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Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon

By Blake de Pastino

July 21, 1997:  Is there any writer these days as enigmatic as Thomas Pynchon? If the unsurpassed frustration that readers feel for him is any indication, probably not. And really, they have good reason to be puzzled. First among the mysteries of Thomas Pynchon is just who he is. Ever since V., his enticing first novel of 1963, Pynchon has not once appeared in public; no one has seen him, interviewed him, taken his picture or found out where he lives (one magazine recently claimed to have narrowed it down to a specific intersection in Manhattan, but now the question is which corner). For many other readers, though, the more enduring mystery is what the hell Pynchon is trying to say. Each of his novels has proven to be a dizzying gimlet of farce, allegory and straight fiction, every one featuring weird narrative tricks. Like characters that don't so much talk to each other as at each other, factual details so obscure that only a genius or a freak would know them and absurd little subplots that twist the story into a quizzical sort of Möbius strip. He is certainly a quandary, this Pynchon, and the only thing people can agree on is that they don't know what to make of him.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Pynchon's fifth novel, Mason & Dixon, is rather cryptic. In fact, it's thick, difficult to follow and postmodern beyond belief. But in its size (800 pages) and its subject matter (the meaning of meaning), it's also one of the most ambitious novels to be written in America in quite some time. And when it's at all comprehensible, it is among the most rewarding. Possibly the largest effort undertaken by America's most mystifying writer, Mason & Dixon is a work of cheap folly, great significance and, at times, truly elegant writing.

As its title suggests, first of all, it's based on Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, the two English surveyors who staked the eponymous line between Pennsylvania and Maryland in the 1760s. At least that much is self-explanatory. But, in true Pynchon fashion, this episode is only a small part of a larger, odder drama. The real expedition, it turns out, is their trip through the mind-melting absurdity of the world around them, a world gone awry despite its station in the so-called "Age of Reason." From their first job together mapping the path of Venus to their escapade in America, the two pseudoscientists endure all kinds of crises that pose threats to life, limb and sanity. Along the way they meet a talking dog; a family full of horny, bodice-ripping girls; a giant clockwork duck, and George Washington, the Father of Our Country, with whom they smoke a big bowl of pot. By the end of this epic, no quarter of "Reason or Logick" is left standing.

It's heady stuff, for sure. But fortunately there's a flip-side to this rather trendy angst: a sense of beauty that swells up from time to time in Pynchon's writing. Most often, it appears in moments of powerful human emotion--the only moments in any of Pynchon's novels that seem to have any meaning. At these times, we are treated to some of the most tenderly written passages in recent memory: like when Mason is visited by his wife's ghost; or when Dixon saves a slave from a savage whipping, or even when Mason remembers his boyhood in his father's bakery--"the smells, the unaccountable swelling of the dough, the oven door like a door before a Sacrament." Moments like these are few, but they are powerful and well wrought enough for the reader to be grateful for them.

If only more of Mason & Dixon could offer such frisson. Maybe the most regrettable aspect of this book is that Pynchon, for whatever reason, has chosen to write it all in mock 18th-century prose--complete with capitalized nouns, truncated words and extinct (though, no doubt, thoroughly researched) rules of punctuation. As a result, we're occasionally subjected to some of the most reader-hostile prose on record, even moreso than Pynchon's earlier works. But at least there's more to Mason & Dixon than these little games, and the patient reader will be rewarded. With all its insight, bawdy entertainment and islands of some of his finest writing, this, like much of Pynchon's work, is a cipher worth cracking. (Henry Holt, cloth, $27.50)

--Blake de Pastino

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