Saturday, February 21, 2009

Cannonball Read #19: Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon

I am not sure if by reading this book I am precisely fulfilling the challenge of the Cannonball Read Project, or if I'm being completely insane. It might be both. Either way, this is a hell of a book. As I understand it, most people meet Pynchon through Gravity's Rainbow, which I have not read. At some point I began to understand him as An Author I Should Read, and once I looked at his catalog, I was drawn not to Rainbow but instead to Mason & Dixon. This is not a history book. It's what I imagine a history book would be like if read at a rave, while tripping not just on E, but on every drug that every be-glow-sticked child had brought with them that night. In Philadelphia. In the 1760s.

The book follows Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon on their famous survey of the American landscape. That's the backbone of the story, but to leave the summary there would be to miss the vast majority of what's really important about Pynchon's piece. This is not one to read while the TV is on in the background. I read this on a trip to New York via bus, and once the woman behind me had shut up, I could really focus on the book and fully immerse myself in the story and the mode of writing.

(Dear Jamaican lady on the bus from Hartford to Port Authority,

Your eating noises are zoological in scope and tone. Your choice of tuna for an enclosed space is ridiculously inconsiderate and irritating. Laying in to your mother for trying to evilly foist 200 calories of bread on you while eating a metric ton of other junk, including potato chips, is just goddamn stupid. Laying in to your mother, period, without cessation, for everything short of existance, despite her being completely inoffensive and bland, is just gross and rude.

If I ever see you again, I'm going to lock you in a bus cargo hatch and leave you there.



Anyway, the story itself is quite complex; Mason and Dixon were not well-acquainted friends, nor was either one fully convinced that this whole survey would amount to anything. Those tensions set the stage for an examination not only of a growing belief in a shared mission, but for the development of a friendship. All this is set against a collection of spectacular adventures, some realistic and some straight-up insane (There's a talking dog. I'm just saying). On top of all this, the story is narrated by a Reverend Cherrychoke, and the time line shifts rapidly and without notice. It's a lot to process. Did I mention it's written in the language of the day? Check out the first sentence:
Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs, starr'd the Sides of Outbuildings, as of Cousins, carried Hats away into the brisk Wind off Delaware,-the Sleds are brought in and their Runners carefully dried and greased, shoes deposited in the back Hall, a stocking'd-foot Descent made upon the great Kitchen, in a purposeful Dither since Morning, punctuated by the ringing Lids of various Boilers and Stewing-Pots, fragrant with Pie-Spices, peel'd Fruits, Suet, heated Sugar,-the Children, having all upon the Fly, among rhythmic slaps of Batter and Spoon, coax'd and stolen what they might, proceed, as upon each afternoon all this snowy Advent, to a comfortable Room at the rear of the House, years since given over to their carefree Assaults.
Yeah, it's all like that. Bottom line, this is a great book and deeply enriching, but it does take significant dedicated effort to get through it. It helps if you have an interest in American history, but I don't think it's necessary. I'll probably wait a while to attempt Gravity's Rainbow or The Crying of Lot 49, but I am glad I got to know Thomas Pynchon and am curious to explore more of his work.

784 pages

No comments:

Post a Comment