Mason & Dixon

by Thomas Pynchon
Henry Holt and Co.
784 pp. $27.50

The country's most private writer
breaks his silence

Thomas Pynchon is a little like Halley's Comet: once he decides to show up, just about everyone steps out in the front yard to take a gander. Some, of course, park behind their telescopes and never go back in the house -- like Pynchon fans, who learned last fall that the author had a major novel coming out in April, and have talked of little else since.

   "For some of us, this is the single most suspenseful interval in modern American literary history," wrote New York Observer journalist Ron Rosenbaum last November. Rosenbaum couldn't wait to start guessing at the plot; neither could the P-Listers, the band of scholars, idolaters, conspiracy theorists and occasional intimidated onlookers (like me) who make up the Pynchon e-mail list. (The interested can start by logging onto the Pynchon website:

   News of the book set the group going like a perpetual-motion machine. They mulled over the publisher's press release. They dissected the 122-word opening sentence, which had found its way onto the Internet. They re-examined the author's oeuvre to detect a pattern. They sought coveted advance copies. Not a few nourished a hopeless fantasy that the notoriously reclusive Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, a.k.a. "Tom," "TRP" or, so help me, "Pynch," would go on a book tour. (Imagine! "Best wishes always, your friend, Tom" right there on the title page!) They took great delight in news of the book's length (twice as long as Vineland!) and they constantly reminded each other that April 30 was just a few weeks away... just a few days away... just a day...

   Perhaps this kind of attention comes rather naturally to hermetic writers who publish little; anything they say takes on a cosmic dimension. J.D. Salinger, for instance, will soon come out with his first book in 34 years, a novella that was written about as long ago. The fact alone prompted a cover story for this month's Esquire.

   Pynchon may induce even greater anxiety. His 35-year career has, prior to this one, produced five books: two great ones and three gap-fillers of varying merits. V. (1963) and Gravity's Rainbow (1973) are textbook examples of postmodern fiction: huge, darkly (and sometimes laboriously) comic, pessimistic, hallucinatory and downright Melvillian in detail. All of Pynchon's fiction is elaborate and tricky, full of plot and counterplot and sudden changes of perspective, and each new long-gestating arrival seems like the key, the "secret text" his readers, no less than his characters, are always looking for.

   So -- where does Mason & Dixon fall? And what in the world is this stringer of thermodynamic metaphors doing in pre-Revolutionary America? Quite a lot. Written in an 18th-century style, with free use of capitalization and contractions, the book follows the adventures of two historical nonentities, the astronomer Charles Mason and his protege Jeremiah Dixon, in their journey from London to Africa to America, where they will survey the line between Maryland and Pennsylvania that bears their name.

   It is also about time lost and found, the duplicities of capitalism, real and abstract geography, the rise of religious intolerance and the loss of faith; the history of early America as told by Whitney Streiber to Fox Mulder. It has more characters than I can possibly remember and some too weird to forget: a talking dog, talking clocks, a talking robot duck, a sage-like feng shui master, a maniacal Jesuit, a hemp-smoking George Washington and his black Yiddish comedian sidekick. The orgiast Ben Franklin makes an appearance, and so does Samuel Johnson. There's also a runaway four-ton cheese.

   The book is a runaway four-ton cheese; a Novel of Incident that gathers more momentum with every scene, even at the risk of flattening the reader. Would you believe me if I told you that's part of the fun?


   The story proper begins at Christmastime, 1786, "with the War settl'd and the Nation bickering itself into Fragments." An exiled minister, the reputedly daft Rev. Wicks Cherrycoke (yes, Cherrycoke; Pynchon has a fetish for funny names) sets out to amuse his niece and nephews by recalling his association with Mason and Dixon 20 years earlier. The Reverend -- whose memory isn't much more reliable than Grandpa Simpson's -- wanders in and out of the story, leaving much of his tale to chance, supposition and invention; in a word, "history," which Pynchon more or less suggests is just a lot of biased guesswork.

   The story that evolves is a good deal recorded fact and a great deal Silly Putty. Some years before the two came to America, Mason and Dixon set sail for the Indonesian isle of Sumatra to observe the Transit of Venus, a rare occurrence in which the planet traverses the course of the sun. Before they get very far, they become mixed up in a naval skirmish and find themselves accused of cowardice. Their travel schedule is re-arranged, putting them at St. Helena, the island off the coast of Southwest Africa, setting into place the course of events that will shape their lives. The Dark Continent and its environs is a savage, exotic land with dubious privileges for the white visitors: free love with slaves, who know the value of a light-skinned baby.

   The Transit of Venus provides a temporary respite, a small spiritual awakening where masters stop beating slaves and the Second Coming almost seems at hand. It doesn't happen; the cruel fact of slavery follows the voyagers wherever they go. In fact, as they seem to realize, they themselves are slaves -- cogs in the wheel of progress. Their employer, the Astronomer Royal, is controlled by the East India Company, a silk trading firm that trafficks in drugs and all manner of human exploitation. The progress of the East India Company depends on its secrecy, and the unknowing alliance of people like Mason and Dixon, who use the stars to determine property lines.

   The dominant image, a bit overworked as the book goes on, is the chain -- the Great Chain of Being, the chains that mark territory, the chains that bind hands and feet. Like Blake's "enslav'd" Daughters of Albion, they "sigh toward America," and its flickering promise of hope.


   But this is only part of the story, the terrestrial portion of a truly ambitious book whose two main interwoven narrative tracks might be labelled "earth" and "sky." Mason and Dixon may have their feet on the ground, but their heads and hearts are in the clouds: their interior life is bound up with the perfect movement of the stars, which yields little to earthly reality. In an apparent nod to the Lettrist International -- the band of avant-garde rebels in 1950s France who deemed all cities "imaginary" and who drew up their own "psychogeographic" maps of Paris -- Pynchon toys with "parageography": "alternative maps of the World," as one character puts it, "superimpos'd upon the more familiar ones."

   Mason, the book's real protagonist -- and a curious blend of Dante, Marcel Proust and Stephen Hawking -- is on a never-ending voyage to the land of lost time, where he can reunite with his late wife Rebekah. Dixon, likewise, pursues "a Map entirely within his mind, of a World he could escape to, if he had to."

   There is also an account of a parallel universe that sprang into existence "in the Schizochronick year of '52," when 11 days were dropped from a calendar. This unseen race of people live 11 days behind everyone else, "the more curious of them ever pursuing us, as might Historians of Times not yet come."

   It's in America that Mason and Dixon discover the lost civilization incarnate: Native Americans, who will only be massacred in the coming turf wars. The "New Continent" (lately heralded by the 1781 discovery of a new planet, Uranus) slouches into birth leaving only bloodshed in its trail. What was true in Africa is true in America: "The Business of this World is Trade and Death."


   Pynchon's broad reworking of an archaic literary form isn't particularly original; John Barth and Erica Jong have had fun with it, too. His uniqueness is to view this 18th-century world as our lost civilization, finding "clues to our own lives" -- drug abuse, the Starbucks culture, space aliens and rock and roll -- in the past.

   But, like the Shakespeare play which it subtly invokes here and there, Mason & Dixon is also a winter's tale: mad, frivolous, fantastic, but also a thoughtful meditation on loss, redemption and time. The novelist is a good deal less hopeful on those counts than the playwright, but a sad tale's best for winter -- especially when it's a tale as exhilarating as this one.

   Rodney Welch lives in Elgin.He doesn't have the slightest idea what feng shui means, either.

© Copyright by POINT, 1997
Last modified 6/23/97