Mason & Dixon

By Thomas Pynchon

Mason & Dixon is one of the most eagerly awaited books in years. Its author is a reclusive cult figure whose last major novel became a post-modern bible (Gravity’s Rainbow, 1973). Almost 20 years later, Vineland was so poorly received that some even questioned if Pynchon wrote it. What would be next?

A book that is many different things, as it turns out. In the first place, Mason & Dixon is a wildly erudite shaggy-dog story. Early on we meet the “Learned English Dog,” who describes himself as a “tail-wagging Scheherezade.” Pynchon is this dog, keeping the feather of his narrative aloft with a volcanic imagination and a lot of hot air.

Mason & Dixon is also a historical novel, telling the story of the 18th-century astronomer-surveyors who gave their names to the Maryland-Pennsylvania border. But it is far too fabulous to be taken for real. It is not, as one character notes, Edward Gibbon but Baron Munchausen. The eye-catching archaic style is goofy rather than authentic, and figures such as Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson share the stage with a mechanical duck and the American golem.

Though not for kids, this is children’s literature. At the end, Mason tells his son bedtime stories about Dixon. The Rev. Cherrycoke (a silent partner of the surveyors) narrates the entire novel to a family gathering that includes several youngsters. On another level, Pynchon’s pyrotechnic prose also comes out of a child’s world of funny words, nonsense names, and sing-song rhymes.

When nearly 800 pages of play-time is over, does Mason & Dixon pay off? I think it does. Pynchon’s trademark paranoia and anxiety have mellowed to a more reflective and mature uncertainty in the face of the unknown. Mason & Dixon is about exploring that unknown by drawing lines – creating maps and calendars for the undiscovered countries of time and space.

Such an undertaking may be pointless, as Pynchon suggests it is, but it is also deeply human. The ambiguity is profound. Clock time and lines of latitude are tyrannical abstractions (the line is likened to a “conduit for evil”) that are also vehicles of redemption – a word applied to both history and place. The undiscovered country is finally the City in the West and the Garden of the Gods: a type of death and the future. And Mason and Dixon are travelers who have returned.

Review first published July 5, 1997.


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