Reading Pynchon #11

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.


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