The tension between the real and the fictional

The Reverend (Revd) Wicks Cherrycoke is the main narrator of the story. The setting for the narration is Philadelphia of the year 1786, just after Mason's funeral. We are in the house of the LeSpark-family. Cherrycoke, who is a distant relative of the family, may only stay in the house for as long as he entertains the twins Pitt and Pliny. So he, who only knows those parts of Mason and Dixon's adventures from first hand experience when he was their companion - he wrote a notebook during the line draw -, tends to ornamentations and digressions. The frame action in the house of Mr. LeSpark reaches throughout the whole novel. Members of the family come and go again and again - for instance Wade's daughter Tenebrae and her cousin Ethelmer -, get excited because of the exaggerated descriptions the Reverend gives them or simply fall asleep.

In an argument with Uncle Ives Cherrycoke reveals his opinion on history and truth. To understand history, Ives says, "You look at the evidence. The testimony. The whole Truth." (Pynchon, 350)
Cherrycoke, in contrast, sees history as "great disorderly Tangle of Lines, long and short, weak and strong, vanishing into the Mnemonick Deep." Another quote: "Who claims Truth, Truth abandons. History is hir'd, or coerc'd, only in Interests that must ever prove base. She is too innocent, to be left within the reach of anyone in Power,- who need but touch her, and all her Credit is in the instant vanish'd, as if it had never been. She needs rather to be tended lovingly and honorably by fabulists and counterfeiters, Ballad-Mongers and Cranks of ev'ry Radius, Masters of Disguise to provide her the Costume, Toilette, and Bearing, and Speech nimble enough to keep her beyond the Desires, or even the Curiosity, of Government." (Pynchon, 350) A lot of critics gladly accepted this passage as a quote revealing Pynchon's poetic program. Perhaps the best examples of Pynchon acting and writing as a "Master of Disguise" is The Ghastly Fop-episode starring Eliza Fields.

The Ghastly Fop is a gothic and somewhat pornographic novel in several parts, with new volumes appearing from time to time that also appear in the novel. Chapter 53 opens by signaling itself as a clear break in the narrative, as Mason and Dixon take a Winter break from drawing their Line and the Reverend Cherrycoke's tale-telling takes a break as well. Suddenly a new figure, unnamed, is central; she later is discovered to be named Eliza Fields. These two chapters is Pynchon's version of the captivity narrative: Eliza is captured by the Indians, escapes and makes her way to Quebec and the Jesuits, then later joins the camp of workers accompanying Mason and Dixon.

We discover that this narrative is not part of either the oral or the written version of the Rev. Cherrycoke's history of Mason and Dixon. But Eliza's story is being read by Tenebrae and Ethelmer, two of Cherrycoke's listeners. They comment upon and dream about it. However at some point in chapter 54 Eliza has crossed from inhabiting the Ghastly Fop written narrative to becoming a character in Cherrycoke's oral tale and so in Mason & Dixon. The Captive's Tale is at odds with the worlds of reason, sentiment and moralism exemplified by the protagonists of the novel. But the fact that even Mason and Dixon also read such tales shows one of the many contradictions of the age of reason - the more spectacular of the book is a wooden duck that comes alive and falls in love with a French cook and follows him around the globe. The Ghastly Fop-stories are dealing with desire and the crossing of boundaries and by doing that contradict the drawing of a straight line. After briefly being on Mason and Dixon's line Eliza disappears again - another prove of history being "a great disorderly Tangle of Lines".

Another example of the problematic relationship between reality and fiction is the ending of the American expedition: Pynchon comes up with an alternative ending, sending the surveyors farther and farther west…

Travel on ...