The Line between fact and fiction: 20 years after Thomas Pynchon’s “Mason & Dixon”
By Andrew Becker
As we trudge through the muck and sludge — the aftermath of our tempestuous history — America’s future often appears more like the undiscovered country of its past, “the elder world turned upside down,” where we find ourselves slogging through wild and dangerous territories, and confronting new and ludicrous absurdities that plague our reason and governance as we trod.
This is an age where many have looked to the past and forlornly asked how we got to be here and now, and how will we be remembered in time? These are the questions America’s most colossal literary voice has been asking us for the past few decades in his novel “Mason & Dixon.”
Throughout Thomas Pynchon’s historical epic, we’re asked how far we’ve come in this New World, for what purpose has our struggle been exhausted, and whether it has all been worthwhile. The novel’s frame focuses on the Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke, who tells the story of his employment with the two unlikely historical figures, Thomas Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, a pair of land surveyors who charted the dividing line between Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Told in a highly avuncular tone to a roomful of his wide-eyed hosts — all of varied ages and temperaments — the novel’s frame takes place in Philadelphia in the years after the American Revolution, but most of the novel’s events occur in the colonial territories of 18th century Britain.
The novel can be remarkably historically accurate — details about the weather they actually experienced, the constellations they witnessed, their location and date, etc. Even the style mimics 18th century script, complete with quirky capitalization and excessively punctuated sentences.
One finds that beneath the historical exterior, however, lies an abundance of fabrication masked in Pynchon’s bizarre humor. Cherrycoke proves an unreliable narrator, often attempting to make himself appear more significant to his hosts, and it becomes impossible to determine what’s real and what’s not in his story. For instance a lustful, French-speaking, animatronic duck makes several appearances in the novel (as do many of the nation’s founding fathers).
In one highly memorable scene, our nation’s first president offers his guests fresh-cured marijuana — which ol’ cherry-tree-choppin’ George has produced himself — while Martha Washington brings in a tray bearing an array of tasty sweets and treats for everyone to eat.
I kid you not, George Washington can be quoted in this scene as having asked our novel’s heroes: “where be you at, my man?” And this question returns throughout: where are we, like, ‘at,’ man?
“Mason & Dixon” remains a masterpiece almost more relevant now than when it was published 20 years ago, because it retains a level of self-awareness in the torrent of time.
Its playfulness and loose-adherence to facts are not only delightfully entertaining, they leave readers with an important realization about today’s world: history depends on whomever tells its story.
Pynchon delivers this message to us — as unseen as Paul Revere — through a lantern-lit, American midnight. We never see him, but we hear his beckoning call ring throughout the night. Because in a world of fake news and alternative facts, only one thing is certain, nothing’s certain.
Andrew Becker is a writer for The Carolinian. Email Andrew with questions and comments.