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A New Sort of European

Climbing thru Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, (MD) and have been for roughly the last month. It’s been interrupted by a number of other texts, including The Wandering Scholars, by Helen Waddell, and the incandescent Consolation of Boëthius, and if I don’t get a move on, there will be other seasonal reads (esp. Tripmaster Monkey) to divert it.

At the end of July, I finished Vineland (VL) for what apparently was the first time. I had bought it breathlessly in 1990, right when it first came out, but I now realize I couldn’t possibly have gotten beyond the first thirty or so pages. Someone I thought was the main protagonist essentially vanishes abt that far into the book, not to return until almost the very end.

VL is generally pretty good, if a bit “lite” – it reads at times as if Tom Robbins were half-heartedly trying his hand at a Pynchon impersonation.

I am finding MD a far more mature and measured work even than GR. He can veer from Restoration satire (people bustling in and out of rooms, breathless maids with ripp’d bodices (bodices, in fact, designed to rip open and snap back closed again) thwarted lovers exiting precipitously thru windows) to trenchant observations on the corrosive effects of slavery on culture, often within the same paragraph.

It is written in the diction, grammar, phrasing, and spelling of an 18th century text, but also includes such bemusing phantasms as a talking dog, and wry anachonisms as the first anchovy pizza in England, as well as a 2 or 3 page discussion of “modern” music, ending with this great punchline (you will see, of course, the dazzling bait-and-switch):

“…Much of your Faith seems invested in this novel Musick–"
”Where better?" asks young Ethelmer confidently. “Is it not the very Rhythm of the Engines, the Clamor of the Mills, the Rock of the Oceans, the Roll of the Drums in the Night, why if one wish’d to give it a Name,–”
“Surf Music!" DePugh cries.

After we read about Mason & Dixon observing the 1761 Transit of Venus from the Dutch colonies of South Africa (during which a comically tragic portrait of racism and slavery is drawn with deft and bitter strokes), the two then depart for America to demarcate the disputed property line between Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware.

This, their arrival in America, where everything is for sale, and people stay up all night in coffeeshops; here, in the seething, sprawling metropolis of Philadelphia (then second only to London among English-speaking cities of the earth), is where the satire and fantasy really kicks in. We meet, for example, the irrepressible Dr Franklin, always wearing sunglasses of differing hues, playing his Armonica in nightclubs, and rousing the latenight crowd out into lightning storms.

I am in the midst of a section wherein the two surveyors, standing in various farmers' back gardens, are attempting, with little success, to explain the mathematical and political causes of this geometric nightmare. It’s not just Pynchon’s own tangential writing that obscures the greedy human motives behind such tortured lines.

Okay, one more passage:

Every day the room [of the Coffeeshop], for hours together, sways on the verge of riot. May unchecked consumption of all these modern substances at the same time, a habit without historical precedent, upon these shores be creating a new sort of European? less respectful of the forms that have previously held Society together, more apt to speak his mind, or hers, upon any topic he chooses, and to defend his position as need be? Two youths of the Macaronic profession are indeed greatly preoccupied upon the boards of the floor, in seeking to kick and pummel, each into the other, some Enlightenment regarding the Topick of Virtual Representation. An individual in expensive attire, impersonating a gentleman, stands upon a table freely urging sodomical offenses against the body of the Sovereign, being cheered on by a circle of Mechanics, who are not reluctant with their own suggestions. Wenches emerge from the scullery dimnesses to seat themselves at the tables of disputants, and in brogues as thick as oatmeal recite their own lists of British sins.

773 delicious pages of this.