Mason and Dixon

ISBN: 0312423209
ISBN 13: 9780312423209
By: Thomas Pynchon

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About this book

The story of Charles Mason (1728-1786) and Jeremiah Dixon (1733-1779)—the British surveyors best remembered for running the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland that has come to known as the Mason-Dixon Line—as re-imagined by bestselling author Thomas Pynchon.Intermingled with Mason and Dixon's biographies, history, fantasy, legend, speculation, and outright fabrication, the novel is based on the focal point of one Rev. Wicks Cherrycoke, a clergyman of dubious orthodoxy, who attempts to entertain and divert his extended family on a cold December evening—partly for amusement, and partly to keep his coveted status as a guest in the house.

Reader's Thoughts


I first read this when it came out in '97. I was 24, soon to be married and working a shit phone survey job. I'd bring it into work everyday and read as the computer dialed the numbers of strangers for me. Fits and starts. Hung up on many who answered rather than lose my place. I'd read all Pynchon to this point and like the rest of the world was ecstatic that he followed the disappointing Vineland with a fat historical tome compleat with strange Spelling and Punctuation. Well, I forgot most of the details, save the most outrageous, and I even forgot some of those, so I was stoked to hear a group of acquaintances would be doing a group read. I can't think of a finer book to read and discuss over pints at a local pub, considering a good half the book takes place in taverns. This was a delightful re-read. Pynchon really makes Mason and Dixon come alive, probably based on reading a handful of their journals and some research into the era. Fuck, who knows just how Pynchon does his research. Imagine if he employed a team like Michener? Somehow he spews it like it was always up there, all the facts you'd need and plenty more, up in his Nog. Anyway, anyone who's been waiting to read this, now is the time. I'd recommend you do it with friends, slowly, so much to talk about, so many Joaks you'll want to share. Also I like what Dawin8U had to say


Once in awhile I think to myself, "Self, you're going to read a Thomas Pynchon novel", but then I never do. I never have. I'm worried I'm going to spend a ton of time and energy reading him and then hate him, and wish I could have my time back. I won't know until I try, I guess. The blurb for this one says "Mason & Dixon"--like "Huckleberry Finn", like "Ulysses"--is one of the great novels about friendship in anybody's literature"- that sounds good to me. Novels about friendships. Also, I'm a proud resident of the Old Line State, and I've crossed and recrossed the Ol' Mason Dixon Line countless times in my life. And I've been more and more enjoying the literature of my home country of late. (Ignore the fact that my currently-reading and to-read shelf utterly contradict this). So maybe Pynchon and I have a meeting up in the near future. Possibly.


Mason and Dixon, though by no means an easy read, exceeded all my expectations. Drinking and whoring, flying Surveyors and melancholic Astronomers, conscious mechanical ducks haunting expatriated French gourmets, Crypto-Sino-Jesuit conspiracies, hemp-smoking American revolutionaries, trans-continental geomantic weaponry—this novel has it all. If you like post-modern prolixity with dashes of science fiction, adventure, history, and comedy, read this book. You won’t be disappointed."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 these 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 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." 345"We have passed, tho' without comment, out of the zone of influence of the western mountains, and into that of Chesapeake,--as there exists no 'Maryland' beyond an Abstraction, a Frame of right lines drawn to enclose and square off the great Bay in its unimagin'd Fecundity, its shoreline tending to Infinite Length, ultimately unmappable,--no more, to be fair, than there exists any 'Pennsylvania' but a chronicle of Frauds committed serially against the Indians dwelling there, check'd only by the Ambitions of other Colonies to north and eat." 354"'Who are they,' inquires the Rev'd in his Day-Book, 'that will send violent young troops against their own people? Their mouths ever keeping up with the same weary Rattle about Freedom, Toleration, and the rest, whilst their own Land is as Occupied as ever it was by Rome. These forces look like Englishmen, they were born in England, they speak the language of the People flawlessly, they cheerfully eat jellied Eels, joints of Mutton, Treacle-Tarts, all that vile unwholesome Diet which maketh the involuntary American more than once bless his Exile,--yet their intercourse with the Mass of the People is as cold with suspicion and contempt, as that of any foreign invader.'" 407-8"'Gentlemen,' advises this ominous Shadow, '--you have fallen, willy-nilly, among a race who not only devour Astronomers as a matter of habitual Diet, but may also make of them vile miniature 'Sandwiches,' and lay them upon a mahogany Sideboard whose Price they never knew, and then forget to eat them. Your only hope, in this room, is to impersonate so perfectly what they assume you to be, that instincts of Predation will be overcome by those of Boredom.'" 414"'Why is it that we honor the Great Thieves of Whitehall, for Acts that in Whitechapel would merit hanging? Why admire the one sort of Thief, and despise the other? I suggest, 'tis because of the Scale of the Crime--What we of the Mobility love to watch, is any of the Great Motrices, Greed, Lust, Revenge, taken out of all measure, brought quite past the scale of the ev'ryday World, approaching what we always knew were the true Dimensions of Desire. Let Antony lose the world for Cleopatra, to be sure,--not Dick his Day's Wages, at the Tavern.'" 451"'Here's how we'll do it,' proposes Mason. 'Whenever we come to a Road, one of us goes North, the other South. The one not finding a Tavern in a reasonable Time, returns to the Line, where he finds either the other waiting, or that the other has not yet return'd,--in which case, he then continues in the same direction, either meeting the other returning, or finding him, already a dozen pints down.'" 484


One grows suspicious of his literariness when his opinions differ from those of the established literary community. While most will tell you that Gravity's Rainbow is Pynchon's finest work, I enjoyed M&D the most. The contemporary author shows that he's still got it, more than 20 years after winning the National Book Award with GV. The narrative is much more straightforward, though the language takes some getting used to (it becomes one of the book's strengths though, and I found myself mimicking it in less formal correspondence for years). In the 18th century, Northern European powers were hitting full stride in their quests to colonize the New World and Africa. Great Britain and France would align with various indigenous tribes in the Americas and battle for supremacy there, while the Dutch and English trading companies conquered and profited from their conquests of the East and West Indies. In this context, demarcations and astronomical observations appear to serve purposes other than knowledge. This is where we begin with our two heroes, commissioned to observe an astronomical event from the Dutch colonies in what is now South Africa. The melancholy Mason and the more jovial Dixon make for comic tension immediately as they survive a naval scuffle and the sexual advances of Dutch colonists' bored daughters.The narrative continues to follow the title's characters as they travel to the American colonies to demarcate the line which bears their name. Pynchon's use of imagined worlds, narrative interruptions, and strange characters serve him superbly in this large work. The oft-leveled criticism that he leaves the reader no chance to identify or even sympathize with his characters does not apply here. There are touching scenes when Mason imagines his late wife communicating with him, and when he remembers his sons who have stayed behind in England. The warmth that does eventually grow between he and Dixon will cause the reader to remember the friends he has and remember that he should call them instead of spending all his time reading 800 page books. This one's worth it, though.


In the search for the mythical "Great American Novel", too many are guilty of forming their idea of what this should be before reading any of the contending texts. Hence, the likes of Don De Lillo, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and John Updike are those most often mentioned in this context. The assumption is that the beast should deal with twentieth century material - the America of skyscrapers, mass immigration, tenement buildings and baseball. However, what better way of getting to the soul of a country than an exploration of the initial conditions at that nation's birth? Thomas Pynchon obviously agreed and came up with a kaleidoscopic overview of America in the womb. Over 700 pages of the most impressive prose imaginable, Pynchon takes us on a tour of eighteenth century America, with doses of South Africa, the UK and St. Helena thrown in. But this isn't just an academic exercise designed to create dazzling prose, this is a touching novel with larger than life characters and a big heart - a human novel that emphasizes decency, open-mindedness and human frailty.


Hay que empezar diciendo que ninguna reseña puede abarcar todo lo que Pynchon nos relata en su novela. No es una lectura fácil, pero es uno de los libros más asequibles de Pynchon. Creo que su autor no pretendía escribir una novela histórica al uso. Aunque conociendo al autor, ya esperaba algo similar. Haciendo uso de diálogos y pensamientos, Pynchon nos dibuja unos personajes que rozan la caricatura, o más bien el homenaje, parejas tan memorables como Don Quijote y Sancho Panza o Gargantúa y Pantagruel.’Mason y Dixon’ es la historia que el reverendo Wicks Cherrycoke narra a su auditorio, conformado por niños y adultos, que se sitúan a su alrededor. Como si de Sherezade en ‘Las mil y una noches’ se tratase, el reverendo Cherrycoke centra su mirada en este par de personajes, a los que acompañó en parte de sus viajes. También hay que puntualizar que el reverendo no es un narrador demasiado fiable, como muy bien él mismo se encarga de recordarnos al principio. Y es que la historia no adolece de elementos fantásticos, como perros que hablan o golems.Mason, astrónomo, y Dixon, agrimensor, fueron dos personas que existieron realmente. Su mayor hazaña, por la que están en los libros de Historia, es la que abarca la mayor parte de la novela: en la última mitad del siglo XVIII, trazaron una línea divisora entre las tierras del estado de Pennsylvania y las tierras de Maryland, con Delaware de por medio. En realidad, el libro puede dividirse en dos partes, una primera parte que transcurre en Sudáfrica, donde se asientas los cimientos de la relación de ambos protagonistas; y una segunda parte, donde se cuenta lo antes mencionado.Quien se acerque a ’Mason y Dixon’ no va a encontrar una novela de aventuras, donde prime la épica, o quizás no la épica que se pueda esperar de tal término. Pynchon ha trazado todo un monumento literario, de conocimientos enciclopédicos, más de diálogos y pensamientos que de hechos, donde los acontecimientos se van produciendo sin descanso.Personalmente, puedo decir que ’Mason y Dixon’ me ha gustado más que la desbordante ‘El arco iris de gravedad’, siendo más comprensible y asequible que esta última. La novela empieza muy bien, te atrapa desde un principio, y te arrastra hasta su ecuador, donde acabas llegando un tanto exhausto. Después, se vuelve una tanto anodina, pero te dejas llevar. Hasta llegar a la última parte del libro, donde la historia remonta, y donde destacan los últimos capítulos, que son brillantes, e incluso melancólicos.


Oh god, I'm gonna cry, what a beautiful book, a gift from Pynchon in the form of an epic bedtime story. Explaining this book would only cheapen it, you should just trust me and read it, but if I'd have to give you a glimpse, I'd say it's a story about the ironies of pure theory vs. imperfect practice, clock time vs. the ocean's rhythms, a depressive vs. a lively romantick, the numinous quality of nature, and the allure of an untouched American frontier, a land where the stars are so close you won't need a telescope. But at its core it's about a friendship with arms long enough to reach from one end of the world to the other, and as the book ends, mortality brings things to a close, leaving you with an unbearable melancholy that I still haven't come to terms with. I'll have to revisit this one, maybe even soon...thank you again, Pynchon.

Nathan Roberson

I realize tonight I never wrote a review for this. I've spent today tearing through the terminus of Against The Day, the last Pynchon novel for me to complete, and I am of course reflecting on the works of an author that completely enthralled me for the past few years.So, for a complete Pynchonphile, how does this one hold up? Some call it a return to form. I don't think Pynchon's form ever faltered. Vineland gets a bad rap, but I think that's more to do with it being the follow up to Gravity's Rainbow and the gap between those two works. No, Pynchon does not return to form with this book, he transcends his form. It is replete with your usual Pynchon elements: crazy names, silly songs, ridiculous characters -- some not quite human -- and fantastical events. So that's all usual fare. How does it transcend? The language. The guy is already known for composing beautiful (and lengthy) sentences, but to do so with the grammar and spelling appropriate to the 18th century is a monumental achievement. As for the story and themes, top notch! This novel expresses Pynchon's love for a time when magic existed, before the clutches of science gave reason and explanation to boggling mysteries. Sure, I like the furthering of human knowledge just as much as the next guy, but let's admit it: a lot of us want to punch that Breaking The Magician's Code guy in the face. While the characters of Mason & Dixon serve to end some of the mysteries that surround them, Pynchon reminds the reader that The Enlightenment was not like the flick of a switch that our school textbooks suggested. The so-called great thinkers of the time were often fumbling in the dark, banging prostitutes, and usually just trying to make a buck. While revering the unknown Pynchon also topples the pedestal on which society places the minds of this period. So yeah, we want to punch that two-timing magician in the face, but we also enjoy being smug as all hell the next time we see an inept Vegas act.


I could not read this, -- perhaps if I were taking some English Lit. class and forced to read it, disect it, and write a report on it then I'd be sufficiently motivated to continue reading the lengthy prose, convoluted descriptions, sentences that go on and on, not just from one line to the next, nor from one paragraph to the next but falling just shy of one chapter to the next -- somewhere in the range of a sentence being equal to several pages - as if anyone would have the energy to just ramble on, within the confines of one sentence, to challenge the reader in seeing how far he or she will continue in their effort to see the point, digest the vagueries and want to continue on with the next sentence - which may span another several pages before ending in a chapter in which you might have just said, "what did I read?"


I've just arrived at the last chapter & I find I'm so moved by the immenent end of the book that I have to put it aside for a few hours. It feels as though I have treavelled to the Cape & along the Mason Dixon line with the protagonists. After several months, I have finally come to the realization that the book is an experience more than a plot line. The episodes are incredibly vivid, sometimes gruesome, sometimes mystic, sometimes uproariously funny, always disconnected to most things before & after them, but they represent stages on a journey/life rather than parts of a developing story. Taken together, they make me feel like I have lived a lifetime, trekking & living history along with Mason & Dixon, & I'm putting off saying goodbye to all of that richness. Definitely a book to keep (even though it's not mine) & revisit later, knowing what to expect.It's taken me a while, but I was right to stick with it. Great book!Now I've finished it & the ending was poignant especially for the details of Isaac's name, Dr., after the doctor who delivered him but failed to save the life of Rebeckah, his mother. His father chose to call him always Dr. Isaac to remind himself of that, even though the son adored the father & longer to go to America with him. Sadly he only went at the very wend when his father was dying. Aaah!


I used to hate Pynchon's novels. I'd never finished one, putting them down after a few pages feeling confused, irritated and bored. Reviewers didn't help: Either they were boys thrilled by his postmodern toys (ooh,shocking, he makes a dig at Clinton with the joke about not inhaling; hacleverha, the narrator is called Rev. Cherrycoke)or they were acolytes in awe who clearly didn't quite get what he was on about(all those postmodern master comments and references to particle physics). Interestingly no review I've read of Mason & Dixon has referenced events past page 50. Guess even the professionals give up sometimes.But, fellow reader, Mason & Dixon is a great and joyful book and completely worth reading to the end. It's about friendship between people (and between peoples), and made me realize how few books are about deep human relations as opposed to the exploration of an individual's consciousness and its conflicts with others. Pynchon never reduces life to a single unity. Instead we get the muddle and mystery of how our feelings for each other get tangled up with physicality, technology, logic and geography and motives and history and structures. Who's to say that they way through that mystery/muddle might not be lit by a mechanical duck that flies as fast as a V2, or a Learned English Dog? And where there is nothing to say--the genocide of Native Americans, a friend's death--Pynchon skirts the lacuna with lyrical, heartbreaking prose. As for the confusion of his writing, I ultimately found it distinctive and thrilling rather than bewildering. Reading his books isn't about parsing every line or nodding at every reference, it's about the experience of being caught up in a world outside our own consciousness and individuality. He needed to write it that way to make his point. And it makes for an exhilarating and enthralling read.I haven't thought or felt so deeply about a book for years. Highly, highly recommended.


To sum it up in two words, "Mason & Dixon" is, overwhelmingly phenomenal! Rather than write a review, because how can you review Thomas Pynchon’s work. The man is a genius, who's depth of vocabulary is out of this world, whose knowledge is so vast it’s a wonder he can retain all he knows, and he is one of the most original authors to ever write. So here’s a top ten list of Mason & Dixon, its top ten phenomenal moments if you will. 10. The Vroom sisters messing with MasonHere are some lines in which Mason is on a ladder because he is locked out “With no more than precarious hold upon the Balcony, Mason now feels activity beneath his Soles, and looks down in time to see the Ladder being deftly abstracted and taken ‘roud the Corner in malicious fun by Jet, who for some reason is feeling underappreciated today. As he hangs there in Misery, tasting Ocean Salt in the Wind, watching in spirit of Distance, “Soon,” he mutters aloud, “to be Detachment,” the Bolts connecting the House to the Balcony, which was never meant to bear much more weight than that of an adolescent Female’s Foot, begin to slide, protesting with horrid sucking Shrieks, out of the Lime and Sand that have held them there so ornamentally till now. “What,” he is heard to exclaim,-“not again?” before jumping clear of the falling Iron-work, landing, mercifully with-out more than Contusions and Pain, upon the soak’d Earth”9. The Talking Norfolk terrier at a pub, who talks to Mason and Dixon8. Pissing in the snow, part of side story about a wedding.“Threading their way among snoring celebrants, trying not blunder onto drooling Faces or disarrange’d Skirts, they go outside, and together piss in the Snow. Shelby writes his name, sweepingly, as if at the bottom of some Blank and all-powerful Warrant of the Winter, whilst Tom draws a simple Heart, unpierc’d, unletter’d, whose outline he fills carefully, completely and then some. The Captain looks over. “You certainly did have to piss”7. Jenkins’s Ear Museum.6. Garden of giant vegetables5. Eliza’s and Zhang’s escape from French Canada4. The Lambton Worm3. Mason on the other side of St Helena Island with its mind-altering winds, which Mason is visited by the Ghost of his dead wife, or is just the wind.2. all the back and forth Banter between Mason and Dixon rather it is talk of star gazing, tea vs. coffee, or the conversations with many other people along their journey1. Armand’s mechanical duck (what else?) and the duck talks“So,” spray’d the Duck,-“the terrible Bluebeard of the Kitchen, whose Celebrity is purchas’d with the lives of my Race. Not so brave now, Eh” “…its Beak being of the finest Swedish Steel, did I mention that, yes quite able, when the Duck, in its homicidal Frenzy, is flying at high speed, to penetrate all known Fortification, solid walls being as paper to this Juggernaut…One can cower within, but one cannot avoid,-Bec de la Mort…’Beak of Death.”

Ethan Miller

Like my good friend Jay said when I told him I was embarking on M&D; "Oh, it's a joy!"As sorrowful, paranoid, shattered and crushing as Gravity's Rainbow is, Mason & Dixon matches that power with tools of joy, friendship, bittersweet ocean's of memory both historical and personal, phantoms of love and deep melancholy of the heart and of the mind, all forged in the opposite end of the emotional spectrum from the dark brew (perhaps abyss) that is Gravity's. Here Pynchon paints with all the colors of the flowing seasons that form and dissolve the walking dream of life. A beautiful book for the Fall, for laughter, for meditation, reflection, memory and to stand inside of joy and be reminded that it's spine must be made of sadness also for it's form to function fully. It's perhaps worth noting for those that felt there was something profound and wonderful about Gravity's Rainbow but couldn't stand the trudge through it's assaultive structure that M & D has all the wild baffling Pynchon style and blaze but is a much more linear narrative, though by no means conventional. Many believe it to be his masterpiece though I believe 'M & D' + 'Gravity's' create a larger masterwork together, a Yin and Yang portrait of the West in it's modern birth and modern death. Highly recommended as the starting point in Pynchon epics. OH IT'S A JOY


For those of you with aspirations of writing the great American novel, you may want to find a new goal for the next century or so. Mason & Dixon was written recently enough that the news may not yet have caught on (how long did it take for Moby Dick?), so I will tell you now that it is the book. Upon finishing Pynchon's novel, I was seized by no desire greater than to turn back and read it again. I'm not sure why I have thus far resisted, as I don't think that anything I've read since has affected me as much as a second reading almost certainly would. I must confess, however, that Pynchon takes a lot out of me and I require long breaks consisting of reading "easier" books. I don't like propagating the rumor that reading Pynchon is difficult when it is, in fact, joyous. But, like any great novel, it requires as much from you as you hope to take from it. I miss Mason & Dixon. I miss the unique awkwardness between the title characters. I miss the mechanical duck who is becoming god or a planet or both. I miss the were-beaver. Pynchon's wackiness is as good as it gets and it will make you wonder why you bother reading anything else written in the last 50 years. My advice is to read it and not to worry.


I Intend sometime to be Finish'd, but the first Hundred and so Pages have been Torture and Pointless Bantaloguities.

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