Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Pynchon's Mason & Dixon: Latitudes and Departures

What if your life to this point was all prelude to what you will be remembered for? What if all your lived experiences to date were destined to wind up as footnotes in your autobiography?

That's where my head is through 250-plus pages of Thomas Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon," as the surveyors/astronomers are almost sunk at sea, chased by lustful women around Cape Town, and as Charles Mason is visited by a ghost in James Town, St. Helena. This is my first Pynchon novel. It's written in 18th century language, it's Pynchon and I'm frequently confused as to what's going on. I touch base with a solid set of reading notes after finishing a chapter. And they've got a whole Mason & Dixon Wiki to help lost literary surveyors like me.

But as I'm feeling abandoned or bewildered, Pynchon casts a fly into the deep water and I take the hook. Flies like, "a part of the Soul that doesn't depend on Memories, that lies further than Memories." Or "I owe my Existence to a pair of Shoes." Or:

"The Pilgrim, however long or crooked his Road, may keep ever before him the Holy Place he must by his Faith seek, as the American Ranger, however indeterminate or unposted his Wilderness, may enjoy, ever at his Back, the Impulse of Duty he must, by his Honor, attend."

And one more, "a People who liv'd in quite another relation to Time,-- one that did not, like our own, hold at its heart the terror of Time's passage,-- far more preferably, Indifference to it, pure and transparent as possible." A people who lived among and through us, in a different version of time. And they were pygmies, of course.

Flights of imagination and language. That's Pynchon's hook that brings me to the surface and keeps me reading. Talking dogs, time-floating pygmies, secret societies and ley lines are all bait. And the friendship between Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, whose names I have known since I was little, only because Maryland's border bears their name.

History felt flat to me in school: learning about people whose lives were distant from us, didn't relate to us, weren't like us. Then you start to read history books by Joseph Ellis or David McCullough or Howard Zinn, and you recognize that historical figures, in their own time and lives, woke up with worries and quirks and passions just the same as any of us. History was not predetermined. It was based on people's choices, commitment, mistakes, dumb luck, love.

I picture Pynchon sitting at a desk with charts, maps and notes in front of him, surveying the time, the lives, the interior motivations and hang ups of Mason and Dixon. And I want to know more. I want to know where Pynchon's imagination goes, where Mason and Dixon go--where fantasy meets history.

Part I of the novel, "Latitudes and Departures" is in the rear view mirror now. Part II, "America" lies ahead.

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