Thomas Pynchon: Mason & Dixon

Thomas Pynchon: Mason & Dixon

Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs, starr'd the Sides of Outbuildings, as of Cousins, carried Hats away into the brisk Wind off Delaware," begins Thomas Pynchon's new novel Mason & Dixon, and readers may be forgiven for asking themselves, "What does he mean by that?" Pynchon is, after all, the only contemporary author whose novels can be compared to James Joyce's with a straight face. His reputation as a literary heavyweight will probably frighten many readers away from this book, as will its substantial 763-page physical presence. Many who do read Mason & Dixon will consider themselves brave for doing so, and will read more and more slowly at first, looking for the profound hidden meanings and complex underlying symbolism that Pynchon books must possess. Which is too bad, really. Mason & Dixon begins with a snowball fight between two young boys, which is a long way from, "A screaming comes across the sky." It's Philadelphia during the winter of 1786, and among scenes of early American domestic tranquility, the Reverend Cherrycoke is settling his nephews down to tell them stories by the fire. What unravels is his tale of accompanying astronomers/surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon in their travels through the colonial wilderness to lay out the boundary which still bears their names. Cherrycoke's tale is a rambling, philosophical account of a struggling colony becoming an infant nation, but it's also a great read: Pynchon writes with such elegance and understated craft that it becomes easy to read through the historically correct, enormous sentences and convoluted punctuation he uses. His sense of humor is displayed on almost every page, from an intricate and wickedly funny account of a South African family's attempts to trick Mason into impregnating their slave girls, down to the low humor of perverting the 18th-century practice of capitalizing nouns in order to end a sentence with the word Penis. It's disarming, and eventually the reader learns to relax and merely read the story. Which is a task in itself: At a turning point in history, Pynchon introduces us to two colonies—the old, decrepit, malevolent Dutch South Africa, and the rowdy, adolescent, unformed wilderness of America—through two very different men. Mason is melancholy, dark, brooding, and British; Dixon is optimistic, romantic, scrappy, and a man of all countries. The affection that grows between them is genuine, funny and moving, as is the sense of witnessing one period of history melt clumsily with another as America is glimpsed preparing for revolution in the background. The reader meets George Washington and Ben Franklin, and for perspective, a talking dog and a mechanical duck. Whatever else Mason & Dixon may be, it's an engaging historical novel; ambitious people—those who aren't easily intimidated—will be able to get by with this book as their only summer reading. Whatever meanings and complex messages may lie hidden in Pynchon's text can, for now, be left to develop subconsciously as the reader enjoys the more immediate rewards of the work of a consummate storyteller. Pynchon is one, and he never quite lets you forget that while this might be an epic story, it's an epic story told to wide-eyed children who are up past their bedtime.

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