When the Sandwich Was Still a New Invention

Jenny Turner

  • Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon
    Cape, 773 pp, £16.99, May 1997, ISBN 0 224 05001 X

‘Snow-balls have flown their Arcs, starr’d the Sides of Outbuildings, as of Cousins, carried Hats away into the brisk Wind off Delaware’ – that’s what it says right now in the window of my local bookshop. It’s been painted on the glass by hand. It’s from the first sentence of Mason – Dixon.

Thomas Pynchon was born on Long Island, New York in 1937. He studied engineering, physics and, later, English literature, at Cornell University, then worked as a technical writer for Boeing until 1962. Not long after that, he more or less disappeared from public view. His fame rests primarily on what can for convenience be thought of as his three great novels of the Sixties, V (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), though he has also published Slow Learner (1984), a collection of his early short stories, and another novel, Vineland, in 1990. He started work on Mason – Dixon just as Gravity’s Rainbow was winning the US National Book Award. It has taken him a quarter-century to cross the t’s and dot the i’s.

Pynchon is famous for three main novels, and for three main things. His novels are legendarily huge and ‘difficult’, and have a reputation for being prophetically hip. His avoidance of publicity has caused him to be known as a reclusive writer, although when recently a US magazine writer ‘unearthed’ him, she found him living quietly but openly in New York City, complete with wife and small son, and a very strange-looking hat. Both the hip factor and the hermit factor, whether legitimately or illegitimately, feed into the third and overweening Pynchon fame-aspect: people seldom think of him as just an author, in the way they think of authors even as popularly eminent as Salman Rushdie or Philip Roth. He’s a trendy-essay-topic catch-all, a figure half fact and half popular-culture fantasy, forever turning up in conspiracy theories and comic strips and on the World Wide Web. He’s an enigma, a beatnik hero. He is, in short, a cult.

‘Learned diversions, paranoid transitions, hip coincidences and conspiracies’, I read in the TP entry in my useful Cultural Icons encyclopedia. ‘The reclusive Pynchon writes as if everything is connected to everything else, and detours so obsessively en route that even the revelation that there is actually no revelation seems extraordinarily significant.’ It goes on to speak of ‘the necessary futility of reading’, ‘the astonishing proliferation of codes’, and, with a final dialectical flourish, ‘the difficulty of pleasure, and the pleasure of difficulty’. So there you have it. Phew.

It is true that Pynchon’s novels are formidably learned. But they are also intellectually with-it and sophisticated, which is much more interesting. They negotiate complex questions in the sociology of knowledge, across both natural science and social science, in highbrow registers and lowbrow ones, with what appears to be equal ease. When people go on about Pynchon as a ‘prophetic’ writer, it is really this intellectual sophistication to which they refer. Prophetic writers at bottom are only writers who handle abstract concepts as easily as they do all the other stuff. They thus have a solid purchase on intellectually privileged forms of knowledge – i.e. the world of ideas. It says something not entirely complimentary about most novelists that we get all geewhizz and overexcited whenever we come across a writer like Pynchon, who is only a novelist who has bothered to make the bread-and-butter of the serious thinker an aspect of his creative bread-and-butter, too.

But back, for a moment, to these curious Snow-Balls. They did not, I imagine, make you eager to read on. You might expect the beginning of a Pynchon novel to be ‘difficult’ – which is to say, stylistically packed. But the beginning of Mason – Dixon is forbidding, even so. It’s busy, it’s dense, and it’s in 18th-century macaroni, full of oddly torqued inflections and hard-on-the-eyeballs initial caps. Plus, it looks like it’s all about Christmas, which isn’t enticing. It’s worth the effort, however. Get to page 18 of Mason – Dixon, and a Learnèd English Dog comes in. First off, he’s a talking dog. ‘’Tis the Age of Reason, rrrf?’ he asks. ‘Grrr! and your deliberate use of “drooling”, Sir, is vile.’ Even better, he bursts into song:

I quote enough of the Classickal Stuff
To set your Ears a-throb,
Work logarith-mick Versèd Sines
Withal, within me Nob ...

Pynchon included a song-and-dance number in his first novel, V. There are more of them in The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity’s Rainbow, monumentally fearsome though it looks, concludes with one. Imagine how Pynchon must grin to himself, as he jots his awful verses down. That’s artistic exuberance for you. That’s artistic vitality in the raw.

Usually, when you read one of those fancy-looking magic-post-mod metafictional thingies, you start scraping along the bottom of their ‘prodigious’ learning and creativity by the time you hit page 10. But Pynchon’s learning really does seem deep enough to sustain him as he does his bathtub caterwauling, wearing his horrible hat, I don’t doubt, even as he writes. Pynchon, it isn’t worth for a millisecond forgetting, is a completely hilarious writer. Like all the very coolest of cultural icons, he couldn’t care less about shallow things like whether he’s fashionable, or whether he’s singing in tune. He’s cool in the manner of the very coolest of refrigerators. He’s blasting with warmth out back.

Mason – Dixon is the story of two men, Charles Mason (1728-86) and Jeremiah Dixon (1733-79). Both are drawn from history, as is the outline of their doings, and as are many of the acquaintances they happen upon en route. Mason begins the tale as an astronomer at Greenwich; Dixon as a journeyman land-surveyor in the North-East of England. In 1761 they join forces to observe the Transit of Venus from the Cape of Good Hope. Thus ‘Latitudes and Departures’, the first part of what turns out to be a mischievously unsymmetrical three-parter of a book. Two years later, M–D accept a commission to run a boundary line eight yards wide, dividing the states of Pennsylvania and Maryland as far as the borders of Ohio. The job involves four years of laborious fieldwork, with a team of workmen in attendance to clear the ‘Visto’ of trees. This is the middle part. It is baldly entitled ‘America’, has the most bewilderingly picaresque of narrative structures, and is over four hundred pages long. Then, finally, in a coda of less than a hundred pages, it’s time for the ‘Last Transit’ of 1769. Mason travels alone to observe the silent planet from Ulster. Dixon voyages alone to the North Cape.

Mason and Dixon’s great projects were, as a friend says, ‘brave, scientifick beyond my understanding, and ultimately meaningless’. Each job, owing to forces beyond the control of our heroes, ends under something of a cloud. Directly after the Mason-Dixon Line was completed, America had its Revolution and the Line fell into neglect. It did, however, attain great symbolic force from the Civil War onwards. Proverbially, and to some extent in fact, it marked the border between the cotton-pickin’ southern slave states and the northern Yankee country, in which a black man might be free.

In form, and in content also, Mason – Dixon is, on a Which?-guide level, many things rolled into one. It’s an epic in ways both obvious and not-so-obvious like the Odyssey, and it’s a simple-hearted buddy story, too. It’s a burlesque musical – there are many more songs – and it’s a Tex Avery cartoon. It’s a treatise on the Enlightenment view of scientific progress, written from a late 20th-century non-linear-dynamical point of view. It’s a funny book, Time Bandits crossed with Douglas Adams. It’s an enormous, systematic study of order and disorder, which moves to the strange, slow rhythms of what historians call the longue durée. Although the bulk of its action seems to happen in North America, it is also about 18th-century England, and land enclosure and colonialism, and patterns of global trade. It also makes an especially jaunty excursion to Scotland. ‘These people are strong, shrewd,’ warns a certain Dr Johnson. ‘Be not deceiv’d by any level of the Exotick they may present you, Kilts, Bag-Pipes sort of thing. Haggis. You must keep eternal Vigilance.’ Mason considers himself warned.

But what actually happens in it? Well. Dixon is a rollicking country lad, a Quaker from County Durham (‘Why, aye!’). He’s Enlightenment Man in his Tom Jones aspect, a bright, good-natured extrovert who wags his tail at all that interests him, like a friendly dog. Mason, on the other hand, is Enlightenment Man in his sombre, ‘Gothickal’ aspect. He is haunted by the ghost of his dead wife, Rebekah. He dreams repeatedly of ‘a night-time City, – of creeping among monuments of stone perhaps twice his height, of seeking refuge from some absolute pitiless Upheaval in relations among Men’. He’s a decent chap, but regretful and prone to resentment. As a team, M–D are a bit like Eric and Ernie, as comic, as equally matched and with a similarly tender depth. ‘You’ve no concept of Temptation,’ Mason sighs at Dixon at one point. ‘You came ashore here looking for occasions to transgress. Some of us have more Backbone, I suppose.’ ‘A bodily Part too often undistinguish’d,’ says Dixon, ‘from a Ram-Rod up the Arse.’ Much later, M–D dream of winning the Copley Medal, the British astronomer’s highest imaginable prize.

‘Eeh!’ Dixon amiably waves his Hat. ‘Which half do thou fancy, obverse or reverse?’

  ‘What?’ Mason frowning in thought, ‘Hum. Well, I rather imagin’d we’d ... share the same side, – a Half-Circle each, sort of thing.’

Only, they never actually win the Medal. And so the issue is resolved.

It doesn’t sound especially hip or difficult or paranoid, does it? It sounds, I hope, like a bit of a tickle to read. It isn’t that the trendy critical appropriations of Pynchon are in-accurate exactly, it’s more that they are inappropriate to the experience of actually reading a Pynchon novel, and also a little bit vain. It would, however, be just as wrong to let you come away with the impression that M–D is only an Eric and Ernie with knobs on, or just a Post-Modern romparama of the sort Umberto Eco managed so elegantly in The Name of the Rose. It’s much more densely webbed with allusiveness. And its mood is far more rigorously subjunctive: it’s an open network of potentialities, like a mutating spreadsheet or grid. It is all these things because it is at bottom a historical novel, and one premised on an extreme sense of critical scepticism about the things which seem to change through time and history, and the things which seem to stay the same.

The America of Mason – Dixon is not like any of the ones familiar from popular culture. It’s an America in which the wilderness begins just west of Philadelphia. It’s the America of the Thirteen Colonies, before the formal union of any of the states, in which it is unclear to anyone whether land-claims will finally be settled by kings, or governments, or the chartered companies grown as strong as states themselves. I was reminded of the shock I got when I saw the film of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, with much of Manhattan still, towards the end of the last century, a muddy building-site. The America of Mason – Dixon is more than a century more inchoate, and so is the world around it. The ‘self-evident truths’ which codify the Rights of Man would not be declared on that continent until 1774. They would not be declared in Europe until 1789.

Over the entirety of the novel, barely a line sets out to delineate a sense of historical period in the way I have just tried to do. Barely a line attempts to reconstruct one in any detail either. And there is no weak irony to Pynchon’s handling of this huge historical distance. There’s no idle fiddling about between what the narrators don’t know about their future and what we, from our godly late 20th-century heights, know about them. The sense of contingency is total, and awesome. The future is completely opaque and empty, like the Enlightenment heaven and hell.

And so, for long stretches of the book which tells their story, M–D are tramping the open country, or taking measurements with their instruments, or voyaging to places in ships. Yet there is notably little concrete description of such things. Where M–D really has its setting is in the new civil society of the mid-18th century, in coffee-houses and pubs. ‘One may be inches from a neighbour, yet both blurr’d past recognising, – thus may Advice grow reckless and Prophecy extreme given the astonishing volume of words moving about in here,’ Pynchon writes of one coffee-house in Philadelphia. This image points up the method of the novel as a whole. Huge chunks of it are written in direct-quote dialogue, and even the omniscient-narrator parts are angled through a particular voice. The entire book is an elaborate chiaroscuro of knowledge and ignorance. Only none of the ignorance is left at all empty or dark.

Instead, every single ignorant patch is stuffed to bursting with ‘Advice grown Reckless and Prophecy extreme’. The novel is stuffed, in other words, with fallacies and mistakes. There is the great Eleven Days controversy, for example, when the people of England arose in anger after losing a week and a half of wages to the Popish Gregorian calendar in 1752. There are flat-earthers and there are hollow-earthers, and an extremely funny strand involves the progress of Nevil Maskelyne – the Royal Astronomer who features centrally and villainously in Dava Sobel’s top-selling pop-science book, Longitude – from part-time astrology buff to full-fledged Merlin lookalike nutcase, dressed in his tailor-made tartan ‘Observing Suit’ with co-ordinating pointy hat.

The position of our heroes among this mayhem is strategic. Both, we already know, are basically good guys, and first-generation professional ‘men of Science’ from the soles of their rural-artisan boots. But they don’t know what they can’t know, and so are as comically embroiled and mistakenly invested as everyone else. Dixon, for example, has been blessed – or cursed – by an intellectually dubious mentor figure with the gift of a watch which never stops, thus disproving the ancient adage, ‘prandium gratis non est’. ‘When you accept me into your Life,’ the watch murmurs, ‘– you will accept me ... into your Stomach.’ And as it speaks it assumes ‘a shape indisputably Vegetable’. ‘Vegetables don’t tick,’ a kindly soul reminds poor Dixon, who is becoming most distressed. ‘Why aye, those that be only Vegetable don’t. We speak now of a higher form of life, – a Vegetable with a Pulse-beat!’ Is it the laudanum, is it the coffee he’s constantly drinking, or is it the Daffy’s Elixir he consumes in the most enormous quantities for his bowels? Or might this not indeed be a Vegetable on the move towards a state more animal, or a Clock which has begun an adaptation towards organic life? It is, please remember before you consign poor Dixon to Bedlam, a man of Science’s job to come up with possible hypotheses to explain whichever phenomena appear to cross his path. It is thus the job of a man of Science to spend at least half his time in the pursuance of hypotheses which fit the available evidence, even though he kind of knows as he’s doing this that they are most likely wrong.

As the novel proceeds ever further in its westerly direction, Pynchon throws stranger and stranger shadows along the Visto through which our men must go. There’s a land of Giant Vegetables, and a lovelorn robot duck. And I particularly liked the Welsh-stroke-Native-American burial mound, designed like a gigantic Leyden jar, with, inscribed across the front of it, in Welsh-Indian runes: ‘Keep away. Especially surveyors. This means you.’ Unlike your usual look-at-me-mum magic-realist author, Pynchon pretty well never makes anything up. The ancient Welsh presence in North America, I am told, is now thoroughly established in archaeology, like the friendly visit from the Norsemen from which Pynchon’s last novel, Vineland, took its name. I don’t know about the robot duck, yet. But the Giant Beetroot comes straight from something in David Hume.

This method, it should be obvious, has nothing to do with the weakly whacky. It caricatures, it counterfactualises and it reductio-ad-absurdums. But it does so in strict relation to real historical sources, in an oddly angled, yet almost geometrically measurable, way. What look like antihistorical anachronisms turn out on closer inspection to be aspects of a historically precise strategy. They are instruments for measuring similarity and difference, ideological clocks. They tick and tock and sometimes judder rather strangely as they attempt to bind and bridge the historical distance between the dawning of the Age of Reason and the author’s – and his readers’ – late 20th-century sense of the here and now.

Like the luckiest of world travellers, M–D are forever running into major historical celebrities. They have barely set foot in Philadelphia before they bump into Benjamin Franklin, posing around in ‘Spectacles of his own Invention, for moderating the Glare of the Sun’. And then of course they are asked round for tea by Col. George Washington, you know, the land-surveyor and real-estate speculator, eager for his own reasons to network with these overseas visitors, whom he plies with kasha varnishkies and hemp. The delicacies are fetched by Gershom, Washington’s Jewish-African slave. ‘Gershom is presently telling King-Joaks – “Actually, they’re Slave-and-Master Joaks, re-tailored for these Audiences. King says to his Fool ...” ’

I started looking in my wonderful Brewer’s Dictionary. I discovered, among many other things, that Franklin really did do a lot of work on optometry (and on electricity, and he did write his ghastly Poor Richard advice column, as becomes increasingly significant as the novel goes on). And Washington really was a surveyor and land-speculator, though I wouldn’t like to say about the kasha varnishkies or the hemp. Even Gershom, who must be a total invention, is an invention with resonance and point. He’s bricolage in motion, a cultural syncretism on legs; a comic inversion of the master-and-slave relation delineated by Hegel and Fanon and Jean Rouch. Even the straightforward-looking way in which these guys are coded as funny characters is not, when you think about it straightforward at all. It is itself yet another historical reference, to the Beat-comic tradition of Krazy Kat and Lenny Bruce.

This is not a naively comic Pritt Stick job, like calling the alien in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy after a Ford Prefect car, but a painstakingly careful dovetailing, in which you must mark all the detail of the separations even as you marvel at the join, and one which is replicated across the structure of Mason – Dixon. This is done zeugmatically, halfway through single sentences, fully exploiting the magnificent Augustan caesura which dots the novel across its entirety, along with all those rhythmically capital-lettered Nouns. It’s done in the most elegant off-the-cuff one-liners, like the one about the Irish fish-pond from which the Romans learned the wisdom of carpe carpum, viz, seize the carp.

Perhaps halfway through the novel it dawns on you that this dovetailing is the very key to the novel’s narrative structure, and the friendship at the centre of it, and its wider historical plan. The last time we looked at M–D, they were contemplating the Copley medal – whether to split it obverse and reverse, or to take halves of the same side. The image is typical of the way their mutually grudging friendship is dramatised. It holds strictly to 18th-century rules of decorum, while introducing a note of sweetness and self-awareness which is unmistakably new. From the beginning of the novel to the end, not a word is said about either man which breaks the period conventions. And yet, it is impossible not to start liking and caring about them enormously, in a curiously modern and at first sight unaccountable, category-mistaken way.

It helps that Pynchon has borrowed his protagonists from history, which means he can’t indulge his usual weakness for lumbering his characters with gross-out names like Tyrone Slothrop or Hubert Stencil. (Though he does sneak in a sailor called Bodine. And there’s a whole family of Dutch Cape Colonists who go by the charming name of Vroom.) It’s also true that Pynchon knows he can call on a certain readerly nostalgia to do more than half the work for him. To begin with, it seems so refreshing to meet a couple of heroes who are free of all the usual post-Nietzschean subjectivity problems, all that tedious ambivalent agony. They’re such decent guys, and they seem to have no side to them. All they want is all that you and I want: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. At the same time, preferably, as doing the right thing. So why can’t they manage this? Why do all their best-laid plans turn to failure? And why do aporia and antinomy creep into their maps like an infestation, the minute their attention is drawn elsewhere?

‘Christ, Mason.’

‘Christ what? What did I do?’

‘Huz ...’

You can’t say it’s just human nature or the human condition. That’s far too sloppily metaphysical for a writer like TP. Except that this is exactly what Pynchon himself seems to be saying, only in a more historically grounded way. Set amid the primordial caffeine-laced chaos out of which the modern sense of democratic humanism would shortly drag itself on its stumpy constitutional legs, the action of Mason – Dixon emerges from the culture of the coffee-house. It is sparked by the very crack of the dawning Enlightenment: have the courage to use your own understanding! – which is an old-fashioned version of the Nineties exhortation to do the right thing. So here we have two guys in all the nicest people’s favourite century, before the revolutionary Terror came along and suggested that Reason in itself would never be quite enough. They have coffee aplenty, and the sandwich is still an excitingly fresh invention. So what can it be that seems to be going wrong?

Pynchon, beautifully and directly, allows the foot-soldiers of Enlightenment to tell us in their own words. It may help to remember that Dixon, who speaks first, does so as a Geordie and a Quaker, and is thus a voice well-used to calling a ploughshare a ploughshare when occasion makes the need.

  ‘Ev’rywhere they’ve sent us – the Cape, St Helena, America, – what’s the element common to all?’

  ‘Long Voyages by sea,’ replies Mason, blinking in Exhaustion by now chronick. ‘Was there anything else?’

  ‘Slaves. Ev’ry day at the Cape, we lived with Slavery in our faces, – more of it at St Helena, – and now here we are again, in another Colony, this time having drawn them a Line between their Slave-Keepers, and their Wage-Payers, as if doom’d to re-encounter thro’ the World this public Secret, this shameful Core ...’

  ‘Christ, Mason.’

  ‘Christ, what? What did I do?’

  ‘Huz. Didn’t we take the King’s money, as here we’re taking it again? whilst Slaves waited upon us, and we neither one objected, as little as we have here, in certain houses south of the Line, – Where does it end? No matter where in it we go, shall we find all the World Tyrants and Slaves? America was the one place we should not have found them.’

‘Yet we’re not Slaves, after all, – we’re Hirelings.’

We have already observed Mason losing a bar-room argument by making this distinction about his own early life in Stroud.

In 1756, the British Army declared war on the Gloucestershire weavers. ‘Wages were all cut in half, and the master weavers began to fiddle the Chain on the Bar, and a weaver was lucky to earn tuppence for eight hours’ work.’ Mason, a baker’s son, was just getting ready to leave for his great new job in London ‘as Soldiers were beating citizens and slaughtering sheep for their pleasure, fouling and making sick Streams once holy’. ‘Contemptible cowardly dogs who fall down dead in their own Shit’, cried the infantrymen’s leader, James Wolfe, the future Martyr of Québec. Years later, Mason still feels bad about abandoning his village at this moment. He’s just one of those guys with a guilt-ridden nature. Unlike Dixon, who leaps in to beat up a passing Slave-Driver, without a thought as to the consequences of his actions for the slaves who find themselves so unexpectedly liberated, or indeed for himself.

At first sight, the ideas Pynchon is developing in this passage may seem too obvious to be worthy of much note. It’s obvious that all the places an 18th-century traveller would visit would turn out to have been opened up in the first place to expedite the global trade in slaves. It’s obvious that there’s an awkward problem there for the raising, about the chattel slavery of overseas colonialism and the wage slavery both Mason and Dixon experienced as young men, with the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution kicking in at home. And it’s obvious that we have a contradiction between M–D’s basic well-meaningness as human beings, and their passive collusion in ‘this Shameful Core’. And yet none of this was obvious to Mason or Dixon. The sophisticated understanding of history which allows us to view the globe so glibly is pretty much a high-tech, late 20th-century thing. And does it especially help us to resolve the moral problem? I’ll take a quick running jump at this one and hazard an answer of No.

It is a monumental achievement, what Pynchon in Mason – Dixon has done. You will not know what has hit you until you are flat out on the floor. You start the book bewildered, then slowly ease into its curious patterings of order and disorder, its utterly idiosyncratic sense of rhythm and pace. By the time you get to the Talking Dog, your face will be cracking into the nicest of new-dawn smiles. ‘Nice guys,’ you’ll be thinking of Mason and Dixon. You’ll be reminiscing fondly about all your other favourite nice guys, like Tristram Shandy and Leopold Bloom. And then you start fantasising about getting them all together, like Flann O’Brien does with all his big favourites in the Dalkey cave. You wonder whether the period conventions would allow for it. Is being a nice guy enough of a transhistorical quality to let the party go with a swing?

To which the answer seems to be: yes it is, quite possibly. Humanism – the philosophically fetishised version of everyday nice-guy emotion – is all we’ve really got to bind us, and it’s also our topmost asset. And yet it has no power to address the ‘public Secret’ which blights the very origin of its optimism. It is powerless over the transhistorical omnipresence of its ‘shameful Core’. ‘Unfortunately, young People, the word Liberty, so unreflectively sacred to us today, was taken in those Times to encompass even the darkest of Men’s rights, – to injure whomever we might wish, – unto extermination, were it possible,’ comments the omniscient narrator. ‘This being, indeed and alas, one of the Liberties our late War was fought to secure.’

So what of the Snow-Balls with which we started? Well, the ballad of Mason – Dixon is not presented unmediated. It is told by the Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke, an Anglican minister who pops up all over the main narrative, and who contributes his ecumenical homilies to many a chapter’s head. It’s Christmastide 1786, just after the War of Independence. Cherrycoke has been tending his old friend Mason’s grave. He’s allowed to room with his brother-in-law’s family for as long as he can entertain the in-house tribe of teenagers – ‘too much evidence of Juvenile Rampage at the wrong moment, however, and Boppo! ’twill be Out the Door with him’. There are Dough-Nuts and Buns, and Fritters and Crullers. It’s like The Waltons or Little Women. It’s a completely shameless feast-in of a bourgeois family Christmas.

Except of course that it is and it isn’t, and it is also other things. A winter’s tale which goes on for 773 pages, and will take the normal reader a solid week to read? The joke is declined in all manner of ways delicious as the novel proceeds. Sometimes, Cherrycoke disappears for ages. Then, there’s page after page about the family orrery, family flirtations, family tales. There’s one particularly elegant prestidigitation, in which the Mason and Dixon narrative melds with a yellow paper which is being read by a sexually frustrated college-boy. It happens over the token bit of porno-sadism which Pynchon usually slips into a novel somewhere (necessity being the mother of invention, it would be hard to squeeze a bit of porno-sadism into the story of Mason and Dixon in any less protuberant a way). The name of the yellow paper is wonderful, and I’m glad to say it turns up often. It is called the Ghastly Fop.

The Christmastide setting – and the sprightly tenderness with which it is evoked – adds something yet richer and stranger to the long, slow patternings of the Mason – Dixon plot. It offers a spurious-and-yet-not-entirely-so conclusion to a story whose integrity depends on its own non-closure, allowing for an illusion – which is not entirely an illusion – of redemption and return. In its duration and in its festivity it very much brings to mind the movement of Fanny and Alexander, Ingmar Bergman’s mighty final film. Both works bespeak great mellowness and maturity, and an enormous generosity of mind. The warmth, the optimism, the commitment to reason is unflinching, even as either piece busily depicts the innumerable ways in which reason is an exasperating business, prone to sudden slippages and with a tendency to break down.

It isn’t true, as some reviewers have suggested, that Mason – Dixon represents a radical break with Pynchon’s earlier big books. He was never much of a bug-eyed weirdo in the first place. He was just a good bit younger in the Sixties, and so both willing and able to slam-dance straight into his lifelong preoccupations, getting on down with all the crazy people in the cultural havoc at the front. To prove it, I’ll say something more about those Snow-Balls. They seem deliberately to echo the beginning of Gravity’s Rainbow. The first time as rocket science and apocalypse. The second time as eternal recurrence and fun.

‘What Phantom Shape, implicit in the Figures?’ Mason asks feebly of his attendants as he is about to die. ‘’Tis a Construction, a great single Engine, the size of a Continent ... Our Bible is Nature, wherein the Pentateuch, is the Sky. I have found there written evr’y Night, in Astral Gematria, Messages of Great Urgency to our Time.’

‘Since I was ten,’ Mason’s eldest son says at his graveside, ‘I wanted you to take me and Willy to America. I kept hoping, ev’ry Birthday, this would be the year.’ The boy’s name is Doctor Isaac, after Newton. ‘The Fish jump into your Arms,’ he continues a little later. ‘The Indians know Magick.’

‘We’ll go there. We’ll live there,’ butts in his younger brother.

‘We’ll fish there,’ Doc says, in the last line of this wonderful novel. ‘And you too.’ It’s the purest, naivest dream of America. And it’s a sceptical critique of that continent’s epistemological foundations, and so of the moral and perceptual foundations of the modern world.