Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—I found myself in the midst of something awful. It was, in the scheme of things, nothing much: a bit of unexceptional private cataclysm. Among the familiar effects of this sudden immersion in morbidity (hair-trigger weepiness; the quick evaporation of some superfluous pounds) was the inevitable incapacity for sleep. While I could, I did with those lonely hours what I imagine many of you would have done: I read books. Or rather, I disappeared as remainderlessly as I could into books that offered less scholarly edification than the promise of coherent worlds, of great and involving intricacy, in whose byways I could quickly get lost.
Nothing served me better in this capacity than Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, from 1997, a book I’d read before—and enjoyed very much—but that provided me, in those weeks, with altogether new qualities of transport and respite. I did, then, a thing I don’t think I’d ever done before, and have not done since: I read it over a week of dark Maine winter nights and then, the moment I finished shedding soundless tears over the final sentences, I turned back, started it over again, and read it straight through.
I’d say here that I cannot vehemently enough recommend Mason & Dixon to you, and that I make this recommendation quite separately from its reparative qualities. (And I make it mindful, too, of that obscuring cloud of unjoyous, exalting, “serious” appraisal—call it, for short, male—that has gathered around Pynchon and his books since the 1970s.) As I think many of us do with favorites, I reread it every few years to no academic purpose—my excuse this year was the Transit of Venus!—and then spend weeks irritating most everyone near me with my badgering insistence. “No, really, you’d love it! It’s brilliant and hilarious and unbelievably beautiful and . . .” Remember that movie you saw and loved when you were maybe nine and then, afterward, had to tell everyone about, in extensive photo-realist detail, regardless of whatever interest or disinterest they may have expressed? It is a lot like that.
But I mean honestly. For Americanists with an even passing familiarity with the eighteenth-century arcana that Pynchon transforms, the pleasures come in bright bursts. If you have a weakness for this sort of [End Page 6] thing—and I do—you’ll probably find it hard to resist what happens in the novel just at the level of the sentence. There, Pynchon’s habitual anarchic delight in inhabiting an elaborate, Jamesian syntax with the hiss and crackle of demotic speech meets the demands, as well as the permissions, of period style and orthography. Here is how the eponymous Mason concludes his introductory letter to Dixon:
Wishing you a journey south as safe as His Ways how strange, may allow, I wait your arrival in a Spirit happily rescu’d by your universally good Name, from all Imps of the Apprehensive,— an Exception most welcome, in the generally uneasy Life of y’r obdt. Svt.,
You can feel Pynchon rolling those idiomatic turns around on his tongue like bright tart candies. On every page, too, there’s this delicious, teasing sort of tension between the stylized antique language and the intimation of something more familiar—something more contemporary—though this palimpsestic quality is rarely played in the key of a simple irony. The angles are usually a little more oblique, as when Dixon, in New York City, “attends a Stage performance of the musical drama The Black Hole of Calcutta, or, The Peevish Wazir,” described thus:
The Story, as near as Dixon can make out, is about a British officer whose Rivalry with a comically villainous Frenchman for the Affection of a Nabob’s Daughter, brings on the war in Bengal. There are some catchy Tunes, and an Elephant, promis’d in the first Act, which incredibly, at the very end of the Show, is deliver’d. The audience sit stunn’d in the vacuous Purity of not having been cheated.(563...