Thursday, 15 August 2013

Epilogue #1

Epilogue is a new section where I aim to write a little bit about a book that I've recently read... Just so you know.
I'm back after my slight absence with my brows facing more towards the moon than ever before; and I aim to break new ground by blogging about literature without at any point making reference to tea or gin.
Like what some sort of enterprising pioneer of the form would do.

Mason & Dixon
Thomas Pynchon

Around this time probably about two years ago, Thomas Pynchon was one of those writers whose work I thought I would be eternally intending to read without ever getting round to it. Since then (partly due to deciding to write a chapter of my undergraduate dissertation on Gravity's Rainbow), I've now read his first five novels -- as well as some of the hilarious bits of Pynchon miscellany that have been archived on the line (see: /

Most recently - as you can probably tell from the massive picture and heading above - I've read his 1997 novel, Mason & Dixon. After 1990's Vineland - smaller-scale, and more low-key in its thematic complexity than typically associated with a Pynchon novel - this novel represents more of a return to the sprawling, dense and tonally eclectic fictions of V. and Gravity's Rainbow.

The striking difference here is that - unlike with his previous works - Mason & Dixon's primary setting is far-removed from the recognisable 20th Century, modern / post-modern age to which Pynchon is so strongly linked. The novel follows a lengthy period in the 18th century, centred around the lives of astronomer / surveyor team Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, best-known for charting the Mason-Dixon line to establish the correct boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Despite this, it's definitely worth noting that Pynchon's historical narrative is firmly connected to the 20th / 21st century age of late / post-modernity... and it's this that leads me to talk about what I feel makes Mason & Dixon really fit with its aforementioned encyclopaedic predecessors. From his work, Pynchon's general aesthetic attitude towards history is (and for more about this, by the way, read up about Linda Hutcheon's ideas about 'historiographic metafiction') one that argues the importance of the outsider and the 'preterite': leaving us with novels that highlight how the present moment is always essentially the culmination of the chaotic mess of all events of the past (including, crucially of course, events 'forgotten' by or 'rejected' from the grand narrative of history).

This aesthetic approach to history and historiography can be seen in by the bucket-load throughout this novel: Mason and Dixon's tale is framed as a story told by the unreliably subjective and human narrator Wicks Cherrycoke to members of his extended family; the novel blends impeccably researched historical fact with obvious fiction (e.g. a talking dog, ghosts, a super-intelligent mechanical duck); a focus on the 'preterite' throughout history (the stories of slaves, indigenous cultures, etc.). Most significantly, almost everywhere is this idea of the many events of the past leading unquestionably to the present moment: it is as present in the largest aspects -- primarily, I refer the ever-looming theme throughout the book of how the innocence and naivety of superstition and religion / folklore gives way to the 'experience' of rationality and science in modernity and of commerce and consumerism in post-modernity -- as it is in the tiniest details -- the presence of Pig Bodine's similarly drunken ancestor, for example, and even a paragraph describing a grandfather clock that I feel can be read both as an extremely subtle allusion to the sort of shadowy almost-fascism that features so heavily in Vineland, and as an even more subtle reference to George Orwell's 1984 (for which Pynchon wrote a foreword, fact fans).

As is no doubt evident, there really is a hell of a lot in Mason & Dixon. Though it may seem a bit slow to begin with, and maybe not quite as detailed and intense as some of Pynchon's other work; if you persevere, it becomes apparent just how filled to the brim with detail, warmth, character, ambition, insight, and wonder this fascinating novel's 700-plus pages are.

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