Monthly Archives: October 2016

M&D Chapter 3

If the first chapter located Cherrycoke in the family home and set one kind of discipline against another, and the second offered, and problematised, historical traces, the new chapter finds Mason and Dixon in Portsmouth, negotiating their own new relationship as well as interactions with others.

[3.1.1] There’s this Jesuit, this Corsican, and this Chinaman, 14-18

The chapter begins with Cherrycoke admitting his distance from the events he describes, his I perhaps going back to where chapter 1 ended (11). At the very least he is dependent on recollections offered by Mason and Dixon, ‘how they remember’d meeting’ (14); or even his own memory, ‘too often abridg’d by the Day’s Fatigue’. If the previous chapter has questioned the way in which historical traces might be taken for granted, here the authenticity of so-called personal accounts might be undermined.

What follows that opening is a detailed account of the meeting in Portsmouth, Dixon very much the outsider on Mason’s beat. The narrative offers a commentary on constructions of ‘native’ and ‘foreign’, and Durham might even be another country – for example, Dixon ‘pronouncing the forms of You consciously, as if borrowing them from another Tongue’ (16), shortly after the joke designed to emphasise a shared identity based on constructed difference (15-16); and cf the subsequent distinction between ‘Grape people and Grain people’ (18).[1] To begin with, Mason, as putative expert, speaks of a ‘Contract between the City and oneself’ (14) – by which he means the learned behaviour of city life, the ability to interact with strangers on a regular basis without coming to blows.[2] One might infer that Mason, for example, is the author of, as presented in the text, ‘Dixon’s clear Stupefaction’ – a take in line with the dismissive attitude he demonstrated previously (13; and cf ‘some shambling wild Country Fool’ on 17). In chapter 2 the narrative invoked the region behaviour that, according to Goffman, governs interactions; here, there is another take on the way people might read each other. It is, therefore, worth noting (a) the narrative’s association of Mason (the astronomer) with a macrosociological approach to interaction; and then (b) the way Dixon picks on that ‘peculiar station in Life’ (16). And so Mason mocks the way Dixon speaks, in response to which Dixon wonders if Mason has spent too much time as a scientist (‘alone on top of that fam’d Hill in Greenwich’, 15), not enough time with people (experiences that would allow him to question generalising norms).

In the space of a couple of pages, Mason’s status has been questioned, Dixon’s subversive potential on display – for example: ‘Takes an odd bird to stay up peering at Stars all night …’ (16). Here, according to Dixon’s mocking line, what is ‘odd’ about Mason is the absence of oddity, another way of questioning the superior status accorded the scientist: ‘On the other hand, Surveyors are runnin’ about numerous as Bed-bugs …’ etc (17).

By the end of this first phase of the chapter, Mason and Dixon have negotiated a relationship based on the need to prepare, so to speak, for their departure: ‘We’re sailing to the Indies …’ etc (18). Whatever the differences that might separate them, they now have a something in common as they anticipate the privations of travel – hence the need to share a ‘civiliz’d Drink’.

[3.1.2] All at once, out of the Murk, 18-20

Without a formal section break, a new phase is signalled by the passage of time: ‘As the day darkens …’ etc (18). Artificial light is accompanied by noises imposed on the characters (‘the sounds of the Stables and the Alleys grow louder …’ etc); and what is signalled is shared experiences. Abruptly, the narrative is less concerned with characters’ perceptions of each other as the setting becomes one they must confront together. Hence, as the paragraph ends: ‘Mason and Dixon become aware …’ etc.

This transitional phase brings, ‘out of the Murk’, the ‘somewhat dishevel’d Norfolk Terrier’ – as though Mason and Dixon have, somehow, crossed over into another world. Here, the reader is positioned with Dixon, attention drawn to Mason’s ‘Magnetickal Stupor’ (19) and, down the page, his likening of the dog to ‘an Actress one admires’. If the first phase of this chapter, then, played with the discursive arrangement of cultural difference, not least the regional factors that would mark Dixon/Durham as somehow foreign, what has been introduced here is Mason’s openness to new, what might be called irrational, ideas: ‘Isn’t it worth looking ridiculous …’ etc. The reader is still positioned with Dixon (‘There is something else in progress …’ etc, top of 20) as he speculates; however, he does so on the basis of shared experience, ‘remember[ing] himself, after his father passed on’. The Dog will eventually lead them to ‘the one [Mason] must see’ (25) and the naming of Rebekah that will both conclude this quest of sorts and provide a narrative strain that distances Mason and Dixon from events that surround them.

[3.1.3] Provisions for survival in a World less fantastick, 20-23

As they pursue the Learnéd Dog Mason and Dixon are confronted by ‘a sudden, large Son of Neptune, backed by an uncertain number of comparably drunken Shipmates’ (21); at this point Mason and Dixon are exposed as ‘the ones with all the strange Machinery, sailing in the Seahorse’, their reputation, it seems, preceding them (cf Dixon’s earlier ‘odd bird’ reference to astronomy, bottom of 16). For Bodine, the dog provides a business opportunity, ‘to keep the Savages amused’ – cf Cherrycoke’s role in keeping the children similarly ‘amus’d’, or distracted (bottom of 6). However, a little later in this phase, the Dog will boast of his free-born status: ‘No one owns me’ (23).

The awareness of geographical distance already established when discussing Dixon’s northern origins is developed on a broader scale; but there is still an emphasis on how information might be transmitted. And so, ‘I’ve been out more than once … there’s a million islands out there’ (21), Bodine speaking with one kind of authority – cf Mason ‘coming the Old London Hand’ at the start of the chapter (14). Here, Bodine’s authority comes up against another kind, as displayed by Mason: ‘I’ve heard they eat dogs out there’ (21). Earlier, of course, Mason mocked Dixon over the missed opportunity to witness a hanging: ‘what’s the first thing they’ll ask …’ etc (15). Here, the Dog goes on to cite ‘[t]ravellers return’d from the Japanese Islands’ (22). And then a dispute between Dog and Lunarians (22-23) returns the reader to the opening of the chapter and Dixon’s fears: ‘How can Yese dwell thah’ closely together, Day upon Day, without all growing Murderous?’ (14).

[3.1.4] The net Motion of the Company, cries in Concert, 23-25

The Dog twice denies he is owned by anyone (23-24), which claim should be aligned, firstly, with the earlier reference to dogs ‘learn[ing] to act as human as possible’ (22); but also, secondly, with the subsequent reference to the Dog being ‘drawn by the smell of Blood in the Cock-Pit’ (24). One might see the latter as a reference to the Dog’s nature, that is, he shares with the fighting birds ‘this pure Edge of blood‑lust’. But any ‘blood-lust’ on display is that of the human audience also; and the Dog must ‘yawn yes of course, seen it all before, birds slashing one another to death’ – merely one kind of ‘Work’ (according to Mrs Jellows, 25) to be linked to another, the ‘assorted sounds of greater and lesser Ecstasy’. And so, in the rest of this paragraph, a soundtrack both avian and human in origin blurs any distinction that might easily be made between human and non-human, for example: ‘the demented crowing of fighting-cocks waiting their moment, cries in Concert at some inaudible turn of a card …’ etc.

However, none of this activity, it seems, is to involve Mason and Dixon, who remain, somehow disinterested (in spite of Dixon ‘growing increasingly desperate for a drink’, 24). What does interest Mason is Dark Hepsie (according to the Dog, ‘the one you must see’). Earlier, the Dog ‘recognises [Mason], tho’ now he is too key’d up to speak with any Coherence’ and arranges a meeting ‘later, out in back’ (19). A page later, he ‘leads them at a trot out of the stables, out of the courtyard, and down the street …’ etc (20). At the bottom of 21, following the appearance of Bodine and Lunarians, the Dog again prompts Mason (‘pushes [his] Leg with his Head…’ etc). There is momentum here, a sense of purpose that carries Dog and Mason/Dixon forward, until (‘the Dog butting at Mason’, 25) they reach their goal and the first direct reference to Rebekah. Finally, here: ‘Somehow the Learnéd Dog has led him to presume …’ etc.

Moreover, Mason is ‘[u]nable to abandon her’ and also ‘eager to be aboard a ship …’ etc. There is an echo, then, of Cherrycoke in the first chapter. Firstly: ‘he has linger’d’ and ‘finds he cannot detach’ (8). And then the account of his departure from England in 1.2: ‘Tho’ my Inclination had been to go out aboard an East Indiaman …’ etc (10-11).

If the purpose of the chapter has been to describe the first meeting of Mason and Dixon it has done so by linking them with reference to their respective family histories (go back to Dixon recalling his father on 20). The fast-forward to Mason’s ‘confess[ion] months later’ (25) recalls the intrusive narrative of the previous chapter: ‘A few months later …’ etc (12-13). In the current chapter, progression is inseparable from both the Learnéd Dog (as a guide – Hepsie is ‘this Dog-reveal’d Crone’) and distractions on offer at The Pearl of Sumatra (24-25).

Another key feature of the chapter is the role played by sensual, particularly aural, phenomena. Dixon’s perspective is prioritised at significant moments and the reader is aligned with him as an outsider in an alien environment. Throughout, the world imposes itself sensually and the reader is necessarily distanced by an inability, for example, to hear what is presented. One might understand dialogue as language, for example; one cannot hear it. In chapter one, Cherrycoke’s role as narrator emphasises an oral tradition in which storytelling requires a listening subject; and the current chapter opens with Mason mocking Dixon’s accent (15). The Dog’s appearance is signalled by ‘a dozen mirror’d Lanthorns [that] have leapt alight together’ and then ‘a sprightly Overture’ (18); they are interrupted by ‘[a] small, noisy party … working its way up the street and into Ear-shot’ (21); the impact on sailors of Mrs Jellow’s voice is noted (23). In The Pearl of Sumatra Mason/Dixon gradually make sense of what is happening, ‘after a while’ (24); and the subsequent paragraph begins with ‘the smell of Blood’, going on to ‘assorted sounds’ (top of 25).[3]

[3.1.5] Fate, meet Men of Science … Men of Science, meet Fate, 25-29

The Dog’s name is now revealed (‘Fang, as he now apparently wishes to be known’); and then ‘with an expressive swing of his Head, [he] makes a dignified Exit’ (26). The name, given here for the first time, draws attention to his canine status, while the ‘dignified Exit’ might be said to emphasise anthropomorphism.[4]

Hepsie goes on to talk of fate in association with the ship sailing on Friday before Dixon makes out her disguise: ‘a shockingly young woman’. His nature as a ‘country Lout’ means ‘he can’t keep from flirting’ and he will, when they separate, earn an amiable Nod’ (28). Given Mason’s distraction, this is another moment when the text reminds the reader of their alignment with Dixon. Down the page on 26, ‘she cackles, as the young fancy the old to cackle’, followed by ‘Hepsie [is] too ʼpert by Decades’; but Mason seems not to have noticed. Top of 27 Dixon is ‘nudging Mason urgently with his Toe’. Mason, meanwhile, remains distracted and ‘clutching his head’. If Hepsie is performing, so is he, it seems, albeit unawares. Hepsie is then described as ‘the young Impostress’ in the middle of a passage in which Dixon is trying to reason with Mason: ‘ʼtis the Age of Reason … we’re Men of Science’.[5]

When Bodine asks Mason and Dixon what Hepsie said, they can remember little (28). Which might be a reminder of Cherrycoke as narrator. The chapter opens with a reference to Cherrycoke and the twins (14) but there has been nothing since. The chapter ends with Mason ‘earnestly needing a further Word with Hepsie or the Dog’; but he ‘can find no trace of either, search as he may’ (29). Has he imagined all?

[1] On this reference to drinking and status see Colin A Clarke, Consumption on the Frontier: Food and Sacrament in Mason & Dixon, in Hinds (ed), Multiple Worlds, 85. Other discussions of characterisation and status relevant here include Kathryn Hume, Mason & Dixon, in Inger H Dalsgaard, Luc Herman and Brian McHale (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; and David Seed, Pynchon’s Intertexts, in Dalsgaard et al (ed), Cambridge Companion.

[2] In the late-C19th Durkheim’s functionalism aimed to describe social change by distinguishing between what he called mechanical and organic solidarity, the latter being generally comparable to Mason’s contract here. See Emile Durkheim, Readings from Emile Durkheim, Kenneth Thompson (ed), London: Routledge, 2004, 23-47. For a recent discussion of Durkheim’s ideas, see Peter Thijssen, From mechanical to organic solidarity, and back: With Honneth beyond Durkheim, European Journal of Social Theory, 2012, 15 (4).

[3] One might refer to Pynchon’s (re-)writing of phenomenology here, just as earlier, he has borrowed from a range of sociological traditions. Any such discussion is impossible without reference to Martin Eve’s account in Pynchon and Philosophy, although I would not agree with the view that Pynchon shows himself hostile to critical theory. See Martin Paul Eve, Pynchon and Philosophy: Wittgenstein, Foucault and Adorno, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillian, 2014. If Pynchon quotes from particular theories, plays with them as ‘ways of seeing’, the current chapter demonstrates that ‘seeing’ is always a problematic affair. If Mason/Dixon are presented as experts who have been taught to subscribe to objectivity and a scientific method associated with the Enlightenment, Mason as astronomer and Dixon as surveyor, each devoted to the kind of rigorous classification and measurement that positivism takes for granted (still – we live, after all, in the age of something called ‘big data’; and some will speak of ‘metrics’ with orgasmic delight), the current chapter offers a deconstruction of such certainties, just as chapter 2 challenges conventional notions of reliable historical sources (or traces).

[4] In this study, a key point of comparison will be the work of John Gray, so this might be a good time to quote him – in Straw Dogs, for example, he argues against any simplistic distinction between ‘human’ and ‘non-human’ if that means a hierarchical arrangement. See John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, London: Granta Books, 2002. One might also cite Burns on the conflict between reason and imagination as a key feature of the narrative throughout, part of what he calls a parallactic method. See Christy L Burns, Postmodern Historiography: Politics and the Parallactic Method in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, Postmodern Culture, 2003, 14 (1).

[5] On science and anti-science throughout, see William B Millard, Delineations of Madness and Science: Mason & Dixon, Pynchonian Space and the Snovian Disjunction, in Copestake (ed), American Postmodernity. The essay on Snow is part of the Pynchon middle period discussed earlier.

M&D Chapter 2

[2.1] Obedient servants, 12-13

The short second chapter introduces Mason and Dixon as they introduce themselves to each other, in letters that feature here as ‘traces of the past’.[1] A narrative commentary separates the two letters, perhaps a kind of surveillance in which the reader is complicit.

Chapter 1 dwells on Cherrycoke as storyteller and, in his own words, ‘untrustworthy Remembrancer’ (8); and the novel’s first (explicit) reference to Mason and Dixon (‘It’s twenty years …’ etc, 7) comes within a story told to entertain the children, where ‘poor Mason’ might alert the reader to the identity of ‘a Friend of years ago’ earlier (6), before the more explicit reference (‘And now Mason’s gone’, 8 – the paragraph that builds to Cherrycoke’s self-deprecation, above) a page later.

Just as the first chapter ends with Cherrycoke’s I liberated from the setting that has established him, the two letters feature the Is of Mason and Dixon; and the narrative goes on to challenge the (surface) veracity of both letters (‘A few months later, when it is no longer necessary to pretend …’, 12; ‘Mason in turn confesses …’, 13). If Cherrycoke introduces Mason and Dixon as names that are already significant, easily recognisable to the knowing reader of chapter 1, the letters re-introduce them as not-yet-significant; and the narrative insert exposes the two about-to-be protagonists, drawing attention to artifice (on Dixon’s part) and a less than sympathetic first impression (on Mason’s part), in each case information not immediately apparent to the letters’ (intended) readers. It is interesting that, when they first appear in the text, Mason and Dixon are, then, associated with the kind of region behaviour described by Goffman, specifically the difference between front and back regions (on- and off-stage).[2]

The point Jenkins makes is that history-writing recontextualises the trace; the letters, say, are no longer what they were, a private communication between two strangers negotiating a new relationship.[3] Another way to regard recontextualisation might be to go back to the furniture described at the beginning of chapter one, also traces that have been, so to speak, relocated (5-6). Not least, recontextualisation follows the narrative passage separating the letters. Dixon’s admission that he ‘[w]ent thro’ twenty Revisions’ (12) suggests a shift from one kind of introduction to another, revisions emphasising self-conscious performance designed to impress. Consider Cherrycoke’s storytelling and his need to perform in order to impress. Similarly, Mason’s letter refers to ‘your universally good Name’ (13), following the earlier (but subsequent) confession ‘to having nearly thrown the Letter away’. One letter (Dixon’s) can be reread by what comes after; while the other (Mason’s) might be undercut by what has preceded it. In each case the meaning of historical artefacts is both contingent and unstable.

[1] See Keith Jenkins, Re-Thinking History, London: Routledge, 2003 (first published 1991), 26; also Michel Foucault, Nietzsche, Genealogy, History, in Donald F Bouchard (ed), Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, New York: Cornell University Press, 139-164. As a related example, consider the critical reception to M&D as traces – see Charles Clerc, Mason & Dixon & Pynchon, Oxford: University Press of America, 2000, 9-38.

[2] Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Penguin, 1990 (first published 1959). Goffman’s work in the 1950s and 1960s is certainly relevant to the evolution of Pynchon’s writing generally. In relation to surveillance and what impression management might mean in contemporary society, see Trevor Pinch, The Invisible Technologies of Goffman’s Sociology From the Merry-Go-Round to the Internet, Technology and Culture, 2010, 51 (2).

[3] Jenkins, 26-27. Hence the key role, he goes on, played by ‘epistemological, methodological and ideological factors’; the past (mistakenly called ‘history’) does not speak for itself, and historians are not innocent, disinterested reporters. This discussion of traces, of course, complements Smith’s introduction to Pynchon’s take on history-writing (Smith, Pynchon and History, 1-17).

M&D Chapter 1

[1.1] Here have come to rest (5-10)

The first chapter opens with a sentence that brings the action indoors, events outside now concluded: ‘Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs …’ etc (5). The household is, it seems, warm and welcoming; although the narrative quickly reveals that its destination is ‘a comfortable Room at the rear of the house, years since given over to [the Children’s] Carefree Assaults’.[1] Like the furniture (for example, ‘a long‑scarr’d sawbuck table’) children ‘have come to rest there’, that is, abandoned, or dumped, or simply distanced from the adult society that, by implication, is threatened by embarrassment. This room is where Cherrycoke will be discovered (‘It has become an afternoon habit’, 6), pressed into service to keep the children entertained and distracted, and quiet. If the children are not quite feral, they nonetheless have to be controlled; and the earlier ‘Carefree Assaults’ are replaced (bottom of 6) by ‘Juvenile Rampage’ to explain Cherrycoke’s fear of instant dismissal (‘and Boppo! ’twill be Out the Door with him’, 7). He has been given his targets, and performance management reviews are, perhaps, a frequent occurrence. Usually, according to Pliny: ‘They pay you money to keep away’ (9). However, the presence (on 9, unannounced) of Uncle Ives suggests that Cherrycoke’s entertainments don’t just appeal to children.

However, before the appearance of Cherrycoke, or any other human character, the furniture in this playroom has featured, its provenance – and therefore, indirectly, family history – described at length. In particular, there is ‘a sinister and wonderful Card Table’ (5) offering ‘an illusion of Depth’ that ties it to ‘the illustrated Pages of Books’ designed to keep children occupied. The tales that Cherrycoke will tell (top of 7 onwards) must compete with such entertainment. One might infer a choice between books with pictures designed for the pre-literate child – whether or not that state still applies to the twins; perhaps they simply have no patience for reading – and an oral tradition, here represented by Cherrycoke, one dependent on performance: ‘Thus, they have heard …’ etc. All in a text that draws attention to its construction as words on the page.

Tenebrae with her ‘Needlework, a piece whose size and difficulty are already subjects of discussion …’ etc is differentiated from the twins (‘[a]nnounced by Nasal Telegraph’), their every gesture seemingly disruptive: ‘Pitt licking Gobbets of Philadelphia Pudding from his best Jabot’ and ‘Pliny, whose least gesture sends Cookie-crumbs ev’rywhere’. Named, then, Tenebrae is associated with modest self‑control (she remains silent about her work’s ambitions), while the boys are allowed to be boisterous. Age and maturity, or conventional gender socialisation? Either way, one should think here of ‘docile bodies’.[2] However, if Tenebrae has, thus far, internalised, appropriate behaviours, she has also acquired ways to resist those prescriptions, for example, the knowing playfulness she exhibits on 8. Interaction between Cherrycoke and Tenebrae here (‘… replying to her Uncle’s Twinkling with the usual play of Eye‑lashes’) suggests complicity, a bond of sorts; and the remainder of this first section deals with another kind of discipline, Cherrycoke’s imprisonment in London for, as he puts it, ‘certain Crimes of my distant Youth’ and ‘the Crime they styl’d Anonymity’ (9). This too is a form of resistance, a reaction to ‘Crimes I had observ’d, committed by the Stronger against the Weaker’. And so, if Cherrycoke begins this section isolated with the children, away from adult society, a mere household servant, he ends it describing incarceration ‘among the Rats and Vermin’ (10). Coercion or manipulation, the latter a form of negative reinforcement to persuade Cherrycoke to avoid the punishment that would be expulsion.

[1.2] Keep your memory working, 10-11

The first chapter concludes with a short section featuring Cherrycoke as narrator (‘Tho’ my inclination …’ etc, 10). If 1.1 has emphasised limits placed on his movements, either in his sister’s home or in prison, 1.2 allows him to free himself, so to speak, his voice elevating him above time and space. However, he continues to describe the way ‘those who controll’d my Fate’ were able to frustrate his intentions. In the telling, he might have chosen Bedlam over ‘a small British Frigate sailing alone, upon a long voyage, in a time of War’, the latter nonetheless seeming a better option. Further, his lack of freedom means he is powerless to resist the ‘no doubt well-meant advice’ (11) – if such ‘advice’ reminds the reader of the ‘moral usefulness’ (7) that guided selection of the tales he has been telling Tenebrae and the twins (‘[t]he Youth, as usual, not being consulted in this’), Cherrycoke is again linked to the children as lacking the self-discipline that would grant freedom (supposedly) and independence (ditto).

If, then, the purpose of 1.2 is to explain how Cherrycoke’s movements were, at the time of which he speaks, limited, the extent to which he is freed by the text’s adoption of I is surely significant. I have suggested this personal discourse resembles the voiceover in a film. Emphasised is the voice of the storyteller whose allegiance to the truth has already been questioned; but one might also note the importance of the story as what might be called escapism – for both its audience and the narrator himself.[3]

[1] With reference to the opening page, both Hinds and Smith focus on childhood as innocence, but don’t consider the way in which, within the house as opposed to outside, there is a perceived need to contain such innocence. See Elizabeth Jane Wall Hinds, The Times of Mason & Dixon, in Hinds (ed), The Multiple Worlds of Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, Suffolk: Camden House, 3-4; and Smith, Pynchon and History, 165-166. See also Zofia Kolbuszewska, Childhood as Metaphor: Motif as Narrative Device in Mason & Dixon, in Pynchon Notes, 56-57, 2009, 229-241. Elsewhere, Malin offers an alternative page-by-page account of the novel’s opening. See Irving Malin, Foreshadowing the Text, in Brooke Horvath and Irving Malin (eds), Pynchon and Mason & Dixon, London: Associated University Presses, 27-42.

[2] See Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Penguin, 1991 (first French publication 1975). A good explanation is provided by the passage on ‘the body as object and target of power’ and ‘projects of docility’ in the C18th (136). See also Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality 1, Pelican, 1981 (first French publication 1976). Here, Foucault outlines the way ‘mechanisms of power’ changed at that time: there was now ‘a power bent on generating forces, making them grow, and ordering them, rather than one dedicated to impeding them, making them submit, or destroying them’ (136 – is this page number a coincidence, or do They …). As an interesting study of biopower, see Majia Holmer Nadesan, Governmentality, Biopower, and Everyday Life, Routledge, 2008. Useful as commentary is Chapter 5, where Nadesan writes, for example, of ‘the human sciences … function[ing] as forms of power governing evaluation of the behaviour of self and others’ (179). Biopower is always to be distinguished from coercion and imprisonment. On the development of Foucault’s thought after Discipline and Punish, see Stuart Elden, Foucault’s Last Decade, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016. On Foucault and power in relation to Mason & Dixon, see Georgios Maragos, G., (2014). ‘For every They there ought to be a We’: The (Almost) Equivalence of Power and Resistance in Mason & Dixon and Against the Day, Orbit: A Journal of American Literature, 2014, 2 (2).

[3] I am also thinking of what Collado Rodríguez has written about the difference between first- and second-level narrations. See Francisco Collado Rodríguez, Mason & Dixon, Historiographic Metafiction and the Unstable Reconciliation of Opposites, in Ian D Copestake (ed), American Postmodernity: Essays on the Recent Fiction of Thomas Pynchon, Oxford: Peter Lang, 2003.


What starts here will become a page-by-page commentary on M&D, similar to the one I have already completed on AtD. Generally, I shall work out what I want to say about the relationship between two novels that, arguably, represent Pynchon’s major achievement.

Reading is always rereading, of course. When M&D was first published it appeared seven years after VL and 24 years after GR, and was seen by some as ‘a return to form’ after the aberration that was VL. Even then, reading M&D led inevitably to a reappraisal of each the earlier novels; in time, this has allowed the construction of a middle period for Pynchon, beginning with the short texts published in the early‑1980s (including the Introduction to an autobiography known as SL). In this middle period, I would suggest, there is a more explicit interest in narrative as narrative, the telling of stories. If, then, GR concludes the early period, texts of this middle period make up a transitional phase that leads to the late period of 1984 Foreword, AtD, IV and BE. Those who maintain GR is Pynchon’s ‘masterpiece’ might too readily dismiss the last two novels on that list, and even AtD as well; but one should be able to see how these texts mark Pynchon’s thinking through of the relationship between his fiction and the politics of the post‑1989 world.

And it should go without saying that, if reading is always rereading, no (re)reading can ever be more than provisional.[1]


I first read M&D when it was published in May 1997. Publication coincided with, for me, a long weekend following the British general election that led to Tony Blair’s appointment as prime minister. Relieved to see the back of a Conservative government, I nonetheless ignored the news and spent the weekend reading Pynchon’s new novel; like many others, I never had any confidence in Blair as a Labour prime minister. Tom Watson says we should stop dissing Blair; I would simply point out that, even without mentioning the Iraq War, a government that frittered away a 179-seat majority and five million votes might – tactical voting in 1997 notwithstanding – have a little explaining to do, and should have achieved rather more than it did, had there been any intention to seriously be a Labour government.

And no, it isn’t irrelevant to mention this election and government here. Shortly afterwards, Blair fell into line as the Clinton government’s makeover of NATO found an excuse to bomb Kosovo.[2] Blair it was whose ‘doctrine’ (‘I can have one if I want it; you don’t have to be president’) justified a foreign policy based on the rhetoric of some kind of universalised humanitarianism;[3] and one can see how this contemporary writing of ‘universal rights’ (always, of course, to be honoured selectively) had already found its way into M&D as, on their travels, Mason and Dixon confront racism (or racisms). Subsequently, when the ‘blurb’ for AtD, hinting at the novel’s concerns with globalisation, was published in August 2006, I suggested that a key narrative concern might be less to do with ‘location’ than with the way transition and movement became as important as named characters. M&D had already juxtaposed its narrative of space (the journeys undertaken by Mason and Dixon) to one of time (Cherrycoke as a – possibly unreliable – narrator), and Pynchon’s concerns were apparent from the outset.

Chapter 1 of M&D, for example, is split into two sections, the second of which offers a narration by Cherrycoke, now distanced from the family setting that, in the first few pages, has confined him. His narration here lifts Cherrycoke out of both place and time, resembling as it does the voiceover that, in a film, will mark the transition to a flashback (commencing in Chapter 2). One can see, then, straightaway, an interest in confronting C18th pastiche with the way the film medium has shaped perceptions of storytelling more generally.[4]


If M&D is now 20 years old, the world that produced it has become a world in which the publication of AtD was not only possible but might coincide with that of The Shock Doctrine. One should address the relevance, to AtD’s focus on power, of discussions since 2001, of ‘neoliberalism’ and ‘terrorism’.[5] If terrorism in the 1960s and 1970s was, supposedly, a product of affluence within Western societies, by the time Pynchon could put Bush II into both the Foreword and AtD, Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ had come up against Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’ as US hegemony was problematised anew.[6]

Previously, Nixon had appeared in both GR and VL as the post-1945 Bretton Woods system underwent some modification. Publication of M&D in the mid-1990s, then, can be tied to historical processes that, 20 years on, make the novel different (as any text must always become different); while reference here to the Blair government has been a reminder that, currently, British politics is being transformed, the neoliberal paradigm dismantled, even as, globally, US foreign policy goes on invoking ‘liberal democracy’ as a more seductive ideology.[7]

Next up … Chapter 1.

[1] For the application of Hayden White’s ideas on historiography to Pynchon’s fiction, see Shawn Smith, Pynchon and History: Metahistorical Rhetoric and Postmodern Narrative Form in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon, Routledge, 2005. This book is one of the many excellent ‘recent’ (or ‘recentish’) studies of Pynchon’s work. However, in preceding Pynchon’s last three novels, of course, Smith’s take on M&D in particular illustrates the point I have tried to make here.

[2] For a summary and references, see my recent post, Labour and NATO.

[3] See, for example, Mark Bevir and Ian Hall, The rise of security governance (in Bevir and Hall eds, Interpreting Global Security, Routledge, 2014).

[4] Henry James might be of interest to Pynchon for his narratives of European‑American culture clash, something he has in common with Nabokov; but his books also foreground, as a feature of literary modernism, the montage that is more obviously a feature of film. On film and fiction, see Seymour Chatman, Coming to Terms The Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film, Cornell, 1990. Consideration of film and narrative is one way of linking M&D to VL before it and both AtD and IV coming after it.

[5] Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Penguin, 2008 (first published 2007). The writing of global politics as Pynchon made his way from VL to M&D to AtD and beyond is central to any reading of the novels. On neoliberalism, see David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, OUP, 2007 (first published 2005); Yanis Varoufakis, The Global Minotaur: America, Europe and the Future of the Global Economy, Zed Books, 2015 (first published, 2011); or Simon Springer, The Discourse of Neoliberalism: An Anatomy of a Powerful Idea, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016. On terrorism, see Mike Davis, Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb, Verso, 2007; or Lisa Stampnitzky, Disciplining Terror: How Experts Invented ‘Terrorism’, CUP, 2013.

[6] See, for example, Perry Anderson, American Foreign Policy and its Thinkers, Verso, 2015.

[7] Nonetheless … as accounts of an emergent alternative democracy, see Naomi Klein, No Logo, Fourth Estate, 2010 (first published 2000); and Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, Penguin, 2015 (first published 2014). Further, on television, making for an interesting comparison, there has been The Newsroom (Aaron Sorkin, 2012 onwards) as a successor to The West Wing (Aaron Sorkin, 1999-2006).