects include, "the call of the West, the histories of women, North Americans, and slaves, plus excursions into geomancy, Deism, a hollow Earth, and — perhaps — alien abduction. The novel also contains philosophical discussions and parables of automata/robots, the after-life, the eleven days lost to the Gregorian calendar, slavery, feng shui and others. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Nevil Maskelyne, Samuel Johnson, Thomas Jefferson, and John Harrison's marine chronometer all make appearances. Pynchon provides an intricate conspiracy theory involving Jesuits and their Chinese converts, which may or may not be occurring within the nested and ultimately inexact narrative structure."  (from the Wikipedia page on Mason & Dixon)

    What is referred to as the "inexact narrative structure" could also be described as a bewildering multiplicity, far beyond what Pynchon put forward in V and Gravity's Rainbow, to name two of his other big books.   At times, Mason & Dixon embraces literary pre-modernism, modernism and post-modernism in the same page.   Even describing the plot is exhausting- again- see the Wikipedia page, where someone managed to describe each of seventy eight episodes.  Maybe Pynchon isn't one of my favorite authors, after all.   The fact is that I haven't enjoyed Vineland or Mason & Dixon, and I'm not looking forward to Against the Day- an addition to the second 1001 Books list.   I do see The Crying of Lot 49, V and Gravity's Rainbow as all time canon level classics, and I enjoyed The Bleeding Edge Audiobook- I would have LOVED to have gotten my hands on a Mason & Dixon Audiobook, but the Los Angeles Public Library doesn't have a copy.

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