Thomas Pynchon is the unlikely offspring of Jack Kerouac and the Cornell English department. He was born in Glen Cove, Long Island, in 1937. He attended Oyster Bay High School, and entered Cornell in 1953, majoring in engineering physics before switching to English. In 1955, he left college to serve for two years in the Navy. He was stationed, for part of that time, in Norfolk, Virginia, where he one day wandered into a bookstore and picked up a copy of the Evergreen Review. It was his first exposure to the Beat sensibility—“an eye-opener,” as he later described it.1 He returned to Cornell in 1957, took a literature course with Vladimir Nabokov (who, when asked about it years later, did not remember him), and graduated in 1959.
At this point the trail becomes famously difficult to follow. After college Pynchon seems to have spent some time in New York City and then moved to Seattle, where, from 1960 to 1962, he worked for Boeing as a writer of technical material. He had published a relatively conventional short story, “The Small Rain,” in a Cornell literary magazine in 1959. Another story, “Low-lands,” exhibiting the Beat influence, appeared in New World Writing in 1960. The same year, the Kenyon Review published “Entropy.” It was quickly anthologized, it introduced the term “entropy” into everyday conversation, and it established the popular image of Pynchon as a writer of postmodernist high-tech, a literary encoder of scientific arcana.
Two dauntingly idiosyncratic novels, V. (1963) and The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), followed, but by then Pynchon had disappeared entirely from public view. When his third novel, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), won a National Book Award (it failed to get a Pulitzer after the trustees overturned a unanimous jury recommendation), the prize was accepted by the comedian “Professor” Irwin Corey, a specialist in pseudo-academic doubletalk who was apparently mistaken by some people in the audience for Pynchon himself. Since then, Pynchon has simply declined offers of awards for his work. His name occasionally turns up in unexpected contexts—last year, Esquire published his interview with the members of a rock band called Lotion—but his whereabouts have been mysterious, and the most recent photograph available is the one in the 1953 Oyster Bay High School yearbook.2
Authorial privacy cultivated to this degree tends to compound, rather than deflect, the problem of celebrity by turning ordinary fans into cultists—people who read the novels as encryptions of the author’s “message” and personal life. In Pynchon’s case, the natural tendency is to identify him with his typical protagonist, a social dropout who sets off with some vague notion of making sense of the flux and ends swallowed up by it, one more electron knocking about the universal molecule. Benny Profane and Herbert Stencil in the double-plotted V., Oedipa Maas in The Crying of Lot 49, and Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow are incarnations of this figure, and they are all fairly identifiably the children of Sal Paradise in Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), a book Pynchon called “one of the great American novels.”3 They think they’re getting somewhere, they think they’re looking for someone, and then they realize they’re already where they want to be, the only place it makes any sense to be, which is on the road. They disappear, in effect, into the ozone, just as Pynchon seems to have done. These heroes belong to a distinctly late-Fifties literary type: they’re dharma bums—into popular tunes, communal drinking, dope when they can get it, casual sex, and the odd piece of Zen wisdom. A fifty-nine-year-old writer who emerges from the woodwork in order to interview a bunch of musicians in an obscure rock band (and wearing, the band reported, jeans and a Godzilla T-shirt) conforms to the type nicely.
The Beat influence (and Henry Miller) is responsible for the shaggy dog appearance of Pynchon’s narratives—the sense they give of avoiding resolution at all costs, of always being ready to introduce another eccentric character or to invent another surreal episode. But no one would mistake Gravity’s Rainbow for Kerouac. This is not only because Pynchon is an infinitely more versatile stylist than Kerouac—he is a Nabokovian virtuoso of miniature literary effects—but because he has coated the low-life picaresque form with an astonishingly thick patina of scientific information, historical detail, mythic allusion, and Joycean wordplay. On one level his stories slosh merrily along from one farcical-tragical episode to the next, while on another level an enormous web of symbolic implication is continually being woven and unwoven. It is as though the story of Popeye the Sailorman had fallen into the hands of Richard Wagner. This is, presumably, the effect of the Cornell genes in Pynchon’s literary inheritance, and it is what is responsible for his reputation as an esoteric writer, a novelist with a message which requires an advanced knowledge of thermodynamics, modern political history, Rilke, and the differential calculus to decode.
Pynchon’s fourth novel, Vineland, was published in 1990, seventeen years after Gravity’s Rainbow. The new novel, Mason & Dixon, appears only seven years later, but Pynchon is reported to have contracted to write the book back in 1973, so he has evidently been thinking about the project, at least, for almost twenty-five years. The novel is nearly as long as Gravity’s Rainbow (which is a very long book); it is written in a pastiche of eighteenth-century prose, studded with capitalizations, contractions, and archaic diction; and it is, as advertised, about the lives of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, the British astronomers who, between 1763 and 1767, established the southern boundary of Pennsylvania—the Mason-Dixon Line, which eventually named the border between the slave states and the free states.
The novel has, in proper eighteenth-century style, a narrator who poses as witness, editor, and historian. He is a slightly sententious, vaguely unreliable, rather sly old minister called Wicks Cherrycoke, who claims to have traveled with Mason and Dixon and who tells their story to assorted relatives (who freely interrupt him to carry on their own banter) in a Philadelphia family whom he is freeloading off during the Christmas season of 1786. His story begins in 1761, when Mason and Dixon embark on an official expedition to South Africa to observe the “transit of Venus”—the passage of the planet Venus between the earth and the sun. About a third of the book is taken up with this adventure and with Mason’s subsequent experiences doing astronomical work on the island of St. Helena; the rest concerns the business of establishing the eponymous Line, which involved first surveying the arc that now separates Delaware from Pennsylvania, and then the cutting, by a team of axmen, of an eight-yard-wide swath, or “Visto,” through 244 miles of wilderness on a straight latitudinal path from the Chesapeake Bay, over the Alleghenies, to the Ohio River. There are a few pages on the lives of the two men after 1767, and the book ends with their deaths.
As a story, the novel is as desultory as it sounds. It seems (on superficial inspection, but this sort of historical verisimilitude is Pynchon’s penchant) to stick faithfully to the biographies of the real-life Mason and Dixon and to the scientific details of their work and the work of the other astronomers who figure as characters—Nevil Maskelyne, who was indeed, as he appears here, Royal Astronomer and the brother-in-law of Clive of India; his predecessor and Mason’s patron, James Bradley, who was indeed the discoverer of the aberration of light (the distortion caused, when determining the position of a star, by the movement of the earth and the time it takes for the star’s light to reach it); and so on.
There is a great deal of information about eighteenth-century astronomy, metrology (the science of measurement), and politics. The diction sometimes seems a parody of eighteenth-century speech, but when you look the words up in the OED, there they are. When you read of children playing “Chuck-Farthing,” you’re likely to assume that this is Pynchon’s playful back-formation from “Pitch-Penny,” but the dictionary makes it clear that the etymology runs the other way. When Dixon, in the Dutch colony of Cape Town, becomes addicted to a Malay sauce called “ketjap” and insists on pouring it over everything he eats, you may take it as a homophonic joke. But “ketjap” is the Dutch spelling of the Malay word for what became ketchup. You would not think there could be a town in the north of England called Staindrop, but there is.
This historically meticulous account is shot through with dozens of clearly fantastical tales, some involving real personages and some involving invented ones. As is also customary with Pynchon, none of these tales ever develops into a significant subplot, and characters can come into the story, hang around for a hundred pages or longer, and then disappear, sometimes for hundreds of pages more, sometimes forever. The narrative machinery just seems to crank out one fabulous yarn after another. The book is, in short, in no great rush about getting nowhere in particular: it is novelistically “on the road.”
“What we were doing out in that Country together was brave, scientifick beyond my understanding, and ultimately meaningless,” Cherrycoke remarks of Mason and Dixon’s mission at one point, and some readers may feel this to be a fair summary of the book itself. Putting aside the possible point of the whole enterprise, though, the novel is, page by page, extremely entertaining. The tone is comic without becoming merely slapstick, and the prose never tips over into the sort of arty and impenetrable magniloquence that swamps the last section of Gravity’s Rainbow. Mason and Dixon are cleverly drawn as temperamental opposites—Mason a mopey deist who is obsessed with the ghost of his dead wife and his own professional disappointments, Dixon a cheery Quaker whose sorties in search of erotic adventure are frequently spoiled by the effects of his colleague’s damp personality. They can stand each other’s company, but just barely, and their continual bickering becomes one of the leitmotifs of the book, and forms, in the end, the basis for a rather touching friendship of a very inarticulate, very “guy” sort. This is, in Hollywood terms, a buddy story.
Almost all the characters, even the bit parts, are drawn with the same deft touch—as recognizable types in eighteenth-century dress. They come onto the page with an attitude, and Pynchon’s success in getting them to sound contemporary and colonial at the same time is quite remarkable. One of the fabulous characters, for example, is a talking dog, known professionally as the Learnèd Dog, or, as he prefers, Fang. The dog is chatting with Mason and Dixon and a sailor named Bodine (the avatar of a certain naval hipster who turns up in many of Pynchon’s books, though happily infrequently in this one) while “a small, noisy party of Fops, Macaronis, or Lunarians,—it is difficult quite to distinguish which,—has been working its way up the street and into Ear-shot.” (Macaroni was an eighteenth-century term for an effeminate young man who affected Continental manners.) Mason has been twitting the dog by pointing out that natives in the Indies enjoy a dish known as “Dog in Palm Leaf.”
“Oh I say, Dog in Palm Leaf, what nonsense,” comments one of the Lunarians, “—really, far too sensitive, I mean really, Dog? In Palm Leaf? Civiliz’d Humans have better things to do than go about drooling after Dog in Palm Leaf or whatever, don’t we Algernon?”
“Could you possibly,” inquired the Terrier, head cocked in some Annoyance, “not keeping saying that? I do not say things like, ‘Macaroni Italian Style,’ do I, nor ‘Fop Fricasée,’—“
“Why, you beastly little—“
“Grrr! and your deliberate use of ‘drooling,’ Sir, is vile.”
The Lunarian reaches for his Hanger. “Perhaps we may settle this upon the spot, Sir.”
“Derek? You’re talking to a D-O-G?”
“Tho’ your weapon put me under some Handicap,” points out the Dog, “in fairness, I should mention my late feelings of Aversion to water? Which may, as you know, signal the onset of the Hydrophobia. Yes! The Great H. And should I get in past your Blade for a few playful nips, and manage to, well, break the old Skin,—why, then you should soon have caught the same, eh?” Immediately ’round the Dog develops a circle of Absence, of about a fathom’s radius, later recall’d by both Astronomers as remarkably regular in shape. “Nice doggie!” “‘Ere,—me last iced Cake, that me Mum sent me all ‘e way from Bahf. You take i’.” “What think yese? I’ll give two to one the Fop’s Blood’ll be the first to show.”
“Sounds fair,” says Fender Bodine. “I fancy the Dog,—anyone else?”
“Oughtn’t we to summon the Owners…?” suggests Mr. Dixon.
The Dog has begun to pace back and forth. “I am a British Dog, Sir. No one owns me.”
This play between twentieth-century tone and eighteenth-century form is maintained throughout. Sometimes the joke gets rather broad. Mason, at one point, takes a walk in Battery Park in New York, where he picks up (or is picked up by) a “Milk-Maid of Brooklyn” named Amy, who
is dress’d from Boots to Bonnett all in different Articles of black, a curious choice of colors for a milkmaid, it seems to Mason, tho’, as he has been instructed ever to remind himself, this is New-York, where other Customs prevail. “Oh, aye, at home they’re on me about it without Mercy,” she tells him, “I’m, as, ‘But I like Black,’—yet my Uncle, he’s, as, ‘Strangers will take you for I don’t know what,’ hey.”
She turns up again a hundred pages later married to an “Italian Waggon-smith” (the eighteenth-century equivalent of an auto mechanic, presumably) and living in Massapequa—a kind of colonial Amy Fisher.
Occasionally, broad is not the word for it. When Mason and Dixon visit George Washington, still a colonel, he turns out to have a black slave who moonlights as a Jewish stand-up comedian specializing in truly dreadful “King-Joaks”—as in: “The King is jesting with one of his Ambassadors. ‘Damme,’ he cries, ‘if you don’t look like some great dishevel’d Sheep!’ Ambassador replies, ‘I know that I’ve had the honor, several times, to represent your Majesty’s Person.”‘ “You can see what I have to put up with,” Washington confides to Mason and Dixon. “It’s makin’ me just mee-shugginah.”
Mason and Dixon encounter Benjamin Franklin, wearing a pair of sunglasses of his own invention and dispensing extremely poor Poor-Richardisms (“Strangers, heed my wise advice,—Never pay the Retail Price”). They meet Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and Dr. Johnson. There are fanatical Jesuits who plot to construct a secret global communications network using giant balloons as satellites; fanatical anti-Jesuits, principally a former Chinese convert named Captain Zhang; women with names like Frau Luise Redzinger and the oversexed daughters of a Dutch family in Cape Town called the Vrooms. Popeye himself shows up to offer Mason a helpful gloss on a Hebrew passage he is trying to make sense of: “‘That is, “I am that which I am,”‘ helpfully translates a somehow nautical-looking Indiv. with gigantick Fore-Arms, and one Eye ever a-Squint from the Smoke of his Pipe.” There is a mechanical duck who is amorously smitten with a French chef, a performing electric eel, a man who turns into a beaver when the full moon is out, a huge evil worm, talking clocks, a watch that runs on perpetual motion, and a Golem. There is a series of Gothic romances everyone seems to be reading called The Ghastly Fop, one installment of which mysteriously becomes part of the main story.
Dixon has learned, as a young man, to fly. As an older man, he visits the people who live underneath the surface of the earth. Mason talks with the ghost of his dead wife. When eleven days are added to the English calendar to make it conform to the New Style, he manages to enter into and live through the missing eleven days. Mounds made by Indians, or possibly by extraterrestrial visitors, are shown to possess strange magnetic powers. Mason & Dixon is, in short, a kind of bricolage of eighteenth-century science, religion, philosophy, myth, fable, and superstition, all treated on the same narrative plane, as equally true and equally fantastic.
But what is it all about? One way to answer is to say that it is about modernity; but since this is, after all, Pynchon, we can answer the question another way and say it is about entropy. Pynchon’s use of the concept of entropy is imperfectly understood. This is partly his own fault, since the book in which he tries to get the most out of it, The Crying of Lot 49, is finally incoherent. In the story “Entropy,” the concept is taken from thermodynamics. It refers to the tendency of all systems—and ultimately the universe—to run down, something that happens, technically speaking, through a loss of available energy as all molecules reach the same temperature. The main character in “Entropy” is obsessed with the idea that the weather has stopped changing, and the story makes an analogy between this approaching meteorological stasis and the condition of modern civilization. Pynchon was influenced by the historical vision in The Education of Henry Adams, but the story has a specifically late-Fifties, dead-end aura.
In The Crying of Lot 49, though, the concept of entropy is taken from information theory, where it refers to the tendency of communications systems to get rid of excess meanings, and to approach certainty and predictability. A nontechnical way to put it is to say that the more people talk, the less ambiguous their meaning becomes. Twenty college students read The Crying of Lot 49 and come to class with twenty different interpretations of the novel. After discussing the book together for fifty minutes, they leave with most of those interpretations discarded. A gain in clarity and mutual understanding has been purchased by a loss of diversity of opinion. The Crying of Lot 49 is about a woman who discovers, or imagines she discovers, an underground communications system, a rival to the official government post office, known as the Tristero. The question in the book, left unresolved, seems to be whether such a system, if it existed, would be any more desirable, any freer, than the official system it seeks to displace.
Mason & Dixon is not about physics or communication. It is about culture. The vision behind the novel arises, almost certainly, out of the last pages of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s great work of cultural anthropology Tristes Tropiques (1955):
Thus it is that civilization, taken as a whole, can be described as an extraordinarily complex mechanism, which we might be tempted to see as offering an opportunity of survival for the human world, if its function were not to produce what physicists call entropy, that is inertia. Every verbal exchange, every line printed, establishes communication between people, thus creating an evenness of level, where before there was an information gap and consequently a greater degree of organization. Anthropology could with advantage be changed into “entropology,” as the name of the discipline concerned with the study of the highest manifestations of this process of disintegration. 4
Imagine the globe, a million years ago, randomly sprinkled with spores. These spores give birth to groups of more or less genetically identical human beings. Each group takes root on some part of the planet and, independently of the others, develops its own distinctive language, customs, myths—its own culture. Over the millennia, each cultureevolves as the means by which its particular group of human beings adapts to its particular environment, makes sense of its particular history, fends off the particular threats to survival it confronts. Biologically, the members of these groups are all the same, but culturally they are exotically diverse.
Modernity, in this vision, refers to the process of homogenizing these differences by compelling cultures to come into contact with one another. This is, in the case of the indigenous peoples of Brazil, the subject of Tristes Tropiques. In political terms, the name for it is colonialism, and nearly everything Pynchon has written is, essentially, a lament over colonialism—political, economic, cultural, sexual. “Small numbers of people go on telling much larger numbers what to do with their precious Lives,” as Cherrycoke puts it. The part of the phenomenon in which Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon play their tiny and unwitting role is the standardization and universalization of time and space. Their job, as scientists, is to reduce the measurement of these things to certainties, to eliminate bad guesses, fantastical interpretations, scientifically impossible notions—to get everyone on the planet on the same wavelength.
Their enterprise, like the enterprise of the Age of Reason to which it belongs, is to gain certainty at the expense of variety and possibility. “Once the solar parallax is known,” the inhabitants of the land underneath the surface of the earth explain to Dixon, “once the necessary Degrees are measur’d, and the size and weight and shape of the Earth are calculated inescapably at last, all this will vanish.” Once it is established that the density of the earth makes it impossible for there to be a society of people living under its surface, that possible world will disappear. This example is fantastic. The examples of the American Indians and the native South Africans are not.
Dreams, which play a big role in Mason & Dixon, are among the ways people can continue to imagine freely, and Cherrycoke at one point describes America still unmapped as Europe’s dream of exotic possibility—but only
safe till the next Territory to the West be seen and recorded, measur’d and tied in, back into the Net-Work of Points already known, that slowly triangulates its Way into the Continent, changing all from subjunctive to declarative, reducing Possibilities to Simplicities that serve the ends of Governments,—winning away from the realm of the Sacred, its Borderlands one by one, and assuming them unto the bare mortal World that is our home, and our Despair.
The settling of America is an allegory for the way getting people to think alike depletes the world.
The ghosts, talking animals, experiences of flying, Gothicism, and the irreal rest in Mason & Dixon are thus symptoms of the resistance to modernization and rationalization. Pynchon himself has, elsewhere, made their meaning clear: “In ways more and less literal,” he wrote in 1984,
folks in the 18th century believed that once upon a time all kinds of things had been possible which were no longer so. Giants, dragons, spells. The laws of nature had not been so strictly formulated back then. What had once been true working magic had, by the Age of Reason, degenerated into mere machinery…. [The persistence of these beliefs showed] a profound unwillingness to give up elements of faith, however “irrational,” to an emerging technopolitical order that might or might not know what it was doing.5
This way of putting it is much harsher than anything in Mason & Dixon, and it is possible to wonder why, if Pynchon’s sense of modernity as “an emerging technopolitical order that might or might not know what it was doing” is this heated, the tone of his novel is so relaxed and bemused. The idea most readers have learned to associate with Pynchon is the idea of paranoia—the conviction that our lives are controlled by some hidden design, some deep conspiracy. Many candidates for this role turn upin the course of Mason & Dixon: the Jesuits, the East India Company, the Roy alists, the Penns and the Calverts—more vaguely: capitalism, corporatism, the ideology of reason. “Are we being us’d, by Forces invisible?” Dixon asks.
The point seems to be that they are not, because although some people will try to take advantage of this process (and these in Pynchon are always evil), nobody is in control of it. This is just the direction in which human history happens to run, and the effort to get it to run in a different direction, the effort to construct a counterculture to the culture of bureaucracy and rationality, only ends up producing another regime of coercion and control, another iron cage—just as people struggling against dictatorships sometimes become terrorists. The underground Tristero, in The Crying of Lot 49, seems to be as oppressive as the “official” communications system it rivals—just as the black freedom fighter Enzian becomes the double of the sadistic fascist Weissmann in Gravity’s Rainbow. In Mason & Dixon, the point is made by twinning a Spanish Jesuit obsessed with the political advantages of controlling information about latitude and longitude with the Chinese renegade, Captain Zhang, who is obsessed with the belief that drawing lines of latitude and longitude will bring evil into the world. The Chinaman ends up dressing like the Spaniard. Paranoia about fanatics is a kind of fanaticism.
Mason and Dixon are always in a fog about whose secret interests they might be serving, but they are highly articulate about their role in the disenchantment of the world. For disenchanting the world is what, in the end, human beings do. “This Visto…is a result of what we have chosen, in our Lives, to work at,” Dixon explains at one point to the mechanical duck,
“—unlike some mechanickal water-fowl, we have to, what on our planet is styl’d, ‘work,’…?”
“Running Lines is what surveyors do,” explains Mason.
“Thankee, Mason,” says Dixon.
Or as the book’s epic poet of Pennsylvania, Timothy Tox, puts it: “For Skies grow thick with aviating Swine,/Ere men pass up the chance to draw a Line.”
Drawing lines, of a different kind, is what writers do, too. They work to disambiguate the tragedy of disambiguity, to make sense of the cost of making sense. By appropriating the loose and baggy forms of Sterne and Swift, Pynchon has found an ideal vehicle for his meditation on the worlds that were lost, and the suffering that was caused, just so people could understand one another better. He has produced a work of cultural anthropology, a Tristes Tropiques of North American civilization, and an astonishing and wonderful book.
June 12, 1997
In his introduction to Slow Learner: Early Stories (Little, Brown, 1984), p. 8. ↩
Most of this information is from Mathew Winston’s “The Quest for Pynchon,” in Mindful Pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon, edited by George Levine and David Leverenz (Little, Brown, 1976), pp. 251-263. Many more odds and ends of Pynchon’s biography have been collected since Winston did his research. A recent story in New York magazine, by Nancy Jo Sales, reports that Pynchon has been living for the last six years in Manhattan, with his wife and their son. The article is accompanied by a photograph of Pynchon’s back. (“Meet Your Neighbor, Thomas Pynchon,” November 11, 1996.) Lineland, a compilation of on-line discussions about Pynchon featuring the recollections of two old friends, Jules Siegel and Christine Wexler, will be published this summer by Intangible Assets Manufacturing (www. iam.com/lineland/). ↩
Slow Learner, p. 7. ↩
Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, translated by John and Doreen Weightman (Penguin Books, 1992), pp. 413-414. ↩
“Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?” The New York Times Book Review, October 28, 1984, pp. 40-41. ↩