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Pynchon's Line Dance

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'Mason & Dixon' is a giant creation myth of an America divvied up and parceled out by straight and narrow minds

By Bill Brazell

THOMAS PYNCHON is a value-added writer who may add more value than any other writer alive. In novels like V. and The Crying of Lot 49, he used varying densities of detail to describe conspiracies that may or may not have been real and in the process told readers about Malta, alligator hunting and a postal alternative hundreds of years older than email.

Gravity's Rainbow was a massive, labyrinthine mess, leading the reader on with tangled knots of fact and speculation, hinting at forces more sinister than the rockets of Wernher von Braun, bigger than WWII, more pervasive than General Electric.

These books charged at the reader with buckets of secret knowledge--a literary "hard sell." In 1989, though, Vineland softened the strategy. Some fans thought things got a little too soft. The story seemed to come from an author resting on his laurels, or maybe his florals--the California-based characters smoked a lot of grass. It was Pynchon's first novel since Gravity's Rainbow, and its lightness after 17 years caused widespread disappointment.

With Pynchon's new novel, Mason & Dixon, however, the detour has borne fruit. Here is a book that blends Vineland's accessibility with the factual breadth of his earlier works and ripens them into a readable, good-natured masterpiece. It is a carnival framed around next-to-nothing: a straight line, without mass or depth.

In a bold move, the postmodernist darling tells the story straight too. Eighteenth-century romantic Episcopalian astronomer Charles Mason meets flirtatious Quaker surveyor Jeremiah Dixon. They go to Cape Town, South Africa. Astronomer loses surveyor. Astronomer and surveyor reunite, travel to the New World and make a beautiful line together. Dividing Pennsylvania from Maryland, Protestant from Catholic, the line will one day also divide slave states from free ones, and so define North and South.

Mason & Dixon is a giant creation myth of America, far longer than Genesis, unfolding from the time before the nation was even a gleam in its future father's stoned eye. That's right--our first president inhales, deeply. Wife Martha helps guests stave off the munchies. Ben Franklin fiddles with batteries onstage and with bright groupies offstage.

But there is more to Pynchon's vision of America in the making than the founding fathers as seen by the National Enquirer. Mason and Dixon first speak of America as "another slave colony," one whose new inhabitants are "inclin'd to kill the People already living where they wish to settle."

Pynchon knows about the Puritan vision of America. He's heard enough from people like Ronald Reagan about the City on the Hill. Now he wants to show us the hill itself, the dirt the city was built on. He wants us to know how the hill has been parceled out, cut up by sharp angles in order to "tidy up" land no one knew was messy until Europeans found it so.

The Native Americans encountered here do not pretend to understand this obsession with lines. A Chinese man, freshly escaped from a Canadian Jesuit compound, warns that to go against the natural rise and fall of the land in pursuit of an abstract "straightness" is to break the laws of feng shui. Bad things will come of it, he says--and who is to say he is wrong? For whatever reason, the dirt around Mason and Dixon's famous line would one day soak up a lot of blood.


Massive page devoted to Gravity's Rainbow,
V. and Mason & Dixon

Site exclusively about Mason & Dixon.

An arcane, fans-only site about Pynchon.

For those who can't wait to discuss the man and
his books, subscribe to the Pynchon list-serve.


BUT THE WAR BETWEEN the States will come later. Its reality hovers over Mason & Dixon but does not intrude. In another unusual move, Pynchon hires a storyteller from 1786 to keep the audience from being distracted by the knowledge of future conflict. The story's filter is the Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke, a not-quite-omniscient, not-quite-revered narrator whose name is an amiable wink at Wiggs Dannyboy, the earthy immortal from Tom Robbins' Jitterbug Perfume. Like 17th-century preacher William Pynchon, Thomas' rebellious Puritan ancestor, Cherrycoke likes ordinary sinners too much to ignore them the way a good Puritan should.

Instead, he gives them full voice in 18th-century style, with eccentric capitalization and punctuation marks oddly placed to modern eyes. Readers hear from backwoods vigilantes, busty Dutch maidens and a bevy of sailors (including a yarnspinner named Patrick O'Brian). They meet megalomaniacal Jesuits and clairvoyant Gypsies.

Yet somehow the story lacks a sustained Native American voice, and the main slave character is a clown. One could argue that this merely reflects the power structure of the time. However, that does not explain the time given to the Learned English Dog, several talking clocks, or the crazy French chef whose mechanical duck loves him way too much.

IT'S A LONG, bouncy trip, and sometimes feels it. But that's OK: "I am a Taurus, sir. I know how to wait." The words come from the melancholic Mason, but they could as easily be Pynchon's. He may be saying that his May 8 birthday correlates with the amount of time that he lets pass between books.

The reclusive author--once believed to be J.D. Salinger under a different name--does not generally answer his critics; he sent a stand-up comic to accept his National Book Award. But four years ago, Pynchon twitted the literary establishment by participating in a New York Times Book Review forum on the Seven Deadly Sins. He defended Sloth.

Sloth from another angle is Patience, a Cardinal Virtue. And patience has helped Pynchon do incredible homework. His wild trips are nearly always grounded, as when he puts a young Thomas Jefferson in just the right tavern to overhear Dixon's toast to "the pursuit of happiness." Pynchon knows that T.J. got "life" and "liberty" from philosopher John Locke and that the swap of "pursuit of happiness" for Locke's prosaic "property" was a Jeffersonian flourish. As usual, Pynchon's whimsy stays inbounds.

Willing to break up eloquence with an off-color pun and able to play with the uncertainty of death, Pynchon harks back to another historically minded Taurean whose identity was surrounded by mystery: William Shakespeare. The Bard brought us face-to-skull with poor Yorick, and thus with our only certain future. Pynchon does the same, but with an update. Shakespeare says that all the world's a stage. To Pynchon it's a stagecoach, one that may have "no Driver, ... no Horses, ... only the Machine, fading as we stand, and a Prairie of desperate Immensity."

As we wander that prairie, we're lucky to have Pynchon along.

Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon; Henry Holt and Company; 773 pages; $27.50 cloth.

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From the June 26-July 2, 1997 issue of Metro.

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