Colonialism on the couch

Mason & Dixon
May 23, 1997

Mason & Dixon is the novel awaited by readers of Thomas Pynchon for a quarter of a century; it is the successor to Gravity's Rainbow (1971) that Vineland (1990) was not. Mason & Dixon is a gigantic, sprawling, epic narrative; it has stature, grandeur, importance, weight. Above all else, it is an historical novel. The wealth of period detail is astounding, from the characters' 18th-century diction and the narrator's prose style to the mannerisms, incidental details and minutiae of everyday life that give texture to Pynchon's historical recreation. Pynchon depicts the lives of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, from their first collaboration, to observe the transit of Venus, at the Cape of Good Hope, through the surveying of the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland, through a friendship that deepens right to the ends of their lives. With this in mind, he has drawn heavily upon the published journals of Charles Mason, the records of the Royal Society and the papers of the astronomers-royal James Bradley and Nevil Maskelyne (brother-in-law of Clive of India). The narrative points to, but never makes conclusive, a conspiracy between the Royal Society and the East India Company to obtain ownership of astronomical data that would assist the development of trade routes and, more sinister from Pynchon's perspective, the marking of proprietorships and property boundaries. The election of Maskelyne to succeed Bradley as the astronomer royal rather than Bradley's assistant, Mason, who had been absent from England for prolonged periods at the Royal Society's bidding, brings this conspiracy to bear upon the characters' deepest motivations. In this respect, Mason & Dixon marks a new maturity in Pynchon's historical writing: no longer must the narrative remark explicitly on paranoid suspicions and emergent conspiracies, for these abstract patterns now develop out of the characterisation itself.

Inevitably, comparisons are made with Pynchon's earlier work and one of the unsettling aspects of the new novel is the extent to which Pynchon has anticipated this. Even as readers attempt to bring the new into relationship with what is already known of Pynchon's work, we are reading about characters who attempt to do the very same thing in respect to the American landscape. Making the new conform to the old is what Mason and Dixon do as they carve a passage westward, from the Atlantic across the continent, that takes its parameters from western metaphysics. A recurring motif is the idea that the heavens (and hell too) can be mapped onto the earth but with mysterious consequences. The surveyors of the Line, then, are transcribing a European reading of the skies on to the wilderness of the New World, making of America an image of the European metropolis in the finest colonial fashion. Certainly Mason and Dixon discover that the class divisions of Dixon's County Durham and Mason's West Country have preceded them first to Cape Town, then to Philadelphia, to the American back-country and to the American south. Where they should find diversity, they find conformity. And conformity of a debased kind, where the worst excesses of European tyranny and exploitation find expression in the brutal practice of slavery.

Dixon remarks that all the places they have been sent by the Royal Society share in common slavery and from this he speculates that if their commission has served the interests of trade, and if trade is inseparable from slavery, why then surely his work and Dixon's has served the trade in human flesh. Yet the brutality and depravity of slave traders is not the worst consequence of their work. That is reserved for the destruction of all that has preceded them. By opening up the continent to European knowledge, by laying down a conceptual grid on the land, the surveyors have marked the beginning of its end. In an episode closely based on Mason's journal account, they visit Lancaster, the recent scene of a brutal massacre where settlers murdered 26 Indians including children and pregnant women. Once the physical revulsion evoked by the lingering presence of evil has passed, Mason and Dixon each realise that their "vista" will bring more and more such settlers ever deeper into the heartland of the continent. It is the dawning awareness that they have contributed to the unleashing of evil on an unsuspecting land, where they had expected only to perform a job of work, that embues the historical record with pathos, drama, and the enduring relevance of the consciousness that no one and nowhere is truly innocent.

Atonement by the sons for the sins of the fathers: this is the theme that emerges most clearly from Mason & Dixon. It is a theme that links the novel to Pynchon's earlier work and provides a summation of Pynchon's novel-istic career. In Mason & Dixon, Pynchon finally brings home the meditation on modern western history that has consumed texts such as Gravity's Rainbow, and suggests most strongly a connection between his unfolding history of America-in-the-world and his own family history. Mason & Dixon ends, in prose of great lyrical beauty, with the commitment of Charles Mason's sons to the new Republic and to a future in which the evil of colonialism, represented by the Line, will be defeated. Thomas Pynchon's own ancestor, William (1589-1662) - patentee of the Massachusetts Bay Company, founder of Springfield and many of the Connecticut River towns, heretical author of The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption (1650), fur trader, Indian mediator, magistrate and politician - was an arch-colonialist, whose life conformed to the colonial ideal. He removed to colonial New England, worked extremely hard and became immensely rich, and returned to the motherland to live out his days in comfort. Mason & Dixon offers us the opportunity to view Pynchon's writing as atonement for the violence, both conceptual and real, done to the New World by his own founding father.

All of Pynchon's work has addressed the question why America, the land of promise, should have become a land of conformity. We are asked, "Does Britannia, when she sleeps, dream? Is America her dream? ... serving as a very Rubbish-Tip for subjunctive Hopes, for all that may yet be true ...". If America is indeed Europe's colonial unconscious, in his fiction Pynchon has the metropolis on the analyst's couch. In this latest novel, earlier observations about Anglo-America's colonial roots give way to a sophisticated, funny, outlandish, bawdy, sad, subtle, entirely Pynchonesque analysis of colonialism as a culture, a psychosis, an epistemology and as the lives of real people, embedded in history.

Deborah L. Madsen is reader in American literature, University of Leicester.

Mason & Dixon

Author - Thomas Pynchon
ISBN - 0 224 05001 X
Publisher - Jonathan Cape
Price - £16.99
Pages - 773

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