Weird morning in America

A review of Thomas Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon"

Published April 25, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

the all-American lost poet Delmore Schwartz -- best remembered for the proverb "even paranoids have real enemies" -- also deserves credit for the Caffeine Theory of the Enlightenment. By this account, the Age of Reason owed its brilliance, energy and encyclopedic ambition to the arrival, in Europe, of the java bean. Schwartz meant it as a joke. Yet cultural historians have spent many happy years researching the economic, social, literary and political (if not gastrointestinal) consequences of the coffeehouse for the rising bourgeoisie. And the example of Voltaire -- who sucked down a few dozen cups a day whenever possible -- has long seemed to me to clinch the case.

But the most eloquent statement of the Caffeine Theory, as adapted to American circumstances, appears about halfway into Thomas Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon." The year is 1761. Charles Mason (an astronomer) and Jeremiah Dixon (a surveyor) have reached Philadelphia, sent by the Royal Society in London to establish the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania. They have yet to put together a work team for the job. And their first trip to an American coffee shop reveals a murky den of iniquity: a "Combination, peculiar and precise, of unceasing Talk and low Visibility, that makes Riot's indoor sister, Conspiracy, not only possible, but resultful as well." Infusions of "the Invigorating liquid" and New World rowdiness give the place a decidedly revolutionary atmosphere: "An individual in expensive attire, impersonating a gentleman, stands upon a table freely urging sodomitical offenses against the body of the Sovereign, being cheered on by a circle of Mechanics, who are not reluctant with their own suggestions."

Besides coffee, these Yankees wolf down sugary pastries and puff away on tobacco. (A few pages earlier, Mason and Dixon have sampled a little of George Washington's hemp crop.) The narrator wonders, "May unchecked consumption of all these modern substances at the same time, a habit without historical precedent, upon these shores be creating a new sort of European? less respectful of the forms that have previously held Society together, more apt to speak his mind, or hers, upon any topic he chooses, and to defend his position as violently as need be?"

Let's see now. Fervent consumption of mood-altering substances ... a certain reckless vigor in the expression of opinion ... pothead humor ... It all sounds rather like the '60s of more recent memory. And that (as old-timey Communists used to say, and militia folk still do) is no accident!

But more paranoia later. The crossroads where serious literature and conspiracy theory meet is not that busy. Potential readers -- most of them, anyway -- will reach "Mason & Dixon" along the High Culture thoroughfare. All the standard Pynchonian elements are in place -- most conspicuously, of course, the erudition, which is casual yet abundant. "The Crying of Lot 49" incorporated thermodynamics, Jacobean revenge plays and the evolution of the postal system. "Gravity's Rainbow" drew from behaviorism, rocket science and German history. With "Mason & Dixon," a nodding acquaintance with British and American history of the period is taken for granted; and it does not hurt to have a look at Dava Sobel's recent bestseller, "Longitude," unless you have acquired some knowledge of 18th century astronomical and navigational problems through alternate means.

Other familiar qualities carry over from Pynchon's earlier work. There are references (direct and indirect) to his past novels -- and, as always, funny character names. The narrator, for instance, is the Rev. Wicks Cherrycoke. Pynchon once dreamed of writing musicals, and his characters sometimes burst into poetry and song -- all of it deliberately awful, usually to humorous effect. Sometimes, though, it merits only a groan.

And then there is the prose. For nearly 800 pages, Pynchon mimics the rhythms, punctuation and spelling of the 18th century -- with those irregular, tho' colorful, Bursts of Capitalization and Italics, govern'd by one knows not what internal logic, save it be that of the Author's peculiar Humor. Every review of the novel in the continental United States, Hawaii and Guam will compare it to John Barth's "The Sot-Weed Factor," and some resemblance is certainly there. But in "Mason & Dixon," the pastiche is livelier and shows a better ear. In the life and opinions of the Reverend Cherrycoke, Pynchon has created a narrative voice that shifts between various styles of prose (novelistic, philosophical, psychotic) -- and unites the comic and the pathetic. Pynchon somehow borrows from Laurence Sterne's "Tristram Shandy" without sounding anything like it. That is more difficult than it might sound.

From his earliest work, Pynchon has focused on that state of heightened and modified attention called paranoia. And I do mean earliest. In a piece of fiction from his high school newspaper, he has a character mentioning "a fascinating experiment in psychology entailing the instilling of paranoid hallucinations into the logical mind by psychoanalytic deletion of the superego." And so today -- with the benefit of keen hindsight -- it seems inevitable that he would set a novel in colonial America during the 1760s. After all, the years leading up to the Declaration of Independence were a period of intense conspiracy theorizing. Countless pamphlets and sermons denounced the nefarious intentions of both the king and the pope, and their various minions. George Washington himself believed in a "regular, systematic plan" by which the British intended to reduce the colonists to slaves "as tame and abject ... as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway." Anxiety has deep roots in our history; it finds plenty to nourish it there.

So the mid-18th century colonies offer Pynchon a perfect stage for cabals to skulk upon. "Mason & Dixon" arrives with the requisite number of grand, sinister plots. There are schemes involving -- among others -- the Freemasons, Sweden, France, the Dutch East India Company, calendar reform and a very long-term Jesuit maneuver to take over China. (Diagraming how the conspiracies all link up is a task best left to Lyndon LaRouche's staff.) Cherrycoke's impressions of the New World Order have their echoes in the land today, but the familiar paradoxes of paranoia are not so overtly the focus of Pynchon's own interest, now, it seems to me. He gives Cherrycoke other things to think about.

What has taken its place, then? Mysticism, for one thing. And melancholia as well. In Pynchon's hands, the surveying expedition becomes the model of a rational, scientifically-minded Enlightenment trying to re-create the world in its image. Mason and Dixon use precise instruments and calculations to determine where a perfectly straight line should be. Yet their progress -- moving east to west, slowly, for several years -- cuts through scenes of Old World occultism (golems!) and New World religious enthusiasm. Backwoods surrealism is not the only dominant note, though. Extermination of the Indians is off to a gradual but promising start. And the line divides (or, conversely, joins) a slave state and a free state. The coffeehouse libertarians do not trouble themselves too much about such things.

As Mason and Dixon finish their work, they realize that the line itself is evil. "To mark a right Line upon the Earth," explains their companion, Captain Zhang, master of feng shui, "is to inflict upon the Dragon's very Flesh, a sword-slash, a long, perfect scar, impossible for any who live here the year 'round to see as other than hateful Assault. How can it pass unanswer'd?" Or perhaps the line's effects simply confirm "the melancholy suggestion, that the 'new' Continent Europeans found, had been long attended, from its own ancient Days, by murder, slavery, and the poor fragments of a Magic irreparably broken." All of which must sound unbearably gloomy. Not at all. "Mason & Dixon" is, by turns, demanding, silly and profound. And, at times, just plain weird. (There is, for example, an involved subplot involving an amorous mechanical duck that undoubtedly owes something to the "unchecked consumption of ... modern substances.") Pynchon's reputation as a fearsomely abstruse and difficult writer is secure, as long as the larger reading public never finds out how funny and moving he can be. After finishing "Mason & Dixon," I am ready to turn back to page 1, to read anew Pynchon's map of "this Country cryptick and perilous."

By Scott McLemee

Scott McLemee, a contributing editor at Lingua Franca, writes regularly for Salon.

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