May 1 9 9 7
[Book Reviews]

| Reviews | Literary Calendar | Authors in town | Events by Location | Hot Links |

Roman à cleft

Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon surveys the making of America

by Peter Keough

MASON & DIXON, by Thomas Pynchon. Henry Holt, 773 pages, $27.50.

It may be a rare privilege to be remembered as a geometric figure, but such an honor scarcely seems to merit a literary epic. In 1763 the Englishmen Charles Mason, an astronomer, and Jeremiah Dixon, a surveyor, were hired to establish the long-disputed boundary between the slaveholding colony of Maryland and the free colony of Pennsylvania. In the next century, as the new country expanded, the Mason-Dixon Line, as it came to be called, was extended westward to settle the intensifying disputes between free and slave territories that would ultimately erupt into the Civil War.

Mason, Dixon, and their line might be a good topic for grammar-school history students, but they don't suggest the kind of outrageous, apocalyptic material on which Thomas Pynchon -- if not America's greatest novelist, then surely its most enigmatic -- would expend nearly 800 pages. The labors of laying a 343-mile straight line seem mundane after the albino alligators of V, the mystical arc of V-2 missiles in Gravity's Rainbow, or the diabolical alternative postal system of The Crying of Lot 49.

But then again, the wunderkind of '60s fiction is nearing retirement age, and he can be expected to be more reflective than revolutionary. In fact, in Mason & Dixon, he's prerevolutionary, in setting, form, and style. In its meandering, digressive, anti-narrative manner, the novel is reminiscent of that anomalous predecessor of 20th-century experimental fiction, Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy -- published, curiously enough, around the same time as Mason and Dixon were undertaking their surveying feat. Mason & Dixon abides by Sterne's 18th-century diction, spelling, punctuation, Capitalization, and periodic sentences, and shares his delight in violating and mocking the novel's then-emerging conventions of structure, character, and verisimilitude.

It seems at first a somewhat superficial exercise in form, but as one is drawn deeper into its concatenating stories, flights of fancy, hallucinatory personae, outlandish variations of historical fact, lame puns, cute anachronisms, and cheeky vaudeville routines, the novel's breadth, subtlety of thought, and jaundiced compassion for humanity emerge like plotted landmarks in a verbal terra incognita. It's not Pynchon's boldest work, but it may be his richest -- an encyclopedic, picaresque extravaganza that encloses a moving meditation on mortality and a crotchety paean to the noble futility of trying to map out the chaos of existence.

As essential to the tale as its geographical lines are lines of narrative. Drawing one of these is Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke, in whose voice most of the story is told. He's not alone, though: among those competing with him are Timothy Tox, the fictitious author of The Pennsylvaniad; the anonymous pornographer behind the serial quarto The Ghastly Fop; and other quirky fabulists up to and including Mason, Dixon, and Pynchon himself.

The Reverend Cherrycoke was Mason and Dixon's traveling companion, unheeded spiritual adviser, and Boswellian chronicler. He arrives in Philadelphia to attend the funeral of Mason in 1786 (Dixon preceded him in 1779), at a moment when the new nation is both consolidating and fragmenting anew, when the Age of Reason is dissipating into the Romantic Period. He is too late for the funeral, but decides to stay on with his sister Elizabeth and her extended family. To justify his stay, he relates his late friends' adventures to the young of the household.

Mason & Dixon, then, is a bedtime story, a frontier fairy tale populated with marvels. So it's no surprise that Mason and Dixon's first meeting involves the Learned English Dog, a talking canine that solves riddles, recalls trivia, and prognosticates fates. For Mason, it's an opportunity to inquire into the well-being of his departed wife, Rebekah, whose death has left him with a bad case of "Hyperthrenia, or `Excess in Mourning.' " Mason is inclined to melancholy; Dixon, by contrast, is sanguine. That and their other complements -- Mason favors the grape, Dixon the grain; Mason is a Londoner, Dixon a rustic; Mason denies Desire, Dixon revels in it -- make the pair an ideally functional and mutually infuriating duo.

The Dog disappears, denying Mason the chance to contact his wife. Grief-bound, he joins Dixon in a journey to the Dutch colony of South Africa to plot the evocatively named Transit of Venus for the Royal Astrological Society. Along with other observing teams posted all over the world, they time the passage exactly, providing data that will help gauge the distance of the sun from the earth. But for the brooding Mason, it's as much a mythic as a scientific event. As he explains to the overly nubile daughters and servants of his Dutch hosts, the Vrooms,

"Thro' our whole gazing-lives, Venus has been a tiny Dot of Light, going through phases like the Moon, ever against the black face of Eternity. But on the day of this Transit, all shall suddenly reverse,-- as she is caught, dark, embodied, solid, against the face of the Sun,-- a Goddess descended from light to Matter."

Such is the process of Mason & Dixon, taking the mythic, abstract, and celestial and rendering them into the mortal, literal, and mundane -- and vice versa. It's a kind of slapstick metaphysical poetry. The intention is good fun, but also of the utmost gravity as Pynchon's duo unearths evil and its causes and, at times, contributes to them. Not all the black faces Mason and Dixon encounter belong to Eternity. Though they gaze at the heavens, they are immured in a hellish slave society.

They find the same at their next major assignment, drawing the line in the American colonies. Meant to fill the time until the next Transit, eight years later, this will prove the deed for which they are remembered, and the one with the most impact on American history -- at least in Pynchon's ornate metaphorical system. Like a pair of 18th-century Forrest Gumps, they bump into the great and soon-to-be-great players on the colonial stage -- Ben Franklin doing a nightclub act with his lightning experiment while dressed as Death; Colonel George Washington smoking hemp while being entertained by his slave Gershom, a kind of prototypical Sammy Davis, Jr. -- and glean from them the first stirrings of rebellion and the nascent nation's paradoxical views on freedom, slavery, and manifest destiny.

In America they find not only slavery but the theft of a continent and the beginnings of genocide, a process with which, they suspect, they are complicit. "They saw white Brutality enough, at the Cape of Good Hope," Cherrycoke notes.

They can no better understand it now, than then. Something is eluding them. Whites in both places are become the very Savages of their own worst Dreams . . .

One thing that eludes them, or that they elude, is the recognition that they are paid mercenaries expanding the evil. As they chart mile after mile of the boundary, plotting it exactly with celestial observations, hacking it from the wilderness with their colorful crew of cartoon misfits, they are in fact

changing all from subjunctive to declarative, reducing Possibilities to Simplicities that serve the Ends of Governments,-- winning away from the realm of the Sacred, its Borderlands one by one, and assuming them unto the bare mortal World that is our home, and our Despair.

Despite their participation in this infernal civilizing process, the two heroes remain innocents. They are just two more tools in a Pynchonian universe full of devices. These include a perpetual-motion watch, a backwoods Golem, an automatonical duck in love with an exiled French chef, a planter named Peter who sees Christ when he falls into a silo full of hops (only to lose him again), and a sign embossed on the rifles of slavemongers, like the muted post horn of Lot 49, "a Silver Star of five Points, revers'd so that two point up and one down,-- a sure sign of evil at work, universally recogniz'd as the Horns of the D----l."

Connecting these disparate items are the usual Pynchonian conspiracies, ranging from treacherous Royal Society colleagues in search of the secret of longitude (last seen in Umberto Eco's similarly byzantine, semiotic historical epic, The Island of the Day Before) and a cabal of Jesuits and Chinese mystics plotting to divide the world into a network of imprisoning lines.

An escapee from that latter conspiracy, half-crazed and paranoid, tries to sum up for Mason and Dixon the malignancy of their line. " `Terrible Feng-Shui here,' " he tells them.

"Ev'rywhere else on earth, Boundaries follow Nature . . . To mark a right Line upon the Earth is to inflict . . . 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?"

More disturbing, Pynchon suggests, is that it will pass unanswered. The tragedy of lines is not just that they are fictions, a vain attempt to impose human abstraction on the ineffably concrete, but that they come to an end. As the Reverend Cherrycoke writes in his treatise Christ and History, "a great disorderly Tangle of Lines, long and short, weak and strong, vanishing into the Mnemonick Deep, with only their Destination in common." Mason & Dixon ends on the verge of its beginning, with the moribund Mason bolstered by his sons with tales of a promised land where they will drop their own lines into that same Mnemonick Deep and catch something that will endure all memory.

Peter Keough is the film editor of the Boston Phoenix.