"Mason & Dixon," by Thomas Pynchon. Henry Holt 773 pages. $27.50.
A new book by Thomas Pynchon is always an event. If his novels appear infrequently (17 years elapsed between the publication of "Gravity's Rainbow," in 1973, and "Vineland," in 1990), their author never appears at all: no interviews, no pictures. Pynchon's glamorous low profile forces his books to speak for themselves, and speak they do, at great length, often brilliantly, not always comprehensibly, setting generations of literature majors aflame with their labyrinthine plots and inspired language.
Which brings us to "Mason & Dixon," Pynchon's fifth novel. If you cringe at the prospect of reading nearly 800 pages about the two surveyors commissioned in 1768 by the Royal Society in London to settle a boundary dispute in pre-revolutionary America by creating their famous Mason-Dixon line between Pennsylvania and Maryland, take heart: There is magic here.
Yes, the novel is written in mock-eighteenth-century dialect. Yes, we are 250 pages into the book before Mason and Dixon even reach America. And yes, there are enough miscellaneous settings and characters here to make a Dickens novel seem like My Weekly Reader. Yet how else to evoke the epic excitement of our country's beginnings, which is Pynchon's goal here, than with a book stuffed with grand complications, long views and big pictures, and no small dose of bewilderment?
What Pynchon gives us -aside from imagining the professional alliance of his two protagonists; Charles Mason was a melancholy London astronomer and his assistant, Jeremiah Dixon, was a relentlessly cheery county surveyor from northern England; like Gilbert and Sullivan, their names are now forever linked although their working relationship was fueled by intense mutual dislike - is a novel as fit to burst with energy and promise as early America itself.
There are great pristine vistas of wilderness here, and the carnal allure of cities. There are noble savages brutally massacred, slaves stumbling in chains, a general spirit of rebellion spreading from taverns to streets and frontier pathways. There are cameo appearances by Ben Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, scores of bad puns, snatches of poetry and song. And, to mock that Age of Reason and our own, there are supernatural phenomena, including a talking dog, a psychic Chinaman, a magical duck and a valley full of giant vegetables.
At some point, though, you have to draw the line. And Pynchon does, painstakingly depicting the labors of Mason and Dixon as they slash through forests, trespass through farmland, and endure all manner of foul weather and work-crew desertions, all in the service of calculating, with the help of a sector telescope and the stars, the boundary that would eventually divide the new country into the inhospitably different worlds of North and South.
Characteristically, the plot of "Mason & Dixon" is a mess, veering out of control, losing focus as it jumps from one teeming scene to the next. There are long, loose episodes here that are nearly impossible to follow and probably should have been cut. But if the book doesn't quite hang together, it most assuredly does hang separately, with passages of breathtaking virtuosity. There isn't another writer alive who could imagine anything along the lines of this thrilling, sloppy monster of a novel.
Donna Rifkind, who writes a monthly column about novels for The Sun, also writes for the Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, the Washington Post, the New York Times and the New Criterion, for which she used to be assistant managing editor.
Pub Date: 4/27/97