Copyright © 1997. All Rights Reserved.
MASON & DIXON
Henry Holt, 773 pp.
When designer Chip Kidd called Mason & Dixon's wraparound cover "the tail of the whale," he was right on the money: Mason & Dixon is massive in that Gravity's Rainbow/V kind of way - a sprawling history, both documented and secret, written in Goode Olde Englishe. (Pynchon's working an 18th century retro vibe, adding "e" to every other worde, contracting wher'ver possible, and minding his blasphemous Ps&Qs, G__dammit.) Since the 1973 publication of Gravity's Rainbow, the rumor mill had it the secretive Pynchon was hard at work on a novel about the two British surveyors responsible for divvying up the land now known as Pennsylvania and Maryland, the gents who cut the line over which the US Civil War played itself out. After years of speculation, here it is - and Mason & Dixon is such a goofy/smart lardass behemoth that 1990's skinny Vineland comes off looking like incidental fallout.
The book follows Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon as the bickering duo wander through history-as-we-know-it (e.g. chumming around with Ben Franklin) and history-as-we-never-could've-imagined (e.g. taking a Hollow Earth field trip). They stare at the stars and they get hypnotized by giant electric eels. They fight and they make up. They blunder into international conspiracy theories and they get drunk.
Mason is "Gothickally depressive," a scientific man shaken to his core by "the metaphysical Encounter of Ancient Savagery with Modern Science." (It doesn't help that he's haunted by his late wife's ghost.) He wonders, "Isn't this suppos'd to be the Age of Reason?" one minute, and feverishly seeks cosmic wisdom from a talking dog the next.
Dixon is more open-minded, "Westeringly manic" in his weird world travels. (Some background: Dixon's a Quaker, he was taught how to fly as a youth, and he loves ketchup.)
The pair are an odd couple of the highest order, but united by a shared feeling that all is not right in America. As their "long arse-breaking" East-West journey continues, the surveyors (unclear as to who hired them for the job and why) realize their Line is both an unnatural assault on the Earth (just ask their pal, the two-fisted feng shui master disguised as a renegade Jesuit priest), and symbolic of humankind's dark side (in that it's a division between America's "Slave-Keepers, and their Wage Payers").
"What in the Holy Names are these people about?" wonders Dixon of the New World's denizens. "Is it something in this Wilderness, something ancient, that waited for them, and infected their Souls when they came?"
Mason is even more direct in his fears: "Shall wise Doctors one day write History's assessment of the Good resulting from this Line, vis-à-vis the not-so-good? I wonder which List will be longer?"
Mason & Dixon is an intriguing (and, believe it or not, super-hilarious) meditation on America's bloody roots, but it can be a real eye-glazer at times: Pynchon clinches his reputation as Pedant No. 1, often piling on the astro-math extra thick - but before the nods get too heavy, he'll conjure a were-beaver, or have Mason and Dixon get stoned with George Washington, and everything's A-okay again. That's the cycle: a mind-numbing lecture on sextants, then a crazed robot duck, then another lecture, then a giant wheel of cheese rolling through the air. Then it's a diatribe on how golems are the ultimate expression of Christian love, as illustrated by a groaner of a Popeye joke. (And don't forget that talking dog!) Hard science meets soft potty humor: could Mason & Dixon be any better?
Getting back to the book's cover (773 pages, be damned!), Mason & Dixon is wrapped in a double dust-jacket, with Pynchon's name appearing solely on the see-through outer sleeve - like some kind of "death of the author" gag, Thomas Pynchon can be easily peeled off the tome, leaving the reader alone to sort through a witty, psycho-cerebral, puzzling and incredibly human story. As the million-flaps-per-second hum of a robot duck's wings fade into the wilderness, Mason & Dixon shimmers with the Big Pynchon Question: Who the hell is this guy?
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