Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon

Henry Holt and Company, Inc. 1997 773 pp. 27.50

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


Charles Mason (1728-1786), assistant to the Astronomer Royal, and Jeremiah Dixon (1733-1779), Quaker surveyor, were contracted by the wealthy Pennsylvania descendants of William Penn to mark the boundary line between Maryland and Pennsylvania, an act which forever divided the slave-holding South from the industrial North. From this unpromising material comes Thomas Pynchon’s novel, Mason & Dixon, a behemoth that is by turns dazzling and enervating, fascinating and frustrating.

While the marking of the Line takes up much of the space of the novel, we follow "Gothickally depressive" Mason and "Westeringly manic" Dixon from their initial 1761 departure from England for South Africa, where they measure the Transit of Venus, to St. Helena, where they encounter the brother-in-law of Clive of India, Maskelyne. They then journey to America, where they encounter farmers and Indians and Swedes and several of our marijuana-smoking, opium-ingesting Founding Fathers.

"One reason given for bringing Mason and Dixon into the Boundary Dispute was that nobody in America seem’d to’ve had any luck with this fiendish Problem of the Tangent Line, which had absorb’d the energies of the best Geometers in the Colonies."

Giant cheeses rolling through the English countryside, threatening the lives of all who dare stand in its wake. A mechanical flying duck, capable of speeds up to 700 miles an hour, vengefully chases a noted French chef from Paris to Pennsylvania. With tableaux such as these, this novel owes more to books such as John Barth’s 1960 The Sot Weed Factor than any of its eighteenth century predecessors. Indeed, sly references abound: Mr. Tox of M&D has written the epic poem the Pennsylvaniad, the mirror of Barth’s character Ebenezer Cooke’s Marylandiad.

Following the transit from Europe to America, Pynchon views the white-skinned interlopers as drug-addled from the outset. "Conversing about politics, under such a stimulus, would have prov’d animated enough, without reckoning in as well the effects of drink, tobacco,--whose smoke one inhales here willy-nilly with every breath,--and sugar, to be found at every hand."

In odd contrast to their appetite for drugs, Pynchon portrays European-Americans’ obsession with mathematically based science, which created the conditions for environmental rape, exemplified by Mason & Dixon’s topographically oblivious line. "Ev’rywhere else on earth Boundaries follow Nature,--coast-lines, ridge-tops, river-banks,--so honoring the Dragon or Shan within, from which Land-Scape ever takes its form. To mark a right Line upon the Earth is to inflict upon the Dragon’s very Flesh, a sword-slash, a long, perfect scar, impossible for any who live out here the year ‘round to see as other than hateful Assault. How can it pass unanswer’d?"

From Oedipa Maas to Tyrone Slothrup, and now to Mason and Dixon, nothing is ever easy in Pynchon. Multiple narrators (principally, their friend and sometimes companion, the Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke), anachronistic jokes, the fantastic emerging from the banal, closely reasoned scientific theories interrupted by dance hall tunes—this is another kitchen sink of a novel, wherein Mr. Pynchon discourses on everything from slavery to the Chinese doctrine of the influence of land on people, feng-shui. The Black Hole of Calcutta, the War of Jenkin’s Ear, how to determine parallax using the transit of Venus across the face of the sun: the reader gets slapped from subject to subject more often than Faye Dunaway’s face in Chinatown.

This novel exhibits an historical pentimento of Pynchon’s writing career: scratch V and you’ll find Gravitiy’s Rainbow beneath; scratch GR and you’ll find Mason & Dixon: the themes and techniques endure. The awful and ignorant impress of Science on Nature with its unintended effects, counterbalanced by the wise but mysterious Asian and Amerindian cosmologies. The gleefulness with which people destroy one another, from rockets to enslavement to the pox. The suspicion that human society, if read properly, would reveal a grand, centuries-old web of insidious connections and intrigue enough to make the most paranoid proud.

"Suppose Maskelyne’s a French Spy. Suppose a secret force of Jesuits, receives each Day a summary of Observations made at Greenwich, and transcalculates it according to a system known to the Kabbalists of the Second Century as Gematria, whereby Messages may be extracted from lines of Text sacred and otherwise, a Knowledge preserv’d by various Custodians over the centuries."

What is seldom observed in Pynchon’s works, but shouldn’t be missed, is the beauty of his writing. Here the surveyors awake to their surroundings: "In such easy Hops thro’ the summer fields and the German cooking, do they progress, Susquehanna to the Allegheny Mountain. Some mornings they awake and can believe that they traverse an Eden, unbearably fair in the Dawn, squandering all its Beauty, day after day unseen, bearing them fruits, presenting them Game, bringing them a fugitive moment of Peace,--how, for days at a time, can they not, dizzy with it, believe themselves pass’d permanently into Dream… ?"

Those who lack world enough and time for 773 pages of a dour astronomer and a randy surveyor may well feel as Saul Bellow does: "Pynchon I like, but he is sort of an endless virtuoso. It’s like listening to 20 hours of Paganini. One would be plenty." The huge first printing suggests that the publishers scent a best seller, but based on this reading M&D will remain a text for the lovers of puzzles and the erudite fans who like their serious literature tarted up with slapstick and science, those Pynchon acolytes for whom hope still remains following the disappointment of Vineland.