mason & dixon — yes/no/maybe

Brian Buckley, over at briandbuckley.com, asked the following apparently innocuous question in a comment to a post about the movie The Imitation Game: “I haven’t read [Mason & Dixon]. Sounds like maybe it should go on my list. How does it compare to, say, The Crying of Lot 49? (The only one of his books I’ve read.)”

Well. I’m glad you asked that question. Here’s probably more of an answer than you really wanted.

Pynchon’s novels fall into two categories: the short (less than 400 pages) ones, and the long (more than 600 pages) ones. The short ones (The Crying of Lot 49, Vineland, Inherent Vice, The Bleeding Edge) tend to be easier to read, and are set within the writer’s adult lifetime. The longer ones (V., Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, Against the Day) are generally more challenging (in terms of prose style), and, since V., set further in the past.

So, The Crying of Lot 49 (by far the shortest book Pynchon has ever written, and possibly — my theory — written quickly to make money) is not much of an indicator.

However.

In my comment on your blog, I referred to Mason & Dixon as a masterpiece, and that is not a term I use very often. It is a wonderful, moving, profound, silly, and often surprising book. It is written in faux-17th century English and never makes a moment’s pretense to strict historical accuracy (the talking dog in the first few pages is a clue, as is the amorous mechanical duck which shows up later on). As it says in American Hustle, “Some of this actually happened.”

Despite the writing style, you never forget that it was written in the very late 20th century.

The entire book is the story of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon as told by a contemporary, Revd Wicks Cherrycoke, who is telling the tale to entertain some young relatives. He is an extremely unreliable narrator, since 1) it’s not clear how much he actually knows to begin with, and 2) his status as a houseguest is based on his ability to keep the children entertained and out of trouble.

Speaking of the writing style, this is the first sentence — just a portion of the first paragraph:

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.

This is, in my opinion, a masterful sentence (as is pretty much every sentence in the book — Pynchon never gets enough credit for his sentences) — not the sort of thing that any writing class or “how to write” book is ever going to teach you, but it can take a little getting used to. Every time I’ve read the book (and, thanks to you, I’m probably going to have to read it again now 🙂 ) it takes some time to relax and get into the rhythm of it. Once I do, it’s clear sailing.

So, absolutely recommended, with the above qualifications. If you read it and stall out at some point, wait a bit and try again. The first time I read it I had to start a few different times before it clicked in for me.

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2 Responses to mason & dixon — yes/no/maybe

  1. Maggie says:

    That makes me want to read it! Although I bought Against the Day a few months ago just out of curiosity and will read that first… if I can get through it at all. (That’s why I actually bought the book as opposed to getting it out of the library; I’d probably have to keep checking it out and bringing it back over and over again.) 🙂

  2. My advice would be to try Mason & Dixon at some point, whether or not you make it through Against the Day. The latter book has always defeated me — I’ve never made it more than halfway through it. Not that it’s difficult to read, I just didn’t find it offered me enough inducements to keep going. Other people think it’s his masterpiece, though, so it may just be me. Let me know how it strikes you.

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